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Durham University

Durham University News

Comment and opinion

Covid, creativity, and caprice: finding a new way in the new normal

(19 May 2021)

Professor Richard Scholar, recently appointed Chair in French in MLAC, explains how he has found a creative solution to Covid constraints and has invented, with the help of filmmaker Alan Fentiman, a new way of reaching wider audiences for work in the arts and humanities.

I was kindly invited to give an inaugural lecture when appointed to my new post at Durham. But how to give an inaugural lecture in a global pandemic?

Gone were all the usual ingredients: the ceremonial welcome extended to the new begowned incumbent of a Chair in a crowded lecture theatre, the lecture itself, and the party afterwards. Gone, that is, until the Newcastle filmmaker Alan Fentiman and I decided we’d try making an inaugural with a difference.

Caprice: an early modern keyword

Inspiration came from the research I have recently published, in my book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English, on caprice. I show in the book how caprice is an early modern keyword for a spirit of irregular invention, in literature and its sister arts, which involves creatively bending the rules of a pre-established form out of shape. If this inaugural were to be done at all, I decided, it would have to be done capriciously...

Alan brought his signature style as a filmmaker -- his eye for the incongruous detail and his talent for improvised cinematic storytelling -- into creative dialogue with my ideas. Aided and abetted by colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and IMEMS, and by the Vice-Chancellor as you have never seen him before, Alan and I ended up making an inaugural film-lecture in two acts called ‘Caprice in the Time of Covid’.

A creature with many heads

Act One tells the story of the lecture that couldn’t otherwise happen. Act Two brings together distinguished scholars from France, the US, and the UK for a transcontinental round-table discussion of the lecture and the underlying ideas.

The result is a strange new kind of inaugural, ‘a creature with many heads and many aspects’, as one spectator has commented since the premiere.

The new genre may yet survive the pandemic. Only time will tell. For now, though, our film-inaugural explores ways for research to renew its energies and reach new audiences; celebrates the resilience and creativity of the arts and humanities; and provides -- we hope -- some capricious relief from current constraints.

Find out more

  • The lecture ‘Caprice in the Time of Covid’ can be viewed in full on YouTube. See here.
  • To find out more about Alan’s work click here.
  • To find out more about Richard’s book, Émigrés: French Words That Turned English, click here.
  • To find out more about the Institute of Early Modern and Medieval Studies (IMEMS) click here.
  • To find out more about the IMEMS project Richard co-directs, Early Modern Keywords, click here.
  • Professor Richard Scholar is Deputy Head in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. Find out more about the School here.