Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Pseudonymic Blogging

Just a quick post - I've just read a very good article by Mary Kate Hurley about academic blogging and issues like anonymity (thanks to Unlocked Wordhoard where I found this).

Friday, 20 June 2008

Wikipedia Britannica

I think my post on Wikipedia last week must have been inspired by some odd premonition, for in today's Guardian I read an article reporting that the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica is planning to "allow users to write their own articles".

Jim Giles, who wrote the article, makes some pretty insightful comments on the differences between old media and new, though I was interested to see that a survey he conducted found three errors in Britannica for every four in Wikipedia. Not bad for Wikipedia then...

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Academic atheism, or the Death of God.

The TLS reports, this week, on a study by a University of Ulster Academic: Professor Lynn suggests that academics report higher levels of atheism than average bacause they have higher IQ's.

I have no idea if this is true or not, but have two comments to make.

1. I'm just not convinced that academics have higher IQ's than average (although I'd be happy for someone to direct me towards some evidence). Some are profoundly brilliant but I think acadamia benefits more from the doggedness and hard work of many, combined with long training, rather than from a better average rate of intelligence.

2. On the other hand, Professor Lynn says that academics do have higher IQs, so I assume there is some evidence to support this (otherwise he would hardly say it?)

Professor Lynn told Times Higher Education: "Why should fewer academics
believe in God than the general population? I believe it is simply a matter of
the IQ. Academics have higher IQs than the general population. Several Gallup
poll studies of the general population have shown that those with higher IQs
tend not to believe in God."

In the TLS report, the idea that there is a causal relationship here is immediately questioned (and I suspect with good cause). I myself was amused by Professor Lynn's statement that he believes it is simply a matter of IQ. I think it is pretty honest of him to say so - and makes me a lot more inclined to listen to his opinion.

On the spectrum of belief I find myself close to atheism, but I find a link between intelligence and belief hard to buy. Doubting received wisdom is surely a good sign of intelligence, but what a person does with that doubt, whether it leads to belief or non-belief, or something in between, seems little linked to their intelligence. Non-believers sometimes imply that belief is a result of not thinking about the big question. It strikes me that non-belief can as often as not result from the same reluctance to wonder.

Stuck in the middle with you

There's an interesting post on the relevance of the study of the Middle Ages to modern life here. It is worth a read, but I'd love to see some arguments from those who think that the study of the Middle Ages is not worth the time of day. They must exist, because I read plenty of arguments in defence of our discipline, but to be honest I'm yet to come across that student of say, the Enlightenment, who comes right out to accuse us of wasting our time (In my experience students of almost any 'Arts' subject tend to be more than a little concerned with how relevant their particular topic is to anything). These arguments defend the discipline against mostly unstated perceptions which we assume exist in other disciplines. As such they are to be applauded - and I am a fan of the particular blog mentioned above; it is a fine champion of medieval studies. On the other hand, I'm lucky enough to work with lots of other students of fairly diverse disciplines who treat my area with about as much respect as they would any other discipline which is not their own. That will do for me.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Wikipedia and the Truth

A couple of years ago I had a very bad experience with Wikipedia. I was writing an essay and needed some interesting filler-fact to flesh out a discussion of a person I was mentioning in a fairly minor way. I ran to Wikipedia. This historical personage, it informed me, was the first to do something of fairly low importance in English history. Perfect, I thought, that will do! Oh how I erred... my supervisor at the time smiled at me when talking through the essay with me, and asked where I had discovered this wonderful fact. I hummed and hawed, and eventually mumbled "somewhere online I think". It turned out that this historical personage of minor importance was by no means the first to do what Wikipedia said he did. He wasn't even the second.

At the time I was outraged. How could the internet lie to me? A new slogan I decided, should be "Wikipedia: putting the con in context". I wondered how such untruths could find their way on to what seemed a fairly good-willed open encyclopedia. But the fault, I now see, was not with Wikipedia, but with myself.

I've read a few articles over the last months that all say roughly the same thing; Wikipedia is fine, but of course you muct always check that the information you use is correct. The common opinion seems to be that Wikipedia should be treated as you would treat facts given to you by a friend over coffee - a useful starting point, but then go and look in books. I think this hard to argue with; Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, and I suspect is the first point of call for many when they touch on some totally unfamiliar subject, but it has to be used carefully. Since that embarrassing mistake I've been careful to double check everything (something, let's face it, I really should have been doing anyway).

