My Difficulty(ies) with Sex and the City 2

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Image source: fanpop.com

I really don’t know what convinced me to watch Sex and the City 2. I suppose it was a case of finding something that wouldn’t require much brain power; some easy viewing for after exams. Little did I know the film would prompt some serious feminist and post-colonial rage.

Sex and the City 2 is, like the show that ran from 1998-2004, a romantic comedy. It follows Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda as they travel abroad to a holiday in Dubai. Like the show, the film engages with the issues of being a woman in a ‘post feminist’ age, but also involves itself in questions of cultural difference and orientalism. Sex and the City 2 was released in 2010, in the midst of the turbulent relations between the West and East defined by the on-going war in Afghanistan.

Firstly, the question of feminism. Sex and the City 2 is a salient example of a ‘post feminist’ film. According to Angela McRobbie, in her work ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’, popular culture of the 1990s reflects a turn away from the gains made in the second wave feminist movement, through an exhibition of what McRobbie calls ‘post feminism’. Post feminism, for McRobbie, entails the notion that contemporary culture relies on the achievements of second wave feminism. Indeed, it takes these achievements – equal rights, liberated sexuality, economic independence etc – for granted, takes them as socially ‘obvious’ and in existence without need for critical reflection. The widespread assumption that women are sexually, economically and socially ‘liberated’ allows popular culture to represent female characters who embody an autonomous, self-reliant and empowered lifestyle: this includes having high-flying career women, sexually-liberated women; women with choice, education, power. It doesn’t take much effort to see that Sex and the City is a prime example of this: there’s Samantha the PR businesswomen, Carrie the writer, Miranda the lawyer.

Nevertheless, the empowered women portrayed in popular culture do not fit the aims of feminism, even though on the surface they appear strong and ‘free’. These women are presented as self-made, fully in control of their own destinies, fully unshackled from the chains of patriarchy and power and also the feminist movement itself. Their achievements are represented as examples of personal triumphs rather than identified as part of wider shifts in female employment and gender roles enabled by the feminist movement and its transformation of the systems of power and social mores which formerly would have constrained them. Since these women are depicted as independent and disengaged from feminism, their representation contributes nothing to the political ambitions of feminism, and also undermines the need for any contemporary feminist movement. Indeed, many popular renderings of the modern, empowered women (the post feminist female subject) in fact not only detract from the political weight of feminism but they also associate this new freedom with certain practices which actually restore traditional gender roles – the gendered behaviours that feminism set out to radically change.

In Sex and the City, both the show and the films, female liberation and empowerment is predominantly expressed through sex and consumption. Yet it is debatable as to whether these practices actually enable the women to free themselves from conventional gender norms or whether they in fact throw the characters back into the cycle of cultural constraints that rigidly define ‘women’ and ‘feminine behaviour’. Samantha, for example, is frequently depicted as the most sexually voracious of the four women. She enjoys the kind of sexuality – one night stands and the like – that men have been enjoying for centuries; she offers no apologies for her behaviour; it is, at least from the two films I have seen, seemingly morally accepted. Moreover, as a successful businesswoman, Samantha enjoys an economic independence which allows her to splurge on clothes, holidays and anti-aging products. It isn’t difficult to see where post feminism fits in here: while Samantha does have an assertive sexuality and personality, her empowerment is presented chiefly through consumption. Rather than making any significant political statement about female power or positioning, the show and films seem to reaffirm the status quo by confirming consumption as not only the vital source of contemporary identity but also the glittering route to status and power; yet a route that leads continually to traditional female objectification, with the body becoming a cultural mannequin, dressed up with the latest dresses, shoes and anti-aging potions to create the perfect sexualised subject. Of course, there is an inherent ambiguity about whether the woman is in control of herself, as she travels down this route of credit cards and department stores, or whether she is pressured by the powers of female-directed advertising and capitalism.

In any case, Sex and the City may appear feminist but it certainly contributes very little to the political movement of feminism. The girls may spout their girl power in a karaoke session singing second-wave feminism’s theme song ‘I Am Woman’, but their empowerment is arguably a superficial concealment of how they are trapped by the mind-numbing machines of advertising and the fashion and beauty industry which continue to pressurise and mould women’s sense of self, perpetuating gendered regimes and practices. Samantha, the only unmarried character, uses her economic power in ways that confirm her adherence to standards of femininity that are perpetuated by the beauty industry in order to exploit and extend female insecurities. She enhances her libido in the wake of menopause through guzzling handfuls of pills, to ‘trick [her] body into thinking it’s younger’, to which Miranda adds: ‘I’ve tricked my body into thinking it’s thinner – Spanx!’. While feminism as a movement attempted to open up new kinds of beauty, which included those who were not young, white and skinny, the characters are depicted as mindlessly striving towards and approving the stereotype, rather than in any sense shattering it. As Hadley Freeman of The Guardian astutely describes this scene: ‘it’s like being lobotomised with a pink teaspoon’.

Well this is all fair enough: perhaps you could argue that she is making the conscious choice to do so. Other characters have different means of empowering themselves, after all. There’s Miranda, the lawyer, and Carrie, the fashion-crazed newspaper columnist. Yet all these women are privileged: rich, often from affluent backgrounds or have wealthy husbands. They are friends for one thing because they have a shared class position. Their empowerment through shiny New York careers and the shopping is more of a class privilege than a political statement about girl power, and in this sense I would argue that the show is highly problematic in its potential to be cast as ‘feminist’.

While the issue of feminism and Sex and the City is ambiguous, I would argue the sequel film leaves little ambiguity about the issue of racism; or, more specifically, orientalism. The film follows the four girl’s holiday escapades in Abu Dhabi, the second biggest city of the United Arab Emirates. Hadley Freeman contrasts the ‘smart, funny, warm and wise’ TV show with the ‘pink-fringed, cliché-ridden, materialistic, misogynistic, borderline racist’ film; while the show ‘had genuine emotional truth’, the films are all about the ‘sex and shopping’.  I’ve never watched the shows, so cannot make a judgement other than my impression of the films. And my judgement is that their vision of women, homosexuality and ‘the East’ is distinctively narrow, shallow and hollow.

With Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte sent off to Abu Dhabi, the film immerses itself in a world of blatant, unapologetic orientalism. Edward Said in his book Orientalism described orientalism as a concept which encompasses the binary distinction often made between West/East. This distinction comes with other stereotyped and hierarchical binary pairings such as civilised/uncivilised, us/them. Charting the history of colonisation, Said suggests that Europeans have for many years set up Eastern countries as ‘oriental’, as exotic Others by which they may define themselves against. For Europeans, whatever the Orientals were defined as, they (the occidents) were not. This allowed the West to position themselves as an inherently superior ‘race’, which in turn provided the justification for colonisation by using the ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising the ‘uncivilised’ world to legitimise their imperial domination of Eastern countries. As with most stereotyping and binary oppositioning (think man/woman), this process involved enormous cultural and social simplifications and generalisations which shaped prejudices against the ‘orient’ commonly held in the West. You only have to take a glimpse at today’s papers, with the generalisations about Islam and terrorism, to see how Orientalism still operates. Indeed, the USA in particular has frequently justified its occupation and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of tackling the women’s rights records of these countries; but it is possible that this constitutes an imposition of Western norms on different cultures, and moreover, the USA’s record for women’s rights is itself questionable, as it is one of the few countries that has refused to ratify CEDAW, the UN’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This is just one contemporary example of how the West stereotypes Eastern cultures in opposition to its own cultural model, and reflects a complex entanglement of neo-imperialism, orientalism and feminist issues.

Back to Sex and the City 2. The representation of the Middle East is highly stereotypical, and makes a great effort to exoticise Middle Eastern men and women into characters which perpetuate traditional oriental images of the East found in films like Arabian Nights. The men are presented with a glamorous strangeness: with the mundane, clichéd dialogue and the glittering, stereotypical oriental music that accompanies their appearance. Upon arrival, the American women are treated like queens, each getting their own taxi and personal man-servant who stays up all hours to service their every petty whim. This sets up a kind of neo-colonial relationship where the ‘respectable’ Eastern characters are represented as intrinsically deferential to their Western ‘superiors’.

Additionally, the cultural status of sex is clear-cut into a binary issue, with Western liberation contrasted with a complete repression in the East – Samantha’s kissing on the beach is met with armed response and a permanent criminal record. Rather than acknowledging the nuances that characterise how sex is accepted and perceived in different contexts, the film forces the issue once again into stereotypical binaries.

Perhaps most significantly, the film also cashes in on stereotypes of the mysterious veiled Muslim women. Carrie and co ruminate over the sartorial restrictions of wearing a veil, and watch in awe as one eats her chips underneath the burqa. The Muslim woman is thus shown as an object of curiosity, and we viewers are forced to voyeuristically observe her eating chips as if she is some strange, voiceless creature. By minimising the actual interaction between the American women and the Middle Eastern women, the film negates any possibility for exploring the unique subjectivity of Muslim women and their experience of wearing a burqa as well as their religious beliefs. Instead, they remain Oriental objects of Western curiosity. Rather than respected for having their own minds, they remain quite obviously in this film, to borrow Chandra Mohanty’s phrase, under western eyes.

And indeed the moment that really struck me was when the Muslim women were given a voice. After helping the four girls escape a mob of angry Arab men (who Samantha has offended by spilling condoms all over the floor and announcing loudly that ‘yes, [she] does have sex!’, so yes – another stereotype about all Arabian men as women-haters) a group of Muslim women shed their niqabs to reveal they are wearing the latest New York runway collection. Delighted, the four American women laugh and praise their fashionable style. This is so obviously patronising that even after a film peppered with references to magic carpets and other Middle Eastern myths I was shocked. Being the primary scene where the main characters actually interact with Muslim women, it states, quite clearly, that Western and Eastern integration can only occur through consumption. Moreover, Muslim women can only be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of their own culture and religion (defined in the film by the recurrent veil image) by conforming to Western stereotypes of beauty and fashion. It’s a sickening simplification of the complexities of female identity within different cultural contexts, and seems to send out the message that globalisation (or rather, Westernisation) can only be a good thing because it is spreading a ‘liberated’ (or rather, shackled to consumerism) Western femininity to the poor, silenced Muslim women, who live in a culture that remains ‘backwards’. In doing so, it leaves out other more critical consequences of globalisation that could be explored, such as migrant labour in the Gulf, which is only skimmed over in Carrie’s conversation with her Indian servant Gaurav – who she benevolently bestows her money upon, as if this single lavish expenditure makes up for the capitalist restructuring which has necessitated Guarav’s move abroad away from his wife in the first place. Another example is in the nightclub where ironically the girls play karaoke and sing ‘I Am Woman’ while at the same time they are probably in the company of trafficked sex workers. Charlotte asks why the club’s belly dancers are allowed to show lots of flesh while every other woman in the East seems to cover up, and Miranda provides the pathetic response that there is a ‘nightclub loophole’. Many of the single women in Emirati nightclubs are indeed trafficked sex workers, but the film completely glosses over the possibility of critically engaging with this.

Finally, the wedding opens with another obvious stereotype that should’ve prepared me for the cliché trail that characterises the rest of the film. The wedding of two gay characters involves many stereotypes attached to homosexuality – infidelity, flamboyance, the pomp of a completely OTT ceremony, complete with boy choir and Liza Minnelli performing ‘Single Ladies’. It’s utterly cringeworthy and I had to temporarily mute the film so that my flatmate didn’t have to wonder what the hell I was watching. A fitting beginning to a film rife with caricature, condescension and cartoonish representation.

I can’t, however, completely make my mind up how I feel about the representation of women in this film. While there are many simplifications and the fact that the women conform to gender stereotypes through shopping, there are some moments where the difficulties of trying to ‘have/do it all’ are reflected. It is possible to look upon Samantha with pity, as a character who isn’t liberated but sucked too far in to the rigid, gendered standards of the beauty industry, and perhaps the patriarchal expectations of the area she works in – PR – which is based so much on appearance. Another example is the scene where Charlotte cries in the cupboard, hiding from her screeching children in a moment of genuine motherly breakdown. Nevertheless, these remain very limited representations, in that Charlotte’s troubles are the troubles of a privileged housewife. She’s crying because she worries about her husband having an affair with the nanny (an idea bizarrely stemming from the fact that the nanny doesn’t wear a bra) and because her daughter messed up her designer jeans. Not because she doesn’t know where her children’s next meal is going to come from, or because she’s overworked with three jobs to make ends meet.

So while the film touches on feminist issues, its dealing with class and ethnic difference is shockingly narrow. I couldn’t even enjoy it as a slice of indulgent consumerist fantasising, because the racial, sexual and cultural stereotypes, and the flat script and conventional female behaviour ascribed to many of the characters were so obvious and unsettling. It almost makes you feel guilty to watch. Of course, it all ends happily, with Charlotte’s nanny turning out to be a lesbian and thus in no danger of seducing Charlotte’s husband, and with Samantha finally consummating her passion for the Danish guy she got arrested for kissing in Abu Dhabi. Well, of course, the film suggests, everything happens correct and best in the West. Yet I’m not sure that all’s well that end’s well: the film prompts more questions about the implication of its depictions of women, homosexuals and the Middle East than it answers.

Bibliography:

McRobbie, A. (2004) ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’ in Feminist Media Studies, vol. 4, no. 3 , pp. 255–264.

