Sunday, July 27, 2003


I've been steadily reading through Bernard Malamud's novels and short stories over the past month or so. I don't understand why he's virtually forgotten: he must be one of the major American writers of the past fifty years. He seems to be out of print: certainly you can't buy his books here. Before I read him, I vaguely thought he was a "popular" novelist of no particular worth, along the lines of Neville Shute. So it was a bit of surprise to encounter such a thoughtful and literary writer. Maybe his sin was being popular: I don't know. Books like Pictures of Fidelman, an amazing collection of linked short stories, don't deserve to go down the memory hole. Don De Lillo and other giants of the current scene look pallid and trivial beside him.

Also reading Russell Hoban, who seems a stunningly different writer in every book, and finally going to seriously examine Phillip K. Dick. Discovered also another poet with a fantastic imagination: Michael Ayres, whose work, including poems and an extract from what looks like a hugely ambitious fantasy novel, is downloadable from the excellent UK mag Shearsman.

Daniel was saying last night that much contemporary writing, in its careful delineation of the banalities of ordinary life (he counts Kate Jennings Moral Hazard, which I enjoyed, as one example) is a kind of defeat. A mass artistic retreat from imagination, taking refuge in the accepted "ordinary", which challenges nothing about how the world is perceived. This chimes with the distress I felt recently when asked while on a panel (Poetry - Getting it out there) as part of the Readings@Miettas festival. The panel topic was not especially here or there, but there was a question from the audience which has reverberated around my head ever since.

The question was, "where is the poetry of ordinary life?" And behind this question there was another implied question, or even an accusation: that poetry does not concern itself with "ordinary life".

Which ties in distressingly with a comment made by Age columnist Hugh Mackay today:

The phenomenon of disengagement has been a dominant theme in social research over the past couple of years, and its causes have been thoroughly canvassed here. In brief, we have been destabilised by too many changes coming too quickly; we're tired of "issues", disappointed in our leaders and disturbed by our own sense of powerlessness.

In response, we have taken refuge in the celebration of our ordinariness, our normality, our domesticity. "Relaxed and comfortable" have become our goals, too: disengagement creates the illusion that we've achieved them.

Another way of putting this is to say we're scared, so we've switched off. You might even say we'd prefer to be lied to, if that would comfort us. (And who doesn't want to be told lies sometimes, even if they are transparent? Most of us welcome lies that make us feel better about ourselves, reinforce our prejudices and tell us what we want to hear.)

More later...

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

d'Arcier throws sponge

Found BFD's statement (click "A conclusion of the Festival 2003") on the Avignon Festival site. He says in part:

We have demonstrated our solidarity in the early days, since there had been negotiations even before the draft agreement was edited, and the festival had already written an open letter (in mid-June), which had been signed by more than 2500 people. Then, when we became acquainted with the content of the draft agreement, I personally intervened several times though the press or by pressurizing the Minister of Arts whom I had met on June the 30th, and the counsellors of the Prime Minister and of the President of the Republic. At that time, we even envisaged and brandished a menace of cancellation, but this had no effect; Everything happened so fast...

For the moment I don’t want to see the audiences shaken about, and I would not have liked to be the witness of a visible display of international divisions, especially in the face of the employers’ and the State over in a vital professional issue.

As I often said, I want to keep my freedom, I don’t want to be used, either by the Trade-unions or by the companies that I invited. Finally, I refuse the very idea of any violence, or the intervention of the police, either between the companies, or with the public.

This is the recognition I can make: a kind of landscape after a war, quite devastated I must say. But I don’t want to charge nor to level bitter accusations against anybody.

I think it is necessary for all of us to begin to make a historical analysis.

What is binding us now is a feeling of sadness; sadness for the public, for all the wonderful performances that we cannot see, and of course, for all the artists and employees.

And for those who love translatorese: this from Yahoo's French news service, via Google's translation service. I think d'Arcier's "blow of hand" for the "intermittents" with whom he will "line up" is his statement of support for the striking performers, but it is er hem a little ambiguous.

PARIS (AP) - Bernard Faivre d' Arcier throws sponge. In a maintenance in the "World" gone back to Friday, it announces the cancellation of the edition 2003 of the festival of Avignon which it directed for the last time.

"One cannot from day to day organize a festival under the pressure of a renewable strike", underlines Bernard Faivre d' Arcier by referring to the movement of intermittent spectacle which protests against the reform of their unemployment insurance scheme.

"I do not make a point of seeing divisions of the artists spread out under the glance of employers and of the State", the director of the international festival of the alive spectacle created in 1947 adds.

"After three days, I note that the festival cannot any more take place normally. Seventeen representations were already cancelled. One would need an exceptional technical reinforcement to ensure those which are envisaged in the days to come ", explains it.

"I always said that the festival could not be held if three conditions were not met: that the relation with the public is not depreciated, that the spectacles are presented under the conditions desired by the artistic teams which conceived them and which there are not threatening violence safety ", it continues while stating to refuse "to present a program cut down by a third of its artists".