I wonder, however, whether this is in fact the case for all our factual resources, whether they appear online or in dusty old pages? Surely the advice given to those who dare use Wikipedia holds true for all scholarly endeavours? Who are we to believe? This must seem a fairly obvious point, but I suspect that Wikipedia is open to such criticism as much because of the number of readers as the number of contributors. As an open source encyclopedia there seems little doubt that much of what it contains is open to question. Were standard traditionally edited encyclopediae read as frequently as their open-source online cousin, however, I wonder whether they would find themselves being treated with the same caution? Furthermore, if the readers of a traditional encylopedia could correct errors at the touch of a button, perhaps their infallibility would seem more fragile. Wikipedia's weakness may be that it contains errors, but in comparison to traditional volumes a strength may be that, at least for Wikipedia, changes can be made visible to all.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Under the skin

There's rather tough review of Simon Swain's Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul:
Polemon’s “Physiognomy” from classical antiquity to medieval Islam in this week's TLS. I'm very much looking forward to reading this - and I'm keen to see whether I agree with M. F. Burnyeat's comments.

My own contact with theories of physiognomy is fairly limited. Like everyone else who decided to look at science and natural philosophy in Chaucer while an undergraduate, Walter Clyde Curry's Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences (now quite dated but an important book nonetheless I think) was the first book that jumped out at me from the library shelf (actually it was the second, but I decided, wisely, that Lynn Thorndike's multi-volume A History of Magic and Experimental Science would take rather more than an afternoon's work; it's an overwhelming study that still defeats my mental stamina). Curry's book focuses on the physical descriptions of characters in the General Prologue, and the physiognomical implications of each. It is really a very entertaining read - and it's hard not to start to see physiognomical description everywhere once you become interested in it. I dread to think what my out-of-shape body says about me... perhaps a trip to the gym will give me better character.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Against War: Some Counsel from The Tale of Melibee

(Erm... my third post today. You'd know I'm in the middle of writing a chapter and am hungry for distraction!)

I'm rereading Chaucer's Tale of Melibee at the moment, and came across a little gem I had forgotten. The last time I read it I was paying very close attention to what Prudence, Melibee's wife, had to say. This time another piece of counsel stood out for me, that of "oon of thise olde wise" who advises that there are many who call for war, and know nothing of what it really entails:

"Lordynges," quod he, "ther is ful many a man that crieth 'Werre, werre! that woot ful litel what werre amounteth. Werre at his bigynyng hath so greet an entryng and so large that every wight may entre whan hym liketh and lightly fynde werre; but certes what ende that shal thereof bifalle, it is nat light to knowe. For soothly, whan that werre is ones bigonne, ther is ful many a child unborn of his mooder that shal sterve yong by cause of thilke werre, or elles lyve in sorwe and dye in wrecchednesse..."

This is a passage full of wisdom to my mind. How many children unborn today will suffer because of the wars we are fighting at this moment? It is a disturbing reminder that there are consequences to our actions.

This is by no means the only view on war in The Tale of Melibee, but to my mind it is the most sensible. The untold consequences of war are as big a concern today as they were in the Middle Ages. Let's hope our leaders listen to the right advice.

Nuala O'Faolain

I was going to post a quick note on Nuala O'Faolain's passing - instead I think I'll direct you to this post by Miglior Acque. It says everything I would have wanted to say.

Dan Chiasson

It's not often I get really excited about a poem - I love poems that feel familiar at first, and then turn to strangeness. I want them to coax me away from my comfort zone. This poem, Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (A Story for Children) by Dan Chiasson is one such piece. It's long enough (from previous posts you might notice I normally like poetry to be bite-sized), but I think it needs it.

I'll need to read this poem again and again. It's full of half familiar images - images that seem to come from other poems, images that might be half-remembered too. The opening stanza is almost Dantean, by the third I was thinking of Kavanagh's A Christmas Childhood. So what's the poem about? Memory, perhaps, or bits of memory; who knows...

