“abortive, monstrous or unkindly mixed”?

picture: the Guardian 


Looking at this face it is tempting to see dignity and compassion.

That is until you know that it is Radovan Karadžić, found guilty last week at the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague; found guilty of ten out of eleven counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and other atrocities during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s.  The story has run and run, as indeed did Karadžić for years, disguising himself as a mystic faith-healer, so as to escape justice.


Veteran Guardian writer, Ed Vulliamy (62), has been involved in this story as an investigative reporter since the 1990s and has also written a book about it and about his relationship with Karadžić. In 2012, The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: the Reckoning was reviewed by John Simpson for the Observer.  Vulliamy met Karadžić, several times: he took an ITN crew to film the concentration camps in Bosnia and, many years later, he visited him, at Karadžić’s request, in prison, before finally giving evidence at the trial.

Vulliamy is also a friend of Irish writer, Edna O’Brien (85), author of The Little Red Chairs  (2015). When she was researching the novel Vulliamy arranged for her to visit Karadžić’s trial. “I have an interest in and a great abiding fear of tyranny, and especially male tyranny”  explains O’Brien.

51r1ToSAS1L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_In the novel O’Brien imagines that a character, Vlad Dragan, similar to Karadžić, ends up in a small town in Ireland.  The inhabitants seeing a face like the one at the top of this page, analyse it, as one might, as dignified and compassionate.  The novel deals with many things, but the images that stick in one’s head are the ones involving Fidelma, the heroine, and Vlad. Fidelma, childless and unhappily married, falls in love with, and becomes pregnant by, the newcomer.  Then, in a brutal scene, the baby miscarries as she is beaten by former associates of her lover.  Fidelma travels to Holland to attend the trial and requests a visit with Vlad.  There is also a dream sequence in which she meets him in the “conjugal room”.  O’Brien is fascinated by the seductive power of evil and stated in an interview with the Telegraph that she wanted to show “something of the suffering and the violations and the monstrousness of what is happening in the world”.  Fidelma suffers violation and some “monstrousness” but she is resilient and struggles to retrieve her sense of herself.  Many other women in the novel also show strength and fortitude in the face of “male tyranny”.

For this blog I have placed the image of Karadžić under my quotation from Milton as these words seem to encapsulate him: a man of great charisma who channeled his psychological talents into abominable cruelty, repressing his honour and compassion until they were, along with his victims, annihilated.


Works cited

O’Brien, E. The Little Red Chairs 2015 London: Faber & Faber. 2015. Print.

Vulliamy, E. The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: the reckoning.  London: Vintage. 2013 Print.


Martin Healy and Performative Writing

Still from “A moment twice lived”.

I read the phrase “performative writing” for the first time just a few days ago, when Professor Alex Davies sent me, in error, the essay list for Postmodernism in Literature and Film. I am not studying that unit.  But I read the titles anyway.

One essay title asks “How is Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked an example of performative writing?”  Another: “What kind of essay would be the most appropriate response to a book like Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked?  Write it.”  Intriguing?

It seems to me to be rather strange that I had no idea what Professor Davies was talking about: performative writing might be something that I am really interested in as a feminist, literature and theatre teacher and putative master in Literature. So I looked it up and darling Wikipedia is very helpful. I quote in full:

Performative writing is a form of post-modernist or avant-garde academic writing, often taking as its subject a work of visual art or performance art. It is heavily informed by critical theory, but arises ultimately from linguistic ideas around performative utterances. The term is often applied to a bricolage of other writing styles. It is claimed to be politically radical, because it thus ‘defies’ literary conventions and traditions.

It is often practiced by feminist writers. A notable current writer in performative writing is the performance art theorist Peggy Phelan. She describes the form as one which….

