Category Archives: Winter 2017

The MUSE issue for winter 2017!

Me too

Image: © Lila Mabiala

Author: Lila Mabiala

Nothing can describe the recurring sinking in my stomach, or the invasion of shivers. My complete inability to understand whether I should like, send love, be sad or show anger; “wow” could never be a solution. Also difficult to express is the deep gratitude in feeling that this time, we’re on a roll. Not all of us are marchers, or politicians, journalists, rappers, or have access to a platform from which to express ourselves. But what a lot of us do have in common is social media. And through this system we insist on calling perverse (which it is, but that can’t overshadow the ways in which it is effective…!), we have managed to create a true wave. And what with? Two words. Two words to lend our voices to a cry which should never be quietened, let alone silenced.

In only a few days, we have shone a light on a monster we love to ignore. And you know what, I’d love to see how you go around ignoring us this time. The numbers are undeniable; you cannot argue provocation, drunkenness, naïveté, or any of the other “excuses” you cower behind. May you be damned if you don’t prick up your ears, ready to finally listen, or if you choose to deny the truth, again.

More than the sinking feeling and the skin crawling, I’ve been crying. Crying at a pain that’s so normal, we never even bother mentioning it anymore. An injustice we should fight against together, but that we are all too tired to address, faced as we are with other unrelenting assaults to our integrity. When I see how many of us are involved, somehow, I feel even more helpless. If so many of us have been through this, how come it’s still going on? But this, this feels like a new opening for this conversation.

Ladies and gentlemen, here is a feminist wave, a current event, that makes the involvement of men obvious. Without the oppressing group gaining consciousness, it all stays the same. So when each of us says “Me too“, we are lending you our voices – so that you can join our ranks, stronger from our avowals – and be a part of this fight against a patriarchy that makes sexual harassment and assault part of the normal fabric of society. This is not normal. It’s time we overthrew this system, all of us together.

Poems by Blanche Darbord

Images: © Blanche Darbord

Glass ship of Goodbyes

I took the sadness from my heart;
I took a bottle by its neck.
A storm was raging in the clouds;
A cloud came carrying all my hurt.

I took a locket from my chest;
I took a bottle by its neck.
The waves still swam beneath my feet,
Its wails slicing my beating breast.

I took a letter soft with dew;
I slit the bottle by its neck.
And in the bottle sadly placed,
My words of lasting love to you.

A storm was raging in the clouds;
A cloud came down upon the sea.
And in the mourning waters went,
My letter, floating in your shrouds.

 

dark sunset
The Delusional Philosopher

The Delusional Philosopher

A wise man reads,
His white beard long
Beneath his chin.

He reads of sun and moon,
Of oceans dried too soon.
He reads of lost ships
and long-forgotten crypts.

A young, ignorant boy,
Who cannot read
And never touched a book:
He runs under the sun,
Sleeps under the moon,
And sails on sparkling seas.
The old man,
Wise as he was,
Wrote about the world.

His wise words are
“philosophical”, “timeless”
                         – We say

Yes, they are timeless,
Truthful by fantasies,
Ignorant of life.

 

stone on beach
The Promise of Stones

The Promise of Stones

In the New Land waited
A man
Sitting before an ageing
Ocean wide.
“Wait for me,” she had said.
“I shall come back,”
She had promised.

But the ocean turned to mist
And the man’s eyes turned to foam,
And he wailed across the sea,
A last solitary plea.

The ocean that would carry
His love was, oh, so empty.
Lo! She would not come
If he had but dirt to pawn!

So, above the cliffs,
For her he chose,
A garden of whens
A forest of ifs.

And on that land across the sea,
Rich with uncertain certainty,
He carved treasures into the stone;
He carved his future in a home.

But lo! ‘Twas not a house he built,
‘Twas a castle that proudly stood,
Lofty towers eyeing the waves,
Strong stones with bliss to save.

And, across the carved ramparts,
History wore its mighty crown,
Mysterious monoliths
Majestic obelisks
Stood in harmony
In this kingdom by the sea,
Waiting. Waiting for its queen.

For hours, days, and years,
He worked and toiled,
Worked with hands alone
And alone built a castle tall.

How… remains a mystery,
Its knowledge buried in the sea.

Yet, today there remains,
This kingdom by the sea.
‘Tis named Coral Castle
And stands, waiting still.

Me Too – Moi Aussi

Image: © Corey Heimlich

Author: Corey Heimlich

When I say “me too,” it’s not because I’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted as the viral hashtag suggests. I say “me too” because I too participate in this patriarchy that has long been in need of a smackdown. I say “me too” in acknowledgement of the machismo that filters my world, in a myriad of ways that I don’t even realize. I too am guilty, not in the Agent Orange “grab them by the p****” kind of way, but by engaging in a society that silences and shames women after verbal and physical abuse. It is paramount that men are proactive in the fight for this fundamental human right, or we will never rewrite our “herstory.” Movements like “Me too” should not feel alienating to men…it should not make men put their heads down in ignominy, but make us begin the long overdue rewiring of our brains and patriarchal social conditioning. It’s like we’re watching a 3D movie without the flimsy glasses.

