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Comparing Four 2017 novels based on Attic Tragedy

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:09

Comparing Four 2017 novels based on Attic Tragedy

Part 4 of a 4-part self-directed project

Having said I’d do 4 parts I felt less like it once I’d completed Part 3. So here are just a few bullet points of comparative description and partial evaluation. This will be done by taking thematic points of contrast and comparison.

1.      Religion

This issue relates to the following 2. Each of these novels uses the polytheistic structures of Greek religion in some way and with varying effect. Perhaps most tellingly they, like Knapp (2017), explore the shifts between polytheism and atheism that sings in the original plays too, although often for atheism to be subverted. Knapp rightly asks though, why that was necessary – it suggests a voice for atheism in Classical Greece louder than we have thought. All of the novels variously show religious faith that is often a disguise for power politics – only sometimes only sexual politics. Thus Vann shows Medea has raising a vast and relatively less formed Oriental religion, even older than the polities of Thrace and Cappadocia – a feminine past. She often though also uses this, quite nakedly, uses this to talk about how to assume or disrupt political discourses. This is even clearer in Toibin’s Clytemnestra, although Electra appears to abandon even Clytemnestra’s rootedness in ancient religion to displace its role with power – and not only power (sex used as power). I didn’t (and it may be my fault) get as strong a sense of ambivalent complexity in these issues in Haynes. Clearly people use religion for the purposes of power but the linkage of desire to power is not so cogently or forcefully there (for me at least).

2.      Gender & Sexual Politics

5th Century Greece made a problem of gender and sexual politics in its own right and in every domain of debate: politics, religion and identity. It is possibly for this reason alone that the contemporary theatre and writers for the theatre have revisited it – often, in the case of Anne Carson (of whom no-one is a greater authority at every level of that discussion and its sequelae in other issues). Eros the Bittersweet is probably still the most under-rated book of literary-historic-cultural criticism. I still value some of the early pioneering and radical (where my contemporaries would write naïve) versions of that, such as Eva Keuls (1985) The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual politics in Ancient Athens. And if you want balance on these questions look no further than Edith Hall’s continuing and urgent output.

Academic interest aside however, these three novelists have picked on urgent questions about sexual politics in the original plays of Medea, the Labdacid (Theban) plays and The Oresteia(s) and in the production history of them. My feeling is that Haynes probably moves least radically in political terms from older themes – and I have characterised that as the equivalent of updating tragedy to the themes of pre-feminist writing by women of the 1950s. There is an overt concern with a woman’s voice – honesty about childbirth and about the supposed natural feelings that link women to family structure. Women are more rational than men – this is even true of Eurydice (the wife of Creon) who otherwise plays the role of the jealous sister-in-law to cover her perception of what really drives her husband. In Toibin, women uncover the power games that keep men in control in the state and family but it is a male voice (a queer one) that does the subversion of that order at each and every level. The women fall victim by death or, in the case of Electra, by becoming women playing in the role of men – a thing that seems true too of Haynes’ Antigone. Vann’s feminist Medea refuses to wish to be known or likeable – she seeks to overthrow such solid certainties as the only path to a redrawing of gendered relationships.

3.      Queering the Picture

There may be no need to develop this. The theme of both novels by males is honestly queered, although in ways that might distinguish a novelist who identifies as gay, like Toibin, and one who, though heterosexual in public pronouncements, is so without any easy belief that such labels mean much as all his fiction shows. I have to say that there may be some bias in my view of Haynes novel as good but not a contender for great (unlike the others) because she does not take up this theme from Attic Greece.

4.      Narration

Toibin’s narrative is thoughtful – it mimes the problems of authority (and ‘death of the author’) as part of its exploration of other themes. These issues underlie Vann’s submersion in the literary critical gender politics of the contemporary US University but are not (as in Toibin) worn on the novel’s disturbed narrative surface. With more than a little Derrida via Bakhtin in its make-up, Vann’s narrative often works by internal contradiction rather than change of narrator and is symbolised in metaphors of depth, surface, flow and eddy. Medea is a thing of the disturbed elements we are told.  

5.      Past(s) and Present(s)

What then do these novels make of the past they (under)mine? Each of them exploits the Greek awareness that the past is a kind of fiction that is forever malleable, at least by the fifth century BCE, to the needs of the present – a view that allowed Euripides to completely overturn the stories of older dramatists within a century and which has kept on turning since (even with violence to the text – as in Seneca, Racine, Corneille and Wole Soyinka).

More important is that Toibin and Haynes balance this past and present with possible futures that may or may not value women differently as well as relationships. They are still open to Utopia. I don’t think Vann is.

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David Vann (2017) Bright Air Black London, Heinemann: ‘at the center (sic.) of what makes all liquid and changeable’.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:02

David Vann (2017) Bright Air Black London, Heinemann: ‘at the center (sic.) of what makes all liquid and changeable’.

Part 2 of a 4 part self-directed project

David Vann’s writing is much more difficult to place in a distinct English language tradition than either Toibin or Haynes. He writes that the genesis of this novel was in a university course that studied Euripides’ Medea and then a ‘feminist thought workshop’. His love of dirt, death and decay in all of his novels from The Legend of a Suicide onwards is psychoanalytic in origin. Indeed were I to lay a bet I would suggest that this novel owes as much to Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun as to Attic tragedy, since such a ‘black sun’ is described early in the novel (4). Its enemy a male force that threatens: ‘her father a threat from the very beginning, an enemy before she was born’ (39).

The key image is the dismemberment of patriarchal law or its chances of reproduction – Medea’s ritual magic revels in a trickery in which self-oppressed princesses are made to tear off the king’s, their father’s, ‘balls’ (191) as a means of ‘renewing’ him: ‘Segmented king, faceless and neutered, returning to some earlier form.’ Later these kings are ‘runt kings’ (125).

The association of woman with that that is deep and dark and buried underneath the world ruled by the Name-of-the-Father. Sub-rational, it is thus beyond or before all words that name or structure that order: a de-centred ‘center’ associated with fluid mutable formlessness (86) at war with the world of men: ‘A king always at the center, never without reference’ (10). However fathers who assert priority over daughters do so themselves under threat from chthonic forces that assert an even greater priority in a world before the establishment of patriarchal order – in this novel a descending layer of primal goddesses from Hekate to ‘Nute, blue god of the Egyptians’ (4).

Hence Medea ends as she begins as a symbol of the resistance of the familial roles that serve the interests of the symbolic, biological or symbolic father. She lies in the bloody dismembered body parts of her brother, using these to distract her pursuing father and his wrath and to ‘unman’ Jason in by mining out his inner being by drawing him into orgasmic admixture with that bloody mass (5).

Medea’s power lies most in her ability to knowingly become a prototype of woman who is and always will be hated because always ‘true’ to a feminine principle that distrusts male order, ready to be known forever as she who killed her male children (13). Medea seems to embrace evil because she knows she will always ever be represented as it but Vann does see her as a good mother (249f.) I think, although I think the argument to show why this is so too complex for me at this moment or this place but it inheres in the fact that her as yet ungendered boys are at threat from the hard wold of men more than she, ‘faces carved by helmets into slats and mouths bare and animal’.

Medea, after all, does not hate ‘men’. She prefers them in sexual love with each other than as warriors whose meaning is the establishment of masculine power in mutual bloodshed and lust for imperial wealth: ‘Some lie with each other reversed and swallowing, others mount, and all are swaying.  … A vision Medea would never have imagined, would never have been allowed to see. The most beautiful forms in firelight.’ (32).

This is a wonderful novel, although it lacks (quite unlike Toibin) anything like a redemptive vision or potential – indeed you look for that in vain in Vann (try Goat Mountain). Of course the Greek texts themselves facilitate more potential in Orestes than in Jason, as Euripides presents him.

If I prefer Toibin, it may be because he places the darkness of Clytemnestra (in some senses able to make ‘bright air black’) in the context of a world where male rule is not really ever challenged. Strong women in both other novels (Electra and Antigone) become men in order to rule and serve patriarchy. But Orestes gives me hope for men. Medea is more the stuff of Kristeva and radical philosophy. Her aim is deconstructive as well as destructive, the utopian vision denied representation and therefore saved from the compromises involved in its naming in language compromised by patriarchy and instead part of the repressed structure beneath the world’s and the sea’s surface – ‘liquid and changeable’.

Medea the one who would end a god and all his descendants and the day-lit world. She would do this. She knows this is true, that whatever binds other people to each other has no hold on her. She is bound only by elements …..

All the best

Steve

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Colm Toibin (2017) House of Names London, Viking: ‘Orestes wanted to say to (Electra) that neither she nor anyone else in the palace had authority.’

