And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 28. juni 2012

Author or Anonymity

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
- Emily Dickinson

In 1967 Roland Barthes claimed that to give a text an author was an imposition to that text. This view was presented in his essay The Death of the Author in which he argued that it was the reader, not the writer, who gave the text its unity and that the writer was a thing of literatures past. Barthes also parenthetically reprimanded the earlier school of New Criticism for not having done away with the author, despire the school's focus on studying the text itself. This idea of a divorce between author and text has recently become very pertinent due to a relatively new literary trend, the autobiographical novel, or - should you prefer - the fictionalised autobiography. The emergence of such novels have caused reviewers and critics to prophesise that the border between fiction and non-fiction will not just be blurred but eventually completely erased.

My personal go-to figurehead of this trend is John Maxwell Coetzee whose autobiographical trilogy - comprising Boyhood, Youth and Summer - chronicles the life of John Maxwell Coetzee told through the voices of a handful of narrators. Although the books are autobiographical in the sense that they are written by the (living) author John Maxwell Coetzee, none of the narrators are Coetzee himself despite John Maxwell Coetzee being the protagonist of all the three novels, although he, interestingly, is dead in the last novel, Summer. In the first two books the narrator is an impersonal, third-person presence that reduces the protagonist to "him", while the last book features a range of narrators, most importantly fictionalised versions of persons who have been important figures in John Maxwell Coetzee's life.

Lately I have become increasingly fascinated with this particulary literary fiction: the creation of an eponymous protagonist who remains separate from the author. This in itself is of course not new. Marcel Proust's Remeberance of Things Past (or, should you prefer, In Search of Lost Time), is perhaps the most monumental work in the umbrella category under which "autobiography", "memoir", "pseudo-autobiography" and "fictionalised autobiography" all may be heaped, and naturally Proust has served as a point of comparison for this recent surge of fictionalised autobiography.

In this genre the author is proved to be very much alive, for the author lends not only his hand but also his name to the narrator or the protagonist. Consequently, however, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the author/writer and the narrator/protagonist as his or her persona, and despite the expressed independence between the two figures the exact nature of this independence remains elusive.

In addition to the resurrection of the author there is also another interesting consequence to be found in the wake of the fictionalised autobiography, namely that all pretension of anonymity - which is a natural consequence of the author's death - has been utterly abandoned. By writing books whose protagonists are eponymous the author can be more certain of being remembered by readers, reviewers and literary canonists, and their fame may have a greater duration than had their protagonists had more inventive names. It is not to say that this is the desired consequence of the authors - the reasons for writing such novels are as diverse as the novels themselves - but it is nonetheless a natural, if not sought after, consequence. To ensure one's fame in this very public manner is emblematic of our day and age when various forms of social media allows an individual to expose him- or herself to the chosen extent and claim a small spotlight somewhere in cyberspace, not entirely unlike Emily Dickinson's poetic frogs.

There is, however, another kind of fame, a kind of fame that has not taken up arms against the mutability of the world and the inexorable passing of the flesh, a kind of fame that requires dead authors and that to some minds is the preferable alternative. This is the anonymous fame. It may at first sound like a contradiction in terms but anonymity does not preclude a person from becoming famous, sometimes perhaps quite the opposite. To be anonymous means that you present your work and your work alone to be judged, leaving no embarrassing details from one's personal life to hamper the praise of peers contemporary or of ages hence. Anonymity also lends an air of venerability and age to a work since it can not be traced, and this is summed up very beautifully in a poem by Manuel Machado (1874-1947), translated by J. M. Cohen for Penguin Book of Spanish Verse:

Tal es la gloria, Guillén,                     Such is the glory, Guillén,
de los que escriben cantares:           Of those who write songs:
oír decir a la gente                           To hear the people say
que no los ha escrito nadie.              That no one wrote these.
- Coplas by Manuel Machado

