The Oxonian Review Tue, 25 Nov 2014 13:57:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Inspiring Intelligence Tue, 25 Nov 2014 13:38:54 +0000 interstellar’s interstellar interstellar’s interstellar interstellar’s interstellar Michael Flood

Dir. Christopher Nolan
Legendary Pictures, Syncopy,
Lynda Obst Productions

In 2011, the American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson challenged his fellow authors to write more optimistic fiction about the future. In a speech at the Future Tense conference he pointed out that the scientists and engineers who put men on the Moon and built our modern technological world grew up reading stories about the wonders of the universe and the potential of humanity. Could we expect the current generation of readers, raised on dystopian stories of technology run amok, to build anything similar?

Christopher Nolan (co-writing with his brother Jonathan) can be said to be answering Stephenson’s challenge with his new film. Interstellar is anti-dystopian, particularly in its portrayal of technology.

Dystopian films and stories often portray technology as the destroyer of the world or at least as a tool of oppression in the hands of the powerful and wicked. In Orwell’s novel 1984 (1949), the Party observes its members around the clock and bombards them with propaganda through its omnipresent telescreens. In Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a malfunctioning artificial intelligence threatens the lives of astronauts. In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), a seemingly helpful android invites a hostile lifeform onto a defenceless vessel in order to bring it back for its corporate masters to use as a biological weapon.

It would be tedious to list all the dozens (possibly hundreds) of films where technology and science gone wrong spawn monsters that threaten humanity with extinction. Often the solution to these threats is a reversion to primitive or more “human” modes of being. In the recent Hunger Games films it is symbolic that the villainous Capitol possesses advanced technology like high-speed trains, aircraft, and guns while the series’ heroine, Katniss Everdeen, uses a bow and arrow. Though not a dystopian film per se, Star Wars: A New Hope provides a prototype of the common SF relationship of man to technology: at the critical moment during the attack on the Death Star, young Luke Skywalker is advised by a disembodied Obi-Wan Kenobi not to use his ship’s targeting computer, but to “trust his feelings.” Technology, the message goes, is not to be trusted.

In Interstellar, by contrast, science and technology are the means by which humanity saves itself. The film’s main plot revolves around an attempt to find another world for humanity to settle, life on Earth being doomed by a blight that is both eating crops and rendering the atmosphere unbreathable. There is no indication that this disease was created by or made worse by humanity. Even the wormhole that enables the exploration of another galaxy is revealed to be not the work of aliens but of future humans who have transcended to a higher dimension.

The different attitudes towards exploration and technology are explored in the film’s first act. The dystopian perspective is voiced by the teachers at the school of the protagonist’s children. Cooper’s daughter has got into trouble for arguing with her classmates that America did put astronauts on the Moon, contradicting the school’s narrative that the Moon landings were faked to drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy trying to compete with America, spending money on “useless” rockets and spaceships. The Government does this to keep people focused on Earth-bound problems like growing enough food rather than looking beyond Earth. Cooper disputes this by talking about how the low aspirations are costing lives: his wife’s life could have been saved by an MRI, which no one knows how to build anymore.

Once the exploration mission at the heart of the plot begins, the pro-technology themes grow ever stronger. Cooper and his fellow astronauts use advanced technology—including starships, spaceplanes, suspended animation, and autonomous robots—to find another world. These machines function flawlessly and the interaction between them and the crew is seamless. Nowhere is the technology made to seem imposing or unnatural; it is a natural extension of humanity, not artificial or hindering.

Nowhere is the pro-technology stance of Interstellar clearer than in its portrayal of artificial intelligence. Far from the malevolent or insane AIs of most American science fiction, the two robots, TARS and CASE, are nothing but helpful. Nolan even pokes fun at the stereotypes of AI, in particular the iconic bad AI, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000; during the launch of Interstellar’s space mission, TARS quips, “A nice group of slaves for my robot colony!” Later in the film, TARS and CASE save the human characters multiple times by being able to operate where humans cannot, and in one case making an astute judgment of human character.

The Nolan brothers have constructed an exciting, powerful film about human possibilities, one that answers Neal Stephenson’s challenge to imagine what we can do rather than being scared of what could happen if we use our technical abilities to the fullest.

Michael Flood is a freelance writer living in Western Canada.

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Our Collective Afterlife Mon, 24 Nov 2014 00:50:37 +0000 scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler scheffler’s scheffler Paul Sagar

Samuel Scheffler, edited by Niko Kolodny
Death and the Afterlife
Oxford University Press, 2013
224 pages
ISBN: 9780199982509

Death and the Afterlife constitutes two remarkable achievements. The first is rare enough. Samuel Scheffler presents us with a set of reflections, the importance, and arguably the correctness, of which seem obvious in retrospect—but which most people will not have previously registered, let alone thought to be of considerable profundity. The second is even rarer. Scheffler appears to be the first person, in nearly 3,000 years of western philosophy, to get to grips, in a sustained and insightful way, with the particular questions his book raises.

Those questions relate to how and why it matters that although all of us will die, we live our lives—and die our deaths—against the background of believing that other people will go on living for a long time after we are gone. This is the “afterlife” of Scheffler’s title: not a personal continuation of the self after the expiration of the organic body, but the “collective afterlife” of human beings as an ongoing species. Scheffler has some remarks to make about those who believe in a personal afterlife, although he primarily addresses modern secularists who believe (like himself) that organic death really is the end of the individual. But in either case, his central contention is that what really matters to us is the collective afterlife.

Scheffler proceeds by deploying two thought experiments. The first is a “doomsday scenario.” Imagine that 30 days after your natural death a meteor will hit the earth and wipe out all human life. How would we respond to such a piece of information? Scheffler suggests that for the vast majority of people it would generate a deep and powerful despondency. Even though our own personal life would already have come to its natural end, the prospect of all life ending on earth would fill us with abject horror. This itself is an important result. It seems to show that what we value is not simply a function of our personal experiences. Likewise, it implies that we are not straightforwardly consequentialist in our thinking: if somebody responded to the doomsday scenario by adding up all the “costs” on one hand (mass death and suffering, end of all human projects, loss of all art and culture, etc.) and the “benefits” on the other (no more future death and suffering; no more pain, torture, deprivation; no more X-Factor and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!; etc.), our healthy response would be that they had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the cataclysm that was about to occur. An aversion to the doomsday scenario is rightly an aversion as such, not the outcome of a calculation of consequences. Finally, Scheffler suggests that the doomsday scenario implies that we are conservative about the things that we value. We want them to go on existing, and to go on existing independently of us and of our enjoyment or appreciation of them.

