David Simpson

David Simpson teaches at the University of California, Davis. Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger will appear from Chicago later this year.

The Epic of Everest

David Simpson, 25 October 2012

In February 1924, four months before George Mallory and Sandy Irvine died on Everest, Conrad published a short essay called ‘Geography and Some Explorers’. He distinguished between the provision of scientific facts, which could be of only limited interest, and the ‘drama of human endeavour’ embodied in the pursuit of a ‘militant geography’ larger and...

Young Werther

David Simpson, 13 September 2012

Goethe’s most famous novel was once a Europe-wide sensation. There were Werther-themed prints, figurines, jewellery, perfume, fans, crockery and men’s clothing. The novel itself first appeared in English in 1779, as a translation of a translation: The Sorrows of Werther: A German Story was based on the French version. Translations of French novels made up a large part of the...

Short Cuts: The 9/11 Memorial

David Simpson, 17 November 2011

I had just about made my peace with the 9/11 memorial, whose concept I had at first found generic and full of clichés: the trees, the pool of falling water, the glimpse into the void and so on. Despite a few false notes (the tacky little flags on the bagpipes, and George W. Bush reciting from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a mother who lost five sons in the Civil War, once again...

Soldiers and Torture

David Simpson, 18 November 2010

Last July David Cameron announced a judicial inquiry into Britain’s alleged participation in acts of torture and rendition in the years since 9/11, though he also said that it wouldn’t begin until the current round of civil lawsuits had been resolved. The emphasis, he implied, would be on Britain’s role in condoning or assisting foreign agencies rather than on our own...

‘War at a Distance’

David Simpson, 11 March 2010

When and where does modern war begin? With tanks or gas warfare in 1914-18? With the aerial bombardment of civilians in Mesopotamia in 1920? At Guernica in 1937? With the general conscription, guerrilla campaigns and worldwide conflict of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain and their allies between 1793 and 1815? Or with the destruction of civilian lives and...

Amitav Ghosh

David Simpson, 22 October 2009

For some time the Anglophone publishing industry has been keen on the fiction of the global south, at least when it takes the form of magical realism, where the paranormal is staged as the ordinary and the imagination is freed from the familiar laws of gravity. Here, in the (to us) remote corners of the undeveloped or developing world, the colours, smells and flavours are more intense, life...

Ernst Cassirer

David Simpson, 26 March 2009

Ernst Cassirer began his eclectic, productive and distinguished career as a philosopher of science, but turned to the study of culture apparently after discovering the Warburg Library in Hamburg, where he took up a professorship in 1919. He spent the rest of his life working out a synthesis able to contain the two cultures. He was prescient in getting out of Germany in 1933, and lucky in...

Vietnam’s Ghosts

David Simpson, 14 August 2008

Conjuring up the ghost of his dead friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh asks what things are like in the afterlife. Enkidu tells him it might be better that these truths remain hidden, but he agrees to answer the hero’s questions about the individual fates of those he knew on earth. It seems that life after death is not so different after all, a somewhat intensified but not inexplicable or...

Stefan Collini among the Intellectuals

David Simpson, 6 March 2008

George Orwell is commonly invoked as the ideal role model for the intellectual: feisty, independent, outspoken and contrarian, active in the public sphere, and famous. So it’s a surprise to learn that the combined circulation of the three periodicals in which most of his essays appeared was only about half that of the publication you are now reading. On the other hand, A.J.P. Taylor...

The iconic image

David Simpson, 29 November 2007

On 1 February 1968 Eddie Adams took a photograph of the South Vietnamese chief of police standing in the street and shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head. The picture is listed on the web as one of the ‘100 photos that changed the world’. For years I thought that it recorded the blood spurting out of the side of the man’s head as the bullet went into his temple. Looking...

Emigration from Nazi Germany

David Simpson, 5 October 2006

We have long known that, for all the famous success stories, the welcome extended to Europe’s displaced persons, mostly but not all Jews, in the run-up to the Second World War was partial, insufficient and often less than wholehearted. Yet the temptation to romanticise this piece of the past persists, aided by the fact that exile is a word whose charge has been somewhat blunted by an...

War and the Built Environment

David Simpson, 25 May 2006

Thucydides claimed that posterity should not judge the power and dignity of states by their architectural remains. The power of Sparta over much of the Peloponnese and beyond could not have been inferred from an inspection of its built culture – a collection of villages with no grandiose temples or monuments. Conversely, the importance of Athens would be overestimated by anyone in later...

Psychoanalysing Zionism

David Simpson, 23 June 2005

Jacqueline Rose has written a timely and courageous book. One immediate sign of this is its dedication to the late Edward Said, and its rewriting of the title of one of his most important books, The Question of Palestine (1980). To write ‘as a Jewish woman’ and in homage to Said about the failures of the Israeli state will surely inspire some of the hate mail that Said himself...

