Read Dr. Cynthia Richards’ The List Defense of “Tristram Shandy”

Three English Department professors — Dr. Cynthia Richards (Tristram Shandy), Dr. Robin Inboden (The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats), and (Dr. Michael McClelland (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) — successfully defended their respective works at the annual The List event on November 15th.

Although the event could not be recorded, Dr. Richards has decided to share her defense for the blog, and is as follows:

“My Plain into a City”: Defending Tristram Shandy

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they” decided to marry, I might be less inclined to enjoy such long messy affairs or elaboratively embellished stories that challenge credibility and eventually patience—or recommend for reading lists, stories that can only be approached with a fortitude, bordering on the religious. My father, a teller of tale tales, preferred stories that repeated themselves, broad, exaggerated and full of self-focus. My mother, a devout reader of the scriptures, preferred stories that avoided self-disclosure and which were to be read only in small sittings, and then reread to make sure the message was understood.

Ah! Madam, but pray what a strange beginning!—did you really mean to say that you intend to remove Tristram Shandy from a reading list where its placement seems expressly designed to interrupt the quest of any English major to actually complete such a thing? And what did you say about your parents and their respective hobby horses? Surely, the success of an English Department reading list cannot be assigned to your parents’ respective, and one should say wildly irrespective, passions for storytelling? “Well, you may take my word for it, that nine parts in ten of [any professor’s] sense or nonsense, her successes and miscarriages in the world depend up such motions and activities, and the different tracks and trains you put them into.” Such a selection, dear Sir, you might say, may be better designed for a Geology major, as such rocky terrain is something they are quite accustomed to. Why, reader—let me explain.


Let me explain. I begin with a rather poor parody of the opening of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and a considerably less bawdy one. My first sentence directly lifts the language of Sterne’s text until it abruptly detours to a more acceptable mention of marital union. Sterne’s novel, through Tristram’s narration, begins with conception, and attributes its eponymous hero’s difficulties as an adult to the interrupted coitus of his parents when the mother interjects at a crucial moment to inquire about the winding of the clock and the father responds by prematurely dispersing his seed, so to speak. Sterne’s opening is itself a parody of John Locke’s Association of Ideas when Locke talks about the different tracks and trains our minds might be put into when we imagine identity as a blank page that experience writes itself upon, and which Sterne reframes as a rather disquieting reflection on the arbitrariness of identity. For my opening, I, then, lift Sterne’s borrowing of Locke to reflect also on the randomness by which reading lists might be constructed, or rather, inversely, how they can seem pre-destined by the hobby horses—Sterne’s word, for passions—of our parents rather than our chosen disciplines.

It is that randomness, however, that Sterne’s text also takes seriously, and even celebrates. Life in Tristram Shandy is never a linear narrative. Consciousness makes all experience recursive, and a novel should not be any less so. Tristram takes a hundred pages to get born because to tell the story of his birth, he must first describe much that happened before, including his grandfather’s small nose, his parents’ marriage contract, a false pregnancy and an aborted stay in London—and even then, when Tristram’s birth happens, it happens off stage while his father and his Uncle Toby are listening to a sermon delivered by his uncle’s valet, Colonel Trim, while Trim is standing at a precise 90 degree angle. And that sermon, attributed in the novel to Parson Yorick, is composed by none other than Sterne himself, who before becoming a literary celebrity after the publication of the first two volumes of this nine-volume novel was an obscure clergyman, and can’t resist promoting his previous work even when forging a whole new identity. Then, when the birth is finally announced, it is done through the making of a bridge, not one over water, but one to repair Tristram’s nose which has been damaged through forceps in delivery when Dr. Slop applies this modern contraption over the mother’s objections and to the detriment of the baby. I imagine you are getting the picture of just how crazy this novel is, and how playful yet jarringly serious its narrative can be.

