Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

Thomas Laqueur awarded 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature

LaqueurWarmest congratulations to Thomas W. Laqueur, acclaimed cultural historian and author of The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, for winning the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill University.

Laqueur, whose book offers a compelling and richly detailed account of how and why the living have cared for the dead since antiquity, received the high honor at a gala ceremony in Toronto last night. The Cundill Prize, now in its ninth year, is one of the most lucrative prizes in the field of historical literature. Shortlisted authors win $10,000 and the winner receives $75,000. The shortlist of three finalists was chosen on October 6th and include:

David Wootton- The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (HarperCollins) 

Andrea Wulf- The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Alfred A. Knopf, John Murray Publishers)

This year’s short list was chosen by the Cundill jury, which included Timothy Brook, Republic of China Chair, University of British Columbia; John Darwin, Professor of Global and Imperial History and Director, Oxford Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; and Anna Porter, Co-founder, Key Porter Books and author (Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy, The Ghosts of Europe).

Congratulations to Thomas Laqueur and all the finalists for this high honor.

Thomas Laqueur receives The Cundill Prize

Thomas Laqueur receives the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill University

 

Reiner Stach explores neglected period of Kafka’s life in crowning volume

The culmination of two decades of work, Reiner Stach’s three-part, masterful biography of Franz Kafka, one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and mysterious writers, is now complete. Kafka: The Early Years joins Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight, offering an unmatched account of how a boy who grew up in an old Central European monarchy helped create modern literature. The book makes use of previously untapped sources, including including family letters, schoolmates’ memoirs, and early diaries of Kafka’s close friend Max Brod.

High praise for the previous volumes from John Banville, New York Review of Books:

“This is one of the great literary biographies, to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, George Painter’s Marcel Proust, and Leon Edel’s Henry James. . . . [A]n eerily immediate portrait of one of literature’s most enduring and enigmatic masters.”

Check out the trailer for the complete three-volume biography here:

Reiner Stach worked extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka’s collected works before embarking on his three-volume biography of the writer. Shelley Frisch’s translations of those volumes were awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

Iris Murdoch: A writer ahead of her time

Living on Paper Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, co-edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, is a close examination of Murdoch’s life and writing, completely composed of her own personal correspondence. With its rare insights into Murdoch’s emotional and intellectual life, Living on Paper is sparking interest in her work and history from a new generation of readers. Recently Horner and Rowe took the time to speak to the project’s importance.

What was the original inspiration for Living on Paper?

AH & AR: The Iris Murdoch Archive was inaugurated at Kingston University in 2004 and now holds over 3,000 letters written by Iris Murdoch, as well as photographs, notebooks, original manuscripts and two private libraries: these comprise a relatively small library from her London flat and a much larger library from her Oxford study that contains over 1,000 books of which over a hundred are heavily annotated. Over the past 12 years Anne has successfully submitted bids to various funding bodies in order to purchase important letter runs to Murdoch’s close friends, including writers, painters, students and lovers. Other letter runs were kindly donated by individuals who had corresponded with Murdoch and a number of additional runs were gifted by the families or friends of correspondents. The quality and interest of the letters were such that in 2010, we decided to select the most interesting of these for publication. In 2011 we were offered a book contract by Chatto & Windus in the UK and started serious work on the project. Of the 764 letters that comprise Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995, over 500 are from Kingston’s Iris Murdoch Archive. The rest were sourced from other university archives – Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and the LSE in England; the University of Iowa, Washington University, St. Louis, and Stanford University, California in the United States. (Avril was awarded funding by the Leverhulme Trust that enabled her to travel to most of these universities; others were kind enough send us photocopies of their holdings.) We thought it would take us two years to put the book together but we actually spent four years working on Living on Paper before it went to press.

Why was Murdoch such a prolific letter writer?

AH & AR: As John Sutherland pointed out in his review of Living on Paper in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books, Murdoch was brought up in a generation used to writing letters almost every day: ‘The habit was instilled at her boarding school, where letters home were an obligatory chore’. The habit never died and, in fact, she loved writing letters: ‘I can live in letters’ she wrote to her life-long friend, Philippa Foot in 1968. She would work on her novels and philosophical writings in the mornings and in the afternoon she would write letters, often spending up to four hours a day on them. Murdoch wrote all of them by hand using her favourite fountain pen. She answered every letter she received, responding even to complete strangers with great courtesy, and she would often reply immediately to friends or lovers who were currently in her thoughts. Like all writers, she was immensely curious about other people, and letters allowed her an intimacy with them and an imaginative entry into their thoughts and lives. It seems likely, despite the fact that she claimed never to use her own life or the lives of her friends in her novels, that she did draw on them for inspiration. She was careful though to transform imaginatively real people and situations so that they become unrecognisable in her art – at least most of the time.

