Bob Dylan is currently criss-crossing Australia on yet another circuit of his globe-trotting, decades-long Never Ending Tour. He played Sydney’s gorgeous art deco State Theatre the other night, at oure one-time local venu, the small but venerable Enmore Theatre in Newtown, to acclaim from fans young and old.
Veteran Australian folk music critic Bruce Elderwrote somewhat underwhelmingly: “… given the inevitable limitations (his voice is an ageing, husky, adenoidal instrument; he doesn’t talk to the audience; he always offers new interpretations of his old material; every song was delivered from behind his piano; he never tries to establish a rapport with his audience) this was a fascinating stroll through the “great American songbook” via an eclectic reinterpretation of twenty of his songs”. But friends of mine were much more enthusiastic. Stephane wrote me: “I thought of you last night. The show was great, it was fantastic to see him (he is still in good shape at 77!!). We even saw him smiling and dancing a bit at some stage on a fantastic version of “Gotta serve somebody”. Charles messaged: “It was really, really good. He was in top form. His voice sounded better than it has for quite a while. He played only piano but that with gusto and energy – and sometimes tenderness – throughout. The band cooked and arrangements were brilliantly re-imagined bringing new focus to the lyrics “. And this from Llew: “Started with It Aint Me Babe and Ballad of a Thin Man, so I was happy no matter what else happened. He did an encore of Blowin’ in the Wind and Don’t Think Twice. Not the old versions of course. He never said a word to the crowd”.
At a Bob Dylan concert – and I’ve been to many – we hear what we wish to hear, filtered through the memory of how we heard him all those years ago when we were young and idealistic and our world was new. To this day, I can never get enough of Bob – in all of his many guises. I listen to at least one or two of his songs every week and always discover something I hadn’t heard before. He has been a constant soundtrack to my ever-evolving, often revolving sense and sensibility. I wish that I’d been there in Newtown on Sunday night.
Bob in Newtown
Meanwhile, I have recently read classics professor Richard F Thomas’ scholarly frolic Why Dylan Matters. It is an entertaining and informative if ponderous and overwrought exegesis of the Bobster’s interaction with and intertextualizing (there’s a nice, fresh word for us all) of the old Greek and Roman poets and playwrights, and also poems, plays and folk songs of later vintage, including Rimbaud, of course, and Robbie Burns, and the hunter-collectors Cecil Sharp, Alan Lomax and the eccentric Harry Smith’s encyclopedic Anthology of American Folk Music so well analyzed in Greil Marcus’ insightfull Invisible Republic – Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
And then, last night, by chance I watched the Todd Hayes’s 2007 film I’m Not There, an imaginative and at times surreal biopic inspired by Bob Dylan’s life and music, in which six actors depict different facets of Dylan’s public persona. I first saw the film when it was release and recall being a tad disappointed at the time and unsatisfied – although I did think that Cate Blanchett was fabulous as electric Bob.
Second time around, however, thought it a marvelous film full of allusions and illusions, facts and fictions, follies and fantasies. The selection of songs was superb, particularly Memphis Blues Again during the many railroad sequences, Ballad of a Thin Man in a smokey Blonde on Blonde cabaret, and The Man in the Dark Black Coat as the leitmotif for the Billy the Kid parable. The mix of extracts from interviews, chronicles, and other stuff was fascinating, and with the lyrics of the songs, demonstrate just what a gifted poet and songwriter Dylan was and is – which is the message Thomas gives in his professorial take on the man.
Cate was, as before, peerless. A great choice if a daring one on the producer’s part. She has the voice, the gestures, the body language down to a tee. She got a global globe award for that, and an Oscar nomination. Ben Whishaw as French poet Arthur Rimbaud is also very good, as is gorgeous Frenchie Charlotte Gainsbourg as Susie/Sara. And, much to my surprise, Richard Gere was good as the aging Billy the Kid (he got away after Pat Garrett done him in).
The weirdest thing is that just that morning, I was reading the lyrics to Tombstone Blues. And the second song up in I’m Not There was Tombstone Blues, sung by the late Richie Havens and a little Marcus Carl Franklin who goes by the name of Woody. They didn’t sing the best verses, but there is a cut, later on, to a Vietnam era President Johnson saying “the sun is not yellow, it’s chicken”. How about that?
With Bob Dylan once more on our fair shores, critic and author Peter Craven explains how Dylan’s “way with words helped change our times”.
It is reproduced below to surmount News Corp’s paywall.
Bob Dylan: rock poet’s way with words helped to change our times
Peter Craven, The Australian, 11th August 2018
For a lot of people who were young in the 1960s and starting to think of themselves as adults, Bob Dylan was a kind of god. And the funny thing is that this image of him as a sort of dynamised genius, a cross between Shakespeare and Marlon Brando, has never really gone away. We thought of him as a great songwriter who was also a great performer and, in a thrilling way, a great poet. And somehow this atmosphere of awe remains.
Dylan released what is probably his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, in mid-1966 — 52 years ago — yet on his present Australian tour (his first was, you guessed it, in 1966) a lot of bright young kids, millennials aged 22 or so, who are a bit bored with Shakespeare and a bit vague about Brando, will be there along with contingents of their parents or grandparents.
Rock music is partly a domain of classic fashion and no one is going to shift Dylan’s status because, in its contemporary aspect, Dylan created it. As he said to Keith Richards, that old villain of the Rolling Stones, “I could’ve written Satisfaction but you couldn’t have written Desolation Row.” Is that why they gave him the Nobel Prize in Literature two years ago? The fact he could write a 12-minute rock song that could include lines such as:
And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fishermen hold flowers Between the windows of the sea Where lovely mermaids flow And nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row
Is it that with Dylan, and especially the Dylan of those great records when the singer went electric (though Desolation Row is plucked out on an acoustic guitar with only the lamentation of the harmonica by way of accompaniment), rock music had thrown up a figure with the courage to trail the greatest artistic pretensions like a cloak?
Think of those mermaids in this long, deliberate monstrosity of a song, so lame with the limitations of musical talent and so grand and sepulchral in the way it overcomes them. Do the mermaids deliberately invoke TS Eliot’s Prufrock (“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”)?
Who knows? You could almost say who cares, as the logic of Desolation Row is annihilating because — whether by design or accident — it’s a pop-art replica of Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s as if Dylan has revised and rewritten Eliot’s poem and turned it into his own.
All of which is weird beyond belief. Dylan is the singer-songwriter with the highest reputation in the history of rock music, if not the whole of popular music, yet this reputation depends pretty absolutely on a few hours of music that he wrote in the 60s — between his second LP, The Freewheelin’Bob Dylan, in 1963 and John Wesley Harding in 1967, where he is already tending towards lean meditations on the bare bones of country music.
The only other album for which the very highest claims continue to be made is Blood on the Tracks,which dates from 1975 and is venerated by many enthusiasts, but which to the diehards sounds a bit like Dylan imitating himself, whatever claims you make for songs such as Tangled Up in Blue and Idiot Wind, and however endearing it is to hear Dylan throw off lines like “Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud”.
You can make a case that Dylan is very like Rimbaud — the French teenager who wrote some of the greatest poetry of the later 19th century — not in his relationships but in his relation to language. Like the French adolescent prodigy he took the poetic diction of our tradition — in its further reach, Western civilisation — and remade it in his own image.
So, in one way he’s like Rimbaud because he blazed so young, so briefly and so brilliantly, and lived to outlive his genius. Though it’s odd in a way to think that with Dylan, as with the casualties of rock 50 years ago (such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix), the reputation depends on the early work.
Then again, that’s some kind of norm, isn’t it? Think of how much the Rolling Stones trade on the vigour of what they wrote 50 or more years ago.
The 60s were when popular music upped its ante. Philosopher Raimond Gaita said to me once that before Dylan, anyone at a university was expected to educate themselves in classical music, according to their limits, but afterwards not. It helped of course that Dylan burst on the world in the early 60s with songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, so that he’s still sometimes thought of as a folk singer and a protest singer.
Poet Robert Lowell, who thought Dylan wrote some great lines though not sustained poems, said he had “a Caruso voice”, and it’s true that he had a voice — and in some sense still does — of such overpowering individuality that it haunts or harrows the soul.
He created his early music by sounding the depths of what he could learn from Woody Guthrie and the blues, but he gave it a grave monumentality that was at the same time radically individual — it sounded like nothing on earth, it didn’t sound like anything that was ordinarily called singing — yet it seemed, too, to speak for the folk, so that when he says in With God on Our Side “The country I come from / Is called the Midwest”, you believe him.
In fact, as “the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond” — as Joan Baez, his one-time lover and very beautiful vocal interpreter once called him — Dylan crisscrosses the US. But in his work from the mid-60s — in particular in the great songs on Blonde on Blonde such as Visions of Johanna (“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”) — he sings in a New York accent.
It’s the voice of the greatest of urban metropolises that enunciates that great line from Just Like a Woman — “I was hungry and it was your world”.
How could he dare to write with that kind of plainness and that kind of grandeur? And how could he create such an opalescent, allusive and elusive thing as the side-long, 11-minute Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands? Perhaps it’s an image of the eternally mourning woman, widowed by life: “And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — as much a transcendence of the popular culture it plays on as the very greatest of Warhol.
And that’s the trick with Dylan: he inhabits the form of an idiom he is re-creating. He sounds grounded in the deepest folk tradition yet the inimitable voice is the voice of something that a lifetime ago was a form of rock ’n’ roll. Think of the stately ravaged opening of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues:“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez / And it’s Easter time, too / And your gravity fails / And negativity don’t pull you through …” It sounds pretentious to say this sounds like Baudelaire, but it does.
Dylan’s idiom — a language that was at once streetwise and capable of literary reference — also had extraordinary emotional range. Think of the blistering invective of Positively 4th Street and then place it against the lyricism of Love Minus Zero/No Limit (“My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful / Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire …”) There’s a dazzling simplicity in that but the juxtaposition of “ideals” and “violence” is completely new in the world of popular music.
The times were a-changing and there’s a symbolic sense in which Dylan changed them. Quite early on he could write a song such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll that had as its refrain “But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears” where “philosophise” is used in the sense of rationalise but the upshot has a Shakespearean effect; it’s as if Dylan bypasses ordinary literary language to create a kind of sung poetry shorn of artifice.
And it’s there in the most lushly romantic and dreamy of Dylan’s songs, Mr Tambourine Man, perhaps the clearest example of why he is such a great songwriter, why he was once such a dazzling singer and why he is a poet.
In Ballad of a Thin Man Dylan derides someone who has been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books and is described as having discussed lepers and crooks with great lawyers.
I once discussed Dylan with one of the world’s great literary critics, Christopher Ricks — the man who did the knockout edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and who wrote the knockdown defence of Milton against his modernist critics. Ricks is one of Dylan’s most formidable admirers. He believes that when you put Dylan’s words together with music, he is an extraordinary maker of worlds out of words.
Dylan created for the rock music of the baby boomer generation a poetic language equal to its hubris in thinking it could discover a new heaven and a new earth, that it could encompass a radical new politics and some kind of derangement of the senses that might open up a new spirituality.
It may be that all these things were delusions or potential traps, but the language he used to shape and shade them has outlasted its occasion. That’s why it speaks to the millennials. That’s why they’ll be there in droves to see the grand old man of rock who is also so much more.
Dylan changed the language in which we think and feel.
Decades ago I gave up rock music and tried my way with classical music. But Dylan’s words and music have never left my mind.
When we shore up the ruins of what we have made Western civilisation, how could he not have a high and mighty place? Who do we think could compare with him?
