Book questions

Back in 2010, I picked up Norman H. Mackenzie's own copy of Eliot's Selected Essays in my favourite second-hand bookshop in Kingston. But the inscription Eliot made for Queen's University's renown Hopkins scholar asks more questions than it answers. What brought both Eliot and MacKenzie to Durban in 1954 and what occasioned their meeting?

Modernist Aesthetics

Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946), Femme en pied (c. 1902). Pen and India Ink, brush and wash on paper. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Bruxelles.

What I'm Reading

On Reading Victorian Deafness


Jennifer Esmail
Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature
Ohio University Press, 2013
285 pages
ISBN 978-0821420348

In Reading Victorian Deafness, Jennifer Esmail sets out to draw attention to the often ignored “third mode of human language use”—one that can stand equal to the “dyad of speech and writing”—by considering the way in which signing languages challenged conceptions of language, normality, ability, national identity, and humanity in the 19th century. This “third mode”, the use of signing languages by deaf people, was encumbered by the ascendency of the “oralist” movement in the mid-19th century, whose proponents believed that deaf people, in particular those who used manual rather than oral communication, were a threat to belief in human superiority, as well as to British identity, because they saw non-verbal communication as more primitive. Esmail argues that the oralists’ attempts to supplant signing languages and to compel deaf people to speak and lip-read were not only indicative of Victorian mores but contributed to their formation.

Esmail makes a compelling argument for the existence of this ”third mode” and presents vital research exposing deaf language, deaf writing, and deaf communities in the 19th century in a nuanced and explicit manner. From the outset of her study, she is careful to define her treatment of deaf people in relation to conceptual models used in contemporary disability studies. She articulates, for instance, the d/D distinction between the ‘deaf’ as designating the “audiological condition of deafness” and ‘Deaf’ as the somewhat tautological “identity [which] involves communication through sign language, membership in Deaf community and culture, and an orientation toward what is called Deaf pride.” Indeed, Esmail’s insistence on the ‘complexity’ of the deaf experience from the outset of the 19th century is one of the most significant arguments to emerge from Reading Victorian Deafness. Its significance, however, is weakened by her problematic treatment of several broad yet important concepts at the heart of her study.

Most importantly, Esmail does not define what she intends by ‘Victorian’—a term which she uses quite liberally. While ‘Victorian’ may not appear the most contentious of terms, it behoves any text purporting to address a subject in relation to the ‘Victorian’ to explain ‘what is Victorian?’ in relation to the subject at hand. In this case, the subject is the deaf population of a period that roughly spans the 19th century. Though she notes in her introduction that her interest is concentrated on the mid to late 19th century, in subsequent chapters she traces implications and trends well into the 20th and early 21st centuries, dipping back into the early 19th century as her argument requires. She contends, for instance, that oralism is a distinctly Victorian movement, though its reach extends well into the latter half of the 20th century. While this temporal fluidity does not present a problem in terms of her argument or its structure, it undermines her stake in the important question of the relationship of deaf experience to the ‘Victorian’. A reader should not have to work out for themselves where the Victorian ends and the 19th century begins.

At the same time, though Esmail claims that Reading Victorian Deafness is a transatlantic project—the scope and provenance of her research extends from British novelists, such as H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling, to leading American figures in deaf education and the advancement of oralism, such as Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell—the application of the term ‘Victorian’ to North America (including its indigenous peoples) further problematises her use of the term ‘Victorian.’ England and Britain, in the 19th century as now, are not interchangeable; Washington, D.C. and Louisiana are not London, though there may have been networks of influence between the various places mentioned; the lived experiences of signing indigenous American languages and that of a literate deaf Londoner would not, to borrow Esmail’s own descriptor, have been “mutually intelligible.” When such boundaries are obscured, the argument being made about the relation between the oral expression of language and national identity—that signing languages posed a threat to what it meant to be ‘British’, to be human—are diluted.

