Tag Archives: literature

Shaping an Image of Europe: Half Way Over Iceland (George Bowering: “Discoloured Metal”)

One of the main objectives of shape prose is to show weaknesses and limitations of written language or to emphasize the descriptive power of visual language. Text is physically transformed into illustration(s) to re-introduce the authority of the visual. This provides authors with endless possibilities of expressing the third entity of meaning, and this expands the freedom of interpretation on the part of readers of multimodal texts. The third entity of meaning is a term which I coined in the course of my doctoral research to refer to the new and semantically largely independent meaning derived from the interpretation of the verbal and the visual meanings in a shaped (or in some other way multimodal) texts, in other words, the meaning which is created through the semantical interrelations of the verbal and visual. How is the reading of the text influenced by its multimodal shape? Hallet writes: [visual forms of gesture; a.r.] direct the reader from written discourse to visual elements in the margins of the page and urge them to interrelate the different semiotic elements, thus breaking up the linear continuity of the verbal text and transforming the act of reading into a hypertextual activity (Hallet 2014, 157). Indeed, reading a multimodal shaped text always is an interdisciplinary task which requires from readers a certain sensitivity for both the verbal and the visual, and the meaning that arises from their interaction.

Shaped prose is sometimes referred to as shaped-prose, pattern prose or visual prose, analogous to classification of poetry that features similar visual elements of layout. All these terms describe short prose which can be defined as short stories, and which feature the following types of graphic devices of artistically altered graphic layout (the typology is taken over from my Dissertation defended at the Karl-Franzens University of Graz, Austria, May 2018. Tutek, Nikola (2018) Visual and Verbal Interrelations in Canadian Short Fiction, Dissertation, pg. 299.):

  1. Rendering literary message through the usage of fonts, punctuation (for example, Bowering’s consistent disregard of apostrophe in contractions in The Rain Barrel), interpolation of paragraphs and other sections of text by numbering and lettering. This type of graphic devices is focused on typography and structure of integral texts.
  2. Rendering a literary message through physical re-arrangement and negation of integral texts. This type of graphic devices partially focuses on spacing, that is, on the usage of negative spaces. Negation of texts is achieved with parts of texts which are crossed out but still fully legible (for example, in Bowering’s “Staircase Descended”). Sentences and words which are arranged in this manner are never physically disintegrated, and no textual message is lost or hidden.
  3. Rendering a literary message through physical layout which fractures the text. This device features ‘gorging’ negative or colored spaces which do not respect the border of a sentence, a word or even a character. Parts of texts covered by ‘gorging’ negative or colored spaces cannot be retrieved (for example, the white circles covering the text in Bowering’s “Discoloured Metal”), hence, some of the textual meanings are deliberately lost or hidden.
  4. Graphic layout of the text, which is printed in a shape that alludes to a semantic feature of the text. This type of graphic devices can but do not have to cause a part of the textual message to be lost or hidden (such is, again, Bowering ‘s “Discoloured Metal” where the gorging white circles hide parts of the text and also allude to an airplane window).

The difference between the third and the fourth types is in the fact that the third type hides parts of the meaning of the text by erasing them, and the erased, blank spaces inevitably take certain forms, while in the fourth type these blank forms are not random, they carry a reference to the meaning of the text (or its parts), and they actually reveal parts of the meaning of the text. The third and the fourth types of devices of artistically altered graphic layout will be the most important for the further analysis of Bowering’s short text, namely, the analysis of the meaning of the circular blank and textual fields in the body of the text.

Bowering’s short story “Discoloured Metal”

George Bowering’s short story “Discoloured Metal” from his 1994 collection of short prose The Rain Barrel is a seemingly simple account of a voyage by airplane over the polar route to Germany and back to Canada retold by an unreliable first person narrator. The interesting intervention into the graphic of the text starts on the second printed page of the text with a little blank circle placed in the middle of the page. The blank circle becomes bigger on each following page, eventually making the full understanding of the text impossible. The seventh and the eighth pages of the printed text are entirely blank. On the ninth page an interesting switch occurs; now we can see only the text within a small circle, and the rest of the page is blank. The circle with the text becomes bigger on each subsequent page providing an opposite effect: now with every new page we see more text and get more insight into the meaning of the story. The story ends on the fourteenth page which again features an intact text form.

Bowering’s intervention into the graphic layout of text first provides growing whitened circular forms in the text, and then repeats in negative: the text is reintroduced in expanding circles, we might say black circles, of text. In that way, the text of the story takes on the appearance of a Gestalt image. White and black circles are juxtaposed in apparent weighing of their cognitive powers; the visual authority of whiteness erases parts of narration, and then the whole of it, while circular patches of broken text reinstall the rule of meaning by restoring narration. (The description of George Bowering’s “Discoloured Metal” is based on my Dissertation defended at the Karl-Franzens University of Graz, Austria, May 2018. Tutek, Nikola (2018) Visual and Verbal Interrelations in Canadian Short Fiction, Dissertation, pg. 317-320.)

