by Nicolette Stasko
It would be an understatement to say that almost every poet has written about art. I could use this entire post to list only the Australians. In his preface to Writers on Artists, Daniel Halpern comments, ‘many important writers have spent a significant part of their non-writing time thinking about painting and sculpture’. The American poet, John Ashbery, also an art critic and friend of artists, immediately comes to mind along with his brilliant long poem, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,
‘As Parmigianino did it, the right hand/Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer.
The soul establishes itself. /But how far can it swim out through the eyes/And still return safely to its nest?’
Why is it then that writers feel such an affinity to the work of visual artists?
As a writer and especially as a poet, I have always found myself drawn to the visual arts rather than music for which I have no aptitude. I tend to work in silence and have never written a poem inspired by music. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that my father on Saturdays, to give my mother a break, used to take us to art galleries and museums. They were free in those days and we respected the quiet stillness. So viewing became a habit transformed eventually into ‘seeing’ (more on this in my next post). Halpern asks: ‘Could it be that in some rather intriguing ways the bonds between writers and artists are as strong, and often stronger than those between fiction writers and poets?’ I would certainly answer yes.
Throughout my career I have written about artists and paintings: Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Frida Kahlo, the Aboriginal painter, Ian Abdulla and a South American Jorge Damiana, as well as Etruscan tomb sculpture and a silver Roman casket. I can’t write a haiku without ‘seeing’ a Japanese print in front of me.
This from a very early poem ‘Sun upon Sun’ the sequence about van Gogh:
across a bridge finer
than a spider’s web
their parasols and conical
hats keeping off
the shafts of slanting rain
bend ankle-deep in a mirror
cut clean with a reed pen
such clarity and light!
blue and green and red
there are no potatoes
The ‘Sun upon Sun’ sequence is not a series of descriptions of van Gogh’s painting but more of an attempt to explore the processes of his art, what he felt and thought about it through reference to his letters to his brother Theo. So they are not, strictly speaking, ekphrasis, although the little poem above does attempt to capture what the artist found in Japanese prints which so profoundly changed his and many others ways of seeing. The one described above was in his collection.
We are all familiar with the concept that poetry is like a painting, as in the Roman poet Horace’s phrase, ut pictura poesis. Perhaps this is where the notion started and perhaps the simile remains in use because it is so accurate. When I think of prose (fiction or non-fiction) in my mind’s eye I see a flat page, whereas a poem always appears to me as three-dimensional. The irony of course is that a picture is two-dimensional as most modernist painters strove to emphasize.
The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek ek, ‘out of,’ and phrasis, ‘speech’ or ‘expression’. It seems that it originally referred to a description of a visual object produced as a rhetorical exercise and later to mean a description of any thing, person or experience both real and imaginary. ‘Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness’ (Wikipidia). More specifically it sometimes referred to text in which the mute work of visual art is enabled to speak for itself.
In recent decades, the use of the term has been limited, first, to visual description and then even more narrowly to the description of a real or imagined work of visual art. Modern ekphrastic poems have generally eschewed the ancients’ obsession with elaborate detail, and instead have tried ‘to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects’.
Frequently along with definitions and examples of ekphrasis is found the following from a dialogue by Plato, which probably has helped form some of our ideas about what writing is, although those readers familiar with The Republic know that Plato had little time for poets, considering them timewasters and a bad influence on youth. My feeling is that Plato on the whole was a pretty grim character.
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.
The idea here I think is that through ekphrasis the writer/poet can speak for the mute object of art. However if you read the rest of Socrates’ statement, it’s fairly clear he/Plato doesn’t have a lot of faith in words either.
And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power or help itself.’
A bit of a conundrum; I’ll leave you to try to figure out who the ‘father’ is.
I particularly like the idea that modern poets have generally tried interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects. I realize that Italo Calvino is not a poet in the strictest sense but assuredly a most lyrical writer. His short piece ‘The Birds of Paola Uccello’ is worth quoting at some length as it so beautifully illustrates the variety of ekphrasitic writing, in this case what is not in the painting:
We see no birds in the paintings of Paola Uccello. In all his teeming world the skies are empty. …What has become of the birds that according to Vasari once studded his canvases, so much so as to earn him his nickname of Uccello? Who has scared them away? Most certainly the soldiers, who render the highways of the air impassable with their spears, and with the clash of weaponry silence trillings and chirrupings…Fled from the colored surfaces, the birds are hiding or fluttering invisibly outside the borders of the paintings. They are waiting for the right moment to come back and occupy the canvas’.
The Battle of San Romano 1438-40 (182 x 320cm), National Gallery, London
Halpern suggests that poets have a ‘unique ability to describe the visual’ (a poem is like a painting) or what I described in an earlier post as an ‘acute power of observation’ which tends to ensure that their engagement with and reflection on works of art is almost second nature, ‘that the scene has its meaning inherent in it …that a depiction of the perfectly ordinary [is] deeply interesting because of the medium, painting’ or, we might say, poetry.
At the moment, between writing blogs etc, I am working on a poem that attempts to ‘inhabit’ or ‘interpret’ a large installation, Waste Not by the Chinese artist Song Dong shown at the Carriageworks last year. It is a very overwhelming, beautiful, complex and moving work and so far none of the classic forms, dramatic monologue, lyrical response or description has been able to come close to the essence of the work, which is composed of decades of refuse hoarded by the artist’s mother at the time of the Cultural Revolution and continuing until 2002 when the installation was conceived by the son as a way of pulling her out of her grief and isolation. The concept underlying the work is the traditional Chinese virtue of frugality ‘wu jin qi yong’, defined as ‘anything that can somehow be of use, should be used as much as possible. Every resource should be used fully, and nothing should be wasted’. (A lesson the Western world should take more heed of!) According to the artist, this became a kind of ‘fabao’ for his mother—translated as a ‘magic bullet’—to protect one through hard times. The story behind the work is intriguing and poignant, complicating any poem far beyond ‘simple’ ekphrasis. I am trying to shake myself out of habit and complacency by experimenting with forms that may do the work some justice and although I can see it in my mind’s eye, I cannot as yet ‘see’ it in words.
Waste Not, Song Dong
This leads me to question what is the difference between ekphrasis and a lyrical poem with ekphrastic elements—a hair-splitting delineation that has been in the back of my mind during the writing of this post. It seems to be whether the focus of the poem is on a writer’s engagement with the work of art or on the poet observing the work of art through the lenses of her present experience and/or emotions.
