Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance.  By Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, January 2010.  Cloth: ISBN 978-0199574025, $99. 340 pages.

Review by Scott Hendrix, Carroll University, Wisconsin

 Samuel Cohn’s mastery of the history of Renaissance Italy shines through in his latest work focusing on responses to plague—primarily during the years from 1575 to 1578—on the Italian peninsula. This is Cohn’s third book dealing with plague and disease in the West, drawing even more heavily on the social history that informs much of his earlier work than in his past considerations such as The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. In the process not only does he deliver a tremendously nuanced account of the impact of plague in Italy, but he certainly puts to rest the idea promoted by scholars such as E. La Croix that from “its first appearances in 1348, writing on plague was caged within intellectual systems devised in antiquity (principally Aristotle and Galen) and modified by Arabic physicians, philosophers, and commentators” remaining more or less fixed until the end of the sixteenth century or later (2).  Such a view is rooted in a larger conception of the intellectual stagnation presumably found in pre-modern scientific writings, giving Cohn’s effective demonstration of the vitality and evolving nature of medical writing in the sixteenth century importance beyond the realm of the history of medicine.
One thing that should be noted is that Cohn writes here of “plague,” not just the Black Death that has occupied so much of his work in the past. This is important, for his concern is with the way that epidemic conditions affected the culture and medical thinking on the Italian peninsula during the sixteenth century. Therefore, the precise nature of the illness—or the concatenation of illnesses—that made up these conditions is of little importance to the story that Cohn tells. This point is not immediately obvious, for he spends chapter two raising questions about whether or not the Black Death can be identified with the bubonic plague and the various terms referring to specific plague symptoms used in medieval and Renaissance writings. This chapter seems oddly out of place for someone who is primarily a social historian and the arguments, even if they do manage to cast doubt on the precise nature of the illness that first struck Europe in the 1345, seem tired and shopworn. However, the importance of this discussion becomes clear when the reader moves onto to chapters six through eight, “Plague Disputes, Challenges of the Universals,”  “Plague and Poverty,” and “Towards a New Public Health Consciousness in Medicine,” respectively. Through close attention to both narrative primary sources and the slender statistical data available for the period, Cohn is able to demonstrate that while prior to 1400 the plague seemed democratic in its effects, later visitations of illness in Italian cities were clearly most devastating in areas inhabited by the poor. The reason why seems clearly to be tied to the greater filth and crowding found in these areas, but the most significant factor seems to have been contaminated water supplies suggesting that diseases such as cholera and dysentery were the primary killers in the plague of 1575-78, even if Cohn does not name these illnesses.
However, Cohn’s two most important insights in this study deal with the nature of responses to plague. First of all, the rising importance of vernacular literature caused by increasing literacy among urban dwellers can be seen in Renaissance approaches to illness. When town dwellers in Italy began to die in large numbers after 1575 writers of plague literature emerged from a variety of societal ranks, from cobblers to bishops, to express themselves about the illness that preyed upon them. While the more educated among them made reference to authorities such as Aristotle and Galen, none seemed predisposed to either bow before the authority of medical professionals or to succumb to feelings of depression and fear in the face of wide-spread epidemic, as has been suggested by earlier historians such as Lynn Thorndike. Instead, writing in a variety of forms, from narratives such as that of the Venetian notary Rocco Benedetti’s Raguaglio minutissimo del successo della peste di Venetia (1577) to the epic plague poems clustering in Verona celebrating the overcoming of or liberation from illness, individuals with direct experience of the plague provided advice and statistics while discussing causes, all within a general framework of optimism.
Secondly, Cohn illustrates that medical professionals shifted their approach from one that focused on individual patients to a more general consideration of public health concerns. While remedies and discussions of causality that sound odd to modern readers abound in the medical literature of the period, so too do entirely rational discussions of the usefulness of boiling water, personal hygiene, and the link between proper diet and health. This shift made physicians the natural allies of governmental and church officials who put the ideas of these health professionals to work by providing food to the poor—due to a recognition of the relationships between poor nutrition and illness (210)—and cleaner conditions, as well as better education about how to avoid illness. While these Renaissance efforts may have been of limited effectiveness, Cohn’s account makes clear that this was due more to the limited resources at the disposal of pre-modern government and Church officials than to inherent ignorance on their part. Furthermore, the need for coordinated efforts in the face of plague led to increasing competence and reach on the part of both Italian regional governments and the institutions of the Church.
Cohn’s study does leave importance questions unanswered. For example, while he provides numerous charts showing the number of sixteenth-century works dealing with plague and the geographic distribution of authors and points of publication, he provides almost no information on who read these works or how they were read. Relying as he does on the very valuable Edit 16, the census documenting Italian books printed during the sixteenth century, this is understandable and should not be seen as a flaw in his study. However, the impact of the various works Cohn refers to cannot be fully known through a barebones recitation of publication information. For that, an analysis of copies of the texts themselves, including information such as that drawn from marginalia left by readers, would be necessary. Such an approach might make for an interesting future study, but for the present Cohn’s Cultures of Plague provides an intriguing and deeply insightful analysis of the effects of plague on the Italian peninsula during the late Renaissance.

