The Oxonian Review Tue, 21 Oct 2014 09:13:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 On Some Tacky Portraits of Women Taking Over an Oxford Dining Hall: An Open Letter to Hertford College Tue, 21 Oct 2014 09:13:06 +0000 “hertford hertford hertford’s salary dining “hertford hertford hertford’s salary dining “hertford hertford hertford’s salary dining April Pierce

This academic year, Hertford College will be displaying in their Hall twenty-one portraits of women associated with the college.

First of all, thanks for the tokenism. Really, thanks. As a female student of the University of Oxford, I know how fatiguing it is to spend every meal in the company of dead white males staring down at you with icy, smirking, pasty-faced colonial contempt—a reminder that no matter how hard you try, and no matter how many women have come before you in your field, history (or the Oxford version of it) is against you. It’s fatiguing to read mainly dead white males too, but that’s probably another conversation. Inevitably, in such an atmosphere, your decision to hang twenty-one photographic portraits of women—yes, women—in your hall may appear progressive. But, is it?

Listen: your poorly-framed photographs of women, composed, after all, by a man, and hanging for only a year in your dining hall, are a little distasteful, but not as distasteful as the apparent push to publicise the fact that you put them there in the first place. (Congratulations, by the way, on being “one of the first colleges at Oxford University to admit women for both (that’s both) housing and (yes, and) instruction.”) Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the spirit of the gesture: women are people too. Look at these women—we’re OK with them. They can hang out for a year, unframed, poorly photographed, by a man, in our dining hall. Look how progressive we are. Let’s get it into the New York Times. Let’s get this viral—Oxford is now, finally, cool with women as also-existing-in-historical-time. They can be people too. For a year. But do you know when Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party”—the inspiration behind this shocking move to include women in your students’ dining experience—was first exhibited? 1979. And, while Hertford’s women get a year in the spotlight, Judy Chicago’s piece is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. Permanent. Display.

This is a very fashionable year to admit that women are people as well, isn’t it, ever since Emma Watson came out as a feminist, and polite society didn’t immediately crucify her? And she isn’t the only Emma with something to say. Sadly, though, Hertford’s very own Emma Smith was credited with a fairly terrible soundbite in the New York Times: “Our new portraits” she announces, “show that we are as proud of unsung achievement and potential as we are of high office or salary.” She might as well have said: “Hertford doesn’t usually give women high office or salary, so it’s lovely that they let us use their dining hall this year for a publicity stunt.” Or: “women don’t attain high office or salary most of the time in our version of history, but, bless them, they try sometimes.” Pat pat. Hertford, you haven’t had a single female principal in your entire history. Not one. Why is that? Admittedly, perhaps you’re not as terrible as other colleges. At my own college, for example, a female-benefactor-and-former-principal-who-will-not-be-named-but-can-be-Googled evidently supplied Times Higher Education with the material for the headline “Oxford College too strict on sexual harassment.” She came to this conclusion after “Roy Anderson was suspended following formal complaints from two female members of staff.” And don’t get me started on Oxford-as-a-whole.

Oxford: you didn’t let women matriculate until 1920—one lifetime ago. I have been openly mocked for being a feminist at many of your obligatory champagne receptions. I have been hit on, lewdly, by your drunken professors on more than one occasion, and have listened to my friends recount far too many stories of sexual harassment from your drunken tutors, principals, authorities, etcetera, so please forgive me if I sound a little cynical about this newly-found feminist sympathy. Sexism and sexual power games are so ingrained in your culture that I am no longer surprised to hear these stories. A lot of women are really too respectfully silent within your walls concerning the dark side of the old boys’ network. Maybe we assume that an ethos of entitlement and negligence is almost impossible to fight when it exists at the top of the food chain—in your private quarters, so to speak.

I digress. Thanks for the portraits, Hertford. I’m sure that the gesture was well-intentioned. But, you know, high office and salary are nice too. And why not leave the pictures up a bit longer? Maybe you could even get them some decent frames? Even better, how about hiring a few painters and doing the job properly? You do that, get back into the New York Times about it, and I’ll repost the resulting article with pleasure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxonian Review.

April Pierce is reading for a DPhil at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and is Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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Weekly Round-Up: Turning down the Nobel Prize, What Shakespeare Does to Your Brain, Poetry in the Shadow of Death, the Equality of Languages, Frankfurters and the Modern Age, and Putting Things Off Fri, 17 Oct 2014 08:31:51 +0000 linguistics perlin subin naysayers procrastination golberg The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Stefany Anne Golberg: ‘No-bel’“, The Smart Set: as Patrick Modiano is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Golberg considers Jean-Paul Sartre’s controversial refusal of the award, and Albert Camus’ equally controversial acceptance. For Sartre, a writer’s freedom had to be freedom from all institutions. “Words, for Sartre, are powerful because words are actions… Thus, writing that is authentic cannot be a simple delight in words. There is a moral imperative involved in the act of writing. Because words create change, a writer is not only responsible for her own freedom, but the freedom of her readers.” For Camus, on the other hand, a writer’s responsibility was to honour as many readers as possible to aid them in their desperate struggle with the absurdity of life.

2. “Julian Hinchcliffe and Seth Frey: ‘Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense’“, Nautilus: using EEG and other electrophysiological equipment, the effect of Shakespeare’s verse on the human brain has been painstakingly studied. Shakespeare’s innovative style, including devices such as the switch between parts of speech, liberates the brain from the cognitive limitations set by conventional language use. This anarchic use of nonsense, though, does not cast the reader into chaos; “rather than plunging into the abyss of not-knowing, we soar above it. We are not falling, but flying.”

3. “Douglas Murray: ‘Poetry, Civilisation and the Critical Benefits of Facing Leukaemia’“, The Spectator: although iconic critic and cultural commentator Clive James finds himself in failing health, he has discovered a new drive for writing. His new Poetry Notebook, a collection of writings on poetry, has been released, and next year will see his Collected Poems. He wonders, though, whether his own critical success is a function of his illness; “‘I am getting the kind of praise now that poets dream of,’ he admits. ‘I wonder if you have to be standing on the edge of a cliff to get it, though. Has that occurred to you? If that’s true everyone will start doing it! Look, no parachute!’”

4. “Ross Perlin: ‘Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction’“, Dissent Magazine: Perlin offers a passionate plea for endangered languages, those without the cultural clout to ensure survival. Today, powerful cultures continue to impose their languages on the powerless. But the loss of the “vast reserves of history, literature, knowledge, and wisdom embedded in these languages… leaves all of us impoverished.” It is time to begin defending the assumption of contemporary linguistics, as espoused by Stephen Pinker, that all languages are equal.

5. “Alex Ross: ‘The Naysayers’“, The New Yorker: the work of the Frankfurt School remains influential in the world of High Theory, but what would Benjamin and Adorno have made of contemporary pop culture? Would they have seen it as progress, or merely as “the freedom to choose what is always the same”?

6. “Anna Della Subin: ‘How to Stop Time’“, The New York Times: this account of the creative benefits of procrastination will inspire and delight many students. Through a historical survey of procrastination, from its vague classification as a pathological behaviour to its starring role in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, putting-things-off has had a pretty bleak reputation. Subin, though, argues that it is “an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers”, the gateway to greater creativity.

