Monday, October 30, 2006

Taipei personality

Today I'm sending off my paper for a symposium on the theory of religion as a resource for the study of Chinese religion to be held in a few weeks in Taiwan. As I know next to nothing about Chinese religion (and won't be learning much, as all the other papers but one will be delivered in Mandarin!), I'll be talking about the theory of religion.

In fact it will be my first chance to try out some of the key ideas from my book project on an unsuspecting world - specifically that modern western theory of religion has focused on problems of evil and meaninglessness, overlooking the continuing experience of the good. The new idea in this paper is that understanding religion as responding to evil makes ritual incomprehensible - it's just magical busywork meant to take our minds off things. If we see religion as a response to a world "ethically irrational" also in good - grace, serendipity, harmony, order, fecundity - things like ritual make more sense, since the goods of the world are more like an invitation to dance than a philosophical problem or existential challenge.

Some ritual surely works to anesthetize, and some to placate fears of dangerous powers. But there's also ritual like the dancing in Australian Aboriginal traditions, which someone has eloquently described as being part of the earth's own movement.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


The Royal Exhibition Building, one of Melbourne's 19th-century marvels, was open to the public yester- day. Its dome is apparently inspired by Florence's. I discovered what must be the inspiration for "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" - that Hermes at top right is a little over the top, no?


In church today we got to sing the hymn melody by Thomas Tallis around which Ralph Vaughan Williams wove his exquisite if melancholy "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" (New English Hymnal 373). I'd never sung it before. I felt Vaughan Williams' achingly beautiful orchestration welling up just outside the church as we sang...
I haven't told you much about St. Peters Eastern Hill, the church I've been attending. (My housemates don't know: they figured that as a philosopher of religion I must have seen through the pretensions of all religions!) It has a long history, apparently very engagingly described in From Tories at Prayer to Socialists at Mass by Colin Holden, a book I've taken out of the library but haven't yet read. Next year will be its 160th anniversary.

Its environs no longer look as they did in the 1850 print above; on Eastern Hill it's been joined by the Catholic Cathedral, a synagogue, a Lutheran church - and Parliament. Old prints on the wall of the parish hall show an unadorned indeed stark Protestant-looking hall, but it has for a long time now been an Anglo-Catholic church, with that perhaps surprising combination of high liturgy and progressive theology characteristic of that movement. The sanctuary is gilt, six tall candles sit atop the altar at the end of the choir, the stations of the cross adorn the walls, and a Lady Chapel is off to the side, with a replica of the reconstructed statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in England. Just this year an icon panel was installed in the rafters - though that's more Orthodox than Catholic.

High Mass (as it's called, feel the Sydney Puritans cringe) has the congregation on its knees a lot, as when the choir sings the "Kyrie" and "Sanctus" from mass settings by Palestrina, Vittoria, Haydn or Mozart. (We stand for the "Gloria," and sing a setting of the Nicene Creed, so don't get to hear the "Credo.") But we start - at least in this season - like monastics, singing at a brisk clip the following lovely Gregorian melody
as the priest sprinkles the congregation with holy water. (Feel the Sydney Puritan's blood boil.)

Which reminds me of a time, years ago, when an undergraduate I knew at Princeton was baptized a Catholic. A fellow graduate student friend of mine, an atheist, came to the evening mass in the Princeton University Chapel. The priest sprinkled us, and she was splashed - and freaked out by it. I don't suppose I helped much by remarking that she wasn't going to hell after all...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Melbourne Model

A bundle of my mail from New York arrived yesterday - it had been sent in September by courier to Shepparton and returned for some reason (!), and then sent again and once again returned (!!), but has now safely arrived at the Philosophy Department. It includes a letter from the University of Melbourne dated 2 August (!!!) offering me status as an Honorary Lecturer within the Faculty of Arts, associated with the Department of Philosophy.

Honored, I'm sure! I thought I was just a somewhat shady Visitor. Whom can I lecture?

