The Oxonian Review http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp Tue, 31 Mar 2015 10:41:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Cold Pastoral? http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/cold-pastoral/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/cold-pastoral/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:40:50 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26250 Fergus McGhee


David Konstan
Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea
Oxford University Press, 2014
£19.99 (hardback)
262 pages
ISBN: 9780199927265

Later this week, a dozen strong men will bear a gorgeously ornamented sculpture of the grieving Virgin Mary aloft through the thronging streets of Seville. In the highly charged atmosphere of the traditional Good Friday procession, spontaneous voices will rise above the swarm, from the cobbles, from the windows and balconies and rooftops—“Guapa!” they’ll say—“Beautiful!”

But something gets lost in translation. Guapa doesn’t quite correspond to our expansively accommodating word “beautiful”; the Spanish word refers specifically to human beauty, not to works of art or picturesque landscapes. Here, it is clearly directed not at the seventeenth-century statue but at the figure it represents, and it carries rich overtones of desire that, in English, are far more diluted. David Konstan sees a similar thinning out at work in modern aesthetics, particularly those influenced by Kant: he seizes on a remark of Roger Scruton’s, that the Virgin’s beauty is “a symbol of purity, and for this very reason is held apart from the realm of sexual appetite.” Scruton locates this transcendence of appetite in Plato, for whom, he says, beauty was “not just an invitation to desire, but also a call to renounce it.” Konstan places Scruton’s interpretation side-by-side with that of Alexander Nehamas, who cites Plato as the antidote to the estrangement of beauty from desire: Plato, he insists, characterises beauty as “the quarry of erôs”.

As Konstan argues, Plato’s contested legacy betokens a wider modern tension between erotic and “disinterested” responses to beauty; he might have cited Keats’s famous Ode on a Grecian Urn, which wavers between a poignant admiration for the immutability of the love the urn depicts (“All breathing human passion far above”) and a vexed dissatisfaction with it (“Cold Pastoral!”) The question for Konstan is, what did the Greeks themselves make of these issues? What did they mean by beauty, and how did they respond to it? Answering these questions not only takes us closer to understanding Plato’s dialogues; it throws substantial light on our own aesthetic dilemmas.

In his History of Beauty, the Italian writer and critic Umberto Eco denied that the Greeks had any concept for beauty at all: “the very word kalón, which only improperly may be translated by the term ‘beautiful’,” he wrote, “ought to put us on our guard.” Yet Konstan argues they did indeed have such a concept, albeit one no less problematic than our own. In a work of extraordinary erudition, he offers a detailed and highly rewarding survey of the use of kalós in Greek literature, from the Homeric poems right through archaic, classical, and Hellenistic writing. But the most original aspect of Konstan’s study is the attention he pays to a slightly different word, kállos. He identifies a clear distinction between the use of this noun and that of its more common adjectival form. It’s a difference neatly summed up in a verse from Theocritus:

a boy’s beauty [kállos] is a fine [kalón] thing, but it endures a short while.

As Eco recognised, the adjective kalón is far more semantically rich than even our English word “beautiful”; mostly it makes more sense to translate it as “fine” or “excellent”, as when ancient writers apply it to clothes, shields, laws, or even moral qualities. The particular resonance beauty has for us in relation to art and nature (another two historically troublesome categories) was not familiar to the Greeks.

Kállos, on the other hand, had a more narrowly erotic charge than “beauty”. Athena bathes Odysseus in kállos, turning his hair dark as hyacinth so that he becomes irresistible to Nausicaa and Penelope, while in the Iliad, Zeus abducts Ganymede precisely for his youthful kállos. The characteristic response to this quality, then, is desire, motivated by a visual encounter. “No one has ever escaped or will escape love,” writes the second-century Greek novelist Longus, “as long as kállos exists and eyes can see.” Lucian, his contemporary, speaks startlingly of a boy’s kállos “splashing against the eyes”, and asserts that such a sight brings with it the longing to touch.

Applied to the human form, kalós could naturally mean something close to kállos (because one might expect excellence in the human body to correspond to the kind of beauty that arouses desire). But sometimes the two are sharply distinguished. As the archaic poet and statesman Solon gloomily points out, one who is kalós does not necessarily have a pleasing shape (morphên khariessan). In Euripides’ Hippolytus, Phaedra remonstrates with those who prefer pleasure to kalón, here configured as the very opposite of sensual allure.

Yet in Aristophanes’ Clouds, male beauty and moral virtue are closely identified. Personifications of morality and self-indulgence vie for the soul of young Phidippides, with the former offering the following compelling argument:

if you carry out these things I mention,
if you concentrate your mind on them,
you’ll always have a gleaming chest, bright skin,
broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks,
and a little prick.

This is the physical ideal we recognise in classical sculpture, an ideal which could be described as kaloí kai agathoi (beautiful and good, a fine physique representative of sound living) rather than associated with kállos. Indeed, kállos could be construed as positively vicious in the wrong context, the badge of prostitutes and pretty boys. In Euripides’ Andromache, the eponymous hero thunders that “it is not kállos, woman, but virtues that delight one’s bedmate”, while the warts-and-all sculpture of the Roman Republic goes one further by proclaiming that virtue needs no adornment.

As Konstan shows, kállos was increasingly employed to refer to things other than the human form. The fifth-century BC sculptor Polyclitus wrote an influential treatise on proportion which may have helped to speed up the application of beauty to objects other than the human body. The rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus regarded kállos as a formal feature of literary style, analogizing from the harmony and proportion of the body to that of rhythm and syntax. Meanwhile Plato, Aristotle, and the church fathers all spoke of the kállos of the soul. Konstan is keen to retain the note of sensual appeal in all these applications, but sometimes this is a strain. Evidently, the carpet on which Agamemnon fears to tread—which is described as kállos—does not inspire erôs, but Konstan nonetheless ventures that “[it is] perceived, I think, as being desirable.” We can easily understand desire as a response to representational art, but we might more readily expect to encounter an expression of longing for a carpet in a Ronald Firbank novel than a Greek tragedy. Aeschylus was much given to metaphor, and perhaps there is a more metaphorical dimension to his choice of words here than Konstan would strictly prefer. But this takes nothing away from Konstan’s persuasive case that “there is no necessary rupture between beauty and desire.”

