The Most Unconventional Pairings in Westeros

About a year ago, a highly imaginative vidder named Coolcia produced this little diamond in the very, very rough of a fanvid. Set to Muse’s outrageously erotic Time is Running Out, its goal is to imagine what the ‘most unconventional pairings in the whole Westeros’ would be. The consequently crazy result is the hooking up of Cat and Jon, Ned and Cersei, Sansa and Viserys, Arya and Jaime, Robb and Daenerys and Littlefinger and Renly. Once I’d pulled myself back onto my chair after falling off it, I began to think, as I do sometimes. Actually lots of times. So would any of these pairings work? Let’s take a look.

Cat and Jon

Older woman falling for someone who could have been her son, whom she detests and whom she treats with awful cruelty because of his being a permanent reminder of the adultery her husband allegedly committed? The potential is there for one gigantic explosion of Phédre-like guilt and self-destruction, hate chemistry, sadomasochism and all the usual mischief associated with forbidden love, on both sides. This could work.

Ned and Cersei

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Two characters that detest each other and happily contemplate murdering each other falling in love is always positively delicious, usually because they’ll feel an affinity, do everything to destroy each other, then want to destroy themselves when they’ve accomplished that goal. Cersei being a lot more into destruction than Ned, you can sense that most of the destruction would come from her side and that she’ll barely have time to congratulate herself on having him arrested for treason before his head gets chopped off and she’s seized by a horrible, hysterical grief at what she’s done, à la the Marquise de Merteuil. Ned being such a stubborn lump, he’d probably place honour and the truth above love and therefore not think twice about threatening to expose her to Robert, which would probably make him feel righteously awful and would only increase her eagerness to take him down. This could work.

Sansa and Viserys

Honestly, what is it with Sansa and inbred blond sadist arseholes? If Sansa was stupid enough to fall for Joffrey in season 1, there’s no reason why she wouldn’t fall for Viserys were she ever unfortunate enough to be introduced to him. Like Joffrey, Viserys is perfectly capable of acting like an angel when he feels like it, and marrying him also carries a promise, though less certain than Joffrey’s, that she would someday be queen, ‘a prospect that once delighted you,’ as Cersei would say. As for Viserys, he certainly wouldn’t be averse to Sansa if he met her, and would probably see her as yet another pretty thing that he could conquer, torture and eventually destroy. What’s interesting about this is that this relationship would eventually precipitate exactly the same character development in Sansa as her relationship with Joffrey does, which seems to suggest that the poor Lady Stark is more a victim of her own innocence and stupidity than that of Joffrey’s cruelty. So yes. This could work.

Arya and Jaime

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Sorry. I just fell off my chair again. Coolcia’s fanvid puts Jaime in a similar position to Syrio, which is a fantastic idea. It would create a deep identification between them early on, grounded on respect rather than ridicule for Arya’s ambitions, a common love of swordfighting and the mutual, unacknowledged love that often characterizes a good master-pupil relationship. Personality-wise, it’d be a spectacular case of opposites attract, Arya being reckless hellfire, revenge and anger 24/7, Jaime permanently reckless but hardly ever motivated by blind anger: he’s too experienced for that. There’s also opportunity for a show-stopping, perhaps permanent bust-up i.e. Jaime having thrown her little brother out of a window and all the hellish Stark versus Lannister stuff during the war. Could either represent a possible reconciliation between Stark and Lannister or make the whole feud a lot worse, probably the latter. This could work.

Robb and Daenerys

Despite Robb’s being battle-hardened and experienced in war, you can’t help feeling that Daenerys, having been trained for queenship among the Dothraki, would eat him alive: she’s done too much and changed too much to willingly chain herself to a King. On the other hand, Robb has also grown up with parents who have a relatively egalitarian relationship, so it doesn’t seem likely that he would try to make his wife submit to him. Chemistry-wise and personality-wise, this doesn’t seem like a good fit. The losses that House Stark suffered under Daenerys’ father King Aerys are a definite obstacle, and you don’t really get the feeling that a marriage would stop the North from remembering. Then again, both of them have been known to fall suddenly and violently in love with inappropriate people, so a marriage would not only be possible, but could also pave the way for a difficult reconciliation. This could work, but probably wouldn’t be the best idea.

Littlefinger and Renly

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Renly hates Littlefinger, Littlefinger only sees Renly as being a pawn in the Game and a mild annoyance to boot. While Renly’s status as a pawn would leave him open to sexual advances cf. Sansa Stark, it doesn’t really work, firstly because Renly isn’t a defenseless girl, and secondly because imagining him and Littlefinger at it is very difficult. The chemistry isn’t there. Despite his love of throwing balls and jousts left, right and center, Renly is a sentimentalist: he has sex for love, a feeling that he definitely doesn’t cultivate towards Littlefinger and probably never will. Plus, the only whiff of homoerotic energy that ever comes off Littlefinger happens when he’s dealing with Varys, and the mutual disrespect/disregard between Littlefinger and Renly comes from slight annoyance rather than hate, which makes it difficult to conjure up chemistry. This would not work.

Conclusion

Yes, these combinations are crazy and not all of them work. But the fact that we can talk about them, entertain them and refute them only serves to reinforce the might of GRRM’s creative genius and his powers of characterisation.

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The Swordfighting Women Conundrum: A Study

The issue of the swordfighting woman and whether or not we should be rolling our eyes at her is something that we’ve only touched on briefly on this blog. In order to get a more interesting conversation going, let’s refresh our memories on what we’ve said so far, notably in the post For the love of God, would you stop fucking up fairytale movies?

‘So. You think up a bunch of characters that are glaring stereotypes. There’ll be the persecuted royal who wants to have an adventure; the yawn-inducing bad guy who wants…something; two pretty boys with chests bared in a sub-zero climate who are after the same girl and most complex of all, the chick with the sword, complex because nobody seems to know what they want out of putting that sword in her hand. Either she makes a fuck-up of it so she can be rescued by some punchable alpha-male, or she proves a pro at it despite there being no evidence of such a thing being the norm in her family life, culture, or social milieu. So is this stereotype a commendable reversal of gender roles, or isn’t it?’

