Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category


The Name of Eco

Written on February 22, 2016 by Susana Torres Prieto in Literature

1127By Susana Torres Prieto, Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School.

Over the weekend, we have repeatedly read how the world of culture is in mourn for the death of Umberto Eco, the Italian professor who many find difficult to define: philosopher, philologist, novelist, semiotician, intellectual, literary critic. I believe the term that better defined Eco was thinker, because thinking, and thinking differently, was what he always did. If the loss for the world of culture and the Humanities in general is great, for a specialist in medieval literature it is almost dramatic.

Umberto Eco is, together with Marc Bloch, Mikhail Bakhtin, Georges Duby and few others, one of the key thinkers in the area of Medieval Studies of the twentieth century. If Bloch redefined the history of mentalities, Bakhtin showed the power of laughter and carnival to better grasp social relations and Duby gave us an invaluable insight into private life, Eco taught us how to see and understand medieval evidence as if we were there. That is what semiology and semiotics –almost the same thing- is all about: being able to understand culture according to the mental structures and values of the people who created it. In Semiotics, the truth, as the beauty, is not in the eye of the beholder. It is like an immense act of love in refusing to impose a contemporary and personal point of view in order to let the culture of the past speak for itself by providing only the keys for such understanding. Only someone who had dedicated time and intelligence to study the Middle Ages with loving generosity could create a character as the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville.

In medieval studies, as in almost all areas of Humanities, advances are not made by ground-breaking discoveries, but by slow advancements in already known evidence. That is one of the reasons why Humanities are not in the news, and sometimes seem an anachronism in a world that tweeters and re-tweeters itself constantly. From time to time, someone dares to re-examine existing evidence with new eyes, trying a new approach or a new methodology, and Humanities, as a discipline, advances, moves a little step forward. Except in extraordinary cases, in the study of Humanities we don’t discover, we just re-discover. And sometimes there are strange cases in which originality in insight is combined with encyclopedic knowledge, and instead of a little step, a great leap is made. This is what Umberto Eco has done in the area of medieval studies, showing us how to look differently in order to better understand. As Casaubon says at the end of Foucault’s Pendulum “I should be at peace. I have understood”. There could hardly be a better epitaph for a semiotician.


matrioshka-maidanThursday, January 28th 2016, 6pm, at Refectory (Segovia)

Probably the greatest contribution of Russia to European culture, or at least the most acknowledged, has been the Russian 19th century novel, which encompassed as few other literary traditions the struggle for modernity as well as visions of a better future. Nowadays, Russian society struggles between past and present narratives, moving between official and underground accounts of her past and present. By confronting Russia’s past and present depictions of herself we might be able to discern which elements are still permanent of Russia’s vision of Russia.

Speakers:  Prof. Catriona Kelly, University of Oxford and Pilar Bonet, correspondent of El País in Russia. Moderator: Susana Torres, Associate Professor IE University

If you wish to attend please register here


Svetlana Alexiévich, or the hidden voice

Written on October 14, 2015 by Susana Torres Prieto in Literature

susanaBy Susana Torres Prieto, Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School.

Don’t get me wrong, it must be terribly difficult to award prizes, of any kind. It must be, therefore, even more difficult to award one as important as the Nobel, and in a discipline as unmeasurable as literature. This year’s laureate, Svetlana Alexiévich, has been awarded a distinction previously granted to Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn, Mann or García Márquez, to name only a few. Only 24 hours before knowing the name of the winner, we were remembering the killing of Anna Politkóvskaya nine years ago, shot by a professional killer in the lift of the block of flats where she lived in Moscow. Could both facts be related?

Judging literature has become increasingly difficult since the dawn of post-structuralism and deconstruction, and the search for anything that might resemble an official, or uncontested canon, despite best efforts made by critics such as Harold Bloom, is often met with suspicion by those who prefer to be conceptual, or simply mistrust any sort of cultural dominance on the part of followers of traditional trends. Certainly, one could tell the story of two young lovers whose families disapprove of their love in a Twitter, or in three acts of a full play by Shakespeare, but the difference between the former and the latter is only whether you actually want to know what Shakespeare, in the mentioned case, thought about forbidden love and how good was he in keeping your attention going so the audience would not abandon the theatre. The difference is what we usually call literature. As A.C. Grayling mentioned in the last Hay Festival in Segovia a few days ago, listening, letting the text speak for itself, is one of the great adventures of the human spirit, being able to converse with those long gone, or, indeed, as he graphically put it, being able to “go to be with Jane Austen” from time to time.

Enjoyment is an essential part of any art, and the same goes for literature and too often we tend to forget that literature is made with words, words used differently, words placed differently, words saying something different and in a different form than in our everyday talk. If that were not the case, we would all be Nobel laureates.

Svetlana Alexiévich is a brave and courageous woman who has always tried to give voice to those whom official accounts of history and propaganda have tried to silence and forget. Her books on uncomfortable issues of the Soviet past of her native Belarus, Ukraine and Russia have not granted her much official endorsement in that part of the world, and she clearly steps in a literary tradition of Russian literature different from the great 19th century novels that clearly goes back to the “social sketches” inaugurated by Aleksandr Bestuzhev, Marlinsky (1797-1837) and was taken to unexpected levels of artistry by Anton Chekhov, a form of literary realism that denounced the poor conditions of the majority of the population by focusing on every-day, unimportant and monotonous details and that, maybe thanks to its  shortness and apparent lack of open criticism to the government, managed to bypass, unnoticed, the censorship of Soviet authorities. A form of literature in which both Mikhail Bulgakov and Ryszard Kapuściński, to name only a few, learnt to write, both with excellent results.