Having established as much, Konstan returns to Plato. Not without justification, then, he is more sympathetic towards Nehamas’s position than Scruton’s, writing that “for all its elevation to the level of a transcendent idea, beauty remains the object of erôs or desire and is the source of human aspiration to higher things.” If “of all things on earth, it is beauty—physical, bodily beauty […]—that is most capable of drawing us upward to the dimly recollected world of pure ideas”, it is clearly nonsensical to speak of a “rupture between beauty and desire.” But, as Diotima reminds us in the Symposium, physical beauty is merely a manifestation of a higher beauty, its purpose being to draw the soul upward in transcendence of purely physical attachments. While Konstan insists that the “denaturing” of beauty begins with Christian fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, one might equally plausibly argue that the contradictions were in Plato from the beginning.

In any case Konstan’s touchstone is not Plato but a little-known oration of the fourth-century writer Themistius, the Erotikos, written in praise of the Roman emperor Gratian. In this extraordinary speech, delivered to the imperial senate, the orator tells of his days cruising the gymnasia and palaestrae in fruitless pursuit of a young lover who combined beauty of body and soul. Frustrated by his lack of success, he concludes that ideal beauty is “impossible to grasp with the senses” and seeks it out instead in the virtue of the great men of the imperial court; yet however noble they may have been, such men were simply too old to inspire erôs. It is the young emperor Gratian who, as Konstan puts it, “unites perceptible and moral beauty; neither is sacrificed to the other.” Themistius explicitly rejects his former denial of desire, and his extensive deployment of the word kállos, Konstan convincingly argues, should be read as nothing less than a sign of his sexual intentions.

In addition to his wide-ranging review of Greek literature, Konstan helpfully situates Greek beauty in relation to Latin and Hebrew practice. Intriguingly, the usage of the Hebrew words ṭôb and yapeh is not all that different from that of kalós and kállos. The authors of the Septuagint, who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, are even attuned to the metaphorical quality of certain uses of yapeh, boldly translating it as kállos.

The Latin pulcher had at least as wide a remit as kalós, but although there were other words for physical beauty (such as formosus), where pulcher modifies a human subject its meaning is clearly bound up with the evocation of amor. Konstan has short shrift for translators deaf to this nuance. Generally, where Latin writers apply pulcher to works of art, like Greek writers they seem to have in mind the subject represented, the quality of the work as a whole, or more commonly the pleasures of certain aspects of the work, rather than the kind of rapt experience Scruton describes. Cicero may denounce the rapacious magistrate Verres for his “erotic urge to possess works of art”, but his alternative is not a pristinely aesthetic response to beauty stripped of desire, but the decoration of public spaces that would confer reputation on the benefactor and glorify the state.

But there is a passage in Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics which seems to gesture in Scruton’s direction. Aristotle says that overindulgence in sex is intemperate, but that lingering over a beautiful statue is not, because the pleasure taken therein exists apart from desire:

If, in fact, someone who is contemplating a fine [kalós] statue or horse or human being, or is listening to someone singing, does not wish to eat or drink or have sex but rather to contemplate the fine things [ta kalá] or listen to the singers, he would not seem to be intemperate.

He goes on to say that what distinguishes human beings from animals is that the latter are “more or less insensitive to pleasures other than touch and taste, such as the pleasures of harmony or kállos, for they seem to feel nothing in the contemplation of fine things or in listening to what is harmonious.” Curiously, Aristotle here seems to describe a form of aesthetic contemplation much like that of Scruton, and of his intellectual forefather, Immanuel Kant.

Kant is inevitably the villain in Konstan’s narrative. In the last chapter, he is held responsible for severing the bond between beauty and desire Konstan has traced throughout Greek culture, and which survived in Leibniz only to be blown up by Kantian aesthetics. “Thanks to Kant,” Konstan writes, “beauty was deprived of the ability to inspire passion.” It is no surprise, then, that he is quick to assert that Aristotle’s comments are in fact “far removed from Kant’s concerns”. To support this view, he protests that Aristotle is not concerned to “[isolate] a response specific to art”, or even to visual beauty—but then, neither is Kant. Indeed, the examples Kant gives in the Critique of Judgement of what he calls “free beauty” (that is, those objects the appreciation of which is said to be entirely disinterested) include music, birds, and flowers. Konstan quotes Derrida, who parodies Kant’s soi-disant disinterested pleasure:

I take pleasure in what does not interest me, in something of which it is at least a matter of indifference whether I like it or not.

Parodies, but also travesties. As Kant writes, “a judgement upon an object of our delight may be wholly disinterested but withal very interesting.” T.S. Eliot makes the vital distinction in Little Gidding:

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life.

As the philosopher Charles Taylor has eloquently remarked, “it would be a false psychology that should treat ‘contemplation’ as passive, in the sense of being inert”; on the contrary, it “takes all the energy” we are endowed with.

The twentieth-century reaction against beauty had many points of origin, but doubtless this mistaken association with a kind of quietism did not help. The horrors of World War One (and Two), and the accusation (substantially justified) that high culture was an ally, or even a weapon, of the bourgeoisie, combined with the entirely reasonable desire to widen the range of objects that could be described as having aesthetic value to cut beauty down to size.

It was a necessary operation. As Konstan shows, the appreciation of beauty was only one of many potential responses to art throughout most of history; only in the eighteenth century did it acquire anything like primacy. Alongside an enlarged repertoire of aesthetic values, art should and does excite strong moral, emotional, and intellectual responses. And hence (pace Scruton) it is only within such a generous-spirited culture of reception and criticism—rather than through a return to eighteenth-century aesthetics—that beauty is likely to be recovered. By drawing attention to the ancient connection between beauty and desire, Konstan rehabilitates the kind of delight that will erupt in the streets of Seville this week, and that our Kantian consciences too often suppress. But one hopes, too, that there is room for the patient, passionate attention Kant, and his Greek predecessors, exhort us to, and that is all too breezily dismissed as the merest ideology. After all, to paraphrase Aristotle, beauty is experienced in many ways.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.

