Saturday, March 31, 2007

Catch 22, anno 2007

So David Hicks will soon be free! Or so it seems. Latest news is that his guilty plea and plea bargain won an unbelievably lenient commutation: from the expected 20 years to life to the seven years he was actually sentenced to the nine months he will have to serve, most of those in an Australian prison. (The six years and three months taken off are not, we are assured, a nod at the five years he spent at Guantanamo.) It seems to be a sop to John Howard, the last leader of the "coalition of the willing" standing; Howard's facing a tough reelection later this year, and his unwillingness to insist on due process for Australian citizen Hicks (Tony Blair got the Tipton Three out of Guantanamo ages ago) has in recent months become a major embarrassment for him. At this rate Hicks will be freed shortly after the election - but conveniently can't make any statements of any kind before that.

Don't expect Hicks' non-Australian Guantanamo fellows to get off with such light sentences - if they ever even come to trial.

But then the Hicks saga may not be over. Hicks' father claimed that his son had pleaded guilty only to get out of Guantanamo any way he could (it would be insane not to, one wants to say), and in response some US military judge has said that David would be in trouble if his guilty plea was not serious: he could face new charges of perjury. Sounds like Catch-22. If Hicks is innocent, he may be in bigger trouble than if he was in fact guilty.

But what did we expect? Guantanamo's been a legal and moral black hole from the word go - by design, of course: the people imprisoned there can't be proven innocent since they've not been charged of a crime! By now it would be nearly impossible to do right by them even if the administration were serious about it - something the surreal Hicks trial surely doesn't suggest. If only there were even a small chance that the monsters who thought this place up might some day have to experience some of the moral horrors they have unleashed.

Friday, March 30, 2007


Here are two paintings by Rover Thomas, an aboriginal painter whose works I find incredibly moving. (I first saw some in the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth in December.) The top one is called Dreamtime Story of the Willy-Willy and the bottom Yari Country. Both were painted in 1989. Both are on display in the National Gallery of Victoria at Federation Square.
These two are big, big enough that you get lost in the loping shapes of their dotted lines, and find something like the truth of space.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

International man of mystery

Once upon a time I was teaching English conversation at a girls school near Tokyo. The lesson was on family relations and I had the students draw a family tree they could explain. (Sachiko is my aunt. Taro is her husband. Their daughter Hanako is my cousin. Etc.) Meanwhile I drew one on the board for me, then announced: "I'm half German, one fourth American of French ancestry, and one fourth ... mystery!" Everyone was very excited. And it's true: my paternal grandfather was an orphan.

Well, thanks to the mapping of the human genome the mystery is a little closer to being solved. My father sent off a tissue sample (from his cheek, I think) to the Genographic Project, and the results came back a few weeks ago. His Y-chromosome (and mine) belongs to Haplogroup J2 (M172). Our distant ancestors made their way from Africa to the Mediterranean via the Middle East by the paths shown on this map; the haplogroup emerged about 10,000 years ago. How they got to Columbus, Ohio is anyone's guess, but it probably didn't involve significant stays in central Asia or northern or central Europe. Indeed Europe may not have been part of the story at all, since M172's more common in north Africa than southern Italy or Spain.

It's very exciting! Unexpected, too - our surname seems to have Scottish roots. But what does one do with this knowledge - is it even a candidate for "self-knowledge"? All this tells is that the line going back from sons to fathers leads back to M172, but this line of purest patriliny includes only a tiny percentage of my actual ancestors: think of all those sons' mothers and their mothers and fathers. On the other hand, these fathers almost certainly didn't marry people from far away. The kind of almost frantic itineracy which has characterized my father's family since his mysterious grandfather's generation is something entirely new in human history.

After Italy and California and Austria and New Mexico and England and Japan and New Jersey and France and New York and now Australia maybe it's time for me to change my name to Rick, move to Casablanca and open an American Bar.

Frog and toad aren't friends

Serious topics aside, as an American in Australia how could I not show you this monster cane toad found on a "rampage" in the Northern Territories? He even upstaged David Hicks on the Age webpage. (Don't let him upstage the historic pics of marvellous Melbourne below.) Not that cane toads aren't a serious topic!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Simply marvellous

Can't remember if I mentioned that I'm sitting in on a lecture course at Melbourne Uni called "Marvellous Melbourne: A Cultural History." So far I've attended two lectures, neither particularly exciting (perhaps I've got American expectations that lectures be exciting or at least entertaining), but it is certainly nice to be learning more about the city! The main thing so far is how recently it all happened, this history: Melbourne went through three buildings and rebuildings in the 19th century: the founding, 1830s-40s; establishment of civic institutions and grand building with gold money, 1850s-60s; then, after an economic downturn, the "marvellous Melbourne" of the 1880s, when the city put on not just one but two international exhibitions. These two pictures show Melbourne in 1901, when Federation gave Australia something like independence. The first looks like the Kremlin but is in fact Flinders Street Station. The second is the Queen's Gate, one of nine gates put up throughout the city (including a Chinese gate draped in silk, and a German gate). A statue of Victoria presides over the intersection of Collins and Russell St. The actual Victoria, alas, died at the same time as Federation, so celebrations were muted.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Macedon opens up

