Monday, 9 July 2007

Reluctant Shrunken Head Fame: An evening at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Aided by a delightfully old-fashioned projector, Michael O’Hanlon talked to members of the Oxford University Research Staff Society about the history of the Pitt Rivers museum, and especially about the man himself. An A to Z of achievements and obsessions of a man with, shall we say, diplomatically, strong views.

“Damn it woman, you shall burn!”, exclaimed the good general, in reference to the mode of his wife’s burial. Their marriage was seemingly a passionate one, severely affected by monetary concerns. And occasionally the lack of rice pudding.

Having been charged with testing fire arms in the early stages of his military career, Pitt Rivers (a name Augustus Henry Lane Fox only took upon inheriting an estate) became fascinated with the progressive development of rifles, and objects in general. A crude stick could be seen to have developed with human usage into all kinds of tools. And so Pitt Rivers started collecting items ranging from boomerangs to erotica (“objects of a certain, quite private character”), taking special care to also find every day items. “The thing itself” became the motto and purpose; artefacts as evidence and the collections of them filling an important and even counter-revolutionary function in Pitt Rivers’ philosophy.

Possibly the originator of the term typology, Pitt Rivers strongly believed in type of artefact as the organising principle for his collections; this principle was one of his main criteria for setting up a museum. His plans were turned down by the Kensington museum and Cambridge university – after he himself had rejected the British Museum as a location. It seemed to him to resemble an attic – ironic given the attic-like feel of the current museum. Oxford University agreed to Pitt Rivers’ terms, built an annex to the already existing University Museum and started filling it with a never-ending and growing amount of…stuff.

Rows inevitably ensued and Pitt Rivers, by this time disillusioned with the Oxford project, in possession of the inherited estate and considerable funds, built a second museum on his grounds. In order to attract crowds he supplemented his museum with a hotel and a “visitor’s complex”, complete with events such as cycle competitions. A modern idea if anything.

Artefacts as objects of study fell out of fashion, as anthropologists took to travelling and living among the peoples they studies. The typological organisation principle also fell out of fashion and until the new annex (where the lecture was held) the Pitt Rivers museum, bound by the general’s will not to change much, hardly had toilets.

Saved by a tradition of failure, however, the museum survived long enough to become historical in its own right. Objects became fashionable again, and new technology allows for interaction, international research and education. Suddenly the Pitt Rivers museum is the place to be. The new annex has toilets and the visitor can enjoy the architecture and delightfully cluttered feel of a museum which is brim-full of… stuff.

Monday, 12 February 2007

El Laberinto del Fauno

...known to English audiences as Pan's Labyrinth.

Actually, I don't really know how to write about it. I feel as though I should see it again, at least five times more, in order to get my head around its brilliance and do it justice. In fact, when I have bought the DVD I will do just that, and write a proper paper. Or a book! Right now my head is still spinning, trying to make all the connections which make up the complex whole of the film. Out of the darkness it presents is born hope, not only within the tale, but hope for our culture, for film making. I honestly didn’t think that this kind of film was still made.

Mark Kermode, on BBC radio, went on a long rant when he first reviewed the film - and has kept on doing so whenever it is mentioned. It was, in fact, his overly appreciative ranting that propelled me in the direction of the cinema... as soon as the film opened here in Sweden, many weeks after England. Anyway, the rants were justified. Justified rants, there's a concept. And this is mine.

It is beautiful, magic, cruel, sad, enthralling, challenging and so... for lack of better phrasing - full. Surrounded by vacuous entertainment, this is a work of art which cannot even be grasped fully on a first viewing. It is everything a film can, and therefore should, be. Taking the medium to its full potential with image, movement and sound interacting with a complex narrative to create a web of symbolical significance, Pan’s Labyrinth tells its stories on all possible levels. Partly a cruel depiction of a 1944 Spain in the midst fascist oppression and resistance and partly the tale of the magic world found by young Ofelia, the film intertwines the two worlds in such a way that there is always reverberation between them. It is a tale, on all levels, of the trials that we are put through, of resisting evil, of holding on to beliefs and of choices. But it is no simple allegorical representation of good conquering evil; every aspect of the plot is incredibly complex, reminding us – in the middle of what looks just like a fairy tale – that life is not a fairy tale. Or perhaps, that life is like a fairy tale: a dark one. The subtle interaction between the worlds yields the perfectly executed tension between possible readings of the magic understanding Ofelia gets of the world. Completely separate at first, the two worlds slowly and gradually converge.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a tour de force of plotting and cinematography. Its complex content, the challenges it poses, the stories it tells are presented through intricate developments in the narrative and by utilising all that cinema can offer in terms of sound and images. Plot elements are linked through metaphorical and metonymical suggestion in a multitude of ways and eventually it all emerges as a mind-boggling whole. Whether you decides to focus on the content or the form, this film will keep you occupied. A spectacular work of art. A true masterpiece. The best film I have seen for a long time, if not ever.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

My first reading of James' novella was already tinted by the old question - ghosts? madness? - as I had been made aware of the presence of this ‘crux’. In a way I wish this had not been the case, as it meant that I spent far too much energy on looking for clues to what was ‘really’ going on and not enough on enjoying the story. I cannot even recall being scared, and only very perplexed and bothered by the end. ‘That was it? Actually - what?’ After that I read it again and again, engaged with some of the criticism and wrote a dissertation on it. My own responses developed over the years and perhaps they will never quite settle. Ghosts... Madness..? Both. Neither? Something else?

