The Oxonian Review Fri, 21 Nov 2014 13:33:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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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Weekly Round-Up: Online Reading, Minority Theories, New Books, Censored Speech, Changed Minds, Vampiric Poets Fri, 14 Nov 2014 07:43:32 +0000 giraldi Žižek’s Žižek The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Keith Gessen: ‘The War of the Words’“, Vanity Fair: Amazon is rapidly tarnishing its reputation as the saviour of the book industry. Gessen considers how Amazon helped shape the world of publishing, and how it may continue to shape the future of reading. He explores the crisis moment when “discovery was becoming the biggest problem in publishing”, and how sites like Amazon introduced the notion of shop window recommendations to online life.

2. “Terry Eagleton: ‘Like Socrates on Steroids’“, The Guardian: Eagleton reviews two recent books by Slavoj Žižek, Theory’s greatest pop star. Eagleton draws fascinating—and unexpected—parallels between the Slovenian theorist and Oscar Wilde, describing both as instinctive debunkers, wielders of humour as a weapon in the assault on the assumptions of dominant nations. The review probes the ways in which we should approach Žižek’s writing: as frivolous performance? as sincere political statement? Either way, the theorist is certainly a fascinating figure: “Stentorian, faintly manic and almost impossible to shut up, Žižek is a man who gets out of bed talking about psychoanalysis and steps back into it holding forth on Zionism.”

3. “Tim Parks: ‘Why Read New Books?’“, The New York Review of Books: Parks provides a salutary reminder of the delights of reading new fiction. Citing Woolf, he argues that the reading process is enhanced when freed from limiting received opinion. Without established readings, new novels are free to affect us in any imaginable way. But that is not to say that new novels are easy. “The excitement of tackling the new novel that dares to recount the contemporary scene is always galvanized by these questions: How is it that someone sharing my world wrote this book that I perhaps find strange and difficult?”

4. “John O’ Sullivan: ‘No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech’“, The Wall Street Journal: a brief but impassioned account of the gradual erosion of free speech in American and Britain, where shifts in the law have been passed to protect groups (especially religious groups) from hurtful speech. Those groups, O’Sullivan suggests, must defend their views without recourse to legal censorship. “The U.S. and Britain have long thought of themselves as, above all, free countries. If that identity continues to atrophy, free speech will be the first victim. But it will not be the last.”

5. “‘What Book Changed Your Mind?’“, The Chronicle of Higher Education: twelve scholars, from various fields, are asked to identify the non-fiction books from the past thirty years which have most substantially changed their minds. The fascinating list includes works on the origin of consciousness, Southeast Asian anarchy, and the advancement of women. Some of the scholars write with great passion. Others are more modest in their claims for their chosen titles: “No nonfiction books in the past 30 years have transformed me. Some have taught me things, made me hold their authors in deep respect (Bartlett, Bynum). Some have moved me greatly (some of the better soldier memoirs). But knocked me off my horse on the way to Damascus? Nope.’

6. “William Giraldi: ‘Edgar Allan Poe Was a Vampire’“, The New Republic: D.H. Lawrence asserted that not just a writer about vampires, Poe was a vampire himself. In his review of Jerome McGann’s biography of the great American writer, Giraldi says that he takes Lawrence’s point. “You take it because that’s what you most love about Edgar Poe: his creepiness, his otherness, his charismatic diabolism.” But, more importantly, Giraldi also argues that Poe was modern in his conviction that poetry is not a repository for ideas but an event in language, inspiring poets from Baudelaire to Pound with a new idea of the central importance of the forms of verse as subject of poetry.


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

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From Scooby-Doo to Strawberry Hill Thu, 13 Nov 2014 21:03:38 +0000 Matilda Bathurst

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
The British Library
From 3 October 2014 to 20 January 2015

For the comedian Tim Minchin, there is no better guard dog against superstition than that steadfast defender of enlightenment values, Scooby-Doo. In Storm, a series of vitriolic verses attacking the fluffy excesses of faith in favour of the advances of science, Minchin attempts to unmask the “cheap, man-made myths and monsters” dreamt up by hippies and homeopaths—in much the same way that Scooby and his flare-wearing friends unmask dodgy janitors and party-trick hypnotists posing as ghouls, werewolves, and zombies.