Old Tales/Modern Tellings: Early Medieval Revenants in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Article by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University
The retelling of old tales is not simple reiteration. The old tales come instead in variations, which are “repetition with a difference” (Derrida). Modern science fiction and fantasy tales take advantage of older stories to add vividness and verisimilitude through allusions and borrowings. These revenants of earlier stories allow for a single reference to bring to mind a cornucopia of ideas, symbols, and themes already attached to the medieval text. This only happens, however, if the audience of the work has the frame of reference to recognize the stories and their implications; thus the existence of early medieval revenants implies a cultural literacy much more widespread than many academics perceive.
Fantasy frequently takes advantage of the allusion aspects of retelling by setting the story in medieval or seemingly medieval ages (Goodrich 165). Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon series does this. So does William Goldman’s book and its movie adaptation The Princess Bride. More recently J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has medievalisms within it, as the school is in a castle, and hearkens back to the medieval bestiaries with its collection of unusual pets.
This purposeful medievalism is not the end of the revenants in speculative fiction however. Instead, there are a plethora of textual referents with the most popular medieval revenants involving Arthur, Merlin, and other characters from the Arthurian tales. These, in fact, are so popular that there is a website which deals only with Arthur reinterpretations in comics (Arthur of the Comics Project Blog). Because the Arthurian tradition in science fiction and fantasy is so strong, I am going to ignore it completely. Otherwise you would be reading for hours just for a list of the works involving Arthur in modern popular fiction.
Instead, what I would like to point out is the popularity of ancient stories, which originally appeared in or were primarily popular in Old and Middle English, which have survived and been reintroduced into popular literature. According to Fradenburg, there appears to be a “vast popular knowledge” of medieval works (209), so that even with a non-Arthurian limitation, there are still myriads of texts that refer to earlier English-language literature, perhaps many of which I have not yet read or recognized. The ones I will point out, however, indicate that cultural literacy in the stories of the Western canon remains fairly high, at least among those writing and reading in the speculative fiction genres.
Cultural literacy must be strong within this audience because what use would a reference be if the referent were unintelligible to the readers? True, an archaic reference might add some prideful shine to a story for the author, but it would add nothing to the audience’s experience of the tale. Stories with failed references are usually failed stories. Thus, the fact that these revenants exist in popular literature attests to the continued resonance of these earlier stories in our culture, however they may have been transferred. Some, D’Arcens for example, even argue for a strong resurgence in medievalism, both in academia and in popular culture indicating a growing cultural literacy in terms of medieval history and texts (81).
Beowulf is a popular early source for speculative fiction borrowings. The use of Beowulf in modern science fiction and fantasy tales includes quotes from the poem itself, quotes in Old English, a character identified as Grendel whose story includes a historical discussion of the poem, and nomenclature from the epic. All of the authors discussed, while not mainstream, are successful science fiction and fantasy authors with multiple series in print; they include Christopher Stasheff; Patricia Briggs; Larry Niven, Steven Barnes, and Jerry Pournelle; David Weber; and Eric Flint.
In his book The Oathbound Wizard Christopher Stasheff uses quotes from Beowulf as an incantation for magical conjuring. The main character, Matt, a modern graduate student transported to a parallel and medieval universe, begins to quote from Beowulf during a battle. In this world poetry can be wielded by wizards to create those persons and events described in the poem. Matt invokes Grendel to stop a sorcerer’s magic and after putting Grendel to good use in defeating the sorcerer’s army, sends Grendel away, not to die, but to remain at home, with a slight change in the verse. When the others in Matt’s party asked how he managed to stop the evil warriors, he says, “That’s an old story… and a reasonably long one” (193).
Then he proceeds to tell it to them, though the lines he uses to start the story telling are not poetic, since he does not wish to invoke the horror once again, but a fairy tale beginning: “Once long ago and very far away, a hero named Hrothgar built him a hall, hight Heorot” (193). To this point Grendel had been the invocation, but the tale, as told off page, caused the troupe’s eyes to widen as they “listened to the wondrous tale of the hero Beowulf” (193). By telling the tale of Beowulf, Matt moves the focus away from his recent amazing actions and onto a more traditional warrior hero. Perhaps one would expect such repurposed tale-telling on Stasheff’s part, since he is a literature professor (Her Majesty’s Wizard 343), but as a literature professor one would also expect that he would understand the limitations of his audience’s knowledge of the work, and yet he invokes the fierce monstrousness of Grendel with no revealed explication. The characters in the book hear the story but the readers are expected to already know it.
In her presentation of the Beowulf legend, the next author not only references the Beowulf poem, but offers an explication for the transformation of the Beowulf story from the true tale she relates to the literary epic we recognize today. She is not a literature professor, but studied history in college (Mike Briggs).
Patricia Briggs, in her Alpha and Omega werewolf series, references Grendel as background for the development of the mysterious werewolf leader, giving him a point of origin which is far more real and geographically located than others of his age.
In the book Cry Wolf, Bran, the Alpha werewolf of the North American continent, is trapped by a witch. During this horrible experience the readers are informed that this has happened to Bran before. Centuries earlier his witch-mother had him Changed into a werewolf. After his Change, he lived for years under her thumb and then, when he was able to break free and kill her, he went berserk. For decades, perhaps centuries, Bran as Grendel ravaged the area where he lived, destroying all humans who ventured into his forest. Then, in a slightly Monty Python-esque way, he got better and walked away from his aspect as Grendel in the form of a Welsh bard. In Briggs’s work there is no Beowulf, unless, in a not-yet-released publication, this hero turns out to be Bran’s, and thus Grendel’s, son, who is the one who helped Bran tame the “darkness within.”
Unlike Stasheff’s references to the poem, which are translations, Briggs uses an Old English quote to reference Grendel, “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfaeger,” but translates it when a character reasonably asks for its meaning. This is the only use of Old English in the series to date, yet its inclusion argues in favor of cultural literacy in that the language itself is one rarely studied outside of academic circles. In fact the use of the Old English, a visibly foreign language, requires that the readers understand something that my students have trouble with; Old English is not what Shakespeare spoke.
This common misunderstanding of what is meant by Old English will most likely change soon, because Mel Gibson is making a Viking movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which is being scripted in Old English and Old Norse (Faraci).
In her novel Briggs describes the changes between her tale and the epic poem by saying that the tale was a compilation; “Grendel owed something to Bran’s time as a beserker, as he did to other stories handed down over the centuries” (Cry Wolf 263). This explanation of why her story differs from the epic poem is a way of arguing for authenticity, which, in a fictional work, is seriously questionable anyway.
Another argument in favor of Beowulf being well-known within American culture comes from an unlikely trio of authors, Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes. Niven was a mathematician before becoming a writer. Pournelle has two Ph. D.s, one in psychology and the other in political science (Reisner). Barnes dropped out of college, with an uncompleted degree in communication arts (Govan).
These three men have a space odyssey, Legacy of Heorot, whch begins with a reference to Hrothgar’s hall in the title and progresses through a metamorphoses of alien life out of their watery home and onto land, becoming carnivorous grendels. The sequel specifically references the Old English poem with its title of Beowulf’s Children and a character in the book is Old Grendel, a mother and one of the carnivorous native life forms which is intelligent and eventually makes contact with the human aliens of the planet.
In David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, Beowulf is a planet, home of the most skilled geneticists in the human universe, and Grendel is the capital city. However, in the co-authored book Torch of Freedom the names also come into play as the characters of the poem. After it is discovered that the planet Beowulf is the target of a planned takeover, a character says, “you're going to see the rage of Beowulf unleashed in the universe” because the people of Beowulf will “finally take down Grendel,” and the response will be immediate “once they learn the monster has a mother after all” (Weber and Flint, chapter 63). In this novel, the genetically manipulative slavers are transformed into Grendel and the secretive cabal, which plans to take over the universe for the genetic purity of all and is the ruling force behind the slavers, is revealed as Grendel’s mother.
In this work we again find non-literature majors wielding Old English tales with a flourish. The authors are Eric Flint who had three years in a Ph. D. program in history before he quit (Flint) and David Weber who owned and operated a PR firm (“About”).
Most of these speculative fiction authors were not English literature specialists, yet their work hearkens very specifically to an Old English tale whose popularity re-emerged with Tolkien’s 1937 article, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” They reference the poem without retelling the story, assuming that readers will understand the reference. This assumption indicates an expectation of cultural literacy at least in knowing the broad outlines of the tale of Beowulf.
Though Beowulf is a major literary poem which is frequently referenced in science fiction and fantasy literature, there are other early revenants, even Old English revenants.
For example, in one of the 1634 series, Eric Flint, with his coauthor Virginia DeMarce, references Judith. In this section of The Ram Rebellion there is the tale of a woman taken unwillingly into a sexual relationship and her willingness to kill the man who forced her into this situation. The text specifically identifies this female character with “Judith with the head of Holofernes” (691). (I recognize that this is possibly a misidentification of the deuterocanonical book of Judith and there is some justification for that argument, since the Judith of the story offers to pierce his brain with a spike, which is what Jael did to Sisera in the Old Testament book of Judges (4). In that case, this is an argument against biblical literacy since the two stories are conflated.)
Medieval legends also offer fodder for science fiction and fantasy stories. These can range from tales which were written down in the middle ages to those which were said to have taken place during the medieval era.
Two tales which were originally written down in the 1260 text Golden Legend appear in Gordon R. Dickson’s Dragon and the George series. The first is the story of St. George and the dragon while the second is the story of the flight of the biblical Jesus and his family to Egypt.
In The Dragon and the George humans are called Georges in honor of the Knight of the Red Cross, as preserved in the 1260 Golden Legend. The main character is transformed into a dragon and finds out what dragons think of the Georges, making alliances with them along the way.
The other medieval revenant used in this series by Dickson is the retelling of the flight of the Christ child and his family to Egypt, where they are met by dragons. This story, which can be found in Pseudo-Matthew chapter 18, was popularized in Golden Legend and is used to great effect in The Earl, the Troll, and the Dragon.
The same book uses the story of Wenceslas, an early king of Bohemia, to allow an atheist to properly celebrate a medieval Christmas. The main character is called upon to sing a Christian Christmas carol and, not wanting to offend, chooses “Good King Wenceslas” which is reproduced in its entirety in the novel.
The tales of Wenceslas include an accompanying legend that says he sleeps with a group of knights in the mountain ready to come out at need to protect the homeland. This tale has also been associated with Charlemagne and it is the Charlemagne version that Christopher Stasheff uses in his book The Oathbound Wizard. The series takes place in an alternate universe just a few generations past Charlemagne, and in this novel, Charlemagne and his knights are waiting in a mountain cave to awaken at need. In fact, they rouse a bit from their slumbers when Charlemagne’s heir brings the main character for training in the knightly virtues.
The same series also includes popular medieval tale of Prester John, a legendary Christian king who ruled a kingdom in the East. In The Feline Wizard Prester John is a much-sought-after king who rules a very enlightened and isolated kingdom.
In the first book in this series, Christopher Stasheff said he intended to present Catholicism as it was believed in medieval Europe (Her Majesty’s Wizard 343). Thus there is a purposeful medievalism in the novels which allows for the invocation of earlier tales. But the appearance of the literary revenants argues that Stasheff, at least, believes that his audience will already be familiar with the tales.
The multiplicity of revenants from early medieval works, of which those mentioned are but a handful, indicates that there is an expectation of cultural literacy regarding these texts. Certainly the multiple variations of Beowulf indicate that its influence goes far beyond the English literature classroom. Perhaps Stasheff, as an English academic, assumes a far greater cultural literacy than the average author, but even authors outside of academia reference and engage with early medieval texts, thus reintegrating them into popular culture and reinforcing their importance.