To add to this cacophony, sexual innuendo punctuates nearly every line, certainly every paragraph. Nothing is safe from the prurient imagination: buttonholes, fiddlesticks, whiskers, and of course, noses. It can admittedly get tiring, especially when the novel digresses soon after Tristram’s birth and the news of his older brother’s unexpected death to tell the story of a stranger with a very big nose. But that story, we learn, rather than deflecting from loss, functions more as an explanation: a comic, overdone tale that makes the case that our fascination with fundamental bodily functions—and some of the parts that make them possible—can bring us, oddly, intellectually together. When the news becomes known of the stranger’s large nose that is all anyone in the town of Strasburg can think of—the same way a dirty joke can make us all uncomfortable at once or simultaneously blush. That immediate shared understanding—and the community, even communion, it can create—is what Sterne seeks, particularly during periods of loss and trauma—hence, his detour from birth and death to the story of a large nose.

For at the heart of this text is the tragic tale of miscommunication—a story about how hard it is to be understood by others and to name what is important to us. Sterne tells this story most fully through Uncle Toby, who returns from war wounded in the groin, and then comically, tragically, repeatedly interprets others’ queries about precisely where he was wounded as meaning where in the battlefield he was wounded, when we, as readers, know that they mean something else altogether. Within the novel, these queries lead to frustration, isolation, impatience, and briefly an ill-fated love, but as readers, they make us unfailingly feel for Uncle Toby and for his loss. Even if we never learn exactly where he is wounded on his body, we come to understand the value of the care he displays for the concerns of others and learn to admire his creative attempts—ones that go so far as leading him to construct his own miniature battlefield—to transcend the separations between us.

Sterne’s narrative technique is often compared to stream of consciousness as developed by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but that term in its modernist application evokes images of an isolated, fluid mind untethered from the world, especially when we think of Woolf. But Tristram Shandy, even at its most intellectually fluid, is a book that can never escape the body, especially when delineating consciousness. Tristram coughs, Uncle Toby whistles, a hot chestnut rolls down the trousers of a prelate and all pretense of disinterested, disembodied exposition disappears. Rather than the story of a life, I tell my students, this novel tells the story of the progress of a body through time; “life” is just a construct that exists only on the page. We are always creatures of our bodies, at their mercy, but also deeply enriched and enabled by them. This is especially true when our bodies become disabled by time, by circumstance, by birth, by fortune, and by war—a context central to a novel written during the Seven Years’ War and amid the growth of British nationalism. By constantly reminding us of our bodies, Sterne pushes back against artificial divisions, such as nationalism and even war, that compromise our love for others and a shared, fundamental sense of humanity.

This focus has made this work the cornerstone of a course that I teach on the body in eighteenth-century literature. This semester marks the fourth time I have taught this work in this context, and the fourth time I have experienced, if only sporadically, those moments of communion this novel seeks. There is also, as you can imagine, lots of confusion that also happens when I teach this work, and even a kind of weariness that settles in half way through, but it is also one of the few texts I teach where there are such shared moments of revelation, moments where we are all realizing the same thing at the same time and understanding that what we are realizing is an experience fundamental to being human. It has made for the most rewarding of my teaching experiences.

It is also a text that over time and as my body has aged and my loss accumulated that I find increasingly consoling. If initially I was drawn to the playfulness of its language—something I learned to appreciate from my father’s extravagant tales—now my interest most resembles my mother’s devotions. Tristram Shandy includes many parallels to Sterne’s own life, but none so remarkable as when death coming knocking at the beginning of Volume VII. Tristram immediately flees, grabs a boat to France, and then pursues a journey across that country designed to leave death in his wake. That journey follows the same path Sterne takes when after a pulmonary embolism, he is ordered by his doctor to seek refuge in a warmer clime to stave off the progress of the tuberculosis that will take his life at 54, two years after he completes the novel and more than 30 years after his first pulmonary incident as a college student at Cambridge. That imagined journey, driven by such a clear foil, makes for the most linear of the volumes. We seem to speed through all of France, stopping only briefly to visit designated tourist attractions or remember a past journey. But at the end of this volume, Tristram stops running, and decides to linger yet again even if it means death will catch up with him. It happens when he reaches a “large rich plain,” anathema, he argues, to travel writers as it “presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty.” In other words, there is seemingly nothing to describe, no point to tale or no conventional way to frame its meaning.

