Australian Diary: April, 2017

WEEK FOUR – 3 April, 2017.

Some thoughts on two novels by Australians, read since I’ve arrived in Canberra: Richard Flanagan’s Man-Booker prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Kate Grenville’s Man-Booker shortlisted The Secret River.

Narrow Road has the feel of a Grecian tragedy (a texture explicitly invoked in the novel), transposed to the fatalistic, modern universe of the second world war. Working the poetry of twentieth-century life into the complex reality of power, in both its violence and unanswering cruelty, Flanagan achieves a delicate balance in this work. Probing the tensions of love and war, he aims for cathartic grace. The novel grips you, weaving the plotlines of several fated and opposing stories together, smashing into one another in a beautifully epic collision. But the catharsis doesn’t bring release, exactly. Instead the symbol around which Narrow Road organizes is a circle; though, as I notice when I look again, not a closed circle. It’s the symbol painted by Shisui at his death, in the poetry of a Japanese last rite. Indeed, the book’s title derives from a haiku poem by Basho. The circular symbol bookends the novel, appearing once near the start and once near the end. It recalls the wheel of fate. “The world just is”, says the main protagonist’s mother, a refrain he echoes again and again. While Narrow Road is the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian military doctor stuck in a Burmese prisoner camp, the perspective is not limited to his alone. Although much more could and should be said, Narrow Road is an exploration of epic, both Anglo-European and Japanese. The role and poetry of power features in the story from multiple perspectives, and the novel ruminates repeatedly on the entanglements of imperialism, using Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Japanese haiku as touchstones.

The Secret River, on the other hand, evokes the tragedy of European colonialism, but from the perspective of a working-class English convict. For this and other reasons Secret River is at times too neat and too knowing, as I found myself telling a friend here in Australia. In the twenty-first century, writing this kind of story demands both ruthless awareness (of the past) and cunning sensitivity (in the present). Grenville demonstrates shades of both. But in the end it’s hard to escape the fact that Secret River is still a colonial, frontier success story afforded by the force of the British Empire. Grenville repeatedly tries to complicate this story, and seems acutely aware of Australia’s colonial past. Yet in attempting to convey the complex reality of imperialism she has chosen to voice that messiness through her protagonist, William Thornhill. His limited awareness of colonial and social injustice derives from his experience of class in London before his exile for theft in 1806. Admittedly this makes a kind of intellectual sense, though for me it does so by risking aesthetic imbalance.

Another novel comes to mind. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe is a story about stories. It tells the tale of Robinson Crusoe from a perspective other than that made famous by Daniel Defoe. After searching for her lost daughter in Brazil, Susan Barton, the protagonist of Foe, washes up on Crusoe’s island and providers her own account of Crusoe the man, of the speechless former slave, Friday, and of their eventual rescue. Indeed, Foe is written as if from Barton’s own hand, consisting of reflections and letters she writes to Defoe about her remembered adventures as a castaway. As she communicates the story of the island to Defoe, and wonders at its meaning, she muses on the place of communication in the dynamics of power, sparked by the fact that Friday cannot give an account of his own life, since he is mute. Recall that Foe was written and published under apartheid in South Africa, where Coetzee spent most of his life (he’s now an Australian citizen). One of the most enduring questions raised by Foe, one deeply relevant to both Narrow Road and Secret River, is that of the relationship between truth, power, freedom, and narrative. What does it meant to be able to tell your own story?

WEEK FIVE – 10 April, 2017.

Nearly a month after we’ve moved in, we still don’t have internet at our apartment here in Canberra. The shortest possible time our chosen service provider, iiNet, could give us for our connection, was over four weeks after our move-in date. When I queried this with their representative he simply told me that he used iiNet as his internet provider and that it took them four weeks to set up his connection too.

Instead of our usual internet diversions, we’ve been watching more tv and listening to more podcasts. Thankfully there are several public tv stations. We’ve watched most of Adam Liaw’s exploration of Japanese food, documentaries on “4 Corners” about One Nation and Facebook, and various forms of “footy” (Rugby Union, Rugby League, and AFL). Last week we watched Top Gun half-heartedly, which Candace hadn’t seen before. “Danger Zone,” sung in full-throttled 80s-enthusiasm by Kenny Loggins, played at each commercial break and at least twice in the movie itself. We were stuck singing it for nearly a week. Along with millions of others, we listened to Missing Richard Simmons. It certainly passed the time, though I’m not sure it reached the depths of profundity its creator seemed to imagine. The podcast was as interesting for what it says about us and our culture as about its subject.

This week also saw President Trump authorize a military attack by the USA against Syria. Millions of dollars worth of tomahawk missiles were fired in response to the chemical weapons dropped by the Asad regime. It’s Holy Week for Christians and I’m reminded of a recent article by Stanley Hauerwas published here in Australia. Hauerwas is a challenging theological ethicist whose primary question has been relatively simple: what does it mean to be the Christian church and what are the consequences in the here and now? I’ve also been reading Richard Horsley’s Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine, a fine and closely argued book. In it Horsley writes that “a Jesus who was only religious cannot have been historical.” His point is that you cannot make sense of the Jesus presented in the Gospels without setting his activities in the composite social, cultural, economic, and religious context of first-century politics. The religious and the political, just like the economic and the social, were not distinct spheres in ancient Judea; they overlapped and interpenetrated one another. Why bring these two authors up? What Hauerwas and Horsley underline is the fact that being a Christian means being political. In what way? Obviously that question has been answered in dizzying variety over the centuries. If Christians are to be a political community by testifying faithfully to God’s relationship to his people and to his creation, then surely Holy Week demands we think about our political commitment to justice and freedom once more.

