The link below is to an article that considers the place of literature during a pandemic.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at some names (and the story behind the names) that writers have given to their pets.
A plague of serious proportions is ravaging the world. But not for the first time.
One English chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, noted how this “great mortality” transformed the known world: “Towns once packed with people were emptied of their inhabitants, and the plague spread so thickly that the living were hardly able to bury the dead.” As death tolls rose at exponential rates, rents dwindled, and swaths of land fell to waste “for want of the tenants who used to cultivate it….”
As a medieval historian, I’ve been teaching the subject of plague for many years. If nothing else, the feelings of panic between the Black Death and the COVID-19 pandemic are reminiscent.
Like today’s crisis, medieval writers struggled to make sense of the disease; theories on its origins and transmission abounded, some more convincing than others. Whatever the result, “… so much misery ensued,” wrote another English author, it was feared that the world would “hardly be able to regain its previous condition.”
A disease without borders
Medieval writers produced a variety of answers for the plague’s origins. Gabriele de Mussis’ Historia de Morbo attributed the cause to “the mire of manifold wickedness,” the “numberless vices,” and the “limitless capacity for evil” exhibited by an entire human race no longer fearing the judgement of God.
Describing its eastern origins, he further noted how the Genoese and Venetians had imported the disease to western Europe from Caffa (modern-day Ukraine); “carrying the darts of death,” disembarking sailors at these Italian port-cities unwittingly spread the “poison” to their relations, kinsmen and neighbours.
Containing the disease seemed nearly impossible. As Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about Florence, the outcome was all the more severe as those suffering from the disease “mixed with people who were still unaffected …” Like a “fire racing through dry or oily substances,” healthy persons became ill.
Possessing the power to “kill large numbers by air alone,” through breath or conversation, it was thought, the plague “could not be avoided.”
Looking for a cure
Scholars worked tirelessly to find a cure. The Paris Medical Faculty devoted its energies to discovering the causes of these amazing events, which even “the most gifted intellects” were struggling to comprehend. They turned to experts on astrology and medicine about the causes of the epidemic.
On the pope’s orders, anatomical examinations were carried out in many Italian cities “to discover the origins of the disease.” When the corpses were opened up, all victims were found to have “infected lungs.”
Not content with lingering uncertainty, Parisian masters turned towards ancient wisdom and compiled a book of existing philosophical and medical knowledge. Yet they also acknowledged the limitations in finding a “sure explanation and perfect understanding,” quoting Pliny to the effect that “some accidental causes of storms are still uncertain, or cannot be explained.”
Self-isolation and travel bans
Prevention was critical. Quarantine and self-isolation were necessary measures.
In 1348, to prevent the illness from spreading through the Tuscan region of Pistoia, strict fines were enforced against the movement of peoples. Guards were placed at the city’s gates to prevent travellers entering or leaving.
These civic ordinances stipulated against importing linen or woollen cloths that might carry the disease. Demonstrating similar sanitation concerns, bodies of the dead were to remain in place until properly enclosed in a wooden box “to avoid the foul stench which comes from dead bodies”; moreover, graves were dug “two and a half arms-lengths deep.”
Butchers and retailers nevertheless remained open. And yet a number of regulations were imposed so that “the living are not made ill by rotten and corrupt food,” with further bans to minimize the “stink and corruption” considered harmful to Pistoia’s citizens.
Community response and resolve
Authorities responded in different ways to the outbreak. Recognizing the plague’s arrival by ship, the people of Messina “expelled the Genoese from the city and harbour with all speed.” In central Europe, foreigners and merchants were banished from the inns and “compelled to leave the area immediately.”
These were severe measures, but seemingly necessary given the varied social reaction to plague. As Boccaccio famously recounted in his Decameron, the whole spectrum of human behaviour ensued: from extreme religious devotion, sober living, self-isolation and a restricted diet to warding off evil through heavy drinking, singing and merrymaking.
The fear of contagion eroded social customs. The number of dead grew so high in many regions that proper burials and religious services became impossible to perform: new religious customs emerged pertaining to preparing for and presiding over death.
Families were changed. An account from Padua mentions how “wife fled the embrace of a dear husband, the father that of a son and the brother that of a brother.”
Ultimately, there is a human element to plague too often lost in the historical record. Its influence should not be underestimated or forgotten. The modern response to pandemic evokes a similar community response. Different in scope and scale, and indeed in medical practice, administrative and public health actions remain critical.
