Monday, 29 September 2008

Jiminy Cricket! No Escaping This Grasshopper

My first stroll around Cambridge had me pass the Corpus Clock, just up the road, and it was a wonderful treat. This was something I'd anticipated, seeing articles about it on the BBC website, and elsewhere (here & here and see the video here). The enormous and ferocious grasshopper sitting on top of the clock is the clock's escapement, mechanism, a "grasshopper escapement" actually, a regulator developed by John Harrison and intended as an homage by the clock's inventor Dr John Taylor. What he has done is effectively to turn the clock inside out, so the escapement and escapement wheel become its major features. The grasshopper, exquisitely detailed, sits on top of the wheel eating away at time: the clock is called the "Chronophage". And an inscription on the outside ledge reads Mundus transit et concupiscentia eius (I John 2: 17). Time is not on our side.

The dial comprises a series of Vernier strips, beneath which are three discs which have a set of constantly lit LED lights. So the time telling is not digital but entirely mechanical.

But time is relative, too. So while Harrison's invention was an important step in the development of a clock that told the correct time (or rather a clock that told the correct time for a longer period of time), this clock is only correct once every five minutes. This is because it actually stops, speeds up, and slows down, making the viewer constantly aware of the passing of time. It does not just tell the time, it draws attention to time. It's a clever idea, and it is hard for me to express the discomfort felt when you actually see the clock stop. You almost hold your breath waiting for it to start again (like watching a patient flat-line!). The clock is supposed to remind us that tempus fugit, it confronts us with our own mortality.

As I start a research fellowship here in Cambridge, these are good and important things to have before me. Tempus fugit, so get on with it!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Puccini in the Wild West, and Bacon at the Tate Britain

An magnificent production of Puccini's La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) is currently running at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It was first performed in New York, at the Met, with Caruso and Destinn in the lead roles and was received with great aplomb. It has not has the same success in Europe, though there are some great recordings (I have the Nilsson/Matacic recording); it is being staged with greater frequency in recent years. This production boasts José Cura and Eva-Maria Westbroek, flawlessly conducted by Antonio Pappano. The opera is often described as less 'flashy' than some of Puccini's other works, and there are certainly fewer big arias. But I think that it benefits from this, in a way, in that there's a great narrative thrust to the story. The way the characters use English names for each other (Jack Rance, for example) creates (inadvertent?) comic moments. The set is beautifully designed and executed, the cast is extraordinary. This really is unmissable.

At the Tate Britain there is a powerful and at times disturbing Francis Bacon exhibition. His work intense enough as individual works, but ten rooms of works really do pack quite a punch. And you've been punched in the gut after this. They've tried to provide a broad chronological sweep, with the earliest work dating from 1933 and the latest to 1991. There is also a room of archival material, with a good deal of stuff from Dublin's Hugh Lane (now home to the Bacon Studio). The paintings and studies based on the famous Velázquez portrait of Innocent X are so familiar, iconic really. But seeing them together was tremendous. It is easy to not think about them, to consume them as trademarks. Standing in front of them, however, has the effect of stripping away all of your defences. The screaming mouths, gaping in horror, are directed right at you, and there's nowhere to go. The space, so carefully constructed and also produced by the figures, envelopes you despite its delimiting lines and the way the figures are boxed in.
I bought Deleuze's book on Bacon on the way home and will read it soon. Bacon compels and will compel when you go to this exhibition.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Love 2.0, Project Cube 18-20th September 2008

Love 2.0 comprises two plays, originally commissioned by the Abbey Theatre as part of the 20:Love season of new writing and now expanded into two discreet plays of 20 minutes each. They form part of the Dublin Fringe Festival 2008. The theme was "love", and both writers have explored it in different ways, with many intersections.

Two Houses, by Belinda McKeon, has siblings Maeve and Eamon in a confrontational situation late one night in their sitting room. She is in her fifth year at school, he (in his late twenties) is living at home after separating from his wife. The programme notes have McKeon say that she "wanted, with Two Houses, to put these characters in a place that is to them at once dully familiar and unnervingly volatile". This is exactly the tone, familiar and volatile. And it makes for a not always comfortable experience. Maeve wants to grow up fast, she has a friend on Bebo who is older than her, more Eamon's age. Eamon's outrage that she should be going near such a fella is much more personal than might at first be apparent and as the scene progresses, it becomes obvious that both siblings share in an understanding of the complexities of love and sex and their limits. Maeve's paralysis at the end of the play is perfectly judged, she cannot or does not want to reveal Eamon's secret, not just because she knows it will get him into trouble with the law, but also because she understands the impulses that got him there. It's a cerebral work that I think will be seen again.

Phillip McMahon's Investment Potential is an extremely enjoyable and troubling play about love in a modern, materialist Ireland. That's a little pat, I know, and does not do justice to what's going on. It is structurally more complex, having several scene changes and time-frame shifts. The depths of the character of Anne (Kathy Keira Clarke) are subtle and bring the audience from laughter to despair with hardly a moment's notice. Brendan (Brendan McCormack, who also plays Eamon, with great versatility), her boyfriend, is charming and lazy, and Anne's sinking ennui with the neighbours and friends who own their own apartments and houses is drawn out with some skill. Dragging herself home with her Marks and Spencers shopping, being mistakenly "recognized" by a lonely woman there, being insulted by the staff in the Spar downstairs, the increasing grimness almost imperceptibly mounts to a very sad end with a broad horizon. What is powerful about the play is the slow realization of just how destructive this angst really is, how it infects everything.