Works Cited
“About David Weber.” Press Release: Baen.com. 3 March 2000. Web. 14 December 2009.
Briggs, Mike. “The Obligatory Biography.” Patricia Briggs.com. 2005. Web. 2 February 2010.
Briggs, Patricia. Cry Wolf: An Alpha and Omega Novel. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.
D’Arcens, Louise. “Deconstruction and the Medieval Indefinite Article: The Undecidable Medievalism of Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale.” Parergon 25.2, 80-98. 2008. Web. 14 December 2009.
Dickson, Gordon R. The Dragon, the Earl, and the Troll. New York: Ace, 1994. Print.
Faraci, David. “Move Over Thor, Mel Gibson is Going Old Norse.” The Wolfman. 17 January 2010. Web. 19 January 2010.
Flint, Eric. “Biography.” Eric Flint’s Place on the Web. 13 March 2006. Web. 12 December 2009.
Flint, Eric and Virginia DeMarce. 1634: The Ram Rebellion. Wake Forest, NC: Baen Books, 2007.
Fradenburg, Louise Olga. “’So That We May Speak of Them’: Enjoying the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 28.2, 205-230. 1977. Web. 13 December 2009.
Goodrich, Peter. “Magical Medievalisms and the Fairy Tale in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence.” The Lion and the Unicorn, 12.2, 165-177. December 1988. Web. 2 January 2010.
Govan, Sandra Y. “Steven Barnes.” About.com: African-American Literature. 2010. Web. 2 February 2010.
Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes. Beowulf’s Children. New York: Tor Books, 2009. Print.
---. The Legacy of Heorot. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Print.
Reisner, Ivy. “Inferno.” SFSite Reviews. 2009. Web. 12 January 2010.
Stasheff, Christopher. The Feline Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 2000. Print.
---. Her Majesty’s Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 1986. Print.
---. The Oathbound Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 2004. Print.
Weber, David and Eric Flint. Torch of Freedom. Wake Forest, NC: Baen Books, 2009. Ebook.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture. By Ryan Curtis Friesen.
Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-1845193294, $74.95. 249 pages.
Review by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University
Friesen offers an incredibly well-written introduction to the supernatural in the early modern era (1510-1625). His presentation begins with purportedly non-fiction works, starting with a discussion of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, moving onto Bruno’s work, then presenting the sixteenth-century pamphlets on witch trials, and offering commentary on Dee’s angelic interpretations. The second half of the book looks at magic within Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Middleton’s The Witch, multiple of Jonson’s dramas, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Overall the work is detailed, offering insight into the works discussed as well as presenting that insight in its scholarly context. References for each chapter range from twenty-three to one hundred forty.
A quirk of the book is the author’s insistence that readers must not believe in magic. It is a bit eccentric to think that scholars reading in this field would believe in magic, though perhaps the title of the work would attract dabblers in the occult arts. In addition, even if one were a believer in magic, Friesen offers no reasons why this would corrupt one’s understanding of either his book or the texts which he examines within it. However, his discussion of how to refer to those who were thought to be magic users in his introduction is an interesting lexical discussion.
The text offers an introduction to the discussion of magic that is accessible to all levels of knowledge. While there are references to antecedent authors and texts (Nicholas Cusanos inspired Bruno, for instance), most of the discussion is developed in the book so that no prior knowledge is necessary for understanding. Despite its accessibility, the book offers an expert in the field an interesting development angle, in terms of the fictionality of the texts examined.
The fact that an examination of historical and philosophical treatises comprises the first two chapters of a book entitled Supernatural Fiction is surprising, but Friesen makes them work. He argues that Agrippa was simply presenting what others had argued and that Bruno used his philosophical description of magic to create a fairly modern worldview. Therefore, neither of these authors wrote a truthful argument for magic.
The texts the book covers are introduced in historical and cultural context. Friesen details their creation and their cultural and literary impact. He presents the works which they grew out of and the stream of literature in which they were read. Each chapter can be read alone without significantly reducing its efficacy.
The explication of all the precedents is sometimes developed in a way that a careless reader might misunderstand. In his discussion of Agrippa, Friesen mentions Simon Magus and his appearance in the biblical book of Acts as well as in pseudo-Clementine. He also discusses Simon’s argument with Peter and his ability to fly as “biblical legend.” This story, however, is not in the Bible. While referencing the story as biblical legend may be factually accurate—it does refer to a biblical person and it is a legend—it could easily mislead readers to assume that the story is in the Bible; therefore, careful reading is required.
The book presents a fascinating discussion of the witch trials and the actuality of witches, mentioning that most of those tried as witches in the sixteenth century were married women, while about fifteen percent were men. Friesen compares this to the modern stereotype of witches as old crones. He also discusses the number of admitted witches, presenting various scholarly arguments focusing on the idea that these confessions were a means of creating agency for the accused.
Friesen’s presentation, generally objective and even-handed, suffers slightly in his chapter on Dee. While Dee was clearly a scholar in his time, owning almost ten times as many books as the library at Cambridge, his occult practices, including the writing and translations of mediums’ purported messages from angels is presented by Friesen as a clear example of cunning ambition. However, facts which Friesen includes mitigate this view. Why would someone who was blatantly manipulating people follow his own false prophecies and move his entire family away from their home in England and establish them in Poland? Why would someone who was inventing futures not be careful to create prophecies that would not be fulfilled in his lifetime? And, finally, why would someone whose investigation into angelic discussions was the result of a desire for prestige hide away from the court that could have promoted his ambition? Despite the questions that his own presentation raises, Friesen argues for Dee’s duplicity in the creation of the angelic conversations.
As Friesen moves into the unarguably fictional texts, the discussion of magic adds a measure of literary analysis. The themes, archetypes, and characterizations of both magic and magic users are described, analyzed, and contextualized. For example, in the final chapter Friesen presents scholarly arguments about Prospero’s magic. He gives the main lines of argument and then evaluates the play according to his reading of Prospero’s use and renunciation of magic, presenting Ariel as dramatized magic and Caliban as the inheritor of a wholly negative rough magic who eventually becomes responsible for himself.
The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the early modern view of magic, through historical and philosophical treatises, pamphlets, diaries and transcriptions of séances, and contemporary dramas. The variety of texts examined makes this work particularly intriguing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