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:03

Part 3 of a 4-part self-directed project

Colm Toibin sought authoritative readers for his novel, including authoritative classicists such as Edith Hall and Natalie Haynes. Yet this is a novel that queries the role of all sources – whether gods, kings or parents – and invents a consciousness that Toibin elsewhere describes as ‘the essential privacy of the emerging self, of the sense of singleness and integrity, of an uncertain moral consciousness, of a pure and floating individuality on which the novel comes to depend. The conspiracy in the novel is thus … between the protagonist and the reader.’ (Toibin 2012:3)

That is why both the novel as a form and its emergent dominant consciousness, an a-social Orestes, wrests the authority to ‘name’ things as they are from kings, queens, fathers, mothers and the hierarchies that seek to impose social orders. Rather than allow a focus, as if from the start, to be any first person narrator who may claim such ‘authority’ (and authorial role), he ensures that Orestes (as a point of view in a third person narration that overcomes theirs – morally at least) to be the novels ‘voice’ rather than that of one of the characters. First person narrators’ attempt to control the stuff of narrative in this novel but are submerged under questions of their ‘reliability’ and integrity as both narrators and focal centres of a moral consciousness.

Hence, Toibin’s main self-proposed challenge in The House of Names is the genuine transfer of complex play-text ‘versions’ of the Orestes story to a novel in which he lends, when he can, his authority as writer to emergent rather than focal consciousness’s. The latter are compromised by their pasts whose aims are very much about how to reproduce that past  in the present and control how that present is perceived. Toibin does not allow either Clytemnestra (with the richness of her inner (indeed infernal) resources) or the outright and simpler and more conscious love of control in Electra to dominate. Hence, although given prominence – Clytemnestra opens the novel and appears, like Mary in The Testament of Mary, to seek to dominate with her hunger for an authority, as constant as death itself. Like Milton’s Death she seeks to digest the world she takes in and transform into a dark art: ‘We are all hungry now. … Murder makes us ravenous’. This is an art that feeds the hunger of the ‘taste’ it alone relishes by keeping still (quiet and static in time) except as a ‘moving’ interior monologue. There is a rich poetry here: ‘I feel if I remain still, something more will come.’(227) Dead pasts that ‘remain still’ must make the present appear meaningless in its endeavours to ‘emerge’ anew and different.  Contrastingly, Electra, accepts the most heinous of political oppressions (that represented by a still (because broken- legged) Aegisthus) to seek power and control rather than inner authority:

‘She no longer went to her father’s grave. She had become brisk, almost sharp. Since she spent the day … exercising control … . She … spoke rather of distant regions that would have to be brought under control. (243f.)

No longer poetry – rather (and Haynes finds a similar character in her Ani – Antigone) this is the thin legend of a politics of control.

Orestes (the primary focal ‘point of view’ of the author) who spends time reworking fictions which rewrite the structures in which authority, power and control inhere – especially the family (which he witnesses in continual cycle of formal and semantic change). He does so in collusion with an author who renders everyone else in full meta-cognitive control of a kind of conscious role-play that recycles the past. Note, for instance, Agamemnon: Clytemnestra see him interacting with child Orestes (enacting a sword-fight); ‘as if (he) knew that he must play the part of the father with his boy for all it was worth.’ There are multiple such self-conscious references to theatrical and social role-play: ‘’I would assist my mother in her role as someone who had known grief and was now almost foolish, distracted, harmless. We could play the parts together even if my brother came back.’ Says Electra (163).

Orestes in contrast inhabits fictions where people do not exactly know what their roles are or how to name them. Central to that is his fictive and imaginative hold on the silences that make up even his sexual and physical relationship with Leander, until the latter pushes him out of the world of known roles that he prefers. We know that Orestes experiences a silent physical tenderness with Leander (125, 134) that cannot be merely explained away by reference to Greek male bisexuality and which, in its refusal of names – such as ‘sexual’ or ‘physical’ - nevertheless has felt presence in its silence. When Orestes, in the ‘house of whispers’ (213) that is Mycenae, hears the sexual congress of Aegisthus and his two favoured bodyguards, by following them to a remote palace room and waiting and listening outside these ‘sounds were familiar to him and unmistakable’ but still do not get named.

Attic Tragedy investigates family more radically (and with self-conscious politics since Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE itself aimed to refashion family links for the purposes of its democracy and no more so than in Aeschylus’ Orestes plays) than has been done (except perhaps in Shakespeare) until modern times. Toibin’s analysis is a defence of what in Margaret Thatcher’s legislation was called ‘pretend family relationships’ and what more knowing souls call the ‘chosen family’.

He imagined sometimes that Leander and Mitros were his sisters, … (115).

These imaginations and plays (transformations of role) seek later not to be named but merely experienced: ‘Orestes lay back and leaned his head on Leander’s chest as Leander put his arms around him and held him. Orestes knew when that happened to say nothing, …’.

Personally I have always wanted Toibin to be known as a great gay novelist. That would be a help to restore so much of what is lost otherwise to public discourse of gay sexuality (something Lorca struggled with when he met open gay people in the USA and thought ill of them in contrast with Whitman’s ideals). However, to name him thus might be ambivalent – a mere act of power. In the novel the richest character, however otherwise unreliable as a ‘narrator’ and who needs to be finally (as is old Hamlet by his son) dismissed as backward-looking ghost, is actually the one who gets nearest to the theme of that ambivalence and projects it, if not in a way she will ever understand, into the world:

There are presences I wish to encounter, presences that are close but not close enough to touch or be seen. I cannot think of their names.

Un-named presences remain open rather than closed identities. Names may overly bind presences – perhaps. Such is our existential dilemma. Hence I’ll be happy for Toibin to remain merely a great novelist and for the radical potential for the future of the novel as champion of chosen family in his novels such as The Blackwater Lightship and The Master to remain unarticulated within that ‘greatness’

 All the best

Steve

Toibin, C. (2012) New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families London, Viking.

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Natalie Haynes 'The Children of Jocasta' London, Mantle: ‘wailing at some real or perceived injustice’.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:01

Part 1 of a 4-part self-directed project

Haynes praises and thanks the classicist, Edith Hall – as does Colm Toibin - in her Afterword to her novel. This is no surprise. Hall is the very greatest of classicists – someone who has allowed the past into the present as a means of resisting those who put the present into the past. There is a creativity and radicalism in her scholarship that enhances and centres the scholarship she exudes whist being purposive. Hence two very different ways of mythical recreation in Haynes and Toibin can have a common reassurance of a genuine classic source – however creatively radical their revision.

Of course Toibin is the greater novelist and what he draws from the Oresteia is hence the richer and more urgent. However, Haynes knows I think what she does. Maybe my feeling that this is lesser comes from the insistence of Haynes on the models of her emulation – which seem to me be the mid twentieth century flush of female creativity in public - I might have wished however that that model would have been Beryl Bainbridge rather than Margaret Drabble and Daphne du Maurier, despite my love of the latter.

Haynes knows, as a well-attested populariser of classical motifs, that she works from an open field – from a mythical repertoire whose function it was, from the very beginning to be open to narrative revision – she herself cites the differences in the story of Jocasta between Homer and Sophocles, and in the fifth century additions to the myth – the children of Jocasta –Aeschylus and Sophocles. She does not mention Euripides The Phoenician Women in which Oedipus outlives his warlike sons (just) and there may be a good reason for a novelist who cares for her readers to do this.

She makes some bold transpositions between the role of Eteocles and Polyneices, AND Antigone and Ismene. The boldest transposition is Tiresias into the role of the sexually motivated housekeeper, Teresa – a character who owes as much to Mrs Danvers (in Rebecca) as to the Attic dramatists. Into the latter, she weaves some dark hints gleaned from a lost Theban trilogy of Laius’ rape of his host’s son, into a fully-fledged but not very ‘out’ gay character, protected by Teresa.

For those who know the Greek tragedies, this leads to some moments of frisson. The picture of Antigone ‘wailing at some real or perceived injustice’ summarises at once the characters as Haynes sees them of that heroine in Sophocles and Jean Anouilh and is a tremendous moment of literary critical fun. However, we shall see that it is more than that in its function as a predictor of a plot twist I refrain from identifying lest I be branded a ‘spoiler’.

However that characterisation also, in its context, also shows the major revision of style in the novel – into the mode of ‘family romance’. This is not so much the genre described by Freud but by the ‘women’s novel’ of the mid-twentieth century (I say this without any intention of making the latter seem inferior to the former). You only need take some of Jocasta’s musings or interactions with other women to illustrate this:

She lay half-dozing in the sun, trying to remember what she needed to do today. But she had little to fret about. … (p. 176)

OR

She (Teresa) had turned to Jocasta, expecting the queen to overrule this upstart and tell him that Teresa was not to be argued with. But Jocasta had done nothing of the kind. Rather, she had taken her husband’s arm, and told Teresa that things were changing at the palace, so perhaps it was time for her to move on. … (p. 184)

But it would be unfair to use sentences like these with their modern idioms and attitudes (‘time to move on’) to characterise the novel as a whole. One effect of this attempt to make the historically remote available in this way is to create a sense of crude comfort at the stability of things – one that makes the denouement of this novel with its blast from an ancient past in which bodies are extremely at risk from many sources of instability, even more shocking. In that sense, Haynes uses these transformations of role expectations, to and from the distant past, to heighten our sense of the immutable significance of tragic effects (without religion of any kind).

