Discussing images of atrocity in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag referred in passing to the common assumption that, in contrast to other senses, ‘sight is effortless’; and, furthermore, that ‘sight can be turned off (we have lids on our eyes, we do not have doors on our ears).’ But what if sight is not, after all, effortless? What if, instead, it entails a painful effort; a protracted, agonistic struggle? And what if this struggle is not the struggle to see but the struggle not to see? What if sight, that is, cannot be turned off, because we do not have lids over our eyes?
At least since the late eighteenth century, when the Romantics used it to perform several different metaphorical functions, the image of lidless eyes has served to diagnose the agonies of an existential condition defined by a constant, inescapable wakefulness and watchfulness; in short, by an incessant state of insomnia. This lecture rapidly sketches the Romantic and post-Romantic itinerary of this trope, before concentrating for the most part on a single painting by J.M.W. Turner, ‘Regulus’ – the title of which recalls a Roman general whose eyelids were allegedly amputated by the Carthaginians.
The lecture will reconstruct two especially violent responses to ‘Regulus’ in the nineteenth century, before exploring both the legend of this Roman general and the pictorial details of Turner’s reinscription of it. The figure of Regulus, the lecture suggests, functions in the early nineteenth century as an emblematic anti-hero of the Enlightenment.
Lecturer: Professor Matthew Beaumont, UCL English
Inaugural lectures are an opportunity for recently-promoted professors to exhibit to the wider UCL community, and the public outside UCL, a flavour of their intellectual activity and research. Each lecture is followed by a drinks reception, to which all attendees are warmly invited.