Thursday, November 30, 2006


Just as I'm getting excited about dipping my feet in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific rim calls me back. (A jealous god!) My college back home is sending me to a conference on an interesting new curriculum in history next month. It's in San Diego, my hometown! And I'll get to see my parents, from whom I must confess I feel very distant across the great water.

But I'm not going to cross the great water. Turns out that mid-January is the highest of high seasons down here - summer holidays, of course - and all the cheap and even the not so cheap tickets to the US have long sold out. So I'm taking a roundabout route, via Japan! The fare, still pretty expensive though considerably better than the alternatives, requires stopovers in Tokyo. An inconvenience to most travelers, I imagine...
And there I was thinking this was going to be the one year I wouldn't be making it to my old flame, Nippon, as I snuck off to get to know the Chinese and Indian worlds. Another jealous god, or perhaps 腐れ縁 (kusare-en) a karmic connection one can't break, come what may. Can you believe that this rail map of Tokyo and environs sets my heart aflutter?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


How do people keep blogs going day after day after day? Not that every day doesn't bring its pleasures and pains, but will there always be something worth hollering about, something to tug at people's sleeves and say "look!"

If you were here I'd make sure you noticed the trees blooming in profusion, get your take on this morning's fizzled attempt to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground with workers unhappy at the commonwealth (=federal) government's labor policies, ask if you really think the predicted high of thirty-six degrees will be reached today despite a cool and rainy start, demand (for the nth time) that you agree that it's very cool indeed to be going from the Nullarbor to Rottnest Island. If you knew less of Australia than me I might ask if you were familiar with the phrase "spag bol," and if you knew more I might inquire what you think "rug" means in "passengers should bring their own rug and pillow on the train." But since you're not here, I'll just urge you, if you have not already done so, to check out, as described two days ago. It'll blow your mind! And I'll get back to wrangling with finding the right way to argue that the experience of good is not one which demands or easily lends itself to analysis and argument without sounding anti-intellectual or contradicting myself - or both!

PS Oh but there is a piece of news I've forgotten to mention. I've received the go-ahead to team-teach next Fall (2007) a course with a dear friend who was good sport enough to let me be part of a theater piece she wrote and directed last spring. The class will be called "Theater and Religion," and will bring together the study of religion and the practice of acting. I'm so excited!

Early summer buds

Not much to report around here. (You should thank me for not going on at great length about the Cole Inquiry, which confirmed that the leadership of the Australian Wheat Board paid kickbacks of three hundred million dollars over seven years to the régime of Saddam Hussein in order to stay the main exporter to Iraq - this during and despite UN sanctions against Iraq - all without any member of the Australian government noticing it!) The southern hemisphere's perverse need shift into summer at this time of year proceeds apace, with trees blooming everywhere - imports like the originally Brazilian jacaranda at right and presumably native things like the orange-blossomed tree above. A tall glossy magnolia near the Old Quad has started opening its giant flowers. Strawberries and cherries have arrived in the supermarkets!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Sand and sea

So my first trip across Australia's planned, departure this weekend! After two days crossing the Nullarbor Desert between Adelaide and Perth, I'll spend a night on an island in the Indian Ocean just off the coast at Perth. Then I'll fly back over the Great Australian Bight. This by the way is a map of the rail system. The Indian Pacific is the blue line. I hope by the time I leave Australia to have done all of the lines - the highlight will be the Ghan (the red line) in May, when things have cooled down a bit. The Alice Springs-Darwin bit only opened in 2004.

You can get a sense for the terrain by going to and writing in "South Australia," then choosing from the buttons at top right "satellite" or "hybrid." The rail line's not marked on the hybrid map, but you can certainly swoop in on some pretty amazing territory! (Double-click to zoom in.) You can also get very close indeed to the island I'll be on next Wednesday night. Type in "Rottnest Island, Western Australia" and you're there! Now imagine snorkeling in turquoise seas after having crossed the Nullarbor!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Looking at you

This pair of galahs took refuge from sun and wind high in a gum tree on the Broken River, visible in the distance from my sister's place - a few hundred meters away. Thank modern technology (my ultrazoom Panasonic Lumix) for making them seem so close they might be looking at us - and blogger for making me seem so close I might be looking at you!