I’ve read a lot about Dylan, and Peter Craven’s article is excellent, but the thing is, no words seem aver to come anywhere near accurately describing what seems to be a very personal and unique relationship / interpretation each fan of Dylan has with his work.
Here are some of the comments posted in respnse to Craven’s piece:
You make sweeping statements of Dylan’s relevance and output in the context of “decades ago I gave up rock music”. Making your critique of the greatest singer/songwriter’s career output rather shallow. “Tried my way with classical music” – good for you! In my experience, and in my own case, Dylan goes deep and has produced extraordinary work over decades, because of his singing and phrasing. The emotion, uniqueness and genius of his singing. Unfortunately his live voice has been off badly, imo, for about a decade now. The man is genius but it isn’t because of the songwriting. He should never have received a Nobel for Lit, that’s says more about the self important (why do we give it so much attention?) Nobel Academy than anything else. Dylan is rock n rolls greatest and most influential singer songwriter by a million miles. He is steep in rock, country, blues, folk and Americana. How predictable we get another tired article in a broadsheet newspaper misunderstandings & representing Dylan and from someone who “gave up Rock decades ago”. Why give up rock? And gave it up for classical, how worthy!!
He also wrote two of the most vicious put- down songs ever: “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street”.
Have seen him three times – each time was different. Would see him again. Love the fact that he constantly reinvents his classics and always has a sensational group of musicians with him. This concert is no exception – his piano playing is standout.
Dylan, in centuries to come, will not be so much seen as a singer song writer, but a written history of humans of the western world of the 20th century. Sent from the future to document and capture a deep understanding of the soul of humanity.
You get the impression of Dylan as an almost unsurpassed songwriter but reluctant performer, due to the brilliant cover versions of his songs. Think of Hendrix with All Along the Watchtower, Peter Paul and Mary with Too Much of Nothing (and Blowin’ in the Wind), Manfred Mann with Just Like a Woman and You Angel You, Bryan Ferry with A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and UB40 with I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
l And you might add Simon and Garfunkel’s repertoire…The Sounds of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and more thought-generating songs.
@Peter “reluctant performer”!!. No one in the history of rock n roll anywhere near is level of fame and influence has performed as many times. He is engaged in the “Never Ending Tour” that has been going essentially non-stop for two decades! Performance is the absolute essence of who and what Dylan is.
At 76 years of age I loved the good music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Occasionally I would hear the radio commentator, mention the name Bob Dylan but that was it. Never knew his songs or was ever interested in them.
He’s my favourite songwriter of all time and undoubtedly a genius, but I gave up on his concerts years ago. There seemed little point when he’d be half way into a song before I could actually (sort of) recognise it. I’ll stick to my record collection – and there are quite a few stinkers in there too – and memories of the great concerts.
I don’t agree with much that Peter Fitzsimmons says, but he called Dylan an impressionist and I think that is the best description of him.
No mention of “Lay lady Lay”. my favourite love song. ” whatever colours you have in your mind, I’ll show them to you, you’ll see them shine” Of course ” lay across my big brass bed” is not too shabby either.
His concerts have been unattendable for 30 years. Still a genius.
He may well be a good poet and songwriter. I agree with Bob Rogers, he should leave performing to others.
f only van Gogh painted like da Vinci, imagine how much better his paintings would be!
Never in recent memory have so many words have been printed about so little. at least not since The Australian’s last holy war.
Australia’s national broadsheet (that is, published nationally rather than in a particular state) The Australian, owned by expatriate Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is indulging in a mighty bout of shadow boxing on the subject of whether or not western civilization is or isn’t in decline in our antipodean Elysium. Shadow boxing in the sense that it preaches largely to the converted on a subject that is close to the heart of its opinionistas, and of little consequence to the public at large. Its adversary is that will ‘o the wisp otherwise know as the ‘green-left’ that has set up a virtual red commune in the our universities and the soviet that is our national broadcaster.
Take the question of whether the Australian National University should have accepted money from a private body to establish a course in Western civilization aimed at educating a new generation of potential movers and shakers in the cultural foundations of our society. This argument has swept the pages of the conservative media like a wildfire with, it must be said, more heat than light. In the outrage industry it is hard to recall an episode that has generated, well, more outrage.
Cultural commentator Peter Craven writes: “It’s hard to imagine the heat of the Western civilization/Ramsay Centre debate being generated in the way it has been anywhere but in this country”. And it is indeed a peculiar penchant of our own predominantly white, middle aged, Anglo-Celtic cultural warriors. Nothing, it seems, stirs their blood more than an argument about academic license or press freedom if this is not favourably disposed to their side. One is tempted to ask what would these champions of “political incorrectness” do without academia and the ABC to rail against; although it might be observed that one person’s political correctness is another person’s political incorrectness.
Now, many of us share reservations about sources of university funding that may or may not have a particular political purpose, such as those directed at establishing Confucius institutes and such like, supported by Chinese government front organisations, and cash provided to the likes of the ANU’s Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies by Middle East autocracies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Somehow, soft power exercised through football stadiums and other bread and circuses are preferable to surreptitiously propagating favourable opinion, research, and influence in our institutions of higher learning.
In a university like the ANU, recognized globally as one of Australia’s top three universities (with Sydney and Melbourne), a course in the great foundational texts of Western civilization would seem to be desirable. It would have been modeled on the Great Books courses offered as core curricula at American institutions like Columbia and Chicago. None of these courses are branded as disciplines in “Western civilization’’, this is the basis for the works studied, representing the canon of Western literature and thought.
Given the challenges facing us in an era disrupted by a rank populism that owes little to the Enlightenment – rather a return to the Dark Ages – it would seem all the more desirable for a great Australian institution like the ANU to focus on texts that have contributed to Western civilization.
And there is indeed nothing wrong with a university course dedicated to western civilization provided it included the bad bits as well as the “hope and glorious”, like the dark side of Empire, Ireland, Australia, and the MidEast, the Wars Of Religion, and such. And if it endeavoured to avoid bias and prejudice, and control by the Centre for Independent Studies. One would hope that the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies would do likewise and resist the atavistic urging of its autocratic and anachronistic donors (we are assured that all is indeed above board). But it’s hard to dismiss the logic of that old German idiom Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing – His song I sing who gives me bread.
Much of the opposition to the proposed course by left-wing academics, students and commentators is inspired by its sponsors. Those old culture war-horses, former Liberal prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbot get people thinking the course will be an Anglo-Christian, Rule Britannia whitewash, and a mirror of the old Oxbridge PPE that has spawned much of Britain’s Tory elite. To many, these two and those who think like them, are in thrall to our English heritage as a conquering Anglo-Celtic tribe and wish we were back in the 1950s when the Christian God was in his heaven, women were in the kitchen, blacks were in their place, and our White Australia Policy kept out all the rest.
The Abbott and Howard vision would no doubt be an Anglo-centric one. They seek a panegyric of Imperial nostalgia and a narrative that reflects their world view. I can’t quite see these old culture warriors and many Young Liberals for that matter (an incongruous, anachronistic cabal of reactionaries if ever there was one) getting off on Greek and Roman poetry and philosophy (Socrates and Sappho would not pass moral muster), Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, and the Russian and French literary canon. There’s much more to Western Civilization than Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible. Recall what Old Mahatma Gandhi said when asked about western civilization. He thought it might be a good idea, and worth giving it a try.
Much of the commentary concerning the Ramsay Centre has been secreted behind News Limited’s pay-wall, Which, by default, preaches to the conservatism converted. So I have taken the liberty to republish below some of the more intriguing coverage. I begin, however, an amusing overview from Crikey, followed by commentaries by journalist and academic Peter van Onselen, whom many on the right would probably regards as a communist mole and class traitor like Malcolm Fraser, and The Australian’s resident aynrandista and the counter-revolution’s Madame Defarge, Janet Albrechtsen. I present more cogent opinion pieces by sociologist John Carrroll, and the ever-readable and reasonable Peter Craven, whilst American pundit Daniel Pipes provides an international perspective on the wider “war of civilization” to ground the puny polemics of our parochial partisans. Western civilization is indeed under threat at the moment, and it certainly needs defending – from enemies far more dogmatic, determined and dangerous than the reds under our Murdoch myrmidons’ beds.
I’m with Craven when he writes: “It’s all been a bit mad, the suggestion that any reverence for Western civilization implies an endorsement of all the crimes done in its name, or the opposite notion, that it requires blatant boosting and barracking in a world of dangerous futile left-wing loons who do nothing but repudiate our heritage and deprive our children. None of which is to deny elements of truth in both bits of cartoon invective”. And I’m still with him when he concludes “We’re all better for reading these things. They civilise us. Take the Ramsay money and run”.
This story has all the makings of a classic Australian culture war campaign. But what are those exactly?
There’s no outlet in the country that’s dedicated quite as much energy to the latest culture war battle than The Australian. Last week, Australian National University announced it was dropping a controversial degree in Western civilisation, funded by the Ramsay Centre. The Oz has been closely following developments, especially since Ramsay Centre director and former PM Tony Abbott wrote about the centre being “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it” in Quadrant in April.
The story has all the makings of a classic Australian culture war campaign. Some of the coverage already shows signs of being a full Holy War. If it does, here’s what we can expect over the coming weeks:
There has already been a small flurry of “exclusive” news stories from national education correspondent Rebecca Urban over the past few days, with headlines including “Uni blasted for double standards”, “ANU reaps mid-east millions”, and “Fury as uni dumps study of the West“.
If past campaigns are anything to go by, you can expect more stories up the front of the paper about the decision to close the centre, the people involved, and reactions from the their usual rent-a-quote sources. The IPA’s Bella d’Abrera has been quoted today, and Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s comments to Sky News have also made the cut. Abbott was quoted yesterday. In fact, Liberal politicians are always a good source for quotes — they’ve provided content for one of the news stories in today’s paper.
Urban has taken the lead on the “news” coverage (as she did with the Holy War on Roz Ward and Safe Schools), but other reporters will also be on the case. Today, Andrew Clennell, Samantha Hutchinson and Rachel Baxendale all have bylines on stories.
A key feature of any Australian Holy War is quantity. Today, for example, there are five full pieces in the print edition, including two comment articles. Expect this to continue, with roughly daily news stories, entries in Cut and Paste, commentary pieces from staff and external writers, editorials, and letters to the editor. As the “story” develops, expect increasingly trivial updates — the goal is to keep the story alive.
In order to keep the content coming, any social media posts, speeches and public appearances of anyone remotely relevant will be monitored, and their histories examined. Those under the radar will include Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, who announced the decision to drop the course. No target is ever too qualified or too well-respected to be above attack, so don’t expect his Nobel Prize or academic pedigree to be off limits. ANU’s history department head Frank Bongiorno, quoted in yesterday’s story by Rebecca Urban, could also be under suveillance, as could officials from the National Tertiary Education Union, especially branch president Matt King. His letter to ANU about the course after Abbott’s article was published was quoted in Urban’s piece about the uni withdrawing from the deal, and was cited by Ramsay Centre chairman John Howard as a reason for the deal falling through.
Call in the opinion attack dogs
Since June 2, when the paper printed news of the degree being dumped, there’s already been one editorial, two “Last Post” letters columns, and op-eds from foreign editor Greg Sheridan, Swinburne University of Technology’s John Fitzgerald, and higher education editor Tim Dodd. And before that, they had Janet Albrechtsen, Jennifer Oriel, former deputy PM John Anderson, and education minister Simon Birmingham writing about the degree. Sheridan is back today, and political editor Dennis Shanahan also had a piece on it.
Keep an eye out for more on this topic from Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson, Henry Ergas and Terry McCrann.