Some of the lesser definitional infractions which Esmail commits can be forgiven because her argument that ‘Deaf Victorians were disabled through language’ is a potent one. Her engagement with deaf poetry in Chapter 1, for instance, considers not only its aesthetic values but its political value and power. She finds that, “[b]ecause writing poetry in English required both fluency and the use of abstraction in language, the genre was the perfect battleground for challenging oralist claims.” Her consideration of the first generation of deaf poets—John Kitto, James Nack, and John Burnet—as well as their successors—William Henry SImpson, Amos Draper, Mary Toles Peer, Laura Redden Searing, Angie Fuller Fischer, and John Carlin—builds up a rich landscape of poets who not only identified as deaf but also explored contentious issues within the deaf experience. Esmail finds that deaf poets of the 19th century “underscor[ed] how that imagined ‘voice’ [in poetry] was a silent construct of print.”

In Chapter 2, Esmail considers the paucity of representations of deaf, signing characters in fiction. She insists that there is a pronounced “reliance on printed orality” in Victorian fiction and, despite the many deaf and differently disabled characters represented in the literature of the period, she identifies only two instances of deaf, signing characters. In these cases, she finds that the valences of the latter category tend to be less symbolic, comedic, or pathologised in the narratives. Though she does not define the ‘genre’ concerns that arise from what she calls “Victorian fiction,” her reading of deaf, signing characters in the novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins challenges the “paradigm of orality” which she sees as being established in Victorian fiction.

The later chapters of Reading Victorian Deafness explore the relationship of signing languages to emerging evolutionary theory and the definition of the human, to eugenics and the creation of deaf communities, and to the development of technologies for speaking and hearing. The breadth of topics covered by this study is incredibly admirable and represents a degree of interdisciplinarity to which many scholars can only aspire. However, by binding her research to the adjacent fields of disability studies, literature and technology/science/medicine, and Victorian sound studies, she risks over-extending the influence of her findings and her argument. One suspects that the breadth of her research arises from a desire to make it influential in as many ways as possible and hence to answer the demand made of scholars that their research should be relevant and accessible. Yet its breadth is also indicative of the project of cultural studies within which Esmail locates herself.

Esmail’s project would not be possible without the theoretical foregrounding of the cultural and disabilities theorist Lennard Davis, a debt she acknowledges throughout the book. It is unfortunate, then, that the spectres of Jacques Derrida and Gayatri Spivak go largely unacknowledged, other than in the occasional footnote. If she inherits from Davis the ideas of the “variability of the body” and the “foundational ableist myths of our culture”, she also inherits from Spivak the idea of the subaltern speaking in the voice of the dominant culture—in the case the deaf person writing in English—and from Derrida the idea of the pharmacy of writing, wherein representations of lived deaf experiences in the 19th century are primarily preserved because they are recorded in writing. These borrowings culminate in the self-acknowledged limitations of Esmail’s work: it not only “attempts to use print to access information about a group of people who primarily used a language that had no written form” but is also “part of that body of work [which presumes the supremacy of spoken and written English] even while it emphasizes the untenability and audism inherent in any hierarchization of spoken and signed languages.” These limitations are not entirely negative. Without such attempts, readers of Reading Victorian Deafness would not be privy to the “written remains of deaf cultural life in the Victorian period.” As such, we benefit rather ironically from a culture which privileges the preservation of experiences, language, and identity,—deaf, Deaf, or otherwise.