Anticipating the objection that what really horrifies us about doomsday is the prospect of billions of present human lives being cut short, and in particular the loss of our loved ones, Scheffler switches to a second, more powerful, thought experiment. The “infertility scenario” is taken from P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men (later adapted into a very different film by Alfonso Cuarón) and posits that human beings simply stop being able to reproduce. The species will go extinct in about 80-100 years, but everybody alive now will go on to live the natural lifespan they would have anyway.

In the infertility scenario, one’s friends and family will go on living as before. And yet Scheffler rightly contends that this does not reduce the horror of the proposition. At a very basic level, the notion that humanity is simply going to stop existing fills us with dread—and appears to have severe knock-on effects for what we value. Most obviously, highly specific goal-orientated projects which aim at the improvement or prolongment of human life would in this scenario appear to lose their point. Why expound huge amounts of time, effort, and money on trying to find a cure for cancer if soon everybody will be dead anyway? But Scheffler’s more interesting claim—and in this I think he is essentially right—is that even non-goal-specific, but nonetheless ongoing, projects and activities will come to be undermined and risk seeming pointless in a world where there will be no collective afterlife. Writing books of philosophy, doing archival history, painting works of art—activities that are typically considered to have substantial ‘intrinsic’ value—also appear peculiarly vulnerable to the thought that if everybody will soon be dead, what’s the point? (This is well illustrated by P.D. James’s character Theo Faron, an academic who loses the motivation to engage in his research and general enjoyment of living in a world without new human life). Intriguingly, however, it’s not only projects that involve ongoing work and achievement, and what we might call deep intrinsic values, which appear to be threatened. Scheffler plausibly suggests that the point and purpose, as well as the sheer enjoyment, even of activities like listening to music or reading novels, would be severely undermined in significant part if not entirely, by the mass and individual despondency likely to accompany the infertility scenario (in James’s novel even activities like sex and game-playing somehow lose their enjoyment against a background of hopelessness at what is to come).

Scheffler’s thought experiments are well handled and subtly deployed. Unlike many philosophers who use this sort of device, he does not demand that we share one “intuition” that is presumed to be singularly correct and then tell us what we must therefore conclude about some highly abstract scenario that is supposed to tell us something direct and specific about how we live in the complex real world. This is because Scheffler is not fundamentally engaged in an exercise in justification, but is rather attempting to make sense of what we value and how we think about value; in so doing, he works through some of the presuppositions of the rich complexity of actually-experienced human life. This goes against the grain of the vast majority of contemporary moral and political theory—and is precisely why Scheffler’s book is so much richer and more interesting. With most intuition-driven philosophy, to reject the purported intuitions which one is “supposed” to have in the proposed hypothetical situation is simply to end the game being played, at least until a new intuition is asserted in the old one’s place. With Scheffler, we are instead invited to think much more carefully both about what it is that we are doing in our real lives, and also what it is we are up to when we interrogate those lives through the practice of philosophy.

In particular, Scheffler invites us to think more carefully about his most puzzling of apparent conclusions. His point is not that we secretly do philosophy, or history, or art, or whatever, in the hope that somebody will remember us after we are gone. It is that we appear to value a great many things without any regard to our own personal recognition, sincerely valuing them for their own sake, and yet believing that such intrinsic value would somehow be lost if humanity as a collective endeavour were coming to an end. This is something of a puzzle: the intrinsic value of doing philosophy, listening to music, etc., appears predicated on something extrinsic to it—i.e. humanity continuing to exist. But the correct response, implicitly urged by Scheffler, is not to conclude that our valuing practices are therefore somehow confused and in need of purging via the power of philosophy. It is that our values are much more complicated than we might otherwise have realised them to be.

Scheffler is keen to press a connected point—what he calls the “limits of our egoism.” If he is right about how we would respond to the doomsday and infertility scenarios, then it seems that in important dimensions human beings value things based not simply on their own personal gain or self-interest, but against the background of caring about what happens to other people. Of course, it does not follow that people’s day-to-day motivations must somehow be more “altruistic” than we previously thought: that selfish bastards aren’t really so because they’d lose interest in their selfish projects on the eve of destruction. Rather, it shows that it is just unhelpful and confused to reduce examinations of human life to a dichotomy between “egoistic” versus “altruistic” motivations. Human life is much more complicated than that, and one of Scheffler’s points is that we get something seriously wrong about the complex nature of value if we try and reduce it to a mere function of patterns of psychological motivation; although those, of course, will still have their own particular place.

The final, major, part of Scheffler’s case is to suggest an important contrast between the roles that personal mortality and a collective immortality play in our thinking and valuing. He argues that whilst we are quite reasonable in fearing death, it would be a mistake to desire personal immortality. Although I am not convinced that Scheffler is specific enough on what the desire for immortality really amounts to—I suspect it is a desire to choose and control when one will die, not simply a desire never to die—his conclusion is surely right: a life that never ends would be unbounded and hence lack the shape that could give it definition and meaning. It would certainly not be a life of the sort that creatures like us could coherently desire and value, because built deep into our understanding of our own existences and values is the knowledge that we will die, and that means we have a finite, and for the most part somewhat indeterminate, amount of time of which to make the most. We need to die in order to know what it means to try and live, even if most of us will die sooner than we would like, and are reasonably disturbed and afraid of the prospect of our doing so.

In a different way, however, Scheffler shows that the usually unrecognised and unquestioning assumption of a collective afterlife operates in something like the opposite direction. The fact that others will go on after us also gives shape and definition to our lives, and without knowledge of this we would lose our grip on what makes our lives worth living. This in turn opens up another puzzle, though one that may have its answer built into our understanding it properly. Whilst many people are deeply concerned about their own deaths, even though this is a precondition of giving their life meaning and something that cannot in the end be avoided, we appear strikingly blasé about the prospect of the end of the collective afterlife—something we also need in order to give our lives meaning, although the end of this certainly can be avoided (at least for a long while yet). Why then are we not more collectively motivated with respect to the threat of climate change, to pick only the most obvious current example? The answer, with regard to Scheffler’s concerns, must surely relate to one of the striking features of the issue: that for the most part we simply take the collective afterlife for granted. It might seem that the best response is therefore to stop taking it for granted. Maybe. But we may also find that if we don’t take it for granted, it stops doing quite what it once did for us. Or that after all it’s the sort of thing that creatures like us simply cannot help but take for granted, and that’s perhaps an important reason why we’ve managed to get as far as we have. The assumption that others will come after us, coupled with our finding this deeply meaningful in a variety of ways, may have been an indispensible pre-requisite for our ongoing success as a species. After all, human beings do not simply survive, we create, and we value. But being valuers and creators in turn makes us better at surviving, not least because we become more invested in doing so, both individually and collectively.