How did you decide from a vast pool of resources which letters to include and which to leave out?

AH & AR: We read over 5,000 letters while working on the book and choosing which to include was a difficult task. We decided to focus on letter runs that, taken together, give what we hope is a full picture of a complicated personality, from Murdoch’s school days to her final years. Our aim was to present Murdoch’s life in her own words and to select interesting letters that shed light on both her emotional and her intellectual development. Our greatest regret is that we were unable to find any letters to John Bayley. When Murdoch and her husband moved from Steeple Aston to a much smaller house in Oxford in 1986, they burnt many letters and documents. We suspect that Murdoch’s letters to her husband were destroyed at this time. We also have only a few notes to Elias Canetti; there are thirty-one letters from Murdoch to Canetti in the Zentralbibliothek Zurich, but these are closed until 2024. There was no ideal solution to the problem of what to include and what to leave out – but we found ourselves remarkably like-minded in our choices, guided always by the desire to tell the truth about a remarkable life.

What do we learn about Iris Murdoch from her letters that we did not know before?

AH & AR: We have been very pleased by the number of reviewers who have remarked that Living on Paper has brought to light a fresh portrait of Murdoch. Many have commented on her ability to sustain long friendships, even with ex-lovers, and have noted her immense warmth and generosity, both emotional and financial. Others have been surprised by her vulnerability and her insecurities about her own abilities. Several have remarked on her obsessiveness (this obviously fed into her novels, many of which offer brilliant portraits of obsessive desire) and on her droll sense of humour – something not evident from previous biographical studies. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her character that emerges from the letters is the way she perceived her own gender as fluid. In a fascinating letter to the mathematician Geroge Kreisel, written in 1967, she says, ‘I think I am sexually rather odd, which is a male homosexual in female guise. […] I doubt if Freud knew anything about me, though Proust knew about my male equivalent.’ She was not comfortable with any kind of gender labels, either lesbian, or homosexual or heterosexual: she did not feel that she fitted into any preordained category. This aspect of her character has greatly interested reviewers and will fascinate readers.

What letter run is your favorite or the most significant in giving an insight into Murdoch’s character/personality?

AH: I particularly like Murdoch’s letters to Raymond Queneau and to Brigid Brophy. Her correspondence with the French writer Raymond Queneau began shortly after she met him in Innsbruck in 1946 and lasted for thirty years. Through it we can track both her excitement about French literature and philosophy and the enormous intellectual influence Queneau had on her mind and work (Under the Net is dedicated to him and owes much to his novel Pierrot Mon Ami) as well as the sad tale of her unrequited love for him. Queneau, living in Paris and married with a son, was clearly fond of Murdoch and knew she had talent but resisted her overtures for him to become her lover. Over the years, Murdoch’s obsessive desire for Queneau transmuted into a dignified settling for his friendship but it is clear that she felt, for many years, that he was her true intellectual soul-mate.

Murdoch’s letters to Brigid Brophy, whom she met in 1954 are altogether different. Like Queneau, Brophy was an immensely gifted polymath but she was also a political activist (she frequently expressed her deep antipathy to the war in Vietnam), an outspoken advocate of bisexuality and a vegan when few people had heard of the word. Beautiful, provocative, witty, erratic and irreverent she greatly appealed to Murdoch and in some ways functioned as her alter ego. They quickly became close, enriching each other intellectually and exchanging ideas, often daily, on paper. (The Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston holds over a 1,000 letters from Murdoch to Brophy.) Murdoch’s letters to Brophy are distinguished by their intensity of feeling, their intellectual acrobatics and their humour. The relationship was a stormy one, however, and Murdoch came to feel that she could never quite meet Brophy’s demands; nor did she wish to jeopardize her marriage to John Bayley. The intense liaison came to an end in 1967, when Brophy fell in love with Maureen Duffy, but Murdoch and Brophy kept in touch, on and off, until Brophy’s death from muscular sclerosis in 1995.