And more than this, Haynes can make links between contemporary and classical instances of atheism (Jocasta’s doubt of oracles and even the will of gods in Sophocles) such that Jocasta supports the sensibility of a modern woman, attempting to optimise her control of self and things in inclement situations. She does this by focusing on embodied female experience, to the detriment of the overblown, and (in the end) rather childishly ‘magical and wishful emotional thinking’ of her male characters. Jocasta can therefore express even very negative emotion, justified by the fact that it is in part determined by her circumstances and not seen as theologically immutable (as men’s emotions are here so often):

After seven months of persistent, sometimes crippling nausea, Jocasta was desperate to be rid of this parasitic child which persecuted her from within. … She was terrified of what was to come. She was barely sixteen years old, slightly built, and afraid her body would soon be split in two by an infant who cared nothing for damaging her, but whose determination was only to be born. (pp 82f.)

The almost seamless move from this to Haynes’ Jocasta’s atheistic thought about the role of oracles is masterful. Prophesy is about the affairs of ‘men’ (‘not women’ is not said but echoes throughout) and only because men insist on a meaning that endures rather than changes in and through bodily experience and circumstances. This philosophy is best expressed by Isy (Ismene) at the end of the novel where she hopes that in a future when prophecy, like her father, are blind: ‘people will be carving out their lives, in whatever circumstances remain for them.’ (p. 324).

This is not a novel for me but it is a good (and highly readable novel) and it, as surely as ever (and better than The Amber Fury), makes great and classic play-texts relevant and accessible in a new way.

All the best

Steve

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2017: 3 Novelists search the Attic and find more than Tragedy there.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:03

2017: 3 Novelists search the Attic and find more than Tragedy there.

This blog is my preface to a project I have set myself to discover what, if anything, links three novelists (all already known to me) in a desire to take their narratives from Attic tragedy. In the fifth to fourth century BCE a vast social, religious and political cultural project created a vast series of dramas of which only 40 or so remain extant.

Since that time, these dramas –based in a mythological ‘history’ shared by not only writers but by people, literate and illiterate (the latter the large majority) – have remained the staple of world literatures, continually reinvented by cultures who returned to them to express moral, religious, political, psychological truths (or admixtures thereof) that were often widely divergent in their interpretation and functional application.

Hence, any writer who revisits the stories therein often revisits a palimpsest of divergent narratives and narrative functions that variously might also recall the aesthetics of Aristotle, the political divergence that French society found in comparing Racine and Corneille, and the inconsistences within and between psychologists including William James, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre.

So this blog is the preface to 4 others which will look at:

1.      Natalie Haynes The Children of Jocasta on the Labdacid family tragedies and their versions.

2.      David Vann Bright Air Black in which Attic Greece confronted its ambivalent dependence on the Ancient East.

3.      Colm Toibin The House of Names in which myths of Mycenae find new application.

4.      Summary and comparative conclusions

I’m aware that this isn’t a visited blog and I'm 'cool' (indeed almost frozen) about that cool

This is a project basically by me for me, but if anyone happens upon it, or part of it, please join in and initiate discussion if you’d like to. You can be as personal as me.

All the best

Steve

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LOL at LAL (Laughing at Learners that you teach)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 18 May 2017, 09:52

I think the commonest despair I experience as an OU Tutor is to see the regular display of 'howlers' by Psychology ALs from marked work submitted by learners to their ALS. Of course, this behaviour I see only in certain but 'regular' Psychology ALs but it may be widespread, although it does not seem to happen (at least not in the spirit of ALs 'having a laugh' together) in Science Faculty courses. I believe that learners should know that their work may be held up to ridicule in private but enduring and stored conversations between lecturers even though done anonymously.

In protest, as an OU Student, I will henceforth deny permission to quote me on enduring records even anonymously, given the offensiveness (and general unprofessionalism) of such behaviour in my opinion. I complain regularly. Complaints are ignored.

All the best


Steve

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Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied VERY PERSONAL REVIEW

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 2 Mar 2017, 15:40

Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied London, Faber &  Faber

Simon Armitage

What’s in a name? Armitage could have called this volume ‘Solitude’ and in a stroke joined the army of poets and poetasters who have milked this hackneyed stereotype of the poet and poetry. Instead he asks the question: who or what and how do we become ‘the unaccompanied’. Armitage becomes therefore yet again a ‘measure’ (in all its senses) of the social forms and functions of loneliness and its professions in poetry – even down to the wonderful, funny and intensely moving evocation and pastiche of Wordsworth written about an ‘accompanied’ (though the company is ‘borrowed dog’) walk from Dove Cottage (‘The Candlelighter’ p. 56):

I stood in some blind spot of its dark eye

and deer and dog were still and unaware

and stayed that way, divided by that wall:

wild stag and hunting hound in separate worlds,

The sense that ‘division’ whilst real and solidified in objects might be some temporary loss of a fuller and more connected vision persists, lifting poetry back into its social function. The stance we take both connects and distinguishes (at their respective line ends) ‘I’ and ‘its dark eye’, and whilst not promising greater light admits of its possibility.

Hence, a poem that starts with a sorry ghost of Wordsworth in the ‘corpse road’ from Dove Cottage, ends with a kind of secular communion of company that is both also a sorry ghost of community but an admission of its underlying potential. It is as potent as the ambiguities in its half-rhyme (tarn / cairn):

Then I hacked up the ghyll to higher ground

Counting the hikers striding along the ridge,

Thinking of taking a drink from the tarn,

Thinking of adding a new stone to the cairn.

My favourite poem has to be ‘The Claim’ (p. 47). It, like other poems here, shows what I feel to be a new (or perhaps deeper) interest in the unconscious (whatever we take that to be) that is, as in ‘The Candlelighter’, ‘still and unaware’. This poem joins others that humorously or otherwise explore the realms of the undead or, in his most literary of jokes that conjoins Homer with Ezra, ‘Poundland’ (pp. 10f), by pastiching Ulysses’ visitation and libations in Homer’s Hades. The deep mine in ‘The Claim’ is that of the US West but it applies to any claim to own a deeper selfhood (private and dark), let alone that of being a ‘poet’: ‘operation mind-fuck’.

This is a poem about dredging creation out of a thing that feels like death and yet still (the hope is – gloriously realised in this poem) resurrected in a passage that uses snow like one of my other favourite poets, John Burnside, and likewise his deeply ambivalent religious analogy and metaphor.

‘The Unaccompanied’, finally (p. 74), is a glorious poem – one that, were it not too universal for that purpose alone, seems a poem about unaccompanied, sad but ungenerous Brexit Britain, as do others –satirical of the notion that we can ever ‘walk alone’, other than over a precipice. The Company we keep is in the past, present and future – it builds our ‘suspension bridge’ structures that fly in hope of joint survival in each other. I love this great piece because, ambivalent Yorkshireman myself, it bridges for me some of the poets that belong to what Armitage himself wanted to see as a Yorkshire tradition: Tony Harrison, himself (forgive me the others) but also that son of new Yorkshire, the just-risen star of Andrew Macmillan  (there’s father, there’s son)[1]:

Songs about mills and mines and a great war,

About mermaid brides and solid gold hills,

Songs from broken hymnbooks and cheesy films.

 

Then his father’s voice rising out of that choir,

And his father’s father’s voice, and voices

Of fathers before, concerning him only.

Arcing through charged air and spanning the gorge.

He steps over the cliff edge and walks across.

I wonder how much that ‘cliff edge’ owes to the imagery of fear and hope in the Brexit lexicon.   

But to be honest, I am not at all confident that I know why these poems are something new – just that they are. Becoming recognised, midst the ‘alpha males’ of his sixth form as ‘the poet in my heart’ (from Fleetwood Mac of course) raises an image that will forever remind me (now in my 60s) of being ‘outed’ in my Yorkshire school in quite another way although the fear seems less fixable to an event that has or might happen now – just significant of the excitement of transition (in ‘Gravity’ (p. 22f.):

And the airspace that followed

was instantly baubled

with orbs and globes

from the mouths of angels

and an outed choirboy’s

helium bubbles,

 

Till the heavens ballooned

with unworldly apples.

 

Of course, this is clever. In a stanza or two earlier, he sets himself the task of bringing together Isaac Newton and Robert Browning (rhymed with ‘brown-nosing’) but it isn’t the cleverness (the metaphysical wit) I love it is the ability to dig down deep into feeling that emerge from his readers as their own in ways he cannot have known would have happened.

