Wednesday, March 31, 2010


You had asked me a while ago "Why Hamlet? Why now?"
Why now is easy: I finally found a version compelling enough to make me really listen.
Why Hamlet? Why indeed...
Because it is all wrong. If you really pay attention, it is a play entirely about the why not, the absence of the usual response. Famously, why does Hamlet not just get on with it? Why does Getrude never act like a mother? Why does Hamlet have so many qualms about killing Claudius, and so few about killing Polonius? Why does he not regret being cruel to Ophelia? Why is he so sensitive and such a beast? Why does Hamlet speak so much of his father's affection for his mother, and yet himself only really shows fear?
And so on, like an infinite puzzle, forever drawing the eye.


Actually, while I gladly declare myself a fan of Patrick Stewart, the actual person, David Tennant is somehow just this funny, Scottish chap who looks like the Doctor. Whatever podcast I was listening to was right - when we look at Tennant, or Tom Baker, what we really want is the Doctor, though actors are a distracting enough substitute... And if Tennant is good at winning people for his characters that is mere coincidence.

More the fool

Let it not be said, dear reader, that I am afraid to 'fess up.

I am re-watching Hamlet, and realised quite suddenly that I a fool. I quoted "Rule 1 of the internet, 'more honor'd in the breach than the observance': you should not write what you would not say face to face." and only now, in seeing the scene again, realised that what it actually means is "a custom better broken than kept" which was most certainly not what I meant.

As with Apple products, I ship with extra smug; my apologies, dear corner of the world. And take this as a an exhortation to see that most specific Hamlet - I promise it is not my Tennant/Stewart fangirl speaking when I say that, while flawed, it is quite lovely.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

It is 11.12 am and it feels like 6 am holding a frying pan in a threatening manner.

Yesterday I flew back from the Golden West, and then on to sushi, to nap, to concert. The concert was Skybox, Jukebox the Ghost and Tally Hall. Given that I was wretched and tired, I can perhaps be forgiven for skipping out after Jukebox, the folks I was really there to see. Both they and Skybox were quite good, and we had a good time. It is still odd, going to these concerts full of people looking almost, but not exactly, like I did an awkward ten years ago, down to the spangly tights and ill-advised shirts. No, they looked better, good thing too, and while they lacked some appreciation for New Order's Temptation, it occurred to me that I am glad that not all the people who are younger than me are like the shiny sleek San Diego women, and that my kind still exists.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The final...something

Introductory note/disclaimer: all of the Shame in Shakespeare stuff was written without reference to any other sources (except Shakespeare, of course), and deliberately so. I will restate that this is a criticism of Fernie’s work, not his person; and apologise to my dear friend for having abused her most innocently given recommendation. It is important to me, and I do not do it lightly.

I haven’t forgotten Ewan Fernie. This weekend I finally finished Shame in Shakespeare. For a while there, it all went quite well. The book and I, we had a moment. We sat in the park together and it was lovely. We were starting to think about the future, and all the things we could apply this to. All such worldly victories are, of course, Pyrrhic.

At first, I thought it was amusing. Take the bit where Fernie dismisses the now classic interpretation of Gertrude and Hamlet’s relationship as oedipal: “It is true that Hamlet dwells uncomfortably on his mother’s sexual arrangements, but disgust in such matters is as obsessive as desire.” I am not being flippant when I describe this as amusing; he offers no substantiation for the statement, but what really makes me smile is the fact that obsessive disgust so often masks fascination and desire, and that Fernie seems to make the above statement unselfconsciously. Shortly after that he talks about Hamlet showing the right kind of shame, and I wonder again when he will explain what that means, and how it compares to the wrong kind of shame.

Yes, I admit that when the book, a propos of a critical description of shame as “penetrative”, describes Antony as “sodomized by shame” I giggled. But seriously, what is the point of using such an image? What does it do for my critical understanding of the text?

Oh well.

It wasn’t until I got to the conclusion, though, that you could start to see the smoke come out of my ears as Fernie relapses into his fun unfounded speculating. “Shamelessness is excellently natural: shame approaches the divine” is the last sentence of his text analysis. From the context, it is not clear to me that he draws this conclusion from the texts; but surely it is – ah, favoured critical adjective! – problematic in any Christian context, especially a Renaissance one, to say that nature and divinity are at odds?