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The Shock of the Old http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-shock-of-the-old/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-shock-of-the-old/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:35:29 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26256 Jenny Messenger


Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art
The British Museum
26 March – 5 July 2015

Early on in the British Museum’s Defining Beauty exhibition, we meet a series of mannequin-like kouroi (youths) from the 6th century BC, all wearing “archaic” smiles. Their mathematically calculated proportions, fixed gaze and regimented stance, influenced by Egyptian sculpture, appear otherworldly. They look like something you might think of when asked to think about antiquity. But towards the end of the 6th century, Greek kouroi lost this “permanent smile of self-satisfaction” and became more naturalistic. They started to smile like humans. The exhibition charts the evolving ideas of beauty within Greek art, as sculptors moved from creating stiff, unreal kouroi to attempting to depict the Platonic Form of beauty. It is specifically designed so as to frame what it describes as “encounters” with sculptures that are often incredibly life-like. To do so, the scale of the museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, which opened in March 2014, is used to full effect. Some exhibits are raised on stands at shoulder height, forcing the spectator to gaze upwards, while the biggest statues are set against pleated backdrops of rich blue and red, which give the impression of closed stage curtains, or the drapes of a boudoir. Spotlit from above, their huge bodies cast hulking shadows on the floor beside them. Elsewhere, the lighting is kept to a minimum so that the statues are clearly visible from a distance—the marble copy of Polykleitos’ (fl. 450–420 BC) 5th century BC wounded Amazon, for instance, can be seen from the opposite end of the gallery.

Throughout the exhibition, the divisions between gender roles in Greek society are apparent. For men, the cultivation of an attractive, healthy, physical form was a civic duty, directly linked to military fitness and athletic honour. In a section entitled “The Ideal Body”, we meet a grouping of three naked, muscular male statues indicative of the sought-after Greek look. The copies of Diskobolos by Myron (fl. 470–440 BC) and Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, along with the original Ilissos, taken from the west pediment of the Parthenon and sculpted by Pheidias (fl. c. 490–430 BC), throw impressive shadows. As Ian Jenkins, exhibition curator, comments in a British Museum blog post, “the Greek body beautiful was a moral condition and one to which only the Greeks among the peoples of the ancient world were attached”. Greek warriors are depicted nude and victorious, unlike, for example, the Assyrians, who portrayed their enemies in defeat as naked, and thus submissive.

Aphrodite

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath

By contrast, women, be they gods or mortals, are veiled with diaphanous cloths, or even, in the case of one marble statue of a sea nymph, salt spray and sea breezes – all of which reveal the contours of the body without actually revealing it. This is seduction carried out within strict parameters. Women’s bodies, the exhibition notes, had to be covered up and controlled within Greek public life, so as not to risk the release of some chaotic force of nature. Female nudity was abnormal outside of cult and the sex industry, states Jenkins in the comprehensive exhibition catalogue: “When it occurs in Greek art, it is almost always sexually charged.” Openly naked women are whores or monsters or maenads, not respectable wives. The goddess Aphrodite is an exception—she is naked, but often crouching or preparing to bathe. Her nakedness seems to be seen only when she appears to be caught unawares, placing the viewer firmly in the role of voyeur.

The exhibition culminates in the unprecedented combination of two key examples of what has, at various points in time, constituted representations of “ideal beauty”: Pheidias’ marble statue of Dionysos, taken from the east pediment of the Parthenon, and the Belvedere Torso, named after the Vatican Palace courtyard in which it was displayed. When Lord Elgin brought the Parthenon sculptures back from Athens in the early 1800s, a genteel Britain was initially unaccustomed to the realism portrayed in these sculptures. The statue of Dionysos reclines, legs stretched out and suspended in mid-air, in a position that seemed “alarmingly naturalistic” to Londoners. In British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s introduction to the catalogue, he describes the shock experienced by art connoisseurs, used to relatively pristine Roman copies, upon seeing the Greek originals: “Battered, stained and with many parts missing, the sculptures from Athens were not to everybody’s taste.” Yet Britain quickly took on the mantle of Greek art, fusing these new ideals with its own traditions so completely that the Parthenon horsemen became national icons. “Greek naturalist sculpture, and especially the Parthenon sculptures, provoked in nineteenth-century British and French societies a radical re-appraisal of their own values and national identities,” explains Leoussi.

Dionysos

Figure of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon

In spite of the remarkable efforts of the British Museum to preserve the Parthenon sculptures as a global resource, it is difficult to ignore the ongoing debate around where the sculptures should be housed, London or Athens. In the catalogue, Matthew Bell, Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King’s College London, describes the playwright Friedrich Schiller’s (1759 – 1805) “moral and aesthetic outrage” at the plundering of Greece and Italy by British gentry and the French military. “What made the situation even worse was that the treasures were often not enjoyed. Their British owners seemed more interested in possessing than appreciating them,” notes Bell. In the exhibition at least, the sculptures can be publically appreciated in what the British Museum describes as “the context of world history”, but there seems little reason why they could not be viewed similarly in Greece.

Belvedere Torso

Belvedere Torso

The Torso, meanwhile, is a 1st century BC copy of a Greek bronze. It is lacking, obviously enough, a head, arms and legs, and thus loses much of its potential for expression and defining characteristics. Scholars have surmised that the figure may be Herakles, or Ajax, contemplating suicide after losing Achilles’ armour to Odysseus. The Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, an admirer of the Torso, even “declined the suggestion that he restore [it]”, says MacGregor, because it was so close to perfection. However, what is most notable about the juxtaposition of the two pieces is the difference in texture and quality of the surviving marble: the Torso looks smooth and supple still, while the surface of Dionysos is eroded, and scarred with lesions. To those looking at it in the present day, the statue is beautiful both because of the gain registered in its survival, and the loss evoked by its imperfection.

In bringing together two paragons of beauty that are now physically flawed, the final room of the exhibition sums up this state of absence. Though the possibility of new discoveries remains, there is much that has been lost in the intervening centuries which can simply never be recovered. In particular, countless bronze statues no longer survive because they became more valuable as scrap metal rather than art in late antiquity. As Bell states, “since the early seventeenth century, the Belvedere Torso had been seen as a melancholy symbol of the passing of ancient greatness, and indeed the transience of all human things.” Romanticising the fact that these beaten up sculptures are not how they appeared to the Greeks is surely rooted in the tension that lies at the heart of any encounter with classical antiquity—the chasm that lies between the present and the past is emphasised when we look at these worn out bodies. Indeed, a gigantic plaster cast of Athena Lemnia in gilded technicolour, reconstructed from Roman copies of a bronze Greek original and displayed earlier on, is impressive, but feels a little too perfect to provoke the kind of visceral response the exhibition seems to be driving at. Defining Beauty succeeds in showing the spectator not what it was like to live when the sculptures were new, but how different, how alien the ancient Greeks actually were—although Dionysos may look more realistic, the figure is no less mysterious than the kouroi. An encounter with these exquisitely constructed human forms, spoiled but not ruined by time, is the most lucid expression of this difference.

