A look at literature will show readers that many literary texts deal with characters’ incessant quest for happiness through various means. A prime example is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998). By making special reference to Mrs Dalloway written by Virginia Woolf in 1925, Cunningham uses her novel to link the quests for happiness by women of three generations. Although all these women try to seek happiness in their own ways, they are frustrated because of the failure to bridge one’s roles in different settings, the moral blindness of overlooking the happiness and togetherness in their present relationships and the negligence to live at the present. It is clear that they all fail because they have taken an approach different from that of Clarissa Dalloway, their prototypal model who succeeds in her quest for happiness. By linking their quests for happiness with Mrs Dalloway, Cunningham points out their inadequacies and shows his acknowledgement of Clarissa’s carpe diem attitude towards life.
He also shows the women in The Hours being ignorant of the nature of happiness as probed by nineteenth-century philosophers, such as Henry Sidgwick and John Stuart Mill, as “the Paradox of Hedonism.” The knowledge of the three women limits their definitions of happiness along with their talents, domestic defeats and misconceptions of happiness, which blind their quests for happiness and prevent them from realising the simple joy of living.
The conference was held on the 1st November 2014 at National Chengchi University in Taipei. The scale of the conference was large. Forty-seven papers from more than two hundred abstracts submitted to the organising committee were chosen to present. The theme, “Literature and Emotions” allowed presenters great flexibility to speak on topics from race, music, the body, love, war and jouissance, to class, health, trauma, labour, religion and more. But the range of papers and the number of presenters also meant the attendants had to choose between three panels in a session, instead of just being able to attend plenary panels.
The texts, authors and approaches of the papers were original. For instance in her keynote talk, Prof Lin Yu-chen (National Sun Yat-sen University) excavated and discussed the “unspeakable secrets” and “concealed psychosis” that has arisen from the fear, anger, melancholy, shame and guilt associated with the long process of Irish Independence. She argues that although the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921 to conclude the Irish War of Independence (1919–21), former British veterans, policemen who had worked for the British government, whistleblowers and Protestants were especially despised by the Catholic communities. As a result, ethics were distorted during this period, so that even the closest and most-beloved friends and family had to defend themselves from one another. Lin Yu-chen goes on to suggest that the repression of negative emotions in the 1920s characterises the cultural symptoms of this period. Such repression later developed into a collective and painful silence towards parts of this historical trauma, which was only written on and decoded after sixty years. With the use of three novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Julia O’Faolain’s No Country for Young Men (1980), Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (1996) and Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture (2008), Lin vividly explicated how the authors’ complicated narrative techniques show the “unspeakable” hardship of Irish history, divulge the secrets of the ancestors and disclose the ethical dilemma of this historical trauma.
Wu Ya-feng and Li Hsin-ying
There were two presenters, both from National Taiwan University, whose papers were most impressive and inspiring. The first was Prof Wu Ya-feng’s “‘Philosophy of the Drawing Rooms’: Aestheticism and the Consumption of the Old Blue.” Wu examined the controversy surrounding porcelain during fin-de-siècle Chinamania in England. With the use of caricatures of Oscar Wilde’s fascination with porcelain and photos of porcelain taken from Berlin, London and Oxfordshire, she enunciated how porcelain has contributed to a crucial emotional component of the English identity since the early eighteenth century. Multifaceted emotions such as admiration, envy, rhapsody, repudiation and finally assimilation characterised the tortuous course of porcelain’s domestication and its import into England.
Wu also explained how the emergence of Aestheticism in the second half of the nineteenth century impacted on the denunciation on Chinamania. Porcelain became a synecdoche of cultural paradox due to its otherworldness, additive collection and commodification. By drawing on Bill Brown’s “thing theory”, she further shed light on the relationship between the human subject and material objects with reference to the rivalry between the Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter, Gabriel Dante Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler, and Oscar Wilde’s campaign for the Old Blue. I found Wu’s paper fascinating because her subject matter is more original, her presentation was clear and engaging and her approach would be applicable to studying materiality in modernist studies.
Another paper worth noting was Dr Li Hsin-ying’s “Humoring the Humorless in Huckleberry Finn.” Li drew our attention to the humourless episodes in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and argued that those episodes deserve investigation for their revelation of the power relation in joking situations. She introduced the audience to the theoretical tradition of humour studies with reference to classical theories, sociological theories, communication studies, power relations and execution. She then drew on Michael Billig’s idea of “unlaughter” to argue how Twain knew well the violence of ridicule and the risks involved.
Li’s paper was popular and exceptionally interesting. I myself found it inspiring for its recognition of humour and its significance. She reminded me of the convention of “joking down”, e.g. when a person of a higher position cracks jokes at the expense of someone in a lower position, but not “joking up”, which should not be a term in use at all because a person of a lower position seldom gets the opportunity to tell jokes in front of a person of higher position. Her paper is relevant to quotidian social performances, such as a joker telling joke but not receiving the expected reaction, or an audience not getting a joke but still laughing due to social conformity. Li’s ideas and approaches are suitable to study English humourists, from P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh to Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.
Jessica Siu-yin Yeung is an MPhil student in the Department of English. Her principal research interests are in British women modernists, Virginia Woolf, comparative literary studies and life-writing studies. [Click here to read all entries by Jessica.]