Month: December 2016

A Visit to Doll Hospital

Doll Hospital, Issue 2. Editor: Bethany Rose Lamont
Bethany Rose Lamont on a print journal that discusses mental health issues through art and literature

What inspired you to start Doll Hospital?

I started Doll Hospital in 2014 when I was 23 and a suicidal master’s student at Oxford. I’m 25 now and a suicidal PhD student at Central Saint Martins, so, like, ‘inspiring’ may not be the best word but hey, in two and half years we’ve put out three 150 page plus full colour issues which is cool. My reason for starting it wasn’t particularly worthy. I was literally just told by my friends to stop tweeting about killing myself as it was freaking everyone out so I was like ‘screw you guys I’ll find another space to make people uncomfortable!’—which is a hilarious backstory in my humble opinion.

Could you tell me how you chose the provocative title?

I came across the phrase ‘doll hospital’ in the 2012 Spring/Summer edition of Another Magazine, the author Joe Dunthorne had curated a photo series, pairing quotes with interesting images. One of the quotes read something along the lines of ‘this is the doll hospital, they come to me broken and I bring them new life’. I just became totally taken in by that line! I had also recently read The Bluest Eye, and the notion of deconstructing white supremacy via the imagery of the doll, of Shirley Temple, was so powerful to me. From then on all my social media was under the handle ‘doll hospital’. I just thought it was the best combination of words, so inevitably when it came to choosing a title for the journal I went with Doll Hospital too!Read More

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Levinas & Derrida: The Literary Afterlife of Religion

Detail from Abraham's Sacrifice (1655), an etching and drypoint by Rembrandt. National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Sarah Hammerschlag discusses how the work of Levinas and Derrida can help us to rethink the relationship between religion, literature, and philosophy

What motivated you to write the book?

Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levines, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)
Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)

This project developed organically out of my first book The Figural Jew, which focuses on the revalorization of the figure of the Jew in post-World War II French literature and philosophy. At the center of that project there was already a nascent argument for introducing literary modes of speech into the political sphere to capitalize on the ways in which irony and plurivocity complicate the politics of identity. The last couple of chapters of that book argue that Blanchot and Derrida develop a literary concept of the Jew and Judaism through a reading of Levinas. But I was still concerned to represent the differences between Derrida and Levinas on the question of how to think about the cultural relevance of Judaism in the post-WWII context and to consider the very important political implications of their respective choices. Broken Tablets  gave me the opportunity to track the implications of those differences and to conceive of them in terms of how each philosopher negotiated his relationship to religion and literature as competing discourses to philosophy.Read More

Reading Biographical Fiction

Michael Lackey on the popularity of the biographical novel, and what it can tell us about the relationship between literature, history and truth
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write The American Biographical Novel

Through my reading of biographical novels, I noticed a shift in the nature of literary truth.  In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad illuminates the colonial mentality that enabled Europeans to plunder Africa and to abuse Africans with impunity.  Conrad represents that mentality through Kurtz, and as the narrator says, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”  In essence, if we want to understand the European mentality that justified colonization and its horrific outcomes, we can look to Kurtz for some answers.  But with the rise of postmodernism, there has been growing skepticism about the traditional literary symbol.

Put simply, postmodernists question the value of an overarching truth claim, because they realize that someone constructed that truth for an ideological or political reason.  This approach to truth impacted the traditional literary symbol, so a postmodernist could easily say: “Look, Joe, you constructed the character of Kurtz in order to promote your own ideological agenda.  Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I should consider a character like Kurtz as symbolic of the European mind.”It is my contention that biographical novelists were becoming increasingly aware of the problems with the traditional literary symbol, but they also did not want to get rid of the literary symbol, because they realized that it could be effectively used to expose the structures and conditions of oppression. Read More

Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi

Primo Levi
Victor Brombert discusses how literature reflects changing ideas about life, death, and the condition of mortality
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

What motivated you to write the book?

Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.

Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?

It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy.Read More