Dolls and the Uncanny

photo 1I have a china doll of which I am very fond. It was given to me in childhood by a family friend, and I loved it, though it (she – her name is Emily) fell off a step and consequently has a cracked face. She is going to be mended soon, which has prompted me to think about her after years of ignoring her; some research has shown that she was made by a German company called Armand Marseille, and her serial number (542 with head model K) suggests that she is quite unusual. She belonged to my friend in her childhood, and was made in 1928, and came to me with several beautiful sets of handmade baby clothes. I never really saw her as a toy, more as something to be looked at.

However, she has scared a number of my friends on different occasions; she used to sit on top of my wardrobe in my parents’ house and someone once said she looked like the baby on the ceiling in Trainspotting. China dolls are always uncanny, I think: partly because they are usually old (as opposed to more modern, plastic dolls), and because their blank faces give the impression they are watching you. The strongest sense of uncanniness comes from the uncertainty as to whether they might be alive, as Freud says in his essay on the Uncanny:

‘Jentsch has taken as a very good instance ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata.’

Freud goes on to discuss how this might relate to childhood:

‘Now, dolls are of course rather closely connected with childhood life. We remember that in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people. In fact, I have occasionally heard a woman patient declare that even at the age of eight she had still been convinced that her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular, extremely concentrated, way. So that here, too, it is not difficult to discover a factor from childhood.’

Baby dolls of Emily’s kind were meant to look like real babies (presumably to encourage the desire for motherhood anphoto 2d nurturing
emotions in young girls), and despite her somewhat creepy stare Emily is very like a real baby in size and shape. Of course we know a doll isn’t alive, but there is always this uncanny uncertainty that they might suddenly just move their heads or blink (and in fact Emily does randomly blink spontaneously, her now-lashless eyelids slowly moving up and down; she also has a ‘Mama’ cry which is primal and eerie). Freud refers to the doll which comes alive in Hoffmann’s tale ‘The Sandman’, and this is both a longing and a fear for children which I think stays with us into adulthood (and apparently ‘pediophobia’, or fear of dolls, is quite common). The uncanny, according to Freud, is both familiar and frightening, a juxtaposition neatly fulfilled by these life-like baby-dolls. They are homely objects, reminiscent of childhood innocence, and yet frequently in books and particularly films, they echo the past children who have loved them, grown old, and died. An old china doll is full of memories not our own, and remind us of the passing of time – a baby that will never grow up, though she might sustain some wounds along the way. A doll is thus also a child’s double (another theme of Freud’s essay), but one which is destined to remain a child, a static reminder of lost innocence.

There is clearly some fascination in the figure of the doll, particularly the antique doll, though; there are many thousands of collectors of dolls like Emily, and even I am taking the trouble to have her restored. Perhaps it is that they somehow they embody a nostalgia for a past childhood which we didn’t inhabit ourselves, but which we can invent and layer into our own thoughts.

Reflections on Moonlight

london_1997578bA recent lecture for the Pre-Raphaelite Society asked if John Atkinson Grimshaw was more than a painter of moonlight. Simon Poë, the speaker, made a good case, but was frank about Grimshaw’s predilection for certain scenes and effects of light. Grimshaw is, Simon suggested, a painter ‘more loved than he is admired’, which seems probable to me; I feel affection for Grimshaw’s moonlit paintings and the golden Autumn glow which suffuses many of his other pictures, and there is something cosy, nostalgic even, about them which makes me think of Christmas and home. But I probably don’t think of him as a ‘great’ artist, and find the fairy paintings rather twee. Nonetheless, after Simon’s lecture I probably have more admiration for him as a man than I did, since he clearly worked very hard right up to the end of his life to make a living from his painting and support his family, despite not having been professionally trained and despite not really getting to the top of his profession. However, perhaps his distinctiveness comes in part from this lack of training; he was not schooled in a certain style, and thus developed his own.

Grimshaw was a Yorkshireman, and it seems that he is still better known in Yorkshire than he is outside it. Many of the paintings are set in named locations around Leeds (often the same location) and Grimshaw certainly has a formula: a road, path or river, a building or two to the side, and the atmospheric lighting effects. Yet as Simon said, Grimshaw’s muted palimagesette and masterly use of colour, combined with a few bright spots in the painting which draw the eye, provide his best claim to greatness as an artist. The paintings even gesture towards abstraction, in some cases, and Simon suggested that ‘You can see Jackson Pollock coming’ in the tiny light spots in some of the paintings.