Sometimes it could almost be a response to other poems, to other genres even. These lines sound to me like the other half of an aubade, the half we never hear, in which the forces of nature that force lovers up from their beds finally reply to whichever lover-poet is cursing them that morning:

but I am proud of him as was his master-keeper proud
of him, this noble, endless line of moonkeepers
who hang the light that lights the moon and take it down
every morning, meaning that it is morning, get up,
that’s not a pie plate over there in the east,
sleepyheads, lovers climb down off of your beloveds;
But I've only read this poem twice; so I'm off to read it again, and see what else I can find. I think I'll be keeping an eye on Dan Chiasson.

Monday, 12 May 2008

More Science and Art!

Well, just a day or two since I last posted on this topic, and now the Guardian throws more science / art interdisciplinarity at us. This post on science in poetry is certainly a very welcome discussion, and its nice to see the cosmological focus of Dante (and indeed many other medieval poets) getting a mention.

I'm a little puzzled by many of the poems which are actually posted, however, and have to say I was most intrigued by the genome illustration (or representation I suppose) at the top of the page. It reminds me of the long rolls that fed some old self-playing pianos - the music of life?

Friday, 9 May 2008

I can't get no.... light refraction...

As a 'science and the arts' type person (sort of, for the moment I'm going to allow myself to include medieval science/ natural philosophy into the argument) I feel obliged to direct you to this post on the Guardian website. Readers discuss their favourite science songs. Any medieval songs about science out there?...

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Doctors in The Tudors

I recently started watching The Tudors. It is a show I find thoroughly entertaining. I don't expect my entertainment to be historically accurate (too often fiction is made dull by being a slave to the authentic) and I like glossy American dramas. It's like watching an early modern Dallas.

I've just watched episode four (season one). It contains a scene in which Henry needs to be bled following a seizure. Yet again, like so many other renderings, the premodern doctors are shown in the background mumbling to one another nervously. They grovellingly enquire whether the king gives his permission to be bled. A bowl is placed under his arm, a strap is tied around his upper arm, and he is bled using a surprisingly clean looking knife.

It's led me to wonder where this image of early modern doctors came from. It's certainly a familiar one from literature; think of Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire. I'm sure there are many more examples. What strikes me as interesting is the nervousness of the doctor as seen in these imaginings. They are often self-serving, inexpert showmen.

Does this reflect reality I wonder? Moliere can write about doctors as he does because he has no faith in their expertise. Modern imaginings of early modern and medieval doctors will share a disbelief in their Galenic medicine. But surely in eras when such medicine was trusted, or at least was the only option (leaving 'folk remedies' aside for a moment), it's doctors may have, in fact, had a more self assured manner? A project for a time-traveller perhaps; bedside manners throughout the ages...

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


I've got a post on allegory on the way. But first, I was very amused by this comic strip. Hopefully I'll get on to the allegory tomorrow.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Misogynistic Lyrics

Apologies for the slight obsession with posting lyrics of late. It's simply that I have a couple of books of lyrics in my bag at the moment and it's been years since I've looked at them properly. They seem like perfect material for a blog-post; short, sweet and usually focussed enough for a brief but not over-complex discussion. Here's today's lyric (again from Luria and Hoffman):

A yong wyf and an harvest-gos,
Moche gagil with bothe;
A man that hath them in his clos,
Reste schal he wrothe.

I must (with shame) admit a certain affection for lyrics of the misogynistic variety. Lyrics against women, like the above, seem very human (or very male?). They communicate a very domestic sort of sexism. I wrote a little once on the use of Latin in bi-lingual texts to exclude women (lyrics of the Cuius contrarium verum est variety), and again found myself much more amused than perhaps I should have been.

So why do I find myself enjoying these poems so much? Am I a closet sexist? I think perhaps these lyrics contain something more than what we now call sexism. They sound like private complaints, like the basic humour of the changing room. In these lyrics you hear men speaking to one another, and of course complaining about women. Men's complaints about women have not disappeared - but a major source of modern comedy tends to be women's complaints against men (think of What Women Want). There are plenty of complaints against men in medieval literature, but I am yet to find one which is funny. Perhaps the reason is this; humour stems from experience, indeed from shared experience, and medieval complaints against men are rarely written by men, but rather are the imagined female complaints of male writers.

So my hunt begins, are there any funny medieval complaints against men? Have I over-looked anything obvious (apart from the Wife of Bath)?