I will end with an illustration: the final section of ‘Dwelling in the Shape of Things’, a meditation on Cézanne (from The Weight of Irises), on which one critic generously commented: ‘there is more than one useful and persuasive way of responding verbally to great paintings’.
How little we know about one another
each locked in our own delicate case
surrounded by dark scenery
the apples laid out before us
making deep shadows
on a sail of white cloth
like holes in a field of freshly fallen snow
round reddish gold
we do not understand them
only one woman
with a neck curved and vulnerable as a swan’s
holds warm fruit in her hands
leaning toward the centre
giving or taking away
and what difference between such gestures
in the end?
brooding parallel of trees a storm threatens
that last strange gleaming light the sides of our faces
a couple walks away into the coming darkness
clouds cloth hem edge repeat their shape
 Daniel Halpern (ed.), Writers on Artists, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.
 John Ashberry, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, New York: The Viking Press, 1975, p.68.
 Halpern, preface to Writers on Artists.
 See Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/notes-ekphrasis and http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/ekphrasis-poetry-confronting-art.
 The Castle in the Pyrenees illustration is the original cover for the first Italian edition of Invisible Cities, 1972.
 Italo Calvino, ‘The Birds of Uccello’, translated by Patrick Creagh, Antæus 54: Spring 1985, in Halpern, Writers on Artists, p.3.
 Guy Davenport, ‘Henry Rousseau’, Antæus 54, Spring 1985, in Halpern, p.155.
 see Graeme Smith, ‘Difficult World’, in Real Time, Sydney, February-March 2013, p.44.
 Geoff Page, ‘Books and Writing’, Radio National (ABC), November 2004. ‘Stasko here is concerned to articulate not only her personal response to the paintings but, more ambitiously perhaps, to create a verbal equivalent to them, akin, in some ways, to a translation. While some traditional art critics might well benefit from reading this sequence, ‘Dwelling in the Shape of Things’ is not a piece of art criticism or scholarship. It does show, however, that there is more than one useful and persuasive way of responding verbally to great paintings.
 after Paul Cézanne, Luncheon on the Grass (1869).
by Nicolette Stasko
A blog (short for weblog)[i] is a discussion or informational site published on the World Wide Web and consisting of discrete entries or ‘posts’. It’s interesting that Blog is also be used as a verb, meaning ‘to maintain or add content to a blog’. ‘The emergence and growth of blogs in the late 1990s coincided with the advent of web publishing tools that facilitated the posting of content by non-technical users’ (Wikipedia). I hope I’m not stating the obvious. I’m not normally a blogger nor a bloggee. (BLOG is such an ugly word!) This is a new experience for me. But then all writing is a risk, a discovery, an adventure. As soon as you put (I was going to type ‘pen to paper’!) fingers to keyboard you are entering unknown territory. I’ve often thought about Barthe’s infamous ‘death of the author’, a claim that has caused much discomfort to some, when to my mind it means exactly that: from the moment you start to write you are no longer yourself (whoever that may be) but a complex of language, experience and texts. The challenge of a new genre—like diving into deep water.
Rave on down through the industrial revolution
Empiricism, atomic and nuclear age
Rave on down through time and space down through the corridors
Rave on words on printed page
Rave on, you left us infinity
And well pressed pages torn to fade
Drive on with wild abandon
Up tempo, frenzied heels
Rave on, Walt Whitman, nose down in wet grass
Rave on, fill the senses
On nature’s bright green shady path
Rave on Omar Khayyam, rave on Kahlil Gibran
Oh, what sweet wine we drinkin’
The celebration will be held
We will partake the wine and break the holy bread
Rave on let a man come out of Ireland
And rave on, Mr.Yeats
Rave on down through thy holy Rosy Cross
Rave on down through theosophy and the golden dawn
Rave on through the writing of a vision
Rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on
Rave on, John Donne, rave on thy holy fool
Down through the weeks of ages
In the moss borne dark dank pools
Rave on, down though the industrial revolution
Empiricism and atomic and nuclear age
Rave on, on printed page
—Van Morrison ‘Rave On’ from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
(photo credit: isu.indstate.edu)
I’ve frequently wondered why I write, why anybody writes. I can’t remember having this conservation with any of my friends who are almost all writers; it just seems a given. I wanted to be a writer ever since I could hold a pencil although at the time I didn’t really know what a ‘writer’ was. I don’t believe poets are ‘the legislators of the world’ or have any special communication with the cosmos or even particular wisdom or insight. But there seems to be a kind of super sensitivity and acute power of observation that results in the need to express what is felt or seen. Almost as if nothing’s real if it isn’t written down. People frequently say—even if the most awful or extreme circumstances—‘you should write about that’ or ‘there’s a poem in that’. I’m usually somewhat appalled although I recognise a certain truth. Recently I scribbled in one of the numerous notebooks I have lying around:
the Prince of Comedy
has shown the way
no earthly reason to wait if
he can do it so can we
we have the right
stand up and be counted
we are starting to stare like
the world devours itself
I’m not going to bother to explain the circumstances that prompted this (which I’m sure you can imagine) nor pretend that it is a poem although for some reason I wrote it in lines. Earlier, in another notebook, after phrases collected from Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels for an experiment with a ‘collage’ poem, I found a description of the atrocity in the Urkraine and under it a note added later:
‘Fiddle with Maigret?! And yet does one ‘fiddle with Maigret’ because it keeps you from going mad?’
Writers, particularly poets, aren’t generally known for their mental health but seem to suffer all degrees of bi-polar and depression. I remember the possibly apocryphal story Bruce Beaver used to tell—that he had his first breakdown and began writing at the start of WWII. Is that perhaps the reason for art, for writing? Somehow to put out there something beautiful or of value to negate the evil in a world that can sometimes be so awful? And yet it is also so wonder-full and worth celebrating.
One of the paradoxes I discovered while doing research for my first post on the Reef was that at the beginning of the battle, not surprisingly, many of the conservationists were considered ‘cranks’, ‘hotheads’ and ‘ant-progressive visionaries’. Judith Wright explains that ‘most of us in the society at that time were people who were concerned and troubled at the destructiveness of much that was happening, but had no professional qualifications in biology’. At first many scientists were unwilling to join the fight: ‘biologists whose interests were not specifically in the young and struggling science of ecology tended to read them [certain reef studies] with some suspicion, which scarcely helped us’[ii]. ‘[T]he controversy promised to be highly political, and scientists are generally not anxious to enter such arguments’[iii] And yet Wright’s respected literary reputation enabled her to attract attention and support for the cause.