SW/TX PCA/ACA Conference Paper by Mary Ellen Iatropoulos, SUNY New Paltz

"Look Where Free Will Has Gotten You": Brave New World
and Angel’s Body Jasmine
In the foreword to the twentieth-anniversary edition of Brave New World, author Aldous Huxley states that “a really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which...slaves do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude” (xv). What tyrants face, according to Huxley, is “the problem of happiness;” that is, the challenge of manufacturing the illusion of utopian paradise under which oppression operates undetected as people are conditioned to feel comforted by the very society that oppresses them (xv). Jasmine, an arguably dystopian despot, appears in Angel’s season four and meets Huxley’s definition of efficient dictator by enthralling all whom she encounters into blissful subservience. The Jasmine arc bears striking resemblance to Huxley’s vision of dystopia, interacting with the literary model in ways that at first seem to subvert dystopian conventions. Yet, the seemingly subversive depiction of literary dystopia the Jasmine arc offers us ultimately retreats into containment and convention, concluding (just as Huxley did over 70 years ago) with an ominous warning about the nature of free will and the human tendency to prefer control to chaos.
In order to establish fictive landscapes as dystopian, critic Peter Edgerly Firchow relates, the world must feel undesirable in relation to contemporary society (10). Towards this end, the dystopian genre depicts characters as sincerely oblivious to absurdly oppressive conditions. For example, as Brave New World opens, the platitudinous “Director of Hatcheries” escorts students through what readers recognize as a eugenics laboratory, describing the fertilization processes for different castes within the “social body” – including growth-inhibitors for the underclass Epsilon embryos so that they never develop beyond simian intelligence and remain complacent workers (3-15). “What an enormous saving to the community!” smiles the Director (15). Of course, the discord between his loving words and the horrific “progress” he describes alerts readers to the nightmarish underbelly of this brave new world.
We see a similar sort of irony contextualizing the introduction of the Jasmine arc, the final six episodes of the fourth season: "Players" (4.17), "Shiny Happy People (4.18), “The Magic Bullet” (4.19), “Sacrifice” (4.20), “Peace Out” (4.21), and “Home” (4.22). Early on in “Shiny Happy People,” for example, when the mystically impregnated Cordelia gives birth to the mysterious goddess Jasmine, Angel and Connor gaze upon her but momentarily and, united in worship and wonder, immediately cease fighting each other and fall to their knees. This sudden camaraderie in reverence comes off as troubling and absurd – mere moments before, they’d been locked in mortal combat – and their devotion to Jasmine is so comically sudden and absolute that the audience immediately recognizes it to be an illusion, a brainwashing tool wielded by dystopian power seeking to mask its insidious agenda. Team Angel reinforces this irony in the following scene as well. While an anxious Team Angel awaits their hero’s return while he’s off fighting Connor and Cordy, they speculate over the status of his mission, whether Cordelia’s given birth to a monster, whether she’s still alive. As the Jasmine-struck Angel and Connor wistfully wander back into the team’s home base, the team rallies around them, assuming the estranged father and son are beaten and bruised from fighting Cordelia’s progeny. But as the team prepares to hunt and kill the unknown entity that’d been controlling Cordy from within her womb, Connor protests that killing is out of the question. “Since when?” questions Gunn. “Since we’ve all been saved,” rejoins Angel, in language reminiscent of religious epiphany and spiritual conversion (4.18). Fred replies in disbelief: “Um....well, that’s just....crazy talk,” confirming for the audience that Angel and Connor appear deluded from their perspective in the show as well as our perspective from without. Yet Angel, smiling and serene, takes the team’s weapons away from them, saying “We don’t want to kill her. We just want to find her. So we can worship her. That’s all” (4.18). Team Angel continues to express astonishment that Angel and Connor could be deluded by something so obviously false, and persist in attempting to convince Angel and Connor that their bliss is an enchantment. Wesley even explicitly urges them to remember the horrors Jasmine caused even while in her mothers womb, reminding them: “it’s a spell. It’s evil” (4.18). Yet Wesley’s appeal is in vain, for literally seconds later, Jasmine enters, bedazzling the rest of Team Angel and causing them to fall silently to the ground in reverence. Even after acknowledging the dystopian power lurking behind the veil, Team Angel assumes the same ludicrous devotion they themselves had been criticizing mere moments before, underscoring the irony and securing the show’s landscape under Jasmine as dystopian.
A second element of Huxley’s that Angel revisits is a protagonist who shares with the audience disgust for and disenchantment with dystopian society, and who undergoes what I call the “anagnoristic arc:” the successive occurrence of four narrative events. The first event, anagnorisis, is the clear recognition of oppression behind the charade of utopia– another way to think of it, it’s when you realize “To Serve Man” is a cookbook, or that, gasp, “Soylent Green is people!” The second event, excursion, is a journey taken beyond the reaches of dystopian society, from which they return equipped with information to threaten the system. The third event, moral negotiation, features the protagonist deliberating whether to sacrifice safety and happiness, and the fourth is attempted subversion, in which the protagonist attempts to overthrow the dystopian system.
As Brave New World unfolds, the character Bernard moves along an anagnoristic arc, becoming aware that the social body robs individuals of crucial freedoms.
He exhibits discontent, wishing he were “not just a cell in the social body” (88). He wants to escape, and escape he does, to a degree. He journeys to the so-called “savage land,” an American Indian reservation unaffected by social body governance. Here, Bernard discovers Linda, who was stranded there twenty years ago by the Director of Hatcheries, and her son, John, who was born on the reservation. Returning with these two “savages” in tow, Bernard exposes the Director’s past and gets him fired for imposing the horror of natural childbirth on Linda (since children are engineered in test tubes, natural childbirth is considered obscene). Yet, as Bernard negotiates how much farther to push his discovery, he moves away from anagnoristic conviction and ends up bartering his specimens for more privilege under the dystopian regime. When John the savage attempts to galvanize a riot, Bernard meekly watches, and later, when he’s informed that he’s going to be exiled, he’s dragged away, screaming – “I haven’t done anything! It was the others! I promise I’ll do what I ought to do, give me another chance” (232). Bernard’s inability to sacrifice his newfound celebrity cause him to retreat into complacency, and the social body continues its utopian illusion undeterred.
In Angel we see not one, but three interrelated anagnoristic arcs, each showcasing a resolve to subvert dystopia that Huxley’s protagonist never achieves: Fred, Team Angel, and Angel himself. To begin, Fred undergoes anagnorisis when she gets her blood mixed with Jasmine’s, breaking the spell and glimpsing the reality behind Jasmine’s illusion. Unlike Bernard’s tepid, hesitant misgivings that stretch out over time,

