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Embarrassing Bodies

This post was contributed by Dr Emma Curry, an ISSF Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, who organised the Embarrassing Bodies conference on  17 June 2016.

We live in a particularly self-conscious age. In recent years, the rising popularity of the ‘selfie’ has signalled our increased interest in curating our own image. This renewed self-attention means that moments where we fail to live up to our perfected public image have also become heightened: the popularity of the hashtags ‘#awkward’ and ‘#fail’ on Twitter and other sites indicate our need to highlight and process our moments of social misconduct, or the embarrassing slips we witness in others.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Mr Mac’, unknown author (1886) © Aviva

Like many aspects of modern life, this preoccupation with the particularities of ‘awkward’ behaviour is one which found itself accelerated in the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary records John Stuart Mill’s use of ‘self-conscious’ in 1834 as the first deployment of the term in its modern sense, whilst ‘embarrassment’ comes a little earlier, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. With individuals moving in ever-larger social circles and the potential for bodily faux pas heightened, ideas of ‘embarrassment’ began to attract growing attention from writers and artists of the period. This can be witnessed in such diverse instances as Charles Darwin’s work on the physiology of embarrassed bodily responses like blushing; the emerging definition of the ‘self’ and ideas of ‘self-consciousness’ in early formations of Victorian psychology; and the scenes of comic humiliation in the writing of Charles Dickens, where characters are forever tripping or slipping or saying the wrong thing.

On 17 June, over 50 researchers and members of the public came together to explore some of these instances of nineteenth-century embarrassment, and to think about the ways in which this particular emotion continues to shape our relationships to our sense of self, to our bodies, and to each other. 

Embarrassed Victorians

The conference opened with a keynote talk from Paul White (Cambridge), who considered how embarrassment spreads across nineteenth-century discourse, surfacing in literary and scientific texts. He described embarrassment as enjoyably ‘readable’, and considered how writers of the period position the embarrassed bodies of their characters as intriguing social texts. This talk was followed by Philippa Lewis’s (Bristol) fascinating discussion of the emotion in a European context, in which she considered the medicalization of shyness in France in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By exploring shyness as a literary device and as a matter of public health, Philippa traced the curious tension between the individual and the social in the expression of this particular emotion, a question we returned to throughout the day.

The next panel focused upon embarrassment’s relationship to nineteenth-century science. Alison Moulds (Oxford) delivered a fascinating discussion of the doctor/patient relationship in the nineteenth century, considering the ways in which male doctors became acutely aware of and embarrassed by their own bodies when dealing with female patients’ ailments. This was followed by Ryan Sweet (Exeter), who made us giggle with comic depictions of animals stealing wigs, whilst sensitively exploring the Victorians’ complex and conflicting responses to the problems of the ageing and prostheticized body. Rosie White (Royal Holloway) then took us through the embarrassing aspects of being a naturalist in the nineteenth century, describing the snobbery from other scientists, the need to use discrete measuring tools when out and about, and the embarrassment of being caught ‘with all your implements about you’.

Self-Consciousness in Literature and Art

Following lunch (which thankfully didn’t seem to involve any awkward silences), we returned fortified to our second panel, which explored the complexities of self-consciousness as represented in literary texts. Amelia Worsley (Amherst College) began by turning to the early part of the nineteenth century to analyse the ‘poetics of awkwardness’, in the work of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets. During this period autobiographical poetry became a useful space for self-reflection. Mike Davis (UWE) then moved to the work of George Meredith, considering the fascinating overlap between evolutionary theory and early forms of psychology in the later part of the century, and the ways in which Meredith’s representation of individual will and emotional intelligence might challenge some of Darwin’s formations. This paper was followed by Hao Li (Toronto), who charted the subtle, shifting overlaps between constructions of consciousness, self-consciousness, and self-awareness in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finally, Royce Mahawatte (Central St Martins) considered the literary handling of embarrassment in the writing of R. J. Culverwell, a doctor who wrote on men’s sexual health. Royce gave a fascinating exploration of the curiously Gothic construction of the male body in Culverwell’s work, and considered the ways in which embarrassing topics seem to attract and indeed encourage narrative during this period.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Hush!’, James Tissot (1875)

