When literature takes you by surprise: or, the case against trigger warnings



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A makeshift memorial to Eurydice Dixon at Princes Park on June 16.
Ellen Smith/AAP

Stephanie Trigg, University of Melbourne

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.

A 1917 portrait of Hilda Doolittle.
Wikimedia Commons

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
at last;

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.

Eurydice Dixon.
AAP

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.

Titian’s Orpheus and Eurydice, painted circa 1508.
Wikimedia Commons

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.

The ConversationMoreover, 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.

Stephanie Trigg, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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More Time Away


I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.

System Restored


I am very thankful. Having battled away for the past 48 hours trying to salvage files, I have now also been able to get into the system restore feature on my computer, attempt to restore the system and… it worked. Very thankful. It is working again.

I now need to bring the various Blogs back online and to start posting again.

Time for a Break – Sick Again


I have been battling an ongoing illness for the last week or so, with it showing very few signs of any imminent departure. So it is time once again to have a break and to have a rest while I wait for a restoration of my health and well-being. How long will the break be? That is a difficult question to answer as I don’t know how long it will take to get well again, but I will certainly not be posting here until next weekend at the earliest. I really feel I need a complete break and to just rest (I will, after all, be still working at my day job which makes recovery more difficult). I am hopeful that it won’t be much more than a week. I have been trying to press on, but have often-times failed in posting and turned in to bed instead.

Farewell to Paper presents an engaging double act on lost things



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Evgeny Grishkovets in Farewell to Paper: a meditation on times past, the fears raised by the dizzying turnover of technologies and the importance of patience.
Toni Wilkinson

Stephen Chinna, University of Western Australia

Soon after Evgeny Grishkovets and his translator Kyle Wilson walk on stage to perform Farewell to Paper at the Perth Festival, Grishkovets reminds the audience that the performance will be of two hours duration. This advice will be returned to later, when a mild rebuke is delivered to spectators seen glancing at their watches.

While advertised in the festival program as a “one-man show”, the rapport between the actor, Grishkovets, and the translator, Wilson, lends the performance the sense of a double act. Wilson – a translator and specialist in Slavonic languages – has read the script beforehand but in performance he incorporates Grishkovets’s ad libs. Grishkovets almost dances his part as he speaks, pausing for Wilson’s translations, sometimes interjecting.

Under fluorescent lights in front of a backdrop of candy stripe wallpaper and five doors, the set is cluttered with the detritus of obsolete objects, such as a writing desk with a set of plans, various papers, and two typewriters. The floor is scattered with books, map cases and a globe of the world. Grishkovets periodically opens one or more of the doors behind him to reveal objects that supply visual reinforcements to his scenarios of loss.

As well as paper, there are farewells to many other things, such as the traditions and the technologies of a previous age. Through the course of the performance, Grishkovets proceeds to offer up a succession of narratives, frequently utilising physical props of material items and practices that have become obsolete. These include things such as quill pens, pen knives, blotting paper, inkwells, the handwritten letter, letter openers, telegrams, and more.

What becomes obvious is that these previous technologies enforced a need to compose, and a time to reflect. He describes the act of writing a letter, the licking and sealing of an envelope, the purchase and placing of a stamp, and the journey to the post office or the mail box. The list of obsolete items and practices continues with typewriters (it would appear that the last one was made in Delhi in 2011), and a nostalgic narration on the joys of owning his first Pentium computer.

As well as paper, there are farewells to many other things, such as the traditions and the technologies of a previous age.
Toni Wilkinson, Perth Festival

Many of these items are presented physically through the five doors in the backdrop of the set. For example, a narrative concerning the discovery of two 1000-year old messages written on birch bark leads to Grishkovets opening the doors at either end of the set to reveal birch trees. At suitable moments, other doors are opened to display such objects as a mound of handwritten letters and a bookcase.

In a marvellous display of three sequential door revelations, we see a mailbox in which the young Evgeny posted his first letter while staying with his grandparents. In the second is the mass of pipes and conduits that he imagined transported his letter underground to his parents elsewhere. In the third, the row of dilapidated mailboxes in the stairwell of an apartment building where letters were delivered.

Grishkovets is a subtle performer. His excellent sense of timing, his economy of action, his communication with the audience, all reveal an actor skilled in his craft. Wilson is also an effective performer, recognising the requirements of pace, timing, rhythm and in tune with the subtle nuances of Grishkovets’s delivery of his lines. Wilson’s frequent wry exchanges with Grishkovets over small points of translation add to the flavour of the double act between them.

Grishkovets often focuses on the visual, the tactile, the aural and the olfactory aspects of paper technology. Do you appreciate the weight of a book, and the texture of its cover, of its pages? Can you savour the smell of a book – and its dust? Can you enjoy the smell of newsprint, the rustle of a newspaper? Can you savour the smell of an smart phone? Does an iPad rustle?

A door opens on birch trees.
Toni Wilkinson, Perth Festival

While these juxtapositions have a light tone, the author is invoking a sense of a deeper nostalgia and regret for the “signs of time past, or of times that are passing” as he puts in the program notes.

As well as being a meditation on times past and the fears raised by the dizzying turnover of technologies, there is also a key message here about the importance of patience.

This message is foreshadowed in that early warning concerning the two-hour duration. However, while Grishkovets is lamenting the loss of a slower paced existence and demonising the speed of 21st century life, he does it with humour, a light touch, and a willingness to point out the drawbacks associated with previous technologies and practices in a world of paper.

The ConversationA thoroughly engaging performance by Grishkovets, aided by the sensitively presented translations by Wilson, was rewarded with strong applause by a full house audience.

Stephen Chinna, Senior Honorary Research Fellow, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Having A Break


This is just a short post by way of an announcement – that I am going to take some time off from my Blogs for the next week or so. I expect to be back posting in the usual manner from about the 16th November. There may be the occasional post before that, but nothing too regular. Why? I just need to get a few things done around the house and in my personal life that I can’t put off any longer, and a short break is also good for my well being. So back in a little bit.

Time Off Again


I am currently being assailed by a variety of ailments and illnesses, and it is therefore necessary for me to take some time off to recuperate. I’m hoping this will only be about a week or so, and then be back at it again. There may be the odd post, but nothing much and nothing is certain. Anyhow, have a break from me and we can get back together in just over a week perhaps. Thanks.