Fred instantly rebels, attempting to warn her friends even as they turn on her, forcing her to flee into the sewers. Fred’s flight amounts to excursion in that she, just like Bernard, seeks solutions beyond the borders of dystopian power, yet Angel reconfigures Huxley's convention to feature not self-imposed exile, but rather a fugitive being hunted. This revision serves to characterize Jasmine's spell as malicious and vindictive, further demonstrating to the audience the dystopian reality operating behind her enchantment. Fred further mirrors Bernard as Angel revisits a trope found in Huxley, the ritualistic handholding circle, during Fred’s period of flight. In Huxley, this convention takes the shape of the Solidarity Service, at which 12 people hold hands in a circle– “twelve of them ready to be made one, waiting to come together, to be fused, to lose their twelve separate identities into a larger being” (80). The twelve beat out a rhythm on their own bodies, going around the circle reciting platitudes as the beat grows and swells and erupts into an orgasmic collective cry lauding the social body. Yet Bernard feels nothing, and afterwards, “he was as miserably isolated now as he was when the service began – more isolated” (86). Thus the ritual circle, intended to physically connect members of the social body, serves Bernard only to reinforce his alienation from society.
Jasmine leads the enthralled Team Angel in a similar sort of ritual in “The Magic Bullet” (4.19). While the liberated Fred manages to elude the ever-increasing mass of Jasmine’s followers, Jasmine remains unperturbed. She calls Team Angel to her, and informs them that they’re “all becoming connected...we’re going to find Fred.” She commands all of them to hold hands and close their eyes. Here, Jasmine participates in Huxley’s model, employing the ritual circle with the same holding of hands in concentration, the same channeling of energies towards furthering dystopian agenda, even similar rhetoric as Jasmine’s language of connectivity parallels Huxley’s depiction of the circle as single bodies waiting to be fused into a single body. The camera focuses in closely on Jasmine as she says, “I want you to picture Fred.” The camera begins panning right, a smooth, fluid shot circling round the Team Member’s faces bent in closed-eyed concentrated as they picture Fred, “what she looks like, her face, her big brown eyes, the way she styles her hair” (4.19). As the team’s energies unite on visualizing Fred, the camera pan picks up speed as the music swells, cinematographically echoing Huxley’s narration of the circle of Twelve. “Where are you, Fred?” asks Jasmine as the camera settles back on her face, still in close up. “I’m looking for you” (4.19). Meanwhile, somewhere in Los Angeles, a fugitive Fred wanders past an old woman lackadaisically smoking a cigarette. As Fred passes, something visibly jolts through the woman, as she snaps her head to give Fred a harrowing, purposeful stare. The camera cuts back to Jasmine’s handholding circle, as Jasmine smiles: “I see her. I see Fred.” By virtue of the handholding circle, Jasmine channels herself into the bodies of all of her followers, effectively using her followers as so many decentralized surveillance cameras. Just like Huxley, Jasmine’s ritual circle serves to solidify her absolute control of the bodies of her followers, and just like Huxley, the groupthink of the circle isolates the story’s independently minded individual. Yet whereas in Huxley, the ritual marks Bernard’s anomalous individuality within the circle, in Angel Jasmine uses the traits that individuate Fred to locate and attack her while she’s outside of the circle, using her followers as so many decentralized surveillance cameras. Jasmine’s weaponizing of her social-body power underscores the social body’s deep fear of individual will.
In Angel, however, we see not one, but three interrelated anagnoristic arcs, each showcasing a resolve to subvert dystopia that Huxley’s protagonist never achieves. Fred, as mentioned above, is first to undergo anagnorisis when she gets her blood mixed with Jasmine’s, breaking the spell and glimpsing the reality behind Jasmine’s illusion. Unlike Bernard’s tepid, hesitant misgivings that stretch out over time, Fred instantly rebels, attempting to warn her friends even as they turn on her, forcing her to flee into the sewers and again featuring Huxley's trope of excursion. Yet Angel reconfigures the convention to feature not self-imposed exile, but rather a fugitive being hunted. This revision serves to characterize Jasmine's spell as malicious and vindictive, further demonstrating to the audience the dystopian reality operating behind her enchantment.
Though Fred’s anagnoristic arc concludes with the subversive action she takes towards Jasmine in freeing Angel from the insidious enchantment, she succeeds in catalyzing anagnoristic arcs for Angel as well as Team Angel as a whole. Like Fred, once Angel, Lorne, Wes, and Gunn undergo anagnorisis, there is no attempt to bargain for celebrity or power under the system – it’s not a question of whether to rebel, only how, and when. True, as they undertake excursion and go on the lam, they all mourn the loss of the peace and bliss felt under Jasmine’s influence. Yet, the ensuing period of moral negotiation results in Team Angel collectively concluding that they prefer this misery to the deluded complacency of Jasmine’s thrall – better to be miserable and free than happily enslaved. Wesley discovers a creature from an alien dimension that Jasmine used to rule, and with the knowledge gleaned from conversing with the creature, realizes that Jasmine’s power can be undone by learning her true name. Wesley’s discovery enables Angel to voyage to the alien dimension in order to learn Jasmine’s name and destroy her illusory enthrallment. When Angel eventually returns from this excursion, he immediately takes subversive action, revealing the dystopian horrors lurking beneath her magnificent facade to the world.
Perhaps the strongest point of comparison between Huxley and Angel lies in the concept of the social body. In Huxley, all society’s efforts go towards maintaining the social body by making people love their subjugation. Jasmine’s reign employs similar strategies. She performs her benevolence by removing suffering, bringing eternal bliss. “My love is all around you” is the refrain of her regime. Yet, in contrast to the faceless, figurative “social body” governing Huxley, Jasmine’s power is very noticeably rooted in her actual physicality. Jasmine embodies both utopian illusion and underlying dystopian power. It’s looking upon Jasmine’s form that initially enchants Connor and Angel, and she propagates her spell through visual contact, enthralling the world by exhibiting her physical self - going for a walk, appearing on the news, etc. Fred also admiringly stammers about Jasmine’s “holy bodiness” (4.18), and Angel and Lorne fondly call her their “mocha” and “cocoa-colored queen” (4.18, 4.19), foregrounding Jasmine’s physicality rendering her body a text on which is writ dystopian rule.
These qualifying quips exhibit a preoccupation with Jasmine’s body that only becomes more pronounced as Jasmine’s power grows. She becomes able to physically possess her followers’ bodies for her own agenda. She tells Connor that she can feel all of her followers fusing together “like the cells of a single body.... my eyes, my skin, my limbs, and if need be, my fists.” Jasmine eventually is able to manipulate her follower’s bodies, creating an army of satellite slaves all bent on eliminating dissidence. For example, in “Sacrifice” (4.20), as the fleeing Team Angel stops to replenish their supplies, several passersby (all of whom clearly are physically possessed by Jasmine) form a menacing squad and close in on the heroes. “You’re a disease in the Body Jasmine,” sneers one such attacker in Jasmine’s actual voice, as he takes a swing at Angel’s face. Here, Jasmine explicitly engages Huxley’s rhetoric, articulating her status as the “Body Jasmine,” inserting herself into the social body paradigm just as she inserts herself into the bodies of her followers. Later on, as Connor and a team of Jasmine-worshipping soldiers attack Team Angel in the sewers, a gleeful and maniacal Jasmine holds her arms aloft, her flesh being ripped and shredded by invisible swords, her body receiving the wounds of her followers being slashed in the sewers, miles away. Jasmine, then, is literally the embodiment of Huxley’s social system, a centralized carnal command center pulling the strings of so many meat puppet minions.
However, the Body Jasmine also problematizes Huxley’s social body metaphor by portraying an individual woman of color embodying the traditionally white patriarchal dystopia. Placing a woman of color at the top of the dystopian chain would seem to reverse Huxley’s vision, wherein the Epsilon underclass is dark skinned. And yet, while in general the placement of women of color in positions of power theoretically subverts Brave New World’s racial paradigm, Jasmine is portrayed as insidious and false (not to mention covered in maggot-infested rotting flesh) and must be defeated in order for the protagonists to emerge victorious. As it’s Connor who actually lands the killing blow, we see a white male triumphing over a woman of color, a fact that detracts from a reading of the Jasmine arc as empowering.
