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Centre for Modern European Literature and Culture

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Lectures and seminars 2008-09

Wednesday 1 October 2008: Professor Peter Read (University of Kent), ‘From a Spectre to a Sceptre: Alberto Giacometti and Francis Ponge’.

Focusing on the work of Francis Ponge (1899-1988) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), this paper will set out to reassess the poet’s writings on the sculptor, using  the first complete critical edition of Ponge’s writings on art, published in 2002. Briefly allied with Breton and Surrealism in the early 1930s, Ponge is best known for his 1942 collection of prose poems, Le Parti pris des choses, translated as The Voice of Things or Siding with Things. I will introduce Ponge’s aspirations and achievements before exploring his writing on Giacometti, dating from 1951 onwards, showing how he addresses essential aesthetic and philosophical issues raised by the artist’s work. Ponge also uses the sculptures as rhetorical weapons in his own intellectual jousting with Sartre and Camus: he wittily chips away at Existentialist hegemony in the reception of Giacometti’s work, using poetic ekphrasis as a means to propose a creative, life-affirming and even ludic response to existence that prefigures postmodern conceptions and practice.

Wednesday 8 October 2008: Elaine Morley (University of Kent), ‘The Monster and the Maiden: An Unfinished Portrait: Towards a Reassessment of Iris Murdoch’s and Elias Canetti’s Relationship’

This paper begins by reflecting critically on current representations of Murdoch’s and Canetti’s relationship.  On the evidence of the Murdoch archive (held at Kingston), I argue that Murdoch’s interest in Canetti’s work goes much further than the usual cliché that his allegedly demonic nature provided the inspiration for Murdoch’s villains; her interest in his thought suggests a much subtler side to their relationship, which has remained unexplored until now. Focusing on one aspect of Murdoch’s literary tête-à-tête with Canetti, the paper demonstrates how a web of motifs originating in Masse und Macht, which Murdoch studied and reviewed in 1962, reappear in her novel The Time of the Angels (1965). Her adoption and incorporation of his ideas into her writing form part of an intellectual preoccupation with Canetti’s work which has so far evaded critics’ attention. Not only was Canetti, as a personality, of profound interest to Murdoch; more significantly, he can also be considered a seminal influence on the development of Murdoch’s identity as a novelist and a philosopher.

Wednesday 15 October 2008: Professor Ritchie Robertson (University of Oxford), ‘Jesuits, Jews and Thugs: Myths of Conspiracy and Infiltration from Dickens to Thomas Mann’

Modern myths about dangerous outsiders help to constitute national communities by defining them against an enemy, and at the same time reveal the insecurity that haunts these communities. Outsiders are often imagined as united in a conspiratorial organization which is the stronger for lacking a territorial basis and depending on a combination of powerful wills and rational planning. This lecture discusses the expression of these anxieties in (semi-)popular fiction in English and German between 1868 and 1924. The Jesuits, the Jews, and the Thugs have all been imagined as conspirators. Their fictional portrayal owes much to Eugène Sue’s Le Juif errant (1844-5), widely popular in translation, which includes both an unscrupulous Jesuit and a Thug, and calls the Jesuits ‘the Thugs of Christendom’. Jesuit infiltrators appear in much English fiction, and in German writing of the ‘Kulturkampf’. Suspicious, unplaceable, internationally mobile Jews appear, for instance, in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and Raabe’s Der Hungerpastor (The Hungry Pastor). Thugs, mistakenly imagined as an Indian secret society of ritual murderers, enter fiction in Dickens’s Edwin Drood, representing Imperial anxieties that colonial subjects might take revenge by infiltrating Britain. Such infiltration, sometimes called ‘reverse colonialism’, features in late-nineteenth-century fiction, notably in Dracula, where the threat is displaced to Eastern Europe. German literature also features threats from the East: in Mann’s Death in Venice, cholera comes from Asia, and in The Magic Mountain, Clavdia Chauchat’s sexual allure is Asiatic. The latter novel includes a Jewish Jesuit and an Italian Freemason who in different ways enable Mann to sum up and analyse anxieties about international conspiracies.

