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Intellectual inbreeding, but insight aplenty

20 December 2008 1,980 views One Comment

In The Best Australian Essays 2008, David Marr presents 31 offerings, including a piece by himself — supposedly because ‘the publishers insisted’ and he ‘didn’t fight’!

Not unsurprisingly the result is a curate’s egg, although it does seem clear that a disproportionate number of essays hail from the Monthly, which like this book is published by Morry Schwartz’s Melbourne-based Black Inc. This means that much of this volume is intellectually inbred.

But enough carping, let’s deal with some of the positives.

Two of the most promising pieces in the collection are ‘To Hell with the Future’ by the feisty Kate Jennings and ‘Save Us from Text Maniacs’, by one of Australia’s most uncompromising writers, Gerald Murnane.

Author of the path-breaking Mother I’m Rooted, and more recently of the powerful novelistic attack on the unregulated global financial system, Moral Hazard, Jennings, who now lives in New York, attacks ‘the hypocrisy of bankers who preached free market until they needed bailing out’. The trillions of dollars of unregulated derivatives, which directly caused the American mortgage meltdown, in particular gets her steamed up.

As it happens, one of our mutual heroes was Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor recently driven from office over a prostitution scandal. Jennings puts it thus: ‘I would’ve followed the man to the ends of the earth. He took on the banks and the insurance companies, and called their bluff as no one ever has. He seemed to me the perfect example of how one man can make a difference. Leaders matter.’ It turns out, she wryly concludes, that ‘he was every bit as arrogant and hypocritical as the guys he was backing into corners’. Perhaps that’s a bit too tough.

In a quite different, but equally punchy piece, published in the Australian Literary Review, Murnane recalls how the truly awful teaching of English at the University of Melbourne in the 1960s almost snuffed out his love of literature. Fortunately, but unlike a number of his student peers, he did not succumb to prevailing pedagogies and fashionable dogmas, but alone at night savoured the works themselves.

When explaining the power and force of sentences, Murnane is a master. As he hypothesises, the essence of a literary text ‘is not subject matter or theme or meaning, but words arranged in certain sequences’. Playful juxtaposition, word against word, is one of Murnane’s many strengths. After devouring ‘Save Us from Text Maniacs’, I will never again read the words ‘churlish’ and ‘strident’ without a giggle. (Read the essay yourself to see what I mean.)

In the penultimate paragraph of his pungent piece, Murnane maintains that ‘the best service that any reader of goodwill might offer to a writer of goodwill is to attend only to the text; to report only their experience as a reader of the text; and to address their report not to some reputed author but to the personage truly responsible for the text…’ Amen to that.

Another highlight of this raft of essays is Barry Humphries’ beautifully constructed Age review of Arthur Boyd: A Life, which incorporates the great comic’s reminiscences of the artist who was one of his closest friends. He tellingly claims that, in the Australian and Western art world, ‘envy is not far below the surface and Arthur attracted more than his share’. As Humphries confides, among Boyd’s early patrons was ‘that sinister couple John and Sunday Reed, who have since been mythologised by people who never knew them’. Occasionally generous and perceptive (they bought a Dadaist sculpture of Humphries in 1958), the Reeds ‘ultimately gave sensitivity a bad name’ and their ‘equivocal role in Arthur’s career, and Sidney Nolan’s also’, is well recorded in the recent biography written by ‘the euphoniously named Darleen Bungey’.

It is Humphries’ heartfelt opinion that Arthur Boyd died too young. Towards the end of the artist’s life, his family and friends ‘were disturbed by increasing symptoms of mental confusion’, which Humphries believes ‘could well have been related to lead and cobalt poisoning since for years he had been manipulating his pigments, some of which were highly toxic, with his bare hands’.

The final piece, ‘The Collector’, is by Nicolas Rothwell, perhaps our finest essayist. This subtle, sublime piece — 14 pages long — was first published in The Monthly. It documents how in late June 1956, the Paris-trained Czech artist Karel Kupka, powerfully influenced by the ‘master-thinker of the surrealists’, André Breton, ‘stepped for the first time into the elusive world of Arnhem Land’.

Fascinated by Aboriginal art, and having survived a plane crash on the Star of Australia, Kupka’s mission was to gather a collection of art from northern Australia, including carvings, bark paintings and totemic emblems, ‘that would catch the spirit of that world’.

When he arrived at Milingimbi Island, Kupka was met at the airstrip by the staff of the Methodist Overseas Mission. They drove him through ‘the stringy-bark forests, past the swamps and salt-flats, to their little community of mud-brick homes. Nearby, along the shore, beneath tall tamarind trees, the native people kept their camps, segregated by family and by clan affiliations.’ As Rothwell nicely puts it, ‘Visitors of any kind were infrequent then at such remote mission posts; no one had ever seen or heard of an art collector.’ Within a few weeks, Kupka had established a close relationship with two impressive clan leaders, Djawa and Dawidi.

Soon Kupka ranged far and wide, to Yirrkala, Port Keats and to the delightful Tiwi Islands. The ambiguous country he describes thus: ‘The continent belongs to the Earth’s past. It is a land of strange beauty, so unlike other continents… Immense expanses generally end in a perfectly straight horizon. There are few mountains, and those that do exist are usually isolated. The ground is often rocky; the shallow rivers, when not dry, irrigate an apparently sparse vegetation.’

While on the Tiwi Islands, Kupka was befriended by Bishop John Patrick O’Laughlin who was building a new cathedral in Darwin. Kupka readily accepted O’Laughlin’s invitation to paint an Aboriginal Madonna for St Mary’s Star of the Sea. Such a radical proposal presented a number of artistic problems, not least that of the Madonna’s pose. Kupka solved the problem thus: ‘Instead of cradling the Christ-child in her lap, the Madonna is carrying her son on her shoulders, in the fashion of Aboriginal women from the Tiwi Islands and the Daly River, with one of her hands clasping the baby by the ankle and the other resting gently on his hip.’

In the end notes we are informed that Rothwell’s essay is the prologue to a new book, The Red Highway, which canvases tradition, loss and return in Aboriginal Australia. I can hardly wait to read it.

Published in The Spectator, Australia. Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 30 books, most recently The Pope’s Battalions: B.A. Santamaria and the Labor Split.

One Comment »

  • Richard L said:

    I loved Nicolas Rothwell’s Kupka essay too, Ross. Perhaps the most evocative piece on the north (and the artist) I’ve ever read.