Geordie Wil­liamson: our chief critic’s farewell, and part­ing thoughts

The po­lit­i­cal an­tag­o­nism to­wards our writ­ers and their work leaves us all worse off, ar­gues

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Geordie Wil­liamson

Karl Kraus was the great­est jour­nal­ist of fin-de-siecle Vi­enna. He was also the most lu­cid critic of the pro­fes­sion in his day. He be­lieved that if we were obliged to imag­ine the re­al­ity be­hind the in­for­ma­tion in our morning news­pa­pers, then our hor­ror and dis­gust would drive us to al­ter it. As Kraus’s mid-cen­tury de­fender, Ger­man-Jewish scholar Erich Heller, put it: “If one man’s imag­i­na­tion were in­spired by it and gave expression to it, all the tragedies of an­cient Greece would dwin­dle into idyl­lic sen­ti­men­tal­i­ties be­fore such a drama of hu­man cor­rup­tion and hu­man agony.”

Heller’s words came to mind a few days ago, dur­ing an au­di­ence ques­tion on ABC’s Q&A pro­gram, when Mal­colm Turn­bull was ad­dressed by an asy­lum-seeker from Manus Is­land. Behrouz Boochani, a Kur­dish-Ira­nian jour­nal­ist, beamed into the cosy con­fines of the tele­vi­sion stu­dio from a prison thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away. He looked gaunt, wounded; there was a monk­ish sever­ity about him. And when Boochani asked the Prime Minister why he, a man who had been obliged to leave his fam­ily and home­land, who had gam­bled ev­ery­thing on a new life, found him­self in in­def­i­nite off­shore de­ten­tion, I felt a rent open up be­tween ab­strac­tion and the real. Turn­bull, umm-ing and ahh- ing, saw it too. No de­gree of elo­quence in the de­fence of bi­par­ti­san gov­ern­ment pol­icy would erase the fact of this man, his pal­pa­ble anger and de­spair.

Through this tear rushed other au­thors and other words. Look­ing at Boochani, I thought of the es­say writ­ten by French philoso­pher and Chris­tian mys­tic Si­mone Weil. Her The Iliad, or Poem of Force ap­peared in 1940 fol­low­ing the fall of France and Europe’s plunge into years of con­flict and de­struc­tion. It in­ves­ti­gates, through a read­ing of Homer’s epic poem, the ways in which force in­flects on hu­man af­fairs. She saw force not just as a mat­ter of war, of bod­ies do­ing vi­o­lence to other bod­ies, but as a phe­nom­e­non var­i­ous in its ef­fects. For ex­am­ple, she writes, the slave and the sup­pli­cant may be turned by the use of force into some­thing half­way be­tween the liv­ing and the dead:

From its first prop­erty (the abil­ity to turn a hu­man be­ing into a thing by the sim­ple method of killing him) flows an­other, quite prodi­gious too in its own way, the abil­ity to turn a hu­man be­ing into a thing while he is still alive. He is alive; he has a soul; and yet — he is a thing.

“Who can say,” she con­cludes, “what it costs it, mo­ment by mo­ment, to ac­com­mo­date it­self to this res­i­dence, how much writhing and bend­ing, fold­ing and pleat­ing are re­quired of it? It was not made to live in­side a thing; if it does so, un­der pres­sure of ne­ces­sity, there is not a sin­gle el­e­ment of its na­ture to which vi­o­lence is not done.”

Who can say, in­deed. The force that flows from leg­isla­tive fiat, through prison guards and ra­zor wire, would seem to have this ef­fect on Boochani and his fel­low in­hab­i­tants of Manus, Nauru and Christ­mas is­lands, turn­ing them into what Weil called a com­pro­mise be­tween a man and a corpse. Yet in mo­ments like that which took place on Q&A, we see the striv­ing of the soul to be­come more than the sub­ject of force. The lin­ea­ments of the strug­gle take place in front of our eyes. There is a painful dig­nity to such ef­forts; and it is as hard for us to look, as it is for us to look away.

