WARNING: Contains moderate smugness 
Thursday, January 7, 2010, 10:06 AM
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I’ve always been fond of word games and literary quizzes. When I was little I used to love watching Call my Bluff (with Frank Muir and Patrick Campbell) and a bit later, as a teenaged bookworm in the 80s, was keen on a programme (The Book Game?) in which celebrities such as Germaine Greer had to identify books after hearing short extracts. One of my favourite games is Ex Libris where you have to fake a book’s first or last sentence – and persuade others that your version is the true solution. (This game seems to be unavailable but it’s easy to prepare your own homemade set based on the information given in the above link – could be a good distraction from the snow.) Over the years I’ve devised quite a few literary quizzes for students too – and always rather wish I could be playing on a team rather than reading out the questions. So I enjoyed tackling Norman Geras’ recent Boxing Day Literary Quiz – and, being unashamedly competitive, I also enjoyed reading the winning results.
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Batman and Vertigo 
Thursday, December 31, 2009, 09:37 AM
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I saw Tim Burton’s first Batman film again last night and was struck by the similarities between the closing scenes and the climax of Vertigo. As I’ve been doing some work on repetition (both internal and intertextual) in Vertigo, I wanted to think about why Tim Burton chose to include haunting echoes of Hitchcock in an apparently very different film.

Batman’s final showdown with the Joker takes place on a bell tower. Both the setting – and more crucially the camera angles used – recall two key moments in Vertigo. In the first the heroine only seems to fall to her death, in the second both fall and death are genuine. Others have noted these similarities.

But what is their effect? I only started thinking about Vertigo at the very end of Batman but reflecting back over the whole film I thought other possible echoes could be identified. In an earlier sequence Batman tries to save Jack Napier from falling into a tub of acid but to his horror sees his enemy fall to his apparent death. (Napier is hideously deformed and reinvents himself as the Joker.) Vertigo also features an earlier prolepsis of the bell tower scenes when Scottie fails to save his policeman colleague from falling off a roof. The detectives, like Batman, are chasing a criminal at the time.

In Vertigo Scottie is intent on transforming his girlfriend Judy into the double of his ‘dead’ love, Madeleine. (In fact Judy is Madeleine so the transformation works uncannily well!) Something similar happens in Batman but in this film it is the Joker who is determined to change the appearance of his girlfriends. He disfigures one girl with acid, forcing her to wear a mask, and tries to do the same to Vicki Vale.

This link with Scottie is again hinted at when the Joker finally falls to his death. His form as it lies on the ground seems to echo Scottie’s own nightmares of falling – the image which is reproduced on the film’s iconic poster.

So the virtuous Batman and the evil Joker are linked by their shared affinities with Hitchcock’s equivocal hero, Scottie. If this is the intention (or at least the effect) of the Vertigo strand in Batman it would link the caped crusader with other ‘good’ characters – Prospero, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Doctor Who and Hamlet for example – who seem to have a curious bond with their antagonists.

UPDATE
My work on Vertigo is partly concerned with the uncanny sense of déjà vu the viewer experiences if s/he recognizes the way Hitchcock is recycling earlier texts. Batman represented a further stage in this repetitive, allusive cycle and last night, by an uncanny coincidence, I found myself watching yet another quotation of Vertigo - Death Becomes Her. Here one of the heroines is another blonde Madeleine who falls to her ‘death’, returns to life, and is transformed with cosmetics by her husband. The allusions to Vertigo in both these films are briefly noted in the Wikipedia article on Vertigo . But the fact that I watched both films on consecutive nights is just a spooky coincidence!

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Allusion and the Visual Imagination 
Thursday, December 17, 2009, 12:12 PM
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Allusion has always been the main focus of my research. When you try to establish that one text is alluding to (or just unconsciously echoing) another, it is usual to try to pinpoint local verbal echoes or maybe the repetition of some plot element. But it can also be interesting to think about such literary links in terms of the affinities between the ‘pictures’ they create in your mind as you read. For example at the ‘Cultures of Translation’ conference I gave a presentation suggesting that a sixteenth-century poem by Thomas Underdowne about Theseus and Ariadne might, in some small way, have influenced A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The links between the two were comparatively slight and for me the strongest link between them was visual – the situations and relationships between characters are really quite different but if you were to illustrate certain scenes from both texts you’d probably produce two very similar designs.

Another example of ‘visual’ impact linking two texts which might seem to have little in common relates to the sources of Hamlet. In Saxo’s version of the Hamlet story, Hamlet returns from apparent death, is reunited with his mother in a hall where a tapestry hangs, kills the followers of his wicked uncle, and torches the building. Visually this is very similar to what happens at the end of the Odyssey, and the process of visualising the two scenes serves to occlude differences (Penelope is Odysseus’ wife not his mother, the suitors are his main enemies not mere followers of a single enemy, the wicked uncle, and the tapestries have a totally different significance) and highlight all the affinities between them.

Recently I’ve been returning to the Orpheus story, particularly to instances of the myth’s reception which imply that Orpheus subconsciously wanted Eurydice to die, and thus looked back at her on purpose. Again, considering the way we visualise the fatal glance may help explain why such an apparently perverse reversal of the original legend has been a significant factor in the story’s afterlife. If we look at this painting of the story we may wonder ‘did she fall or was she pushed’ whereas in this depiction Orpheus seems to be strangling rather than clinging on to his wife.