We next turned to visual representations of embarrassment. Stephanie O’Rourke (St Andrews) opened the discussion with a beautifully detailed examination of French artist James Tissot’s paintings ‘Hush!’ and ‘Too Early’. She drew attention to the blank spaces surrounding the embarrassed individuals in Tissot’s work, describing them as charged focuses for the ‘conspicuous awkwardness’ of the scenes depicted. Her paper was followed by Eva Kenny (Princeton), who delivered an intriguing exploration of Darwin’s representation of blushing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and his attempts to define the limits of embarrassment in physiological terms. David Russell (Oxford) considered ‘Embarrassing Ruskin’, describing the many and various ways in which the art critic John Ruskin was considered to be an embarrassing man by his contemporaries. David highlighted how embarrassment might in fact be a useful imaginative force in Ruskin’s writing, with uncomfortable experiences used to shape his art criticism and to link intellectual and physical experiences.

Awkward Academics

For our final discussion panel we returned to the present day, to think about the ways that embarrassment shapes modern life, particularly within universities. Joe Moran (Liverpool John Moores) discussed his experiences as a shy academic, and explored the various senses in which research can reward these inclinations towards introversion and reflection. Francis O’Gorman (Leeds) described his propensity for worrying, and considered how academia can encourage but also allow individuals to work through some of these modern neuroses. Both Joe and Francis also considered the positive potential of shyness and worrying to act as counterbalances to certain aspects of academic life, suggesting that they might provide an important challenge to recent professional trends for extended working hours, increased commercialisation, and the need to create a public portfolio. It was refreshing and heartening to hear two such distinguished academics speak so openly about their personal relationship to their work in this discussion, and to the everyday, embodied processes of teaching and research.

In the run-up to the conference, participants had contributed their embarrassing academic moments on Twitter, and as the Q&A session progressed it became comfortingly clear that imagined hierarchies, fear of saying the wrong thing, and a hyper bodily self-awareness when teaching or presenting were experiences common to everyone, no matter how senior their position. Amidst ever-increasing workloads and the intellectual pressures of modern academic life, it was suggested that acknowledging and nurturing our ‘embarrassing’ bodies is now becoming more important than ever.

Following the discussion, the delegates retired to a well-earned wine reception, where no doubt more embarrassing moments were shared (or indeed created!). I would like to thank all of the speakers, delegates, and everyone who contributed to the discussion on Twitter for helping to shape such a fascinating and thought-provoking day, and the Wellcome Trust for their generous funding of this event. I hope we can share our embarrassing moments again in the future, and continue to make light of rather than fear the ‘awkwardness’ that poor Ruskin’s friends found so excruciating.

This event was in association with Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and was funded by a Wellcome Trust/Birkbeck ISSF Grant.

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How to be both: An audience with author Ali Smith

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard. Dr Winyard attended the 2015 Man Booker at Birkbeck event, featuring Man Booker 2014 shortlisted author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

On 16 November, in a lively, humorous exchange, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Ali Smith discussed her Booker Prize nominated novel, How To Be Both (2014). This dazzling, rambunctious novel features two self-contained but intertwined stories: one follows the travails of Italian Renaissance fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life artist who painted a series of elaborate allegorical frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, northern Italy; the other story tells of George, a bereaved twenty-first-century teenager who is remembering a family trip to Italy to view del Cossa’s frescos in the ‘Palace of Not Being Bored’.

With its focus on Renaissance art, and painting in particular, the novel is itself a diptych – or ‘dipstick’, as Smith drolly punned to the audience – presenting two separate but intersecting stories in dialogue with one another. The diptych – which literally means ‘two fold’ in ancient Greek – is, Smith explained, book-like in its construction, with hinges that enable it to be closed and transported, making it an appealingly ‘swivel-able form’. In the UK, the book was published in dual form, with half of the copies opening with the del Cossa narrative and the other half opening with the story of George. Smith recounted with delight how the printers hired ‘muddlers’ to randomise the packing of the books and ensure that shops carried both versions of the novel. For Smith, it is important that readers can ‘upend’ the novel and ‘it still works’.

