you go, girl

Monday, 15 August 2011 10:18 pm
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There is no moment when I'm happier or more myself than when I'm prowling around a classroom, such as today, refereeing a spirited discussion of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" for 20 voluble and intelligent second-years. Lovely tut: I'm still buzzing. So we were dealing in some detail with the Victorian context, and the use of supernatural symbol to explore the desires and anxieties of the age, and in particular Stevenson's presentation of the classically Victorian dichotomies of "good" and "evil" through the figure of Hyde and Jekyll's complicity with him. At which point the discussion takes this sharp right turn:

CHATTY STUDENT (musingly): It's like when you're playing Mass Effect, and you score points for good or evil choices which affect the way your character is viewed, and the direction of events.

ME (surprised and pleased, but attempting to remain suave and professional): Why, yes. *inserts well-directed contextualisation contrasting Victorian views of morality with those of our contemporary age as reflected in computer games, avoiding, with consummate self-control, the word "postmodern"*

ANOTHER, EQUALLY CHATTY STUDENT: Actually, I think the Victorian view is more like Fable. Mass Effect has a lot of grey areas and points where the moral choice is not clear-cut.

ME (trying to repress flashbacks to the last few months of Dragon Age and related rants): Valid point, that's Bioware for you. Although I think that Stevenson is actually problematising the clear-cut dichotomies of Victorian morality... *reigns in and directs resulting melee of input without mentioning Dragon Age more than five times*

I should point out that my seminar, in a somewhat interesting intensification of the usual Humanities Demographic Effect, includes nineteen young ladies, one gentleman, and me. All gaming input up to this point has come from the young ladies.

SOLE GENT (raising hand hesitantly): Um, is this actually happening? I'm in a room full of women and they all game?

A quick poll suggests that they don't all game, but, in fact, seven of the nineteen do, indeed, game quite seriously. Eight if you count me. Subsequent discussions managed to remain bizarrely on the Jekyll and Hyde topic while simultaneously haring off in the direction of doubles, masks, the Hulk, superheroes generally, TwoFace, the doppelganger effect in The Vampire Diaries, and a brief and lateral attempt to get me to commit to whether playing computer games gives free reign to your Dark Side in the same way that taking a potion and releasing Hyde does. (For the record: no).

On the slightly disconcerting side, apparently Dragon Age is determined to colonise all areas of my life, however unlikely. On the upside, the gender balance of geekdom has changed radically in the last five or six years, is all I can say. And a good thing too.
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As a by-product of the ongoing attempt by [ profile] tngr_spacecadet and cohorts to inculcate me into Lotro, I watched the Doctor Who Christmas special the other night. (It was in the Briefcase of Doom, the which contains the two portable hard drives [for a slightly Heath Robinson value of "portable"] which contain the Lotro install, that it may not cripple my bandwidth allowance. For which relief, much thanks. Also, nested parentheses.)

Anyway. The Doctor Who Christmas special was a happy discovery. I've been slightly disappointed in the Stephen Moffat incarnation this last season, it's been a bit whiffly and more than somewhat prone to the Russell Davies brand of giant galloping emotional excess in clumsy symbol form. Certainly nothing as good as "Blink" or "The Girl in the Fireplace". Clearly producing a series causes inherent disintegration of the plot-fibre.

But I loved "A Christmas Carol". It's vintage 11th Doctor - he really is quite endearingly off-the-wall, both in content and delivery, and manages to be madly quirky and individual while maintaining continuity with Tennant's version. (Thus, incidentally, making me realise that there really wasn't much continuity between Ecclestone's version of the Doctor and Tennant's). It also demonstrates the happy-making fact that Moffat fundamentally gets not only time travel, which we knew, but A Christmas Carol itself. I am a pervy Dickens-fondler at the best of times, and have also spent chunks of the last eight years or so teaching A Christmas Carol to second-year lit students on an annual basis, and I have considerable investment in the novel and more than the usual quotient of opinions.

Moffat nailed it. What the Dickens ghost trope is, first and foremost, is a time machine. The supernatural element in the novel is a plot device which allows him not only to access past and future with vivid immediacy, but to compress a lifetime's worth of experience, insight and emotional change into one night. It's not realistic for Scrooge to reform instantly unless something non-realistic is driving it, and the Tardis is a beautiful replacement for the Spirits, the more so because time-hopping is allowed literally to change history and memory, not just insight into them. The ice-stored people are a lovely embodiment of theme, both Dickens's and Moffat's: emotional stasis, cold-heartedness, refusal to change. And the fish, while a mite mundane for my taste, are beautifully weird and occasionally enchanting.