If you would like to suggest a link, please email benedict.morrison[at]

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Laconic Justice Thu, 16 Oct 2014 15:57:38 +0000 furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ Cameron Quinn

The Furies
By Aeschylus
Dir. Arabella Currie
15-18 October at the Oxford Playhouse

There is enough charm and peculiarity already in staging a play in the original Ancient Greek that any once-every-three-years Oxford Greek Play must answer the question: what does this interpretation add to an experience that starts from a baseline of singularity and ambition?

Arabella Currie’s The Furies (after Aeschylus) sets the final, Athenian chapter of the Oresteian trilogy in a minimalist semi-cyberpunk psycho-future. A small ensemble of tremulous strings, high woodwind, and off-beat percussion introduces a scene dominated by a narrow blood-red rectangular barrier extending upwards, a large circle carved out near its base. Orestes trudges onto the stage dragging a huge plastic shroud with a human form inside, avoiding the sleeping Furies arranged in crisp disarray around the stage, as he makes his way to Athena’s altar.

After a period of silence, the first lines are delivered by Lamorna Ash’s Pythia, and her performance sets the tone for what is to follow. Wild-eyed and wearing a Carnivalesque spiny headdress, she just manages to rouse herself from a stupor, then struggles to articulate the first words of her dedicatory prologue, sinking back down to earth a few times before the words finally come. Ash’s delivery (although admirable, acting-wise) gives the impression that the lines are an afterthought, a formality. While they are admittedly ritualistic in content and function, they seem to be imposed from without; they are not felt—merely delivered.

The laconic haze of this opening scene, set at dawn, never seems fully to lift. The characters lack passion and dignity—crushed beneath the weight of some unseen torment (no, not the Furies), every character seems only just able to muster their given lines and pair them with actions only rarely befitting them. As a result, it is difficult to believe that the lines recited by these characters really mean anything. Currie’s The Furies presents a world of listless, drug-addled teens, reciting words of power with nothing behind them.

Currie and her team have said that the aim of their adaptation is not to add anything, but to subtract, to strip down the play to its musical and painterly aspects and so allow us, the audience, to interpret it ourselves. ‘The purpose of theatre,’ producer Charles Graham writes, ‘is to create a mirror for the audience, and whether it is performed in Ancient Greek or contemporary slang—the role of the audience is to interpret it within our own context. Would you call this justice?’ This production, though, as is inevitably the case, does make deliberate interpretive choices; as a mirror, it is not spotless and distorts the audience’s reflection.

This interpretation is felt in Currie’s choice of title. Aeschylus’s title for the play, Eumenides, is transformed into The Furies, where conventionally it is simply left alone or rendered in English as The Kindly Ones. This bold transformation, the reverse of the one that occurs in the play itself, sets up the expectation of a particularly brutal rendering of the title deities, highlighting their viciousness and menace. Yet this expectation goes woefully unfulfilled here. Embodied by a nine-some of young women, each uniquely styled in a variation of dialled-down Edward Scissorhands, these Furies seem neither a swarm of insects nor the pack of hunting dogs suggested by the text, but a group of bored teens who can scarcely commit to light mischief, let along vengeful murder. Most of their lines, written by Aeschylus for a chorus with a leader, are delivered by individual Furies. This approach, and their varying styles of delivery, leaves the audience with a sense of these Furies as weak and at times whiny individuals, rather than as a chthonic death squad. Those lines that are delivered collectively are too often droned, muttered or slackly sung, which has the effect of removing their bite.

The Furies’ binding song, a climactic and potentially terrifying sequence in which the Furies make clear the depth and breadth of their menace, has nothing in it here to arouse fear either in the audience or in Orestes. In a carefully choreographed set piece, the nine Furies clap and stomp and ululate, their movements and delivery evincing more narcissism and mild annoyance than menace. Moments like this, where the stakes of the action seem low to non-existent, are frequent in Currie’s production. The Eumenides is often read (rightly or wrongly) as a watershed moment in Western thought, marking the transition from a tribal, retributive model of justice to an essentially liberal, state-dependent one. Anything resembling that sort of gravity is absent here, betrayed by the laconic tenor of the whole production. Even following the moment of transformation when the Erinyes become the Eumenides, from vicious, bloodthirsty avengers to protectors of justice, the harvest, and all things nice, there is no change in affect for the Furies. Their strident singing remains, along with their zombie-like movements.

None of this is to say that there are not some triumphs in this Furies. Contrary to the other characters, Kaiya Stone’s Athena, the highest-status character in Aeschylus’s text, does manage to command a certain degree of dignity during much of the proceedings. The set design and music are striking and cohere well together, and the presentation of Clytemnestra’s ghost in the first act is both novel and evocative. And of course, accurately remembering dozens and in some cases hundreds of lines of Ancient Greek, some spoken and some sung, is a gargantuan feat for which these performers deserve heaps of praise. But ambition and flair shouldn’t let a wanting interpretation off the critical hook. The audience hears the words in Greek and sees an interpretation of them in English, but it loses the sense of their weight and power through the listless and empty edginess that pervades this production.

Cameron Quinn is reading for an M.St. in Modern Languages at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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Photo of the Week: Mumbai Wed, 15 Oct 2014 13:38:18 +0000 Vinesh Rajpaul


This term, we will be featuring several of the photographs of 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: While driving through South Mumbai on a warm afternoon a year or two ago, I spotted this man relaxing in the winter sunshine. I was struck by how peaceful he looked in his ‘room’ (the walls of which he had adorned with religious iconography) in the midst of Mumbai’s hustle and bustle.

If you have a photo to submit, please email benedict.morrison[at]

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Queer Pride Tue, 14 Oct 2014 09:46:05 +0000 Benedict Morrison

Dir. Matthew Warchus
Pathé, BBC Films, Proud Films, BFI
UK Release 12 September 2014

Matthew Warchus’ Pride is a delightful film, and audiences have been laughing, weeping, and cheering along with it since it opened in September. It is the tale of a put-upon London group of gay and lesbian activists, alive with outrage at the plight of a group of Welsh miners whose pit faces closure. As fellow sufferers at the hands of a reactionary Establishment, the unimaginatively titled Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (the LGSM) show solidarity by raising money and campaigning to renew hope in the failing rural community. As this subject matter would suggest, the film is a play of oppositions, both its humour and its pathos deriving from unlikely juxtapositions; the sight of a group of twin-set wearing Welsh women hitting Soho clubs is marvellously funny, while the coming out of a young man in the stifling atmosphere of suburban Bromley is wretchedly painful. This contrast seeps, albeit subtly, into questions of form. The film’s opening fifteen minutes, set amongst the colour and dynamism of a London Pride March, is shot with a kinetic camera that rarely pauses for breath. This established rhythm is startlingly arrested with the first shot inside the Welsh Working Men’s Club, a courageously protracted shot of an old woman walking—with the same unhurried determination as a character from a Victoria Wood sketch—to answer a call from the LGSM. A film concerning the extraordinary political coming-together of two oppressed groups told in a form which privileges jarring contrasts: it is no surprise, perhaps, that the film won the Queer Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Pride nevertheless seems to remain absolutely reluctant to accept its own queerness. From the opening moments of the film, it is inevitable that these narrative and formal contrasts will be synthesised into a conclusion of heart-warming unity. Like Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and The Full Monty, Pride depicts industrial decline in Britain, and allows the shadows of depression and defeat to flicker at the edges of the narrative only as far as is necessary. In each entry of this quintessentially British set of comedies, an initially suspect but ultimately embraced source of empowerment (respectively music, dance, stripping, solidarity) intervenes to brighten the dour life of the failing community. Aware of this lineage, the scenes in which the Pride marchers encounter an old woman silently brandishing a sign which reads ‘Burn in Hell’ and in which wives of the miners sing Bread and Roses, though admittedly moving, feel somehow familiar. They are the signifiers of the kind of struggle which these narratives eventually overcome. Pride, like its ancestors, is relentlessly linear, unwaveringly straight in its progress forwards towards a tear-tickling conclusion of magnificent personal and collective achievement. Unsustained shifts in shot style are not enough to queer this formula.