As Scheffler puts it, with self-confessed over-simplicity, his most arresting conclusion may be that “what is necessary to sustain our confidence in our values is that we should die and that others should live.” Quite why this is ultimately so—rather than just realising that it apparently is so—is a question Scheffler raises rather than answers. But that is itself a measure of the rich seam that he has opened up. I hope that others continue to mine it—whether or not I am around to see the results.

Paul Sagar is  a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge.

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The First English (Scottish?) Proust Mon, 24 Nov 2014 00:40:22 +0000 moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s moncrieff—soldier moncrieff moncrieff’s Jennifer Rushworth

Moncrieff Jean Findlay
Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator
Chatto and Windus, 2014
£25.00 (hardback)
268 pages
ISBN: 978-0701181079

Dante claimed that there were two possible justifications for autobiography: firstly, the need to defend oneself; secondly, the possibility that one’s story might have universal relevance. His model for the first was Boethius and for the second Augustine. The same might be thought of biography, and Jean Findlay’s Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff arguably has elements of both. Moncrieff is remembered as the first translator into English of Proust’s multi-volume À la recherche du temps perdu, which he published from 1922 (incidentally, the year of Proust’s death) until his own death in 1930. Controversially, but with good Shakespearean precedent, Moncrieff gave his translation the title Remembrance of Things Past, and his text was to form the basis of later revised, completed translations of Proust’s magnum opus by Terence Kilmartin and D.J. Enright. Nonetheless, as Findlay shows, Moncrieff’s life was much richer and more diverse than Proust-obsessed posterity usually cares to acknowledge. With regard to biography as defence, parts of Chasing Lost Time read as if Findlay were setting out to defend Moncrieff’s reputation. An early hurdle in this respect is Moncrieff’s failure to follow his brother Colin to Oxford. Potential applicants should take note of this cautionary tale: the failure is imputed to a poor reference from the headmaster at Winchester College, apparently occasioned by Moncrieff’s publication of a raunchy story in the school magazine, which shocked parents and teachers alike but which Findlay is careful to assert was “not erotic.” Less imputable to prejudice is, however, Moncrieff’s failure to pass the Oxford entrance exam on his second time navigating the application procedure because of lousy marks in Greek and mathematics. More darkly, Findlay also attempts to clear Moncrieff of accusations that he seduced Wilfred Owen and was partly responsible for Owen’s death only days away from the end of the First World War. Few facts are known about the former case, but in the latter Moncrieff was implicated because, while working for the War Office after having retired from active service due to an injury, he failed to keep the shell-shocked Owen from returning to the Front. Moncrieff was, accordingly, ostracised after the war by mutual friends, including many of the surviving war poets (Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, & Co.). Whatever the truth of these matters, a side effect of Findlay’s narration is a recognition of the artificial nature of our canon of war poetry, which might benefit from including some of Moncrieff’s light war poetry or his friend Philip Bainbrigge’s refreshing parody of “If I should die” alongside the alternately patriotic and grisly standards. Owen’s death, though, provoked Moncrieff to renounce poetry and to refocus on his work as a frequently acerbic reviewer and as a translator.

Besides defensive elements, this biography also displays universal and even Augustinian characteristics. Moncrieff underwent a conversion to Catholicism during life in the trenches, and remained a devout Catholic up to his death in Rome. Moreover, conversion aside, Findlay usefully constructs a parable of Moncrieff as, if not an Everyman, a man who is able to represent, in miniature, an entire generation. In this respect, Moncrieff links many great writers of the early decades of the twentieth century; he numbered amongst his friends Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde’s son; he was a devotee of Pirandello; Evelyn Waugh wanted to be his secretary; and he corresponded with numerous writers and intellectuals including the likes of T.S. Eliot and, in later years, E.R. Curtius. In the epilogue, Findlay admits that Moncrieff was “a perfect example of a man of his time”, and nowhere is this clearer than in his education and friendships. Yet Findlay begins by warning the reader that the biographee is “a man of contradictions”, and, appropriately if surprisingly, it even turns out that Moncrieff—Soldier, Spy and Translator—spent the last years of his life combining his translation work with spying on the early days of Mussolini’s fascist Italy.

This biography is timely for two reasons. Most importantly, this hymn to Moncrieff comes in the wake of the new (now not so new) Penguin translation of Proust (2002), edited by Christopher Prendergast. The Penguin translators of Proust aimed for fidelity to the original text as conceived after decades of genetic work on manuscripts, drafts, and proofs, and called into question the accuracy and reliability of their predecessor. Appropriately, then, Findlay’s biography seeks to remind the general public of the continuing value and impressiveness of Moncrieff’s endeavours, an aim which resonates with the first justification of (auto)biography cited above, namely that of (self-)defence. In this respect, Findlay not only defends Moncrieff, but also takes this opportunity to highlight how Moncrieff’s translation was the medium through which many of the great Anglophone modernists—including Woolf and Joyce—accessed Proust. The suggestion is no doubt that we could do worse than to follow in their footsteps. As in Jorge Luis Borges’s account of translations of the Thousand and One Nights, Findlay argues that some readers of Proust, including Joseph Conrad, considered Moncrieff’s translation to be superior to the original—though it is debatable how far one ought to take such statements to heart. Less important, in terms of timeliness, but similarly intriguing, is the belated opportunity which this book provides to use Moncrieff as a spokesperson for Scottish independence, with Findlay noting Moncrieff’s support for the early SNP and his assertion that “the Scots are quite as capable of governing themselves as the Swiss—and have as much right as they to do so.” For a book published in late September 2014, the quotation of this statement seems intentionally controversial.

Also potentially controversial is Findlay’s relationship to Moncrieff: she is his great-grand-niece. On the one hand, this gives Findlay unparalleled access to box after box of letters, diaries, photographs, and notebooks, and the patience and devotion to sift through them. On the other hand, the reader is likely to be at least initially suspicious of family interests that might interfere with the story or lead in the direction of hagiography and/or censorship. Indeed, such fears seem justified when Findlay admits in the introduction that she had thought that Moncrieff had remained celibate after the war until (after having drafted the book) she discovered letters proving otherwise, which forced her to revise the book by adding “nuggets of sex.” Slowly, though, Findlay gains the confidence of her reader through enthralling storytelling, much citation from Moncrieff’s letters and poetry, and careful footnoting throughout.