Tristram, however, finds a different way of looking at it, and I would like to share some of this passage with you. It is one of my favorites and the one I turned to when I lost my 23-year-old nephew last year. My nephew’s beautiful life ended too soon, too abruptly, and the brevity of his life and its seeming incompleteness meant no linear narrative could do it justice. It would only make it seem too short. Sterne’s novel, however, offers another way of measuring life.

How far my pen has been fatigued like those of other travelers, in the journey over it, over so barren a track—the world must judge—but the traces of it, which are now set a vibrating together this moment, tell me tis the most fruitful and busy period of my life, for as I have made no convention with any men with the gun as to time—by stopping and talking to every soul I met who was not at a full trot—inviting all parties before me—waiting for every soul behind—hailing all those who are coming through cross roads … in short, by seizing every handle, of what size or shape soever, which chance held out to me in this journey, I turned my plain into a city.

This passage helps me name the fullness of my nephew’s life, how no one was a stranger to him and how, even as a toddler, he would stop and talk to every soul, often in their driveways. And later, when he moved to New York City, how he embraced its streets and its various “handles” with a pet cat curled around his neck. More broadly, it helps me name why I read, and perhaps, I like to think, captures some of why he loved to read as well.


So, no Sir, or Madam for that matter, I am not recommending that we remove this text from The List. In fact, I think I might instead require that it be read more than once, or perhaps started, not completed, then picked up again. In other words, it is a work that must be returned to, and then turned to when needed. Arguably, Sterne never completed his novel, and he would probably have the same attitude about completing our list. It is the interruptions that matter—how we slow down, stay connected, and find meaning along the way.

Dr. Cynthia Richards


This Thursday: Dr. Richards, Dr. Inboden, and Dr. McClelland Defend Their Choices on The List

The List, an annual English Department event, will be happening in Founders Pub this Thursday, November 15th, at 6:30 p.m.

The List is a compilation of book suggestions that English Department faculty have designated as books to be read before graduating college. A full list of the book selections as well as a description of how to complete The List can be found here.

The event will feature Dr. Robin Inboden who will be defending Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats; Dr. Michael McClelland who will be defending The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and Dr. Cynthia Richards who will be defending Tristram Shandy.

English majors that attend can receive colloquium credit, and refreshments will be provided.


Recap of “The Spirituality of ‘Walden'”: Versions of the Sacred in Play

Junior English major Reese Harper recently attended Dr. Bob Davis’ colloquium event, “Sacred Play: The Spirituality of Walden” and published an article covering the event in the Wittenberg Torch.

On behalf of The Torch, here is Reese’s article.

Last Thursday, Professor of English Bob Davis presented a synopsis of his upcoming book to be titled “Sacred Play: Spirituality and American Literature.” The book will focus on American spirituality through the lens of Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist literary masterpiece Walden.

Former English professor Emerita Mimi Dixon introduced Davis and “Walden” itself.

“Bob’s classes are interdisciplinary, integrating literature and science, for example,” Dixon said. “Thoreau similarly combines religion with literature in Walden.”

Published in 1854, Walden details Thoreau’s thoughts and experiences in response to a pond near his residence over the course of two years. The text engages with themes such as contemplation and man’s relationship with nature. However, Davis is most interested in Thoreau’s version of the sacred: buoyancy, freedom, playfulness and possibility.

Davis referred to Thoreau’s philosophy of the sacred as “divine play” and this term will form the basis of Davis’ book.

“Thoreau’s literature is based on experiences of the sacred that are larger and more enduring than ourselves,” Davis said. “Play is an experimental model of religious devotion tuned in to the divine.”