Still, we are deal­ing with ex­ter­nal re­al­ity in this in­stance: we de­duce the in­ner strug­gle from the outer. There is an­other way. Neil Gaiman calls the novel “an em­pa­thy ma­chine”, by which he means the imag­i­na­tion of the cre­ative writer en­ters into pre­sumed fra­ter­nity with the “thing” and ven­tures, us­ing lan­guage and nar­ra­tive, to fur­nish the spec­u­la­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal in­scape of the ob­ject of their at­ten­tion. The old-school his­to­rian mar­shals fact — num­bers, dates, places, events — to de­scribe the ob­jec­tive truth of a given con­flict, say the fall of France, which Weil lived through. But the cre­ative writer sinks into the skin of those who were there, en­ters into the thoughts and emo­tions of the wounded and dy­ing, the dis­placed and dam­aged, and gropes to­wards some more vis­ceral truth.

Count­less stu­dents of World War II have re­layed the de­tails of the fall of France. They have mapped out the bat­tles, tal­lied the liv­ing and the dead. Why, then, when we turn to the pages of a work such as An­toine de Saint-Exupery’s ac­count of the same events, Flight to Ar­ras, and find an­other or­der of ve­rac­ity at work? Here the aris­to­cratic early avi­a­tor, now a French Air Force pi­lot, flies what is likely a doomed mis­sion to take re­con­nais­sance pho­tos at Ar­ras in the early days of the con­flict. While be­neath the civil­i­sa­tion that nur­tured and shaped him burns, he seeks some place from which to gain a fuller van­tage:

I longed for the night as the poet might do, the true poet who feels him­self in­hab­ited by a thing ob­scure but pow­er­ful, and who strives to erect images like ram­parts round that thing in or­der to cap­ture it. To cap­ture it in a snare of images.

In the midst of war, Saint-Exupery and Weil turn to po­etry, not be­cause they are seek­ing an es­cape from ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stance but be­cause they want a purer mir­ror to re­flect it, or a se­ries of de­pic­tions that will an­i­mate it. They seek to most fully and faith­fully en­gen­der plain fact with hu­man feel­ing.

I leave the role of chief lit­er­ary critic at Australia’s sole na­tional broad­sheet at a cu­ri­ous mo­ment. The writ­ing of the con­ti­nent I have spent the past eight years cel­e­brat­ing and cri­tiquing faces a mo­ment of cri­sis, not be­cause of war or some other im­mi­nent dis­as­ter but be­cause we have de­cided we can­not af­ford the in­sights that cre­ative writ­ers af­ford. At a mo­ment of un­prece­dented na­tional pros­per­ity, we feel so poor that the pit­tance set aside for the kind of ac­tiv­i­ties un­der­taken by nov­el­ists and short­story writ­ers, drama­tists and po­ets — all those words for which the mar­ket can find no easy ac­com­mo­da­tion — must of ne­ces­sity be muted.

Whether we speak of the fund­ing cuts that have gut­ted re­search and uni­ver­sity li­braries around the coun­try, or the 40 per cent re­duc­tion in grants avail­able to in­di­vid­ual au­thors via the Australia Coun­cil, or the de­fund­ing of those lit­er­ary mag­a­zines that in­cu­bate lit­er­ary tal­ent, or the likely dis­man­tling of our lo­cal pub­lish­ing in­dus­try through the scrap­ping of par­al­lel im­por­ta­tion laws, the land­scape is a blasted one. Not since the es­tab­lish­ment of the Australia Coun­cil to as­sist the de­vel­op­ment of a na­tional lit­er­a­ture in the early 1970s has the sit­u­a­tion been so grim. Poverty, or at least pre­car­ity — you could call it the eco­nomic ver­sion of sup­pli­ca­tion — is the lot of most writ­ers at

work in Australia to­day. In a coun­try where the av­er­age yearly in­come was $58,000 in 2013, au­thors earn (from their own writ­ing) $12,900, less than a quar­ter of the norm.