In the end, the weakness of the book is not nepotism, but rather Findlay’s reticence about drawing connections between Proust and Moncrieff. Findlay repeatedly misses opportunities to compare the two, perhaps unwittingly reflecting in this the failed chance encounter between Proust and Moncrieff in Cabourg when Proust was twenty-six and Moncrieff only six. In private, Proust and Moncrieff seem to have shared many traits: survival on coffee alone; late-night forays to attend lavish dinner parties with friends; long experience of ill health; a passion for genealogies; appreciation of French Gothic cathedrals; prolific devotion to many correspondents; and a love of Balzac and Stendhal. More could also be made of the fact that Proust was, like Moncrieff, a translator, publishing translations of Ruskin in French early in his writing career. It also goes unremarked by Findlay that Moncrieff’s reputation as a translator of one author alone strangely echoes the general view of Proust as the author of only one book, with both assumptions being far from the truth.

It is, nonetheless, a particular delight of Chasing Lost Time that it reveals Moncrieff as much more than the first translator of Proust, however impressive this accolade might be. Instead, Findlay shows that Moncrieff was a prolific translator, beginning with a publication of the Chanson de Roland, a medieval chivalric epic which he hoped would be newly relevant to generations scarred by the First World War; continuing the medieval theme with the letters of Abelard and Heloise, Beowulf, and other Anglo-Saxon texts; progressing to Stendhal; and, during his final years in Italy, enthusiastically undertaking to translate all of Pirandello and being amongst the first to recognise the Italian playwright’s genius. Moncrieff even contemplated translating the complete works of Boccaccio (both in Italian and medieval Latin), which he hoped would allow him to survive what Anne Carson has called “the desert of After Proust.”

Some of Findlay’s assessments of Moncrieff’s work as a translator are slightly marred by a lack of awareness of context and convention, occasionally leading her to exaggerate the extent of Moncrieff’s innovations. She observes early on, for instance, that “no other translator prefaced their works with dedicatory poems to their friends,” a declaration which belies the fact that Moncrieff inherited this habit from—or at least shared it with—many, many nineteenth-century translators, not to mention translators before and since. More worrying is Findlay’s at times reductive, almost dismissive, characterisation of literature as a way of  distancing oneself from reality. Findlay sees Moncrieff as “protected from real horror by his own poetic bubble” during the war, failing to recognise the Proustian truth that literature might instead allow oneself to see the world more clearly.

However, this is to nitpick. Lawrence Venuti famously bemoaned the invisibility of the translator, but in this book we find an encouraging exception to that rule, that is, not only a translator whose life is as rich and varied as that of the original author, but also—and this is no doubt a much rarer phenomenon—a life which someone has, happily, bothered to narrate.

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

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Introduce a Little Anarchy Mon, 24 Nov 2014 00:30:37 +0000 Karthick Manoharan

On Anarchism
Noam Chomsky
On Anarchism
Penguin Books, 2013
192 pages
ISBN: 978-0-241-96960-1

In general, the word “anarchy” tends to churn up an image of total lawlessness, a breakdown of all rules and norms. Conservatives are likely to equate it with the Hobbesian state of nature, or an all-out war where it’s every individual for themselves, while orthodox Leninists would dub it as “left-wing infantilism.” Yet if we consider the broad concept, putting aside the preconceptions accrued by political ideologies, anarchism is both, neither, and so much more.

The problem with defining anarchism is that its rich history and the varied propositions of its proponents make confining it to a single, fixed definition a difficult task. With this in mind, Noam Chomsky’s simple but compelling definition, that “anarchism may be regarded as the libertarian wing of socialism,” is not so much an equivocation as a reconciliation of what are generally perceived as mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, On Anarchism a collection of interviews with, and lectures and essays by, the prominent linguist, philosopher, logician, and activist—is a work dedicated to the defence of this definition. Chomsky seems to have taken to heart the Bakuninist adage that freedom without socialism is privilege and socialism without freedom is tyranny.

More than anything else, as a public thinker, Noam Chomsky is a critic of power, of Western power in general and American power in particular. We can see from On Anarchy how the positions he takes as a thinker stem from his convictions that “the idea that people could be free is extremely frightening to anybody with power.” Thus, we can see Chomsky as an intellectual throwing his weight behind several movements that fight under the banner of freedom, be it Palestine or Occupy.

To understand why, it is worth briefly considering the history of anarchism. Generally, the origin of modern anarchism is attributed to William Godwin, the English political philosopher, novelist, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and father of Mary Shelley, in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). However, if the anarchist tradition is to be considered as a belief that “power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate,” its origins can be traced way back to the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, also known as Diogenes the Cynic; his encounter with Alexander the Great where he trivialised the authority of the conqueror, related by both Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius (a biographer of the Greek philosophers) is the stuff of historical legend. Likewise, we might also consider those Christian sects like the Waldensians and the Anabaptists which demonstrated contempt for the authority of both the state and the church (and often ended up being burnt at the stake as heretics) as precursors to modern anarchism.

Anarchism as a theory is immensely indebted to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a contemporary of Marx who famously declared that “property is theft.” Proudhon visualised a self-regulating society without judicial, bureaucratic, military, or civil power. He preceded Marx in attacking the basis of property, laissez-faire and economic individualism, and in advocating the right of workers to the value of their labour. It was Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, who contributed the most to making anarchism popular as an idea for revolution. One of the many ironies of the history of socialist revolution is that Bakunin had a greater influence on Leninist strategies of party organisation and revolutionary terror than Marx. For instance Bakunin’s “Revolutionary Catechism” provided the foundations for Lenin’s “Democratic Centralism.” Bakunin, not Marx, gave roots to the idea that villages were also centres for class war. Despite its indebtedness to anarchist thinkers, Leninism was persistent and particularly violent in rooting out anarchism. Why was this?

Unfortunately, Chomsky does not provide an answer. In “Of Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship”, he gives a detailed explanation of how the communists persecuted the anarchists during the Spanish civil war but rarely does he explain why; rather, he reproduces the usual caricature of communists as enemies of freedom. It is indeed true that, under Stalin, the USSR played a criminal role in dictating the terms of its support to the Spanish republic. It is also a historical fact that Soviet agents were more concerned with eliminating anarchist forces than in waging a united fight against Spanish fascism. And Chomsky is right to argue that the anarchists in areas like Catalonia, Aragon, Levante, and other places were highly successful in collectivisation of land, redistribution of resources, socialisation of agriculture and industry and so on. But it is also true that the anarchist parties made several political and strategic blunders which Chomsky is reluctant to recognise.

The National Confederation of Labour (CNT)—a confederation of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions founded in 1910 during the Bourbon restoration—rebelled against the Primo de Rivera dictatorship without an assessment of its own strength, resulting in a ban of the labour union and several crackdowns. During the 1936 elections, after the ban on the CNT was lifted, the union failed to consolidate the support of the working classes by coming to terms with the Workers’ General Union (UGT), which had over a million members in its ranks at that time. While the CNT had self-defence committees, they were naive about the matter of military offence. Rather than enacting a realist strategy, they relied on the goodwill of the people. Civil war is a brutal business and utopians rarely survive it.