Two important questions emerge. The first question deals with the semantics of the story: What happened in the blank part of the text? The second question deals with the multimodal interrelations between the semantics of the texts and its altered physical layout: Why white and black circles, what is their meaning, and how do they relate to the semantics of the narration? The answer to the first question is speculative; we can only suppose that the narrator started a conversation with someone, and that the conversation continued to some point where the voyage took a different course. In her analysis of “Discoloured Metal”, Löschnigg writes the following: “This mysterious remark about ‘the very bad thing in the middle’ may refer to a plane accident, the memory of which the protagonist wants to obliterate” (Löschnigg 2014, 244). The second question is more important for my analysis. White circles are reminiscent of the two notions introduced at the beginning of the story: the airplane (windows) and the poles. Are white circles actually airplane windows which, at the departure, narrow our view, and expand it during the return, which is expressed by textual circles? In that case, an interesting visual and semantic opposition is constructed: during the trip to Europe, the story is within the airplane, while the window offers the outside, frozen world, while during the trip back to Canada the situation is the opposite, whiteness is in the airplane, and the story is outside, partially visible through the window. Or do the white circles represent the whiteness of the polar circles, and are textual circles representations of the planet Earth? The blank circles are also reminiscent of the whiteness of the snow. Under snow the landscape loses every feature except the shape, and that’s exactly the effect produced reversibly by the blank and textual circles. Besides gaps in the narrator’s memory, Löschnigg provides the following possible explanations of the meaning of white circles and their relations to the narration:

The expanding circles of emptiness and their subsequent filling up could also visualize the loss and gain of time which affects the traveller between different time zones. […] On yet another level this gradual dis- and re-appearance of words could also be seen as a reflection of the precarious hyphenated situation of the German-Canadian passengers on board, or of the protagonist’s feeling of alienation as the plane tears him away from his home country and his wife (Löschnigg 2014, 245).

There are other literary explanations to this graphical intervention and its interrelations with the semantics of the narration. The first is the semantic connection between the story title, more precisely, the word discoloured with the discoloured circular parts of the text. The second explanation connects the introductory quote at the opening of “Discoloured Metal”, where Bowering cites Henry James: “It’s a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.” (Bowering 1994, 91). The story provides an account of a young Canadian person travelling to Europe and back, while most of the middle of the trip, depicting Europe, that is, most of Europe itself is erased. It seems that the story, in strong contrast to the opening quote, tells a story exactly of a North American man who could not or did not want to give any account of his experience of Europe. And most importantly, there is a presumption that the blank holes are actually holes in memory, circumstantial or deliberate. In that case, textual circles represent the victory of remembrance over oblivion or, if the holes are deliberate, the white circles represent a successful attempt to tell a story while keeping one part of it a secret. There are at least four references to remembrance and memory in the text to support this interpretation. The landscape and memory get equally discolored by the circumstances, and these notions, essential for the narration, are reflected in the physical form of the text.

I will now provide some instances from the text on which I based my previously stated remarks on the multimodal interrelations in “Discoloured Metal”. Firstly, the notion of the airplane and the earth’s poles is introduced by a sentence that sounds as if taken from the brochure the main character is reading: “The DC7B, the brochure from the pocket on the back of the next seat declared, is the newest of the non-jet airliners, and we are very lucky indeed to be riding over the polar route in a DC7B.” (Bowering 1994, 91). Having the setting of the story introduced right at the beginning perhaps lessens the surprise in the reader when encountering the first, smaller white circle in the text of the next page. The reader might right away associate the white circle with plane windows, or even the earth’s poles. A possible reference to the earth’s shape is given in the following sentence:

“Iceland                                   portion of the earth’s surface.” (Bowering 1994, 96).

Words between Iceland and portion are whitened by the circle. The form of the white circle might be brought into an associative connection with the shape of the earth’s surface as seen from an airplane.

As far as the issue of memory is concerned, the key for its understanding is offered in the starting paragraphs of the story, just before the first white circle: “Anyway, this is what I remember of the trip. And the bad thing in the middle, which we had eventually to stop discussing.” (Bowering 1994, 92). What is the bad thing in the middle? Interpretations might vary from the one about the plane accident, suggested by Löschnigg, to narrator’s bad experience of Europe, to explanations that involve his relationship with his wife Bernice waiting for him back in Canada. Important for this analysis is that the narration acknowledges his unwillingness to tell the central part of his story, and this plays along perfectly with the usage and the function of white and black circles. Further in the text the narrator discloses: “Before this I have been in three North American Lands. I wager that I will refer to them, necessary memory, in whatever this enscribing is.” (Bowering 1994, 94). What is this necessary memory? This notion might refer to the narrator’s experience before the voyage, the experience of North America, but it inevitably refers to his experience after the voyage, the experience of Europe. It is necessary for the narrator to remember but it is not necessary to tell the whole story. While his references to North America are numerous, Europe remains a mystery. It is interesting that in this sentence, and other instances in the collection The Rain Barrel, Bowering uses a misspelled word enscribing (inscribing), detracting even more from the credibility of the narrator’s discourse.  Finally, Bowering writes the following sentence partially covered by the third white circle in the story:

“Flying t-           -here is a Europe inside Europe. Inside memory and human meat.” (Bowering 1994, 94).

The narrator is describing passengers on board, some of them of European descent. By yet another category of memory provided by the narrator, the memory of identity, he covers the intrinsic experience that determines people, and that people always take with them, no matter where they go. The narrator offers us the memory of his own identity that reveals him to be a person belonging to the North American cultural circle. On the other hand, he does not openly reveal how the European experience influenced his memory (or vision) of identity. This might be connected to the previously mentioned point that at the beginning of the voyage this memory seems to be concentrated within the airplane, while during the return, memory is pushed outside.

The narrator’s prejudices connected to Europe (in opposition to the introductory quote) is provided right at the beginning of the story, and with a humorous effect: “Dont get me wrong, we did not snub Germany. But you know, an inexperienced yet southern-valleyed young fellow, well, Mediterranean swim suits, palm trees, wind blowing them inside out-”. (Bowering 1994, 91). This sentence depicts the narrator as unprepared for the experience he is about to have, and maybe this is the reason for his refusal to reveal what happened in Europe.

We might suppose that the European part of the story is omitted because it is simply not important, and the focus of the narration is on the trip itself. That might be partially true, but the European part of the trip is not really omitted, it is there, but it is hidden. White spaces in “Discoloured Metal” are an illustrative example of presence expressed through absence, of meaning expressed through the absence of meaning. If Bowering really wanted to hide the central part of the story, he would structure the story in that way, focusing on departure and arrival. Instead, he represents the central part of the story by its physical absence.