Thanksgiving reloaded

How do you present Thanksgiving to a 3-year-old Australian boy with an American mother and an Australian dad, months from any harvest, and in a household without any conception of Whom thanksgivings might be directed to? Here's what we came up with: roast chicken (too late to defrost a turkey), mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, cranberry sauce, followed by homemade pumpkin pie (with butternut squash, the American manner of pumpkin not being available). We enjoyed these treats under the "pregola" (roofed over patio) on Friday evening - Thanksgiving in the US - the temperatures having generously fallen enough for it to be pleasantly balmy, and it felt like starting or rekindling a tradition.

For at least part of the meal we wore pilgrim hats (made of black card, silver duct tape and cut-out paper plates -- long live the internet) and a colorful feathery headdress (green and orange construction paper), made by yours truly. The story we told was of silly black-hatted English folk who showed up in faraway America unprepared and starved - until a nice Native American offered them a delicious feast. (Since my sister was the provider of the feast, she got to wear the feathers, despite repeated entreaties from my nephew. I won't describe the trauma for him of his younger brother's first birthday this morning - the first time there's ever been present-giving where he received nothing!) And so we give thanks for delicious food, and hospitality, and friends, and family...

Not bad under the circumstances, I think... it's not an easy story to export, though I'm not sure it would have been much easier in the US! What might be nice for future years would be integrating something from the first contact of the British Fleet and the Aborigines around what would become Sydney. As Inga Clendinnen (remember her?) describes in her lovely book Dancing with Strangers, the first thing that happened after the initial awkwardness as the Brits left their ships was that someone started singing a song and dancing to it. One of the Aborigines joined in, and soon everyone was dancing together, songs and dances native and English - there's a watercolor painted by one of the crew to prove it! (You can see part of it at the bottom of the cover picture.) Imagine if that were taught in schools! It's an argument for teaching dance, too!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm off to the country for Thanksgiving... so unless my sister's internet situation has miraculously improved, I'll see you on Sunday.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Under where?

So here I am back down under. (The map is from TAIPEI 101. There's one for each cardinal direction, making Taipei seem the axis mundi. They are nice enough to show all of Australia, but somehow forget to mark Melbourne!!)

Taiwan isn't that far above the Equator, but Australia disappeared almost completely from view while I was there. A few people said "I hear you are coming from Australia" but none went on to ask why, or indeed anything about Australia at all - even as Melbourne was in the papers, for the G20 summit (and protests) and also a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Melbourne Olympics.

So I had no chance to remark that Australia and Taiwan have similarly sized populations (about 20 million), let alone to say "Melbourne is among the world's most livable cities"! It's full of "world class" culture and institutions! We have "four seasons in one day"!

Instead, I found myself thinking unfilial thoughts: If Taiwan's located in a place where rather too many people have passed through it over the years, Australia - especially its south shore - gets no passers-through. It really is indecently far away from the rest of the world! And, most disloyal of all, I thought, Melbourne's so "livable" because it isn't really a city, lacking the hustle and bustle and heat and bother of a place like Taipei: Australian urbia is really suburbia.

And yet it's nice to be back, in a land people from all over have made a home, where you don't need urban stress to have "world class" experiences, where the rivers meander, occasionally liberating a loop as a billabong, and sometimes never making it to the sea at all...

Taipei to Boston

On the way back to Melbourne, I read a special issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies containing papers from another international conference at Academia Sinica, this in 2003 and on "Contemporary Confucianism and Western Culture." It was given me by Liu Shu-Hsien, one of the eminences grises at our symposium, and I now finally understand why the question "is Confucianism a religion?" matters to these people (though the other papers remain, shall we say, a bit of a blur) - and perhaps also what I was doing here.