On to the conclusion though. On shame after the Renaissance, following an overview of the literature and its mostly secular nature, he says this, somewhat out of the blue, though there is a cursory reference to queer studies (best field name ever, can I just say that?)

“And yet, recent history conspires to make it increasingly hard to turn aside from shameful truths. In the deforming and tragic face of AIDS it is difficult for at least gay male writers to deny shame and the bitter fragility of the self.”

This raises some of the same problems we have seen before. He fails to say why AIDS, more than any other disease, is shameful. He fails to explain why gay male authors should be more ashamed of AIDS than any of the millions of heterosexual suffers. If it is the disease that is shameful, then why AIDS, and not, say, cancer? But I think that the real source of shame here is supposed to be homosexuality. Why else ascribe a disease that in 2002 already affected more heterosexuals than homosexuals to gay men? Why else pick this disease over any other? Why not syphilis? TB? If that is what he was trying to say, I wish he had the gall to do it. Perhaps that will be my conclusion: if Ewan Fernie thinks that homosexuality, infidelity (Bill Clinton’s) and provocative/con artist art (Damien Hirst’s) is shameful, he should have the guts to stand up and say it, and bear the consequences. Instead he points, nods and winks, and wiggles his nose suggestively. This will not do. It will not do as scholarship, it will not do as ethical behaviour. I am ashamed – yes, us non-fundies do have shame – that this is a part of the discipline I devoted five perfectly good years to. I am ashamed that Routledge published it. And most of all, I am most crushingly ashamed that this is considered good work. It could have been so good; I think Fernie is absolutely right about the self-centredness of our society and the redemptive power of shame, of the mirror it holds up to us, and that makes it all the more excruciating.

I have more quotes and more points but I’m going to give it a rest. References available upon request. I invite whoever cares to disagree, and to prove me wrong. I hope that I am wrong. Think of me as Joe in In the Bleak Midwinter asking what the fucking point is.

This is where you say “Rachmaninoff”

If there is Rachmaninoff.

Here, without need for any comment or giggles from your host, are the last sentences of the book: “In spite of a desperate, delusive tendency to sustain the imprisoning idol of selfhood, we must let it explode from its own internal tensions and contradictions, and adventure beyond the self. The spiritual and political health of our species depends on it.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Over lunch today I was going to be a good little nerd and read Shame in Shakespeare. I could have withstood anyone from Porlock, but squirrels...I am powerless against squirrels. You see, dear readers, I was munching away at my lunch when a squirrel snuck up to me. This is not unusual; the park is full of pretty tame squirrels. This one was eyeing some bits of apple I’d discarded on the grass right in front. It sidled up to them, and then proceeded to eats the bits, one by one, discarding the peel (smart squirrel!). It was unbearably cute even before the squirrel climbed onto the bench I was sitting on, quietly eating his bit of apple as my lunch buddy. When I finished my apple, rather than binning the core like the good citizen I am, I lobbed it onto the grass in front of me. In due time the self-same squirrel ran up to it, looked me in the eye, stuffed the whole thing in its mouth and then galloped off and into a tree. Insert heroic the-thump-the-thump noises, followed by faint crunching sounds from the tree.

I have yet to meet the Shakespeare scholar who can match that.*

*For some reason I instantly imagine the Shakespeare scholar who could beat the squirrel for cuteness as a Dead Poets’ Society era Robert Sean Leonard, all Bambi eyes and intensity, sitting on a bench by the Cherwell in Oxford, reading a Serious Book. Though the Serious Book may be upside down.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I promised you that I would continue...whether you wanted me to or not.

So I am now almost halfway through Shame in Shakespeare. This is good news – it means that the introduction, rather than being a reflection of what was to come, as it probably should have been, was merely an annoying prelude*. The number of Greenblatt/Lacan/Kristeva etc quotes is now exceeded by the number of quotes from literary texts. Huzzah. No, really, I am excited about it. Fernie gets down to the business of examining shame in the Renaissance and in Shakespeare. Brass tacks suit him much better than general theorising, and I find that the book is pointedly excruciating in its subject matter as well as thought-provoking and interesting. Huzzah again. Consider this your halftime report then, and expect one more. For now, to borrow from Forster**, it is two cheers. Not quite three, but who knows what may yet happen. You’d be surprised at what denouements literary criticism can furnish.