“enacts the death of the ‘we’ that we think we are before we begin to write. A statement of allegiance to the radicality of unknowing who we are becoming, this writing pushes against the ideology of knowledge as a progressive movement forever approaching a completed end-point.” (Mourning Sex, 1997)

Such a writing form is claimed to be, in itself, a form of performance. It is said to more accurately reflect the fleeting and ephemeral nature of a performance, and the various mechanisms of memory and referentiality that happen during and after the performance.[citation needed]

Critics of performative writing have described it, in practice, as: self-indulgent; insular; politically neutred due to its tiny elite audience and its neo-romantic individualism; obscurantist; often bearing only a loose relationship to the works of art it claims to be about; and dependent on the funding (of universities and public arts funding) of the very state that it claims to be against. Also that, when taught, it often paradoxically expects students to reveal personal truths and use experimental forms within a strict classroom regimen of grades, lesson attendance and exams. It can generally be seen to follow the pattern of much modernist writing, in that it seeks to create complex new literary approaches in order to seal off ‘high art culture’ from the attention of ordinary people and from a mass culture.[citation needed]

The term performative writing should not be confused with “writing that is performed”, i.e.: plays, radio or poetry readings.[citation needed]

Performative writing is sometimes referred to by the alternative name of ‘creative critical writing’ – which is not to be confused with straightforward creative writing.[citation needed]

The article was last moderated in 2014 and is crying out for modification.  But I do not think that I can be the one to contribute as I still do not fully understand what performative writing is.  So I looked further and found a PDF by Della Pollock published in 1998 which is entitled “Performing Writing“.  She gives a list of six things which performing writing is: evocative, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational, consequential.   

Further down the Google page I found a piece of what I take to be performative writing – it reminded me of J.J. Abrams’ book S to which Donna Alexander introduced us.  I think it is a blog inspired by Pollack’s essay.  But I am not sure.  What I do know is that I still do not know what performative or performing writing is, unless I am in fact engaging in it myself, at this minute.  

So what does all this have to do with Martin Healy?  He is a London-born artist who lives and works in Dublin and his exhibition A moment twice lived is currently showing at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.  I went to see it today at about 1.45pm.  I invited members from my erstwhile Irish Writing and Film M.A. group but no one could come.  Perhaps because I gave them so little notice?  I chose to go because it was pick of the week  (p24) in Listings The Guide Scotland and Ireland in my favourite newspaper, The Guardian.  

Healy works in the media of video, photography, text and other.  There are three pieces on show, the other two being The long afternoon of eternity (2016) and Harvest (2015).  According to the information sheet A moment twice lived (2016) refers to “JW Dunne’s writing, in particular the book An Experiment with Time (1927) by way of a curiously overlooked painting in the Crawford Gallery’s collection by Nathaniel Grogan (c. 1740 – c. 1805) that only recently has been reattributed to the artist.  During the course of the film, a narrator refers to dreams and experiences of temporal dislocation, questioning our perception of the passage of time and its relationship to our understanding of the world. The narrator’s text is based on Dunne’s writings as well as notes from the J.B. Priestly Archive at the University of Bradford.”

How strange is all that referencing in and out of different media and different epochs?   And is the narrator the voice of the woman seen studying Grogan’s painting?  And what is the painting, hung in an adjacent room, called?  And what has the subject of the painting to do with the film?  And does the soundtrack reference the sound of a fire burning?  I don’t know.  But I like it a lot.

As to Harvest it was a strange beast:  

Still from Harvest – recording equipment is being set up

The film, according to the gallery leaflet “follows a character as he attentively records the sound of plants as they are watered over the course of a morning.  Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, the work is characterised by the use of a real protagonist in a real environment who fastidiously attends to the plants in silence.  Healy ruminates on our relationship to the rhythms of the natural worlds and the phenomena that affect our existence.” 

Still from the end of Harvest – mist fills the space and water thunders

Towards the end of the film the large greenhouse structure fills with the mist of water whilst the soundtrack becomes thunderous.  It was strangely unnerving.  It reminded me of images of this morning’s cowardly attack on Brussels, and in particular on landside at the airport.

Still from ctv.ca – smoke fills the space which had thundered with explosions

I did not “ruminate” much on “our relationship to the rhythms of the natural worlds” but I did “ruminate” on “the phenomena that affect our existence”.  In other words I thought about those poor frightened people and their families.  It’s a terrible example of our behaviour in the world.

