Monday, April 30, 2007

Looking up

Brought my camera into the SLV yesterday, and caught this play of late afternoon light on the center of the LaTrobe Reading Room's vast glass roof.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Springs sprung

Fall is fast descending here; the maple next door, of which I showed you a picture a fortnight ago, is nearly bare, and the oaks have gone all brown. Hard to imagine that the trees in New York might be looking like the one budding above (taken 3 years ago today), let alone that there might be noisy crowds of tulips, like those jostling to get into the pic below (taken in Chicago, today 2 years ago)!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leunig on Anzac Day

From an article in today's Age called "Xenophobia and Memorabilia" by Michael Leunig, cartoonist and conscience of Australia:

I KNEW A TURKISH MAN WHO owned a coffee shop around the corner from where I used to live. Ten Anzac Days ago I went to his shop for a morning coffee to be greeted by his wicked smile and twinkling eyes. "Good morning Michael," he said, "Happy Anzac Day. This is the special day," he declared with mock formality, "to remember that all invading armies must be thrown back into the sea."

I have to say, it was not such a bad way to start the morning.


A friend of my childhood who lives in Melbourne's western suburbs, where we both grew up, now works among migrants and refugees who have found a new life in this area around Footscray, where so much hope and pain from across the sea have been absorbed into the community over the decades.

He tells me that a delightful aspect of being among so many Africans, Asians and Muslims is the spirited good humour, lively thinking and sincerity that they generate and offer so readily. "They are what the dinkum, working-class Aussies used to be when we were growing up," says my friend. "They keep the spirit alive, they've got the humour; they remind me of what Australians were like before we became so stupid, boring and up ourselves, like the Americans".


"Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus going on before,

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;

Forward into battle see his banners go!"

This drab, common little hymn, this melodramatic Anglo jihad song was taught to us in the 1950s, and in Sunday school or religious instruction class we were often heard singing it. The volume and gusto we usually displayed came from the intuitive belief that if we sang loudly and vigorously enough we would somehow have the choral momentum to go the distance and get through it quickly - a bit like running fast over hot coals.

To sing it on the back foot might mean that the song would become so feeble as to break down and groan to a halt, leaving us stranded forever in the dull wasteland of its meaningless words.

The lyrics seemed to be more about a rampaging gang of morons than a wandering prophet who espoused radical love.


When Anzac Day came, we sang a racist song called Recessional about the glory of battle, boastful Gentiles, "lesser breeds without the law" and our rightful domination of their lands. "Lest we forget, lest we forget" we whimpered bleakly as we sat trapped in our hard wooden desks while the teacher prowled with strap ready to belt us if we showed the least sign of traitorous irreverence.

Rudyard Kipling's anthem lingered like mustard gas in the schoolyard where we played "war" and invented new torture techniques for various imaginary nonwhite and non-English speaking undesirables. Perhaps we were expressing some innocent anger at having been mentally and physically bullied in this farcical militarist manner by the state education system in a time when Aborigines weren't allowed to vote and "coloured" people were banned from migrating to Australia.


Kurt Vonnegut knew something about aerial bombardment and modern warfare through sad experience. His recent death leaves me with a wistful gratitude for his work and an idea that has been useful in understanding what humans are on about.

In the novel Breakfast of Champions, his protagonist, the obscure writer Kilgour Trout, is invited to speak at a remote provincial arts festival in an American town where the citizens generally have a philistine hostility to art and artists. The townsfolk prefer sporting heroes and are particularly proud of a local swimming champion whose father has dedicated much time and effort in training her to be a winner.

In a dim, dreary bar one night, the lonely writer listens as the locals denounce writers and artists and praise the local role model: the father and trainer of the young female swimming champ. Kilgour Trout ponders, then turns to the group and asks, "What sort of a man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?" The writer is set upon and beaten black and blue. This tale often helps me to understand Australia.


What we are trying to turn our children into and what we are trying to turn our culture into are big questions.

There are times when the general aspirational model seems like some flimsy, high-revving, high-maintenance, overheated motor to keep us skimming over the surface - yet unsustainable and forever breaking down.


And Anzac Day has been turned into what? Somewhere buried underneath the new carpark at Anzac Cove is an ordinary human heart. But all this spiritual inflation and emotional conscription - the modern media event, the manipulation for political advantage - they've put a big thumping hoon outboard motor on the back of a tragedy.