AR: For me, the letters to two students whom Murdoch befriended at the Royal College of Art between 1963 and 1967 are my favourite. David Morgan had a troubled adolescence that resulted in a spell in a home for maladjusted boys. Murdoch was fascinated by his unconventional background and stimulated by his views on art and obvious talent. She was attracted too by his good looks, and intrigued by his complicated love-life. Her sexually-charged and unwise relationship with him brought her perilously close to scandal. Yet she could not relinquish their friendship. Morgan was both enchanting and thrilling and she relished the danger he posed to himself and also to her. Morgan finds his way into the portrayal of dark, brooding ‘outsider’ characters and her fascination with him gives brilliance to the psychological realism that underpins them. These letters are electric in their intensity and have a compelling narrative – Murdoch is furious and fond in equal measure. Morgan came close to destroying Murdoch’s integrity as a wife, writer and public intellectual. Her letters to him, for me, provide the most compulsive reading in the book.

Rachel Fenner was assigned Murdoch as her supervisor and fell in love with her. Although making it clear that she could not reciprocate Rachel’s desire for intimacy, the two women became close. After seeking Murdoch’s advice, Rachel subsequently married but experiencing troubling emotional turmoil turned to Murdoch for support. Murdoch’s letters to her are among the most moving in the book and, unusually, Murdoch dispenses practical advice akin to her own moral philosophy: ‘Of course we are rather mechanical [. . .] but everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us that is not mechanical’. Murdoch condones their love here, despite the impossibility of fulfillment. But the relationship created turmoil in Fenner’s life and Murdoch’s letters illustrate that living by high moral standards was as difficult for her as the characters in her novels. With significant help and encouragement from Murdoch both Morgan and Fenner went on to highly successful careers, Morgan as a teacher and Fenner as a sculptor. Their love for their former teacher still endures.

How will Living on Paper change our reading of Murdoch’s novels and why might they attract a new generation of readers?

AH & AR: Even older readers who know Murdoch’s novels well might see them rather differently having read Living on Paper. For example, the sense of humour evident in many of her letters will alert the reader to the comical nature of many relationships and situations in her fiction. Murdoch’s interest in Mozart – previously undocumented and inspired by Brophy’s passion for the composer – we can now see reflected in the Mozartian dance of couples who interchange partners in such a way as to lend many of her novels a slightly comic and operatic air.

New and younger readers will undoubtedly be fascinated by Murdoch’s portrayal of sexuality. Recent research into sexual identities suggests that almost half of young people today are redefining sexuality in a surge of carefree “gender fluidity”. Murdoch’s views on sexual orientation and gender proclivity will not be in the least shocking to this younger generation, who will share them. This like-mindedness may mean that they will make very different interpretations of the tragedies at the heart of Murdoch’s novels as they are now able to consider them openly in terms of sexual repression and the social construction of gender. Whereas those who read Murdoch’s novels as they were published between the 1950s and the 1990s might have found her picture of humanity eccentric and far-fetched, many contemporary readers will find kindred spirits in her fiction. The propensity of Murdoch’s characters to have casual sexual liaisons with friends, the great speed with which they move in and out of sexual liaisons and the ambivalence about gender that mark her novels will no longer alienate twenty-first century readers who, instead, will see Iris Murdoch as a writer decades ahead of her time.

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe are the coeditors of Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts and Iris Murdoch and Morality. They most recently edited together Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch. Horner is professor emeritus of English literature at Kingston University in London, and has published widely on women’s writing and gothic fiction. Rowe is associate professor of English literature and director of the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University. She is the lead editor of the Iris Murdoch Review, the author of The Visual Arts and Iris Murdoch, and the coauthor of Iris Murdoch: A Literary Life. 

George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Emma’s Muslim Counterpart

A Lost Persian Diary from Jane Austen’s England

by Nile Green

December 2015 marks the two hundred year anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma. As symbolized in Lord Byron’s introduction to Sir Walter Scott that year in the offices of Emma’s publisher, John Murray, 1815 was one of the most notable years in English literary history.

But there is another important work from the period that has lain forgotten for two centuries. It is the diary of a young Muslim from Iran who spent four years exploring the society from which Austen created Emma’s elegant little world. Written in England, the diary was composed in the Persian language, so while it is not part of ‘English literature,’ it should still be considered part of ‘England’s literature.’ For that reason, the diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi needs setting beside Emma as its forgotten Muslim counterpart.