I don’t consider myself to be “lucky” because I’m a white male. Lucky isn’t the right word to describe a person that receives undeserved privilege. It’s more accurate to say that I have it easy, when I consider that I could easily do nothing about this for the rest of my life without being bothered. I don’t have to deal with the hardship of being valued merely for my physical appearance. I won’t feel muzzled and ashamed because I was raped or groped, and my boss won’t make inappropriate sexual advances on me at work. White men and all men are not “lucky,” and they should not have it “easy.” For any meaningful, lasting change to happen, men will have to swallow the stubborn pride of masculinity and face the problem straight up.

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Tarana Burke speaks about the “Me Too” movement she started some ten years ago:

[…]this movement is really about survivors talking to survivors, right? “Me Too” is about using the power of empathy to stomp out shame[…]it’s not a hashtag, right? It’s not a moment. This is a movement.

This is an epidemic, pandemic even, right? If you applied the numbers around sexual violence to any communicable disease, the World Health Organization would shut it down[…]But in actuality, it is that pervasive. And so, we need to stop thinking about it in spurts, and think about it as something that we need to constantly work on.

This is not the time to be quiet, like a dog with its tail between its legs, only to forget the lesson in due time. This is a time for men to recognize the severity of their actions and stop it from the ground up and on every front. Women participate in all kinds of social movements led by men, but why do some men feel uncomfortable with a Women’s March or the Feminist movement? So, I say “Me Too” not because I’m a survivor of abuse, but because I’m open to have the most important conversation of our time.

 

“Meet Tarana Burke, Activist Who Started “Me Too” Campaign to Ignite Conversation on Sexual Assault.” Democracy Now!, 17.10.2017. http://www.democracynow.org/2017/10/17/meet_tarana_burke_the_activist_who

The Cat of Lausanne

Image: Lac Léman (Philip d’Arenberg, 2014). SourceCC License

The following creative piece was written in the context of the seminar Two-Lakes Romanticism given in the spring semester 2017 at both UNIL and at the University of Lancaster. The author, Céline Stadler, wrote a small commentary about the piece (at the bottom of the page), including details about the writing process and intertextual references you might miss!

Author: Céline Stadler

Preface

So here I sit, on my bed of wind and poetry. Could that really be the same scene, the same lake as before? It is hard to believe. I have been musing on that rock for centuries it seems, and I saw nothing else but the island of freedom right next to the domestic duties that threaten to crush me down. Nonetheless, I know that the lake can be rough. I know that his lips so soft can spit water more fiercely than any cloud. I know that any spill could kill, if only you find the flame about to yield. So I know the lake, but I still can’t believe the story that the old man told me.
He had told it again and again to any living soul he could meet. At first I thought he was just raving, but then something struck me. When you actually listened, the narrative appeared eternal, unchangeable. From one time to another, the old guy would never change a word. He was not like the other drunkards that we could encounter – the fact that he always stuck to the lake should have been a first clue. His story was not an uncontrolled outburst; on the contrary, he looked like a well-oiled automat whose jaws worked rhythmically. Even if the teeth were rotten, the machine behind was infallible.
I would love to be able to tell stories and therefore, I must admit, I envied him. He looked as if he didn’t remember anything from his previous performance, as if he didn’t learn all those sentences by heart. Just like casual conversation. Even when I talk naturally, I can’t sound as natural as he does. Well, he might use odd old words sometimes, but they come swiftly and nobody cares. I hope you will get what I mean in the end, even if a written tale is never the same kind of drowning as a spoken one. If a curse ever existed for me, spoken eloquence is my bottomless pit.
Thus, of course, when I try to relate the old guy’s tale, it won’t be as smooth, spontaneous, and powerful as his own recital. His voice could make you overflow with colours that you can breathe over and over as if your lips were meant for rumination. Maybe this is what he is doing, perpetually feeling his memories on his tongue, like saliva, until his imagination provides a new flavour. For I am sure that he imagined some things. But you know, even if the tale is fake, it speaks about what is. In the most extraordinary facts, we can discover a truth about our own dust. We have so many stories about things like death, fear or love, but they are not mere tragic themes meant for excessive pathos only: they are part of ordinary lives (the ones with toothpaste, dirty pans, worn pants and late assignments; lives that are actually lived). Maybe supernatural elements put a more direct light on our human concerns, but we should never forget how ordinary lives matter. In a sense, the old guy’s story is very ordinary. I may not believe that the events he related actually took place, but I believe that he portrayed his true feelings and thoughts. I believe in a man’s love for his children, his fears, his rage, and his immense sense of guilt. Is that not what matters, the feeling? Whenever I come back to the lake, this is what the mirroring lights tell me.