Bernard Faivre d' Arcier, who decided to cancel the edition 2003 of Avignon following the example his counterpart of the festival of lyric art of Aix-en-Provence, thus expresses his "sadness" because it was its "last festival".

"I found that it was a beautiful edition to celebrate my departure", he says. "I am very anxious for Avignon and the other festivals, because of the financial problems. But if it is the one time end, it is not the end of the festival ", judges Bernard Faivre d' Arcier. "I would have liked That to make a festival militant if I had been able to present the spectacles. In three weeks, I will not be a any more director and I will line up readily side of intermittent to give them a blow of hand ". AP

Monday, July 21, 2003

Talking of the French...

Whom I mentioned in passing... I should also mention the ructions going on at the moment about their funding system. In place is a particularly enlightened unemployment system which takes into account the itinerant nature of artist's work, and it is this which is under threat under Chirac's government. I am told that the new measures would ensure that most of the funding would end up being funnelled to tv and film, diverting it from theatre. The new measures are supposedly to counter some abuse, which has certainly occurred (mostly, I'm told, from tv stations); but those who object to the changes say that the reforms would punish those who have not abused the system at all, and who depend on it to do their work - marginal companies working in the community, small theatres with minimal funding, and so on. The changes would also effectively shut down all the middle-range theatres - middle range theatres being, of course, where most new work is produced, and which the "high end" of the culture depends on for renewal. The issue is so inflammatory that the Avignon Festival was cancelled this year because of strikes by artists - a solidarity which is unimaginable here.

I can't find the statement which festival director Bernard Faivre d'Arcier made to Le Monde, in which he supported the actors' stance. It is his last year as festival director, and the cancellation would have been a personal blow; making such a statement also might make any further jobs with the government unlikely. He is also quoted as saying that the unions have exaggerated the impact that the reforms might have. Well, I don't know; my friends there fear that in a few years the current healthy state of French theatre won't exist any more. And they were predicting this move by the government two years ago. Cultural shutdown happens very quickly: but in Australia it happens in silence, and no one protests.

For the record

I lost my cool yesterday and wrote to Andrew Bolt, the Herald Sun columnist at large who has been pursuing a disgraceful campaign against the arts (see the blog entry Artist, Wanker, Traitor, written on June 15). My email, quoting the parts of one of Bolt's columns which I found particularly incendiary, is below:

Bolt said: What is the point of art like this? Of art without an audience? Why should we support an arts culture that is so irrelevant, or artists who barely care?

I hope I don't say this because I'm a barbarian.

I know I don't feel like one. I own thousands of lovely books, worked for an opera company, subscribe to literary magazines and have cupboards of CDs. I may be dull or thick, but I suspect if our artists can't speak to me, they can't speak to many others, either.

Frankly, too few seem even to want to try. It's as if pleasing the public – as did Shakespeare, Dickens and Verdi – is beneath them.

Dear Andrew

I am one of those artists supported - as Les Murray says - in order to be paid now what otherwise posterity will owe me, and feel, however futile it might be, that this needs to be at least answered.

I'm afraid you are not nearly as interesting as a barbarian, who after all, respected their own cultures. If you believe that the art that lasts begins by pleasing its audience, you are simply ignorant. Ibsen, Mozart, Puccini and Eliot garnered such scorn as yours from the pundits of their days. Milton, the avante gard of his day, never sold more than 3000 books * in his lifetime. On the other hand, I own a few books by best selling poets of the 19th century. In their time they were the audience pleasers - these poets sold in their hundreds of thousands - but no one reads their work today, because it's boring beyond belief. The fact is that great art always emerges out of a culture in which there is all sorts of art, from sheerly bad to mediocre to good to excellent, and the healithier and more active this culture is, the better the chance there is of the good work emerging. It is also an uncomfortable fact that no one knows what work will last; though conservative critics have always had a bad strike rate. Patronage has always been necessary, because artists are among the worst paid and hardest working members of our community. Reviews of the arts sector have in fact shown that the Australian tax payer gets very good value for money out of the arts dollar. But I see you take great care to elide this fact, in your gross libel against some of the people in this community who really do care about what is happening to it, and are concerned about more than their own comfort.

I am sorry you are carrying on such a biased, ill-informed and intellectually dishonest campaign against the arts. But you can't have your cake and eat it: if you are a cultured person, then you would understand and be interested in what the arts actually are, and what they offer beyond being merely consumable items (sales, or the lack of them, are no test of quality). You would understand that a culture which values its artists and is interested in what they have to say and offer is a culture which is streets ahead in its intellectual capital. It is not surprising that you should be attempting to silence artists, since art is often the focal point of dissent: but if you wish to silence artists, you should come clean and stop pretending that you care about culture.

If you are really concerned about waste of the tax payer's dollar, I wonder that you aren't questioning the $10 million Mr Howard cost the taxpayer in travel expenses, airfares, outrageously luxurious hotels &c last year. I await your column on that with interest.

