‘All Sad People Like Poetry’: Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein, and the Romantics

The_CreatureThis post contains spoilers for the series finale of Penny Dreadful (2014-2016).

This week, on re-watching several episodes of Penny Dreadful for research, I noticed something I had missed completely on my first, chronological viewing. Both the third episode of season one (‘Resurrection’) and the show’s final episode in season three (‘The Blessed Dark’) quote from William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 5
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The poem (which covers ten more stanzas in Wordsworth’s published version) is a meditation on faith and mortality, and ponders the possibility of re-capturing a child’s wonder towards life, God, and nature.

Penny Dreadful is no stranger to poetry—especially the Romantic variety. Other Romantic recitations in the series have included John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (S01S05), William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (S02E02), and Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ (S03E01). John Clare, the working class poet whose name Frankenstein’s creature adopts in the second season, also makes several appearances (see ‘I Am!’ and ‘An Invite, to Eternity’).

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What interested me so much about this particular poem, though, is the dramatic difference between the two contexts in which it appears, and the relationship between two of the main characters it represents. The first time we hear it, the poem is narrated by a young Victor Frankenstein, as he walks through a field of daffodils (another poetic reference to Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’). This scene takes place just before Victor finds the maggot-infested corpse of his childhood dog, which itself is a foreshadowing of his mother’s death and the disastrous reappearance of his creation, Caliban, later in the episode.

Victor, scarred by the image of his dead dog, contrasts this picture of death with the one painted by Wordsworth and the other Romantics: ‘When the poets write of death,’ he concludes, ‘it’s invariably serene. I wonder if that’s what it is really. This death, this ending of things.’

‘Is it an ending though, Victor,’ his mother asks, ‘or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else?’

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Caliban’s appearance brings back these memories, and also their poetic references. Like the asylum attendant of his past life (see ‘A Blade of Grass’, S03E04), Caliban seems to have no use for poetry. Especially not the kind of poetry his creator reads:

From your penciled notations I learned that you favored Wordsworth and the old Romantics. No wonder you fled from me. I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age. Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? (‘Resurrection’, S01E03)

Caliban’s attitude towards these poets makes it all the more striking that the second time Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’ appears in Penny Dreadful, it is recited by Caliban himself, as he kneels at the grave of the series protagonist, Vanessa Ives. This time, the following excerpt is also part of the recitation:

But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

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Of course, though Caliban initially rejects the Romantics as his spiritual leaders, he is repeatedly shown to be a devoted poetry reader throughout the series, and eventually even takes the name John Clare. He explains the rationale behind this decision to Vanessa in a moving scene partway through season two, which includes a shared recitation of ‘I Am!’ (see ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, S02E05):

‘I’ve always been moved by John Clare’s story,’ Caliban says. ‘By all accounts, he was only 5 feet tall, so considered freakish. Perhaps due to this, he felt a singular affinity with the outcasts and the unloved. The ugly animals. The broken things.’ Through John Clare’s unusual perspective on Romantic themes and ideals, Caliban is able to grapple with them as well—though we are never given an indication that Caliban’s opinions about Romantic naivety and metaphysical yearning have changed.

Does Caliban change his mind about the Romantics in the final episode? Whatever the reason for Caliban’s re-appropriation of Romantic poetry in ‘The Blessed Dark’, it adds a new layer of meaning to the conversation Victor and his mother have in ‘Resurrection’. In the season finale, kneeling by Vanessa’s grave after burying his own son, Caliban seems to be asking precisely the same questions as Victor: is death an ending, or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else? As his own existence demonstrates, the answer is hardly straightforward.

Clare’s poem ‘I Am’, from ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, ends as follows:

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

‘I wonder if he ever found it, his silent place with God’, Vanessa wonders. ‘The poem tells me that he did’, replies Caliban, ‘as you will one day’. The troubling epilogue to that statement, of course, is that Vanessa only finds her peace in the grave (as the poem itself implies). John Clare himself spent the last two decades of his life in an asylum. One can only hope that Caliban found a less tragic and more immediate solace.

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Calling All Aphantasiacs

This week’s post may at first blush seem entirely unrelated to my research on monsters, mashups, and popular culture, but it has more to do with these topics than you might think.

