Remembering Janet Malcolm: her intellectual courage shaped journalism, biographies and Helen Garner


Matthew Ricketson, Deakin University

Journalism has rarely had a fiercer critic, nor a finer practitioner than the longtime writer for The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm, who died last week aged 86.

Some might quibble with the description of Malcolm as a journalist, but journalism is a far more supple practice than commonly believed. One list of the best American journalism of the 20th century, for instance, had Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting for The Washington Post ranked highly, but the top place went to John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

Published in 1946 in The New Yorker, Hersey’s 31,000-word article revealed in horrifying details the experiences of the victims of the first atomic bomb. It was also a pioneering, influential piece of what we would now call narrative non-fiction.

Malcolm began contributing to the magazine 17 years later, in 1963.

Over the next nearly six decades, she wrote many long reported pieces, profiles and essays that were published first in the magazine, then as books. Few journalists’ work has had as much influence on the way people thought about a range of topics – psychoanalysis, journalism, biography and the law.

She achieved this through a formidably sharp intelligence and sentences that were, as the magazine’s current editor, David Remnick, wrote last week, “clear as gin, spare as arrows, like no one else’s”.

A quiver of these sentences opens her withering critique of journalism, The Journalist and the Murderer, published in 1989:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself [sic] to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

When this was published, journalists exploded in outrage, not least because Malcolm had pierced the omertà observed by journalists concerning how they went about their work. There are all sorts of legitimate qualifications to be made about Malcolm’s insight, but more than three decades later it remains a key prod to any journalist, especially those working on longer projects, to reflect on the messy complexities inherent in the relationship between themselves and their sources.

Helen Garner’s ‘shard of horror’

The Journalist and the Murderer book cover

Malcolm’s influence extends to Australia, primarily through Helen Garner, who came to fame through her fiction but forged a second career as one of the nation’s foremost practitioners of narrative non-fiction, and a highly controversial one, too.

When Garner read The Journalist and the Murderer, she said it immediately struck a chord. “It sends a shard of horror right through you,” she said in an interview for Meanjin in 2012.

Later in the same interview with Sonya Voumard, she talked about her debt to Malcolm when writing The First Stone (1995), her still much-debated account of a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University’s Ormond College in the early 1990s.




Read more:
Helen Garner’s This House of Grief: criminal justice viewed from the coalface


She recalled interviewing a retired judge who had once chaired the Ormond College council and was a “tough, smart old lawyer” who revealed little. As they talked and drank tea, Garner found herself gobbling up the homemade shortbread biscuits he had provided.

After she’d had three, he put the lid on the jar, saying “I didn’t do that to keep you out”, but he had.

Garner recalled:

It wouldn’t have occurred to me, unless I’d read Janet Malcolm, to put a Freudian interpretation on his closing the jar – I mean Freudian in the sense that people are always doing and saying things that enact their real purpose. He would have thought the incident was about biscuits. But unconsciously he was indicating to me that he was in charge of how much would be given and taken.

A writer of unusual intellectual courage

At that stage Garner had been reading Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (1993), her excoriating attack on biography in general and the industry surrounding the short life and tragic death of Sylvia Plath in particular.

In it, Malcolm likens biographers to professional burglars:

The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.

Readers, as well as biographers, are skewered for colluding in the exciting, forbidden undertaking of “tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole”.

The Silent Woman book cover

Biographers were as outraged as journalists had been a few years earlier. Readers don’t appear to have objected. They — we — seem to think Malcolm must be talking about other readers, the voyeuristic ones. She couldn’t possibly be talking about us.

But she was, of course. One of the paradoxes of Malcolm’s work is she continued to practice the crafts that she forensically critiques — journalism and biography. For some, this might amount to hypocrisy. To me, it underscores her intellectual courage, taking seriously the power and influence inherent in the practice of these two forms, and refusing to shelter behind loyalty to her tribe.

Which brings me to my favourite rhetorical aria of Malcolm’s, also from The Silent Woman:

The narratives of journalism (significantly called ‘stories’), like those of mythology and folklore, derive their power from their firm undeviating sympathies and antipathies. Cinderella must remain good and the stepsisters bad. ‘Second stepsister not so bad after all’ is not a good story.

Malcolm refused to write fairytales. Her stories may be as sharp as arrows; they also fly true.




Read more:
Biography in the age of celebrity: what’s left to reveal?


The Conversation


Matthew Ricketson, Professor of Communication, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hidden women of history: Eliza Hamilton Dunlop — the Irish Australian poet who shone a light on colonial violence


Portrait of Eliza Hamilton Dunlop (no date), colour photograph of oil painting
Wollombi Endeavour Museum

Anna Johnston, The University of Queensland

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

About 28 Wirrayaraay people died in the massacre near Inverell in northern New South Wales. Dunlop had arrived in Sydney in February, and the Irish writer was horrified by the violence she read about in the newspapers.




Read more:
How can we achieve reconciliation? Myall Creek offers valuable answers


Moved by evidence in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre, Dunlop crafted a poem condemning settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime. It read, in part:

Now, hush thee—or the pale-faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what would then thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!

Oh, could’st thy little bosom
That mother’s torture feel,
Or could’st thou know thy father lies
Struck down by English steel

The poem closed evoking the body of “my slaughter’d boy … To tell—to tell of the gloomy ridge; and the stockmen’s human fire”.

The graphic content depicting settler violence and First Nations’ suffering made Dunlop’s poem locally notorious. She didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press, declaring she hoped the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.

An early life as a reader

Dunlop, the youngest of three children, was born Eliza Matilda Hamilton in 1796. Her father, Solomon Hamilton, was an attorney practising in Ireland, England and India. Her mother died soon after Dunlop’s birth, and she was brought up by her paternal grandmother.

Part of a privileged Protestant family with an excellent library, Dunlop grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft.

In her teens, Dunlop published poems in local magazines. An unpublished volume of her original poetry, translations and illustrations written between 1808 and 1813 reveals her fascination with Irish mythology and European literature. She was deeply interested in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, King John’s Castle on Carlingford Bay, Juvenile notebook, watercolour and ink.
Milson Family Papers – 1810, 1853–1862, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 7683

In 1820, she travelled to India to visit her father and two brothers. The journey inspired poems about colonial locations — from the Cape Colony (now South Africa) to the Ganges River — that explored the reach and impact of the British Empire.

In Scotland in 1823, she married book binder and seller David Dunlop. David’s family history inspired poems such as her dual eulogy, The Two Graves (1865), about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion, during which David’s father Captain William Dunlop had been hanged.

The Dunlops had five children in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, where they were engaged in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords, before leaving Ireland in 1837.

Settler poetry and politics

When The Aboriginal Mother was published as sheet music in 1842, set to music by the composer Isaac Nathan, he declared “it ought to be on the pianoforte of every lady in the colony”.

The cover of the music score of The Aboriginal Mother.
Trove

Dunlop often wrote about the Irish diaspora in poems which were alternatively nostalgic and political. But she also brought her knowledge of the violence and divisiveness of colonisation, religion and ethnicity to her writing on Australia.

Her optimistic vision for Australian poetry encouraged colonial readers to be attentive to their environment and to recognise Indigenous culture. This reputation for sympathising with Indigenous people — and her husband’s arguments with settlers in Penrith about the treatment of Catholic convicts — were widely criticised in the press.

This affected David’s career as police magistrate and Aboriginal Protector: he was soon moved to a remote location. There, too, local landholders campaigned against his appointment and undermined his authority.

Indigenous languages

When David was posted to Wollombi in the Upper Hunter Valley, Dunlop sought to expand her knowledge of Indigenous culture, engaging with Darkinyung, Awabakal and Wonnarua people who lived in the area.

She attempted to learn various languages of the region, transcribing word lists, songs and poems, and acknowledging the Indigenous people who shared their knowledge with her.

Some of Dunlop’s transcription between English and the language of the Wollombi people, dated from 1840.
State Library of New South Wales

She wrote a suite of Indigenous-themed poems in the 1840s, publishing poems in newspapers such as The Eagle Chief (1843) or Native Poetry/Nung-ngnun (1848). These poems were criticised by anonymous letter writers, questioning her poetic ability, her knowledge and her choice of subject.

Some critics were frankly racist, refusing to accept the human emotions expressed by Dunlop’s Indigenous narrators.

The Sydney Herald had railed against the death sentences of the men responsible for the Myall Creek massacre, and Dunlop condemned the attitude of the paper and its correspondents. She hoped “the time was past, when the public press would lend its countenance to debase the native character, or support an attempt to shade with ridicule”.

Dunlop would publish with one outlet before shifting to another, finding different editors in the volatile colonial press who would support her.

Poetry of protest

Dunlop wrote in a sentimental form of poetry popular at the time, addressing exile, history and memory. She published around 60 poems in Australian newspapers and magazines between 1838 and 1873, but appears to have written nothing more on Indigenous themes after 1850. This popular writing also contributed to poetry of political protest, galvanising readers around causes such as transatlantic anti-slavery.




Read more:
Five protest poets all demonstrators should read


The plight of Indigenous people under British colonialism inspired many writers, including “crying mother” poems that harnessed the universal appeal of motherhood.

Dunlop’s poems The Aboriginal Mother and The Irish Mother are linked to this literary trend, but her experience of colonialism lent her poetry more authority than writers who sourced information about “exotic” cultures from imperial travel writing and voyage accounts.

In the early 1870s, Dunlop collated a selection of poetry, The Vase, but she was never able to publish. Family demands and financial constraints precluded it.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, Title page, ‘The Vase’, paper.
State Library of New South Wales, B1541

Dunlop died in 1880. Like many women of the time, her writing was neglected and forgotten, until it was rediscovered by the literary critic and editor Elizabeth Webby in the 1960s.

Webby identified Dunlop as the first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture. Webby published the first collection of Dunlop’s poems in 1981.

Today, communities and linguists regularly use Dunlop’s transcripts for language reclamation projects in the Upper Hunter Valley.

Last year, 140 years after Dunlop’s death, Wanarruwa Beginner’s Guide — an introduction to one language of the Hunter River area — was published.

At the launch, language consultant Sharon Edgar-Jones (Wonnarua and Gringai) movingly recited one of the songs Dunlop transcribed: revitalising the words of the Indigenous women and men to whom Dunlop listened, when so few white Australians were listening at all.


Eliza Hamilton Dunlop Writing from the Colonial Frontier, edited by Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby, is out now through Sydney University Press.The Conversation

Anna Johnston, Associate Professor of English Literature, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A controversial US book is feeding climate denial in Australia. Its central claim is true, yet irrelevant


Ben Rushton/AAP

Ian Lowe, Griffith University

My heart sank last week to see conservative Australian commentator Alan Jones championing a contentious book about climate science which has gained traction in the United States.

Cover of 'Unsettled' by Steven Koonin

BenBella Books

The book, titled Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, is authored by US theoretical physicist Steven Koonin. Notably, Koonin is not a climate scientist.

As the title suggests, the book’s bold central theme is that climate science is far from settled, and should not be relied on to make policy choices in areas such as energy, transport and economics.

Jones cited Koonin’s book in a Daily Telegraph column last week. He decried the “nonsense” of governments in Australia and abroad aiming for net-zero carbon emissions, saying it was as though Koonin’s book “didn’t exist”.

So does the book hold up? I have been researching and writing about climate change since the 1980s. I wanted to give the book a fair reading, so I put any preconceived thoughts aside and tried to fairly weigh up Koonin’s arguments. If true, they would be very important findings.

Koonin frames his book as a brave attempt to reveal how the climate science we’ve been relying on all these years is, in fact, uncertain. But the book’s major flaw is to imply these uncertainties are news to climate scientists.

This is patently untrue. Science is never settled. But there is enough confidence in the science to justify significant climate action.

'There's no Planet B' sign with smoke stacks
Scientific uncertainty does not justify climate inaction.
Shutterstock

Uncertainty is par for the course

Koonin opens the book by saying he accepts that Earth is warming, and humans are contributing to this. But he muddies the waters with passages such as the following:

Past variations of surface temperature and ocean heat content do not at all disprove that the (approximately 1℃) rise in the global average surface temperature anomaly since 1880 is due to humans, but they do show that there are powerful natural forces driving the climate as well.

In other words, Koonin says, the real question is “to what extent this warming is being caused by humans”.

Steven Koonin
The book’s author, Steven Koonin, is not a climate scientist.
Kelly Kollar

No rational person could deny that natural forces drive the climate. The climate record shows significant climate changes long before humans existed; clearly we’re not responsible for the planet being much warmer many millions of years ago.

However the five assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have expressed steadily increasing confidence that humans are the dominant cause of global warming this century.

Koonin attacks former US secretary of state and now Biden climate envoy, John Kerry, who once said of climate change “the science is unequivocal”.

It is true to say climate science is somewhat uncertain. Science is always a work in progress. Scientific integrity demands a willingness to look carefully at new data and theories to see if they require us to revise what we thought we knew.

But Koonin is wrong to imply scientists are somehow unaware of, or deny, this uncertainty. To the contrary, I have heard decision-makers express exasperation when we scientists seek to qualify our advice on the basis that our knowledge is limited.

Every reputable climate scientist I know is always willing to look at new data. But policy-makers must make decisions based on the current scientific understanding.

Koonin states, accurately, that few in the general public receive scientific information directly from research papers. Most people receive climate change information after it’s been filtered by governments and the media – which, in Koonin’s mind, often overstate the seriousness of climate change.

However Koonin fails to note the opposite forces at play – governments and media organisations, such as the Murdoch press in Australia and Fox News in the US, which systematically misreport climate science and underestimate the climate threat.




Read more:
Climate explained: why is the Arctic warming faster than other parts of the world?


Polar bears on melting ice
Humans are the dominant cause of global warming this century.
Shutterstock

Ignorance is not bliss

Koonin concludes by questioning the wisdom of reaching net-zero emissions in the second half of this century – a central goal of the Paris Agreement. He argues that when one balances the cost and efficacy of slashing emissions “against the certainties and uncertainties in climate science”, the net-zero goal looks implausible and unfeasible.

This is effectively an assertion that ignorance is bliss: because we don’t have perfect understanding that allows us to make exact projections about the future climate, we should not take serious action to reduce emissions.

Koonin proposes a different response: for society to adapt to a changing climate, and embrace “geoengineering” technology to artificially control Earth’s climate.

Both adaptation and geoengineering have their place in the climate response. But neither are sufficient substitutes for dramatically cutting carbon emissions.




Read more:
Solar geoengineering is worth studying but not a substitute for cutting emissions, study finds


wind turbines
The world must urgently reduce emissions.
Shutterstock

Proceed with caution

Under the Hawke government, science minister Barry Jones was one of the first public figures in Australia to sound warnings about climate change.

Jones and I both appeared on a panel at a landmark climate conference in 1987. I recall Jones, when asked how decision-makers should respond, said we should consider the consequences of both acting and not acting.

If policymakers acted on inaccurate climate science, Jones argued, the worst that would happen is our energy would be cleaner – albeit, at that time, more expensive. But if the science was right and we ignored it, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Jones was essentially describing the precautionary principle, which is contained in a number of international treaties including the UN’s Rio Declaration, which states:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The principle demands we act to avoid disastrous outcomes, even if the science is uncertain. Because the uncertainty works both ways: things might get worse than we expect, rather than better.

The fundamental point of Koonin’s book is true, but irrelevant. The science is not settled – but we know enough to act decisively.




Read more:
Even without new fossil fuel projects, global warming will still exceed 1.5℃. But renewables might make it possible


The Conversation


Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Kapow! Zap! Splat! How comics make sound on the page


Unsplash/Joe Ciciarelli, CC BY

Victor Araneda Jure, Monash University

Typically, comics are considered a silent medium. But while they don’t come with an aural soundtrack, comics have a unique grammar for sound.

From Wolverine’s SNIKT! when unsheathing his claws, to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in The Death of Stalin (later made into a film) the use of “textual audio” invites comics readers to hear with their eyes.

Fundamental elements such as symbols, font styles and onomatopoeia (where words imitate sounds) mean reading comics is a cross-sensory experience. New and old examples show the endless potential of the artform.

comic book pages
Kaboom! and splosh! on every page.
Unsplash/Miika Laaksonen, CC BY

Holy onomatopoeia Batman!

Onomatopoeia — isn’t unique to comics but comic artists have certainly perfected this figurative form of language. POW! BAM! BANG! appear on the page when Batman and Robin land a punch. BLAM! is the sound made by the Penguin’s umbrella when it shoots from a distance.

The list of sounds represented by onomatopoeia is limitless in terms of creative potential. There are words that mimic sounds directly, such as SPLOSH! (the sound made by an object falling into water) and made-up sounds like that of Wolverine’s adamantium claws (as we will see further below).

The language of comics offers creative freedom to expand the aural lexicon. One online database lists over 2500 comic book sounds with links to comics images in which they’ve been used.

cowboy comic
Stan Lee’s Gunsmoke Western (1955) #68, with lettering and pencilling by Dick Ayers.
The Comic Book Sound Effect Database

This can also present special challenges for translators. Sounds represented in comics can range from speech sounds (subject to language rules including those governing how syllables can be formed) to human-made non-verbal sounds like sneezes, to sounds made by objects and environments.

Visual context is important too. We only recognise the warning of Wolverine’s violent retribution in SNIKT! when the word is drawn and displayed next to the hairy mutant.

comics image of man with claws
Wolverine extends his claws.
Author provided

Likewise, the word THWIP! by itself may not mean much. But when positioned in context it can imbue a comic page with excitement and adventure.

Imagine a young man dressed in a tight red-and-blue bodysuit diving at high speed from the top of the Empire State building. Suddenly, just before hitting the ground, THWIP! he shoots spider webs from his wrists, using them to swing from building to building. Both readers and the crowd of enthusiastic fans on the page react: “Here comes Spidey!”

The way they say it

Comic creators also use font style and size and different speech bubble shapes and effects to shout, whisper or scream language.

Bold, italics, punctuation, faded or irregular letters are used to emphasise different features of the written words: fear, courage, loudness or quietness.

In My Friend Dahmer, created by a school friend of the infamous serial killer, the protagonist is seen carrying a dead cat on his way home by a group of kids. Comics creator John “Derf” Backderf applies bigger-bold words in one of the kids’ speech balloon to emphasise the shouting and surprise of onlookers.

comic book page
My Friend Dahmer (2012) by Derf Backderf.
Author provided



Read more:
Heroes, villains … biology: 3 reasons comic books are great science teachers


Music to my eyes

The 1973 manga Barefoot Gen, written by Keiji Nakazawa, explores his firsthand experience of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath.

Gen, the main character, sings through several pages of the story. The author uses a musical note symbol () to indicate where speech bubbles are sung. By the final pages of the fourth volume, Gen sings to celebrate that his hair is beginning to grow again after being affected by radiation poisoning.

When preceded by the easily recognisable musical symbol, it’s virtually impossible to read the dialogue without “hearing” a melody:

“Red roof on a green hilltop …

A bell tower shaped like a pixie hat…

The bell rings, ding-dong-ding …

The baby goats sing along, baa-baa-baa …”

Expanding on this concept, How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman contains musical panels where the combination of drawings, words and signs present a soundtrack.

comic page
The How to Talk to Girls at Parties party scene (created by Neil Gaiman, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá) gives us a sense of how the scene sounds to the characters in it.
Author provided

In film terminology, this is diegetic sound — noises or tunes from within the storyworld — as opposed to a narrative voiceover or a musical soundtrack the characters can’t hear within the story.

In Gaiman’s comic a combination of illustrations, musical notes and words (including the onomatopoeic TUM for a base drum beat) convey the sense that music fills every room of the house where a party is taking place.

In the political satire comic that inspired a movie, The Death of Stalin creator Fabien Nury and illustrator Thierry Robin show lines from Mozart’s orchestral score for his Piano Concerto No. 23 at the bottom of two pages. This adds drama to a climactic scene where Russian leader suffers a stroke.

comics frames of stalin dying
The musical score can add pace and drama to an already dramatic scene.
Author’

Next time you read a comic book, make sure you listen carefully. KABOOM!The Conversation

Victor Araneda Jure, Teaching Associate / Filmmaker, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Moved by words: how poetry helps us express our feelings


Patrick Semansky/AAP

Maria Takolander, Deakin University

Poetry has made something of a comeback in popular culture, thanks to America’s Amanda Gorman, who read her performance poems at a presidential inauguration and this year’s Super Bowl. Gorman has been described as bringing poetry to the masses.

However, when it comes to the mainstream, poetry has long been hiding in plain sight. Gorman’s spoken-word performances, which have been compared to hip hop, drew attention to poetry in music lyrics. But poetry is also visible in movies and on TV.

These media representations are interesting because they show how poetry is popularly understood in connection with feelings. And that popular wisdom chimes with findings in cognitive neuroscience about how language and, by extension, poetry work.




Read more:
Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection


Aside from films or TV series about poets, such as Dickinson or Paterson, poetry makes a cameo in some of our most iconic films, where it is said to represent or intensify a range of emotions. These include love (Before Sunrise), mad ambition (Citizen Kane), nostalgic patriotism (Skyfall), pride (Invictus), nihilism (Apocalypse Now) and trauma (The Piano).

Poetry, representative of emotion, is also frequently used to symbolise humanity. This is particularly apparent in films about clones.

In the Tom Cruise blockbuster Oblivion, when the clone Jack Harper recites a poem from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome this reinforces his legitimacy. In Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty misquotes William Blake:

Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.

What emerges from poetry’s onscreen appearances, then, is a popular understanding of it as an expression of human feeling and evidence of genuine humanity.

Cognitive neuroscience

This intuitive understanding of poetry resonates with findings in cognitive neuroscience. Leaving behind theories of the brain that suggest it operates like a computer and theories of language that focus on “mental grammar”, many scientists now acknowledge the body and emotion as the foundations of both cognition and speech.

Of particular interest is the role of mirror neurons. These brain cells fire when an action is observed or performed, and they tell us a lot about how we understand the actions of others. They suggest understanding comes from a mirroring or imitation that takes place in the brain but is acted out or felt in the body.

An example is the contagious effect of a smile. When we observe someone smiling, we mirror that action to understand it.

Something similar happens when understanding language. Words contagiously move us. As neuroscientist Christian Keysers explains in The Empathic Brain, if you hear or read the word “lick”, the part of your brain that moves your mouth is activated to aid understanding. The same happens if you hear or read the word “kick”. As a result, we feel the meaning of these words in our bodies.

What about producing words? Speech is fundamentally a motor activity, which evolved from gesture. We are moved to speak, and we literally move — our lips, our tongue, our lungs, our stomach muscles, and often even our hands — to express ourselves.

As infants, we begin learning language in interaction with a caregiver, imitating the shapes of their mouth, and waving our arms and legs in excitement and frustration at the repetitive noises they make, until eventually we are able to imitate their sounds. Those sounds are accompanied by feelings, related most strongly to a desire to communicate beyond the boundaries of ourselves.

Of course, language develops into a more abstract system for communication. It can often remain a struggle, however, to give expression to feelings that are powerfully felt in the body, such as loneliness or grief or trauma. As John Hannah’s character says in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when trying to articulate his feelings about his dead partner, “Unfortunately there I run out of words”.




Read more:
On poetry and pain


Rhymes and rhythms

This is where poetry comes in, making use of the rhymes and rhythms that have helped us find speech from infancy, calling attention to the auditory qualities of language to convey meaning through feeling.

If we can’t do it ourselves, we quote someone else’s words, instinctively and ritualistically associating poetry with the expression of emotion.

This link to emotion, as well as child-like speech, undoubtedly goes some way to explaining another popular idea about poetry: that it signals “madness”. Biopics of poets feed this stereotype by overwhelmingly choosing poets with mental illnesses as their subjects — for instance, Sylvia and Pandaemonium, portraits of Sylvia Plath and Samuel Taylor Coleridge respectively.

However, cognitive neuroscience — and popular wisdom — suggest poetry actually exemplifies an important truth about language and human nature.

While poetry is regularly denounced for “not making sense”, our cognition and our language do not arise according to purely rational principles.

We are bodies wrought by feeling. Robin Williams’ character simplifies this truth in Dead Poets Society:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.The Conversation

Maria Takolander, Associate Professor in Creative Writing and Literary Studies, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy for our times


Mark Byron, University of Sydney

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

Samuel Beckett originally subtitled his 1953 play Waiting for Godot “a tragicomedy in two acts”. Vivian Mercier, the critic for the Irish Times, dubbed it “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”

Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, wait on the side of a country road. Each act begins with the pair reunited after spending the night apart. As they await their enigmatic patron, Godot, Estragon laments being beaten by nameless figures during the night, and Vladimir seeks to pass the time by stirring his companion into repartee.

These two are ill-starred but well-suited: Estragon’s feet are in constant pain, and Vladimir’s unspecified affliction induces frequent and painful urination. Estragon’s shoes stink, while Vladimir adheres to a diet of garlic to ease the symptoms of his condition. Vladimir remembers, and Estragon forgets.

Memory stretches into the deep past. The present sits on the cusp of a hopeful future. Time’s recurrence is marked by the moon and the sun. The endless wait for a rendezvous … for what, exactly?

To receive instructions? To be delivered from this tormented life? To relieve the tramps of their little canters, their bombastic declarations, their pleas? To relieve the steadfast audience?

From its first performances in the 1950s, Waiting for Godot enjoyed a positive critical reception. Yet its earliest audiences thought otherwise, ensuring the interval was the most popular part of the play by voting with their feet. Over time, though, Godot would become a celebrated avant-garde play, and a popular cultural reference for fruitless waiting.

This waiting is eerily prescient in a time of pandemic.

From Dublin to Paris

Samuel Beckett photographed in 1977.
Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906. As a child he boarded at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (Oscar Wilde’s alma mater), before a degree in Modern Languages and Literature at Trinity College Dublin.

His enduring relation with Paris began soon after. During his two-year position as lecteur d’anglais at the Ecole Normale Superiéure (1928-29) Beckett met and became close with James Joyce, who introduced him to the Parisian literary and artistic avant-garde.

Beckett spent two years in London (1933-35) undergoing a course of psychoanalysis under Walter Bion at the Tavistock Clinic, during which he wrote his first published novel, Murphy (1938). Following travels in Germany and Italy, Beckett settled in Paris in 1938, as war looked increasingly likely.

Beckett joined the French Resistance but his cell was infiltrated and he was forced to flee to Roussillon for the duration of the war, where he composed the novel Watt (published in 1953) in English. Back in Paris, Beckett embraced French and embarked upon one of modern literature’s most eccentric and fruitful monastic episodes: the “siege in the room” which yielded the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1953) and The Unnamable (1953).

A sign.
The script opens with the stage directions ‘A country road. A tree. Evening.’, as in this New Orleans street art.
Derek Bridges/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Beckett’s trilogy contributed to the new wave of French postwar novels renowned for their spare style and forensic treatment of plot, a movement that came to be known as the nouveau roman (“New Novel”).

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot between October 1948 and January 1949. It was his first play to reach the stage — his first full playscript, Eleuthéria, was written in 1947 but only published posthumously.

Nothing, twice

Despite appearances, Godot is a surprising blend of suspense and dramatic action. Themes repeat over both acts: the same waiting, the same fights. A messenger boy appears in each act — or, perhaps, two different boys in each act, brothers. The horizon of time is scanned twice, once in each act.

The symmetry of Vladimir and Estragon, endlessly waiting for the unseen Godot, is echoed by another pair, Pozzo and Lucky, who pass by in each act. In Act 1, Pozzo is the grand landlord — a revenant of the Irish Big House literary tradition — whipping his servant Lucky into service.

Pozzo’s pomposity is matched by Lucky’s silence, and when Pozzo compels Lucky to speak, finally, Lucky’s cascade of logorrhea stands in contrast to Pozzo’s grandiloquence.

In Act 2 Pozzo returns, blinded, his authority diminished to the merely rhetorical. His final speech echoes Macbeth on time and the brevity of life. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth pronounces:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more

Pozzo’s final passionate outburst reduces life to:

the same day, the same second […] They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Estragon’s complete indifference to Pozzo’s swansong has Vladimir wonder at his own dilemma, inducing an irrevocable moment of clear vision:

At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

This burden of recognition places Valdimir within a tragic mode, out of step with the farcical tragicomedy around him. He is no longer immersed in the condition of waiting, but breaks through to understand the act of waiting as a condition of life.

Audible yawns – from those who stayed

Godot premièred at the Théâtre du Babylone in Paris in January 1953. The play drew positive attention from reviewers and from some of the biggest names in French theatre and literature. Its fame rose slowly — then abruptly, when a fistfight broke out in the interval of one performance, between the play’s defenders and those offended or shocked by its (in)action and the cruel plight of the character Lucky.

Its English-language premiere in London in August 1955 was met with “waves of hostility” and audible yawning from audience members who remained after interval.

The play’s fate in the United States was little short of catastrophic: billed as “the laugh sensation of two continents”, its opening night in January 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami was farcical.

Even Alan Schneider’s expert direction couldn’t salvage the play from a disruptive rehearsal atmosphere, complicated sets and an ill-suited venue. The interval, again, turned out to be the most popular part of the performance.

Bert Lahr (who played the Lion in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz) played Estragon in Miami and would be instrumental in the play’s success later that year on Broadway, an event that remained one of his career highlights.

Record cover
Waiting for Godot played on Broadway for only 10 weeks, but Bert Lahr’s performance was immortalised by Columbia Records.
Internet Archive

During those early years, Godot was also performed in prisons, including a landmark production by the San Francisco Actors Workshop at San Quentin State Prison in 1957. Inmates were astounded a playwright could capture limbo with such insight and sensitivity.

All of us are waiting

Over time its fame has grown to the point where Godot is a definitive meeting point of the avant-garde and popular culture. The play has inspired numerous parodies and spin-offs, perhaps most notably the 1996 mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, in which the cast of a small-town musical production in Missouri awaits the arrival of a legendary Broadway producer.

The claustrophobia of Beckett’s next play, Endgame (1957), might capture the experience of lockdown in the current pandemic (“Beyond [the wall] is the other hell”), but Godot captures the distortions of time combined with the uncertainty of respite.

Populations across the globe have endured various kinds of waiting: waiting for published infection numbers, for hospital beds, for oxygen supplies, for borders to reopen, for opportunities to see loved ones. Running through our individual narratives, waiting has proved to be a truly global, shared experience.

How do we remember pre-pandemic times – that past “a million years ago,” as Vladimir pronounces in the play – and what do we forget?

Estragon exclaims: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” But dilatory time and static place also offer opportunities for new perception: a long moment to consider our circumstances and ourselves anew.The Conversation

Mark Byron, Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Growing up with trees: new books use story and science to connect kids with nature


Unsplash/Pat Whelan, CC BY

Kathryn Williams, The University of Melbourne

When I tell people I’m an environmental psychologist, they often assume that means I am a “tree hugger” and they are not entirely wrong. But it really means I spend a lot of time thinking and finding out about people’s relationships with the natural world, trees included.

So when I dropped in at my local book store and saw a whole collection of new books for children about trees, I found myself wondering: What kinds of books help kids connect with trees?

The question was prompted by a recent publication, The Book of Australian Trees by Inga Simpson and Alicia Rogerson. Its not the only tree book published this year, but it’s notable for its focus on Australian trees.

The last few years have seen the publication of some remarkable books about trees for children, for example Peter Wohlleben’s Can you hear the trees talking (a 2019 young reader’s edition of his book The Hidden Life of Trees) and Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski’s The Book of Trees (2018).

I love both these books, but they also illustrate why books about Australian trees and plants are needed. When Socha and Grajkowski declare: “In winter, the only green trees are coniferous trees”, or when Wohlleben suggests young readers go outside and find a birch log (likely in in their family’s store of firewood) kids in the southern hemisphere might feel lost.




Read more:
People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation


A researcher measures a Mountain Ash in a forest in Victoria.
Australian National University

Learning to love plants and trees

Having books that help children learn to love trees really matters to me. There is increasing concern that people are less connected with the natural world than in the past. Plants are of particular concern, as there is evidence of lower appreciation, knowledge and concern for plants compared with animals. Various writers have noted the negative implications of these trends for human health and well-being, environmental action, and conservation.

Direct experience of nature is often seen as essential to building connections, but it’s not always possible and might not be enough. Books can help children connect with trees, for example by:

So how are recent children’s book authors going about this important task?




Read more:
Where the old things are: Australia’s most ancient trees


The Book of Australian Trees

The introduction to Simpson and Rogerson’s book echoes some of these pathways for connection. “Trees tell stories about places,” Simpson writes and while trees may all seem the same, “if you look more closely, they are each a little different, like people”.


Goodreads

The book introduces just 16 different trees, most from the eastern mainland states of Australia. Each species is introduced with a single painting by Rogerson, often showing the trunk and lower canopy but sometimes just a part of the trees such as a Bunya Pine nut or a flower.

Simpson’s text is brief. It includes visual characteristics of the tree, the kinds of soils or climate in which it grows, and usually a an insight to cultural associations with the tree. Some entries refer to “famous trees”, for example Centurion, the tallest mountain ash tree found in Tasmania. Others refer to Australian literary references to trees, like the “Old Man Banksias” of May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories.

I enjoyed Simpson’s evocative description of trees, particularly of bark and the ways it differs across trees and seasons. These often emphasise the links between visual attributes of trees and familiar human characteristics. Brush box branches “grow out like arms, with crooked elbows, then wrists and long fingers”. But while Simpson describes the kind of environments in which the trees typically grow, there is little sense of story or sense of place in these descriptions.

Books on trees and plants often focus purely on ecological qualities. Simpson incorporates cultural aspects of trees as they offer an important means of connection. But these are not always well considered. Linking magnificent Flame Trees to Cold Chisel’s 1984 song about “lost loves or old flames” seems unlikely to resonate with younger readers. Only a single entry (Bunya Pine) references relationships with First Nations peoples that have been maintained over many thousands of years.

The book is beautifully illustrated and celebrates the beauty of trees of this land — the flyleaf paintings of leaves, bark, cones, seeds, and blossoms lend themselves to a plant-rich conversation with younger readers.

The cone from a Bunya Pine.
Australian Botanic Gardens

4 more to choose from

Other recent books about trees make great use of stories, emotion, science and tree-related activities to help children connect with trees.


Goodreads

The Forest in the Tree (by Australian team Ailsa Wild, Aviva Reed, Briony Barr and Gregory Crocetti) skilfully weaves story and science to explore symbiotic relationships between trees and fungi. Characters include Broma the Cacao tree and We, Gloma the fungal network that connects the forest system. It is sure to fascinate and inform older children.


Goodreads

Little Sap (by Jan Hughes and Ruth Hengeveld) is written for a much younger audience. It tells a moving tale of a mother tree and a young sapling who eventually takes her place in the canopy. The authors note they found inspiration in the science of Suzanne Simard and Monica Gagliano among others.

Peter Wohlleben has also published a book for younger children. His book Peter and the Tree Children is a tale about Peter the forester and Piet the squirrel, and all they learn while walking in the forest.


Goodreads

I found it less engaging than his earlier book Can you hear the trees talking which is structured around curious questions like “How do trees make babies?” or “Is there a forest internet?”.

Finally, Plantastic! A new A-Z to 26 of Australia’s most unique and incredible native plants by Catherine Clowes and Rachel Gyan deserves a mention. Its not only about trees, but suggests some great activities that will encourage Australian kids to get out into nature and explore the wonder of plants.The Conversation

Kathryn Williams, Professor in environmental psychology, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shakespeare’s rulers and generals are all flawed, but the books on his leadership lessons keep coming


John Bell, pictured here in 2006, is the latest to write a book on Shakespeare and leadership.
Paul Millar/AAP

Robert White, The University of Western Australia

Review: John Bell, Some Achieve Greatness: Lessons on leadership from Shakespeare and one of his greatest admirers. With illustrations by Cathy Wilcox. Pantera Press, 2021.