Nowhere is this crude use of formula felt more keenly than in the character of Maureen (played by Lisa Palfrey). At first, Maureen’s anxiety about accepting support from so deviant a troupe of supporters is wholly consistent with the prejudices of the community at large. However, as the tide of public opinion begins to turn following LGSM’s first visit, Maureen finds herself out on a limb. Refusing to relinquish her rather undeveloped and unexplained hostility, and aided by her two thuggish sons, she stage-manages a homophobic campaign to drive out the invading hordes of philanthropic homosexuals. The film’s sympathy is so overstated that the eyebrow-arching Maureen, circled by her unsympathetic sons as The Little Mermaid’s Ursula is by vindictive eels, becomes a figure of pantomime. Pride’s use of theatrical villainy sidesteps depth of character and political nuance in favour of crowd-pleasing gestures, offering up baddies to boo and heroes to cheer according to the grand example of so much British comedy.

But—there remains something nigglingly impressive about Pride’s achievement. Perhaps it would be over-hasty to dismiss its linearity and adherence to formula as necessarily un-queer.

This achievement lies in the film’s use of history. The self-satisfied declaration that a film is ‘based on a true story’ is typically enough to sink the stomach; this ‘truth’ is so often merely a cheap means of pretending a kind of authority. However, with Pride it functions in an altogether different way. It is true that the blazing antics of the film’s colourful characters and the clashes between their ways of life—middle-aged women discovering a stash of gay porn, young gay men stepping for the first time into a working men’s club—follow the strict formula of any number of sentimental British films. However, it is precisely this relentless formulaic linearity which queers these generic underpinnings. The characters make decisions and act, unaware of the necessity of the history of which they are a part. And that history is one of mine closures, of Section 28, and of AIDS. Over the sunny valleys of this British comedy of triumph-against-the-odds falls the shadow of inevitable failure. Formal straightness is the cousin of a cultural straightness which, in the 1980s, would not tolerate difference and sought to wear it down. The film simultaneously longs for a carnivalesque reordering of social hierarchies and ultimately recognises that such a conclusion would be fanciful make-believe. It is this divided identity—both documentary and fairy-tale, both reality and fervent wish—that makes this delightful film the queerest of the year.

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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A True Hard Man Mon, 13 Oct 2014 02:50:08 +0000 Morgan Wesley

Peter Cossins
The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest
One-day Races

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014
416 pages
ISBN 9781408846810

The myopic public discourse on professional cycling is currently dominated by two things: the Tour de France and doping. Olympic cycling receives sporadic coverage every four years, the World Championships attract a page or two of press coverage, and mentions of the other Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España) are buried in the back pages of the newspaper. In October 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency filed its Reasoned Decision against Lance Armstrong, shining a bright light into the shadows that had shrouded professional cycling in the 1990s. Popularised accounts of the rise and fall of riders during the Armstrong era are doing brisk trade at booksellers internationally, and doping reports still grab headlines.

In his new book The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races, Peter Cossins, dives into the fray with an historical offering that breaks the cycle of scandal-based narratives. Eschewing populism, he focuses on the rich history of cycling’s greatest one-day events, in a cerebral account of some of the most important races in the sport’s history. He understands that far from the front pages of international news, in the eyes of the professional peloton (the main group of riders) and legions of cycling enthusiasts, reputations are made and the fitness of tour contenders is measured across the cobbles and over the climbs of the Spring Classics of Europe. These one-day races have been cornerstones of the race calendar and the progression of professional cycling since their founding around the turn of the 20th century. Of the Spring Classics, five races stand above all others, collectively known as The Monuments: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix, The Tour of Lombardy, Milan-Sanremo, and the Tour of Flanders. The importance of these races is summed up by Thor Hushovd, a professional rider from Norway:

These races are brutally hard, they are dirty, they are very long. Everyone knows the rider who wins these races is a really tough guy, a true hard man. Then you think about the history of these races, you look at the great names that have won them in the past, and you realise what it would mean to win one of them, that your name would go down alongside all of cycling’s legends.

This quotation begins the concluding chapter of Cossins’s book, but one cannot help think that it should begin the whole work. For it is the list of riders and the routes of cobbles and climbs that form the major thrust of the text. Writing a chronicle of even a single Monument would be a daunting task; to treat all five races in a single volume is a staggering undertaking. For the cycling enthusiast, demanding of accuracy, exhaustive detail, and an unwavering dedication to the glory of cycling, Cossins has triumphed. Few details are omitted in this encyclopaedic account of The Monuments. The casual reader who has become interested in cycling because of the recent scandals will struggle to keep pace with the text, and many will be left behind in the process, like stragglers in the peloton, as a result of Cossins’s unrelenting focus on the specifics of the races.

Cossins is a committed member of his target audience, and navigates with easy authority the vast legion of riders and sponsors and the tiny tactical decisions that make up the full course of these races. From the first chapters discussing the first 33 riders lining up for the inaugural edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on May 29 1892, to the riders of the modern age battling for victory at the Tour of Flanders in 2013, the names and details flow seamlessly. Cossins gives each victor a moment on the podium without neglecting those standing on the second and third steps or the sport’s larger-than-life characters. Riders such as the daring champion Henri Pélissier and his younger brother Francis, left their mark on the races through their fierce spirit and occasionally questionable antics even when out of contention.

Cossins is similarly adept at highlighting the unique character of each of The Monuments, rather than letting them blend together into a “tour” of one day races. Much of this is accomplished by treating each Monument in its entirety before moving onward. This allows him to explore the context of external events and their impact on each of the Classics. While shared European roots and continental events affected all the races, there were different political and economic implications for cycling in different countries. By avoiding the presentation of The Monuments’ history as a general chronology, Cossins manages to capture these differences. His treatment of national pride and regionalism is particularly skilful, demonstrating a sure hand in exploring the thorny areas around cycling’s controversies. The cultural conflict between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons as it played out on the roads of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, is given a nuanced treatment in the text.