Ironically Brigid Rooney argues that ‘[a]nxiety produced by the decline thesis, the idea that the prestige of the literary is fading, has exacerbated the focus on the public role of writers…Contemporary Australian writers have been blamed for shying away from political engagement, from big national issues of the day’, David Marr stating ‘the idea that writers are society’s conscience is far from universal wisdom.’[iv] On the other hand, again according to Marr, things are very different now: ‘today artists and writers have become political liabilities, not assets, and politicians are quick to distance themselves from the taint of arts elitism’[v]. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Who said the life of a writer was meant to be easy? (We wish.) All we can do is continue to ‘rave on’.
Recently I finished a major project, feeling immensely relieved and gratified when I finally sent it off. In need of a break and battery recharge, while looking for books for my first post, I picked up the new novel The Young Lion by Blanche D’Alpuget off the shelving cart. Wow, what a ‘bodice-ripper’! Lots of rape, pillaging, beheading, arms and legs chopped off etc etc. I used to be a very keen historical fiction devotee when I was young but rarely have the time or inclination now. What’s been revelatory about reading this novel is the picture of the eleventh century (I assume it is reasonably accurate), a society driven by lust, power, and violence under the banner of Christianity. At the moment it doesn’t seem like Western civilization has advance very far in spite of our posturing.
In tandem I am also reading Bleak House, considered to be one of the first detective novels or at least a progenitor of[vi]. Charles Dickens serialised the novel in twenty monthly instalments from March 1852 to September 1853. The society that Dickens describes could not have been more different from d’Alpuget’s depiction of the era of Henry II and the reconquering of England. Bleak House is a very slow, quiet, detailed ‘wordy’ novel, the kind of reading we are not used to any more, meant to be read in bite-sized chunks. (I have to admit I also needed a break from it around page 657!) Even if you’ve not read it you will be familiar with its stuffy hypocritical ‘Victorian’ way of life, in which the genteel worried a great deal about their reputations (compared to the eleventh century when they cared about honour and glory—much the same thing I guess). The very wealthy ran the show and people appeared to spend their time visiting country houses for weeks on end. They seemed to have very little to do except to write letters. That is of course except for the rising middle classes who were very busy supplying the wants and needs of their betters and also worrying about their reputations. The lower classes just tried to survive any way they could. (photo credit: cover for the first serial, NY Library Berg Collection)
Victorian society was in its own way as violent, ruthless and uncaring as that of Henry II. But few of these unsavoury characteristics were acknowledged and most were condoned through belief in the rights of the aristocracy, class rigidity and what Darwin would later term ‘the survival of the fittest’. At least in the eleventh century, the feudal system based on loyalty of vassals to their liege lords, tended to show concern for those within it. But I’m raving. To get back to Bleak House—what a world of characters—grotesque and colourful although the sentimentality (Esther’s especially) makes some of the nasty ones more entertaining reading.
I mentioned before that Bleak House is considered a forerunner of our modern detective fiction as was a novel by Wilkie Collins, a friend of Dickens, published around the same time. Strangely I can’t recall reading Dickens in high school but we studied The Moonstone. The similarities between the books is remarkable but Dickens comes out far ahead, if for nothing else but the strength of his characterisation. You just have to love someone like Krouk, known as the ‘Lord Chancellor’ who owns a rag and bone shop and eventually, famously, spontaneously combusts. I haven’t finished the novel so I don’t know how it ends but the mystery appears to have something to do with a lost will and the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce litigation, based on an actual case which Dickens was personally familiar with during his time as a reporter in the Lord Chancellor’s court.
I suppose it’s clear by now that I am a crime thriller, detective fiction aficionado. In the beginning I read these as a relief from the theory, non-fiction and contemporary novels I was reading for academic and review/essay purposes, although now I have an interest in them that has become far more professional. So besides trying to work out ‘who done it’ I’m also trying to understand how the writer has structured the book, how the complicated narrative is constructed from early works like those by Agatha Christie which seem to naively rely on people in hardly believable incognito, through the sophisticated plots of PD James with her poet detective to Georges Simenon’s very French Inspector Maigret. Simenon (1903-1989), a Belgian (writing mainly in the 30’s and 40’s) is known for his roman noir and his extraordinary psychological insight into crime, which by its very nature is irrational. As Simenon remarked:
My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points… ‘understand and judge not’.[vii]
And Maigret, for all his mental prowess and understanding of the motives of human beings, isn’t always so logical. I was particularly delighted when he jumps off a train in the middle of the night after a man just because he is wearing an odd combination of handknitted grey wool socks and patent leather boots![viii] Perhaps contemporary detective novels rely too heavily on verifiable facts and technological innovation. Have we lost our ability to suspend disbelief? You even hear children at the movies complaining ‘that was soooo fake!’
Reading and Writing
Recently another book has been added to the pile on my table: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. I’d noticed it when it was first published in 1996 but it wasn’t until a friend with similar tastes read a passage to me after dinner at the Castle and I knew this book had to be part of my relatively limited library (I live in a very small terrace!). So I’m going to end this post with a quote from Manguel:
‘To completely analyse what we do when we read’, the American researcher E.B. Huey admitted at the turn of the century, ‘would almost be the acme of psychologist’s achievements, for it would be to describe very many of the intricate workings of the human mind’. We are still very far from an answer. Mysteriously we continue to read without a satisfactory definition of what we are doing. We know that reading is not a process that can be explained through a mechanical model; we know that it takes place in certain defined areas of the brain but we also know that these areas are not the only ones to participate; we know that the process of reading, like that of thinking, depends on our ability to decipher and make use of language, the stuff of words which makes up text and thought. The fear that researchers seem to express is that their conclusion will question the very language in which they express it: that language may itself be an arbitrary absurdity, that it may communicate nothing except its stuttering essence, that it may depend almost entirely not on its enunciators but on its interpreters for its existence, that the role of readers is to render visible—in al-Haytham’s fine phrase—‘that which writing suggests in hints and shadows’[ix]
[i] Blood, Rebecca (September 7, 2000). “Weblogs: A History And Perspective”
[ii] Judith Wright, The Coral Battleground, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1996, p.20.
[iii] Wright, p.22.
[iv] Brigid Rooney, Literary Activists: Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009, p. xix.
