Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive Material Metaphors in Academic Writing

This piece originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.

Fabric Image 2

It’s rather like a ball of yarn when it gets tangled up. We hold it this way, and carefully wind out the strands on our spindles, now this way, now that way. That’s how we’ll wind up this war, if we’re allowed: unsnarling it by sending embassies, now this way, now that way (Lysistrata).

Often there is no space in my favourite café with its walls of textured teal, thronged with faces that may have meant something once to people who’ve long since donated the quirky paintings and photos to a charity shop. Anyone can find their place among them, bending or stretching to frame a new face in one of the pitted art deco mirrors. Even the rickety tables in the middle, little inhospitable islands buffeted by passing elbows and rucksacks, are full. Academic disciplines are like this: bustling, tightly knit communities, space at a premium. Customs and practices woven into a rich tapestry of enquiry and knowledge; questions and answers interlaced; threads taken up from the writings of the serious, scholarly faces peering down from their frames. But different as each discipline might be from the others – the colours of the walls, the style of the frames and how they are arranged – there’s a common strand that runs through: we write.

Weeks later, I sit at my temporary desk – a borrowed kitchen table with one leaf folded down – in my new study that used to be a kitchen. I can see the eighty-year-old seams of the house: two doorways once led to a scullery and a coal store, bricked up now but not yet smoothed out of sight by plaster. Copper pipes, dully glowing, cut off partway down the wall. Compared to what would have been the parlour and dining room, this kitchen was tiny, more reflective of the lowly status of the person who cooked and cleaned than how much space they might need. The women of this house would toil here and now so do I, writing to reinvent, to cobble together fragments in the pauses between other things. Stitching rejected remnants, making a form of frameless art, like a patchwork quilt.

The previous two paragraphs are stuffed with material metaphors: knitting, weaving, tapestry, embroidery and quilting variously represent kinship, identity, complexity, time, structure and style. In the social sciences, though, often we write about our research as if theories and arguments are buildings. Theories have frameworks and foundations and they need support. Arguments can be constructedshored up by facts and buttressed with a solid line of reasoning. Sometimes they can be shaky and even fall down. But as well as communicating what we mean, metaphors structure our thinking. Or, at least, the metaphors we choose when we write can reveal a great deal about underlying assumptions. The theories-as-buildings metaphor always makes me imagine an enormous wall made of rectangular bricks, orderly and straight, progressing upwards and onwards. The researcher’s job is to climb the scaffolding, find a gap near the top and make a brick to fill it, or to knock a few crumbling bricks out and replace them with others, strong and freshly fired. Or rarely, to grab a spade and start digging a new foundation, because this metaphor doesn’t work like Minecraft: bricks can’t float, unsupported.

Why does this way of thinking about knowledge hold such sway over us? For one thing, it offers a comforting sense of progress and control. Buildings have blueprints; their construction appears to proceed in a predictable fashion; engineers can calculate precisely where the load bearing walls and lintels need to be; construction workers know how to mix the mortar so it won’t crumble. Making buildings is also something that happens in the public sphere; even with houses, the insides only become private when the work is finished and people move in. And though we all know full well that knowledge creation doesn’t actually happen in the controlled and predictable way the metaphor implies, this is the structure that it imposes on our writing: an activity that is orderly, involves rationality over emotion and inhabits the public sphere not the private. Notice that these are a set of characteristics that fit nicely with conventional notions of masculinity.

Needlecraft metaphors offer another way of thinking about the creative and generative practice of writing – and about how we write in relation to particular knowledge claims and communities – that is more about piecing together fragments…

…patchwork from best gowns,
winter woollens, linens, blankets, worked jigsaw
of the memories of braided lives, precious
scraps…(Marge Piercy, ‘Looking at Quilts’, 21)

…of things of varying source and quality (at least, in conventional terms) that wouldn’t necessarily fit together seamlessly in the more structured metaphorical tradition of theories-as-buildings. This essay, for example, was stitched together ‘by squares, by inches’ (Joyce Carol Oates, Celestial Timepiece, 22) from fragments of life writing, books, articles and blogs written by feminist art historians and quilt makers, poetry, references to Aristophanes and Thomas Pynchon, books about linguistics and philosophy, personal experience and belief. And now it forms a single piece.

But why do I regard switching from a metaphor of building to one of stitching as a subversive act? For several reasons. Throughout history, needlework has been a marker of femininity in its various iterations, a means to inculcate it, and something to sneer at as a way of shoring up women’s supposed inferiority. Theodore Roethke described women’s poetry as ‘the embroidering of trivial themes […] running between the boudoir and the alter, stamping a tiny foot against God…’ (165), for example. Women’s naturally nimble fingers were to be occupied; we were to be kept out of the way and out of trouble, shut in the top room of a circular tower and thus prevented from engaging in the masculine pursuits of politics, thinking, reading and writing and making Art (for a fascinating discussion on women, folk art and cultural femicide, I recommend this post by Dr Lucy Allen). The frills and fripperies our needles produced were ample evidence, should anyone require it, that we were frivolous creatures entirely unsuited to public life. Or so the story was. So using needlework metaphors in my academic writing blows a resonant raspberry to that notion, for one thing. But the subversion here is not as straightforward as reclamation, of presenting something usually disparaged as having value after all. Femininity and its inculcation is a displeasingly twisted yarn of benevolence and belittlement. The trick is to unpick the knots without snapping the thread and unravelling the beautiful work, to value that which has been constructed as feminine while at the same time escaping its constricting net.