The Cat of Lausanne

He had come without asking, as they always do. Did he want to ransom a cigarette or a few bottles? No, he just wanted to sit on the beach with a group of students. We looked at each other, not knowing whether to be nervous or afraid. Then he began to speak.
‘Memory is like the tide, you know. You can try and step behind; you can bring your foot to drier sands, but the flow remains. When the moon approaches and pushes the water towards the shore, you will search in vain for an earth to receive your footprints. Even if you sleep, in the morning you will feel the salt on your skin’.
‘Mate, you need more beer. There’s no salt in the lake’.
‘There is salt in my memories’.
‘Listen mate, you sure have very interesting memories, but we are having a nice and quiet picnic with friends and –’
‘Yeah, you’re having a birthday party I heard. Well, you know what? I have an event to commemorate too. Do you want to hear my story?’
‘Well, I’d rather not’.
The man raised his head with a handful of scars and eyes so drunk that it seemed impossible to see anything with them.
‘This is the story of my downfall, but don’t pity me. I don’t deserve any kindness, even though my misery exceeds everything you’ve ever known. The curse has been forgotten. We have been forgotten, but the tide keeps coming back. Every night I breathe again and I live the whole tale once more. I see you won’t care. Still you have to listen. I will shake off my stained voice and hope that the past can merge with calmer waters.
It all began one morning. I woke up at dawn. I walked to the lake with my hooks, my baits, and my fishing rod. I could not stay too long, could not just throw my nets into the greenish darkness as I usually did. I had to catch a big, sumptuous fish – and quickly. One fish that could make guests dribble and have everybody enquire: “Who caught it? Who is the blessed soul that could provide such a feast?” It was my duty as a father and as a man to be the one who would answer “Me”. Therefore, I had to quickly catch a profusion of healthy, shining fish.
As the shy rays of dawn slowly ambitioned to become sunlight, I knelt down in front of the virgin waves. A playful breeze was floating above the water, carrying a whole world peopled with bugs, twigs, and leaves. Spring mornings were always so sweet! It felt right to just bow down and pray. I thanked God for my beautiful children, prayed for poor Isabelle’s soul and asked for fish. If you could grant me a great fishing, I swear that I will offer you my first catch!
That being said, I threw my line into the lake. By the time I stuck my rod between rocks and sat, something splashed and smashed the still glass of the lake. I jumped on my feet and rushed towards the rod, spitting with exclamations of joy. It was huge. So huge I knew it could not pull on the line any longer without breaking it. So I jumped once again but I went down, down into the water. Using the knife which I always carried against my chest, I slayed my prey. It was a tremendous carp, really, you cannot imagine how big it was. My hands were shaking with enthusiasm: what a fish for Jo’s wedding! What a perfect gift for my beloved daughter! I could not believe my chance.
As blood spread over my hands, I paused to think.
Indeed, I had promised God He would have my first catch. But what a fish! Why would He have allowed me to have it, were it not meant for my daughter’s wedding feast? On the other hand, I had made a promise and I should keep it. Yes, but what a gift! Anyway, what difference would it make for Him who doesn’t need it, if He gets a smaller one or if he gets one later? God is merciful, I thought. He will forgive me if I keep this carp and offer the next one. He won’t starve because of me. He knows everything better and won’t be offended. And why should God pay me any attention, to begin with? I am just an old man who loves his daughter. I need that fish more that God does.
It took me great pains to bring my first catch to the shore and hoist it on the earth. I knew it would take even greater pains to empty it and clean it, but I postponed the matter. I’d rather throw my line once again while the lights were still fresh. So I did and, behold! I could not believe what I saw! Once again, there were a splash, strong swirls and rushing water. My heart was beating loudly, tolling like a bell. God was with me! Once again, I jumped into the lake and killed the fish. Once again, I marvelled that such a huge carp could be found in Lake Leman. What was happening with those carps anyway? Were pikes all dead or lost in the deep waters that host them during the winter? I challenge you, with all your boats and technology, to ever catch a fish like those two!
As I prepared to pull my second catch toward the shore, I thought that this one fish belonged to God. I had enough for the feast. Or maybe I could give Him the first carp, when you think about it… But I struggled so hard to bring it on the earth, it would be a shame to throw it again into the lake… On the other hand, it would also be a shame to let the second one here. I could salt it and keep it for my six other kids. I imagined, how I would use the fish in a way that God never would. How my children would bless me as their benefactor! How my neighbours would marvel at my luck and ask me for fishing advice! In addition, I am not even sure that God would care for the promise of an old fisherman! But for sure, people would care very much!
I shuddered and pulled the second carp on the shore. With my knife, I endeavoured to empty and clean my two prodigies. It took quite a while but the sun still did not rise. Clouds had gathered above me, concealing the sky and covering the mountains’ ears. The lake, their faithful mirror, turned white like a blind eye. It seems right that our beloved mounts would not behold the sin that had been committed. It’s right that their reflection did not merge with the blood of the fish on the waves’ heavy breathing.
I was heading towards home when I heard a weak and flickering sound. I paused, having recognized the wailing voice of a kitten. It must have been attracted by the smell of the fish. Cats are good beasts for chasing the mice out of the neighbourhood. A lot had died during the winter and would not be replaced until June. I have always had a tender heart. Pity filled me and when I actually saw the starving kitten, it was already too late to step back. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I took the little ball of grey fur and carried it in the warmth of my pocket.
Everyone was delighted to see the good fish that I had brought back. We were able to salt the first carp before lunch. Maybe the girls were a little envious because they doubted that I should manage to have such good catches for their wedding. Anyway they would eat it as well, not matter if it was for Jo’s marriage or not. As for the bride, I decided not to show her the fish and surprise her at her wedding feast. I climbed the stairs to see the preparations of the girls. Friends and cousins chased me out of the rooms with pins and needles. The house was so busy that I could hardly recognize it. How I longed for the silence of the morning lake!
Jo, or Josepha, was my eldest child and the treasure of my life. Isabelle had given birth to five other girls before our son saw the light of day. Alas! The poor woman didn’t live to see her only son grow up.
How those years look distant now! They were soon borne away and lost in darkness and distance. As if the horizon could be swallowed by the sea! Even more distant are the blessed times at which my dear Isabelle still smiled to me while nursing our daughters. And I, like a fool, could not figure that those times were soon coming to an end, and that the woman I loved most was to die drowning in her own screams… But she left me with a boy as sweet as she had been good.
My son, Henri, quickly became fond of the new cat and called it Chapalu. When his sisters told him that it was a female, it was already too late; Henri would stick to calling it Chapalu. We gave it some milk and little pieces of fish. It didn’t look much reassured, for people endlessly ran about in the house. Poor Chapalu, being allowed here at a time like that!