How many words do you think The Australian will dedicate to this Holy War? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know
There’s an ugly side but it does not diminish Western civilisation
Peter Craven, The Australian, June’s 16th 2018
The Western civilisation that brought us Adolf Hitler also brought us Gustave Mahler
It’s hard to imagine the heat of the Western civilisation/Ramsay Centre debate being generated in the way it has been anywhere but in this country. Someone wants to leave a lot of money to establish courses at the Australian National University that trace the glories of what we have inherited from, say, Homer and Herodotus, Plato and the Psalms to wherever you want to stop: Wittgenstein and Proust, perhaps. The Ramsay Centre appointed a board that included John Howard and Kim Beazley.
Yes, but it also includes Tony Abbott, who writes an article in Quadrant suggesting the course must be for Western civilisation and the people who teach it should be selected to further this bias. And, lo and behold, this scares the horses, or rather the academics who are fearful of being Eurocentric, who want to interrogate the horrors of postcolonialism and generally back away from cultural triumphalism.
This, in turn, affects the Nobel prize-winning vice-chancellor of ANU, Brian Schmidt, the physicist, and he has to back off, so the pot of gold falls from the hands of the university. Sydney University is also chary but no doubt there will be negotiations with others.
It’s all been a bit mad, the suggestion that any reverence for Western civilization implies an endorsement of all the crimes done in its name, or the opposite notion, that it requires blatant boosting and barracking in a world of dangerous futile left-wing loons who do nothing but repudiate our heritage and deprive our children.
None of which is to deny elements of truth in both bits of cartoon invective. But, look, an investment of money in teaching the history and substance of our art and thought and literature can only be a good thing, even if we all know what Gandhi meant when he said of Western civilisation that he thought it was worth a try. Just as we all know the deep truth of what that great German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin meant when he said that the history of civilisation is always at the same time the history of barbarism.
We should never forget that Greece executed Socrates and Rome executed Christ. That our own English language civilisation that produced Shakespeare was also, during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, a period when people burned each other at the stake for their religious opinions. A monarchist like Abbott would not fail to recall, in the lead-up to the English Civil War that followed, how Oliver Cromwell, said of Charles I: “I will cut off his head with the crown on it.” And did.
That great epic poem, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, came from that period of horror and so did what is probably the most formidable work of political philosophy in our language, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: Hobbes said life was nasty, brutish and short, and argued that violence should be the prerogative of the state.
The regicide and the absolutist would each have their place in a Western civilisation course. And why not? It was Guy Rundle recently in The Saturday Paper who said that literature courses these days were likely to exclude Milton even though all the writers on them would have read him.
So perhaps we need to push our own tradition a bit. None of which is to deny the argument that we already have courses on Western civilisation: they’re taught — sometimes badly, sometimes well, but abidingly — by the arts faculties of our universities.
But bear in mind that one of the competing orthodoxies in the teaching of literature when I was growing up — and one that caused a civil war in the Sydney University English department — derived from FR Leavis of Cambridge, and consisted of saying that much of the canon was not up to scratch. And years later when Harold Bloom — in reaction against relativism and deconstruction — wrote The Western Canon, he was not disputing the right to discriminate. He once said of that great flawed poet Ezra Pound —— who had referred to the Old Testament as “black evil” — “Call that a Western mind!”
We all have Western minds, alas, black, white and wishy washy. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating it, even though this is something that has traditionally been done rather more in America because the Americans are not afraid of a delicatessen approach to this subject. Think of the Great Books course of the University of Chicago, or the comparable course at Columbia. The latter was undertaken, in later middle age, by David Denby, then New Yorker film critic, and he wrote a book about what it was actually like to encounter such figures as Plato or Machiavelli who may be only known even to educated people by surmise and reputation or as archaic memories from adolescence.
One difficulty with Great Book courses, however, is that they require the teaching of people from different disciplines who, by necessity, see the world from different angles. If the lectures on Plato, say, were given by Raimond Gaita (whose own philosophical work is in the Platonist tradition) this would be very different from the way Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, the Monash classicist who now teaches drama, would teach the Electra of Sophocles.
Still, these problems would be surmountable, nor would it be impossible to teach a course like this while admitting that the Western civilisation that brought us Mozart and Mahler also brought us the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Our Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition has a very strong emphasis on self-scrutiny: “Know thyself” (gnothi seauton), as Socrates said. And this, inevitably, in the Hebraic and Christian traditions involves self-reproach. Think of the self-massacring majesty of the Psalms. Think of those plangent words of the Anglican confession that can stir any believing or unbelieving soul: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”
What is great in our civilisation went along with plenty of frailty, plenty of fault. And, as someone who is wheeled out to talk about how much the great moments of the Christian calendar underlie our culture, I have always tried to emphasise the high and mighty parallels in Eastern religion and the way a work like the Bhagavad Gita enriches our sense of our own scripture — as TS Eliot knew. A reverence for our tradition will hardly diminish our sense of the great T’ang poets Pound translated or the classical art of China so beloved of Pierre Ryckmans. Just as we might as well acknowledge that the combination of totalitarianism and capitalism that characterises contemporary China is something we gave them, like the Opium Wars.
We should not be afraid of being cultural conservatives, though I remember the sorrow on the face of Bloom, the one time I met him, when I got him to admit that this is what we were. But that kind of conservatism has nothing to do with political boosterism.
It’s also worth remembering that some fraction of people I fought with during the theory wars could recognise a good writer — a Gerald Murnane or a Helen Garner — when they saw them.
But we are too afraid of words. I wonder if that conservative John Howard is haunted at times like these by the time when, as opposition leader, he was given a copy of War and Peace by Barry Jones. “Why, Barry?” “Because, John, if you ever become PM you’ll be better for having read it.”
We’re all better for reading these things. They civilise us. Take the Ramsay money and run.
Ramsay Centre has Tony Abbott to blame for ANU’s rejection
Peter van Onselen, The Australian, 9th June 018
The first rule of trying to seal a deal is to give the other party an excuse to say yes, not an excuse to say no. Which brings us to the Australian National University’s decision to reject the Ramsay Centre-sponsored course on Western civilisation.
The excuse to say yes was the money, plain and simple. The centre was offering millions of dollars and, yes, there was internal opposition at ANU — which, according to the latest world university rankings released this week, has maintained its status as Australia’s No 1 university.
But the excuse for vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt to say yes was compelling — in an era when funding for higher education isn’t what it once was, here was a chance to lock in long-term funding for a course Schmidt had some sympathy for. As do I. When the Ramsay Centre was announced I contacted its chairman, John Howard, to voice my support. I’ve spent my working lifetime as an academic promoting democratic principles derived from Western civilisation. Many of my writings on this page have done the same, just as I equally have condemned dictatorships and totalitarian regimes that don’t ascribe to Western democratic values.
Then, as if on cue, entered Tony Abbott, who couldn’t help but write an opinion piece for Quadrant magazine. In the piece he cited the Ramsay Centre’s unofficial design principle to not lose its philosophical direction: “Every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing.” As though Western civilisation is owned by one side of this crude ideological divide. He went on to claim the centre would have a say over curriculum design and academic appointments when giving money to universities, which infuriated some academics (who still believe in academic independence) and many left-wing ideologues within the student and staff unions on campus at ANU.
Yes, they already were working behind the scenes to scuttle a deal between Australia’s best university — which also houses our only world top 10 humanities division — and the Ramsay Centre. But, courtesy of Abbott, the thing you never want to inject into the deal-making moment happened.
ANU had an excuse to say no.
There is no escaping the reality that, by design or by accident, Abbott became a martyr rather than a rational conservative seeking to lock down a deal to bring new ideas and potential cultural change to an important institution. He handed left-wing critics the ammunition they needed.
It’s not conservative to storm a defensive line you cannot defeat in one blaze of glory. True conservatives know that Western civilisation was built across thousands of years. Its incremental advance is why it has been so successful. Equally, any conservative with a modicum of strategic sense knows that getting a foot in the door from which incremental cultural and political change can happen is far more effective than blowing up a deal simply to get a few cheap headlines; headlines that preach only to the converted anyway.
I’ve worked in the Australian university sector for nearly 20 years, from PhD student to professor, across five institutions. I can tell you that the CV tag line of having once worked for Abbott is no asset.
The broad point that the so-called left (the labelling is a little crude) is dominant in the sector is absolutely true, although there are many other moving parts that don’t fit that crude classification in big universities. And, yes, at a superficial level there appears to be hypocrisy — universities tolerate taking money from non-democracies to fund centres yet the ANU unions kicked up a fuss about the Ramsay partnership.
But Abbott was wrong — strategically and intellectually — to seek to challenge academic independence, to claim his board could wield influence beyond the mandate formally discussed in the negotiations. It took the goodwill out of the discussions to get the deal done that the unions weren’t even part of. By gloating too early about the influence Abbott hoped his board would have, he gave his enemies the excuse they needed to thwart the deal. It was dumb. Of course there’s soft power handing out money but nobody wants that unsaid power to be explicitly detailed in a way that violates academic rules.
I don’t like Australian universities taking money from non-democracies, especially anyone tied to tyrannical non-democracies (which is most of them). And while I can see the failures of elements of Western civilisation, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is an overwhelming success story in the annals of time, valuable to be taught over and above other histories.
In fact, a core ingredient of Western civilisation, robustly built organically from the 1700s on, is academic independence. Listening to critics of ANU’s decision not to go ahead with the partnership citing other worrying funding streams to higher institutions is as lowbrow as it is weak. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Fix such failures rather than build on them by letting what, according to the Quadrant article, is essentially a think tank violate academic standards and independence. That is no solution to existing failures. And even if that’s your clandestine ideological goal, keep it clandestine, don’t put it in a polemic publication before the deal has been inked.
The reason the left has the influence it does within some universities is because it plays by the rules, using the system to its advantage. That is what it has done by jumping on Abbott’s article — more fool him for giving it the ammunition. Conservatives are supposed to be better at using the rules to their advantage. A degree on the history of Western civilisation would show how they generally have been.
The idea that some other lesser institution may pick up the deal is no substitute. They haven’t a vice-chancellor such as Nobel laureate Schmidt, who can walk into any room (even at our best uni) and command the cultural discussion. He was a supporter until the deal was wrecked. It took the strategic genius of a prime minister who managed to blast himself out of office less than two years after winning a thumping victory, and six months after a partyroom warning, to unintentionally disempower Australia’s most formidable and awarded VC.
The loud critics of ANU’s decision completely miss the point. Bemoan the outcome by all means, but reflect on the process failures that led to the Pyrrhic victory (note the classical reference) of martyrdom over getting this centre established at ANU.
I see the suggestion floating around now is that the Ramsay money instead could go to a new liberal arts college because Australia’s public universities are too far gone. How ridiculous.
First up, only a fraction of the money businessman Paul Ramsay bequeathed is specifically allocated for this venture. There is nowhere near adequate funding to properly set up such an institution.
Second, it likely would lack credibility anyway and attract only students who already believe in the virtues of Western civilisation, when surely a key goal is to teach others about such things.
Finally, giving up on our university sector is the kind of defeatism I don’t associate with Western civilisation or conservatism.
Peter van Onselen is a professor at the University of Western Australia and Griffith University.
Disdain for the best of the west
John Carroll, The Australian, June 9th 2018
The Australian National University has just backed off hosting a course on Western civilisation on the grounds of it being somehow in conflict with what the university stands for. What does it stand for, we might ask.
One further step in the demoralisation of the academy has just taken place, care of ANU senior management caving in to a minority of noisy radical students, one which, while small in itself, can count on background support from most of the academic staff in the humanities. There is a long history behind how we, as a society, have let this come to pass. At issue is what has transpired in the humanities and social sciences, not in the rest of the university.
