1. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Gothic literature: Marcus Sedgwick's 'Big Idea'

I’ve chosen to write about Dracula by Bram Stoker as, for me, it represents the landmark in vampire fiction and a cornerstone of horror fiction in general.

There were vampire novels before Dracula, there have been many since, and there will undoubtedly be more to come in the future, but I doubt Dracula will ever be bettered. Why? Largely because it’s a product of the time it was written, and the man who wrote it - Bram Stoker, a member of high society in Victorian Dublin.

Stoker is the epitome of Victorian society - clearly a rather repressed and oppressed individual on the surface, his fiction betrays a rather different character, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, full of sexualities of dubious natures.

And this is at the heart of why Dracula was, and is, so successful - it strikes to the very core of the contradiction that is the vampire - the attraction to something potentially fatal, not just to your mortal self, but your immortal soul as well.

True, the charisma of the vampire had been set up by Polidori’s allusions to Byron, and another Dubliner, Sheridan Lefanu had already thrown Lesbian vampires into the mix in Carmilla, but Stoker worked these themes, and more, up into a slow burn of a novel that arrives in a final frenzy of blood-letting.

Along the way it uses multiple narratives, a relatively novel technique at the time, to weave a story of obsession, lust, menace and the supernatural.

It is one of the few books I have read several times, and every time I do, I enjoy it more, and it horrifies me more, not just as a reader, but as a writer too, because nothing else that Stoker wrote, before or after Dracula, comes close. He worked for years on the book that was to become his masterpiece, and it’s a frightening thought for a writer to fear that real creativity might abandon you altogether.

Marcus Sedgwick will be exploring gothic-inspired literature, including his new novel, on Sat 22nd Oct.

2. Emile by Jean Jacques Rousseau

Teaching children to read: Dominic Wyse's 'Big Idea'

The child should be at the centre of their own education. In the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau suggested in the seminal text Emile (1762) that the child  should be educated, not through control and coercion, but instead should be allowed to follow a natural process of development which recognised that “nature wants children to be children before they are men.” This point heralded the beginnings of an appreciation of childhood as a period in the life-cycle, which had its own intrinsic value rather than simply being a process to be undergone before adulthood might be achieved. How we should view the child is one of the most important ideas in education.

The main threat to child-centred education has come from rationalism. Rationalist ideas suggest that if teaching and learning is to be effective then it should be subject to measurement. Pre-determined teaching objectives should be established; teaching should take place; then learning should be measured. Clearly, if teaching is pre-determined, then this leaves very little opportunity for children to directly influence  the curriculum that they experience. Modern versions of child-centred education regard a child’s opportunity to make some choices as part of their education, to be consulted on matters that affect them, to have their intrinsic motivation engaged, as vital.

The battle between child-centred education and rationalism has played out in almost all areas of the school curriculum, but particularly in language and literacy. Learning to read is one of the most heated of battle grounds. A child-centred conception of ‘reading teaching’ would see children making some choices over which texts they look at and being exposed to engaging literature published for children. Once established, a motivation to read is a firm foundation on which to build the teaching of other aspects.

A rationalist conception of ‘reading teaching’ would see children being drilled in letters and sounds first and foremost, and being subject to a national phonics test at age six, something currently being implemented by the coalition government in England.

Dominic Wyse will be debating why the government has failed to recommend the best approach to learning to read, on Tues 25th Oct.

3. Ancient Greek religion

Understanding Greece: Michael Scott's 'Big Idea'

My focus is on the world of ancient Greece, more specifically, the religious beliefs, practices and spaces of the ancient Greeks. The fundamental idea here has to be this: for the ancient Greeks, the gods were everywhere and in everything. They were active players in the landscape, in charge of everything that happened. Most importantly, they chose sides – you had to do everything you could to make sure they were on yours.

Understanding the omnipresence, power and partiality of the ancient Greek pantheon of gods is crucial to unlocking the Greek mindset.

It explains why religious practices seeped into every aspect of their lives, from childbirth to politics, war to agriculture. It explains why the Greeks were so obsessed with finding out what the gods had in store for them, which could be divined through everything from the flight of birds and impromptu sneezes, to the defects on entrails, the rustling of leaves and the consultations of dead spirits. It explains why the Greeks spent so much time, money and effort making offerings to the gods, which were placed within increasingly opulent sanctuaries that littered every part of their world.

At the same time, the Greeks had no bible, no creed, no obvious defined set of beliefs as many religions have today. Their religion articulated itself through actions, rituals and practices. That had two important consequences. Firstly, this made ancient Greek religion flexible - new gods could be welcomed into the fold at any time. Secondly, it meant that those repeated routines of public action could become crucial forums in which to articulate community within Greek society, and, ultimately, the very nature of what it meant to be Greek.

Dr Michael Scott will be discussing the world of the ancient Greeks on Sat 22nd Oct.

4. The wall

Separation barriers: Wendy Pullan's 'Big Idea'

Pictures of the separation barrier, a.k.a. wall,  erected by the Israeli authorities on Palestinian land have galvanised the attention of Western audiences. Images of this concrete structure snaking through towns and villages of the West Bank have become a sort of shorthand, an efficient way to sum up a miserable state of affairs. Its construction brings back memories of the Berlin Wall, and at the same time has spawned a number of new walls - in Baghdad, on the US-Mexican border, and even in the Italian city of Padova - to separate a neighbourhood deemed ‘undesirable’ to residents in other parts of the town.