The dedication to a complete treatment of each race, and ensuring a text that would survive the extensive scrutiny inevitable for a book written with a specialist audience in mind, comes at a cost. More problematically, because of the separation of the races, sections of each chapter have to be given over to re-introducing riders, teams and developments as they become relevant to each individual race. At times, Cossins is able to seize on this to elaborate a rider’s biography with new anecdotes and developments extraneous to a particular event. At others, the reader is left with a deep sense of déjà vu when reading about the top five or six riders contesting a race, unsurprising considering the periods where a single rider or team dominated the yearly calendar.

This repetition is particularly noticeable during the periods dominated by Alfredo Binda’s impact on Italian Cycling and stage-racing tactics, Fauto Coppi’s dominance of international cycling in the inter- and post-war years, and reaches a crescendo at the height of Eddy Merckx’s almost oppressive reign from 1968-1975. It would be impossible not to devote extensive space to these periods in any text that was not a dedicated biography of the rider, but the need for continuous re-introduction makes these sections of Cossin’s text a bit of a slog.

Similarly, the technique that allows for the excellent treatment of regional response to global events presents a barrier to the smooth discussion of changes to the fabric of competitive cycling as a whole. One such example is the establishment of the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo in 1948. For the decade that it ran, the Challenge offered a glimpse of the annual points chase format of contemporary cycling, with the Challenge affecting the scheduling and perceived value of all the major European races. It shifted the focus of riders and teams into entirely new patterns of racing and planning. For the riders a new path to success was created: rather than merely targeting events with courses that catered to their strengths, or as tests of fitness leading to the Tour de France, an alternative arose: the idea of the all-round rider who could excel at a variety of one-day events, but who was not possessed of the raw endurance to compete as a General Classification contender at a multiple-day Tour. This had a tectonic impact on cycling, yet the fragmentary nature of Cossins’s discussion makes it seem an extension of The Classics’s impact on cycling, rather than the reverse.

It is in capturing these massive shifts in the paradigm of cycling that the structure of The Monuments is most limited. Cossins offers tantalising details that whet the reader’s appetite for revelations of this bigger picture, but ultimately he chooses to stick to the encapsulated narrative of each race. The final chapter offers a glimpse of this larger picture, and provides wider context for the races, beginning with Hushovd’s remark quoted earlier. With the extensive knowledge and passion that Peter Cossins has dedicated to the painstaking record of The Monuments, one is left wishing that he could take these larger issues further, even if it means that the occasional has-run was consigned to the footnotes.

Morgan Wesley is a student at Linacre College, preparing to submit his DPhil thesis in History while competing as a Triathlete for TeamUSA.

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Whose Values? Which Justification? Mon, 13 Oct 2014 02:40:48 +0000 Gabriel Roberts

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

The last four years have seen intense debate about the value of the humanities, much of it stemming from the education policies of the current coalition government. On the teaching side, the increase of student fees to £9,000 a year and the effective abolition of public funding for humanities teaching raised a pair of related questions, one about what degrees in the humanities are worth to students and the other about who should pay for them. On the research side, the overall cut in government funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) by around £21m (17%) between 2009 and 2013 also raised a pair of questions, one about the extent to which humanities research should be publicly funded and the other about what humanities research should be like in order to be funded in this way. The announcement and subsequent enactment of these policies provoked a broadside of books, articles, blog-posts, protests, and speeches, all aimed at explaining the humanities’ value. Among other things, we were told, the humanities promoted happiness and economic growth, were vital for the healthy functioning of democracy, and mattered for their own sake.

Partly as a result of this debate, the last four years have also seen the consolidation of a new kind of research, aimed at direct contributions to the public good, and efforts across the sector to demonstrate the public value of humanities research. In March this year, the AHRC showcased research which contributes to the creative economy, including a study of Indonesian death squads which formed the basis of the Oscar-nominated film The Act of Killing and research on the history of Channel Four which is designed to inspire the broadcasters of today. In a similar vein, a report published last year by Oxford University found that “the long-established system of humanities-based higher education in Oxford has proven highly responsive to national economic needs” and that “humanities graduates played a large and growing role in employment sectors which brought about growth in the UK economy in the 1970s and 1980s.” In each case, the emphasis was on demonstrable, quantifiable, consequentialist, and primarily economic contributions to the public good.

Yet to someone working within the humanities, the situation may have presented a different aspect. In many contexts, the discussion of the value of research was phrased almost entirely in terms of the traditional scholarly values of originality, rigour, clarity, accuracy, cogency, comprehensiveness, and the rest. In literary and intellectual history (in which I was working at the time), book reviews and article abstracts continued to proclaim that research was “subtle, important, and nuanced”, “illuminating, probing, and scrupulous”, “intimate, thorough, and attentive,” and so on. Delegates at conferences and participants in graduate seminars continued to ask questions which were designed to test the quality of research in terms of these values. The emphasis in these contexts was not on the contribution of humanities research to the public good, but on its value as scholarship.

These two kinds of value, the public and the scholarly, are formalised in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the five-yearly survey of the quality of academic research which is being conducted this year (research has already been submitted and the judges will report in the coming months—for details, see especially their Guidance on Submissions and Panel Criteria publications). Under the terms of the REF, humanities research will be assessed according to three weighted measures, entitled “impact” (20%), “outputs” (65%), and “environment” (15%). The last of these concerns the foundations which an institution is laying for future research and, as such, can be discounted from the present discussion, whereas the remaining two measures, “outputs” and “impact”, enshrine the public and scholarly values which are invoked in other contexts. “Impact” relates to the effect which research has on the economy, society, and culture (controversially excluding staff and students at the submitting institution) and is defined in terms of “reach” and “significance”, which in turn are illustrated with examples, such as research informing policy decisions, creating cultural capital, enhancing public discourse, making money, and so on. “Outputs” relates to the quality of published research and is defined in terms of “originality”, “significance”, and “rigour”, which in turn are defined in terms of “importance”, “innovation”, “understanding”, “findings”, “imagination”, “coherence”, “precision”, “accuracy”, “analytical power”, and “depth”.

It’s worth noting here—and this is something which I’ll come back to—that the remit for impact is broad. It certainly doesn’t mean (as early critics of the REF feared) that humanities research will be assessed to any great extent in terms of its contribution to the economy. But the evidential bar is high, with the result that submitting institutions will have been better off trying to demonstrate some kinds of impact, such as footfall at an exhibition or listeners to a radio programme, than others, such as informing policy decisions or enhancing public discourse. The result is a bias towards more readily measurable kinds of good—a specific instance of a far more general problem.

The REF is also structured so that public and scholarly values will have been kept separate. Institutions were required to submit evidence of outputs (roughly four articles for each academic included in the assessment) and evidence of impact (a template describing the institution’s approach to impact together with a set of case studies), but there was no requirement that the research submitted as evidence of outputs should be the same research as was submitted as evidence of impact. Indeed, the REF requires far more research as evidence of outputs. An institution required to submit 100 articles as evidence of outputs would only have to submit four case studies, each making reference to “one or more” articles. And it also imposes more strenuous qualitative standards: whereas research submitted under the ‘outputs’ heading will be graded on a one-to-five scale (with institutions hoping to score as highly as possible), research submitted under the “impact” heading has to reach only level two on the same scale. This means that any institution which was producing enough research to avoid submitting the same research twice could have pursued outputs and impact as separate objectives. It may even have been politic for some institutions to appoint academics who were less talented than their peers at producing research and more talented at creating impact, which was not a concern before the REF. The guidelines for the next REF are yet to be published, but if the same methods of assessment are employed then we could see humanities faculties creating parallel streams of researchers and research communicators.