Wednesday 22 October 2008: Centre for Modern European Literature Book Launch

Ben Hutchinson (ed.), Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘The Book of Hours’: A New Translation with Commentary, trans. Susan Ranson (Camden House, 2008)
Peter Read, Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory (University of California Press, 2008)
Shane Weller, Literature, Philosophy, Nihilism: The Uncanniest of Guests (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Wednesday 29 October 2008: Dr David Ayers (University of Kent), ‘Art and Philosophy in the Work of Alain Badiou’

The difference between art and philosophy is famously marked in Plato’s Republic. In a gesture subsequently developed mainly in French thought, the later work of Heidegger placed poetic language at the centre of philosophy. Taking Plato and Heidegger as principal points of reference, Alain Badiou’s work has resituated art and poetry as part of a fundamental review of the role of philosophy which can be briefly described as an attempt to develop a modern Platonism resistant to the claims of linguistic or political philosophy, democratic opinion and contemporary ethics. Badiou’s system limits the role of philosophy (in order all the better to protect its function) and confers a kind of relative autonomy on the four ‘generic procedures’ of poetry, mathematics, politics and love. This paper traces the migration of the function of poetry and art as it is repeatedly modified across a series of Badiou’s works, including L’être et l’événement (1988), Conditions (1992), Petit manuel d’inesthétique (1998) and Logiques des mondes (2006).

Wednesday 19 November 2008: Dr Andy Martin (University of Cambridge), ‘Only One Really Serious Philosophical Problem: The Sartre-Camus Dialogue’

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus met for the first time in Paris in the midst of the Second World War. In Simone de Beauvoir’s hotel room they enacted a scene from Huis Clos, in which Camus uttered Sartre’s defining line, ‘Hell is other people’. But he didn’t necessarily agree. A precarious, antagonistic friendship was formed between the two men in which their differences were sharpened and clarified. I argue that the two quite distinct theories that arise out of this encounter constitute a dialogue in which the essential problem of philosophy is defined: the clash of thinking and being. While Sartre argues that ‘I think, therefore I am not’, Camus believes that we can think our way out of this fix to attain full consciousness and convergence with others.

Wednesday 17 December 2008: Dr James Fowler (University of Kent), ‘Prudes, Libertines and Diminishing Returns: Sade’s Justine and Juliette

Sade produced several versions of his prudish heroine’s story, of widely varying length. This talk concentrates on Sade’s final and longest version of the story, La Nouvelle Justine (including Histoire de Juliette). In the early stages of the novel, the adolescent sisters Justine and Juliette, having lost their parents’ protection, are presented with a stark choice: to follow vice or virtue. Juliette will become rich and powerful through prostitution; Justine remains faithful to her ideals of virtue, and as a result lacks money and influence. By the same token she will be systematically abused, tortured and raped until she is struck dead by a thunderbolt, to her sister’s delight. It is usual to read this vast novel as an anti-providentialist, pro-libertine roman à thèse. I propose to demonstrate that such a reading is reductive, for Sade’s libertine characters are subject to a law of diminishing returns from which Justine is protected. The novel thus shows the troubling fascination which the prudish Justine has for the would-be libertine Sade.

Wednesday 4 March 2009: Professor Dirk Oschmann (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena), ‘“Motion is Madness”: How the Idea of Motion Transformed Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics’.

In the eighteenth century the idea of motion became a universal concept. It was set free from the old disciplinary borders of physics and rhetoric, and turned into an absolute value in itself. In physics, motion meant the movement of an object within a certain space; in rhetoric it merely meant the affection of the soul. After 1750, however, the idea of motion was increasingly linked to other concepts, as well: for instance to energy, power, dynamics, and speed. The most important new link, though, is the connection between movement and life, because only what is moving seems to be alive. At the end of the century a second decisive connection is made, namely between mobility and freedom: only what is mobile is free, too. So around 1800 the triad of ‘life–motion–freedom’ was established, a triad that still governs our understanding of modernity as a whole. This process has had strong effects on aesthetics and especially on literature. Authors like Klopstock, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, and the early Romantics not only tried to depict motion – as action – in their literary works, but also strove to develop forms of language that seemed to be moving in order to create what August Wilhelm Schlegel called ‘das in sich selbst bewegliche Kunstwerk’, ‘the self-moving work of art’.

Wednesday 11 March 2009: Professor Jean-Michel Rabaté (University of Pennsylvania), ‘Excessive Form: Is Modernism a Formalism?’

This lecture will re-examine the links between formalism and modernism, especially in the context of a recent ‘return to formalism’. Such links have been pointed out by Fredric Jameson in A Singular Modernity and also in Modernist Papers. In order to find a secure point of departure, I will try to understand the stakes of the Kant-Hegel debate on formalism, especially as it is deployed in Hegel’s reading of Kant, a path explored variously by Derrida, Zizek, and Gasché. Next to this reading of the Critique of Judgment, we will rapidly survey Barthes’s structuralist formalism and his notion of a ‘politics of form’. Barthes’s ‘formalist’ reading of Bataille’s Story of the Eye will lead to a discussion of Bataille’s ‘formless’, a term that has underpinned an art exhibition curated by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Dubois. Finally, I will analyse two canonical modernist writers who have engaged with the ‘politics of form’, Beckett with Murphy  and Gombrowicz with Ferdydurke.