Davis quickly clarified that Thoreau’s spirituality differs from the piety associated with organized religion. Thoreau resisted “associating faith with the special province of religion,” Davis said.

“Thoreau compares religion to a pond, its ripples different than ones caused by insects or fish,” Davis said. “His goal of religious practice is perseverance and being faithful to a divine spirit that’s infinitely variable and free.”

After clarifying Thoreau’s spirituality, Davis shifted to the text’s historical and theological origins.

“Versions of the sacred in play can be found in the theology of south Asia,” Davis said. “We know that in the fall of 1840, Thoreau studied key texts in Hindu spirituality. These texts refer to some gods as ‘divine creators.’ They are ends in themselves. Their existence is play, and it is sacred. For example, Vishnu is both discreet and indiscreet, substance and spirit. Krishna appeared with multiple faces studded with jewels, a god whose face is everywhere. Likewise, in the plot of Walden, the pond is a sacred grove, a prism that helps Thoreau experience objects from multiple standpoints, its prisms and hidden facets. The pond opens his mind to a god whose face is everywhere.”

Davis also found origins of the text’s spirituality in Christian thought.

Some Christian theologians refer to a concept like sacred play called ‘nimbleness of mind:’ being able to sense shifts in perception,” Davis said. “Christ ‘plays’ in many places. Jesus is a gardener, carpenter, revolutionary or stranger depending on the scene where he appears in the gospels.”

For those unfamiliar with Walden and skeptical of the immense symbolism within his pond, Davis concisely reasserted his position.

“People who have never read Walden would say ‘it’s just water;’ it’s never just water in Walden,” Davis said. “Walden is a very busy book. It uses up every myth, idea and color the mind has made up before it allows the one to wander.”

Davis did, however, qualify his findings.

“When other people break his rules of faithful living, Thoreau is just as quick to condemn as adherents to organized religion,” Davis said. “Thoreau’s lifelong quarrel with dogmatic Christianity was also a lifelong quarrel with himself—a rigid and serious man who claimed to never have changed his mind about anything. He shares that head-on religion is dangerous, and pursuing god directly leads to various ego traps. He tells us to look at god like stars, not face to face, but to notice them from the side.”

In the end, Davis succinctly relayed what he believes lies at the core of Walden.

“Thoreau teaches us to love our day, love our homework and love the facets of the pond,” Davis said.

Welcome Back!

Witty English welcomes all of the new freshmen and returning students back to Wittenberg for the fall semester and the 2018-2019 academic year.

The English Department’s first event will occur on Wednesday, September 5th at 4:00 p.m. in Ness Auditorium.

For those considering an English major or Creative Writing and/or Journalism minors, this is a great opportunity to talk with current majors/minors and faculty/staff. Undeclared students may also have the opportunity to declare their major/minor at the event.

For declared majors/minors, class pictures will be taken at 4:30 p.m. Pizza and light refreshments will be served promptly at 4:00 p.m.


Recap on A.D. Carson’s Visit at Wittenberg

Last week, Wittenberg welcomed Dr. A.D Carson with open arms as he discussed a multitude of issues ranging from police brutality, activism, and black history.

Carson is a performance artist from Decatur, Illinois, as well as an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches hip-hop and the Global South. He is well-known as the Clemson University Alum who flipped his college dissertation into a 34 track hip-hop album, titled “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions,” where he focuses on race, history, police brutality, and other current events.

He is also an organizer for the See The Stripes Campaign that aims to raise awareness of historic racism throughout his university. Carson has also received various awards pertaining to his dissertation, activism, and artistry including, but not limited to: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Excellence in Service at Clemson University, and recognition by the Graduate Student Government as the 2017 Outstanding Dissertation.

Carson was on Wittenberg’s campus from Thursday, Feb. 22 until the last event concluded on Friday, Feb. 23. The first event allowed Carson and students to engage in conversation about police brutality and state sanctioned violence in philosophy professor Julius Bailey and English professor Sha’dawn Battle’s joint courses in Ness Auditorium.

