Living with the facts of our history

There has been a kerfuffle lately about this statue on Sydney’s Hyde Park.

Hyde Park Captain Cook

Obviously recent events in the USA have caused this current crop, notably the observations of Stan Grant in America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours. Grant’s key point is quite reasonable:

Think of those words: “Discovered this territory.” My ancestors were here when Cook dropped anchor. We know now that the first peoples of this continent had been here for at least 65,000 years, for us the beginning of human time.
Yet this statue speaks to emptiness, it speaks to our invisibility; it says that nothing truly mattered, nothing truly counted until a white sailor first walked on these shores.
The statue speaks still to terra nullius and the violent rupture of Aboriginal society and a legacy of pain and suffering that endures today…

Captain Cook’s statue stands in the centre of our biggest city. There are Indigenous people who for good reason would prefer to see it removed.
Personally I accept that it remains; Cook is part of the story of this nation.
But surely we need no longer maintain the fiction that he “discovered” this country. It dishonours the people who reached this continent 60,000 years before Cook.
This was not an empty land.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defending Australia Day this week, said it is also a day we honour Indigenous Australians.
If he is serious then what could be more apt than to correct a monument that tells us, still, that in 1770 we did not exist?

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In 1879

Do have a look at Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Visions of Captain Cook.

Let rum-tanned mariners prefer
To hug the weather-side of yards,
‘Cats to catch mice’ before they purr,
Those were the captain’s enigmatic words.
Here, in this jolly-boat they graced,
Were food and freedom, wind and storm,
While, fowling-piece across his waist,
Cook mapped the coast, with one eye cocked for game.

And now we have a concern about a recent statue of Governor Macquarie.

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Keep in mind that Lachlan Macquarie was among the most enlightened and humane of our early NSW governors. Macquarie definitely deserves a statue, but on the other hand:

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See my post Bicentenary of Dharawal massacre in Appin area.

I say keep these statues, but correct their inscriptions where they are plain wrong. We should then face ALL our history.

Update

Typical! Here’s the OTT sensationalising of, essentially, Stan Grant’s article as filtered by the Daily Terror! Talk about “fake news!”

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So disappointing! 26 August

Referring to the news item on SBS: ‘Change the date’: Vandals attack statues in Australia Day protest. On Facebook I have said: “How disappointing! Turnbull —shame on him— is being a total arse, and is dead wrong himself, and these vandals are self-righteous pricks with no understanding of history either. Given my family history I am utterly opposed to ALL those right/left who have made such a hash of the perfectly sane and reasonable points made by Stan Grant. Why can’t we all just grow up? ”

Next day!

I stand by the everything from “these vandals are self-righteous pricks” on, though there may have been just one vandal. I have however been too harsh on Malcolm Turnbull, given what he actually wrote on Facebook. Shame about his “Stalinist” claptrap, but this is fair enough I think:

Tearing down or defacing statues of our colonial era explorers and governors is not much better than that. Of course Cook didn’t “discover” Australia anymore than Columbus “discovered” America or Marco Polo “discovered” China. I knew that when as a schoolboy I first read the inscription.

The statue gives a perspective of history from the time it was erected – 1879. Just as a history text in the Mitchell Library from the same era would do. Is the next step of this new totalitarianism to burn the 19th century histories of Australia as well, or should their yellowing pages be simply overwritten in crude graffiti condemning their long dead authors?

Old histories should not be burned, anymore than old statues should be torn down. Rather they should be challenged and complemented by new histories, fresh evidence and modern monuments.

And now to be really provocative, here is a thought that often crosses my mind:

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Re-reading Lawrence 55 years on

Using my Calibre reader on HP Junior I am rereading Sons and Lovers, having first read it in 1962. It holds up well. But how little of it did I really understand at the age of 18 in 1962?

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Hard to believe it was first published over a century ago! See Blake Morrison, Sons and Lovers: a century on.

Sons and Lovers is a great novel. A century of readers have reached for the same adjective. FR Leavis did, when he enrolled Lawrence in the “great tradition” of the English novel, comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. And Philip Larkin did so, too, describing Lawrence as “England’s greatest novelist” and Sons and Lovers as his finest achievement: “Cock me! Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect.” The perfection wasn’t apparent to those close to Lawrence at the time, including his childhood sweetheart Jessie Chambers, his editor Garnett, and his wife-to-be Frieda, all of whom suggested improvements and left their mark on the finished text. But the reviews were good, and 100 years later the novel’s reputation holds up, despite the recent dip in Lawrence’s critical standing.