Let’s forget about the stereotypes that particular piece ranted about and simply use the criteria it lays down to go for a spin around a couple of fantasy kingdoms, this being the genre where the swordfighting woman features the most. Hopefully our journey will allow us to straighten out who becomes a three-dimensional, conflicted human being/feminist through her relationship with her sword and who stays boring and conventional despite being in possession of this exciting accessory.

Snow White – Snow White and the Huntsman

Film Title: Snow White and the Huntsman

 

Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?


There is no indication whatever of this. Fantasy world seems to be built on medieval model, no evidence of other female warriors, so probably not.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Not really. Her sword and armour in the final battle are reduced to the same status as cute toys or dresses; her use of a sword to kill Ravenna not creating the slightest impression of the primal kinship between herself and her weapon that characterises the better-written warrior women. On the other hand, Snow’s rather idealistic shocked response to Eric’s improvised lesson on how to stab someone with a dagger (which is sort of a sword) could be interpreted as the character’s first shock into the brutal world of real life. This doesn’t precipitate much character development, however: but that’s more or less the permanent state of Snow’s existence.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?


No. Despite Snow’s eventually killing Ravenna thanks to sticking a sword in the right place, you still get the feeling that a brick to the head would have had precisely the same effect. In this movie, it’s not how Ravenna dies that important, only the fact that she does.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male in a battle situation? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


Mercifully, no. There is evidence of male characters being inspired by this intention throughout, but this scheme thankfully never comes to fruition.

 

So does she need a sword?


No. Feminist enough to triumph and not to require saving, but utterly unconvincing both in terms of character development linked to her sword and of plot.

Brienne of Tarth – Game of Thrones.

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?

No. Fantasy world built on medieval model. Brienne is often cruelly mocked, both because of her desire to be a knight and her masculine looks. She very seldom meets with compassion or understanding.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Yes. In ordinary situations she merely seems to plod clumsily along like a great lump. With a sword in her hand, she soars. It’s only through swordfighting that she feels she is worth something or that her life has a purpose. It’s what saves her from the cruel japes she endures night and day, both in giving her that sense of purpose and in knocking the senses out of her tormentors. On a softer note, swordfighting is also the only way for a woman of her appearance to be close to Renly Baratheon, whom she is unaccountably in love with (you could do so much better, Brienne!) and whose death devastates her.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?


Yes. Her duel/brawl with future best friend/resident pain-in-the-ass-she-happens-to-be-chained-to Jaime Lannister, which ends with her sitting astride him trying to drown him in a stream, is a show stopper that leads straight into a whirlwind of calamitous consequences: their capture by the Brave Companions, Jaime’s loss of his hand and ensuing psychological collapse, their deep, but odd friendship, and the bear pit scene. In terms of later events, it’s also through Brienne’s quest for Sansa Stark that we get our first glimpse of Lady Stoneheart.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


No. Requires saving by Gendry due to incapacitation in battle, Gendry certainly qualifying as male but is neither an alpha male nor particularly punchable. Incapacitation is here defined as unconsciousness while Biter was ripping chunks out of her face.

 

So does she need a sword?


Yes. Swordfighting is her strength and her worth; it’s her entire life; it’s how she fights injustice by defending the weak and slaughtering the evil; as much a part of her as breathing.

Morgana Pendragon – Merlin

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?


Yes and no. Took lessons with Arthur as a child and possesses ready-made sword and armour. It is implied that these are simply provided for self-defense. As a woman, cannot issue challenges without causing an uproar; women do not fight in jousts/battles alongside men. Ultimately ends up doing just as she pleases; is consequently experienced in battle.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?

No. Morgana’s psychological development is considerable, but primarily through self-doubt and fear of her magic being exposed gradually transforming into raging, revenge-driven evil that allows most mischief to be perpetrated without recourse to swords.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?

Yes. Her swordsmanship makes substantial contribution to winning of many days and several stand-offs with Merlin, her use of it to escape kidnappers obligingly creating the need for Gwen to be rescued rather than her (sigh).

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


No. More often requires consoling and reassuring than rescuing. When she does, it is habitually by her sister Morgause, another proficient swordfighter.

 

So does she need a sword?


No. Her character would have developed in precisely the same way and she would still be the heroine of all Arthurian feminists without having to possess a sword.

Éowyn Dernhelm – The Lord of the Rings

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?

Yes; culture of ‘shieldmaidens’ brought up to believe that ‘the women of this country learned long ago that those without swords could still die upon them.’ It only seems acceptable for shieldmaidens to fight, however, when men are away at war and cannot protect them: they don’t fight in battles or wars.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Yes. Éowyn’s love for her sword is deep, both from a cultural perspective and because she sees it as the only means available to her to fight for the ones she loves against the armies of Sauron. It is her way out of the future she predicts for herself i.e. spending the rest of her life shut up indoors until her spirit breaks and her chance of valour is lost. Half-wild, stubborn and angry at being forbidden from fighting, she disguises herself as a man and makes it to the battle at Pelennor Fields, where her spirit undergoes a grueling and brutal test.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?