We left the house and walked towards the church in the beginning of the afternoon. Baptisms, communions, weddings, funerals… whatever the events, I always tended to react with the same amount of boredom. Even Jo’s wedding didn’t look as exciting as a nice day of hiking around the Alps. However, the fish changed everything.
This day should have been a night. The clouds were so dark that everyone in the neighbourhood had secured their home in case of a flood. Jo’s veil kept on fleeing her face and her hair threatened to escape her bun. Something was wrong. I felt something like a nausea growing in my mind. The clouds were wrong. It was a bad weather for a wedding. It was a bad day for breaking a promise.
The general admiration and the ecstatic comments that ought to have filled my ears with pride fell heavily on my heart. The more they said, the more I was reminded about how I had failed God. The uneasiness remained stuck in me like reluctant wallpaper. What I had done was a sin. People get punished for their sins. Instead of rejoicing at my apparent success and at Jo’s dazzling smile, I was franticly searching for bad omens. If God had been a human being in the neighbourhood, I would never have acted the way I did. Just because He knows better and remains out of physical reach, does that mean that He deserves less respect than a man?
The ghosts of my selfishness haunted me until bedtime. I watched the newlyweds withdraw from the crowd with a sigh of relief. I know not why, but I had imagined that if the punishment did not strike that very day, it would not come later. As if the passage to the next day introduced a rupture, as if we were definitely safe. With an extraordinary naivety, I convinced myself that after the wedding, my broken promise would turn into ancient history.
What a shame, what a shame to have behaved like that! What a shame, being forced to expose my faults to you guys! I know that I did every single possible mistake, but please have mercy on me! I was just a tired father, too proud and too frightened at the same time. Do you hear how I am speaking? Even now I am such a coward that I won’t fully face the truth! My pride turned me into a craven who thought that ignoring the stain in his soul would conceal it forever.
I fled, as I always do. I went back home with my five remaining daughters. I didn’t pray for forgiveness and for poor Isabelle’s soul as I usually did. I just wanted to erase all sorts of reminders from my head. I will forget, I told myself. I will make the world forget and I will make God forget. Just don’t draw His attention to your insignificant existence.
I was awoken in the morning without knowing why. Usually, Jo was the one to wake me up, but she was gone, I remembered. So what had caused this disturbance in my sleep? I could not guess, until the scream ringed again, boiling with terror and despair. I jumped. My ears knew who it was but my brain refused to name her. That could not be. Her husband will not let that be, he had to protect her. I should have protected her, I am her father, she cannot die, not her, not my daughter, not so young, not like that! Not like what?
We found the bodies lying on the bed. She was there, lifeless and inanimate.
First I suspected God himself. He could have come down on earth with an array of clouds to shield Him from the view of men. Instead of repenting, I felt an immense, monstrous, and devouring rage. I tore off the cross that hung at my neck and threw it at a wall. For every breath that my daughter would not draw, I spat hundreds of curses.
The step-family was there too. The groom’s mother noticed the marks on their necks. It wasn’t God’s doing. God would not have claws, she said. He would do things properly. Attack the heart rather than the throat. People began to step back: demons. The house was haunted, the union was cursed, someone had sinned, and we need a priest. I, alone, remained in the darkness. I realized I had no candle to light me, but I didn’t need any. I just wanted to sit down and hold my daughter’s hand. She was not cold yet. Why would she, among all creatures, be the one who should pay for my mistakes? I covered her hand with kisses, cradled her soft skin, her curled hair, her skull, and her mischievous chin. Could I behold this, and live? I could have risked it all for her, my intention had never been to kill! I stopped weeping and looked at the nicks on her neck. Someone – or something – had done that. I had to find out who. I stood up. Drops of blood were dipping on the floor.
Then – I am not sure – I heard something like a little “Meow”.
And suddenly, everything made perfect sense. The kitten. The kitten was my punisher. It had come along with the fish. All day it had been keeping watch. What was its name already? Chapalu! Now I knew the name of the murderer!
While I was staring at the grey spot, relatives entered the room and brought in a priest. I tried to tell them. I explained how I broke a promise, but no one seemed to care. One of my daughters took away the monster and I yelled at her: “Kill it! Kill it!” – Later events proved that she didn’t listen. Worse, people forced me out of the room, far from my beloved Jo.
The following days unfolded like in a deep mist. People and landscapes passed like an obscure veil with nothing to say. In addition to my loss, the sweet lake and the majestic Alps themselves seemed to reject me. I could not even love the breeze anymore. My memories got entangled with nightmares and fantasies. Did Chapalu really kill my six daughters, one after another, each night thrusting his claws in a fresher jaw? Shrill and dreadful screams were repeated over and over. The corpses seem so real that they must be dreams. I believe that I remember how all the cats in town behaved strangely. Some voices in my head insist that they gathered and determined to kill only birds. As a consequence, the number of mice and rats increased. Less and less birds sang every morning. Bugs began to proliferate. I remember eating flies in my evening soup. People began to panic. More mice and rats meant more diseases. This is how you welcome the Black Death at your doorstep. Even now I would still wake up, screaming: “Kill them all! Kill the mice! Kill the rats! Kill the CAT!”
God, I pray you, may all those memories be only bad dreams. And please, do not make me tell the end of the story. Don’t make me say what happened that last, fateful night. Please, not this time! I know better now – can I please stop my confession? Please, I don’t want to say it, please don’t make me speak…
I had managed to protect Henri, my only son, for weeks. I would sleep with him and teach him how to defend himself. For a while, I thought it would work. He was my only son and my last hope, the final spark before darkness covers our tracks. Still, somewhere deep inside me, I knew it would not last. Jo had gone. All my daughters and most of our neighbours had followed her into the grave. Everybody would end dead because of me, I knew.
Henri was silently sleeping that night. He didn’t interrupt the night with screams the way I did. He looked so peaceful that his innocence seemed to shelter him from the surrounding madness. I had tried to explain him that his Chapalu had become a bad cat, but a glitter of protest had flooded his eyes. He really liked the beast. My only hope was that the beast liked him in return and would spare him in the name of their aborted friendship.
I was turning around again and again in my bed. My imagination made me hear muffled steps and tinkling claws on the wooden floor. My fear constantly spilled meows and hisses in my house. But when that night came, I didn’t hear a thing. I lit a candle because I had resolved to read. So I didn’t hear: I saw.
The monster had grown until it reached the size of a shepherd dog. Its enormous face had become the most hideous of any living creature. Its hair had darkened, not only because the paws and the mouth were smeared with blood; its whole outline had turned ink-black. The beast would just look at me, its eyes blazing with a slow violence. I had locked the monster up within the room!
I trembled with rage and horror. Henri’s hand was warm and confident in mine. Nicks on his neck. Blood on his chest. Never again. No, you won’t have my son. You won’t tear down his flesh nor rip off his fate. The knife was warm and sharp in my hand. No, you won’t have my son.
I’d rather do it myself’.