There is yet another interesting example of ‘disappearing text’ in “Discoloured Metal”, which is positioned outside of the white circles. On page 96, just under the largest white circle (after which entirely white pages follow), there are these lines:

“So we have come

As trippers North

Although the continuation of the text is blank, unlike with the white circles, it can be reconstructed because of the intertextual reference that it provides. Löschnigg writes: “Almost certainly the ‘educated’ reader will try to fill the empty space with the remaining lines from W. H. Auden’s and Luis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland. However, this would again be only one of the many paths the text invites the reader to follow” (Löschnigg 2014, 247). MacNeice’s poem “Iceland” (the fifth stanza) offers the following lines: “So we have come/As trippers North/Have minds no match/Fort this land’s girth;/The glacier’s licking/Tongues deride/Our pride of life,/Our flashy songs.” The stanza implies that the traveler is unable to fully grasp and understand the land whose whiteness hides all clues and mocks the travelers’ bewilderment. This perfectly reflects Bowering’s intentions in “Discoloured Metal”; the next two entirely white pages and the following pages where the text reappears in expanding textual circles provide little ground for accurate interpretation of the story. Bowering’s usage of lines from an acclaimed poem might be seen as a clue to the reader (provided just before the complete disappearance of text), but the clue itself speaks of absence of clues in the great whiteness and that certainly implies irony.

 

“Discoloured Metal” and a Traveler’s Vision of Iceland

How does the literary usage of Iceland as a neutral territory, a place to refill (not just kerosene), function in Bowering’s short story, furthermore, how does that reflect a Canadian perception of Iceland and Europe and, finally, the main character’s perception of himself?

Let us go back to the three previously mentioned crucial points of consideration: 1. The Henry James quote, 2. Mentioning of Iceland in the text, and the position of the word Iceland in the physical layout of the text, and 3. Intertextual connection to W. H. Auden’s and Luis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland.

The introductory quote by Henry James prepares the reader for a text sensitive to complex cultural issues of which a careful traveller is very well aware, and a text which is, hence, free from prejudice. However, the text is everything but free of prejudice, actually, it deliberately mocks the ideas expressed in the introductory quote. This is most obviously seen in Bowering’s ironic mentioning and descriptions of Germany and German people. Although not directly introduced, the positioning of Iceland in the short story as well follows Bowering’s ironic take on travelers’ prejudice. Firstly, mentioning Iceland marks the middle of the narration, and it is physically placed in the middle of the text, hence confirming the usual notion of Iceland being in between, a land that divides and connects the two worlds. More importantly, it is after the first mentioning of Iceland that the white spaces, and then white circles, appear. In fact, most of the narration that happens over and in Iceland is lost in whiteness. Whiteness reconfirms the widespread prejudice of the unforgiving artic climate which allows little action and even less memory. However, it is the whiteness in the shape of airplane windows that provides the main insight into the traveler’s perception of Iceland. Bowering’s irony regarding the human nature is reconfirmed; although the main character is an educated and married person, as a traveler he is too weak to avoid the usual prejudice (and supposedly a love affair) because his view is radically narrowed by the frames of white circles, the frames which expose his deepest limitations. This coincides with Bowering’s idea of lost or hidden memory. If something negative, or even a love affair, really happened to the main character in Europe, it is a very common spot that this unwanted memory is eliminated exactly in whiteness over Iceland. In that respect, Bowering is masterly using some basic cultural notions (we can call that prejudice) about Iceland to achieve (self)irony, to portray the main character, and to structure his narration into two main parts (before and after Iceland).

Iceland is mentioned three times in the story. First mentioning is in complete sentence just before the appearance of the last white circle, and the sentence that marks the beginning of the medial part of the narration:

As we all together approached Iceland there was still a little thin light in the sky, no real darkness this far north, and then the sun came flying up in the northeast. (Bowering 1994, 96).

In the following line the main character seemingly starts a conversation with someone, and that conversation is partially or entirely hidden by the white circle from the next line on. The white circle possibly symbolizes the polar sun and its light which erases one part of traveller’s memory. The second mentioning of Iceland can be found in the bottom of that same white circle.

“Iceland                                   portion of the earth’s surface” Pliny M (Bowering 1994, 96).

Although a large portion of the text is missing, thanks to the readable name Pliny we can easily reconstruct the following quote by Pliny Miles from his 1854 work Norðurfari, or, Rambles in Iceland:

 “But Iceland is not a myth, it is actual and real, a solid portion of the earth’s surface” (Miles 1854, 15).

This quote reaffirms Iceland as one of the key elements for understanding the text. Although Iceland is only mentioned, and its appearance simply marks the middle of the trip, it seems that Iceland is one of the main characters in the story. Iceland actively hides something which is not a myth but something that really happened to the main character. What really happened, be it travelling difficulties or a love affair, we might never know.

It is interesting to mention that the quote from Letters from Iceland follows right under the same white circle, and the next two pages (Bowering 1994, 97-98) are completely blank, leading the reader to complete oblivion. Parts of words reappear on the page 99 in a small textual circle in which we can reconstruct words cigars and probably yellow, and […]erbia which probably stands for Serbia, a country mentioned in other Bowering’s stories. That means that after the blank the main character is already on his way home, and the secret of his trip was successfully concealed.

The last mentioning of Iceland can be found on top of the last and the largest textual circle (hence closing a symmetrical composition), and it reads:

[…]opped again to refuel at Keflavik, and […]

[…]ere in the little survivalist coffee shop.

The rest of the visible text shows that the main character is eager to return home as if haunted by a certain bad memory. The two main notions of Iceland presented earlier in the text are reaffirmed in the first two lines. Firstly, Iceland as place in between where kerosene and hope can be refilled before reaching the destination on either side of the Atlantic. Secondly, the word survivalist again emphasizes the isolation and deceptive simplicity of the place, but also it tells a lot about the main character’s existential anxiety.