Yours faithfully

Alison Croggon

Mr Bolt answered me this morning:

What a rude, ill-informed and illogical letter.

"Ibsen, Mozart, Puccini and Eliot garnered such scorn as yours from the pundits of their days" - untrue. Monumentally untrue, in fact, given all were acknowledged superstars for at least some portion of their lives, having managed to find their audience. This is a surprisingly ignorant remark from someone who claims an interest in the arts.

"I am one of those artists supported - as Les Murray says - in order to be paid now what otherwise posterity will owe me" - And if posterity decides it owes you nothing after all, will we get a refund? In fact, you are paid now not what posterity will one day reckon to be your deserts, by what a small group of bureaucrats and like-minded arts professionals today want you to have, using as a piggybank the money of people who - if left to decide for themselves in the comfort of their local bookshop - would give you next to nothing. Which is probably closer to your true worth than your own estimation of the matter.

"It is not surprising that you should be attempting to silence artists". - What a stupid - or dishonest - thing to say. Someone who, as you know, buys as many books and CDs as I do is not silencing artists at all, but contributing more than most to ensure they have enough money to keep producing. My argument - if you followed it with honesty and intelligence - is that artists tend now to show a disdain for their audience that makes art dangerously irrelevant and remote. This is in part due to the financial decoupling of an artist from their potential audience by giving bureaucrats and an artistic cabal the power to decide which artist is rewarded for their work, and which must starve. I want the funding arrangements changed so that consumers can make these judgments themselves. Far from shutting up artists, my aim is to ensure that artists gain an audience and an influence they do not have now. Your allegation therefore is the exact opposite of the truth. If you had more sales, you might have the courage to acknowledge this.

Andrew Bolt

Predictable, eh? I don't know why I do this. Anyway, I wrote back:

No ruder than your columns, and in fact better informed.

At 9:11 AM +1000 21/7/03, Bolt, Andrew wrote:
"Ibsen, Mozart, Puccini and Eliot garnered such scorn as yours from the pundits of their days" - untrue. Monumentally untrue, in fact, given all were acknowledged superstars for at least some portion of their lives, having managed to find their audience. This is a surprisingly ignorant remark from someone who claims an interest in the arts.

They were all very small audiences. The artists you get upset about have small audiences as well. That is how it happens: new art always has a small audience, unless it is frankly commercial. Some art, a small minority, which is commercial might also have artistic worth: but a significant proportion of the most important art begins tiny. Most art which has artistic worth will only appeal to a small minority in its time, because it is breaking new ground and challenging the tastes of its day. That's why it's good a generation later. You seem to make no acknowledgement of this fact, and I can only assume it's because you don't know it.

How do you determine what is a "proper" audience? One of your objections to Rabbit Proof Fence (a film about which I have no opinion, not having seen it, and not having a desire to see it) is that it
has an audience, both here and worldwide. You only want some art to have an audience, the art with which you agree. That is why I say you wish to silence the arts.

Mozart only wrote for a tiny aristocratic elite. I can send you endless quotes of the critics who damned Ibsen, Puccini, Eliot et al. "Artists tend now to show a disdain for their audience that makes art dangerously irrelevant and remote" is one of the accusations levelled at Eliot. Ibsen was called an "open sewer". And so on.

At 9:11 AM +1000 21/7/03, Bolt, Andrew wrote:
And if posterity decides it owes you nothing after all, will we get a refund? In fact, you are paid now not what posterity will one day reckon to be your deserts, by what a small group of bureaucrats and like-minded arts professionals today want you to have, using as a piggybank the money of people who - if left to decide for themselves in the comfort of their local bookshop - would give you next to nothing. Which is probably closer to your true worth than your own estimation of the matter.

I am not typical because I write across a range of genres and, as it happens, my work sells fine. I do not apply for funding, however, to help with my more commercial work: I figure it doesn't need support. But the other work, the work which seems to me of perhaps more lasting cultural value, I do ask for support for, because I face incredible difficulties achieving it otherwise. I actually think it is wrong to ask the Australia Council to support art which will find support otherwise; I don't think that is why it's there. If I tried to live on the earnings I make even as a "successful" poet I would be starving. So, you reckon that even though I am contributing through my hard work, and even if my work is acknowledged as valuable, I should be in that position? Or perhaps you simply think there should be no poems at all. That's a fairly widespread idea, but it is not an idea held by anyone who values culture.

The fact is that the Australia Council is not perfect. But your arguments are not accurate. If you thought that the arts needed to be more courageous, and needed to make themselves relevant to the wider world, you would be campaigning for more money, rather than less. You might campaign for a funding system like they have in France, where culture is in fact valued, and an increase from the current pathetic amount to, say, 1 per cent of the GDP. Then we might get something really interesting happening here. I think much of the culture here is cowardly and conventional, and therefore won't contribute to the wider community of culture. What you're doing is ensuring that it won't. You need deep soil to nurture a culture.