But in 2020, we are not, as Boccaccio lamented, seeing the law and social order break down. Essential duties and responsibilities are still being carried out. Against our own 21st-century plague, wisdom and ingenuity are prevailing; citizens hang on “the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine,” which unlike the 14th century, is anything but “profitless and unavailing.”
What a subject! And, in very truth, for once, a ‘strangely neglected’ one.
So Kingsley Amis began his famous 1971 essay on the hangover How different is our present moment, when it would be hard to find a media outlet on New Year’s Day not featuring an item about the effectiveness of remedies. Every age has its preferred cure: Pliny the Elder advocated raw owl’s eggs in wine. Shakespeare refers to “small ale”, which remained popular into the 19th century. The early 20th century was the golden age of hangover cocktails such as the Bloody Mary and the Prairie Oyster – but also of Alka-Seltzer. Amis recommends a “Polish Bison” – vodka mixed with hot Bovril.
Even scientists have got involved and hangover research is a subfield of medicine and psychology. Studies have explored links between hangover severity and alcohol use disorders, the hangover’s economic cost, the effectiveness of remedies and the ethical implications of a pharmaceutical cure.
The bad news is that, if you’re feeling unwell this morning, all reputable studies have shown that the only thing guaranteed to relieve symptoms is the passing of time.
To be fair, Amis never thought that remedies – and physical after-effects including headache, nausea and dehydration – had been ignored. What had really been neglected was what he termed the hangover’s “metaphysical superstructure”. That is all the emotional baggage that often follows drinking: guilt, shame, self-pity and the more nebulous “hangxiety”.
Science can tell us why we feel sick after heavy drinking: dehydration, contracted blood vessels causing headaches and the build-up of acetaldehyde. But when a hangover makes us unwell we don’t just mean physical symptoms.
Science finds emotions less susceptible to measurement than physical effects. For the former, we require literature and the arts. Literature is an outlet for feeling, but also an expression of individual and cultural values. There is a surprisingly rich tradition of hangover literature in western culture – in writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Robert Burns and George Eliot, Jean Rhys and Helen Fielding – that has been largely ignored and goes some way to explaining why hangovers might make us feel like mending our ways.
In a 1791 epistle to Maria Riddell, a wretchedly hungover Burns apologises for an unwanted sexual advance on her sister-in-law. “I write you from the regions of hell, amid the horrors of the damned”, he begins, before bemoaning his “aching head reclined on a pillow of ever-piercing thorn”, and “an infernal tormentor” called “Recollection”.
This is penitent’s rhetoric, reminding us that Burns lived in rigidly moral Presbyterian Scotland. Pounding head and dehydration are just reprisal for his indiscretion and his letter is an apology for sinfulness. Shame is a powerful cultural force: if there is a cure here it will be found in forgiveness.
Hangovers often reveal the personal and social values that make us feel “bad”. In other words, the hangover is both a physical and cultural deterrent. Guilt and shame are not just nervous reflexes but part of a superstructure of values – Amis chose his words wisely – without which they cannot be understood.
Men and women
Science argues that hangover severity is different for men and women, focusing on metabolism and body mass. But surely the real differences are sociocultural? We could compare the hangovers of the alcoholic journalist, Peter Fallow, from Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), with those suffered by Helen Fielding’s ladette, Bridget Jones.
When hungover, Fallow seeks penance through strenuous exercise: “Never again. He would begin an exercise regimen tonight. Or tomorrow, in any case.” Wolfe makes it evident that hangxiety is not free floating, but derives from Fallow’s impression of being culturally tarnished: “It wouldn’t be this pathetic American business of jogging, either. It would be something clean, crisp, brisk, strenuous … English.” The body is a site of cultural meaning.
Jones faces low self-esteem when hungover. Her worries superficially recall those of Fallow, but her negative self image involves the distinctive pressures put upon women to marry and have children. She obsesses about weight gain, her looks (“Oh why am I so unattractive? Why?”), her ability to attract a partner and her ticking body clock.
The hangover’s impact on family life has been the focus of hangover studies. Here literature also points us to cultural variables.
The wife who nags her husband for his drunken ways is a stock figure of comic fiction from the 16th century to the present day. John Taylor captures the type in his colourful Skimmington’s Lecture (1639):
What not a word this morning … have you lost your tongue, you may be ashamed, had you any grace in you at all, to bee such a common drunkard, a pisse-pot.