Jenny Messenger read Classics at Oxford and Bristol. She is a financial journalist based in London.

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In Search of Medieval Beauty http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/in-search-of-medieval-beauty/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/in-search-of-medieval-beauty/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:30:06 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26186 Jennifer Rushworth


Mary Carruthers
The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages
Oxford University Press, 2014
£24.99 (paperback)
246 pages
ISBN: 9780198723257

The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages is the most recent work of a much revered medieval scholar, known for her pioneering work on medieval theories of memory and mnemonic arts (The Book of Memory, 1990) and medieval rhetoric (The Craft of Thought, 1998). Mary Carruthers is also a familiar figure to those in Oxford from her residencies as a Visiting Fellow here, most recently at All Souls College (2007-2009); parts of this book had their gestation in lectures and seminars during this time.

Carruthers’ book is deceptively slender; its six chapters are densely challenging and provocative, covering a variety of themes and angles surrounding medieval aesthetics, and “style” in particular. (Despite her title, Carruthers admits to a certain coyness in her avoidance of the word “beauty” for much of the book.) The whole volume is motivated in part by a desire to call out and correct two scholarly bugbears: firstly, those Romantic (or Romanticised) readings of the Middle Ages which all too often colour our approaches to that period to this day, and secondly, overly theological, moralistic, or allegorical interpretations of beauty in the Middle Ages. Carruthers wants to get back to what she considers to be the true heart of medieval aesthetics, unfettered by nineteenth-century assumptions about the purity, naivety, simplicity, morality, or ineffability of medieval art. This type of attack on the historiography of the Middle Ages is hardly new. More controversial is Carruthers’ desire to shift the terms of the debate over medieval aesthetics onto the domain of rhetoric from the more traditional stomping ground of theology, whose accounts of the art of the Middle Ages have inevitably been coloured by ideas of ineffability. Carruthers wants to rescue medieval aesthetics from the divine fire and put it back into the frying pan of human sense-experience.

A third bugbear emerges late in the text in Carruthers’s acerbic characterisation of modern literary theory. This somewhat uncharitable irritability with current academic fashions ought not, however, to overshadow the book’s evident merits and the persuasive results of its anti-theoretical, tried-and-tested mode of textual analysis. For the tools with which Carruthers aims to accomplish this long overdue paradigm shift are her stock in trade: the art of what she calls the “lexical archaeologist”, following in the footsteps of such philologists as Erich Auerbach.

Unexpectedly, the book starts not in the Middle Ages, but in Brooklyn on the cusp of the third millennium, with a summary of public responses to the art show Sensation, and a particular focus on Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. This painting combines a Klimt-esque flat Black Madonna on a gold background surrounded by floating objects à la Chagall, which on closer inspection are revealed to be scattered cuttings of images of female genitalia. The tale is a sadly typical one of political and religious outcry against a work of art that few of those apparently mortally offended by it had actually bothered to see. Carruthers, in contrast, defends the work as continuous with medieval traditions in its engagement with the mystery and nitty-gritty of the Incarnation.

Ofili’s painting serves three purposes at the outset of this book: to unsettle any reader expecting a cosy account of medieval aesthetics removed from the modern world; to show how pious moralising might be as typical (if not more so) of the modern reception of art as any putatively characteristic medieval approach; and to highlight the book’s focus on aesthetics via reception and consumption rather than any reductive notion of art produced in an atemporal vacuum. As the title of the volume indicates, Carruthers’s focus is on experience—the concrete, the contingent, the fragmentary—rather than any grand neo-Platonic views of art that have very little to say about actual art. Boethius’s treatise on music (De musica) is called out several times for such a charge, since its focus is the ineffable, inaudible music of the spheres. According to Carruthers, too much discussion of medieval aesthetics tends towards this beautifully mysterious but frustrating black hole of the divine, against which human art is often belittled, marginalised, or ignored.

While Carruthers’ opening move comes as a surprise, the first chapter, addressing the topic of ‘Artful Play’, steers us back to more familiar territory, as previously charted by Johan Huizinga’s Homo ludens (1938) and Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on the “carnivalesque” in early modern Europe. Nonetheless, Carruthers’ analysis differs from these studies in important ways by dismantling the barriers these theorists erect between the “playground” and the “serious” spheres of academic, intellectual, and artistic life (Huizinga) and between “serious” aristocratic, clerical society and the “playful” lower classes (Bakhtin). Carruthers argues that neither boundary functions as a meaningful cut-off point in the Middle Ages, when play permeated all levels of society and was constantly in dialogue with the serious and/or the sacred—just as the opposites of laughter and tears are never far apart, and indeed often indistinguishable.

Play thus provides an introduction to the book’s central thesis, that medieval art is a complex, sensual game of contrast and proportion, a precarious striving towards balance and harmony that is, nonetheless, composed of antitheses. In this complicated balancing act, Carruthers usefully resorts to the familiar image of a tight-rope walker or dancer. Her key terms are varietas and “complexion”, the latter of which is understood in the medieval sense of combining qualities together. Importantly, neither concept is reducible either to a homogenous fusion or to a merely chaotic blend (mixtura) of elements. The contrast with both theological and modern readings of medieval aesthetics is stark, since Carruthers shows, with ample evidence, that neither purity nor simplicity were considered particularly desirable in medieval art. Aptly, Carruthers repeatedly cites Aquinas’s assertion that “all that is mixed is more pleasing than what is single”. Medieval writers thus follow Ciceronian tenets of ancient rhetoric in prizing varietas, which they praise for its ability to mediate between dangerous boredom (emblematised by the typically monastic vice of taedium or acedia) and the dangerous excess of curiositas, curiosity of the killed-the-cat variety.

If these nouns of complexity and antitheses (complexion and varietas) form the conceptual pillars of the book, the author nonetheless states a general preference for adjectives, in order to escape from essentialising linguistic categories. The central part of the book is thus devoted to charting the overlapping, changing meanings of adjectives such as dulcis and suavis as they relate to style and the art of persuasion. These adjectives are roughly analogous to “sweet” and/or “pleasing” in English, though, like medieval aesthetics more broadly, Carruthers demonstrates that they have paradoxical valences and are thus potentially ambivalent.