The final dystopic element Huxley and Angel share is the exploration of the question of happiness vs. free will. Following Bernard’s forfeit of subversive action, he is taken to the office of Mustapha Mond, who explains that the social body eliminates messy, inconvenient, and often painful concepts like beauty and truth. The social body paradigm “hasn’t been very good for truth, of course.. but it’s been very good for happiness...happiness has got to be paid for,” In Huxley, the price is free will, and John the savage ultimately illustrates this point when he claims “the right to be unhappy,” committing suicide (232). Angel’s Jasmine arc similarly concludes with dystopian power articulating this tradeoff. When Team Angel finally succeeds in revealing the dystopian horror behind Jasmine’s spell, Angel’s L.A. tumbles into riotous hysteria, and the defeated and furious Jasmine accuses Angel of making a terrible mistake. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” hurls the dethroned despot at Angel over the roar of the riots. Angel, steadfast in his resolve, replies “what I had to do.” Jasmine, in her lunacy, shrieks “there are no absolutes, no right and wrong....there are only choices!” She pauses, as her words sink in. She gestures to the chaos around her, and continues: “I offered paradise! You chose this!” Angel jumps on her phrasing, righteously reaffirming his choice to take subversive action against her regime: “Because I could. Because that’s what you took away from us. Choice.” Jasmine rejoins, with a malicious sneer: “And look where free will has gotten you. This world is doomed to drown in its own blood now” (4.21). The frenzied hysteria and wailing sirens in the blurred background of these shots reinforce the threads of truth woven through Jasmine’s words: the world without Jasmine does indeed seem brutal and bloody in comparison to her utopian illusion. Although Angel (and the audience along with him) deeply wants to believe that the world is better off without Jasmine, her rebuttal causes him to falter, and defend himself: “Hey, I didn’t say we were smart, I said it’s our right. It’s what makes us human” (4.21). Here, Angel asserts that same viewpoint espoused through the character of John the Savage, that which Huxley’s aims to inspire in readers; namely, that miserable reality is preferable to happy slavery, and that being unhappy and feeling the full spectrum of human emotion is a human right. And if the show ended there, with the assertion that it’s better to be miserable and free than to be happily oppressed, the show would indeed appear to subvert the dystopian literary model on which it builds.
Yet Angel extends the dystopian narrative; rather than ending with the certainty of Angel’s assertion, Jasmine continues to argue her point. When Angel accuses her of murdering people, she reminds him that, as a vampire, he also possesses a violent and bloodthirsty past – violence that didn’t carry with it the pleasant side effect of promoting peace on earth. Angel persists, declaiming “thousands of people are dead because of what you’ve done,” yet Jasmine quickly replies “and how many people will die because of you? I could have stopped it... war, disease, poverty...how many precious lives could have been saved in just a handful of years?” (4.21). Jasmine’s equation causes Angel to falter in his righteousness. As a champion of the helpless, Angel knows firsthand the misery and suffering that exist beyond his power to help, the feeling of futility at fighting a wave of evil one drop at a time. As he seems to reconsider the merit of his subversive action, the show once again addresses Mustapha Mond’s assertion that free will leads to chaos. Further, as he heads to home base with the rest of the team, a posthumous Lilah Morgan visits them, offering Team Angel ownership and control of the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart as a reward for destroying Jasmine’s “world peace” (4.22). Their certainty shaken by this phrase, Team Angel insists that what Jasmine offered wasn’t world peace, but a slave state. Echoing both Mond in Huxley and Jasmine before her, Lilah states that “world peace comes at a price. Jasmine knew that. She consumed... what, a few dozen souls a day? Now weight that against the suffering of millions” (4.22). In echoing Jasmine’s equation, Lilah compounds Team Angel’s uncertainty. Once she’s left them to consider the offer, the team collectively questions their actions: did they really end world peace? The emphasis placed on Team Angel’s reconsideration of their subversion reveals a sub-textual, Huxley-like cynicism that wonders if humanity may be better off happily enslaved. To further complicate the issue, Connor begins to parallel John the Savage as he undertakes a suicidal terrorist plot, arming himself and innocent bystanders with bombs, as well as the unconscious Cordelia (who’s been in a coma ever since Jasmine’s mystical birth). Connor’s violent plan enacts a sort of existential rebellion, fully exercising his freedom to be miserable and destructive and illustrating the horrific underbelly of that spectrum of human emotion which Jasmine supplanted with blissful complacency and which Team Angel fought to preserve.
In Angel’s reaction to Connor’s behavior, Angel as a show retreats away from its subversive depiction of dystopian narrative and moves back into the containment of Huxley’s pessimistic model. While the rest of Team Angel rationalizes that they could reform Wolfram and Hart and use the firm’s resources for good, they seem on the brink of accepting the deal. Yet before the team can reach consensus, Angel sees news footage of Connor’s terrorist-hostage situation in progress, and negotiates with Wolfram and Hart to create a false, happy life for Connor and revert the world to how it was before Jasmine’s reign. He accepts the morally suspect offer on the condition that firm mystically tampers with his friends’ minds and memories, and in doing so, Angel’s deal enacts the same tyrannical cloaking of dystopian reality in a veil of utopian illusion against which he so adamantly fought.. Not only does Angel remove Connor’s right to choose misery and suicide, he alters his friends’ minds without their consent, and moreover, he does so in the context of becoming part of the institutionalized evil he’s been fighting for four seasons. Free will, then, has gotten Angel into exactly the same project of masking undesirable reality in paradisiacal illusion, suggesting that free will leads to choosing safety over subversion.
Two ways to interpret this troubling conclusion present themselves. On the one hand, a pessimistic reading suggests that Angel’s decision evinces corruption, that Huxley’s axiom remains true – people would rather be happily enslaved than suffer the unpredictable extremes that go along with free will. Yet (as I argue in an expanded version of this paper’s in The Literary Angel, forthcoming from McFarland, and as I will argue in my presentation at the Slayage conference this June), I prefer a more optimistic interpretation. By taking control of Wolfram and Hart, Team Angel positions themselves to defy Wolfram and Hart’s senior partners in the season five finale, eventually taking decisive subversive action on a much larger scale.
Works Cited
Booker, Keith M. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Modern Utopian Fictions from H.G. Wells to Iris Murdoch. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007.
“Home,” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir., Writ. Tim Minear. DVD. 1999. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
Huxley, Alduous. Brave New World. 1932. Reprint. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Jowett, Lorna. “Angel as Critical Dystopia.” Critical Studies in Television 2 (Spring 2007) 74-89.
“Peace Out.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir. Jefferson Kibbee. Writ. David Fury. DVD. 1999. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
“Sacrifice.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir. David Straiton. Writ. Ben Edlund. DVD. 1999. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
“Shiny Happy People.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Writ. Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain. Dir. Maria Grabiak. 1999. DVD. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
“The Magic Bullet.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir., Writ. Jeffrey Bell. 1999. DVD. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shakespeare’s Opposites: The Admiral’s Company 1594-1625.
By Andrew Gurr.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-521-86903-4. $99. 328 pages.