Read them. Enjoy them! They will ‘interpellate’ (I knew that word from Althusser would come in handy one day) you too!

All the best

Steve



[1] Although I think this was just wishful thinking on my part. Those mermaid brides surely come from George Mackay Brown (a first edition of whose poems holds its favoured place in Armitage’s coming-of-age poem (p. 20).


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Hailing Frederick Toates of the OU

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 17 Feb 2017, 19:16

This month's The Psychologist has a brilliant interview with Frederick Toates (click here to open in new window):

Advantages in reading this now are:

He talks sense about the role of biology and psychology, understanding for us some of the silliest turf wars between different 'schools' of psychology - or (but I'm wickedevil) different 'narrow minds' in psychology.

He outlines his own contribution to material on Addiction  - on wanting & liking - current NOW (p. 66).

He talks about his own perspective as an 'expert-by-experience' as a person  combatting OCD (about which he has written a mixed self-help / academic book).

He mentions Skinner and Freud in the same sentence WITHOUT disparaging either.

He extends 'wanting and like' neuropsychology to the study of sex and talks of his recent book.

He talks about his hopes and fears for universities (and the OU).

All the best

Steve



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Lewis, Marc (2015) The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is not a Disease

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 10 Feb 2017, 20:21

Review of:

Lewis, Marc (2015) The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is not a Disease Melbourne & London, Scribe Publications

The value of this book can’t be under-estimated and should not be dismissed. Its target is the biomedical model of addiction – the disease model – and its success as a book for me was to further clarify the slipperiness of the term ‘biopsychosocial’ common to contemporary discussions of the aetiology, maintenance and the structuring of supportive interventions in addictions. My background in social work was an early attraction to the term ‘biopsychosocial’ as a means of bridging the divide in the debate between biomedical and psychosocial theories of addiction. However, in practice, this bridging tended to further bolster the biomedical model and relegate psychosocial intervention to a secondary role both in specialist intervention team structures and operations. Such teams often continued to be headed by a psychiatrist.

This for two reasons (although these reasons are solely the product of a retired practitioner’s reflections on past experience):

1.       The ‘bio’ in the biopsychosocial was often regarded as essentially focused conceptually and owned therapeutically by biomedical sub-teams.

2.       Biomedical sub-teams increasingly colonised the psychosocial and, in doing so, gave them a medical flavour, especially at the level of qualification to practice and demonstration of that qualification in role and appearance.

This feature is, of course, in part a product of institutionalised state health providers and less apparent therefore to Lewis in the USA, where the biopsychosocial is conceived as somewhat apart from the biomedical model. In his book, the 'bio' in biopsychosocial is a merely the name of organisation of a knowledge of embodied systems and is much easier to pit against a biomedical system that is essentiall run for profit. 

I tried to draw this distinction in the following figure.

Biopsychosocial & Biomedical

 

In the figure, the biomedical merely occupies the same terrain as a conceptual biopsychosocial model but it interprets that terrain differently – through the lens of qualified and exclusive practice. Any realistic understanding of that figure will, of course, readily admit that there will be a trade between the biomedical and conceptual biopsychosocial but that both need to be kept distant in our thinking, at least at the level of theory and intervention planning. As Lewis shows, some descriptions of neuronal activity can describe change in neurobiological and neuroanatomy in terms other than ‘disease’ and can make legitimate analogy between the features of socially validated and socially invalidated learning. 

Thus while the life-processes in the life of a ‘junkie’ are seen now as best described in arcs of ‘recovery’ from a deficit position, the processes involved in falling in, and out of, love and learning literature or neurobiology are seen as ‘normative’ learning processes. Yet all these processes can be described throughout the nested processes shown in our circular system set in the figure above. For Lewis, given free reign and dominance, the biomedical (even when it imports and colonises aspects of the psychosocial) retains interests that are solely its own – those of professional exclusiveness and top-down control of the person experiencing learning through addiction. His stories of the horrors of treatment centres ring so true to me from my working life (p. 212) - although that is not to say I didn't see islands of good personal practice.

One sign of the difference in the way the biopsychosocial is conceived in Lewis is the Birmingham Reach Out Recovery (p. 214) intervention in which a large part of the intervention was fuelled by consulting groups of former addicts who worked with each other to socialise and increase access to support. Often that support appears little less than avenues and ‘recovery-friendly shops’ for the ‘addict’ to build on and generate new story from their old stories, stories which appear to have got stuck in 'now-appeal' as he calls it. That this is more truly biopsychosocial, Lewis argues, is seen in the deficiencies of time and professional personnel controlled CBT and even mindfulness interventions that measure input and output but do not generate motivation or change (in themselves). The stress is on narrative (I can see the biomedical teams now developing training for nurses in ‘narrative therapy’ - indeed it has been happening some time) but not narrative aimed at 'therapy' as such but in generating motivated movement in the stalled neuroplasticity in the brain of the addict (locked into what Lewis call ‘now-appeal’).

So if desire cannot be turned off or seduced away from addictive goals, then it has to be fastened to goals incompatible with addiction – goals such as freedom from suffering, achievement of life projects, access to loving relationships, and the sense of coherence and self-love that can come with abstinence. And if those goals cannot be envisioned, because of a static pre-occupation with the present, then self-narrative and desire need to be packaged together – self-narrative to shift perspective to long-range goals, desire to power the pursuit of these goals.

Stories don’t work without emotional themes. They would be impossible to follow. ….

This (from a neuro-scientist) is now conceivable because neuroscience, unlike the sterile discipline of cognitive psychology, has freed itself from a merely cognitive and merely behavioural interest – its interest in those brain processes called emotion and drive would have shocked Skinner, Pavlov, and Beck. Now no-one dare write about psychology without recognising ‘Descartes’ Error’ (Antonio Damasio).  

So this book genuinely revels in all its centre parts on biographical (and some autobiographical), stories of addiction that are a long way from the mechanical nature of the Jellinek curve. Its bookend chapters are helpful though with definitions of brain anatomy and processes that can be understood by anyone – and while this book can replace no textbook accounts for a learner in higher education, it can make their limitations and gaps clear to both pure scientists and practitioners: pure science, that is, which is not still married merely to positivism. Look for instance at the genius of the everyday science explanation of the anatomy and function of the Orbito-Frontal Cortex (p. 82). If you are a beginning learner (or even if you began a whole ago) you can learn a lot from that.

I love this book.

Steve

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Nadeem Aslam (2017) The Golden Legend London, Faber & Faber

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Jan 2017, 08:12

Nadeem Aslam (2017) The Golden Legend London, Faber & Faber

Reading Nadeem Aslam is like returning to the great Victorians – he is a writer who like them does not consider belief, thought and thinking, writing and reading to be the prerogative of writers alone – his characters do that. We share their reading sometimes and the irreducibility of the marriage of their sources of thought, thinking and belief in understanding their actions. That makes him a complex troubling writer because he does not deny even the most ‘dangerous’ of beliefs its voice. Hence people find him either too ‘preachy’ (mistaking the intellectual life of his characters for his own) or too inclusive. In fact he makes readers experience the very conflict in which his characters are absorbed.

Thus an intellectual and retired architect, the Christian Margaret who is also the Muslim Nargis, is often seen with a book – to be repaired or absorbed or shared. We share with her (on p, 245) a reading that emphasises the complicity of power with the maintenance of conflicts he pretends to despise, even in its self-regarding architecture. Her thought moves to an everyday conversation and thence onto reflection (p.245f) on the idea of history and talk about history as a present force in everyday conversation. The processes are those of the perpetuation of conflict in interaction, and the role in it of all discourses – written or oral and every day;

…she and Massud had fallen into a conversation with a Tunisian air steward, who had said, ‘There are a lot of Italian visitors in my country.’ And when Nargis had asked him to explain, he replied, @It is due to the Punic Wars. They haven’t left yet.’ Nargis had to look up the detail of the Punic wars. They had taken place between 264 BC and 164 BC.

To the minds of combatants causes are located in actions and reactions to contingent events and thence to ideas that shape action. No cause is seen as entirely reducible to its circumstances – even when that cause persists as a moment of inter-group (as in the air-steward) of inherited distrust and hate. It animate conflict between groupings and within groupings – a point from which Aslan started his writing career. Aslam understands the persistence of belief to sustain action – whether religious or political – his characters live in the beliefs of global Communism as much as the recurring waves of conflict within and between Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities. Places become confluences where these beliefs conglomerate throwing up architectural and other cultural traces or their simulacrums.

Moscow, otherwise known as Imran, remembers from his youth the following chilling summary, although he does not reflect on it. He lets it stay hard and gem-like as a vignette of Aslams’s own writing:

‘… things being as bad as they are,’ the baker said to the two brothers earlier ‘this world won’t last for much longer.’