It is too soon, however, to write an obituary for anarchism. Inspired by anarchist ideas, the Kurdish struggle in the Middle East led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliated groups is a particularly successful and spectacular movement. Though initially conceived as a Kurdish nationalist-cum-Marxist-Leninist movement, it evolved into a movement that seeks to transcend barriers of nations and states, and seeks instead to establish autonomous sovereign communes of peoples based on equitable distribution of resources, mutual recognition, and tolerance. The PKK-led Kurdish struggle, under the theoretical guidance of its founder-leader Abdullah Ocalan, is based on direct democracy and grassroots participation. It is of note here that Ocalan was greatly influenced by the ideas of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin. The latter’s idea of “libertarian municipalism”, the creation of local level democratic bodies as opposed to a centralised state apparatus, contributed to the development of Ocalan’s idea of “democratic confederalism” which forms the theoretical basis for the praxis of the PKK. Even though a critical situation like the one with which the Kurds are now faced—confronting ISIS—requires strict military discipline, the vanguard of the Kurdish struggle has not established a vertical decision-making process, choosing instead a more horizontal approach to cultivating cadres and leaders.

The effects of such an approach can be seen in the enthusiastic participation of Kurdish women in the struggle. Unlike most nationalist movements that symbolically use the bodies of women in the peak of a military campaign but send them “back to the kitchen” once the goals are achieved, the Kurdish struggle in Kobane involves women as an integral, organic part. Kurdish women in Kobane are the agents of their own liberation, and are as politically equipped at resisting chauvinism within their own communities as they are fierce in resisting the brutalities of ISIS. Few movements in the world have been able to rival the PKK when it comes to gender parity. And, while Chomsky himself has written little on the Kurdish struggle, it might actually be the best contemporary example to validate his own position on the moral superiority of anarchism.

After reading On Anarchism, there are still lingering questions on the prospects of anarchism. Can a movement bereft of any rigorously organised theory and meta-explanations—the likes provided by Marxism—sustain itself politically and intellectually? Can successes on a local scale be reproduced on a global scale? Will we ever reach a stage where state power can be done away with? Chomsky has no answers. We must, then, return to Kirilov’s dilemma in Dostoevsky’s The Devils one of the deepest considerations on the abolition of authority. “To realise that there is no god and not to realize at the same instant that you have become god yourself—is an absurdity.”

The future of anarchism depends on resolving this paradox.

Karthick Manoharan is a completion-year PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the Department of Government, University of Essex.

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After the Fall Mon, 24 Nov 2014 00:20:30 +0000 Jean-Thomas Tremblay

Edan Lepucki
Little Brown Book Group, 2014
400 pages
ISBN 978-1408704714

California is no formulaic dystopia. Journeys to redemption, signs of insurgency, chosen ones, or even easily identifiable antagonists are nowhere to be found in Edan Lepucki’s solid debut novel. The book opens some time after the collapse of capitalist society with two fugitives: Frida and Cal. They are hiding—whom from we are not sure, but we learn early on that the ability to conceal one’s traces is a condition of survival in Lepucki’s universe. That universe, as the title of the novel gives away, is California. Or, rather, some version of it: highways, established in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as the state’s most distinct psychogeographic feature, have been “left to rot.” In their absence, abandoned rest stops amidst patches of wilderness form a zone that Frida nicknames “the afterlife.” Frida also uses this phrase—the afterlife—as a measure of time, to designate the months that she and Cal have spent in isolation, bereft of the comfort of routines and rituals. Odd or unreliable indicators of time and space abound in Lepucki’s novel. After Frida intuits that she might be pregnant, she and Cal venture out of their encampment in search of other survivors and meet a character named August. Micah, Frida’s brother and Cal’s former roommate, used to tease Cal, shorthand for Calvin, by calling him California. In Lepucki’s nomenclature, the afterlife labels both a space and a time, August a time and a character, and California a space and a character. As they double, these concepts lose their purchase, their value as benchmarks. Disorientation prevails.

Many factors, some of which are only vaguely evoked, explain the social decline that serves as California’s premise. Commodities and services, like gas, contraceptives, or the Internet, become too expensive. Climate change intensifies. Cal’s mother, for instance, dies in a massive snowstorm that decimates Cleveland. As institutions collapse, a rise in religiosity comes to tint civil unrest. Suicide bombings become common occurrences—a morbid trend whose instigator is widely believed to be Micah.

Yet, Lepucki is less interested in recounting “what went wrong” than in exploring the narrative possibilities offered by American society after its decline. A disquieting passage firmly embeds the novel in a future beyond history as we know it. Following their encounter with August, Frida and Cal come across the Miller family. Before he, along with the rest of his clan, dies prematurely in a suspicious poisoning incident, Bo Miller teaches Frida and Cal about their toxic new environs:

Bo explained that experts in the previous century had designed different ways to warn of a site’s danger, so that anyone might understand them: the foreigner, the illiterate, the alien. Large spikes had been one suggestion. In a thousand years, the message had to be clear, so that people understood what had been left there. “For the future,” Bo said, and a thread of ice inched down Cal’s spine. The future had arrived.

Cal and Frida find themselves in a vertiginous position. They have no trouble understanding that they are facing danger. What they lack, however, is the capacity to guard themselves from it. The passage above exhibits one of California’s greatest strengths: its swiftness in translating a large-scale socio-historical tabula rasa into a matter of individual experience. If California is a page-turner, it is not due to some operatic plot about the fate of America or the planet. It is rather due to its skilful construction of an intimate, character-centric drama. We quickly become curious to learn how the characters will acclimate to their setting, or how kinship will deploy itself in a precarious environment.

As Frida and Cal meet additional survivors, we discover the social configuration borne out of the wreckage of capitalism. In this proto-feudalism, more or less porous areas and groups—the Land, the Communities—ensure their sovereignty by erecting fortresses and barricades. The Land, which is the specific group in which Frida and Cal end up, gives its protection mechanism the strangely immaterial and metaphysical name of “Forms.” Groups enact philosophies of their own. These are spiritualized blends of political hierarchies, labour practices, and eugenic policies. Lepucki, equipped with tongue-in-cheek, anachronistic humour (she writes, for example, of a man that he “shrugged like a dad in a sitcom”), gives these philosophies a resolutely yuppie flavour. Characters speak of their group’s “brand” and affirm, without a hint of self-awareness, “We value leisure time here, … and the boredom of a slow life.”