Imagining academic writing as piecing fragments is one way of recognising that it can integrate all sorts of sources but, more significantly, piecing is also a decentred activity. When quilting, one can plan, cut and stitch many individual squares whenever there is a moment spare, before bringing them together to form the overall pattern, which is flat and in aesthetic terms may have no centre or many centres, and no predetermined start or end. This holds true both for the practice of quilting and how we might think differently about academic writing, with each contribution not a brick in a structured wall but a square ready to stitch onto other squares to make something expected or unexpected, the goal depth and intensity rather than progress (see Mara Witzling). There is sedition here in several senses. This way of imagining how writing works is not individualistic or competitive. Each voice is a thread, and only when they are woven together do they form a whole, as Ann Hamilton’s tapestries represent social collaboration and interconnectedness; many voices not one, cut from the same cloth or different.

But acknowledging that one might have to fit the work of writing around other things, a problem that has occupied me from the moment I became a mother, is a particularly rebellious act, I think. As Adrienne Rich expresses in the poem ‘Transcendental Etude’:

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away 
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away,
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow –
original domestic silk, the finest findings

This way of imagining academic writing as something that is part of life, rather than something apart, challenges the view of the scholar as the extraordinary, solitary genius who sits alone in his study day after day while the minutiae of clothing and food is organised for him, around him, despite him. But with metaphors that emphasise the piecing of fragments, both everyday and exceptional, we recognise a way of working in which every fragment that can be pieced together into a square is ‘the preservation of a woman’s voice’.

Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW. Her current project is a work of creative non-fiction, family fables organised as a collection of short stories narrated from different points of view, fragments stitched together into a multi-layered autoethnogaphic family herstory spanning 100 years.

‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’: A conference on the work of Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’: A conference on the work of Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.

The people who ‘come and go’ in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) are versions of her own friends and family, fictionalised with almost ostentatious thinness. The manuscript of the novel, typed on yellow office paper and held in the Hull History Centre, shows that she originally used her acquaintances’ real names and altered them afterwards in pen. Novel on Yellow Paper is so autobiographical that it poses real analytic and generic dilemmas for readers. Here, as in many of her poems, Smith’s boundary between life-writing and “imaginative” or “fictitious” work is strikingly porous.


The organisers of the first one-day conference on the work of Stevie Smith, held at Jesus College on 11 March 2016, were therefore very grateful for the support of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, recognising the value of considering Smith’s work as ‘life-writing’ as much as ‘fiction’ or ‘poetry’. Over 70 delegates gathered to explore and discuss this well-loved but critically understudied author from a variety of perspectives.

Noreen Masud welcoming delegates to the Stevie Smith conference

Welcoming delegates to the Stevie Smith conference

Many speakers took the opportunity to explore life-writing as a helpful critical lens. Hermione Lee, director of OCLW and editor of Stevie Smith: A Selection, and eminent biographer Frances Spalding, author of Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography, opened the conference with a panel on Smith and life-writing. Lee and Spalding discussed Smith’s short piece ‘The Story of a Story’, a lightly-fictionalised account of Smith’s conflict with friends who were offended by her literary renditions of their lives. The story, itself a piece of life-writing, traces the perils of life-writing as well as its irresistible lure for Smith.

‘Do you think it is immoral to write about people?’
‘No no, it is very difficult.’ (Stevie Smith, ‘The Story of a Story’)

Frances Spalding and Hermione Lee, taking an audience question

Frances Spalding and Hermione Lee, taking an audience question

Throughout the conference, life-writing continued to represent a significant part of the conversation. Often it was practised extempore: several delegates had known Smith in person and were eager to recount and re-interpret their memories of her life. Judith Woolf of the University of York gave a well-received account of interactions she had had with Stevie Smith, during an early panel on Stevie Smith’s ‘voices’. In another paper, Rachel Cooke, award-winning journalist and writer, discussed how Stevie Smith explored ideas about female independence by fictionalising aspects of her life as a spinster.

In an afternoon panel, Rachel Darling of the University of Goldsmiths delivered a paper called ‘Working it Out For Herself: The Writing Subject in Novel on Yellow Paper’.

Rachel Darling delivering her paper

Rachel Darling delivering her paper

Darling noted how Smith positions her protagonist Pompey in Novel on Yellow Paper as a writer, and has her imitate her own writing-process: Pompey remarks in passing, ‘I am typing this book on yellow paper’. Both Pompey and Smith type novels on yellow copy-paper, then, ‘copying’, as Darling suggested, from life. Early criticism of Smith’s work over-simplified the relationship between Smith and Pompey, however, and Darling ultimately concluded that the novel Pompey writes is not itself Novel on Yellow Paper.