This may seem like a good situation or at least an understandable one. Scholarship has been protected from demands for public justification, and some academics have been able to pursue their research without worrying much about its public value—an activity which might have debilitated their ability to research at the highest level. If the value of humanities research is bound up with researchers’ ability to pursue it for its own sake—as one might think—then it may have been wise to insulate scholarly values against the clamour of public ones. There is a question here about the distribution of justificatory labour, and it may be that this labour is best performed by a minority of academics.

There are, however, a number of things which the REF leaves out of the equation. In the first place, the incentive which it provides for institutions to conduct research which has readily measurable impact, together with the separation which it imposes between research which is excellent scholarship and research which creates impact, omits the large part of humanities research which has unpredictable, long-term, or dispersed effects. The REF makes some provision for these considerations by accepting case studies of impact underpinned by research conducted as long ago as 1993, but it seems unlikely that many submitting institutions will have opted to undertake the complex data-gathering necessary to demonstrate that research conducted twenty years ago has had impact rather than to steer its researchers towards work with more readily measurable effects. Nor, looking forward, is there any incentive in the REF for academics to think about how the research which they are conducting now might create impact in the future or any guarantee that this will be relevant to the REFs of 10 or 20 years’ time.

The problem is further compounded by the sharp distinction which the REF imposes between research which doesn’t have to have an impact and research which has to have one. The results of case studies will not be used to estimate the impact of research which has been submitted under the “outputs” heading and there is no suggestion that all research might have been assessed in terms of impact and the total impact achieved by a submitting institution worked out through aggregation. In these ways, the REF directs attention away from the effects of research which is submitted under the “outputs” heading, even though a great deal of this research must create impact in some way.

There’s also a curious lack of detail about how research submitted under the “impact” heading is supposed to create its impact. The REF supplies a long list of ways in which impact can be measured, including “citations in reviews outside academic literature, independent citations in the media, including in online documents, reviews, blogs and postings”, but there’s little requirement for submitting institutions to describe precisely how impact happens. For example, an institution might submit a case study of research which underpinned an exhibition and cite attendance figures as evidence of impact. But it wouldn’t have to provide any evidence that the visitors went away having learned anything or without having acquired false beliefs or undesirable attitudes. The problem here is that questions about whether the consumers of research are correct in their interpretation of it or respond to it in desirable ways are difficult to answer in quantitative terms. Yet one might think that these are questions which the humanities should peculiarly address.

Finally, there’s a problem concerning the relationship between the values which are used to evaluate humanities research and the private reasons why humanities researchers believe their work to be of value. Because public and scholarly values are the only values in terms of which the value of humanities research is typically expressed (at least for the purposes of assessment), researchers may feel unprofessional, selfish, or inadequate insofar as the reasons which motivate them in their studies are out of step with these values. They may inadvertently acquire the kinds of interest which are compatible with these kinds of values. Or they may come to think that the value of the humanities, to them or anyone else, boils down to nothing more than excellent scholarship and impact.

Some examples may help to make this clear. An academic may write a history of political representation in order to expose the thin notions of accountability which exist in modern British politics. Another may write an analysis of Shakespeare to show that the performance of his plays promotes an unhealthy view of women. And another may write a philosophical study of rationality so as to criticise the use of the term in economics. In each case, the academic seeks a goal which extends beyond the production of excellent scholarship and which they think will make society better, but which not everyone would recognise as a contribution to the public good. After all, some people may not believe that there’s anything wrong with current notions of accountability in British politics, with the view of women promoted by performances of Shakespeare, or with the use of “rationality” in economics. Nor will these disagreements necessarily be about means rather than ends. They may arise from fundamentally different conceptions of what society should be like. Under the terms of REF, research which is controversial in this way needs to be repackaged and sold as research which excels in terms of scholarship or impact, which is problematic for several reasons. In the first place, the trouble of repackaging research may atrophy the enthusiasm of humanities researchers. But more importantly, the requirement that humanities research should contribute to the public good in ways which everyone can recognise as good may enormously restrict the kinds of research which can occur. The assumption apparently underlying this is that the best way to promote the public good via humanities research is by requiring that all humanities research should contribute to the public good in ways which everyone can recognise as good, and there is little reason to suppose that this is true.

The central question here is about how research should be assessed in order to qualify for government funding. But it also has implications for how humanists should defend themselves. It’s fair to say that in the last four years humanities academics have sought to present a united front. We’ve seen this in the willingness of academics—locally, in events hosted by the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH)—to emphasise that similar problems affect the humanities and other areas, such as the social sciences, the medical sciences, and the hard sciences, and we’ve seen it in the eagerness of the humanities’ defenders (see the books by Jonathan Bate, Stefan Collini, and Helen Small) to defend the humanities as a whole. The latter move is understandable, but it comes at a certain cost. If we adhere to the view that the humanities are uniformly valuable, without internal gradations between what is more and less valuable, then we may place ourselves in a bad position to make decisions about what to cut or expand in response to inevitable fluctuations in funding.

A less united front might be stronger by being more flexible. Just as one can think about the humanities in terms of who performs the labour of justification, one can also think about them in terms of the amount and explicitness of disagreement which they can tolerate about matters of value. At the moment, the tolerance level is low. Debates about the value of research are restricted to its contribution to the public good (conceived in highly restrictive terms) and to its formal scholarly properties, and this prevents more deeply-seated disagreements, about the sort of society we want to live in and what we as individuals want, from coming to the surface. In an area like the humanities, in which diversity and subjectivity are important, this is something worth worrying about.

Gabriel Roberts is a final-year D.Phil. in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford, and a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

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The Way Lint Collects Mon, 13 Oct 2014 02:30:09 +0000 Rey Conquer

On Being Blue
William H. Gass
On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry
NYRB Classics; Reprint edition, 2014
112 pages
ISBN 9781590177181

Blue Mythologies
Carol Mavor
Blue Mythologies: Reflections on a Colour
Reaktion Books, 2013
208 pages
ISBN 9781780230832

Michel Pastoureau
Green: The History of a Color
Princeton University Press, 2014
240 pages
ISBN 9780691159362

“I love lists,” William Gass told the Paris Review, “They begin with no form at all…” The same could be said of Gass’s “philosophical inquiry” On Being Blue, published shortly after that interview in 1976: the first sentence, which lasts for over a page, is deliberately formless, inconsistent, meandering. It is, itself, a list: of things blue, or at least said to be blue, or that are significant when blue, such as pencils or (central to this perhaps datedly priapic book) movies. It encompasses “the pedantic, indecent, censorious,” “Russian cats and oysters,” “all that’s dismal.” In an essay from 2002, ‘I’ve Got a Little List,’ Gass calls lists “the purposeful coming together of names like starlings to their evening trees.” But it is only once the fourth starling has joined that we can talk of a list proper, Gass claims; a list can only come into being through the juxtaposition of multiple entries. The same mechanism seems to apply to coloured things: “bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese […] through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their colour.” Whereas the names on a list are brought deliberately together, these meanings have gathered at random, “the way lint collects”—yet it is only through this gathering that blue has come to be, for instance, “the colour of everything that’s empty.”