The Western university as we know it today was founded in the Middle Ages as a Christian institution. It was predicated on unquestioned and unifying faith. Within the faith, its central task was theological, to explain the works of God to man and to train minds for that interpretative work. The university was transformed by the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment, into a humanist institution. In this, its second phase, culture replaced God as the transcendental force that welded the unifying vision. We are now well into a third phase in which the university has a confused idea of itself, and inasmuch as it has direction, it is to be found in pockets still under the influence of the ghosts of the old beliefs.
This history is best clarified by a closer look at the humanist era. The humanist university drew its lifeblood from three related ideals. One was aristocratic, that of the gentleman, a character ideal. The assumption was that the good society depends on a social hierarchy led by a cultivated elite, one with a strong sense of civic duty. That elite was defined by the character of its individuals.
The second ideal was that of “civilisation”, which was imagined as the pinnacle of human achievement. It depends on the most intellectually and imaginatively gifted, in trained application, producing great works. Civilisation has created the gothic cathedral and the steam engine, Hamlet and the Sistine ceiling, Newton’s laws of motion, graceful town planning, hygiene, democracy and codified law. The works of civilisation show humans at their highest, transcending mundane everyday life; making of themselves something immortal and godlike; and creating both powerful tools for the conquest of necessity and objects of supreme and edifying beauty.
A fresco featuring Plato, Arisotle and The School of Athens in the Vatican.
The third ideal was a utilitarian one, that culture and knowledge are useful. In Matthew Arnold’s formulation, deriving from Socrates, knowledge will make a person better and happier. Ignorance is the source of misery and evil. Humans who have knowledge will find it more difficult — in the extreme version, impossible — to do ill. They will be more rational about their lives and therefore make them more pleasurable and fulfilling. These qualities applied to society will result in it, too, being reformed and improved.
This humanist optimism had gone by the end of World War I, as German sociologist Max Weber reflected in a 1918 lecture titled “Knowledge as a Vocation”. Weber’s question was whether the university is possible in a godless and prophetless time, a time in which the traditional ultimate values had lapsed and no new ones had appeared. Weber observed that many were looking to the university to provide the meaning that had gone out of a disenchanted world. However, knowledge cannot provide meaning in the ultimate sense of answering Tolstoy’s questions: “What should we do and how shall we live?” Nor, according to Weber, should it try. Prophecy does not belong in the lecture halls.
What then remains? Weber finds three functions for the university: the advancement of knowledge, the teaching of methods of thinking, and the imposing on students of a clarity and consistency of thought within the framework of already given ultimate values. At this point, Weber’s defence of the university collapses in unacknowledged contradiction. The one function that preoccupies him is the third, but it depends on already given ultimate values, the lack of which is the problem that stimulated his lecture in the first place.
Weber concludes by defending the virtue of intellectual integrity, founded on the individual teacher’s own conscience. The implication is that rigorously disciplined scholars dedicated to their own branches of knowledge will communicate enough moral authority to their students to fill the metaphysical void.
Behind this flattering absurdity, Weber has described the modern university: where there is authority, it is in individuals obeying their own consciences, usually in isolation, an odd dispersion of one-person sects to be found sprinkled thinly through an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
In the US, there were examples of the survival of the old education, especially in the liberal arts colleges, often centring on courses teaching the great books of Western culture. Chicago and Columbia were notable. The Ramsay initiative at the ANU sought to revive this noble tradition.
In the 20th-century wake of the humanist university, there was one quite different strategy: to create a politically active institution. In the ashes of the last “idea” grew the university as training camp for political and social reformers. Here the university again followed the church, in compensating for a lack of belief in itself with political activism. Weber knew the phenomenon in the German universities of the 1890s. It reappeared in the 1930s with the sacking of Jewish professors, the burning of books and Heidegger’s rectorial address at Freiburg in which the eminent philosopher urged commitment to Hitler.
In the 30s it also appeared in other countries, England for instance, where a Marxist socialism became the fashion among intellectuals. The political motivation returned in the 60s and has continued ever since, this time pioneered by leftist students demanding that radical social reform replace learning as the main activity of the university.
Activism was energised by a displacement of religious zeal into politics. With the death of God and the marginalisation of the churches, salvation came to be sought in social crusades and highly charged moral causes, loosely guided by Marxist ideology. One might have imagined that the main historical lesson of the 20th century would provide a cautionary tale, that redemptive politics — whether communist or fascist — leads not to utopia but to a human wasteland strewn with a hundred million corpses. The universities, free from any constraining reality principle, were blind to this lesson.
The politicisation of the university continues unabated. For instance, until a decade or so ago, courses teaching Shakespeare and Jane Austen remained common. Today, if the creator of the classic novel is to be found in any English literature department, it will probably be because of her picture of colonialism — in reality, so trivial amid the magnificence of her work as needing a microscope to find.
The demoralisation of the humanist university was compounded by a profound attack launched by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880s, in a castigation of intellectuals, and indeed of the entire Western ascetic tradition of scholars and priests. Sorel, Spengler, Benda, Rieff, Allan Bloom and other later critics of intellectuals have been much under his influence, although their work is pale by comparison. Weber’s 1918 lecture is troubled precisely because it accepts Nietzsche’s case and cannot get around it.
Nietzsche’s argument contrasts instinct and knowledge. The history of civilisation is the history of increasing repression, of steadily proliferating checks on the instincts. This development is against nature. Healthy, strong, admirable human individuals are decisive, they see things clearly and can act on what they see — their instincts are good, and they obey them.
The high level of repression concomitant with civilisation produces people, by contrast, whose passions are tepid, who dither, who are ineffectual and who take to moralising in compensation for their inability to decide and to act. Hamlet is the literary exemplar. He lost the instinctive sense of what is good and bad, what is worth doing and what is not, and lived under the delusion that he could reason himself into action. It follows that the celebration of knowledge, epitomised in the philosopher and the university, is not a mark of progress, not the banner under which human life will be made better and happier.
In effect, Nietzsche makes two points. One is about the human types who pursue knowledge; the other about the function of knowledge itself. The first point is that it is the worst people who become intellectuals, types who are devious, inhibited and rancorous. Not only is repressed emotion sublimated into thinking but the overcharged intellectual faculty is then commandeered to manufacture tortuous justifications of bad motives as good ones, of bad acts as reasonable ones.
The recent politicisation of language in the universities exemplifies this. In diametric opposition to the principle of free speech, students are discouraged from saying what they think lest they transgress approved usage and risk being damned as a “racist” or whatever the current target for righteous indignation. It is as if they are being trained in political inhibition.
Nietzsche’s second point is that knowledge has helped us become more comfortable, not better or happier. The best societies have strong cultures. Culture is rooted in myth, not knowledge. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge is a sure sign that the sacred myths have lost their authority. In particular, academic history is an abstract endeavour and only appears once real ties to the past have withered — family ties, tribal ties and communal ties. Our own Anzac Day illustrates this in its revitalised mythic force.
The last part of the argument is that the increasing repression of the active individual, combined with the canonisation of knowledge, has killed God. There are no transcendental powers left in a rational world. Where comfort is the highest value, it is the stomach, not the sacred, that rules. However, without belief in a higher order of some kind, human life becomes meaningless, losing purpose and direction.
Weber’s defence of the university is against modern culture as interpreted by Nietzsche. The task of the university is not to restore the spirit or revive the heart. In any case, Weber is too pessimistic to believe in that possibility. His modest claim is that the university allows specialist disciplines and that they have a virtue as long as their practitioners obey their ethos, that of intellectual integrity.
We know, early in the 21st century, that Weber’s uncertain defence of the university does not work — as a conglomerate of specialist disciplines vaguely unified at the individual level by an ethic of intellectual integrity.
Nor is a polytechnic a university, and, in any case, it only suits the natural sciences and perhaps such in-between studies as business and the various professions. A university draws its sustenance from the ultimate questions about the human condition, and therefore it centres on the humanities (including the social sciences). It always has.
The university requires a unifying and guiding vision. Experience in the past century proves that, without such a vision, it becomes demoralised, and those teachers who are not completely listless in their vocations tend to become rancorous, teaching against the authorities and truths of the inherited culture in what they themselves often celebrate as a “critical” or “radical” manner. This is not criticism in the sense of open-minded scrutiny of a text in order to gain access to some truth.
A university depends on collective belief in universals of goodness, beauty and truth — and that they carry with them some kind of transcendental value. When that belief fails, all that remains is to tear down and to shock — what the contemporary academy has unselfconsciously legitimised as “deconstruction”. The high priest of modernism, Marcel Duchamp, entered a urinal in an art exhibition in New York in 1917. His intention was to shock but also, more seriously, to challenge that there are no standards left by which to say that my porcelain urinal is less beautiful, good or true than any of the works of the old masters. Duchamp has carried the day, both in contemporary art and in university arts faculties.
A further cost of the collapse of confident belief in the university has been the failure of academics in the past two decades to resist bureaucratisation, to their own further detriment. Fifty-five per cent of those employed in Australian universities today are administrators. This is not the place to go into what they all do, or don’t do, in an institution devoted to teaching and research. Academics have joked, borrowing from Yes Minister, that the perfect university for the new order of management is one in which there are no academics and no students. Indeed, there is little chance that these vast structures of senior and middle management, with rare exceptions, will have any sense of the higher purpose of the institution they run. Recent events at the ANU are, given this context, unsurprising.
The humanist university has run down. The Christian university, founded in medieval form, is too culturally alien to the contemporary West to be revived. The church, the one institution that could replace the university as the master teacher of eternal truths, is in a state of hopeless disrepair. Yet the university is here to stay, for a bureaucratically organised society will, of its nature, maintain an educational hierarchy, with the universities at the pinnacle.
Nietzsche saw that cultural demolition will start with ascetic individuals, ones subject to high levels of instinctual repression, complexity of psychological disposition, given to thinking, those very individuals to fill the ranks of the priesthood, the academy and the caste of artists, writers and musicians. When they begin to lose their faith, they turn on the gods that have failed them.
It is commonplace that the most virulent critics of the pope and the Church of Rome are priests with faltering belief or laity in the process of defection. There is a sense of betrayal, a rage against the sacred walls that have crumbled, against the past authorities that still roam around uneasily in the individual unconscious but no longer command.
And “rage” is not an overstatement. George Orwell lamented towards the end of World War II that the whole left intelligentsia in Britain had been secretly pleased whenever the Germans won a battle. Orwell called himself a socialist at the time, and while he no doubt exaggerated, the visceral intensity and irrationality of national self-hatred is exemplified here — preferring Hitler to your own people. There is very little left at any level in the universities with the spine to resist this kind of cultural self-loathing.
The rage against a culture that has lost authority has percolated more and more widely through left-green political culture, if usually in more mellow tones. Generations of students in schools and universities have now been subjected to Marxist ideology, teaching them about the West’s capitalist exploitation of other peoples, of its own minorities and of the disadvantaged in general. That the West is evil has become the default reading for much of the tertiary-educated upper middle class. Yet only a small, noisy minority are rancorous. For most, a vague reflex view of the world has come to prevail, ignorantly held and often naive, while occasionally grounded in genuine empathy for those who are less well-off.
It is, of course, true that Western history has its negative episodes, but which society or civilisation hasn’t? Realist comparisons show the modern West, especially since 1945, in a very favourable light in terms of quality of life, fairness and respect for universal human rights.
The hatred of Western civilisation that has arisen in the cultural elites draws on one further motivational strand: power envy.
