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Alternative Selves – video #1

In these last couple of months we asked some of the PhD students and researchers involved in INCH to tell us what they thought of the last two cycles of our seminar – on the theme “Alternative Selves”. We chose to do this through video, which has been – unfortunately – a lingering necessity in this pandemic era. Yet it is in the faces and embodied voices of our comrades that we have found the strength to move forward, discussing books and films and questioning the present. Here is the first in the series of contributions: check it out!

Watch the video HERE

Odyssean Greyhounds

by Marie Shelton, University of Notre Dame

The summer before I started college, I quit my job and boarded a Greyhound from San Diego to Boston. The journey took two and a half days. I stopped in LA, Vegas, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and New York to refuel. When I finally arrived in Boston, I felt I had been hit by a bus, instead of having taken a ride on one.

Stops were often in the middle of the night. I would unfold myself out of the seat like a bent paperclip, wake up my limbs, and do laps around the station, only to discover that those stations were often in the armpits of town – unkept and seedy. And in the wee hours, I wanted nothing more than to get back to my seat on the Greyhound.

I often think back and wonder, what was the most pleasurable part of that trip? Getting off the bus, or getting back on it?

Cheaper than the cost of driving or flying, taking a Greyhound bus feels as ubiquitous to the American experience as eating apple pie, but unlike apple pie, the Greyhound is, at best, an unconventional indulgence. On the one hand, boarding a Greyhound allows one to economically mobilize, to see the country, or to just get out – and to derive aesthetic pleasure from being transported by an icon across the American landscape. For a moment, one may even feel a flicker of something like freedom. On the other hand, the practical particulars of that journey, including loss of personal space, of time, or energy, very quickly conduce to feelings of exhaustion, and of the loss of the self. Just as the bus casually crosses state lines, onboard the bus, there is no escaping the challenge to one’s personal boundaries, at least not without looking like a total snob.

The Greyhound continues to be the site of many individual odysseys that, for a brief moment in time, merge. The Greyhound bus, from its 1914 nascence to now, has and continues to imbue the American cultural landscape with a distinctly literary set of questions. We might think of the Greyhound as the site of unique social transactions that help to shape a developing, democratic self. Characters who have the privilege of developing, as it were, do so in direct relation to their social restraints. This curious phenomenon is at least as ancient as Homer’s Odyssey (in relation to Odysseus), and appears as well in Frank Capra’s 1934 pre-code film, It Happened One Night, in relation to Ellie Andrews.

Book XII of the Odyssey features the dualistic impasses of pleasure and compulsion and of freedom and imprisonment when Odysseus and his crew face the alluring song of the sirens – a song that otherwise compels men to steer their ships into ruin. It is a test, and Odysseus passes it only by filling his crew’s ears with wax. He then has them tie him to the ship’s mast, as they row the ship to safety. This scene has been written on extensively by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectics of Enlightenment as a moment that “mediates between self-preservation and self-annihilation.” Early in their work, they point to this moment in The Odyssey to allegorize what they mean by “dialectic of enlightenment,” which posits an age-old inquiry about the awakening and representation of the individual subject in relation to their social setting. Odysseus’s humanity in this scene is ironically represented by a continuum of restrictions to one’s personhood. Odysseus must violently deny the primal, pleasure-seeking self by having his body strapped to the ship’s mast in order to survive. But Horkheimer and Adorno are also quick to note that, in these actions, Odysseus is also individuating himself from his hoi polloi crew. Unlike the crew, who cannot listen because Odysseus has oppressively rendered them both senseless and practical (by filling their ears with wax), Odysseus allows himself to listen. In a setting of universal constraint (or death), Odysseus insists on exacting pleasure from the art of the Sirens’ song, even as he is bound to the ship’s mast, and this humanizes him.

We can read this configuration of a ‘privileged place’ within a social predicament alongside Ellie Andrew’s Odyssey-like journey on a Greyhound bus – a journey that allows her to make distinctions between merely illusory pleasure and the real thing. Ellie, played by Claudette Colbert, leaves her rich father, who insists on an annulment from her shotty marriage, by jumping off his boat. She so desires to be with a man that she hardly knows that desire absurdly compels her overboard. She washes up in Florida, hoping to get to New York to have a proper wedding, unencumbered by her father’s garrulous disapproval. With little money in her pocket, she boards a Greyhound and finds a strange bedfellow in Peter, played by Clark Gable. He is a tramp of a journalist, and she will, of course, fall in love with him instead.

The film’s exposition alone can be read alongside Book XII to suggest that Ellie appears to damn herself from the start. The siren’s song of the illusion of a pleasurable marriage to a wealthy New Yorker quite literally draws Ellie off a ship – not exactly into ruin, but certainly onto a Greyhound and beyond. On a meta-narrative level, her entire story is predicated upon falling into a pleasure trap. Part of the pleasure of the film, furthermore, arises from Ellie’s protracted realization that that which compelled her to jump ship – the rich husband she hardly knows– is actually only an illusion of pleasure. The delusional ephemerality of her condition is further indicated by the suggestion that her marriage remains unconsummated. In the opening scene, her father wants her to get an annulment, as opposed to a divorce. There is a heavy narrative suggestion here that she has not had sex with her husband yet.

Her intimacy with Peter on the Greyhound, on the other hand, alongside Peter’s loyal assistance in getting Ellie to her destination, runs counter to this background charade. Even if she and Peter do not have sex, it is still deeply ironic that she is so frequently depicted sleeping with Peter on her way to the husband whom she has not slept with.

