At Home with the Unhomely

By Adriana Wiszniewska

I recently had the chance to see the “Impressionist Treasures” exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, and while the big names of impressionism were impressive, it was a lesser known painter of the Danish Golden Age who really caught my eye. I had never heard of Vilhelm Hammershøi or seen his work before, but after Cezanne’s airy landscapes and Gauguin’s striking primary colours, Hammershøi’s dark, muted interiors were a startling change of pace.

Paul Gauguin, Blue Trees. Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty! (1888). Photo: National Gallery of Canada


Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Piano and Woman in Black. From the Artist’s Home at Strandgade 30 (1901). Photo: National Gallery of Canada

Hammershøi’s subjects were mundane and simple, but painted in such a way that made them seem cold and distant and mysterious. In his time, he was known as “the painter of tranquil rooms.” And they are tranquil, yes. But it seems to me that beneath the tranquility lies something a little darker, a little more unsettling. The rooms he painted are almost always empty. When a figure does occupy them—usually Hammershøi’s wife, Ida—her back is turned away from us, or else her face blurred, indistinct. Hammershøi’s paintings seem devoid of life, yet they remain evocative and alluring. Standing there in the gallery, gazing into a space that looked less than inviting, whatever tranquility I might have felt began to transform into something else.

The word that comes to mind is uncanny. Hammershøi takes the utterly familiar—his home, his wife—and makes them seem strange and disquieting—unfamiliar. Now, forgive me for invoking Freud, but he was onto something when he talked about the uncanny. According to Freud, “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” It’s the experience of discovering the familiar in what is strange and unknown. Think the uncanny valley—the closer a thing is to human likeness without actually being human, the creepier it seems to us. The same concept applies here. Hammershøi’s interiors are nothing if not uncanny. The longer you stare into his dim hallways and lifeless living rooms, the more unsettling they become.

Take, for instance, my favourite painting featured in the exhibition, The Four Rooms:


Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior. “The Four Rooms” (1914). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, it seems innocuous. But there’s something just a little bit off about this painting. Doors hang open at different angles. Floorboards don’t quite line up. Lines are disrupted everywhere and there doesn’t appear to be a way out. It almost looks like when you hold up a mirror to another mirror, creating an endless reflection of frames. Rooms lead into rooms which ultimately lead nowhere.

It’s no coincidence that Hammershøi painted The Four Rooms in 1914, the year World War I began. People often think of the early twentieth century, and particularly the interwar period, as an Age of Uncertainty. But perhaps a better name might be the Age of the Uncanny. The Great War threw everyday life off-balance and what was once familiar became, well, unfamiliar. Like a house that is no longer a home. In this case, one we’re compelled to return to again and again because it unsettles us in all the right ways.

Self-Fashioning and the Autobiography

The autobiography is a curious means of presenting one’s life story, one that allows for filtration and condensation into a story as engaging as the author (the self-biographer) desires. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about autobiographies, in which someone illustrates their own life by selectively exploring episodes of their past. There’s a certain kind of autonomy in fashioning one’s own life story for public consumption, in which we can filter out certain aspects like a sieve. Maybe we don’t want unflattering elements of our lives to reach the eyes and ears of others – but would that be as compelling a story?

If we don’t admit our failures, conflict, setbacks, surprises, embarrassments, and other negative experiences, what shadow of ourselves are we presenting? The phenomenon of “self-fashioning” is all the more relevant to us in the twenty-first century, since Instagram and other social media rule the day. Our Instagram pages are curated galleries of our identity, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg, an infinitesimal slice of our actual lives. They nevertheless create an impression that lasts, especially when we don’t often see someone in person. Short of communicating with them directly, we’re left with what they present to us on social media, a public front that one can’t call balanced. This controlled presentation is like a darkened room that only allows light through tiny cracks – the cracks being the posts we decide to share.