Thus thinking about the importance of the visual can perhaps help explain the cognitive mechanisms behind the way a later author processes and responds to an earlier text – and also perhaps illuminate some of the strange ways in which stories get distorted or reversed when they are retold.

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Impact and the REF: Educators for Reform 
Saturday, December 12, 2009, 10:11 AM
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Like most academics I don’t like the crude instrumentalism which has been creeping into Higher Education. Back in 2003 Charles Clarke famously dismissed subjects such as Medieval History as ‘ornamental’ and even said that he found the idea of education for its own sake ‘a bit dodgy’. And now academics are fighting the new proposals that ‘impact’ should play a major part in the 2013 REF. This has been much discussed elsewhere and Stefan Collini does a particularly good job of demolishing the proposals on grounds of logic as well as principle.

So I was quite interested to receive an email from a group called ‘Educators for Reform’ asking for my support, I assume because I had signed two separate petitions protesting against the new emphasis on ‘impact’. As teaching has finished, I took the time to read the statement they attached and emailed a response. There were parts of their manifesto that I went along with completely. I don’t think many academics would dispute this statement for example:

‘A desire to make the economy more productive has ... put into question the value of learning for its own sake.’

But I was less swayed by this one:

‘A wish to make society more equal has undermined the teaching of knowledge, fixed syllabuses and assessment by examinations.’

It somehow suggests that there's a kind of zero-sum game relationship between equality and good education. I’m not saying that there isn’t some grain of truth in the point made by Educators for Reform here, but I still don’t see why you can’t try to achieve both genuine excellence and equality.

They go on to claim that education should be about ‘Recognition of the benefits of competition, rigour and elitism’. In one way I was actually quite attracted to that slightly startling and provocative ‘elitism’. I was reminded of an exchange in Frasier:

Frasier: 'Niles, do you think I'm elitist?'
Niles: 'Of course I do - you needn't worry about that'.

However I'm not sure what it means in practice. For example, as someone who works in a post-92 university in a very research active department, I'm concerned about moves to focus funding in just a handful of research intensive institutions. There has also been talk of limiting the number of universities or departments which can take on PhD students. Such moves would encourage many of the most ambitious staff to move away from new universities and thus compromise the experience of the students who study in such departments, students who will typically be from state schools and come from families which haven’t had previous experience of HE. I am against any steps which will make the distinctions between HE’s tiers more fixed and rigid.

Since responding to their email I’ve found out a little more about ‘Educators for Reform’ at this blog.
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The Culture of Translation 
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 01:44 PM
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I went to an excellent conference last weekend, The Culture of Translation in Early Modern England and France, 1500-1660, organised by Tania Demetriou and Rowan Tomlinson. Although all the papers I heard were very impressive I’ll just comment on one panel which particularly resonated with my own research.

The first paper was Paul White’s ‘From Commentary to Translation: Concepts of the Text’. The focus was Jodocus Badius Ascensius, a Renaissance scholar and printer. Paul White examined his use of various metaphors to describe the relationship between modern writers, commentators and translators and their earlier models. He quotes Badius’ fanciful conceit of Herodotus being ‘dressed in Roman toga and fine Latin’ by Lorenzo Valla and looking round in wonder and delight at his new surroundings, like the ‘reanimated Roman’ in Mary Shelley’s tale.

I found another image quoted from Badius equally suggestive. He compares the relationship between a text and its commentary to the relationship between capital and interest. It’s always difficult to tell which elements of a text’s reception have been ‘read out of’ the text - in other words they were at some level already there - and which have been ‘read into’ the text, and are thus new and unearned. The ‘interest’ analogy seems to capture that uncertainty very pleasingly (particularly as I am rather vague about economics.)

Conference organiser Tania Demetriou gave an extremely lucid and convincing paper, ‘”A Single Night’s Animal”: Translating Penelope from Epic to Drama’. Here she argued that Penelope’s celebrated ‘chastity’ is largely an accretion imposed on Homer’s text by his later translators and commentators, not because of any dramatic alterations to the text but simply through the words the later writers use to translate Homer’s epithets for Penelope. I found myself using Tania’s argument to illustrate a parallel point in a class on Paradise Lost the other day. It is very difficult now to recover the effect of reading the poem for the first time because so many of Milton’s innovations now seem canonical, even Biblical.

The final paper of the panel was Raphael Lyne’s ‘Cicero in Ben Jonson’s Catiline.’ 'I haven't been not to say right slap through him, very lately,' says Mr Wegg of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in Our Mutual Friend – and that’s also true of me and Catiline. Nevertheless I very much enjoyed Raphael’s reflections on the function and effect of Jonson’s long near quotation from Cicero in the middle of the play, an interlude which doesn’t seem to have found favour with his first audiences. I also wondered whether there might be some metatheatrical significance within the extended quote. Some of Cicero’s original (though of course translated) lines perhaps acquire an extra edge when transplanted to a new context, and some of the changes also seemed to respond to the fact that this Cicero is speaking to Jacobeans as well as Romans.

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