The link below is to an article that takes a look at how to introduce children to books and getting them into reading.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at how to introduce children to books and getting them into reading.
For more visit:
The Miles Franklin award is famously for “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. That’s a very broad palette, yet for most of the award’s existence — 1957 to the present — it has recognised a rather narrow field of “Australian life”.
The 60 novels honoured to date include 42 written by 28 men, and 18 written by 14 women. Almost to a person, these winning authors are Anglo-Australian. While their narratives cover an impressive range of issues, topics, periods, structure and narrative voice, it is notable that in a country described by our prime minister as “the world’s most successful multicultural society”, the Miles Franklin seems to have remained a bastion of monoculture.
Until recently, that is. Women authors are appearing more frequently – on the shortlists and as prize winners – and the cultural and linguistic heritage of authors is similarly expanding. This year the mix of shortlist authors, and the content of their novels, is impressively diverse.
Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts is explicitly a literary novel, one with no overt plot and really only one voice. The narrator is fastidious to the point of primness, narrow and self-absorbed: a fussy old man who drifts into Grandpa Simpson moments, telling stories that wander from point to point with no apparent destination. Yet this work is also a remarkable account of memory, its fractures, and its fragments. This gives the lie to the narrator’s insistence that he is writing a report, not a novel, and casts a gentle melancholy over the work.
The unnamed narrator seems to have lived a life at arms length, remaining encased in abstractions, neglecting to experience anything at first hand. What I found the most desolate image in the novel is his childhood collection of glass marbles. The material expression of his life’s effort to “recollect” and “preserve” his memories and moods, they are no more than tiny flashes of colour, frozen in their glass bubbles, seeing and saying nothing.
In his sense of colour, and his hankering for the clarity of memory, is the suggestion that he contains within himself another man, one who yearns to feel.
Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats opens in 1967, the year Harold Holt disappeared and, through the magic of narration, incorporates in the opening pages what is yet to come: 2001, the Tampa crisis, the September 11 attacks. In these pages, Antonio, the protagonist, is both young Italian migrant, and the ageing man who has become the face of: “We will decide who comes to this country …”
He and Rose live in Parramatta, where young men like their son Francis are testing out models of masculinity; where young women like their daughter Clare are crafting lives beyond their parents’ oversight; a rich human zoo that provides the stage for a brilliantly observed and sensitively recounted novel illuminating the politics of identity, family, community and nation.
His family are forced to confront the public scandal of Antonio’s xenophobia, to understand why a migrant in a migrant community could be so thoroughly seduced by the violent logic of the hard right. There are no real answers, of course; but beyond the family’s distress and the community’s upheaval is the shadow of two centuries of Australia struggling against “too many boats”.
Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden is based in a South Australian religious community named – perhaps ironically – Wahrheit. There is little truth here though, and easily as many secrets and violences as are found beyond Wahrheit’s boundaries. These are flushed out by the tragedy that opens the novel, where Matthias Orion, not-fully-committed member of the church, destroys everything he can reach on his property, and slaughters first his wife and then himself.
Their 15-year-old son Benedict arrives home from boarding school to discover this horror; and even as it breaks him, so too it marks the end of the community’s Nebelung, their mythical home. The novel is told through a careful interlacing of Benedict’s and the pastor’s perspectives. The latter fails miserably to care sufficiently for the deeply traumatised Benedict, who after all has become “part of the wound” the community finds itself suffering.
Left largely to himself, and to the horses that escaped his father’s murderous rampage, and to the fox that stands in for that angel of death, Benedict lives with, and like, the animals. In that living he finds a way to recover some sense of self, and to re-enter his community: though whether as messiah or as restored son is uncertain.
The Life to Come, Michelle de Kretser’s new novel – actually a discontinuous narrative in five sections – offers an insider-outsider view of contemporary Australian society through the shifting focalisations, points of view and voices that comprise the sections. The threads that weave it together are Pippa, a self-satisfied, hyper-performative, not-quite-good-enough novelist, and “real” novelist George Meshaw, who disdains her shallow conceits and her populist writing style.
Pippa is the more visible of the two. She spends much of the novel charming and then disappointing friends, and struggling under the burden of her mother-in-law’s condescension, while always firmly focused on herself. George appears principally through his novels – the last of which, along with Pippa’s last, are tossed in the bin by Pippa’s disenchanted neighbour, who had hoped to find warmth and meaning in these works, but found only words.
While the stories are set in Sydney and in Paris, with references also to Sri Lanka, the twin foci of this novel (for me, at least) are, first, an excoriating critique of Australian colonialist attitudes and politics, and next the burning realisation that – as one character observes – “The only life in which you play a leading role is your own”; we are all merely bit players in the lives of others.
Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is also structured in five discrete sections, the transitions here being characterised by the pulsing of time, rather than the geographical shifts of de Kretser’s work. Storyland starts and ends in the Illawarra region, during the early days of colonisation, where the possibility of trust or friendship between the local Wadi Wadi people and the invading British is constantly thwarted.
The sections between swoop up through the 19th and 20th centuries to a post-apocalypse future, and then cascade down again. Key elements – a river, a cave, a clever man’s axe – appear in each time period, connective tissue that binds them together. Characters too reappear, individuals or their descendants struggling with colonial society and its mores, with missed opportunities for connection, with the collapse of the environment and human society.
I read this novel as a migrant, and as a person of European descent, so I am not well positioned to evaluate the merits of McKinnon’s use of Aboriginal language and representation of the Aboriginal characters, but for me they were both convincing and moving. Story is not politics, but in it we can find ways to review ourselves and our histories, and perhaps begin to find points of conciliation.
Taboo, by Kim Scott, is located squarely in the post-Apology present, when the Australian government can express regret for the Stolen Generations while maintaining the Northern Territory Intervention; and when Aboriginal communities across the country are building new ways to enter the future without deserting the past.
Focalised primarily through the young woman Tilly, daughter of an Aboriginal man who, toward the end of his life, realised the power of language to heal his community’s wounds, it follows the people of Kepalup and their establishment of a Peace Park to settle the ghosts of local Aboriginal people slaughtered by the ancestors of local pastoralists.
Though the novel is necessarily tragic – killings, stolen children, wrecked lives – it also has something generous and pragmatic at its heart. Says Uncle Wilfred of the white community: “Sorry for the history, they say. Know it’s our country, our ancestral country. They’re not gunna give the land back, but know we’re the right people.”
Despite the record of massacre, despite the clumsy interventions by white people – well-meaning but condescending, unaware of how little they know of Noongar culture – the community turns to recovering their language, retelling stories, reclaiming culture, and finding “magic in an empirical age”.
These six novels convincingly meet the criteria of the Miles Franklin, providing accounts of Australian life in all its phrases, in stories of “the highest literary merit” that craft a kaleidoscopic portrait of this society.
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The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday 26th August from 4pm at Deakin Edge, Fed Square.
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…
This line, arguably the most famous in the history of Spanish literature, is the opening of The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first modern novel.
Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, this is the story of Alonso Quijano, a 16th-century Spanish hidalgo, a noble, who is so passionate about reading that he leaves home in search of his own chivalrous adventures. He becomes a knight-errant himself: Don Quixote de la Mancha. By imitating his admired literary heroes, he finds new meaning in his life: aiding damsels in distress, battling giants and righting wrongs… mostly in his own head.
But Don Quixote is much more. It is a book about books, reading, writing, idealism vs. materialism, life … and death. Don Quixote is mad. “His brain’s dried up” due to his reading, and he is unable to separate reality from fiction, a trait that was appreciated at the time as funny. However, Cervantes was also using Don Quixote’s insanity to probe the eternal debate between free will and fate. The misguided hero is actually a man fighting against his own limitations to become who he dreams to be.
Open-minded, well-travelled, and very well-educated, Cervantes was, like Don Quixote himself, an avid reader. He also served the Spanish crown in adventures that he would later include in the novel. After defeating the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Lepanto (and losing the use of his left hand, becoming “the one-handed of Lepanto”), Cervantes was captured and held for ransom in Algiers.
This autobiographical episode and his escape attempts are depicted in “The Captive’s Tale” (in Don Quixote Part I), where the character recalls “a Spanish soldier named something de Saavedra”, referring to Cervantes’s second last name. Years later, back in Spain, he completed Don Quixote in prison, due to irregularities in his accounts while he worked for the government.
In Part I, Quijano with his new name, Don Quixote, gathers other indispensable accessories to any knight-errant: his armour; a horse, Rocinante; and a lady, an unwitting peasant girl he calls Dulcinea of Toboso, in whose name he will perform great deeds of chivalry.
While Don Quixote recovers from a disastrous first campaign as a knight, his close friends, the priest and the barber, decide to examine the books in his library. Their comments about his chivalric books combine literary criticism with a parody of the Inquisition’s practices of burning texts associated with the devil. Although a few volumes are saved (Cervantes’s own La Galatea among them), most books are burned for their responsibility in Don Quixote’s madness.
In Don Quixote’s second expedition, the peasant Sancho Panza joins him as his faithful squire, with the hopes of becoming the governor of his own island one day. The duo diverges in every aspect. Don Quixote is tall and thin, Sancho is short and fat (panza means “pot belly”). Sancho is an illiterate commoner and responds to Don Quixote’s elaborate speeches with popular proverbs. The mismatched couple has remained as a key literary archetype since then.
In perhaps the most famous scene from the novel, Don Quixote sees three windmills as fearful giants that he must combat, which is where the phrase “tilting at windmills” comes from. At the end of Part I, Don Quixote and Sancho are tricked into returning to their village. Sancho has become “quixotized”, now increasingly obsessed with becoming rich by ruling his own island.
Don Quixote was an enormous success, being translated from Spanish into the main European languages and even reaching North America. In 1614 an unknown author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, published an apocryphal second part. Cervantes incorporated this spurious Don Quixote and its characters into his own Part II, adding yet another chapter to the history of modern narrative.
Whereas Part I was a reaction to chivalric romances, Part II is a reaction to Part I. The book is set only one month after Don Quixote and Sancho’s return from their first literary quest, after they are notified that a book retelling their story has been published (Part I).
The rest of Part II operates as a game of mirrors, recalling and rewriting episodes. New characters, such as aristocrats who have also read Part I, use their knowledge to play tricks on Don Quixote and Sancho for their own amusement. Deceived by the rest of the characters, Sancho and a badly wounded Don Quixote finally return again to their village.
After being in bed for several days, Don Quixote’s final hour arrives. He decides to abandon his existence as Don Quixote for good, giving up his literary identity and physically dying. He leaves Sancho – his best and most faithful reader – in tears, and avoids further additions by any future imitators by dying.
The narrator of Part I’s prologue claims to write a sincere and uncomplicated story. Nothing is further from reality. Distancing himself from textual authority, the narrator declares that he merely compiled a manuscript translated by some Arab historian – an untrustworthy source at the time. The reader has to decide what’s real and what’s not.
Don Quixote is also a book made of preexisting books. Don Quixote is obsessed with chivalric romances, and includes episodes parodying other narrative subgenres such as pastoral romances, picaresque novels and Italian novellas (of which Cervantes himself wrote a few).
Don Quixote’s transformation from nobleman to knight-errant is particularly profound given the events in Europe at the time the novel was published. Spain had been reconquered by Christian royals after centuries of Islamic presence. Social status, ethnicity and religion were seen as determining a person’s future, but Don Quixote defied this. “I know who I am,” he answered roundly to whoever tried to convince him of his
“true” and original identity.
In fact, for many critics, the whole history of the novel could justifiably be considered “a variation of the theme of Don Quixote”. Since its early success, there have also been many valuable English translations of the novel. John Rutherford and more recently Edith Grossman have been praised for their versions.
Apart from literature, Don Quixote has inspired many creative works. Based on the episode of the wedding of Camacho in Part II, Marius Petipa choreographed a ballet in 1896. Also created for the stage, Man of La Mancha, the 1960s’ Broadway musical, is one of the most popular reimaginings. In 1992, the State Spanish TV launched a highly successful adaptation of Part I. Terry Gilliam’s much-awaited The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is only the most recent addition to a long list of films inspired by Don Quixote.
More than 400 years after its publication and great success, Don Quixote is widely considered the world’s best book by other celebrated authors. In our own times, full of windmills and giants, Don Quixote’s still-valuable message is that the way we filter reality through any ideology affects our perception of the world.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at annotations.
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Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.
The poem deals with a very short period in the tenth year of the Trojan war. This sometimes surprises modern readers who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan war among their audiences.
The central figure in the Iliad is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.
He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.
The Iliad ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’ camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a Wooden Horse, is not described in the Iliad, although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.
All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the Iliad. The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are – in the Iliad the Trojan war is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.
The Iliad is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.
We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the Odyssey, which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan war, to the island of Ithaca. The Iliad was probably put together around 700 BC, or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (ie “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the Iliad.
Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan war” at the end of the second millennium BC (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.
The Iliad was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early 3rd century BC), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter” – a metre also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, the Roman epic by Virgil). In the Odyssey, a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the Wooden Horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.
The language of the Iliad is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the Iliad.
A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.
The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies within the Iliad, and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.
The Iliad also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice within the Iliad itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.
The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.
It was often said that the Iliad was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.
Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, assume the historicity of much of the subject-matter of the Iliad. Likewise, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles”. Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.
In the Roman world, the poet Virgil (70-19BC) set out to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the Aeneid (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
My own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticised in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer”. This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s Iliad cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.
American journalist Hunter S Thompson is a mythical figure, partly by his own design, and partly, perversely, against his wishes. Norman Mailer called him “a legend in successful self-abuse.” Biographer E. Jean Carroll reported Thompson’s daily working regime, which allegedly started at 3pm.
While writing he consumed: Chivas Regal, Dunhills, cocaine, orange juice, marijuana, Heineken, huge helpings of food, LSD, Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, gin and pornographic movies. He then spent some time in the hot tub with champagne and Dove Bars.
Compare this with the drug collection of Raoul Duke, the first person narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971):
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw either and two dozen amyls … The only thing that really worried me was the ether.
The parallels between the Duke persona and Thompson’s own life have led to a conflation of the two. This arises in part from the approach which Thompson made famous: Gonzo journalism.
Far from being an objective observer of the action, the Gonzo journalist becomes a participant in it and reports on it subjectively. Thompson went further: he was often a provocateur. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a fictionalised account of two trips Thompson made with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta from LA to Las Vegas.
It was published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 under the byline of Raoul Duke, but Thompson’s name does appear. Presented with a photo of himself, Duke identifies it as Thompson: a “vicious, crazy kind of person”.
Rather than effacing himself as a chronicler of the scene, Thompson injects himself, via his Duke persona, as a character. Acquaintance Peter Flanders observed:
Hunter was a theatre. He was a roving kind of theatre. He was not just a writer … he was an actor. He was creating his own subject matter.
The aim of Gonzo journalism and other kinds of New Journalism was to write factual reporting that read like fiction. In Thompson’s case, the truth was outrageous, and then it was outrageously embellished by means of fantasy and hallucination.
“It was time,” says Duke, “for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene.” The novel confronts “the brutish realities of this foul Year of Our Lord, 1971,” when the “whole scene” consisted of the state of America as a nation, the squandered promise of the 1960s counter-culture, and the inadequacies of traditional journalism to cope with the chaos that confronted it.
As a reading experience, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild torpedo ride through some of the strangest scenes in American fact, or American fiction. Or whatever bizarre hybrid of fact and fiction this book represents.
In terms of its plot, the book falls into two halves. In the first, Duke, a journalist, and Doctor Gonzo, his attorney, travel at high speed in a red convertible from LA to Las Vegas so Duke can cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. He fails conspicuously to do so, and they wander in a drug-addled state among the various sensory intensities of Vegas. They behave despicably, “burning the locals, abusing the tourists and terrifying the help.”
They thoroughly trash the hotel room and run up a stupendous room service tab. They destroy the car. They flee before there is a reckoning. Duke, however, encounters a highway patrol officer who interferes with his plans, so he turns back to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He feels it is his obligation to represent the drug culture.
The conference only serves to demonstrate how out of touch law enforcement is. The second half of the book follows much the same trajectory as the first, with the pair compounding their felonies of (statutory) rape, fraud and larceny.
Duke and Doctor Gonzo must be admired for their sheer bravado, if condemned for the political unsoundness of their behaviour. The novel alternates hilarious scenes of madcap knavery with elegiac essays on the lost promise of the 1960s, but it does not become bogged down. This is because of its gleeful, manic energy.
Tom Robbins says:
It lifts you out of your seat when you’re reading it. It’s out of control … in an exhilarating, hallucinatory way.
Anthony Bourdain has said:
Thomson’s wild, hyperbolic prose … showed me not only a whole new way to see and think about things … a whole new way to live. I embraced the doctor wholeheartedly, developing a lifelong love for melodrama, overstatement, lurid imagery and damaged romanticism.
Christopher Lehman-Haupt described the novel’s “mad, corrosive poetry.”
The setting of Las Vegas is exploited for the surreal images it offers, and because the protagonists’ enormities are accepted. As Raoul Duke says: “the mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a really massive crime often slips by unrecognized.”
This might not be as disturbing as it is if the trip to Vegas were not also a quest for the American Dream.
Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s trip is “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Their ostensible mission is covering the Mint 400, but their actual goal is ill defined:
What was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.
Alger was a 19th-century author who typically wrote rags to riches stories; in Vegas, his relevance is about greed as a distinctively American quality. In fact, Duke eventually finds the “main nerve” of the American Dream in the Circus-Circus casino. The owner, who dreamt of running away to join the circus as a child, now has his own circus, and a licence to steal. He, it is said, is the model for the American Dream. If this seems cynical, so it should.
Other references to the contemporary condition of America include discussions of Nixon’s perfidy about the Vietnam War. Of Thompson, the anti-war Democrat Senator George McGovern once said:
Hunter was a patriot… [but] he was not a jingoist. He hated that war in Vietnam with a passion. He hated the hypocrisy of the establishment. Basically, I think he wanted to see this country live up to his ideals. And he wanted us to do better.
One of the things Thompson wanted America to do better was fulfil the promise of the 1960s. Some of the novel’s most trenchant criticisms are levelled at counter-cultural gurus like Timothy Leary who, it seems to Duke, set up new regimes of authoritarianism to replace the old. One of the novel’s most famous passages reveals its bitter nostalgia:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. … It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. …. Our energy would simply prevail. … We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Finally, the novel addresses a contemporary crisis in journalism. Duke starts out full of his professional obligation to “cover the story,” but quickly abandons all pretence. Throughout the narrative, there are traumatic encounters with traditional news coverage, from mendacious TV broadcasts about the war in Laos and Vietnam to newspaper reports on police killing anti-war protesters, to grotesque stories about the consequences of drug taking. “Against this heinous background,” says Duke, “my crimes were pale and meaningless.”
This culminates in a cynical statement at the end:
Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? …The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.
Thompson might proudly have self-identified as a misfit, but he was also a journalist, so this seems a strangely self-castigating statement, until you consider what it was that he did for journalism, which was to redefine it. This is his contribution to the American canon.
Pondering all this in the age of Donald Trump, another of Thompson’s books comes to mind: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which he covered the campaign of the Democratic Party’s nominee McGovern (the Presidential race was eventually won by Richard Nixon). Profoundly critical of the relationship between political processes and the media, this collection of articles again attacks both America and journalism at the same time.
Perhaps it is now, more than ever, that we need Gonzo journalism to help us understand the bizarre nature of US national politics today.
Janine Dixon, Victoria University; Beth Webster, Swinburne University of Technology; Gigi Foster, UNSW Australia; Rodney Maddock, Monash University; Ross Guest, Griffith University, and Tim Harcourt, UNSW Australia
Janine Dixon, Economist at Centre of Policy Studies, Victoria University
In his 2016 book Richard Denniss calls out politicians and vested interests for using “econobabble” – which he defines as “incomprehensible economic jargon and apparently simple words that have been stripped of their normal meanings” – to conceal simple truths from the public. Econobabble was published at the beginning of 2016, but it almost feels as though Denniss knew in advance that “post-truth” would be voted the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 word of the year.
The book teems with examples of econobabble that are both entertaining, because of the way Denniss describes them, and infuriating, because the consequences are so devastating. The discussion of the Adani coal mine, which continues to this day, is particularly enlightening.
Economists themselves are not immune from criticism. As an economic modeller, I was particularly interested in the chapter on economic modelling. In this chapter, continuing with the main themes of the book, Denniss promotes simplicity and openness in the way economic issues should be communicated to the wider community – and I can only agree!
Gigi Foster, Associate Professor, School of Economics, UNSW Australia
Back in September I had the unique experience of attending the Sydney launch of William Coleman’s new edited volume, “Only in Australia” (OUP 2016). I like William and I bought his book mainly out of curiosity and a desire to be entertained.
As an Aussie-loving Yankee transplant who for professional reasons is supposed to have at least a passing familiarity with Australian political and economic history, I have found “Only in Australia” to be enlightening, reaffirming, and most definitely amusing. The enlightenment has been in regard to umpteen little facts and interpretations about Australia’s history as a nation.
Did you know, for example, that in the mid-1800’s, “public schooling in NSW was not as exclusive of religion as Victoria but was still, at its core, secular” (from the chapter by Greg Melleuish and Stephen A. Chavura)? Or that “from the 1850s, Australian governments have been responsible for the financing, construction, and operation of railways – urban, suburban, and rural…[while] in other countries, extensive government railways were initiated later than the 1850s, often beginning with the nationalization of substantial private rail lines or networks” (from the chapter by Jonathan Pincus)? These types of titbits have filled in some of my sometimes patchy understanding of the how and why of modern Australia.
The reaffirmation has mainly been of my impressions of Australian culture. The book itself is a testament to that culture: not a single of the 15 chapters is written or co-written by a woman, and the entire enterprise has a clubbish old-boysy feel to it. That said, as a constant whinger about the Australian cultural cringe, I felt my heart buoyed by many observations rejecting European and particularly British derivations of Australian institutions – both formal and informal. Many of my own observations about those institutions were also confirmed as I turned the pages, such as the observation that “no other significant comparator country has tribunal-determined wages to the extent that Australia does ” (from Phil Lewis’s chapter) and the “absence of domestic corporate strength and financing” of Australian agribusiness (from Nick Carter’s chapter).
I didn’t always agree with the ideological packaging sometimes wrapping the text, and of course the book was far too expensive for reasons we all know too well, but I still enjoyed reading “Only in Australia”.
Ross Guest, Professor of Economics and National Senior Teaching Fellow, Griffith University
Tim Harford is one of the best economics writers for a general audience that I have ever read. He shows how economics is everywhere and relevant to our lives in many ways. And he is very entertaining. Besides, this latest book appeals to me because it gives me hope that all of the disorder in my own life might actually be a good thing.
Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics, UNSW Australia
Last year I read Geoffrey Blainey ‘s history of Indigenous Australia, titled The Story of Australia’s People, subtitled The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia.
It got me thinking that Australia is 50,000 years old not 230. Geoffrey Blainey tells us, as only he can, the amazing stories of Indigenous history and innovation
This year I am reading the Blainey sequel “The Story of Australia’s people” subtitled The Rise and Rise of a New Australia which takes Australia from the Gold Rush to the present day. Blainey has a unique way of looking at Australia and the world and a unique way of re-looking at it. As he says himself, he has revised a lot of his thinking on Indigenous Australia since his early work The Triumph of the Nomads, written in 1975. He is the master of the historical narrative, a natural born story teller whose words “literally fly off the page”. He is always a pleasure to read regardless of whether you share his view of Australian life.
Another book I’ll be reading, as a self-confessed Australian history junkie, is Stuart McIntyre’s Australia’s Boldest Experiment about the national building efforts of post-war reconstruction in the 1940s. Think of the Snowy Mountains scheme, the Holden car, CSIRO, the ANU, the expansion of the post-migration scheme, all coming out of that innovative policy work undertaken by the war time Curtin-Chifley Labor government and into the long economic boom that Australia enjoyed from the 1950s to the 1970s. The role of the influential economic advisers of the era such as HC Nugget Coombs, JG Crawford and others (known as “The Seven Dwarfs” although no one knows who Snow White was!) is examined in detail by McIntyre. As my own grandfather was an adviser to Prime Minister and Treasurer Ben Chifley in the war years, I am fascinated to see what one of Australia’s most distinguished social historians has to say.
Rodney Maddock, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Victoria University and Adjunct Professor of Economics, Monash University
My book of the year is The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael P. Lynch. This is quite philosophical work, reflecting on the ways in which we will change and are changing in response to the internet. It explores all the ideas and concerns you would expect and is somewhat pessimistic as is clear from the title. What Lynch underplays is the way in which consideration and debate can and do take place on the web, so that it can assist in active development of knowledge rather than just consumption of facts. A thoughtful read.
My novel of the year is Commonwealth by Ann Patchett which I think is her best book since Bel Canto. It is a multigenerational family novel, but written with a light touch and lots of insights into how families function. It is another thoughtful book and one which deserves to be read with time for reflection on its shape and character.
Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology
Joel Mokyr is a smooth read – packed with anecdotes, facts and stories about our economic origins that will surprise even the most crusty scholar. In A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Mokyr highlights the persistent fundamentals that are still very much in operation today in the economy. He makes us wonder why no-one studies economic history any more. Are we raising new generations of number crunchers who only have a superficial understanding of data?
Janine Dixon, Economist at Centre of Policy Studies, Victoria University; Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology; Gigi Foster, Associate Professor, School of Economics, UNSW Australia; Rodney Maddock, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Victoria University and Adjunct Professor of Economics, Monash University; Ross Guest, Professor of Economics and National Senior Teaching Fellow, Griffith University, and Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics, UNSW Australia
From the beginning Christina Stead’s fiction divided critical opinion, and reactions to The Beauties and Furies, her second novel, were no exception. Where some saw “garrulous pretentiousness”, Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker found “such streaming imagination, such tireless wit, such intellectual virtuosity” that Stead must be recognised as “the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf”.
What Fadiman discerned is the extraordinary originality of Stead’s modernist experiment, ranking her achievement with that of James Joyce. Ulysses, published in 1922, was no longer banned for obscenity in the United States by 1936, when The Beauties and Furies was published.
Of the major novels published in that year, only William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood rival The Beauties and Furies in its contempt for prevailing realist-narrative expectations. (The big commercial success of 1936 was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, much to Stead’s chagrin.)
Once I would have thought Fadiman’s claim excessive. My introduction to Christina Stead was through the reissue of The Man Who Loved Children (1940) in 1965, which astounded me.
I was already reading her in earnest in the late 1970s when the Virago republications began, including The Beauties and Furies in 1982. I found it baffling, over-shadowed by its predecessor, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), and its successor, House of All Nations (1938) — the latter is Stead’s other Paris novel, based on her experience of working in the private bank where her partner, William Blake, was a financial adviser.
I wasn’t alone. The Beauties and Furies has never been taken up as The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone (1944) have been. Only in recent years, as I have thought more about Stead’s early writings, has it been borne in on me that it is arguably her most experimental work, disconcerting and disturbing, a searching, sometimes ironic, depiction of a decadent society. It is a quintessential modernist text that heeds Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”.
Its affinity with Ulysses is marked. In letters back to Sydney after her arrival in London in 1928, Stead called Joyce “the modern Shakespeare, superior to Shakespeare in command of language, equal in music”, acknowledging that Ulysses is “hard work” because it “has to be read with a rhyming dictionary, an encyclopaedia, the grammars of ten languages, and an annotated ‘crib’”.
Joyce was far from being her only discovery in those heady years. Stead’s fiction from the start displayed the interest in dreams and the unconscious flaunted in The Beauties and Furies, everywhere mixing fantasy and reality in extravagant swoops of tone and register. The influence of surrealism is pervasive, reaching greatest intensity near the end, in the spectacular sequence in the Somnambulists’ Club.
Yet a plot summary could represent the novel as no more than a variant of 1930s lending-library romances: a bored London housewife, Elvira Western, leaves her solid doctor husband, Paul, for a younger lover, Oliver Fenton, a student in Paris.
At every turn, though, the narrative undermines romantic expectations. There is an undertow of incestuous and same-sex attractions among the various heterosexual liaisons, along with daring depiction of casual couplings, and references to prostitutes, venereal disease and abortion. This is not the Paris of romantic love: dreams are nightmarish in a city of night rather than light.
The action takes place in a specific timeframe in 1934, in a moment of political instability due to an economic downturn and the menace of fascism. It begins in March, with Paris still unsettled following an outbreak of violence in February, and ends in the winter of 1934–35. Throughout there are references to contemporary events, including the workers’ rallies in May attended by Oliver.
There is much political rhetoric. Characters’ analyses of such issues as the operation of capital are largely Marxist-Leninist, and to a significant extent are attributable to the input of William Blake. But they are the views of the characters, frequently belied by their actions, and not endorsed by Stead. The weight of this depiction of bad faith rests on Oliver.
Although he supports the workers by attending rallies, he harbours a desire for a career in business rather than academia. His commitment to the labour cause is expedient. The topic of his thesis, on which he works fitfully, is The French Workers’ Movement from the Commune to the Amsterdam Congress of 1904, chosen for easy archival access and exotic appeal to his English university. However, his cynicism rarely finds such epigrammatic expression as in his observation that
All middle-class novels are about the trials of three, all upper-class novels about mass fornication, all revolutionary novels about a bad man turned good by a tractor.
According to this mocking definition, The Beauties and Furies is very much a middle-class novel, though bourgeois values and behaviour are among its targets. In the rich opening chapter, the first of a sequence of triangles is set up, involving the “runaway wife” (as Elvira is described in the List of Characters), her husband and “her lover, a student”.
The similarity of the names Elvira and Oliver is curious, and they are sometimes described as twins: Elvira’s brother Adam Cinips also enters the emotional equations. Oliver’s affairs with the actress Blanche and the lace artist Coromandel set up further triangles.
The idea of Paris as an underworld is spelled out by Annibale Marpurgo, “a lace-buyer”, a manipulative self- made cosmopolitan. His declaration that “Paris is Klingsor’s garden, to me” is typical of the range of allusion that Stead
deploys, here bringing into play Wagner’s opera based on the medieval Grail quest epic Parzival.
An “annotated crib” would tell us that in Wagner’s version, Parsifal, Klingsor— who has been denied entry to the Temple of the Holy Grail, despite having attempted to do away with his impure thoughts by self-castration — constructs a garden into which questing knights are seduced. The sexual connotations are especially relevant. Similar intertextual references proliferate in the novel, including an explicit invocation of Ulysses when Oliver reads to Elvira as she is lying ill (an episode that tells us a lot about Oliver).
From the first chapter, where Marpurgo trades radical credentials with Oliver, political affiliation is a persistent topic in The Beauties and Furies. Marpurgo declares that they are “Brothermarxists … and brother fantasts”, tossing in mention of the Arabian Nights and Hegel.
Elvira refers to the economic determinism of capitalism, using imagery from lace manufacture to enunciate a tension between romantic dreams and fate: “Life’s a pattern, and we’re just shuttles rushing in and out thinking we are making jerks up and down freely.” The image is potent, playing into the role of the lace industry in the novel as well as signalling that these characters lack agency.
Although the characters articulate insights both about others and themselves, these rarely translate into action, any more than do such histrionic processes of irresolution as this:
Elvira sat at home and ate olives and chocolates alternately. She also wound herself, slow, cold, beautifully-diamonded, as a snake, round the problem, and colder and more forbidding grew her brow. She began to smoke, and was presently smoking the chamber full of her resentment, desolation and increasing resolution.
‘What a damned traitor!’ she cried, beside herself with impatience. Her smoke-trails, as she paced about, were like wraiths waiting about the ceiling to topple on Oliver’s much-cursed and oft-coddled black topknot.
Stead took pains to study the practical aspects of lace-making. The industry provides an economic case study of a venerable craft being overtaken by mechanisation.
The novel focuses on the businessmen who manage the trade, the Fuseaux brothers (“lace-jobbers”) and their employee Marpurgo: the operatives are not seen. Paradoxically, these economic issues are explored in some of Stead’s most fantastical writing, particularly in the presentation of the Paindebled family, whose members literally live off the past. Both the Paindebled house and shop are repositories of lace as a work of art, exemplified by the prized umbrella cover, a beautiful decorative object entirely lacking utility.
The Paindebled daughter, Coromandel, despite her family context has more agency than any other character in the novel — as demonstrated in a seduction scene that enactsa metaphysical poem like Donne’s “The Good Morrow” (“This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere”).
Later she carries Oliver off on a crazy drive into the countryside. She can operate in the bucolic environment of the farm in Burgundy, beyond the house and shop. Along with Blanche, the characters in the lace storyline are the only Parisians among the dramatis personae: the others are transients.
Stead reaches beyond the immediate setting in the allusion of the title to the Furies of Greek mythology, goddesses of vengeance who brought pestilence and misfortune. Marpurgo says that Paris “has many beauties — and furies”, and the three central beauties, Elvira, Blanche and Coromandel, all become destructive furies.
“Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone send me for you,” says the Machiavellian Marpurgo to Oliver — who he is about to lead into a hypnotic drunken revel. In a welter of allusion, Marpurgo casts himself as Laius, father of Oedipus, and addresses Oliver as Orestes, who was pursued by the Furies for killing his mother.
The classical references reinforce Stead’s alignment with Joyce, which is evident also in the wordplay of Oliver’s poems. Like Ulysses, The Beauties and Furies is concentrated in a particular city at a particular historical juncture, though its action extends beyond a single day to run across a full year.
The novel is shaped by the cycle of the seasons, within which is conducted the minuet of characters meeting and parting, mainly in interiors or nocturnal scenes from which the natural world is largely excluded. The seasonal round offers no promise of anything other than a different version of the same kinds of romantic illusion and delusion that have been delineated with such exhilarating energy over some 350 pages.
The Beauties and Furies is a challenging novel of breathtaking ambition. Surrender to it, and marvel.
This is the introduction to the new Text Classic edition of The Beauties and Furies.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (AD 3-8) was not originally as controversial as his other poetic works. But as centuries have passed, its notoriety has increased. Recent calls to provide trigger-warnings to university students before they study the work tell us as much about modern Western attitudes towards sex, violence and censorship as the Metamorphoses tells us about the gender politics of ancient Rome.
Ovid’s 15-book epic, written in exquisite Latin hexameter, is a rollercoaster of a read. Beginning with the creation of the world, and ending with Rome in his own lifetime, the Metamorphoses drags the reader through time and space, from beginnings to endings, from life to death, from moments of delicious joy to episodes of depravity and abjection.
Such is life, Ovid would say.
The madness and chaos of some 250 stories, spanning around 700 lines of poetry per book, are woven together by the theme of metamorphosis or transformation. The artistic dexterity involved in pulling off this literary feat is testimony to Ovid’s skill and ambition as a poet. This accomplishment also goes a long way in explaining the rightful place the Metamorphoses holds within the canon of classical literature, placed as it is beside other great epics of Mediterranean antiquity such as the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid.
But for some, the Metamorphoses sits uneasily alongside its more morally and patriotically sound predecessors. Like a troublesome younger brother, an embarrassment to the family, Ovid’s epic “kicks against the pricks,” to paraphrase the paraphrase of Nick Cave.
The Homeric Iliad (c. 850 BC) soars to the literary heights of the sublime, and shows us how to live and die, to meditate on mortality, to embrace sorrow, to grip and then release hate, to truly love.
The Odyssey (c. 800 BC) takes us on an epic voyage forever leading towards home, sometimes making us laugh, and occasionally letting down its high-brow hair with some sex and infidelity. Yet, appropriate to the gravitas of epic poetry, the Odyssey is also about the journey of a man determined to maintain his heroic stature as he navigates all sorts of dangers in strange lands.
Some 700 years later, when the Homeric verses were still regarded as the benchmark for epic poetry, Virgil composed the Aeneid (19 BC). This Latin epic casts a patriotic spell over its audience in its evocation of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy to the glory of the Augustan Age. Unlike his poetic successor, however, Virgil is alert to literary censorship under the reign of Augustus (63 BC-AD 19), Rome’s first emperor, and carefully navigates its perilous terrain.
Rome is great according to Virgil. It always has been. It always will be. But Ovid is not convinced, and he seeks to capture an epic world of uncertainty and destabilisation instead of “drinking the Kool-Aid” that flows from Augustus’ fountains.
Ovid’s graphic tales of metamorphosis begin with the story of Primal Chaos; a messy lump of discordant atoms, and shapeless prototypes of land, sea and air. This unruly form floated about in nothingness until some unnamed being disentangled it. Voilà! The earth is fashioned in the form of a perfectly round ball. Oceans take shape and rise in waves spurred on by winds. Springs, pools and lakes appear and above the valleys and plains and mountains is the sky.
Lastly, humankind is made and so begins the mythical Ages of Man. And, as each Age progresses – from Gold, to Silver, to Bronze and finally to Iron – humankind becomes increasingly corrupt.
Ovid’s gods and humans never really escape the Age of Iron in the Metamorphoses. Throughout the epic, the setting that emerges in Book I functions as a brilliantly appropriate dystopic stage on which the poet-cum-puppeteer orchestrates his spectacles.
Drawing on the Greek mythology inherited by the Romans, Ovid directs his dramas one after another, relentlessly bombarding his readers with beautiful metrics and awe-inspiring imagery as that of Deucalion and Pyrrha, Arachne, Daphne and Apollo, Europa and the Bull, Leda and the Swan.
Hundreds of hapless mortals, heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses rise victorious, experience defeat, endure rape, and inevitably metamorphose into something other than their original forms. Chaos begins the world, and so into Chaos we are born, live and die. As the offspring of the Age of Iron, we must endure and struggle against corruption, brutality and injustice.
Ovid experienced a world of chaos and iron firsthand when, in AD 8, he was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”).
The poem was the Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a three-volume lovers’ handbook that explains the dos and don’ts of personal grooming, how to organise trysts with married women (get her maid “on side”), repairing a broken heart (surprise your “ex” while she’s in the middle of her beauty routine – yuk!), names the best places for “hooking-up” (try the races or the theatre), and offers advice on keeping your girl (be attentive when she’s unwell). Interestingly, the third volume was written for women – quite a revolutionary move in view of the gender inequality in the twilight years of the 1st century BC.
What irritated Augustus sufficiently enough to relegate the poet to the middle of nowhere was his perception that the Ars Amatoria made a mockery of his moral reforms. Not one for frolic, Augustus had spearheaded and implemented a series of legislative campaigns that raised the moral bar for the goodly citizens of Rome. Adultery, while always illegal in Rome, was made especially so under the watchful eye of the emperor and legal ramifications were more actively enforced than in previous decades.
The mistake that Ovid mentions is more difficult to identify – with scholarly opinions differing on what it was Ovid actually did to offend Augustus. Theories range from Ovid engaging in an affair with one of the imperial women – perhaps Augustus’ daughter (Julia the Elder) or granddaughter (Julia the Younger) – to his accidentally witnessing an imperial scandal.
Whatever the error, combined with the ill-themed Ars Amatoria, it was sufficiently serious to result in Ovid’s banishment to Tomis (Constanța in modern-day Romania). Tomis, at the very edges of the Roman Empire, was regarded as a barbaric, frightening and uncivilised place. Ovid certainly painted it this way in his poetic epistles, the Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae Ex Ponto (Letters from the Pontus).
Forced to exist in a place where his native Latin was scarcely heard, Ovid’s despair is evoked in one of his most memorable couplets: “writing a poem you can read to no one / is like dancing in the dark.”
For the optimal punishment of Ovid, Augustus chose his location well, and he never reneged on his decision. Nor did his successor, Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37).
Ovid died in Tomis in AD 17.
In one of the definitive pieces of scholarship on the Metamorphoses, Reading Ovid’s Rapes (1992) by classicist Amy Richlin, it is argued that the epic was completed during Ovid’s time in Tomis. This may not initially appear to have any bearing on its content or intent, yet Richlin suggests a profound relevance:
The silenced victims, the artists horribly punished by legalistic gods for bold expression … read like allegories of Ovid’s experience …
Accordingly, Tomis not only gave Ovid time to augment the poem in view of his own experiences but, equally as important, its composition was being finalised during the emperor’s inquisition into the carmen et error.
Indeed, Ovid’s own silencing by Augustus may be seen to be enacted over and over again in the Metamorphoses in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means.
The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing.
Jealousy, spite, lust and punishment are also consistently present in Ovid’s chaotic world.
So is rape.
Rape is undoubtedly the most controversial and confronting theme of the Metamorphoses. It is the ultimate manifestation of male power in the poem and the hundreds of transformations that occur are often the means of escaping it.
An early tale of attempted rape is narrated in Book I, involving the nymph, Daphne and the god, Apollo. Intent on raping Daphne, Apollo chases her through the forest until, utterly exhausted, she calls out to her father, the river god Peneus to rescue her:
“Help, father!” she called. “If your streams have divine powers!
Destroy the shape, which pleases too well, with transformation!
Peneus answers his daughter’s entreaty, and Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree:
… a heavy torpor seizes her limbs,
her soft breasts are encircled with thin bark,
her hair changes into leaves, her arms change into branches,
her feet once so swift become stuck with stubborn roots,
her face has a leafy cover; only her elegance remains.
The tale of Daphne and Apollo, like so many stories in the Metamorphoses, is classified as an aetiological myth; that is, a narrative that explains an origin. But, as the excerpt above testifies, it is so much more than that.
Where does a modern audience begin with a story such as Daphne and Apollo?
How do we begin to unravel the hundreds of other such tales that follow it?
During the last few years, the Metamorphoses has been challenged as a legitimate text for tertiary Humanities students. Defying the hundreds of years of pedagogical tradition that has seen the poem set for both Latin students and, more recently, literary students who study it in translation, the Metamorphoses has not only been interrogated by scholars such as Richlin, but has also been the subject of increased student complaints and calls for trigger-warnings.
In response to the growing number of objections to the work, academic and university executives have been called on to take a position – not only in relation to the Metamorphoses, but in response to other materials that are perceived to render the tertiary experience unsafe.
The Chancellor at Oxford, Chris Patten, has been quoted as saying that history cannot be rewritten to suit contemporary western morals. At the opposite end of this debate, are students such as the members of Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Council, who have challenged the inclusion of the Metamorphoses without an explicit trigger-warning in one of the core curriculum courses in the Humanities.
How close such responses to the Metamorphoses verge on literary censorship or, in the words of one journalist, Literature Fascism, does not only depend on one’s philosophical or educational viewpoint. Equally as important to the debate, and the decisions that may ultimately result from it, is the life-experience of every individual in the classroom. Amid a class of students taking notes from a lecture on the Metamorphoses, for example, may be a rape survivor.
Such a situation requires alertness and sensitivity when handling texts such as the Metamorphoses. But should the work of Ovid be banned or placed among the shelves marked “Warning: Wicked Books”? What would such measures ultimately achieve? Would it augment safe spaces? Or, would it censor discussions around rape and shut down interrogations of sex, violence and female exploitation? Would it silence one of the means of opposition to the societal sickness of rape?
The Metamorphoses of Ovid has had a long and fascinating history. Its presence among the literary canon of the West has functioned as a strange but valuable mirror that has, for over two millennia, reflected social, moral and artistic customs.
From the time that Shakespeare read Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation and incorporated so many of the stories into his plays, to the thousands of artworks that have been inspired by the poem, to Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright’s 2006 extravaganza, The Lost Echo, to the production in the 2016 Sydney Fringe, to the student protests and the calls for trigger-warnings, the Metamorphoses – much like Ovid himself – simply refuses to go away.
Much like the self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, Olympia by Edouard Manet, the works of modernist painters that enraged European Fascists, Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the installations at MONA, Joyce’s Ulysses, and a host of films and photomedia, Ovid’s Metamorphoses testifies to the fact that great art is not necessarily created to please.
Recommended reading: Metamorphoses: A New Translation Paperback by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2005).
Montague Basement’s Metamorphoses is currently showing as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.