For Gass, blue is an obvious pretext; as Michael Gorra, who has written the introduction to this new edition, rightly points out, “[t]he real subject of On Being Blue is language itself”—specifically “blue” (i.e. prurient) language, to which a good three quarters of the book is given over. Carol Mavor, Sabine Doran and Michel Pastoureau are, however, more dedicated to the problem of teasing apart the “lint” of meanings that has gathered around their titular colours.

In his blurb for Doran’s The Culture of Yellow, W.J.T. Mitchell is keen to point out that it is “not just a compendium” of instances of yellow in literature and art, and a fear of the accusation of mere list-making informs Doran’s careful insistence that there is more than just the colour yellow that unites her many examples. Together, she claims, such instances produce a “network of meaning,” and turn yellow into a colour of “stigma and scandal” in “late modernity,” a period which Doran acknowledges as “nebulous” but which covers, roughly, 1890-1940. Thus, one “yellow book” does not cultural significance make, but through juxtaposing several—which may or may not acknowledge each other—we can make out an overarching theme or “cultural mood,” which she calls, in her suggestive conclusion, a “chromo-tope” (as an analogy to Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the “chronotope,” the particular manner in which the interrelation of time and space is represented in literature).

If the “cultural mood” of the turn of the twentieth century was yellow and its associated meanings, it seems the turn of the twenty-first century is obsessed with colours per se. As well as these four books, all published in the past twelve months, the National Gallery hosted an exhibition on the subject, ‘Making Colour’, over the summer. Michel Pastoureau’s Blue: The History of a Color (2001) had been intended as a stand-alone book and, even as late as 2009, Pastoureau wrote in its sequel Black that writing a series on individual colours was the “furthest thing from [his] mind.” But in Green he announces that he is to do just that—thanks, no doubt, to the praise and popularity the previous volumes received. The reissue of On Being Blue is therefore nothing if not timely, in that it takes as its pretext a single colour, but also as a reminder of the dangers of writing about colour at all: that the associations we have so carefully compiled are only on the list through a “scrambling of accidents.”

This is not a reminder that Pastoureau needs, and I can imagine a reader becoming frustrated by his unwillingness to draw causal lines between, say, the growing association of green with devils and demons in the middle ages on the one hand and the crusades on the other, during which green became, mostly through the eyes of its opponents, the colour of Islam. Whereas Gass’s tactic is to encourage us to see the various “meanings” of blue as somehow related, but then pull the rug from under our feet, Pastoureau uses questions: “Were they the result of increasing hostility between Christians and Muslims?” for example, or “Why would green and black not go well together?” to which the answer is always along the lines of, “It is difficult to say.” Pastoureau has no time for those who would go further than this and throws shade left, right, and centre at anonymous authors, researchers, and “more or less fanciful exegetes” for letting their imaginations run away with them. Colour does seem to provoke self-indulgence (of which Pastoureau’s gripes are also an example), and the uneasy mixture of academic and “poetic” language in Mavor’s Blue Mythologies, along with its haphazardly chosen and inelegantly incorporated snippets of theory and criticism, do the “colour monograph” genre no favours. At least Gass, when the Paris Review interviewer suggested that self-amusement might drive his writing, took their point: “Amuse may be the wrong word because it hurts so much, but in essence what you are suggesting is correct.”

Pastoureau’s greatest ire, however, is directed towards falsely universalising (and therefore ahistorical) accounts of colour’s effects or cultural significance, whether Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art of Berlin and Kay’s seminal study, Basic Color Terms. It is then amusing to place the central arguments of his, Mavor’s, and Doran’s books side by side, as they are all based on the same claim: that their colour is uniquely “ambivalent,” “paradoxical,” or “polarized” (respectively). In the case of Pastoureau this just goes to show that you can’t say anything about the meaning, singular, of a colour; just as green pigment is chemically unstable, the meaning of a colour is liable to vary between points in time and place, often accumulating contradictory associations which exist side by side. For Doran, and especially Mavor, these claims of their colour’s unique multivalence seem less defensible. The various meanings and associations of a colour are fascinating, especially when they are at variance with contemporary usage; the mere fact of there being multiple meanings and associations, however, seems a weak peg on which to hang a book, even one as beautifully illustrated as Mavor’s. (Both Blue Mythologies and Green have gone all out on reproductions; Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of algae are especially wonderful, as are the medieval crocodiles in Green.) A better account of the “paradoxical” associations of blue over the twentieth century can be found in the chapter ‘A Riff on Blue’ in Ruth Levitas’ Utopia as Method (2013); Levitas makes a clear case for blue as a colour that artists and writers have explicitly imbued with utopian associations without suggesting that this is unique or essential to the colour, nor universally true.

The “meanings” of colours, as these books all show, arise through relations and networks of association, within a work, or within a culture. And this is not just through juxtaposition with other instances of the same colour; as Pastoureau reminds us, “a colour does not occur alone […] it only takes its meaning, it only fully ‘functions’ insofar as it is combined with or opposed to one or many other colours […] To speak of green is necessarily to speak of blue, yellow, red, and even black and white.” One of the most fascinating sections in Green deals with the laws surrounding the dyeing industry in the middle ages. A dyer who was licensed to produce red wool was then not allowed to produce blue, for instance, although the former was responsible for yellows and the latter for greens. This meant that green made by mixing blue and yellow—a technique every child learns at nursery school—was illegal, and dyers who made it were successfully sued by their competitors. In choosing to follow a single colour, a unitary meaning, an author denies herself the useful overview denied also to these dyers, and sets up a false picture of its distinctiveness.

“The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess,” Gass claims. To want to avoid offering up a mere catalogue seems misguided: the list form, which both Gass and Pastoureau rightly exploit, is perhaps the best way to do justice to colour, which, as Julia Kristeva (quoted by Mavor) says, “is not zero meaning: it is excess meaning.”

Rey Conquer is reading for a DPhil in German at Somerville College, Oxford.

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Words, Stones and Poetry Mon, 13 Oct 2014 02:20:31 +0000 Dominic Davies

Bird Not Stone
Henry Bell and Sarah Irving, eds.
A Bird is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry
Freight Books, 2014
256 pages
ISBN 978-1908754561



When A Bird Is Not A Stone was published in the UK earlier this year, the many editors, translators and contributors who have worked collaboratively on this project could not have known quite how timely the text’s appearance would be. For the anthology—a comprehensive collection that gives a new voice to a wide range of previously unheard Palestinian Poetry—has implicit, if not explicit, ties to two of the most covered news items in the last few months in the UK, but also in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as the rest of the world.