Phillip McMahon and Belinda McKeon make a powerful duo, and it should be said that McMahon is a co-founder of the production company thisispopbaby who produced the play in association with the Abbey. He generously refers to McKeon as an "obscenely talented writer" in the notes, and this is true. But I think his own work is beautiful too and not undeserving of such generosity. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Stephen Barney (Norton, 2006)

The publication of this volume is welcome for a number of reasons. It provides the standard critical text, that prepared by Barney for the Riverside Chaucer, in a handy portable format at an affordable price. More importantly, it presents a translation of the major source of the poem, Boccaccio's Filostrato, in a facing-text format. The translation is that of Robert P. apRoberts and Anna Bruni Seldis, published by Garland in 1986 and now impossible to find. It also presents one of the most extraordinary rewritings or continuations of the poem in English (or in this case Older Scots), Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid. And lastly, it reprints a number of articles that have proved influential amongst Chaucerians in the last couple of decades, including those of Bloomfield, Donaldson, Delany, and Taylor, as well as the classic essay by C.S. Lewis, "What Chaucer Really Did to Il Filostrato".

I have been moved to write this review because I have just read a review of this edition by Jenny Adams (University of Massachusetts Amherst) in the rather excellent online journal Heliotropia, the official publication of the American Boccaccio Association. I feel that the Norton Troilus has been rather hard done by and I am more than a little uncomfortable with the review.

The reviewer admits to not having taught with the edition, nor having reason to go to the poem itself for her research. This is considered to provide a "critical distance", which saves her from a "weird attachment to the poem". This weirdness is something Barney presumably suffers from and Barney's assertion that the Troilus is the greatest work in English between Beowulf and The Faerie Qveene is one piece of evidence to suggest such attachment. The Troilus is not, furthermore, considered to be Chaucer's magnum opus. It would be fruitless for me to disagree; it might even be fruitless to cite the evidence that suggests Chaucer's contemporaries and immediate successors considered the poem to be his magnum opus. Fruitless because patent is the evidence of simply reading the poem itself, which ever ceases to amaze me for its extraordinary depths, its sophistication, its beauty and its difficulty.

The strength of the review, to be even handed, is that the facing-text format provides the reviewer with an opportunity to compare the Troilus and its source (apparently for the first time), a comparison considered to be "a powerful antidote to a common undergraduate assumption that medieval authors unthinkingly recycled material". Her comparison results in observing the complexity of Chaucer's treatment of the beginning of Book II, Pandarus awakening to hear the swallow "Proigne", a realization she delightfully calls a "clincher". I quite agree, and I wholeheartedly agree with her when she observes that similar "clinchers" multiply before your eyes when read as a facing-text.

The text is considered "not revolutionary", being a reprint of the Riverside, and in what amounts to damning by faint praise, the whole thing is considered "acceptable". The main criticisms centre on the choice of the essays included at the back of the edition. The main problem appears to be that only two essays treat of the changes made by Chaucer to Boccaccio, that of Lewis and Davis Taylor. Lewis is considered to be "barely teachable", and Taylor is a numerical list rather than actual analysis. Citation in Italian, and words like Frauendienst (Service of the Lady) and ὕβρις (hubris, over-weening pride or supercilliousness) are all deemed beyond students' abilities. The putative lack of good essays out there is finally suggested as an almost inadvertent benefit of this Norton edition, inspiring others to go out and do it.

While I sympathize with untranslated words, I do think that this should provide the lecturer/instructor with an opportunity to talk about these concepts; not understanding something is a moment when students need to consult dictionaries and encyclopediae. I don't think that it is a bad thing at all to have a bit of difficult material for students to work on, it encourages independent work. And there's no doubt that Lewis' essay is difficult, but it is far more difficult to ignore and is surely an important point of reference for all critics who subsequently wrote about Chaucer and Boccaccio. The other articles at the back of the Norton edition are intended to provide material for a much rounder and broader set of views on the Troilus rather than being solely an analysis of the changes to the Filostrato. The student would, in any case, need to consult carefully B.A. Windeatt's Troilus and Criseyde (London, 1984; 1990), whose introduction and notes would provide much of the necessary detail. This is one of the great strengths of the edition in that it can be used so efficiently with Windeatt's text (an admittedly specialist edition) to great effect. The assumption that medieval authors unthinkingly recycled material could easily be dealt with in reading Henryson's poem, also included in the Norton edition and not mentioned at all by the reviewer. This is a pity and a real missed opportunity to make observations on what the editor was saying by putting these texts together and how teaching the Troilus would be enriched and deepened by a reading of the Older Scots poem.

In sum, as a user of this edition for both my research and in my teaching, as a reader who has thought long and hard about both the texts in this edition and the critical essays at the back, I'd like to warmly recommend this volume as nothing short of indispensible.


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