My friend had told me that the people putting on our symposium were "New Confucians," but I confess I didn't try to find out what that means. Now I know, at least a little. New Confucians - not Neoconfucians - are a 20th century movement concerned to revive Confucianism as a tradition of global significance. Fired up by the demise of Confucian China in 1911, its leading lights have been knowledgeable also about Western philosophy; many studied and taught abroad. Kant seems to be very important to them (as he's been for Buddhist and Hindu revivals with similar global aspirations, I feel bound to add). One of my hosts, Lee Min-huei, assured me that Kant would recognize Confucianism as a religion. But Confucianism goes farther than Kant could see, a Mou Tsung-san (teacher of many of the present generation of New Confucians) apparently argued: Kant reserves "intellectual intuition" for God, when in fact it is accessible to human beings.

I'm not sure what that could mean (perhaps my thinking is cramped by theism too)... but this is where the question of Confucianism as a religion is particularly interesting to these people, since it shows Confucianism to involve more than ethics but also "transcendence" and "spirituality." These are all terms against which I've been immunized - at home in the "dialogue of religions" but rigorously eschewed by most scholars of religion as modern pseudo-concepts which couldn't possibly illuminate past or non-western traditions but function mainly to insulate religion from criticism. I suspect I was smuggled into this symposium as a reality check on their understanding of what "religious studies" is - though they would of course contest what's "reality" here!

New Confucianism is not a monolithic thing. Most intriguing to me is the supposed "Boston Confucianism" of two professors at Harvard and two at Boston University described by Robert Neville. The Harvard wing (particularly Tu Wei-ming) seems the main advocate of the "transcendence" and "spirituality" view, while the BU wing (including Neville himself) attend more to the importance of ritual (li) to developing humaneness. As Neville explains, the former (focussing on Mencius/Mengzi) emphasize the fact that the heart would automatically perceive and respond well if society had not taught selfishness, while the latter (drawing on Xunzi) counter that the connection between the ten thousand things and the heart itself needs to be created by appropriate rituals or habitual meaning structures.* Does it make me a terrible cynic (infected still by ideas of original sin even?) that my sympathies lie with the Xunzians?

I think I need to think more about all this. By one of those weird coincidences that some people might take as showing that "reality" is more complicated than often acknowledged, I received my invitation to come to Academia Sinica the very day I gave a talk at Boston University this past Spring. My respondent was ... Robert Neville!

*Robert Cummings Neville, "Conscious and Unconscious Placing of Ritual (Li) and Humanity (Ren)," Journal of Ecumenical Studies XV/1-2 (Winter-Spring 2003), 48-58: 55

Sunday, November 19, 2006


My stay in Taiwan ends tomorrow!
It's been a full week, enough to see many places and go back to some, make little discoveries, connect up some dots, jump to some conclusions, revise them, revise them, revise them!

Here are some pictures to test whatever conclusions you've come to - or tempt you to leap to some of your own! (The picture above is my favorite for some reason.)

• Confucius Temple, a bit more sober than the Buddhist and, especially, the Taoist ones, is a replica of the temple in Confucius' hometown.

• Chiang Kai-Shek smiling benevolently in his Memorial.

• One of Taipei's famous night markets, where I looked a lot but didn't in the end dare eat.

• Decoration atop the roof of the Hsia-Hai Temple of the city god in Dihua Road.

• Motor- cyclists at night - notice all the children!

• Scene in the back of one of the gardens by the National Palace Museum.

• Young people in one of the overflowing streets of weekend Danshui.

• Volunteers leading the singing of hymns to Guanyin and Amida at Longshan Buddhist Temple, Taipei.

• Longshan Temple, Danshui, completely engulfed by a covered market, including many fishmongers!