To anyone of my generation, that dip is a puzzle…

Poem of the day: W H Auden

Now what makes me think again of this poem, which has haunted me ever since I first read it at Sydney University when I was 16?

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SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

by W.H. Auden

 

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Jonathan Littell’s Nazi Oresteia

Wikipedia notes:

The Kindly Ones (French: Les Bienveillantes) is a historical fiction novel written in French by American-born author Jonathan Littell. The book is narrated by its fictional protagonist Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer of French and German ancestry who helped to carry out the Holocaust and was present during several major events of World War II.

The 983-page book became a bestseller in France and was widely discussed in newspapers, magazines, academic journals, books and seminars. It was also awarded two of the most prestigious French literary awards, the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie françaiseand the Prix Goncourt in 2006, and has been translated into several languages.

I borrowed The Kindly Ones from Wollongong Library on Wednesday and am now well into it. I am finding it horrific but fascinating. Littell, born in New York, is a bi-lingual (English / French) writer living in Barcelona. He is a dual citizen of the United States and France and is of Jewish background.  One reviewer on Goodreads wrote: “This is a hard book to review. It is like walking out of a David Lynch movie and feeling brain raped by the artist. How exactly to you attempt to explore the depths of Nazi Germany without feeling dark, abused, and sick afterwards?” I note there also that more recently Littell has written Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising. One reader says:

Must read, must read, everything’s a must read these days. But this is a ‘must read’ that it seems like nobody has read. To his credit, Littell mostly contains his righteous anger on that account, in the prologue and epilogue he added in 2012, when it was already too late. Now it’s even later than too late, and Assadist propaganda has thoroughly overtaken the discourse, leaving firsthand accounts such as this and those of revolutionaries and refugees for all intents and purposes useless…

So divided are readers! On Goodreads reviews of The Kindly Ones range from five stars to one! I am rather of the 4-5 star persuasion. See also opinions gathered at this dedicated blog, a review by Andrew Hussey, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of London Institute in Paris, another by David Gates in the New York Times, and another by historian Samuel Moyn in The Nation.

 Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones took France by storm in the fall of 2006, when it won the Prix Goncourt–the nation’s most prestigious literary prize–and sold many hundreds of thousands of copies. Commercial success fed the heat of scandal, which followed the book to Germany in 2008, vaulting it to the top of the bestseller list. The furor revolved around nothing less than the governing conceit of Littell’s thousand-page roman-fleuve: the novel pretends to be the memoir of a Nazi SS officer who witnessed the different stages of the Holocaust as it was being perpetrated. The dispute over the book was another round in the cycle of Holocaust controversies that have marked time since the end of World War II with the regularity of a metronome. Tempestuous quarrels may have raised public consciousness about the Holocaust; but even so, subsequent battles over its representation can feel no less unseemly. “Silence over the murder, scandal over the books,” George Steiner worried in response to one of the first such imbroglios, forty years before Littell’s intentionally sickening but unquestionably brilliant success.

Finally, from HaaretzThe Executioner’s Song.

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Littell smiled. The discussion that ensued, in which Littell spoke in French – he does not speak German – was held with a panel of two historians and a researcher of anti-Semitism. Littell rejected comparisons with Dostoevsky or Joyce. He shrugged his shoulders at questions about why his book concentrates so heavily on sex and homosexual fantasies, choosing to speak instead about historical theories and the work of Holocaust scholars. Clearly, Littell does not like to have interpretations foisted on his book or to talk about the personal motives that led him to write it over the course of a Moscow winter, by hand, in a single draft.

I weep like a child for the past…

This is the final post in the poetry and music series memorialising my brother’s death.

D H Lawrence 1885-1930

Piano

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

1918

With Anzac Day coming up I add this song. The lady herself appears near the end She turned 100 recently! A couple of years back I sent a copy to my brother, whose childhood was dominated by World War 2. Also unlike me his earliest memories were of Shellharbour and Wollongong.