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The long history of Manning Clark

1 May 2011 1,618 views No Comment

THE reality is that Manning Charles Hope Clark was never an objectively inclined academic scholar. Thus his magnum opus, the six-volume A History of Australia, had more in common with the vision of 19th-century English writer Thomas Carlyle, whose three-volume History of the French Revolution was inspired by a distinctly personal vision spelled out in an epic narrative style.

Indeed, Clark sometimes admitted there wasn’t very much difference between literary fiction and “his kind of history”.

As academic Mark McKenna tellingly puts it, in the romantic tradition of Carlyle, who spoke from his “inspired soul” to become “the light of the world”, Clark “attempted to minister to [our] nation as a kind of spiritual soothsayer, uttering gnomic words of guidance in the form of historical parables”.

He was forever fascinated by these words of Carlyle etched into the sandstone walls of the foyer of Sydney’s Mitchell Library: “In books lies the soul of the whole past time, the articulate audible voice of the past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.”

Novelist David Malouf perceptively sensed in his friend Clark an enduring spiritual yearning, which manifested itself in “a desperate need for certainty”, and a “huge desire for absolute truth”. Yet, for all of his adult life, the historian’s deep longing was as much sexual and emotional as it was spiritual and intellectual.

Hence a significant portion of McKenna’s An Eye for Eternity deals with Clark’s many infidelities with women other than his long-suffering wife, Dymphna, and the role of a succession of other women as his muses, some of them not sexually consummated, such as his relationship with his research assistant and later controversial historian, Lyndall Ryan.

McKenna’s life of Clark also canvasses his homoeroticism, his earlier attraction to adolescent boys and his emotional closeness to some younger male historians including, perhaps most prominently, Humphrey McQueen.

Clark could certainly be generous to younger historians and writers. As McKenna points out, to me he was most encouraging. Indeed in the early 1980s he wrote for The Courier-Mail a very positive review of volume one of my history of Queensland, which helped draw to the book favourable attention. Also as a person who was himself embarrassed by his behaviour when drunk, who suffered from amnesia (“blackouts”) after drinking binges, yet who was incapable of giving up alcohol completely, he strongly supported my staying off the booze via Alcoholics Anonymous — a fellowship he never joined himself.

McKenna makes it clear that “throughout the 1970s (and possibly beyond), Clark was disgusted by his own drinking habits”. It seems no accident therefore that, of all our writers, with the conspicuous exception of Patrick White, with whom he had a very ambivalent relationship, Clark was especially drawn to Henry Lawson (1867-1922), whose life and work were marred and scarred by the booze.

Significantly, Lawson’s writing deteriorated as he continued to drink and the great Australian nationalist died tragically, precisely because of his alcoholism. Yet, in one of his poems, he prefigured the notion of the effectiveness of one alcoholic being able to help another. So strong was his identification with the writer that, when in Sydney, Clark “became a frequent pilgrim to Lawson’s grave at Waverley Cemetery”.

In 1978 Clark wrote a highly personal and idiosyncratic assessment, In Search of Henry Lawson, which was reprinted in paperback with amendments in 1985 as Henry Lawson: The Man and the Legend. As with A History of Australia, this provoked much scholarly complaint on the grounds of its many inaccuracies, especially from the quarrelsome Colin Roderick, who described Clark’s biography as “a tangled thicket of factual error, speculation and ideological interpretation”.

Although McKenna does not mention it, Clark also wrote a fine essay about attending an Australian rules grand final for my co-edited 1988 collection The Greatest Game. Typical of Clark, his piece was titled An Entire Nation Stricken with a Strange Infirmity. It is still a relatively little known fact that, like his fellow student at the University of Melbourne in the mid-30s, B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria, the historian was an ardent and one-eyed barracker for Carlton.

In the main, An Eye for Eternity is a fine book. It is so much stronger in terms of sheer research and lucid writing style than Brian Matthews’s overrated (in my opinion) 2008 biography, and perhaps is even better, and more convincing, than Stephen Holt’s less ambitious, but important, 1999 effort, A Short History of Manning Clark.

McKenna does not shy away from the fact Clark’s “historical method” in writing A History of Australia embodied that of a novelist. In writing, he “pushed beyond the particulars in order to write history that revealed universal truth — not historical fiction but fictional history”. This attitude was true of Clark from an early age. Thus aged 23, while at Balliol College, Oxford, he wrote: I am most certainly not a scholar — that is why the research here leaves me cold and angry — but I do feel genuine enthusiasm for teaching, and if possible at a university standard. This must be combined with something else, and I feel certain that I can write something one day on Australian history. I feel quite convinced that Australian history has been betrayed by [historians]. I believe quite passionately that Australia is a “weird” country and that its weirdness has never been portrayed except in landscape painting.

Here, in embryo, is Clark the polemicist and storyteller with a grand and epic vision.

Inevitably McKenna’s approach raises some questions. The fact is he has acted as a gatekeeper to all Clark’s papers and has made particular decisions about what to allow open to public gaze.

The section on Meeting Soviet Man, arguably Clark’s worst book and certainly his most compromised, is much too brief, as is McKenna’s exploration about where Clark stood vis a vis the Soviet Union. Detailing a three-week sojourn in Moscow and Leningrad in November 1958 with fellow writers Jim Devaney and hardline Communist Party member Judah Waten, the book, published in early 1960, is truly awful in its acceptance of Soviet propaganda and its avoidance of acknowledging many unpalatable truths.