Bye bye!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Going Dutch

Went today to the place where Taiwan's main river mouths to the sea. Like the river the town is called Danshui, or is that Danshuei, or even Tamsui? All of the above: you see, there are three official dialects so three official ways of pronouncing every place name... and don't even ask me about the further havoc wreaked by two systems of romanization on top of that! No place I've been has the same name in Lonely Planet, my tourist map and the subway system. (The subway stop nearest Academia Sinica is spelled Kunyan or Kunyang on maps, but the voice announcement is for something more like Hwenyong.) The picture above is of the gate to what at least some people call Fuyou Temple, dedicated in 1796 to Matsu, goddess and protectress of those at sea.

The oldest building in Taiwan is in Danshui. It's not terribly old, and was built neither by Formosan Aborigines nor Chinese settlers. It's called Fort San Domingo, established in 1629 by the Spanish. The original wooden edifice was burnt down by Aborigines and its stone replacement was soon lost to the Dutch, who renamed it after Anthony Van Diemen (after whom Van Diemen's Land - Tasmania - was named, too). The present edifice dates to 1642. For two centuries controlled by Chinese authorities, the fort in 1868 became home to the British Consulate, only to get closed down by the occupying Japanese during WW2, passed on after the war to Australians for safekeeping, until they recognized the PRC... Lots of history here, more than just a few centuries can stably contain.

With aboriginal populations, European explorers and settlers from a mainland Taiwan seems a sort of sibling to 'merca and Austrairlia. No nation had a clear and uncontroversial beginning, certainly not this crop. In Taiwan you have dozens of indigenous peoples who arrived in several waves. Settlers from different and mutually unsympathetic parts of China (hence the dialects). Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, British, 50 years as a Japanese colony, the KMT with the National Palace Museum in their hand luggage... Matsu, how have you kept this ship afloat?

Friday, November 17, 2006


Here together are the two faces of Taiwan I keep seeing. The hyper-modernity of TAIPEI 101, at 508m the tallest building in the world (for another 2 years), and the popular Taoism on every corner. If anyone still thinks that capitalist and religious fervor are mutually exclusive, come to Taiwan. Both are booming!

The base of TAIPEI 101 (the tower is shaped like a bamboo shoot garlanded with traditional ribbons) is a vast shopping center. It's taller by a factor of two or three than any other building in Taipei - only the mountains which surround the city on three sides are as high - so the view is like that from an airplane, suspended in mid-air...

This world-class building (we're told) is a product of Technology, Art, Industry, People, Environment and Identity, the very six factors that have created the TAIPEI of today. "101" not only reminds us of the zeros and ones in electronic technology but represents the surpassing of the 100% perfection mark as well.

This morning one of our symposium hosts took me and a scholar from the Chinese mainland to the top of TAIPEI 101 (89 floors in 38 effortless seconds, world's fastest elevator!), to the huge Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial (where you can see Chiang Kai-Shek's cars!), and then to lunch. I'm not sure what this itinerary communicated about the two Chinas, although someone told me later that the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial is a place all Mainland tourists go.

Only at lunch did the PRC scholar and I realize we had a language in common - Japanese - but this made things more rather than less awkward, as we had a perfect triangle of languages. The host spoke German to me and Mandarin to the PRC scholar, while the PRC guy and I spoke Japanese. Every time a conversation along one of the axes of the triangle got interesting it faltered, self-conscious about the person being excluded.

I suspect that this kind of awkwardness is standard fare for Taiwanese, China but not China, and increasingly overshadowed by an ever worldlier PRC. (Global capitalism and local religious traditions have this in common: they're untouched by the China question.) 101% may not be enough!

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Our symposium went well. At least I think it did. I wouldn't know, actually! There were ten papers, mine the first. The second was delivered by a German - but in Mandarin. And so were all the other papers, and all subsequent discussion was in Mandarin, too. Were translations, summaries, an interpreter, anything provided for me? Nooo.