In the Humanities and Social Sciences, it is often quite difficult to attribute one’s thinking to one big idea; we tend to focus upon bringing together many conditions, sometimes quite disparate, in order to understand a given situation. But in investigating divided cities as part of my work on ‘Conflict in Cities and the Contested State’ (www.conflictincities.org), these ‘security’ walls, which are imposed upon human topographies often in the centre of cities, have played a large part in my research horizons. In the most literal of ways, they stand as highly visible fissures that immediately attract public opinion and, often, condemnation.

Yet, we may be too ready to attribute an overwhelming power to the wall, for as is clear from Berlin, such structures can come down and their paths quickly obliterated. While not to diminish the distress of Palestinians who have suffered with this rift in their landscape, it is important to realise that the wall, and any security it seems to offer Israeli civilians, is part of a much more complicated system; this includes a massive programme of settlements and the segregated bypass roads that assure them contiguity and mobility. As the settlements are often full-sized towns with 40 or 50 thousand inhabitants, and we know that major road alignments are one of the most permanent features of any landscape ever, neither will be easily removed; instead, they have become the real determinants of the landscape.

Even as the visible tip of the iceberg, the wall is a ‘quick fix’; what we really need to worry about are the long term and, ultimately, more damaging interventions.

Torture: David Luban's 'Big Idea'

Wendy Pullan introduced the ‘Capturing urban conflicts’ exhibition of photo-essays and maps that will be running until Sun 23rd Oct.

5. Individual responsibility

I’ve spent most of my career working at the intersection of ethics and law, and my focus has been on individual responsibility in organisational settings.

We often think of ethics as a set of do’s and don’ts for moral solo operators. Do be kind to others; don’t lie or cheat. There is nothing wrong with these everyday maxims, but it’s often hard to transfer the morality of solo operators to the large organisations where many people spend their working lives: corporations, law firms, armies. In organisations, we work in teams and not necessarily teams of people who know each other or even know who else is on the team. Our sense of personal responsibility thins to the vanishing point and we can make profound moral choices without even realising that we have reached a fork in the road.

Sometimes the problem is fragmented knowledge - nobody had the big picture. Sometimes the problem is divided responsibility - with or without the big picture, nobody felt that they own the action; or everyone looks at their neighbor to step up first. Psychologically, vanished responsibility is human, all too human. Morally and legally, though, the proposition that if enough people are involved in wrongdoing all responsibility vanishes seems perverse.

In recent years, my work has focused on the most extreme manifestations of this moral pathology: war crimes, torture, and mass atrocities in which hundreds or even thousands of people participate in wrongdoing. Grim stuff, and hardly an everyday problem for the overwhelming majority of us. But many of the moral issues have the same universal roots in fragmented knowledge and divided responsibility.

David Luban will be examining the ethical issues surrounding the use of torture on Fri 21st Oct.

6. Paul's insights


Paul the apostle: Olivier Tonneau's 'Big Idea'

“I do not what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Paul, Rom. 7:15).

Who hasn’t shared Paul’s puzzlement? We set ourselves ethical standards and frequently fail to abide by them – we disappoint ourselves. How come?

Human beings, you might say, are torn between passions and reason; in itself, this is a rather puzzling fact, however banal the statement may be. Why is it that ideas can curb passions in some and not in others? It is surely not a matter of intelligence – otherwise intelligent people would behave better than others, which is not quite the case.

Is it, therefore, a matter of the intensity of the passions? Surely, it is not that simple. Highly passionate people often attain heights of self-control while others will nonchalantly fail to abide by their own principles.

And how about these moments when we are wrongly convinced that we are being righteous? Jealousy, cowardice, even greed, have astonishing powers to induce self-delusion – probably the most wide-spread disease of the mind.

Entire societies seem to be liable to collective self-delusion. The most savagely individualistic societies can perceive themselves as Christian; societies can perceive themselves as spaces of complete freedom for their members when they tightly regulate all aspects of their lives in the name of Health and Safety. By comparison to the widespread self-delusions that pervade the free, liberal world, Paul seems to have, at least, the merit of uncompromising lucidity.

The ethical questions which concern me are rarely addressed in philosophical departments, which debate of the relative merits of Act-utilitarianism, rule-Utilitarianism, Moral Realism, Divine Command Theory, Nonconsequentialism, Contractarianism…

The questions that concern me are: what causes self-delusion? How can we overcome it? Once we have acquired the distressing lucidity of Paul, how can we free ourselves from the power of evil? These questions were acutely formulated in Christian theology, whether or not its answers convince us. My aim is to rephrase them in secular terms, drawing from the human sciences (psychology, sociology, political sciences).

But let us not delude ourselves in believing we will find the answers tomorrow!


Olivier Tonneau will be arguing that it is important to appreciate the words of Paul in order to understand the spirit of the law, on Fri 28th Oct.

Been to the Festival of Ideas? Let the world know what ideas it gave you - email features@varsity.co.uk to share your thoughts.

Festival of Ideas: Blog 1

Festival of Ideas: Blog 2

Festival of Ideas: Blog 3

Festival of Ideas: Blog 4