Author Sophie Kinsella writes authentic protagonists who own their mistakes and suffer embarrassing moments like all of us. Photo: Niklas Maupoix

British novelist Sophie Kinsella recently released a book titled My Not So Perfect Life (2017) which focused on the warped perceptions of our lives and others’ thanks to social media. Kinsella has encouraged readers to share less-than-perfect moments of their lives on Instagram and to celebrate them as a typical facet of the human experience. But the persistent insincerity of Instagram mirrors the ability of formal autobiographies to stretch, filter, and warp the truth. When publishing on social media, we’re sharing only the parts of ourselves that we want the world to see.

Lemony Snicket provides another, albeit exaggerated view into self-fashioning: his Unauthorized Autobiography (2002) is a dramatized example of how the autobiography is a tool of self-invention. Lemony Snicket is in fact a fictitious character (created by American author Daniel Handler) credited with chronicling the lives of the also fictional Baudelaire orphans. Likewise, Snicket’s autobiography represents the lengths that we can go to in order to construct and manipulate identity on a public platform.

Author Daniel Handler, who also writes under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket”, created the Unauthorized Autobiography to compile selected information about his fictitious alter ego. Photo: JD Lasica

Whether or not we’re actually writing a formal autobiography, we are authoring our identity every day, inventing our public face based on how we act and what we share. When documenting that identity, we can and should carry an awareness of how we will be perceived by others not only today, but in the future. In the practice of history, for instance, we try to understand people who have predeceased us based on records left behind; it’ll henceforth be interesting to see how historical analysis proceeds in the digital age.

The true self, the one we are when we are alone, only has one audience member: ourselves. Our true identity is beyond communicating with others because there are so many layers to such an identity; so we’re burdened with the responsibility of choosing how we present it to the world. The question is, will we favour authenticity or will we compete on the basis of concealing our very human flaws?

In Defense of Fanfiction: Authors as Fanfic Writers

By Sadie MacDonald

Ah, fanfiction. Constantly derided, gleefully parodied, snidely dismissed. Even some creators are opposed to it (most famously Anne Rice, but also George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon), preferring that fans refrain from writing fanfiction of their works.

Tina Belcher, a teenage girl, shows us how it’s done in Bob’s Burgers. Photo: Know Your Meme.

I could argue about how sneering over fanfic tends to have a misogynist bent, as fanfic is generally seen as the realm of teenage girls. I could also point out that this dismissive attitude has tinges of homophobia, as most fanfiction is characterized as “slash fiction” (sexual relationships between same-sex characters generally not explored in the original canon), which is accordingly chided as ridiculous. However, in this post, I will stick to examining examples of fanfic produced by well-known creators, who seem to escape the stigma by virtue of being established authors. These authors nonetheless create fanfiction for the same reasons that ordinary teenagers do: to explore the unexplored, and to express love for the source material.

Fanfiction has existed for a long time. Virgil’s Aeneid is arguably fanfic of the Iliad, and is an example of a work that explores the unexplored, showing the other side of the Trojan War from the perspective of Trojan warrior Aeneas.

Like The Iliad, The Aeneid itself has spawned its own iconic imagery, such as this 1598 painting by Frederico Barocci showing the flight of Aeneas and his family from Troy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Pastiches often examine hidden perspectives and bring them to the forefront, frequently casting the original works in a new light. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood puts a twist on the Odyssey by exploring the perspectives of Penelope and her twelve maids. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story behind Mr. Rochester’s doomed first marriage and giving Bertha much-needed sympathy and humanity. Wicked by Gregory Maguire retells The Wizard of Oz from the viewpoint of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West, explaining the reasoning behind her decisions. Geraldine Brooks’ Little Women fanfiction March places much emphasis on slavery, an institution that defined the social and physical landscape of mid-19th century America but is left unspoken in Little Women. These examples show that beloved stories are still capable of revealing new discoveries.

A Study in Emerald was later adapted into a comic book. Photo: Dark Horse Comics.

Not all fanfictions make changes to their source material, and there are many that seem to have been created for the sheer pleasure of engaging with a beloved work. Sherlock Holmes pastiches have existed since Arthur Conan Doyle’s days (and he cared little about what these creators did with his intellectual property). Even established novelists have participated in the Holmesian fun. Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” is actually a fanfiction of TWO works, H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and Sherlock Holmes, and serves as a love letter to both.