1811 Coach from the London-Cheltenham Route

Jane (or Salih) Sat Here? 1811 Coach from the London-Cheltenham Route

As a rapidly written diary, Mirza Salih’s text cannot lay claim to the celebrated artistry of Austen writing at the peak of her powers in Emma’s innovative point-of-view prose. But in the spirit of the Persian literary tradition of the su’al va javab, or ‘call and response,’ we might consider the diary as the non-fictional reply to Emma’s, and Austen’s, world.

Along with his five Muslim companions, Mirza Salih had arrived in London in the fall of 1815, a few months before the novel was published. They lodged with their aptly named chaperone, Mr. D’Arcy (though not Darcy), in his splendid Regency bachelor pad overlooking Leicester Square. Jane Austen was also living in London’s West End that season, staying on Sloane Street with her brother, Henry. The Iranians were the first Muslims ever to study in western Europe and they had just wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu. It was to shape their entire experience of English life.

Many of the themes of Emma find echoes in the Persian diary. Like Emma Woodhouse, Mirza Salih was much concerned with his social standing and recorded many of the slights he experienced. He was no less ambitious than Emma; like her, he was what we would now call a brilliant social networker. And like Austen’s novel, his diary ends with a wedding.

The echoes between the two texts are not only thematic, though. They are also in the more tangible realm of place. In the novel, Emma’s sister Isabella lives with her family on London’s Brunswick Square, whereas a few months after its publication Mirza Salih could be found living with his tutor two minutes’ walk away on neighboring Queen Square. Just as in the novel Mr Elton went to Bath to meet his beloved Augusta, Mirza Salih also journeyed there to take the waters and show off his fashionable pelisse. (An 1814 pelisse is on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton that supposedly belonged to the author).

When Austen wrote of Augusta Elton that “her Bath habits made evening-parties perfectly natural to her, and Maple Grove had given her a taste for dinners,” she might have been writing of Mirza Salih, whose charms at Bath’s dinner parties were still remembered decades later. On one occasion, he dined as the guest of Mrs Hester Piozzi, the celebrated literary hostess and close friend of Dr Johnson. Although Austen had mocked Mrs Piozzi in a letter to her sister Cassandra in June 1799, ironically she never became famous enough in her lifetime to be invited to Piozzi’s salon.

As for Augusta’s background before her rise to respectability that the snobbish Emma disdained, she was “the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol — merchant, of course, he must be called.” Though Mirza Salih shared some of Emma’s social anxieties, he was fascinated by the merchant industrialists who are usually hidden or slighted in Austen’s novels. And it was in Bristol that he made friends with several of them. He visited the home of the prosperous merchant John Harford, who showed him the glassworks and iron foundries that powered him (and Mrs Elton) to prosperity and (for Emma, false) respectability. Indeed, like Augusta through her marriage to the poor but well-born Mr Elton, Harford likewise secured his family’s admission to the gentry through marriage.

Like many characters in Austen’s novels, Mr Elton was a vicar. As with Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Austen drew on a class of men she knew well when she created Mr Elton. Her father, brother and many of their friends were clergymen. Like Mr Elton, her father, George, was genteel but far from rich. As a result, George Austen had to open a small private school to make ends meet. It was at another such little ‘Academy for Gentlemen’ — this one run by a provincial vicar called John Bisset — that Mirza Salih learned English (and, like Jane from her father, French). Like George Austen, John Bisset was an Oxford graduate. He passed on the varsity’s lessons to Mirza Salih, who was forbidden to enter Oxford as a Muslim just as the similarly ‘vicarious’ student Jane was forbidden entry as a woman.

As I researched my book about Mirza Salih’s adventures in England, it often seemed as though he was miming scenes out of Emma, whether at study or at play. He even recorded an amorous coach journey through the West Country that mirrored the travels of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax en route to their tryst in Dorset.

While there is every reason to celebrate the bicentenary of Emma this month, it’s also an occasion to resurrect its lost Muslim counterpart. For that forgotten Persian diary is also a part of England’s, if not English, literature.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and  Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.

New Literature Catalog

We invite you to scroll through our Literature 2016 catalog:

 

Murdoch Living on Paper is necessary reading for any fans of Iris Murdoch. It is the first major collection of Murdoch’s personal letters from 1934 to 1995.
BelcherKleiner Delve into the first English translation of the first-known book-length biography of an African woman with The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros by Galawdewos for extraordinary insight into the experiences of Africans, and particularly African women, before the modern era.
Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a beloved classic. Enjoy this well-known story alongside surreal illustrations by Salvador Dalí in honor of the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s work.