[v] David Marr, ‘The Role of the Writer in John Howard’s Australia’, ABC Radio National, http//www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/bwriting/stories/s823973.htm, in Rooney p.x.
[vi] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.
[vii] Georges Simenon, Night at the Crossroads (1931), London: Penguin Books, 2014, author note.
[viii] Georges Simenon, The Madman of Bergerac (1932), London: Penguin Classics, 2007.
[ix] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, p39.
E.B. Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, New York: 1908, quoted in Kolers, ‘Reading’. Quoted in David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from al-Kindi to Kepler, Oxford: 1976.
by Nicolette Stasko
When I began to think about a topic for my first post I realised that I had an opportunity to write about something I am passionate about but don’t usually get to address: conservation and the environment as represented by the natural phenomenon of the Great Barrier Reef. Readers who are familiar with my poetry or my book Oyster: from Montparnasse to Greenwell Point, would not find my interest surprising. For me, like many poets (including Judith Wright, whose work is also a main focus of this piece), the land and especially the sea is a ‘manifestation of a deeper and more abiding reality…the treatment of it an index of our values, or rather of our lack of proper values’ (Brady: 126). The Reef is one touchstone of this belief and practice. My decision was fuelled by the number of alarming reports about the deterioration of the Reef due to global warming and recently the activities of the Liberal government and the Queensland mining industry.
To summarise, the Australian government has given permission for the construction of one of the world’s largest coalmines, Queensland’s Carmichael Mine, to be located in the Galilee Basin region which will risk contaminating local groundwater and endangering wildlife. The resulting coal production will be transported to the Abbot Point terminal, which will need to be expanded to accommodate this coal export. Originally it was planned that approximately five million tonnes of seabed would need to be excavated and dumped within the marine park area. Researchers estimate that hundreds of ships will cross the Great Barrier Reef during construction and later to carry the coal to overseas markets. Recently however, the Queensland Government endorsed a new plan to dump dredge spoil on land, rather than inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ‘It said the plan would ensure 3 million cubic metres of dredge material was reused on land and would seek fast-tracked federal approval’ (ABC: 8 September 2014). Stay tuned for further developments.
You cannot save what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know.
As is my want, I have gone at this arse-backwards: on my desk is a stack of books about the Reef, about Judith Wright, her Collected Poems—my chance to reread the poetry and learn something. Among other facts, that the Reef is more massive than I had imagined, stretching from Bundaberg (QLD) and Lady Elliot Island, north to the Torres Strait and around as far as Papua New Guinea. It encompasses an area of almost 350 000 square kilometres, ‘comparable to the size of Japan and larger than the combined landmass of Great Britain and Ireland’ (Bowen: 2). It is the only living structure that can be seen from space.
Photo credit: www.brisbanetimes.com.au (10/12/13)
Surprisingly the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2900 separate coral reefs, ‘some fully submerged, some only visible at low tides’. As Captain Cook was happy to discover, it is ‘not a continuous barrier but a vast and impenetrable assemblage of reefs’ composed of ‘long strips of ribbon reefs, large areal spreads of patch reefs and circular formations known as cays, with a central lagoon and an elevated area of pulverised coral sand’ (Bowen: 2). Apparently the Reef as we know it is relatively recent in the earth’s geological history—but with a long period of settlement and use by Indigenous peoples.
In terms of European history, there is some debate over who first ‘discovered’ the Reef (including the Portuguese, Dutch and the French) but credit generally goes to Captain James Cook who in 1770 literally ran into what he called its ‘Labyrinth’. Cook describes the ‘great wall of Coral Rock’ and wonders ‘if such reefs were formed in the Sea by animals…how came they [to be] thrown up to such a height?’ We know now that like oysters, coral polyps build and grow on the dead formations of their predecessors.
At the beginning of her book about the fight to save the Reef, Coral Battleground (1977) Wright quotes from Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’, which effectively captures the awe he must have felt before such a wonder:
Flowers turned to stone! Not all botany
Of Joseph Banks, hung pensive in a porthole,
Could find the Latin for this loveliness,
Could put the Barrier Reef in a glass box
Tagged by the horrid Gorgon squint
Of horticulture. Stone turned to flowers
It seemed—you’d snap a crystal twig,
One petal even of the water-garden,
And have it dying like a cherry-bough.
What is important here, and what Slessor’s lines emphasise, is that the Great Barrier Reef is a living structure, a vast eco-system of countless creatures, both plants and animals. The number and variety is spectacular as one small survey done on the ‘dead’ Ellison Reef in 1967—the first strike by conservationists in the long campaign to save the Reef—illustrates (more on that later). The diving team, in only thirty days, managed to identify 88 species of live coral, 60 species of molluscs, 190 species of fish and that was just the tip of the iceberg or reef so to speak.
Photo credit: http://www.virginmedia.com
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. … Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
Most of us know that the Great Barrier Reef was declared a protected national marine park in 1975. Some of us may not know that it was also declared a World Heritage Area by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) because of its
‘superlative natural phenomenon formations of exceptional beauty and superlative examples of the most important eco-systems’. It is considered an outstanding example of the major stages of the earth’s evolutionary history’ and of ‘significant ongoing geological processes, biological evolution and man’s interaction with the natural environment’. It was further listed as ‘the foremost natural habitats where threatened species of animals or plants of out standing universal value from the point of view of science or conservation still survive.’ (UNESCO 1980:22-23)
This was in 1981.
I have quoted the report somewhat in full since it will become apparent how sadly ironic many of the statements are. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1963 Judith Wright and others formed one of the first conservation societies, the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland based in Brisbane. Not long after, the first skirmish in the long war was identified when they became aware of reports that ‘coral collectors, shell collectors and tourist interference were increasing rapidly’ on the Reef (CB: 2). It’s not my intention here to give the entire history of the campaign (except for the fact that SAVE THE BARRIER REEF was the first bumper sticker in Australia as Wright was chuffed to record.) Anyone interested in the details can read her book. But I do want to point out certain astounding and shocking parallels between what was happening then and what is happening now to this precious natural resource.