Friday, 2 May 2008

Lyric for the day that's in it

It's a beautiful sunny day, and I feel I need to post a lyric to match it. Spring brings happiness and love, and this short (fourteenth century?) lyric says a lot about the way we all feel in the summertime when the weather is fine. It's nice to know the good weather has always put people in a loving mood! This is another lyric from Luria and Hoffman:

Of everykune tree,
Of everykune tree,
The hawethorn blowet swotes
Of everykune tree.

My lemmon she shall be,
My lemmon she shall be,
the fairest of erthkinne,
My lemmon she shall be.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A positive speech, but an opportunity missed.

The Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, addressed the joint Houses of Congress in the USA today. I've always been a fan of Mr. Ahern; there have been recent allegations of corruption but frankly I don't care whether they are true or not. I'm also proud that he has been honoured with the opportunity to make today's address. I'm a little disappointed, however, having read a brief summary of his speech, with what he chose not to say.

Bertie did the right thing, and thanked the USA for it's positive role in the peace process in Ireland in the 1990's. They really did play a big part in the process (especially under the Clinton administration) and I think we can all be grateful for the role they played. The RTE news site summarized this as follows:

Mr Ahern said he always had faith in the Good Friday Agreement and was proud after so many decades of conflict to be the first Irish leader to tell America that 'Ireland is at peace'.

He thanked President George Bush and all his administration for their help, and in particular Senator George Mitchell for the role he played.

He said that peace in Northern Ireland was also part of a greater American legacy thanks to the support America gave throughout the peace process.

He reminded Americans not to forget that and to 'feel glad' for what role it had played.

But did Bertie say enough? The world is tired after a few years of the 'war against terror' and the associated invasion of Iraq. America must also be tired after what has been a difficult occupation of Iraq. But I'm tired of leaders who fail to point out the obvious to America: when they act positively and intelligently, as they did in Northen Ireland in the 1990's, the outcome tends to be successful. When their actions are more drastic, however good their intentions might be, the outcome can be disastrous (there seems no point in providing an example here - the most obvious one will overshadow any history of this decade). I hope they don't forgot how much good they can do, and I hope they can 'feel glad' about they way they choose to deal with their current problems in the Middle East.

Martin Kettle recently commented on Gordon Brown's efforts to influence US foreign policy during his visit to the USA. Kettle warns that Brown must not think that he can have any real influence on US thinking and should instead focus on reforming the UK's role in world politics. I'm inclined to agree with Kettle on this one, but at least Brown made an effort.

The current violence in the Middle East is not in Ireland's interests. Mr. Ahern's speech in Washington was a great opportunity to express the country's gratitude to the USA for their help in Northern Ireland, and our good will towards their nation. At the same time there is much unease in Ireland about the implications of current US foreign policy, and it's a shame that he didn't express some support for those in the US who might like to change it, and work towards the kind of peaceful resolution that has been achieved in Ireland. Plenty of people in America envision a positive role for their country in world affairs - we should let them know that they have our support should they gain more control over their country's affairs in the future.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Powerless Point

I try not to be a Luddite, but while I'm happy to embrace new technologies, I've had most difficulty accepting the usefulness of technology for teaching purposes. I would refer you to this article as an example of the new wave of teaching methods that seem to be sweeping across Britain. Having spoken to some friends in Ireland, the arrival of techno-learning is a little slower, but it is coming all the same.

I love technology. I love gadgets. I love the internet. (I love... lamp).

Why do I feel the need to apologise for what follows? I spoke at a school recently, and the two-hour session was to take a new format; on this occasion students would be accompanied by their parents. I had never spoken to parents along-side their children, and was distinctly nervous about the idea (I should explain that my sessions usually involve a lot of games, of the non-technical variety, and a level of openness about how students interact with their parents and teachers in the learning environment). I am a great believer in games, but my games usually involve coloured markers and some A3 paper - little technology is required. It seemed likely at the time that parents would be happy neither to jump around as I expect teenagers to, nor to draw colourful posters. The solution, a teacher at the school assured me, was Powerpoint.

Powerpoint? Oh I was quite sure that wouldn't be necessary. But oh, the school was quite sure it would. So, I prepared a Powerpoint presentation for one of the first times; I don't even use it at conferences. It's not that I don't see how it could be useful, but I tend to find it distracts from what I'm actually saying. As it turned out, the Powerpoint slides provided useful handouts aftewards, but I was saved from using it by projector failure. The gods of technology (Bill Gates et al?) smiled on me that day. The parents learned to jump around.