Finally, PUP is proud to have several books honored in the end of year roundups:

The Ruined Elegance by Fiona Sze-Lorrain is one of Library Journal’s “Best Books of 2015 in Poetry.”

The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat has been recognized as one of Art World’s “Top 10 Art Books to Read During Thanksgiving, 2015.”

Slate has included Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man in its list of “Overlooked Books of 2015” and NewStatesman has recognized it as a “Book of the Year” for 2015.

On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Tóibín and Dictionary of Untranslatables by Barbara Cassin have each been named one of the “Best Books of 2015” by the Guardian.

Flavorwire has included Caroline Levine’s Forms in its list of “10 Best Books by Academic Publishers” in 2015.

If you would like updates on new titles, subscribe to our newsletter.

PUP will be at the Modern Language Association Convention taking place from January 7 to January 10 in Austin. Visit us at booth #311 or participate online with #MLA16. If you would like a copy of On Elizabeth Bishop signed by Colm Tóibín, stop by at about 3:15.

Children’s Literature for Grownups #ReadUp

Have you ever found yourself returning to a book considered “children’s literature?” There’s just something about our favorite children’s books that can draw us in. What’s with the magnetism? Children’s books are a part of our literary foundation, and some of the best ones hold a special place in our hearts. Or is it something more?

k10538Remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? First published in 1865, PUP is publishing a new edition in honor of the 150th anniversary, illustrated by none other than the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí.

The whimsical world of Wonderland holds a special charm for both children and adults. You can bet more adults will be purchasing this item for themselves than for their children, both for the sense of nostalgia and for the promise of new things that children’s books inevitably hold. This promise is much more prominent in children’s books than it is in adult books because children’s books are written differently. They are written with the idea that they will likely be revisited, often including multiple layers and facets. Just ask Neil Gaiman. In a recent article, Gaiman notes that “When I’m writing for kids, I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults.”

Re-reading a children’s book as an adult brings the gift of new perspective. Would you read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit the same way now as you did when you were 10? We might find and identify common themes, or develop sympathies for characters we formerly loved to hate. When we revisit these stories later in life, we read them with a new lens, one altered by experience and time, often picking up on new and interesting tidbits that we never knew existed. This is particularly true of fairy tales. If these Disney-esque stories are meant for children, why do we, as adults, enjoy them so much? The answer probably lies in their adult origins. One of PUP’s most popular recent books is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. The first edition. Take note.k10300

AndreaDezso_BrothersGrimm3As David Barnett states in The Guardian in a piece titled, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm . . . did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work. . . . And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairy tales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.”

These stories were not polished and sanitized until much later. Originally, they were filled with violence and other adult content. (As evidenced by the picture on the above left, by Andrea Dezsö, featured in PUP’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm). This image is from a tale entitled Herr Fix-It-Up. Herr Fix-It-Up must complete tasks denoted by a lord and king in order to win the lord his princess bride. One of the tasks is to kill a unicorn that’s been “causing a great deal of damage.” By today’s standards, beheading of unicorns is hardly the stuff of children’s tales, but these tales are more sociological accounts than children’s stories, reflecting the sensibilities of the time period and place in which they were written.

UntitledOthk10312er “children’s” books expand on this very aspect of fairy tales, including The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison takes many of the classic tales of our childhood including Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid and re-imagines them for an older audience.

As a fairly new member of the press, it never occurred to me that some titles on our list would include some of my old favorites. What children’s books do you love more as an adult?

 

You can take a tour of the gorgeous interior of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here:

 

 

Feature image by Steve Czajka – https://www.flickr.com/photos/steveczajka/11392783794

Frontispiece designed by Gertrude Hermes

 

An exclusive trailer for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, featuring illustrations by Salvador Dalí

ALICE WAS BEGINNING TO get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Thus begins Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of the most beloved classics of children’s literature. Commemorating the 150th anniversary of its publication, this illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, edited by Lewis Carroll expert Mark Burstein, features rarely seen illustrations by Salvador Dalí. In the introduction, Burstein discusses Dalí’s connections with Carroll, the nature of wonderland, and his treatment of the towering (though sometimes shrinking) figure of Alice.