As demonstrated in a new exhibition at the British Library, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, those moustachioed rogues are directly descended from the manipulative monks of early Gothic fiction. Texts such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho (1794) established the trope of the “explained supernatural”, blending mock-medieval romance with a touch of the realism of the novel. The resulting genre was a thoroughly modern take on medievalism, tales which could be enjoyed from the comfort of a drawing room, preferably with a couple of cobwebs in the corner.

Dredged up from the darkest recesses of its collection, the British Library brings us prized artefacts ranging from early manuscripts of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jane Eyre, to an account of a Gothic pageant held in honour of the artist Henry Fuseli—the mind behind The Nightmare (1781), who reportedly ate raw pork to fuel his fevered imagination. A healthy proportion of the exhibition is given over to the sexual excesses of the genre (with fewer petit-mort puns than might have been expected), and due attention is given to Gothic fashion, children’s literature, comic books, and pamphlet penny dreadfuls.

Following the standards set by Strawberry Hill, that Gesamtkunstwerk of a Gothic Revival villa where Horace Walpole dreamt up The Castle of Otranto (1764), the exhibition creates its own elaborately staged Gothic world. Flimsy black shrouds connect a series of labyrinthine rooms, spiralling into one another to create disorientating dead ends; every step is accompanied by background patter from various film projections, echoing around the exhibition on a torturous loop. The theatricality is further emphasised by various props scattered around the exhibition, acting as counterweights to the shifting, slippery power of words. It’s hard not to marvel at Dr Dee’s obsidian spirit mirror, an eerie relic from the Elizabethan age and the prize of Walpole’s collection. On the other hand, nothing could be as absurd as a spic-and-span vampire slaying kit, or a mawkish Victorian alarm clock featuring a grinning skeleton astride a kitschy coffin.

The Gothic is perhaps best appreciated from backstage, where we can admire the cords and pulleys, the intricate mechanisms which combine to create a satisfactory impression of the supernatural: convincing enough to hold our attention, fake enough to flatter our intelligence. Yet beyond all the knowing exposure lurks something far more disturbing: those moments when the shock of the real reduces Gothic tropes to a collection of horror-house gimmicks.

Discussing the effects of tragedy in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), Edmund Burke made the famous claim that no theatrical performance could ever compete with the lure of a public execution, the horrors of reality experienced in the flesh. Decades later, Burke was one of the first to condemn the brutal excesses of the French Revolution, while the reading public of Britain were baying for blood. The Gothic form adapted accordingly, moving away from a focus on natty interior design choices and pleasant play-acting and towards a literary incarnation of a Terror which was all too real. Readers found their fix in the salacious, semi-satirical sadism of texts like Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796), where bleeding spectral nuns, matricide, mob-violence and rape provided a suitable substitute for the atrocities across the channel.

In banishing the Gothic to the domain of the imagination, we are perhaps denying some of the more troubling elements of the human condition—something more sinister than the undying appeal of hunky high school vampires. The exhibition has little time for such dismal thoughts, and concludes with Martin Parr’s dazzling photographs of this year’s Whitby Goth Weekend. Though clearly intended as candid portrayals of individual characters, the result is uncomfortably reminiscent of a freak show. A couple in full mourning pose coquettishly for the camera. A lone witch prongs a greasy chip on a rainswept harbour front. There is no sense of empathy here; the high-res brightness only makes the characters appear more detached. A series of masks.

All in all, the show is a vast, elaborate romp, coloured by a slight cynicism even as it celebrates the power of the human imagination. It closes with a credit to Farrow & Ball, the source of various lugubrious shades of Pitch Black and Rectory Red, but the words of Tim Minchin might also have made a suitable epitaph:

Throughout history
Every mystery
Ever solved has turned out to be
Not Magic.

But what about the mysteries which remain unsolved? Can the post-medieval Gothic ever be expressed without cynicism, in “good faith”? One such example is Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-7)—a vast canvas housed at Tate Britain, in which a peaceful country graveyard suddenly swarms with the activity of the dead rising. The imagery is pure Hammer Horror, yet the mood is informed by the irrefutable truth of faith. The quality of paint is all about solidity, and the figures help one another out of their coffins with everyday ease. For Spencer this is precisely what the resurrection would look like taking place in his home of Cookham, and the archetype of the risen corpse is Christ. Perhaps this painting goes some way to reconcile our uncomfortable relationship with the Gothic, a celebration of spiritual authenticity which is far from flamboyant forgeries or the delights of horror held at arm’s length. Such a sense of authenticity could hardly be less fashionable. But perhaps there’s some truth in it.