Svetlana Alexiévich shares with the widely mourned journalist Anna Politkóvskaya her permanent compromise with those the officialdom wants to leave behind, make them disappear from history, like the characters in George Orwell’s 1984. Anna died in Moscow, Svetlana lives now in Germany, but their fingers are pointing at the same direction. Whether that incredible merit is to be endorsed by a Nobel prize of Literature is another matter.


Hamlet, or the eternal doubt

Written on April 6, 2015 by Susana Torres Prieto in Literature

susanaSusana Torres Prieto. Associate Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School

To be or not to be” is, indisputably, the metaphysical doubt most often repeated in Western Culture. And probably one of those phrases commonly used out of context, at least out of the context Shakespeare had written it for. About Hamlet, probably the only theatre play that has been uninterruptedly on stage since its first version was acclaimed in 1602, have written extensively Goethe, Coleridge, Mallarmé, Freud or Lampedusa, just to mention a few.

“To be or not to be” is not only the doubt expressed by a young and cultivated prince between the anguish of being, and the liberation that suicide would bring, after the cruel disappointment of witnessing the shameful behaviour of his parents (we have all been through that in adolescence), but also the elucidation of a rather more thorny issue. If we remain in this world, Hamlet states, despite the many unsavoury moments we have to get through, is only because we fear the unknown, whatever might come after death, and such fear is greater than our repugnance for the present. And it is what paralyses us, depriving us of the required courage to take our lives and put an end to present sufferings. Indeed, for Hamlet, who is unable of closing his eyes to the heartbreaking evidence described by his father’s ghost –how his own brother poisoned him in order to obtain both crown and wife at one blow– his moral duty poses him a problem to be resolved only with the weapons at his disposal, which, in this case, is a theatre company with whom he plans the public revealing of the crime. Because for Hamlet being in this world without obeying one’s own conscience and, in this case, responding to his father’s request, is a possibility he does not even contemplate. And if all this was not enough, a public incrimination would imply not only accusing his own stepfather, whom his capricious mother has chosen as husband, but, more importantly, accusing the current king of regicide, and this, for Shakespeare’s time, was going a little bit too far. It was believed that the health and well-being of all the subjects of a given kingdom depended on the health and fortune of their king. John of Salisbury had already discussed the relevance of the head in the “body politic”, and the author himself leaves no doubt when he puts in Laertes’ mouth the words “His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own, for he himself is subject to his birth: he may not, as unvalued persons do, carve for himself, for on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state”. Moral doubt and political doubt are, therefore, mingled in this everlasting phrase from this Shakespearean tragedy in which, as in many others, almost all characters die (Hamlet, Claudius, the King, Gertrude, the Queen, Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), leaving behind only poor Horatio to tell the story. What a role to play!

Shakespeare, who analysed as few others either before or after him the consequences of the use and abuse of power (unfortunately better known of late for his Romeo and Juliet, a romance which lasted three days and killed six people, let’s not forget that), wrote about the misfortunes of the young dutiful prince overcome with grief at the peak of his career, when his pen has already been sharpened in a few Henrys and some Richards, and having coined other memorable phrases such as the famous “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Richard III. To that list, we could certainly add, beyond “To be or not to be”, the also often-quoted “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, that so little justice has done to such a generous people, so much so that H.C. Andersen himself used the beginning of Hamlet’s monologue to entitle one of his serious novels, which, by the way, in the lips of Hamlet, in Danish, would have sounded something similar to At være eller ikke være.


George Orwell’s luminous truths

Written on January 5, 2015 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Literature

orwellThe title of this book is especially apposite. George Orwell’s luminous gift was for seeing things, for noticing what others missed, took for granted or simply found uninteresting, for discovering meaning and wonder in the familiarity of the everyday. In Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said”. But for Orwell, though he was prodigiously well read and deeply learned, culture meant something quite different — “the life most people lead”, as John Carey has put it. Orwell never distinguished between high and low culture: all things were not of equal value to him but they were of equal interest. Nothing escaped or seemed beneath his notice, which was what made him such a good reporter.

There is a scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in which Winston Smith watches a propaganda news film depicting images of war. Amid the slaughter and brutality Winston notices something: a woman attempting to protect a child from the artillery fire that will kill them both. She puts her arm around the boy “before the helicopter blew them both to pieces”. The gesture is futile. What can she really do for the boy? Yet, for Winston, the “enveloping, protective” gesture of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something fundamental, an act of human dignity and selflessness, and an expression of unconditional love in an unforgiving world.

Repeatedly in Orwell’s fiction and essays, one encounters moments of clarity such as this, when the reader is startled by something small but significant that Orwell has seen. One thinks in particular of the essay “A Hanging”, set during his years as an imperial policeman in Burma, in which the writer looks on as a condemned man steps to avoid a puddle as he is being led to the gallows. Why should he care about getting his feet wet when he is about to die? But, Orwell writes: “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive.”

One thinks too of the essay “Shooting an Elephant”, in which Orwell recalls the day he shot a rogue elephant and left it to die in agony, not because he wanted to or felt the act was just but because he feared the derision of the villagers who were watching if he did not.

Seeing Things As They Are, selected and edited by the veteran Orwell scholar Peter Davison, features none of the most celebrated essays. It is intended to be a collection first and foremost of his journalism, with preference given to lesser-known pieces and reviews as well as some of the poems he wrote. It is full of interest and curiosities, such as the inclusion of “Awake! Young Men of England”, a jingoistic poem about the start of the first world war published in 1914 when Orwell was 11, in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard.

Continue reading in Financial Times

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