The event was open to the campus community, encouraging anyone and everyone to join the imperative discussion of what is currently happening in our country. The discussion began with a video, titled “A.D Carson Second Amendment,” where he paid homage to those who were killed during acts of police brutality and discussed what would happen if those affected by these acts of malice were to arm themselves and shoot back. One thing that was discussed that specifically stuck with me was that 90% of black killings are done by black people, however, 90% of those people are indicted and convicted. The difference here is that when police officers commit the same offenses, only 1% are indicted and convicted. It was a strong statement that really propelled the discussion into police brutality.

The event was followed by an open mic event later that evening in Founders Pub. During this time, students took to the mic to rap, read poetry, and sing about the issues they were facing. There was also a dance-off that the students particularly loved. The night overall was a fun event for students to eat and engage in an informal setting.

Finally, Friday rolled in and Carson concluded his visit with a talk included in the English Colloquium series, “Boy It’s Familiar: History, Activism, and Writing Rap,” where Carson previewed his dissertation. His dissertation was a noteworthy end to a string of events celebrating black history while also spreading awareness of the current social issues facing our people and our country.

Carson’s visit was co-sponsored by Faculty Endowment Fund Board, English Department, Philosophy Department, African Diaspora Studies Department, Communication Department, Thomas Library, Multicultural Affairs, and Women’s Studies.

You can find Dr. A.D Carson on the following social media sites:

Instagram: @aydeethegreat

Twitter: @aydeethegreat


-Nikki Howard, ’20


D’Arcy Fallon Reads Excerpt of Novel-in-Progress “The Yum Yum Bus”

While on sabbatical, D’Arcy Fallon retreated to a cabin in Nova Scotia, where she escaped from modern-day distractions to focus on her novel, “The Yum Yum Bus.”

The first colloquium of the 2018 spring semester began with our very own D’Arcy Fallon  debuting her current novel in the works, “The Yum Yum Bus.” On Wednesday, January 1st, students and faculty joined together in Ness Auditorium for a reading of the work, a telling-of-age story about a woman, Rory McAllister, who struggles with the demands of teaching and the battle of accepting an ordinary life.

darcy fallon 2

Fallon began by reading the first scene of her manuscript, where audience members learned of Rory’s inhibitions and the emotional roller coaster she encounters while lurking through the shopping aisles.

Through use of humor and sensory details, Fallon has created a space into which the reader can be fully immersed. Fallon provided an engaging performance of her reading that allowed the audience to truly melt themselves into the pages of her manuscript. Using various accents, anecdotes, facial expressions, and emphasis on certain phrases, Fallon not only had the audience chuckling amongst the humor, but also eager to hear more of the tale.

Fallon revealed that she hopes to finish “The Yum Yum Bus,” her first work of fiction, by the end of the year and we could not be more excited to read the final product!

About “The Yum Yum Bus”:

If you had told Rory McAllister in her arrogant, kiss-my-ass 20’s that she would be living in the Midwest, teaching writing at the local college, she would’ve blown a few raspberries. The Midwest? Seriously? Fast-forward a decade. Now, in her 30’s, she’s living in the land of funnel cakes, corn mazes, and plastic lawn statuary. Rory is back home in Evening, Ohio, the place she calls “the parking lot of life,” feeding the meter one quarter at a time. As a former journalist, Rory used to think she knew a thing or two about truth with a capital “T,” but now, trying to impart wisdom about ethics, truth-telling, and creativity, she’s not so sure. Her students, sometimes crazy, sometimes brilliant, and more than a little sensitive, challenge her assumptions about veracity. Even so, she never had thought she’d have to deal with students who fought or cried, made up stories about dead grandmothers so they could get out of class. Who will teach the teacher (if she can only get over herself)? Enter The Yum Yum Bus, a 1968 Leyland Atlantean Double-Decker food truck that glides through the streets of Evening like a humpback whale. From behind the wheel, Maida Barnes dispenses banana bread, dangerously strong coffee, and lessons in how to get behind the wheel and steer your own life.