Is my writing performative?  Does it fit with the Wikipedia definition?  Check it out.    

And is it evocative? Metonymic? Subjective? Nervous? Citational? Consequential?  

PS  I hope the in-text citations will do well enough.  I’m tired now.  


“It would be spoiled entirely.”

This quotation from Not Oleanders by Danielle McLaughlin seems to sum up her collection of short stories Dinosaurs on Other Planets.  But maybe the word “would” is too positive.


The Ireland that McLaughlin depicts is, indeed, since the recession, another planet for her characters.  And they find themselves dinosaurs on it.  Their modus vivendi does not suit the reality of their diminished world.  Some characters, such as the unnamed female protagonist in In the Act of Falling, make huge efforts to maintain or improve their trammelled lives, whilst others, sink, almost motionless, into a quicksand of debt and hopelessness.  McLaughlin presents an Ireland which is hostile and punitive.

Open the book on almost any page and you will find that the things which could be good are getting spoiled.  Look on page four, in the story The Art of Foot-Binding and read the following description of a daughter, “She turned fourteen the previous July, and is suddenly grown…”.  The sentence continues ominously, “taller and broader”.  And then, “Her face, already too round to be pretty, has become rounder, and she has taken to wearing her long, brown hair, her best feature, in a tight bun”. This is uncomfortable reading.  It nods to the body-facism that feminists, such as myself, fight against.  Whose voice is this?  The mother, Janice, or McLaughlin herself?  Janice is certainly the focaliser but does the writer agree with the sentiments?  Becky, the unfortunate daughter is considered too fat by her mother, her father, her teacher and her peers.  Set a homework task to research foot-binding, she takes it literally and starts trying to reduce her feet by binding them.  McLaughlin may be suggesting that the media creates a similarly alien and  cruel environment for young women as the Chinese did when they broke the bones of girls’ feet and extracted their toe nails.

The stories contain frequent references to both female beauty and female slovenliness.  The extraordinary A Different Country, is set in a Donegal which is “almost too beautiful … the colours too pure, the light too fantastical” (113). On the other hand a young inhabitant, Pauline, is “good-looking in a raw, violent sort of way (114)” and is described in the shower as “naked: the distended belly, the hair, black and wet and sleek, writhing in worms around her shoulders” (119).  At the end, when fishermen have shot seals which interfered with their nets, the reader realises that, like Synge in The Aran Islands and like Lawless in Grania, McLoughlin is conflating the locals with their landscape.  Men, merciless, battle the sea for survival and their women are reduced to nothing more than seals, which have been wounded, but remain alive, “bleeding out” (124).  In this story, as in the others, what might have been beautiful is transformed, by McLaughlin’s pen, into something “remorseless”, “slime green and rotting” (124).

In an interview for The New Yorker McLaughlin states that her “characters tend to negotiate the world with a mixture of fear and wonder; for them, it is a place at once both beautiful and alien”.  Although she seems happy in her own life, living with her three children in the countryside, McLaughlin does not allow her characters much of the “beautiful” or the “wonder”.  In the story Not Oleanders, McLaughlin ends as follows: “The horses broke into a trot, then a canter.  Then they were barrelling downhill, their unkempt manes flying, their tails streaming out behind them.  The slope brought its own momentum, and they were galloping now, neighing and snorting and whinnying.  They thundered past, trampling on daises, forget-me-nots, buttercups.  And as they went by, she stepped back into the trees, to shelter from the clouds of yellow dust flung up by the chaos of their hooves” (91).  This is evocative sensual writing, but note words such as “trampling” and “chaos”.  The protagonist, Lily, feels that life and joy are galloping past her, leaving her to seek solitary shelter from the chaos left by those who can survive in an alien world of fear.

Works cited

Lawless, E. Grania: The Story of an Island. 1892. ed. Michael O’Flynn. Rev.ed. Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2013. Print.

McLaughlin. D. Dinosaurs on Other Planets Dublin: The Stinging Fly Press. 2015. Print.

Synge, J. M. The Aran Islands. Introd. and ed. Tim Robinson. London: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. 1992. Print.