Yes. Her killing of the Witch King of Angmar is legendary.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


Yes and no. Is only able to kill the Witch King thanks to Merry’s first stabbing him in the back, which gives her the opportunity to loosen his grip on her throat and deal the final blow, an action that has frequently been construed as proof of sexism on Tolkien’s part. More dead than alive, she is afterwards in need of prodigious healing by Aragorn, and a good long spell in the Houses of Healing, where she meets future husband Faramir and affectionately describes him as having ‘tamed’ her. Now, neither Merry, Aragorn or Faramir are punchable alpha males (okay, maybe Aragorn’s a bit of an alpha male), but all of them help, in a certain way, to get Éowyn from one cage straight into another. Worst of all, she’s only too happy to go! Everything’s okay now, Sauron’s been defeated, so she can hang her sword up, marry Faramir and have babies. Please don’t misunderstand me. Faramir and Éowyn are my favourite LOTR couple; I deeply lament the lack of scenes between them and I’m convinced in my heart that Éowyn would challenge Faramir to a duel if he tried to do the domineering ‘my lord husband’ thing. But despite the fact that Éowyn finds the glory she’s looking for, sees that she misinterpreted her feelings for Aragorn and meets her soul mate, at the end of the day, she’s still seen as a spirited woman who has to be tamed and married off. It’s a very 1950’s attitude and is a bit of a cock-up on Tolkien’s part that he’s allowed this kind of bullshit to creep into such a good thing.

So does she need a sword?

Yes. She wouldn’t be herself without one. A sword is her chance for another life, and the chance to add it to thousands of others to fight for good is a major driving force in her character.

Conclusion

A woman with a sword is not as common a thing in our history, mythology and culture as a man with a sword. Where a swordfighting woman appears, she is outnumbered ten thousand to one. A sword can represent an ideal, a person, a past, a future, a people, an entire life. It can also represent nothing at all, and be empty, meaningless, or trick us into seeing something that isn’t actually there. Giving a female character a sword should serve a purpose. It should create something in her character, or at least in the plot. Randomly slapping a sword to her hip does not prove that the character is meant to be a feminist. That sword has to mean something, both to her and to us. If it does mean something, you’ve succeeded in creating that feminism. If it means nothing, all you’ve done is pretend to.

Featured image courtesy of thewaymarks.files.wordpress.com

Diderot by Arthur M. Wilson: Book Review in French and English/Critique de livre en français et en anglais.

Le tricentenaire de la naissance de Denis Diderot nous donne tous le plaisir de se perdre tranquillement dans un véritable tsunami de nouvelles recherches, mais aussi d’honorer les recherches que les spécialistes ont effectuées dans les années passées ; spécialistes qui ont dédiés leurs vies à nous éclairer sur la vie et les œuvres d’un homme extraordinaire qui ne cessait jamais de changer, d’évoluer, de surprendre, d’endurer, et bien sûr, d’aimer. Parmi ces spécialistes se trouve Arthur M. Wilson, auteur de Diderot (1972). Grâce à la vaste quantité de recherche impressionnante qui caractérise l’œuvre, ainsi qu’à son détail minutieux, son objectivité et sa sensibilité, Diderot reste une des meilleures biographies du philosophe, ainsi qu’une source indispensable sur ses œuvres. D’abord, discutons la valeur du livre en tant que source sur les œuvres de Diderot ; ensuite, examinons le traitement de la vie de Diderot dans le livre et pourquoi ce traitement est tellement efficace et émotif.

Ce livre est indispensable en tant que source sur les œuvres de Diderot pour trois raisons principales.  Dans un premier temps, on peut constater que même lorsqu’il s’agit de parler des œuvres du philosophe, Wilson prend toujours en compte l’objectif principal du livre –  raconter la vie de Diderot. Chaque œuvre n’est pas tout simplement résumée et jetée quelque part pour perturber le rythme du récit biographique. Au contraire, Wilson fait des liens constants, logiques et très intelligents entre la psychologie ; les émotions ; les intérêts de Diderot à un certain moment, et les œuvres qu’il écrivait à cette époque. On peut se référer, par exemple, au magnifique chapitre sur Le Neveu de Rameau. Chef d’œuvre commencé après l’échec (presque) du Père de famille à la Comédie Française, Le Neveu de Rameau, selon Wilson, a été né de la frustration que ressentait Diderot envers les ennemis hypocrites et ignorants de l’Encyclopédie, ainsi que de sa peur agonisante qu’il n’était pas un génie, mais un raté.

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Cette peur de ne pas être génie est particulièrement pertinente à la deuxième raison pour laquelle Diderot est un ouvrage indispensable sur les œuvres du philosophe, c’est-à-dire la profondeur que démontre l’ouvrage dans son traitement de la question de qui a influencé Diderot. Les ennemis de L’Encyclopédie adoraient accuser ses auteurs de plagiat, accusation parfois justifiée que Wilson examine en profondeur impressionnant. Bien que Wilson cite des influences célèbres comme Shaftesbury, Locke, etc., son traitement expert des influences moins connues a dû nécessiter, d’abord, la lecture d’une quantité infinie de correspondance, de pamphlets, de magazines et des pièces du théâtre et ensuite, un pouvoir considérable dans les domaines du raisonnement déductif et d’analyse littéraire. De plus, sa discussion charmante du plagiat au dix-huitième siècle est essentielle et très utile pour nous fait comprendre les raisons pour lesquelles cette question complexe de « qui a influencé qui » joue un rôle tellement important dans les études de presque chaque homme de lettres du dix-huitième siècle, et nous donne des outils pour se poser la question sans nous dire que penser, une qualité admirable chez un critique.

Le traitement méticuleux et surtout minutieux de L’Encyclopédie dans le livre est notre troisième raison pour laquelle Diderot est un ouvrage indispensable sur les œuvres du philosophe. Wilson nous accorde une compréhension scrupuleuse des articles les plus importants et les plus provocateurs qui ont été écrits par des grands génies des Lumières comme D’Alembert, ainsi que des articles moins intéressants qui cachaient des esprits moins brillants, mais plus nobles et plus endurants, comme De Jaucourt. Cette manière de discuter L’Encyclopédie dans son propre esprit est appropriée et très admirable.

Hm.

Hm.

