Popular culture, poetry, music and visual arts and the roles they play in our society.
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Death in Venice
Death in Venice is Thomas Mann’s most famous – and infamous - novella.
Published in 1912, it’s about the fall of the repressed writer Gustav von Aschenbach, when his supposedly objective appreciation of a young boy’s beauty becomes sexual obsession.
It explores the link between creativity and self-destruction, and by the end Aschenbach’s humiliation is complete, dying on a deckchair in the act of ogling. Aschenbach's stalking of the boy and dreaming of pederasty can appal modern readers, even more than Mann expected.
Karolina Watroba, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Modern Languages at All Souls College, University of Oxford
Erica Wickerson, a Former Research Fellow at St Johns College, University of Cambridge
Sean Williams, Senior Lecturer in German and European Cultural History at the University of Sheffield
Sean Williams' series of Radio 3's The Essay, Death in Trieste, can be found here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001lzd4
Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex begins with a warning: the murderer of the old king of Thebes, Laius, has never been identified or caught, and he’s still at large in the city. Oedipus is the current king of Thebes, and he sets out to solve the crime.
His investigations lead to a devastating conclusion. Not only is Oedipus himself the killer, but Laius was his father, and Laius’ wife Jocasta, who Oedipus has married, is his mother.
Oedipus Rex was composed during the golden age of Athens, in the 5th century BC. Sophocles probably wrote it to explore the dynamics of power in an undemocratic society. It has unsettled audiences from the very start: it is the only one of Sophocles’ plays that didn’t win first prize at Athens’ annual drama festival. But it’s had exceptionally good write-ups from the critics:
Aristotle called it the greatest example of the dramatic arts. Freud believed it laid bare the deepest structures of human desire.
Nick Lowe, Reader in Classical Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London
Fiona Macintosh, Professor of Classical Reception and Fellow of St Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford
Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Durham University
In the year 29 BC the great Roman poet Virgil published these lines:
Blessed is he who has succeeded in learning the laws of nature’s working, has cast beneath his feet all fear and fate’s implacable decree, and the howl of insatiable Death. But happy too is he who knows the rural gods…
They’re from his poem the Georgics, a detailed account of farming life in the Italy of the time. ‘Georgics’ means ‘agricultural things’, and it’s often been read as a farming manual. But it was written at a moment when the Roman world was emerging from a period of civil war, and questions of land ownership and management were heavily contested. It’s also a philosophical reflection on humanity’s relationship with the natural world, the ravages of time, and the politics of Virgil’s day.
It’s exerted a profound influence on European writing about agriculture and rural life, and has much to offer environmental thinking today.
Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter;
Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter
Professor of Classics at the University of Birmingham
Producer: Luke Mulhall
A Room of One's Own
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Virginia Woolf's highly influential essay on women and literature, which considers both literary history and future opportunity.
In 1928 Woolf gave two lectures at Cambridge University about women and fiction. In front of an audience at Newnham College, she delivered the following words: “All I could do was offer you an opinion upon one minor point - a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved”.
These lectures formed the basis of a book she published the following year, and Woolf chose A Room Of One’s Own for its title. It is a text that set the scene for the study of women’s writing for the rest of the 20th century. Arguably, it initiated the discipline of women’s history too.
Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford
Emeritus Professor of Modern Literary and Cultural Theory at Queen Mary, University of London
Professor of English at the University of Birmingham
Producer Luke Mulhall
In 1957 Stevie Smith published a poetry collection called Not Waving But Drowning – and its title poem gave us a phrase which has entered the language.
Its success has overshadowed her wider work as the author of more than half a dozen collections of poetry and three novels, mostly written while she worked as a secretary. Her poems, printed with her pen and ink sketches, can seem simple and comical, but often beneath the surface lurk themes of melancholy, loneliness, love and death.
Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia
Lecturer in Twentieth Century Literature at the University of Bristol
Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Southampton
The photograph above shows Stevie Smith recording her story Sunday at Home, a finalist in the BBC Third Programme Short Story competition in 1949.