The first of these ties is rather obvious, as anyone who turned on a radio or television at some point between 8 July and 24 August, or even during the preceding months, will know. Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip, the motivations of which shifted from hysterical cries of revenge in response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank to equally hyperbolic fear-mongering around Hamas’s rockets, was a tragedy that resulted in the death of some 2,200 Palestinians (mostly civilians) and just over 70 Israelis (mostly soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces, or IDF). Israel dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on Gaza’s densely inhabited urban enclaves, a terrifying increase on the 70 tonnes used by the military superpower during “Operation Pillar of Defence” in the previous war in Gaza, just two years ago in November 2012. Unlike in 2012, however, the BBC covered this summer’s war on a daily basis, launching the issue of Israel/Palestine into mainstream public consciousness. After a large grassroots protest about the pro-Israeli bias of the BBC’s coverage took place outside the BBC headquarters in London, their focus turned with a little more balance to the violent atrocities taking place against Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestinian cause, which mostly goes unnoticed in the Global North, has found new international solidarities and is at least, now, once again the subject of some debate in the UK.

The second recent event that may inform our readings of this new anthology is certainly not one that a reader first approaching it might expect. On 18 September, 1.6 million Scots voted for independence from the United Kingdom, seeking to bring an end to the 300 year-old union between England and Scotland. However, they were democratically denied this independence by a further 2 million Scots who voted to remain part of the UK in a referendum that had voter turnout of around 84%, which is remarkably high when compared to most UK elections in recent years. What does the referendum on Scottish Independence have to do with Palestinian poetry? There are broad thematic overlays which connect the anthology to this summer’s dominant news stories: geographical territory, political sovereignty, and national identity. However, Palestine still seems a long way from Scotland and it is this distance that the anthology seeks to bridge, an extra dimension that makes it unique.

A Bird Is Not A Stone is comprised of poems by twenty-six Palestinian authors, the original Arabic versions of which are printed on the left-hand side of each double page. On the right-hand side is the English translation, a productive layout that allows even non-Arabic speakers to visualise the poetry in its original form, and for those with a basic knowledge of the script to shape its sounds whilst taking the meaning from the English. Of course, bilingual readers—which, unfortunately, this reviewer is not—will be able to enjoy the originals as well as the art of the translation in and of itself. But what is special about this anthology is that all of the translations have been put together by Scottish poets. Each poem credits what the collection calls a “bridge translator”, a bilingual author who has transliterated the Arabic into English. These transliterations have then been crafted into a variety of poetic forms by Scottish poets. For the English-only reader, then, these poems have three authors; they embody a cross-national collaboration that forges new cultural solidarities between these two national identities. The timeliness of this effort, given the events of this summer, is therefore extraordinarily pertinent, as both Palestinian and Scottish national identities have embarked on new struggles in their attempts to come to terms with themselves and the world, not to mention their more economically and, at least in Palestine’s case, militarily dominant neighbours.

In a further unique addition to the layout of this anthology, some of the poems have been translated more than once, not only into English but into a range of indigenous Scottish languages and dialects, including Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic. Once again, it doesn’t matter if the reader is not fluent in these. For the English speaker, it is possible to decipher the meaning from the various dialect translations, and the sound of the Gaelic alone, when read alongside the English translation, offers another rich cultural and poetic layer to the collection. The biographies of all the poets, both Palestinian and Scottish, are included in the back of the book in alphabetical order, a way of organising the contributors that once again blends nationalities rather than dividing them. A closer look at these also reveals that the Palestinian poets are not only from the West Bank or Gaza (though a significant number of them are), but from the larger diaspora as well. These include contributors from Palestinians born and/or living in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon as well as in parts of Europe. The collection thus gives voice to the Palestinian population in its fully globalised form, capturing the complex geographical underpinnings of a cultural identity whose history is troubled by exile, displacement, and countless asylum seekers and refugees.

Poetry has been utilised by Palestinians as a way to form, claim, and articulate a nationalist identity since the UN partition of Israel and Palestine in 1948, and was undertaken with renewed vigour after the Six-Day War in 1967, a series of Israeli territorial and military expansions which led to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank still ongoing today. Perhaps most famously, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was widely accepted as the unofficial Palestinian poet laureate, himself writing from exile for much of his life after he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1973 and Israel denied him re-entry to his home country. His work’s preoccupation with, if not glorification of, the Palestinian land—from its soil to its people—is a theme taken up by many of the poems in this collection. His legacy as a Palestinian cultural figure is scattered through the anthology at a range of intertextual levels. To make the timing of this publication even more pertinent, arguably the second most famous Palestinian poet, Samih al-Qasim, passed away just a few weeks ago at the end of August. The title of his first poetry collection, Waiting for the Thunderbird, which appeared in 1968 in the wake of the Six-Day War, may likewise have an intertextual influence on the title of this collection, A Bird Is Not A Stone, itself a thoughtful construction addressed by many of the poems included within it.

In some ways, this provocative heading may be seen as an embodiment of the anthology’s overarching project. Surveying the thematic intersections and preoccupations of the many poems collected here, one notices that birds and stones are images frequently returned to albeit by different authors, as the symbolic potential of these animals and objects are taken up, echoed, and manipulated throughout the text’s pages. The predominant currency of stones and birds can be read as symbolic allusions to notions of cultural resistance and national liberation, ambitions with which Palestinian poetry has often tasked itself and that are interrogated self-reflexively by the poetry here. For those who follow the Palestinian/Israeli conflict on a regular basis, or who have travelled to the region in times of unrest, the stone is both a symbol and literal tool of resistance, especially in the Occupied West Bank where the IDF, Israeli settlers and Palestinian civilians come into regular contact with one another. Unarmed and demilitarised—a lingering condition of the failed peace talks known as the Oslo Accords, signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the mid-1990s—West Bank Palestinians are subject to the military force of the IDF with no way of physically resisting them. The only weapons to hand are the stones scattered on the sides of the road and over the dusty, brown landscape. These are picked up and usually thrown at huge armoured trucks or large caterpillar bulldozers. Hence their symbolism: as stones bounce off the invading vehicles, protesting Palestinians are dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes live ammunition.

The juxtaposition of “bird” and “stone” in the anthology’s title therefore conjures the contrasting images of birds and stones flying through the air, imagery which recurs in several of the anthology’s poems, emphasising how unlike a bird a stone is (‘not a stone’). And yet, throughout the collection, birds gain a symbolic currency of their own that is discrete from that of the stone. As Omar Shabanah writes in the anthology’s longest poem, ‘The Poet’, which is nestled at the very centre of the book:

I am the poet. […]
I am the bird that will see
the end of the flood
and come carrying the branch of liberation.

Abdel Nasser Saleh’s poems are likewise filled with liberated birds escaping their cages, as “a flock of birds take flight” here, and “two doves take flight” there. In Zakaria Mohammed’s poem, ‘The Plate Breaker’, which is on the anthology’s final page, “Poetry flips things upside-down. It grants failure a wing and throws it into the sky.” Stones may bounce off armoured cars and scatter away into the dust, ineffective. But the poems, thrown like stones from the hands of their poets, grow wings that are like pages, and fly away, liberated, readable and translatable beyond the borders of Occupied Palestine. A Bird Is Not A Stone proves this with its unique presentation of cultural intersection. But like all good poetry, it does far more than this, changing and evolving, responding to its context. It is a collection that will keep on giving, demanding re-readings as the sometimes claustrophobically bleak fate of Palestine continues to develop in the twenty-first century. As Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, a Palestinian author of novels, poetry and short stories, writes in the foreword to this collection: “Poems are full of doubt, undermining solid logic, highlighting absurdity beyond truth, and focusing on the untruthfulness of absolute facts.” A Bird Is Not A Stone is a valuable collection that is simultaneously testament to the power of poetry and the resolute and ongoing cultural production of Palestinian poets across the world.