‘I’ve got news for you, uncle’, Laal had replied. ‘The world will survive forever, with everything staying exactly as it is now.’ (p. 243)

On the day after Trump’s inauguration into bile, this makes me feel that hope and fear for the world are much the same thing. Only characters who become ghosts absorbed into the quotidian beyond its boundary-setting (in this great books final chapters) ever escape – and, in fact, do they? The question in this fiction remains open.

Deeply embedded pessimism is not the feel of this novel however, although it finds its hope in the most visceral of responses to belief and in the most desperate acts. A key one is where Lily journeys through a black sewer in which his blood flows and human shit contaminates him to the very core, Bishop Solomon, on a journey to one such act, contemplates what survives acknowledgement that the reduction of self to matter – flesh, bone, blood and ‘waste’ in a beautiful phrase that A.S, Byatt (as another novelist of this ambition) would thrill to. The Bishop finds ‘a brilliant splinter in the meat or bone’ (p. 318).

A man of deep reflection that splinter is of the meat and bone but also imported to it from crystalline sources without. The passage ends with the Bishop taking down and reading with us, his reader, a picture of William Blake, reading Milton, the Bible and Shakespeare in the ‘horrid light’ (the Miltonic penumbra of ‘a mighty and awful change (that) threatened the Earth. The American War began. All its dark horrors…’ (p. 319)

I quote these parts because they represent for me the sheer grandeur of the novelist standing against the modish novel of feeling. Few novelists would dare to go the journey of reliving the Victorian novel – a hero of my own, Tom McCarthy, actually only picks out the symptoms of why such novels could be considered impossible for his sparse but beautiful art.

Read this novel then for its belief in ‘character’ (a belief under great threat of course) and for its refusal to embrace easy options – even in the shape of one’s plot – for feeling good about the world. And let’s face it: Donald Trump’s fatuous sense that a nation can choose to feel good within severely restricted boundaries is impossible to contemplate without the victory of Seligman’s sham ‘positive psychology’ behind it.

Don’t listen to me. The book is full of life and beauty. Read it and live it. You will, I am sure.

All the best

Steve


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Reading Burnside, John (2017) Ashland and Vine London, Jonathan Cape.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 17 Jan 2017, 16:41

Burnside, John (2017) Ashland and Vine London, Jonathan Cape.

Some writers seem, when you have grown to love their writing, to be continually writing the same novel – a novel that does not exist in the past or present but is ever emergent in the future. Some of the same issues get raised and some iconic landscapes – For Burnside it is deserted snowscapes – but what emerges in each outing is truly new, liberating for its reader and writer because it allows one’s history to resonate in a new place, as if it belonged there. The major theme is of ‘Elsewhere’.

It took me a while to see it clear, but from the start, no matter how far I travelled, it was always elsewhere that I truly loved. … Blown snow muddling the road and a few horses standing off by themselves, in a dark that might just go on forever. Elsewhere. You find it from time to time and then it’s gone. … When you catch a glimpse of elsewhere, no matter how brief it is, you could be forgiven for thinking happiness and time are the same thing. (p. 317)

This describes the scene of Burnside’s novels, a place that is hard to locate but exists nevertheless though always as immanent, if on occasion emergent. In this case what has emerged is a truly great novel that absorbs itself in and articulates American experience in ways that very few novels do – whilst keeping its foot ‘elsewhere’ in time and space. It is not only Burnside’s own novels and life -experience (as we have it in his multi-form memoirs) that we have here – in the animal prints in the snow and the patterns they suggest - but also a bricolage of literary traditions that might seem miles from each other in purpose and form. Hence American Road novel can meet up with the thematic and purpose of Iris Murdoch’s search for a temporal solace that might enable us to give up hopes of ‘elsewhere’ as a place outside human time: a false heaven known to be so because all heavens are false. Even a short novel like this can, at this point in Burnside’s career bear a weight of metaphysics (p. 335):

… history is not the sum of what matters here. That it’s not a single, or even manifold, narrative that makes reality. What matters is the fabric of time and place, …

These excerpts necessarily hide the novel you read because generically this novel is impossible to classify: bildungsroman, spy thriller, political novel and war story. All of them make part of the ‘manifold narrative that yet is more, since its patterns are yet to be realised. In this uncertainty, I felt a pressure I have not felt before so strongly in Burnside on the everyday experience of gender and sexual identification (though it is clearly there at the mythic level in A Summer of Drowning (another novel that took me by storm). I think this is perhaps because this novel of rediscovery of the memory of a whole family so clearly charts the mix of the political, the personal and the liberating so clear to us now in the accumulated ‘happenings’ and self-disclosures of the seventies, lead inevitably from the USA, the ‘Forgotten History of America (p. 9).

Hence this story, which sort of hangs around a central theme of love between two women (still tentatively suppressed by other narrative accidents, resonates elsewhere in difficulties in locating together notions of self and gender that make one whole.  I have not (maybe through insensitivity but I don’t think, if so, it was that alone) in Burnside before.

For instance, I had troubled ambivalence about ‘sexing’ the primary narrative voice from the beginning of the novel. I missed something perhaps but there was (for a gay follower like myself of a novelist not usually working anywhere near the arena of gay writing) something like a frisson when I hear the narrative voice speak of having moved on from being ‘with a girl …, a beautiful dark-eyed Minnesotan called Ruth …’ (p. 6) to a ‘an arrangement, mostly tacit, but an arrangement nevertheless’ with the novel’s dark-heart, almost a parodic romantic male lead:

He was tall, good-looking, highly intelligent, imaginative; he was an artist, with a resumé to prove it and there was an added attraction of a dark side … (p. 8).

In my eyes the chance that this mirrored my own youthful crushes was a potential about which I was only later let down from (horrible deposition) lightly. Right or wrong about this effect, it is entirely possible a consummate artist like Burnside could have planned it, so much does it shadow the central story of Jean and Lee, a story we only get in full in the novel’s final chapter.

This novel, though short, reads like an epic, like the cult films its characters so often watch. Burnside was on the Booker panel that shortlisted Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (though I wouldn’t dare to blame him for that), an American novel of enormous size and pretension  which was at the time widely mistaken for ‘epic’ qualities, whose outcomes could be more nearly satisfactory in a very short story. Sometimes I wonder, though Burnside began Ashland and Vine well before that point, whether he, a master in my eyes, is showing the novice debut novelist how an apprenticeship to epic value is truly to be won – by locking time and space into a shorter space and working within it. If he was, he has proved himself, as indeed he has if he wasn’t aiming to deliver that lesson.

A novel that can tell the story of My Lai amongst narratives that encapsulate other histories that add up to a notion of the USA and yet totally involve you with its heroine and her break from booze to some sort of apprehension of passing time and history is a very great novel indeed. Burnside’s finer points continue to be missed by Booker panels however, so I can only hope that this time he will be rewarded in that way. A novelist who can write a short novel about so much and yet also attempt to discover within it why and how we tell stories in the ways we do (and sometimes don’t) surely has his reward ‘elsewhere’ but that may be to take metaphysics too far.

But I feel like finishing, since I’m trying to avoid spoilers, with a taste of its grasp of tale-telling, history and the search for personal and communal meaning. Its subtlety is typical – so much so that it might still go unnoticed how narrative and historic space and time coincide as a form of looking back to the forgotten and forward to its potential yet to come. I know Burnside continues a prophet of the left – however defeated we may seem.

… it seemed clear to me that, now she was halfway through the telling she had hit a place she couldn’t get past, or not easily, not for now. She was walking quickly, not looking back, as if she had forgotten me, and I hesitated a moment, wondering if she needed to be left to herself for a while, before I made up my mind and followed her along the bright empty street, past the old county court buildings, before she swerved off to the right and headed down Ridgeview, past empty lots and anonymous commercial buildings, heading for Shelleyville, the workers’ cooperative village built by a nineteenth century industrialist and social visionary back in the 1890s, Finally, she stopped at a crossways and stood at a kerb, looking out toward what once would have been the edge of town and was now all sprawl. (pp. 117f.)

I hope you find that as rich and impressive as I do.

All the best

Steve


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Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, visited 13/01/17 ‘Out of Chaos’

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 14 Jan 2017, 16:46

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, visited 13/01/17 ‘Out of Chaos’

 

There is no doubt that the issue of identity and migration feels a pretty important one at the moment from whatever angle or perspective you look at it – even more so the ‘unheimlich’ (‘uncanny’ as it is translated from Freud to English) feeling that what passes under the name of ‘home’ is no such thing, bearing threats under a fragile surface.

‘Out of Chaos’ displays exhibits from the Ben Uri Museum detailing the long experience of migration and identity preservation under the most appalling circumstances of Jewish people. Here we see lots of interiors that feel exposed but also other interiorities that are exposed to an unsympathetic gaze. The wonder of those paintings is that they show us that this gaze might be our own – that of the viewer / voyeur. The huge painting variously identified as ‘The Family’ or ‘The Emigrants’ by Hageman (1910) dominates a long wall, such that it can only be seen by real or virtual (the roving eye) parade across it. What we see as we do so is a line of eyes that engage aggressively or proudly and not at all (as it seems) with our own – whilst others look, especially the young girl nearest our own gaze somewhat afraid of what they see in us. Either that or she is lost in the kind of vacancy of the person supposed to remain unseen and whom supposes herself to be so.