**This review was originally published in the Oxonian Review 24.4 (2014) on 3 March.

September 8th 2016

Kate Beaton & History-as-Comic


Kate Beaton
Hark! A Vagrant (2011)

In November 2013, the Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton posted “Black Prince”, a series of panels mapping the brief lifespan of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (1330-1376). The comic, marking the 353rd strip of Hark! A Vagrant, features an illustrated rendering of the statue of the Black Prince at Leeds and depicts scenes such as “Teen Glory”, where the 16-year-old prince is “stoked” for the Battle of Crécy, and “Duality”, where a random maiden wonders why he gets “to be the ‘flower of English chivalry’ when [he] destroy[s] everything [he] touch[es]?” Like many of Beaton’s comics, “Black Prince” relates a series of esoteric historical events to often significant and sometimes everyday autobiographical moments. The statue of the Black Prince connects Beaton to Leeds, where, she tells her readers, she is scheduled to appear at the Thought Bubble Festival, in a way that foregrounds her interest in a particular aspect of history through her own life.


Thought Bubble, a festival dedicated to all types of sequential art, is known for its support of independent or small-press artists—a category of artists in which she is an acknowledged rising star. However, though she could not be considered a mainstream cartoonist, her presence on the internet and her involvement in a particular artistic community affords her a certain popularity and success that makes identifying Beaton as an independent artist problematic. Indeed, despite this popularity—her web comics get over 500,000 unique views a month and her comics have appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker and Harpers—and success—her collection Hark! A Vagrant by Drawn & Quarterly is frequently sold out and was listed as #7 by Lev Grossman in his list of Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 for Time magazine—she maintains a certain humbleness and affability in her communication with her readers that renders her one of the more congenial web cartoonists.

Beaton’s congeniality dates back to her Live Journal site, founded in October 2007, where she developed a close community of readers with fierce loyalty and increasing numbers. In her early posts, she initiates a dialogue with her readers—apologising for her lack of updates, directing them to her webpage, informing them about the status of her website, telling them what is cool about history, and revealing small nuggets about her life, her circumstances, and her motivations—further inviting them to leave comments on or suggestions for her work. These dialogues are marked by an informality in style that has become synonymous with certain other web comic artists, such as Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content, Randall Munroe’s XKCD, and David Malki’s Wondermark.


This informality, combined with the accessibility of the web comic medium that allows followers to see the development of an artist’s style over a long period of time, rewards readers for the length of their dedication with what develops into an incredibly intimate relationship between reader and artist. One can also participate in the artist’s success by purchasing merchandise and published collections of the online comics. Even as a new reader, one can binge-read the entire corpus of a web comic with relative ease because the artists themselves control where comics are published (in a single location) and which ones are available (often the majority). Kate Beaton is an exception, in that she has not gone back to clean up or clean out any previous ones; her Live Journal page remains entirely accessible and raw. This accessibility and intimacy allows readers to develop a more nuanced reading of her comics as a whole, which she invites us to do in her published collection, Hark! A Vagrant.

What becomes clear from Beaton’s initial Live Journal posts is her interest in the educational aspects of history. For instance, she imagines creating a project that would help “kids discover history is way cooler than any of them had ever dreamed.” She draws connections between her art and other historically didactic media, such as the much-beloved Canadian Heritage Minutes and the equally appreciated parodies by the Canadian comedian and satirist Rick Mercer. While the Heritage Minutes offer official retellings of history in digestible portions, parodies of them—including those by Beaton—perform much needed readings of these “official” histories that resist a simplistic and flag-waving patriotism. Beaton is adept at returning to and recovering lesser-known moments in history, whether Canadian or otherwise. She introduces the comic “L’Anse aux Meadows” (10 Feburary 2008) by apologising for making such an “esoteric joke,” but nevertheless manages to pay tribute to the Norse Viking settlement in the Canadian province of Newfoundland while broadly implying that the land itself is responsible for the distinctive contemporary “Newfie” accent. In one of her earliest history comics, “Arnold” (7 January 2008), Beaton makes the obscurity of a very nuanced subject—a conflict in leadership resolved so that Benedict Arnold, despite significant personal and financial investment in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in New York, was forced to serve under Colonel Benjamin Hinman in the American Revolutionary War—become the subject of the joke itself. Arnold is often remembered as America’s most famous turncoat, though the circumstances of his dissatisfaction with his treatment during the war and with the emerging American government are frequently overlooked.