Anzac Day, it seems, must now be done with bluster, hoopla and media hypnotism. Like the landing and the campaign itself, there is something appalling about this in the eyes of many Australians new and old - some disgraceful misuse of humanity by the wielders of political and economic power.

On Anzac Day, coffee and jokes with a Turk might be the most meaningful and fair dinkum dawn service you could possibly have.

(The photos, while reminiscent of the "curly world" of Leunig's cartoons, are mine, both of the same spiky branch of a tall tree we saw at the Botanical Gardens in Benalla.)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Still life with fries

I'm up in Shepparton for what might conceivably be the last time - my sister's family takes possession of their new place in Macedon next weekend! (And in a stroke of incredible good luck, they seem to have found a buyer for the place here, too.) Today we drove up to Benalla, the capital of Moira Shire (what a name for a county!). It's got a lovely botanical garden, and an art gallery with an interesting collection.

The painting above caught my eye. It's called "M for Mortal but Happy Days Ahead," and was painted by the young Melburnian artist Mark Threadgold last year. (The image is from his website.) He's got some work to do on perspective - don't people learn about cylinders and cones in art school anymore? - but the painting still works somehow, evoking with wit but respect the Flemish vanitas tradition which is among my favorite painting genres. Is our culture too fast foody to understand stillness, the lifeless life of objects? Or is it in fact in the heart of the happy meal that we sense the vanity of it all, or would, if we allowed ourselves the time to behold it?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Anzac Day

On this day in 1915, the Anzacs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) landed at Gallipoli. Eight months later, 8000 had died, but the battle was lost. Today, as people throughout Australia and NZ attend dawn memorial services (Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance drew a record crowd of 35,000) and parades, 8000 Australians and Kiwis - many of them young people - are commemorating the event at Gallipoli, as many as the lost. What's going on? Why, when the "diggers" (as the Australian boys fighting in WW1 were known) have long passed away, is it such a big deal, let alone getting to be a bigger deal each year?

Anzac Day is one of the aspects of Australian culture my sister told me was hardest to understand. I can't claim to get it either. It's as surprising as the fine millinery of the Melbourne Cup and the popularity of "Big Brother." Gallipoli was lost but WW1 was won - so it's not like the American South remembering its glorious losses. WW1 was won but Gallipoli was lost - so it's not about victory either. This land's machismo is irreverent and convivial, not military - is that what Gallipol's about? There's both realism and fatalism here: war's terrible but an apparently inescapable part of life. Look at this purple prose from an editorial in The Age:

War harvests death and, in its combatants, the crop is always the young. War needs the young: for they are the fittest to fight; the fittest to kill; the fittest to die. The two world wars were the great scythe in each generation's youth. Subsequent wars, such as Korea and Vietnam, were if not scythes then bloody instruments that cut into the lifeblood. Australia's military casualties in World War I totalled almost 62,000; another 137,000 were wounded in action; in World War II, more than 39,000 died and 23,000 were wounded in action. The second conflagration took its toll in POW statistics: almost 29,000 captured with 8000 dead compared with 3600 in World War I and 109 dead. In the Korean War, the death toll was almost 340, and in Vietnam 520.

War is hell. Its language is crimson violence, spoken with the stutter of guns. ...
Today thousands of people will gather for a minute's silence. They will pause to remember the tremendous cost war can extract from life; and that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for the sacrifices people are ordered to make and that sometimes there is. That is the real pity, and the exalted poetry of a nation's flesh and blood.

The language isn't about Our Great Land or the Great Sacrifices that have been made to protect Our Way Of Life, defending Freedom and Civilization against their enemies (though this was surely the language at the time); even the masculine Virtues of our Great Heroes aren't the main thing. It's about "mateship" in the face of meaningless death. It is a cult not of victory or defeat but of war as a part of life, a cult of death. The number of Aussies lost in WW1 as a percentage of population, and in a young country, is staggering. One in five who went perished, and as many again died of wounds in the next dozen years. Many of the lost died thousands of miles away in unknown lands and have no graves. Their sacrifice isn't mentioned in the history books in those distant lands where they died, or in the distant lands for whom they fought. How do you mourn that?