Matilda Bathurst is is a freelance journalist and copywriter.

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Photo of the Week: Kaape Klopse Wed, 12 Nov 2014 11:18:53 +0000 jaguar vinesh rajpaul benefitting robustly panther midday leopard 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.

Vinesh says about this photo: This image depicts a scene from the annual Kaapse Klopse minstrel procession in Cape Town, South Africa. The celebrations originated during the 19th century, when slaves in the Cape got a day off on the 2nd January (not on 1st, of course, when they had many duties in the households of their masters) and were allowed to celebrate the New Year as they pleased. Since then, the Tweede Nuwe Jaar festival has served as a reminder of the city’s history of slavery, and has brought together people from all walks of life in a celebration of diversity, song, and dance.

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

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Balancing Acts Tue, 11 Nov 2014 08:37:44 +0000 sandra’s sandra dardennes’ dardennes sandra’s sandra dardennes’ dardennes James Searle

Two Days, One Night
Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Les Films de Fleuve, Archipel 35, BIM Distribuzione, Eyeworks Film

The Dardenne brothers have long held a reputation in world cinema for mastery of a naturalistic style which allows an unpatronising, unsensational account of life at the margins of society. Their uncompromising handling of sensitive topics has earned them the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival twice, a rare feat. Their latest film, however, appears to be very different. Two Days, One Night runs against their traditional preference for loose, slowly building narratives. Instead, it has a high-concept premise, seemingly designed for ease of marketing. Indeed, the title itself provides the film with a clear timeline and built-in tension right from the start; the exact stakes may be initially unclear, but someone has two days and one night to succeed in something.

Although the task in question, when it is revealed, echoes the Dardennes’ earlier interest in unemployment (explored in their film Rosetta), the sense of countdown to disaster provided by the title gives the film a narrative urgency seemingly at odds with the naturalistic steadiness of their earlier work. Sandra (Marion Cottilard), an employee at a solar panel factory, takes time off work following a nervous breakdown. During Sandra’s absence, her employers discover that, if the other members of staff work slightly longer hours, the factory is just as productive. The factory therefore offers the other employees a choice: either Sandra returns and things go on as before, or she is made redundant and her former colleagues each receive €1,000 in exchange for the extra hours. The film spans the weekend—the two days, one night—during which Sandra must convince her old colleagues to sacrifice their bonuses to have her back. This change in style and pace make the film—and especially the first half hour—an alarming watch for a fan of the Dardennes. When the presence of an internationally recognisable star in the lead role is added to the marketable premise, the impression that the directors have sold out is almost irresistible. In an attempt to appeal to a mass audience—with the excitement of an emotionally disturbed heroine who has one weekend to save her job—the Dardennes seem to have given up their distinctive and admirable resistance to the lure of the mainstream.

However, the film is more subtle than the choices of title, premise, and star may suggest. Along with elements of the film’s design, they form a complex network of cultural signifiers which interrogate the audience’s judgement. Sandra’s photogenic family, charming clothes, and luxurious house are more impressive than those of the colleagues she visits, and she seems to eat out surprisingly frequently; the only meal we see her cook over the weekend is a dessert. Cotillard’s famous face and thoughtful, lived-in performance make it easy to sympathise with Sandra. As the film closely documents her triumphs and defeats, it becomes a barometer of the audience’s own prejudices. Knowing that the question of who deserves the money underpins all of the action, the Dardennes use these cultural signifiers (including the trappings of high-concept cinema) to probe the audience’s prejudices. The film is aware (without being overly pointed) that Sandra’s keeping of her job would not be an unqualified happy ending, but it remains a seductive option, given the allure of her more glamorous life.