Passons maintenant à comment Wilson représente la vie de Diderot dans le livre et pourquoi cette représentation est tellement efficace, mais émotive aussi. Wilson a accompli une tâche herculéenne dans la manière dont il a consacré des années et des années de sa vie à cette vaste recherche exhaustive des archives, des bibliothèques, des correspondances et de mille autres documents et endroits pour trouver la plus petite chose qui pourrait nous dire quelque chose sur Diderot à un certain moment : Où était-il ? Que faisait-il ? Que ressentait-il ? Et bien sûr, que disait-il? Cependant, toute cette recherche ne vaut rien si l’on ne sait pas l’utiliser, et c’est dans ce domaine que Wilson est doué d’une manière redoutable. Il a le savoir et la sensibilité d’un romancier, mais la justesse et l’objectivité d’un critique, évoquant la raison et les émotions du lecteur. Il y a d’innombrables exemples de cette objectivité, et surtout de cette sensibilité dans le livre. D’abord, Wilson raconte la fameuse rupture avec Rousseau avec la précision d’un avocat, mais il arrive aussi à provoquer une grande tristesse chez le lecteur dans ce chapitre particulier et à chaque fois qu’on voit le nom de Rousseau après l’avoir lu. Deuxièmement, on s’amuse infiniment à lire des descriptions vives des dîners et des séjours à Grandval, tout en savant que parfois, Diderot les trouvait insupportables. Troisièmement, bien au courant de son intelligence, on lève les yeux au ciel à chaque fois qu’on voit le nom de Fréron. Quatrièmement, chaque anecdote charmant, ex. Madame de Pompadour monte à son entresol minuscule pour rendre visite à la foule de philosophes qui s’y entassent et qui ne consentent pas de descendre à ses appartements, nous fait sourire et rire, même si l’on a envie d’étrangler ces philosophes pour ce comportement audacieux envers une femme qui était de leur côté. Et finalement, il y a Diderot lui-même, dans toute sa complexité et son éloquence. Wilson le loue quand il le mérite et le critique quand il le mérite. Cette méthode de traiter Diderot comme un être humain et pas comme un géant intouchable est très émotive, car le génie de Diderot, sa personnalité lumineuse, sa pensée, sa conversation parfois bouleversante, son dévouement, sa compassion, et son émotion le rendent plus extraordinaire en tant qu’être humain. Le lecteur se trouve capable de penser à ce grand homme avec affection et de le plaindre quand il est angoissé. Le lecteur représente la postérité qui soutenait Diderot pendant ses batailles sans fin contre les censeurs et pendant qu’il travaillait sur ses meilleures œuvres qui resteraient abandonnées dans un tiroir jusqu’à sa mort. « Ne renonce pas à ton travail ! » on a envie de lui dire, « On est là, et on veut le lire ! ». Le fait que Wilson est capable d’inspirer ce genre d’émotion chez un lecteur, dans un texte académique, et qu’il est capable de nous faire parler au philosophe à l’informel sans y penser (désolée !) démontre la haute qualité émotive de son style d’écriture, ainsi que son propre amour pour Diderot et pour son œuvre.

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Pour conclure, parlons des observations que nous avons faites sur Diderot. Dans la première partie, nous avons établi la valeur de ce livre en tant que source sur les œuvres de Diderot. Nous avons examiné cette question dans le cadre de la juxtaposition excellente des discussions sur les œuvres de Diderot avec son psychologie ; dans celui de la question des influences diderotiennes et finalement, dans celui du traitement détaillé de L’Encyclopédie et des ces auteurs, célèbres et inconnus. Dans la deuxième partie, nous avons discuté la représentation de la vie de Diderot dans le livre, et comment le style à la fois objectif et émotif de Wilson contribue à l’efficacité de ce livre. Finalement, en conclusion, nous allons tout simplement souhaiter un bon « Diderot 2013 » aux étudiants, aux experts et aux passionnés : ce livre est pour nous tous.

A Note to English Readers

The review in English is not quite a translation of the French review. The French have a very specific, analytical way of writing about literature that I’ve adapted slightly to suit a blog audience but that still does not translate well to English. English is my mother tongue; French is my second language, so I’ve allowed myself my usual elaborate eccentricities. The English review is more a case of liberties taken + cultural substitution than of translation. Plus, any atrocities perpetrated have been done to my own work, so no harm done. Here’s the review.

The tercentenary of Denis Diderot’s birth gives us the pleasure of calmly losing ourselves in a tsunami wave of new research, as well as that of honouring research done in the past by specialists who have devoted their lives to enlightening us about the life and work of an extraordinary man who lived in a state of constant flux, his ideas forever changing, evolving and surprising, his devotion to his work enduring, and his love for his fellow man ever present, sometimes in spite of himself. Arthur M. Wilson is one of these specialists, and his biography, Diderot (1972), remains one of the best ever written about the philosophe and his work by virtue of its excruciating detail, objectivity and emotional sensitivity. Its value lies in two different areas: the portrayal of Diderot’s work and the portrayal of Diderot himself, two things that often overlap and very easily become confused. Wilson walks the line between the two like an expert tight rope walker and doesn’t lose control once. We mortals down here will separate out Diderot’s work and life, and see how Wilson’s portrayal of both comes together in this stunning biography.

One of Wilson’s major strengths in writing about Diderot’s works is that no matter how complex the ideas he has to convey, he never loses sight of the book’s main objective – telling Diderot’s life story. He doesn’t write isolated analyses of Diderot’s works and insert them in places so inopportune that their existence upsets the entire rhythm of things. Instead, he makes constant, logical and highly intelligent connections between what Diderot’s psychology, interests and emotions were at a particular time and what he was writing at that time. This is a brilliant strategy to employ when dealing with a highly emotional man, and results in many stunning chapters, notably that dealing with Le Neveu de Rameau, a masterpiece written at a time when Diderot was seething with frustration at the sort-of failure of his play, Le Père de Famille at the Comédie Française. Years of accumulated anger and grief against the ignorant and hypocritical enemies of the Encyclopédie came pouring out of him in the most reasoned, intellectual and near-deadly way possible, his anger heavily laced with a lingering fear that he was not, in fact, a literary genius, but a complete failure.