One of the most heartbreaking ways that loyalty is depicted in the Odyssey happens to be through a greyhound dog: Odysseus’s faithful friend, “Argos.” Greyhound Lines Inc. adopted the image of a greyhound dog in 1929, just five years before the premiere of It Happened One Night, citing that the buses looked like “those dogs streaking by.” But even if the Greyhound bus company does not explicitly allude to Homer’s canine, the film is certainly conflating Peter with the bus he rides on, and in so doing, they make him Homeric. He is a wandering tramp of a journalist onboard of a Greyhound, loyally assisting a woman on her journey of self-discovery. 

Argos features most pointedly in Book XVII, when Odysseus is disguised and cannot acknowledge him. Odysseus has not seen him since before the Trojan War, and Argos falls into neglect.

… a hound that lay there raised his head and pricked up his ears, Argos, the hound of Odysseus, of the steadfast heart, whom of old he had himself bred, but had no joy of him, for ere that he went to sacred Ilios. In days past the young men were wont to take the hound to hunt the wild goats, and deer, and hares; but now he lay neglected, his master gone, in the deep dung of mules and cattle, which lay in heaps before the doors, till the slaves of Odysseus should take it away to dung his wide lands. There lay the hound Argos, full of vermin; yet even now, when he marked Odysseus standing near, he wagged his tail and dropped both his ears, but nearer to his master he had no longer strength to move. Then Odysseus looked aside and wiped away a tear.

–Homer, Odyssey, Book 17, 290-327

Argos was that loyal friend Odysseus felt compelled to leave, seeking some other pleasure. Now, that friend is neglected: mangey and slow. This too appears to be the sad stakes for narratives of pleasure and compulsion. Those who get left behind suffer in direct proportion to those who orient their ships toward the siren’s rocks. What both greyhounds suggest in relation to one another are narratives that are concerned not only with adducing new and threatening forms of pleasure, but the loss of pleasures past.

It Happened One Night inverts this heuristicin contrast to Argos’s tragic ending, our heroine’s journey begins with a light-hearted lurch: tight shots of the bus’s interior set the stage for some sort of disruptive action jarring the mundane flow of the Greyhound. When Ellie appears, the suspense is giggle-worthy: where other passengers pass through the crowded aisle with great dexterity, Ellie, in her naïve, snobbish care not to not touch other people, enters the scene looking clumsy and vulnerable. Intimacy is all but willed into hilarious being through the space and social dynamics of the Greyhound. 

True to form, as the journey kicks into gear, the tottering Ellie falls backwards into Peter’s lap. Their faces slowly come together, as if for a kiss, before she scrambles to her feet. Peter recognizes Ellie as that ‘famous heiress’ in the papers he helps to write and he clearly knows that, socially, she in unfamiliar with scenes of accidental intimacy that prevail onboard the Greyhound. No one is going to strap her to ship’s mast so she can enjoy being tantalized from afar, and her embarrassment is a tell of her privilege. Peter cheekily grins and famously remarks, 

“Next time you drop in, remember to bring your folks!”

Like the tilting of Argos’s head toward Odysseus, the lurch of the Greyhound bus is all that it takes for Ellie to recognize true, concrete pleasure – even if just for a moment. And Ellie’s social stumble invites our vicarious enjoyment. She immediately performs her embarrassment and musters a show of anger at her predicament, but we know better. She has just looked pleasure in the face, and any driving compulsion to get to her husband, as it were, peters down. 

It is worth mentioning that these implicitly erotic moments onboard the Greyhound – quiet and humorous mediations of self-preservation and self-denial, from falling asleep next to a stranger to falling into their lap– become explicit as the narrative progresses. Thanks in part to its pre-code lack of censorship, Capra’s film rebelliously shows how Peter and Ellie’s sexual relationship develops in direct contradiction to the stagnant social mores of high society. Their relationship begins on a moving Greyhound, where it is more socially acceptable to be more intimate with one’s neighbor and then transitions to a scene in a single Depression-era hotel room. It is here that Peter famously constructs the “Walls of Jericho,” a makeshift privacy partition, between their two twin beds. In the film’s closing shot, the intimacy that bloomed between them on the Greyhound is symbolically consummated in an image of those sheets tumbling down. 

By pairing The Odyssey and It Happened One Night, we can appreciate how the Greyhound bus, like its more canonical seagoing counterpart, functions as a site of intimacy and varying power relations. And we can see how faithful, greyhound-like characters (like Peter) act as key mediators for an individual’s development. Ellie’s narrative arc is attached not to the pursuit of pleasure alone (like Odysseus with the song of the sirens), but to her burgeoning ability to differentiate between illusory pleasure and the genuine article. Ellie achieves with loyal Peter a fruitful humility that Odysseus never really achieves, and she chooses a less privileged life when she decides to marry him. When the “Walls of Jericho” fall, she remains, as it were, buoyed on by the freedom of her greyhound. 

Mr. Ripley and the Banality of Talent

[Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1955]

Maria Apostolidou
University of Ioannina   

Coming across The Talented Mr. Ripley for the first time, the unsuspecting reader might anticipate a story about a central character named Ripley or, in other words, a novel that focuses on the life and opinions of a specific person. As the reading progresses, however, the reader’s expectations fall apart; the protagonist’s consolidated identity as prescribed by the title —a man, Anglo-Saxon in origin, socially reputable (Mr. Ripley)— is systematically destabilized and undermined, and, eventually, proven to be non-existent. At the end of the novel, the reader is left with a strong sense of the oxymoron that lies in the choice of a such a restrictive, bold, and fixed title for a novel which focuses on the unstable, the indefinable, the perpetually elusive.