Said, E. (1977) Orientalism. 

Sex and the City 2: Orientalist Boogaloo

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/may/23/sex-and-the-city-film-terrible

http://feministing.com/2010/06/03/sex-and-the-citys-women-of-color-problem/

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Explorations in Nostalgia: Midnight in Paris

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Why is there a certain nostalgic quality to rain? Rain can be beautiful to imagine: the quietly rushing sound it stirs as it starts to fall, the peaceful pattering it makes on roofs and windowpanes, the tingle of droplets on your skin, the way it clings in watery beads to your lashes, the sweet earthy scent it trails as it vanishes from the vapory air. Thinking of rain conjures images of afternoons hiding indoors with a good book, of splashing in puddles as a child, of running makeup, of the high romance of kissing outside in a storm, and the satisfaction of coming home, changing into dry clothes and getting warm.

Most people living in Glasgow would be less lyrical about the drizzle that bursts ever too frequently upon the city. Rain can be a pain. Rain can mean struggling with a broken umbrella, feeling cold droplets drip down your back; it can mean delayed tennis matches, ruined picnics and cancelled plans. Yet rain is also one vein through which we are transported smoothly to some heart of our past; often our recollection of events and people is framed by weather, and rain can add a cinematic backdrop to memory that reflects the misted quality of nostalgia. It has a certain sense of deja vu, of transient confusion. I remember being here before, and it was raining. Like this…or was it somewhere else?

Yet rain is perhaps, like memory, never as lovely as we imagine or remember it to be. It is part of our wistful fantasies.

Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris opens with a beautiful montage of Paris in the rain, accompanied by accordion music. The shots slip effortlessly between postcard highlights of the city and panoramas of people in the street with umbrellas. It sets the scene for the film’s at times poignant but mostly witty and lighthearted exploration of nostalgia.

I first went to see Midnight in Paris at the kooky little Grosvenor Cinema on Ashton Lane in Glasgow’s West End. An appropriate venue, seeing as it is modeled on an old-fashioned picture-house, with red carpeting, plush seats, vintage interior design, glamour and the availability of wine.

Midnight in Paris is a pastiche of genres, styles, characters and references. Not only does it include an array of (slightly caricatured) figures from the 1920s creative scene in Paris, but it also welds together flashes of political satire with Hollywood rom-com and magical realism.

The film’s protagonist Gil is a Hollywood script-writer discontented with his sell-out job and longing to produce something creative in his writing. Perhaps there is a certain irony here: a search for authenticity staged within a film that is playfully anything but ‘original’. A trip to Paris with his fiancé and her parents, Gil hopes, will provide the spark of enchantment. The first conversation of the film sets up the juxtaposition between the romantic Gil and his pragmatic wife, who appropriately later has an affair with the ‘pedantic’ ‘pseudo-intellectual’ Paul:

 Gil: Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!

Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What’s wonderful about getting wet?

Already we get the sense that Gil wanders a little too much into his imagination, particularly his imagination of the past – of Paris in the 1920s. Gil’s first actual delve into the past occurs one evening when after the stroke of midnight a strange black cab stops to pick him up, full of revelers drinking wine and champagne. Through this mysterious portal, he is transported back in time to Paris in the 1920s. The film handles the visuals sparklingly well, with stunning 20s costumes, cocktails and the lovely decor of the bars and clubs. It’s all quite magical and dazzling, and we experience the wonder Gil must feel as he is teleported into his favourite fantasy. It certainly got me excited for Baz Luhrmann’s soon-to-be-released The Great Gatsby.

Except unlike us, the audience, Gil becomes a participant in his fantasy, not merely a spectator. Among his adventures, Gil encounters a plethora of characters from the 1920s literary and arts scene, including Hemingway, Dali, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso and Gertrude Stein. There is definitely an element of caricature here, which reflects the play of irony and pastiche characteristic of the post-modern: the film reminds us that these characters are just representations of real figures, who themselves were in a sense self-styled personas, who we knew predominantly through their art. From Dali’s raving about rhinoceroses, to Hemingway’s speeches about war and truth and sincerity, Allen plays with exaggeration to enrich the sense of fantasy and nostalgia. There is a scene where Zelda Fitzgerald is trying to commit suicide because she thinks her husband does not love her and Gil, trying to stop her jumping, tells her that he ‘knows’ that F. Scott Fitzgerald really does love her. Why? she asks. How can Gil possibly know? He’s read all the books and biographies about and by Scott, of course. I think the film here raises an interesting question about subjectivity and literature: what is the real version of events? What is the truth behind the writing? It seems that there isn’t one: instead there are all the fragmented perspectives of those involved, and those who write the books. Right now I’m reading Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz, which critics say is Zelda’s version of the semi-autobiographical events of Scott’s Tender is the Night, both depicting the breakdown of minds and marriages, but from the different perspectives of wife and husband. Gil’s attempts to claim that he can know better than the woman involved only underline the absurdity of any narrative which claims ultimate objectivity.

Gil’s encounters with the resurrected ghosts of the 1920s stage a playful juxtaposition of past and present. His quotative use of ‘like’ and his mundane discussions about his relationship to Inez contrast heavily with the stylish and hyper-surreal world he finds himself in. For example, his conversation with Adriana (Allen’s fictional amalgamated embodiment of Picasso’s lovers) about his engagement to Inez highlights the time and culture gap, but also the disparity between reality and fantasy. He realises that there is in fact very little he and Inez have in common, which perhaps suggests that his engagement itself was built on a fantasy. Gil admits that they have a ‘little bit of a disconnect with the big things’ but at least they agree on the little things:

Gil: I will say that we both like Indian food, not all Indian food, but the pita bread, we both like pita bread, I guess it’s called naan.

The likelihood of the super-stylish flapper Adriana knowing what pita bread is, let alone having eaten it, is pretty slim. In addition to this, Gil’s comic response to Hemingway’s question as to whether he’d ever been hunting – “only for bargains” – presents the playful irony of the film’s exploration of past and present, and the discrepancy between the dramatic, larger-than-life lives led by the characters of a by-gone age and the inane realities of the present.

Another funny encounter between past and present occurs when Gil gets into a cab driven by T.S. Eliot and exclaims:

Gil: Thomas Stearns Eliot? T.S. Eliot? T.S. Eliot? Prufrock is like my mantra.

The comedy here is that this reflects how many of us would behave – awkwardly unrestrained – if we were thrust into a world where we could meet our long-dead heroes. There is the hilarious sense that Gil is behaving as a teenage girl would if they encountered Justin Beiber. And yet he is not meeting the teeny-bopper Beiber, but one of the twentieth century’s finest poets (with all the linguistic prestige that entails). The film collapses the language of the present incongruously with the literary visage of the past.