I prefer blackboards to electronic whiteboards. Again, this is not because of a hostility to technology, but simply because I don't think the technology works that well. I find writing on electronic boards cumbersome and slow. I prefer games that involve the manipulation of material objects to those that require the movement of objects on a screen. Again, it's a question of results and flexibility than anything else. If a poster game isn't working, I can change the 'rules' simply by issuing new instructions to the students. If a computer game proves ineffective, I am limited by my own programming ability (negligible) or the preprogrammed flexibity of the game.

Here's a thought. Perhaps learning technologies should be focused on precisely that; learning. I can see how technology can be useful to students as they learn independently. I do not believe that technology is all that useful for teaching, however, because in my experience it tends to limit the teacher's creativity rather than release it. If you know of teaching technologies that provide the kind of flexibility I'm looking for, I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Nun Who Grew Wings

This is one of my favourite poems. It's by a Franciscan friar who was very good to me when I was young, and gave me many public speaking lessons. I hope he'll forgive me for publishing it online; it's from his book, Face the Music:

The Nun Who Grew Wings
by Iain Duggan

Having appeared ordinary all her life,
Sister Perpetual Motion,
On the cusp of old age
Developed gargantuan wings,
Which sprouted from her back almost
Overnight and looked anything but angelic;
More like two ginormous trotters,
God bless the mark!

Next thing she began knocking sparks
Out of an old fiddle that
Had lain dead as a dodo in its case
For the best part of forty years.

The she was then
Outside the Permanent TSB,
Winding herself up like a spring,
Tackling a humoresque, arching her torso,
Busking for peanuts in her green enamel habit
Like nobody before or since.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

People writing on library books

Under normal circumstances I'm a bit of a library fascist. I hate when people write their notes on library books, I hate when people underline bits of library books. Frankly, I hate when people do it to their own books but I'm willing to admit that perhaps they can do what they like with their own property. People often tell me it's the easiest way to take notes, and that they use pencil, which they then rub out afterwards; I'm not convinced and I can see the pencil even after it has been erased.

There is one fantastic exception to the rule: when the comments are funny. Over the years I've had the great privilege of reading the cynical and snide remarks of many a reader, and I love it. Today is a special day because I think I've found the best one of them all. I'm reading Middle English Lyrics edited by Luria and Hoffman. Each section takes its title from the first poem in that section. So, section three is entitled: 'I have a gentil cok'. What did our glosser say right beside it?

"That's what they all say".

If you've come across any better scribbles than this, please let me know in the comments box below.

PS: I dog-ear library books. Is that worse?

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Conferences Conferences...

I'm very much at the beginning of my career, so reading this article was a glorious reminder that even those much further up the ladder can be fairly cynical about conferences. It is usually the duty of the young (and perhaps the very old?) to think conferences are a farce - this article certainly tears the whole notion of them to shreds.

I don't feel qualified to disagree with Gloria Monday about conferences; I've only been to a few. I have to say, though, that I'm much more optimistic about the next few that I'll be going to (including the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in a couple of months), and can't imagine too many old leches having a go at me, as was Gloria Monday's experience (I'm a man in my mid-twenties, so it seems a little unlikely). At the end of the day her comments are probably all true - they are part of the terrible race to the top of the ladder, they will include a mix of things I'm interested in and things I'm not, and of course there is always somebody who is a bit forceful with their questioning. Does any of this really matter, though? I'll get to meet some new people who might share some interests. It does count as work, so it's a few days away without any guilt. And I've never been to Leeds, or most of the other places I'll be conferencing at, so hopefully it will just be a bit of fun.

If this blog keeps going for a few years I may feel differently about the conference scene - but for the moment I'm happy to hit the road with my powerpoint.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Kiss my a*

The "motif of the misplaced kiss", as Eve Salisbury calls it in Select Secular Lyrics of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, is one that I had only ever come across before in Chaucer's Miller's Tale. In that poem Absolon famously kisses Alison's naked 'ers', which she has stuck out the window of her house.