Melbourne Uni is actually about to embark on the biggest curricular change in its history, a sort of half-way accommodation with the American model and the Bologna Process making its way through the EU universities. Instead of applying into 3-year degrees in one of a huge number of subjects, effectively choosing their careers as they enter university, students starting in 2008 will enter one of six broader fields - and will get a "liberal arts" education, taking many courses outside that field. If they want, they can then stay on for a more specialized 2-year masters degree; they're assured a place if they've performed well.

I've heard it described lots of ways. (I dare you to brave the lame music and twangy students in their video for future students.) It will be good for students, I'm assured, because it's a more broad-based education, and allows them to make later and more informed choices about careers; it will also allow them to change field as they enter a masters, very difficult under the present system. It will be good for the humanities, I'm told, as more students will be taking courses in the humanities to satisfy the outside-your-major distribution requirement. It will be good for faculty, I'm let know, as they'll be able to teach more upper-level courses - and there'll be more of them.

But not everyone is enthusiastic. How will the broad undergraduate majors be structured with intellectual integrity? Some see the Melbourne Model as a grab for more tuition money for more faculty - students interested in specializing will now have to spend five years getting a general undergraduate degree and a masters, instead of four in a more specialized field culminating in a demanding honors year of research. (Under the present system, strong students are encouraged after their first year to aim for the honors year, effectively turning their remaining 2 + 1 years into a higher level course.)

I'm sure there's much of it I haven't yet understood, but it's exciting to be around as such big changes are bruited - though it might have been more exciting still half a year ago, before the Model was finalized and approved.

Needless to say this brings back endless discussions about curriculum, liberal arts, and the like back home! As you know, I think a liberal arts education is the way to go, not just because it anchors you in a more complete awareness and understanding of the world's richness and complexity (the traditional argument) but because most of the preprofessional stuff we teach will be obselete in a few years. Our students, at least in the US, are looking forward to switching career twice before they retire (if they can afford to retire, but that's another issue), - and not always because they want to.

So by all means give them a good foundation for redefining themselves and learning to learn new things, and some of the wisdom of the past for reflecting on what's happening. They'll need it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Four seasons in one day

One thing of which Melburnians are proud is the weather - Syndeysiders have no weather, I hear, just endless sun. And no seasons, whereas Melbourne gives you all four seasons in one day, every day! ("Four seasons in one day" is a catchphrase, like "world's most livable city.") Sure enough, in the time it's taken me to write this the wet grey out the window gave way to blue sky on the horizon, then sun lit up the window frame, and now ... fades, the blue patch in the sky vanished. Dressing in this city is all about layers, many thin ones (like cross country skiing) rather than a few thicker ones, and cardigans with their ease of opening and shutting and half-opening will never go out of fashion. Happily humidity is low!

Today we've actually had what passes for precipitation in these days of drought, enough to mottle and briefly darken the ground! But the parched fields around Shepparton (north of the map as far again as Seymour), remain dry as dust. (Ah, but some of it might dribble on Shepparton, which you can see in this bigger, animated and regularly updated map.) And while I have your attention, do notice what a lovely natural harbor Melbourne boasts.

And allow me to say that, four seasons in one day notwithstanding, I am feeling great autumn withdrawal. My heart aches as friends and family describe walks in woods radiant in gold and red, and I picture buttoning up a coat, wrapping around a scarf, and thrilling at the wind's promise of colder times to come, when you'll be able even to see through the trees.

Which isn't to say, though, that I don't follow all the other residents of Melbourne to the sunny side of the road when the sun does show!

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Sorry for the pause, I was up in Shepparton, which still feels like stepping into an alternate reality: the reality not only of the country but of the full-time stay-at-home childcare which is my sister's life at the moment. Two kids keep two (and even three!) adults plenty busy. I don't know how she does it alone most of most days... So my forays into Shepparton are also transitions from the lightness of being of a gentleman of leisure in the city, his commitments on hold far away, to the non-stop needs of a young nuclear family in a society (like the US) uncommitted to public childcare.