Despite its quasi-parodic moments, California remains rather conservative in its emotional range. For the majority of their novel, Frida and Cal oscillate between two affective positions: paranoia and relief. Paranoia, the fear of a total system, intensifies as the protagonists are encouraged, and choose, to keep certain information secret from each other. Offered access to confidential meetings on the Land, Cal fantasizes about the possibility of grasping the “big picture”—that is, until he starts doubting the existence of such a holistic logic:

Wasn’t that, in the end, what he wanted? To discover how this place worked—not just its outward system of organization but its inward, private one as well? Its secret machinations, the strings that gestured the puppet. Who was the puppet, though? Maybe it wasn’t all that sinister. Frida was probably right; he was descending into paranoia.

The panoptical intimacy of the characters, simultaneously observing and being observed, provides no guarantee of emotional transparency. Even in California’s slower chapters, the paranoid structure that governs the novel thus affords its fair share of suspense.

Relief, in its rare manifestations, takes the shape of a provisional ability to inhale and exhale. In California, relief is a brief hiatus from the fear that otherwise organises the characters’ quotidian existence, a taste of the “painless life” to which they aspire. Breathing analogies profuse. Even bread loaves are “warm as breathing bodies” and “[inflate] like lungs.” While the omnipresence of references to breathing and the breath initially annoys, it successfully conveys the entrapment or lack of air that typifies Lepucki’s dystopia. Her figures of style are not subtle, but they are efficacious.

Not subtle, but efficacious: a similar diagnosis applies to some of the more peripheral plot elements. Case in point: Frida carries with her a turkey baster throughout the first half of the story, but refuses to tell Cal. When Cal finds out about the object, Frida claims that she kept it for herself as a means to prevent him from “using” it. The message, about the soothing properties of triviality in the midst of insecurity, is slightly overstated. But, it deserves to be said, the inflated symbolism of the turkey baster does not distract from a narration that is otherwise limpid and astute. With California, Lepucki incepts a dense, palpable universe, holds it together, and, in doing so, offers a sharp ethnography of human behaviour in the wake of catastrophes.

Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a PhD student in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. His research interests include the narrative and aesthetic purchase of somatic phenomena like breathing in contemporary U.S. fiction.

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Between a Dandy and a Soldier Mon, 24 Nov 2014 00:10:50 +0000 saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki saki” “saki notes—munro’s saki’s saki “saki saki” notes—munro’s Emily Anderson

Brian Gibson
Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro
Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2014
296 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7864-7949-8

The First World War is one of the last subjects that might be associated with humorous literature. Laughter usually has to be prompted by something, like a joke by a favourite comedian or an unexpectedly slapstick moment. And there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely funny, remotely capable of provoking amusement, attached to the events of the Great War. When we think of literary representations of the war, both Rupert Brooke’s patriotic sonnets and Wilfrid Owen’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s solemn, anti-elegiac portrayals of front line horrors come to mind. Their poems, though largely published after the war and, in the case of Brooke and Owen, posthumously, have been hugely influential in shaping how the war has been imagined and remembered.

Yet for those who were directly involved in the war and for subsequent generations of writers, humour was an important way of approaching and attempting to make sense of the conflict. Many soldiers on active service contributed to and read trench newspapers, which were full of jokes about, and satires of, their everyday lives in the fighting. Today, the poignant ending of Blackadder Goes Forth remains so moving in part because the characters “going over the top” contrasts sharply with the laughter they have previously been eliciting, trading on the absurdity and futility of life in the trenches. And significant to the ways in which humour has been used to convey the experience of the Great War are the profound alternations the conflict made to the work of one of the most popular comic writers of the Edwardian age: H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pseudonym of Saki.

Munro joined the army in 1914, despite being five years older than the required age, and was eventually killed in 1916 during the Battle of the Ancre, near Beaumont-Hamel. The short stories he wrote about the conflict had a touch of the witty, satirical, and subversive tone that had made him famous in the pre-war period, but what fascinates many critics about Munro, and what also fascinates Brian Gibson about him, is the apparent lack of connection between his earliest writing and his work and actions surrounding the war. It’s hard to reconcile the Munro who was an author who produced cheeky, camp satires, often adopting dandiacal narrators, and who created characters who undermined the status quo, with the Munro who volunteered as a solider—he could have been a commissioned officer—at the outbreak of the war, having encouraged others to do likewise in his relatively serious novel, When William Came (1913).

Gibson frames this strange gap between humorist and soldier as one between “Munro and Saki”, between the man and his authorial persona. His premise is that biographers and critics should not attempt to infer information about Munro through the works of Saki. As Gibson rather effectively puts it, “Munro consistently tried to separate himself from Saki; he did so by taking a pen name.” However Gibson rightly resists the temptation to treat Saki and Munro as entirely unrelated entities. He develops a model of analysis according to which Munro, who was part of an upper class, conservative, London-based society, adopted the persona of Saki to create humorous portrayals of that society and its mores. For Gibson, Saki’s work is characterised by a concept he calls “dependent dissidence.” Saki relied on the world of Munro for its humour, just as Munro relied on Saki to distance himself from being ostracised by the same society he so often satirised.

In When William Came, Munro created a work that was a “co-opting and repudiation” of the kinds of effete, outrageous, male, Wildean characters he had (as Saki) previously championed. These rebellious figures were sacrificed in “the name of a militant masculinity.” Gibson links Munro’s quelling of Saki’s dissent with his eventual death “for the very nationalistic, heteronormative, bourgeois establishment” that he had once lampooned via his comic persona. There is certainly much to be said for such an argument. In his invasion novel, Munro imagines the kinds of social butterflies that seemingly delighted Saki as sitting back and doing nothing as German forces invade Britain—and gives such inaction a highly negative inflection.

Whilst this, Gibson’s overarching argument, is largely convincing, some of his readings of individual stories are a little too ingenious to be entirely plausible. A good example is his analysis of “Gabriel Ernest”, a tale in which a country gentleman, Van Cheele, and his sister take in an adolescent boy who turns out to be a werewolf. The eponymous Gabriel Ernest is initially described in a sexualised manner, with Saki’s narrator suggesting that Van Cheele is highly embarrassed by his languid, nude pose. Van Cheele later realises that Gabriel is a supernatural beast, but decides against warning his sister via a telegram (“Gabriel Ernest is a werewolf”) in case she assumes it is some kind of code. Gibson suggests that Van Cheele’s embarrassment signals a suppressed attraction to Gabriel, and takes his hesitation as a sly joke on Saki’s part, as a hint that the boy’s hidden nature is a coded message for his homosexual appeal.