But that doesn't mean I didn't have fun. Since the topic of the symposium was the utility of concepts from the theory of religion for the study of Chinese religion, there were many names and words I recognized (though rather more from Protestant theology than I expected). But I've no idea, really, what people were on about. Like a detective who's deaf to all but loanwords, I came up with some pretty out-there hypotheses about what people's papers were about. (Try it yourself: tell a story that can absorb - in this order: absolutes Nichts ... F: formless self; A: all mankind; S: suprahistorical ... dimension ... medium ... absolute Vermittlung ... phänomenologische Bedeutung ... Karl Barth ... metanoesis ... abstract equation ... samvrthu-satya ... paramartha-satya ... repentance ... priority ... superiority ... Ding an sich.)

With that caveat, let me say that I think it was a very interesting symposium! Some things I learned were that religious studies in the US is miles ahead of other places, and that the question "is Confucianism a religion?" still matters, though I didn't get just why. A few people seemed to like my suggestion that Chinese religion provided a good place for inquiring about the relationship of philosophy and ritual in religion, especially in pursuing the problem of good. More might by the time the paper gets translated into Chinese (!) for the publication.

The wonderful calligraphy at right (the character is ) has nothing to do with the conference. Except that it's by a Buddhist autodidact in mainland China named Yi-Liao to whose work I was introduced this morning by the American friend who got me invited here. It's exciting stuff, often ravishingly beautiful: conceptual art coming out of calligraphy traditions and leavened by Ch'an/Zen ideas about temporality and words. There's much more. (It's a big file but worth it; the characters are printed below each picture.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Jade cabbage

This is the famed jade cabbage (Ch'ing Dynasty), one of the most beloved of the treasures in the National Palace Museum. Taipei's undisputed "must-see," this huge museum is the cream of the collection of the Chinese emperors, celebrated as the greatest collection of Chinese art anywhere. (It's also amazingly well- traveled. As things fell apart in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the collection - in nearly 20,000 crates - was shipped all over China. Eventually the most precious objects were sent to Taiwan to protect them from Mao and his thugs, where they've been carefully recatalogued, rehoused, and await the reunification of China. The map below shows the movements of the Palace collection, and - in green - other treasures from a museum started in Nanking in 1933.) Just between you and me, I was a bit under- whelmed. Conditions were perhaps inauspicious - the place was overflowing with tour groups (many Japanese), the emperors seem to have collected little religious art, and the newly refurbished wing which will show paintings and calligraphy was closed. But the epiphany I was hoping for never came. With the exception of a few scroll paintings and the falanges on some Shang bronzes, Chinese art has never really stirred me (except at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, whose collection gave me the impression of finally "getting it"). I thought the National Palace Museum would change all that. But the piece I liked best turned out to have been made in Japan. Oops.

What I'll remember from today (boor that I am) is more likely to be the 3-D movie - they gave us cardboard glasses! - in the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines. Video game-like animation introduced the cosmogony of one of Taiwan's indigenous (Austronesian) communities, leading from a familiar sci-fi scene of planets whirling through space to the shooting out of the sky of one of the two suns which were making life on earth unbearable by an Aboriginal huntsman. (It becomes the moon.) Then we got to meet a young man who'd heard about a giant boar whom he decided to devote his life to killing. When he thought he'd finally found the boar it was a Dutchman in funny clothes he found instead. The Dutchman dropped his gun as he ran away, and our hero picked it up and ran to return it to him, arriving on the coast just in time to see a huge naval battle between the Dutch and the Spaniards. Terrified he headed back into the woods but somehow ended up running through a time tunnel of 500 years of Taiwanese history (it takes ten seconds) and found himself in a baseball diamond, holding not the white man's gun but a baseball bat. He seems to be both pitcher and hitter, and the ball he hits is more than a home run - it flies out, blazing, into space, past planets, along the rings of Saturn, and on and on into the familiar sci-fi scenery. The spirit hunters of the Aborigines live on in outer space. Weird.