In other news, a classic story of American perfidy has been overturned. Phar Lap was not poisoned by American mafiosi, the widely held view apparently confirmed by a recent Australian study which found large quantities of arsenic in his hair, but by the cumulative effects of a toxic elixir his trainer used to help him win - doping avant la lettre! (You must know that Phar Lap might as well have been poisoned yesterday, as far as Australian memory goes, a few hours after Gallipoli - another case of betrayal - so it may be a while before the truth of this is acknowledged.)

Today's picture has nothing to do with my sister or Phar Lap. It's Audrey the Skipping Girl, one of Melbourne's favorite neon signs, though her present form and location are shaped by the ironic twists and turns of retro nostalgia. (I've seen her because she's across the street from Ikea.)

Oh, and there's earthshine again today...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Like a child unsure of the sea

On Saturday I went to a poetry reading somewhat awkwardly called "What are poets for in an age of ecological crisis?" Six Australian poets read their work. One, whose poetry I found hard to grasp, gave the best answer to the question: "to a poet, every part of the poem is equal," he said, and this attitude is valuable more generally as one thinks about ecology. Another read a religious poem called "Master of energy and silence" which I found wonderful, particularly the middle stanza (... or perhaps only the middle stanza). Sadly Blogspot won't let me reproduce the format: every second line should be indented:

Master of energy and silence,
Embracer of Contradictions
Who withdraws behind death
Like horizons we never touch
Who can be One and Many
Like light refracted through glass,

Stepping in and out of logic
Like a child unsure of the sea
In and out of time
Like an old man dozing, waking,
In and out of history
Like a needle through cloth,

Who we chase and bother with theories
Who hides in equations and wind
Who is constant as the speed of light
Who stretches over the Empty Place
Who hangs the Earth upon Nothing
Who strikes like lightning.

The poet is Kevin Hart, and I found the poem in an anthology he edited, The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse (Melbourne, etc.: OUP, 1994), 89. Originally from England, Hart was a long time in Melbourne, and has only recently left - for a professorship in Theology and Literature at the University of Notre Dame. Indiana's climate has led him, he said, to write more about snow than was decent for an Australian poet.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


In light of the length of yesterday's post-inspired post (I thought it a somewhat inspired post in its own right, actually), I'll confine myself to a photo today.

What in heaven's name... ?

Friday, October 20, 2006


What does the place I'm living in look like? Well, here's a taste, the post at the foot of the stairs. I count six different colors of paint, all of them eroded by the hands of people who lived here before any of us present residents arrived. I'd especially like to know who lived here when the stairs were painted yellow! Don't suppose I could find out even if I really wanted, though: the house has long been self-governing, and the landlord doesn't know or care who comes or goes so long as the rent is paid.

House shares seem an institution in this part of Melbourne, only partly because of the proximity of the Uni. I went to a party last night a bit north of here - a sort of welcome party for two recently arrived housemates in a house of similar design - and nobody there had been a student in a while. Phil has lived there twenty years. David, the friend who took me along, knows Phil because his (David's) partner Karen first lived there when she came to Melbourne many years ago, moved out for research (she's a linguist) and moved back, several times! Another of the housemates is a chipper bushwalking pyschologist from Adelaide, a third a rather morose doctor in training (or maybe he was just drunk). Makes for a more interesting, diverse mix of people than everyone living in a place of their own, and socializing only with people they know from school or work.

It reminded me of discussions about Wohngemeinschften I've had with family and friends in Germany. My cousin Agnes in Berlin lived in big apartments shared among four or six or more people for many years (grand 19th century bourgeois apartments with many rooms but few facilities), and says she thinks them a great laboratory for learning to respect different kinds of people. Different WG are governed in different ways, but you're always getting to know/having to cope with new arrivals, new kinds of food in the fridge, and perhaps new kinds of music from next door. My friend Lisa in Göttingen, a political theorist, has actually written about WG as sites of democratic praxis!