The very success of the West, in creating the most prosperous, the most powerful and the most just society the world has ever known, creates its own irritant. Those who are unhappy with their lives, insecure in their identities and anxious about their future may come to resent the extraordinary privilege, comfort and opportunity into which they have been born. Their society is successful and powerful; they are not.
What follows is identification with the “wretched of the earth”, those victims who are helplessly disadvantaged. This first appeared among radical university students in the 1960s, in a ludicrous inversion of the reality that they were a uniquely privileged generation of spoiled rich kids.
University rancour has commonly surfaced in a condescending disparagement of ordinary people and popular culture — for cheap taste, crass materialism, jingoism, xenophobia and syrupy values. The reality is that Western popular culture, by contrast, has retained a healthy belief in universal moral laws, in the value of the beautiful and in the ultimate significance of truth.
Power envy is linked with a paranoid reflex, which holds that if I can destroy what has power and persecutes me, then I myself can gain that power. Hence the radical hostility to the main power on our side, the US, and, increasingly on the left, to Israel — as the one prosperous, democratic and successful country amid the wretched stagnation of most of the Middle East.
Where to now? Central to any viable idea of the university, whether Christian, humanist or other, is a retelling of the human story as a kind of epic, with gravity and dignity, following the diverse ways it plays out its fateful tragedies. This requires interpretations of the story that reveal that life is more than an egoistic performance governed by power struggles.
All humans want answers to the big questions of where they come from, what they should do with their lives in order to make sense of them and what happens when they die. Deep engagement with the best literature, art, music and philosophy of our own Western culture is fundamental. Today’s students crave just this sort of education.
Here is the aim of the Ramsay Centre for western Civilisation, which will almost certainly have to set up its own independent institution if it is to prosper.
It is vitally important for the country that it succeeds.
John Carroll is professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University. johncarrollsociologist.wordpress.com
How to stop the culture wars: unite on the kernel of liberty
Janet Albrechtsen.The Australian, June 9th 2018
Janet Albrechtsen has been labelled Australia’s answer to Ayn Rand, who famously said: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Former Labor leader Mark Latham once controversially said she was “a skanky ho who would die in a ditch to defend the Liberal Party” in parliament. Crikey dubbed her a “right-wing rage machine”. But The Australian’s “most talked about columnist” is adored by conservatives as well as her editors.
The body count from the killing fields of the Australian culture wars keeps piling up. And don’t imagine the battles are esoteric disagreements among elites. The battles over how free we are in a liberal society seep into every corner of the country, from a dour scientist at a north Queensland university to a glamorous morning television host beamed into Australian living rooms.
Here’s a tally from this week alone. The Australian National University recoiled in response to objections from a few unionists, pulling out of an unprecedented deal with the Ramsay Centre to provide students with generous scholarships and a new course in Western civilisation. The editor of literary journal Meanjin, Jonathan Green, wrote a long, grovelling apology for his white privilege because the latest cover wrongly chose to promote #MeToo feminism over indigenous people in the Balkanised world of identity politics. Television personality Sonia Kruger will have to answer to a government bureaucracy because she expressed a view about Muslim immigration. Go back a few days further, to when a fine professor of physics was sacked for not toeing an ideological line on climate change at James Cook University.
It’s easy to write up what’s wrong with intellectual freedom in Australia. It’s much harder to work out how we work through this mess. A sure way to entrench the madness is to stay in our bunkers, convince ourselves that we, on our side of politics, whichever that may be, hold the high moral ground. That has been the way for the past few decades and things have gone from bad to worse. It must be time, then, to try something different. Perhaps listen to the other side, find points of common ground, admit where we may be wrong, and do all this in the spirit of respect for others, curiosity about ideas and a determination that Western progress genuinely means progress.
Inquirer spoke at length this week with Grahame McCulloch, who has been general secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union since its inception in the early 1990s, and whose working adult life has been with the union movement. The NTEU has been in the press a lot in recent days, lining up on both sides of the culture wars that are ripping apart intellectual learning in this country.
The NTEU, under McCulloch’s leadership, was an early defender of Peter Ridd, the geophysicist recently sacked on trumped-up charges of misconduct by JCU because he spoke out about science that is not properly checked, tested or replicated. Ridd said some people pushing out research were not very objective: “They’re emotionally attached to their subject and, you know, you can’t blame them, the reef is a beautiful thing.”
On March 1, the Queensland division secretary of the NTEU, Michael McNally, wrote to union members at JCU explaining the union’s support for Ridd. McNally said the right to academic freedom was specifically enshrined in the enterprise bargaining agreement with JCU, and “it is not for a university management to determined that such scholarly debate either denigrates or offends others”.
On June 1, the NTEU issued a compelling press statement that asked: “Whither academic freedom?” It demanded Ridd’s immediate reinstatement by JCU.
“The NTEU is obliged to reassert its commitment to academic freedom, even or especially where its expression contains statements that may be at odds with many or most members’ views. Without the maintenance of the core value of academic freedom, our universities would cease to be worthy of the name,” wrote McNally.
Are we more comfortable bashing the NTEU when it does something wrong than paying credit when it does the right thing? After all, the NTEU’s support for Ridd hasn’t received much attention in the press. Whereas the words of one NTEU branch member opposed to funding from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has received blanket coverage.
Talking to Inquirer this week, McCulloch said “the NTEU was prepared to consider making some financial contribution to Peter’s defence but in any event his GoFundMe (where Ridd raised $260,000 for legal costs) was oversubscribed so it was unnecessary”.
“I believe in serious intellectual discussion. That is why I am on Peter Ridd’s side even if I am concerned about the methods of delivering his message. But that’s a different point,” adds McCulloch, who grew up in Hobart, was a student leader at the University of Tasmania and then national leader of the National Union of Students.
A few days before we spoke, McCulloch posted some comments on a blog by political scientist and writer Don Aitkin, pointing out that the NTEU has defended many cases of academic freedom in the past two decades, from Ted Steele at Wollongong University to Andrew Fraser at Macquarie University, Judith Bessant at RMIT, Roz Ward at Latrobe, and now Ridd. Andrew Fraser was an academic moved on by Macquarie University in 2005 because he expressed views about the problems of increased crime from African migration that offended the sensibilities of orthodox views on campus. The issue still offends polite circles, and still demands to be debated. The Macquarie branch of the NTEU didn’t like Fraser’s views, but the centrally run union took the view that it raised fundamental questions about individual rights and academic freedom. Supporting him was non-negotiable.
“The union’s support in the Steele, Fraser, Ward and Ridd matters attracted some hostility from sections of our membership and the press,” wrote McCulloch. “The interesting point is that the intellectual perspectives of the academics involved have ranged from the right conservative to radical left poles … this underlines that NTEU has adopted a principled defence of academic freedom — a necessary condition for a viable university — even at the cost of internal and external criticism.”
Whatever we may think of a government imposing Ward’s Safe Schools agenda, if we believe in academic freedom at universities, it must apply equally to Ward and Ridd and Fraser.
The NTEU has 28,500 members, 16,000 of them academic staff. Union coverage among permanent teaching and research staff in universities is high, between 35 per cent and 50 per cent, and between 15 per cent and 20 per cent among professional staff. It has been a swift transformation given that academic labour was one of the last workforces, before enterprise bargaining, to become unionised.
Since its inception, the NTEU has been fighting to include academic freedom clauses in collective bargaining agreements with all 37 public universities in Australia, to sit alongside internal review panels, which Ridd did not have access to at JCU. McCulloch explained the fine pedigree of academic freedom clauses, drawing on the Humboldtian universities in Germany, the liberal philosophy of John Newman, John Dewey who created the American Association of University Professors, and models of academic freedom in Canadian universities. The NTEU deserves praise for this pursuit.
Now for the hitch. The general secretary of that same union has nothing to say about the hijacking of education by Matthew King, the NTEU branch president in the ACT who opposed ANU accepting money from the Ramsay Centre to teach a course in Western civilisation. King used an article in Quadrant by Tony Abbott, a Ramsay board member, to launch spurious objections to the Ramsay donation.
McCulloch’s silence on this matter is unfortunate. After all, the craven hypocrisy of ANU and King is obvious. If they are so concerned about relinquishing academic freedom, what about ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies which, as The Australian reported this week, receives money from Middle Eastern countries such as United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey? A Dubai foundation is listed as member of the centre’s advisory board. Six Australian universities host Confucius centres with money from Chinese donors who also assign a teacher to each program and have control over what is taught.
ANU’s pusillanimity is doubly clear. It had almost sealed a deal for students to learn the great books of Western civilisation, then caved in to a few rowdy voices. The next time ANU cries poor, the Education Minister surely will recall this episode as severely denting its credibility. And, by the way, why isn’t one of our premier universities already offering a course on the great books of Western civilisation, without outside money?
The head of a tertiary education union could have a lot to say here. What McCulloch will say is that he has had enough of the rising corporatism in universities that causes administrators to run for cover whenever there is a controversy. Vice-chancellors don’t want a Roz Ward or a Peter Ridd, or anyone who ruffles feathers. University bosses want calm waters so they can carry on with their marketing and advertising, domestically and especially overseas. Craven corporatism causes a university to lose sight of its mission as a place of learning, inquiry and debate. It explains why Bjorn Lomborg couldn’t find a home at an Australian university. It explains why University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence tried to stop the Dalai Lama from speaking on campus in 2013. Once leaked emails appeared in the media, the university tried to use logistics to justify its position, but emails pointed to a university keen to disassociate itself from a man who upset Chinese sensibilities. The same craven corporatism that explains JCU’s treatment of Ridd also explains ANU backing out of a deal with Ramsay. In fact, the NTEU branch manager exploited the cowardice of university administrators, writing to ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt that the association with Ramsay “could potentially damage the intellectual reputation of the humanities at ANU and the ANU more broadly”.
McCulloch will say only this: “I have consistently, across many universities, had it put to me directly by senior management, up to and including deputy vice-chancellor level, that the profitability, and more particularly the reputation, of the university is the primary consideration in these matters. That we can’t afford to have things that might put our brand reputation in the international marketplace or in the research race … in jeopardy.”
McCulloch says this corporatist attitude is a seriously conformist and stifling influence on internal debate at all levels of a university. The NTEU boss has no beef with corporations but worries when university leaders “have swallowed this management jargon bible and intellectual discourse has been lost in an arid sea of performance-management indicators that lack substance”.
Is McCulloch’s silence over ANU and Ramsay a case of the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, a union boss staying quiet to support a union comrade at the branch level? Or is there another way to join the dots here? Given the NTEU’s public statements on other matters such as Ridd, McCulloch’s silence over the Ramsay debacle may suggest deep dissent within the NTEU and disagreement with the actions of a rogue branch at ANU. Either way, it doesn’t pay to tar everyone with the same brush. There is too much at stake. Equally, left and right occasionally joining forces won’t settle the culture wars. That will happen only when the warring sides find more common ground to embed fundamental principles of liberty and enlightenment in our universities, and beyond.
A good place to start is learning about what is good, not just bad, about Western civilization.
In an interesting excursion into to what The Australian’s readers might be thinking about this business. Here are the comments posted online with respect John Carroll’s article:
So what has Western civilization done for us? Now philosophy, value systems and history have been mentioned but what about literature, dance and classical music? Wouldn’t our lives be eminently poorer without thes
Most who have succeeded over the last century+ in those artistic endeavours you mentioned are likely to never have graduated from Uni. Classical music might have had some respected candidates within their fields but Classical Music itself hasn’t seen a front billing in popularity since probably the mid-late 19th century. Talented people no doubt but otherwise unknown.
Great article, not one stupid or senseless idea. The professor will never be heard on the ABC. Time to found new institutions all over, stop funding the existing ones incrementally.