There is a glory to be found in anonymity, perhaps a satisfaction derived from the fact that your work has endured without your name to aid it along, or that your work endures without you, that your shadow extends further than yourself. This line of thought is perhaps alien to our times where a name means quite a lot, whether it is your original name or one you have assumed. Interestingly enough, however, we find the same line of thought pursued by Machado in the dedication of a well-known Medieval historiography, namely Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain finished in 1136. In his dedication to the Earl of Gloucester, Henry I's illegitimate son, Geoffrey asks him to correct and embellish the work to the effect that "it must no longer be considered as the product of Geoffrey of Monmouth's small talent" (translated by Lewis Thorpe). Here, too, we see that what Geoffrey considers crucial is the fruit of his labours, not his own personal glory (at least that's what he states). For the benefit of his work Geoffrey is more than happy to relinquish the claim of authorship and recede into oblivion. As history turned out this did not happen, but it is nonetheless interesting to see that an author's zeal makes him willing to do away with himself as author, an end much in the vein of Roland Barthes' dictum.

What, then, is the favourable, most honourable course of action? To retain one's name or to pursue one's own oblivion? It is of course very tempting to praise the idea of receding "into the common being", to paraphrase Sir Thomas Browne, but as a historian I prefer very much to have a name - if only a fake one - to attach to a literary corpus. Personally I feel that a writer, artist, architect, musician or any other craftsman has an obligation to posterity to reveal his name, but in this day of self-exposure I would not mind if people were at least somewhat more conscious of anonymity as an alternative.

søndag 24. juni 2012

The Deep and Thorny Way: Going Twitter

For just at that moment the light came over the hill, and there was a mighty twitter in the branches.
- The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien

After about a week of considering pros and cons I have at last decided to join twitter, at least for a trial arrangement. For quite some time I found twitter to be an unattractive form of social exhibitionism, a place where people spew out mundane details of their very mundane lives for all to see. It was predominantly this notion that kept me away for so long, for my life is as mundane as most other people's and I was satisfied with a weekly status update and the odd album on Facebook as my exhibitionist outlet (and this blog, of course). Then I realised two things that slowly made me change perspective. First of all Facebook is not an apt forum for the various things I would actually like to share with my friends, that is quotes and various finds from my journeys through books, details about my research and discoveries from the material world at large. Secondly I was reminded that although people have a tendency to litter the cyberspace with personal details of little or no interest to anyone but themselves, I did not have to do that and nor did I have to follow people who do that.

Twitter appears to me a great forum for keeping in touch with the academic world and friends whose updates you find interesting or care about sufficiently to enjoy even the mundane aspect from their lives. I have not yet decided all the things I want to do with my twitter account, but at this preliminary stage I find it to be a nice venue for sharing quotes from various books, articles and poems I've read, constellations of words I would like other people to know about. I will also use it as a means to promote my blog. Aside from this, however, I do not know where the tweets will take me, but stay tuned for developments.

For those who would like to have their lives potentially enriched by quotes and discoveries, my twitter account can be found here:!/HopeSteffen. Followers or suggestions are all welcome.

mandag 11. juni 2012

Ruins of a Great House

As most of you probably have noticed the UK is currently celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the British throne, the so-called Diamond Jubilee. This celebration has caused much hullabaloo throughout the realm, and a friend in York could tell me that the Queen's face has been staring at her from shopwindows for weeks on end due to her visit to the city in April.

I am no royalist and I have no particular love for the British monarchy, but nor do I harbour any resentment against the Queen herself. I find there to be weighty arguments on both sides of the issue, so while I appreciate her role as a unifying factor in an increasingly devolved political unity, I also find this current recession to be a spectacular bad timing for expensive celebrations. In any case, I would like to obtain a t-shirt with the Queen's face on it just for shits and giggles.