This episode made me giggle frequently and cry at least once, although that last void where prohibited by viewer not actually being a hopelessly over-emotional dingbat. I am inclined to be sanguine about the new season, which is providing cool and interesting trailer images, notably the Doctor playing up to a Stetson.

I will also be inclined to write about it frequently, for as long as LJ holds up, which isn't much, at the moment. The tendency of its servers to exist in a supine condition is beginning to get my goat. Please note that this blog is currently mirrored on WordPress, at, although with a fraction of its actual personality as I haven't been able to migrate the comments. If the urge to blog hits me while LJ is whups, fellover, I shall probably pop up over there instead, ultimately permanently if they don't bloody sort this out. Pshaw.
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So much for the good intentions, such as the road to Hell is paved with. Allegedly. Went to bed early on Friday night in a spirit of Sid-appeasement, couldn't sleep because the nice cleaning lady is in the rising phase of her "put too much softener in the washing up" oscillation, and my sheets made me itch. (I shall remonstrate gently with her on Friday, and itching levels will sink until she starts forgetting again. However, in a sneaky move I have also diluted the fabric softener even further. Like watering the whisky, only more legitimate and rather less sacrilegious). It was an annoying night. Not much sleep.

I re-watched Sherlock Holmes on Saturday night and thus went to bed slightly late, planning to sleep in. What happens? the annual fun run that pounds past my window sometime in November every year, chose to pound past at 6am. On a Sunday. Currently this fun-run phenomenon is making me glad I'm a role-player, and thus have the mental furniture necessary to think wistfully of caltrops. (A spirited supper discussion last night arrived at the conclusion that they'd have to be (a) giant caltrops, to go through cushioned running shoe soles, and (b) invisible, so the runners can't dodge them. Further endeavours in this direction are currently stymied on grounds of practicality. SEP field wanted, cheap). All in all I am very short on sleep, and found it very difficult to wake up this morning. Also, dire forebodings are possibly borne out: I have a sinus headache this morning. We braaied last night. Suspicious. Very suspicious.

I can, however, thoroughly recommend the experience of reading the entirety of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes corpus before re-watching the film. I loved the film first time round: its vision of Victorian London is very vivid, appropriately noisy and grimy, and full of almost Dickensian life. I also enjoyed its interpretation of the characters and of the Holmes/Watson dynamic. I have to say, a great deal of the above is actually there in the stories, implicitly or explicitly. Holmes as an action hero is not too much of a stretch: he refers to his skills in baritsu and singlestick at various points in the stories, and there's also reference to him winning a bout against a prize-fighter at a boxing club (in The Sign of Four - although probably a gentleman's boxing club rather than the fight ring depicted in the film). Watson, however, is always the one with the gun, and the assumption is that he's there as muscle.

Holmes is a master of disguise in the stories, frequently taking in Watson with a persona; his personal eccentricities, including clutter, untidiness, depressive and reclusive episodes, cocaine addiction and the tendency to shoot holes in his mantlepiece, are spot on (see, particularly, "The Musgrave Ritual" for Watson having a little domestic whinge to himself about his room-mate's living habits). The marrying-Watson-off thing is perfectly correct, it happens very early in the stories, and many of them are either told in flashback to the time when Holmes and Watson shared rooms in Baker Street, or involve Watson taking time off from his wife and practice in order to accompany Holmes on an investigation. To my enormous pleasure, the film is sprinkled with decontextualised but appropriate quotes from the books, including the comment about Watson's "grand gift of silence", which has always been one of my favourites. And, finally, in the broadest thematic terms the plot of the film is the same as the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which makes me very happy.

I quibble, however, with Irene Adler. I think it's absolutely not cricket to give Holmes a love interest: the stories consistently and unambiguously portray him as intrinsically celibate, if not sexless. While Irene Adler is "the woman" to Holmes, she's only marginally present in the stories, and their connection is intellectual, not emotional: she's a worthy opponent, not a love interest. Watson specifically notes that "It was not that [Holmes] felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind ... as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer" ("A Scandal in Bohemia"). I adore RDJ's Holmes, he's a compelling creation, but he's more vulnerable and considerably more human than Doyle makes him, and no more so than in his weakness for a woman. Irene Adler in the film thus falls into my "Osgiliath/Faramir" category of fan irritation at adaptation choices. Phooey.
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Hooray, working at home today! Clearly it's time for a celebratory wol. We haven't had one in weeks, so let's have two.

  1. Courtesy of Confluency and a diverse trail of re-tweets, How to draw an owl. Amusingly cynical, and a lovely drawing.

  2. Edward Lear. I teach nonsense poetry to my second-year class, largely to their bemused bafflement, but I persevere on the grounds that everyone needs a Jumblie sooner or later, and besides, you can slide Saussure and signification in under the guise of nonsense theory. Recent interesting class discussions have revolved around "The Owl and the Pussycat", and oh my god I had to type that four times before it was anything other than "The Wol and the Pussycat", which is a drastically anachronistic mixing of kiddielit paradigms.

    I love this piece of poetry - it has a gentle, whimsical, dreamy rhythm which I remember from my parents reciting it to me, and which I rediscovered with huge joy when I could barely read. But, leaving aside all the weirdness of inter-species marriage between predators, have you ever noticed how strangely subversive the gender roles are in the story? Particularly given the stereotypes of Victorian sexual identity - dominant male, submissive female - it's quite iconoclastic that the owl and the cat are never definitively gendered, and their roles and depictions shift all over the show.

    The owl's initial role seems masculine, the troubador who sings courtly-style love-songs to the cat while accompanying itself on "a small guitar"; the cat is "beautiful". But if you look at the first drawing:

    - the cat is quite dominantly in control of the boat, and that tail is oddly phallic. In the next verse the owl is "elegant" and its singing "charmingly sweet", both of which represent feminine qualities in the average Victorian register, so the genders have flipped. The artwork echoes the flip: in the second picture the cat remains dominant, taller and sterner-looking and with big masculine chest, although oddly it's the shorter owl with its head bowed which offers the ring, reversing the usual marriage ceremony roles:

    In the third the roles are reversed again, taller/dominant "male" owl and slightly submissive-looking "female" cat:

    The final, haunting image of unity - "hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon" - is thus peculiarly subversive of Victorian gender identities, power relationships and sexual orientations. These creatures could be anything. The point is that they're happy together. Hooray for Edward Lear and queer theory wols!
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For some reason I seem to be re-reading, yet again, the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes corpus (I'm currently in the middle of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which one of these days I really must teach as a Gothic novel, just for the hell of it). I have that lovely facsimile edition which reproduces the whole lot from the Strand magazine stories, with their slightly faint, slightly mannered illustrations. I cannot work out if this dedicated re-discovery is motivated by any one of the following more than the others, it may be a cumulative sort of thing:

  • the running thread of Data's Sherlock Holmes fixation through seven seasons of STNG;
  • too much diligent playing of Echo Bazaar;
  • the rather spirited discussions we've been having in my second-year English tut about Dracula as a figure of inverted Victorian masculinity ("...each age uses its vampires to express its fears and desires. What does Twilight say about us?" *horrified intake of breath from class*. Maybe there's hope for the youth of today);
  • the need to re-watch my shiny new copy of the RDJ Sherlock Holmes with an eagle eye for fun adaptation in-jokes (and as an attempt to persuade myself that it's not just an unholy fascination with RDJ with an English accent);
  • the complete absence of brain currently occasioned by the fact that Cape Town's pollen has been studiously mutating over the last few weeks in an effort to lay low the human population and take over the world. (Fact. I know three separate people who are off work owing to allergies, sinusitis and general incapacity, and I'm only at work myself out of sheer bloody-mindedness and orientation planning panic. I have a dark suspicion that this planet has actually had enough and is dusting its hands preparatory to ridding itself of us by hook or by crook).

Anyway. Sherlock Holmes. Either fanfiction has hopelessly infected me (which, to be fair, it probably has), or there is a seriously slashy subtext here. Watson/Holmes is rather sweet, they have an old-married-couple comfort thing going on which is extremely enjoyable to watch. In fact, surprisingly, Watson isn't as annoying a twit as I'd remembered, and Holmes is rather sweet all on his own - I'd remembered him as far more of a cold, distant and madly eccentric figure, but he's capable of erratic but rather endearing acts of empathy. The blatant lack of realism in Holmes's deductions does get to me a little, and I remember just enough of the stories from my last reading that none of the detective outcomes are actually a surprise, but I'm also really enjoying them. Some things don't date as much as you'd expect.

Speaking of which, I've now finished STNG, and boy howdy does it date. I loved it, but I am reserving serious narrative fulminations for a whole long post of its own. Right now, the Spirit Temple in Zelda beckons, because really I don't have the brain for much else.

April 2019



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