Addressing these two adjectives, the study strays into the history of medicine, emphasising further the corporeal, experiential nature of medieval aesthetics. Like medieval stylistics, physical and mental health was similarly predicated upon the ideal need for a balanced mixture of contraries, through a balancing of the four humours which, in antiquity, were thought to regulate bodily functions and emotions. In this respect rhetoric and medicine emerge as allied disciplines. Yet alongside medicine, cooking and eating materialise as additional domains invoked by the equally striking lexical connections between knowledge (sapientia) and taste (sapor). These connections are encapsulated in the etymological understanding, most popular in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, of sapientia as sapida scientia (tasty wisdom). Carruthers accordingly seeks out and examines early manifestations of the overriding eighteenth-century interpretation of aesthetic judgement as taste (gustus), particularly as related both to the adjective honestus (worthy, beneficial, and, inevitably, other shades of meaning subject to time and context) and to reading as ruminatio (chewing).

Ultimately, the book persuades not only through its plethora of well-chosen and carefully analysed examples, but also through Carruthers’ own writing which acts as a mise en abyme of medieval aesthetics in its embrace of a mixed style and playful antitheses (including the juxtaposition of Chicken Little with Peter of Celle and chocolate cake with Augustine). Persuasive and emblematic, too, is Carruthers’ eschewal of claims to encyclopaedic comprehensiveness in favour of drawing the reader in as a consenting—or at times dissenting—partner in the truths and claims being enunciated. Carruthers does not so much shed new light on medieval art and beauty as exhort the reader to join with her in scrutinising the remaining evidence afresh.

This gesture of scrutiny is analogous to that of seeking out unrestored painted faux marble in a medieval church (such as that pictured in one of the book’s illustrations) and thereby glorifying in the human skill, rich colour, and complexity of the artefact. From such a perspective, Carruthers overturns neo-Platonic approaches to medieval art, namely that art is a shadowy reflection of the divine striving after purity and oneness. This book reverses the reductive paradigm that beautiful art might be a bit like God by revealing, instead, that the Incarnational God is rather more like human art, in the love of paradox and antithesis on which each is founded and through which each beautifully works its magic. Clearly there are some issues in a reversal that upturns the usual human-divine hierarchy but does not necessarily question the terms of the polarity, but the move remains useful, subversive, and timely nonetheless. It is in this reversal that Carruthers finally introduces the word pulchritudo (beauty), through the promotion of “ordinary” rather than divine beauty in the final chapter of the book. The adjective pulc(h)er evades analysis through its lack of a known etymology as well as its association with the unknowable divine. However, Carruthers introduces it carefully in the final pages of the work as, too, a sign of plurality and humanity, in part given the frequent if false etymology of pulcher as deriving from the Greek poly-chroia (“many-coloured surfaces or skin”).

This book is essential reading for students of the Middle Ages and for those interested in the spread of ancient rhetoric into early Christian life and thought. Yet it is also, more broadly, a book for anyone interested in where we have come from as sentient, artful human beings.

Jennifer Rushworth is a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford.

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Scientia Gratia Scientiae http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/scientia-gratia-scientiae/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/scientia-gratia-scientiae/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:25:23 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26136 Robert Thomas


A.R.P. Rau
The Beauty of Physics
Oxford University Press, 2014
£25 (hardback)
240 pages
ISBN: 9780198709916

“It is,” wrote G. H. Hardy in beginning A Mathematician’s Apology, “a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics.” Hardy maintained that it was the essential business of the mathematician, as for the physicist, to do and to create, and he preferred to leave criticism and appreciation to “second-rate minds”. In his pamphlet, however, he nonetheless presents a robust defence of the study of pure mathematics on its aesthetic merits, far beyond—indeed, in defiance of—any perceived utility. Melancholy he may have found it, but Hardy’s little tract established him as something of a lodestar for the school of scientia gratia scientiae, and his unwavering dedication to his subject and resolve to deploy his abilities to their fullest extent have proven a rich source of inspiration to many of those who have followed after him.

A.R.P. Rau’s The Beauty of Physics is not cast from quite the same mould as Hardy’s Apology; the practical purposes of physics, as Hardy himself pointed out, are rather more tangibly apparent than those of pure mathematics, and Rau can thus afford to be more champion and evangelist than apologist. Nevertheless, that physics is in need of a champion can hardly be in doubt. Where once it might have occupied the same place in the collective consciousness as pure mathematics, the triumphs of physics in the twentieth century—from the dawn of the nuclear age to the exploration of space—have brought with them controversies, and tragedies, which have left a stain on the subject in the public imagination.

In reminding the reader that “the beauty of physics lies in its coherence in terms of a few fundamental concepts and principles”, and allowing himself “to marvel at the overarching reach” of those principles, Rau offers a persuasive vindication to those he seeks to convince, and a fresh vantage point for those already converted. At some level, then, the comparison between his and Hardy’s projects is borne out: both are subjective reflections from esteemed contributors to their respective fields, both seek to stress the aesthetic qualities of their subjects over their mere utility, and both attempt to provide meaningful yet accessible perspectives for the non-specialist reader.

This last aim is an ambitious one, for writers of popular science must perform a difficult balancing act. Too much “science” risks making for a daunting and off-putting read, whilst too “popular” a tone renders the exercise self-defeating, sometimes more akin to romantic fiction than scholarly exposition. Refreshingly, Rau errs firmly on the side of “science”, and does not shy away from some of the more salient technical details of the topics at issue. Indeed, he is to be commended for the inclusion, in outline at least, of elucidations of the key mathematical concepts and formalisms which compose the physicist’s standard repertoire. As Richard Feynman well knew, “it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature” without some exposure to mathematics; Rau’s engaging explanations lift the veil on this too much shrouded beauty.

The Beauty of Physics, then, requires rather more than a casual glance from the interested layman if its high purpose is to be fully realised. Maxwell’s equations, Green’s theorems, and the tenets of the special theory of relativity all appear in the first chapter and, whilst these are all familiar to working physicists, they may present something of a challenge to those from different backgrounds. Certainly, a comprehensive appreciation of Rau’s argument requires some facility, if by no means fluency, with linear algebra and elementary calculus—not, it is fair to say, typical prerequisites for works of broad appeal. Its principal beneficiaries are therefore likely to be physicists—as Rau himself admits—but the book will have particular resonance for undergraduates and advanced school pupils keen to engage with the latest and most exotic ideas and problems to which their present endeavours might be leading.