But in the Victorian period Janet Dempster in Eliot’s Janet’s Repentance (1857) tells us of a different domestic power dynamic. Because she is unable to reproach her abusive, though popular, husband, she drowns her sorrows. While Robert’s “good head” for drink is legendary, Janet’s hangovers mean she neglects housework and loses her “good” reputation. Her shame shows that she is held to a different set of standards than her husband, the “stigmatising subject position” of women drinkers. (Janet is, however, able to repent, while Robert ends up dying after delirium tremens.)
It is possible to defy moral judgement for our lack of self-care, wasted time or embarrassment. However, even the most rebellious of literature’s drinkers feel self-doubt bite during hangovers. Martin Amis’s John Self (Money, 1984), Alan Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958) and A. L. Kennedy’s Hannah Luckraft (Paradise, 2004) are notorious for recklessness and defiance when drunk. Their hangovers are, however, some of the most crippling in literature. Luckraft revels in blackouts and casual sexual encounters, but admits: “Inside, I am mostly built out of remorse.” Self’s hangovers are a necessary curb on a particularly toxic brand of masculinity. Seaton’s motto is “don’t let the bastards grind you down”, but the hangover of Sunday morning succeeds boozy Saturday nights and he eventually submits to marriage and a steady job.
Literature shows that hangovers are rarely just a collection of physical symptoms. A recent leader article in The Guardian was given the headline: “The Guardian view on the science of hangovers: no more research needed”. Perhaps we don’t need another article about the best remedies – but it is worth reflecting that there is much more to a hangover than bodily symptoms.
Hangover literature tells us quite a lot about our attitudes to alcohol, how they form and what they mean. This New Year, alongside the Bloody Mary, it might just be worth picking up a book. I don’t claim it will make anyone feel better, but it could help us understand a little more about why drinking often makes us feel bad about ourselves.
Due to the increased volume of spam posts and propaganda from other websites (including those of a ‘Christian’ nature who think it is acceptable practice to spam others) I am attempting to tighten up the protocols for comments on this Blog. I don’t want to stop comments altogether, but sadly, that may eventually happen. It seems there are some idiots (I am being kind) who want to continue to attempt to post their propaganda and nonsense on this Blog via the comments, even though they never get through the moderation process. I am fed up with having to work through all of this rubbish (and that is generally what it is). I understand there are some genuine people out there that will be inconvenienced by this ‘tightening’ up in the comments process here and I really didn’t want you to have to endure this moving forward. I am saddened that this has had to happen.
It’s that time of year when I take some time off for a variety of reasons and tasks – in short, it’s annual leave time. Yes, some much appreciated time off work. Last year I attempted a holiday and nearly died – diseased kidneys, blood poisoning, and internal bleeding – all a result of a kidney stone. What followed was months of illness, as that experience proved a catalyst for an old illness to make a renewed appearance also (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – CFS). Finally, in the last few weeks, I have been reasonably well and have been working at a frantic pace, trying to make up for lost time.
So now I hope to enjoy these next few weeks, do some traveling (including to the previous destination that I never arrived at due to falling ill on the way), get a bit of personal things done (yeah, including a host of medical stuff) and really, just to relax and have a break – an enjoyable break in fact.
So what does this mean for the Blogs? Well, I was going to continue to post in a haphazard manner over the next three weeks, but have since thought better of it and will not do so. So no new posts for the next three weeks – there may be some still to appear on one of the Blogs that I scheduled in advance, but you won’t hear much from me during this period. So enjoy the break from me, as I enjoy the break from everyday usual life.
I have been battling poor health now for months and I have reached the point of peak exhaustion (if that is a thing). I’ll be taking extended leave during May, along with a lengthy break from the Blogs, with the aim being that of taking the opportunity to recover and recharge the batteries. However, I also need an immediate break and so will not be posting to any of my Blogs this week. I have to try and get through work through April, in order to get through to May and my extended break. This may prove to be a very difficult task and even perhaps prove unattainable, yet that is the goal. Each day closer makes the remaining time that little bit easier to contend with. So, in short, there will be no posts for the remainder of this week and I will then start to bring the Blogs back ‘online’ again after that – at least until my extended break in May.