In an interesting, gently Taoist performance piece for the Melbourne International Festival called "Objects for Meditation," the gay Chinese Australian photographer and monologist William Yang talked (among many other things) about why he likes coming home to his empty apartment in Sydney. "Not lonely, but empty: empty can be filled, while lonely implies longing." That's sort of been my experience living alone these past few years - one needs a room of one's own - but sharing a house with relative strangers (I haven't told you about them because I don't yet know much) is reacquainting me with the pleasures of another way of living which seems every bit as natural.

As some of you may know, I'm working on a book on the good, and this is a nice way of discovering in reality something I've been persuaded of in theory for a while, that (as Aquinas argued) the greatest goods are intrinsically shared and shareable. It takes a bit of coordination about who showers when and you do have to clean up after yourself in the kitchen, but the very spaces you live in seem happier to participate in several lives - and to have participated in those of others who've moved on.

Heart of Victoria?

Just had lunch with some of the Melbourne Uni Philosophy Department people, and have to let you know that Shepparton, which might seem the middle of nowhere, is in fact the secret heart of Victoria. (Or at least it suddenly seemed so - and the internet's the home for baseless rumors, right?) Of three faculty members present, one grew up in Shepparton, and another's wife spent five year of her childhood there. A PhD candidate reported that her great grandparents (who had eighteen children) settled in Mooroopna, a stone's throw from Shepp. More: Brian Scarlett, the retired philosopher whose office I share and whom I finally met just now, has a car which says "Darryl Twitt Shepparton" on its back window. The car, which Brian bought used, originated at Twitt Motors in Shepp, and he's found the decal too amusing to remove. Even those not from Shepparton might seem, to the hungry eye, to hail from there!

"Heart of Victoria" puts me in mind of a desolate little park to which a Japanese friend took me once, dominated by a huge mirrored sphere and other abstract furnishings characteristic of the "bubble" period in the 1980s (when local governments had too much money for their own good). It's called "Haato [Heart] of Okayama," and is in fact in the very geographical center of Okayama Prefecture, though atop one of a series of bumpy mountains miles from any settlement. When we went the chrome sphere reflected other bumpy hills, the sky and Amakusa's car, all alone in the big parking area - and us, looking like twiggy extraterrestrials disappointed but a bit relieved not to have found the makers of this scar in the landscape!

By comparison, Shepparton veritably teems with people. And, somewhat off center (like the human heart), it might in fact be the heart of Victoria after all! I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

More local flora

Today's actually cold and grey with a threat of rain (promise, more like, for this drought- ravaged land), but my pics, as you'll have noticed, are posted with a certain time lag - and not just that it's Friday lunchtime but blogger will tell you it's dinnertime Thursday!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Meanwhile back in Melbourne

People look at me funny when I say I'm interested in learning an Aboriginal language, but I suppose I might do the same to an Aussie who came to the US and wanted to learn a native American language. Perhaps after this stay in Australia, (part of) which is in the midst of a facing up to the history of Aboriginal oppression, I'll respond differently.

It's not as though mainstream Australian culture isn't plenty interesting, of course; witness this billboard for one of the shopping centers in the middle of town! 'Course it might make Leonardo warm to Dan Brown.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ngapartji ngapartji

As part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival (it's nonstop festivals in this town) I went last night to a performance called "Ngapartji ngapartji" (I give you something, you give me something). It's a multimedia storytelling of the experience of Aboriginals from the "Spinifex mob," whose land in the southwest of Australia was used by Britain for nuclear weapons tests, resulting in cancer for many and rootlessness for all. The narrator, Trevor Jamieson, told it through his family's trail of sorrows, and he was accompanied by a choir of old women, a Japanese butoh dancer, an Afghan refugee girl (the first foreigner Jamieson's ancestors met was an Afghan, brought in by the British to tame the desert) - and a language teacher.

