Wilfred Owen and Beyond, call for papers

Poppies

The Oxford Centre for Life Writing, in partnership with the Western Front Association and the Wilfred Owen Association, is pleased to be hosting a conference to mark the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s death.

Owen’s life was tragically short. Any study of his life is by definition overshadowed by his death and the bitter irony of its timing, at the very end of the war. Unlike some of his lesser discussed contemporaries, such as Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg, Owen’s poetry has been appreciated and analysed by many scholars in previous decades. It remains enduringly popular, and has lost little of its capacity to move and shock its readers. It is taught across the country as part of the National Curriculum, and has become the lens through which we view what, with Owen’s help, has been dubbed the most literary war in history.

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918)

This conference is concerned with Owen’s afterlife. How has his work been received, and how has it changed our view of the war? What effect has his verse had on writers, composers and other intellectuals, and how has Owen himself been portrayed, appropriated and discussed posthumously?

We invite proposals for 20 minute papers on the theme of Wilfred Owen’s legacy. Please send a 250 word abstract and a mini-biography (50-100 words), to Dr Kate Kennedy at oclw@wolfson.ox.ac.uk (all other queries about the conference, including registration of interest in attending, should be sent to vivien@vivienwhelpton.co.uk).

You can find more information on the call for papers, programme, how to register, and venue details on the conference webpage.

The closing date for submissions is Friday 20 October 2017.

Javier Cañada

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Global Lives and Local Perspectives: New Approaches to Tibetan Life Writing. Call for Papers

We invite papers that explore new approaches to the various forms of Tibetan life writing for a two-day workshop to be held at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, on May 12-13, 2017.

The aim of this workshop is to examine Tibet’s rich tradition of biographical writing as documented in Tibetan narrative, poetic, legal and religious literature. Particular attention will be devoted to journals, memoirs, letters, oral testimonies, personal accounts, and ritual inscriptions as expressions of the relationship between the individual and the society, the local and the global, the past and the present, the public and the private.

How and in which ways does life writing shape the public and private identity of the protagonists? What do personal narratives say about the way Tibetans perceived and made sense of the outside world? What role, if any, does life writing play in historical revisionism? Why does Tibet have such an unusually rich tradition of biographical writing and how much creativity was allowed by literary and cultural conservativism? What does material culture say about the life of artists, patrons, and spiritual masters? In addressing these and other questions pertaining to Tibetan life writing, contributors are invited to broach topics including, but not limited to:

  • Issues of Identity Construction, Power Relationships, and History-making Processes in Biographical Writing
  • Factual and Fictional Aspects of Tibetan Life Writing
  • Personal Narratives and Historical Revisionism
  • Perception of the Self and the Other in Biographical Writing
  • Literary Conservatism as a Creative Act
  • Gender Issues
  • Questions of Literary Theory
  • Oral Narratives

Submission

Postgraduates and scholars are encouraged to submit an abstract of up to 500 words (for a 30-minute presentation) together with a short academic CV at lifewriting.wolfson@gmail.com by February 1, 2017.

 

Life-writing and philosophy: call for papers

Life Writing is calling for submissions to a special themed edition on Philosophy and Life Writing, to be guest edited by Christopher Cowley and D. L. Mahieu.

Philosophers have long been interested in the nature of the self and in the meaning and narrative structure of human lives. Many philosophers have themselves written autobiographies. Descartes’s Meditations, Augustine’s Confessions and Rousseau’s Confessions are all frequently cited as early influences on the writing of autobiography. Yet there has been very little direct, theoretical and systematic interest from philosophers in the modern boom in autobiographical writing.

Christopher Cowley recently addressed this gap in his book The Philosophy of Autobiography (University of Chicago Press, 2015). In this special themed edition of Life Writing, he plans to open up further discussion, together with his co-editor, D. L. LeMahieu, an intellectual historian and the author of two books and many articles on British cultural history.

  • Classic philosophic life writing (Augustine, Rousseau, Mill, Sartre etc).
  • How philosophers fashion their life narratives compared to other disciplines.
  • The relationship between subjectivities, truth [?] and philosophic abstractions.
  • The influences of class, gender, race and nation; and the intersections of temporality and life narrative.
  • The role of faith in one’s self-understanding (perhaps with a reference to Kierkegaard).
  • The limits of narrative in the auto/biographical genre (perhaps with reference to Ricoeur).
  • The problem of understanding people in different times and places: historical biographies.
  • Can there be a complete secular biography of a devout religious believer?
  • To what degree should the biographer judge the subject?
  • The balance between luck and self-determination in the biography.
  • How the meaning of a person’s life changes over time: different biographies of the same person.
  • The relative advantages of writing a biography about a living person and a dead person.
  • The place of vanity and humility in autobiography.
  • Internalised oppressive self-conceptions and autobiography.
  • The right of response from those written about in others’ memoirs/autobiographies.
  • Do dying autobiographers have nothing to lose, and therefore are most authentic?
  • Autobiography as revenge and punishment.

Full details on the journal website.