Decolonising literary studies isn’t simply a matter of relieving the symptoms, substituting this author for that or setting up a new canon in place of the old. The challenge is to address the chronic underlying condition by thinking beyond the guiding assumptions and aspirations of any colonial-era curriculum.
To start with, this means ditching the ideas of language that were central to colonial linguistics. On that logic, for instance, the curriculum was thought to affirm one supposedly unitary, national language (let’s say French). Or at best, in the case of Comparative Literature, it affirmed two supposedly unitary, national languages (for example, French and English).
The reason? Language, it was assumed, is the expression of the national “character”, “genius” or “soul” – to put it in the most idealistic terms. Or it is the bearer of “the culture”. This was usually understood as the shared, often ancestral values, practices and forms of knowledge by which a people (or national community) sees itself and understands its place in the world.
This way of thinking informed the selection of great writers that gave the colonial-era literary curriculum its content. And it defined one of its core aims: to provide the means by which the nation could come to know and affirm itself as a community rooted in one language, one history, one culture and one state.
At home this was a quasi-theological exercise in self-knowledge – the talk was all about encountering the “national soul” through literature. Abroad it was a rather more worldly instrument of self-imposition – the export version of the curriculum serving to assert the sovereignty of the colonising culture and the primacy of its language, values and ways of knowing.
To design a decolonising curriculum, then, we need to start by abandoning the dubiously assured, dubiously otherworldly assumptions underpinning this legacy.
This means conceptualising language in more secular or earthy terms. Language as a river, say, the source of which is ultimately obscure, the mouth always somewhere further on. It’s a strange kind of river too. Many other major rivers, not just minor tributaries, constantly flow in and out of it. And no state or community (national or otherwise) can claim exclusive rights over it.
Push this rather benign, naturalising analogy too far, however, and you gloss over colonisation’s destructive effects. Backed most often by the state and its allies, some languages, after all, became vast, transcontinental canals – think of English or Spanish. And constructing these often caused others to dry up altogether – think of Aushiri or |Xam.
So what would a curriculum founded on this alternative idea of language look like?
For one thing, given its central premise – no language is the product of any one history or the property of any one community – this more secular conceptualisation would put pressure on the inherited disciplinary structures of the university itself. Think of all those separate departments of English, French, Spanish, etc. Yet it need not follow that they should fall. What has to go are the canal-building assumptions on which they were often founded, and the silo mentalities they still tend to foster.
Taking the more benign river perspective first, a decolonising curriculum would begin by encouraging students to uncover the many “foreign” languages within those they have chosen to study. This would reveal how translation, far from being an anomalous or specialist activity, is integral to the ordinary life of all languages.
In a similar spirit, it would make it possible for them to follow the shifting contours of linguistic geography, which seldom coincide with state boundaries. This would leave them free to trace the complex movement of languages through multiple speech communities and across all media.
The canal perspective would require other lines of enquiry. Here the curriculum would ask students to reflect critically on the legacies of colonial linguistics, the interconnected histories of standardisation and marginalisation, and the impact they had on the way all languages were understood in the past.
Beyond colonial-era silos
The river and canal perspectives inevitably raise different questions of ownership, multilingualism and translation. Yet both open up ways of thinking beyond theologically inspired, colonial-era silos. And both make it possible for a properly decolonising linguistics to emerge in which the interdependence of self- and other-knowledge is central.
Literary writing, too, would have a transformed status. Since a decolonising curriculum would treat linguistic inventiveness as an ordinary feature of language, like translation, it would have no need of the colonial-era’s sacralised canon of great writers.
Equally, it would not assume that writers all sign up to canal-building national traditions simply by default. Many may have in the past, and some may well continue to see themselves in similar terms today, but the presumption has lost all currency. How innovative writers relate to communities, whether national, sub-national or supranational, can now seldom be known in advance of actually reading their work.
A decolonising curriculum would therefore consider the multiple ways in which writers negotiate the linguistic, literary and cultural legacies of the colonial era. Some reject them, some indigenise them, some re-foreignise them, and others refuse all clear-cut options, choosing to work between languages and traditions instead.
Does this mean a decolonising literary curriculum is simply “world literature” by another name? Possibly, but only in the sense in which the Bangla poet-philosopher and Nobel Literature Prize-winner, Rabindranath Tagore, used the phrase over a century ago when he affirmed the promise of what he called বিশ্ব সাহিত্য (Vishva Sahitya). For Tagore, this was a call to decolonise knowledge and to reinvent the university. It was also a call to learn to think (and live) creatively amid the world’s turbulence without any craving for otherworldly certainty or finality.