Written by Nikki Howard, ’20

Getting Caught Up On Events from Late Last Semester

On the last day of class, members of Dr. Robin Inboden’s Victorian Arts & Society class got to take a trip into downtown Springfield to visit the Mast Mansion (Castle Knoll) to view Victorian architecture and to have a celebratory tea party for the end of the semester.

Local architect Lon Krider designed the mansion for Phineas and Anna Mast in 1882. Taking approximately three years to construct, the mansion has become a center for Victorian architecture in Springfield.

Students can find the Castle Knoll at 901 West High Street, right above the railroad tracks. Tours can be scheduled through Turner Foundation historian Kevin Rose. The mansion, however, is in deep construction to restore it to its grandeur from its days as a nursing home.

There is no set completion date as the Turner Foundation is also restoring other historic buildings in Springfield while working on the Mast Mansion.

Students in Inboden’s 354 got to sample a variety of teas as well as quaint sandwiches, scones, and hobnobs, all while wearing paper crowns, courtesy of Christmas crackers.



“I want to be valued, not valuable.”

Sponsored by the English Department, the Women’s Studies Program, and the Womyn’s Center, students and faculty gathered for a media discussion to talk about the popular book and Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, late last semester.

Students and faculty discussed differences between the series and the book, the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale and its purpose in today’s society, prevalent sexism and the forms it may come in, critical remarks, analysis of important characters, societal parallels, and how current issues may connect to the tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Susan Denaker, is a dystopian tale of a woman, Offred, who is forced to become a handmaid, also known as a sexual slave that is required to bear children for those who are infertile. The woman in this world, specifically the handmaids, are incredibly oppressed and suffer various tortures, such as the gouging of eyes, mutilation, and rape. This a world in which women have been stripped of all rights and are no longer valued as respectable human beings.

While dystopian literature can be an entertaining work of fiction, it can be easy for the material to hit close to home. Some readers even avoid dystopian literature because the content feels too real to them, almost like a cautionary tale of what is to come. Many feel it is better to avoid the genre until society itself feels safer. However, it is important to note that while creating the tale, the producers did not want to include anything that was not already happening to women elsewhere. This means that while some are avoiding the genre for being “too real,” for others this is their reality, a reality they do not have the luxury of avoiding.

The book and the series seem to be telling the same story, but with a different purpose. While they both are created in an era of uncertainty, the Hulu series can be described as more of an inspirational tale, as the female characters are more empowered early on.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a true push between religion and science, where one may question what happens when science fails us and we turn back to religion. In a world where the reasoning behind infertility is blurred, religion becomes an anchor with an extremist mentality. It is a religion of subjugating women based on biblical text, as they are expendable and not meant to be valued – emphasizing Offred’s quote of, “I want to valued, not valuable.”

With parallels between pro-life and the Net Neutrality act – a form of controlling the media and who may have access to it – some may wonder if a tale like this is truly dystopian, if it is truly an impossibility, and if we doing this to ourselves already?

-Written by Nikki Howard, ’20

Weightlifting: A Reflection on Dr. Cynthia Richards’ Sabbatical

When I first was asked to reflect on my sabbatical, I decided on what I thought was the perfect metaphor for my reflection—weightlifting. I had just started weightlifting with my 16 year-old-son. He is an advocate of the practice, and quick to point out that it has benefits for everyone. Not long after, I heard about how both Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Hillary Clinton have personal trainers who insist on strength exercises, including pushups and curls. I set as my goal a chin-up by Christmas and imagined concluding this reflection by noting that I had met my goal. But about three weeks in, I suffered a painful groin injury and found myself completely incapacitated. (I will never read Uncle Toby from Tristram Shandy quite the same again.) So, I begin my essay with this acknowledgement of failure rather than an uplifting story of my success.