At the Shrine of Remembrance there was an exhibit on Avenues of Honour, the avenues of trees planted in 250 Victorian towns as their boys set off for war; each tree bore a name. Nearly a century later many of the Avenues are still there. The huge trees outnumber the populations of some small towns. With photographs the exhibit included several paintingds by a landscape painter named David Porter. The one above, of the enormously long Avenue of Honour at Ballarat, is called "Roots in the Earth," but looks more like skeletal arms coming out of the earth - protectively or menacingly?

(The two photos are details of the Shrine of Remembrance.)

Shrine of Remembrance

Since tomorrow (Wednesday) is Anzac Day, Australia's most solemn national holiday, I decided it was time to go see the Shrine of Remembrance. Lots of school groups were there too, color-coded by uniforms which seem designed to look tatty. Completed in 1934, the monument was inspired by the tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and peers down Swanston Street from an elevation south of the CBD. Like ancient Greek architecture it corrects for certain optical illusions by a curvature of all horizontal lines; all the verticals incline slightly and if projected would converge 2250m above floor level.

Constructed to honor the 114,000 Victorians who served the British Empire in WW1 (19,000 died), the Shrine now also honours those who served and fell in later (and present) conflicts. (Australia's been sending its youth to fight other people's wars for most of its history, the present Iraq war being only the most recent.) The sanctuary and crypt are full of names of battles and battalions, battle standards and a display of medals so long it's divided in two by a glass wall - the setting for this rather creepy picture.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Metamorphoses nocturnes

Went last night to a bona fide soirée (some of you may know that I would love to be able to revive the custom of the soirée, but I'd never actually been to one) and it was magical. Every month a woman (a friend of a friend) invites people to the room above Dante's Bar on Gertrude Street, a room with brass chandeliers, wood paneling, red curtains and a bar with cool blue light - and some musicians or comedians. Last night the young Melbourne-based Flinders Quartet (left) played Gyorgi Ligeti's first string quartet, "Metamorphoses nocturnes," and a retired opera singer sang some new songs by a youngish Australian composer.

The highlight was the Ligeti, whose music I've not really enjoyed before, perhaps because I've never heard it live. The first string quartet was inspired, we were told, by a study of Bartok's 3rd and 4th string quartets (which, apparently, were not being performed in Hungary in the early 1950s). It conveys some of the solemn magic and exuberant dancing of those pieces, as well as abundant good humor. It took me back to one of my great music memories, a marathon performance of all six Bartok quartets by the Takacs String Quartet in January 2000 in Alice Tully Hall. I arrived at that concert a Bartok sceptic and left a true believer.

The Flinders Quartet played the Ligeti with vigor, precision and beauty - and hearing it in the warmth of an intimate space took me back to another place and time: Vienna, thirty years ago. We were living there at the time, and my parents often took us (my sister too? I don't remember) to chamber music recitals in the building on the Ring where my father was working. Chamber music up close and - as part of a series of convivial evenings - personal is a wonderful thing. How lucky I was to get to know it already as a child. (I don't remember if I thought I was lucky at the time!)

The Ligeti took me back to Vienna 1977 for another reason: my best friend at school then was Gyorgi Ligeti's son, Lukas. I wonder what happened to him? Aha, just googled: he's a composer and percussionist, and lives - where else - in New York! Think I'll drop him a line. Why should not Gert's soirée in Melbourne reunite two New Yorkers who met as children in Vienna?

Fact and fiction meet on Lygon Street!

I’ve been slowly reading J. Wallace Knight’s The Ritualist, a novel published in 1900 about St. Peter’s, Eastern Hill, and it's just passed by my house! The State Library (of course!) has the only copy around. It’s a dusey. It tells the dramatic story of the arrival in Melbourne of two heroic Anglo-Catholic priests from England. One, Wulfred Langton, winds up dead a few weeks after introducing candles, vestments and incense, and it looks like foul play. Wolsey Roland Ken, his young assistant finds on Langton’s desk a letter describing having been abducted and threatened by three men dressed as Inquisitors a short while before. They point out that while they have donned the attire of Inquisitors they could be Catholic, or Puritans, or atheists. He’ll never know, nor need he, but if he doesn’t recant his ritualistic ways something worse might happen to him.