Well, apparently this is a common enough joke in medieval poetry (although I wonder will I come across more instances of it!). Below is the lyric that Robbins has entitled Old Hogyn's Adventure:

Balliol Coll. Oxford MS. 354

Hogyn cam to bowers dore-
hogyn cam to bowers dore,
he tryld vpon the pyn for love,
hum, ha, trill go bell -
he tryld vpon the pyn for love,
hum, ha, trill go bell.

Vp she rose & lett hym ym-
vp she rose & let hym yn,
She had a-went she had worshipped all her kyn,
hum, ha, trill go bell-
She had a-went she had worshipped all her kyn,
hum, ha, trill go bell.

When thei were to bed browght-
When thei were to bed browght,
The old chorle he cowld do nowght,
hum, ha trill go bell-
The old chorle he cowld do nowght,
hum, ha trill go bell.

Go ye furth to yonder wyndow-
Go ye furth to yonder wyndow,
And I will cum to you with-in a throw,
hum, ha trill go bell-
& I will cum to you with-yn a throw,
hum, ha trill go bell.

Whan she hym at the wyndow wyst-
Whan she hym at the wyndow wyst,
She torned owt her ars & and that he kyst,
hum, ha trill go bell-
She torned owt her ars & and that he kyst,
hum, ha trill go bell.

Ywys, leman, ye do me wrong-
Ywis, leman, ye do me wrong,
Or elles your breth ys wonder strong,
hum, ha, trill go bell-
Or elles your breth ys wonder strong,
hum, ha, trill go bell.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

stereotyping love

Most people are aware that there are some pretty standard features to the beautiful beloved woman of most medieval and early modern poems. The basic features are to be found everywhere, and one often gets the impression that they are mentioned as mere signs of beauty rather than an attempt at anything like accurate description. The similarity of such descriptions can seem boring at times, but it is an important tradition, as poets like Shakespeare subvert it ironically (see Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...", for an example of this).

But despite critical leanings in the last thirty years or so, the beauty of a tradition is not just in its subversion - this poem by Charles d'Orleans from Harley MS. 682 (and to be found in Robbins' Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries) is quite a traditional description of the beauty of the beloved, but manages to be graceful rather than stale:

The Beauty of His Mistress

The smylyng mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,
The brestis rounde, and long smal armys twayn,
The hondes smoþe, þe sidis streiyt & playne,
yowre fetis lite - what shulde y ferþer say?
hit is my craft when ye are fer away
To muse þeron in styntyng of my payne -
The smylyng [mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,]
The brestis [rounde, and long smal armys twayn.]
So wolde y pray yow, gef y durste or may,
The sight to se as y haue seyne;
fforwhi þat craft me is most fayne,
And wol ben to þe howre in which y day -
The smylyng [mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,]
The brestis [rounde, and long smal armes twayn.]

Friday, 11 April 2008

"neurospeculation, not neuroscience"

Raymond Tallis makes short work of 'neuro-criticism' in this TLS article [ ]. He is particularly critical of A.S. Byatt's reading of Donne's poetry as a brain event, which she thinks is explicable using neuroscience. I'm convinced by his arguments; I think we need to be very careful when approaching literature from an inter-disciplinary perspective, and Byatt does seem to place too much trust in the science. As Tallis points out, her reading is in this instance, overly reductionist. It seems that the neuroscience itself is not advanced enough to explain our experience of art, and for my part, I hope that it will never be able to.

I think such mistakes are bound to be made, and it is important that critics play with different disciplines in order to create something new. Byatt has gone too far, but I think she deserves praise for trying. 'Interdisciplinarity' should not be abandoned simply because it doesn't always work, although I wonder whether the sciences are better placed to help us understand the structure and logic of language rather than our personal experience of art.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

And what will you do with that?...