We were taught to sing in the Pitjantjatara language:

Tjamu, kami

Mama, ngunytju
Kuta, kangkuru, kulali-ya
Ngangatja tjukurpa nyuntumpa ngalimpa
Nyaakun kulira wantinyi nyangatja?

Grandpa, grandma
Father, mother
Brother, sister, listen all of you
This story is yours, ours
Why have you stopped listening to this one?

The performance is part of a larger project which includes internet instruction in Pitjantjatara, "the oldest language in the world." ( There's a group of learners just down Lygon Street... I'm signing up!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Aboriginal art

Just found online the image of a lovely work of contemporary Aboriginal art I had the good fortune to see in an exhibit connected to the just-ended Melbourne Fringe Festival (at a gallery called Indigenart): Nancy McDinny's "Dugong and Turtle Hunting." The canvas is quite large and as you swim around in it, fishing boats are as easy (or hard) to make out as turtles or dugong (relatives of the manatee)!

Unsurprisingly, the painting's been snatched up by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Landscape zipper

There's not much between Melbourne and Shepparton, leaving plenty of room for sky. All the gums (=eucalyptus trees) sneaking bluffly or cagily by the train window meant I didn't realize the emptiness until I took an evening train which might as well have been in a tunnel for two hours. But from the bus the horizon's far far away and the big sky is visible and endless!

Some interesting phenomena along the horizon eventually when you look more closely, though, a landscape zipper only the white man would think of...

Rural cosmopolitanism

Turns out Shepparton is quite the cosmopolitan country town. In the bus I took back to Melbourne last weekend I was surrounded by Chinese, Italian and Russian speaking passengers. My sister's friends (all mothers in tow to their husband's careers) hail from New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Trinidad. An English neighbor lived in Qatar and Boca Raton before winding up here. A little shopping jaunt Saturday morning took my sister and me to a European deli, a fruit and vegetable grocer with five kinds of pasta imported from Italy, and an Indian shop (Sikh) sandwiched happily between two Muslim grocers. On one of Shepparton's main shopping streets Mustafa's, at left, has a market of Turkish goods, many of which are labeled in Turkish and German.

In fact, it turns out that Shepparton is well known for successful multiculturalism, especially for the settlement of refugees. It has a sizable Iraqi population, another of Macedonians and Albanians, and a new population of Congolese. It makes sense, I guess: refugees from rural areas settle better, and can find work more easily, in an agricultural area than in a city. The Goulborn Valley has long depended on migrant fruit pickers, and seems to be taking well to these populations settling in.

I probably shouldn't be surprised. The latest US census showed that immigrants there no longer head for the big gateway cities, but often go straight to smaller cities and towns. And in Japan I remember hearing that Filipinos and others were being sought to maintain farmlands whose youngsters were bolting to the cities. (Swiss farmers haven't dared think that far.) We tend to hear more about high culture and middle class and suburban trends, but globalization is happening at all levels.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Back to work

After a lovely three days in Shepparton, it's back to Melbourne and back to the books for me. This, by the way, is the (way classy) office the nice folk at the Philosophy Department are letting me use. I may have mentioned that the building, the Old Quadrangle, was the first building of the university campus, started in 1853. (It was 3/4-finished until a few decades ago, which presumably accounts for why the building is represented as an inverted U rather than a square on the map below.) I'm on that computer (a Mac no less!) as we speak. And I may figure out the problem of good on that whiteboard!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Feeling the heat

The banner headline in today's Age.

Yesterday's over 36 degrees in Melbourne was the hottest October day since 1914. Nine of the ten hottest years since 1900 have happened in the last decade, 2005 being the hottest of all, thought 2006 is well on its way to giving it a run for its money. 250 bush fires (as they're called here) at a time is not uncommon in the summer, apparently, in a drought they burn faster and there's less water around to put them out. Besides, it's still spring!

I feel the drought more keenly than most Melburnians, since I make my weekly trip to Shepparton. Shepp's the center of the Goulborn Valley, one of the main fruit-growing regions in Australia. And my brother in law is an irrigation engineer. The water shortage is acute - farmer's are getting 20% of what they usually get in water - but the worst thing to happen in my month here was a late frost ("Jack," my brother in law calls it) which nipped half the apricot crop in the bud.