It is a call worth heeding again.
Just a quick post to let everyone know that this Blog will be on a break from now, over the silly season and should return early in the New Year. This isn’t so much because of Christmas and the New Year directly, but because my work schedule is so great and I won’t have the time to put in on the Blog during this period. I would have liked to keep up the posts, but it has become clear I just can’t keep it up at the moment – it is far too busy at work and with increasing staff shortages over the next couple of weeks, it will not get any easier. I will still post books I finish reading over this period.
Let me also take the opportunity to wish you all a happy and safe Christmas, and New Year period. Enjoy this time with family and friends.
It was an ordinary lecture to first-year students, on “Women Writers and Modernism.” My brief was to introduce the different ways men and women responded to the social, intellectual and artistic challenges of the modernist movement.
This is a subject about the literature of the early 20th century, but it tackles some difficult social questions too. While men were facing the horrors of war, the challenges of industrialisation and the disruption of many familiar intellectual and social hierarchies, women were gaining access to education, greater participation in the democratic process, and fuller employment.
I told the students that several days ago on talkback radio, where the topic was sexual and domestic violence against women, I had heard a caller say that many men felt threatened by women’s increasing participation in the workforce. These were complicated issues, I said, but it did seem that we were still rehearsing arguments that were current over a hundred years ago, and that these patterns of anxiety were part of broader systemic patterns associated with patriarchy and capitalism.
But it was time to turn to my women writers. I began with Hilda Doolittle (re-named “H.D.” by Ezra Pound), and talked about the way many women writers re-wrote classical stories from a woman’s perspective. I clicked on to my next slide, part of her poem written in 1916, Eurydice.
I stopped. Silence fell around me, and I could not speak. I tried again, but could not get out a word. I had been in full rhetorical flight in front of several hundred students, but suddenly felt an awful silence spreading, as my students realised first that something was wrong, and then as they realised why I had stopped.
The elegant and unusual name Eurydice — and the awful death through sexual violence of a young woman, less than a kilometre north of our campus, less than two months ago — was resonating powerfully in the lecture theatre.
Unable to speak, I felt a moment’s panic and shame, fearing the students would think I had staged the whole thing for dramatic effect. For surely I could not be surprised by my own choice of text.
I gathered myself together, reminded the students of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (abducted by Hades into the Underworld and released into Orpheus’ care on condition he not look back until he leads her into the sunlight), and read these lines.
So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;
so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;
if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.
The students were still and silent as I read. Hearing this voice of a dead woman from the mythical past called up the presence — I think we all felt it — of the young woman whose story we all knew. For those few moments, we held vigil for Eurydice Dixon.
This is what it feels like to be “triggered” by literature, to have a fictional incident or even a name suddenly ambush you from your train of thought, your narrative curiosity, and your readerly pleasure. Literature can take your breath away, even when the trauma it recalls is a communal one, not a personal tragedy.
And yet I only half-heartedly, and only occasionally give “trigger warnings,” advising students that they may encounter violence and trauma of various kinds in literary texts. The best argument for such warnings is not that students can then refuse to read, but that students suffering post-traumatic stress may prepare themselves for the confronting business of discussing literary texts in classes: the emotional engagement with others in a public setting.
Such warnings testify to the very real power of literary texts to challenge and confront us, often in ways we cannot anticipate.
But this incident also reveals the impossibility of such warnings. There was no way I could have known I would be taken so deeply by surprise at my own response; no way I would ever have warned students that a poem about a mythical abduction to the Underworld might trigger this awful feeling.
Literature works in mysterious and unpredictable ways. This episode reminds us of its astonishing capacity to strike emotional chords and resonances. Such moments can make us feel awful, and uncomfortable, and can disrupt our carefully managed public and professional performances of the self, but they can also generate strong emotional connections between people, across time and different cultures. Of course I can’t be sure what all the students were thinking, though an unusual number of them came up to me afterwards and thanked me for the lecture.
Moreover, if literature produces this sting, it also produces the cure. Seeing H.D.’s beautiful poem on my screen gave me the courage to go on, and to do justice to her work. The poem gave me the words to say next. Reading that poem — finding structure and pattern in its cadences; and finding a voice in its lyrical core — produced poetic order out of emotional chaos.