Review by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University

The potential of this book fascinates. Who are these others who performed at the same time as Shakespeare’s company? What do we know about them? Why are they not as famous as Shakespeare?

Gurr offers interesting insights into various aspects of the Admiral’s Company, beginning with his hypothesis for why the two companies, and only those two, were operating in London from 1594 to 1600. The development of the hypothesis is not discussed in the book, because it has already been presented in an article. Despite the lack of details, it is an intriguing explanation. For the issue of fame, Gurr suggests that Shakespeare’s company had the better plays, which we can still read today, while the Admiral’s Company was better at theatrical entertainment, a visual and aural experience that is long gone. However, the Admiral’s Company left many more records than Shakespeare’s group and it is with these records that Gurr develops his discussion.

The book begins slowly. Within the first chapter, repetitions abound. References to chapter two seem to follow every major point. The idea of the familiar face of the players appears five times in the first fifty pages, as does the fact that there is a new play every week or two or three, depending on the page. The description “games of disguise” is also repeated. The repetitions are very distracting and the chapter is hard to read. However, the rest of the book is significantly better, with limited repetitions, good detail, and fascinating descriptions.

Gurr is at his best when he is explaining the plot of the plays and detailing the implications of the plays for his discussion. For example, the story of The Wise Men of West Chester provides rapid reading for more than ten pages; it is a quixotic tale told in an engaging style. His discussion of the printed version of The Tragedy of Hoffman is equally captivating. Few would be able to write an interesting rendition of various name change problems within a printed text, but Gurr pulls it off.

The chapter on staging is interesting. It begins comparing the outdoor venues with significantly more space for the audience to the limited indoor arena of the Globe. Gurr presents the history of the various playhouses of both companies, comparing and contrasting them. The chapter gives background information on architects and archaeological excavations, discusses building materials and methods, and details the stages of the original and rebuilt first playhouse of the Admiral’s Company. The point and purposes of the changes to the playhouse, after its midnight burning, are presented. This chapter also has figures that help the reader visualize the descriptions. This chapter offers a well-developed introduction to staging, which could be helpful in both theater and English classes in discussions of plays of the era.

The chapter also presents, again, the surviving play-texts of the Admiral’s Company. This presentation, though, divides them into three categories based on whether they were written to be played at the original, the rebuilt, or the second playhouse of the company. Then Gurr discusses the staging of the plays at the various venues.

The chapter on the company’s repertory practices details their exclusion from the court and connects their famous revenge play with Hamlet. A scrap of paper written in the hand of the Master of the Revels offers Gurr an opportunity to develop the connection between the two plays, and then he segues into the disappearance of the Admiral’s Company from the court performances after 1615. The Admiral’s Company was not the only group that was spurned, and Gurr offers class distinctions between the playgoers as the reason. Though the patrons of these two companies were royal, the open-air venue meant that those in attendance were not aristocrats.

Gurr also presents the possibility that the plays of this company were viewed as old-fashioned, since they were locked into play styles. The explanation for the style seems to be the return of the company’s most famous actor who was known for “stalking and roaring” (170). Finally, Gurr discusses their political and cultural ramifications, since some of the plays repeated aristocratic experiences and scandals as they were happening, but without tying this into the expulsion from court.

Three appendices make up the last third of the book. The first lists the plays and all their known titles by the year either of their probable performance or their probable writing. The second is an alphabetical listing, with a paragraph-length biography, of the various players from the Admiral’s Company. The third is a reconstruction of the company’s traveling schedule.

The book, after the first chapter, is well written and interesting. It gives details of the time and the acting experience that even Shakespearean scholars might not know. Overall, it is accessible to someone outside the field, though there are some “explanations” which do not actually explain to an outsider unfamiliar with the arguments to which Gurr is responding. The book offers an opportunity to expand one’s understanding of Shakespeare’s plays, clearly an impetus from the title, but more importantly it presents a well-developed discussion of some of the plays, players, and playgoers of the era, adding political, historical, and cultural insights into a reading of the plays of the Admiral’s company.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Literature and Dance in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman.
By Cheryl A. Wilson.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, April 2009. ISBN-978-0-521-51909-0, $90.00. 220 pages.

Review by Luca Caddia, Independent Scholar

According to Alexander Pope, who has deserved the epigraph of this book, “those move easiest who have learned to dance” (1). Whatever mobility Pope refers to, Cheryl A. Wilson soon clarifies in her introduction that her study privileges certain aspects of the culture of dance, such as upper-class and urban entertainments. This leads her book to focus on the discipline of social dance, which turns the individual body into public discourse and imbues literary works with a range of social, political, and national concerns. In particular, the subjects she privileges are those by which feminist cultural studies are usually informed, including gender construction and social mobility, so that this book could also be defined as a study of the body politics of nineteenth-century ballrooms.

Wilson has devoted the first two chapters to a comprehension of the culture of nineteenth-century dance through the analysis of dance masters and Almack’s Lady Patronesses, two complementary categories of gender construction and destabilization. In the first chapter, for example, she highlights the idiosyncratic position of dance masters within upper-class life: often depicted as effeminate figures who eschew traditional manly employment (i.e. Dickens’s Mr. Turveydrop in Bleak House, 1853), they also figure as social arbiters through their dance manuals, which include instructions to ensure that participants in a ball behave appropriately. However, especially in the emergence of scandalous dances such as the waltz, “the dance manual emerges as a text that simultaneously affirms the need to police physical bodies and promotes transgressive behaviors” (29). Indeed, whereas social dance contributes to gender socialization and construction, it also has the potential to destabilize gender norms: while German cotillion “gives [women] the rare chance of showing their preferences” (33), figures like ‘Blind-man’s Bluff’ do incorporate descriptions of same-sex couplings” (34).

The second chapter is dedicated to Almack’s, the most fashionable club in Regency London. Wilson explains how institutions such as Almack’s react against changes in class boundaries by reveling around the fashionable aristocracy. Yet the Lady Patronesses, the aristocratic ladies who assumed an authorial role in its organization, complicate the “separate spheres” ideology by exercising political influence and arranging marriages. The chapter discusses the satirized authorial role of the Lady Patronesses through fashionable novels such as The Exclusives (1830), by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury, and Almack’s: A Novel (1826), by Marianne Spencer Stanhope. This is perhaps the part of the book where Wilson’s own authoriality proves more reliable, especially when compared to her analysis of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816). Perhaps this happens not because Wilson has not understood Emma, but because the purposes of her chapter (a comparison between the social codes of Almack’s and those of Highbury) lead her to focus too much on a constrained comparison between Emma and Mrs Eldon that favors the former instead of treating Emma’s own unfulfilled matchmaking pretentions as the major topic it is in the economy of the novel. Indeed, if it is debatable that “Emma employs a system of admission designed to promote her own desires and in doing so positions herself in an authorial role” (65), this does not mean that “Emma displays a critical self-consciousness” (66). On the contrary, by eventually giving up to Mr Knightley’s moral authority, Emma abandons her patronizing pretentions and learns not to impose her views on others. Wilson has clearly realized this, but since her conclusion contradicts most of her previous discourse, this part of the chapter is not as strong as that devoted to silver-fork novels.

Each of the following three chapters is devoted to a single social dance as described in a significant selection of nineteenth-century fiction, which shows that, instead of compiling a catalogue raisonné of all the nineteenth-century novels where social dance has a prominent part, Wilson has chosen texts in which the relationship between literature and dance can be analyzed in narrative terms. The social dances selected in the book are the English country dance, the quadrille, and the waltz. Despite its name, the term country dance derives from the French “contredanse, which referred to the two lines of dancers standing across one another” (71). This highlights the divisions inherent in such a dance, which authors like Austen, Thackeray,and Eliot employ to consider social ideas concerning class, gender, and nation. In particular, the subchapter dedicated to Vanity Fair (1848) is particularly convincing in its attention to the French-English conflict, especially if one considers, as Wilson does, that Becky Sharp may prove unable to complete her turn through the country dance because it is a symbol of English national identity. Also striking is the way Wilson’s reading of Northanger Abbey (1798-9) manages to match that of Adam Bede (1859): indeed, the social and sexual dangers carefully avoided by Austen are sympathetically explored by Eliot by means of an intertwining of the social and the marriage plot through country dance.

The book proves even more convincing in the following chapter, which shows how, compared to the English country dance, “the quadrille embodies changing cultural perceptions concerning nation […] and enables authors to employ time, space, and physicality to advance a consideration of social mobility” (105). This is certainly true of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) and was also magnificently realized by Andrew Davies when, in his 2001 adaptation of the novel, he had a self-confident Prince George dance with the awkward Mrs Melmotte. As regards Trollope, it might have been useful for Wilson to mention Rachel Ray (1863), a pretty novel on provincial life where the waltz is employed to express the same concerns about sexuality and social mobility advocated by Wilson’s last chapter, which prefers to rely on dance-less works like Aurora Leigh (1856) instead. But who writes is far from complaining: this book is properly orchestrated and remarkable for its insightful reading, and considering Wilson’s desire to be acknowledged as a Lady Patroness herself, she can be more than satisfied with the result.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick.
By Sterling Stuckey.