In the end, the idea of survival in a very rough climate (or at least the idea how outsiders perceive that climate) is directly connected to the quote from MacNeice’s poem “Iceland” (the fifth stanza) from Letters from Iceland. It is interesting to note that quotes from Letters from Iceland are also featured in the 2006 Canadian drama Away from Her, written and directed by Sarah Polley, and based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. Clearly, this short travel book, and indirectly Iceland, are well represented in Canadian art and culture as something far, isolated, and detached, a place where survival is at least equally as important as it is in Canada. Letters from Iceland features a great deal of appreciation for Iceland but also a lot of parodic, humorous comments on the place and its people, and that coincides perfectly with Bowering’s perception of human nature.

 

Conclusion: Iceland as a Mediator and a Catalyst

I will conclude this short analysis, let us consider a quote from W. H. Auden’s poem Journey to Iceland featured in Letters from Iceland:

And the traveller hopes: “Let me be far from any

Physician”; and the ports have names for the sea;

The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;

And North means to all: “Reject”.

Bowering’s story is a story of rejection and the triumph of weakness. Firstly, Bowering rejects the power of language, and exposes its weaknesses by the usage of non-verbal white circles. Secondly, he proposes a non-biased cultural consideration in the introduction quote but he renounces that in the story, exposing general human weaknesses of the main character. Thirdly, he rejects and mocks human technology and culture through ironic descriptions of the airplane and its travellers. In spite of all cultural knowledge and awareness, a trip from Canada via Iceland to Europe and back remains simply a trip into main character’s inner longings and fears. Finally, he rejects unwanted memory, whatever that memory might be. This could be further expanded to refer to a general experience of immigrants leaving their homes for a new world, and trying to get rid of bad memories half way, however futile that is. Bowering describes Europe by rejecting to even talk about it as he basks in forgiving whiteness in and over Iceland. This might be both an ironic comment on the American understanding of Europe (and vice-versa) and a comment of the personal misconceptions of the main character, with Iceland serving as a mediator. So much rejection and weaknesses exposed are best placed in a medial position in a story, and in hard conditions of an extreme climate. In that manner, Iceland becomes the main setting of the story, one of its main characters, and the main philosophical catalyst of the narration. And all that after being almost completely visually erased from the pages of the story.

 

References

Auden, Wystan Hugh and MacNeice, Louis (2002): Letters from Iceland. London: Faber&Faber.

Bowering, George (1994). The Rain Barrel and Other Stories. Vancouver: Talonbooks.

Hallet, Wolfgang (2014). “The Rise of the Multimodal Novel: Generic Change and Its Narratological Implications”. In Storyworlds across Media: Towards a Media-Conscious Narratology. Lincoln and London. University of Nebraska Press.

Löschnigg, Maria (2014). The Contemporary Canadian Short Story in English. Continuity and Change. Trier: WVT.

Löschnigg, Maria (2016). “Transatlantic Dimensions in Canadian Short Story Writing”. In Handbook of Transatlantic North American Studies. Julia Straub ed. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Miles, Pliny (1854): Norðurfari, or, Rambles in Iceland, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.

Private e-mail correspondence with George Bowering. April 2017.

Tutek, Nikola (2018) Visual and Verbal Interrelations in Canadian Short Fiction, Dissertation (defended at the Karl-Franzens University of Graz, Austria, May 2018).

Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, Danielle Marie Cudmore and Stefan Donecker (eds.), Imagining the Supernatural North (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2016)

Imagining the Supernatural North is a collection of sixteen essays written by scholars from various fields of study, who have investigated, from multiple perspectives, the theme of the North as part of the collective imagination throughout history, while focusing on the kindred connection between Northerness and the supernatural.

It is my belief that because of the subject at hand and the specific expertise of the authors involved, this book encourages the reader to reflect on one, or rather, two highly topical areas of study, which are strictly related to one another. The first area concerns cultural and imaginative geography, the attention paid to spaces and places in which the meetings of cultures and cultural phenomena occur, and to the multifarious area of maps and mappings, both geographic and mental. The second area is concerned with real and imaginary encounters with the ‘other’ and the ‘others’ as well as the complexity underlying the construction of otherness with its ensuing ambivalences.

To Europeans, the North is the exotic space of otherness, where dreams and fears can be relegated, and which is the perfect space where the supernatural dimension can be freed and nurtured inasmuch as it is alien to ‘western’ civilisation and rationality. However, the book’s standpoint is not merely Eurocentric. In fact, it is quite interesting to discover that the very Nordic peoples have their own northern ‘peripheries’ or, in other words, their ‘other’ places, which are designated for the dissemination of the magical, the monstrous and the diabolical.

This collection of essays maps out a journey around the theme of the Supernatural North through a cross-disciplinary approach encompassing the history of religions, mythology, historiography, anthropology, philosophy, geography as well as music and literary theory and criticism. This journey is built diachronically and attempts to outline the transhistorical trajectory of a theme through a narrative, following the variations of the image and concept of the Supernatural North from classical antiquity to very recent contemporary cultural phenomena.

The four parts the book is divided into mirror the evolution and the development of this central idea and are titled, respectively, “Ancient Roots. The Menace and the Divine”, “From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period. The Monstrous and the Demonic”, “The Nineteenth Century. The Scientific and the Spiritual” and “Contemporary Perspectives. The Desire of a Supernatural North”.

In the first part, the reader is confronted with the multifaceted ambiguity of the image of the North developed within Jewish (Ya’acov Sarig) and Greek (Maria Kasyanova e Athanasios Votsis) cultures: ancient Jewish rituals and legends seem to identify the origin of every evil with the North, although this image leads to more positive characterisations over time. On the other hand, in Greek culture, the ambiguity inherent in the figure of Boreas, the god of the North wind, is compounded by the virtuous yet mysterious myth of the Hyperboreans, creatures halfway between the gods and the human race.