In 1967 an enterprising cane-grower applied to the Queensland government to dredge for limestone by removing coral from Ellison Reef (supposedly a ‘dead’ reef as I mentioned above). The grounds for objection to this application were not only the damage to the actual reef and its denizens but more importantly ‘the danger of establishing a legal precedent for mining that could lead to widespread commercial exploitation of the whole of the Reef’ (CB: 6). (And of course the possibility of oil deposits and contiguous oil exploration reared its ugly head more than once during the battle and continues to do so.) Remember UNESCO’s recognition of the Reef as an example of the ‘foremost natural habitats where threatened species of animals or plants of out standing universal value from the point of view of science or conservation still survive’??
‘Any form of dredging, on such reefs, would create problems of siltation and water pollution, not only in the immediate area but along the currents that make an intricate network of patterns throughout the Reef, as far as silt may be carried’ (CB:6-7). Living organisms such as coral (and oysters) are severely damaged by siltation as they are filter feeders and if the silt becomes heavy enough they simply ‘suffocate’ and die. Sound familiar? The rest of the story (eight long years) is a similar tale of individual battles for various parts of the Reef with various Government bodies and industries. It is complicated by the sheer size and diversity of the Reef itself, the fact that it wasn’t clear as to which authority had control over what aspects of the Reef and from the magnitude of self-interested profit in the names of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. So much for ‘man’s interaction with the natural environment’. As Wright herself noted in 1977, ‘[t]his story has no real beginning and no one knows what its end will be’(CB: xiii). (Photo credit: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au)
Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable: what it means can never be said.
One of the first characteristics, according to UNESCO, to recommend The Great Barrier Reef is its ‘superlative natural phenomenon formations of exceptional beauty’. This statement raises questions of aesthetics and ethics. Is beauty a reason to protect and conserve a natural resource for our pleasure as against the needs of development and progress? Is ‘ugliness’ cause to allow a creature (consider the vulture) to become extinct? Wright described her chronological account of battle for the Reef as ‘bare’ and ‘unadorned’—not giving ‘much hint of the devotion, some might say obsession that drove a few people to resist at any odds the commercialising of the Great Barrier Reef’ (CB: 187). She goes on to explain: ‘But when I thought of the Reef, it was symbolised for me in one image that still stays in my mind’. She continues, and sounds much like the poet we know and admire:
On a still blue summer day, with the ultramarine sea scarcely splashing the edge of the fringing reef I was bending over a single small pool among the corals. Above it dozens of small clams spread their velvety lips, patterned in blues and fawns, violets, reds and chocolate browns, not one of them like another. In it sea-anemones drifted long white tentacles above the clean sand and peacock blue fish, only inches long, darted in and out of coral branches of all shapes and colours. One blue sea-star lay on the sand floor. The water was so clear that every detail of the pool’s crannies and their inhabitants was vivid, and every movement could be seen through its translucence. In the centre of the pool, as if on stage, swayed a dancing creature of crimson and yellow, rippling all over like a wind-blown shawl. …That was the Spanish Dancer, known to scientists as one of the nudibranchs, a shell-less mollusc. But for me it became an inner image of the spirit of the Reef itself (CB: 187-188). (Photo credit: http://www.mendaily.com)
So ‘seeing’ may, for some, be the catalyst to a life-time love but as Wright goes on to explain not always necessary: ‘Some of us who worked in Brisbane had not even seen the Reef. …I myself had seen only a very small part of it, in the fringing reef of Lady Elliott Island many years before the battle started’. Beauty is probably the least of it. Aboriginal poet Lionel Fogarty puts the issue in perspective:
FIRST, well Great Barrier Reef 200 kilometres long
reefing us always, ha, ha, human construction
but we Aborigines respect Great Wall of China and Pyramids
compare our 40,000 years that say migglou scientist it.
This no scenic wonder we giving, but 1,000 million layers
of Murri season—open air, 30,000 years
top corner or waves
more iron ore than letting rich dissatisfied minerals
stealers raw our atmosphere, oxygen gets poison by you.
from ‘Scenic Wonders—We Nula Fellas’
Judith Wright’s entire ouvre attests to her deep and abiding love for the land and her spiritual connection to it. Interestingly I have not been able to discover a poem published by Wright specifically about the Great Barrier Reef although she was wonderfully prodigious during that time, producing at least five impressive collections. Perhaps the wry, ironic ‘Report of a Working-Party’ from Shadow (1970) gives some indication of the toll the battle for the Reef was taking on her. In her last collection Phantom Dwelling (1985), the ghazal, ‘Rockpool’ may sum up her feelings at the time.
My generation is dying, after long lives
swung from war to depression to war to fatness.
I watch the claws in the rockpool, the scuttle, the crouch—
green humps, the biggest barnacled, eaten by sea worms.
In comes the biggest wave, the irresistible
clean wash and backswirl. Where have the dead gone?
At night on the beach the galaxy looks like a grin.
Entropy has unbraided Bernice’s hair.
We’ve brought on our own cancers, one with the world.
I hang on the rockpool’s edge, its wild embroideries:
admire it, pore on it, this, the devouring, the mating,
ridges of coloured tracery, occupants, all the living,
the stretching of toothed claws to food, the breeding
on the ocean’s edge. ‘Accept it? Gad, madam, you had better.’
Judith Wright lived another fifteen years and continued her activism for Aboriginal rights but she published no more poetry. Brigid Rooney asks: ‘How do writers negotiate the gap between the single-minded, solitary pursuit of writing and their public, collaborative or political interventions? How do writers hold in tension their need to retreat from the world with their need to engage in it? And what impact do their activities have on the value writers accrue in the literary marketplace?’ (Rooney: xxiii) There is no doubt that Wright’s literary reputation, founded on her first two collections, served her in good stead during the Reef campaign. Rooney rightly comments that it is ironic that Wright’s philosophical and poetic engagement with modernity’s self-destructiveness in these two collections was at first so readily dismissed, for this was the intellectual scaffold for a maturing environmental poetics’ (Rooney: 13). ‘There was a kind of weaving going on in Wright’s life at this time, between the inner and the outer life, the private and the public, the aesthetic and the ethical’ (Brady: 284). To balance both takes an enormous strength which few of us have. As a poet Wright worked towards reducing the ego and distanced herself from the petty politics of the literary scene. Increasingly she was interested in doing rather than saying and perhaps this gives a clue to her poetic silence in the last years of her life. She had produced an incredible and important body of work. And as she readily admitted—the world needs activists much more than poets.
(Photo credit: judithwrightcentre.com)
It has been almost fifteen years since Judith Wright’s death and it is difficult to believe in spite of all hers and others’ efforts that the Great Barrier Reef should be under dire threat again. In her honour, if for nothing else, can we manage somehow to be poets and activists as well?