Humanities “academics” have abandoned any pretence at upholding genuine intellectual values. And this has happened before. Just look at how, for example, with few exceptions, the Humanities in Germany served the Nazi state.
In China they celegrate to butcher Mao, and at Melb Uni they want to hang Captain Cook. The MU system is a joke
Great insight. Thank you Professor Carrol. More of this please The Australian. There is hope for our institutions of higher learning as long as this calibre of academic discipline survives the onslaught of mechanical bureaucratic politicians.
30 years ago a migrant said to me, Rolf, the West is going to excuse itself out of existence. Horrifically possible that may be true. Thankfully there are enough rebellious youth around.
And here I was thinking that ALL academics were devoid of common sense and reason and analytical thinking. There is some hope after all.
Except that Prof Carroll is long retired.
Why do so called conservatives like John Howard and Tony Abbott reject the scientific consensus on climate change. Science after all is one of the most important tenants of Western Civilization. Further they are both comfortable with the High Courts gymnastics calling asylum seekers indefinite detention administrative imprison instead of judicial imprisonment. Otherwise habeas corpus does not apply and we are no longer a western society. Then again neither man believes in the Christian 8th commandment bearing false witness against people. Remember it is not against the law to seek asylum, however both men call them illegals. They obviously do not understand the fundamental tenants of Western society. Very sad.
Science isn’t about consensus. Ever. Religion often is.
@Garrett This just appears to be a leftist rant……unsubstantiated drivel!
@Garrett In referring to science, many people seem to conflate theories or interpretation of the available evidence with demonstrable fact. This is the case with climate change (formerly “global warming”), and even with evolution as the origin of species. Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and the evolution of man from single-celled organisms are strongly held beliefs, not empirically established facts – far from it.
A summary on the Parliament of Australia website says those who come to Australia by boat seeking Australia’s protection are classified by Australian law to be “unlawful non-citizens”, though they have a right under international law to seek asylum. In general, the tough response to asylum seekers arriving by boat was a pragmatic solution to an out-of-control border policy that had effectively ceded significant authority to a people-smuggling model. Most Australians are happy with the stricter stance.
The real problem with Western Civ studies for the Left is that it shows up the “new age” university education for what it is – a shallow and miserable imitation of true scholarship. WC will appeal only the strong and eager student rather than the lazy and bitter.
I am thankful that my degrees are in engineering and later business. Real fields of study that have real concepts able to have real applications
Your outlook is part of the malaise that has infected the Western world; bare ‘utility’ yields nothing but incomes and materialism, and in the end the despair of nihilism.
Engineering and science require rigour, intuition, creativity and hard work; failures are often very visible and result in litigation.
Most science science and humanities do not require those characteristics and often little more than an ability to live in an echo chamber full of non achievers, who believe that their ignorance qualifies them to pontificate on complex issues they do not understand eg electricity supply
Mine are in chemical engineering, physics, and…cosmology, er, similar to the V/C at ANU, O dear…can it be that studies of type 1a supernovae lead one to Mike’s malaise infecting the Western world? Nihilism awaits, so does despair…aaaaargh, off to the nearest euthenasiatorium…
You fundamentally miss the point. Pursuing any endeavour with passion creates truth, beauty and happiness. Gaining Knowledge for its own sake is shallow; having the wit and wisdom to know what to do with it is precious. Doing something worthwhile and doing it well is uplifting.
Power envy? I’m sure the captive market that colonies were and captive source of raw material via colonialism combined with captive source of labor through slavery helped a lot in modern Europe’s rise. Are we supposed to envy that?
On the other hand, this is one of the rare case of quality argument on this sections though. Hats off to the author who seems to understand that conservatism is different from the plain tabloid style appeal to baser instincts of humanity which daily mail and Murdoch media generally tries to cater to.
Slavery has been around for many thousands of years, in most cultures. Freedom from slavery is only a recent human achievement, especially in western cultures. It still occurs in Africa and Asia.
Thank you John for your patient, reasoned article on a subject of such importance that has been conflicted and distorted by those with other agendas.
Only the threat of a funding cut would now have any effect on having an open and free place for ideas and courses in Universities.
Agreed, the best article I have read in a long time. Thought provoking, timely and true.
JThis is the kind of truly great op-ed contribution from outside the newspaper industry that makes a great newspaper. No full-time press writer can produce a diamond like this week after week or day after day. I’m guessing it took months of work and distils a lifetime of experience and thought. It is the clearest and most incisive analysis of the tertiary education syndrome I have ever read.
However, it does not convince me that the Ramsay Centre can rescue the public university sector from itself, or even survive within it. On the contrary, it convinces me that the forces of nihilism are fundamental to public university humanities, because of the combination of academic autonomy and financial independence. Cut off from any need to justify its own existence or fertilise the source of its own sustenance, it must always end up this way. And freedom of thought, counter-intuitively, will always be its enemy, not its guiding light.
I would be approaching Notre Dame University, the only private university in Australia that has a fully developed faculty of humanities. It still has traditional courses in the liberal arts that celebrate the Western tradition, classics, the Enlightenment … everything that that state-run universities now refuse to study without lampooning it.
Great article. I hope Professor Carroll still has a job tomorrow when he fronts up at La Trobe.
He is an Emeritus Professor. He stands on his own good reputation. They can’t take that away from John Carroll.
This is one of the best articles I have ever read in a newspaper. There can be transcendent beauty in truth and high standards. The miserable regressives of the far-Left should be pulling people up but prefer to drag others down – jealousy, and feelings over facts, and avoiding personal responsibility which is arrested development. Their virtue is disguised hate. They hate humanity.
I don’t know if you have noticed or would agree that Professor Carroll’s article has, in general, raised the standard of ‘debate’, for want of a better word, on this board. It appears to be less given to specious name calling and subjective assertion and posters seem more willing to grapple with a few salient facts and real argument. It seems also that the general tone is a little less abusive. Maybe I’m dreaming. I hope not.
Socialism is revenge of the underling, pure and simple. Socialists identify with envy and guilt they divide and conquer.
ANU when are going to start burning books?
You have not heard or read of the burning of historian Geoffrey Blainey’s books that occurred at some Australian universities following some very mild remarks he made about immigration some 20 or so years ago?
Bit long but a great article. I wonder if the good professor would keep his job at La Trobe, after this article, if he was still employed there.
thank you Professor; a polemic work
Peterborough Cathedral is in [drum roll] Peterborough. Not Cambridge. If you look really closely you may discern a very subtle clue in the name. FAKE NEWS
Yes. It’s in Cambridgeshire though.
Correct. Many places are in Cambridgeshire but Peterborough Cathedral is only in one place, namely, Peterborough.
A cathedral – like a university – encompasses, or should encompass, more than the one place in which it is situated. The world at large does not need cloistered minds.
What a confused article. When I look at lists of the top universities in the World they are almost all universities with very strong Science, Engineerng and technology departments. Think MIT, Caltech, Stamford, Cambridge..Over the past 50 years social and humanity disciplines have ceased to be of great importance in deciding what a university shoiuld stand for. The disdainfull way that Carroll says a Polytechnic is not a University demonstrates that the arts departments in Universities have lost the plot.
No confusion at all. Carroll clearly distinguishes between the practical sciences and the humanities, with the corruption of the classical ideal of the university starting and being most advanced in the humanities.
Prof. Carroll is disparaging when he says “nor is a polytechnic a university” and it only suits the natural sciences and seems to make a put down about some business studies and various other professions. He reinforces that by saying a real university centres on the humanities. “It always has”, he said. Fortunately things change and the humanities can go on navel gazing while the world passes them by.
Both arts and science departments have lost the plot but it is less obvious in the science departments as they are just looking at physical phenomena.
Neither tend to have any idea about human nature or the true purpose of a university.
Professor Carroll simply states a fact when he says that a polytechnic is not a university. A 101 course in western civilization incorporated into degrees such as in science, engineering, law, economics, commerce, business, etc., would enrich the education of leaders in these fields and give them moral guidance.
A 101 course in western civilisation would be a good course, however to suggest any 101 humanities or social science course provides moral guidance is somewhat optimistic given than graduate and advanced degrees in these subjects have already created an amoral society
In the UK all technically oriented universities of repute started as polytechnics, other than Cambridge which had a strong maths and physics reputation, they were doing advanced research in many areas, the university community could not handle this and they were force ably converted to universities or merged into them. Part of the reasons for this was a general contempt for applied science which had led to the UK being among the last countries in Europe to offer university science and engineering courses, this forced the development of high grade polytechnics which were at least equal to universities in intellectual rigour. e.g. Loughborough, UMIST, Cranfield, Hadfield Rugby, London polytechnic. Without this forced conversion and assimilation of the polytechnics many of the universities would have died of irrelevance.
Victor Orbán’s landslide electoral victory on Sunday, gaining 134 seats out of 199 in Hungary’s parliament, increases his governing supermajority and endorses his tough policy of excluding illegal immigrants, especially from the Middle East. His success dramatizes a new reality across Europe and in Australia: a novel kind of party has emerged, disturbing the political scene and arousing impassioned debate.
Examples of this phenomenon include the other three members of the Visegrád group (Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia) as well as Austria’s four-month old government. Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, sees western Europe following the Visegrád group: “In the Eastern part of Europe, anti-Islamification and anti-mass migration parties see a surge in popular support. Resistance is growing in the West, as well.”
In France, the National Front emerged as the second strongest party in last year’s presidential elections, in Italy, a muddled situation could lead to an Orbán-like government, while Cory Bernardi’s Conservatives and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation have made their mark on the Australian scene. Indeed, like-minded parties have quickly become a significant force in some twenty countries.
General election seats won by civilizationist parties in Europe.
An initial problem is how correctly to name them in general. The media lazily lumps these parties together as far-right, ignoring their frequent leftist elements, especially in economic and social policy. Calling them nationalist is wrong, for they neither bellow calls to arms nor raise claims to neighbors’ lands. Populist misses the point because plenty of populist parties such as La France Insoumise (Rebellious France) pursue nearly opposite policies.
Best is to focus on their key common elements: rejecting the vast influx of immigrants and especially Muslim immigrants. Non-Muslim immigrants also cause strains, especially those from Africa, but only among Muslims does one find a program, the Islamist one, to replace Western civilization with a radically different way of life. Turned around, these parties are traditionalists with a pro-Christendom, pro-European and pro-Western outlook; they are civilizationist. (This definition also has the benefit of excluding parties like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, that despise traditional Western civilization.)
Enlightened opinion generally reacts with horror to civilizationist parties, and not without reason, for they carry a lot of baggage. Some have dubious origins. Staffed mainly by angry political novices, they feature dismaying numbers of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim extremists, Nazi nostalgists, power-hungry cranks, economic eccentrics, historical revisionists, and conspiracy theorists. Some proffer anti-democratic, anti-European Union, and anti-American outlooks. Far too many – and especially Orbán – have a soft spot for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Putin (L) and Orbán chat amiably.
But civilizationist parties also bring critical benefits to the political arena: realism, courage, tenacity, and a civilizational critique necessary if the West is to survive in its historic form. Therefore, contrary to many friends and allies, I favor working with most civilizationist parties, advocating critical co-operation rather than rejection and marginalization.
Four reasons drive this decision: First, civilizationist parties pose a lesser danger than do Islamists. They are traditionalist and defensive. They are not violent, they do not seek to overthrow the constitutional order. Their errors are correctable. Arguably, they are less dangerous even than the Establishment parties which permitted immigration and shirked Islamist challenges.