Comparisons with Whistler are telling: Grimshaw’s ‘limited range of tones’ with which he ‘plays a nice tune’, to use Simon’s musical analogy, may seem in a similar key to Whistler’s style, but without the latter’s genius. Grimshaw’s paintings are often undeniably beautiful but they are also commercial: when he found something that worked, he stuck to it, hence the vast array of similar-seeming paintings. It’s difficult to argue that he was thoroughly exploring his theme, as other artists have done: he more or less replicated his central motif. However, Simon also showed us a wide range of other paintings by Grimshaw which I wasn’t familiar with, including classical scenes and aesthetic interiors as well as harbours, and in these his work seems closer to that of Alma-Tadema or LeightonScarboroughYewCourt_jpg than Whistler.

So while Grimshaw’s moonlight paintings may not be the best, they were the first, and his work seems to pave the way for or gesture
towards many other artists’ work, not just those near-contemporaries I’ve mentioned, but also Rothko, Monet and Lowry. We can also see the influence of Turner (in my opinion) in some of his colouring and style. Grimshaw is more important than just a signpost to other artists’ work, though – his moonlight paintings are still marvellous, but perhaps you wouldn’t want a whole gallery of them.

Dusty at 75

photoOn a wander through Henley-on-Thames at the weekend, we visited the churchyard (I spend a lot of time in graveyards, more for the ambience than for my research on graveyard poetry!) and came across the grave of Dusty Springfield, who died in 1999. Coincidentally, today (16th April) would have been her 75th birthday, so I thought I’d post a picture of her grave, which apparently always has flowers on it, though it is quite unostentatious.

I rarely blog about music, though in fact I love music, but I don’t feel I have anything sensible to say about it. However, Dusty was one of my first musical loves: my father had an old Dusty LP, which began with ‘I only want to be with you’. The intro skipped a little on a scratch, and I listened to that record so many times that I can’t hear it without that glitch. One of the first CDs I bought was a Dusty compilation, and it’s probably one of the CDs I’ve listened to most, over the years. I like to sing, and I sing those songs all the time and am word-perfect. More than that, when I was in my teens and went through a bit of a 1960s phase (I started early with the vintage clothes) it was old pictures of Dusty that got me started on eyeliner and back-coDustymbed hair.

Her music is almost always sad; even when it has an upbeat rhythm (such as ‘In the Middle of Nowhere’, it’s still not a cheerful subject. I gather she didn’t always have  a happy life, and you can hear that in her music. But her gentle, smoky voice catches any tune and makes it irresistible. Around 1990, I could find nothing I liked so much as this, and the songs on that first CD I bought still sound to me like a soundtrack of different events of my life. Though some of the covers she did later in her career grate a little with me, the early songs influenced by the blues, Memphis and soul singers are remarkable and moving.

If you haven’t heard it, this is my favourite of her songs: Son of a Preacher Man. Fabulous Sixties styling, too (though this isn’t the best recording of it).

NB For the record, when I was sixteen (in 1992 or 93) I made a list in my diary of my favourite CDs. They included: Bon Jovi, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Nirvana, Judy Garland, Dusty Springfield, Elgar, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Telemann and Tori Amos.


A Dialogue with Nature (and more ruins)

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Closely related in subject to Ruin Lust is the Courtauld Institute’s exhibition ‘A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic landscapes from Britain and Germany’. Landscapes from the Romantic period are displayed, and include a range of works by artists including JMW Turner, Samuel Palmer and Caspar David Friedrich. Of course, the Romantics didn’t just immerse themselves in ‘pure’ nature: humans had been there before, and so there are ruins aplenty in this exhibition too. Perhaps these ruins are more incidental, though, and have in most cases been taken over by the forces of nature after their abandonment by man. Many of these images could illustrate a Gothic novel (yes, I realise I see Gothic everywhere – but it is everywhere!) – in particular, Theodor Rehbenitz’s ‘Fantastic Landscape with Monk crossing a Bridge’ appeals, as well as Samuel Palmer’s ‘The Haunted Stream’.

20140411-102935 pm.jpg So in the Romantic landscape, humans are revisiting ruins; an absence of figures isn’t necessary, but an absence of other people is: the figures always offer a sense of isolation, related presumably to their status as poetic, somewhat melancholy thinkers, poets and artists. The sublime is displayed in these paintings, then – we are encouraged to turn our eyes and our minds to the towering splendours of mountains and the terrifying depths of valleys to access the terror of the Burkean sublime and understand the limits of our world. And in placing humanity in a clear relation to the natural world as well as the ruins which inhabit it, I find this exhibition strangely more coherent than the Ruin Lust show, but perhaps less thought-provoking. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the differences between German and English Romantic painters (something I’d not thought about before) and to compare the wildness of Turner’s world compared with the (relative) precision of Friedrich’s. Seeing this exhibition on the same day as Ruin Lust was a great experience, and I recommend both!