Call for submissions for our new series of guest posts. First up: Paul Murphy on turning points

Nanette here with some exciting news! The OCLW publicity team would like to announce a new series of life-writing guest posts and book reviews, for which we are now accepting submissions. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • Style: a critical style (not necessarily academic), which might include book reviews and explorations of research questions around broader themes within life-writing. We are not opposed to you having fun with your topic and an up-beat humorous tone appropriate to a blog would also be welcome.
  • Word limit: approximately 500-1000 words
  • About you: a brief intro, a link to your own blog/website
  • NB: We reserve the right to accept or reject submissions and we will not submit feedback
  • Updated: Send submissions to the publicity team in an email titled ‘Guest Blog Post Submission’ to our new email address: oclw(at)wolfson.ox.ac.uk
  • We look forward to hearing from you!

To begin, below we have some reflections from Paul Murphy on what it is like to write a biography about a literary hero, and on exploring the feeling of having that hero fall in one’s esteem.

——

I had never been much interested in biography until life intervened. Redundancy. Divorce. Bereavement. I then did feel a need to seek out truths, journey into the past, find myself through others.

I have just completed a book* about Laurie Lee. The 1930s, before, during and after the Spanish Civil War, changed him forever. I first read his memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning as an adolescent.

It tells the tale of a walk made through Spain in 1935 and into the eye of a perfect storm of a civil war. In April 2012 I set out to retrace his journey, to better understand a man who had always been a hero. During the journey, I realized I was also looking for myself, and grieving for a father who had died years before. I came to understand that heroes can have feet of clay and that writers and fathers often lie. 

I recently attended the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Weinrebe Lectures. It was fascinating to listen to Blake Morrison and Richard Holmes discussing the many forms that the “I” can take in Biography: both writers having influenced my book. Despite protests from university tutors and publishers, I had chosen to write my life of Lee in the only way I felt I could, through the prism of my own life experience and my Spanish journey. I open my book by going to a point high above the place where Lee first set foot in Spain and describe his arrival as if it were happening before my very eyes. I then suggest that he looks up at me and our eyes engage.

It is important for me to feel a connection with my biography subject, even if it is a fictional one. It is a two-way process. Alain De Botton wrote of Proust:  ‘A genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes’.

I cannot change Lee through my journey but he has changed me. I need to share a space with my subject even if I cannot redeem the time difference in occupying such a space. The occupying of the same physical space seems to sharpen the senses.

The turning point in my book occurs in Valdepenas. Lee describes it as an oasis of gentility in a harsh desert. I found it run-down and depressing but it is what happened next in Lee’s account that seemed to hit me hard.

Lee had written in his memoir of an encounter with an under-age prostitute in a brothel in this town run by the girl’s grandfather:

The girl’s wandering finger, tipped with precocious cunning, seemed the only thing left in the world, and moved absently about me, loosening knots in my flesh, then tying them up again.

When I first read this passage, I got caught up in the beautiful prose. I  missed what the episode was telling me about Lee as a person.

I had stopped at an old bodega in the town. A perfect place, I imagined, for the siting of a 1930s brothel to sate male needs with a steady supply of young female grape pickers on tap. I rewrote the scene:

He coughs, spits, shuffles across on his board, strong gnarled wrists propelling him along, reaches up high, slips the latch and lets the customers in. Encarnacion lies with Julio, mute but not unresponsive, examining her hands and feet, scratched by the rough vine roots. Round and round goes the wine press mangle, squeezing, crushing, draining the skin, till finally leaving it lifeless, limp, spent.

She goes to Lorenzo, the English boy. It is quick. She likes him for that.

The candle has burned to the stub, the customers have gone, she waits for the scrape on the ground, the pumping of thin, wiry wrists. She waits for him to come for her as she knows he will.

I felt for the first time that I was judging Lee rather than observing him. I had gone from being a detached member of the audience to an active member of the players on stage. It did not feel good.

My journey was motivated by personal loss and grief but driven also by a strong emotional connection and empathy with Lee. Richard Holmes, a great believer of placing the self centre-stage when tracking heroes, says of those whose footsteps we follow in, ‘If you are not in love with them you will not follow them-not very far anyway.’

As a writer, attempting a first biography, I see now that this turning point was critical to my book becoming biography. The ‘girl’s wandering finger’ had shaken me out of a sense of sentimentality that had enveloped me over the years;I saw Lee for the first time as a man of imperfections, a flawed specimen. I had reached a biographical point of no return, moving away from a pre-biographic state to a place from which I could realistically endeavour to identify Hermione Lee’s ‘vivid sense of the person’. In the words of Richard Holmes I had arrived at ‘the moment of personal disillusion, the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation’. 

I have created a very personal portrait of Lee and accept the possible charge of unreliable narrator. Yet is not most biography the sum product of subjective third party narration? Blake Morrison confessed that he almost called his seminal book As If, on the James Bulger 1993 murder case, The Worst Thing I Ever Did. In an attempt to bring perspective to the actions of the perpetrators, he had taken us into the complex mind of an average young heterosexual boy’s mind, his own. He was charged with the sin of making the story about himself.

I have taken a risk too, in placing myself at the centre of my narrative alongside Lee, and have trusted in my ability to speak to, and perhaps for, a generation of smitten Lee followers.

 

Works Cited:

  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.
  • Hermione Lee, Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing
  • Alain De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life. 

*As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee. Publication date June 14 www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk

Laurie Lee Centenary www.laurielee.org

Paul Murphy Blog: www.thelittlesummerofthequince.wordpress.com