Ripley’s shady, semi-clandestine lifestyle provides him with a first-class opportunity to unfold his talent in pretense and disguise, and to render, finally, this liquidity and this ongoing displacement into existential and ontological choices. And, although the distance between such acts as, on one hand, accounting fraud and, on the other, the murderous usurpation of another’s identity and property, may be long, Ripley covers it with a certain ease. Both cases seem to be governed by some common rules and terms, which the hero has managed to conquer to the highest degree. These rules and terms are no other than the natural, primordial laws of adaptability and camouflage, laws that, when applied in nature, ensure to the fittest organisms not only survival and longevity, but also superiority over other organisms. Thus, alternating among names, qualities, addresses, habits, physical appearance and attitude, Ripley demonstrates a unique readiness to meet the challenges of every moment. His clothes, accessories, and make-up, his astute reflexes, as well as his impressive ability to penetrate into the interlocutor’s, or the victim’s, mind and soul can only be read as evidence of camouflage, as signs of his unparalleled adaptability and alertness. Especially when he delves into his interlocutor’s mind, when he tries to read his/her thoughts, to anticipate his/her possible questions, objections and maneuvers, his virtuosity in the struggle for survival really reaches its peak; in such moments, the narration, while diffracted in the possible parallel realities devised by Ripley’s productive mind, becomes suffocating and vertiginous, illustrating thereby the trap meticulously set up for both the interlocutor and the reader.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella, 1999

Ripley’s tendency to invent realities, to elaborate possible scenarios, to camouflage himself, and to hide behind façades, should be understood with reference to his predilection for theater and performance. His overall behavior, manners, and attitude are the results of a systematic —if not voyeuristic— observation of others, and of impeccable imitation; his clothes, as well as the interiors of his personal spaces, function as theatrical costumes and sets, the presence and arrangement of which are never accidental, but rather serve a specific purpose. This way, Ripley turns out to be a director not only of himself, but also of the life and behavior of the people surrounding him; without being perceived he manipulates them through the projection of imaginary situations, encouraging the formation of specific feelings and thoughts and dictating specific reactions, always, of course, in his own interest.

If Ripley does nothing more than reactivate his innate, primordial tendencies and if, for him, the path to prosperity runs through deception and violence, then his behavior and mentality should not be measured against a morale imposed by social or religious decorum. Considered in the perspective of natural law and of fundamental animal instincts, this way of living is disentangled from the need of moral judgment, from the need to be classified as “good” or “bad”. Ripley kills, lies, pretends, forges, imitates, moves from one place to another, only to survive and to ensure his supremacy over his competitors. In so doing, he behaves, mutatis mutandis, as any other living creature in nature.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella, 1999

This amoral assessment of Ripley’s demeanor strips the hero of any degree of “satanic greatness”. His delinquent action may stem from rational and clear thinking; yet it does not serve a sublime purpose, nor is it part of a plan of common good and salvation, as, for example, is the case of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The murders committed by Ripley and the hijacking of other people’s identities are not foreshadowed by his initial portrayal (before he leaves America), but they arise impulsively as results of his vigorous instinct for self-preservation. It is this absence of depth and of ideological background in Ripley’s criminal behavior and the dimension of primitivism it entails, that render him not an attractive villain, but an essentially banal one. Moreover, unlike the heroes of romanticism and of aestheticism, Ripley doesn’t seek in a dead or abused body any kind of morbid pleasure or of aesthetic satisfaction. From this perspective, Ripley’s activity seems to fall directly into the realm of the “banality of evil”, to invoke Hannah Arendt, not because it comes from an ordinary person in a recurring mode, but rather because it is an instinctive, mechanical reaction, almost imposed by the struggle for survival.

And yet, there is also a tender side to Ripley, aspects of which can be traced in his attitude towards Clio and towards the Greenleafs. Especially with the former, who is presented as a talented artist, he develops a fraternal, platonic relationship which is opposed to the rather shallow and —if not carnal— certainly more materialistic and sordid relationship between Dickie and Marge. His sensitivity is most fully unveiled in his childlike admiration for the various emblematic European cities. His admiration for Europe, his keenness to explore it, and the care with which he chooses to integrate European art into his everyday life, show that for him, as for Clio, Europe, taken as a cradle of art and culture, becomes a locus amoenus. This is a place where one can, and should, seek relief from misery and where one can, and should, experience the pursuit of the sublime, the elegant, the ideal. It is obvious that this idealization of Europe stems from his disdain for the “American way of life”, which is considered equivalent to conformism, materialism, and superficiality. To Ripley, Marge serves as a stereotype of the American Way with her studied lightness, her obsessive consumption (of food, perfumes, household appliances), all complemented by her insistence on having an affair and, possibly, a conventional marriage with Dickie. Dickie’s alienation from Ripley, and his reevaluation of Marge and of his American friends, could be interpreted as a progressive abandonment of the bohemian life and as a gradual shift towards the conventional, conservative, and ‘settled-down’ American lifestyle.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella, 1999

 All this fluidity and disintegration are, lastly, reflected by the narrative; as the traditional, third-person point of view is often interrupted by phrases in direct speech (often in Italian), by letters, as well as by newspaper articles. The narrating consciousness merges into a polyphonic novel that combines different registers: the elaborate diction of both original and spurious letters, the pomposities of journalism, the cold language of the authorities, the emotional language of people, the puzzling language of pretense and concealment. All these elements coalesce, but the result is not a clearer, more objective, and multifaceted depiction of reality. On the contrary, the novel offers only a hyper-realism, defined by heightened ambiguity and, finally, negation.

