2014 Late Summer Lectures

Lecture 1: ‘Boy with Apple: The “Comfortable Uncanny” in the Films of Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’

– Elizabeth Drialo

In my work on Charles Dickens, I have found myself studying and often writing on the uncanny: its definition, its use, and how we react to something unfamiliar that is found within the familiar. The uncanny is often associated with something uncomfortable – sometimes frightening, other times unsettling, such as Dickens’s monstrous character Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, or Little Dorrit‘s disproportioned Maggy. But in this lecture, I want to look at another side of the uncanny that has become a niche in contemporary cinema: the so-called ‘comfortable uncanny’. Whilst seemingly an oxymoron, the ‘comfortable uncanny’ is presented in the colours, stories, music, and actors of both Wes Anderson’s and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films.

Concentrating on Anderson’s most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and Jeunet’s Oscar-nominated film Amélie (2001), I will explore how both filmmakers create a world in which the uncanny is charming and entertaining, and seek to find a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar, rather than using that dichotomy to make viewers uncomfortable. I will also show how, when the charm of the comfortable uncanny is subverted in both films, the impact is startling and sometimes even upsetting, but the subversion becomes a powerful and effective film technique. The uncanny therefore finds new meaning in these films and new questions can be posed: What happens when the uncanny is surpassed? Subverted? How and why do we react? Can there really be comfort in something that is uncanny? Drawing on these two brilliant films, with reference to other films from both directors’ canons, I hope to provoke new thoughts and discussions on the uncanny and our reception of it in today’s society – and perhaps even in our past.

 

Lecture 2: ‘A Different Kind of Dying: Updating the Way We Think about Grief and Mournful Poetry’

– Naomi Marklew

The term ‘elegy’ is often used to define poetry that is written to mourn or commemorate the death of a person. Elegy theory is a strand of literary criticism that has developed over the last thirty years, based on psychoanalytic understandings of grief; specifically, most literary critics writing about elegiac literature use Sigmund Freud’s terms ‘mourning’ and ‘melancholia’ in order to think about ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ grief.

Ask any grief counsellor or mental health professional, however, and Freud is seriously out of date amongst practitioners actually working with bereaved people. Whilst literary theorists still generally base their readings of mournful texts on Freud’s work, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other specialists working in Grief Studies over the past sixty years have produced a vast body of work on the grieving process, including new aspects such as anticipatory and disenfranchised grief. Attachment theory and ideas like ‘continuing bonds’ have become important in treating bereaved people. The ways in which people are dying in the twenty-first century, including the common locations of death, have changed significantly since Freud wrote his famous essay ‘On Mourning and Melancholia’; it seems that the way in which we think and write about grief in literary studies needs some significant updating.

This lecture will look at a selection of poems about grief, mourning, dying and death, and ask what light can be shed upon them by reading them in conjunction with current theories from the field of Grief Studies. It will suggest how current literary theories might be expanded and broadened by changing attitudes and experiences of death, and how critics reading elegies can engage with the interdisciplinary field of Grief Studies. Finally, it will also consider what literature might have to offer other disciplines, particularly therapeutic practitioners, in helping people to think about grief.

 

Lecture 3: ‘Authorship and Hysterical Woman in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat

– Arya Aryan

My contention is that much of the recent theoretical and philosophical debate around the concept of authorship was reflected much earlier in British literary fiction than the specifically academic debates foregrounded in the 1980s. In particular, there was little specifically on female authorship as a problematic area until the feminist debates of the seventies, yet writers as varied as Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, and Muriel Spark began to address such questions from the late fifties and early sixties onwards. Spark’s early to mid-career writing directly expresses concerns with the patriarchal discourse that had dominated society and the assumptions of literary cultures by bringing to the fore the obsessions and problems that beset all women under patriarchy.

An abiding preoccupation in much of this writing, and particularly in the work of Spark, is the desire to lay bare the patriarchal assumptions underpinning the concept of women as inherently hysteric and driven by irrational emotional responses. Bearing in mind that hysteria etymologically means ‘suffering in the uterus/womb’ – and that hysterectomy, derived from this root, refers to removal of the womb – and given prevailing discourses connecting creativity and art with madness, women writers were particularly prone to being regarded as hysteric and mad, and the intellectual life was regarded as a threat to female wellbeing. Because of its history of diagnostic prevalence amongst women, and the ubiquity of the idea of the hysterical woman, hysteria was widely regarded as the ‘female disease, to quote Gilbert and Gubar, throughout the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Despite disappearing from official psychiatric handbooks, the diagnosis remained pervasive, and lingered on much longer in general cultural perceptions of women.