When it was published, The Turn of the Screw was hailed as a ghost story, indeed as ‘the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature’ (by a reviewer in the Independent 1899). Whether evil or just very good, the supernatural side was not debated until Edmund Wilson argued that there might be a different explanation to the events; that the governess, as Wilson famously put it, is ‘a neurotic case of sex repression’. Enter the debate that has made James' novella the most hotly contested work of fiction in modern times. After many years of critics attempting to prove that one or the other side was, in fact, the right one, the interest started shifting to the debate itself and to the fact that it is obviously impossible to ‘prove’ at all. Structuralistically informed studies, which showed just how carefully James had crafted his ambiguity, followed until it could be said that yes, the story is entirely ambiguous - we simply cannot know.

James, undoubtedly, giggled in his grave. The intellectual games he liked to play certainly had everyone going.

Accepting that we cannot know whether there are ghosts (ontological status of ghosts, anyone?) or whether our unreliable narrator is delusional (or plain evil and lying?) or whether in fact Mrs Grose is the villain of the piece (argued in all serious tongue in cheek by one critic), we are still holding in our hands a story which moves and engages and wants to tell us something. I am inclined to leave the, as it were, ontological status of the ghosts aside. This is a story of haunting, it is a story about a woman who sees ghosts - and whether they are ‘actually’ there or is somehow beside the point. My reading of the story below could no doubt be challenged, as every reading of 'The Turn of the Screw' invariably is.

If we feel the need to employ one or the other stances the story becomes either a tale of a young woman battling against evil spirits, and ultimately unable to save one of her charges from death - or a tale of a madwoman who herself is the scariest spirit in the house, directly or indirectly responsible for the death of Miles. It is interesting to note that the prologue reveals that whichever ‘actually’ is the case, the young woman continued to work as a governess after the events at Bly. The death of Miles is a pivotal point for the story, no less because it happens in the final sentence of the novella. Up until that point the presences of the ghosts are scary, but essentially harmless. When Miles dies, however, we really need to start asking what killed him. Did Quint take his spirit? Did he die of shock? Did his governess kill him? To whom - Quint or the governess - are the famous words directed?

An interesting, and for me the best possible, interpretation was suggested by Ben Bolts subtly wonderful adaptation of the story (TV-production, 1999). The pivotal moment of Peter Quints final appearance is cleverly filmed in such a way that we do no know whether Miles can actually see him or not (he is spinning around and being shaken by the governess) and the famous line ‘Peter Quint – you devil!’ is pronounced with just enough of a pause in the middle that the emphasis is lost, and with it the clue to whom Miles is addressing, Quint or the governess. When Miles has said Peter Quints name the governess hugs him in relief and in the apparent belief that this has ‘exorcised’ the evil spirit. In her frantic relief, however, she hugs him too hard, and too long. There is the faintest little crack on the soundtrack which suggests that Miles’ neck is broken by the embrace and he dies as Quint fades out. The final two sentences of the story actually supports this reading: ‘I caught him, yes, I held him – it may be imagined with what passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.’ (my emphases).

The film suggests that there is no ambiguity in the cause of Miles’ death, he is quite simply choked by a passionate embrace lasting a good minute, nor is there any ambiguity about the governesses motives: it was an accident. The interesting point to be made is that this reading supports both sides equally in that it effectively declines to ‘pick a side’: the governess accidentally kills Miles because she sees a ghost. Whether the ghost actually ‘existed’ in ontological terms is entirely irrelevant. ‘The Turn of the Screw’, in this kind of reading, is a story about the tragic effects of being haunted, about letting one’s ghosts (quite literally) rule one’s life.

So what are the ghosts there for then? In my first reading, so affected by too much information, the ghosts had little power to frighten me. I do, however, remember being rather disturbed by the behaviour of the children, especially Miles. The eeriness of Miles’ ‘grown-up’ behaviour, his way of speaking and the mystery of what had happened at his school seemed scarier than ghosts appearing on the stairs. What on earth was going on there? The governess also focuses on Miles as the key to the mystery, but is unable to get a clear picture. Are the children, then, merely mysterious to their governess because she herself is crazy and unable to understand them? Or are they possessed?

In the prologue, which is quite important for the ambiguity of the piece, the interest for the story about to be told is focused around the fact that the ‘visitations’ have fallen upon children. It is this which gives the story it's ‘turn of the screw’. The prologue displaces the story within a complex web of narrators, while also providing key information of its frame. A first-person narrator tells of the evening when a guest at his house, Douglas, reads a document written some time after the events it narrates and 20 years previous to its reading. This document is then given to the first-person narrator, which he transcribes, prefaces with the prologue narrative and publishes to form the text which we are reading. The circumstances surrounding the story, as well as comments made about the character of the governess, all come from Douglas, who, it transpires, got them from her. The fact that he appears to have been in love with her puts his character judgment in question. Even before the story proper commences, we are presented with a narrative complexity which points to the unreliability of narrators invested in their own tales. It also tells us that the horror of it pertains to the children.