This semantic duplicity seems to take a darker and more monstrous turn in medieval times, which the second part of the volume is dedicated to. This part of the book, besides following the diachronic transmission of the more fascinating “Monstra Septentrionalia”, from Adam of Bremen to the 16th-century maps still teeming with them (Rudolf Simek), delves into the relationship between witchcraft and the North, including those elements of Aristotelian natural philosophy, medicine and theology which form its theoretical basis (Brenda S. Gardenour Walter).  Additionally, this section introduces the reader to the manner in which certain specific literary sources make up the North’s supernatural otherness. On the one hand, it illustrates how Icelandic sagas portray Greenland as a place filled with monstrous ‘Wilderness’ (Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough), while on the other hand, the reader is introduced to the context and the strategy through which Somnium (1634), a peculiar posthumous work by Johannes Kepler, creates a magical Iceland and encapsulates the North in the early modern age, while using Olaus Magnus’s Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus as its primary source (Stefan Donecker).

The third part of the volume is centred on a dual encounter with the North: one that is a concrete and first-hand account of Arctic explorations and one that is romantic and which, by rediscovering northern cultures, reintroduces the image of a magical and mysterious North: the age-old fears arising from northern monstrosities now take on a lasting and darkly alluring aura. Both aspects (explorations and romantic ideas) are intertwined: romantic travellers, for example, seek the spirit of the songs of Ossian in real-world Scotland (Angela Byrne), while in 1845 the Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer explores Iceland as she deconstructs the romantic expectations she had set out with. (Jennifer E. Michaels).  In their travel books and books of legends (written between 1875 and 1921), the two anthropologists and explorers Knud Rasmussen and Hinrich Rink give an account of a magical and monstrous Greenland, in particular its desolate interior, thus meeting the general public’s ‘romantic’ expectation, which had by now been established, while also becoming an integral part of that tradition which can be recognized as Northerness (Silvije Habulinec). One last connection between Arctic travels and the supernatural may be identified in the mesmeric practices used for contacting lost explorers: even the voices of the clairvoyants seem to convey an image of the North which encapsulates all the knowledge and the tales, spun over time, surrounding the kingdom of ice (Shane Mccorristine).

The last part of the book explores the importance of the image of the supernatural North in a variety of current discourses between literature, the academic world and subcultures, such as heavy-metal music and the world of “Otherkin”. In Pale Fire, Nabokov describes a world that is alien, remote and northern, a longed-for place, a lost homeland that can preserve the freedom of the imagination while asserting victory over reality (Brian Walter), whereas Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass creates a northern world which, by drawing on the traditional and romantic topoi of the Supernatural North, is rendered deliberately realistic and concrete in an attempt to communicate its environmental, anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist message more vehemently (Danielle Marie Cudmore). Again, it is the romantic legacy, sifted through the countless literary and filmic revisitations, which breathes new life into some subcultures that are particularly related to the supernatural north. In fact, black metal, pagan metal and newfolk music are all infused with the north and its myths in every respect, be it aesthetic, acoustic, performative and even linguistic and stylistic, often based on an idea of obscurity and irrationality, which sometimes take on martial and anti-Christian overtones (Jan Leichsenring). Conversely, the relationship that Otherkin has with its Nordic and mythological source seems to be more existential and philosophical, in that the individuals of these predominantly virtual communities feel the need to incorporate non-human (i.e., animal or supernatural) elements into their identity. Influenced directly by the Nordic myths and folklore, these communities prompt a philosophical reflection on the modern individual by also relying on such contemporary practices as New Age and New Shamanism (Jay Johnston). The last essay aims to reshape the romantic and exotic idea of the shaman rooted in the academic world by means of anthropological tools. In fact, the relationship with the supernatural is a practice men and women from various Arctic peoples engage in on a daily basis (Erica Hill).

In summary, this brief overview of the wealth of information, expertise and thought-provoking suggestions contained in this book cannot do full justice to its alluring potential as a research instrument. While on the one hand the scientific approach and language make for a delightfully riveting read, on the other hand, the trans-historic perspective helps the reader identify a number of threads which crisscross the whole volume and which call for further investigation (e.g., the relationship between the geographical landscape and the collective consciousness; the North from an eco-critical perspective; the role of the feminine in the supernatural construction of the North and so forth). I am sure this line of research still has a lot to reveal, partly and precisely because of this invaluable contribution.

Margareth Hagen & Margery Vibe Skagen (eds.), Literature and Chemistry – Elective Affinities (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Exploring the borders of science and literature is an interesting topic, as it touches upon an often overlooked reciprocity. It may seem obvious that science influences literature by supplying it with questions, seen or unseen environments, motives and metaphors. But we remain impervious to the fact that literature shapes science in return by its questions, seen or unseen environments, motives and metaphors.

Continue reading Margareth Hagen & Margery Vibe Skagen (eds.), Literature and Chemistry – Elective Affinities (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Helle Prosdam and Thomas Elholm (eds.), Dialogues on Justice: European Perspectives on Law and Humanities (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012)

Each chapter yields fresh insights into the relationship between law, literature, and justice. It is not possible to deal with each chapter satisfactorily, but it is possible to discuss some of them briefly.

 

The themes open with Greta Olson’s arresting analysis of the deficiencies with the manner in which law and literature is being pursued. The argument is a reprint of the article to be found in the 2010 volume of Law and Literature, but includes a post-script wherein Olson notes further developments on her thinking since the original article was published.  