WEEK SIX – 17 April, 2017.

So far we’ve attended two churches here in Canberra, determined for the most part by location. Last week we went to St Philip’s, an Anglican church which dramatized Palm Sunday by performing the Gospel text. And as is often the case in Anglican churches, we were given palm branches folded into the shape of the cross. In the past few years I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to use the palms as little reminders during mundane moments, a symbol of the Christian story and what we take to be its life-giving power. This weekend we were in Sydney for Easter, where we attended the cathedral church of St Andrew’s. In his message the archbishop focused on the reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. I was a bit disappointed. Easter is of course about a series of real events Christians recount and remember. But it’s an event that calls reality into being in a new, specific way. While the archbishop’s message did touch on this aspect of Easter, it was hardly central. Perhaps the archbishop simply aimed to rehearse Easter along some standard evangelical lines. That much seemed clear, if only by the hymn choices and the way we celebrated communion.

At the very least the sermon reminded me to think again about what we do when we celebrate Easter. Consider the various Christian liturgical performances, where we recite, remember, and enact a proclamation made for two thousand years. Those of us who live in places such as Australia, Britain, or Canada, live in societies whose norms often require private religious convictions to be shared in public as reasons stripped of their religious content. But does this norm square with the political implications of the liturgy of Easter? Can liberalism respond effectively and justly to conflicts about education or public service, say, where religious faith is involved? This remains to be seen.

Easter is a story that requires a community of witnesses to its truth, a living community which has continually recited, remembered, and enacted that narrative. Can such a community share its story by fundamentally changing its grammar, so to speak? It’s not readily clear to me as I sit here how Christians should speak to the wider world, or to the world of modern democratic liberalism in particular. But it does seem to be an important question: can Christians translate our convictions for the public sphere if by that we mean stripping them of their “religious” content? For that norm presumes not only to define what “religion” is, but also to uphold a distinction between public and private, between religion and reason, that could withstand critical scrutiny. Simply attend a conference of the American Academy of Religion and see if you find agreement about how to define and discuss religion; or listen to a debate on the public sphere between its modern defenders and its postmodern critics, and see if you think the question has been decisively settled. Even Jürgen Habermas, among the most famous political philosophers to have upheld this liberal legacy, albeit in a philosophically critical form, has seriously rethought his position in recent years. Many scholars have convincingly argued that these modern distinctions and the political norms which entail them are a contingent part of European social, cultural, and intellectual history. They aren’t as necessary or as essential or as inevitable or as natural as is often assumed. What would the alternative be? For Christians, answering this question presumably starts with our performance of Easter. I don’t want to speak for those of other faiths, but it seems clear that they too could supply answers from within the moral and intellectual resources of their communities. But can modern democratic liberalism adapt so as to meet such challenges, or has it been captured, as I suspect in my darker moods, by those forces which simultaneously produce our world’s vast inequities of wealth and power?

WEEK SEVEN – 24 April, 2017.

It can be easy sometimes for me to forget that I’m partially deaf. It’s been over a year since my ENT suggested my current level of hearing loss would easily justify hearing aids. The news was surprising, though I’ve known this was coming since I was a child. I’ve frequently told myself that the minute I begin to annoy Candace, or my friends notice that I’m not hearing them properly – asking “what?” one too many times – I’ll revisit the hearing aids option. I want to adapt when the time is right, and I know that that’s probably coming sooner rather than later.

Because of several medical procedures I have had over the years, and the state in which this has left my ears, I regularly get infections which severely affect my hearing. Thankfully these infections – one happened this week – aren’t usually very painful. However, on this and other occasions I immediately experience a more serious hearing loss. Such days are much gloomier as a result, like the world of Sartre’s Nausea. Even though this temporary deafness happens quite regularly, it’s still surprising how frustrating a change in the senses can be. Normal sounds – the click-clack of the keys on the computer right now – simply don’t register. As if my head was in a barrel, I’m enveloped in a muted world of faint echoes.

Somehow deafness brings in its train thoughts of death. Though I hasten to add that this doesn’t feel morbid. For now it simply has me thinking. If the body “worlds the world,” as Heidegger might say, or if the body “embraces and constitutes the world,” as Merleau-Ponty somewhere puts it, then a change in the body’s capacity instantiates a change in the world. With deafness, an avenue of contact with reality closes or diminishes. I’ve seen several people age whose hearing loss increased over time, and as it did so they tended to shrink into themselves, to shut up the windows to their world. I know this isn’t always the case. Nor do I mean to suggest that a lost capacity necessarily shrinks one’s horizons and thereby one’s life. I’m not someone for whom reflection on the word starts from a solipsistic “I;” our worlds are ontologically interpersonal; my self is a self only and insofar as it exists in relations to others. There is no “I” without “you” and “they.” These others play a fundamental role in shaping the existential horizons of a world. And this remains true even for those whom we tend to regard, perhaps incorrectly, as having diminished capacities. Flipping that thought around, Jean Vanier seems to be someone whose life has been enriched immeasurably by those very people we label, often too categorically, as “disabled.” Nonetheless, when I consider those people whose hearing loss accompanied their aging and their other infirmities, and how, bit by bit, their life progressively became a monologue only they seemed to understand, I can’t help thinking that they experienced something even more important than the loss of hearing. As the film Amour (2012) beautifully and hauntingly portrays, they lost that distinctively human ability to tell, to share, and to live a story.

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