Dashe, the Anglican bishop of Melbourn but a Puritan, refuses to do the funeral, so it falls to the recently arrived Wolsey Ken, who says the city’s first requiem mass, confounding the crowd of gawkers. Turns out that Langton’s innovations have made him well-known, and a large crowd has gathered to follow the funeral procession up Lygon Street (!) and past the University to the cemetery. But along the way the sky turns a livid black and a terrific thunderstorm breaks out, and the Puritans declare it the anger of God. By the time Langton is laid in his grave the crowd has turned into a mob, cursing the dead man and flinging dirt into his grave as the rain-sodden choir runs in confusion, tripping over their vestments.
Fearing for the ornaments of the church, Wolsey rushes back. His cab arrives, the horse nearly dead, just in time to meet a mob which proceeds to trash the place, tearing pictures from the walls and throwing prayerbooks and hassocks around while someone plays saucy songs on the organ. Ken valiantly defends the sanctuary with a broken broom and an acerbic wit, but while he knocks one thug down is held back when a big man comes in with a sledgehammer and proceeds to pulverize the marble altar. At the end of part II, Wolsey Ken collapses, perhaps hit on the head by one of the rowdies, in the middle of his looted and pillaged church.

It’s clear to the novel’s narrator that Anglo-Catholicism is the way of the future. The mad fervor of its opponents is a sure sign that they - Papists, Puritans and modernists alike - know that they will lose out when the Church is triumphantly reunited by Anglo-Catholicism, brought back to where it was before the great schism of Eastern and Western Chrsitianity and the Reformation. I expect the rest of the novel to show the arrival of the Kingdom in Melbourne.

Three things about The Ritualist are particularly interesting. For one, it’s a ripping good yarn! For another, it is full of poetry. Langton and Ken and the various people they meet – even people in the mob! – are endlessly quoting snatches of poetry to each other: they live in a world humming with the language and imagery of English poetry (including the King James Bible) – a nice image of late nineteenth century Anglican theology of culture. And – but - third, none of this ever happened! Protestant clergy fulminated and the bishops of Melbourne raised arched eyebrows at the ritualistic innovations of the Anglo-Catholic churches in Melbourne, and a cross went missing once, but that was about it. The first Anglo-Catholics in England half a century years before encountered some trouble like that described in the novel (but no murders), but nothing of the sort happened in Australia.

Did J. Wallace Knight create this foundation myth to articulate the countercultural excitement of the Anglo-Catholic movement in Melbourne? Or was it because Melbourne in fact didn’t provide enough resistance (or interest!) for the English narratives, carefully crafted to align the Anglo-Catholics with the heroes and martyrs of the church, to ring true and catalyze world-historic change?

A more pertinent question: Can I say that the funeral procession of Wulfred Langton must have passed right in front of our house on Lygon Street? Part of me thinks: why not? Would it feel any more real if it had actually happened? I'm used to sharing streets with characters from fiction and film. Paris was crawling with them!

I remember a few years ago I was in Echigo Yuzawa, the hot-spring heart of the Niigata Snow Country (in Japan) about which Yasunari Kawabata wrote the great novel of that name. There they had a walking-trail where you could see spots important in the novel. At least one hot spring promised that you could soak in the very same water where the novel’s pretty courtesan had soaked. Why not?

The postcard, from 1908, and the amazingly early photo of St. Peter's
from a few decades earlier (Lygon St. and the cemetery would be
off in the distance to the left) are from the SLV collection.

Friday, April 20, 2007

State Library, 1922

Say, here's a picture from the SLV collection of what's now called the La Trobe Reading Room in c. 1922. Much darker than in the contemporary picture below, because leather-bound books are of darker color than books are nowadays, and also because the bookcases went higher.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Mondo bizarro

One of the pleasures of working in the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria (here's a picture from an article in The Age) is that it's the home of the Australiana collection, and people leave the most fascinating books lying around. Yesterday's discovery was James Cockinston's Mondo Bizarro: Australia in the Seventies (Port Melbourne, VIC: Mandarin, 1994). I suppose most of the western world was pretty bizarro in the 70s; Australia was no exception.

Thought I'd share with you the "One Recipe From the Seventies" the author thought worth listing. (A friend of mine assures me it's really an adaptation of Welsh rarebit.)