Ruin Lust

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Recently I read a review in the TLS of books on urban exploring, and I seem to keep coming across the idea that places which are decaying are significant and fascinating to us. I’ve also seen a lot of images on the web of deserted buildings which both preserve a moment in time and also represent the destruction of time – such as this deserted apartment. Sometimes a range of ideas come together and make us think about how they intersect, and this is what Tate Britain’s exhibition Ruin Lust does. Apparently the idea came from Rose Macaulay’s 1953 book The Pleasure of Ruins (sadly now out of print). The exhibition notes tell me that the term comes from the German ruinenlust, and though the concept of a lust for ruins is appealing, encapsulating decay and destruction along with a somewhat seedy, voyeuristic interest, a recent discussion with curator Brian Dillon on Radio 3 pointed out that in fact the word ‘lust’ translates as a rather more jolly, less perverted, enthusiasm.
So a lust for ruins suggests an interest in the melancholy aspect of faded grandeur, with an element of hubris in their building (‘Look on my works, ye mighty…’) and a pleasantly self-indulgent desire for the relics of the past. That’s just for starters, of course; our ruin-lust, extant since the eighteenth century at least, tells a lot about past and present civilisations, and the exhibition20140411-093005-pm.jpg illuminates these tendencies. It’s organised around ideas associated with ruin lust – On Land, Pleasure of Ruins, Cities in Dust etc – rather than displaying artworks simply chronologically, and this works well on the whole. We start with John Martin’s apocalyptic ‘Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’, which is followed by Jane and Louise Wilson’s ‘Azeville’, a complete contrast in subject and style yet somehow complementary in form. As the exhibition progresses, the reasons behind ruination are explored as well as their aesthetics. From natural disasters to war, it’s not only the passing of time and human neglect which causes ruins.
There is, of course, something rather Gothic about ruins. A building that is ruined demonstrates the distant presence of humans, who have since abandoned it, and only echoes of the past remain, echoes which are far more resonant for the decay of the building. But we are attuned to these echoes, and relish them. Tintern Abbey, inspiration for Wordsworth and Turner, among others, is a perfect example of this: it is possibly more awe-inspiring, more appealing, when deserted and ruined than it was when whole. These pictures displayed here suggest a form of preservation of what is already ruined: a work of art offers us a snapshot of the building at a particular stage of decline, preserved forever in an image.
Ruin, of course, is intrinsic to everything: ruin is hidden in apparently whole things, waiting to appear. This is evident in Joseph Gandy’s watercolour of the Bank of England, commissioned by Sir John Soane in the year the building was completed. Soane requested that this new building be painted as Gandy imagined it’s future ruin, and, naturally, this ruin is beautiful. Not every image here is aesthetically pleasing, though all are thought-provoking; some, such as David Shrigley’s ‘Leisure Centre’, are all too familiar – ugly, modern building abandoned for prosaic, disappointing reasons such as the council running out of money. These, then, are our modern tragedies, less dramatic than the eruption of Vesuvius and less picturesque than the passing of centuries, but a tragedy for the community all the same. Yet 20140411-093152-pm.jpgwe idealise older ruins, which embody something of history, of the picturesque, and what we have learned to think of as beauty, and are less enthralled by more modern ruins (usually not thinking of them as ruins in the same way at all). Perhaps it is historical distance as well as a kind of voyeurism and sense of human drama which causes our interest in them, ideas which Rose Macaulay understood:

Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth.

There is a very interesting discussion of Macaulay’s writing about ruins here.


Radiant (Academic) Motherhood

482085_10150938497481315_370670516_nMotherhood is rarely radiant, in my experience (apologies, Marie Stopes) so most of us aim for manageable, I think. The tendency for women in academia to avoid having children seems to be changing (at least among my friends) but it is still a fraught issue, especially as they say that for every child you have you don’t write a book. Statistics show that women tend to do worse in REF performance because of maternity leave and flexible working, which can lead to slower promotion. As in many careers, it can be difficult to be a mother and a professional.

As the sometimes proud and sometimes exasperated mother of a two-year-old, I have had a lot of conversations recently about ‘academic motherhood’ – how do you actually do research? How long is it possible to have off work without impacting your career? How do you give a lecture when you’re seriously sleep-deprived? Actually, I don’t really have answers to these serious questions: I had a temporary position when my son was born, and went back to work one day a week when he was three months old, and I don’t feel that it’s been too difficult for me. Fortunately for me, and him, he loved nursery from the start, and has generally been a cheerful child who likes to eat and sleep (plus I have a helpful husband). Going back to work that early was ideal, for me: I love my job, and the teaching and research are very important to me, and a day a week meant I could keep in touch whilst spending plenty of time with my baby. Then I got a permanent job, and starting working two days a week when he was one, three days a week now he is two, and plan to build up my hours once he starts school. However, the fact that this works well for me is predicated on my not minding that I use my spare time – Edward’s nap times, evenings etc – to catch up on work, especially research, that wouldn’t get done otherwise.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Apart from the endless bugs due to the germs he brings home from nursery, I swear Edward knows when I have to teach the next morning, as those are the nights he keeps us awake – not always crying; sometimes he just mutters ‘Tractor, tractor, tractor’ for hours (on those nights we turn off the baby monitor). I have had to carefully wipe porridge off a student’s essay that he got hold of, and as for the milk dribbles down my dress that I don’t spot until I walk into a lecture theatre… So apart from the sensible suggestions (good childcare that can be flexible, ruthless organisation, attempting to maintain a work/life balance etc), these are the things I have learned:

  • Keep a decorative scarf in your office for covering up the milk/breakfast dribble that you are constantly covered in (actually this is generally useful, since I tend to be clumsy with coffee).
  • Speaking of coffee, it is often your only way to get through lectures on little sleep. My work consumption of coffee has tripled since Edward was born.
  • Night feeds are a great time for reading, which is easier on a Kindle than on a book you have to turn the pages of.
  • If you have to read something, read it aloud in a soothing voice to your child. Up to about 18 months, they are happy to hear anything you have to say. This also works for timing your conference papers.
  • Have to-do lists everywhere. I didn’t suffer from ‘baby brain’ and refuse to believe that one is bound to (I was warned I’d never be able to give another lecture due to its effects!) but your life is suddenly much more complicated. For the first year, we had lists on the fridge of the contents of ‘Edward’s nursery bag’, ‘Edward’s overnight bag’, ‘Mummy’s work bag’ etc.Little person big ideas
  • Encourage their interest in your subject as young as you can. My proudest parenting moment so far was when Edward asked for a bedtime poem instead of a bedtime story. The poems of AA Milne are his favourite, but he’s partial to a bit of Tennyson and even Shakespeare, though sadly less keen on Christina Rossetti.
  • If you go away for a few days to a conference, they will hate you for about 48 hours when you come home, no matter how lovely the toy sheep that you’ve brought them. It passes, though. And it’s good for them to bond with Daddy…
  • Students (to my surprise) love babies – I’m sure I didn’t when I was their age. Sometimes they even ask to see photos. Also, my understanding of literary metaphorical childbirth has deepened considerably.
  • If one of your areas of interest is gender, having a child offers a wonderful opportunity to study the socially constructed nature of gender closely.
  • As they get older, you get to read some great books with them. I have avoided some of the more dubious early children’s books (‘Ev’ry corner hath a snake’, in Jeremy Taylor’s seventeenth-century description of hell for toddlers, for example) but I have loved revisiting Paddington and am looking forward to many childhood classics.
  • Go to the pub sometimes, and forget that you are either Mummy or a lecturer!

NB I don’t really have any ‘proper’ advice to offer – this is all rather tongue-in-cheek!


Wordsworth and HS2

wordsrail2At the marvellous Romantic Locations conference in Grasmere recently, I heard  paper by Helen-Frances Pilkington from Birkbeck about Wordsworth’s opposition to the Kendal and Windermere Railway (by which transport I travelled to the conference). Wordsworth conducted his own literary campaign against the railway in 1844, notably by the writing of the sonnet ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’ as well as other poems and a number of letters to the Morning Post. For the poet who wrote ‘The world is too much with us’, it’s not surprising that he was opposed to a railway line which would bring yet more people to his beloved Cumbria (and there is more information on the railway and its opponents on the Wordsworth Trust’s website here). This sonnet uses the emotive language familiar from his other poems which eulogise the landscape, drawing on a tradition of pastoral which seeks to conjure up an already-fading rural idyll, soon to be destroyed. Wordsworth condemns those who place a ‘false utilitarian lure’ above the ‘beautiful romance of nature’. These arguments sound all too familiar, as HS2 draws ever closer (and, as I come from the Chilterns and work in Birmingham, HS2 is something I frequently hear discussed). Some of the arguments against the building of HS2 relate to the destruction of ancient woodland and beautiful countryside, and, set against the requirements of business and commerce, it’s not difficult to imagine which side Wordsworth would take. The parallels between the building of the two railways, nearly a century and a half apart, are striking, though the situations are in many Photo046.ways different, but the conflict between the local economy and the countryside is one that is still being evoked. The nature of poetic protest is perhaps not as strong as other forms; ultimately, Wordsworth was unsuccessful (as I’m afraid the less beautiful poetic offerings on the Stop HS2 website will also be) but Wordsworth’s sonnet does, at least, give us the opportunity to think about what might be lost and what might be gained, and about the value of the countryside.

‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’

Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ‘mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish;–how can they this blight endure?
And must he too the ruthless change bemoan
Who scorns a false utilitarian lure
‘Mid his paternal fields at random thrown?
Baffle the threat, bright Scene, from Orresthead
Given to the pausing traveller’s rapturous glance:
Plead for thy peace, thou beautiful romance
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong.