BSECS Day 2. That full middle day…
Start with Pope and Swift. Always and often start with Pope and Swift. In the event it was all Pope and no Swift, but that was fine too. Only two papers in the session so lots of lovely time for lots of lovely discussion. We had much hilarious and thought provoking conversation about precisely how and why Alexander Pope and Edmund Curl hated one another, together with an inquiry into the idea of ‘suspension’ that was largely choreographed by Morrissey songs. In terms of ‘visionary’ poetry that is unable to frame itself itself securely, I ended up feeling that Pope and Keats were not just two short men who didn’t have sex, but who were also,many decades apart, fascinated by a Christopher Nolan ‘Inception’ theme of dreams within dreams.
Then on to a panel I’m chairing. When it comes to volunteering to chair panels, I like to say ‘I live to serve’ and allow myself to be despatched wherever is convenient. That way, a randomiser is introduced into proceedings. I’m taken out of my comfort zone and forced to actually learn something. This particular panel was on spying and friendship. One paper discussed Sarah Fielding and passionate correspondence of friendship, together with a sense of belated regret that the vocabulary of affection and confidence seems belated and derivative compared to the language of Shakespeare 150 years earlier. We also learned about 1790 treason trials and how networks of spies, informers, and turncoat witnesses threatened to undermine the basis of private friendship and private life itself, together with any clear distinction between the public and the private.
Melinda Rabb (Brown) University then delivered plenary address about naked corpses on seventeenth-century battlefields haunting the eighteenth century literary imagination. We learned about the limits of sympathy and the disindividuating character of bodies robbed of clothes and any kind of funereal time and space, with particular comparative reference to Holocaust literature.
And after this somber meditation on bodily trauma many of us just hadn’t had enough about irregular and surprising bodies and we crammed into a tiny room, that became warm and uncomfortable with our own congested proximity to hear about John Cleland’s long, slow, desperate and unsuccessful attempt to live down Fanny Hill and become respected as a serious contributor to the literature of personal health management. We also learned about dramatic bodies and how embodied ideas of dramatic emotional projection had a medical context, particularly in terms of a the family connections between the Baillies and the Hunters. Finally we enjoyed (why did we enjoy it so much? what’s wrong with us?) a magnificent survey of grave robbing, live burials, narrow escapes from live dissection, together with a meditation on the definitional ambiguity of death itself.
Then came what I hope is becoming an annual event – a high profile round table on contemporary resonances and relevancies – this year with Linda Colley, Stephen Conway and Renaud Morieux on Britain, Europe and Brexit. There was a lot of love in the house, particularly for Renaud Morieux. There was some discussion of the comparative bereavements of Brexit and the American War of Independence. I reflected that since Britain will have to take orders from the EU if she wants access to the single market, or even pay for the privilege, we may soon be a new position of ‘taxation without representation’. Mind you I also think that if Farage or Bojo had been around in the early 1780s, they would have hailed the American Revolution as Britain’s liberation from the tyranny of Boston and Philadelphia.
We laughed, we told bitter anecdotes, and we affirmed each other, because after Brexit you really have to.
The rest of the evening was purely sociable. Food, drink, song and blessed spontaneity. to summarise it would be to injure it.