The Beer Fondue serves 3-4
1 cup beer • 2 cups (8 oz.) cheddar cheese, grated • 1 clove garlic, crushed
1 oz. butter • 1/2 tsp dry mustard • 2 Tbsp cornflour • a little extra beer • French bread

Place beer, cheese and garlic in fondue pot. Cook over a low heat,
stirring constantly, until cheese has melted. Stir in butter.
Blend mustard, cornflour with a little extra beer.
Add to fondue, and stir until thickened.
Serve with French bread cut into one-inch cubes.

But that wasn't actually the most bizarre holdover from the 1970s I saw yesterday. I went to a talk at the Philosophy Department at Melbourne Uni. A veteran philosopher of religion tried to demonstrate that William Rowe's "evidential argument" for atheism from the existence of evils (first stated in 1979) is less conclusive than it might seem. Rowe only considers two incidents of evil, but our philosopher showed that even if you added in all the evils in the world you would not be able to get someone who started out thinking the odds of God's existing to be 0.2 down to something approximating 0.

Through a complicated set of propositions, all abbreviated as letters and pronounced à l'australienne as djooey (for G: God exists), kye (for K: all background knowledge of evils), pooey (for P: no good we know of could justify a God in permitting a given evil), pooey-staa (an elaboration of P, P*), and culminating in eeaye:

Let Ea list all known instances of evil, and providing just enough
empirical information about each instance to enable the instances
to be roughly ordered via the axiological relation
worse than;
and let Ea
say that it lists all known instances of evil.

and pooey-wahn:

No combination of goods, each of which we know of,
justifies God in allowing Ea to be true

he arrived at this formula, which you'll have to sound out for yourselves. [Pr(x/y) means the probability of x given y]

Pr(G/P1&Ea&K) = Pr(G/Ea&K) X Pr(P1/G&Ea&K) / Pr(P1/Ea&K)

He then factored in what he thought were values Rowe would accept (he thinks they're arguable but these were "freebies" to Rowe), and came to a result of 0.2 X 0.8 / 0.99 = 0.162. While there's a false specificity about this number, he admitted smiling, the point is that it's not as far from the posited 0.2 as Rowe's argument would seem to require.

And he beamed like a child who'd just made "fondue" in his toy kitchen with root beer and velveeta.

I am soooo over analytic philosophy of religion!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Can you spot a green lorikeet in this blooming gum tree? (You can't see much more than its head.) It was one of the few not adding to the deafening din of bird chatter as the sun rose over one of the man-made lakes near my sister's place in Shepparton on Monday.

(I post this picture in part as an antidote to the pictures the gun-toting Virginia Tech killer took of himself which are all over the internet news sites. Do we need to see them? Apart from surely adding to the trauma of survivors and the family and friends of victims, it only makes it more likely that some other disturbed person will someday follow in his footsteps.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Moral desertification

The first half hour of the radio news this morning was again on the shootings at Virginia Tech. From down here part of what we're trying to understand is how America accepts this level of gun violence in its national life. The extinguishing of thirty-two lives is an unspeakable tragedy. But thirty-two thousand people are killed by guns in America each year, and the number of guns just grows and grows. Something just doesn't make sense. Do we care about the victims or don't we? Is it a tragedy or just a fact of life?

Three things on the radio disturbed me. One was President Bush's remark, "Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time." The second was the observation of the killer's parents' postman who said "no parent deserves this." It's hardly fair to put the postman's off-the-cuff remark in the same category as the president speech (doubtless written by someone else), but it seemed to me that both say something that shouldn't need saying. Of course the students and professors at Virginia Tech didn't deserve to die; there's no right place or time to be murdered. And of course the parents didn't deserve for their son to shatter so many lives, including theirs.

I understand that mentioning "desert" in this way is a way of insisting on the innocence of the victims. But nobody has questioned their innocence! Nobody would. (Actually many will blame the killer's parents.) Even to suggest that one could deserve such a fate shows you think there are cases in which such fates are deserved.

The third upsetting thing on the radio was an interview with a Virginia pro-gun lobbyist, who argued that if students had been allowed to carry concealed guns on campus the tragedy wouldn't have happened. (Actually he never said even this, just that "one of those kids would have refused to let himself be murdered" - don't think about what's implied here about the rest.) When the interviewer mentioned the 32,000 the gun-runner said that was mostly "bad people killing bad people." Clearly many tens of thousands of people deserve to die every year. (And that's just in the US.)