Dominic Davies is a final -year D.Phil. student at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

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Either/Or/And/Both Mon, 13 Oct 2014 02:10:15 +0000 francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho francescho Laura Ludtke

BothAli Smith
How to be Both
Hamish Hamilton, 2014
384 pages
ISBN 9780241145210


There are many ways to be both: simultaneously, equivalently, ambiguously, indecisively, essentially, contradictorily. One can be of dual nature, doubled, duplicitous, repeated, revisited, revised. All of this, and more, is the case in Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, where the bifurcated narratives of “Eye” and “Camera” intertwine and overlap, and the story turns inwards on itself, until its Möbius strip-style structure becomes more like a web of images and incidents. Smith pairs two stories––that of the teenage George (Georgia) who has recently lost her mother, and that of the disembodied consciousness of the early-Renaissance painter Francescho del Cossa, caught in a state between remembering and forgetting––making unwitting companions of the novel’s two protagonists.

Whether one begins with “Eye” or with “Camera” (printed editions are available with one or the other as starting points; the e-book edition contains both, leaving the reader to make the choice of which order to pursue), the second narrative makes clear that it is neither a retelling of the same story from a different perspective––as in Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions or Jean Rhys’ revisitation of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea––nor a discrete story-within-a-story, but a simultaneous and interpenetrating account. The difficulty is that this is a simultaneity rendered near impossible by the linear nature of reading and writing. But this is where the importance of Smith’s disruptive and tangential style of narration comes in, for without the variously interpenetrating strands of its web, How To Be Both would not achieve the sense of completeness its complexity demands. The mind connects the dots, so to speak, and in the very act of reading it revises its previous readings to reveal a remembered narrative unfolding not within, but throughout the current one.

Fortunately, Ali Smith is already a master of disruptive and tangential narratives that are nevertheless complete. This is especially the case in “True Short Story” from her collection The First Person and Other Stories (2008), where she intertwines the story of a friend’s illness with an argument over whether the differences between the novel and the short story can be described using the analogy of the nymph and the whore. When asked about her pairings of the mundane with the theoretical/mythological/historical/literary at a lecture held at St Anne’s College, Oxford earlier this year, Smith replied that such connections are often shaped by the commissions she receives. Writing novels, as opposed to short stories, need not be a matter of commercial transaction but of craft, passion, and conviction.

The novel is structured as a pair of narratives––narratives that are further bifurcated into the present and recent past or, in the case of Francescho, distant past–a structure that exemplifies Smith’s success with parallel and interpenetrating story lines. Whereas Francescho’s contemporary, Matteo Maria Boiardo (the court poet of the Este family at Ferrara) died with his ever-expanding and increasingly complicated epic poem Orlando Innamorato half finished, leaving his successor, Ludovico Ariosto, to masterfully weave in all of his loose ends in a pattern of his own making––Orlando Furioso––Smith expands and contracts her narratives as needed, at times interweaving and at times intercutting them to emphasis resonances and divergences. She can both open and close.

The division of the narratives––that “before and after thing”, as George explains––is bounded by mourning and loss. For George, processing her mother’s sudden death and the mysteries associated with a parent’s premature passing allows her to be both in the past and in the present, sometimes in the moment, sometimes in a memory. Her bi-modality enables her recovery of some aspects of her former self and fuels her realisation that, although “nothing will ever not be like this again”, some things are unrecoverable.

Francescho, on the other hand, can only reconcile the disjunctive experience of awakening into a strange, future world where she neither understands the language nor its technology (why are there no horses? why are brick walls so poorly made? by what sort of magic are portraits made on tablets?) as imagining it as a sort of purgatorium. We see this world through the eyes of an accomplished painter. She perceives, for instance, the relationship between George and her friend H., for “they are sharp and bright together as the skies of 2 new lemons”. Her beloved horse, Mattone, who “was a creature of symmetries and a reminder that nature is herself a bona fide artist of intent both dark and light.”

In a way, the eye is her only way of knowing, whereas the word is ours. Attempting to describe the fresco Cossa painted in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Geroge hones in on the man strangling the duck: “This is only detail. There are details like it eveywhere.” And, while George might not have the capacity to bring the frescos to life, through Francescho’s narrative, Smith is. Next to her Apollo is “the black hole of sun [...] a little like a black seed, a burnt walnut or the anus of a cat, which is what the sun looks like if you look to long at the sun”; the citizens of Ferrara are rendered as “an infinite crowd of babies swarming out of a hole in the ground as if conjured from nothing.” Like her creator, Francescho has an eye for the knowingly complex and contradictory. As an artist, she brings the world of art colliding into that of experience, even in her almost-poetics: “I like very much a foot, say, or a hand, coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world and this shift is a marker of this reality.”

In this way, Smith captures and accounts for the knowingness in the frescos considered almost too precocious in the 15th century. For Francescho’s narrative is also a revisionist one. Little is known about the real Francescho del Cossa (c. 1430–1477) other than that he wrote a letter to Borso d’Este, the Duke of Modena (and later of Ferrara), asking for better pay. Smith offers a gendered rereading of history, inserting women into instances of ambiguity. Thus, while this episode serves as the inspiration for George’s mother’s moral conundrum of the value of art and the impetus of their trip to Italy, it also yokes the two narratives together, working around both what is known and what is assumed: that Francescho was a man. The gendered division in art in the early-Renaissance period is apparent in the division between those hands used to make blue (a woman’s) and those permitted to apply it (a man’s). Thus, Francescho’s determination “to be an expert at the painting of hands and be good at the grinding of blue and the using of blue, both” is not only a revision but a subversion; her reading of Leon Battista Alberti’s Della Pittura as supporting “the bareness and pliability it takes, ho, to be both” is a generous one.

Though it has historical undertones, How To Be Both is also a timely novel, with its surveillance plot, subverts, and social media: George believes her mother was being watched by the Intelligence Services; her mother was an economist who was also part of a subversive online movement juxtaposing art and the failures of capitalism; George is bullied by girls who record the sound of her urinating on a phone and threaten to post it online; meanwhile she uses her smart phone to stalk her mother’s mysterious friend, Lisa Goliard. George may be a “migrant of her own existence”, but she also realises that “we’re all migrants of our own existence now.”

Being comfortable with the fact that something can be two things at once, as both George and Francescho are (eventually), is a sign of a mature mind. How To Be Both, with its deft representation of simultaneity and interpenetrating narratives, by turns provocative, sardonic, and genuine (like George and Francescho’s fresco), is readable throughout. It is also on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize (to be announced tomorrow) and the Goldsmiths Prize (to be announced on 12 November). This has to be the year of Ali Smith.

Laura Ludtke is a final-year D.Phil. in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.

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