Take an exclusive peek inside the curiously mathematical world into which Alice famously falls, here:

An interview with poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain on “The Ruined Elegance”

Sze-Lorrain, poet

© Dominique Nabokov, 2015, Paris

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In her new collection—an intercultural journey that traces lives, encounters, exiles, and memories from France, America, and Asia—she offers a nuanced yet dynamic vision of humanity marked by perils, surprises, and transcendence. Recently she took the time to answer some questions about The Ruined Elegance.

Can you speak a little about your writing process or how these poems came about?

FS: Almost every poem in this collection behaved like a beast. I lost whenever I tried to fight it, until I realized how far I missed the mark. “To question the options of elegy, I’ve probably chosen the wrong epic.” [from the poem “Back from the Aegean Sea”] Several verses and their poetic narratives were deviating at the start, in part because I had tried to be clever about a “lyric/anti-lyric.” I wanted silence and music. What better paradox could there be?

It did feel like a crisis when I could only pick these poems up from their “ruins.” I censored words and images even before saying them out loud or putting them down on the page. Part of my illusion had to do with my folly of “writing to tame vulnerability and speechlessness” on the page. While finding ways to cope, I felt drawn to reading poems that were gentle yet could sustain a certain emotional rawness and moral jolt. To recenter myself, I walked — from one arrondissement to another.

The Ruined Elegance jacketWhat colors come to mind when you revisit the poems in The Ruined Elegance?

FS: Violet, vermillion, and shades of gray-green. No vintage “black and white.”

Why not?

FS: Because I hope to have the poems operate beyond witnessing, documenting or commenting about their socio-historical sources, even if some of the thematic concerns relate to specific political events — these poems believe in history, but they don’t live in the past.

Why poetry?  What would you like to be if you weren’t a poet, literary translator, or zheng harpist?

FS: I didn’t plan to “be a poet.”  Poems and Bach bring me as much joy as doubt, though sometimes not as much company as would horses and trees.

Why poetry — because it can still resist greed and social constructs.  Were I not a poet or musician, I would like to play bridge professionally or practice herbology and phytotherapy.

What are some of your poetic influences?

FS: Dickinson, Lowell, Rimbaud, Milosz, Lorca, Białoszewski, Montale… as well as translations of Buddhist scriptures and Latin texts.

 Please offer some reading recommendations for our readers.

FS: Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: it is my perennial “drug” or ritual.

I also recommend C.G. Jung’s The Red Book, Aesop’s Fables, photography catalogues of Tina Modotti, Susan Stewart’s On Longing, Pico Iyer’s The Open Road, Mark Strand’s Collected Poems, Simone de Beauvoir’s Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death], and photographs of the Baudelairian Paris by Eugène Atget.

An excerpt from The Ruined Elegance. Note, the first line is after the last verse of her translation “Mirror,” by contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Zao, forthcoming from Zephyr Press:

Poem excerpt
Chapter one is available here.

150 years ago today, Alice in Wonderland was published

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandJuly 4, 2015 may be about Independence Day in the United States, but in Oxford, it’s about one of the great heroes of fiction, a young girl who followed a white rabbit, met a hookah-smoking caterpillar and asked, “Who are you?” 

In July 1865, 150 years ago, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a professor of mathematics and Anglican deacon, published Alice’s Adventures Underground, a story about a little girl who tumbles down a rabbit hole into a world of nonsense, but keeps her wits about her. With this the world was first introduced to Alice (who was inspired by a real child named Alice Liddell) and her pseudonymous creator, Lewis Carroll. To commemorate the anniversary, the rare first edition recently went on display in Oxford. Princeton University Press is honored to publish our own beautiful new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandwith rarely seen illustrations by none other than Salvador Dalí.

Of course, Alice doesn’t just have a whimsical adventure full of anthropomorphic creatures. She falls into a world that is curiously logical and mathematical. Carroll expert Mark Burstein discusses Dalí’s connections with Carroll, his treatment of the symbolic figure of Alice, and the mathematical nature of Wonderland. In addition, mathematician Thomas Banchoff reflects on the friendship he shared with Dalí and the mathematical undercurrents in Dalí’s work.

Explore chapter one in full here, view the best illustrations over the years on Brain Pickings, or click here for a list of anniversary-related events. If you’re here in New Jersey, Washington Crossing’s Open Air Theater will be performing Alice in Wonderland in the park today at 11 and tomorrow at 4.

Happy birthday, Alice!