But maybe this is the kind of infomercial you need to make to compete with the world-historical claims of the Chinese (who never appear in this film!), making common cause against the great western boar. Pondering which enigma I went to a Starbucks (the belly of the beast!) and worked on my presentation for tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Religious Taipei

A first (very) full day in Taipei, a city overflowing with religious energies.

In the morning, an American friend took me on a hike up a mountain behind the Academia Sinica. Australia is many things, but mountainous it is not, and it was almost exciting to be going up, up, up through semitropical foliage as giant black-blue butterflies fluttered by... The sky was greyish-white, but that was probably for the best, as it was already plenty humid. Only the colors of my photos suffered some... The steep steps of the path took us past several little Taoist temples.

In the afternoon, two Taiwanese scholars took me through temples in Taipei: one Taoist (Pao -An), one Confucian, one Buddhist (Longshan) - if only it were that simple! The level of ornamentation varies - from the sobriety of the Confucian temple to an inspired excess in the Taoist -
but all had the bowed, almost sagging roofline you see in the Pao-An (Taoist) temple above. There were definitely differences in atmosphere, but more overlap in objects of veneration than you'd expect if you thought religious traditions are jealously exclusivist instead of, say, entrepreneurially inclusivist. The celestial goddess Matsu, central to Taiwanese Taoist devotion, was also venerated in the back of the Long Shan Buddhist temple; Buddhists believe that Matsu was a follower of the Buddha. This was less surprising to me than the large crowd of lay worshippers singing a sutra to Kuanyin (Avalokitesvara). I'm familiar only with Japanese Buddhism, where the laity keep clear of temples until a funeral forces them to go. Buddhism here is alive and kicking!

And then, after a dinner of the most tender and delicious dumplings I've ever had, we walked around a central neighborhood where a big Catholic church, the Chinese Muslim mosque, and a characteristically sci-fi Mormon temple were pointed out to me. Perhaps I'd have have been shown very different things were I not a religious studies person, but I suspect any visitor would be struck by the religious vigor here - at latest when looking for snacks at the nearest convenience store...! (I'm not quite sure if the potato twists made the lonely god into a happy angel or what...) The variety and fervor of religious devotions here give some idea of what the communists rooted out (or tried to) on the mainland. Might it return one day?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Over the red center

Yay, the Activities Center of the Academia Sinica has wifi! I'll tell you more about Taipei tomorrow when I know more, and when today's oneiric dusk taxi ride from the airport and the charming walk through night markets and temples have sunk in a bit.

What I need to share with you is a priceless but unexpected perk of flying to Taipei from Melbourne. It's not just that I've learned that long-haul south-north flights aren't nearly as exhausing as east-west ones (can you believe this is my first such flight, after scores of flights east and west?). It's that I got to spend four and a half hours mesmerized as we flew over the "red center" of Australia: up over Broken Hill, east of Alice Spring, then over Katherine, past Kakadu and Darwin, over Melville Island and out into open waters. (It didn't hurt that I'm finally reading Patrick White's Voss, the classic novel of the white man's doomed struggle to conquer the land!) As discussed way back when, Australia's cities hug the coastlines, unsettled by their wild heartland. Facing the seas and distant continents, they have their back to their own. Much of the land we flew over is desert with scarcely any rivers and narry a bush or tree, and patterned in ways new to me -- long streaks, broad ripples, and occasional epidemics of dried up waterholes. It all looked a lot like colors and patterns I've seen in Aboriginal painting. For most of the stretch there were no clouds (although it was raining in Melbourne as we left!). As we got near the north coast, though, clouds gathered and ... am I imagining things or did they make the shape of a giant crocodile over Kakadu National Park? When I get back to Australia, I've got to turn inward. Maybe I'll take the train across the country! In fact I've got my eye on a rail pass which will let me do Melbourne- Perth (on the Indian Ocean) in early December, before the summer holidays begin, and Melbourne- Alice Springs- Darwin in May, when the weather's more manageable, and I can face Uluru. And at some point, since it's a railpass, Adelaide- Sydney, over Broken Hill (Ned Kelly territory). Of course what one really should do, I suppose, is bushwalk, indeed go bush walkabout! (By the way, in case you didn't know, you can click on any of these pictures to see a larger, clearer image.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Off to Taiwan

I'm off tomorrow for a week in Taiwan, a new frontier! It's been a while since I visited a country where I know nobody, not to mention the language. That's a slight exaggeration, as there's one person I know there, and I'll recognize a good many characters from Japanese (and, I'm told, the older people I meet are more likely to speak Japanese than English). But still...

Perhaps it seems so exotic and distant because it's not a place I've always sort of meant to get around one day to make sure to visit since everyone should see it before they die. Kind of like Australia in that respect, and look at what fun I'm having here! (So much, indeed, that part of me is saying "do I really have to go?") Once I get on the plane tomorrow I'll have twelve hours to realize I'm really excited and a bit terrified at the prospect of seeing not only a new world but the world from a new point of view. Relativized yet again!

I'll try to find internet cafés and keep this up to date, but will be back on line at latest on the 21st.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Good onya!

Sorry for the brief hiatus, I was off in the country. Life in rural metropolis Shepparton is surprisingly comfortable, but my sister's internet connection is from the stone age. Here's the dustcloud following a truck driving parallel to our train. The fields which should be lush with green - remember that if this were the northern hemisphere it would be early May! - are so dessicated even weeds won't grow. Latest word is that this is not a hundred-year drought after all, but a thousand-year one!

My mind is reeling (happily!) at two pieces of earth-shattering news:

One is the seismic shift in US politics. If you ask me, the Congress should take on presidential signing statements right away. Hearings on corruption and incompetence and mendacity must come, but they will be nasty and take forever, there being so much to uncover. Before everyone remembers that they have no confidence in any of the players or institutions in question, the roots of the imperial(istic) executive need to be decisively cut! A restoration of confidence in the parliamentary process would do wonders for American democracy.

The other news: my younger nephew has become a biped! When first I heard this on Monday I felt as if a new dimension had been added to the world. He seems entirely unfazed by it, and walks about as if it were nothing. On Thursday we went to Kyabram Fauna Park, a community-led zoo for Australian animals a few miles from Shepp, and there was no question that after eleven months close to the ground in company with echidnas, possums and dingoes, he is now decisively on the team with emus, wallabies and brolga.

If Herder's to be believed (actually Herder's far too schwärmerisch to be simply believed!), the switch from horizontal to vertical brings the eclipse of smell by sight and a sense of the reality of the distant, the discovery of critical separation from the world and the unfolding of reason for understanding it better. This is indeed earth-shattering and must, come to think of it, produce some deep experience of loss of a full-body intimacy with the earth, and, for that matter, with your whole body, but what I'm wondering is: What will replace the attempted ingestion of whatever he finds on the ground as my nephew's main experience of communion with the world?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


I've been following the results from the mid-term elections breathless on (because they seemed slowest to call a race: after the trauma of the 2004 I'm not keen to get my heart broken again), restlessly hitting "refresh" every five or ten minutes while desultorily trying to read. (Fat chance!) At 3:36pm our time the number of House seats gained by Democrats jumped from 14 to 16, and I couldn't stop myself from jumping for joy, hands in the air! It isn't over until it's over, of course. And it would take years to dig out from under all the Bushies's shit even if there weren't more to come and one had more confidence in the Democrats. But... this feels like the first light of a distant dawn!!

(The first picture's from, but the second's mine.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Big Cup

It's Melbourne Cup Day, the day of "the race that stops a nation." It's almost a holiday - schools in Victoria apparently have the choice of canceling classes!

Not knowing or caring much about horse racing (despite growing up next to the racetrack at Del Mar, "where the surf meets the turf") and uninterested in dressing up, I note that footage of the 1893 Melbourne Cup is the oldest surviving film anywhere.