In the final academic event of the day, Will May gave the keynote speech on Smith’s ‘untimeliness’. His paper moved between Smith’s offbeat or ‘untimely’ metrical rhythms, her marginal or ‘out-of-time’ position among her contemporaries, and moments in her poetry where events happen at wrong or inopportune times.

Will May delivering the conference keynote

Will May delivering the conference keynote

The conference closed with a performance of ‘River Gods’ in Jesus College Chapel. This piece is a setting of seven of Smith’s poems for viola and spoken voice, composed by Simon Rowland-Jones. Rowland-Jones provided the viola accompaniment as Hermione Lee read some of Smith’s most haunting poems, including ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘The River God’. Listen to a 2011 recording of ‘River Gods’ here.

Stevie Smith has experienced something of a revival in the last two years. ‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’ followed Virago’s reissue of Smith’s novels in 2014, and Will May’s new edition of Smith’s Collected Poems and Drawings in 2015. We hope that this conference will play a part in extending Smith’s own literary afterlife.

This guest post was written by Noreen Masud, DPhil student at the University of Oxford and co-organiser of the Stevie Smith conference. She blogs at Parrots Ate Them All. With thanks to OCLW, Virago, Faber, S H Jones, Manchester University Press, Oxford University Press, Edinburgh University Press, Oxford English Faculty, Oxfordshire History Centre and Blackwells. Photography courtesy of Mr Josey Photography. Poster drawing taken from Not Waving But Drowning © Estate of Stevie Smith and reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.

Art and Action: The Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics – Symposium Report

Art and Action: The Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics – Symposium Report
For a selection of podcasts from the symposium, please visit https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/art-and-action-intersections-literary-celebrity-and-politics


David Hare’s Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture at the Blavatnik School of Government on 3 March, offering a “playwright’s view of dismal conservatism” that turned into a scathing invective against the (Oxford-educated) key players in the current Tory government, was yet another poignant reminder of the distinctly political edge that has always marked performances of the authorial self. It certainly underscored the relevance and timeliness of a one-day symposium dedicated to exploring the complex and multi-layered intersections of literary celebrity and politics, which took place two days later at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Generously supported by the TORCH Celebrity Research Network and the Austrian Science Fund, “Art and Action” joined the debate about writers’ migrations between literature and politics – a phenomenon that is closely tied to the idea of the artist as “hero-explorer”, as the eponymous character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello puts it. In this present ‘Age of the Celebvocate’, such writerly cross-field migrations have become familiar multi-media events that highlight the possible tensions between authorial self-fashioning and media and industry appropriation. They come not without their risks of compromising artistic integrity and sometimes lead to a rather uncomfortable entanglement of the author’s public and private selves caught up between ideals of moral responsibility and marketplace considerations.
These wider debates were addressed by eight thought-provoking papers and a lively roundtable discussion that cast an intriguing spotlight on the interactions of authorship, politics, and celebrity culture in the Anglophone world across historical periods and media. Case studies ranged from the early modern period to the present and covered a broad spectrum of themes, including performances of authorial self-fashioning, the gender, body, and fashion politics of literary celebrity, and the convertibility of ‘celebrity capital’.
Michelle Kelly and Sandra Mayer opened the symposium with a panel that focussed on the celebrity writer’s often uneasy trajectory between aesthetic and political performance. Both papers laid bare the theatricality of such ‘double acts’ in writers’ interventions as public personae and in the fictional worlds they create. Drawing on material from the Coetzee Archive, Michelle Kelly in her talk explored the ways in which J.M. Coetzee’s celebrity status and dedication to animal activism inform his novel Elizabeth Costello and its preoccupation with the body, performance, and theatricality. Frequently interpreted as Coetzee’s fictional avatar, Elizabeth Costello, whose concern with animal death and suffering is a recurring theme in her public lectures, becomes a performing animal in a literary marketplace that expects her to live up to the roles of celebrity novelist and public intellectual. While 21st-century audiences seem to take Coetzee’s conflation of the author’s public and private selves for granted, their Victorian counterparts were puzzled and intrigued by the dual commitment to art and action of author-cum-politicians like Benjamin Disraeli. Looking at ‘fan letters’ among Disraeli’s personal papers in the Bodleian Library, Sandra Mayer demonstrated that his position in the popular imagination was shaped and sustained by a highly ambivalent performance of the self that reconciled political action and creative achievement.