In spite of international concern, the federal government has made several decisions within the past two months that arguably erode safeguards for the reef, including:
- 10 December 2013 – granting approval for the Abbot Point port expansion (although it was the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that took the decision on where to dump the spoil).
- 13 December 2013 – reaching a revised agreement with the Queensland government (signed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Premier Campbell Newman) for a “one-stop shop” on environmental approvals, including decisions about “actions on state land and state waters that impact on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park”.
- 20 December 2013 – approving the Galilee Coal and Rail Project, allowing for six new mines and a railway from the mine sites (400km inland) to Abbot Point.
Bowen, James, and Bowen, Margarita, The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Brady, Veronica, South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1998.
Fogarty, Lionel, New and Selected Poems, Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera, Melbourne: Hyland House, 1995.
Rooney, Brigid, Literary Activists: Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009.
Slessor, Kenneth, Collected Poems, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1977.
Stasko, Nicolette, Oyster: From Montparnasse to Greenwell Point, Sydney: Harper Collins, 2000.
Wright, Judith, Collected Poems 1942-1985, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994.
________________The Coral Battleground, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1996.
A huge thanks to Joshua Mostafa for his excellent, interesting posts.
Our monthly blogger for October is Nicolette Stasko! Her bio is below:
A teacher of literature and creative writing, Nicolette Stasko has long been active in Australia as a critic, reviewer, editor and scholar. She has been a contributor to Southerly since 1987. Her first collection, Abundance, won the Anne Elder Award in 1993 and was shortlisted for the National Book and NSW Premier’s Awards. She has since published four collections and three chapbooks, including new and selected poems, Glass Cathedrals. Her latest volume is under rats from Vagabond Press. She has also written The Invention of Everyday Life, a ‘novel’, which has been highly regarded for its poetic qualities, and the best-selling non-fiction book, Oyster: from Montparnasse to Greenwell Point. Nicolette is currently an Honorary Research Affiliate at the University of Sydney where she completed her PhD in English and worked as a sessional lecturer. Last year she was one of the judging panel for the international Montreal Poetry Prize.
by Joshua Mostafa
Regardless of what form the story will take, the question remains: where to begin? Not with an encyclopaedic mastery of the facts, but with some detail that will catalyse the creative process: an irritant, grit in the shell, an indecipherable image or an indigestible notion.
The epitaph to Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones is an excerpt from an archaeologist’s memoir: the discovery of ‘the skeletal lower arm of a child’ prompts its excavators to speculate ‘in the darkness of our tents, inventing reasons why the arm was there, and what the fate had been of that child’s other bones’. The novel can be read as an extended exercise in just such speculation.
Those kinds of moments – jumping-off points for the imagination – are impossible to force. (Or if it is possible to force them, I would like someone to tell me how!) A few years ago, on a trip to Ukraine and Scandinavia, I visited Klekkende Høj, a collective burial mound on the Danish island of Møn, dating back to the third millennium BC. I will admit, now, that I was hoping for such a moment, an epiphany: a gift, perhaps, from the entombed souls of the ancients, a flash of atavistic insight that would illuminate their world for me, to smudge the hard academic pencil-line that separates the known from the unknowable.
As it happened, I did have an epiphany, of sorts. But it had nothing to do with my story, or any insight into the world of the ancients. The photos I took that day, indifferently shot with a cheap camera and obscured by the glare of the late afternoon sun, convey little of the thrill of sighting the burial mound, high on the hillside, or of the solemnity of the great stone slabs that form its entrance. Crouching, I could just about make my way along the passage into increasing darkness.
I waited. And experienced no moment of insight, no glimpse back across the centuries. Feeling my way through the tunnel in hoodie, jeans and sneakers, I was no more or less than a modern man, trying not to scrape my head on the ceiling.
I’m willing to admit to this moment of embarrassing naiveté and predictable failure only because this month’s travels have been so different. Certain aspects of what I want to achieve, and the outlines of a path to arrive there, have started to become visible. That’s horribly vague, isn’t it? I can’t help it; I’m too superstitious, too instinctively private. Perhaps a writer more in tune with the Zeitgeist, more willing to share the machinations of their process in the medium of a blog post, would be able to say more. These posts have already travelled to the far edge of my comfort zone for ‘sharing’ – I can’t be more specific. All I can say is that after these weeks of journeying, note-taking, reading, taking photos and reflecting, I feel like I know my story’s direction of travel. That’s certainly more than I could say for that last trip, the one that included the visit to Klekkende Høj.
Is there some lesson to be learned from this contrast? A moral of the story? I can offer little but the obvious: patience, being open to the possibilities of the moment, and – perhaps this is the influence of the Germans among whom I have been travelling – the Protestant virtue of hard work.
Dull stuff! It may be – as is so often the case – the failure that’s more instructive, though I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s true that my visit to Klekkende Høj did not afford me the short-cut to a time traveller’s insight for which I had hoped. But as I mentioned, I did have another kind of epiphany.
Being inside that tomb was an extraordinary experience. I can bring it to mind most effectively by recalling what is missing from the photos I took within the tomb. Even when I took them – one with a flash that eradicated the very enclosing darkness that was the essence of the moment, the other with the flash turned off, delivering only a rectangle of barely-differentiated black – I knew they would fail in their purpose, a physical record of that experience. I can only describe it in negatives, such as to say that, for me, time appeared to be suspended, or at least irrelevant; or that, despite being entirely alone, I felt neither presence nor solitude.
The memory of that feeling stayed with me for some time. It was not until several years later that I found an intellectual framework in which to situate the experience. In Being Singular Plural, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy interrogates the primary qualities of existence, suggesting that its foundational nature is not individual, but shared, or communal; that Mitsein (being-with) is ‘essential to the constitution of Dasein’ (being-there), but that this centrality is obscured or underdeveloped in Heidegger’s own work, which, he suggests, requires a ‘recomposition in which Mitsein would be actually coessential and originary’. Writing two years later, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk takes a similar tack, conceiving his Spheres trilogy as companion and continuation to Being and Time, and, in particular, a corrective to what Sloterdijk sees as its neglect of questions relating to being-together in the world, an ‘ecstatic entwinement of the subject in the shared interior.’ It is difficult to describe in words that which precedes or follows language: ‘Once the point of being-inside has been reached, all language games of observing and facing must indeed come to an end.’ Perhaps this is why religious communion can only be evoked obliquely in the anti-discourse of mysticism; though it’s perhaps significant that Sloterdijk also insists on the primacy of song over speech. It’s in the harmony of the singing voices, rather than the meaning of the sung words, that the communal nature of the song resides. To subvert Wittgenstein’s proposition: whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must sing.