Confounding binary oppositions

Ali Smith-How to be bothThe novel delights in interrogating, unpicking and confounding the binarised oppositions that organise and delimit human life and relationships: male and female; straight and gay; past and present; and even alive and dead. The complex twisting and interleaving of the two stories typifies the ways in which history, memory, feeling, gender and sexuality elude and shrug off human categorisation. George is a boyish young woman with a man’s name who falls in love with another woman, whereas del Cossa is a woman who uses concealment and disguise to reinvent herself as a male artist. The del Cossa narrative opens poetically and strangely with the forcible resurrection of the long-dead del Cossa, who finds herself standing in the National Gallery in London, observing George – whom she mistakes for a boy – scrutinising del Cossa’s stern portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican friar and missionary. The painting is real and is indeed hanging in the National Gallery.

Interestingly, Smith confessed that George’s gender identity was indeterminate when she started working on the novel; it was only later that George became female. Indeed, Smith described the fictional creation of character as a mode of channelling, in which characters arrive fully formed and the task of the novelist is to give them the necessary attention and time to allow their voices to come through. The voice of del Cossa was the first that Smith heard, forcing her to discard 90 pages of the novel she had written and leaving her only seven months in which to complete and submit the manuscript. George’s voice and syntax came, fully formed, about half-way through this rewrite. Smith offered several helpful tips for budding authors, stressing the importance of ‘editing as writing’ and focusing on repetitions, as ‘they’re the things you’re most interested in’. The novel, like its characters, must be patiently listened to and Smith repeatedly emphasised the importance of voice in writing.

del Cossa, a man in and out of history

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

How To Be Both is concerned with history and memory, with what is remembered and how – and what is lost. As Smith observed, humans need to live in three dimensions, to feel connected to the past and the future simultaneously. Del Cossa was a real artist, although we know very little about him: he was born in Ferrara in 1435 or 1436, the son of a stonemason, and he died aged forty, in Ferrara, possibly of the plague. In later times, Del Cossa’s frescos were plastered over and the room used as a tobacco store until, Smith explained, the plaster flaked off in the 1840s and the frescos were rediscovered. Archival letters, in which del Cossa angrily demands more money from his patron (a request his patron loftily refused), are another scanty source of evidence.

The unknown history of the artist, however, gave Smith licence to re-gender and reimagine the life of del Cossa; as Smith drolly admitted, ‘I got away with it!’ In the 1960s, floods in Italy hastened the temporary removal of the frescos from their walls, which further revealed what Smith called the ‘under-versions’ or original sketches and images that had been painted over. The frescos thus stand as a metaphor for thinking about human life and history as a palimpsest, with layers of accretion and loss shaping what becomes ‘History’ or collective memory. Smith gleefully confessed to her excitement in bringing to light the ‘undertows’ that are wilfully concealed or later forgotten.

Thus, in the novel, George is anxious that all that is forgotten is lost, making history little more than a horrifying charnel house. Her mother, though, has a more mystical understanding, insisting that that which has existed does not simply cease because we can no longer see, experience or remember it. For Smith, it is Art that takes us to a timeless place of fragile ‘lastingness’ within ourselves. She spoke of Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’), the moment of epiphany instigated by Art, in which we know we are truly alive and time disappears. Smith also spoke of the novelists’ frustration with the form, as it cannot escape the temporal sequence of action and consequence and is incapable of simultaneously representing the simultaneous occurrences of everyday life.

To know George’s future, the reader must journey back into the life of del Cossa, although, if you encounter the del Cossa section first, you will know (but not necessarily fully understand) George’s future before you know her past. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Hilary Mantel, Smith has written a historical novel of sorts, although Smith’s is formally inventive and playfully cuts across genres. Smith admitted that her knowledge of the Renaissance was limited and she undertook broad-brush research to immerse herself in the period without being overwhelmed by details. Smith thus urged the creative writing students in the audience to research lightly in order to give themselves ‘imaginative space’.