For the Greek version please read below

Ο κ. Ripley και η κοινοτοπία του ταλέντου

[Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1955]

Μαρία Αποστολίδου
Πανεπιστήμιο Ιωαννίνων

Ξεκινώντας τον Ταλαντούχο κύριο Ripley, ο αναγνώστης περιμένει να διαβάσει μια ιστορία με έναν κεντρικό ήρωα ονόματι Ripley, ή, με άλλα λόγια, ένα μυθιστόρημα που έχει ως επίκεντρο τα έργα και τις ημέρες ενός πολύ συγκεκριμένου προσώπου. Ωστόσο, καθώς προχωρεί η ανάγνωση, οι προσδοκίες του αναγνώστη διαψεύδονται˙ η παγιωμένη ταυτότητα του πρωταγωνιστή έτσι όπως αυτή προδιαγράφεται από τον τίτλο —άνδρας, αγγλοσαξονικής καταγωγής, κοινωνικά ευυπόληπτος (κύριος)— αποσταθεροποιείται και υπονομεύεται συστηματικά, για να αποδειχτεί, τελικά, ανύπαρκτη. Έτσι, στο τέλος πια του έργου, μένει στον αναγνώστη η αίσθηση ενός οξύμωρου το οποίο προκύπτει από την επιλογή ενός τίτλου τόσο περιοριστικού, στιβαρού και συγκεκριμένου για ένα μυθιστόρημα με θέμα το ασταθές, το μη προσδιορίσιμο και το διαρκώς διαφεύγον.

Ο σκιώδης, ημιπαράνομος τρόπος ζωής του Ripley τού παρέχει τη δυνατότητα να ξεδιπλώσει την έφεσή του στην προσποίηση και τη μεταμφίεση και να αναγάγει, τελικά, τη ρευστότητα και τη διαρκή μετατόπιση σε υπαρκτικές, οντολογικές επιλογές. Και, μολονότι η απόσταση ανάμεσα στις λογιστικές απάτες και στη δολοφονία και την υφαρπαγή της ταυτότητας και της περιουσίας ενός ανθρώπου είναι μεγάλη, εντούτοις, ο Ripley τη διανύει με σχετική ευκολία, καθώς και οι δύο περιπτώσεις φαίνεται να διέπονται από κοινούς κανόνες και όρους, τους οποίους ο ήρωας έχει φροντίσει να κατακτήσει στον υπέρτατο βαθμό. Αυτοί δεν είναι άλλοι από τους φυσικούς, αρχέγονους νόμους της προσαρμοστικότητας και του καμουφλάζ, νόμους που, στη φύση, αξιοποιούνται από τους ποικίλους οργανισμούς για την εξασφάλιση όχι μόνο της επιβίωσης και της μακροημέρευσής τους, αλλά και της υπεροχής τους έναντι των άλλων οργανισμών. Έτσι, ο Ripley επιδεικνύει μοναδική ετοιμότητα στο να ανταποκριθεί στις προκλήσεις κάθε στιγμής, αλλάζοντας όνομα, ιδιότητα, διεύθυνση, συνήθειες, εξωτερική εμφάνιση και ύφος. Τα ρούχα, τα αξεσουάρ, το μακιγιάζ, τα οξυμένα αντακλαστικά, καθώς και η εντυπωσιακή ικανότητά του να ψυχογραφεί τον εκάστοτε συνομιλητή ή το εκάστοτε θύμα του δεν μπορούν να διαβαστούν παρά ως αδιάσειστα τεκμήρια καμουφλάζ, ως αποδείξεις της απαράμιλλης προσαρμοστικότητάς του. Ειδικά όταν ψυχογραφεί τον συνομιλητή του, όταν προσπαθεί να προβλέψει πιθανές απορίες, ενστάσεις και κινήσεις του, η δεξιοτεχνία του στον αγώνα της επιβίωσης φτάνει πραγματικά στο απόγειό της˙ πρόκειται για στιγμές κατά τις οποίες ο λόγος της αφήγησης, καθώς διαθλάται στις παράλληλες πιθανές πραγματικότητες που κατασκευάζει ο Ripley στο μυαλό του, γίνεται ασφυκτικός και ιλιγγιώδης, εικονοποιώντας με τον τρόπο αυτό την παγίδα που μεθοδικά στήνεται τόσο στον συνομιλητή, όσο και στον αναγνώστη.