The gendering of authorial fame and its media representations was the theme uniting the second pair of papers by Kate McLoughlin and Matthew Lecznar. The story of Ernest Hemingway’s and Martha Gellhorn’s D-Day dispatches for Collier’s Magazine, presented by Kate McLoughlin, offered captivating insights into the personal and textual rivalry of two high-profile writers for whom the right to write about war was earned through first-hand experience. The magazine’s editorial interventions were aimed at presenting Hemingway as a war hero and provide an illuminating case study of the privileging of an eye-witness account by a male ‘national treasure’ over the report by a female war correspondent. The unsettling (non)visibility of the female body was also a central concern of Matthew Lecznar’s paper on the fashion and body politics of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her dynamic and self-reflexive use of fashion and femininity is played out in a transmedia space of fiction, fashion blogs and TED talks that enables her to engage with a broad range of political issues and disseminate her message across diverse cultural and socio-economic contexts.
Over lunch, the third-floor corridor of the Radcliffe Humanities Building was abuzz with lively conversations before speakers and audience reconvened for the afternoon’s first panel on the “Artist as Propagandist”. Kate De Rycker and Simon Morgan offered compelling historical case studies of how writers in the 16th and 19th centuries respectively made use of their celebrity capital to engage in political activism and persuade the public. Kate De Rycker’s talk on the “Rhetoric of Fame” employed in the ‘paper war’ between the fictional persona of “Martin Marprelate” and the established Church revealed that the social role of English writers in the late 16th century was increasingly affected by the commodification of the writer’s reputation. By availing themselves of strategies that still inform the production and consumption of celebrity today, such as the creation of recognisable public personae, Marprelate and his detractors fashioned a template for new forms of engaging in political debate and mobilising the reading public. The convertibility of celebrity capital was subsequently highlighted by Simon Morgan, whose paper explored the tensions within the transatlantic anti-slavery movement “Between Morality and the Marketplace.” Looking at popular responses to Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s visits to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, it pointed towards the close entanglement of celebrity activism, self-promotion, and commercialisation.
The day’s final pair of papers cast a spotlight on the often symbiotic conflation of literary celebrity and the politics of self-fashioning. Michèle Mendelssohn made a case for reconceptualising Oscar Wilde – often hailed as an exclusively queer icon – as a media professional who, on his 1882 American lecture tour, skilfully harnessed his gender fluidity in order to enhance his celebrity appeal. Authorial self-fashioning as a more overtly political act was addressed by Adam Perchard in his exploration of Salman Rushdie’s self-fashioning as the ‘new Voltaire’. Perchard argued that by placing himself within an invented tradition of eighteenth-century thinkers, Rushdie invokes simplistic East/West binaries in which Western Enlightenment tradition is threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.

At the end of a long day of discussing art and action, the recurring themes of the symposium were revisited in a roundtable featuring Peter McDonald, Caroline Davis, and Olivier Driessens, and chaired by Elleke Boehmer. Reviewing the intersections of authorship, politics, and celebrity from a broad range of theoretical and methodological perspectives, the expert panel launched a general plea for institutional readings of literary production that abstain from fetishising the author as a lone genius and acknowledge his/her embeddedness within a network of agents. Peter McDonald opened the conversation by posing the key question of the day: “Why are we having this discussion and what does it tell us about our culture?” The answer, according to McDonald, lies in the ambivalent status of literature as a form of public discourse uneasily positioned between the histories of thought, entertainment, and taste. Caroline Davis then offered poignant insights into the gatekeeping position of publishers in the process of enabling or inhibiting cross-field migrations between literature and politics. Looking at the ‘repackaging’ of African authors for the UK and US markets, she drew attention to the fine and arbitrary line between literary celebrity status and being completely silenced. Finally, Olivier Driessens reiterated the importance of collaborative efforts for the creation of literary reputations and encouraged scholars to pay attention to institutions of cultural diplomacy, promotional logics, ideologies, and genre, all of which shape the author’s position within the ‘Art Worlds’.

The roundtable statements gave rise to a stimulating discussion that raised some crucial questions about writing and reading as social practices that can never be isolated from their political dimension and impact. Literature, it emerged, must be regarded as a mode of public intervention in its own right, strikingly exemplified by what Peter McDonald referred to as J.M. Coetzee’s “Celebrity of Refusal” – his unwillingness to step out of his medium and play up to the demands of literary celebrity culture. Most importantly, the symposium flagged the interdependence of authorial agency and processes of industry, media, and audience appropriation, pointing towards ways of how we might keep a healthy distance from the seductive pull of the celebrity author.
Sandra Mayer is an Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow (Austrian Science Fund) at the University of Vienna’s English Department and Wolfson College, University of Oxford. She is currently working on a monograph that focuses on the intersections of authorship, literary celebrity, and politics in nineteenth-century Britain. http://www.sandramayer.org/
Conference Website: http://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/art-action-intersections-literary-celebrity-and-politics

‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ – Chair: Lara Feigel, panellists: Santanu Das, Hope Wolf, Kate McLoughlin, Sue Vice

For the last event of Hilary term OCLW hosted a panel on ‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ to launch a special issue of Textual Practice with that same title. Lara Feigel, who chaired the event, introduced the panellists and asked them each to speak for five minutes on the notion of authenticity in war writing.