So which is it: thoughtlessness (I can't believe this has happened, this never happens)? fatalism (sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, American culture's just violent for some reason)? or (perhaps also) blaming the victims (some people deserve it)? One of the achievements of a civilized society (if I may use such barbarous terms) is the presumption that people who suffer tragedies of various kinds don't deserve them - that's what makes them tragedies, and what gives us all a reason to respond and to do what we can to prevent them. American civilization (to take something Gandhi said when asked about "western civilization") would be a good idea.

Nobody deserves to live in a land of such thoughtlessness, fatalism and victim-blaming.

Bildung verbindet

On a day when higher education was, alas, in the world news (I had to turn off the radio when they started to play a Virginia Tech student's mobile phone recording of gunfire) as well as the local (the Melbourne Model was officially launched today), I went to a talk by Ján Figel, the EU Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and somethingelse. The talk was sponsored by four Australian universities' EU studies programs for the EU's 50th anniversary, and his perspective as a Slovak grateful to be part of a reunited Europe after the cold war was interesting... but it was not the world's most exciting talk.

But then the EU is not the world' most exciting topic. And yet, and yet. Figel claimed that the EU was a political and cultural model of world-historic significance and novelty... Part of me wants very much to believe that - a part that's been down in the dumps since the French and Dutch no votes on the European constitution last year, since it thought the EU the only hope of a counterweight to the terribly bad vibes George Bush was sending throughout the international system. And as Figel trotted out the numbers of people who have studied abroad with Erasmus and plans to triple that number in the next seven years, another part of me suddenly found itself thinking: it's the trouble with good again!

Good news is no news, to turn a phrase. You only hear about the EU when something goes wrong, like mountains of butter, or the failure in the Balkans, or anti-Turkish rhetoric, or the politics of defining "mayonnaise," or the capricious behavior of the Polish delegates. What you don't hear is a kind of historical and cultural and political miracle, an enormous series of banal and quietly revolutionary improvements and exchanges and openings and relaxations and dialogues. It's so successful that it's hard to remember the bad old Europe it somehow managed to transform. (Easier to remember if you're from the erstwhile Soviet bloc.) Instead of seeing European expansion as the problem, Figel said in response to a question about the difficulties awaiting the newest member states and more mobile laborers, he'd rather see it as the solution. But, smart man that he is, he also quoted Jean Monnet: "I am neither pessimist nor optimist, I am merely determined."

(Not sure when this photo was taken; it's from an article on "Bildung Verbindet," Germany's theme for its current EU leadership.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bunyip moves!

Just found out that I can embed a video directly in the blog! So you can share our delight on finding an active koala in a tree high above our heads. We - my sister, her husband and two boys and I - were in a park along the Murray River on Sunday and found lots of koala bears napping in the nooks of trees. This one alone was awake and moving around!

Bunyip Bluegum is one of the protagonists of The Magic Pudding; you've seen him before (the post of September 29th).

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Made us laugh

Had a ball last night with my nephews - sister and brother in law were out to a rare dinner with friends. I'd noticed a copy of "Singin' in the Rain" on sale at the local Big W, and - since no household should be without it - picked it up for them. The story's a bit hard to explain to a four-year old ("what's a star?" "what's a movie?" "what's in love?" "why is she wearing that thing?" "why are they dancing?") but not Donald O'Connor's immortal "Make 'em laugh," which had him screeching and hooting. His younger brother was chuckling and tittering (mainly at his brother's mirth, I think!). I guess I was making some noise, too. We watched the scene three times, then tried our hand at some of O'Connor's stunts. Well, mainly his unparalleled repertoire of falls and the bit involving a sofa and a rag doll and falling over the back. I'd say don't try these at home except we did and we're still standing, though precariously! If you don't know the scene, and even if you do and just saw it again last week, check it out: youtube's got it, of course.