Despite these necessary challenges, Rau’s explicit claim to address not only physicists, but also “the intellectually curious reader in other sciences and even outside the sciences and mathematics” is justified. The more advanced mathematical material is highlighted and separated in shaded boxes which the reader can omit if so inclined, and Rau’s style is, while not entirely pedagogical, clear and explanatory throughout. Indeed, it is testament to his rich command of his subjects that he can engage and include the non-specialist without provoking the pedantry of his more knowledgeable readers.

One of the chief strengths of The Beauty of Physics is that, despite its formal division into sections and subsections, it is not a textbook. Indeed, there is a great deal to be gained in reading it from start to finish, in order, following on the journey where Rau leads. Each new topic is introduced by means of widely familiar but pertinent examples, and proceeds via a deft use of metaphor and analogy to deliver the reader smoothly to the heart of some of the most pressing questions and concerns in that area. His discussion of symmetry, a subject of which a great many would claim some knowledge, but whose subtleties often prove a stumbling block for students in their early encounters, is particularly skilful. Rau employs examples as disparate as the structure of viruses and snowflakes, and the musical palindrome of Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer, to illustrate his initial discussions, equipping his reader for a rather compelling if rapid excursion through the rudiments of the mathematical machinery required for the systematic study of symmetry. The reader’s perseverance with these technicalities is rewarded with an overview of some of the most topical and widely-reported problems facing physics this century, from the acquisition of a theoretical understanding of the “fine-structure constant” to the broader implications of “spontaneous symmetry breaking” for general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Rau’s technique lends itself no less adeptly to conveying the notion of physics as Nature’s means of “expressing its underlying reality” and beauty. His section on “States and Transformations”, for example, succinctly summarises some of the quantum-theoretical language of operators and wave functions, whilst at the same time reflecting more broadly on the implications of the dual “wave-particle” picture of Nature, and extolling “the virtue of seeing the world from different points of view.” In so doing, Rau frames the study of physics as a captivating adventure, whose fields—as with the broader thrust of intellectual inquiry—seek to “capture some essence, together getting closer to a full comprehension.” He presents a subject as dependent upon new thinking as it is upon accumulated wisdom, as one in which “revolutionary upheavals” co-exist with a “persistence of the old”, painting an accurately—and attractively—dynamic picture of science.

That the “essence” which physics captures is undeniably beautiful is asserted with a vigour which nonetheless never strays into dogma. Many will remember school-room physics as a bewildering collection of laws and equations, but in “Complexity and Emergence”, Rau ably demonstrates the essential correspondence and coherence between the more familiar classical descriptions of reality and the famously counter-intuitive pictures of quantum mechanics. His argument is not merely couched as a facile appeal to parsimony, or even to the apparent harmony of the established laws, and in his description of the challenges and questions which are still to be faced and answered, Rau shows that the chief beauty of physics arises from its perpetual engagement with mystery and wonderment, from its revels in the unknown and not-yet-understood.

It is to the esoteric glory and grandeur of quantum theory which the majority of Rau’s discussions turn in finale. This corresponds, of course, to the central position which that theory occupies in the whole of science, but also highlights that Rau’s discussions are deeply personal reflections, born of his background as an atomic physicist and quantum-information scientist. The willingness to include such subjective perspectives and analyses is to Rau’s credit. His genuine fondness and enthusiasm for his subject will prove arresting for aspirant scientists and others alike, and his balance of technical detail and broad, affectionate overview provide a heartening demonstration of the principle that romance need not be lost at the expense of nuanced and considered argument.

These personal perspectives, coupled with Rau’s impressive poise in style and tone, ensure that The Beauty of Physics is not only accessible, but of rewarding interest and relevance to the broad audience which he seeks to address. It has often been remarked that there exists something of a gulf between those with a knowledge of the sciences and those without: this book represents a valiant attempt at bridging that divide. For the physicist, Rau provides a lucid and at times reverberant reminder of the essential elegance of his subject, while the interested non-specialist might consider approaching this work as a metaphor for endeavour in physics itself. It may seem to present an uncompromising challenge, but if one is prepared to read with an engaged and open mind (and a pencil and paper at the ready), the rewards are there for the taking, and in abundance.

Robert Thomas is reading for a PhD in quantum theory at Trinity College, Cambridge.

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Beauty Under the Microscope http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/beauty-under-the-microscope/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/beauty-under-the-microscope/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:20:21 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26245 Kate Travers


ed. Greg Currie, Matthew Kieran, Aaron Meskin & Jon Robson
Aesthetics and the Sciences of Mind
Oxford University Press, 2014
£40 (hardback)
272 pages
ISBN: 9780199669639

Something big is happening in literary studies; something big and, for many people, something scary. The presence of so-called “cog-neuro” approaches, that is, the use of critical apparatus derived from the fields of cognitive science and neurology, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. This adoption of methodologies borrowed from the sciences threatens to fan a still smouldering flame of resentment between the arts and the sciences. Why should literature be given over to the razors of reductionism? Why do we need to justify the arts in terms of measurable, recordable, normalised responses and outcomes that can be easily and succinctly plotted on a bell curve? Neurologists and cognitive scientists are not the only ones who have set themselves the task of unravelling the workings of the human mind, of course. Philosophers are also at the forefront of research into how our minds respond to aesthetic stimuli, including literature, and current research on this topic fuses analytic philosophy with elements of cognitive science, neurology, and evolutionary biology.

This volume, edited by several of the most prominent names in the field, explores how we respond to both visual and literary art by amalgamating these approaches in a collection of essays which summarises some of the most pressing issues in philosophy of aesthetics. On the face of it, the philosophy of aesthetics might not appear to be something that affects most people in the course of their daily lives. However, although not addressed to the general reader, this collection deals with questions which arise from relatable, day to day experiences: How can we explain that instantaneous feeling of knowing that something is beautiful? Why do we respond emotionally to the situations of characters we know to be fictional? What makes graffiti “art”? For anyone who has ever stopped to ask themselves what exactly it means to be enjoying a Rothko in a gallery, or rooting for Frodo Baggins and the other members of the Fellowship, this book will contain something of interest.

The perennial question “but is it art?”—which rears its head once a year, around the time of the Turner Prize—often leaves both critics and the general public at a loss, with nothing more than a casual shrug of the shoulders by way of an answer. One common response to this problem is: “it’s art because I say so”. Christy Mag Uidhir and Cameron Buckner show, in their ‘Portrait of the Artist as an Aesthetic Expert’, why this might not be such a dismissive response as might first appear.