Silence, or song. Of course, the state of pre- or post-subjectivity to which Sloterdijk refers is a far more profound and extraordinary state than stumbling into a cave. But even in the simple, literal case of ‘being-inside’, Klekkende Høj was a moment about which speech falters, and images misrepresent. I sought to cast my mind back to another time, but instead I found myself in a profound darkness, in which, for a moment – suddenly and unexpectedly – I forgot to be myself. However irrelevant to the project of prehistorical fiction, this accidental discovery, the meaning of which has so far eluded all my attempts to grasp it, is just the kind of indigestible notion that sticks in the craw of the mind and catalyses the creative process. I still don’t know what, if anything, it will provoke me to write. All I know, really, is that I did not find what I set out to find – and I’m glad of that.
by Joshua Mostafa
On the first floor of Foyles, the bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, I found the bookshelf devoted to historical fiction. It’s free-standing, and the reverse side is populated by romance novels: a not unsuitable pairing, though the appearance of the books themselves suggest an affinity with the fantasy genre: the authors’ names are displayed in large, chunky lettering with aspirations to Gothic or Celtic style. So close is the marketing style or ‘branding’ of the book covers of the two genres that a stray swords-and-sorcery title had been misshelved between a novel about the Wars of the Roses and another set in the French Revolution.
From a marketing perspective, there is probably a significant overlap in the target readerships, and what likely attracts them to those genres: escapism, the desire to explore another world, and perhaps a quasi-Romantic sense of alienation from the contemporary world and its technology. I even saw one ‘prehistorical’ fiction title listed in the ‘fantasy’ category on a publisher’s website; the opposite mistake to one I spotted in Foyles. The creation of the texts themselves also poses similar challenges to fantasy writing: unlike historical fiction, the protagonist’s Lebenswelt is not an adaptation of historical sources but an extended exercise in imaginative projection. The facts known about a given time in prehistory are necessarily more scant, and, between them, much wider gaps must be filled in with the writer’s speculation.
The deeper into prehistory one goes, the more acute certain problems become, while others are settled perforce: there is no question of using plausible ancient-language words in the Ice Age, for instance, because we have no idea of the languages spoken, or even the hypothesised protolanguages. That doesn’t stop some authors from merrily making up arbitrary combinations of phonemes, of course, but if they do, the impression given by their work tends to degenerate into heroic or romantic fantasy; and what is true for language is true a fortiori for the broader task of the accurate portrayal of ancient culture and society. Others attempt a kind of austere simplicity, a ‘primitive’ existence in which the main reference points are the natural world, a kind of cultural tabula rasa. But this is implausible. Nowhere in the world, in any sufficiently thorough anthropological study, can we find a simple culture; complexity seems to be an immutable feature of humanity’s being in the world.
As the Hungarian philosopher and critic György Lukács argues in The Historical Novel, these questions are not cosmetic ones, but intrinsic and vital:
The historical novel therefore has to demonstrate by artistic means that historical circumstances and characters existed in precisely such and such a way. What in [Walter] Scott has been called very superficially ‘authenticity of local colour’ is in actual fact this demonstration of historical reality.
Evoking the past, not just in the sweep of history but in the small details that constantly remind us of its otherness, is indeed no trapping or guise but the substance of historical (and prehistorical) fiction, the means by which it carries out its function. And yet: ‘reality’? ‘Precisely’? These strong terms oversimplify the relationship between text and setting. The text, if it is successful, is realised as a compromise between our own language and culture and that of the past. It is not a transparent medium that lets us see into that other world, the lost world of history or prehistory. Prehistorical fiction, especially, cannot pretend to precise verisimilitude, which is why realism is a highly unsuitable mode for the genre. It is, nevertheless, the most commonly deployed one, despite the obvious anachronism of using a prose technique that originated in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the reason for this is an assumption that it is natural, invisible; but that’s a terrible assumption, as the briefest perusal of a mediocre, conventional novel set in the prehistoric past will demonstrate.
What, then, is the alternative? The opposite method – to create a pastiche of the literature contemporaneous with the setting – is incredibly difficult to pull off, and usually results in a pompous disaster. Besides, it’s unavailable to prehistorical fiction, as by definition there was no literature then. The most successful and evocative texts take other routes. Margaret Elphinstone’s The Gathering Night opens with a brief dramatis personae, from which are drawn a number of first-person narrators. Each section is introduced with the narrator’s name: ‘Haizea said’, ‘Amets said’. Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones uses a layered narrative structure, with narrators of varying degrees of reliability, constantly probing its own veracity in a way that somehow brackets questions of the authenticity of the novel as a whole. Ian Sansom, reviewing The Devil’s Larder in the London Review of Books, suggests that ‘Crace doesn’t really write prose at all: he writes dramatic poetry.’
Certainly, the texture of Crace’s writing, its spare and luminous lyricism, resists association with a particular time; in the same publication, Adam Mars-Jones remarks that Crace’s novel Harvest is ‘a historical novel that takes place outside history’, and points out the futility of trying to root out anachronism, which is endemic, like ‘Japanese knotweed in language’ that ‘sharpens the pleasure of an evocation of the past by reminding us that it can’t be more than that.’ I can recall just one such effect in The Gift of Stones: Crace repeatedly refers to the ‘scripture’, meaning an article of faith or received wisdom, of the stone-smiths who work flint, whose way of life is eventually overturned by the coming of bronze-smiths. The word operates as a metaphor, for the benefit of the reader, drawing attention to itself (and its metaphorical nature) by the fact that pre-literate, Neolithic society knew nothing of actual ‘scripture’.
The aesthetic success of books like Crace’s and Elphinstone’s – which, it must be said, makes them stand out in stark relief from the bulk of novels written in prehistoric settings – indicates that an experimental, or at least not a conventionally realist, approach is required for prehistorical fiction. This is why I’m reticent to say yes when asked if I’m writing a novel; fiction, certainly, but is the best medium for that story the novel? I can’t pretend to know the answer, yet.
by Joshua Mostafa
I am writing this longhand on board a barge, for the second and longer leg of a trip down the Danube via Linz to Vienna, from where I’m catching the hydrofoil to Budapest (where I’m now typing it up, and trying to make sense of the Hungarian kezboard–keyboard!–layout), then a twelve-hour train ride to Bucharest, from where I’ll be able to get out to the Carpathian mountains. These cities are simply waystations for me, stopping points to sleep as cheaply as possible between the stretches of countryside I’ve been photographing and describing in obsessively detailed notes. The old adage about the journey being more important than the destination is literally true in this case.