Such an interpretation of the story is innovative, and convincing up to a point. But by looking for evidence of (what was, at the time) subversive sexuality in Saki’s work, Gibson interleaves an aspect of Munro’s life—his homosexuality—in Saki’s work. Such a practice surely violates the practice of bifurcating “Saki-Munro” that Gibson earlier advocated, namely, failing to realise gaps between the man and the persona.

Similarly problematic are Gibson’s occasional attempts to examine Munro’s character based on scant biographical information. He claims, for instance, that the author’s enlistment at the start of the First World War represented both an attempt to deny effeminacy, by joining the ranks of imperial manliness, and an admission of same-sex masculinity “that edges into homosocial- and emasculation-anxiety.” Munro could well have had such motivations, whether consciously or otherwise, but it is highly speculative to make such assertions given that—as Gibson himself notes—Munro’s sister burnt his personal papers, leaving scholars with no evidence of his emotional or personal life.

Despite such breaches, Gibson’s work is an illuminating and refreshingly original review of the ways in which Saki’s writing engaged with Munro’s society. For, whilst all authors are perhaps products of their time, few have offered such vivid and amusing sketches of a particular period and place. Gibson’s efforts should also be viewed as welcome attention to an author who was very much a writer of the Great War, but whose work has not entered the canon of “war literature.” In this, the centenary year of the conflict’s commencement, it is surely fitting to expand our understanding of the Great War in as many ways as possible, including reassessments of the writing that surrounded it.

Munro’s eagerness to serve his nation in 1914 suggests that, for all the jokes he made at the expense of his society, he was deeply committed to its protection. In this respect, we might be tempted to find an apt description of the humorist himself in his description of Courtenay Youghal in The Unbearable Bassington: “behind his careful political flippancy and cynicism one might also detect a certain careless sincerity.” Yes, Saki took great satisfaction from creating characters who scandalised the sometimes prim and often frivolous groups of which Munro was a part. But behind his cutting humour one senses a deep affection for the people and the nation on which he based his work. By focusing on the space between Munro’s flippancy and sincerity, therefore, Gibson illuminates a key tension in Munro’s work.

In a strangely fitting twist of fate for the man who once wrote that he hated “posterity—it’s so fond of having the last word,” there is scarcely a volume about Munro in which his final utterance is not quoted. An instant before he was shot by a sniper, he exclaimed, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” If it is the business of critics to be always manipulating the “last words” on the literature and writers they analyse, then the year 2014 is an apposite moment in which to explore how Munro’s last utterance, the keen soldier’s shout, connects with those of the dandy in Saki’s short stories.

Emily Anderson plans to begin her DPhil in English at Oxford in 2015. Her research is on humorous literature of the First World War.

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Weekly Round-Up: Sacred Spouses, Sympathetic Censors, Anonymous Activists, Revolutionary Nudes, Suspicious Suicides, Intriguing Inscriptions Fri, 21 Nov 2014 13:29:18 +0000 censors nudes inscriptions snyder censors nudes inscriptions The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Joel Baden and Candida Moss: ‘The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife’“, The Atlantic: following a sensational conference lecture by scholar Karen L. King, theological institutions have been shaken by the suggestion that a small papyrus fragment claiming that Jesus had a wife may be authentic. The fragment, the size of a credit card, could change the standing of women in the church, as Christ appears to claim that Mary Magdalene, his wife, can be counted amongst the disciples. “For the most part, the texts and narratives that support the notion of female discipleship come from outside the traditional canon—no surprise, really, given that the canonical New Testament was assembled long after Jesus’s death by a male-led Church.” The traditional hierarchies of the resolutely patriarchal church may be slipping.

2. “Timothy Snyder: ‘Sympathy for Censorship’“, Prospect Magazine: in his review of Robert Darnton’s Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature, Snyder celebrates the author’s wonderful talent for creating coherent narratives from discrete historical sources. This work is, Snyder suggests, a supreme example of narrative history, and so complete in its overview that it stands as an encouraging challenge to the very forces of censorship which it examines. However, the book has an interesting tension, namely its author’s attitude to some of the censors: “Darnton, a leading historian of the west and director of one of the world’s finest libraries, is among the last people one might suspect of a deep engagement with censorship or a sympathy with its practitioners.”

3. “Adrian Chen: ‘The Truth about Anonymous’s Activism’“, The Nation: Chen chronicles the rise of a new kind of techno-utopianism, spearheaded by the hacktivist collective Anonymous. While sections of the media have been keen to laud the work of this politically engaged group, cracks in the image are beginning to emerge, and tales of harassment and error are being increasingly associated with Anonymous. Demonstrating many reactionary values, “the members of Anonymous barge into issues they know nothing about and proceed with the only logic they understand—believing, as Coleman does, that their position as a technological elite gives them an innate political ability.”

4. “Alexi Worth: ‘The Invention of Clumsiness’“, The Cabinet: the Victorian eye struggled with photographed nudes; their bodies seemed ungainly when compared with the idealised nudes of much painting. However, as the eyes accustomed to the shock, these photographs began a revolution which taught a new appreciation of the imperfections of the human form. It was the old engravings which now seemed clumsy and naïve: this was “a historical watershed: the moment when photographs defamiliarized the art of the past.’ And painting would have to change to keep up.

5. “Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith: ‘NCIS: Provence: The Van Gogh Mystery’“, Vanity Fair: like the final pages of a good whodunit, the authors lead the reader through the myriad clues and innuendoes which have led them to the startling conclusion that Van Gogh did not, in fact, kill himself, but was murdered. Representatives of the art world are keen to reject this theory, as it does not accord so well with the image of the tortured artist which they so cherish. While undeniably exciting as an alternative, the traditional explanation will be hard to shift: “the suicide is more or less printed in the brains of past and present generations and has become a sort of self-evident truth.”

6. “Theodore Dalrymple: ‘Eternal Youth, Eternal Kitsch’“, The New English Review: Dalrymple, with a frankness which may seem to border on insensitivity at moments, considers the inscriptions in discarded books. “I am wholly in agreement with this: there is nothing quite like an inscription in a book no longer owned by the dedicatee to capture the melancholy, the bittersweetness, of the passage of time, to recall us to our own mortality and to remind us of the vanity of so much of what preoccupies us.” With confidence, he offers his readings of the individuals that wrote these inscriptions, and of the fates which the relationships may have met given the books’ discarding.


