Michael Richardson discusses how literature can help shed new light on our understanding of torture, trauma, and affect
How did you come to write Gestures of Testimony?
One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to declassify the Torture Memos of the Bush Administration. Suddenly, the architecture of American torture was visible to an extent that it had never been before. At the time, I was working as a speechwriter in Canada for Jack Layton, who was then the leader of the New Democratic Party, and watching very closely what was happening across the border. I became obsessed with how torture was articulated and authorised, and even more so with the effect it had on both survivors and perpetrators. I’ve always understood the world through writing and literature, so I wanted to understand torture in that context too. That led me to a PhD on torture, literature and politics, and from there to writing Gestures of Testimony. (more…)
British artist Tom Harman discusses how critical theory led him to return to painting
When did you start painting?
Drawing and painting, for me, was what I always did and was always good at. Throughout school I only ever wanted to paint and couldn’t wait to leave at 16 and begin a BTECH in Art and Design at my local FE college. This was a great experience, at last getting to create visual material all day, every day. I was particularly interested in painting that had some form of social commentary and was influenced by the New Glasgow Boys, painters from the Glasgow School of Art such as Steven Campbell, Peter Howson and Ken Currie, as well as the big names in British painting such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. (more…)
Aimee Pozorski discusses the complex ways we engage with art and writing in the wake of the September 11th attacks
We are conducting this interview fifteen years after the September 11th terrorist attacks took place. What motivated you to write Falling After 9/11? How did the project begin?
The project began with the installation of Graydon Parrish’s 9/11 mural, Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, which was commissioned in 2002 by the New Britain Museum of American Art in my hometown of New Britain, CT. It took Parrish four years to complete the work, and when it was finally revealed, some critics savaged it for its commitments to Classical Realism. After being outraged that reviewers could be so callous, my training in trauma theory kicked in. As a trauma theorist who studies literature, I frequently consider ways in which a text’s moments of so-called failure can actually succeed in telling us something not only about the nature of representation but also about traumatic history itself. What does it mean that so many representations of 9/11 seemed inadequate? I asked myself. And does that have more do to with the nature of trauma and our reception of art and literature than it does with the singular talents or contributions of individual artists themselves? (more…)
Neil Badmington discusses his fascination with the work of Barthes, the continuing relevance of critical theory, and his own approach to academic style
What led you to write The Afterlives of Roland Barthes?
‘Who’ rather than ‘What’, really. It’s all the fault of my good friend Jürgen Pieters, who has repeatedly led me, with our conversations over the years, in new directions. In 2006 Jürgen and Kris Pint (who was Jürgen’s PhD student at the time) organised a conference at their home institution of Ghent University on Barthes’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, which had recently appeared in print for the first time. I’m not sure why I was invited to participate: the other speakers were people with formidable reputations in the field of Barthes studies (Andy Stafford and Claude Coste, for instance), while I’d never written extensively about Barthes. His work had often informed mine up until that point — he’s there in Alien Chic and even the Posthumanism anthology, for instance — but he’d not been the primary object of analysis: I’d written with Barthes, not on Barthes. And the Barthes with whom I’d written had been the familiar Barthes, the ‘classic’ Barthes — the Barthes of S/Z and Mythologies, for example. But the unexpected invitation from Jürgen and Kris led me to look closely at the various volumes bearing Barthes’s name which had been published long after his death, and I was struck by how a different Barthes, another Barthes, was emerging gradually into print — not just the Barthes of the Collège years, but the Barthes of Travels in China, the Barthes of the seminars at the École pratique des hautes études, and the Barthes of Journal de deuil (or Mourning Diary, to give it its English title). It was the appearance of the latter in French in 2009 which really convinced me that The Afterlives of Roland Barthes needed to be written, in fact. I remember reading it at the time and realising as I turned the pages that it was altering my established perspective on Camera Lucida. This ‘new’ Barthes was reshaping the ‘old’ Barthes. In short, then, I wrote Afterlives to take stock of some of the posthumous publications which have appeared in recent years, and to ask how they might lead us to reconsider our understanding of the well-known publications which appeared during Barthes’s lifetime. (more…)
Ann Basu discusses how Philip Roth reveals the contradictions at the heart of American identity
What motivated you to write States of Trial?
My imagination was lit, in particular, by the historical perspectives of Roth’s American Trilogy: American Pastoral, (1997) I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) as well as its forerunner, Operation Shylock (1993) and a slightly later novel, The Plot Against America (2004). I became fascinated by how Roth tests narratives about both national and male identity to the point of destruction, uncovering the contradictions within concepts of American identity. Roth displays a powerful sense of conflicting historical forces impacting on personal identity, combining this with portraits of individuals tormented by contradictions in their own lives; contradictions that may both stretch and limit them. I found these major late-career novels compelling and wanted to write about them. The trial, a resonant concept in terms of American history and personal identity with its connotations of testing, suffering and also experimentation, was a good lens, I thought. It was productive for me, anyway. (more…)
Adam Weiner discusses how a Russian socialist novel from the nineteenth-century influenced the work of Ayn Rand and subsequent economic deregulation in the United States
What motivated you to write How Bad Writing Destroyed the World?