Global warming, we're told, will make hot places hotter and weather everywhere more extreme. Australia, as we're being reminded, is the hottest and driest of the continents...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Iron lace

As I was putting up my blinds, I noticed this spiderweb in the iron lace beneath our bull-nosed veranda (to use the terms used in real estate descriptions), unexpectedly marrying two recent images in this blog.

Hope nobody was offended by my description of the spider webs as "hunter gatherer," an unowned allusion to the Aborigenes. I plead guilty to reading everything I see in Australia as related in some coherent way to everything else, despite all my academic training. After nearly a month no question it's a sort of self-indulgence: Roland Barthes' time in "Japan" (described in the infuriatingly wonderful Empire of Signs, our best show and tell of the impossibility of distinguishing "nature" from "culture" in a new place) was only three weeks.

At what point does a suggestible openness to reading everything in a new place as significant, a sign, shade into a refusal to acknowledge the otherness of the other place, the messy webs of thought (and thoughtlessness) which even the finest ethnographer or historian would require years to make out? The issues are only trickier here, where it's so easy to ellide the Aborigenes and the "Australian nature" against which Australia's sea-facing coastal cities define themselves (supposedly) as "culture." Sometimes a spiderweb (or a snail trail) is just that.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I just love spring breeze

Said our tram driver today, in a gravelly Isaac Hayes-like voice, causing all to smile to themselves and then to each other: "It's a lovely afternoon. ... (Latrobe Street: Melbourne Central, State Library, RMIT) ... I just love spring breeze! ... (Victoria Street) ... This is my last trip through the city. ... (Queensberry Street) ... My day is about over. ... (Grattan Street: Royal Womens Hospital) ... (Melbourne Uni, last stop) ... I'll see you tomorrow, insha'Allah."

Monday, October 09, 2006

Great neighborhood!

So here's the neighborhood where I live! It's just over ten minutes' walk door to door from home [450 Lygon Street, Carlton, VIC 3053, no junk mail please] (on the map just under the es of St. Jude's Anglican) to my office on campus (on the left edge of the map, halfway down, just left of the ME of MELBOURNE). Other places of note even closer by include Victoria's biggest used bookstore, just around the corner on Elgin Street (where the map says Percy's Bar & Bistro) and the Nova Cinema (south another block on Lygon Street), whose fifteen screens show everything you could possibly want to see. You'll notice that that stretch of Lygon Street has broad sidewalks - it's back to back cafes and restaurants, most of them Italian (this was once Melbourne's Little Italy), along with the Readings bookstore and its multinational rival with the facetious name Borders. Downtown (the CBD) is about five minutes' ride by tram (the dotted red lines) to the south.

Speaking of the Nova, I saw a superb film there yesterday, Rolf de Heer's "Ten Canoes," developed and performed by members of the Ramingining community, Aborigines from Arnhem Land in the swampy north of Australia. The story is narrated by the eponymous Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, and while addressed to a European audience uncompromisingly presents an Aboriginal story, which grows like a tree outward and not just towards a climax, all played in an unspoiled Australia on which Europeans might never have set foot. Part of what makes the film so effective is the way de Heer uses specifically cinematic effects, fading in and out of black and white, extreme closeups which look like photographs (even, sometimes, European ethnographic photographs from the 19th century), etc. to underscore the weave of the narrative.

"Ten Canoes" has only recently come out here, so may take a while coming to a cinema near you (it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes this year, so it will come) but when it does - go see it!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Jude and Barnabas

Well, Saturday was my first night in my new room. It's unfurnished, so it was just a sleeping bag on a housemate's extra mattress on the floor, in the striped light from the ratty rattan blinds of my predecessor. Imagine my surprise next morning on peering out of the sleeping bag and seeing a church! I knew St. Jude's Anglican was across the street, but never expected it would try to lodge itself in my window. (No worries, I'm getting Venetian blinds today.) "For heavens sake don't go there!" said the folks at St. Peter's Eastern Hill, the Anglo-Catholic church I've been attending, when I told them. I gather St. Jude's is closer in approach to what the vicar of St. Peter's calls "darkest Sydney," the stridently evangelical part of the Anglican Church of Australia.