Second, they respond to political realities. The lure of power has already inspired some civilizationist parties to mature and moderate; for example, the founder of the National Front in France was expelled from his own party by his daughter due to his persistent antisemitism. This sort of evolution entails personnel fights, party divisions, and other drama; however inelegant, these are part of the growing process and, so, have a constructive role. As they gain governing experience, the parties will further evolve and mature.
Third, parties focused on civilizationism cannot be dismissed as ephemeral. They emerged quickly and are steadily rising in popularity because they represent a sizeable and growing body of opinion. As they relentlessly approach power; it is better they be engaged with and moderated than be reviled and alienated.
Finally, and most critically, civilizationist parties have a vital role in bringing their issues to the fore: without them, other parties usually ignore immigration and Islamist challenges. Conservative parties tend to overlook these issues, in part because their big business supporters benefit from cheap labor. Leftist parties too often promote immigration and turn a blind eye to Islamism.
Great Britain lacks a civilizationist party because Nigel Farage decided that UKIP would not deal with immigration and Islamism.
To appreciate the role of civilizationist parties, contrast Great Britain and Sweden, the two European countries most lax in dealing with culturally aggressive and criminally violent forms of Islamism. Lacking such a party, these issues are not addressed in Great Britain; immigration and Islamist inroads progress almost unimpeded. Prime ministers might provide excellent analyses, but their words lack practical consequences and problems such as the sex-grooming gangs go unaddressed.In contrast, because Sweden’s civilizationist party, the Sweden Democrats, has doubled its votes every four years since 1998, it has fundamentally altered the country’s politics to the point that the country’s right and left blocs have allied against it. While this maneuver successfully excluded it from power, some policy changes have already occurred and more may lie ahead, especially as a conservative party, the Moderates, has raised the hitherto inconceivable notion of cooperating with the Sweden Democrats.
This points to another implication: the presence of an expanding civilizationist party pressures legacy parties of both right and left. Conservative ones, fearing the loss of voters to civilizationist parties, adopt policies to keep their support. The Republican Party in France has moved sharply in this direction, first under François Fillon and now under his successor, Laurent Wauquiez. Germany’s Free Democratic Party withdrew from the “Jamaica” negotiations for this same reason. Angela Merkel may still be chancellor of Germany, but her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, is doing his best to apply civilizationist policies.
Leftist parties have also begun to take note of the voters they have lost, especially those workers who tend to be economically and culturally on the front lines. The Danish Social Democrats led the way when its leader, Mette Frederiksen, declared “We want to introduce a cap on the number of non-Western foreigners who can come to Denmark” and offered a detailed, if ungainly, plan. The party would set up reception centers outside Europe.
Migrants in Budapest, Hungary, in 2015.
I acknowledge their many faults, but parties focused on immigration and Islamism are essential for Europe not to become an extension of Northern Africa but to remain part of the Western civilization it created. Their raising the immigration and Islamist issues makes up for their shortcomings. This assessment leads me to urge cooperation with civilizationist parties, rather than a horrified shunning of them. In my experience, they are open to discussion and to learning; they also have something to teach. For example, Anne Marie Waters of For Britain focuses on Islamic law, or sharia, bringing new clarity to complex problems.
Returning to Viktor Orbán: despite his serious flaws as a democratic leader and an alignment with Putin, his electoral success points to a real and legitimate anxiety in Hungary about immigration and Islamization, especially in the aftermath of the 2015-16 surge in both. Orbán leads, but others are not far behind. In twenty years, I predict, civilizationist parties will likely be widely in government; no less important, their policies will have influenced their conservative and leftist rivals. It would be folly to try to ignore or ostracize this movement; far better to temper, educate, and learn from it.
Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.
Here is a retrospective.
The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosathat Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.
I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club, winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.
March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Rideis my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.
May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45 takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.
In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Vikingis a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Bluestakes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.
Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow
In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yellsurmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.
September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In Wonderland. Go Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.
On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.
Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Powerlooks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.
November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.
A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home, I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejirais a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.
Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.
Lewis Carroll’s fabulist masterpiece is 150 years of age this year.
In June, we had the pleasure visiting Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire. An enthusiastic verger ushered us to the choir stalls. One carving therein depicts a griffin catching a rabbit who escapes down a hole. Is this where Alice, in pursuit of the White Rabbit, fell “down, down, down “to the centre of the earth, landing “bump, bump, bump?”. “Young Charles Dodgson would have played in these very stalls”, she told us. “Just imagine”. Charles’ dad was canon, and the lad would have hung out here, amidst ornate misericord carvings replete with fabulous creatures. On another misericord, a small character resembles what you would look like if you go eating mushrooms:
“One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small; and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall. And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall, Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Call Alice. When she was just small”.
The mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece. The polymath Anglican deacon may not have approved of the ambiance and the subtext of Grace’s soaring rant, but he would have appreciated where she was at:
“When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead, And the White Knight is talking backwards, and the Red Queen’s off with her head. Remember what the dormouse said: Feed your head! Feed your head!”
Which brings me back to Alice’s 150th birthday. And as a tribute to the anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, I cannot hope to do better than Peter Craven in his masterful tribute in this weekend’s The Australian. Craven traces the bloodline, the DNA even, of Carroll’s creation. Gilbert & Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, Saki, James Joyce, TS Elliot, the Goons, Monty Python, “the great source of nonsense high and low”,he writes, “where language goes nuts and logic goes haywire as well as highwire”. The curiouser and curiouser world down the rabbit hole. An “epic of a nonsense world that absolutely refuses to acknowledge its lunacy”.
Read Craven’s lovely piece, and celebrate Alice’s 150 by reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again. Here it is, complete with the iconic John Tenniel illustrations.
Alice in Wonderland at 150: the wonderful world of Lewis Carroll
Peter Craven, The Australian, September 26th 2015
It’s 150 years since Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that absolute bedrock on which our English-speaking civilisation is based. The story about the little girl who goes tumbling down a rabbit hole to discover herself in a topsy-turvy world where caterpillars smoke hookahs, Cheshire cats evaporate except for their smiles and queens scream “Off with her head” is the essence of British comedy, of Anglo-Saxon stuff and nonsense.
It anticipates Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde and Saki, it is the table of the law from which the Goons and Monty Python take their basic idiom of absurdity, it is the great source of nonsense high and low.
Yes, but Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel Through the Looking-Glass are also an extraordinary dreamscape, an enchanted world.
With Carroll, the high dream and the poetry are in the nonsense and it’s part of his genius to have taken a vision of narrative and language that might, with just a twist, have become modernist and abstract, and given it to the Anglo-Saxon world as a children’s story as old and deep as lullabies and the world of sleep where every dream comes and every burble can seem like babble.
If you want an obvious example of the pure linguistic inventiveness of this world (where language goes nuts and logic goes haywire as well as highwire) take the lines Alice reads early on in Through the Looking-Glass.
“ ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe. // Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”
Anyone who has glanced at James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, with its multiple puns across languages, all contained within a lilting Irish brogue that highlights the Anglo-Saxon backbone of English, will be reminded of Jabberwocky (“Eins within a space and a wearywide space it wast ere wohned a Mookse; “Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan!”).
Anyone who has encountered the sheer melodic strangeness, the luxuriance and defamiliarising effect of the proto-modernist poetry of the greatest poetic innovator of the Victorian age, Gerard Manley Hopkins, will see another kind of parallel. “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn Falcon …”
Carroll had been there before them. Except that in reducing English — English verse in this case — to pure sonic nonsense and suggestion, he was doing do so facetiously.
In France they had the symbolist movement and the poet Mallarme declaring “Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces”, so that language was being used to give us the rustle and shadow of a world through its ghostly glide, as in the poetry of TS Eliot (who translated these effects back into English) where the yellow fog in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is like a spectral cat.
But take a step back to the origin of this extraordinary children’s story. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a young Oxford don, a brilliant mathematician, is rowing along the river and is telling a story to the 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her two sisters. And for all the pleasure of the rowing and the messing about in boats, the true captivation is the story Dodgson is telling about the wonderland that opens up when a girl like Alice goes down that rabbit hole, into the curiouser and curiouser world where she grows big, grows small, and everything seems animated by some principle of distortion yet still seems gravely itself at every point. His friend in the boat asks the man who will eventually take the nom de plume Lewis Carroll if he’s just extemporising these wacko stories. “Oh yes, I am just making it up as I go along,” the storyteller says.
And then Alice Liddell says would Mr Dodgson write down this story and give it to her as a present. And so 18 months later he wrote it up for her and gave it to her with his illustrations.
Then in 1865 the expanded version appeared from Macmillan with the illustrations by John Tenniel, later supplemented by Through the Looking-Glass, to haunt the world as a romance of the 19th-century dreamworld ever since.
No one has ever known what focus of obsession or wonderment drew Dodgson to Alice Liddell. Simon Winchester has written a book, The Alice Behind Wonderland, about the photographs Dodgson took of Alice from the time she was six. The celibate clergyman obviously took a delight in the young child, but why shouldn’t he? There’s no evidence his feeling for her was anything but chaste.
Still, relations with Alice’s family — her classicist father Henry Liddell was co-author of what’s still the standard dictionary of classical Greek — did not stay close and there’s the suggestive fact that some pages were torn from Carroll’s diary. Alice did not attend Carroll’s funeral in 1898. She married in 1880 and had a long life. She was forced by neediness to sell her Lewis Carroll collection and in 1932 she came to New York to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the author, the man who 70 years earlier had turned her into the heroine of his dream story. She was mobbed, she apologised to the people of America for not signing their books, her own manuscript had been bought by an American.
Before she left on that trip she had signed a copy for the six-year-old Elizabeth, the girl who would become the Queen. At the end of World War II, the librarian of congress brought the manuscript to London and gave it back to the people of Britain. It was accepted on their behalf by the archbishop of Canterbury with appropriate solemnity. This underlined the common inheritance of English-speaking people in this extraordinary and iridescent story that had become the greatest folktale of the age.
It is a remarkable thing to create a modern fairy story that also embodies, through a spirit of comedy and enchantment at its most delirious, the deeper culture of a civilisation. Alice in Wonderland succeeds in doing this partly because Alice is such a credible girl.
Carroll is so good at inhabiting a child’s-eye view of the world without ever making Alice mawkish or mushy or infantile. She is in her own terms shrewd, practical, alert, full of energy and imagination and a desire to know what’s going on, however bizarre and uncanny it may be.
And the style in which Carroll couches his epic of a nonsense world that absolutely refuses to acknowledge its lunacy (and nor should it) is a masterpiece of plain elegance and precision.
She was looking about for some way of escape, and wondering whether she could get away without being seen, when she noticed a curious appearance in the air: it puzzled her very much at first, but, after watching it a minute or two, she made it out to be a grin, and she said to herself ‘‘It’s the Cheshire Cat: now I shall have somebody to talk to.’’
‘‘How are you getting on?’’ said the Cat, as soon as there was mouth enough for it to speak with.
Alice waited till the eyes appeared, and then nodded. ‘‘It’s no use speaking to it,’’ she thought, ‘‘till its ears have come, or at least one of them.’’ In another minute the whole head appeared, and then Alice put down her flamingo, and began an account of the game, feeling very glad she had someone to listen to her. The Cat seemed to think that there was enough of it now in sight, and no more of it appeared.
The removal of the sublime Cheshire Cat is naturally enough — at the axe-happy queen’s instigation — to be by execution. But, of course, the cat starts his fading-away trick and the executioner is mightily unamused: “The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn’t going to begin at his time of life.’’
Alice can be read with a fair amount of ease by anybody. It’s in a fresh, idiomatic, racy style that avoids the rich ponderous quality of a lot of grand Victorian prose, so that it can in fact — like Huckleberry Finn and decidedly unlike Moby-Dick (which is no children’s book, whatever they used to imagine) — be read when you’re nine years old. And should be.