Η τάση του Ripley να επινοεί σενάρια και να κρύβεται πίσω από προσωπεία θα πρέπει να συσχετιστεί με την έλξη που του ασκεί το θέατρο, το ματαιωμένο του όνειρο. Όλη του η συμπεριφορά, οι τρόποι, το ύφος είναι αποτελέσματα συστηματικής —ηδονοβλεπτικής θα λέγαμε— παρατήρησης των άλλων και, εν τέλει, άψογης μίμησης, ενώ τα ρούχα του και το εσωτερικό των προσωπικών του χώρων λειτουργούν ως θεατρικά κοστούμια και σκηνικά, η παρουσία και η διαρρύθμιση των οποίων δεν είναι ποτέ τυχαία αλλά εξυπηρετεί συγκεκριμένη σκοπιμότητα. Έτσι, τελικά, ο ίδιος ο Ripley εξελίσσεται σε σκηνοθέτη όχι μόνο του εαυτού του, αλλά και της ζωής και της συμπεριφοράς των άλλων προσώπων, στον βαθμό που, ανεπαισθήτως, μέσα από την προβολή επίπλαστων καταστάσεων, τους υποβάλλει συγκεκριμένα συναισθήματα και συγκεκριμένες σκέψεις και τους υπαγορεύει συγκεκριμένες αντιδράσεις, πάντοτε, βέβαια, προς το συμφέρον του. 

 Αν λοιπόν ο Ripley δεν κάνει τίποτα άλλο πέρα από το να επανενεργοποιεί έμφυτές του αρχέγονες ροπές και αν για αυτόν, ο δρόμος για την προσωπική ευημερία περνά μέσα από την εξαπάτηση και τη βία, τότε η νοοτροπία του δεν θα πρέπει να αποτιμηθεί με βάση μια ιδέα περί ηθικής επιβεβλημένη από το κοινωνικό ή το θρησκευτικό decorum. Τοποθετημένος, αντίθετα, στην προοπτική του φυσικού νόμου και των πρωτογενών ζωικών ενστίκτων, αυτός ο τρόπος ζωής απαλλάσσεται αυτομάτως από την ανάγκη ηθικού προσδιορισμού, από την ανάγκη για χαρακτηρισμό του ως «καλού» ή «κακού». Ο Ripley σκοτώνει, ψεύδεται, προσποιείται, πλαστογραφεί, μιμείται, μετακινείται προκειμένου να επιβιώσει και να εξασφαλίσει την υπεροχή του έναντι των ανταγωνιστών και, υπό αυτή την έννοια, συμπεριφέρεται, τηρουμένων των αναλογιών, όπως ένας οποιοδήποτε έμβιος οργανισμός μέσα στη φύση. 

Αυτή η αμοραλιστική θεώρηση της δράσης του Ripley τον απογυμνώνει από οποιαδήποτε διάσταση «σατανικού μεγαλείου». Η παραβατική του δράση προκύπτει μεν κατόπιν λογικής και διαυγούς σκέψης, δεν υπηρετεί δε κάποιον υψηλό σκοπό και δεν εντάσσεται σε ένα σχέδιο κοινής ωφέλειας και σωτηρίας, όπως π.χ. συμβαίνει με τον ντοστογιεφσκικό Raskolnikov στο Έγκλημα και τιμωρία. Οι δολοφονίες που διαπράττει ο Ripley και η οικειοποίηση, εκ μέρους του, αλλότριων ταυτοτήτων δεν προμηνύονται από τη σκιαγράφηση του χαρακτήρα του πριν αναχωρήσει για την Ευρώπη, αλλά προκύπτουν παρορμητικά ως αποτελέσματα του ενεργού ενστίκτου της αυτοσυντήρησης. Ακριβώς αυτή η απουσία βάθους και ιδεολογικού υπόβαθρου από την εγκληματική συμπεριφορά του Ripley και η διάσταση της ζωικότητας, του πρωτόγονου και ενστικτώδους που εμπεριέχει τον καθιστούν έναν απολύτως κοινότοπο και καθόλου γοητευτικό «κακό» ήρωα. Επιπροσθέτως, σκοτώνοντας και εξαπατώντας, ο Ripley δεν αντλεί, κατά το πρότυπο ενός ήρωα του ρομαντισμού ή του αισθητισμού, κάποιου είδους νοσηρή ηδονή, ούτε αναζητά την αισθητική ικανοποίηση που ενδεχομένως προσφέρει το νεκρό ή το κακοποιημένο σώμα. Κατόπιν τούτων, η δράση του Ripley θα μπορούσε να ενταχθεί στην περιοχή του «κοινότοπου κακού», έτσι όπως αυτή περιγράφηκε από τη Hannah Arendt, στον βαθμό πουείναι όχι τόσο συνηθισμένη και επαναλαμβανόμενη, όσο αντίδραση ενστικτώδης και μηχανική.