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This point of view was openly supported by most of the aforementioned enemies of the Encyclopédie, who also took a perverse glee in making (sometimes justified) accusations of perjury. This is an issue that Wilson tackles constantly when writing about Diderot’s works, as the philosophe was fond of being inspired and often took inspiration of varying kinds from a huge number of different sources. Wilson does mention the most famous influences (Shaftesbury, Locke), but it is his investigation of lesser-known sources that is truly impressive and makes the greatest contribution to our understanding of Diderot’s influences. It must have required him to read an infinite number of letters, pamphlets, magazines and plays and to demonstrate considerable powers of deductive reasoning and literary analysis. In addition to this constant work on Diderot’s influences, Wilson also leads a charming discussion on the perception of plagiarism in the eighteenth century, a perception so vastly different from our own that it makes the mind boggle as to whether or not the Encyclopédie’s ‘borrowings’ were justified or not. Wilson doesn’t tell us what we should think about it, but he does give us the tools to think the issue over by ourselves, a quality greatly to be admired in a critic.

Hm.

Hm.

Speaking of the Encyclopédie, it is Wilson’s portrayal of this great work of reference that plays a major role in the sheer scope of his writings on Diderot’s works. He writes about the contents of each volume in meticulous detail, and not only gives us a comprehensive understanding of the most important and controversial articles and the Enlightenment geniuses like D’Alembert who wrote them, but a vision of the faces behind the less interesting articles that were contributed by people who were less brilliant, but who were infinitely more noble and enduring in spirit, such as the ever-present De Jaucourt. It’s writing about the Encyclopédie in its own spirit.

Wilson’s portrayal of Diderot’s life is just as meticulous, detailed and effective as that of his works. It is also, to a very large degree, emotive. Wilson has performed a herculean feat in order to deliver this level of writing biography:  he has devoted years and years of his life to vast and exhaustive research in archives, libraries, correspondences and a thousand other documents, merely to find the smallest thing that could tell us something about Diderot at a particular moment in time: where was he? What was he doing? What was he feeling? And of course, what was he saying? All this research is worth nothing, however, if one doesn’t know how to use it, and it is in this that Wilson is formidably gifted. He has the expertise and sensitivity of a novelist, but the accuracy and objectivity of a critic. He uses these qualities to great effect in the book, engaging both the emotion and the reason of the reader. For instance, Wilson tells the story of Diderot’s famous argument with Rousseau with the precision of a lawyer, but also manages to evoke great sadness in the reader, both in this chapter and every other time you see the name Rousseau once you’ve read it. The vivid descriptions of the dinners and visits at Grandval amuse us immensely, even though we know that Diderot sometimes found them intolerable. And while we may be perfectly aware of his intelligence, we find ourselves rolling our eyes each time we see Fréron’s name. Every charming anecdote, ex: Madame de Pompadour goes up to her own tiny entresol to visit the crowd of philosophers who have crammed themselves into it and refuse to come down to her apartments, makes us smile and laugh, despite our wanting to strangle the aforementioned philosophers for their cheekiness towards a woman who was on their side. And finally, there’s Diderot himself, in all his complexity and eloquence. Wilson praises him when he deserves it and criticises him when he deserves it. Treating Diderot like a human being rather like an untouchable giant is effective and very moving, because Diderot’s genius, his luminous personality, his mind, his brilliant conversation, his devotion, his compassion and his emotion make him all the more extraordinary for being human. The reader finds him or herself thinking of this great man with affection, and pitying him in his moments of distress. The reader represents the idea of posterity that supported Diderot throughout his endless battles with the censors and while he was writing his best works that lay in a drawer until he died. ‘Don’t stop your work!’ you want to say to him, ‘We’re here, and we want to read it!’ The fact that Wilson can inspire this kind of emotion in the reader of an academic text and that’s he’s capable of making us address le philosophe in the informal (sorry!), demonstrates the high emotional quality of his writing style, as well as his own love for Diderot and his works.

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To conclude, let us simply wish a happy “Diderot 2013” to students, experts and passionate amateurs: this book is for all of us.

The Moonstone: An Imaginary Cast List

Her Ladyship amuses herself by drawing up an entirely imaginary cast list for the BBC’s proposed new adaptation of The Moonstone, since they don’t look like they’re going to do it themselves any time soon.

Franklin Blake

A character capable of being both mortifyingly unconventional thanks to his cosmopolitan education (a fact that he strongly denies); and of being intensely serious and grown-up, a personality trait that he adopts for most of the novel in his search for the Moonstone. Also has to convince as a lover.

Jamie Bell.

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As well as sublime acting skills in both comedy and drama, but particularly the latter, Bell possesses a natural screen charisma and gravity as demonstrated in Jane Eyre and The Eagle that show every promise of making Franklin more interesting than he is in the book. Might risk looking too serious.

Matt Smith.

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Through his work in The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North, and particularly in Doctor Who, Smith has shown himself to be an actor who does quirky extremely well, but is also capable of being heartbreakingly tragic and very frightening. Might risk looking too immature.

Rachel Verinder

A bit of a puzzle, she starts out as a headstrong, outspoken young girl with feminist tendencies before lapsing into the usual semi-catatonic state that possesses all Victorian heroines except the eternally awesome Marion Halcombe after a disaster of some kind.

Saoirse Ronan.

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She’s been playing roles the average forty year old A-lister would balk at since she was 13, so the accumulated experience of Atonement and Hanna in particular make her more than qualified to successfully juxtapose the despair that Rachel endures for most of the novel and her naturally extroverted personality; her charisma ensuring that we’ll never tire of watching her doing it.

Sophie Turner.

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Game of Thrones having shown us that she acts with the maturity of somebody twice her age, something that always promises greatness in an actress, she has the skills and the screen presence necessary to portray Rachel’s psychological transformation, as well as the youth and vivacity to portray her lighter moments. Also has experience with playing semi-catatonic.

India Eisley.