Commentary

So here I am again, attempting to write something like a commentary. It has been six months since I wrote “The Cat of Lausanne” and it imposes something like a retrospective. I remember hard times when I tried to force books which would have deserved a diet to cohabit on my desk and finally putting some on the floor or on my bed. Indeed, my few pages had required monsters such as Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Poetry and Prose, The Norton Anthology of English Literature (you all know about this one, yes, the one with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). I had read Poe’s “Black Cat” at least four times at school, in three different languages, but I was ashamed to find out that I didn’t own a paper version of it anymore… So big books, longs poems and short stories on the internet, that’s how it was.
The thematic references would take ages to compile. However, if you look closely, you may find words and whole sentences directly extracted from the sources. Usually they’re from the end, because the end is what we remember best, like Frankenstein’s creature disappearing in the dark, or a black cat walled in a woman’s grave. Writing like that was a very unusual process, as if I were using someone else’s ink, or floating on an ageless river instead of just entering my bathtub. This is still water, but you have to go with the tide if you don’t want to drown like a footless shoe. I tried to follow the flow. You can come with me and search, dive when I fall, and tell my if you find the stolen fabric – how many references will you see? Can you spot the paragraph born from Worsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, his sister’s island or the water images of a metal band?

MuseFeed Quiz Winter 2017

Image: “Typewriter” by Nathan Oakley. Under CC License.

As anyone who’s ever been an English student knows, many influential authors have shaped the world around them with their revolutionary ideas and brilliant new ways of expressing them. But just for the time it will take you to do this quiz, how about you forget all that and just focus on what’s really important here- their sense of style? This expertly constructed quiz will help you find who your literary soulmate is… from a strictly sartorial point of view.

Click here to take the quiz!

Interview with Benjamin Pickford, a ‘not very British-British’ Englishman in Switzerland

Benjamin Pickford joined Unil’s English Department this semester as a maître assistant. He is originally from Guildford, though has lived in London, and taught in Nottingham and Edinburgh before coming to Lausanne. He specialises in American literature, used to want to be Bob Dylan, and knows how to bake sourdough bread. If you’re interested in getting to know this newest member of staff, keep on reading below.

Describe yourself in 10 seconds or less, GO!