At 9:11 AM +1000 21/7/03, Bolt, Andrew wrote:
Far from shutting up artists, my aim is to ensure that artists gain an audience and an influence they do not have now. Your allegation therefore is the exact opposite of the truth. If you had more sales, you might have the courage to acknowledge this.

No, by misrepresenting what arts funding is, you wish to shut down the possibilities of the arts. You focus on some isolated targets and generalise them to mean all of the arts. You fail to acknowledge how necessary it is for the arts to be supported, because your only criterion seems to be commercial and popular success (since you dismiss with scorn the audience they in fact do get), while drawing on a canon of artists who were never commercial successes in their day and who often themselves depended on patronage. That is quite simply bad faith.

Alison Croggon

Well, I can't claim literary merit or original thought in stating the obvious: in arguments like these one tends to enter at the level of the interlocutor. But it makes me mad that Bolt wants to claim intellectual honesty and the mantle of Culture while exercising the worst kind of philistinism and spin.

* Note: I can't find my source for this figure, which was drawn from memory and may well be inaccurate. It's always better not to write in a temper. A better example would have been Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, with its first print run of 500 copies, which became subsequently one of the most influential books of poetry ever published.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Nothing much

Which is where my head is. This morning I went into Penguin Books to meet Suzanne Wilson, my editor there. She had just finished reading The Riddle, and her responses were good: it's a million miles from the first draft of The Gift (it went through five drafts and I had to rewrite the final quarter completely) and she thinks editing will be relatively straightforward. Her only suggestion was about the beginning: oh, beginnings! I find them the hardest thing to do of all; it's almost always the last thing I complete. But for now we'll leave it, until I've finished The Crow (supposedly by October), and we plan to edit the ms early next year. The final draft has to be ready by March, for publication in October. So that all seems clear and on the way.

Otherwise just have updated my web page, so it is actually current, and did an ego search on Google which revealed a Bonnefoy translation I had totally forgotten that I had done (let alone that I had submitted it anywhere). It's usually how I end up with a book of poems - after boring people witless for months groaning about how I haven't written anything, I look in secret places on my computer desktop and discover - poems! And who is this person who wrote them? It's a mystery to me...

Wednesday, July 16, 2003


Thinking about narrative, which has been preoccupying me more and more. Not only because I have spent a large part of this year writing it, but also because it seems to me that narrative underpins much more of what I do than I realised.

On the one hand, I have been writing fantasy, a mode of narrative which is ancient - mythmaking for modern times. Its contemporary form is inflected through Mediaeval and Renaissance Utopian texts, the 19C realistic novel and also by Romantic poetry, but its origins in poetry - Gilgamesh, Homer - still exists in the obligatory scraps of poems which inhabit, for good or ill, most fantasy novels. Modern fantasy is impure prose, a genre which still maintains its innocence, despite the endless sword and sorcery crap written to satisfy what seems like an endless consumer hunger. Ursula Le Guin protests against the cheapening of fantasy in her forward to Tales of Earthsea: and she also affirms the power of language in "A Few Words to a Young Writer":

Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn’t talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth. A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight.

Le Guin uses story in a variety of speculative forms to comment on contemporary society (her latest reworkings of the Earthsea books are all feminist retellings). In her fantasy, she doesn't question the conventions of narrative itself: she writes popular stories which satisfy a basic arc of narrative desire, which draw on archetypes and refashion them for a contemporary world. I have tried to do the same in The Gift and The Riddle: it was very restful to accept a convention and work within it, rather than to question the very basis of the form I was working with. And illuminating as well: one should understand a form before smashing it to bits. Using recognisable tropes rather than going for novelty also allows considerable scope for subversion: and I am very pleased when I am told that The Gift is a subversive book. It is deliberately so: though it may be that it is too subversive for its own good, since one of the criticisms that has been made of it is its lack of "originality".

However, what interests me to the point of obsession is a kind of prose or poetry which shatters these narrative conventions, and which nevertheless retrieves from those shatterings something of the urgency and desire of traditional narrative forms. I explored a little of this impulse in Navigatio, a short and very formal novel which I conceived partly as a response to demands for "authenticity" in work: what if I worked backwards and provided all the claims for "authenticity" myself and then took that "authenticity" into realms which were clearly not "real"? One response, a slightly disturbing one, was the erasure of all its fantastic elements: I have had several comments on the "historical" aspects of the novel, although quite clearly modern histories do not include angels and Poe-like maelstroms. History as fantasy, fantasy as history: perhaps they are not so different. But what exists in between? Is there a gap where an actuality might, however contingently, emerge?