Haven't posted any pictures of my own in a while. Here's one, taken just this morning. It's a pinecone I picked up in Gisborne, near Mount Macedon, on Friday. I'd not seen one like this before, and two things struck me about it. First, parts of it are blue, not bluish-green but truly blue! And second, it is like a ball of paper-thin sheaves, folded inside each other. As it dries out it opens up, and seeds float out on almost transparent wing. On the tree (a kind of fir or spruce, I think), cones unfurl themselves from the tip. As the wind takes the seeds and the sheaves holding them, each pinecone is pared down to a narrow conical core. This pinecone, which someone had prised from the tree (not me), was still a tight little ball with deep blue streaks when I brought it home Friday. It's opening from the other end in the warmth of my room - as it would, also, in the cosy house in Macedon my sister and her family are inclining towards making their new home!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Time twists

What a sight, this morning at 9:55 in front of the State Library - scores of people waiting for the doors to open, and this on a Sunday! As I think I've said before I love coming here not only because it's a lovely place to work (and free internet!) but because so many different kinds of people are here - university students, history buffs, amateur genealogists, journalists, writers, high school students, lovers of literature, people just stopping in to look at magazines. It's a vision of books and learning as rightfully integrated into the heart of life, not sequestered (or shunted) off into some quasi-monastic periphery. (Picture source.)

Of course, some of the people waiting this morning might not have intended to arrive for the library's opening. We turned our clocks back last night, so some might have been aiming for 11. Others might - who knows - have been standing there for an hour!

Daylight savings is one of those times when you realize that the two hemispheres of this planet have a more twisted relationship to each other than you might think. As we fall back much of the northern hemisphere leaps forward, and so California, which was 5 hours ahead (minus a day) is now 7; New York, which was 8 hours ahead (minus a day) is now 10. (I suppose I could have said - should have said? - that California is now 17 hours behind us and New York 14.) In half a year we'll snap back again: into and out of synch, or, perhaps, ever overshooting.

That the relationship is literally a twisted one is something I learned the other day from one of my fellow honorary fellows at Uni, a historian of science. One consequence of there being far more land mass in the northern hemisphere than in the largely oceanic southern hemisphere is that the northern hemisphere is bigger. This means that it rotates ever so slightly more slowly than the southern hemisphere - the way, my fellow fellow explained, a ballet dancer spins more slowly with arms extended. In consequence the two hemispheres are torquing. Hooda thunkit!

Friday, March 23, 2007

What's your book about, Mark?

Working on the good sounds bland and sanctimonious (or, on the other hand, precious) - people seem either perplexed or embarrassed for me when I tell them. Or perhaps I come across as embarrassed already. I need a better approach! So I imagined bringing a PR consultant in. Perhaps my attempts to answer his questions can help explain what my book is about for you, too. If not, do let me know!!

What are you working on? I’m writing a book on the good and why nobody dares to talk about it anymore. Lots of people write about evil, which is important, but you get a lopsided view of the world if you have an elaborate account of evil and none of good. I’ve done a lot of work on evil myself—edited the only historical reader on the subject—and in this book I’m trying to tease out the understanding of the good implicit in some of the things we say about evil. You won't come to a full understanding of the good through evil, but some of the things people assert about evil suggest that a shared conception of good still exists (or is striven for), if indirectly. In a way I’m arguing that good is the “secret” of evil.

Why not just write about the good? I’m approaching good through discussions of evil for a number of reasons. Evil already matters to us, is a “problem.” I would like to get book published and even—such ambition—read! Further, I try to show that we find ourselves at a loss for words about the good for historical reasons—the worldviews, religious and metaphysical, in which the old theories of good are at home have been weakened if not destroyed by changes in knowledge and society in the last few centuries; in some ways the language of evil is all that’s left of these worldviews, at least on the surface. Finally, the picture of good which emerges from a study of what we say about evil is different from those which many past theorist of good came up with (in a word, ‘the problem of evil reveals the vulnerability of the good’) and provides new and sometimes critical perspectives on these earlier accounts. Many of them, I argue, take offense at the vulnerability of the good and imagine more perfect or truer goods which are not vulnerable. There may be invulnerable goods, but I argue that vulnerability—or openness to interaction—is an essential quality of the goods that matter to us.