Ehhmm oh god that’s really hard, sorry, I’m so unspontaneous I have to plan things like that. I really can’t do those because I find it so difficult, I have to just think about which part I have to describe. I don’t know, I’m an Englishman in Switzerland.

Could you talk a little bit about your academic interests, the academic path you took, what you teach now?

Of course. I did my PhD on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I’ve worked on American literature since I started my studies, but I did my master’s thesis on French philosophy. So I’m interested in philosophy and literature, and the kind of intersection between them, especially in the 19th century. But here at Unil, I teach American literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries and I’m particularly interested in literature’s relation to capitalism. I’ll be teaching more on that from next year onward. I guess that’s the main thing I work on, literature and capitalism and Marx, those kinds of approaches.

What made you decide on literature?

This is a long story. I left school when I was 16 and I got my worst mark in English literature. All I wanted to do was get involved in music, which is what I did. But it was while I got involved with music that I realised that all this music I was really interested in, which is kind of American music of the 60s and 70s, was all deeply related to American literature of the 20s and 50s, and so that sent me back through that, and once you go down that rabbit hole, you just keep on going down through the tiers of literary history that potentially interest you. So I did that, and then I went back as a mature student to do American literature at a university in London that did an undergraduate degree in English and American literature. If I had to pin it down to one book, it was probably ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac: the sort of book between music, and thinking ‘ah there’s a whole literary tradition behind this.’ That was the book that opened the door to all of that stuff.

As a child, who did you think you’d grow up to be, and how does that compare to who you did grow up to be?

This is a weird thing, I don’t distinctly remember my childhood as being sort of childhood, it was just different stages. I think until I was about 12, I thought I would be the sort of person that my grandfather was, who was a mechanical engineer. And that was what I sort of persuaded myself and my teachers I was going to do, until a few years after that. But then about the age of 12 onwards, I thought I was going to be a musician. I was going to be Bob Dylan for whatever generation that was going to be, but that didn’t pan out either. So, I don’t know, that doesn’t mean that I had any genuine faith that was the case, but then I don’t think I had a very reasonable, or very reasoned, sense of expectation or plan for the future, because I didn’t really know. I used to love playing music, and that was that.

What brought you to Lausanne?

I’ve been looking for something outside the UK for a long time, since before even my PhD. I’ve been applying for all of those things and this is the one that came through, basically. I applied to go to Berlin, to Aarhus in Denmark, the US. Some universities in the UK are good, but it’s kind of an oppressive place. And also, I’m not a very British-British person; I don’t like the cold weather – actually no-one likes the cold weather – I don’t like the food very much, I like the sense of humour, but other than that, there are not many things about the UK that I like. So I’ve been keen to get out and see a bit more of the world, and this is the first step. I don’t know whether it’ll be long-term of short-term, but I’m enjoying it so far. I’m just looking for something different, really. I came here not really knowing what to expect. Two things I did know about Lausanne were that T. S. Eliot wrote the first draft of ‘The Wasteland’ around here, and that the art brut collection is here, because I’ve always been interested in Jean Dubuffet and outsider art. I’d long-intended to come here, and to be honest that was probably the first thing that persuaded me that Lausanne would be a good place to come. If they’ve got a museum about outsider art then it’s definitely worth a shot.

What were your first impressions of Lausanne when you came?

That it’s beautiful, obviously. I think that’s probably everybody thinks. I liked the fact that it’s really studenty because that normally means that a place is interesting. The first couple of months I spent here, I just walked through from near Pont Bessières down to the old town, to Ouchy and kind of did a loop around and walked all the way back. It’s beautiful, but it’s also got a fairly young population, which is nice. And it’s small; I like small cities. I lived in Edinburgh most recently, and it reminded me – not in terms of the climate or the architecture of Edinburgh – but it did remind me of the sense of the city that feels like a city but only just on the side of feeling like a city. It’s still small enough to feel like you’re not oppressed by the sheer number of people that live there, or the fact that there’s nothing that you can see beyond the city. You can see the mountains, you can see the hills, it’s really nice. I like it.

In that vein, how do you find the English department?

I really like it: really friendly and a real sense of community in the department, which has not been the case in every department I’ve ever worked in. It’s big enough to be diverse, but small enough to be very friendly and welcoming. And the particularly interesting thing for me, and this is apparently a common thing, but the way the PhD students are fully integrated into the members of the faculty, essentially, for the duration of their studies, is amazing. And the student population is interesting, there’s a lot going on, everyone is friendly; it’s very collegiate, I like it a lot. And it’s in this wonderful building.

What was the strangest teaching experience you’ve ever had?

I guess it’s not that strange, I’ve never had the sort of cow-come-through-the-classroom or have a fire alarm or anything like that. One of the most strange educational experience all-round, was when I had an evening course at a night school in London to get into university. We went to see a performance of ‘Waiting for Godot’ because we were working on that play. The key thing about ‘Waiting for Godot’ is that they’re not waiting for anything: Godot never shows up, and the second act is the same as the first one. Anyway, half-way through the second act of this performance, the guy playing Vladimir dropped dead of a heart attack on stage. Like, he died. And I hadn’t finished reading ‘Waiting for Godot’ at this point, and so it was 30 seconds or more before I realised that this wasn’t part of the play, so I had this flash of an experience of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ Anyway, I taught ‘Waiting for Godot’ when I was in Edinburgh last year, and it was actually much more productive to think about it in terms of staging: what happens if you could see one of the actors dying half-way through in the performance of this play? And so it is not a particularly peculiar teaching experience – it amounted to more of a peculiar experience of that particular play – but I suppose it’s one of the things that teaches that it can be interesting to take a counter-factual approach to the text that you’re doing.