The book which is preoccupying me at the moment, and which I will write one day when I have the space (maybe next year) is one which explodes these narrative conventions, these histories of the real (one of its preoccupations is the retrieving of the "real" from its etymology of economic tyranny (for example, the Spanish coin real) is a turn on the spanish word for Royal - the ultimate Real. It will not pretend to be "real" or "authentic", and so perhaps might have some chance of entering a proper authenticity. No doubt W.G. Sebald is way ahead of me in his conflation of history, literature, autobiography and dream: I am not sure my baroque imagination can manage such astringency and care as he achieves. I shall have to attempt something else in my pursuit of truthfulness. Ron Halpern's essay Notes Toward (Es)saying "I", Narratively, in which he proposes a narrative which essays the faults of narrativity, an erotics of narrative between a "you" and an uncertain "I", rehearses many of the ideas which are twitching around in my head. Well, there's nothing more fun than thinking about the book one is going to write.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Cross dressing

The issue of dress as a means of controlling women has got me thoughtful. The mediaeval text Mirouer aux Dames (Mirror for Ladies) not untypically criticises women for their abberant dress, and especially for dressing up in men's clothes, and therefore blurring the absolute value of male authority. The desire to control female dress is linked to a fear of the language of women, itself closely connected to the fear of female flesh and desire (for a longer disquisition on this, see my essay Specula: Mirrors of the Middle Ages). And while fashion itself has most often been construed as a means of simultaneously controlling women and satisfying a profit-hungry marketplace, Diane Owen Hughes, in her essay Regulating Women's Fashion, makes the point that fashion may also be a means of empowerment. While Renaissance fashion made women the focus of display, their sumptuous dress a means of asserting the patriarchal status of a family, "its costumes also offered women a means of reordering social distinctions and of reenacting the social process.... Fashion might also attach male styles to female dress, not to turn women into men, but to suggest to its wearer (and her critics) a new virile empowerment." That is, women enthusiastically turned to fashion because it was a means of social subversion. "That such transformations were more imaginary than real is a sign of fashion's limitations," says Hughes. "It is also a sign of its power. ... Fashion was fantasy. A fantasy of dreams but also of utopian possibility. That may be why women worshipped it."

Fundamentalist religions of all kinds heavily prescribe the dress and behaviour of women (this is not to say that the dress of men is not equally carefully coded, but in the case of men the dress is to assert male authority, while for women it reinforces a subservient status). As Sophie's email yesterday suggests, the irruption of female or unconventional male sexuality into any traditionally male-dominated sphere is perceived as a transgression. It seems to me only a question of degree, although of course that degree shifts the issue qualitatively: in extreme circumstances, dressing according to code may be a matter of life or death, rather than one of social embarrassment. I was fascinated yesterday to find Ishtar's blog (at ishtartalking.blogspot.com). For Ishtar, a woman writing from Basra in Iraq, the issue of dress is all-consuming: her right to dress as she wishes is the sign of an impermissible freedom, and her decision to dress as required is, as she explicitly says, the result of fear:

Because the things I need are so many it got to the point where it started negatively affecting my mood, and that didn't need another thing bothering it, I finally decided to go to the market. Ignoring, although only superficially, the danger and trouble of going out without veil specially to a place like the market. I wore for the first time a very wide and long skirt….really wide. And a shirt which was as wide and loose fitting as the skirt, it also had long, loose sleeves so the effect was like wearing a long jubah. And I had to put a Hijab on my head although it was so hot my head was almost exploding. But that might have been because I was feeling annoyed with myself for giving in to some else's wishes and maybe also because I believe that by doing as they wish I am helping in propagating their wishes. Anyway this is better than getting harassed by someone and as I have been told this harassment might take the form of a small knife or a razor-sharp tongue.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

This and that

Just back from a sojourn in Ballarat - my home town, if I can be said to have one - certainly where I spend most of my childhood, from seven to fifteen. It was very pleasant to be out in the country, although I have become so urban that I can't imagine ever living there again. Mostly, besides eating, I looked at the bird life: wedgetailed eagles being harrassed by magpies, and blue wrens, and honey eaters, and kookaburras, and of course the crimson rosellas in their papally gorgeous raiment which come to the house each day to be fed. The most relaxed rabbits in Victoria graze on the lawn even at midday and in the distance you can see kangaroos. I always forget what big animals they are, almost as big as the cattle.

It is green, but not as green as it should be at this time of year; the dam is empty because there has not been enough rain for run off for 18 months. The train trip is kind of sobering. You run from the Pentland Hills, dramatic valleys carved by giant glaciers millions of years ago, south into the utterly flat land around Melton. Even in midwinter, it is clearly in the grip of drought: the paddocks look blasted, just brown squares littered with the rubble of volcanic rocks, where a few scrawny horses or apathetic sheep scrabble for a few blades of dead grass. The reservoir is literally a puddle at the bottom of a valley of dried mud, relieved only by the dead trees which are usually hidden by the water.