Under surveillance

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

The novel is also concerned with surveillance, observation, witnessing and spectatorship, in all their benevolent and more menacing forms. Indeed, Smith insisted to the audience that ‘surveillance is the story of our times’. George’s mother, whose voice we only hear via George’s recollections, is worried that her past, radical political activities mean she is under state surveillance, while George herself obsessively watches Lisa Goliard, a friend of her mother’s. George angsts about the ethics of watching and is particularly concerned that the pained performer in a pornographic scene she has watched online is stuck in what Smith called a ‘kind of continual present’. George thus obsessively and continually witnesses and memorialises the performer’s suffering. Our contemporary culture of forcible remembrance is, for Smith, ‘lovely and kind of appalling’, as we have lost the old ability to let go of, and simply forget, the past. Similarly, by scrutinising the painting of St. Vincent, George miraculously and unintentionally resurrects the spirit of del Cossa, who silently watches her. To foreground the ethics of watching, the illustrated frontispiece to the del Cossa story, drawn by Smith’s partner Sarah Wood, features del Cossa’s image of the gouged out eyes of Saint Lucy, which he painted not on a platter, as is usual in Renaissance iconography of the saint, but growing from a small sprout.

Although Smith attentively and gamely engaged with the various readings of her novel proffered by the audience, she ultimately reasserted the work’s capaciousness and playfulness of spirit, insisting ‘I’m not going to tell you what to think about the book.’ For Smith, ‘the reading experience is really volatile’ and she expounded how rereading shifts a novel’s meanings and resonances for us.

This was the fifth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst and Hilary Mantel – and this lively exchange further confirmed and extended the success of this rewarding partnership. As David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, observed in his opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge, bringing the best of contemporary fiction to the widest possible audience, and belying cramped, utilitarian approaches to education.

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‘Deborah Levy: Form and Content in the 21st-Century Novel’

This post was contributed by Laura Garmeson, who recently completed a Masters in European Literature at the University of Cambridge. She recently attended the Arts Week 2015 event on Deborah Levy: Form and content in the 21st Century Novel

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy

In Sigmund Freud’s famous case study of the ‘Wolf Man’, Russian aristocrat Sergei Pankejeff is said to suffer a mysterious aversion to butterflies. On further examination, the patient reveals that he also becomes extremely agitated every day at around five o’ clock in the afternoon.

What connects these two phenomena? Freud sees the link lurking between the twin fears embodied when a butterfly alights on a branch before him, its wings spread at rest in a gentle ‘V’ shape – which happens to resemble the Roman numeral for ‘5’.

Deborah Levy’s writing draws on the strange storytelling of psychoanalysis in exploring how we are all fatally wired to create connections. Her work ripples with currents of the unconscious which distort outer surfaces and can threaten to pull the world within the novel entirely out of shape.

Taking risks

This talk with one of Britain’s most exciting living writers was unsurprisingly well-attended. Besides butterflies, Levy spoke of many facets of the writing process and the mind, deftly quoting J. G. Ballard, Flaubert, Duras, Rilke, García Márquez, Proust and many others, every word devoured whole by a hungry audience of creative writing students (the talk was, incidentally, a public feature of the Birkbeck MA summer term lecture series).

Decrying the ‘tyranny of narrative’ and extolling the taking of risks, for Deborah Levy there is no such thing as a comfort zone.

Budding twenty-first-century authors take note (and, believe me, they were): ‘Contemporary narrative is in a state of mutation and renaissance’. Levy recalls writing about globalisation and migration in her first novel Beautiful Mutants on a typewriter in the eighties, using carbon paper so that she could retain a copy of the manuscript.

Now, she writes on Apple products and the pages themselves migrate soundlessly across various technologies. She used to plumb public libraries whilst researching her writing. Now, she googles obsessively.

One of the double-edged swords of the Wikipedia age is that we can all be ‘amateur experts’ in anything. For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’.