Many sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, from au­thor Richard Flana­gan to pub­lisher Michael Hey­ward, have re­cently dealt with the minu­tiae of this re­treat from re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards writ­ers and their work. They have ex­plained how a small, nim­ble, barely sub­sidised cor­ner of the arts has be­come the most suc­cess­ful cul­tural export we have, a ma­jor part of an in­dus­try that is larger than the agri­cul­ture sec­tor in terms of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. But this is of­ten front-of­fice dis­cus­sion re­gard­ing the studs and nogs of pol­icy and law. We also need to talk about the social func­tion of lit­er­a­ture. We need to ac­knowl­edge those as­pects of the lit­er­ary en­ter­prise that do not fit the usual frame­works.

The first of these is the sense of co­he­sion that a na­tional lit­er­a­ture pro­vides. I don’t mean by this the nar­row and of­ten xeno­pho­bic pa­tri­o­tism or white iden­tity pol­i­tics bruited by the Don­ald Trumps, Nigel Farages and Pauline Han­sons of this world. Theirs is a co­he­sion premised on ex­clu­sion. It is men­da­cious and ugly, and in its dis­course queasy eu­phemism shades into out­right racism and dem­a­goguery. Rather, I mean a broad church of per­spec­tives, in which mem­ber­ship is open to any­one with pas­sion, ap­pli­ca­tion, imag­i­na­tion, in­tel­li­gence, in­sight and care. The works and their creators who in­habit this church do not have a com­mon plat­form; in­stead, they have a com­mon ori­en­ta­tion: to­wards hon­esty, to­wards am­bi­gu­ity, to­wards en­gage­ment with oth­ers and the world. In this sense, at least, au­thors of a na­tional lit­er­a­ture such as ours may be seen as the op­po­site of Trump and his ilk, mired in ig­no­rant cer­ti­tude.

I’ll go fur­ther: the re­crude­s­cent racial pol­i­tics through­out the West in re­cent years may be char­ac­terised by a kind of steril­ity. Its ad­her­ents look back­ward to an imag­ined per­fec­tion, a change­less world in which lesser races know their place and the vil­lage green is im­mac­u­late. It is a mono­cul­ture of the mind and spirit they sum­mon: a vi­sion in as­pic. But our na­tional lit­er­a­ture is closer to what ecol­o­gists call an eco­tone: a tran­si­tion area be­tween two biomes, a place where com­mu­ni­ties meet and in­te­grate. Think of the wet­lands where land meets sea, or the point where a farmer’s pad­dock meets a state for­est. The re­sult is an uptick in vigour and life. More species, more dy­namic growth — as though the meet­ing of dif­fer­ences were a nec­es­sary con­di­tion of true fe­cun­dity.

Each of the nar­ra­tives that make up this reef of words in­di­vid­u­ally per­forms this meet­ing of dif­fer­ences. They enun­ci­ate the fear and trep­i­da­tion we feel when faced with the Other, they trace the comic or tragic mis­pri­sions of which we are ca­pa­ble, even when ven­tur­ing to know those clos­est to us. They can be livid with the vi­o­lence of the world. They can be del­i­ques­cent as cloud. But each cre­ative in­stance adds to the massed bril­liancy of the whole, an ag­glom­er­a­tion welded to­gether by fruit­ful dif­fer­ence, made stronger by it.

The se­cond virtue of a na­tional lit­er­a­ture emerges from this var­i­ous­ness. Our nov­els and sto­ries are the­atres of pos­si­bil­ity for our in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive fu­tures. They in­ves­ti­gate the re­sults of im­pulses we feel but have not yet acted on. They cut an ex­ist­ing social or­der to shreds and re­make it in an im­age that is dystopian or utopian. They project into fu­tu­rity and ex­trap­o­late the ter­ri­ble pos­si­bil­i­ties aris­ing from our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. But they also dream of worlds with­out dis­as­ter, states of be­ing with­out pain, re­mind­ing us how much there re­mains to be grate­ful for. Ex­po­sure to such sto­ries is not with­out con­se­quence. Once we have been ex­panded by a book, the mind never fully re­lin­quishes the new pa­ram­e­ters set in place.