 

Mattias Kumm’s chapter on thick constitutional patriotism includes a call for a conceptualization of European history in a manner that provides an exegesis about the roots of European political development. It would focus on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, but understands that such a history is “to a significant extent the history of the fight against these ideals, their hypocritical abuse, or their complacent misunderstanding.” Kumm’s project is a refreshingly ambitious one and, to the author’s credit, he puts forward a template for how such a project might be developed in the field of legal history, with a thematic focus on the time frames between 1789 and 1919, 1919 to 1992, and the post-1992 legal sphere. There is much to be said for such a project, but it is not clear that the disparate national tendencies of the European continent allows such a history to be told convincingly. The temptation to focus solely on those parts of the history which conform to our current values may be insuperable. Kumm falls victim to this difficulty when dealing with the US Declaration of Independence, which he describes as follows:

 

A further characteristic [of the revolutionary tenets of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the US Declaration of Independence] is the absence of both God and religion (or any other perfectionist ideal) as a point of ultimate reference for legal and political life. Many will find it plausible that the ultimate roots of these rights lie in the fact that God has created persons in a certain way, and that rights are instrumental to human flourishing… But, when the authors of the Declaration of Independence declared the foundational principles of Political Liberalism as self-evident, it created the possibility of thinking of Political Liberalism as the focal point of a consensus that, for the purposes of organizing public life, avoided deeper questions of theological foundations and ultimate purpose.

 

This is an ahistorical treatment of the Declaration of Independence which appeals to the “Supreme Judge of the World”, “divine Providence”, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and, in the extract that Kumm directly refers to, man’s “Creator”. This was not a document that avoided deeper questions of ultimate purpose; it repeatedly referred to these questions. Moreover, the problem recurs if we read Kumm’s point in a more restrictive fashion; the US Declaration of Independence, insofar only as it referred to man being created equal, created the possibility for the future expression of political liberalism. This overlooks those elements of the document which do not conform to this reading, and makes the analysis of the document contingent on subsequent developments where it was used in a manner conducive to the development of the ideal of political liberalism.

 

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man, in contrast, can be read in the manner that Kumm proposes for the US Declaration, and suggests that such a project could enjoy some success. Kumm is to be applauded for his ambitious project, but the treatment of such material promises to be an arduous task.

 

Sven Erik Larsen’s chapter on the interrelationship between forgiveness and law is a masterly typology of forgiveness which ranges across examples as diverse as the return of Korean NGOs after capture by the Taliban and the removal of Inuit children from Greenland to Denmark. The typology is comprehensive and compelling.

 

Mia Rendix’s chapter on the return of the Icelandic sagas notes the distinction between the legal and political processes that characterized the relationship between Denmark and Iceland on the issue. Denmark’s perfect claim to legal title was undermined by statements such as Alexander Jóhannesson’s that the sagas were “like flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood”. Rendix’s analysis spans the legal and cultural spheres, and the local and universal art spheres, with commendable results. I disagree with Rendix’s conclusion that the current digitization projects can undercut the national insistence on exclusive rights. It seems to me that such projects will act as a supplement to national initiatives; the educational and cultural significance of an object in physical form should not be underestimated.

 

The volume as a whole marks a considerable addition to the field of law and literature and should be celebrated as such. The work will appeal to academic and general readers alike.

 

“Dracula in Iceland”. An Interview with Marinella Lorinczi

ML. Thank you for the kind appreciation. I have the deep convinction that a genuine, really good scholar of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel Dracula should investigate the whole literary production of this interesting writer, and connect the novel with his other narratives, both short and long. It is not entirely my case, I must confess, although I tried to compare Dracula with other two novels of his, i.e. The Lady of the Shroud and The Jewel of Seven Stars. However, I can be excused, because my main research subjects – as you mentioned – are not English literature or literature of the Victorian age. I did not begin my Dracula studies reading in English, but in Romanian and Italian. After that beginning, I was obliged not to avoid the English language, therefore my initial, very poor knowledge of this language improved and now I am able to read, understand, and study essays as well as works of fictional literature. All this thanks to Dracula… A nearly unknown Dracula to me, at the beginning, because in Romania – my country of birth -Stoker’s novel has no special significance, and only the historical person has, who lived in the XV century – he is called normally Vlad Tepes, that is, Vlad the Impaler – and is best known from history textbooks (as voivode, that is governer of Wallachia, now South Romania). Therefore my first and almost casual glance was at the historical figure, in the historical documents regarding him, and not at the novel. And this kind of interest fits with the interests of the philologist in the wider sense. It fits with my interests in multiethnic areas, like the Balkans or Transylvania, in commonplaces, and, first of all, in the mystification of research activities and products. There is plenty of examples of just such mystifications in much secondary literature dealing with Dracula. Why people are so attracted by the vampire or, more specifically, by the Dracula theme, unfortunately, I can’t answer in a satisfactory way. I made a hypothetical connection between the popular culture of the United States, which are the first and most successful propagator of the fame of Dracula the vampire, and Halloween as the context of reception of Dracula; in other words, between a kind of carnival and the everchanging Dracula, and I realised, during the Dracula centenary celebrations in Los Angeles in 1997, that I was right. But people are mostly interested in the vampire movies and not in the novel, so Stoker’s Dracula is widely known and little read. And this interest generates movies upon movies, in a neverending way.

NM. In your books and essays you present Bram Stoker’s Dracula as deeply connected to Nordic, Scandinavian cultures. How did Bram Stoker succeed in connecting the Danubian Dracula with Scandinavia? And why?

ML. If you read Dracula’s fictional autobiography, in the third chapter of the novel, the answer lays therein: ” … in our [Dracula’s] veins flows the blood of many races … the Ugric tribe bore down [to the frontier of Turkey-land, on the Danube] from Iceland the fighting spirit [of] Thor and Wodin …”; and then he mentions the Berserkers, the terrible Nordic warriors as his ancient relatives. There are a lot of similar details, on the surface of the novel, or hidden in semantic associations, which I have analysed. You can recognise, for example, the ideas of the late Roman historian Jordanes (6th c. A.D.), the historian of the Goths, about the origin of European peoples: “Scandia” is “vagina gentium“, the womb of nations. I think that there is a cultural-philosophical background, related to the romantic gothicism of the 19th century and of the previous century too, that explains Stoker’s mild and vague but certain, in my opinion, inclination toward Scandinavian culture.

NM. Yes, in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula does declare to be a descendent of Huns and Scandinavian Berserkers. But how much is Dracula himself a Viking, an Icelander, a creature of the North?

ML. You are mentioning his pedigree, his asserted noble origins, that justify and announce his aggressive behaviour in his fictional future. But his “nordic-ness” belongs to the past, whereas he is a fictional contemporary of his author, of Stoker; and in that world he is a stranger coming from Eastern Europe and a loser. He is outside the “European community”. Don’t you think that Stoker had an excellent flare?

NM. Is Dracula a southerner, in any way, Mediterranean?

ML. He can be alike in the movies, I think, when dark-haired actors like Bela Lugosi or Frank Langella played the character. But in the novel he is not at all Mediterranean, for he comes from the eastern borders of civilized Europe, he is a Barbarian. A noble one, but Barbarian, a noble savage transformed into an invader, into a migrant. Therefore he is fearful, he must be.

NM. You are from Transylvania, one of the most beautiful and rich parts of Europe – in its variety of cultures, traditions and landscapes. Why do you think Bram Stoker chose to have a Székely, Transylvanian Dracula?

ML. I was born in Transylvania, but grew up in Bucharest. Transylvania is not my actual homeland, it is my father’s. But I know well the history of Transylvania, so I can answer your question, obviously from my point of view. You must recall that Transylvania is now a significant and historical region of Romania, but in Stoker’s time (Stoker died in 1912) it belonged to Austria-Hungary. The unsteady political situation of Austria-Hungary caused the ignition of the First World War. Transylvania was in the focus of Western politicians’ attention as one of the most important and explosive European multiethnic areas. I think that Stoker was looking for a very exotic and untamed minority of Europe to settle there Dracula. A Hungarian-speaking minority whose name (Székely) is not related to “Hungarian”, who is living almost beyond, trans-Transsylvania, in any case not in “proper” Hungary, with a fame for pride and self-consciousness, and so on. He was creating an allegory, an artistic model of what could happen if a minority explodes, getting fed up with its situation. It was not Gladstone, in 1845, who said: “Ireland! Ireland!… That coming storm!”? And Stoker was an English-speaking and writing Irishman. And Dracula became a coming storm too, threatening Victorian England.

NM. Do you see a connection between Szekelyland (a Hungarian religious and linguistic island in a Romanian/Orthodox area, homeland of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Ireland (the homeland of Bram Stoker), Iceland (the land of origin of Dracula’s “fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave” him) and Sardinia (your present homeland)? Are islands special in a similar way? I ask this question because I have in maind, for example, the similarities in the very ancient traditional dances that you can still witness in Transylvania, Sardinia and the Faroe Islands.

ML. I don’t know Iceland, unfortunately. I never visited Iceland, nor the Faroe Islands, though I would like to. I know Ireland better, and Sardinia quite well. I think, that is to say, I learned, that small or medium-sized islands’ history and culture depend on their relations with their respective mainlands, so each island is different. The similarities in traditional dances, if you are thinking of so-called “round” dances, the circular-chain dances, exist everywhere, independently of the shape or size of the geographic areas. I am not a traditional-dance specialist, but I read about them and saw them in documentaries about several countries. I think that it is a social universal: sitting, dancing, speaking, eating in a circle, there is no rank difference, and every member of the community, of the group, has the same place. Think, for example, of the legendary Round Table.

NM. Among your main interests there is also the study of the Sardinian languages. How did you develop this interest of yours? How would you describe the situation of the Sardinian languages: are they in danger of extinction, as many other local languages in Italy and in Europe? How much do Sardinians and Italians care about these disappearing languages? Do you think it is possible and desirable to save them in today’s globalized world?

ML. You are asking many important questions about minority languages. As you mention, in Sardinia, there are many languages, such as Sardinian, a truly indigenous language, or the Catalan of the town of Alghero. The dominant Italian is exogenous, of external origin. Between the XVI and the XVIII century, instead, the dominant language was Spanish. I began studying Sardinian casually, as a normal branch of Romance linguistics; this part of the story is not really interesting. After graduating in Bucharest, I got married in Sardinia and have lived there since. It was and is normal, again as a linguist, for me to study Sardinian.

Most recently I have become a keen observer of attitudes to language, because the study of lesser used languages involves quite a significant impact, both emotional and political. The European Union is promoting minority languages, theoretically and financially; yet, in this way, minority studies, which still lack an official ethical code, could transform into a mostly bureaucratic and academic business. There is no warranty that this top-down, authoritative, promotion is conformable to real and widespread social needs in a society where literacy is universal, schooling is universal, and schools have their own language policy. Consider, for example, that everyone wants to learn English today, or that some subjects are taught extensively in English at the school level and at the university level. This fact means the beginning of the loss, or in any case a functional restriction, of the former dominant language, such as Italian, in our case. Therefore Italian, an historically important and non-minority language, needs protection or special attention as well.