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Though inexperienced with this type of role, she has proved herself to be a sufficiently good actress to make you wish that you could see more of her, in more challenging roles. Her performance in the surprisingly-good Underworld: Awakening was mature, tragic and utterly convincing in its sadness, loneliness and anger. Given a chance to try something more robust, she would rise spectacularly to the challenge.

Gabriel Betteredge

A perfectly sweet, sincere and not-overly bright butler, often accused of softness by his mistress, Betteredge believes that the secret of human existence and the prophesying of future events are possible through the reading of his favourite book (Robinson Crusoe).

Michael Caine.

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A great actor who could play anyone, Caine is nevertheless the sort of actor you can see in a part like this, probably because of its sort-of similarity to his roles in Batman or The Prestige. A comic part is always all the more delightful when you have a titanic, charismatic actor playing it, and Caine bringing his not-inconsiderable skills to Betteredge would make for a tremendous amount of fun and audience compassion.

Michael Gambon.

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Gambon is a British institution. He’s also great at playing characters who demonstrate Betteredge’s quirkiness (Perfect Strangers), his sincerity (Harry Potter) and his tendency to be a bit of a drama queen (Quartet). The combination of these would be both adorable and rather explosive.

Rosanna Spearman

A short, tragic and important role, Rosanna is an ugly housemaid who falls deeply in love with Franklin. The unfortunate man’s complete failure to notice her infatuation, as well as her previous career as a thief that causes suspicion to fall on her following the Moonstone’s disappearance, lead her to take her own life by throwing herself into a pool of moorland quicksand.

Jodie Comer.

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Her sublime and frankly terrifying performance in the Silent Witness episode entitled Fear, in which she played a fifteen year old convinced enough she was possessed by demons to submit to an exorcism, somewhat overqualifies Miss Comer for this heart wrenching part. That and her age may count against her, but it takes an actress capable of portraying emotional torment with constant intensity to make the character work, something that she is more than capable of doing.

Godfrey Ablewhite

Franklin’s rival for Rachel’s hand, Godfrey is a sugary sweet ladies’ man and philanthropist who inevitably turns out to be a crook.

Lee Pace.

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His performance in Lincoln demonstrates his ability to play characters that say awful things with complete sincerity that are believed by most people present.

Toby Stephens.

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While being fabulous at innocent and idealistic love (Jane Eyre and Onegin), Stephens is equally fabulous at playing repulsive Godfrey-like characters (Die Another Day and Possession). Is far too old for the part; but this fact is overshadowed  by general awesomeness.

Ezra Jennings

The most tragic and the most complex character in the book; a doctor’s assistant almost completely socially outcast because of a bizarre appearance that Collins says is the result of mixed-race parentage but the possessor of which simply turns out to be an ugly white guy with two-toned hair. He’s dying, addicted to opium, trying to save up enough money to see to the woman he loves before he dies and develops intense feelings for Franklin that could be interpreted as romantic. Requires the ability to pack an enormous punch in a short space of time.

Matthew MacFadyen.

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MacFadyen’s being a master of profound emotion expressed through silence makes him an ideal candidate for this role, and though gifted with stunning versatility, has experience playing characters that inspire audience compassion, as is exemplified by his portrayal of Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit.

Richard Armitage.

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Accustomed to playing out the dark in any character, however luminous, this is an actor who knows how to brood emotively, exemplified by North and South and most recently by The Hobbit. His powerful screen presence would also be essential in this small, but vital role.

Benedict Cumberbatch.

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A genius at extraordinary, somewhat unconventional characters, he’s capable of letting emotion run raw and unchecked (Painted With Words, Wreckers) and with seeming to ignore it completely (Sherlock, Parade’s End), both of which are present to a large degree in Ezra. His natural charisma and unusual features would also help a great deal.

Sergeant Cuff

A direct ancestor of the illustrious resident of 221B Baker Street, Cuff is a highly skilled, magnetic and slightly sociopathic user of deductive reasoning who likes to argue endlessly about the correct way to grow white moss roses.

Mark Strong.

harry_396x222While perhaps a little too young for the part, everything about his acting and his person possesses the slightly disturbing Holmesian magnetism necessary for the part, his experience in Emma equipping him for the more compassionate side of Cuff’s personality, that in The Long Firm and Stardust displaying his ability to play brilliant but dangerous men.

Tom Courtenay.

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A titan of acting, Sir Tom is at the stage in his career when he can play anyone exceptionally, but it is principally for his extraordinary screen presence that he’s mentioned here. It’s perhaps more important in Cuff than in any other character that the audience’s eyes stay fixed on him without really knowing why, and the aforementioned charisma as well as his unparalleled skills in acting make him an ideal match for the character.

Charles Dance.

charles_dance_396x222A master of creepy charisma, it is mostly of his performance in Merlin that I’m thinking when casting him as a detective. He commands without saying a word, and is gifted and experienced enough to portray Cuff’s serious side as well as his delightful oddities.

Onegin (1999): Film Review

It’s infinitely possible to imagine the world of Onegin without its characters, and that is perhaps the film’s principle strength. The darling child of Fiennes siblings Martha (director), Magnus (composer) and Ralph (seriously, he needs an introduction?), Onegin uses gorgeous, arthouse cinematography and a thrillingly sensual, psychological score to create a hypersensitive adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of the catastrophic, pre-ordained love of permanently bored Petersburg dandy Evgeny Onegin and the bookish, virtuous Tatiana that resonates right down to the pores of your skin.