I leave this blessed role with a re­newed sense of won­der at what the au­thors of Australia can do, even un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. But the sense of dis­quiet at those cir­cum­stances re­mains. Our politi­cians are not fools — or if they are fools then they are at least cun­ning — so there must be a rea­son they would take up arms against that sub­set of the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity more re­spected and loved and more elo­quent in ar­gu­ment than they could ever be.

This, for what it is worth, is my the­ory: the rich­ness of hu­man pos­si­bil­ity that is Ozlit’s stock in trade is an af­front to the bar­ren and denuded vo­cab­u­lary both sides of pol­i­tics em­ploy. It must be galling to wit­ness the ocean of mean­ing sum­moned by the most tal­ented writ­ers when you traf­fic ex­clu­sively in three-word sound bites. It must be a mat­ter for shame that there ex­ists a tribe of truth-tell­ers, of com­plex­ity-mon­gers, of beauty-mak­ers when all you have to of­fer are stale and fear-filled re­it­er­a­tions of a pol­i­tics that has brought ma­te­rial pros­per­ity but lit­tle more.

Fi­nally, it seems that Aus­tralian writ­ers’ re­fusal to cir­cum­scribe their imag­i­na­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tions — to leave their scru­ples at immigration — prods at the in­di­vid­ual con­science of those pol­i­cy­mak­ers who wish to draw tight cir­cles around those per­mit­ted to share in our com­mon wealth, our vaunted free­doms, our is­land peace. What Australia’s writ­ers know, which its politi­cians refuse to know, is that the dig­nity and fra­ter­nity we grant oth­ers by our imag­i­na­tive and em­pa­thetic at­ten­tions is uni­ver­sal or it is noth­ing. Homo sum,

hu­mani ni­hil a me alienum puto — ‘‘I am hu­man, and noth­ing of that which is hu­man is alien to me’’ — wrote Ro­man play­wright Ter­ence more than two mil­len­nia ago. What is less known about Ter­ence is that he was a Ber­ber. He was a brown-skinned cit­i­zen of the Repub­lic.

By ex­pand­ing the range of our sym­pa­thies, by draw­ing into the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity asy­lum-seek­ers, in­dige­nous Aus­tralians, all those who do not com­port to es­tab­lished norms of gen­der or class or sex­u­al­ity, our au­thors re­veal the crimped, se­lec­tive moral­ity of our lead­ers. The re­al­ist takes in these lines and nods sagely: of course, writ­ers are free to imag­ine what­ever they please. Politi­cians are bound by cus­tom and prece­dent; they must gov­ern to the mid­dle. They must work within lim­its. But it is one thing to ac­knowl­edge re­alpoli­tik, quite an­other to limit the abil­ity of those who would ques­tion the ne­ces­sity and de­cency of those pol­i­tics through their works.

A demo­cratic polity sur­vives not through some drear ap­pli­ca­tion of out­moded rules, or through the am­pli­fi­ca­tion of anx­i­eties in the com­mu­nity as a means of re­tain­ing power. It ex­ists in the nec­es­sary ten­sion be­tween those who man­age ex­ist­ing re­al­i­ties and those who shape al­ter­na­tive vi­sions of the world. The past eight years have shown me that in a na­tion where those strands are un­bal­anced, all of us even­tu­ally lose hu­man vol­ume. Our lead­ers be­come what Joseph Con­rad called “pa­pier­ma­che Mephistophe­les”, husks held to­gether by slo­gans and glue. And we, the cit­i­zenry? We be­come slaves and sup­pli­cants to forces be­yond our con­trol. With­out the plen­i­tude of story, we, too, even­tu­ally be­come things.

Geordie Wil­liamson was chief lit­er­ary critic of The Aus­tralian from 2008 to 2016. He is the in­com­ing pub­lisher of Pi­cador Australia.


Asy­lum-seek­ers at the Manus Is­land de­ten­tion cen­tre; au­thor Richard Flana­gan

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