Do you offer a definition of the good, then? Not really. (I'm not a philosopher or theologian, let alone a prophet, and I'm aware of too many different views across time and cultures. But exploring these differences and commonalities can still be useful.) The good, I argue, is by nature hard to talk about. Unlike evil, it doesn’t demand thought and indeed in some ways eludes it. Evil is at home in thought but we are at home in the good. Evil is something we (think we can adequately) understand and analyse in terms of causality and stories, but good needs other less linear genres, like music and poetry and ritual.

Why ‘the good’ instead of, say, ‘good things’ or ‘things people value as good’? Good question. First, good is not a thing—one of the reasons we have trouble talking intelligently about good is the consumer commodity economy in which we live and what happens to the concept of ‘goods’ in it. Commonplaces about its being better to give than to receive and stories like that of King Midas clue us in to the fact that good is not some thing you possess. Likewise talk of virtues is truer when we don’t think of these virtues as something people somehow possess. The language of participation is better than that of possession, if harder to understand; the language of response and relation are good words too, and the language of the feminist ethics of care.
The question of ‘good’ vs. ‘goods’ is a very interesting one. I’m arguing, against some classic theories of good, that good is plural and dynamic, but still want to hold on to the concept of a single ‘good’ because it seems to me that particular goods evoke a larger connectedness, point beyond themselves. Not to a single highest ineffable good (or not only to that) but to each other, to new combinations and harmonies.

That's still pretty vague... What’s it all got to do with religion, by the way? You are in religious studies, aren’t you? Indeed I am. I think my approach is very much shaped by the field of religious studies—I see religious ideas as part of complicated traditions of practice, ritual, narrative, and always as shaped by and shaping social and political orders. The idea of goods isn’t a religious idea, though on some definitions of religion it might be. If calling it religious makes it easier to take seriously, be my guest. My approach is shaped by a movement called ‘religious naturalism,’ roughly the idea that religious practices and ideas emerge naturally out of the life of human beings in community, history and nature—you don’t need to posit supernatural forces to account for them or their value. Faith in supernatural beings is compatible with religious naturalism, though not every kind of faith, but this is not part of my argument. I’m hoping that what I argue will make sense to secular readers as well as religious ones; it’s couched in the undogmatically secular lingua franca of the humanities.

And evil in all this? I certainly don’t mean to be saying ‘evils are terrible, yes, but look on the bright side, there’s all this good…’ If nothing else I hope to persuade people that they’ll understand and respond better to evil if they think about the good tool, whether they accept my proposals about good or not. But of course I hope they find something useful in my suggestions, and start to think in new ways about evil and good. And not just think, since the good need our care.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mount Macedon?

Came up to Shepparton again to take care of my nephews while my sister and her husband did some more househunting. They seem to have taken a liking to a place less than an hour northwestish from Melbourne called Macedon, at the foot of one of the biggest mountains in these parts. (No mountain in Australia is very high, Mount Macedon's peak is apparently sometimes capped with snow!) I suppose Mount Macedon is Melbourne's Hausberg. You can see it in the distance, for instance, in this watercolor from 1847 from the State Library of Victoria, depicting one of the candidate events for the founding of Melbourne in 1835, Batman's agreement with the Aborigines.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Went this morning to a lecture in a course on the cultural history of Melbourne being taught in the history department at Melbourne Uni. (I met the lecturer by chance last week and he told me about it.) I didn't learn much I hadn't at least guessed along the way - it is a survey course - but it was such fun to be back in a classroom! Even hearing the announce- ments and the description of methods for research projects made me happy. I miss teaching!

Among Australian cities, Melbourne is famous for its grid, laid out by a man named Hoddle in 1837. The above is one of the surveyor's chains he used in marking out the blocks. Originally there were to be twenty four big square blocks, 3 by 8, barely bisected by narrow lanes allowing the backdoor provisioning of the houses and businesses fronting the main streets.
It's nothing like as big as New York's grid in 1821, but still striking for its ambition. (You could, I suppose, see the gridding of the whole island of Manhattan as an act not of ambition but of laziness - just keep the lines going until you reach water!) Both imagined cities far grander than what was already there or could be extrapolated from it.

The thing about grids is you don't know how they'll fill out, or even if. By laying out a grid rather than a system with centers or letting the lay of the land carve out your spaces you leave it to the future to shape your city, maximizing in advance the possibilities of communication and movement between sections. (Hoddle had no way of knowing that the city would basically grow along the north-south grid - diagonal in his picture -, leaving the now CBD stranded on a permanent tilt.) The uncertainty is intoxicating and terrifying... and the only thing certain is the uncertainty, for the communication and movement doesn't stop when the grid fills up but just gets more energetic.

Rather like if you planned to write a book with seven chapters, each divided into four subsections, and hoped that each of the twenty-eight resulting blocks would be equally interesting - or at least equally easy to fill - long before you knew who would be moving in...!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A bridge too far?