Abasing language, abusing prisoners

David Simpson, 17 February 2005

Where does it stop? The events at Abu Ghraib prison show no signs of vanishing into historical inertia. On the contrary, they seem to be replicating themselves throughout the defenceless body politic of the ‘coalition of the willing’: even the Danes now apparently have their scandal. The photographs of British misdeeds made public after a hapless soldier took his film to be...

Clinton on Clinton

David Simpson, 23 September 2004

Let me establish my credentials. On page 320, Bill Clinton recalls a happy time in Montana in 1985 watching ‘marmosets scramble around above the snow line’ (he means marmots). And on page 808 (we’re up to 1998), he identifies the secretary of state for Northern Ireland as Mo Mowlan (for Mowlam). In other words, I have read My Life, all of it, closely enough to catch two...

“Back in November 2003, Sergeant Georg Andreas Pogorny faced the possibility of being court-martialled for cowardice after he’d panicked at the sight of an Iraqi cut in half by machine-gun fire. Pogorny was overcome with what he described as ‘an overwhelming sense of my own mortality’. The most troubling implication of this story is that it appears to be untypical. Few of us in the homeland are given any materials for imagining ourselves in the place and body of the other, a place where in so many ways we already are: this is the real symmetry between 9/11 then and Iraq today.”

‘Vehement Passions’

David Simpson, 19 June 2003

In the opening sentences of his last published work, The Passions of the Soul (1649), Descartes signalled his own modernity with a withering dismissal of the ancients, whose defects he found ‘nowhere more apparent than in their writings on the passions’, writings so ‘meagre and for the most part so implausible’ that he could only write as if ‘I were considering a...

Terry Eagleton

David Simpson, 3 April 2003

In the age of Sophocles or of Shakespeare, tragic drama concerned the deaths of nobles and notables, individuals whose lives were closely entwined with the health of the state. In the 19th century, on the other hand, both the drama and the novel found moral and aesthetic gravity in the deaths of ordinary people. In our own apparently democratised First World there are few kings and princes...

The politics of commemoration

David Simpson, 15 November 2001

Among the many things that changed after 11 September was the policy on obituaries in the New York Times. Since the attack on the World Trade Center, the newspaper has been printing fifteen or so brief remembrances a day of some of the approximately five thousand people who died in the towers, in the planes and during the rescue efforts. The leaders of corporations and other more or less...

Stephen Greenblatt

David Simpson, 24 May 2001

New historicism was a 1980s thing, a literary critical movement that took shape on the West Coast, becoming established there and elsewhere as what one could talk about after having talked for long enough about feminism, deconstruction and literary theory. The term may have been coined by Stephen Greenblatt in an essay of 1982; if so it was already a restrike, minted from a prototype used by...

From The Blog
23 November 2011

The University of California, Davis, where I teach, has long been popular with parents looking for a safe and sequestered life for their children, deterred by the history of student radicalism at Berkeley or Santa Cruz. Until the weekend, the only spraying known to be going on at Davis was on the university farm (it was founded as an agricultural college). Last week a small rally was organised partly in protest at the recent violence of the Berkeley campus police force, which set about dispersing a peaceful occupation with night sticks. The chancellor (who was in China at the time) described it as ‘nudging’, but it looked – and by all accounts felt – like vicious beating. But now other California campus are rallying in support of the Davis students.

Lewis Harvey is right to call attention to the bizarre implications of airbrushing the Abu Ghraib photographs (Letters, 3 June). On the one hand, interviews with tortured prisoners have made it very clear that nakedness before others and their cameras is a source of deep shame, and publishing unedited images could only make this worse: this is the best of the reasons given for not releasing the other...

Not so Trivial

3 April 2003

Martin Harries’s websmanship is duly acknowledged (Letters, 8 May): about 853,000 websites linking ‘tragedy’ to 11 September! I’ll wager that few if any of them propose a serious definition or theory of tragedy, first because so many of the dead are deemed to have been ordinary, hence those New York Times obituaries; and then because the ‘foreknowledge of death’...

11 September

4 October 2001

I am not the first to note that careful reading is one of the earliest casualties of moments of crisis. So I should not be surprised that Bernard Wasserstein (Letters, 29 November) takes me to be calling for a few more dead Americans! I wish for no more dead bodies of any nation or ethnicity (quite the opposite) but was worrying that the popularity of the ‘ground zero’ terminology might...

Where are you coming from?

Martin Jay, 28 November 2002

As a colleague of David Simpson at the University of California and a friend graciously thanked in his acknowledgments, can I pretend to have the disinterestedness necessary to write an objective...

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Peter Swaab, 20 April 1989

Wordsworth’s poetry has been able to animate critical writing, relevantly, from several different points of view. Narratologists have discussed the gaps in his storytelling and the...

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