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Finn Fordham

Finn Fordham is Professor of 20th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. He studied the English Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, before moving to Birkbeck College, London to work with Steven Connor on a Ph.D. funded by the British Academy.  The publication of his thesis, in part about James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, was blocked by the James Joyce Estate.  After a year teaching at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, he became a research fellow at University College Northampton, and then secured a Special Research Fellowship with the Leverhulme Foundation to carry out research into Textual Genetics and Modernism.  He wrote two books around this theme: Lots of Fun at ‘Finnegans Wake’: Unravelling Universals (2007) and I do I undo I redo: the Textual Genesis of Modernist Selves (2010), both published with Oxford University Press.  He has edited several collections of essays, including (with Rita Sakr) James Joyce and the 19th Century French Novel, and written numerous articles on a range of subjects.  These include Geoffrey Hill and Derek Walcott, Nabokov and Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Danielewski, and Foster Wallace, music, theological modernism, and early television.  In 2012, he edited Finnegans Wake for Oxford World Classics.  He is currently working on an archivally informed study of culture on a single momentous day – September 3rd 1939, when Britain and France declared war on Germany and culture was, in effect, suspended.  

Keynote Lecture: ‘The Human’, and Moments of Crisis: ideas of humanity in literature around the event of the declaration of War in September 1939.

For this paper, I plan to respond to some of the large and difficult questions implied by the conference call .  These include ‘What is humanity?’ ‘How might we historicise ideas of the human?’  ‘What is the relationship between ideas about the human expressed in literature and  particular historical moments of crisis?’, ‘Do ideas of the human shift and develop in particular patterns?’  ‘When do ideas of the human coalesce and when do they break apart?’  ‘How are ideas of the human contingent on relationships with time, especially our relationship to the future?’.

My responses to these questions will develop with reference to reactions to the start of war in Europe in September 1939.  At this time W. H. Auden figured humanity, for example, as ‘composed of dust and Eros’.  But ideas of 'the human' are pervasive at the time. 

I expect not to provide clear answers, and yet while failing to do so, I will frame the discussion with two complementary ideas: firstly, that it is a duty and a delight for the Human Sciences to ask large and difficult questions. And secondly that the failure to provide answers reflects something essential to the definition of the human, which is that the project of its definition is – as it should be - unending. 

A corollary of this is that the humanities is most in crisis when that process of definition comes to a halt.  While it should be unending, that does not stop writers from claiming at certain moments that an essence of humanity is within their grasp.  Such claims, when sincere, reflect attempts to resolve crises in thought, profound doubts about identity, which may have been brought on by the penetration of personal space by fears of international conflict.  We see this in H.G. Wells's 'The Fate of Homo Sapiens' (August 1939).   In poetry, by contrast, such claims may be aware of their immediate, limited, and contingent nature: that theirs is a response to a pressing moment.  References to the specific crisis of the moment – the ‘now’ – become essential to their expression, and qualify any universality.  This leaves a door open to further definition, and therefore the future of the human.  With such an open door a chink of light illumines, paradoxically, one essential quality of the human, that which Prometheus had endowed humans with: blind hope.  I will therefore be tracing the flickers of light in literature written in that (or this) dark time.