The Melbourne Cup was already the most important day of the year in the 19th century. Here's a tribute from Mark Twain in 1895 (from an excerpt in today's Age, source also of the picture at right): The Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance. It overshadows all other holidays and specialized days of whatever sort in that congeries of colonies. Overshadows them? I might almost say it blots them out. Each of them gets attention, but not everybody's; each of them evokes interest, but not everybody's; each of them rouses enthusiasm, but not everybody's; in each case a part of the attention, interest, and enthusiasm is a matter of habit and custom, and another part of it is official and perfunctory. Cup Day, and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal and spontaneous, not perfunctory. Cup Day is supreme - it has no rival. I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, which can be named by that large name Supreme. I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation and preparation and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one; but this one does it.

Not everyone is a racing fan, as a delightfully peevish piece by Jim Schembri, also in today's Age, attests: [H]ow did cup day come to be emblematic of what an egalitarian utopia Australia is supposed to be? "People's Day" they call it, all because bods who don't usually go to the races turn up by the rented mini-bus load to eat cold chicken and drink cheap champagne off the grass. The hard truth is that the Melbourne Cup shows just how deeply in love Australian society is with the English class system. It's the most vulgar display of the social pecking order there is with its VIP parties, its nobody celebrities, its corporate marquees, its members-only bar, its exclusive invite lists and its car park and public lawn where the plebs can tell each other what a classless wonderland they live in as they get soaked in the rain. If anything, the Melbourne Cup proves just how totally uninterested Australia is in ever cutting its ties with Mother England.

Of course I suppose it is nice to have all this to distract me and save my fingernails from being gnawed to the bone with worry over the US midterm elections.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

No more boomerang

Here's a well-known poem by Oodgeroo Noonnuccal (1920-1993), an Aboriginal poet.


No more boomerang
No more spear;

Now all civilised --
Colour bar and beer.

No more corroboree,
Gay dance and din.
Now we got movies,
And pay to go in.

No more sharing
What the hunter brings.
Now we work for money,
Then pay it back for things.

Now we track bosses
To catch a few bob,
Now we go walkabout
On bus to the job.

One time naked,
Who never knew shame;
Now we put clothes on
To hide whatsaname.

No more gunya,
Now bungalow,
Paid by hire purchase
In twenty year or so.

Lay down the stone axe,
Take up the steel,
And work like a nigger
For a white man meal.

No more firesticks
That made the whites scoff.
Now all electric,
And no better off.

Bunyip he finish,
Now got instead
White fella Bunyip,
Call him Red.

Abstract picture now --
What they coming at?
Cripes, in our caves we
Did better than that.

Black hunted wallaby,
White hunt dollar;
White fella witchdoctor
Wear dog-collar.

No more message-stick;
Lubras and lads.
Got television now,
Mostly ads.

Lay down the woomera,
Lay down the waddy.
Now we got atom-bomb,
End everybody.

From My People: A Kath Walker Collection (Jacaranda Press, 1970), 32-3

Australia's Aborigines were granted the right to vote and be counted in the census only 3 years before that, in 1967.


Where are the Melburnians?

After nearly two months' worth of pictures you may be wondering where all the Melburnians are. There are 3.5 million of them, after all! It's true, I tend not to take pictures of people (I don't want their souls on my hands!), though a few snuck into the picture I posted a few days ago. So here are some of the thousands of demonstrators in yesterday's Walk Against Warming. They filled most of Swanston Street, the main thoroughfare in the CBD (downtown), and filed along in silence - no chants, no songs! A pretty good turnout, especially considering it was Derby Day, the opening day of the Carnival at the Flemington Racetrack leading up to Tuesday's Melbourne Cup. A record 129,089 people dressed up to attend the glamorous event, and a few hours after the demonstrators were gone (I was watching the film "Phar Lap" at ACMI to try to understand how the races could mean so much to a people) Swanston Street was awash with people in the splashy spring formal fashions (think Ascot) associated with the races - even teenagers! Horses make sense to me, but this?