What do you say? You want me to just shut up and quote the Tenth Doctor at you instead? All right then, anything to humour the people. I’ll just quote this – if only we could all handle our past so charmingly:

Tenth Doctor [to the Fifth Doctor]: You know, I loved being you. Back when I first started, at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important, like you do when you're young. And then I was you, and it was all dashing about and playing cricket and my voice going all squeaky when I shout. I still do that, the voice thing, I got that from you! Oh, and the trainers, and [puts on his glasses] snap. 'Cos you know what, Doctor? You were my Doctor.

*Like some other annoying preludes I can think of. Norton edition of Wordsworth’s Prelude, anyone?

**See E.M. Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy for unnecessary explanation of my gratuitous reference. Hey, it’s a blog, what do you expect?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rage, rage

Note: this post is to be continued; as I keep reading. I also rather hope to get a second opinion.

Anger can be a useful emotion. The title is of course a reference to Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night, which is in turn a reference to that other Welshman, our frenemy Russell F Davies. He quoted it at some point in reference to The End of Time: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”

It’s not the only use I have for rage. I revisited literary criticism yesterday. Well, I have been for days now, in the form of lectures, but yesterday for the first time in years I picked up an actual book of it. It was recommended by a dear, dear friend, and I’m not sure if she knows of this blog, but I will let her know. It seems unfair to talk behind her back about something she was sort of involved in. Rule 1 of the internet, “more honor'd in the breach than the observance”: you should not write what you would not say face to face. (er, sorry, that was not what I meant.)

Before I say anything, then, let me say this – none of this is personal. I am sure that this man Fernie is perfectly nice, and clearly my dear friend is a very dear friend, and I hope she will see this for what it is – a questioning of a discipline. Most of all, I hope she can prove me wrong.

Shame in Shakespeare, then, by Ewan Fernie. It fitted nicely with my re-examination of Hamlet. A Routledge book like many other Routledge books that I have read. Why should I find myself unable to finish a perfectly good book on a perfectly good topic? Is my brain just too rusty? Let me show, not tell – and this is from the series editor, not Fernie, which makes it both better and worse:

"The worrying truth is that nobody can just pick up Shakespeare's plays and read them. Perhaps - even more worrying - they never could"

It made me laugh out loud. It reminded me of one of my favourite XKCD comics:

People who claim you need a mediator to access something which thousands of people access every day entirely without their or any other academic's mediation, performed as intended, do their field a disservice. For that matter, even the simple fact that he refers to reading rather than performance as a means to access plays is problematic. I almost stopped right there, and perhaps should have. I am ripping this out of context, and perhaps I am missing something; but that is exactly my point – reading this as a particularly well-schooled laywoman, I find no other way to read it.

I read the introduction by Fernie. Twenty-two and a half pages of philosophical quotes – but only two short quotes from Shakespeare. While I am, admittedly, more textually oriented than your average new historicist, I am open-minded; I am not averse to philosophical and historical contextualisation. But I do believe that you primary text should be allowed to function as such. So where is it?

It is hard not to see Fernie as a moralist. I really tried not to. Yet he spends so much time emphasising the necessity of shame of a particular kind. He cites Bill Clinton, Damian Hirst and Tracy Emin as shameless, but fails to say what they should be ashamed of, and more importantly, why. I am not judging whether or not they should be – but I do expect any academic to declare himself when making such statements. If this example illustrates shamelessness and revulsion from it, as he states, then it must be explained, not left to inference. Here’s a quote:

“No doubt sado-masochism appeals to a certain kind of shame-afflicted personality; to that extent it is a wholly understandable perversion. But it is a perversion nonetheless – and of shame as well as of love and sex.”

I’d give you context but there is none. No further elaboration is offered. It really is just a gratuitous value judgement. Yes, I think he protests too much too. What’s more, if this introduction serves as a philosophical framework, which seems to be its aim, then I cannot take it seriously as scholarship – it offers me no substantiation; a definition of shame, yes, but no justification for the instances given, no methodology, only this implicit delineation of what should constitute shameful behaviour in our society.

The rest of the book, which I may well read given that I am as stubborn as the next donkey*, stays closer to the text, which I am grateful for. I read a section of about another twenty pages, and I still can’t see it as anything other than a defence of a certain kind of morality. Here’s my point – it is no wonder to me that literary criticism is not taken seriously. I am beginning to believe (based on rather more than the one book) that perhaps it shouldn’t be.

This what I believe: I believe that if literary criticism does not teach us to think for ourselves and to love and try to understand literature, it doesn’t teach us anything. It should be the key, not the damn door. Certainly not a pretentious, judgmental door. As a discipline, I have lost faith in it. It breaks my heart, but I can no longer be sure that literary analysis is a useful pursuit. I love it, and I love literature, and I enjoyed it greatly; but what does it do? I used to think that the injection of agendas into criticism was the bathwater, and the honest, if inflected criticism that looked to better understand a text was the baby. I am starting to think that the baby is literature, and that it is high time to chuck out that bathwater.

So rage aside, let me return to the Doctor, because he is, as always, apt:

I'm sorry. I am so sorry.

*Hey, I have two donkeys now – the Catalans and the Democrats! Though the Democrats...they are such monkeys sometimes. I wish I meant that in a good way.

Friday, March 12, 2010


It didn’t take Fahrenheit 451 to engender the idea of being a book, but it helped. Today, the book is The Master & Margarita; full of insanity, changes of tone, sudden inspiration and random failure. You have to fear the Hamlet days (when everyone dies and the Norwegians take over); so I’ll take M&M, one of my most loved books. The central idea of the book – maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but given that I usually get stuck at “fabulous”, it is unlikely – is that the devil, working evil, often ends up with good instead.

“I am part of the power which forever wills evil and forever works good."

I can’t render it well, but Bulgakov illustrates it beautifully. If I can convince one person to read this one book I will be happy. Here’s another recommendation: if you do read it, please obtain Gabriel Rios’ outstanding album Ghostboy. It is the perfect soundtrack, full of bones, upbeat rhythms, mermaids and voodoo dolls. Rios, for you non-Belgians* is Puerto Rican by birth, but in every other sense is ours. We are happy to have him. Actually, check out Broad Daylight or some such thing on the webs, and if you like it, read The Master & Margarita and buy Ghostboy. Deal?

*You know, those people who ask me at parties if I’m sure that there is no such language as Belgian. Yes. I am quite sure.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


When I Google "Byron braindead zombies", the first hit is my post from yesterday. I am kind of proud of that, actually.

Reflections on the merit of education in podcasting

My first and most obvious observation is that, no, the world is as it was – professors of English literature, and in fact most professors of anything, including Computer Science, are abysmal at using technology. Adding in a little light music and even a properly recorded intro does not compensate for the terrible audio quality, and it certainly does not make up for the fact that these professors – all three so far – fail to respect the basic educational technique of repeating questions asked by the students before answering them. This is bad enough in a lecture hall; it makes a good podcast of a lecture impossible.

My second observation is that in spite of the above technical shortcomings and long digressions about exams and readings, podcasting of educational content does have interest and merit. If I compare it to the unfortunate podcast-only series of discussions done for the Open University – prestigious and technologically apt enough – of Darwin, then I have to admit that superior structure and recording quality does not necessarily make for a better final product. I’ll take UC Berkeley’s elided discussion questions and Stanford’s crunchy audio over the terrible, terrible boredom of the Darwin podcasts any day. That said, I will take the Savage Love podcast over either of them; but that’s an entirely different kind of educational value, and perhaps not a fair comparison. And yet – your average Doctor Who podcast, done on no budget by some random guy on a mission (Two Minute Time Lord, anyone?) does better for both structure and quality than any of these top-notch educational institutions. Is this not deplorable? Actually, what it is is worthy of a kick in the pants. Use that endowment for something useful, idiots. You could do ten times as well for half the price of a pointless statue of one of your founders.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Braindead zombies of the world unite

You may well argue that, since zombies are dead people, therefore their brains must be dead, ergo my title is a pleonasm. See demonstration of flailing limbs and general lack of coordination. I would argue, however, that zombies, and their brains, are undead, rather than dead, and as such we have no reason to suspect that their brains are an more non-undead than the rest of them. Anyway, it is not the general populace of zombies that concerns me – hence the title. I only wish to address those of us who are both zombies and braindead. Let me explain. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I am referring only to metaphorical zombies, i.e. all of us cubicle monkeys who are trapped in seemingly endless routines of sameness. The braindeadness in turn refers to that subcategory of monkeys who lack a satisfactory outlet for their curiosity and whose intellectual capabilities have atrophied as a result.