The tight premise of the film, rather than evidence of selling out, creates a world bound to the rules of zero-sum economics: there is a pot of money and employment and the only way to get more is to take it away from others. When the world is viewed in a zero sum way, with people competing against each other to lay claim to a scarce number of jobs, every decision is fraught with the knowledge that to give something to one person is to take something away from another. The Dardennes frame a situation in which the audience cannot avoid deciding who deserves privilege based on little more than a snapshot of the lives involved, which in turn encourages us to use our prejudices to fill in the gaps. It is the film’s very nods to commercial cinema which permit this timely interrogation of the inequalities inherent in our society and the bias which motivates the decisions concerning who will receive. The premise creates a situation where every decision becomes a trade-off. The question of who deserves the money more underlies every conversation between Sandra and her colleagues. The pressure on Sandra from her husband to succeed is impossibly weighed up against the situation of a father already working a second job to make ends meet. The callousness inherent in zero sum economics is manifested in the scene in which Sandra asks him to give up the bonus he was planning to spend on gas bills. The odds are stacked against him by the cultural signifiers which make her the film’s inevitable heroine.

The film subtly introduces these ideas at the level of subtext alone, which is what makes its climax so exhilarating. In the final ten minutes of the film, Sandra begins to reject the zero sum rules that the premise enforces upon her, finding a victory that empowers her colleagues rather than taking anything away from them. The resulting catharsis is like a weight you are not quite aware of suddenly being lifted; the tight bonds of the narrative fall away and normal life returns. The film suggests that to be better off is to question the rules that bind us, remembering that a win for one does not have to be a loss for another. The film’s title, pitchable concept, and star presence seem oppressive, and that is what they are: the imbalanced weighting of the odds against the marginalised characters. However, in an affirming gesture, the narrative ultimately denies the inevitability of its own heroine’s personal triumph, and introduces a kind of equality. Two Days, One Night is far more than a grasp at international success. In fact, the Dardennes use the premise to demonstrate that the judgement and prejudice, which are inevitable when we view the world in a zero-sum way, are not the only possibility.

James Searle completed his MPhil in European Politics and Society at St Anne’s College in 2013. He holds a B.A. in PPE from Brasenose College.

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The Elephant in the Room Mon, 10 Nov 2014 00:50:39 +0000 oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven oasis’ oasis “oasis’ oasis edge—niven Harry Stopes

Definitely Maybe
Alex Niven
Definitely Maybe (33 1/3)
Bloomsbury, 2014
144 pages
ISBN: 9781623564230

Alex Niven opens Definitely Maybe, his book about Oasis’ debut album and the culture that made it, by saying that the band was “mostly popularly loved, mostly critically scorned.” That’s a fair assessment (though a lot of non-critics hate them too), but it’s not the end of the story, as Niven makes clear. In the mid-1990s Oasis were massive. They were front page news, the most potent symbols of a popular mood that seemed to promise not just the rejection of Thatcherism but its electoral annihilation. You couldn’t get away from them, even if you wanted to. (I didn’t, at the time). Their significance must be greater than that opening aphorism would imply.

In his last book, Folk Opposition (Zero Books, 2011), Niven argued that the contemporary left has largely abandoned any effort to speak to, or for, a mass of people sharing a common culture. At the same time, while some parts of postwar popular culture were always created in a semi-commercial context (television, for instance), now even more popular practices like music and football have been transformed by the neo-liberal project. In response to this shift the left has not articulated any sort of resistance rooted in mass identity—the “folk opposition” for which Niven would wish—but has instead retreated into a kind of Fabianism, detached from, and rather scornful of, popular culture. If the left is to find any kind of mass appeal it needs to start by reclaiming populism from the far right.

Such a project would necessarily entail taking popular culture seriously; in his examination of Oasis, Niven shows how this might work. He sets out to find, in “the most apparently banal, ordinary, hackneyed phenomenon of the last 20 years”, some previously missed clues that might explain why “populism has disappeared from pop music” and why “we don’t seem to have made any real artistic or social progress since the 1990s.” In a sense then, though he never says so explicitly, this book can be thought of as a sequel to his last.

Niven sticks close to the songs, mostly discussing the tracks in the order in which they appear on the album. There are digressions though, especially to the B-sides, and the book is divided into four sections titled ‘Earth’, ‘Water’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Air’. Niven uses this loose structure to group his thoughts about the wider political and social context from which Oasis emerged. ‘Earth’ is a discussion of the bands’ roots, both geographical and musical; ‘Water’ refers to the context of the 1990s, when Oasis rode a wave of optimism to wealth and fame; ‘Fire’ examines the anger that infused their music, particularly in this first album; ‘Air’ is broadly about politics.