The governess, who is the only one - for all we know - who sees the ghosts, is obsessed with proving that the children not only also see them, but are influenced by them. Trying to make Miles and Flora confess that this is the case increasingly appears to her to be the only way to exorcise the evil spirits. As has been pointed out by many critics, there is little logic proving that this would be the case - showing that the governess, regardless of motive, operates from ideas which are her own and not always supported by fact. However, the question of influence does seem to be the crux here. The ‘spirits’ (in more senses than one) of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel linger over Bly. In every word and act the children display the influence exercised over them by the ‘corrupted’ pair while they were still alive. The fact that Miles has been dismissed from his school for ‘saying things’ does, of course, mean that he has learnt to say bad things, or had bad experiences to tell of, somewhere.

In this sense, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a tale of corrupted childhood a tale which dramatises the lingering of the ‘spirits’ by allowing them to become menacing presences. It is a tale of salvation, of a young woman trying to 'save' the children and giving them an education, but she is haunted by the evil and ultimately lets it control the situation. It is in this sense that she fails, and her failure has dire consequences. To our horror we do not know why she fails or indeed the nature of the evil which she faces; indeed, here lies the power of the tale.

Henry James, in his preface to the story, lamented the loss of the effective ghost story amid new types of ‘psychical cases’ which had been ‘washed clean’ of the supernatural and stated as his project to mystify and frighten. In a famous line he speaks of his novella as ‘a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught’, a statement which, along with the rest of the preface has only fuelled the ‘ghost or madness’-debate. It is, however, also a statement within his main argument: that by placing the events of the story within a web of subjective experience, with ghosts seemingly, but not conclusively, invested with agency the evil is only ever inferred. By the characters within the story, but more importantly by the reader of it. ‘Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications’, says James, and the debate about its ‘actual’ meaning is evidence of just how capable of inspiring reader involvement this novella is.

The supernatural, the gothic, the fantastic in general is often used to deal with the ‘darker’ aspects of human nature and our experience of it. Describing fear, as well as inducing it in the reader, allows for a representation of repressed horrors which perhaps would have been ‘weaker’, as James puts it, if specified within a framework of psychological realism. What did Quint and Miss Jessel do to the children? What did they see? We have to fill in the blanks, taking our cue from a petrified and disturbed narrator, unable to deal with the effects of acts which haunt Bly.
What actually happened? Well, what do you think happened?

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

I suppose it's all a matter of perception really - what you see depends on what you think you're seeing. And anyway, how can we tell if what we're seeing is real? Reality seems to go out the window when perception comes in the door. And, if it comes right down to it, how do we know there’s such a thing as reality?

Thus muses Isobel, the 'alpha and omega of narrators', in Atkinson's 1997 novel Human Croquet. It is a challenging story about life, how we know what we think we know and what actually might be going on around us.
It is a metafictional exploration of epistemological investigation with an unreliable narrator. It is also side-splittingly funny.

Beginning and ending with a wood that covers the planet, trees continue to be essential to the plot in more ways than one. Isobel and her brother Charles grow up with missing parents, under the care of their inept and unloving aunt Vinny, and even when their father returns with a new wife in tow the sense that something is missing cannot be escaped. Isobel's first-person narrative, starting on her 16th birthday, is interrupted by the third-person narrative of her parent's life and her own childhood. As well as the odd time-jump. The ancestral family history in the beginning is given depth in the end by providing a first-person account from the first lady Fairfax; the mystery that is Isobel's mother is revealed as we are ultimately told her story.
As is so often the case with Atkinson, storytelling is at the core of the novel and all is, of course, story. It's driving force is a mystery-filled plot, with loose elements lying about like debris in an abandoned attic, waiting to be reassembled into order. Who killed Eliza? Where did the dog come from? Why does Mr Primrose wear make-up? Why does Debbie fill the kitchen with mince pies? And who stole the shoe? At the final page it has come together, in shocking, tragic, comical and moving ways. The difficult issues addressed by the text are dealt with in spite of themselves, almost hidden within the force of the narrative.

Imagine meeting Shakespeare! But then what would you say to him? What would you do with him? You could hardly take him around the shops. (Or maybe you could.) 'Have sex', Carmen says...

By the time Isobel does meet Shakespeare for an erotic encounter it doesn't matter that the first conversation was part of Isobel's coma and the meeting with the Bard but a dream. Dreams, hallucinations, memories - sanity and reality are slippery concepts. As reading is a kind of dream, cued by the text, the memory of it becomes a 'fictitious' one. How do we know what is real? Perhaps by trying to focus on what is true. And following Shakespeare, a constant intertextual source of wisdom.

So, is this magical realism? Or psychological realism? Or fantasy? Does it matter? To Isobel it does not. To Atkinson probably even less. By the end of her story we know that it is a story, we also know that the truth is embedded somewhere within the stories that make up our lives.