John Bell’s new book Some Achieve Greatness is but the latest to use Shakespeare’s works to inspire and teach would-be leaders in the modern world.

In 2000 alone, two books appeared aimed at business management students: Power Plays and Shakespeare on Management. In perhaps the best of the genre, Shakespeare the Coach (2004), Australian Olympian, medical graduate, politician and hockey coach Ric Charlesworth applies the dramatist’s words to the sporting arena and people management. Naturally he devotes a chapter to motivational leadership, headed “Purpose and Persuasion”.

The new book from Bell, the actor and renowned theatre director, is both more, and less, than these. More, because it is as much a pithy “business autobiography” as instructional manual, from a man who has devoted his career to bringing Shakespeare to Australian audiences.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: Shakespeare’s sonnets — an honest account of love and a surprising portal to the man himself


Bell in 2013.
AAP

Bell has not only performed most of the major characters, learning their words by heart and internalising the subtleties and plural meanings, he has also directed the plays. He has shown business acumen in administering two successful theatre companies, co-founding Nimrod in 1970 (dedicated to producing Australian plays as well as Shakespeare’s), and of course, the Bell Shakespeare Company.

His name has become almost synonymous with the bard’s in our cultural life through this company and a series of scholarly editions of plays named after him. He also authored a substantial book titled On Shakespeare (2011), full of insights: the fruit of a practised actor-director’s rich and detailed experience.

And, as one of Australia’s Living Treasures, Bell has cemented his reputation by “dying” hundreds of times onstage in Shakespearean roles — like Cleopatra, he “hath such a celerity in dying”.

Reflecting on his multifaceted career, Bell applies his accumulated knowledge to recount his own leadership style as it evolved through experience. Sage advice is offered, enlivened and illustrated with pertinent quotations from speeches, which no doubt Bell can enviably recite from memory.

Bell, centre, as Falstaff during a dress rehearsal of Henry 4 in Canberra in 2013.
Alan Porritt/AAP

The book offers lessons gleaned from a Shakespeare who is seen as a natural “collaborator never a one-man band”. We find chapters on “Courage, or how to be a leader in times of crisis”, “Decisiveness, timing and tough decisions”, “Charisma, confidence and humility”, and other virtues such as integrity and humanity. These are set against dangerous managerial vices like ambition, arrogance and entitlement.

Along the way are sprinkled inspirational quotations about leadership from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy and Michelle Obama, alongside cautionary reminders of a less savoury, more recent American president .




Read more:
Friday essay: How Shakespeare helped shape Germaine Greer’s feminist masterpiece


No ideal leaders

However, Bell offers less than Charlesworth (my benchmark), in that the latter dwells more on applicable quotations than characters and dramatic context. This allows him to skirt the problem Bell faces: there are, in fact, no unflawed or ideal leaders in Shakespeare.

Although Bell ranges across the complete works, his major examples of good or bad leadership are surprisingly few in number. All are, to some extent flawed. Bell readily concedes this, since their failures are instructive. The figure who recurs in most detail is Henry V. For all his faults as a ruthless, likely war criminal, he seems to come closest to Bell’s ideal leader, at least in his rousing speeches.

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V in the 1989 film: ruthless but with rousing speeches?

Julius Caesar and Brutus emerge as ambiguous and lacking in strategical competence. Antony for all his brilliant oratory is too much the playboy who believes in his own “celebrity”, while King Lear is easy prey for sycophants and flatterers.

Naturally enough, Richard III and Macbeth as leaders are definitely not to be emulated, though there is somehow a touch of unintended humour in the homily-like way Bell warns us against using murder as a career move:

Watching the downfall of the Macbeths we have to ask ourselves: What am I prepared to pay to make it to the top of the pile? Is the reward worth my sanity, my self-respect, my relationship, my reputation, my friendships?

Who would answer yes to such a piously phrased question?

Michael Fassbinder as Macbeth in the 2015 film: not a great role model.
See-Saw Films, DMC Film, Anton

What about the women?

We have to wait for the final chapter before some women make an appearance, exemplifying such admirable qualities as adaptability and negotiating skills (Portia), integrity and plain-speaking honesty (Cordelia), and playfulness (Rosalind), although Bell sees their agency as qualified in a man’s world:

In the Comedies, women find a voice and authority by adopting a false male persona and using their wit, charm and female tenderness to lead the menfolk to an awareness of their follies and a better understanding of successful male/female coexistence and interdependence.

This book is very readable and can probably be devoured in a single sitting, though Bell might prefer us to take our time and savour at leisure the lessons taught. It also features witty and pertinent cartoons by Cathy Wilcox.The Conversation

Robert White, Winthrop Professor of English, The University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Two Week Break


It is once again time to have a bit of a break and this time I am aiming for a two-week break. I find it much better to be proactive when certain little signs begin to appear in my health than to wait for something more major to occur. So a little downtime and a little more sleep are what I require at the moment. So, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.