Given his determination to rescue the band from critical derision, Niven is often on the defensive. Some of this comes over too strongly, detracting from his broader claims about the group’s significance. In the course of a discussion of Oasis’ borrowings from other musicians Niven makes a comparison with early hip hop and the practice of sampling. It’s fair to say that “Oasis’ appropriation of the past was just as valid” as Public Enemy’s, but it’s a stretch to suppose that it was equally successful artistically. We can agree that Oasis were not straightforward plagiarists, without regarding as plausible the claim that their form of cut and paste was as interesting as Public Enemy’s, or its end product as novel.

Niven is on much firmer ground defending Oasis’ lyrics. For a start, he points out, most pop and rock lyrics are basic, internally inconsistent, and even nonsensical. Where popular music lyrics succeed they usually do so as fragments, arresting couplets that function as slogans or, in Niven’s phrase, “verbal graffiti”. Accompanied by the music, lines like “we see things they’ll never see” are more than capable of carrying the song along with them. The point isn’t that Noel Gallagher’s lyrics were as good as Morrissey’s, or even Jarvis Cocker’s, it’s that they weren’t unusually bad. (They’re arguably better, for instance, than those of Kurt Cobain, often regarded as a tortured genius.)

Although the “sampling” analogy is misguided, Niven is good when he examines the musical influences from which the group assembled their styles. While many are inclined to dismiss them as a facsimile of the Beatles, Niven convincingly shows how the band also drew from shoegaze, grunge, acid-house, and punk. Before they later became a derivative cliché of themselves, Niven argues, Oasis produced a music that was vital and contemporary, a clear product of the early 90s. (The only omission in Niven’s list of influences, I feel, is Irish traditional music: the Gallagher’s father, Tommy, was an occasional DJ in South Manchester’s Irish clubs, and Noel’s solos often use the pentatonic scale popular in folk*.)

For all the laddishness that Oasis projected, there’s a strong escapist tone to their music and lyrics. Escape is a recurring theme, and though it’s portrayed as impossible in ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ (which Niven compares to the exhortation in Trainspotting not to “choose life”), it is defiantly and definitively promised in ‘Live Forever’. In many ways Oasis inherited the vague unspecific euphoria of rave, filtered it through a football crowd, and produced a kind of “lad psychedelia”.

Ultimately though, Niven’s argument comes down to politics. Here, as he concedes, the elephant in the room is Tony Blair. Many versions of the story of the 1990s assume an obvious parallel between Blair and Oasis, with Britpop as the state-music of New Labour. Niven denies much of this, pointing out that the band was formed, Definitely Maybe written and recorded, and their first single released, before Blair even became leader of the Labour party. There’s certainly an argument for 1995 as a watershed for both Oasis and the Labour party. But even if Oasis’ euphoric  fellow-feeling had a political edge—Niven quotes Gallagher ascribing an explicitly anti-establishment meaning to ‘Up in the Sky’—it was sufficiently unspecific and stripped of content to render it useable to a charlatan fraud like Blair.

Niven wants us to see Oasis as representing not only a lost past, burned out and pensioned off by 1996, but also as the clue to a possible future, to be excavated from the ruins of that first burst of Mancunian-Irish energy. From the present vantage point such an excavation of the late 80s and early 90s is more urgent than ever. While New Labour might have seemed to promise a more optimistic, open, social-democratic Britain, that moment now appears as merely a brief slowdown in a three (going on four) decade-long project of neoliberalism, powered by the financial services industry and justified by an increasing hatred of the poorest and weakest. Niven sees it is vital that we examine the time between the second summer of love and the Criminal Justice Bill for clues as to what went wrong. Even if he is too kind about their music, Niven is right to identify Oasis as the most culturally central, and in that sense the most important, voice of the period.

* Incidentally, how many great ‘English’ musicians have in fact come from Irish roots? John Lydon, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, John Lennon, to name just a few.

Harry Stopes grew up in Manchester in the 1990s. He is a PhD student in the History department at University College London.