The persistence of Holmesian fandom, still active nearly a century after Doyle’s last Holmes story was published, shows how much audiences love Sherlock Holmes. We want to continue to have adventures with him, even if that means making our own adventures.

If professional authors can write fanfiction to great acclaim, why do we deride teenagers, just learning how to stretch their literary muscles, for doing the same? Seasoned authors have played in other creators’ sandboxes. Let emerging writers do the same.

How Does History (Literally) Speak to You?

One thing we can’t glean from history prior to the invention of the phonograph is how people’s voices sounded. We may feel a profound connection with historical figures but can never hear how they spoke, a key aspect of their identity and personality. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Historical figures are more than just pictures on a page. They are people who lived and contributed to their communities, and trying to imagine them doing so can be a challenge to historians depending on what evidence remains. We’re always searching for more insight into the key quality that truly brings a historical figures to life: their personality.

Just as we once had no photographs to see what people really looked like, so too did we once lack film evidence that people really lived and spoke in distinctive ways. In trying to get a sense of mannerisms and voice, we first had to rely on audio.

Why do I think voice is such an important aspect of connecting to those who have predeceased us? I’m going to use politicians as my prime example. Many politicians are remembered as great orators whose speeches have moved and influenced societies during major events, from celebrations to declarations of war. I believe our voices carry much emotion, therefore conveying an important aspect of who we are.

Martin Luther King Jr. addressing crowds in Washington, DC. Photo: National Park Service

Think about it: how many times have you seen/met someone, and at first glance expected them to have a specific kind of voice (low, high, quavery, strong, accented)? And then they open their mouths and a completely different voice comes out! It changes your impression of them, doesn’t it? For instance, Daniel Day Lewis speaks in a higher pitch in the film Lincoln (2012), illustrating the surprising truth about former American President Abraham Lincoln’s high, reedy voice. It just goes to show how much the quality of one’s voice defines their presence.

Voices can be commanding or meek; soft or loud; rough or smooth; and all these sensory elements shape and cement identity, especially in public memory.

Take King George VI of Great Britain, and his speech of 3 September 1939 in which he confirms Britain’s involvement in World War II. This is the very same speech featured in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, as played by Colin Firth – and we can gain such a significant connection when hearing the King’s voice that it’s as if he’s in the room with us (such was the initial reaction to radio). If you listen to the real speech, you can hear George VI’s inflection and get a better impression of his presence, breaking an interpretation barrier that keeps him (and likewise, other historical figures) at a distance from us today.

Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech (28 August 1963) be as rousing if we had read it on paper? Dr. King’s delivery of the speech is often remembered as an iconic capstone of the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the significance of voice and audio in preserving historical records. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s characteristic drone is recognizable to many of us, and his famous WWII “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech (4 June 1940) has also been recreated in recent films such as Dunkirk (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017).

Charlie Chaplin, a British actor who was primarily known for his silent films, also understood the power of speech and voice in captivating and inspiring audiences. Taking advantage of the emergence of sound in film, his speech in The Great Dictator (1940) subverts Adolf Hitler’s acknowledged oratory skills and uses them for good in his own parody version of a wartime dictator’s speech.

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Still further, accents offer a whole different opportunity for biographical interpretation: for example, though former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier was a Quebecois francophone, he learned English in New Glasgow and therefore spoke with a slight Scottish accent, something I could never learn from merely looking at photographs or silent film clips. Observations were written down, but without audio we can never hear them for ourselves. The first Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s accent is also in question, as he was raised in the Bay of Quinte/Kingston, Ontario, far from Glasgow itself (though the latter was his birthplace). American President John F. Kennedy’s Boston accent also defines his aura in our memories. If we can hear politicians speak, we can further understand their essence as people and their leadership qualities.

Is this post, then, a prolonged lamentation that I’ll never get to hear the voices of so many historical figures who captivate me? I’m not denying it – and I’m arguing that we could all do with taking some time away from our highly absorbing smartphones to be present. Listen to people’s voices, enjoy the timbre and cadence, connect with the emotions that shine through when people speak. We often take it for granted that we’ll get to hear their voices every day, but when they’re gone, all that will be left of them is our memory and the records we’ve kept.