If you would like to suggest a link, please email Benedict Morrison

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Short Form Thu, 20 Nov 2014 23:26:07 +0000 shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts shorts—sometimes shorts Benedict Morrison

Oxford Broadcasting Association screening of short films by students
Phoenix Picturehouse
Sunday 23 November


Even more than the short story, the short film is a form that can be difficult to get to grips with. The reasons for this difficulty are numerous, amongst them the relatively little exposure audiences have to short films; cinemas are generally reluctant to programme anthologies of shorter pieces. In addition, many short films are made as apprentice pieces, seen as necessary steps along the path towards “real” filmmaking rather than ends in themselves. These shorts are often like mini-features, with narratives too frenetic for the timeframe and characters too ambitiously complicated. Such shorts rarely work, and at best become, with hindsight, only interesting evidences of the first glimmers of a director’s style.

However, when the short film is handled by a skilled practitioner, the result can be heady. The uncanny animations of Jan Švankmajer, the riots of colour and movement of Norman McLaren, the abstract visual music of Oskar Fischinger, the avant-gardism of Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage: these all but dispense with narrative and conventional characterisation and, instead, delight in formal play, allowing rhythm and structure to create affect. Despite this luminous heritage, dispensing with usually-trite narratives is not easy for the short filmmaker today. Most readily available advice for those taking their first steps in filmmaking places the emphasis squarely on story. Festivals—the only chance of distribution for most shorts—sometimes seem to privilege films whose narratives make them easy to group in neat thematic bundles. Formal experimentation seems to be low on the list of programmers’ priorities.

On 23 November at the Phoenix Picturehouse, the Oxford Broadcasting Association will be screening nine shorts by student filmmakers from across the University. The shorts are predominantly narrative, and some of the stories do suffer from perhaps attempting too much in the short time allotted them. Subjects as substantial as grief and guilt are handled with energy and commitment, but they feel less developed than they would in a longer work. However, where the shorts on display flare into real life is in their handling of form and style. The radical improvement in the accessibility of sophisticated equipment has revolutionised amateur filmmaking, and these shorts look wonderful; light, colour, tone, and texture become real concerns, and they are generally handled expertly. What is especially impressive is the way in which narrative concerns are both pre-empted and completed by formal technique.

Waterbird by Alexander Darby presents violent and disturbing tensions. Formally, these tensions are played out in a striking (and unresolved) dialectic rhythm which oscillates between wider, static shots of composed symmetry and restless, hand-held closer shots. This pattern—privileging integrated space and synecdochic detail by turns—sings the conflict which can only be touched on by the short narrative. This montage, predicated on conflict, is enhanced by the disrupted linearity of the film’s structure, gloriously suggested by the insertion of extradiegetic water shots, whose beautifully captured fluidity speaks of the work’s overall impression of flux and ambiguity. This sense of shifting meanings is shared with Darby’s other entry in the programme, The Wishing Horse, an account of a family bereavement. The film begins with one of its many sublime landscape shots, capturing the Wiltshire hills magnificently. From there, it shifts its interest to domestic mise-en-scène, which it records just as skilfully. While the story of reconciliation may seem rather tritely over-resolved, it is a judiciously placed cut in the final moments which suggests a more complicated emotional relationship between the film’s protagonists. The film shares with Waterbird an interest in confessional monologue, but here it is subtler, with a thoughtful and disturbingly unexplained voiceover. At moments, the lighting is a little overstated, but this is more than atoned for by the subtly pervasive almost-symmetries of the film’s structure and shot composition, intelligently echoing the family’s almost-symmetry after the loss of one of its members.

Perhaps even more satisfying is Stray by Sophie Russell. Helped immeasurably by the presence of the wonderful Siân Phillips—whose voice can make any dialogue sing—the film uses light and colour not simply to create a context for performance but to do important thematic work. The violent chiaroscuros of the early nocturnal scenes speak of the internal divisions and ethical tensions of the protagonist. This aesthetic is starkly juxtaposed with the hazy illuminations of the interior daytime scenes, in which streams of light catch motes of dust in a delicate haze, capturing both the dry decay of the house (another bereaved home) and the possibility of redemption. Spaces are alive with refracting windows and reflecting mirrors, and image is complicated by contact with its own distorted self. Characterisation—a vertiginous network of duplicity, compassion, loss, hope, selfishness, kindness—becomes a function of light, colour, and image. In a film so short, this is a major achievement.

Only a selection of films were available for preview, but there is every reason to suppose that this will be a great event. All money from admissions will go into funding future student film projects. And, with its ambitious plans to fund five to seven films per year, the OBA may be relied upon to go on with its work of transforming the film landscape in Oxford.

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Editor of ORbits at the Oxonian Review.

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Photo of the Week: Magdalen Water Meadows Wed, 19 Nov 2014 11:51:52 +0000 klopse vinesh rajpaul minstrel kaapse jaar nuwe tweede Vinesh Rajpaul


This term, we are featuring photographs by Vinesh Rajpaul, an Oxford student originally from South Africa, who spends much of his free time pursuing his passion for photography. Details of his work and competition successes can be found on his website.

This photograph shows trees reflected in the flooded Water Meadow at Magdalen College in Oxford. The ways in which a landscape can seem entirely rewritten by flooding is beautifully suggested in the delicately rippled textures of the image. The unexpected nature of the angle from which the trees are viewed adds to this estranging effect. The monochrome picture captures the velvet textures of the water, at once frightening and startlingly lovely.

If you have a photo to submit, please email Benedict Morrison.

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A Fistful of Solitude Tue, 18 Nov 2014 18:21:42 +0000 qasmiyeh yousif fistful head dying solitude unsullied prefix qasmiyeh yousif fistful head dying solitude unsullied prefix qasmiyeh yousif fistful head dying solitude unsullied prefix qasmiyeh yousif fistful head dying solitude unsullied prefix qasmiyeh yousif fistful head dying solitude unsullied prefix Yousif M. Qasmiyeh


The face is dying, the face that sees everything but cannot see. The face that sees that it is dying so it can die. The face that is dead, not now, not later, but in the instant that precedes the above.


The be is there. And there is nothing as the head falls by the feet. It is the same head that was once attached to that tree. The head that keeps looking down to see what is about to become. The be is there, a stone’s throw from the head and the tree.


It is my head and the head of the Other next to me. Can you not see death fast approaching?


The head is still the same, its own head, unsullied and fresh beyond belief.


It is my head that fell, and so did his eyes as they saw their dying.


The image that was still in the vicinity was as it should be, blurry, soundless and red.


That night I spoke to Lévinas. His face was rounder than mine and with only one eye to witness the encounter we decided, of our own volition, to look each other in the eye.


We will begin, as we are, both of us, with a fistful of solitude.


And if I were there, in their place, in their heads, I would adjust his slightly to the right without leaving a trace or causing any pain.


The prefix is above all a guest who betrays.

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh is a poet and translator who teaches Arabic at the Oxford University Language Centre. His poetry has been published in Modern Poetry in Translation and Critical Quarterly..

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