Wednesday 25 March 2009: Dr Charlie Louth (University of Oxford), ‘Rilke, Orpheus and the Adonic’.

Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus (1923) may well be his major work, a claim given some currency by Don Paterson’s recent version of them in English. They are a cycle written in memory of a dancer, and dance forms a major theme within them. More important, though, is the dance they themselves perform as they seek an adequate response to a dancer, an artist who leaves no trace. The way they move, their feet or measures, is essential to the effect they have on us as we read them, and one of their key measures is the adonic, a metrical pattern of / x x / x which the cycle gradually establishes as Orpheus’s signature.

Wednesday 1 April 2009: Fabien Arribert-Narce (University of Kent), ‘Roland Barthes’s Photobiographies: Towards an “Exemption from Meaning”‘.

None of Roland Barthes’s texts could be said to be an autobiography in the traditional sense of the term. However, several of his works clearly manifest an autobiographical character, most notably Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975) and Camera Lucida(1980). While these two books have very different aims, they are both inhabited by photographs. How can this phenomenon be explained? My aim in this paper is to show that, in the 1970s, Barthes conceived an autobiographical project that involved the use of photographs and ‘biographemes’ (which he describes as ‘details’, ‘tastes’, and ‘inflections’). This project was based on a desire to express autobiographical content outside the realm of meaning, through simple designation. In this respect, Japanese Haikaiplayed a major role in his reflexion. Barthes severely criticized traditional autobiographies, describing them as ‘[auto]biochronographies’ and as characterized by chronological linearity and a search for rational explanations of human behaviour. The use of photography gave him an alternative to what he views as a typically Western ‘tyranny’ of meaning and logic. In the first part of this paper, I focus on Barthes’s photobiographical writing, discussing it in the light of Philippe Lejeune’s theory of autobiography in order to demonstrate its radical originality. In the second part, I consider Barthes’s use of handwriting and of other referential and identity signs such as proper nouns. My claim is that these elements play a significant part in the Barthesian photobiographical project evoked above. For example, at the end of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes writes the following under two unreadable graphic signs: ‘Doodling … or the signifier without the signified.’ I want to suggest that he provides us here with a key for understanding the nature of his project, in which writing – graphein – acquires a new dimension.

Monday 11 May 2009: Professor Marjorie Perloff (Stanford University), ‘Phantasmagorias of the Market Place: Citational Poetics in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project
AHRC ‘Beyond Text’ Project: ‘Poetry Beyond Text: Vision, Text, Cognition’ Lecture / Centre for Modern European Literature Distinguished Lecture.

Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project can be understood as a proto-hypertext, a ‘book’ not readable in linear fashion but via links and connections, thus looking ahead to our internet discourse. The Arcades Project is primarily an appropriated text, made up of lists and citations, and yet its use of framing and sampling makes it highly original and personal. It is also a paradigm of a visual text – a kind of prose-poem using small geometrical forms to point the reader in the right direction.

Wednesday 20 May 2009: Dr Thomas Baldwin (University of Kent), ‘The Work of the Spectre in Diderot’s Salons

Diderot was arguably the first major author to write in depth about painting and was the founder of a new literary genre, the Salon. This was developed by later writers including Stendhal, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Zola. Diderot’s writings on art produced between 1759 and 1781 were published in Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire, which numbered the monarchs of Russia, Poland and Sweden, as well as members of the ruling houses of Germany among its readership. They provide invaluable reflections on such matters as the role of imitation, imagination and creativity in works of art and indeed in ekphrastic descriptions of them. This paper examines a number of descriptions of this kind and argues that ‘extreme’ approaches to ekphrasis, which understand the relationship between word and image in terms of linguistic transparency or radical displacement, presence or absence, cannot do justice to the shadowy intricacy and instability – the sheer strangeness – of Diderot’s words about pictures.

Wednesday 27 May 2009: Dr Anna Katharina Schaffner (University of Kent), ‘On Sado-Masochist Paradigms in Kafka’s The Trial’.

Week 29: 5.15 p.m 2009: Dr Will Norman (University of Kent), ‘The Swiss Nabokov: Pastoral Time and the Cold War in Pale Fire and Ada‘.

In this paper I discuss two of Nabokov’s later novels, written after his move from the United States to Switzerland in 1960. Living in a hotel suite in the Swiss Alps, in the1960s Nabokov increasingly identified himself as an apolitical mandarin, a literary games-player indifferent to the tumultuous political events of the decade. In my reading of Pale Fire (1962) and Ada (1969) I examine his persistent engagement with the pastoral in order to uncover the logic of strategic retreat from history into a pure aesthetic temporality. In reading Nabokov against his own ideological grain, it becomes possible to return his novels to history, and situate his Swiss writing at the encounter between the ideals of aesthetic autonomy and the realities of the Cold War.