“Embodiment is what makes ideas come alive.”

As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

This distrust of tradition was nurtured by an avant-garde theatre training; she learned to write plays at the Dartington College of Arts where she was taught by some of the leading exponents in modern dance. This training has given her words a particular flesh and sinew, and such embodiment is central to her work. When an audience member asked Levy to elaborate on this she replied, simply, that ‘embodiment is what makes ideas come alive.’

In pursuit of ‘a language that does not sanitise or flatten or fix the stranger ways we experience the everyday’ Levy frequently turns to the visual. Her internal language is cinematic rather than literary: ‘image is always what excites me’.

Novels such as Billy and Girl (1996) and the Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home (2011) are awash with vivid panoramas and painfully intimate close-ups, with Levy pulling focus through the reckless lenses of her characters’ psyches. These ‘fractured identities’ are the writer’s mask – ‘their task is to think for me’ – but they can also surprise their creator. The wonder of Levy’s cinematic language on the page is that it is multi-angular yet laced with omission; it is a narrative which chooses to perform, often viscerally, rather than describe.

Levy closed the Q&A with a recommendation to the room to read Freud’s case studies. And many of the creative writing students attending this talk will do just that, leaving enthralled in the knowledge that since there can be no single shape for human consciousness, there can be no single shape for the twenty-first-century novel. It is all in the strange series of connections we make.

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Experimental Literature Today

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Experimental-Literature-TodayOver 40 years after its original publication, Philippe Sollers’ groundbreaking novel H has now been published in English for the very first time.

As part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week, Dr David Vichnar and Professor Luis Armand – editors of Prague-based literary magazine VLAK – visited the college to give a talk on this innovative novel, now considered one of the most important literary works of the twentieth century.

As a soon-to-be postgraduate student of modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, it was with great intrigue and excitement that I listened to Dr Vichnar and Professor Armand discuss the ways in which H, published in 1973, continues to challenge preconceived notions of literature in the twenty-first century.

Challenging traditional literary forms

Written as a continuous stream of consciousness with no plotline, characters or punctuation to speak of, H explores the limitations of language, posing a challenge to traditional literary forms as well as the notion of readability as we know it.

Supporting Roland Barthes’ assertion in his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ that literary works should be decoded according to the reader’s subjective interpretation as opposed to the author’s intentions or biographic history, H disassociates itself from its author and effortlessly reinvents itself with every new reading.

Like all things avant-garde, it confidently ignores traditional formal and intellectual expectations, taking each reader out of their comfort zone and transporting them into a new way of reading and thinking about literature.

A musical text

During the first half of the talk Dr Vichnar reiterated Julia Kristeva’s insights on H, describing it as a musical text more akin to poetry than prose in form and content. Offering no other way of decoding meaning than through subjective interpretation, H, he told us, recognises each reader as a vital and active part of its own existence.

In the words of Sollers himself, “A work exists by itself only potentially, and its actualization (or production) depends on its readings and on the moments at which these readings actively take place.”

Professor Armand in the second half made a connection between Sollers’ experimental writing style and the rise of the free jazz movement in the mid-twentieth century, delivering his talk with the noodly rhythms of Anthony Braxton’s For Alto playing in the background throughout.

Where traditionally punctuated novels, like more structured forms of jazz, offer at least some kind of narrative cohesion, H provides nothing more than language and therefore forces the reader to independently decide how each of the words relate to one another. In this sense, any meaning that is derived from the novel must take stock of the present moment and relate in some way to the personal experience of the reader.

Experimental literature today

Clear from the beginning of the talk was the passion of both speakers, not only for H, but for the avant-garde in general, as they each conveyed a deep appreciation for the significant role that writers such as Sollers have played in terms of the production of experimental literature today.

Providing fascinating insights into H as a highly creative and influential text, both Dr Vichnar and Professor Armand are to be commended for the depth of their research and for the enthusiasm with which they communicated to the audience. Having gone into the talk with next to no knowledge of Sollers or his work, I am now looking forward to embarking upon my own interpretative journey through H.

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