From time to time I get asked the obvious question. "Oh, so you're a medievalist. And what will you do with that?" Without getting all romantic about it, it is the kind of subject that you study for it's own sake. I plan to use it, whether that be in academia or in the 'broader knowledge economy', but I hope that it will stay with me no matter where I wind up. It isn't often that I read a good response to the question, or any similar question, along the lines of why one would work in the arts as an academic. Paul Zumthor was a Swiss medievalist with many many publications (only one of which I have read so far). This passage, explaining how he sees his career as a medievalist, is beautifully written and is as good an answer as any:

That is the domain [Medieval Studies] in which, almost without interruption, I have taught and pursued my modest course of research. I have had fun doing it; I have also known hours of deep pleasure. These circumstances concern only me, and I attach no general value to them. Nonetheless, they have allowed me, little by little, a slow and delightful experience whose effect, on the level of imagery and ideas, was so marked that I would be untruthful not to acknowledge it now in whatever I say: from the place that was mine by choice and by profession, windows looked out in all possible directions; one gesture sufficed to open the shutters; all things were offered to this appetite for seeing, for experiencing - and, if possible, for understanding.
Paul Zumthor, Speaking of the Middle Ages

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The pendulum swings back...

I've enjoyed Umberto Eco's books for many years, but I started with Foucault's Pendulum rather than The Name of the Rose, which seems to be first book that most people read. As a result, I've never had as much affection for The Name of the Rose as many others, and I've never forgotten just how exciting it was to read Foucault's Pendulum. I hadn't forgotten the excitement, but I realised recently that I had, in fact, forgotten most of what happens in the book. My memories of it are at best an impression rather than details of the thing itself; a feeling rather than a memory. It's not so long since I read his Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and while I've found Eco disappointing from time to time, Queen Loana reminded me of the depth and humour that attracted me to his work in the first place.

I'm rereading Foucault's Pendulum; here's just one passage which captures so much of why I love Eco when writing at his best: rather than

There, indiscreet reader: you will never know it, but that half-line hanging in space was actually the beginning of a long sentence that I wrote but the wished I hadn't, wished I hadn't even thought let alone written it, wished that it had never happened. So I pressed a key, and a milky film spread over the fatal and inopportune line, and I pressed DELETE and, whoosh, all gone.
But that's not all. The problem with suicide is that sometimes you jump out the window and then change your ming between the eighth floor and the seventh. "Oh if only I could go back!" Sorry, you can't, too bad. Splat. Abu, on the other hand, is merciful, he grants you the right to change your mind: you can recover your deleted text by pressing RETRIEVE. What a relief! Once I know that I can remember whenever I like, I forget.
Abu, if you haven't already guessed, is the modern word processor, the tool that we all use from day to day, and that has probably effected the process of writing more than we might guess. I'm sure the internet has increased the number of words written globally per second by some figure which has already been estimated (lets call it a squillion words per second), but how many words and thoughts have been lost by the new ability to delete? A colleague was writing recently about digital literary studies, and I asked them whether features of word processing like progress tracking will prove to be the literary critic's tools of the future. If T.S. Eliot were writing today, we would perhaps be able to see more clearly Pound's editorial input, as each edited draft is recorded by Word.

I worry that my own writing would be more succesful were there no DELETE key. It is a commonplace to suggest that the arrival of the written word reduced man's oral memory; Eco seems to suggest that the word processor is another step towards record and another step away from memory.

Friday, 4 April 2008

There was an eerie familiarity to Donna Tartt's The Secret History [ ] from the very start. Set in a liberal arts college on America's east coast, the characters reek of privilege and ennui, both counterfeit and genuine. With all the characters apart from Richard, the story's narrator, the reality of their privilege seems unquestionable, then uncertain. Early on I felt I was reading about some poor cousin of Gatsby, and indeed we find The Great Gatsby explicitly mentioned before too long.

This is an unsettling book, not just because it is a narrative of murder, but because it fools the reader into a sense of boyish companionship with its early 1950's feel. Gatsby has his own problems, but one tends to read his story alongside The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager - they form part of your development as a reader. Tartt takes advantage of this - this tradition allows her access to a vulnerable place in our consciousness, but her novel changes, and pulls us from the familiar decay of a 1950's style narrative into an all too modern world of flat screen televisions and destroyed glamour. I actually thought that the book was set in the 1960's until after the central murder which acts a fulcrum for the story's events. In the early sequences, we are immersed in a world of cocktails (or 'highballs' as Gatsby and Caulfield might know them), over-expensive suits, and snobby intellectuality. It is not pleasant, but it is exotic. The world which emerges after the murder is our own - this is the fallen paradise in which the murderers must face up to what they have done. I finished this book wishing I could have stayed in the book's first half, and in that sense its chilling conclusion is particularly effective.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Back in the UK, and mirrors for princes.