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is seventy-five years old today! This picture shows the two sides inching toward each other in 1930, something apparently watched with bated breath by everyone on both sides until the unbelievable moment of union. (Source of the pic.)

The Melbourne Age barely mentioned it in today's paper. There is an article, of course, but it's entitled "As Melbourne celebrates the big events, Sydney crosses a bridge." In the weekend review of arts and culture, the Age included an article by an ex-Melburnian living in Sydney who reported that the bridge is avoided by drivers and still marks divisions between parts of the city rather than uniting them. No complexes here!

Although nothing in Melbourne would ever make you think this, I'm starting to wonder if Sydney may not be worth a visit after all, just for the fun of it. While I'm assured there's nothing behind the surface, nobody doubts that its surface is very pretty. I would go prepared to see Sydneysiders prove their patent inferiority to Melburnians by spending no time at all comparing the two cities, if they even think about Melbourne at all!

Perhaps Sydney's calling to me because I just finished another marvelous book by our old friend Kate Grenville which takes place there, Lilian's Story. It is loosely based on a well-known Sydney eccentric, a bright and enormous woman who falls or is pushed out of "respectable" Sydney society into semi-lunacy and ends up homeless. "Lil" knows and doesn't know that she's not like other people. She knows that she's famous and half-knows that people think she's mad. She thinks she understands people and while they would disagree she's usually right. It's a heart-breaking tale of great beauty and humanity.

Here's a little taste. Lil's on a tram and refuses to pay the ticket, the conductor kicks up a fuss and stops the tram; a stranger offers to pay the fare since she needs to catch her ferry.

You are familiar with me, I told the woman as she waited for the cool air of her ferry, but who are you? I seized her wrist above the raffia bag, to make her sit down beside me, because I wanted to participate in the story she would tell about the two of us. Now that she was beside me, and we were nothing more alarming than two middle-aged ladies on a tram seat, she became calmer. I am Agnes Armstrong, she told me, and smiled, because close up she could see that I would not bite her, or embarrass her any more. And what else? I asked, and she peeked in to consult the spinach, then said, Well, I am a wife, and a mother of two. But I was still not satisfied. What else are you? I asked, but she was standing up now, the Quay in sight, smiling and glad that this was nearly over. That gave her courage, and she laughed recklessly and lifted her chin like a young beauty, and cried, Oh, what else I am would take a year to tell! And I had made her beautiful for that moment. She was off the tram then, springing away for her ferry, but I could see that her face still had the echo of that smile and would see her home, and be with her while she told her remarkable story.

A remarkable story, no? Sad and beautiful. And it rings true, an urban truth.

Yo MaMa

Had a nice theatrical evening yesterday. Melbourne's La MaMa theater - one of several so-named theaters around the world which provide a place for new and international work(there's one in the East Village in NYC) - turns out to be just around the corner from where I live, and one of their new plays sounded interesting, so I went. The play's called "Sinners," and was written by husband-wife team Ramiz Tabit and Johann McIntyre. (Husband Ramit is originally from Lebanon; how his Melburnian wife ended up named Johann I don't know.)

The play tells the story of a farmer from the Middle East who ends up fleeing to Australia and a Pentecostal minister (wife of another Pentecostal minister) who meet up, work through various religious questions, and, well, have an affair. It's not a perfect play; you can tell that it's been through many stages. It started as a project called "The Muslim sinner" and was to be a light-hearted look at Islam and modern life, but then 9/11 happened and the moment didn't seem right; this version started out trying to balance that out with a parallel story of a fundamentalist Christian, but their relationship and the challenges of being an immigrant and a Muslim in Australia and a woman set free from a misogynist religious tradition all make it into something more. Less clear in retrospect but more engaging while you're watching it! But it was well written, acted, directed. And the story of how Australian freedoms and love overcame the false certainties of religious fundamentalism went over well with the audience, not all of whom were typical Aussie religious sceptics.

The evening was fun also because this was a small show in a small space, and started to feel like family! The director started chatting with me as we waited for the show to start and when it started I recognized one of the two actors - Gemma Cavoli was the other lead in the "Happy End" I saw at VCA last December! - Remember, I found her co-lead working at the De Graves Cafe. (The other actor is originally from Iran.) And then the extended family of the authors (two Muslim women in head scarves, some pale-looking Ango-Celts, a Turk and her Croat husband Darko) invited me to join them for coffee after the show: "middle eastern hospitality," they said. Annnnnd I won the raffle with which each La MaMa performance begins, and have tickets for another show they have on at the moment, a prize-winning play called "Asylum"! Feel the love. And feel the vibrant immigrant Melbourne I've told you I'd tell you about but have not until now really seen!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Prix fix

As I walked to Uni just now I heard a distant buzzing and whirring sound, somewhere between chainsaws and cicadas - it's the F1 Grand Prix of Australia, for which many Melburnians leave town. I understand why. It's at Albert Park, on the other side of the CBD from here, more than 5 kilometers away - and yet you can hear it all the way up here. If not, at this distance, VROOM VROOOOOM it's still vroom vroooooom.