Πάντως ο Ripley φαίνεται να διαθέτει και μια συναισθηματική πλευρά, όψεις της οποίας διακρίνονται στη στάση του απέναντι στην Clio και το ζεύγος Greenleaf. Ειδικά με την πρώτη, η οποία —ας τονιστεί— σκιαγραφείται ως αξιόλογη καλλιτέχνιδα, αναπτύσσει μια αδελφική, πλατωνική σχέση, που τίθεται στον αντίποδα της μάλλον ρηχής και, αν όχι σαρκικής, σίγουρα πάντως περισσότερο υλικής και ιδιοτελούς σχέσης Dickie – Marge. Η ευαισθησία του Ripleyξεδιπλώνεται πλήρως στον σχεδόν παιδικό θαυμασμό του για τις διάφορες εμβληματικές ευρωπαϊκές πόλεις. Ο ενθουσιασμός του για την Ευρώπη, η προσδοκία του να την εξερευνήσει και η φροντίδα με την οποία ενσωματώνει την ευρωπαϊκή τέχνη στην καθημερινή του ζωή φανερώνουν ότι για αυτόν, όπως και για την Clio, η Ευρώπη, ως λίκνο της τέχνης και του πολιτισμού, είναι ένας locus amoenus, ένας τόπος όπου κατεξοχήν κανείς μπορεί και οφείλει να απαλλαγεί από τη μιζέρια, να αναζητήσει την καλαισθησία, να βιώσει το ιδανικό και το υψηλό. Είναι φανερό ότι σε αυτή την εξιδανίκευση της Ευρώπης υπόκειται η περιφρόνηση του αμερικανικού τρόπου ζωής που θεωρείται ισοδύναμος με τον κομφορμισμό, τον υλισμό και τη ρηχότητα. Τυπική εκπρόσωπός του η Marge με την αφόρητα ενοχλητική, για τον Ripley, ελαφρότητά της, την προσήλωσή της στην κατανάλωση αγαθών (φαγητό, αρώματα, οικιακές συσκευές), καθώς και την επιμονή της στη σύναψη ερωτικού δεσμού και, πιθανώς, συμβατικού γάμου με τον Dickie. Σε ό,τι αφορά αυτόν τον τελευταίο, η απομάκρυνσή του από τον Ripley και η επανεκτίμηση της συντροφιάς της Marge και των Αμερικανών φίλων θα μπορούσε να προσληφθεί ως εγκατάλειψη, εκ μέρους του, του μέχρι πρότινος μποέμ βίου και ως σταδιακή μεταστροφή του προς τον συντηρητικό και νοικοκυρεμένο αμερικανικό τρόπο ζωής.

 Όλη αυτή η ρευστότητα και ο κατακερματισμός αναπαρίστανται, τέλος, και αφηγηματικά, καθώς η παραδοσιακή, τριτοπρόσωπη αφήγηση διακόπτεται πολύ συχνά από ευθύ λόγο (συχνά στα ιταλικά), από επιστολές και από δημοσιεύματα εφημερίδων. Όλα αυτά τα στοιχεία συνθέτουν, τελικά, ένα πολυφωνικό μυθιστόρημα που συνδυάζει διαφορετικά επίπεδα λόγου (τον υπολογισμένο λόγο των γνήσιων και των ψευδεπίγραφων επιστολών, τον πομπώδη λόγο της δημοσιογραφίας, τον ψυχρό λόγο των αρχών, τον συναισθηματικό λόγο των προσώπων, τον αινιγματικό λόγο της προσποίησης και της απόκρυψης), με σκοπό όχι την πολύπλευρη και άρα διαυγή και αντικειμενική απόδοση της πραγματικότητας, αλλά, αντιθέτως, την περαιτέρω συσκότισή της και, ακόμα περισσότερο, την ίδια την αναίρεσή της.

Fighting the Circle

Thoughts on Displacement in Britten’s Owen Wingrave

Bianca De Mario
Università degli Studi di Milano

1971, May 16thOwen Wingrave, an opera for television composed by Benjamin Britten, directed by Brian Large and Colin Graham and produced by John Culshaw, is broadcast on BBC Two England. Much like The Turn of the Screw the subject was inspired by an unusual ghost story of the same title by Henry James (1892), later adapted for the stage (The Saloon, 1910), and transposed into a libretto by Myfanwy Piper. 

I looked around among all the stories that I could think of immediately, for a story which would be most suitable to the medium television. […] It needed a story which would show individuals reacting, to show there are reactions to each other, where the events could be a personal, private kind, rather than big and public which obviously a big stage needs. 

As Britten explains in Extracts from ‘Music now’, a documentary about the opera making-of, he was attracted by the «bombshell» dropped by a young fellow in the middle of a family. This dramatic factor, generating an unstoppable chain of personal reactions, is Owen Wingrave’s ultimate decision to quit Sundhurst, the Royal Military Academy. As the last descendant of a glorious family, Owen will break the long military tradition of his family, thus precluding his financial future as heir and, consequently, the engagement with his self-absorbed fiancée Kate Julian. 

Benjamin Bitten

Before considering how the composer and the TV director draw their audiovisual portrait of Owen, it is worth considering how Henry James’s source text was positioned to influence the artistic choices of Britten and Large.

Owen Wingrave immediately shows the characteristics of a thinker, who finds peace in reading and intellectual pleasure, a noble spirit who has learned «the “immeasurable misery” of wars». He is a displaced soul in that formidable «family circle», a constellation built around and devoted to highfalutin military glory. It’s not by chance that, Paramore, the living temple of the Wingraves, with its stifling paintings and its uncanny rooms, conceals horrible secrets about the violent death of a father and his young son. Longing for justice, Owen Wingrave, bends his eyes on his mentor, Spencer Coyle, and confesses his feelings about Paramore. 

«Oh, the house – the very air and feeling of it. There are strange voices in it that seem to mutter at me – to say dreadful things as I pass. […] I have started up all the old ghosts». (chapter 3)

Constantly insulted by the suffocating circle of the living and oppressed by the portraits of his military ancestors which seem alive, Owen decides to challenge Paramore’s curse, by entering the ‘liminal zone’: the room where Oliver Wingrave lost his life, after accidentally (?) killing his son, who didn’t want to defend the family honor. Owen takes this action following a final argument with his fiancée, apparently to demonstrate that his pacifism has nothing to do with fear or cowardice. This explanation should be taken cautiously: first because James delivers the explanation by way of reported speech by young Lechmere – who, as his name indicates, is an inauthentic character addicted to flattery. Secondly because a payback for an insult would be too superficial an action for a character whose «superior wisdom» and integrity are constantly repeated. 