New York: Oxford University Press, November 2009. Paper:
ISBN: 0195372700, $27.95. 154 pages.
Review by Babacar M’Baye, Kent State University

American Culture and Melville’s Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick examines the relations between Melville’s aesthetics and African culture. While the critical literature about Melville is abundant, it usually eschews the significance of African traditions in the work of this complex American writer. American Culture and Melville’s Art focuses on three major books of Melville: Redburn: His First Voyage (1849), Moby-Dick (1851), and Benito Cereno (1855). According to Stuckey, interpreting these works’ relationships with African art will demonstrate that Melville was “a far more subtle and inventive writer than even the most fervent admirers” of these works “claim” (3-4).

Stuckey has always been interested in the connections between Africa and North America, as was apparent in the numerous times in which he hinted at them in his previous works such as Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black America (1987) and Going through the Storm: the Influence of African American Art in History (1994). For instance, while discussing the African influence in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870), Stuckey suggests, in Slave Culture, Higginson’s fascination with the pervasive and ineradicable African-inflected “ring shout,” chants, rhythms, and feet and hand movements that blended with the Christianity of the Sea Island blacks during the Civil War (83-84). Discussing these Africanisms, Stuckey writes: “It should not surprise us that the same people constructed African huts in which they shouted and, as Higginson demonstrates in a passage that recalls Herman Melville’s Redburn, brought African sensibility to bear on Christianity” (84). A similar connection between Melville and African culture is apparent in Going through the Storm in which Stuckey reveals the ties between the African American folk figure Brer Rabbit and the character of Babo in Herman Melville’s 1855 tale Benito Cereno, whom he represents as a Senegalese. He writes: “The play of irony that informs Babo’s activities on board the San Dominick is precisely that adopted by Brer Rabbit in his African American expression . . . What is certain is that Babo is so much like Brer Rabbit that it is perfectly logical that he should have come from Senegal, a thriving center for tales of the African hare, Brer Rabbit’s ancestral model” (165).

Further connections between Melville and African traditions are also apparent in African Culture and Melville’s Art when Stuckey discussed how Melville’s knowledge of Africa mainly derived from the nineteenth-century philosophical and ideological scholarships about Africa that he read. In an attempt to refute the critic Edward Margolies’ argument that “Melville did not know blacks well” (37), Stuckey writes: “On the contrary, because he knew them well, Hegel was very useful as Melville imagined Don Benito’s dependence on Babo” (37). Stuckey continues: “Melville was almost waiting for Hegel to provide the philosophical terms for what he had long thought and espoused. Melville ties the slave trade to the wealth of England in Redburn, informing us that the wealth of Liverpool derived mainly from the slave trade, which underscore his command of the economics of master-slave relations” (37). As Stuckey argues, Melville’s knowledge of African culture is also evident in a passage in Benito Cereno in which a group of six enslaved Africans dance like “delirious black dervishes” (39). According to Stuckey, this example suggests “Melville’s recognition of abstruse aspects of Ashantee culture in [Captain] Delano’s account—the dance and music of the women” and “the best of his knowledge” of this culture (39).

Yet the strongest quality of Stuckey’s African Culture and Melville’s Art lies in the interdisciplinary methodology that he uses to suggest the links between Melville’s writings and Africa. This method is based on the use of the scholarship that might have influenced Melville before or as he was writing Moby-Dick, Redburn, and Benito Cereno. Drawing from this scholarship, which was usually and unarguably racist, Stuckey nonetheless shows its significance in the study of early African influences in early American writings which would have been difficult to corroborate without such historical documents. Two examples of such Africanisms appear in Stuckey’s analysis of Melville’s representations of non-Europeans in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick. Discussing Benito Cereno, Stuckey refers to the personae of Atufal, Babo’s lieutenant, whose characterization was influenced by Joseph Dupuis’s description of Ashantee warriors in his Journal of a Residence in Ashantee (1824). Stuckey writes: “As we know, the royal gold, in Melville’s hands, became Atufal’s iron. The ‘iron collar’ about Atufal’s neck was derived from Dupuis’s reference to [Ashantee] warriors ‘armed and equipped in their full military habits; some with iron chains suspended round the neck’” (47).

In a similar vein, Stuckey shows that Melville’s description of “the carvings of flesh from the backs and thighs of Africans in Redburn” was an image that was initially reported in Captain Amasa Delano’s book A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World; Together With a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands (37).

This book was first published in 1817 under the authorship of Amasa Delano, an American sea captain who was Born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and served in the American Revolution as a soldier at fifteen and later as a “privateersman.” Stuckey includes this entire narrative in the last segment of African Culture and Melville’s Art, providing current scholars with an important text that can help to better understand the background that influenced Melville’s imagery of Africa in his writings, and his portrayal of the character of Captain Delano in Benito Cereno.

Additionally, Stuckey suggests the relations between Melville’s descriptions of the character of Atufal in Benito Cereno with his portrayal of the character of Daggoo in Moby-Dick. Stuckey writes: “Melville uses similar language in describing them—Atufal: ‘a gigantic black,’ ‘colossal form’; Daggo: ‘a gigantic, coal-black negro,’ ‘colossal limbs. . . . Daggoo’s ‘hearse-plumed head’ and Atufal’s death song, however, seal the argument” (48). By providing us with these parallels between Melville’s African and non-European characters, Stuckey suggests the strong impact of Africa in mid-nineteenth century American literary imagination. In this sense, African Culture and Melville’s Art compliments Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), which also examines the representation of Africans in nineteenth-century American culture. In her book, Morrison explores the intricacies of White imagination of Blackness through her concept of “American Africanism,” that is, the study of the origins, literary uses, and constructions of the “African like (or Africanist) presence or persona” in the United States and “the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served” (6). In a similar vein, Stuckey explored the imagination of Africans in Melville’s writings and its derivation from the wider tradition of European ethnography of Africans that influenced it.

Another way in which Stuckey demonstrates the intricate relationships between Melville and Africa is through his analysis of the linkages between Moby-Dick and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas (1845). According to Stuckey, a major element in Douglas’s narrative is its allusion to slave dance and music that were heavily influenced by African traditions (82). As Stuckey suggests, the lyrics that Douglas heard on Colonel Lloyd’s Maryland plantation without largely referring to them were blues-like songs that “predated conventional spirituals” and “were difficult to grasp—perhaps owing to improvised, African-inflected song[s] intensified by the sheer agony of the slavery experienced” (82). As Stuckey points out, the shades of “sadness” and “joy” that Douglas reveals in the dance and music of the enslaved blacks might have influenced Melville’s representation of art in Moby-Dick (84). According to Stuckey, “Melville takes particular notice” of Douglas’s simultaneous expression of cheer and gloom in musical tones,” by “Using ‘gloomy,’ and ‘jolly’ as Douglas uses ‘sadness’ and ‘joy,’ to describe both music and the social condition that it reflects on the Pequod” (84). In this sense, Stuckey reveals the impact of both the slave narrative and African art in mid-nineteenth-century American literature.

Stuckey’s American Culture and Melville’s Art is a very important contribution to interdisciplinary scholarship because it establishes major connections between African culture and Melville’s Redburn: His First Voyage, Moby-Dick, and Benito Cereno. These influences demonstrate the pervasive imagination and representations of Africa in nineteenth-century American and European travel writings which provided Melville with the prism through which he learned about Africa. By considering these writings as vital historical and anthropological sources, Stuckey suggests the important role that interdisciplinary scholarships can have in the study of the relations between Africa and its parental cultures in the United States. As Stuckey points out, “the soul of the [American] nation is tied to that of black Africa” (82).