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From the moment we first see Ralph Fiennes’ Onegin wrapped up in fur staring somewhat dejectedly out of a carriage window at a bleak landscape of frozen ice wondering ‘When will the devil take me?’, we know that we’re dealing both with a victim of le mal du siècle and with a fairly typical Russian hero. Having gambled away most of whatever money he possesses, he hopes to benefit financially from the passing of his estranged uncle, whose deathbed he is now obliged to grace with his happy presence. Naturally, he arrives at his uncle’s enormous country estate too late; discovers, incredibly, that country life is to his liking; and, through his near-execution of Schubert-belting neighbour and poet Vladimir Lensky (a young and utterly adorable Toby Stephens), comes to meet Vladimir’s future in-laws: his muse and fiancée Olga (Lena Headey), her mother Madame Larin (Harriet Walter) and Olga’s sister, the pathologically introverted Tatiana (an extraordinary Liv Tyler). Signs of growing attachment on Tatiana’s side are as clear as they can be for a character so movingly inscrutable, who (to us) seems to grow to love Onegin both because of the anti-feudal tendencies that he displays in proposing to rent his estate to the serfs and thanks to the mischievous influence of a copy of La Nouvelle Héloïse that Onegin lends her from his (now extensive) library.

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Tatiana’s feelings finally reaching boiling point, she sends him a passionately-worded declaration by letter, which Onegin professes himself to be ‘moved by’, but sends her packing with allegations that a marriage would ultimately result in boredom and adultery and would therefore be of little benefit to her. He also expresses the opinion that Tatiana’s romantic imagination would have been captured by any stranger to have wandered into her secluded life, and somewhat heartlessly declares: ‘In spite of what you may think, I have no secret longing to be saved from myself.’ Tatiana cryptically replies, ‘You curse yourself.’

It is difficult for an audience to comprehend what Tatiana would see in such a jerk, the chemistry between them sometimes seeming to promise little other than sexual gratification. But then we should remember the scene in which Tatiana and Olga listen to their nanny telling their fortunes through the old practice of examining wax that is dripped into water. Tatiana, unhappy with Nanya’s assertion that she will marry a soldier, drips more wax into the bowl and asks ‘What does it say now?’, to which Nanya replies, ‘You can’t change your fate.’ That, regrettably, is precisely Onegin and Tatiana’s problem; a very Russian one. They’re bound together and cursed to eternal misery by fate. Banished from the Larins’ company for a far more serious reason than breaking Tatiana’s heart, a fact which she communicates to no one, Onegin travels for six years before returning to Petersburg to find Tatiana married (yes, to a soldier), transformed and pulling the strings at the very top of Petersburg society while living in perpetual repression of her real personality. This time, it’s his turn to fall miserably in love, and things spiral down and down in a whirlpool of catastrophe, tragedy and heartbreak until the film’s stunning conclusion.

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The acting in the film is of an immensely high quality, with Liv Tyler in particular delivering the best performance of her career; managing to convey to us that Tatiana is passionate, intellectual, anti-Monarchist, a feminist and eventually unbearably emotionally repressed, all this in a character that is overly-fond of silence and is not given much dialogue. Ralph Fiennes wasn’t yet in the habit of playing thwarted lovers 24/7, so his performance is refreshing and multi-faceted, his transformation from smart-mouthed libertine to suicidal, somewhat spine-chilling wreck striking and exceptional in the way it inspires emotion, not all of it compassionate, in the audience. Tyler and Fiennes share a terrific chemistry fiercely indicative of the fatalist nature of their relationship, this and the exceptional skills of both actors providing us with two titanic, exquisite showstoppers in the two collisions (I hesitate to call them love scenes) between Onegin and Tatiana. The supporting cast is remarkable in its own right and is not in the slightest risk of being bulldozed, with memorable and all-too-short performances from Toby Stephens as the idealistic, naïve and easily-made-hysterical Vladimir and from the always-terrific Harriet Walter, who is every inch the slightly ridiculous Russian matron who makes herself a slave to French culture in an attempt to get her daughters married.

The film’s cinematography and music working in stunning counterpoint to the performances of the actors create an emotionally intense, unashamedly psychological film that leaves one in no doubt that one is dealing with the territory of the mind. There are many long, beautifully filmed sequences with no dialogue that say more about the characters than conversation ever could, such as the writing of Tatiana’s letter, which we see composed, but whose contents we don’t hear till the middle of the film’s second act.

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The nocturnal setting seems to engulf Tatiana in the shame that she feels, and this is reinforced by the alternation between the childlike sadness and the adult grasping at reason of her facial expression as she writes; the dreamy score scorched by a Russian folksong and Tyler’s regarding her ink-stained hands as though they were stained with blood only increasing the tragic and primal nature of what she is feeling and how she expresses it. Tatiana’s transition from country girl to Petersburg society queen is also dealt with in a stunningly artistic, symbolic way as she walks through the dilapidated halls of a Petersburg mansion belonging to the aunt assigned to marrying her off; the servants in adjoining rooms become fewer and fewer the further away from her previous life she goes and the more alone she becomes; an enormous bay window opening with a disembodied creak behind her and shining on her like a spot light. By the time she’s reached the door at the end of the corridor and opened it, she’s not Tatiana anymore.

Not just a period drama, Onegin is perhaps above all else an arthouse movie. If you combine these two things, taken together with the exceptional acting, it becomes a great film both from a critical perspective and from its exquisite portrayal of raw human emotion, which it is able to stimulate in its audience as well as in its characters.

3 Great Performances: A Tribute to Anne Hathaway

Through a study of her performances in Becoming Jane, Alice in Wonderland and Les Misérables, let us take a moment to pay tribute to the work and art of a great actress gifted with versatility, subtlety and a deep understanding of human nature that has characterised each of her roles and contributed vastly to their brilliance.

Becoming Jane

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Hathaway delivers a fiercely mature yet disarming performance as a young Jane Austen in her formative years. Delightfully, uproariously and sometimes exasperatingly raw in the shining wit, laughter and use of the extended sentence that she would later refine and master in her novels, Hathaway’s spirited, passionate and highly intelligent Jane is a moving vision both of greatness in the making and of a perfectly normal, innocent family girl experiencing poverty; sibling love; the whirlwind of first love; the anguish of losing it and the despair of living in a society that doesn’t even recognise a woman’s right to have a mind, let alone to write novels or inherit property. She goes all the way to hell and back and never fails to make us share both her helplessness or the respite that she finds in the sense of ‘rightness’ that possesses her each time she picks up a pen. She loses far too much for a person her age, and though what she experiences resonates far into her future, we’re somehow left feeling that we’ve witnessed a life well-lived. It is an extraordinary performance that feels intensely personal, and that makes the audience reach out towards it in recognition.