Grosz Interrogation The reality of anti-Semitism as an enforced aspect of Jewish identity is as evident here as in the more appalling exhibits that paint a permanent record of the Holocaust such as Grosz’s (1938) ‘The Interrogation’ where Jewish flesh softens, quavers and bleeds against the brittle hardness of an appalling interrogation or Herman’s (1941) saga of the flight of Jewish families during the Warsaw night (under the appalling dominion of a black cat devouring a mouse as it stalks roofs smaller than itself.

Chagall Apocalypse 

One painting gave me a sense of the potential of visual art to take on the qualities of poetic narrative epic and has now allowed to see, for the first time, a painter I have struggled to like, Marc Chagall.  ‘APOCALYPSE AT LILAS, Capriccio’ (1945) use spare colours – formed from different kinds of ink and washes together with pencil – to capture the central Jewish Christ (a common icon for Jewish suffering under the Nazis) in all her naked androgyny. Surrounded by smaller discrete finely drawn narratives of rape and dispossession of the symbols of identity, including a Torah, the artist plays with symbols of ascent, descent – of time itself in a huge inverted clock and pendulum – animal and human boundaries – including the metamorphosis of the Nazi to the dog it tramples. I cannot talk about this picture. It is beautiful but painful – and epic.

These motifs do not die out but their political intent changes with context and disturbs. Thus a powerful photograph by Dvir (2007) of the Homesh Evacuation / Taken Down again uses crucifixion imagery – here recalling the deposition genre of Christian art (at its best perhaps in Rubens) on behalf of Israeli West Bank settlers. This is complexly emotional, as Dvir describes it ‘the intensity of belief driving people to extreme and sometimes surreal situations.’(quoted Cork et. al. 2015:147).

Bomber Ghetto Theatre 

What comes home to us is that the themes of Holocaust art are also clearly seen in the painting of those Jewish artists called, it seems, the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, Bomberg, Gertler Soutine & Kossof, These paintings speak of an identity under threat – protective and dislocated. We barely have the comfort of an understandable perspective for instance on the harmonies and disunities of Bomberg’s great oil, Ghetto Theatre (1920). I kept coming back to that.

There is light and shade – the awful angst of Simeon Solomon’s pained exploration of same-sex desire (Night Looking upon Sleep 1895) with its Pre-Raphaelite yearning and tragedy can be compared to Assayag’s (2004) celebration of a male to male marriage (Michael and Elie).

Segal Harbour 

And then there are paintings that merely make us see and are so beautiful. Segal’s ‘Halen, Le Ciotat (1929) is merely a harbour – one that yearns to be seen as style alone on first glance – being an amalgam of effects from Cubism, Impressionism and pointillism but here serving a greater gain that puts these schools in the shade – making us see beyond and behind its prettiness and ‘colours’, assemblages of people on the harbour that appear and disappear – are there but, at the same time, are not. That on the sunny verge of Nazi occupation and devastating loss of those same people. A poem and a painting – whose idyll is deceptive.

All the best

 

Steve


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Putative Teaching Exercises on Reflection for Learning DD210

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 8 Jan 2017, 08:29


Here is an exercise I am aiming to use to teach skills in multimodal literacy for the purposes of reflection & learning - with apologies to the great Charles Fernyhough for mangling his lovely text in Slide 1. In Slide 2, the categories in the coloured boxes are ones introduced in the particular Block of the course textbook (Turner et. al. 2015). The TMA that learnrer are preparing for requires them to reflect, using concepts from the textbook block on 2 diary entries about their personal experience AND on a multi-media object.

This exercise tries to combine diary-like writing (even if of a very high ordedr in the original) with picture.

Slide 3 is one I use that is of a lesser order for contrast.

Slide 1

Slide 2

Me in my study

All the best

Steve

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Flesh – Exhibition York Art Gallery visited 05/01/17

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 6 Jan 2017, 08:56

Flesh – Exhibition York Art Gallery visited 05/01/17

I suppose you visit exhibitions such as this drawn by ‘great’ names, and indeed the exhibits by Rubens, Rodin, Bacon, Lucian Freud and Kneebone are all worth the entrance fee. However, I came away with largely surprised by the work of William Etty, particularly the exploration of skin, ‘race’ and sexuality in some featured pieces. Suddenly the Etty world of doughy white ‘female beauties’ that I wrongly associated with this artist and wrongly disliked him for were put into a rare and radical context. One piece shows a nude male tied by the hands (somewhat decoratively), from a high studio scaffold such that, the information given on the wall tells us, Etty could help the model to display the fall of flesh over the torso under such restraint in ways impossible to unaided poses over the durations possible for life-modelling. Yet here is a painting that recalls the homoerotic material in Caravaggio more than any other one might see. Yet divorced from the underpinning of a story of significant torture, such as the Christian stories offered earlier artists: what remains is a study of flesh itself as an empty container for meanings that are uncomfortable but pressing and necessary.

This exhibition explores the use of flesh as a signifying model across multiple domains and potentials for meaning. Flesh as the material of predation – meat – and its meaning determined by drives within predation (whether as commodity offered to the appetite for food or erotic fulfillment), or flesh as that commonality which makes our mortality bearable and bounded (a common vulnerability). If all ‘flesh is grass’, flesh ties us to death and yet sublimes within itself the potential for massive non-corporeal meaning and attempts at transcendence.

Etty’s nude wrestlers contrast black and white skin and flesh in a moment of male combat where other meanings emerge – even changes in skin colour as a white man’s embrace recolours the skin of an encircling arm (a trick of light or of meaning). We see all that differently again in a wonderful study of male flesh in animated combat in Steve McQueen’s Bear (1993) where every meaning and attribution of the significance of flesh is dramatically tested as action morphs aggression and predation into balletic dance, as light turns flesh colour and surface into many forms, merely by the act of looking from multiple perspectives.

Sometimes flesh is the material of art – the patches of preserved skin from convicts bearing tattoos etched by needle or whatever sharp (or blunt) instrument that the prisoner could procure and then suddenly flesh that is on the cusp between life and death becomes to bear meanings that inevitably evoke iconic representations of metaphor of flesh as animal and human. Flesh in decay or in consumption be an animated. The animated videos showing the decomposition by maggots of a dead hare twists that body into wondrous shapes but this is recalled in the painted series of the death and decomposition of a high-class Japanese woman in a series of paintings in another room.

The still life corpses of Dutch art of the everyday get recalled precisely by a manufactured corpse of a deer, in which its potential to be embodied humanity often gets realised as we wander round it. The otherwise difficult-to-watch video installation ‘Meat Joy’ shows naked volunteer actors demonstrating fleshly manipulations as on the cusp of animal and human, drive or sublimation, sex as conjoined with predation or empathy or both together.

A tile-wall erupts into monstrous life only to display ambiguous signs of death and deindividuated and uncontained fleshly parts (Varejão 2000). An image that contains reference to the complex mix of the means of sustaining life and losing. And then flesh and fat. There are potent images here of how these ‘ideas’ are linked in socio-cultural and aesthetic configurations – although very unstable ones, where the definition of beauty and its opposite are in play, sometimes joyfully (as some may feel about Rubens and Benglis’ ‘Eat Meat’ - a mass of fatty fluid flesh on the floor styled in bronze.

There is SO much more to say but see it – PLEASE. It is mind-changing, which is perhaps to also say flesh metamorphosing.

All the best

Steve


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Monica Bonvicini: Exhibition Gateshead BALTIC Visited 28/12 16

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 28 Dec 2016, 17:57

Monica Bonvicini: Exhibition Gateshead BALTIC Visited 28/12 16. Below: Bonvicini (2014)Bonvicini (2014)

Geoff & I attended this exhibition (click here to open BALTIC website in a new window) with no prior knowledge of Monica Bonvicini and with little expectation that we would enjoy the experience. But what we found was better than enjoyment. It strikes me the best that can be achieved in viewing art is not enjoyment but the ability to ‘experience’ the ‘experience’ as an effect of the bodily senses, emotions and cognition – which is to find no difference between these categories whilst the experience remains that – just an experience.

Analysing experience is different but it happens simultaneously with ‘experiencing’ in the best art. This experience is not easy to put a name to –Freud called it a ‘sublimation’ and a defence against more primal ideas, but continuing to use the word is to expect the word ‘sublimation’ in a post Freudian context to do a lot more work that it is used to doing. The word is insanely elitist in association – a thing of high art.