Mag Uidhir and Buckner place the question of intentionality at the centre of their notion of the aesthetic; instead of the aesthetic object holding any intrinsically aesthetic quality in itself, the object attains the status of art by virtue of its creation by an artist, who holds in her mind an “aesthetic concept”. They also argue that the notion of inspired artistic genius is a myth, maintaining that artists with training are more likely to attain the status of “aesthetic expert” and have a better grasp of aesthetic concepts. However, building an ontology of art on the foundation of the artist’s intention is by no means a fool-proof resolution to the problem of what constitutes art. Many would argue that intention does not regulate the reading and reception of a work.

“Aesthetic concept theory” provides a method by which the object can be elevated to the status of art. Bence Nanay, on the contrary, argues that this tendency to present art and aesthetics as mutually dependent might be where the problem lies for the discipline. In ‘Philosophy of Perception as a Guide to Aesthetics’, Nanay turns the philosophy of aesthetics on its head. Nanay suggests that, in fact, many of the perennial problems faced by the philosophy of aesthetics can be solved by treating aesthetics as another branch of the philosophy of perception (“aesthetics”, of course, comes from the Greek verb aisthánomai, meaning “to perceive”). Nanay, first of all, takes care to distinguish philosophy of art from philosophy of aesthetics. Art provokes more than simply aesthetic response; it raises questions of a political, ethical and epistemological nature, which philosophers of art must also seek to address. For Nanay, art and the aesthetic should be considered philosophically separate entities. So why does philosophy of perception provide a more productive framework for investigating questions of aesthetic experience? Perception encompasses far more than simply receiving sensory impressions of an object; Nanay parses the process of perception to reveal its ‘non-sensory’ aspects, such as “categorisation”, “conceptualisation” and “mental imagery”. As aesthetic experience involves these same elements of cognitive processing, Nanay arrives at the conclusion that philosophy of aesthetics and philosophy of perception share more common territory than is widely acknowledged.

The disciplinary specificity of some of the material in the collection, however, seems likely to limit the ability of that work to immediately “travel” beyond the boundaries of philosophy. Jonathan M. Weinberg’s essay, ‘All Your Desires in One Box’, is a rigorously argued, meticulous mapping of the concept he calls “desire-like imaginings”. This notion deals with the kind of double-think involved with viewing works of art, particularly tragedy, that entail us seemingly wanting a “good” character to flourish and live happily until the end of their days, when in fact we know, because we are dealing with a tragedy, that we also want to see that character perish. Weinberg’s argument is delineated via the medium of box diagrams, hence the title. This style of notation is succinct and aptly encapsulates a complex argument such as this, but it does impose disciplinary limitations on work which has a great many applications in numerous fields.

The authors and editor of the collection are aware of the wide-ranging impact that this volume and others like it are having. The potential application of concepts drawn from aesthetics to literary studies is foregrounded on several occasions, including Stacie Friend’s essay ‘Believing in Stories’. Friend combines both experimental data and the premise of a Gettier problem (a paradigm used to explain how we can make a judgement that is factually correct, but based on faulty evidence) to evaluate the degree of trust placed in information presented in fictional texts.

If this collection makes one crucial methodological point, however, it is this: there is no one way to fuse philosophy and the sciences of mind. For example, in ‘The Arts, Emotion, and Evolution’, Noël Carroll uses evolutionary biology to explain, in unexpected ways, why making art might be evolutionarily advantageous. There is also no way to uniformly evaluate the faith that philosophy as a field places in empirical methods. Kathleen Stock, in ‘Psychology and The Paradox of Fiction’, argues that “the whole point of appealing to science is to bring some sort of speculation-free authority to a set of empirical claims.” On the other hand, in ‘”This is Your Brain on Art”: What Can Philosophy of Art Learn from Neuroscience’, David Davies explores the role of mirror neurons in creating affective responses to fictional texts, but tempers his enthusiasm for experimental data by stating that “most of the significant philosophical issues cannot be resolved by appeal to this work.” Aesthetics and the Sciences of Mind vividly renders the heated debate surrounding the status of experimental methodology within the field.

In brief, this collection is not simply a summary of the most respected current interdisciplinary research into aesthetic perception designed for philosophers; it also provides a valuable insight into the debates surrounding cog-neuro approaches to the arts and aesthetics, as they appear in the discipline of philosophy. It is a reminder for those in literary studies that the questions posed by this most recent collision of the humanities and the sciences cannot simply be reduced to a case of scholars of culture battling against men and women in white coats. Philosophers are also dealing with the dilemmas created by incorporating various sciences of mind into their field. The range of opinions presented in this volume is illustrative of the breadth of this often polarised debate and makes it evident that, while empirical data can be tremendously useful, it doesn’t hold all the answers.

In terms of impact within its field, this collection is emblematic of the fact that Greg Currie et al. have, over the years, created a dynamic new branch of their discipline which continues to gain respect and attract attention. Perhaps the interdisciplinary approaches presented in this volume could be thought of as one that mirrors philosophy’s former position as a natural science; this position implies that philosophy, as one of humankind’s greatest tools for understanding the world, should enter into a dialogue with empirical methods, in order to increase understanding. After all, that’s what philosophy has always, historically, sought to do: help us understand the world and ourselves as subjects within it.

Kate Travers is reading for a PhD in Italian literature at New York University. She also reviews music and books for The Line of Best Fit and the Oxonian Review.

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Despair http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/despair/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/despair/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 02:00:07 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26206 Oxford Student PEN

This week, ORbits presents five translations of contemporary poetry in Arabic and French from Oxford Student PEN‘s recent translation workshop. Please see here for further information on the workshop’s origins and aims.

 
Despair
You came to me that day
On a black moonless night,
Deserted of stars,
With no fireflies or life

To cut when
My steps lost their way behind the village hut.
I, who left myself under the cocoa trees
Where the elephants rot

Oh God in heaven,
An inky night
Collapsed upon me,
And you, oh earth,
Yes, you, oh earth,
You had stopped
Turning.

Enoh Meyomesse

 

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The Dead http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-dead/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-dead/#comments Thu, 26 Mar 2015 02:00:39 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26204 Oxford Student PEN

This week, ORbits presents five translations of contemporary poetry in Arabic and French from Oxford Student PEN‘s recent translation workshop. Please see here for further information on the workshop’s origins and aims.