I'm sure I mentioned long ago, when we were just getting acquainted, that Melbourne is one endless parade of festivals. Right now, as we wind down from a fashion festival and look forward to a comedy festival, we're host to the F1 Grand Prix and to the FINA world swimming championships; I'm sure I've overlooked others.

Being the "events capital of Australia" is all a bit much, really. But at least I don't need to pay for it. Taxpayers do. An article in The Age a few days ago pointed out that FINA and the F1 will cost the city - that is, its taxpayers - $80 million this year, about $20 per citizen. Is it really worth it? Sure, the author conceded, such events contribute to the economy and add to Melbourne's international status and visibility. But wouldn't the same be accomplished and with longer-lasting results if the $80 were put into improving education? Indeed, the author noted, even having all the rocks at the bottom of the Yarra River painted red would: painters would be employed, and the world press would be sure to pick up the story!

I won't be watching race cars or swimmers today: it's wrestling with blasted chapter three for me - Theodicy and Democracy (what was I thinking? if I only I could remember!). The last few days it's just snarled at me, but I think I've turned a corner. If it's not going VROOM VROOOOOM at least it's going vroom vrooooom.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Small world (too small)

At a Philosophy Department welcome party for the new academic year last night I saw a bit more of the small world which is academe than one perhaps should. A visitor from Beersheba University (originally a Melburnian who left in 1967 and is back for the 100th birthday of an uncle) told me he'd recently written a review of a book by one of my Princeton advisors. Where, I asked? In a bilingual Canadian journal whose name he couldn't recall. How did this happen? On the bus between Jerusalem and Beersheba he met a Canadian whose daughter was spending some time in a kibbutz who happened also to be the book review editor for this journal. He had a bunch of books in his bag looking for reviewers, and so the deed was done. I didn't ask if he'd liked the book.

A young German historian of science I'd just met and I wondered later how the history of scholarship might be shaped by book review editors trawling along other bus routes, perhaps between Berlin and Leipzig or Melbourne and Canberra ... or the Trans-Siberian railroad?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Salaam dunk

Went to the National Gallery of Victoria/International today to see a 2-year-old Bollywood film called "Salaam Namaste," shot here in Melbourne. It's a silly story about headstrong singles finally swallowing their pride and getting married, only the more strange for taking place in familiar settings. A bit in this respect like "Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna," one of last year's big films, which took place all over New York City, though a New York City from one end of which you could move to another as swiftly as through a hypertexted website (and change costume, too!)! Of course Bollywood - especially but not only in its dance numbers - is not about continuity, and to notice bloopers seems simply to miss the point.

But it's not insignificant that "Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna" took place among NRI (Non-Resident Indians) in New York and that "Salaam Namaste" takes place among NRIs in Melbourne. Big budget Bollywood films take place in all sorts of strange and wonderful places; what's important is simply that these take place abroad. The foreign locales allow the films to take on forbidden topics, allow their NRI protagonists to let it all hang out. In India, I learned, "Kabhi" isn't the New York movie, it's the divorce movie - the first movie to present divorce sympathetically... (it seemed extravagantly cruel to me when I saw it...)

And "Salaam" isn't the Melbourne movie; it's the living-together-when- you're-not-married movie. I'm sure it's not the first film in which proud young people who've rejected marriage shack up and get pregnant but it's the first to give them a happy-ever-after ending anyway, although they do have to suffer a little bit on the way. (When she can't go through with an abortion and he won't marry her because he doesn't want kids or marriage, she says it must be her karma to have fallen in love with him and gotten pregnant - despite using birth control! - and now have her life ruined, a punishment for turning down the ten matches her parents found for her which only he could have meted out to her.)

Divorce and living together without marriage are explosive topics to an Indian, but to a jaded western viewer the films are striking for other reasons. Like the delirious dance numbers in "Kabhi" and the strangely disconnected love duets in "Salaam" and the crazed camera work in both! Lucky for you people have posted some parts of "Salaam Namaste" on youtube. So you can see many places I see every day as the protagonists fall in love ("My heart goes hmmm"). You can also see something I've never seen before - go on, I dare you - the title number where Australian girls in bathing suits do Bollywood dance numbers (not all that well). And here's something really bizarre, the only NRI whose English sucks is a Crocodile Dundee wannabe, with a Leitmotif from Ennio Morricone - is this how Aussies are seen in Hindustan?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


The other day I picked up a book I'd ordered at a local bookstore and although I'd spelled out my name when reserving it and we even corrected the a the man in the shop had written down when I said i, it was nevertheless filed under Lorima. Australian accents are an amazing thing. Sometimes, as when I overheard some people in the tram planning to swing by Chonnatan for dinner, it makes me woozy. At other times, it thrills me - I think I'm in love with ABC radio's Damien Carrick, or at least with the way he talks.