The primary reason for this journey is to get a feel for the setting I’m writing about, and to escape from the dense tangle of fact and theory that has been clouding my mind and leaving me in a state of near-paralysis. As Claire Scobie writes on this blog: ‘If you research first and write later, there’s a danger of getting lost in the morass of reading and sinking into your sources without trace.’ That’s exactly the situation in which I found myself; the fact I’ve managed to pre-empt the opposite risk: of devising a plot that ends up unusable because of some fatal anachronism, is cold comfort, when I have been writing so little actual story.
So here I am, alternately sitting by the window and scribbling with the buzz of my fellow-passengers’ conversation in my ears (thankfully it’s in German and thus unintelligible to me), and standing out on deck taking photos of trees, which have become less dense and formidable since leaving Bavaria behind. I’m mostly ignoring the riverside houses, charmingly painted in ochre, pale greens and subdued pinks; the old castles, proudly watching over the river traffic, or ruined and brooding; the industrial buildings and rows of pylons, arms akimbo; the Gothic churches, their steeples pointing imperiously heavenward. For me, none of these exist. My characters inhabit a time when the only permanent buildings were the great stone megaliths of old Europe, and the first cities and forts of civilisation, which had not yet spread this far west, and which would be known–if at all–as improbable rumours from distant realms: Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Levant.
Not really historical fiction, then; history doesn’t reach that far back, as there are no historical sources yet – at least, not that pertain to its geographical setting, Europe. ‘Prehistorical fiction’, perhaps; a neologism appropriately ugly for the obscure provenance of its sources: archaeological, primarily, supplemented by various disciplines prefixed with ‘comparative’–linguistics, mythology, poetics. This is what comprises the bulk of those shelves on my bookcase I mentioned in my last post.
This may not sound like promising material for artistic endeavour. But for me, it’s the acting-out of a kind of longing for the ancient past, such as described in Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Bone Dreams’:
Come back past
philology and kennings
where the bone’s lair
is a love-nest
in the grass
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in my case, this impossible desire to know the ancient past (and its sublimation into an attempt to interrogate it via the lens of fiction writing) began almost immediately on leaving Europe for the so-called ‘New World’. This may be a self-indulgent reflection, but I’m hoping it has resonance for many others who have had a similar experience: to arrive, for example, in the American Midwest (and later Australia) was to be bewildered by these places’ extreme novelty, the historical shallowness; there is space out there that feels unbounded, but little depth in time; or, rather, time in settler societies is perceived as a straight line, beginning with ‘discovery’ (invasion) and rushing forward with a relentless focus on the future.
The cycle of history is absent, or at least inaccessible. Feeling this lack is the opposite of the ‘call of the sea’ evoked by Italian Germanist Claudio Magris in his wonderfully rich book Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, in a passage I chanced on yesterday:
The ochre and orange-yellow of the Danubian buildings, with their reassuring, melancholy symmetry, are the colours of…the confines, of time. But that blue, which the culture of the Danube has no knowledge of, is the sea, the swelling sail…the voyage to the New Indies. From the inland prison of time one yearns, understandably, for the maritime freedom of the eternal…
But – as Goethe’s dictum has it – freedom only has meaning within limits. So conversely, in the void of New World presentism, I longed for the deep roots of the Old. (Of course, there is nothing really ‘New’ about the New World; but its pre-settler past, though fascinating, is entirely foreign to me, and unusable for a (pre)historical setting, unless I were to blunder into cultural appropriation. Such stories, I feel, are not to be told by me – a member of the invader group – but by writers with a personal, cultural connection to the past that is their heritage.)
I wonder if any such feeling prompted J. R. R. Tolkien, who spent his childhood in colonial Africa, to devote himself to philology, ancient literatures and the devising of imaginary languages and myths of a world based on his profound knowledge of archaic European cultures. Perhaps; though the undercurrent of colonial racism, no doubt unconscious, is also, regrettably, visible in his work, and not just the Hollywood version, with its dark-skinned and dreadlocked ‘Orcs’.
I mention this not to annoy any among his legions of fans (of which I was one, as a child), but because the study of the ancients, and especially the ones that interest me in particular – the speakers of various Indo-European proto-languages (i.e., languages of which no direct record remains, but which have been partially reconstructed via the painstaking work of comparative linguistics) – has often been bound up with nationalist myth-making and racialist essentialism. The most repulsive example of this is of course the Nazis’ misappropriation of various terms and symbols, in particular the words ‘Aryan’ (which properly applies only to speakers of the Indo-Iranian proto-language, not to the western branches of the Indo-European language family) and ‘swastika’ (a conflation of a Sanskrit symbol with an ancient Germanic one that’s probably unrelated). The surge of interest in Indo-European studies, beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth, subsided considerably in the twentieth, in the face of understandable, though mostly unwarranted, odium. When the discipline revived, it had benefitted from some instructive self-criticism.
I remember being astounded by the idea that both sides of my family (Bengali with some supposedly Persian ancestry on one side, and Anglo-Irish on the other) had, at some distant point in the past, a single, common heritage. This turned out to be a little fanciful: language origin does not necessarily imply family descent, especially in the case of such a vastly expansive language group as Indo-European. Later, I became more interested in the indigenous non-Indo-European languages of Old Europe, that had been almost entirely submerged by the various invasive ones, mostly Indo-European, that supplanted them, except for a few isolated cases like Basque, in successive waves of invasion and imposition: the ‘Kurgan culture’ described by the great Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, for instance; a more recent example is Latin and the Romance vernaculars it left behind. These have no historical trace, and are only visible, in the languages that replaced them, as substrates: mere residues of pronunciation and grammatical quirks, with a scattering of words, mostly names of natural geographical features like mountains and bodies of water. The river Danube I am currently traversing is one such name.
These ancient lost cultures, engulfed long before the advent of writing, are an extreme case of those voices of the past deemed by scholars to be ‘irrecoverable’. As such, they present a great challenge – and, I feel, and even greater opportunity – to the fiction writer.