Alice in Wonderland

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Largely underrated and almost universally misunderstood, Hathaway’s performance as Mirana of Marmoreal, aka The White Queen, is a masterpiece of blackened, Burtonesque shadow hiding amidst folds of blinding, incandescent light and crisp white satin. Mirana’s idiosyncratic hushed voice, fairy-like movements and hand gestures, and infinitely obliging, sweet and sage-like temperament conceal a Daenerys Targaryen-like obsession and selfishness when it comes to her claim to the throne, as well as a disturbing love of the grotesque and a pitiless cruelty.

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All this is epitomised by the character’s now-famous smile that imbeciles most people simply interpret as bad acting because they can’t see that it’s meant to look disturbing: it’s sweetness mixed with something horrible that you can’t quite put your finger on, because searching further, and finding that Wonderland may have replaced one megalomaniac with another, is too dreadful to contemplate. Hathaway’s performance is immensely complex, subtle and multi-faceted, and represents a brilliant, chilling study of how darkness, true darkness, is omnipresent and can often be found in the unlikeliest of people.

Les Misérables

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A performance set at an often unbearably high emotional pitch, Hathaway’s Fantine represents a meteoric fall from being a young, single mother attempting to make ends meet and take care of her child, to becoming a miserable, utterly downtrodden shell of a human being fighting desperately to ensure that the last, dwindling flame of life within her, her love for her daughter, doesn’t go out. She inhabits a world of all-encompassing psychological horror and numbness that runs so deeply she can barely cry; a world exemplified by the question ‘Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?’ Yet at the same time, she’s running on a kind of adrenaline of despair that makes imminent madness lurk constantly and violently in her eyes. By the time she’s rescued by Hugh Jackman’s Valjean, it’s already too late: her daughter appears to her in angelic hallucinations, which, when she’s called back to reality, make her reach out for the light with a near-violent desperation. Oscar aside, it is the supreme achievement of an actress at the very top of her game who has not peaked too soon, and who can therefore only get better in the future.

A Frivolous Flying-Through of the Third Game of Thrones Season 3 Trailer.

There’s nothing like waking up first thing on a Monday morning to a new Game of Thrones trailer. Let’s discuss the healthy doses of new footage to be found in our latest fix, many of which boast the same strength of previous trailers in that they show key moments without giving too much away.

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This trailer is the unquestionable property of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, who, apart from looking gorgeous in blue, is in the full flower of her conquest of the slave cities, a symphony that will eventually end in a bit of a fart when she gets to Merreen. But, that time has not yet come, so we’re treated to some glimpses of the strategic mastery that characterises her negotiations with the sellsword companies before slaughtering them; the growing destructive power of her dragons culminating in the sack of Astapor and a nice ‘I shall show you no mercy’ filling in the gaps between suspiciously 300-looking shots of her army of Unsullied and an ‘I want to eat you alive’-looking pretty boy whom I assume is Daario, and who looks just as punchable as he is in the books (where’s the blue hair? Or was it purple?). Let us recall Ser Jorah’s words: ‘I think you are Raeghar Targaryen’s sister.’

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Presumably while visiting his Hand in prison, Stannis is still saying increasingly yawnable things about duty and his claim to the Iron Throne that bear all the promise of continuing to bore us to tears. On the plus side, prison lighting does wonders for his somewhat wonky looks, and the series’ further controversial portrayal of his relationship with Melisandre promises to instigate even more pitched online battles between fans. We’re given just a bit more of the epic fight between Jaime and Brienne (for thoughts on their relationship, see every GOT post I’ve ever done, ever) and quite a bit more of the bear pit scene, regrettably sans Brienne. The eternally virtuous Robb and Cat are accorded more screen time devoted to promising eternally virtuous actions; half second shots are given to Arya and Asha (Yara, sigh) Greyjoy, both in combat situations, and to some chick getting her clothes taken off, a reminder of the tradition paradoxical treatment of women in HBO shows.

The state of King’s Landing politics is appropriately described by Tyrion as ‘Seven Kingdoms united in fear of Tywin Lannister.’ This is done in voice-over as he looks at his mangled face in the mirror, the cherry on top of all his power being unceremoniously snatched away from him in last season’s conclusion. He appears to still be squabbling with Cersei, who, three seasons later, still hasn’t got out of the habit of making chilling, if ambiguous comments about exterminating the enemy. Either of them squabbling doesn’t seem to be doing much good, since the one shot that is accorded Lord Tywin shows us that he is still a considerable badass and not to be fucked with. Meanwhile, in all things Joffrey, the hints made by previous trailers about the growing instability of his rule finally reach full fruition in that the boy king’s exasperating repetition of his favourite declaration: ‘I am the king!’ reeks of desperation, making him sound rather more like a seven year old declaring ‘I am Batman!’ Despite his desperation, he hasn’t yet got over his taste for torture (there appears to be a rack involved) and there is a gorgeously filmed scene involving a chapel and a flight of stairs that seems to hint at Sansa’s wedding, the fact that the groom is Tyrion kept entirely out of the equation.

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There is a big increase in the quantity of North of the Wall footage, with Jon taking centre stage in most of it. This is both appropriate and important, not just because he’s the POV character of that particular part of the world, but because the previous season, and all previous trailers, have shown him as being an outsider to it. The connection to the North that Jon discovers in himself is extremely primal, and stays with him even when he returns to the Wall, so seeing Jon take up such a central position in the trailer is a good sign that this part of his personality is going to be preserved. We’re also given another reminder that no one can stop the white walkers (just in case we’d forgotten), and some incredibly quick shots of Bran, Hodor and Osha and what could be Jojen and Meera Reed testify to the incredible complexity of the land beyond the Wall and the many different stories and feelings it can inspire.