What are you currently working on?

So I’ve got 2 books: one is the extension of my PhD, and the other one is the extension of my post-doc. One is a biography of Emerson’s literary persona rather than Emerson himself, and looks at how he created this literary persona which takes on literally a life of its own after his death. The whole thing is deeply related to the way that he wrote, and it thinks about this kind of literary persona in American literary history afterwards. Which is either going to be really niche, or really general, and I’m not quite sure which direction I was going to go in yet, I’ll have to see. And the other one is called ‘Capital in American Poetics’ and it looks at American poetics and American literary theory in the latter half of the 19th century. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment, which is not very similar to most of the Americanists in this department. But those are the two books I’m hoping to have published in the 4-year contract I’ve got here at the moment.

Which fictional character best represents you and why?

That’s really hard. It’s the sort of thing that you’d imagine someone who works on literature would just be able to come out with one, and that’s actually really challenging. I guess if there’s any time when I’ve identified with literary characters, it’s the kind of weird, repressed narrators of Kafka’s novels. There’s just something in the thought process of those characters that makes a lot of sense to me, but then I guess the reason that it makes sense to one is that Kafka is trying to represent those thought processes as being completely logical and reasonable under these peculiar conditions. And so I guess because there is a kind of life experience that feels more necessary. Because the character has to get through this particular situation that they’re in, I mean the character never does get through, he always ends up being crushed to death or suffocated or whatever, there’s just something like that when you’re in a particularly strange environment and just think ‘ok what’s next, what’s next, what’s next’.

Do you have any secret or not-so-secret talents?

Well, I play the guitar. I’m a very, very committed cyclist, I cycle a lot and that’s kind of what takes up an awful lot of time. I can bake sourdough bread but I don’t have to here, because the boulangeries sell stuff that is not absolute, complete and utter crap, unlike in the UK. British bread is diabolical. So yes, I can bake pretty good bread, but I don’t do it because it takes hours and I only did it out of necessity before.

What would your Walden look like?

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve been to Concord a few times because I work on Emerson, so you necessarily work on Thoreau. Always had a lot of problems with Thoreau – I think he’s fascinating, I love his writing, but when you come to it critically, there’s just too many problems to leave it with a considered opinion. One of those problems is that Walden itself, if you walk to Walden from Emerson’s house, which is where Thoreau used to go get pies, it’s about a mile, it’s not very far. So it’s a kind of miniature escape, and Thoreau could only squat on this land because his friend [Emerson] owned it. And he squatted there by virtue of the fact that his friends helped him build this hut, and he could still go back to Concord to get food. But when you walk to Walden now, and you leave Concord and you go down the road – that is the old Turnpike road that leaves town from Emerson’s house – you think ‘oh, this is just how it would have been, I mean there’s a few more cars, it’s the tarmac, but still it’s beautiful’. And then you get almost there, and there’s a six-lane highway, literally next to Walden pond, that you have to cross in order to get there. And I think all of those things slightly taint my idea of a sort of escape, or what Walden represented for Thoreau. I think the same thing in a way would be amazing, a remote hut, a lake view, an opportunity just to do all that thinking. But then the fact that there’s now this six-lane Turnpike, right next to it, flags up the fact that that’s impossible. You can’t have that Walden, least of all in the 21st century. And I suppose that the 20th century equivalent in European philosophy, Heidegger, who used to go sitting under trees and sitting at his hut and writing his books and ignoring the fact that Europe was tearing itself to pieces around him. So I guess if I did have a Walden, it would have to be close enough to civilisation for me to accept the fact that this was really a kind of Bourgeois delusion that I was indulging it.

Those are all of our questions for now, thank you very much for the interview!

Wasted Words…

Image: © Blanche Darbord

Author: Blanche Darbord

Forty stories. Only forty stories are below him. Really? From here, height falls down into a deep grey pit of concrete. Pedestrians walk below: a sea of people chattering by, waves streaming the sidewalks, indifferent. A little jump would be all it would take to join their carefree lives, albeit from the other side, the blissful side.

It should be so easy. It should be so simple. Just a little jump. A little is all it takes. And then, then his problems will no longer be.

Matthew Grant, old before his age, stares down at the sunlit street. How drastically a life can change with only one small jump, only one step and then the capitulation to gravity, a force no one can escape. How drastically life can end.

His sunken eyes – surrounded by cracked mines, caves of wrinkled worry – stare at the escape route. The escape route from shame, from the agony of a wasted life. Yes, the waste of it is what strikes him the most, choking his savor for life. How could he have been so foolish?