Hysteria may be re-engineered through writing, however, into a reverse discourse describing the conditions of women’s suffering under patriarchal law, and be seen as a consequence of identity production under patriarchy. Although hysteria had lost its prominence as a diagnosis by the 1920s, it is perhaps hardly surprising that it returned to prominence after the socially conservative gender-politics of the 1950s to occupy a prominent position in the work of writers such as Lessing, Drabble, and Spark. Interestingly, this return was accompanied by an unusually focused preoccupation with questions around female authorship in the 1960s, as in The Driver’s Seat (1970). This paper aims to show that it is in such an ideological space that Muriel Spark, in The Driver’s Seat, set out to create a fictional world in which a young woman, whose efforts are directed towards giving shape to her life, undergoes hystericisation in order to take control, gain agency and authority over her life narrative, and challenge dominant misogynistic discourses.

 

Lecture 4: ‘Affective Archives: History, Memory, and World War One’

– Dr Katherine Cooper, Laura McKenzie, & Marie Stern-Peltz

Directed by Newcastle University’s Dr. Katherine Cooper, Affective Archives used materials from Northumberland’s Woodhorn Archive to help postgraduate researchers develop their knowledge of archives, public engagement, and digital environments by investigating public responses to World War One. The project sought to understand how the allure of the archive is located in the intersections of identity, memory, and feeling that emerge in any archival encounter, and the significance of this in the Great War’s centenary year. To this end, English Literature PhD participants Laura McKenzie and Marie Stern-Peltz have created a film with sixth-formers from Ponteland High School, recording their responses to documents written by local people who served in WWI, to be screened at a launch event at Tyneside Cinema.

Working on the diaries of Captain John Evelyn Carr and the letters of Ordinary Seaman Andrew Buglass, the students’ responses provided an interesting insight into the power of the archive and the future of commemoration and memory. Captain Carr, a local of Gosforth, wrote an extensive diary of his time in the trenches, which provided photos and prose for the students to respond to; their engagement with his evocative rendering of trench life showed the power of the archive to provide a site for reimagining the War. By contrast, O. S. Buglass’s disturbed and troubled letters to his parents gave students a chance to consider the different ways the War affected young men. The lecture includes excerpts from both the diary and the letters, as well as clips from the film, and will discuss the ways in which creative practice, academic work and the archive can come together with public engagement and provide a way of thinking about the WWI and our present relationship to it, which provides a human face, local connections, and critical engagement.

 

Lecture 5: ‘Satire and Laughter: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Charlie Chaplin’s Silent Films’

– Yuexi Liu

Decline and Fall (1928), Evelyn Waugh’s debut novel, is a satirical comedy in which the young writer further experiments in the cinematic fashion that he had begun to explore in his first short story ‘The Balance’ (1925). Departing from the High Modernist writers who had already formed the canon, such as Woolf and Joyce, Waugh decidedly found his dissenting voice through the challenge of the new art of cinema. This paper engages closely with the debate about late modernism and argues for an exterior modernism, which both Waugh and Wyndham Lewis represent.

1927 – the year before Decline and Fall debuted – saw the birth of the sound film with The Jazz Singer. Charlie Chaplin, however, the icon of the silent era, continued to make silent films until 1940. Chaplin’s initial resistance to the ‘talking pictures’ may not simply have been an inability to deal with change and new technology; rather, like Waugh, Chaplin genuinely regarded the silent cinema as a form of art in itself.

Well-versed in cinema, Waugh borrowed its techniques liberally to benefit his fictional writing. He hailed Chaplin’s genius, eulogised his film Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and defended him in a review entitled ‘The Man Hollywood Hates’. Drawing an analogy between the two artists’ early works, this paper examines how both authors satirise and fiercely protest against the automaton of the modern age through comedy, which induces laughter in the audience to engage their thought. Lewis’s savage satires and mirthless laughs are also pertinent to the discussion.

 

Lecture 6: ‘Watching and Being Watched in Outlast and Outlast: Whistleblower

– Hazel Monforton

There has been an increasing trend in ‘survival horror’ video games to include recording devices that are integral to their narrative mechanics. Fatal Frame (2001), Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009), Heavy Rain (2010), and Outlast (2013) all heavily feature the player-character documenting, or being documented, in their respective narratives. Red Barrels’s Outlast and its subsequent DLC, Outlast: Whistleblower (2014), both feature a handheld camcorder as an essential element to the game’s narrative structure and gameplay. The protagonists of both games navigate a difficult and dangerous environment with the aim of recording and documenting the abuses inside an asylum from which they are attempting to escape. True to the genre, the player is unable to defend himself from the levels’ wandering antagonists and therefore must avoid being seen, caught, and killed. Conversely, achievements and in-game details are unlocked by filming key events, and the environment’s pitch-black areas may only be navigated through the camcorder’s night-vision.