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The Storms that Rise in It Mon, 10 Nov 2014 00:40:27 +0000 gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s gilead—documenting lila lila’s Kristin Grogan

Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
261 pages
ISBN: 9781844088805

“I got feelings I don’t know the names for,” declares Lila Ames, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel. “There probly ain’t any names. Probly nobody else ever had ’em.” Lila, raised as a drifter, feels intensely but cannot articulate her experiences; the fields and the seasons where she has lived and laboured have defined her life far more than words or books. Throughout Lila, Robinson ventures to bring the full complexity of these unnamable emotional experiences to life.

Robinson’s first book, Housekeeping (1980) was quickly—and deservedly—hailed as a classic. She would not write another novel for twenty-four years. Then, a decade ago, Robinson returned to fiction with Gilead. Set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa in the mid-1950s, the novel is a series of reflections written by the elderly Reverend John Ames for his young son as he prepares for death. Ames shares a rare friendship with another preacher, Robert Boughton, whose wayward son Jack has returned to Gilead after twenty years absence, disturbing Ames’s existence. Gilead was followed in 2008 by Home, which told the same events through the point of view of Jack Boughton’s sister, Glory. Robinson can’t quite discard her characters, and Lila is the third novel to be set in Gilead, this time focusing on Ames’s wife who had been a relatively marginal presence in the previous two novels. In her interview with The Paris Review, Robinson confessed to going through a period of mourning for her creations after finishing a novel. “I miss the characters,” she tells us, “I feel sort of bereaved”.  

For Robinson’s faithful readers, returning to Gilead once again is a comforting experience: it is as if, after a six-year absence, we are coming home, back to old friends. But Lila is an independent novel in its own right, and Robinson has crafted a rich new voice and way of viewing—and above all feeling—the world. In Lila, a woman who has been living as a drifter wanders into Gilead. After arriving at the chapel one evening in the pouring rain, she sparks an unlikely romance with the town’s reverend. The novel moves between Lila’s new life in Gilead—documenting her relationship with Ames, her reading of the Bible, her pregnancy—and her wild, impoverished former existence as a drifter. Lila opens with a neglected, under-nourished child being taken by an itinerant woman, Doll, and brought into the drifter lifestyle: a life of hard work in the fields marked by the caprices of the natural world and occasional eruptions of violence. They have no money, no home, no capital; they can survive only by continually selling their labour-power, a struggle during hard times.

Lila Ames is not one of history’s victors. Like so many of Robinson’s characters, Lila has been failed by her country and its economic system. Through the circumstances of her birth and due to more abstract factors like economics and gender, Lila’s life has been one of poverty and oppression. America’s dispossessed is not a new theme for Robinson. Housekeeping traced the experiences of two young girls, Ruth and Lucille, who are left to the care of their drifter aunt, Sylvie, after their mother’s suicide. By the end of the novel, one sister has left the family and entered into a comfortable middle class existence, while the other has become a drifter, lost to the social and economic system. Dispossession appears in Gilead and Home in the form of Jack Boughton, who has lived a life of poverty and experienced some prison time. These are not, however, the obscure and negligible margins of American society. Last year, the poverty rate in the United States sat at 14.5 per cent of the population: that translates to just over 45 million Americans, a fact of which that Robinson is keenly aware.

To be on the periphery of capitalism in America, in Robinson’s novels, is to be on the edges of life itself. In Housekeeping, whose language is infused equally with the narrative techniques of the Old Testament and of fairytales, Ruth understands herself as a spectral, invisible observer of reality. When she finally leaves the town of Fingerbone to join her Aunt Sylvie as a drifter, they burn down their house and are presumed dead. Gone from the system, they simply no longer exist. In Home and Gilead, Jack Boughton’s return to the town of his birth amounts to the resurrection of a spirit. So too is Lila sometimes figured as spectral, existing somewhere on the outskirts of life. Lila “had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all”, and she has only “the likeness of a life”. While working a menial job in St. Louis, Lila’s only encounter with some sort of living community is mediated through another art form, the cinema. At first, Lila describes the experience of watching a film as “dreaming some stranger’s dream,” but soon thinks about her own role as that of a ghost: “they were all ghosts gathered in the dark, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do for them.” Lila, spending her negligible income on tickets to Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks films, becomes a spectral observer of society, as cinema opens the door to a community of helpless ghosts, all observers but not participants.