Just got a note from Sophie Levy, poet and classicist at large, commenting on my Memememe post on June 14. She says:

Incidentally, I've just been paging quickly through your blog and came across the discussion of the 'mes' and the bold, strong women they all are. Not being a subscriber to British Poets (I still have something of Groucho Marx' attitude about joining clubs that will have me) I didn't hear the furore, but I can imagine it, and I totally agree with you. Male/writing within the status quo: they're both default positions (as is whiteskin privilege), things that are presumed to be neutral and invisible. I've heard similar discussions about overt self-presentation after conference papers and job talks given by women (and by openly gay men) -- the academy, as you say in your talk, is a hall of fractured mirrors that throw back such distorted claims about identity. For the Cassandra paper I wore a dress dyed in overlapping bands dark red through yellow, like flames. Ankle-length, and yet still I felt vulnerable to being read as both feminised and overly sexual. And yet I've heard male professors commenting after a woman job candidate gave a talk wearing a fairly sombre, well-cut grey trouser suit that she was "butched-up to confront [them]" - despite her long hair and curvy figure.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Words, words, words...

The word is "stuffed". If this blog has been neglected, to which I plead guilty, it's not because I've been swanning around filing my non-existent fingernails. It's because I've been giving myself RSI. First I finished THE NOVEL but scarcely had I swallowed a peach schnapps in celebration than I had to move on and write two papers, in consequence of my suddenly being invited to four different panels for three events over two weekends. And I say they never ask me anywhere in Melbourne! It has all been most interesting and thought provoking, but I have seldom felt more tired. I hope to blog a couple of responses to the events when I recover. In the meantime, however, I thought I'd post one of the papers I wrote for the Writers' Symposium, part of the 2003 International Federation for the Teaching of English conference, which Melbourne has been hosting over the past few days. The given topic was "The Imaginative Life and the Social Responsibility of Writers", and my fellow panellists were novelist Richard Flanagan, playwright Hannie Rayson and oral historian/performer Leah Purcell.

The Imaginative Life and the Social Responsibility of Writers

On the question of politics and art, I would like to take full advantage of being a poet and begin by expressing my negative capability: that quality John Keats defined as the ability to remain “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. On the one hand, I believe that art is inescapably political. And on the other, I believe that art and politics have nothing to do with each other.

Both these statements seem to me to be true. Contradiction is, of course, a shorthand way of expressing a complex reality, and tonight I would like to tease out a little of what I mean. My argument will be inevitably schematic: it’s impossible to do more than scrape the surface of the vexed and fascinating relationship between writing and society. However, I’ll begin by stating a position: I believe that all works of art, no matter how hermetic or esoteric they might appear to be, are embedded in and are responses to the cultures and societies in which they are made. Culture – by which I mean not only works of art but the structures of critical thought, both institutional and individual, which respond to and evaluate them – is never above society or human life or the historical moment in which it occurs.

The humanistic western tradition of art, a tradition which has not yet died despite many attempts on its life, maintains the opposite. Perhaps the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold sums up this tradition best: in 1860, he influentially defined culture as being “the best knowledge and thought of [its] time”. To Arnold, culture was a force which palliated the brutalising realities of modern urban existence and which was, in every sense of the word, “above” it. But, as Edward Said has demonstrated in his remarkable and necessary studies, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, this idea of culture is by no means separable from the worlds of mercantile or imperial power within which it existed. By reinforcing European culture and art as central and the culture of the rest of the world as “inferior”, and more importantly, by appropriating to itself the right to know and represent the Other (by which I mean all marginalised peoples: women, “inferior” races and cultures, the poor, the insane), culture was as important an instrument of wordly power as the armies of the British Empire.

In his conclusion to Culture and Anarchy, Arnold identified culture, “the best knowledge and thought”, with the State. “Culture,” he said, “is the most resolute enemy of anarchy, because of the great hopes and designs for the State which culture teaches us to nourish”. He opposed strikes or protests, no matter how justifiable, on these grounds: the State, as the embodiment of “the best”, was, as he said, “sacred”. And he wholeheartedly approved of the brutal repression of rebellions against the British Empire by the native populations of Ireland and India. By his lights, they were not only irrational but blasphemous.

It’s sad to see that in the 21st century things are not much different. Only the terms have changed: the prevalent culture is now one of mass media, a globalised industry of representation which is the front of another imperial power. But where once culture was supposed to lift us above worldly concerns, now it is supposed to “entertain” us, to anaesthetise us against the multiple anxieties of contemporary life: we are offered a kind of infantile sublime. Serious cultural critique is no longer the concern of bourgeois daily newspapers, and has retreated in disarray to the halls of the academy, where radical thinking has dissolved itself in a haze of self-reflection and has grown progressively more impotent. There are, of course, noble exceptions, many of whom are working from within the very humanistic traditions they critique.

In the past decade, the demand that writing be “above” politics, never far away, has strongly reasserted itself. This is enough to prompt a deep suspicion: writing which most strongly professes itself to be apolitical or above worldly concerns is most usually, in its identification with the status quo, deeply ideological. It is an ideology which often remains invisible, because it does not challenge the prevailing attitudes of its times. This goes some way to explaining why the perjorative accusation of being “political” is very often levelled at work which contests the status quo, rather than at the equally “political” work which supports it.