Whistleblower opens with programmer Waylon Park’s institutionalisation, which forces him to watch disturbing images on a screen. His first act, when released, is to pick up and use the handheld camera that had been recording him. Whilst the first-person ludo-narrative structure and the reliance on recording technology presents the player as the holder of the gaze, the obstacles the player encounters – from the all-seeing ‘biometric security’ Murkoff corporation to the violent criminals who stalk the corridors – seek to rob the player of the privilege of the gaze. Although the protagonists attempt to use their devices as a means to expose the truth, the narrative shows how the gaze exercises power over its objects.

This lecture will give an introduction to ideas of the gaze and film theory, as well as the emergent issues of ludo-narratology. Using Outlast as a starting point, I will apply these theories and show how the game’s narrative tension is created through the imbalance between the subject and the object of this gaze, and is inextricably bound with the exercise of power. Laura Mulvey’s paper ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) established the voyeuristic and scopophilic gaze of the film camera, capturing its filmed objects with the implicit assumption of a male viewer; assuming the identity of the game’s male protagonists, we are asked to re-establish our gaze as the player in the face of public and private control, institutional and sexual domination, and powerlessness.

 

Lecture 7: ‘Exquisite Flimflamming: The Con Artist in Oscar Wilde’

– Kostas Boyiopoulos

In his 1881 American lecture tour, Oscar Wilde brushed shoulders with, and was even fleeced, by swindlers and sharps of the ‘New World’. Wilde himself, however, proved to be the ultimate con artist, magnetising American audiences with his calculated persona, Aesthetic attire, and spectacular performances. Much of the American press was suspicious of Wilde, and lampooned him for his self-image and spurious promotion of Aestheticism; to complicate things, the themes of Wilde’s talks and writings – ‘lying’, ‘style’, ‘masks’, and the aesthetics of crime – were in accord with his own dazzling chicaneries. In this paper, I will argue that Wilde did not only operate within the framework of the ‘confidence trick’ or ‘confidence game’, but within its most refined form: the so-called ‘long con’, a type of elegant financial crime that involves theatricality and finicky artistry.

Scholars such as Sara Malton have capitalised on Wilde’s ideas of forgery and mendacity in relation to art, and on his fascination with literary forgers such as Ossian, MacPherson, and especially Chatterton, yet the significance of the idea of the con game in Wilde has never been addressed. The con game, as I intend to show, is a more inclusive category that contains both the forged artwork and the forged personality, as it fosters performativity, manipulation of reality, metafictional awareness, and the confusion of life with artifice. My discussion will first trace astonishing similarities between the con artist and the Wildean dandy, and between the ‘long con’ and fin-de-siècle Aestheticism. I will then focus on three of Wilde’s works: ‘The Decay of Lying: An Observation’ (1891), ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’ (1889), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). I will propose and attempt to demonstrate that these texts are elaborate and sophisticated long cons that even cleverly extend beyond their textual boundaries, circumscribing both authorship and readership.

 

Lecture 8: ‘Dixon Found that He Felt Rather Drunk: Public Speaking, Parody, and Pandemonium in the British Novel and Beyond’

– Dr Michael Shallcross

The disastrous public speech has been a consistent source of comic inspiration for British novelists from the Victorian era onwards, featuring in texts as apparently disparate as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874) and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). In Middlemarch, the farcical spectacle of Mr Brooke’s political address is brought about by a combination of his drunkenness and the crowd’s irreverence, as the restive mob unfurls an effigy of Brooke, which repeats his words back to him in mocking parody. Conversely, when Amis’s protagonist, Jim Dixon, gives his drunken academic lecture on ‘Merrie England’, Dixon’s own irreverence manifests itself in an uncanny parody of his spectating colleagues, while his loss of self-possession quickly infects the audience as the scene descends into chaos.

In this conceptually playful lecture, I will explore the simultaneously alarming and enticing spectacle of the public speech descending into parody and pandemonium, using a number of fictional examples as well as comparable instances from wider culture, to consider the attractions and dangers of a collapse of reason and order in the civic and academic spheres. To this end, I will draw parallels between a series of apparently disparate vignettes: G. K. Chesterton, sharpening his pencil with a 14” Mexican hunting-knife during a public debate; Dmitri Shostakovich, shrieking Soviet propaganda at his peers like a crazed marionette; and F. R. Leavis, unleashing a torrent of scurrility in the cause of safeguarding Enlightenment values. I will go on to trace a diabolical link between these examples and Milton’s metaphysical public forum, Pandæmonium, an arena presided over by Satan, Northrop Frye’s exemplar of ‘the parody-act of rebellion’. As I will demonstrate, the intoxicatingly insubordinate energies of the Devil have consistently shadowed the sublime aspirations of post-Enlightenment rationalism, and this interplay between chaos and order informs our enduring fascination with scenes that subvert the concept of the public arena as a site of rational discourse.

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