«To my sense he is, in a high sense of the term, a fighting man», answers Spencer Coyle to Kate, after a brief discussion. Owen’s extreme action could therefore be intended more as an act of rebellion, rather than a simple proof of courage: a revolt against Paramore and its family system, against this claustrophobic salon and a crushing past with its hereditary defects. The room is a haunted and liminal space, and Owen’s legitimate rage against his constricted life does not exclude, in my opinion, a need of freedom that exceeds – and probably demands – self-destruction. 

After these considerations, some excerpts from Britten’s opera for television (J. Barnes 2003) render this portrait of Owen’s existential displacement even more forcefully. The score by Benjamin Britten (in a sense, a displaced soul himself) is like a storyboard with the camera script, revealing a televisual composition thought.

Since the very beginning, the family’s attachment to military tradition is clear: the Prelude, with its martial theme, percussive and strict, resounds with the opening credits, with the Wingraves’ emblem on the back, then a close-up tracking shot starts on the family portraits. We are guided by the winds on this gallery and, portrait by portrait, the sustaining chord is enriched by a new note, till the tone row is reached on the image of colonel Oliver Wingrave, Owen’s father, dead on the field. 

After his confession to Spencer Coyle, Owen – interpreted by Benjamin Luxton – is sitting in Hyde Park (Act 1, Scene 2 – after the Interlude I). He is reading and thinking aloud:

At last it’s out. No doubt old Coyle will rage,
but in the end he’ll see I’m strong,
not mad or weak…
Strong against war,
unwilling to prepare
my mind and body for destruction.
One little word: no!
And I am released for ever from all the
bonds of family and war.

Benjamin Luxton as Owen Wingrave

The Owen put forth in Piper’s libretto is not the indistinct figure who barely speaks in James’s story. His ardent rage against war is expressed from its first lines and this scene expresses his most intimate thoughts. The image fades to Miss Wingrave, Owen’s terrible aunt, when Spencer Coyle tells her about his nephew’s decision not to be a soldier. It’s a virtual tercet, connected by the image of horse soldiers, and that’s the moment where, against the ‘war representatives’ he sings his believe against war, by quoting Book IV of P. B. Shelley’s Queen Mab:

‘War is the statesman’s game,
the priest’s delight,
The lawyer’s jest…
(always soft)
And, to those royal murderers,
whose mean thrones are bought
by crimes of treachery and gore…
Guards, garbed in blood-red livery, surround
Their palaces, participate the crimes
That force defends…
These are the hired bravos who defend
The tyrant’s throne… the bullies of his fear…
The refuse of society, the dregs
Of all that is most vile…
They cajole with gold,
And promises of fame, the thoughtless youth
Already crushed with servitude: he knows
His wretchedness too late…
Look to thyself,
priest, conqueror, or prince!
Whether thy trade is falsehood…

A third peculiar moment in the opera is the dinner with Uncle Philip – interpreted by Peter Pears – and the family circle (Act I, Scene 7): the bombshell Britten was looking for. The scenery is black, and the characters are lit only by the table candlelight. The camera passes from one to another, allowing us to see everyone’s trembling close-up, while they express, almost a cappella, their feeling about this uncomfortable situation. At first Owen is an embarrassed victim, in this in crescendo rhythm of wisecracks and injuries, then the collective explosion on the word «Scruples» and its obsessive echoing makes him react. 

Yes, and more…
(with force)
I’d make it a crime to draw your sword
for your country, and a crime
for governments to command it.
There’s no more to be said, I’ll leave you now.
(Sir Philip turns and hobbles off helped by a manservant. The servants bow the company out with Owen slowly following.)

Peter Pears as Sir Philip Wingrave

These are only some examples of how the score, interpretively transformed by televisual scription and filmic direction, translates the musical text into a profoundly visual rhythm. Sounds, voices, and visuals shape Owen’s physical and intellectual being, as he tries not only to survive the buffeting of familial history, but to emerge as an individual in an imposing and suffocating context.

Beyond the critics to the first streaming of the work, Owen Wingrave represents not only an interesting example of the relationship between opera and television – placed «within the boundaries of the classical Hollywood film genre» (S. McKellar 1999) – but an example of how a theme like this finds success in its following transpositions and/or remediation. In 1973, Britten was asked to conduct the opera for the Covent Garden production: the composer thus reversed the standard passage ‘from stage to screen’. Thanks to this, today Owen Wingrave is a minor almost a classic of contemporary Anglo-American opera, particularly beloved by college companies.  Owen Wingrave’s status was further underscored by the 2005 Arthaus Musik DVD release, a film opera by Margaret Williams, a real remake of the first opera for television (same framing, same fades, same references) – though unnatural it could be to consider an operatic event within the cinematic category of remake.  
Apart from all the hybrid forms opera gets in the age of media converge, a sort of displacement within the remediation – displacement of narrative after the displacement of the self – what is here in question is the way the same subject, the theme of either the young pacifist-intellectual (or simply sensitive soul), reshapes him/herself by emerging from (or withdrawing into) overwhelming societal forces. 

Summary in Italian

Fighting the Circle.
Riflessioni su Owen Wingrave di Benjamin Britten

Bianca De Mario 
Università degli Studi di Milano

Il 16 maggio 1971 va in onda sul secondo canale della BBC Owen Wingrave, un’opera per la televisione commissionata a Benjamin Britten dall’emittente britannica e prodotta da John Culshaw, per la regia di Brian Large e Colin Graham. Proprio come The Turn of the Screw, il soggetto è tratto dall’omonimo racconto di Henry James, un’inconsueta ghost story (1892), adattata dallo stesso James per il teatro (The Saloon, 1910) con esiti piuttosto deludenti, e ora rivisitato per Britten da Myfanwy Piper. 