To examine how a work might support or challenge a status quo, I wish to turn to the question of representation. One of the interesting phemomena of our times is public language, which so often inoculates itself against ideas of justice and democracy and freedom by adopting their language. Thus we make a war which is called peace, create an occupation which is called a liberation, make “core” and “non-core” promises, and so on. This goes deeper than the slang word “spin” implies: “spin” suggests a superficial action, the extra pressure on a moving ball which slightly turns it. In reality this is a profound distortion of language, and thus of public realities. Writing is not exempt from this, and there is much writing which claims a radicality which it does not earn by simply adopting the vocabularies of freedom and justice, without addressing the deeper implications of the structures of language and thought which it employs. This kind of approach ultimately serves the status quo as effectively as any right wing polemicist.

Here I should make clear that I am not entering the business of cultural blame. Narrowly political methods of reading and analysis are anathema to me. Writing that is worth the name is always complex, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that, for example, reading Shakespeare is a waste of time because he was a scion of Elizabethan imperialism. To acknowledge how writing is embedded in its time and place and society is to deepen our understanding of its meanings and possibilities. It is to ask that we read and write with awareness and attentiveness to all dimensions of our existence.

By its most basic definition, art is a process of representation. To represent anything is, in the broadest sense, an inescapably political action, and an action which has effect. This is why culture is such a hotly contested arena, and why anyone who concerns him or herself with the business of representation has to be aware of what a representation is and what it means to make it. I have talked of the political implications of work which supports the State or the prevailing culture, but of course the writing which has always been most interesting is that which dissents, the writing which resists, by a multiplicity of means, the forces of received thought and convention.

This is why, rather than posing the question of the relationship between the writer and society in terms of social or political responsibility, I would rather think of a morality of representation.

Representation means not only what is represented, but how it is represented. In a work of art, style and content are not separable qualities: a poem is not a vessel into which is poured a meaning, which can then be poured into another vessel for analysis by a reader or critic. A poem’s aesthetic, formal properties – its rhythms, its sonic pleasures, its shape on a page, its metaphors – are as much part of its meaning as anything that can be paraphrased into “plain” prose. The aesthetic properties of a work are those to which a reader responds at a visceral, emotional level. They work directly through the senses, anticipating intellectual apprehension, which always comes later, and are essential in communicating the fullness of any work’s meaning. They are also qualities which cannot be transposed from the work itself: no truly literary writing can be paraphrased. Consequently, these qualities are very often forgotten in discussing any work of art. But it is precisely these aesthetic qualities that define a work of art as art: and it is here that a moral consciousness, a morality, begins.

What do I mean, then, by morality? The simplest dictionary definition is that morality is the attempt to make distinctions between right and wrong. I must make a very clear distinction here between morality and the business of moralising, a totally different and uninteresting activity which bases itself securely in received opinion. To moralise is to know in advance what is right and what is wrong. The rightwing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, who is currently conducting a disgracefully dishonest crusade against the arts, is a moraliser. On the other hand, a moral consciousness is the product of the often painful and always ongoing evolution of an individual conscience. It is a process which situates itself first of all in uncertainty, and which accepts that the world is complex and full of contradictions. It is a desire, above all, to recognise and to understand human reality.

Human reality is anarchic and unpredictable. It is, not uncoincidentally, the reality most often suppressed by governments who want to do something immoral. The most blatant local example of this was during the last election, when our Federal Government forbade the Navy to take “humanising” photographs of asylum seekers. They were ordered to take the pictures at a distance, so individual faces could not be recognised and spark public empathy, thus permitting the representation of asylum seekers as hostile and dangerous aliens to proceed without discomfort. This is a particularly crude example, but sadly not an isolated one; such control of representation is one of the premier concerns of any structure which seeks to gain and maintain power.

Literature has always existed in a context of other representations, both literary and unliterary, but for the contemporary writer the surrounding material is overwhelming. It’s not only that we have an access to multiple cultural traditions, both literary and oral, which is historically unprecedented. We also exist in a world saturated by images and texts from the mass media, which exert a power and hegemony which is also unprecedented: every day we encounter newspaper reports, television, film, the internet,the ubiquity of advertising. This means we live, as writers and therefore as custodians and maker of language, in a uniquely rich and uniquely destructive time.

The sheer weight of these modes of representation forces on us the question of where we situate ourselves in relation to them, and to the industries and interests which promote them; what we might call the cultural machine. There is no easy answer to this question - it may be, in fact, that there is no answer - but that does not mean that the question is any less crucial. Do we wish to affirm the values and ideologies of the prevailing culture, or do we wish to examine what role these representations play in the formation of reality? Do we really wish to examine honestly our collusions with power, even with power that we detest? After all, even writing in the English language is an act with implications: the international prevalence of English is inseparable from its role in suppressing other cultures, and in the deaths of literally hundreds of languages.