Gil’s general obsession with the literature of the 20s is reflected in his view that Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is his ‘mantra’. This itself is an interesting mise-en-abyme of intertextuality, as Prufrock itself is a thoroughly intertextual poem, referring for example to Dante. It is also a difficult poem, an internal monologue that follows a complex and fragmented pattern of thoughts which seem to have no definite direction and nor indeed association. Yet its line, ‘Let us go then, you and I’ creates an evocation that resonates throughout Midnight in Paris. It is a speech act, an announcement: let us go. The film itself is built on such a contract of ‘let us go’, asking the audience to suspend their disbelief with regards to the unexplained time travel and enjoy the magic, follow the journey and watch as it restores reality only to thrust us back into fantasy.

Let us go’ seems to suggest an address to time itself – come with me, time, follow my fantasy – but also of linking arms or minds with someone and going someplace else. Time travel can be a solitary or a joint affair. Gil travels back in time to the fin de siecle with Picasso’s lover Adriana, because this Golden Age is Adriana’s fantasy. Here he realises that there is no Golden Age, the Golden Age myth is just a nostalgic longing to escape one’s present: ‘that’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.’ We tend to travel when we are unsatisfied with where we are right now.

The spellbinding world that Gil occupies by night is by far the best part of the film, and Allen frustrates audiences by delaying these ventures with the mundanity of the film’s present narrative. Gil has to follow his spoilt-brat fiancé around shopping for furniture, have dinner with her ultra-conservative parents and trail around with Inez’s ‘pedantic’ lecturer friend Paul. There are slightly tedious scenes about lost earrings, relationship breakdowns and dinner-table conversations which leave us irritated with the twenty-first century rom-com drama, and desperate, like Gil, for the exciting narrative in the past. These temporal fluxes from past to present serve to delay and prolong the audience’s desire to go back into the past, and so highlight the unsatisfactory nature of the present in comparison with rose-tinted history.

Despite the occasional bore of the present, there are some gems slipped in by Allen amongst the rom-com rubble. These include the parodic representation of Inez’s conservative snobbery and naivety – ‘Inez: You always take the side of the help. That’s why Daddy says you’re a communist’. Also, Gil’s mocking of the Tea Party movement, calling them ‘crypto-fascist airhead zombies’. The film is not entirely an adventure into the past but also an aping of the absurdities of the present – from politics to romantic relationships.

And so back to memory. In the film there is the repeated question of ‘is nostalgia denial?’ Denial of the present, denial of reality, denial of the irretrievability of the past. Nostalgia can relate to more fantastic recollections of a past, a past that was only accessible in the first place through mediation such as literature, film and art – the very instruments of romanticism and fantasy. This is definitely the kind of nostalgia Gil suffers or experiences, but there is another kind of nostalgia that is more personal. This kind of nostalgia was famously articulated by Marcel Proust in his book In Search of Lost Time, in a scene where the narrator experiences an involuntary trigger of memory caused by a tea-soaked cake:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.” (Marcel Proust, “The Cookie” from In Search of Lost Time).

This kind of nostalgia is one most of us can identify with: the slightly uncanny sparking of a past personal memory from some kind of sensory trigger. That is how perfume gains its emotional quality, through the way its scent weaves swirls of associations between our past loves, lives and histories, and stirs these up again for us from one whiff in the present. Each time I put on my Body Shop Japanese Cherry Blossom, I fondly and wistfully remember (and long for) my holiday in Rome. As Proust describes it, the unintended evocation of a past memory makes us feel as if we transcend time and morality, collapses our identity ‘this essence was not in me it was me’ and produces an ‘all-powerful joy’. Food is nostalgic because it combines different senses: taste, smell, touch, sight. From your granny’s best soup to those warm chewy cookies they used to make at school, our gustatory pleasures are a minefield of nostalgic resonances.

The point here is that nostalgia is not just an affliction, a slightly unhealthy yearning to escape the present and return to a past that has been forever forlorn in the timeline of history. Nostalgia can be pleasurable, even if the pleasure is a little bittersweet – that feeling of longing and sadness for the person you once were or once loved when you hear the opening bars of an old song. Gil’s nostalgia perhaps goes too far: his novel is set in a nostalgia shop, and he spends his real life dreaming of forgotten times. His fiance accuses him of having a ‘brain tumour’ when he begins talking about the past as if it were real. This is an interesting image, as it suggests something psychologically corrupting about the past: it seeps into the present inevitably and transforms the way we experience the here and now. It is a kind of everyday madness.

Yet Midnight in Paris leaves us with a vision of nostalgia that encapsulates its positive effects. Gil’s decision to break up with his ill-suited fiance, and the final scene where he walks into the rainy Parisian night culminates in a strange blurring of his reality and fantasy. He has finally made grown-up, significant choices, but he has also walked into the sweet allure of a romance that reverberates with his early fantasies of Paris in the rain. It is an elusive, probably unrealistic ending, but this is the magic of the movie. Woody Allen gives us the happy, fulfilled ending we’ve been hoping for – it’s not quite the kissing in the rain at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s but the rain still provides an amorous atmosphere – and this ending, quite nostalgically, recalls all the dreams Gil has at the beginning of the film, and all the familiar romance films of bygone times that end similarly. So this is nostalgia: the little dab of illusion to soften the edges of reality.

Further reading:

Nostalgia: Sweet Remembrance. Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200605/nostalgia-sweet-remembrance

Proust, M. 1913-1927. In Search of Lost Time. 

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Media, Memory and Identity

‘Technological advances’, Andrew Hoskins claims, ‘have provoked a re-evaluation of the relationship between media and consciousness’. This statement seems significant, and indeed it captures the whole uneasy feeling many of us have when we reflect on the impact technology has not only on our lives, but possibly also on our minds. My everyday routine, my memory and my relationships now seem to be inextricably related to and even structured by the digital technologies I use – and I’m not even a fully-fledged techno-addict.

In this article, I want to talk about the relationship between media, memory and identity. It’s something I’ve been looking at for my sociology revision and finding increasingly engaging as I make connections between the notes I’m reading and the reality of the shifts that seem to be occurring around me in our tech-suffused society.

Firstly, memory. How do we conceive of memory? Often the metaphor is a film-reel, storing a long roll of images that go all the way back to childhood, as if our whole past is wound up in a spool that can be unravelled at will in order to access a particular memory. However, this model has for a while now been discredited by psychologists. Memory is in no way a permanent storage: it is not fixed and unchanging. Instead, our memories are dynamic, imaginative, shifting: always constructed in the present, taking on a new shape according to the context of the here-and-now. My memory of what I did last weekend is contingent on the related thoughts I am having today. We find memories are triggered by association, but to what extent do they become distorted in the process – and what role do the media play in this?

An interesting and well-known phenomenon which accounts for the relationship between media and memory is ‘flashbulb memory’, a term coined by psychologists Brown and Kulik in 1977. Flashbulb memory refers to those highly vivid recollections which have a distinctly visual, often photographic quality. They can be personal or shared. For example, a personal flashbulb memory for me would be perhaps moments when I was told a loved one was dying – those strange unaccountable memories of sitting at the kitchen table, distinctly remembering the maths homework I was doing, are such flashbulb moments, retained for their strong emotive value. My memories of exams also take on a flashbulb quality, probably because exams are significant to my life as a (conscientious) student. Yet these memories aren’t always first-person: often I see myself objectively, writing away sweaty-palmed at a wobbly desk, which is an indication of the malleable nature of memory, as obviously I didn’t experience the event in camera-eye-view.

By comparison to individual memories, a shared flashbulb memory is one held and accorded significance to by a whole community. There are lots of examples of these: the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the fall of the Berlin wall, and perhaps most obviously in recent times the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Unlike personal memories, what all of these ‘shared memories’ have in common is their highly mediatised quality. The latest episode of Mad Men depicted public and private reactions to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the show also examines the reactionary context to the J.F.K shooting in a previous series. What is notable about both representations is their emphasis in the role of TV in broadcasting the present as an event which accords meaningful significance to the whole community, bringing together a nation or collective. There are many shots of characters staring in fear and sadness at their tiny 1960s television screens, of characters weeping and switching the telly off, unable to bear the perpetual presence of the news. As watchers of the fictional series, we become spectators of spectators, a mise-en-abyme effect which conveys the emptiness of representation, the impossibility of the visual at reaching the event itself. Our present and the 1960s past coalesce in a fusing of fictional and historical time and representation. Again, this occurs all on television – it is all contained in the visual. The show thus highlights how vividly images construct our past in the present.

Indeed, many people if asked in an empirical study will say that they have a distinctly visual recollection of such events. One study found that those interviewed retained the original memory of the J.F.K. shooting by referring back to the video of him actually being shot, yet it turned out that this wasn’t broadcast until five years after the event. This indicates that our memories are reconstructed by the media. In my sociology tutorial, someone said that their flashbulb memory of 9/11 was being at after-school club and watching it on TV. Later, he reflected, he realised that there weren’t any televisions at the club, and so his visual recollection of the towers coming down must have come from subsequent viewings. The impact of television news, especially 24-hour news reels, Hoskins (2004) argues, is a ‘collapse of memory’, where the past becomes a perpetual present. Television is ‘always on’, and takes on an ‘ambient quality’. We have the news on in the background while we do the ironing, while we study. It’s on at the gym. Perhaps it’s on where you work, and even at the pub. This creates a sense of the all-pervasiveness of the present-as-past, especially as recent events are immediately constructed through the past by television news.

This works through what Jenny Kitzinger calls ‘media templates’. These are frameworks adopted by journalists to represent a current event, using tropes, headlines, images and other signs drawn from past events. The consequence of this is to make a semantic connection between the two events and draw them under the umbrella of an overall message. This can occur even when there are stark dissimilarities between the events in question. For example, Hoskins and O’Loughlin in their book War and Media draw attention to the media representation of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005, which used the ‘Blitz spirit’ template in an attempt to show collective unity against the ‘enemy’ terrorists. These included The Sun headlines: ‘Worst since Blitz’ and an interview with an actual Blitz survivor still living in London who said: ‘the Germans couldn’t destroy us. Neither will these terrorists’. The presentation of a familiar ‘us and them’ mentality, and the idea of banding together and getting on with daily life in spite of trauma was created by linking together a past and present event. Yet the everyday reality of London in the aftermath of the bombings was a far cry from the determined persistence of the city during the Blitz: at the same time as linking the two events, the media also detail how shops were closed and the streets were empty following the attack.

It seems, then, that the media play a key role in taking control of the public consciousness in times of crisis. Not only do they provide the instantaneous visual material which gives us a sense of the iconic elements of an event, relegating them to an on-going past, but the media also frames these events in familiar narratives by drawing upon previous events and stories. In doing so, the media provides a kind of (albeit artificial, as many of these events may be different in key ways) historical continuity. A continuity which seems to blur the past and present in a diffused mediation of the present through the past. This is a possibility accelerated by the advances in technology which allow the media to provide more immediate frameworks in their real-time broadcasting of events. What we think are our personal recollections may in fact just be a build-up of visual and aural data transmitted to the media.

So much for memory and television. What about the internet – that most elusive and colossal of interactive archives? It is the internet which is transforming our psychological relationship to technology. The internet provides a forum for contested representations of key events: people can challenge the dominant view of current news provided through TV by posting comments on online newspaper articles, and so-called ‘citizen journalism’ in independent blogs, news sites and a variety of other canny uses of social media.

Yet the internet’s involvement with current events is also coupled with its collapsing of present and past. Web-pages are not static: they can easily be edited, added to, or taken down when their owner runs out of bandwidth. Concerns grow everyday about the power of hackers to tap into the ‘official’ social media accounts of organisations like the BBC and broadcast strange messages. Messages which can then be deleted, but will live on in other people’s computer archives and internet history, the screen shots they snapped and saved for future amusement or reflection.

While this bears profound consequences for how we conceive of wider social knowledge, it also impacts on our self. The internet as readily-accessible archive has changed our memory. In a pre-internet age, our sense of self also depended somewhat on our ability to forget. How could we move on from those awkward teenage years or that failed relationship, if we couldn’t put the Goth makeup, yellow skinny jeans, photographs and letters away in a box to be forgotten? With the internet, our past and present are diffused, as our selves are scattered in so many fragments of fleeting words we leave online. Geoffrey Bowker calls this presence of self our ‘paraconscious’: ‘the massive sets of traces of my past that I have randomly accessible to me’. Random access, a term I recall from Higher Computing (oh the joys), is the ability to access something instantly, without having to rewind like a tape through everything to reach it. With a quick Google search, I may invoke and revisit the undead graveyards of my past, all those myriad blog comments, Piczo accounts, my Myspace account; hell, even my Neopets account. And what will I find? A lot of things I probably won’t even recall saying. Language and text – the embarrassingly overused ‘=]’ smiley, the all-pervasive ‘lol’ – that no longer characterise how I write. This ‘cognitive dissonance’ threatens to undermine the stability of our self-concept. It’s like reading an old diary entry and realising your thoughts have changed radically since then, or recognising the strange handwriting with an uncanny feeling that it is not your own. Yet while a diary is an object that can be stowed away, relegated to the past, with the internet, your old self remains, hauntingly, as a perpetual presence. Just as your ex-partner remains, dormant, as a Facebook presence, waiting for you to go back to and resurrect with immediacy the past.

Databases sort our identities out for us. They organise our lives according to tags and categories of names and places. They suggest networks or groups we should join which accord with our apparent interests. I upload a photo and tag its location with ‘Glasgow’ and I start getting invitations to ‘local’ networks or online websites for restaurants, clubs, shops. Databases direct us to new things we should buy with ‘targeted ads’. Our whole selves are assembled online in a way never before possible. And so we ourselves begin obsessively to record every element of our lives: photographing gigs, snapping our meals and uploading them with the delight of vintage filter to Instagram, confessing our rants and sins on Facebook statuses, documenting a running commentary of TV shows on Twitter.

What drives this compulsive archiving? For one, it is the sheer ease at which everything can be uploaded with today’s portable technology. Yet it also goes back to a psychological phenomenon, a paradoxical negotiation between the Freudian concepts of the death drive and the pleasure principle. In Archive Fever, Derrida claims that in archiving, one is driven to conserving the present from eradication (the pleasure principle), and the other is a drive to destruction and forgetfulness (the death drive). We simultaneously put things online because we want to preserve a thought, feeling or event, but also because we want to consign it to the past, as if it will eradicate our need to monumentalise something. Rather than constructing a narrative, the stuff uploaded on the net can also be scattered: images appreciated as beautiful or meaningful in themselves rather than linked to a particular event, images that seem to destroy their initial meaning even as they create a new possibility for interpretation. I see this in Tumblr, where images are endlessly reblogged and given new captions and interpretations by different users as they are presented within the paratextual surroundings of various user ‘themes’. An image of a young woman in a dress can take on different meanings when it is placed in a personal journal, fashion or pro-ana blog.

And so where does this strange archival technology leave us – in the hinterlands of the internet, what exactly is the past, and what the present? I would argue, as Hoskins does, that memory has in the wake of new media ‘collapsed’, in the sense that everything from the past can instantly be re-deployed in the present, transforming the past at the same time as shaping the present through the past. This applies not just to key historical events, but to the everyday cultural images and personal confessions, the vortex of text and pictures circulated around the web which can be copied and pasted, re-blogged, re-visited in the present. The internet has an immediate sense of presence, in its very nature as a fluid, hypertextual network, where old pages – the dregs of individual, organisational or cultural history – are available through random access hyperlinks and web searches.

Furthermore, since we are now ‘always on’, carrying the web in our pocket with smartphones, this state has accelerated to the point that we are continually constructing our past in a perpetual transmission of expression through social media. We have instant access to any information we need, so that our memory is always being transformed as we leap back and forth between the archive and the present, creating an on-going knowledge and construction of history as present. As Geoffrey Bowker so astutely puts it: ‘it is so easy to leave and to assemble traces that we are developing a kind of universal prosthetic memory’. And I wonder, is this a good thing, allowing us to foster a more fluid sense of time, space and self, or are we merely becoming data-fixated cyborgs?

Works Cited/Further Reading:

Bowker, G. (2007) ‘The Past and the Internet’ in Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, ed. by Joe Karaganis, New York: Social Science Research Council, pp. 20-38.

Derrida, J. (1998) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Andrew Hoskins has an extensive amount of writing on the subject of media and memory, but some of the articles/books I’ve referred to include: ‘‘The Digital Distribution of Memory: Memory on-the-fly’, ‘Television and the Collapse of Memory’ and his book with Ben O’Loughlin, War and Media (2010).

Kitzinger, J. (2000) ‘Media templates: patterns of association and the (re)construction of meaning over time’ in Media Culture Society, Vol. 22 (1), pp. 61-84

Law, B. M. (2011) ‘Seared in our memories’, Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/09/memories.aspx

Living with Chilblains

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Seven years ago, I was a fresh-faced pre-teen on my first (and only) residential school trip. We went to Aviemore, a town in the north of Scotland renowned for its snowy mountains. We had a great weekend at the hotel, living off pick’n’mix (the hotel food was a case of cold, mushy macaroni cheese or going hungry), drinking J20s, gossiping, room-swapping, snowball-fighting and generally behaving like a pack of twelve-year-olds left to make their own amusement.

Ironically, the worst part of the ski trip was the skiing. The novelty of going up in a cable car was removed by the feeling of being packed like sardines up against big scary people in serious gear, with formidable looking metal poles and goggle-glasses that made them look like bugs. And when we finally got up on the mountains, the conditions were so awful, with blizzards and ice, that I couldn’t feel my brain from the whipping wind, I couldn’t stand for two seconds without falling and more to the point couldn’t see two metres ahead of me. It didn’t help that our instructor was useless, failing to teach us how to stop, turn direction, or even stand without falling. We were all indignant about our lack of pole provision. How were we supposed to maintain any sense of balance? If one of us went down, we grabbed whoever was closest, resulting in a domino-descent of bundling bodies, laughter, crying and billowing snow. Safe to say I came home blue with bruises.

About an hour in, I had given up trying to ski, and was more focused on trying to block out the sense of seething cold that was gnawing into me. The skiing instructor rolled her eyes when I showed her my blue little fingertips. My own fault, of course, for not bringing proper gloves. Instead of heavy-duty snow gloves I’d opted for the pretty sequinned woolly ones from Accessorize. They were fingerless.

Our teacher had apparently been handing out ski gloves at breakfast to the poor souls who didn’t have any, but I think I must have been focused on surreptitiously putting salt in my friend’s drink or something and missed out.

Well, I’ve suffered for that mistake. Since that fateful trip, I’ve been plagued with chilblains. I can deal with the toes – many people get them in their toes. You don’t have to do much with your toes. The fingers, however, are a whole other league of pain. Every year, at the threshold of winter, the dreaded chilblains creep back, like so many electric currents stinging my fingers. Sometimes they’re even there in summer, with the icy threat of air conditioning, or more likely the bitter bite of a Scottish ‘breeze’.

It’s like this: your fingers at first feel deathly numb, and maybe they’ll go bright white, yellow or purple. If you touch them, you can watch the colour burst and fade in a sphere of strange pressure. When they start to warm up again, after some brisk handshaking or running them under luke-warm water, they surge and swell painfully, often going bright red. It’s just this burning that travels relentlessly up and down your nerves. Sometimes I look in the mirror and it’s funny because they’re a completely different colour from the rest of my body, as if I’ve dipped them in paint.

Well, often they stay swollen for weeks, and that’s the worst part. Not only do you have horrible, fat, stumpy fingers, but also you have fingers that struggle to write and type. And then the itchiness. Like so many nerves tingling and writhing beneath your skin, simultaneously so awfully hot and then once again breathlessly cold. I have the hands of death: touching my fingers is like touching ice.

So yes, I’m still wearing gloves in May, and might have to through June and beyond. I apply hand-cream every five minutes to stop my skin cracking, I walk as much as I can and do star-jumps in my room, because they say that boosting circulation and keeping warm is all you can do.