The loss of a minority language must be prevented because linguistic and cultural variety, like biological variety, is quite simply good per se and necessary from a modern point of view. But linguistic variety means also that people should be allowed and able to speak all kinds of dialects as well, for dialects too are minor idioms. What is the difference between the protection and promotion of minority languages and of dialects? The hidden idea here is that a minority language belongs to a potential nation, which could develop into an independent state in certain circumstances, hence it is more important; whilst dialects belong to a part of it, hence they are less important. It is not on biological or natural grounds, but on historical grounds that one human group can be defined as a nation and another cannot. Therefore minor idioms are not alike and can be more or less easily discriminated against. Or, more precisely, speakers are different and discriminated against. And discrimination on linguistic basis must be avoided too. Speakers as individuals and as members of a community must be protected, but the balance between individual rights and group right is not easy, and it depends also on who is representing the group and its rights: politicians, intellectuals, bureaucrats, associations, agencies…

Besides, is the whole population of a specific geographic area ever asked how they would like to use their repertoire languages?  And how is actually defined this population? UNESCO documents, on these topics, refer to individuals and about human groups with inalienable linguistic rights. Yet take Sardinians, for example, and I mean people living in Sardinia, in a geographically closed area, an island. They are linguistically heterogeneous. Why must politics represent only the Sardinian-speaking people, who are also Italian-speaking? Perhaps the other people in Sardinia do not possess the same linguistic rights? Is it only the Sardinian language the actual, representative one? And within the Sardinian language, which dialect is more representative, so as to aspire to became the common language? Why central dialects are thought to be the best, to have more chances to became the language of all? As you can well infer from my own questions, linguistic protection and promotion involve several serious, preliminary, and mostly unresolved problems.
NM. I have the impression that, at least in Italy, whenever you talk about popular culture, dialects, or regional cultures, you are immediately accused to be provincial, backwards-minded, nostalgic, even anti-modern. Do you agree?

ML. No, I do not agree. First, traditional culture, including local language, does exist. Rather, it depends on the ideological point of view whether you want to promote it or not. On the other  hand, in touristically developed areas or in areas where the local leaders want to gain more power, more autonomy, language and local traditions are often used as a kind of advertising, and as a tool for political propaganda, whether good or bad, useful or not. As though one were saying: “We are special, we are different, so we want, we need, we deserve …”. After all, “glocalisation” is possible, it means a mixture of global and local. The question is whether you want to adopt this model or not.

 

NM. You are mainly a scholar of Romanian. Is it difficult to promote Romanian culture and langue in Italy? I ask this question in connection with the negative prejudices that many Italians still have about Eastern Europe, Romania, not to mention non-western-looking foreigners.

ML. I can see that students and young people in general are curious about Romania and Romanian language and culture. But it is true that now, the general circumstances are not good for their promotion. As of 2007, when Romania became a full member of the EU, Italy received not only a somewhat physiologically “normal” wave of immigrants from Romania, but also an “abnormal” one, which results from the demographic disasters of 1980s Romania. If there were already negative prejudices, then they became much stronger because of this. Indeed, I was advised not to tell around that I was from Romania, though I have not followed this advice.

 

NM. Is it possible that some difficulties that you have experimented are caused by the fact that today in the academe, and in the cultural system overall, we study the different national cultures inside institutions that are organized according to the classification in language families made by linguists? For example, students of Hungarian language and culture are asked to study Finnish, but probably they are never asked to study Slavic language and cultures or Romanian.

ML. You are right on this last issue, but I think that it is not question of linguistic proximity, rather of ideological proximity. If neighbours disagree or quarrel, they cannot be promoters of each other’s culture and language.

 

NM. Why are you interested in the Csàngòs, the very little Hungarian minority of Romanian Moldavia? Maybe because of the fact that they have preserved so many elements of the cultures of both Romania and Hungary?

ML. I conducted field-work in Csàngò-land rather casually: I made the acquaintance of Ferenc Pozsony, a very active ethnologist at the University of Kolozsvar/Cluj and so I got involved, once, in a study project. It became a very interesting experience for me: I had to come up with a research topic, because I had none, so I studied bilingual anthroponimy on the graveyard crosses. And that is all, for the moment, although I feel that I am in the best position for studying the idioms of Csàngòs. I know Hungarian, Romanian, I live in a western country, and I am not under the pressure of nationalistic or religious agendas. I wanted to study, then, the question of linguistic competence in such an intricate bilingual context as theirs. Whether in so doing I helped improving the rather tense Romanian-Hungarian relations, I do not know, although I hope I did.
NM. As a well-travelled scholar, what do you think are the main differences between northern Europe and the Mediterranean region?

ML. Geographers, historians and anthropologists have not answered yet the question about the South-North border in Europe. Said in a nutshell, there is no such border in reality; you can always find a northern or a southern area if you are not in Malta, in the South, or in Alta, Norway, in the North, which can be considered as the two most extreme points of Europe along a vertical axis. Also, south of Malta is Africa, and north of Alta is the North Pole. The world does not end there ether. The South-North border is in our minds, in our prejudices, varying themselves with the historical epoch in which we happen to live. Yes, I have travelled much, I like to travel, I like every place, I never get bored anywhere. All is interesting and instructive. It is amusing for me when, for example, some Danes, who live North to Sardinia, to Italy, to Romania, think that I do not know anything about the snow! Now, Bucharest is colder in winter than Denmark; then, northern Italy, in the Alps, is also much colder than Denmark, and many ski-champions are from the north of Italy. Yet geographical distortion is common in our minds and leads to prejudices or even springs from them. At the same time, correct geographical knowledge is so important, so essential, that now, in the so-called globalised era, literary criticism has developed a new trend, called “geocriticism”, which, I quote from a textbook, “involves the study of places described in the literature by various authors, but it can also study the effects of literary representations of a given space”. I applied this method in the first essay of the volume of mine dedicated to Dracula’s wreck in Whitby, after visiting this delightfully small, but historically very important town, situated on the southern shore of the North Sea. I recommend it to you and to your readers.

NM. Why do you think there are still problems in having foreign, e.g. Italian, university degrees fully recognized in the Nordic countries? Is it only a question of immigration policy?

ML. The opposite should be true. The whole Bologna process aims, among other things, to remove this obstacle. But the inner, national university traditions are very strong everywhere and they change very slowly, despite the new European protocols, new norms, official recommendations, etc. Indeed I could tell you the bizarre history of the ten-year university reform process in Italy, from 2000 to 2010, which could now cause the whole system to collapse. But this is another story …