What Bonvicini does is to take something basic, every day – in this sense alone ‘primal’ – and ask us to experience it anew – ‘queered’ by previously unexplored contexts. She links two senses of the ‘primal’ – what is basic – the ‘room’ or ‘space’ we live in throughout different phases of living – home, work, and leisure – and ties it to the ‘erotic’. The wall of the Baltic (an old flour mill – designed like ‘Mother’s Pride to satisfy) yells in large letters ‘SATISFY ME’, challenging the institution within or its temporary inhabitants – guests like ourselves – to begin to query on our intellect, senses and emotion what ‘satisfaction’ artistic institutions claim to give and the nature of the experience itself. We see those words again, printed on a dining table in a space mimicking a dining room / space. Who or what is satisfied here – by what? Spread out along a table the words call to be penetrated by experience but of what precisely would ‘satisfying experience’ consist.

Elsewhere hammock like swings mime the mechanism of sado-masochistic ‘pleasure’. The themes of ‘construction of space – architecture plus painful work – merge with those of deconstruction and pleasure. It is a complex disturbing experience. How better to see than by reading the completed questionnaire pro-formas adorning a whole wall in which construction workers answer questions about ‘how well do you get on with gay workers who work alongside you?’. Suddenly it seems a sensible question to ask: is traditional architecture and its probing tools inescapably heterosexist and ‘masculinist’ (if we look long enough we find a form completed by a woman who is a lesbian and a construction: ‘I only know me and I get on with myself just fine!’ she says. Plenty of those tools and chain-mail (‘male’) constructions and illusions of construction and disappearance get experienced as you pass them by in all their tarry or silvery/glittery hardness.

And then a repeated image of a pair of pincers embroidered differently in 200 different small frames show pincers (created in this most feminine (traditionally) mode such that gender, sex and sexuality all come to the fore. These hard pincers variably have to come to terms with the soft materials that construct them – woven images where mimesis of hard metal deconstructs into twine surrounding pincers – but in multiple ways. Twine that binds the pincers open (partially or wholly) or shut, twine that merely decorates and softens, twine that hardens and rigidifies a tool meant to be flexible.

And a hard wall – huge – called ‘Weaving’ (masculine / feminine in contrast even here) made of a collage / bricolage of regularly cut (but of varying sizes) rectangles containing pictures of soft body parts – legs especially. This is a work that literally absorbs the gaze in a very embodied manner.

There is too much of great wonder here. We bought two books on her and left in a daze to glance through at our ease and hopefully – perhaps – to return.

Did the artist demand the signs for the exhibits – ‘Do not Touch’ with the insistence that these sets of leather, chain and tar aggregations of construction materials and tools are vulnerable (easy to sustain damage) from our tentative touch. In this sense the ‘exhibition’ queries itself and its artists through the construction of a notion of art itself as ‘untouchable’ – as separate from the body, while miming it. Coming back from a visit to the toilet I passed the entrance door again where a young woman, a custodian of the Baltic, stood near the ‘Do Not TOUCH sign. AS I passed her towards the exit staircase a man heading to the toilet I had exited passed by both of us. He said very loudly to the woman and to an audience, of which I constituted a part: ‘Does that mean you’ in as cheeky a Geordie accent as I have heard. Nothing in that was meant to be threatening. But art makes us see and perhaps absorbs contingent experiences like this, into its orbit of reflection so that we are reflexively compromised by the meanings of the art itself.

Or at least that is what I thought. As we left and walked back along the Tyne, I had to hold Geoff’s hand.

All the best

Steve

Bonvicini, M. (2014) Self-portrait from 'Monica Bonvicini: Bio' on Bonvicini website. Available from: http://monicabonvicini.net/bio/ (Accessed 28/12/16).

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Academics & Anecdote

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 11 Dec 2016, 16:02

Academics & Anecdote

My experience of the world of people who identify as ‘academics’ – now a very wide category indeed - is mixed and I don’t myself now make the self-identification but one thing is sure, public pronouncements of their purpose and function are often compromised by the very contradictory manifestation of how ‘academics’ operate in institutions revealed by anecdote.

Sometimes this, more than anything reveals the practical consequences of very dangerous assumptions – about the purity and independence of subjects from applied interests or vocations.

What raised this question for me is the following from Guy Claxton (2015). Claxton is a very serious educational psychologist but he is also a ‘populariser’ as a writer in psychological sciences – writing person to person to his audience. In fact I like him for that – it makes him an even better educator.

He contrasts in his book the long period in which Psychology valorised its function as a pure science of reason, with its peak achievement in cognitive psychology (understood as the study of mind divorced from ‘reductive’ physical sciences). The pendulum has swung but I wonder if the anecdote Claxton (2015:30) uses to illustrate its effects still holds water in the practice of selective interview for undergraduate entry.

So human beings… pared down to their most rational and abstract capabilities, were deprived of almost everything that made them rich and interesting and real. Anything to do with psychoanalysis, or feelings, or friendships, or even ordinary interests …, was treated with a neglect that bordered on disdain. In my days as a young graduate student at Oxford in the early 1970s, I became involved in interviewing sixth-formers who wanted to read psychology. The only bit of advice I was given, for this important task, was to ask them if they were interested in ‘what makes people tick’, and if they said they were, to reject them.

Not long ago I remember that some university-based interviewers in social work would likewise boast that they would automatically reject applicants who said they wanted to enter the profession because they cared about people.

Claxton, G. (2015) Intelligence in the Flesh: Why your Mind needs your Body much more than it Thinks New Haven, Yale University Press.

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Matthew Griffin (2016) Hide London, Bloomsbury

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 10 Dec 2016, 21:03

Matthew Griffin (2016) Hide London, Bloomsbury

It is difficult to over-state the significance of this novel either as a transformation of the niche quality of the male gay novel but also of the metaphysical novel –exploring the experience mortality torn free of false hopes of salvation or eternity.

The title indicates the rich themes. It is a novel in which things are hidden – not least the central relationship (a marriage if there ever was one) between Wendell and Frank that is forever disguising its meaning in fear of the disgust and retribution of others – perhaps even from their introjections in these men’s (especially Frank’s) lives. But ‘hide’ is also that we bear in common with the animals – skin and covering hair, and a thing of great importance to Wendell, a retired but still practicing, in every way, taxidermist – resurrecting skin to a notion of its contents.

What skin covers or hides is very much the topic of the novel at its most painful – I cannot even bear to recollect the fate of Daisy, the dog representing in part the love of the two men for each other (their baby p.203) – but our inattentive disgust at bodily effluvia and slippery inner organs or matter released is a constant in the novel. In Frank’s bodily deterioration – to a collector of his own urine and faeces to other secret or dark interiors which people in the novel variously find disturbing, even potentially disgusting like the inadequately sized implements Frank fills with urine and sometimes faeces or ‘secrets’ so deep no-one knows their contents:

For a moment he stands absolutely still, as I’ve caught him at something illicit (p.180).

There is a moment where Frank and Wendell hold hands together under the skin of a deer as the work on it, feeling its edges tremble ‘with surface tension as they stretched wide’. That is a precise description of the prose here as if gives away its themes just below the ‘hide’ (a passage in which the word ‘married’ does a lot of work):

I watched our fingers creep under it, a little bit at a time, along the warm, slick neck, all the way to the top of the spine, nearly to the skull, until the skin was so delicate and married to the muscle we could see it stretch across our fingertips, the hairs that covered it spreading apart to show the paled hide underneath. … He looked like he was going to be sick. If we pushed any further, our fingers would tear through, out into the cold, thin air.     

This novel strains to comprehend mortal love like no other while being enmeshed in selves, bodies, communities and changing social mores and ideologies. The moving passages refuse to hide what sustainable love must mean – which is to confront pain, waste and death. In a novel almost where what is spoken of as ’sex’ is absent, physical love is experienced when Wendell clears the ‘mess’ off of Frank’s now odorous body. This passage is painfully beautiful that shows him handling Frank’s ‘privates’:

When I touch them, they rise a little, then fall again, like a wounded animal heaving a shallow breath: like the first bird I ever held in my hands, … I felt its life gutter and go out. I was surprised by the brittleness of its wings. There was no grace in them at all. (p. 246)

As in The Winter’s Tale the search for love is confounded by the search for grace. If grace exists, it is still, cold, statuesque. Love lives when it cares and remembers, compares and remains:

He kisses me on the corner of the mouth, whiskers tickling my lips, and turns to go. His stubble’s soft now. Used to scrape me till I was sore. (p. 25)

That kiss recalls the one given to the dying Daisy which captures the dog’s saliva (a tense moment of disgust and passion) at the corner of her mouth, a kiss for Frank who like ‘each man’ has ‘killed the thing he loves’.

Read this book if you can. I write about it in the hope I can lose some of the visceral nature of the memories it leaves in me.Biut it really is worth it. Pain or no pain!

All the best

 

Steve


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Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool; THE SYNTAX OF POWER AND THE OU

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 26 Nov 2016, 15:46

BLOG 25/11/16 Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool; THE SYNTAX OF POWER AND THE OU

 

It has been brought to my attention that a number of ~~~~~ students have been using Facebook to discuss TMA 01. Not only have students been asking questions on Facebook that would more appropriately have been raised in their ~~~~~ cluster forum, but also other students have been answering those questions in, effectively, the role of a tutor".

 

 

This missive has very recently been sent (via a course newsletter) to the learners on an OU module. I have tried to let it rest on my mind,but  as a tutor in the OU and more importantly, one of its learners, have FAILED TO DO SO. Why I thought?

 

I think it is because of the combination of notions of authority and power in the portrayed notion of tutor identity. this phenomenon was once examined by the wonderful Sian Bayne in Bayne (2005) in which she demonstrated the gap between learners and tutors on OU online interactions. The former learned through the play of identity afforded by forums, the other not. Why? Because 'tutor identity' was fixed (discourse analysis seemed to show) in models of authority.

 

In my view those models are uncomfortably mixed, as it authority unexamined, were easily to fall into an exercise of pure power.

 

But there is something in the syntax too of our note to learners that worried me. What is it? The rhythms of prose and verse have sung in my head since grammar school – it took some doing and it seemed a transformation of identity too far, but then in the 1960s transformation of class and status (the working class boy made good) were both painful and in some sense delicious – accessing new potential powers . It was work but now it’s some kind of secret joy, but also worry (now I no longer work formally).

 

What rankled here was the ‘Not only … but also’ clause. It seemed a means of suggesting the enormity of some error or sin that it was difficult to specify. But what is that sin? Transgression of role – a learner has dared to act ‘as if’ a tutor.

 

This is I suddenly remembered the position of Lear – losing authority but seeking to retain some shadow of it from studied refection on his life. What does he get from his daughter – a ‘not only but also’ clause, that appears in its order and organization to attempt to control the very riot of excess to which it points.

Goneril, Lear & Fool


GONERIL

(to LEAR) Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool,

But other of your insolent retinue

Do hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth

In rank and not-to-be-endurèd riots. Sir,

I had thought by making this well known unto you

To have found a safe redress, but now grow fearful

By what yourself too late have spoke and done

That you protect this course and put it on

By your allowance—which if you should, the fault

Would not ’scape censure, nor the redresses sleep

Which in the tender of a wholesome weal

Might in their working do you that offense,

Which else were shame, that then necessity

Will call discreet proceeding.

 

That is what I was hearing in the shadow of the module leader. Do not presume to do as I do – do not take on the role of teacher. Why, we might ask. It is not appropriate?  Because it constitutes an anomaly in the hierarchy of authority power dreams to be sacred and unchangeable. It is ‘not to be endured riot’ for someone to take on the role of protector where power is, in fact none. The fact of powerlessness lies in the effect of Goneril’s imaginings of an order that will harm those who disturb it :

 

Might in their working do you that offense

 

You will be put down – put in your place, act within the license I give you – or all ‘necessity’ will seem harsh to you. The same powers our module leader takes on in their syntax and lexis – attention, and proper distribution of the relative rights to raise and answer questions. Challenged by learners, that same module leader said they were doing it for learners' own good. Having taken it in the subject Academic Board, all agreed that ‘prevention was better than cure’. However, the ‘cure’ is the same hidden threat as that now possessed by Goneril – to exclude and unhouse – to threaten any chance of identity at all if you do not take the one I give you. Lear on the heath in the storm. The threat of deinstitutionalisation – the threat of loss of ‘degree’.

 

Once noble, Open University! How can you support this discourse? I can just about stomach the hatred of Facebook. I don’t like Facebook that much myself but of the right to cross boundaries – that is another matter. In a sense, great educationalists (Vygotsky, Bruner, and Engestrom) teach us that learning is transgression and boundary-crossing. That which needs ‘scaffolding’ will be that that requests it be taken down or that THAT FINDS a better way of providing it amongst peers – without the costs of patronage it once had (another rich word).

 

All the best

 

Steve


Bayne, S (2005) Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace in Land, R and Bayne, S (eds) Education in Cyberspace. London: RoutledgeFalmer

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Who cares about Harriet Martineau

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 24 Nov 2016, 19:00

If you have a chance go and see this play at the Live Theatre at Newcastle (just across from the Sage). CLICK HERE for details in a NEW WINDOW.

I went (TODAY) because (now an old man ruined by psychology and psychologists) I was once a raw Literature student in London. Since then, I have loved Harriet Martineau. Known as a 'bluestocking' in the nineteenth century and a classic bore (Thomas Carlyle's comment is used in the play), she was the intellectual equal of George Eliot - even worked with the latter on the Westminster Review under Eliot's editorship and was writing work on Comtian theories of social change (and the peasantry) when Eliot was preparing Romola.

Her causes linked always to her feminism but never stopped there, such that she was a grew into an international anti-slavery campaigner. She wrote for children to bring to them an international idea (Feast on the Fjords) as well as adults and was resuscitated in her novel Deerbrook by Virago, the feminist publisher in its heyday.

But she also lived in an upstairs room in Tynemouth (for 5 years I believe but I'm going from a poor memory) where she wrote - Life In a Sick Room. Convinced she was dying, some theorists link her role as an invalid (like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's) to the invalidity once the damning judgement of the worth (outside vapid ideals) of women's lives in the nineteenth century.

This play's Martineau has a lighter turn (though equipped with the same ear trumpet). It is a feel-good play (almost an adult pantomime as the play once self-consciously jokes) about values of social justice, life and transformative learning. Class, race, gender (all get mixed) - the beautiful symbol for instance of Beulah, a cross -dressing young woman whose memories span her mother's enslavement passage (in a memory reminiscent of Turner's Slave-Ship) to A London that was changing though Tynemouth was not. Funny - it therefore sanitises white racism in humour in order to emphasise a positive youthful changefulness and hope. For a time, in the clog dancing passage for instance, I believed it all possible - and still want to do.

This is a play to cheer us up in Brexit Northern England. See it, please. It is a joy!!!!

All the best

Steve

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The Suppliant Women Aeschylus translated David Grieg

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 11 Nov 2016, 21:20

The Suppliant Women Aeschylus translated David Grieg

Following my tweet, I did indeed see this production at Newcastle.

The Making of The Suppliant Women can be still seen on https://youtu.be/Pj_qYUeYU2A  via @YouTube I saw this in Newcastle, although the film is of the Lyceum Edinburgh local cast.

Strangely enough I have always liked this play, stark as it seemed then to me to be.

It is not only that you get to hear the effect of the aulos (the double flute of Classical Greek music) and drums but that you get as near to the experience of seeing classical theatre as it is possible to do in a modern theatre, even down to the practice of pouring libations (minus the sacrificial blood fortunately), dance and absolutely profound effects in choric voice management. A bare stage otherwise comes alive.

The cast make visual illusions, using black veils to realize and lie upon their ancestor, cow Io. The themes of rape, migration, restlessness and stability, acceptance and fear as legitimate responses to primal fear just leap across time and suddenly evils like Trumpism & Farageism seem understandable in their primitive reality.

And the complexity. The idea of chastity in the context of a triangular relationship (with rape and marriage) is typically Greek (Carson Eros the Bittersweet) such that each of the three prongs interpret each other. The Danaid virgins in this production sing as a underlying accompaniment to the verse of the play, ‘Equal power to women’, and suddenly that seems a possibility –if only notionally and emotionally (in the wild rage of Artemis) only when Aphrodite (and her inevitable marriage to Ares – War) is tempered.

At the beginning of the play a fragment of the final play of Aeschylus’ Danaid trilogy is read out – the enconium which shows Aphrodite wins out and justifies female submission to reproductive role in the trilogy as a whole. Yet had this fragment stayed in the rubbish heap at Oxyrhynnchus, would we have been able to temper the radicalism of this first play, I think not.

It was great to see a great figure of modern theatre, Grieg, working with a great contemporary classicist, Ian Ruffell, but great too to see, as in Greek theatre, the blurring of the boundaries between the local and global, the amateur and the professional, high art and low emotion, doggerel and lofty verse in this play in ways that were once thought to be a reflection of a modern poet’s leftist bias when Tony Harrison first experimented in this line decades ago.

I wish I could say: 'See it!'. I can’t. ‘Tis gone. Will it return. It ought. Will it set a trend for revivals of other plays on the way to oblivion – The Persians (the link is to the OU resource on the play from Oliver Taplin and the wonderful Edith Hall) for instance. We need it, lest we ever fall into the trap of thinking that Trumpist hate is a legitimate way of understanding that continentally proportioned but co-empathetic huge difference that lies between cultures.

If you saw the wonderful adaption of Euripides’ The Women of Troy (as Queens of Syria) by real exiles from cities like the lately fallen Aleppo, you will have loved and been pained too by this too.

All the best

Steve


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