Beaton is very serious about history, evidenced by her ability both to anticipate and also to direct interest in what have become cult historical figures. Her interest in Nikola Tesla predates, and is more subtle than, that of Matthew Inman’s in The Oatmeal. However, she understands the fine balance between the levity and legitimacy of her work as a cartoonist. When she first declares her desire to “make a book” full of “history comics,” she also asserts that this will mean her comics “have to be more ‘serious’ and [she] might even have to ‘draw’ and ‘write legibly’ and ‘refrain from profanity,’” with the caveat that “we must all make sacrifices” (6 January 2008). What becomes clear, throughout Beaton’s work, is that Hark! A Vagrant is a dream and a promise, made both to herself and her readers, at last fulfilled. This is particularly evident from the threads that can be traced from her early online comics to her book: making fun of the obscure, rendering the historical topical, and juxtaposing the unexpected with the known or familiar. These three threads converge with particular success in the comic “Elizabeth I the most eligible,” where the queen jokes she has SARS to rid herself of a potential suitor, Charles of Austria, but is, in the punchline, “tricked into appearing on a [reality] dating program”: The Batchelorette.

Kate Beaton’s comics are arguably the best products to emerge from the Athabasca Oil Sands in Fort McMurray. In autumn 2007, Beaton began working in northern Alberta to pay off her degree in history from Mount Allison University. While in Fort McMurray she began her Live Journal page, announcing that, because of the positive feedback she’d received from the community that arose around her Live Journal posts, she was “going to squander [her] future” by continuing to draw comics. In these early days, Beaton not only quickly developed her style as a cartoonist and themes as an artist, but also established a unique exchange between reader and author that transcended the limited medium of her Live Journal page:

What do I get out of this? That ‘focus’ bit I was talking about.
What do you get out of this? Sweet, sweet history.

Indeed, even then Beaton understood that her success would rely on the pleasure she took in making art, comics and jokes as well as on the popularity of her comics and the strength of her interaction with her audience. It is also during her time in Alberta that Beaton’s friendships with other internet comic artists, such as Emily Horne and Joey Comeau from A Softer World and Meredith Gran from Octopus Pie. These relationships came to form a complex web of internet intertextuality, manifesting itself in posted links to humorous, interesting, or relevant songs, pictures, and videos.

But what is at stake in Beaton’s presentation and interest in Canadian history? On the one hand, we have her comics as a part of the post-structuralist interest in micro-history and micro-narratives. On the other, her comics stand as an important redefinition of sequential art. The term sequential art, developed by the cartoonist and comic theorist Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994), attempted to define comics in an emerging and enlarging field of critical comics discourse. As McCloud writes, sequential art “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” In truth, the term “sequential art” has itself become the comics equivalent of the term “literary fiction”, as opposed, say, to popular or genre fictions: a limiting and revised definition of a medium which, in effect, effaces its mass appeal, its variety of expression, and its transformative experimentations. Consider, for instance, her extended treatment of hipsters in the strips “Brunel is tired of these time traveling assholes,” “WWII Hipster Batallion [sic],” “WWII Hipster Battalion,” “Hipsters Ruin Everything, Pt. 1,” and “Hipsters Ruin Everything, Pt. 2”, or of pirates in “You and I could make a bag vengeance,” “Tattoo comparisons,” “I wanted to get into forensics because of CSI,” and “Nemesis mine.” In these strips Beaton extends the satirist’s cartoon (such as Punch or Gary Larson’s The Far Side) beyond a single frame panel into sequences that, over time, accrue layers of valence that penetrate the heart of the political, social, or aesthetic issue under consideration in a way that neither the satirist’s cartoon nor the weekly or extended narrative comics (such as Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes or Art Spiegleman’s Maus) can achieve.