And well, it seems that there is a pretty simple moral to this story: function over fashion. I should’ve listened to my mother and taken the ugly grey ski-gloves over the pretty but useless ones. Ah, but what self-respecting twelve-year-old with an eye for style would have done that? Also, it’s possible that I’d have gotten chilblains anyway. ‘Reynaud’s syndrome’ – which is probably what I’ve developed, checking the symptoms, although I’ve never been diagnosed – is most common among young woman, and usually occurs in the late teens. Check, check – that’s me. So perhaps I’m just unlucky, just dreadfully fated, to suffer the bane and pain of these chilblains. I’m guessing the Aviemore semi-frostbite I experienced didn’t help (permanent nerve damage never does), but I refuse to take all the blame for my condition. I also blame genes – my Mum and my Nan both get chilblains, albeit in their feet.

Reynaud’s doesn’t really have a cure, so I don’t have much option except keeping up the star-jumps, drinking ginger tea and making sure I don’t smoke (nicotine contracts nerve muscles). Let this be a warning to all those who want to go skiing, but also a message to help you appreciate having lovely, slender, warm and normal-coloured fingers! I am a girl with serious hand envy.

Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the Death(?) of the Author

Wordsworth’s The Prelude is a pretty formidable poem, not least due to its length. I initially encountered it in my first year of studies as an English Literature undergraduate, within a course entitled ‘Writing & Self’. There was no obligation to tackle the entire poem – we just had to look at a few extracts and try to get to grips with Wordsworth’s philosophy on the relationship between nature, memory and selfhood. Selfhood. That elusive concept; you think you know it, but no – the post-structuralists, modernists and Samuel Beckett have something radically different to say about it. Not going to lie though, I really enjoyed it in the end. The really long poetry? Not so much…

At the time, I was disinterested in the seemingly repetitive obsession with the natural world, what seemed like bland blank verse, and the endless length. However, after studying more recently Milton’s marathon-of-a-poem Paradise Lost, with all its mythical references beyond my grasp, Wordsworth’s doesn’t seem so scary. In fact, I felt the urge to go back to it and think about how my perception may have changed. What interests me about it now, with (hopefully) a little more intellectual maturity, is not only the poem’s emotive value but also the way it sheds an interesting light on some theories I’ve been looking at recently.

Roland Barthes, in a famous essay called ‘The Death of the Author’, argued against the Romantic conception of author as god-like genius held by writers such as Wordsworth:

[…] a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.

The idea that no writing is original, but instead a ‘tissue of citations’ borrowing meaning from the myriad of texts and other references (written or oral) floating in the social world of language has profound consequences for the way we approach literature. The notion that literary texts do not contain a single, ‘intended’ meaning released by the authorial author was posited by the New Critics of the early twentieth-century, Wimsatt and Beardsley. In ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that good criticism shouldn’t try to decipher an author’s intended meaning but instead look at how the poem succeeds in creating meaning through its form, claiming simply that ‘judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.’ Their definition of what ‘works’ in poetry was that style contributed to substance; in other words, the poem’s metre, rhyme and metaphor evoked the feelings and understandings appropriate to the poem’s meaning – a meaning that should be deciphered, then, not in reference to the author’s intentions but in reference solely to the text on the page. The New Critics, however, differ from Barthes in that they believe a text contains a complete, unified meaning that can be ‘unlocked’ by studying the text, whereas Barthes is saying the text is inherently plural, due to the unstable and intertextual nature of language and literature.

Going back to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an epic poem defined by its status as the autobiographical unfolding of a poet’s personal and artistic growth (a quest for self-expression famously rewritten by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh from a female perspective), seems problematic within the context of twentieth-century New Criticism. How are we to approach a poem that is concerned primarily with the poet’s mind and experience?   A poem that Wordsworth has literally put himself into? The poet himself described The Prelude as ‘a poem on the growth of my own mind’. Is it possible, then, to ignore his presence, and relegate the autobiographical context of the poem to a shadowy distance?

I think the two positions can be reconciled. Wordsworth’s poem may delve into personal experience, but he is by no means the only poet in the world that does so – let alone the only poet interested in the relationship between art and nature. Criticism is used to finding inventive ways of looking at a poem that may or may not involve the poet’s self and life. We could, in the following of Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’, consider how his use of blank verse constitutes an Oedipal struggle with his predecessor Milton. We could examine the more political elements of the poem, and how they relate to the cultural and social context of the time, or even the complex philosophical ideas Wordsworth espouses.

I myself am interested in the poet’s voice: the way he narrates fragments of experience to build up to the whole of his self, his artistic vision. I am also interested in the fluctuating effects of self-estrangement and unification, and the evocation of memory that permeates the text. Here is one of my favourite extracts of The Prelude:

One summer evening (led by her) I found

A little boat tied to a willow tree

Within a rocky cove, its usual home.

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in

Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;

Leaving behind her still, on either side,

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,

Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point

With an unswerving line, I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan;

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood; but after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

 

A New Critical reading here could look at many poetic elements and examine how they contribute to an overall meaning. Indeed, I think the New Critical approach always has great value in unlocking the text – not in the sense of unlocking some kind of hidden meaning – but in unlocking the nuanced structures and framework of techniques that produce particular effects. Yet this kind of close reading can also go hand-in-hand with considerations of writerly subjectivity and creation, especially for an overtly autobiographical work like The Prelude. Although Wordsworth termed poetry ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, he also noted that it was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’; in other words, poetry comes from the self, from a kind of organic inspiration caused by worldly experience, but it is only upon reflection and considered reconstruction that good poetry is created.

Of course, whether poetry comes from the self or not is irrelevant to New Critics, and for Barthes, this notion is flawed since all language is social: ‘it is language that speaks, not the author’, he claims in Image, Music, Text. It is, however, worthwhile to perhaps consider the ‘ghostly’ presence of the author in the text. Barthes himself admits in The Pleasure of the Text that the reader’s idea of the author plays a fundamental role in his/her reading of the text: ‘in a way, I need the author, I desire his presence’. This intimacy between reader and author is enacted as a kind of strangely corporeal, erotic relationship – where the reader desires the author’s body, in a kind of strip-tease effect as the text is unravelled before the reader’s eyes; but also by the reader, as the text is ‘played’ – as it offers up its ambiguities and gaps for the reader to fill in with his/her own meaning. The presence of the author is the promise of meaning. When I read Wordsworth’s poem, and look for meaning, I am not just thinking of the words on the page – inevitably I have some hazy conception of the writer who writes them, the man wandering the Lake District with words whirling round his brain like blossom caught in the wind. Without my sense of the author, I feel as I open the cover of a book, the text seems hollow; I need to conjure his/her presence to enter the threshold of fiction, and of meaning.