And it is impossible, in a society as slickly commodified as ours is, to escape the commodification of the word: no matter how radical a work might be, if it persists, it will be appropriated. This appropriation is in fact the condition of its survival from one generation to the next. The relationship between society and the writer is very often a poisonous one: the cultural machine responds to writing which challenges its authority by creating antibodies to destroy the work. The work it cannot destroy it appropriates and commodifies, and therefore neutralises: so the poetry of Ibsen’s plays, for example, is transformed into a quaintly old fashioned version of television naturalism, and loses its primary force and political power. The apotheosis of this absorptive ability was surely the sight of William Burroughs making advertisements for Nike.

As writers, we all face this dilemma: we are part of our society, and not above it. It is essential to our existence, as human beings and as writers. To write outside society is not only an oxymoron, it’s an impossibility. But if our work can only exist within it as a commodified object – and there is no other way for it to exist, if we wish it to enter the public domain – the work is doomed. Construed at its most black, there is no way out of this dilemma. Either the writer becomes part of the machine, a structure which she may professedly despise, or she is not a writer. The most she can hope to do is to temporarily evade its machinations by a series of continually more acrobatic strategies, by maintaining an impossible vigilance, or by living in a cave in the middle of the Simpson desert.

But I think there nevertheless remains an inextinguishable, if perhaps a tiny, hope. The hope lives in the fact that writing is a human activity, and is therefore subject to the anarchies and contradictions of human existence. It is the hope that the aesthetic experience of a work of writing, the experience of beauty that writing can offer, may ignite its anarchy, its human and humane reality, within another’s mind.

By “beauty”, I do not mean that anodyne quality which is often given the name of beauty – those conventional and acceptable idealisations which serve to soothe our anxieties and which ultimately blind us to reality. I mean the shattering, true experience: the experience of beauty as an awakening to our world, its human and unhuman realities, its agonies, its contradictions, its terrifying freedom, and its joy. To make beauty, to wrestle back the realities of human experience from the many interested powers which seek to conceal and distort it, seems to me a uniquely moral act. In these over-mediated and warlike times, it even seems to me to be a necessary act.

“We still try to cultivate the hope,” says the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, “that the human genus is capable of acting rightly, which presupposes that it is capable of recognising its own structure, and that of reality. We still believe in a human potential. Beauty is what we call that feeling of happiness which in art, as a human message, is released by the communication of some sort of belief. And yet such belief, even in its most illusion-free variants – such as in Beckett’s art – is not contained in a philosophical or intellectually encoded message, but in the experience, communicated by sensory perception, of people who succeed in expressing themselves … knowing full well that the artist has not something to say, but something to create.”

Lachenmann’s comments remind me of something my son said to me when he was seven years old. The making of beautiful things was, he said, a “moral duty”.

But that moral duty is more, much more, than a matter of the self flowering into a painful and joyous reality. To recognise oneself is, ultimately, to recognise reality. Writing which brings me this experience of beauty is writing that expresses a particular writer’s truth, one truth out of the many truths which infuse our world with their meanings. It makes me begin to understand my relationships to this world, my alienations, my loneliness, my community; it shows me another way of seeing and being. This recognition, if it is a real recognition, if it is not denied or evaded, prompts the evolution of a morality: for a moral consciousness begins, as the sociologist Zygmunt Baumann has said, with the recognition of the other. Most of all, such writing gives courage, and from that courage opens the possibility of action.

The miasma of contemporary mass culture makes us, as a populace, frightened and disempowered. This is a deliberate policy, as in this way we become manipulable: we are made into docile consumers and docile voters. But writing which gives us its truth gives back to us what others have taken away. It gives us a glimpse through the miasma. It liberates us, even if shows us the bleakest of realities, because it giving us is its own truth, and not the distorted truths of power.

I’ll finish with a quote from the American poet and human rights activist Muriel Rukeyser, who is a writer who work has often given me courage. What she says here of poetry applies equally to all forms of writing, and for me it articulates the small but potent hope that writing may legitimately claim:

Much …has been taken away from us; but now we need to look for the relating forces. The forces, that is, that love to make and perceive relationships and cause them to grow; they may be most complex.

As poetry is complex.

For poetry, in the sense in which I am using the word, is very like the love of which Diotima told Socrates. She, speaking of love, told how it was of its nature neither good nor beautiful, for its desire was the beautiful, its desire was the good.

I speak, then, of a poetry which tends where form tends, where meanings tend.

This will be a poetry which is concerned with the crises of our spirit, with the music and images of these meanings. It will also be a poetry of meeting places, where the false barriers go down. For they are false.


Letter to George and Thomas Keats, John Keats, 1817, John Keats, Selected Poetry and Letters, Rinehart Press, San Francisco, 1969
Quoted in The World, The Text and The Critic, Edward Said, Vintage, London 1991, p10
Music as an image of Mankind, Helmut Lachenmann, Masthead Literary Arts magazine print issue No. 3 1999
The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser, Paris Press, Massachussetts, 1996

Writers’ Symposium, International Federation for the Teaching of English, 2003
July 6, Melbourne Concert Hall

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