Hark! A Vagrant, though bereft of the more autobiographical comics that make her website, Live Journal page, and tumblr account so enjoyable, is in the vanguard of contemporary internet and print comics; Beaton’s humour becomes a nexus of much-needed irony in a world of Buzzfeed’s inane list feeds and revived interest in “vintage” cartoons such as Punch. Indeed, readers should be grateful for the the wealth of Beaton’s work, so much of which is freely available on the internet.

**This review was originally published in the Special Issue: Comics of the Oxonian Review 23.6 (2013), edited by Dr Dominic Davies, on 23 December.

September 5th 2016

The Blue Bowl


by Jane Kenyon

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole.                          

They fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.

We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows keener than these.

Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.

Sage words on grief.

September 1st 2016

A Labyrinthine Monograph


Christopher Meredith
Journeys of the Songscape: Space and the Song of Songs
Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013
216 pages
ISBN 978-1907534850

Nightly, on my bed, I sought my soul’s beloved,
I sought him but did not find him.

I will rise now, I will go around the city,
through its streets and its plazas,
I will seek my soul’s beloved. (Song of Songs 3:1-2, trans. Meredith)

The Song of Songs, or Solomon’s Song, is eight chapters long. In the Hebrew Bible, it is one of the five “Megillot” (“scrolls”), which comprise the “Ketuvim” (“writings”), the third section of the canonical “Tanakh”. In the King James Bible, where it can be found between the books of Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, it is shy of 2,700 words (far from the shortest). I mention these things in order to ground the critical questions surrounding the Song of Songs as a text—is it a devotional text? Is it a sexy text? Is it an allegory and, if so, to what extent can an allegorical reading be extended into something solid, more knowable? These critical questions, though well known, have become a byword for the text itself, a circumstance which can be ascribed to the Bible-as-literature approach that began to emerge in biblical and religious studies in the late 20th century.

If, however, any particular biblical text invites a literary reading, it is the Song. From its hortatory opening (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” [1:1]) to the comparative figures of speech that dominate chapter 7 (“Thy navel is like a round goblet” and “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory” [7:2, 4]), the Song challenges its own position as devotional literature. For those unfamiliar with the Song, this bawdy body imagery may come as a transformational shock, while those already familiar with the sexuality and desire running through it may long for an approach that is more dynamic and less prescriptive.

In Journeys in the Songscape: Space and the Song of Songs, Christopher Meredith, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Winchester, has returned to the Song of Songs in order to revive the discourse of biblical scholarship. Furthermore, his exploration of the Song in terms of its spatiality, textuality, and sexuality, marks an important shift in contemporary critical literature through its analytic methodology, exemplified by its successful marriage of theory and close reading. Meredith achieves this, in part, because of the way in which he uses the conventions of biblical scholarship both to the advantage of his argument and to the relief of his readers: long discussions of secondary or critical sources are reserved for footnotes, assertions are assiduously documented, close reading is de rigueur. At times almost whimsical, hyper-theoretical, and discomfortingly earnest, Meredith’s arguments thankfully avoid the language of intellectual posturing so typical of texts tending towards this sort of fashionable criticism.

Importantly, Journeys in the Songscape is marked by its knowledgeable, nimble prose in the service of a revolutionary, yet necessary mode of exegesis. For instance, in his overview of spatial theory from Lefebvre and Soja to more contemporary resources in biblical scholarship, Meredith is careful to incorporate those aspects of their theories which enable, unfurl, and enliven his arguments while addressing and disposing of those hindering them. He understands the limitations of his chosen theorists: Lefebvre is mainly concerned with public space and offers little to the “darker nooks, crannies, and back alleys that constitute private life”; Soja’s “Thirdspace” becomes “an all-purpose nostrum, a formula that covers up a lack of phenomenology in a study that claims to privilege personal perspective” so that his “trialectic” falters under the weight of its cumbersome, over-prescribed structure. Derrida’s axiomatic dictum, il n’y a pas de hors-text, wherein the “interplay between textualities and spatialities” helps to circumnavigate the tendency towards the elision of “historicity and spatiality” in biblical spatial studies, affirms the world-as-text and foregrounds the reader-as-cartographer. The metaphor of Benjamin’s “Phantoscope” allows one to renegotiate the “dream rhetoric” of the Song as in terms of the “trope of ideological illusion”. Taken together, this plethora of theorists might, in another work, obscure the argument—or worse, overwhelm the reader. However, as read by Meredith, each theorist retains their acuity or discreteness, contributing to a reading of the Song and a larger theory of spatiality while resisting the universalising force common to theoretical methodologies.