 
My fathers who escaped the frame,
My friends who set traps between this and that,
Those who never existed
And died,
They accompanied what is possible in the time
Of blind deeds.
They then re-emerged in the cloud lines and in the dust
Letting their habits dance in the milky space.
Enemies free of grudge and blood
My dead brothers are.
Far away,
Far far away,
We do not expect to go or return.
In our dwelling we realise eternity is too narrow.
We, the dead ones,
We can only imagine
And smile.

Firas Sulaiman

 

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Nothing stays on the table except the trace of your hand… http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/nothing-stays-on-the-table/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/nothing-stays-on-the-table/#comments Wed, 25 Mar 2015 02:00:13 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26201 Oxford Student PEN

This week, ORbits presents five translations of contemporary poetry in Arabic and French from Oxford Student PEN‘s recent translation workshop. Please see here for further information on the workshop’s origins and aims.

 

I

Your sleepy voice this morning reshapes the life that flows through my fingers…Open the door, and draw a threshold, distant mountains and a blue sky. Draw a house…There, a man is waking from his darkness…

II

After a normal afternoon. Nothing happened. A table with a drawer full of dead songs with none to sing. Four legs, two of them have the urge to be hands in another life.

III

One of these mornings, you will realise that you stood by the door dreaming, and that you were waiting for things which never existed. You ruined your hands making a bed, a table, a drawer to house what remains. Then you will start to fear the night, for you no longer await a friend’s visit and discover that your glass of wine was tainted. At that moment, you start to fear time, the kisses you never sent, the ones you never received. You will ask, one of these mornings, what was the point of these incomplete footsteps, and why the departed have departed. That morning, you will realise, amidst the boredom of this life, that you gain nothing from being alive.

IV

Nothing stays on the table except the trace of your hand. The hand that held bread and wine, one day, the hand that touched a woman’s body, the hand that did not know what to write, except a night that surrounded you from all directions.

Iskandar Habash

 

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Prayer http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/prayer/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/prayer/#comments Tue, 24 Mar 2015 02:00:39 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26197 Oxford Student PEN

This week, ORbits presents five translations of contemporary poetry in Arabic and French from Oxford Student PEN‘s recent translation workshop. Please see here for further information on the workshop’s origins and aims.

 

Let us thank our killer, O my friend,
For having missed us and hit that kid
Who always disrupted your afternoon nap.
He thought the bomb was a ball
So he blocked it with courage
The way he was always blocking balls
And shouting at the players.
Now he has won his game
Without screaming at the killers.
Now he has defeated you and me, and will sleep forever and ever.

Tammam Al-Tillawi

 

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Panoramas of Death and Desolation http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/panoramas-of-death-and-desolation/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/panoramas-of-death-and-desolation/#comments Mon, 23 Mar 2015 02:00:10 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26188 Oxford Student PEN

This week, ORbits presents five translations of contemporary poetry in Arabic and French from Oxford Student PEN‘s recent translation workshop. Please see below for further information on the workshop’s origins and aims.

 

I had left the door open
And gone to sleep.
I said: They might suddenly come and enter my sleep,
The dead ones.
The dead ones who no longer have a place
In that earth.

What is lying in the middle of the room is not snow.
That is me,
Wrapped in a hundred shrouds,
Getting ready for
A family photo.

They have all gone:
The daughters,
The sons,
The good husband,
The parental satisfaction,
Old photos of grandparents,
A handful of dolls still wet with the lisp of childhood,
Rugs, mats and mattresses tinged with the traces of daily chats.
All gone.
Nothing is left
Save the smell of their last tea
And a mirror reflecting the routes of their departure
In promiscuous trucks.

Rasha Omran

***

Poetic Solidarity: Translations from Arabic and French

When Arabic was raised as a source-language for a potential Oxford PEN translation workshop in 2014, we faced a series of difficult decisions given the events and processes shaping the region: revolutions (and/or wars) which have brought hope, chaos, death as well as life to so many. Before selecting a number of potential poems (or poets), we decided to take some time to observe the scene and to choose accordingly. Ultimately, we have selected poems by Iskandar Habash (Lebanon), Tammam Al-Tillawi (Syria), Rasha Omran (Syria), and Firas Sulaiman (Syria), which have respectively been published in the following newspapers: As-Safir, An-Nahar, Al-Mustaqbal and Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

In spite of this trepidation, our selection is, of course, in no way intended to be representative of the poet or the poet’s poetry, but rather offers a small sample which sheds light on the complexity of choice and the ways in which different poets register and interact with the daily and the panoramic in the midst of such events.

With the aim of forging a degree of “poetic” solidarity between these and other poets, political activists and detainees outside of the Middle East, amongst other things, in order to draw attention to the human suffering as well as to the value of poetry therein, PEN organised an additional translation workshop which focused primarily on the poetry of Enoh Meyomesse, the imprisoned Francophone Cameroonian poet, activist, founding member of the Cameroonian Writers’ Association and winner of the 2013 Oxfam Novib / PEN Freedom of Expression Award. The international community of PEN centres has been campaigning on Meyomesse’s behalf since his imprisonment in 2011. To raise the profile of Meyomesse’s case, English PEN launched a crowd-sourced translation of Meyomesse’s Poème Carcéral: poème du pénitencier de Kondengui (2012), which was published as a print-on-demand e-book, Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison in 2014 and which Meyomesse himself received in prison in April 2014. Translations of his second collection, Prison Poetry, are currently underway.

We hope that these poems all reflect the powerful bonds of communication between poets, readers and translators, enacting what Seamus Heaney found most creditable in poetry which, he said, can “touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed”.

The Arabic-English workshop was co-run by Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Kate McLoughlin and Kevin Brazil, with the French-English workshop being co-run by Helena Taylor, Rosie Lavan and Yousif M. Qasmiyeh. Participants of both workshops were: Stacie Allan, Jason Allen, Florence Beland; Spyridon Chairetis; Dominic Davies; Annie Demosthenous; Katie Ebner-Landy; Sarah Ekdawi, Benedict Gardner; Lewis Greaves; Sarah A. Halim; Nico Hobhouse; Emily Holman; Charles Jarvis; Ellen Jones; Dyedra Just; Meredith Morrison; Rebekah Murrell; Natasha Ryan; Edward Still; Anna Tankel; and Lucie Taylor. We are grateful for their very pertinent and insightful comments, additions and critiques vis-à-vis the translations, as processes and outputs alike.

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