His frame swims in his suit; his white hair shivers in the breeze. Long fingers pry the window open. The air enters, carrying the cars’ tepid smoke. The sunshine hits his face then, his pale, yellow face behind which destiny is being played. Yet, the pieces have been set long ago. It is just a matter of time.

 

In fact, the first piece was put in place decades ago. It has been a long time. Too long perhaps, or too short. Always too short. Time’s mighty pendulum can strike with its robotic, unvarying beat; Mathew Grant knows that each passing second is never the same, each one of a varying length from the next and all ensuing dongs. How absurd humans are, wanting to measure the immeasurable, control the uncontrollable.

Time can decide to stand still, yet in our happiness it seldom lingers to offer more than a flash, a glimpse. And then, all is gone. All one has aspired to is gone. Gone… How ephemeral is success; how inane is hope.

 

No, really, jumping is the only option. If only he had had more time… But the books are closed now. Closed on a life’s work whose only recompense is to be dust and oblivion.

A lifetime ago, a young boy had stood at that window, looking up at the sky, contemplating its immensity and wishing to explain the world. Now, the round cheeks of bubbling dreams have been carved away by failures, by callous critics. As vultures, their talons have grasped his flesh, devoured the thick, round letters on manuscripts’ pages.

Over the years, Mathew Grant’s letters have become elongated, sharp on the ends as if to strike the prying eyes that would tear his writing apart; tear it as if it were impersonal, devoid of an author’s sentiments. The ink has run down the pages, the words have become acrimonious, tainted by the sourness of the author’s calligraphy.

And the hungry critics carried on, devouring his works, reducing them to the carcasses of what they were in his mind. The noble stories slouched in shameful defeat, their characters snuffed as their world dissolved into dust.

There is nothing left. Only various, nonsensical words deemed unworthy of honor; only towers of forgotten pages, the leaves shivering from an external breeze.

 

Strangers have ripped apart the author’s defenses, pecking away at his weary heart. His life was composed of dreams, which he had so laboriously put into words. Nothing remains besides the debris of delusions. Yet, even these are fading away. Inexorably.

His last manuscript has not even been deemed worthy of a reply. Of course, why waste the time to write out another negative response? Why waste the time on a pathetic author whose name will never be remembered? Life is too short for wasted words.

Mathew Grant shivers. His work is neglected, his words wasted. He looks down once more at the ground below. Only forty stories. Simple.

It is cold outside, cold like the presence of old stones.

A scream echoes on the street; a last word is pronounced and smashed on the stained pavement, shattering into wasted shards.

A phone rings within an abandoned apartment.

Dring!…

Dring! Dring! … …

Nobody picks up. The voicemail reverberates on empty walls.

“Good morning Mr. Grant. How are you doing? I have read your manuscript. It has taken me a long time, the writing being so rich. (A pause) Sir, you are a talented writer whose words will prevail long after your death. Let me assure you that it shall be published in no time. Wasn’t I right to tell you to keep writing? I’ve had every faith in you…”

Dong! The message is interrupted by the imposing sound of the clock tower striking the inevitable, passing hours. Twelve strikes. Midday.

A man lies on the sidewalk, forever ignorant that his death is a waste of wondrous words.

Rapunzel

Image: © Creative Commons, license link here

Author: Laure Cepl

 

Doll locked in a closet, longing alone

for the one who’ll save her.

Dull are the days for the fair maiden of ivory skin,

spinning around, trying to find angles in a full moon shaped room.

High in that tower, deep is her sorrow.

The Lady they call Rapunzel.

 

Red lips, out of her velvet mouth come sounds of the

rarest beauty. Errant in this waste night and day, I may have lost

my way. Riding astray from the path,

her voice awaked and guided me.

I stared at this fortress. No entrance, damsel in distress.

I called her: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”

 

Mild voice, “Milady” she called me, “climb up to meet me.”

And she let down her long-braided hair.

They were garnished with flowers – violets, violets everywhere.

Once I got up there, I found my Sappho. “Oh, my dear,

give me love!” She cried, “for I have been so lonely.”

“Music”, she breathed, “let’s make music” she whispered in my ear.

 

Far away they will hear us, our delightful symphony.

On her grand piano, we get lost in the sheets,

I let her play her favorite sonata in F minor,

chords, arpeggios and rubatos – her fingers run free on my keyboard.

Every touch makes all the wires vibrate in me,

a whole note followed by a rest – a sigh.

 

Solitude shared, four hands duo every night,

for seven months, seven weeks and seven days,

we have learnt to play each other’s melody.

Our metronomes are fully in tune, emotions in crescendo,

I follow the motive, pitch variations, we broke the sordina.

This song still resonates in my heart, after all these years.

 

Lamentations, alas, you came back. I climbed the

ladder too many times, once I had to fall.

You listened to what they said. How such a delicate ear

could pay attention to the cacophony of their voices?

Remember, it is they who put you in that tower,

cursed, they judged, banished the masterpiece you were.

 

Since, “sweet flower”, scared of blooming you pushed me down that stage,

cutting our bond with scissors, watching me

sink. In the brambles, blind I still ramble,

playing requiems yearning for a Muse lost long ago.

That is what she taught me about Music. If you take out her heart,

Only art survives.