Something else on ABC made me think about accents yesterday. They were interviewing some prominent Australian expats in the US, including the new director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography Tony Haymet. (Scripps is just down the coast from Del Mar, and houses a fabulous aquarium where I encountered the weedy sea dragons - most improbable-looking of Gould's fish - in real life just last year!) None of these people quite sounded like Australians any more, though they didn't sound like Americans either. More a sort of slick melodyless drawl with just the faintest occasional echo of singing vowels, but muffled. How must it sound to Aussies back home? The phenomenon is surely not new; I suppose a few decades ago the expats interviewed would be in Britain and sounding more English than the queen. And yet it seems to me there's something tragic in giving up an Australian accent for an American one, especially, as in these cases, where it doesn't seem deliberate.

See? Yanks can do the cultural cringe, too!

In other news, I had my last antimalarial pill yesterday - you're supposed to take them for two weeks past your return from your trip, since it takes a while for mosquito eggs to hatch. Has it just been two weeks since India? It feels like it was last year - all of last year!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fish never smelled so sweet

Just finished reading an amazing novel, Gould's Book of Fish by the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan. It's so good, so boldly imagined and thoroughly realized, that it's hard to say anything about it. You can sort of articulate what it's about, I suppose: It's about a penal colony in Tasmania in the 1820s, it's about colonialism and the illusions of enlightenment and science and civilization and their cruel byproducts. It's about the slaughterhouse that is history and the countless lives erased by official histories. It's about storytelling - the luminously crude and often gorgeous language is an uninterrupted romp, though at times you want to hide in the language to avoid the mad savageries described. It's about imagination, about art, about the powers and seductions of language, and the mystery of love.

And it's about fish, a book of fish painted by a convict: I've included the pics of the silver dory, the striped cowfish, the stargazer, and the weedy seadragon. The convict was a forger named, among other things, William Buelow Gould. (The forger seems a common character in Australian fiction about the convict settlements, understandably enough, but this fellow takes the cake. Besides, he really existed, or at least the book of paintings does, in the Tasmanian State Library!) The fish start to take over Billy Gould's mind, their bizarre but beautiful shapes becoming metaphors for the characters he describes, the distorted grotesques of humanity (if it is still humanity) produced in as ultimately antihuman a system as the colonial with its delusions of finally facilitating the birth of a true human civilization. Is it easier for a man to live his life as a fish, than to accept the wonder of being human?" But that makes it sound like a sermon, which it isn't: it's too angry, and too intoxicated by the thrill of imagining. Billy Gould is clearly mad - or is it that he transforms what he reimagines with such a mad clarity that it reveals a truth deeper than the truth, a truth more terrifying than truth dares face?

More skilled critics than I are made to grope for words by this book, too ("a work of significant genius" said a tongue-tied critic for the Chicago Tribune, whatever that means, and yet I feel the critic's pain), and note affinities with Rabelais, Smollett, Sterne, Melville, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez, Jim Crace, Toni Morrison, Jeannette Winterson. A pretty terrifying roster - don't let it put you off. I've read quite a lot of Australian literature by now; this is in a league of its own. Not light reading, but brilliant.

It's not just that it ends, with an improbability that is entirely convincing (not the very end, and also not a spoiler for novel):

So there you have it: two things & I can't bring them together & they are wrenching me apart. These two feelings, this knowledge of a world so awful, this sense of a life so extraordinary -- how am I to resolve them? ...

For I am not reconciled to this world.

I wished to be & I was not & so I tried to write this world as a book of fish & set it to rights in the only manner I knew how.

But my way was meaningless, my cries unheard, my pictures spat on before they were lost for all eternity. Now I just watch & think the ridiculous, the improbable: the world is good, I think, & the world is good & the world is good.


Saturday, March 10, 2007


Spent the day in Shepparton with my nephews, as my sister and brother in law checked out possible new homes - he's found a new job nearer Melbourne, so they'll be moving closer to the city. Excellent news!

But Shepparton's putting up a good fight. The cute little towns along the outer edge of Melbourne which they're looking at are, for all their charms, little towns compared to Shepparton, the closest thing to a city in these parts. As I noted a while back, it's quite an international place, too.

Tonight was the Twilight Festival, a lovely outdoor festival with booths selling not just the inevitable sausages and beer but local wines, home-made Turkish food, Congolese hair-braiding... An Australian approximation of the Gypsy Kings played (well) until the fireworks, which were splendid! Either fireworks have gotten a lot cheaper or a lot better since I was young, or the sponsor of the fireworks, SPC Ardmona, the company which harvests and cans most of the fruit around here, splashed out a lot of money.

And then we headed home to find the sky full to bursting with the Milky Way. Not that you can't see the southern Milky Way anywhere in Australia, indeed anywhere in the world. But I don't think I've ever seen it this bright before. Gotta get out into the bush and sleep under the stars before I leave Australia...

(The pic is from the web, taken in Bolivia by a Fred Espenak.)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Childing autumn

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which.

When Titania spoke these words last night, describing the havoc wreaked by her discord with Oberon, it might have been global warming she was describing. I was thinking how incongruous it was to be seeing A Midsummer Night's Dream in the chill of an early autumn evening in the Melbourne Botanical Garden, something like midway between the midsummers of the two hemispheres between which I find myself bouncing this year.

But then I forgot all about it and had a grand time - the first time, I must confess, that I have actually enjoyed this play. Perhaps you need to see it in a park with night falling just as you enter act II. The flying foxes circling overhead - big owl-sized bats - added to the magic of it. The Australian Shakespeare Company was brilliant, too. Leavening it with smart contemporary references and fantastic comic timing (oh Pyramus and Thisbe...!!!), they let the play's poetry and the genius of its structure shine forth. The apparently imprecise overlapping of worlds produces an ending pleasing for its challenge - would you have fairies have power over men's destinies or no? in neither case would you have this happy outcome.

It's a nice thing, isn't it, to finally understand what all the fuss is about concerning something you've not before had eye to hear or ear to see, hand to taste, tongue to conceive nor heart to report.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


To make finishing this darn manuscript my main activity without entirely giving up on Melbourne's pleasures, I'm trying a new schedule to embed the one within the other: walk or tram into the city and get a morning flat white at one of the city's myriad coffee shops (present faves include De Graves and the Café au Soleil, but I'm committed to trying many more), then park myself in the State Library for the day, a network of spacious reading rooms full of people from all walks of life. Lots of inexpensive Asian restaurants nearby should I get hungry. Then tram or walk back to Lygon Street. Sometimes, like today, I might nip down to St. Paul's cathedral for choral evensong at 5:15, and I suspect I might get in the habit of checking out what's happening at Fed Square, too...

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ahh, Melbourne

This is a very pretty place, this Melbourne! This morning I took the tram a bit farther than the State Library to see what was happening at the National Gallery of Victoria International across the river (the long grey block at left in the picture above). A fantastic futuristic participatory Lego cityscape was my destination, but the NGV International is closed Tuesdays. No worries, I got the time for a free screening of "Salaam Namaste," a Bollywood film shot here in Melbourne, and had an excuse to walk back across the Yarra in the clear autumn light, and up through Fed Square, which I've now decided I don't just really like but love. How the light plays on the undulating pink cobblestones, and dances along the glass surfaces of the buildings!

In the atrium I found an exhibit of photos of the city taken from a hot air balloon by a Cecilia Mugica and available also on her website. The pic above is one of hers, taken in the early morning a bit farther along in autumn, but nicely shows how you'd make your way from the NGV International past the futuristic Arts Center and across the river into the CBD (Central Business District = downtown). Fed Square, atop the railroad tracks, is the first thing on the right.

Back to the books

I'm at a new stage of post-India withdrawal, the sense that I skimmed the surface so superficially as to have really seen nothing. This is doubtless untrue in one sense, since I wouldn't have needed to go through the last phase, if true in another: it was just three weeks, after all, when most people seem to spend months and years there, not to say lifetimes!

The somewhat less demanding pleasures of this life here, in Melbourne, now, as summer yields to a new school year, are nicely characterized in the Leunig calendar for this month. If he doesn't mention the happiness of returning to your manuscript and finding it just as you left it, perhaps that's because it's not an entirely happy occasion. While I've been out and about, it's just been sitting here, sulking. And now it's punishing me with "you don't really care about me at all, do you?" and "do you even remember who I am?"

We'll work it out, I'm sure.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

India pics complete!!

Okay folks, it's taken a week but here they are - as many of my India pics as I dare inflict on you! They're organized by places (with some spillover between posts and more or less commentary depending on my state of mind). You can follow these links directly to the pics from Delhi, Agra, Chanderi and the Ken River, Orchha, Khajuraho, Allahabad and Varanasi, the Durga temple near Ramnagar, Jaipur, Amber, Ajmer and Pushkar, or just keep scrolling down. Some of the pictures are quite pretty!

This post is for pics left over which I can't resist posting anyway. The picture at top is part of a wall-painting in Samode, an 18th-century palace-turned-luxury hotel I peeked into on my way back from Rajasthan.
The monkeys playing at the painting's upper left are the same kind I saw atop a dome near the Brahma mandir - and lots of other places too!

