In American scholar Nicholas Birns, Australian literature has found a committed and honest umpire, writes Geordie Williamson
Celebrated scholar Erich Auerbach believed a nation’s literature was not a frivolous adjunct to the state but its foundational fact, its animating principle. In an essay only recently rediscovered and published in English 70 years after its composition, the German-Jewish philologist outlines a curious thesis. He argues that the poetry — in the archaic sense of the word, referring to a period when poetry was the dominant literary mode — of a particular people is a record of and testament to their growing into consciousness.
The literature of a nation is, then, the song of that old, tribal coming-to-be retooled for a world of sovereign states, one that notates collective character and even gestures towards national destiny.
This is how Germany welded itself from a patchwork of warring principalities: by recourse to Schiller and Goethe. This is how England was invented by Shakespeare, Spanish became known as “the language of Cervantes”, and Walter Scott and Robert Burns created Scotland’s sense of itself as a nation apart. And just as Scott returned to distant historical events to revivify modern Scotland, Auerbach believed that when civil discord or invasion or some other phenomenon impeded the organic growth of a national literature, a return to wellsprings — that is earlier, canonical works — might help restart the process.
This may sound a little volkisch to Australian ears. Certainly the idea of an Australian national literature has taken some knocks in recent decades. There are those on the political Left who regard canons such as these as the ossified remains of world views that no longer reflect contemporary circumstances and arrangements; they are clubs designed to exclude. Meanwhile, the culture-warrior Right pays lip service to the same canon while dismantling the infrastructure that helps build and sustain it. It is a debate long descended into trench warfare and so requiring an outside arbitrator. In Nicholas Birns, we have thankfully found a good and honest umpire.
Birns is a professor of English at The New School in New York. He is also that rarest of academic birds: an American scholar with a special interest in Australian writing. He has been editor of Antipodes, the US journal of Australian literature, since 2001, and has published widely on Ozlit subjects since the early 1990s.
His reading is broad and catholic, his judgments shrewd yet generous, and his ideological positions nuanced. And in Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead, he assembles a series of substantial essays that attempt a survey of the field of Australian literature, past and present.
“This book,” he begins, “is largely concerned with the economic philosophy of neoliberalism.” Though he is not blind to the advantages neoliberalism brings — cultural diversity, free circulation of goods and ideas, greater opportunities for choice — he nonetheless is wary of any system that places such utopian confidence Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead By Nicholas Birns Sydney University Press, 252pp, $30 in the powers of the market. He is keen to disavow the “sentimental pessimism” American scholar Stephen Greenblatt sees collapsing “everything into a global vision of domination and subjection”. Birns writes: But, like all periods of history, the current one involves forms of injustice and dogma that writers must defy, evade or circumvent … This era’s writers have a unique challenge, and this book tells the story of how, in Australia, they have responded to this challenge.
What links the disparate cast of poets and writers in these pages, from arch-formalists such as AD Hope to wild postcolonial originals such as Alexis Wright, is that their work represents a counter-narrative to what Birns regards as the totalising tendencies of neoliberalism. Their works suggest there are ways of responding to place, or forming communities and relationships, or judging value that evade the onesize-fits-all approach of the market.
Most of all, the incorrigibly plural nature of Australian literary practice, the instability of its canon in relation to those Anglosphere monoliths the US and Britain, means the rankings are looser, the competitors more dispersed (and, more recently, diverse). The banal dichotomy of winner and loser that passes for competition in contemporary contrast.
So it is a liberal, loose-limbed, messy democracy of voices that Birns summons up — from the old-school modernism of Christina Stead to the contemporary ecological poetics of John Kinsella, from Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap to Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango. He follows a subtle reading of Elizabeth Harrower’s slender oeuvre with a chapter considering the length of Australian novels in relation to their national and international reception, then furnishes the reader with a triptych of pieces on “rancour”, “idealism” and “concern” respectively as they play out in various Australian texts.
His insights are informed by psychoanalytic theory, post-Marxist economics, new historicism and a dozen other theoretical rubrics. Yet his prose is orderly, his turn of phrase often elegant: he employs theory where it is helpful but maintains a stubbornly humanistic enthusiasm for the alternative worlds he enters as a reader.
And what he finds there is an evolution, from the postwar welfare state to our hypertrophied consumer culture, that has demanded different strategies in critique. Alex Hope’s poetry “had an animus against modern innovation”, loathed
A scene from the TV adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s
novel The Slap