Finding a church (and one called Jude!) looking in my window took me back to 1986-87, the last time I shared a house with someone. That was in Jericho, a working class part of Oxford, and it was my last year of college, and out the window of my second-storey room was the dirty brick wall of St. Barnabas Church. (You can see the edge of the house I lived in on the left in the watercolor at, the red brick one, though the facade was painted.) St. Barnabas is a leading Anglo-Catholic parish but I didn't know what Anglo-Catholic meant at the time; I didn't even know what the Oxford Movement was! I think I looked into St. Barnabas once, and thought it looked neo-Byzantine. I kept clear not just because I was (Roman) Catholic, but also because I knew that St. Barnabas was where the grim final scenes of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure took place.

My experience of St. Barnabas was confined to the brick wall out my window, with a cross in the tan colored brick, and the gappy melody of its automatic carillon - gappy because pigeons roosted in the belfry, and must occasionally have got stuck in one or other of the bells. You'd hear not the ecdg...gdec familar from Big Ben (and Japanese schools) but, say, e..dg...gde.. or!

Saturday, October 07, 2006


I've seen spiderwebs of decidedly different design here than those I'm accustomed to. (This one's on the campus of Melbourne Uni, but I've noticed the same on my sister's Hills Hoist.) Doesn't seem quite as "rational" as our clockwork-like spiders (are spiders rational?), indeed it seems more of a hunter-gatherer approach. But it evidently does the trick, catching and holding what it needs to catch and hold, and can fill an opening of any shape with a web of uniform density.


Some native flora, and a thought from Kate Grenville's smashing novel of first contact, The Secret River: A kangaroo was a freak of nature. But Thornhill was discovering that if a man looked at a kangaroo for long enough, it was the idea of a sheep that became peculiar.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mack my words

I've been meeting a lot of people, almost all of them Australian, and find myself sometimes uncertain how to pronounce my own name. Often someone will introduce me to someone else and say "Have you met Mock?" or, more Australian, "You've met Maa-hic?" (with the a of Mack, nasal, and a rising melody). When someone addresses me, the melody of Maa-hic may even get that tilde shape, going up a note and down to a note below and back up above, d-e-d-c-d-e, but all somehow contained in a single lazily floating syllable!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Had an interesting chat yesterday with some folks interested in religious studies at Monash University, a huge university in the Melbourne 'burbs. We'd just heard a fascinating paper by Tamara Prosic on the Kol Nidre, a popular part of Yom Kippur services of unknown provenance which various rabbis have tried unsuccessfully to remove from the liturgy over the years. Kol Nidre is a vow annulling vows, and so in a way annuls the Other with whom one has entered into a vow, and seems very close to challenging the Covenant. Prosic argued that it is a kind of collective repetition of the trauma of conversion to monotheism, and spoke eloquently about the challenge of redescribing what had been experienced as a centrally important relationship as null. Kol Nidre, like old scapegoating rituals, makes a space for the renounced god and then refuses to treat him as a god, or even existing.

The discussion broadened out to conversion, monotheism, tolerance, religious pluralism... Someone asked if there were contemporary conclusions one might draw from the analysis, and I suggested that we should realize that religious conversion is a tougher thing than people realize, with ongoing psychic repercussions of which individuals and communities may not be aware.

But then it became clear I was operating on an assumption others did not quite share - that belief is a good thing, and that people can and should be seeking something to believe. In classes I often stress that conviction is trivialized by a consumerist understanding of religion (as if one could choose to believe something, to be persuaded by something!); the paper suggested that true conviction and conversion are more psychically overpowering than we tend to think, and so likely to cause psychological repercussions for a long time. That's something it would be good for people to know about themselves, as well as about others.