It will also blow your mind.

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A number of years ago I discovered that a member of my immediate family could not visualise things in their mind, or bring to mind what something tasted or sounded like. We both assumed that this was a well-documented phenomenon, like colour-blindness or other altered perceptions. Last year, we learned that no one had actually bothered to study it before, and that it apparently affects a surprisingly large number of people – perhaps one in fifty. It’s called ‘aphantasia’, literally ‘without mental image’.

By far the most insightful (and humorous) piece I’ve read on the subject is ‘Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind’ by Blake Ross, one of the co-creators of the web browser Firefox. Ross describes his inability to create a mental image as follows:

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.
Ross’s writing process is equally interesting to those of us who are used to imagining a scene by visualising it. In the (rather lengthy) excerpt below, he describes how he imagines scenes when he is writing general prose:
First I think of a noun in my milk voice: cupcake. Then I think of a verb: cough. Finally an adjective: hairy. What if there was a hairy monster that coughs out cupcakes? Now I wonder how he feels about that. Does he wish he was scarier? Is he regulated by the FDA? Does he get to subtract Weight Watchers points whenever he coughs? Are his sneezes savory or sweet? Is the flu delicious?
If I don’t like the combination of words I’ve picked, I keep Mad Libbing until the concept piques my interest.
This has always struck me as an incredibly inefficient way to imagine things, because I can’t hold the scene in my mind. I have to keep reminding myself, “the monster is hairy” and “the sneeze-saltines are sitting on a teal counter.” But I thought, maybe that’s just how it is.
Later Ross describes how he feels about writing fiction:
Overall, I find writing fiction torturous. All writers say this, obviously, but I’ve come to realize that they usually mean the “writing” part: They can’t stop daydreaming long enough to put it on the page. I love the writing and hate the imagining, which is why I churn out 50 dry essays for every nugget of fiction.
Perhaps my favourite part of Ross’s account is where he explains how hard he found it to believe that a ‘mind’s eye’ actually existed:
Even after the Exeter study, I was certain that what we had here was a failure to communicate. You say potato, I say potato. Let me be clear: I know nobody can see fantastical images through their actual eyes. But I was equally sure nobody could “see” them with some fanciful “mind’s eye,” either. That was just a colorful figure of speech, like “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas.”
For Ross, it was the people who could picture things in their minds who were unusual. ‘Imagine your phone buzzes with breaking news’, he writes. ‘WASHINGTON SCIENTISTS DISCOVER TAIL-LESS MAN. Well then what are you?’

U. Exeter’s Adam Zeman, who coined the term last year, remains adamant that aphantasia is ‘not a disorder’, though ‘it makes quite an important difference to their experience of life because many of us spend our lives with imagery hovering somewhere in the mind’s eye which we inspect from time to time, it’s a variability of human experience.’

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‘We have known of the existence of people with no mind’s eye for more than a century’, writes the New Scientist:

In 1880, Francis Galton conducted an experiment in which people had to imagine themselves sitting at their breakfast table, and to rate the illumination, definition and colouring of the table and the objects on it. Some found it easy to imagine the table, including Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, for whom the scene was “as distinct as if I had photos before me”. But a few individuals drew a total blank.

Zeman’s speculation about whether the ‘mind’s eye’ is a key part of human experience is part of what interests me so much about the condition. What perception do we define as human perception, and how do we account for natural variability in that perception? Are the people who saw a gold and white dress somehow less ‘human’ than those who saw a black and blue dress? Ross comments on this question as well:

I think what makes us human is that we know we’re the galactic punchline, but we can still laugh at the setup. The cosmos got me good on this one. How beautiful that such electrical epiphany is not just the province of the child. And were the bee’s knees real, too? And have the cats worn pajamas all along?

Are people who can’t picture things ‘inhuman’ or ‘disabled’ in some way. Of course not, you’re probably thinking, but why does their existence (or ours, from Ross’s perspective) surprise us so much? Furthermore, how do they then consume popular culture, which is intensely reliant on familiar modes of phantasia, and what does a piece of art geared towards a person with aphantasia look like? For me the question immediately becomes: ‘How many people with aphantasia are working in the arts, and how many have sat before me in an English Literature classroom?’