But Alice in Wonderland is likely to take every child’s fancy and the main thing is probably to encourage kids — perhaps particularly boys — that they are not too old for it. And the trick there is probably the simple one of convincing them it’s very funny and very weird.
And that’s true. It is bottomlessly funny and sad and wise, and if it’s a kids’ book, even a little kids’ book, it is so with an extraordinary clairvoyant intensity of vision, pitiless and naked to the wildness and poignancy of the world.
Listen to the sublime and solemn description of the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon as they delineate a dance of lobsters with Alice trying not to disclose the fact that she thinks of things from the sea as essentially things to eat:
‘‘You may not have lived much under the sea — ’’ (“I haven’t,’’ said Alice) — ‘‘and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster — ’’ (Alice began to say ‘‘I once tasted — ’’ but checked herself hastily, and said ‘‘No, never’’) ‘‘ — so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster Quadrille is!’’
‘‘No, indeed,’’ said Alice. ‘‘What sort of a dance is it?’’
‘‘Why,’’ said the Gryphon, ‘‘you first form into a line along the sea-shore — ’’
‘‘Two lines!’’ cried the Mock Turtle. ‘‘Seals, turtles, salmon, and so on; then, when you’ve cleared all the jelly-fish out of the way — ’’
“That generally takes some time,’’ interrupted the Gryphon.
‘‘ — you advance twice — ’’
There’s a wonderful understatement that is the medium for releasing the book’s enchantment and delirium. Even though Carroll knows all about the pure suggestiveness of language, as in Jabberwocky, he needs — and effortlessly conjures up — a windowpane prose that has all the necessary clarity and transparency for the wackiness of what is to transpire at every point.
It’s the quality you get in one of the greatest small-scale 20th-century masterpieces about the dreamlike and impossible: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the story about how Gregor Samsa wakes up to discover that he has turned into a giant insect. It’s the story of Kafka where he is closest to the technique of classic realism, where he is at his sharpest and most Flaubert-like.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of literature (and everything else), said that a probable impossibility was to be preferred to an improbable possibility.
This simply means that something like A Midsummer’s Night Dream, with its fairies and asses’ heads, is better, it is more real as writing, than a bad soap opera where something that could happen, but wasn’t likely, takes centrestage with a complete lack of believability.
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are full of the high logic and precise realism of the impossibility, and what makes the impossibility so real is that the never less than intellectual Carroll gives his narrative the precision of dream. So the grumpy duchess can be nursing an actual pig. And so we can get all the realistic semi-intellectualised dialogue of Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
“I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum: “but it isn’t so, nohow.”
“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “ if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
“I was thinking,” Alice said very politely, “ which is the best way out of this wood: it’s getting so dark. Would you tell me, please?”
But the fat little men only looked at each other and grinned.
Was there ever a more vivid portrait of two all but interchangeable dumb-arse clever boys?
A close cousin is Humpty Dumpty who knows everything about words and how to jump hoops through them, logically and super logically: “ ‘When I use a word,’’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ”
And this very intellectual idiot gives a very precise impersonation of a literary critic by undertaking to produce an analysis of Jabberwocky.
This aspect of Alice in Wonderland is inexhaustible because its brilliance is in its silliness and vice-versa. The Goons and Monty Python have nothing on it because its wit and its disdain for intelligence are part and parcel of the same thing, and the Wonderland frame is wonderful because it allows the surrealism of what transpires to have an absolutely ordinary rainbow of actuality.
It’s a bit dazzling just how much realism Carroll packs into his evocation of the surreal through the eyes of an innocent and practical child. There’s something so silly and so dazzlingly profound in the fight between the Lion and the Unicorn towards the end of the Looking-Glass section and then the King’s description of his messenger.
“ ‘Not at all,’ said the King. ‘He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger — and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he’s happy. His name is Haigha.’ (He pronounced it so as to rhyme with ‘mayor’.)’’
Anglo-Saxon attitudes — who but Lewis Carroll could act them out? The whole book is an enchanted circus of Anglo-Saxon attitudes, but it is also the broadest and most panoramic of comic spectacles.
There’s even the apparition of a White Knight who has the poignancy, the tragicomic absurdity of Cervantes’s Don Quixote in miniature. He flits, he flutters, he indicates his great frailty.
So there are even tears in this strange book of the world that is made up of so many animated jokes, yet the walking jokes and paradoxes have human faces and shapes and possibilities, however glancing, of real feeling, and destiny.
Alice in Wonderland is a book of the deepest kind of magic. It is compounded of poetry and logic and it believes in neither. It is a work of wisdom and a work of madness. It is hilarious and there is a sense in which it is a place where all our memories begin, or seem to.
It’s marvellous that it’s turned 150 and everyone has an excuse to read it again.
Peter Craven is one of Australia’s best known critics and cultural commentators.
2013 was the sixtieth anniversary of the death peerless Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, one of the many famous artists who departed this planet in New York’s Chelsea Hotel. The following piece by Peter Craven is a beautiful tribute, illustrating the magic of Dylan Thomas’ poetry. And listen, pray, to the man himself reciting his poems.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas did not go gentle into that good night
Peter Craven, Weekend Australian, 29 November, 2014
ACCORDING to legend, Bob Dylan took his name from him and he was a kind of rock star: Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet who gave to the people of Wales — and to that part of the world that reveres what they stand for — a poetry of such reverberating bardic magnificence that he became a popular poet long after the age of popular poetry was over.
Thomas, who died, reportedly of alcohol poisoning, in New York at 39 in 1953, has his centenary this year and for the Welsh there has been no tomorrow.
Michael Sheen (the Welsh actor who played Tony Blair and David Frost) has been doing Under Milk Wood, Thomas’s great dreamscape of a radio play, in New York with Kate Burton — daughter of Richard Burton, who first did it on the BBC and even made a film of it with Elizabeth Taylor as Rosie Probert and Peter O’Toole as Captain Cat.
And in Wales they’ve been reading every jot of verse that Thomas ever penned. Distinguished Welsh actors such as Jonathan Pryce have been part of the mass recital and even that northerner, Ian McKellen, old Gandalf himself, has been dragooned into the celebration as if that rhapsodic sense of wizardry could encompass an entire world.
And he was a wizard, Thomas. I remember a lifetime ago lying in the dark of my parents’ bungalow as a young teenager listening to the black graven voice of Burton as he recited:
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms …
It was a poetry made out of mouthfuls of air, as poetry must be, and it was also full of a rich kaleidoscope of imagery, and that seemed to make perfect sense because the emotional thrust was clear from the power of the rhetoric that sustained it.
This was a poetry that was deeply traditional in its sound patterns. It had a romantic grandiloquence and an alliterative richness, a reckless audacity of effects that was a bit like that priestly poet who had anticipated modernism, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
And, of course, it’s that lassoing effect of poetry as a language of the gods that can encompass a universe of feeling and imagining. It can intoxicate itself with language but see the world with a radiant clarity as a consequence of the intoxication. That makes people surrender to Thomas, the way when they are young they surrender to the first stirring of desire, that strange sense of body and soul coming together at the prospect of love.
If that sounds a bit much for mere poetry to achieve, listen to the lilting lyricism of Fern Hill:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes …
It’s poetry of almost total sensuous suggestion and it is saturated with the feeling of sap and possibility. In one way, it’s a poetry that seems to embody the idea of youth even though it is constantly talking about shadows and spectres of mortality. Indeed, Fern Hill ends with a great splash of verbal colour, and an intimation of how the erotic glory of the world, the sense of it as a many-shaped thing of wonder, is inseparable from the pang of transience.
Thomas led an irregular life and before he died in New York’s Chelsea Hotel he told someone he had had 18 consecutive whiskies in a bar. It couldn’t have been quite true but it had a poetic truth because Thomas and his wife Caitlin hit the bottle like a destiny.
Part of Thomas’s fame came from the fact he had a tremendous histrionic gift as a reader of poetry. He read in a very posh-sounding voice with a kind of conscious grandeur that gives a less sinewy sense of his music than Burton does, but has a majestical quality that many people find mesmerising. His reading style tilts towards the preacherly with its Welsh undertone as part of the incantatory quality. But, then, some of his greatest poetry projects a religious vision, which is why Thomas’s poems have become hymns for a modern world that may not know what it believes but has a deep sense of the resonance and the afterglow of belief.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The language is magical in the way it creates, with a fierce flaming elegiac power, the refusal to accept the fact of death. And the fact the perspective is not Christian — we know the darkness does overcome — makes the poem a tremendous affirmation of the heroism of life in the face of death. It’s a poem with a reckless bravery and that urging to “rage” — that impossible, nearly preposterous imperative — sits in such tension with “the dying of the light” that the effect is very poignant.
Some people sneer at Thomas, sometimes in reaction to their own earlier infatuation with him. His poetry enthrals the mind (and heart) long before you know exactly what is being said or meant. Is that a disqualification for greatness? Isn’t it a version of what TS Eliot meant when he said that poetry communicates before it’s understood?
If you want the organ notes of elegy, the sombre power that comes from the breath of death on the backs of our necks, and at the same time the sense of the resurrection as always now, try this:
You can, if you like, say the trick is all in the one great line, the line Thomas uses as his refrain, and that he creates a decorative web around it.
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost
love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
But that’s not quite the effect of the poem when it is read aloud. If you listen to Burton recite it, for instance, you get a sense of rushing soliloquy, of confusion and conflict and spectacular profusion, resolving itself in the refrain, which becomes like a religious affirmation, a faith in what seems impossible, a refusal to be conquered by something that cannot fail to conquer.
This is compatible with a believer’s position or an atheist’s, because when it comes to poetry we all suspend disbelief. And Thomas’s poetry is such a headlong act of faith in the act of creating poetry that it presents this spectacle — it, in fact, dramatises it — with a sort of breathtaking self-confidence that goes a long way to explain why his poems seem so genuinely bardic, why the Welsh have taken to them like anthems. And also perhaps, commandeering the tragic fact of his early death, why it makes a kind of sense that Thomas died so young.
If your schtick is to give your audience another piece of your heart over and over, you will burn yourself out or you’ll have to change your art.
God knows what Thomas would have done if he had lived. “It was my 30th year to heaven,” he wrote in Poem in October, which with its wonderful sense of the self roaming like a god is one of the greatest lyrical poems of the 20th century.
My birthday began with the water
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days.
It was his 30th year to heaven and he already wrote like an angel and he was already talking as if he were in the presence of his own tombstone.
It’s the hugeness of the gift that makes people back away from Thomas and makes them deny his achievement, partly because the mesmerism of his manner can create fear of the highest claims.
It makes sense, of course, that there was reaction against the rhetoric of poetry associated with the “New Apocalyptics”, as Thomas’s admirers called themselves and that was partly a reaction against the battering ram of rhetoric the world had suffered with Hitler and Churchill and World War II.
People were sceptical of majesty in poetry. They remembered that the “terrible beauty” of Yeats had been a landing field for a fascist politics. But how unfair to mix Thomas up with this.
Under Milk Wood is the most successful piece of poetic drama of a postwar period haunted by the idea. It has extraordinary brio, and the way Thomas manages to create this surrealist brew of poetic hocus-pocus with choruses of schoolkids and scolding old women and blind, mad Captain Cat and dead lovers, all within a circumambient poetic idiom that is at once rich and grounded in earth, is pretty stunning when you remember that it is also a credible evocation of a village in Wales.
It’s no wonder the Welsh have taken Thomas as their red dragon and their prize dreamer. He was an incomparable poet. He did not go gentle into that good night; he lived hard.
But when it comes to the kingdom of poetry, death shall have no dominion.