Still, weightlifting works as a metaphor for my sabbatical, and perhaps even more so now that my endeavor has only proven partially successful. It still helped me connect to my son, for example, and understand the allure of this practice. It also remains an apt metaphor for what sabbaticals are for: lifting some of the weight of the work, strengthening scholarly muscles, or just finding another way of staying energized and connected to the world. Sabbaticals are a way of coming back to the work one loves stronger and fitter, but also humbled by a new project. It also makes me feel reconnected to my students and how a liberal arts education requires us to learn new skills and master new disciplines. I become a student again. Taking on a task as totally alien as weightlifting was a good reminder of how strange writing an academic essay can feel to a first-year student or how daunting completing a 25-page-thesis can be for a senior.

This sabbatical, I was a student of early modern trauma. For anyone studying with me over the last few years, you will know that this not a new subject for me. It was first fueled by an interest in war in the eighteenth century, and then more specifically the Restoration poet John Wilmot’s combat experience in the Second Anglo Dutch War, and how he never really recovered from the loss he experienced there. Trauma theory had helped me reimagine his seemingly nihilistic satires as witty attempts to work through his grief after witnessing two of his comrades die by one cannonball at the age of 19.

This sabbatical, however, that focus became more disciplined. In August, an UK historian and I secured a book contract with the University of Nebraska Press for an edited collection of essays on how modern trauma theory applies to the early modern period. What felt most exciting to me about this project was how it could defamiliarize historical suffering, reframe it as sudden and unexpected and difficult to assimilate rather than the way we typically view historical loss as normative and constant.

My own essay in the volume focuses on the representation of female trauma during the late seventeenth century. If we imagine suffering as normative during the early modern period, female suffering was even more so, so unremarkable as to become aestheticized. In fact, nearly every critical study I read on early modern trauma focused on the image of Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and how her mutilated body functions as an emblem of loss itself. No one had yet to explore what her suffering meant to “her” rather than what it meant to writers, such as Shakespeare, who use her image to explore the complex nature of the male psyche.

My own chapter then focused on a poem by Aphra Behn called “The Disappointment,” and then brought me back to a work that has long occupied my thinking, her final novella and early slave narrative, Oroonoko; or the Royal Slave. In both these works, Behn found ways to name suffering precisely where our western canon wanted to deny it existed: in female sexuality and in the use of black male and female bodies to promote white projects of advancement. Trauma theory allowed me to “remember” that long after Behn learned of Oroonoko’s execution by dismemberment her own memories would be triggered by accounts of physical vulnerability and loss. That she would seek to “work through” this grief and hence would have delayed writing down his story, and that when she encountered stark images of male vulnerability and loss in a genre otherwise known for its bravado and word play—the male-authored imperfect enjoyment poem—she would find unexpected pathos there. Trauma theory also allowed me to read her entry into that genre—”The Disappointment”—as an expose of how female trauma is never recognized because female pleasure is never acknowledged. Her poem, then, ends abruptly and atypically, without physical recovery for the male, and her female figure flees while her female narrator tells us that she can imagine the woman’s pain, and challenges us to do the same.

Behn’s challenge to her readers unexpectedly resonated with the #metoo movement that also emerged during my sabbatical and which my sabbatical gave me time to reflect on. In this movement, “readers” are also asked to imagine pain—that of harassment in the workplace, for example—which was once viewed as normative and instead recognize it as loss—the loss of bodily autonomy, of dignity, and even of one’s career ambitions. This movement represents just the type of belated naming that trauma theory has taught us to recognize as powerful and imperfect, but necessary to healing and to lifting the weight of our histories and of history itself.

So, weightlifting did indeed prove the right metaphor for my sabbatical, although I doubt I will ever manage a chin up. It has helped me understand the world around me a little better, given me new tools for reading the literature I teach, and a renewed appreciation for what matters in my work and for how necessary sabbaticals are for naming that.