This blogpost is, however, not intended to be about Her Royal Majesty, but about the British Empire which she has seen disintegrate steadily and relentlessly since the 1950s. The Empire, upon which the sun was said to never set, is a fascinating conglomerate that united a vast range of cultural currents that have become attached to a common centre in Britain. These bonds between mother country and colonies are still tangible in the post-colonial cultures. I for my part have noticed this particularly in literature and I have enjoyed the works of writers like Seamus Heaney, John Maxwell Coetzee and Derek Walcott as literatures straddling two worlds or inhabiting a mixed borderland where the colonial heritage still looms large.

This is particularly noticeable in Derek Walcott's work, a man critical to post-colonial optimism and imperial Romanticism alike, and torn between his paternal white heritage and the black culture of his mother's side. One of his earliest printed poems expresses his view on the Empire quite beautifully, a poem using a decaying colonial villa as a metaphor for the Empire itself and titled Ruins of a Great House. I will share this with you, my readers, as a brief memento apropos the Diamond Jubilee, a work that encompasses both the colonial experience through its content and the culture of the Motherland by its epigraph. The poem was published in the collection In a Green Night. Unfortunately I do not have the rights to post the poem on my own blog, but the poem and an audioclip of Derek Walcott's own reading can be found here.

tirsdag 5. juni 2012

The Transit of Venus

While I'm writing this the planet of Venus passes between the earth and the sun and can be seen as a dark speck against the sun's surface for those who have the right equipment. This astronomical phenomenon is called the transit of Venus and it occurs with a distinct regularity. The last time this happened was in 2004 and the next transit will be in 105 years' time. I am myself no astronomer and will refrain from going into details about the technical aspects, but I consider this a good excuse to commemorate one of the most important astronomers in the discipline's history.

In 1639 Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-41) discovered that despite what the planetary tables of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler predicted there would be a transit of Venus on November 24 that year. Aside from proving the previous tables wrong the event showed that despite Tycho Brahe's postulation, the planets are not self-luminous objects. Despite his groundbreaking discoveries Horrocks was largely forgotten until the publication of two treatises in 1662. The transit of Venus was described in Venus in sole vista where Horrocks had jotted down a brief occasional poem. I will post it here in commemoration of Jeremiah Horrocks and his importance in the history of astronomy.

Thy return
Posterity shall witness; years must roll
Away, but then at length the splendid sight
Again shall greet our distant children's eyes.

Jeremiah Horrocks recording the transit of Venus, painted by J. W. Lavender in 1903

mandag 4. juni 2012

Walmgate Bar

Portly as he was, he had to stay outside, standing in front of the barbican.
- The Romance of Reynard the Fox, translated by D. D. R. Owen

Walmgate bar is the most complete of the four major gates opening into York's city centre. The oldest part of the gate dates from the 12th century and constitutes an archway probably erected during the reign of Richard I (1189-99) at a time when York was environed by earth ramparts and not the stone wall seen today. There was, however, a bar and tollbooth prior to this date, as can be seen from a grant document of the mid-12th-century referring to Walmgatebarr.

The barbican was constructed in the 14th century and it was originally built over a moat. Its purpose was to trap attackers between two gates, making them easy targets for the archers on the wall. The name itself, barbican, comes from the Arabic word
barbahanne which means shelter, while the outer fortification was called barmkyn, a word possibly originating from a corruption of the word "barbican". The other three major gates also were equipped with their own barbicans but these were removed for traffic reasons in the 19th century, making Walmgate Bar York's only extant barbican.

The portcullis (barely visible on a picture below) and the wooden gates are features of the 15th century, while the timber and plaster inner facade was added in the Elizabethan period. During the Siege of York in 1644 Walmgate Bar suffered badly from the Parliamentarian artillery, and records tell of a Scottish detachment under the command of Sir James Lumsden that entered the barbican and damaged the inner gates of iron. No breach of the gates was recorded. Walmgate bar was restored in 1840 during the mayoralty of William Stephenson Clark and is currently housing a coffee shop.