Three scenes from my very first day in Delhi:
• one of the lovely marble grilles which interlace the chambers at Humayun's tomb and fill it with dappled light and cool breezes
• a little chipmunk-like squirrel, the first of many many animals I encountered everywhere we went, and
• some of the exquisite calligraphy which encircles the great tower of Qutb Minar - notice how the sculptors have made blooming branches out of the letters of the calligraphy!
This gentleman selling necklaces and string for soaking in the sangam at Allahabad has been waiting sullenly for me to post this picture for weeks.
This solitary brahmin performed a puja in the sacred city of Chitrakoot, a place the Intrepid tour stopped on its way from the Ken River to Allahabad. It was mysterious and moving and nothing like the Las Vegas version of a similar puja we saw in Varanasi, performed by twice five young Brahmins under bright lights!

At right is a picture of my driver through Rajasthan (the one who almost got me killed) with his mother and young son. Until we decided to take a picture his mother, who'd just brought us glasses of fresh steaming hot milk, was bathing me in the warmest smile I've probably ever seen. Was it naughty of me to include two other kids - not introduced to me but clearly very interested - in my picture?

I leave you with these pilgrims processing to some temple near Samode. These were but some of the hundreds we saw, walking and accompanying floats pulled by tractors or in truck-beds. The roads were lined with marchers for miles and miles and miles. Next time I'll know enough, or have a driver who knows enough English, to find out what's going on!

India pics: Pushkar

I spent my last two days in the the little holy city of Pushkar, little more than a few hundred temples in various styles around a sacred lake until the tourists showed up. The holiest temples were off limits to non-Hindus (unless, I was told later, the non-Hindus are bearing baksheesh) so my pictures are only from the gates, except for the Brahma mandir (the red one), my visits to which I described at the time.
These are all pretty grand, but after a while you notice that practically every building houses a temple of some kind, grand or shabby (or shabby-grand, an Indian specialty), spilling well beyond the 52 ghats (one built by each maharaja of Rajasthan) and up into the surrounding hills. It would have been more representative to have shown you one of the unassuming temples, but I foolishly forgot to take a picture of one of them - how would you decide which one to choose? None of them stands out...! Most of the buildings - even the grand ones - are not very old, since Aurangzeb, the last and most iconoclastic of the Mughal emperors, took the occasion of a visit to the Dargah in Ajmer to pop over to Pushkar to smash some idols.
The lake is especially nice at sunset and at sunrise. The place to got for sunset, however, is the temple of Savitri.
From it (even if you don't make it to the summit...!) you get a nice view of Pushkar
and can see why this little spot of clear blue in the midst of a dry rugged landscape will have demanded supernatural explanation and celebration.
To close, here's a picture of the water on the lake just as the sun rises above the mountains to the east, taken just after the one I posted at the time.

India pics: Ajmer

After Jaipur and Ajmer I headed further southwest to two very holy places: Ajmer, home of the most important Sufi tomb in the Subcontinent, and Pushkar, home of the world's only Brahma temple. These are some of the fragrant (and tasty!) flowers offered to the saint.This is pretty much the only picture I felt comfortable taking within the Dargah, the tomb of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti. The center of the action is beneath the gold and marble dome, a tight space around which crowds circle, making offerings of flowers and getting blessings under scarves - and money to the men who help you do this.
It's a busy old Muslim city seldom visited by tourists.
What really thrilled me was the Adhai-din- ka-jhonpra or Two-and-a-half Day Mosque, supposedly reconstructed at the end of the 12th century CE from the rubble of a Hindu palace or Jain temple (depending what source you consult) in 2.5 days.

It seemed like the elder brother of my favorite site in Delhi: the ruined Quwwat-ul-Islam, India's oldest mosque, at Qutb Minar (of which I've just realized I've posted no pictures). It too was assembled from the rubble of earlier structures - Jain and Hindu temples - and its concertedly jumbled use of these earlier materials put me in mind of one of my very favorite places in the whole world: the Mezquita in Cordoba, another Islamic structure built of pieces of pre-Islamic structures (though itself colonized, more or less successfully, by a platteresque cathedral). I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm so fond of spolia.

Anyway, the Jhonpra is twice as tall as the Quwwat-ul-Islam, intact - and still used as a mosque. I was in heaven. Once the midday namaz was over I wandered around as if in an enchanted forest.
As I took pictures a very cute little schoolboy followed me around, and then posed for a photo with his younger brother - outfitted with all the Dargah gear! (I got one of those red and yellow necklaces, too, from my driver.) Not to be outdone, a bevvy of beauties - led by the littlest one! - demanded a picture of them, too!