Over beer in the faculty club it became clear that the dark side of conviction was not news. Most belief is feigned, people agreed, but that was probably for the best; the worst may be the people who actually believe. I'm as suspicious as the next person of people who tell you what they believe, but there does seem to be an interesting difference. If America's about belief, Australia's about skepticism. Two societies born of the Enlightenment but so different!

The picture above has nothing to do with conviction. (Or does it?)

It's a work of sculpture made with found wood for the Commonwealth Games, held a few months ago here in Melbourne. It's on the beach of St. Kilda and called Our Lady of St. Kilda. (You can see the St. Kilda pier is behind it.) A quick internet search suggests that St. Kilda is a saint unknown but for an island off the coast of Scotland named after her. This beach may have been named after a boat (Our Lady of St. Kilda) which may have been named after the island, or a woman who lived there. Hence an unseaworthy boat made of already used materials.

Though deliberately ephemeral, this fanciful recreation of the Lady of St. Kilda has proved very popular, and found its way into people's consciousness. An article in The Age reported that an old lady had been overheard saying, "oh, it's been here for years."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Well, if you can't change the world, you can at least cook! Last night I followed a recipe from the Sunday magazine of "The Age," the Melbourne newspaper I read every morning. ( is the online edition.) I tried the recipe out of curiosity, as I really couldn't imagine what it would taste like, or that it would taste good, and because it seemed an example of the distinctive Australian "fusion" cuisine I'd been told about. That it's relatively effortless helped too!

Miso, Leek and Tomato Risotto
Preheat oven to 200C. Place 1 litre water, 2 Tbs red miso paste, 1 Tbsp light soy sauce and a pinch of sugar in a saucepan and simmer over medium heat, stirring, until miso is dissolved. Place a splash of light olive oil in a flameproof casserole dish over high heat and stir-fry 1 large leek (washed well and thinly sliced) for 2-3 minutes. Add 1.5 cups short-grain rice and stir for 1 minute. Add 3 roma tomatoes (chopped) and stir for 1 minute. Add the hot stock and stir. Cover pan with a tight-fitting lid and cook in the oven for 30 minutes. Stir through 1/2 cup grated parmesan, 1 Tbsp butter and 1/2 cup parsley (roughly chopped). Serve with extra parmesan on top.

Miso in risotto?! Just what I wondered. Risotto in the oven!? My reaction exactly. But it worked, opening up whole new avenues for experimentation!

I made it for my long-suffering hosts, K (no relation of Kafka's K, so far as I know) and A, and we finished off the whole pot. But use more miso, perhaps even twice what the recipe demands. And sprinkling toasted sesame seeds on top instead of extra parmesan might be an even better start for the delicious seesaw of east and west.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Even the prettiest of Spring flowers can't cover the shame and dejection I feel as an American these days. We deserve the contempt and fear of the world.

Remember the start of "Fahrenheit 9/11"? I didn't like the rest of the film - it was sophomoric, self-indulgent and stupidly apolitical - but the first half hour comes back to me now in all vividness. Surely this is a nightmare. Surely it can't really be happening. Surely.

What horror that dozing democracy should permit sleepwalkers to drag others - and even the whole world! - into their nightmare of choice.


Have I mentioned that it's Spring? Its undeniable delight feels almost undeserved, since I've just come from summer... These pictures were taken in the St. Kilda Botanical Garden, one of Melbourne's myriad parks.

And guess what: it wasn't hay fever after all, but a flu that's been making the rounds. Once I gave up on the antihistimanes, the cough had a final splutter and went its merry way.

It's the first of October here, which means this blog's been up a full month! Any remarks, suggestions, semiotic or deconstructive analyses and well wishes are most welcome as it makes it way forward. I'm open to requests. I expect it'll get over the "gosh, here I am in AusTRAlia!" shtick eventually.