In the same way, Lila has been cut off from other means of representation, especially written language. Her vocabulary is limited to what she learned in a single year of schooling: her reading and writing are imperfect, she feels things before being able to name her feelings, and, though capable of immense affective intensities, is unable to describe them. But certain words reach even the most disenfranchised and certain ideas still hold power. In the itinerant life, which Lila and her companions pass through, “a whole world of seedy, sunny, raggedy fields with no names to them,” there is “[o]nly that one name, the United States of America.”

Robinson, who lives a mostly solitary life herself, once said that when the character of Ames first came to her—writing Gilead while alone during the holidays in a hotel room—she felt glad for the company. It is no surprise that much of Lila focuses on the experience of loneliness and isolation. Lila and John Ames, Jack and Glory Boughton—the citizens of Gilead—have endured periods of immense loneliness, in a variety of forms. Loneliness is brought about by loss, but it persists when loss is overcome. It lingers even in the early stages of Lila’s marriage, when she feels “just as lonely as she ever had been.” Reading a Robinson novel feels like an encounter with loneliness. An encounter with, but not exactly a negation of: for loneliness is affirmed as an essential part of human experience, “it was just how [Lila’s] body felt.” Space must be made for isolation. “I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone,” Robinson admitted to the Paris Review. But Robinson’s books are also social experiences, and offer encounters with alarmingly individual characters. Literature, Robinson reminds us, is a way of coming into contact with the human. While Lila can observe the faces on a movie screen but, ghost-like, she is still be unable to access the characters in any meaningful way, literature makes possible a much closer encounter with other humans.

A large part of this is due to Robinson’s prose style. In the twenty-four years between Housekeeping and Gilead, Robinson’s prose has matured a great deal. Gone are the long, glittering tropes of Housekeeping (the novel reportedly began as a series of metaphors), with its Old Testament majesty and its dazzling, well-wrought sentences. Instead, Robinson’s mature prose is marked by a more restrained style, by careful, thoughtful expression, and reading her recent fiction is often a meditative experience. Some readers might mourn the shift away from the sublime to the simple, but there are many pay-offs. One result is that the characters are unique, their voices ring out clearly, and, even when Robinson discards her strong first-person voices in favour of the third person, as she does in Home and Lila, we get the sense of proper individuals documenting their experience and thinking straight onto the page; we feel Lila’s voice and her thoughts ripen as she accumulates knowledge and experience.

Lila is at once a new beginning, a homecoming, and a retelling. If Robinson’s fiction has a broader project, it is to articulate the unnamable, to give voice to the complexity and the mystery of consciousness in a way that pure science is largely unable, or unwilling, to do. Robinson guides us through the ways in which her characters attempt to come to terms with the mystery of their being—through Lila’s encounters with the Bible or Ames’s long reflections—and this is part of what gives her novels their contemplative, prayer-like quality. Part of the mystery of the universe, Robinson seems to say, is its inability to be pinned down, or to be felt in the same way by everyone. Consciousness may be shared by all, but it is an irreducibly individual thing. This shifting narrative lens is one way of coming to terms with the novels’s differences in perception. Ames’s recollection of Lila’s proposal to him in Gilead takes place in the splendid rose garden that Lila had been tending, whereas Lila recounts the experience with a great deal more anxiety, and in her version it happens on the road into Gilead, in the shade of the cottonwoods. No two experiences are the same in Robinson’s world; people are, above all, particular.

Robinson’s project is deeply, unashamedly invested in the value of human life. There are few traces of irony in her books and no embarrassment about their own sincerity and emotional ambition. Robinson is unafraid to ask big questions, to think, as Lila does, “about existence, about the great storms that rise in it.” Reading Lila feels like a return to origins, to the great roots of modern American literature, to a Whitmanian tradition that marries social responsibility with cosmic ambition and spiritual wonder. But Robinson discarded her dazzling rhetoric long ago, and Lila’s great achievement is its meditative introspection, its gentle elegance, its maturity. Throughout Lila, John Ames takes great comfort in the daily experience of quiet prayer. Prayer, he reminds Lila, can assume a variety of forms: family, wife, marriage, are all types of prayer. Lila feels like yet another form of prayer: for America and its dispossessed, for literature, for the lonely. Let it comfort us sometimes, too.

Kristin Grogan is a first year DPhil candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labor and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund.

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