This of course applies to certain texts more than others. If I have no real knowledge of the author, I am able to approach a text with a ‘pure’ mind, but even then, I unconsciously scan for clues as to the possible links the text has to other writers and traditions. The text, then, seems always to be situated in some intangible web of meaning, and only sometimes is the author present, a spider or spectre creeping elusively around my reading of the text.

So, back to the ghostly presence of Wordsworth in this extract. Who is he – who and when and where is the speaking ‘I’ – is it Wordsworth, the physical hand, gnarled with old age (and those trips to the Alps) writing the poem, Wordsworth the young boy (returned to in memory or literally re-living his younger self?), Wordsworth the imagined author, behind a desk in Dove Cottage, conjured by the reader’s imagination…Or perhaps all of these, an uncanny amalgamation of identities? Wordsworth himself never lived to see the poem published; indeed, he was revising it again and again until his final years. So we can’t even be sure which temporal Wordsworth was writing these lines. Which words came at which age? When reading, I feel the fragmented sense of time come together in the quiet and consistent flow of the iambic lines. It seems like the author’s true identity, his ‘true’ intentions or involvement in the poem, slip away under the seduction of the poetry and language.

Milan Kundera in Art of the Novel mentions a distinction between poets with and without history. Wordsworth might here be difficult to classify because he wrote both intimate, lyrical poems and also ones which dealt with the politics and history of the time, such as the Industrial Revolution. In the above extract – a mere snippet of the whole poem, which does at points get historical – I’d like to consider Wordsworth a poet without history; the ‘I’ of the speaker merged with both the poet and the young boy who steals the boat. Memory has transformed the experience into a sublime perspective on the transcendent greatness of the world, the ‘familiar shapes’ evolved into ‘huge and mighty forms, which ‘do not live / like living men’. In other words, forms that will not breathe and change and die like humans, but remain in a powerful position of natural supremacy – an existence that to Wordsworth as a developing poet and young man was almost formidable, ‘a trouble to [his] dreams’. Kundera points out that ‘pure lyric poetry lives in feelings’ which ‘are all given to us at once’, but intensify in the mind of a poet. I feel that Wordsworth’s moving account of the transition of the landscape reflects this, particularly as the weighty blank verse and enjambment create that sense of moving, progressive and natural feeling.

Yet it is also a strange feeling, the sensation and memory of terror that recalls in the eye/the ‘I’ of the poet’s mind. The emotions experienced as a boy are part of the bank of material that builds up to produce poetic inspiration. And yet memory is not a film-tape, recording past events with absolute accuracy. It is malleable, subject to revision, always related to the present moment in which it is recalled. Wordsworth called these ‘spots of time’: moments where some flash of previous existence will burst into consciousness – a thought, a memory, a feeling, a scene from a novel, a line of verse, a melody from a song. This strange release of the past into the fiery now of the present can not always be explained, but they are essential, in Wordsworth’s philosophy, for the development of self. As Locke argued, the self is a continual being only through the continuation of consciousness, and it is through these ‘spots of time’ – gaps in the fabric of our present that catch some thread of our past – that our identity continues to be woven together into a coherent selfhood.

And so, in slight relation to selfhood, the idea of genius, or a poet without history. Barthes has destroyed genius, in his destruction of authorship. We can accept the theoretical ‘truth’ or weight of this, but still acknowledge, at least psychologically, some kind of notion of genius. Genius doesn’t have to mean brilliance, but as Kundera’s book suggests, it conveys something special and unique about creative writing, in that it is inevitably in some way produced by feeling – and this feeling is inextricably related to one’s personal experiences, even if the writer is not aware or rejects this in their writing. Personal experiences are unique, and even though language is not, it is our individual way of assembling language in direct relation to feeling and consciousness that makes writing something special, perhaps magical; that makes writers not merely what Italo Calvino in ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ calls ‘literary machines’, churning out elaborate patterns of words from the dictionary.

Moreover, and this may link with Barthes’ writings on readerly pleasure, genius can lie in the reader too. A genius that transcends language, the feeling of what Barthes calls ‘jouissance’ or bliss, that occurs when a text ‘imposes a state of loss’ upon the reader. For if the reader is involved in producing meaning from this lost, he/she too has some kind of genius. When faced with the lines: ‘For so it seemed, with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing, / Strode after me’ we are struck with the sudden, lightning bolt connection between past and present. ‘Seemed’ highlights the idea of visual recollection, of memory recalled in the present. The uncanny anthropomorphism of the ‘huge peak, black and huge’ recalls a childhood terror, but also the adult’s terror of the unknown. Wordsworth, the writing poet, cannot recall exactly what made the peak so terrible. It is merely ‘huge’, ‘huge’ – a monstrous presence burgeoning repeatedly in his memory and thought. This strange severance between feeling and meaning is a kind of bliss, and a kind of fear. The loss is what is left out in the mind; just as Wordsworth’s recollection is a distortion of childhood fright and adult ‘trouble’, the reader’s perception of that looming black peak is the facing of an abyss: ‘there hung a darkness’. An abyss of possibility. What is the nature of the child’s fear, why can Wordsworth recall it – what is it in his present moment that brings back that memory? The only way to find out is to trail the poem’s entirety, searching endlessly for clues that connect the ‘stars’ of the poet’s psychology, of the poem’s constellation of meaning. Yet there will always be these chasms, where it seems that meaning is lost – where, as the black peak separates the ‘I’ from the ‘stars’, the reader faces an aporia, a non-road separating the word on the page with its meaning, its interpretation. The author’s intentions are lost, and the dictionary fails us.

I have tried to compare Wordsworth’s experience of nature with the experience of reading, as an activity profoundly connected with both loss and creation, with darkness and strangeness but also the ‘sparkling light’ that seems to seduce us into the bewitching land of literature.

‘To give an Author to a text,’ Barthes argues, ‘is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’. I don’t think this is entirely true. I think that if you allow the author’s presence, at least at some ghostly level – and this has been discussed somewhere in Derrida’s writing in a much more sophisticated way than I have here – you can open the writing. For the author creates more problems, as a character not quite inside or outside the text. The uniting of the reading and writing self; navigating the text and giving it meaning; facing up to the strange array of images and sounds that lead a meandering path through the poem – that is poetic genius.

 

Works Cited:

Barthes, R. (1967) ‘The Death of the Author’, translated by Richard Howard, Available at: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf [Accessed 11.3.13].

Barthes, R. (1980) The Pleasure of the Text.

Kundera, M. (2003) The Art of the Novel. New York: HarperCollins.

Wimsatt and Beardsley – ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. Available at: http://letras.cabaladada.org/letras/intentional_fallacy.pdf

Wordsworth, W. The Prelude. – began in 1798 and published in 1850, the year of Wordsworth’s death.