The idea evolved over time. While I was attending university I kept hearing about what an incredible, life-transforming experience it was to read Ayn Rand’s novels. Eventually I became curious enough to read The Fountainhead. The awfulness of the writing dumbfounded me, and I began to wonder what people could possibly be finding in there—it couldn’t be pleasures of an artistic order, so something else. As a graduate student I had to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s history-making but horribly written novel What Is to Be Done? and I became immediately aware that its badness was akin to what I had found in Ayn Rand. I mean not merely the clunky prose style and android heroes, but the dictatorial, sermonizing tone, and the sense that questionable ideological values were being hawked practically for free. When I began to teach literature at Wellesley College some of my students kept naming Ayn Rand and Nabokov as their favourite writers, and I was dismayed that the two names were being spoken in the same breath. So I read Atlas Shrugged. Only then did I get it: Ayn Rand, while officially despising socialism, had found her most immediate literary inspiration in Russia’s homegrown socialist, Chernyshevsky. All of the same ideas, devices, images: the same rational egoism; the same utopian scheming, right down to weird details, like perpetual motion machines. Humankind would discover miraculous new metals, motors and professional relations that would allow them to re-shape the world in their own image. Do god’s work. Become the master of your destiny. Etc., etc. I knew that all of this nonsense had been a direct inspiration to Lenin, who had destroyed the Russian Empire under its heady influence. Suddenly I saw that Ayn Rand had done much the same thing in the US by programming Alan Greenspan with objectivism and unleashing him into our economy, where he deregulated everything to the point of disaster and beyond. That’s when the book took shape in my mind. (more…)
Peter J. Beck discusses the history of H.G. Wells’ iconic sci-fi novel, and how it continues to resonate in popular culture
What inspired you to write the book?
I have lived in Woking since 1971. Over time I became increasingly aware of the town’s links with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Woking is the place where he researched, wrote and set the book. My house is located within one mile or so of both Horsell Common, where Wells’ Martians landed, and 141 Maybury Road, the house where Wells wrote the story. Apart from walking the trail of the story and reading his books, during the late 1980s I began researching Wells’ correspondence, most notably that held by archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Yale University Library. This research was basically undertaken out of personal interest rather than with a view to publication, since as a professor of history my principal areas of research and publication were the history of British foreign policy and international organisation. RAE pressures – my membership of the RAE History panel for the 1992 and 1996 RAEs made me acutely aware of these – left no time for other research topics. However, I taught a course at Kingston University on ‘Literature, Art and War 1860-1920’, and introduced The War of the Worlds as one of the war scare set texts alongside The Battle of Dorking. I began to write up my research about Wells’ The War of the Worlds only in 2012 after finishing two contracted books: Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76 (2006) and Presenting History: Past and Present (2012). A further source of inspiration was my membership of a Woking Task Group set up in 2013 to organise a programme of events celebrating Wells’ links with Woking in 2016, a year marking the 150th anniversary of his birth and the 70th anniversary of his death. I represented the H.G. Wells Society on this task group. (more…)
Alice Kaplan shares how Albert Camus wrote one of the twentieth century’s most iconic novels
What inspired you to write Looking for The Stranger?
The Stranger is the first novel I ever read in French, and the first novel I ever taught. I’ve always been struck by the fact that during all the years I spent studying it, word by word and scene by scene, I learned almost nothing at all about its Algerian setting. My trips to Algeria, my visits to the places Camus lived when he worked on the book were deeply inspiring. Twenty years ago, there was no way to travel to Algeria and I feel very lucky to have been able to explore Camus’s life there.
Your titledraws attention to the elusiveness of Camus’ novel. What kinds of challenges did you face during your research?
That’s a question every researcher loves to answer! Whatever papers Camus used to write the novel are lost. One theory has it that he left all his stuff in the Madison Hotel on the Boulevard Saint Germain when he evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand during the German invasion. The Germans eventually requisitioned the hotel, and by the time he went to collect his belongings there was nothing left. So I had to imagine what inspired him, through hints in his letters, his diaries, and in the novel itself: James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; the Fernandel comedy, Le Schpountz; trials he covered for the newspaper Alger-Républicain. Then there are the manuscripts. If you set out to write the life story of a novel, the various manuscript versions are bound to tell a compelling story about how the writing evolved. In the case of The Stranger, there is only one available manuscript, which seems to be cobbled together from several versions. Part of it is hand written and part typed. The most interesting thing about that manuscript is that “Meursault” is spelled without an e, “Mersault.” When did he add that “u”, which put death (meur) right in his narrator’s name? (more…)