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The answer potentially has huge implications for the humanities, and as someone teaching in English Literature I wonder how effective our current methods of approaching reading and meaning actually are. When I mentioned the condition to my colleagues at Cardiff University, many jokingly responded with something along the lines of: ‘What, you mean someone without an imagination?’A recent article by Mo Costandi in the Guardian explores the potential impact of aphantasia on education. He writes:

One study shows that using mental imagery helps primary school pupils learn and understand new scientific words, and that their subjective reports of the vividness of their images is closely related to the extent to which imagery enhances their learning. Visualisation techniques are also helpful for the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating mental representations of the spatial relationships between them.

While Costandi’s article is fascinating, the title (‘If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?’) is poorly found. People with aphantasia still imagine things, they just do so very differently than people without aphantasia. Their experience is not inherently less rich, or less creative. It is simply rich and creative in a way the rest of us cannot imagine.

The article essentially concludes the same thing – aphantasia is not a disability in any traditional sense:

“We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.”

While it’s good to know that aphantasia doesn’t affect reading comprehension more generally, current evidence says little about how metaphorical language is perceived. Descriptive passages in novels may be out, but what kinds of description? My aphantasiac family member is an avid reader, and passages like this one, from the opening of Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone (1997), are no problem:

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So comparing things to ideas still seems to carry impact and emotion, while comparing things to other things, as in the opening passage of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1985), becomes more problematic:

 

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.

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Even more interesting to me (especially in the light of Tom Robbins’ prose) is the question of how aphantasiacs comprehend poetry and poetic imagery, which often relies heavily on a direct link between words and images, senses, or feelings, rather than abstract concepts. What poetry do aphantasiacs prefer, how do they make sense of the poetry they don’t? What does an aphantasiac make of Alison Croggon’s ‘The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop’, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, or K. Schippers’ ‘Things You Only Need to Remember Briefly’? How can we teach aphantasiacs to read sensory images in an educational system where our most common response is ‘Just read until you feel it’?

Illustration © Maurice Vellekoop
Illustration © Maurice Vellekoop

This is part of what Adam Zeman’s AHRC project, ‘The Eye’s Mind’, aims to discover, but I suspect there’s enough work on this subject to go around for a good long while. I would be fascinated to know if any of you reading this identify as aphantastic, especially if you happen to work in the arts or creative industries. You can take an abridged version of the aphantasia test at this link.

Or, better yet, let me know if any of you are researchers at Cardiff, Exeter, Bristol or Bath, and would want to set up a GW4-funded project with me to explore these questions. (You can also contact Adam Zeman about his neurological research into aphantasia at a.zeman@exeter.ac.uk.)

Anonymity and the Privilege of Uncreative Writing

Photo Credit: © Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Kenneth Goldsmith, © Cameron Wittig (Walker Art Center)

On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.

Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.

In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):

I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary […] That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.

Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:

You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:

Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.

In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally: 

Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:

In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.

Mia You responded with the following question:

In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?

This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.

It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.

I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?

Angels and Apes on Summer Hiatus

'Sleepy Soloman', sketch by Travis Louie, 2012.
‘Sleepy Solomon’, sketch by Travis Louie, 2012.

The time has come – the sun is shining, the plants are pollinating, and here in Rotterdam (my former place of work), where I’m volunteering at the 46th Poetry International Festival, walking outside in flip-flops and a short sleeves is almost comfortable. Today, among many exciting readings, workshops, and master classes, we’ve got a programme featuring Kenneth Goldsmith, the controversial ‘uncreative writer’ who recently received some staunch criticism for reading the autopsy report of Michael Brown, the young man fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer back in August 2014.

I’m hoping to blog about my experiences at this festival sometime soon, but it will have to wait until I get back from San Antonio at the end of July. Until then Angel and Apes is going on summer hiatus, while I tie up loose ends, meet last-minute deadlines, and take a long-planned road trip across the American South. Thanks to all of you who have been reading so far, since this blog launched at the end of January. We’ve hit more than 1,000 visitors (and almost twice that many views, and I’m hoping the second half of the year will see that number grow steadily.

We’ll be back with a regular weekly post in August 2015. See you then!