If the strength of Meredith’s analysis lies in the myriad perspectives and valences he discovers in these various spatial approaches, then, despite the vitality and accessibility of Meredith’s monograph, its weakness lies in a presumption of readerly familiarity with the Song of Songs, if not with the extensive scholarship on the subject. With biblical literacy on the wane amongst even undergraduate students—despite Michael Gove’s 2012 initiative to give an edition of the King James Bible to every school in the UK—Meredith’s excellent monograph becomes less accessible by virtue of this presumption.

Perhaps, however, this is because Journeys is not designed to be accessible. As a monograph in the Hebrew Bible Monograph series edited by David J. A. Clines, J. Cheryl Exum, and Keith W. Whitelam, it is aimed at readers who are already literate and who participate in the culture and texts of biblical studies. Those readers would not begrudge the fact that Meredith does not begin his close readings until mid-way through the second chapter, in a section entitled “On the Scrim: Fluid Continuity in the Song.” They would understand the space required to foreground his methodological approaches (which are plural, as there are many). Each section—“Undreaming the Song’s World: On Inhabiting a Phantasm”, “Locked Gardens and the City as Labyrinth”, “Gender, Space and Threshold Magic”, and “The Corpus Without Organs”—takes a different approach to the same text, revisiting, refining and revivifying the connective argument(s). These readers would understand the necessity of developing a critical genealogy of the discipline alongside the readings, which for Meredith begins with J. Cheryl Exum’s Song of Songs: A Commentary (2005) and Fiona Black’s The Artifice of Love: Grotesque Bodies and the Song of Songs (2009). In this vein, Meredith is careful to acknowledge that his reading of the Song is a literal one. For him, Songs is “a largely non-religious poem about the ins and outs of sensual, sexual, human, male-female love” to be treated as “a single literary entity”. It is from such a literary position that he is able to establish his unexpectedly cartographic, phantasmagoric, liminal, and surrealist understandings of the Song.

Ultimately, the theoretical underpinnings of Meredith’s text are what makes Journeys so transformative. His desire to rescue textual criticism from itself is not too grand for, nor at odds with, the way in which he deploys his own critical readings. In the space of his own text, he extends both the Bible and his readings of spatial theory into the dizzying realms of contemporary intertextuality or referentiality. Adorno, Bachelard, Calvino, Certeau, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Haraway, Merleau-Ponty, Perec, and Rabinbach are all figures in a vast theoretical landscape who seem to assemble into one great “labyrinthine monograph”—a spatial metaphor that might seem typical of post-ironic criticism, but that is here imbued with an intentional sincerity. Proceeding from a simple, discrete concept—space—what Meredith has to say about the entanglement of spatiality and textuality exceeds the thresholds of biblical scholarship, supplanting an outmoded “poetics” with a new “geometries” of literary theory. Indeed, his aim, “to place the varied and variegated ways of conceiving of space in the Song—phenomenological, literary, theoretic, ideological—as parts in a simultaneous network of potential connections”, transcends its immediate disciplinary concerns. For what is at stake in the paradigm of reader of biblical literature as cartographer is also at stake for the reader of all literatures.

**This review was originally published in the Oxonian Review 23.2 (2013) on 28 October.

September 1st 2016