Kate McLoughlin started, focusing on the relationship between authenticity and intangibility. Her article centres on a collection of letters at the National Army Museum in London written by Lieutenant Edward Teasdale, who sailed to the West Indies in 1806. Teasdale wrote four letters to his mother, but she did not respond until sixteen months after his first letter. McLoughlin is intrigued by the concept of a letter that is desired and anticipated. In Teasdale’s case, the desire and desperation is ‘palpable’, constituting a counter-narrative that, McLoughlin argued, has no textual trace except for the absence itself. In the letters that fail to materialise, McLoughlin found productive readings of phantom narratives that are often neglected. While recognising that authenticating these narratives is difficult, McLoughlin felt they were nevertheless important, and suggested the issue for open discussion.

Hope Wolf considered the connection between authenticity and digital life-writing. Wolf’s article looks at Farah Baker’s tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Baker’s digital contributions have acquired a significant following, and she has been described controversially as the ‘Anne Frank of Palestine’. Wolf discussed the nature of Twitter, asking how trust may be ascertained in such a medium. Wolf argued that the ‘real-time quality’ of the tweets makes swift and scantily edited comments come across as more authentic. There is a prescribed fragmentation, imposed by Twitter itself, which does not lend itself to sustained reflective work. The ‘ordinary voice’ (by implication non-literary) takes precedence. Wolf noted how Baker’s age (she is often referred to as a ‘girl) and her gender both suggest that the value of rhetorical skills and the construction of arguments are discouraged. Since patience is not associated with digital technology, Wolf questioned the implication this medium could have for the authenticity of life-writing more generally.

Sue Vice talked to the audience about (in) authenticity, the question of whom we decide to trust.  Vice described the case of two American creative writing authors who both claimed to be witnesses of war when they were, in fact, writing fictive accounts. Vice is interested in the boundaries of authenticity – does it define reality or the appearance of reality? How can one trace the appearance of authenticity? Lynda La Plante’s Entwined tells the story of twins in a concentration camp. It was discovered that the author had copied part of this account from the archive of Olga Lengyel, which aroused a great deal of suspicion and judgement directed toward La Plante. Vice gave us another example to consider the problems of defining what is ‘authentic’. Judith Kelly wrote a memoir of suffering in a convent in East Sussex during the 1950s called Rock Me Gently. It turned out that some of the descriptions were copied from Hilary Mantel’s novel Fludd. Vice questioned if this revelation compromised the authenticity of what Kelly wrote. If everybody does it, Vice asked the audience, does it matter?

The final panellist was Santanu Das, who spoke about the problem of recounting the South Asian experience of World War I when the life-narratives are scarce, and the problem becomes one of amnesia and absentia. Lacking literary material, Das worked with sound recordings of prisoners of war. These, he argued, raise fundamental impulses in life writing: the sense of being in the presence of ‘the authentic’, the allure of the archival, the need to establish a narrative to document it, and the tendency to image home in terms of food. Das noted that this material made for complex research, for there is a lot to work with, yet none of it has a narrative. He gave us the example of a postcard from a young girl who learned to write in order to be in touch with her father who was at the front. What happens to the authentic, Das asked, if you don’t have a narrative?

The panellists raised diverse and stimulating questions surrounding the concept of authenticity, which encouraged lively discussions among the panel and with the audience. At the end of the event, several issues stood out: a general suspicion of the notion of authenticity; the value of authenticating intangibles (such as feelings, longings, or touch); the problem of narrating/documenting absences; the difference between experience and representation; the dangers inherent in the seductiveness of the archives; and finally, the political problems surrounding authenticity.

Marcus du Sautoy: ‘The life of primes: the biography of a mathematical idea’

OCLW is generally engaged in conversations on literature, history, and art, but for the second Weinrebe lecture the centre welcomed a voice ‘from the other side of the divide’. Marcus du Sautoy’s lecture on the life of prime numbers opened up an entirely different way of thinking about biography. Delivered in a manner that was as enlightening as it was entertaining, du Sautoy breathed life into mathematics in a way that surely left many in his audience wanting to learn more.

Challenging the traditional understanding of mathematics as an impersonal science, du Sautoy explained that his relationship to numbers was, in fact, a personal affair. Consequently, when he decided to write a book about prime numbers, du Sautoy chose to include the men behind the numbers, showing how theories and equations are linked to the people who created them and to the period in history in which these individuals lived. Biography was the means through which du Sautoy brought life into the narrative, re-inserting mathematics into history.

Du Sautoy wanted to tell his audience about the important characters in his life: prime numbers. These form the ‘atoms of his subject’ in his book The Music of the Primes: Why an Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which travels through many generations, primes have a very long life and have thus interacted with many different lives in different epochs. The people connected to these numbers are as important as the numbers themselves. Du Sautoy told us a story that stretched back from the Ancient Greeks to the present day, of men across the ages trying to understand primes. Each grappled with them in different angles, adding new ways of seeing to a process that still absorbs many today.

This delightfully illustrative lecture gave details of many biographical experiences that informed the history of primes. These included the productive intellectual relationship between G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 17th century monk Marin Mersenne who believed he had found the formula to solve the problem of primes, Carl Friedrich Gauss who, in the 19th century, tried to the find overarching patterns to calculate primes, and Bernhard Riemann who transformed prime theory by developing the musical zeta function. The story changed again in the 20th century, when Hugh Montgomery and Freeman Dyson used ideas from quantum physics as models to study primes, starting yet another journey for the life of primes. It is a life that remains very important today, since prime numbers are integral to our contemporary existence, forming the foundations of our banking and internet security. Primes are the keys which protect our electronic secrets.

Du Sautoy concluded by reminding us that math is much more of a creative subject than most people realise, a point his lecture beautifully illustrated. With his vivid examples – like the curious prime-centred life-cycle of the North American cicada that happens to hide underground for 17 years – and his engaging narrative, du Sautoy made the biography of primes come alive for a palpably engaged audience at OCLW.

Julian Barnes: ‘Some of my best friends are biographers’

Author Julian Barnes boasts an impressive resume, and Hermione Lee’s introduction gave what she called a sampling of Barnes’ ‘biographical ingredients’: the author of 22 novels, Booker Prize winner, Francophile, Flaubertophile, and — not least — Leicester City supporter. Barnes began his talk by asking the audience a hypothetical: think about the room you’re to sleep in tonight. How many windows does it have?

He let this question linger in our imaginations as he delved into the broader topic of his talk: the biographizing instinct in all of us, and his own deep ambivalence and suspicion of it. Biography, he said, comes at him from many directions. While he takes pleasure in reading biography, he is also suspicious of that pleasure—as he reads, the thought pops into his head, ‘Are you sure you should be reading this? Shouldn’t you be reading the author’s work instead?’ Barnes pointed to the fact that we are often suspicious after reading a biography as well, in a way that we are not after reading a novel. The novel after reading is still true in what presents, but is the biography? The reader is wracked by doubt: what’s this biography’s angle? What is it leaving out?

Barnes of course has used biography in his own work, including Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). Barnes said that as a child he used to think that a biography could give you all the facts, much like a dictionary could give you all the facts about language. Growing older, however, and having become a lexicographer, he began to see that the things were not so straightforward, and in Flaubert’s Parrot he took a different approach. A simply chronology of Flaubert’s life would not do, for this kind of biography neglected the counterlives Flaubert might have lived. These counterlives—or what might have happened—say more about the hopes, dreams, successes, and fears Flaubert had than anything else; for instance, his wish that he could have burned every copy of Madame Bovary. Yet for Barnes, even these counterlives were unsatisfying, because of their strict binary between what had happened and what had not. He tried again: what about writing Flaubert’s life in metaphors and similes? Barnes offered up a string of delightful phrases: ‘me and my book in my apartment, like a gherkin in its vinegar’; ‘life: like a soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface’.

Flaubert, Barnes told us, had three great favourites: the sea, Shakespeare, and Don Giovanni. Flaubert loved the fact that so little is known about Shakespeare, and Barnes shifted to a discussion of letter-burning: is it justified, and how does it shape how we think about authors? He pointed to the burning of Byron’s memoirs in 1824. Pushkin wrote that the burning was just as well, and why bemoan it? For Pushkin, we know everything we need to know about Byron in his verse, and the desire for his biography is nothing more than a desire to ‘see him on his chamber pot’, to relish the insalubrious details of his life. John Updike has similar thoughts in this vein: there is a strand of biography that ‘reduces celebrities to a set of ailments and antics to which we can feel superior’. Barnes himself leans more towards the side of letter-burning. As he said, ‘the dead have rights too, and those rights are more important than the curiosity of the living’.

Barnes then launched into a list of what he termed ‘Nefarious Biographical Tendencies’, or for short, ‘NBT’. To illustrate his first NBT, he pointed to Radio 3, and what he described as their tendency make music a dramatic episode in a composer’s life. To ascribe such biographical qualities to music diminishes its artistry. Secondly, Barnes impugned the skewing of subordinate lives, what he also described as the ‘two-adjective dismissal’—i.e. in biography, a tangential character being described as ‘witty and compassionate’ and then never mentioned again. He then pointed to the sin of using the past conditional, the ‘Surely they must’ve felt’, rather than ‘we cannot know’, in doing so unfairly projecting onto the mind of the biographical subject. He also spoke of the tendency to locate artistic talent in a single place. For instance, El Greco’s elongated figures have been ascribed to an astigmatism—a point that Barnes showed was not only factually incorrect, but also entirely beside the point. Finally he spoke of the biographer’s tendency to locate creativity in madness, as if the artist takes on the scapegoat of madness so that we don’t have to. Barnes says rather that it is in spite of madness that people can make art, not because of it, citing the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

To avoid these Nefarious Biographical Tendencies, Barnes offered advice for biographers. Most notable of this was the way photographs can stand in for written biography. He talked of his penchant for collecting photographs of famous artists, and among these was Clara Schumann. In the photograph her hands are swollen, evidencing the arthritis that ravaged her hands and her ability to play the piano. Johannes Brahms wrote music that would accommodate her arthritic hands, and this photo of her hands told the story of their love far better than any biography could.

And with this story Barnes returned to the question with which he began his talk. How many windows are in the room where you sleep? Barnes took a poll of the audience. One or two said four, almost none three, and the majority two or one. And this brought Barnes to a story about Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). Walking around McEwan’s house, he realized that many of the personal details from McEwan’s life coincided with the novel’s main character, a neurosurgeon—right down to the peculiar three windowed bedroom. Barnes realized that McEwan had set the novel in his own house.

All of this is not to say that Saturday is autobiographical—rather, Barnes asserts that McEwan uses bits of his life in an objective manner, as fodder for his fiction. And yet, this is the issue for Barnes: now that he knew all of these biographical details that had been mined for McEwan’s fiction, he was distracted in his reading of it, looking for continuities between life and art instead of appreciating the novel in itself. This led Barnes onto describing his fears about his own possible biography. He worries that his life will be reduced to a list of ailments and antics; that the privacy of his close friends will be invaded, and the story of their lives made contingent upon his own. He worries that his biographer will write about him as if the biography is all there is to know. He ended his talk with a final wish for his future biographer: that she or he include in small type, ‘This is not how I was—this is how I look when being biographized.’

Alexander Bubb and Elleke Boehmer, ‘Meeting Without Knowing It: The Intertwined Lives of Rudyard Kipling and W.B. Yeats’

Elleke Boehmer set the scene for this talk by showing us a photograph of William Rothenstein and Abaninadrath Tagore. The two had their first contact in India and through these visual means, Boehmer opened up questions of centre and periphery when discussing the British imperial legacy. The photo, Boehmer told us, showed conform in the domestic home, the Indian poet being welcomed into the interior space of the Rothenstein home. In this sense, the relationship between the two offers a paradigm of understanding that goes against the usual imperial grain to offer a more nuanced understanding of colonial contact.

Alexander Bubb continued this theme of reimagining colonial impact in his talk, ‘Meeting without Knowing It: the Intertwined Lives of Rudyard Kipling and W.B. Yeats’. Bubb began with the issue of centenaries—why are centenaries so popular, and what can they tell us about the subjects they celebrate? Why do we choose births and deaths as moments of commemoration? For Bubb, the fact that Kipling and Yeats were born in the same year offered him an opportunity to re-examine the legacies these two authors left behind, as well as their uniquely intertwined and parallel histories.

As Bubb’s biography demonstrates, Kipling and Yeats were in direct political opposition for much of their careers. Yet the two were pained by the same antithetical influences, and grappling with many of the same problems, albeit in radically different ways. They even found the same patron in W.E. Henley, and in 1890s London they were stylistically, ideologically, and literally proximate. And yet, they never quite met, both on political grounds, or in person. The Boer war was a good example of this proximity at a distance; while Kipling was in favour of it, Yeats, on the other hand, discouraged Irish enlistment. Yet in both these aims, their poetry drew on similar themes of mythology in culture. Bubb explored close-readings of several of Yeats’ and Kipling’s poems to show how reading them in parallel produces echoes across both lives and works—for instance, when Kipling adapts Yeats in ‘Chant-Pagan’, both drawing on nationalist and colonialist discourses in different ways. Despite different political ends, their shared conservatism arose from similar anxieties, and both concerned themselves with what they saw as the corruption of their respective national identities.

Underlying all this was the question of proximity with a distance, which arose again explicitly in the questions asked as Bubb finished. What does it mean to meet without knowing it—to circle around each other obliquely, to come into contact only through print and a shared historical context? What would it have meant if Yeats and Kipling had met, even briefly? (Indeed, there was a point in the project where Bubb was afraid this might have been the case, given their close proximity in London). Bubb represents a new kind of biography that traces individual lives through a shared aesthetic, historical and political context, not unlike the recent biography Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets, by Catherine Adronik. Like the photograph Boehmer began with the talk with, it represents a paradigm that, by going against the traditional grain, promises new directions in biographies of authors.

Alexandra Harris: Weatherland

In a very thoughtprovoking lecture, Alexandra Harris used the framework of her book Weatherland to reflect on the seasonal shape of lives.

She suggested that there are times in the most immersive biographies when the reader can feel the weather through the subject. We live in the weather and the seasons, we change in relation to them. But indexes never refers to seasons or weather. Coleridge, for example, lived a very weathered life, but there is nothing in the index of his biography which would indicate that. Harris suggested that it matters that the seasons are considered in passing rather than as an arc. Shelley, for example, had a relationship with the wind and Turner with the sun. Bacon and Burton had very different relationships to the air. Perhaps you may only be able to tell a little of a life story that way but it may colour the rest. Ruskin, for example, had a passion for the weather and was horrified by what he saw as a new and dreadful climate.

Today, the idea that life is like a progress through the seasons is a cliché and a dead metaphor. But for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it was the central metaphor. It even resonated for Woolf, who had originally planned to structure The Waves around the seasons.

