Sei Shōnagon—an author, poet and court lady who served the Empress Teishi during Japan’s Heian period—mused in her famed The Pillow Book (completed in 1002 CE) that “In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.” Some of the objectives of the conference organised by this academic year’s MML Graduate Network—which is themed “Bodies and Embodiment”—include interrogation of the possible paths of interconnection between these two dependable pleasures, and consideration of the various ways by which these pleasures may sour into miseries and/or give way to innumerable ambiguities. The MML Graduate Network recognises that the body and all of the attendant splendours and weirdness of being embodied have long preoccupied writers. Publications such as The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature (2015), with its introductory references to the fictions and poetries of the likes of Woolf, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Rimbaud, seek to provide a survey of the body’s old but also endlessly generative multivalence in literary production. Equally, creators of filmic and sonic works have probed and prodded the many layers of human epidermis, sinew and ick for resonance, inspiration and answers to questions both broad and pointed.
For this year’s conference, the MML Graduate Network advertised a Call for Papers that encouraged postgraduate students to submit original, scholarly explorations of the many interpretations of the body and embodiment that exist within literary, visual, sonic, and filmic realms—the possible mediums and genres-for-analysis expanded to include namely film and poetry. The number of abstracts submitted was sizeable. Dished up for consideration were diverse contemplations of body talk and bodily themes from different time periods, languages, and geographic regions. More specifically, all interested postgraduate students demonstrated in their submitted abstracts keen engagement with the teaser prompts included in the Call for Papers: ‘Naked and clothed bodies; bodies at the peak of their physical and bodies in all their abject materiality; bodies experiencing pleasure and bodies racked with pain; culturally coded bodies; marginalised bodies; queer bodies; bodies performing violence and bodies performing all sorts of gestures across historical, cultural, and physical spaces; hybrid bodies incorporating technological and animal elements; bodies of text, film or artwork.’
A shift from East to West: with one exception, all of the essays selected for presentation during this academic year’s conference find their topics in the creative productions of both contemporary and past Europe(s). Such European-focused tacklings of all things body and embodiment include: an intellectual and linguistic mapping of Medieval Ireland’s engagement with the notion of shape shifters and the problems posed by this contentiously believed possibility for corporeal mutability on understood divisions between mind and body (Kristýna Zoé Syrová, Oxford), and an exploration of the depiction of hermaphroditism in the contemporary German prose of authors Ulrike Draesner and Sibylle Berg, specifically Draesner’s Mitgift (2005) and Berg’s Vielen Dank für das Leben (2012), that takes into consideration the German Parliament’s 2018 decision to introduce a ‘third sex’ for birth certificates (Francesco Albè, Oxford).
Next, a deep dive, or perhaps one should say a studied ascent, into Canto IX of Dante’s Purgatorio and what seem to be the fluctuating levels of involvement required of the body when dreaming—the purpose and corporeal politics of purgatorial dreams (Aistė Kiltinavičiūtė, Cambridge). Then, an analysis of the importance of hands and touch in Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (variously published and revised in the last decades of the 16th century), with close reading of the chapter ‘Of Thumbs’, that gives way to a larger exploration of the relationship between hands and writings that proves necessary for comprehending the French writer and philosopher’s attitudes towards the creative process (Vittoria Fallanca, Oxford).
In addition, an analysis of the Russian stage’s only dramatic rendition of the myth of Acteon and Diana, Nikolai Gumilev’s Acteon (1913), that seeks to track Gumilev’s (likely historically and ideologically contextualisable) recasting or redistribution of the mental and bodily potencies accorded to the two figures in earlier tellings of the myth—changing orientations of the division between mind and body made evident through reconceptualisations of old standards (Katherine New, Oxford), and a joint engagement with two popular series of medievalist novels, Maurice Druon’s Les Rois maudit (published between 1955 and 1977) and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), that analyses depiction of the maternal body in these respective strings of fictions, whose worlds are replete with binding, patriarchal sexisms that are both reified and undermined by the potential for a woman’s body to swell with new life (Rebecca Elton, Leeds).
Moving on to an ingenious probing of the able-body/disabled binary that is grounded in investigation of differing portrayals of disabled bodies in seventeenth-century French lyric poetry, specifically contrasted in this essay are metaphorical versus grotesque (and grotesquely real) thematic employments of the body’s many, potential ‘defects’ in love poetry and cabaret verse respectively (Sam Bailey, Durham); and the last of these European-focused tacklings of the conference’s proposed subject is exploration of Portuguese masculinities and masculine bodies—their construction and maintenance not only metaphorically paralleled but also more immediately necessitated by the mechanics of colonial empire-building and empire-preservation (in particular the events of the Portuguese Colonial War (1961-74), promoted by the Estado Novo)—in Lídia Jorge’s A Costa dos Murmúrios (1988), Isabela Figueiredo’s Caderno de Memorias Coloniais (2009), and Dulce Maria Cardoso’s O Retorno (2011) (Olivia Glaze, Oxford). Moving back easterly: the conference features presentation of a paper that is preoccupied with the feminist-motivated weaponisation of breasts in the writings of Mahasweta Devi and Indira Goswami, and with the various ways by which both these South Asian writers—Devi with her story, ‘Dopdi’, and Goswami with her poem, ‘Ode to a Whore’—have sought to simultaneously reclaim and decolonise literary representations of these organic mounds.
The MML Graduate Network has settled on a ‘tripartite body’ for the structuring of the conference—three panels around which these nine essays are categorized and dialogue: 1) Body/Mind; 2) Breaking Binarism: Subversion, Trauma and Recovery; and 3) In the Flesh. Desired of this structuring is a sort of dance between these three panels, a compelling clashing of limbs that gives fresh shape to and perspective on the body, considered by the MML Graduate Network a fleshly ‘intersecting point between crucial issues of social and political relevance such as identity, gender, sexuality, race and marginalisation.’ To complement the discussion generated by these three panels, keynote speaker, Professor Santiago Fouz Hernández of Durham University, was invited to give an address titled ‘Uses and Abuses of the Male Body in Contemporary Film & Media.’ The dynamism of the topic of this year’s MML Graduate Network conference hinges on the belief that there exist educating discomforts swirling around the empty spaces in Shōnagon’s claim for the unfailing feel-good-factor of letters and flesh—dozens of (or, more specifically, nine) microbodies of pioneering thought poised for extraction and examination.
Library Officer, MML Graduate Network
 Quoted portions of text are taken from the official Call for Papers.
The conference took place on June 24th, 2019 (Trinity Term, Week 9) in Room 2 of the Taylor Institution Library. A companion exhibition was also on display in the Voltaire Room from 20th May – 1st July, curated by Sawnie Smith and entitled ‘Desde el cuerpo: Contemporary explorations of the body authored by Latin American Women.’ Click here for the exhibition catalogue.