I arrived back from Poland on Wednesday night, exhausted but happy to have enjoyed some time in a very cool city - Krakow. I expected somewhere very different to other European cities. In terms of day to day life, security, getting around easily, and the atmosphere in pubs, cafes and restaurants, it is up there with the very best of them. We spent our first evening in a very hip bar off the main market square that felt a lot like the typical student hang-outs in Dublin's city centre. The clientèle certainly reminded me of the crowds that fall out of bars on the Parliament Street end of Temple Bar. I felt bad for arriving without a word of Polish, but nobody minded, and when I apologised in a bar for having to speak in English, the response was, "You can't learn all the languages, and we only have to learn yours".

And now for a totally unrelated train of thought. My work at the moment is returning me to an area that I have not looked at for about two years; the 'Mirrors for Princes' genre. They exist in some form right on into the Renaissance and beyond, but I have really only read about the medieval variations. They're tracts in which a cleric or philosopher advises a prince on how to live and how to rule - one of the most famous being the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum (translated into English from Arabic in the twelfth century), in which Alexander the great benefits from the wisdom of none other than Aristotle himself. The 'Mirror' genre tends to focus on three core areas - first control of the self (that is, the prince), second control of family and household, and thirdly control of the kingdom or state, generally speaking in that order. I've been doing some thinking about this, and wonder whether we have an equivalent literature in the modern world, and what forms it takes. 'Molehill Politics' ( ) in this weeks New York Review of Books focuses on the rather different campaign styles of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in the ongoing race for the Democratic nomination in the United States, and wonders whether their actions now can tell us something about how they might govern. Bill Clinton famously suffered from the apparent assumption that ones actions in the home, as it were, reflect or influence a leader's actions in the world. Perhaps, then we continue to divide our advice to rulers into spheres of self control (public image and appearance), household control (personal life) and state control (good governance).

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Revisiting an old friend

Today is a very special day. Some years ago, when I was a first year undergraduate, I had to pawn all my cd's because of some very poorly planned spending in my first three months. I only really remember two of them (although I think I pawned about ten) - the soundtrack to the nineties movie version of Romeo and Juliet and the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction. Both soundtracks were simply awesome, and I've missed them ever since. All these years later I have finally bought the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction again, and have had a very pleasant afternoon listening to it.

It's amazing how music can transport you through time - this wasn't just the soundtrack to a popular movie, it was the soundtrack to many a teenage night-time walk. I would load up my shock resistant Sony disc-man and sail on into the night. "You know what they call a Big Mac in Europe... a Royale with cheese"... classic.

I'm still a bit ashamed of selling off my cd's all those years ago - and in a funny way it's been bugging me ever since. I think this week I put it to rest. Ahem... "The gimp's sleeping"...

Friday, 21 March 2008

I'm visiting Poland in a few days, and have been distracting myself from work by reading some Polish history. I know shamefully little, but with an ever growing Polish population in my own country (Ireland) it really is about time that I learned some more. I've just read A Concise History of Poland [ should you wish to check to check it out], and was impressed by the span of what is a fairly short volume. I'm not a historian, and often find historical text books a little too meaty, but this account of Polish history was a pleasure to read. The study of Irish or English history is happily limited by geography - it is helpful to end one's study of a people where their island meets the sea. The Poles have a more fluid geographical past, with the 'nation' moving around and over the borders of many of today's existing states in the region. Writing their history cannot be an easy task. I'm going to squeeze as much of Heart of Europe: A Short History of Europe by Norman Davies [ ] in as I can before we leave on Monday. It's a heftier volume though, so I don't expect to be able to report much about it.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

More time, less productivity

I'm trying to prove something a friend of mine told me here. This blog is the product of one very unproductive week. It's holiday season in the British University at which I am a research student, and I have a whole week to catch up on reading and to write the many wise tomes that I frequently tell myself are hiding under my eye-lids, if only I had the time to write them. Well. It's day four, and this week has proven to be more than a little lazy. So this blog is a starter's block. Write something every day and the rest will follow, my friend tells me. So here we are - I'm rolling the dice and trying a blog. A thought a day is my aim - and it will be someone else's thoughts as much as possible. This is a place for the things that catch my eye.

What do you know, that work on my desk suddenly looks less daunting... I'll keep you posted.