People used to draw relationships between the humours and the seasons. Spring was thought to encourage the blood; Summer, the red bile; Autumn, the black bile or melancholy and Winter, the phlegm. There was thought to be a relationship between the seasons, health and mood. The move away from this way of understanding the body also changed the relationship between people and the seasons. Temperaments could no longer be explained with reference to temperature.

Sometimes, though, it is clear when things are out of season: as in Hardy, or Eliot. Larkin shows what happens when we cannot meet the expectations of a seasons: he has a sense of falling short in Summer. For Keats, time is both still and leaping ahead, and a poem can encompass a whole year.

Milton did not write much in spring or summer. Johnson, though, needed to believe that the rational human mind can rise above these external influences. But he protested too much. He was always telling people seasons don’t matter: but also wanted to work at all times and to be superior to the weather.

Why is it that the seasons and biography don’t sit more comfortably together? In other genres, it is satisfactory: for example, Persuasion, or A Winter’s Tale. Writing about nature and the seasons has been the surprise hit genre of recent years. The writer Tim Dee is following the spring around the world so that he is in continual spring for a year. Perhaps we might reflect on the idea that our seasonal selves have lives of their own: and that our winter selves might be different to our summer selves.

Against Biography: Adam Phillips

In a fascinating contribution to the Weinrebe Lectures, Adam Phillips discussed the work of three thinkers who were suspicious of and hostile to biography.

In his 1836 work Nature, Emerson set out his case against biography. He liked originality, not to interpret through filters. Biography, history and criticism prevent us having an original relationship to the universe. Emerson wants us to be on the road, not too much in the library. He was preoccupied with biography and endlessly debated how the past was being used and how it should be used. History could be a source of freedom, and biography could be about our fundamental possibilities and potential. Emerson wanted to know what the best use we could make of other people’s lives in our own lives, but feared that they gave us tradition but not insight. Emerson was not sure if he wants end to biography or new biography.

For Proust, the tyrannies of past were bound up with biography. Proust biographies, of course, assume that books are fictionalised autobiography. His narrator has a lot to say about the uses and abuses of biographical truth. For example, he suggests than an interest in biography is a consequence of sexual jealousy. The biographical imperative is to find out about the life we hope to possess as though there is no other way to know people except biographically. Proust’s narrator hates his need for the subject of biography and wants to know her to create illusion he is in control. Proust suggests biographical research & writing may save us from entrapment/inertia/paranoia. But biography itself can be entrapment.

Freud believed that biography was the past and psychoanalysis was the future. He believed that there was danger in biography’s claims to truth and effectiveness. Freud was both threatened and obsessed by biography. Contemporaries were interested in ‘pathography’- the uses of illness to explain work. Freud was concerned that psychoanalysis was reductive when applied to great men and didn’t want it misused. Pathography makes individuals the same and reduces them to symptoms. But if pathographers make them worse, biographers idealise them. He saw biographers as fixated on their heroes and that people who read and write biography are people who’ve never grown up. They are addicted to their own pasts in the guise of giving us other people. Freud was threatened by the idea that he might be a subject. He thought that truth telling can only be done by the subject himself through free association.

All three, Emerson, Proust and Freud want us to be suspicious about biography, but ultimately this is very revealing of their own fears and wants.

The podcast will be available shortly.

Ian Bostridge: ‘Schubert’s winter journey: an illustrated talk’ – 21 January 2016

The podcast for this event is available here and his book is available here.

Ian Bostridge’s wonderful lecture and performance of extracts from Winterreise encompassed biography, autobiography and history. Ian began by reflecting on whether his book has influenced the way he sings the work and whether this is a valid or problematic pursuit: should the music speak for itself?

Though Ian’s own first interest was in science, he eventually became a historian, interested in the history of philosophy in science. This was a time in which the personal was not allowed into history: so one of the reasons he became a singer was the licence to talk about himself!

The question of the role of the singer in the performance is also a critical one. Some argue that the singer is there to transcend. The intrusion of the biographical into assessments of the composer are even more difficult: some suggest that biography cannot give deeper insights into the art. Yet as Ted Hughes said ‘as an imaginative writer, my only capital is my own life.’

Schubert formed part of a highly sociable group, who introduced his music to his friends on the guitar. The circle kept up to date with new developments – like the bicycle and the kaleidoscope – and a famous painting has been made idealising their friendship. One friend, Schober, however, has been viewed very critically. Schober took Schubert to the brother where he contracted syphilis: and when Schubert lay dying, he asked Schober to bring him a James Fenimore Cooper novel. He never came.

The Winterreise was originally performed for this group of friends and they disliked it! But it was unpromising material, perhaps: a man wanders off into the snow to pick over his feelings of disappointed love. There is a lack of narrative beyond the narrative of the music itself.

Schubert is the first canonical composer to have made a living without a patron. He lived a bohemian lifestyle and made money but was very insecure. Becoming a musician was still disreputable. His work was written with an awareness of his own prognosis. Schubert has been interpreted as a ‘simple’ composer, but in truth his work has a profound complexity, and a recording of Winterreise does not convey what the music is about: it needs to be embodied.







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