However, McKenna does maintain that not even Clark’s close friends really knew “where he stood on communism”. And in what seems at best a partial explanation, McKenna points out Clark never aspired to “consistency”. To explain his genesis as a historian, Clark repeatedly recounted how, aged 23, he arrived in Bonn on November 10, 1938 — the morning after Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass”. He allegedly made his way amid the debris caused by the Nazi stormtroopers who had destroyed Jewish shops, businesses and synagogues. He saw, he said, “the fruits of human evil before me there on the streets of Bonn”; the shards of glass were “still on the streets”.

But McKenna’s careful reading of Clark’s diaries, and of correspondence between Clark and Dymphna, demonstrate that it was impossible for Clark to have been in Bonn on the morning of November 10, 1938.

In fact, it was Dymphna who witnessed the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, and it was in Dymphna’s letters to Clark, who was not in continental Europe at all but in Oxford, that described the carnage that she had seen. In one of her letters to her wayward husband, Dymphna included an article about the event by Joseph Goebbels to which, years later, Clark referred in his claim to be present in Bonn on November 10, 1938. As Clark’s own diary confirms, he did not arrive in Bonn until November 26 — more than two weeks after Kristallnacht.

To answer his rhetorical question of why could not Clark have simply told the terrible story through Dymphna, McKenna answers that, “most likely Clark, the great historian, needed to be there to make the parable of Kristallnacht more powerful, to draw from the events the great lessons he had undoubtedly drawn”. Then McKenna concludes: “In this sense, there was no fabrication.”

The impact of Kristallnacht on Clark was, he argues, “genuine and profound, somehow pushing aside the fact that he was not physically present”.  After pointing out that, just as Clark maintained he could not write about past events unless he visited the places where they physically occurred, so too “he felt he could not speak of the significance of Kristallnacht for his intellectual and spiritual development without having been present”.

Then McKenna adds that, in “a lifelong partnership, a couple’s separate memories can sometimes become one, and through Dymphna, Clark no doubt felt he was there in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht”.

This seems to me to be a rather feeble obfuscation. To put it bluntly, Clark must have known he wasn’t there in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht! All of this leads one to question: whether Clark was present at other key events.

In his 1990 memoir The Quest for Grace, Clark claimed he attended the famous debate about the Spanish Civil War, held at Melbourne University on the evening of Monday March 22, 1937.

This involved a grand verbal battle between a team, jousting for “Christ the King”, which comprised three members of the board of the Catholic Worker — Santamaria, Stan Ingwersen and Kevin Kelly — against a team advocating the republican cause led by radical writer Nettie Palmer supported by two members of the Communist Party of Australia, Gerry O’Day and Jack Legge. McKenna states unambiguously that Clark “watched it all `bewildered’, unable to decide where to stand, his heart and mind wavering from one side to the other: achieve human perfectibility on earth or wait until the gates of heaven opened?”

In contrast to this claim of Clark “being there”, Gerard Henderson argued on Radio National Breakfast on March 9, 2007, that after the revelations about his untruths on Kristallnacht, one now has to doubt the veracity of many, if not most, of the assertions of Clark where he claimed to be present at key events. This includes, Henderson argued, Clark’s report of the 1937 Spanish Civil War debate.

As with Kristallnacht, some may say it doesn’t matter if Clark weren’t actually there; it is enough he was there “in spirit”.

So does it matter if what Clark wrote was fact or fiction? Call me old-fashioned, but for those of us purporting to write history, there surely has to be a difference.

For the funeral of that extremely complex personality, Clark, on May 27, 1991, more than 600 mourners gathered in St Christopher’s Catholic Cathedral in Canberra. Some were surprised that, at the end of his life, Clark might have embraced Catholicism. Yet for all Clark’s vague hopes of an afterlife, McKenna reports that he died “racked by doubt, pleading for his life not to end”. It’s unclear how well versed McKenna is with Catholicism. Thus, when he writes of the Eucharist, he confuses what he terms “transfiguration” with transubstantiation, which is the Catholic belief that the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

Despite McKenna’s careful research and his seven years of fine labour, key questions about Clark remain unanswered. Where he stood in relation to communism is one of many. McKenna argues that Clark’s “admiration for Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was driven by his conviction that the revolution contained `the promise of better things for mankind”’. It was for this reason, McKenna says, “that he often attended ceremonies held at the Soviet embassy in Canberra to commemorate the anniversary of the Russian Revolution — not because he was a communist but because he was an idealist”.

Towards the end of this vast book, McKenna quotes a letter that, five months before his death, Clark wrote to his friend and ex-academic colleague, the Oxford-educated communist, Ian Milner, in Prague: I wonder whether any crude secular position is conducive to poetry, music or painting . . . I see us all as people who have lost their “Great Expectations”, either in any world to come, or in the here and now . . . just because 1917 fell into the hands of spiritual bullies, that does not mean we should give up the hope of stealing fire from heaven — or that we should bow down to 5th Avenue.

An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark, By Mark McKenna, MUP, 793pp, $54.95 (HB)

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His new book, Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace, is published this month.