So, hello my fellow braindead zombies, and if there are any actual braindead zombies, feel free to join us. Hello.

I just had an argument with my lovely Spouse about Byron. Ideally, the argument would have been about my emotional infidelity with said and tragically dead poet (though maybe there is a zombie braindead Byron in the audience. Hello?) but instead it was merely about the fact that I would not be able to take a seminar on said poet because funding is being diverted into Spouse-related educational expenses. In fairness, I could just go ahead and take the damn course, with my very own monies, and that would be just fine. Alas, I am not that person. I hate debt, and insist on paying it off as soon as I can; and so I can’t bring myself to spend the money on something non-utilitarian when I know there will be bills rolling in soon. Instead I am just resentful. Not very useful, is it? So, going from a thought from the Spouse, I decided to turn to my friend the Interwebs. So here’s another addition to the DIY project that is the TDEC: online courseware. This is a decent example:; and of course there is iTunes U.

As I demurely download UC Berkeley’s lectures on Hamlet, it occurs to me that there is some irony to the fact that after deliberately evading all things Shakespeare in college, after complaining the Hamlet is overperformed (it is!) and perhaps even over-valued, that I have come to this – listening to lectures about Hamlet because it is the only Shakespeare play I have seen recently (thank you BBC/David Tennant/Patrick Stewart. I love you. Especially David Tennant.)

We’ll see how it goes. Anyway, if any of you have any particular recommendations for good listens or experiences you’d like to share, please do. Even if you are not zombies.

Friday, March 05, 2010

A special freedom

I write. Creatively. Have, since I was, oh, who knows. In the last three years I have written no more than about four or five pages of anything. I find this distressing, on a number of levels. Part of what happened was that I foolishly lost the biggest piece of writing I’d done, one I loved. After that...I just haven’t. I read a lot. I lost myself a lot. Well, you were there for some of it.

Here’s what happens when you’re me and after a few years of idle migration you get married and settle: you lose something. You win this big prize of love and joy, and out the backdoor slips something (or someone) you were actually using. Maybe it’s your independence. You always did like the idea of surrender and loss; but the reality of it doesn’t agree with you. Maybe it’s your creativity, which is a wicked, finicky little plant that doesn’t like stability very much. Most likely, it’s the sense of your self, of the possibilities that you have. All of your personality gets shifted around into the convenient placeholder of marriage, not by your relationship, but by your community and, yes, yourself. You are the culprit here too. Because you knew what had gone missing. You just didn’t think it mattered. Much.

Here’s what happens: you don’t write because you don’t have the headspace for it. You don’t write because you don’t feel like you’re worthy. What do you have to write about? Suddenly, what matters is how clean your house is and how well you look after your guests. Your spouse.

No one is asking you for any of this. You filled in the blanks yourself, honey. And you’re not nearly as good at being a hostess as you are at being yourself. Whoever that is. You lose practice at the stuff you value, and lose your self-respect in the process. You hide from it at the Three Broomsticks and in the TARDIS. And very fine places they are, but that wasn’t what you were supposed to get from them.

Only fictional loss looks so much better.

You never could live up to David Tennant. But here’s the trick – you don’t actually have to. You don’t have nearly as many closed doors as you think. You have a spouse who loves your foolish risks more than you do. You don’t have to be any good. Unlike life, fiction leaves you entirely free to write as badly as you like, for as long as you like. You are free to fail. This is what you could have learned from the Doctor and all those hours spent reading: we are all bruised from falling down a lot, and in a world where even fictional characters have their share of embarrassing moments and accidental destruction surely there is room for you to fail, enthusiastically. Life has no prerequisites.

I don’t know how much of this is true, I just wrote it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Early to rise

Healthy, well, sort of, but certainly not wealthy or wise, especially. I have coffee though, fragrant freshly brewed coffee, and a side of matitudinal insanity.

Yesterday I was on the bus home and as we made our way to our miscellaneous homes, I watched the rain and the gleaming asphalt. I like rain; but I liked it especially yesterday. Always the best excuse for a cup of tea, yesterday's rain was also a harbinger of spring, coming as it did after much snow. And now, this morning, I can hear the birds. It's hard not to let it cheer you up, though memories of wet asphalt are usually more likely to propel me into my avant la lettre emo days (weren't teenagers always emo?).

Asphalt world, anyone?

My, I am getting sentimental in my adult years.