La «bomba» del dramma, così come la definisce Britten, il fattore che genera una serie di inarrestabili reazioni a catena, è la decisione del giovane Owen, ultimo discendente dei Wingrave, di abbandonare Sundhurst (Accademia Militare Reale), interrompendo così la solida tradizione militare della famiglia. Oppresso dalle ingiurie di questa cerchia familiare ingombrante e claustrofobica, Owen, per dimostrare che il suo antimilitarismo non ha nulla a che vedere con onore e coraggio, sfiderà la maledizione della dimora dei Wingrave, Paramore, entrando in una stanza maledetta e oltrepassando il confine vita-morte. 

Uomo mite e fiero intellettuale, già descritto da Henry James come individuo totalmente estraneo al contesto in cui si trova invischiato, Owen Wingrave diviene nella sua trasposizione operistica un personaggio totalmente fuori posto. Schiacciato da un’ingombrante tara ereditaria e soffocato da quel salotto che l’opera per la televisione ha saputo ricreare, Owen canta il proprio credo antimilitare, mentre la macchina da presa ci fa entrare, con la musica, nelle nebbie dei suoi pensieri, sino alla rivolta finale. 

Interessante esempio della relazione tra opera e televisione, l’opera di Britten conoscerà, nell’epoca della convergenza mediatica, vari adattamenti, in cui il tema dell’intellettuale estraneo e isolato nella società, trova un fertile terreno di rimodulazione. 

I know where I’m going

A poem by Paul Cunningham, inspired by the movie I know where I’m going! (1945) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The movie was scheduled during INCH latest workshop on the theme of “Dispaced Selves”. You can find the italian translation at the bottom of the post .

The actress Wendy Hiller in one of the scenes from the movie I know where I’m going.

I Know Where I’m Going

by Paul Cunningham

“Oh we live off the country. Rabbits, deer, a stray hiker or two.”
-Catriona Potts 

earth is deserting the earth, and somehow
   I’m smiling       aren’t I? 
just passing through a see-through acid rain
Am I falling to my knees, or rising to my feet?
I wake up in the baggage car, in a gyre’s blur
   In love?   Apple of your Kino eye, 
you’re sure keen on knowing where I’m going
   And don’t I know it!
I know it like the copper in my bones knows
the melting point, the exclamation mark
   of our sublime climate
alone, I charge through a mist of endless night,
and you insist on stars as I begin to end 
   You and I? This is my stop. 
It’s why I maintain a sharp tenor when I travel,
like a stranger’s reflection in any mirror or knife
   I’m just passing through

So dove sto andando

“Oh, viviamo fuori dal paese. Conigli, cervi, uno o due escursionisti sperduti. “
-Catriona Potts

la terra sta abbandonando la terra, e in qualche modo
   Sto sorridendo,     no?
solo di passaggio attraverso un pioggia acida trasparente
Sto cadendo in ginocchio, o mi sto alzando in piedi?
Mi sveglio nel vagone bagagli, in un vortice confuso
   Innamorata?    Luce del tuo Kino-Eye*,
hai proprio voglia di  sapere dove sto andando
   Come se non lo sapessi!
Lo so come il rame nelle mie ossa conosce
il punto di fusione, il punto esclamativo
   del nostro clima sublime
solo, mi avventuro nella nebbia di una notte senza fine,
e tu insisti sulle stelle mentre io comincio a finire
   Io e te? Questa è la mia fermata.
È per questo che mantengo un tono tagliente quando viaggio,
come il riflesso di uno sconosciuto in uno specchio o in un coltello
   Sono solo di passaggio

(italian translation by Sara De Simone)

* Kino-eye: Tecnica cinematografica sviluppata in Russia dal documentarista Dziga Vertov


Paul Cunningham is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the interlingual poetry collection, The House of the Tree of Sores (Schism 2 Press, 2020). His latest chapbook of poetry is The Inmost, forthcoming from Carrion Bloom Books in 2020. From the Swedish, he is the translator of Helena Österlund’s Words (OOMPH! Press, 2019) and two chapbooks by Sara Tuss Efrik: Automanias (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2016) and The Night’s Belly (Toad Press, 2016). His creative and critical work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day, Quarterly WestBat City ReviewDIAGRAMHarvard ReviewKenyon Review, and others. He is a managing editor of Action Books, founding editor of Deluge, co-editor of Radioactive Cloud, and co-curator of the Yumfactory Reading Series in Athens, GA. He is a PhD candidate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, an invited member of the International Network for Comparative Studies, and he holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame.

COMPASS: our journal is born!

We are happy to announce the birth of our journal!

Compass is a multidisciplinary and multilingual online journal that collects the ideas and experiences of PhDs, researchers and professors on an annual theme. Compass is born within the experience of INCH (International Network for Comparative Humanities) but is also directed to all scholars as well as non-academics with an interest in the study of art and literature. The theme on which we focus this year is Displaced Selves, and we aim to analyze it from various points of view and critical perspectives. Compass disseminates creative works and works of criticism and reflection in the fields of literature and comparative literature, art, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, with a particular attention to the variety of available forms and media and to the wealth of different languages and traditions of Europe.