I'm not sure just why "Singin' in the rain" is such a great movie, or, I suppose I mean, why I love it so. The "Broadway Melody" scene with Cyd Charisse is trying (especially compared with the comparable scene in "The Band Wagon") and "Beautiful Girl" is tedious, but the rest... The title song is perfection itself, and "Good morning" something like my Platonic ideal of good friends. Part of what makes the film so timelessly winning is how surely it shows that the noblest human emotions and the most delightful thoughts are better expressed - and perhaps not fully expressed unless - danced! Another part is the way it uses one film innovation (technicolor) to replicate the effects of an earlier one (talkies), which allows a kind of recursive synaesthesia (or do I mean synesthetic recursiveness) into the future. But I'd be lying if I didn't also admit that Donald O'Connor's character Cosmo really speaks to me.

Now I can stop suffering and write that symphony!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Unseasonal green

It's that time of year again. No, I don't mean Fall (though the maple above is lighting up one of the houses in our block), and I don't mean Spring (though right now the Chrysler Building's probably surrounded by something like the cherry nimbus at left, snapped two years ago this week). I mean Tax time, the time of the greenback. Let me tell you: there's nothing like trying to file as a New York Nonresident to make you think you never left, that you couldn't leave if you tried, and that you might as well admit you're still a New Yorker even though you run to the ends of the earth!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

From the other side

I don't think I've ever shown you what our humble abode looks like from the north. It stretches from the no parking sign to the street. The red fence is the length of our little yard, and just above it you can see the window of the sun-filled little room off the kitchen where I have my breakfast. I quite like the graffiti - or may I call it a mural? The two somewhat shamefaced figures framing a light blue signature on the right guard the other side of the wall of my room, and the figure showing a hand gesture he learned from the US seems to mean no harm by it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Mystery statue

After that last rather mongo entry, I'll keep this one brief. I was in St. Kilda yesterday and was able finally to get a picture of this sculpture in front of the St. Kilda Town Hall, which I'd seen many times on the tram during my first month here. The snakes, the plane, the expression on the man's face, the temple: what could it possibly be about?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Women at the tomb

After having barely taken note of Lent, I did a sort of penance by binging on Holy Week, at St. Peter's and a number of other houses of worship besides. Appropriately for news first released to women (the painting's by Fra Angelico, from the Convento di San Marco, Florence), my Easter began and ended with women-run services, though of very different kinds.

I started Maundy Thursday at St. Mary's, North Melbourne, in whose choir a new friend of mine sings. St. Mary's is Anglo-Catholic like St. Peter's, but has a different feel, less established, edgier but also more down to earth. The vicar is a woman; I hadn't realized how much I miss hearing a woman's voice saying the mass. The sermon was unpretentious but serious. The choir did valiantly with some Duruflé, Bach and plainchant, but the hymnal we used is a snazzy ecumenical thing called Together in Song with melodies from a hundred countries. Besides something to a traditional Ghanaian melody we got to sing this anthem to the church's belated discovery of women's ministry (I think it's originally Presbyterian: my source):

A prophet-woman broke a jar
by Love's divine appointing.
With rare perfume she filled the room,
presiding and anointing.
A prophet-woman broke a jar,
the sneers of scorn defying.
With rare perfume she filled the room,
preparing Christ for dying.

A faithful woman left a tomb
by Love's divine commission.
She saw, she heard, she preached the word,
arising from submission.
A faithful woman left a tomb
with resurrection gospel.
She saw, she heard, she preached the word,
apostle to apostles.

Though woman-wisdom, woman-truth
for centuries were hidden,
unsung, unwritten, and unheard,
derided and forbidden,
the Spirit's breath, the Spirit's fire,
on free and slave, descending,
can tumble our diving walls,
our shame and sadness mending.

The Spirit knows, the Spirit calls,
by Love's divine ordaining,
the friends we need, to serve and lead,
their powers and gifts unchaining.
The Spirit knows, the Spirit calls
from women, men, and children
the friends we need, to serve and lead.
Rejoice and make them welcome!

In the Anglican Church of Australia, where the ordination of women is still a far-off dream for many, this was prophetic indeed. Not to get into the causes of the latest self-flaggelation of the Anglican Communion, but I don't imagine this sort of thing gets sung much in Ghana.

The morning of Good Friday I went to St. Peter's for a lovely service, the austere but perfectly choreographed medieval liturgy seeming entirely appropriate to so somber an occasion. Particularly moving was the long silence as the three priests prostrated themselves before the stripped altar, and the liquid gold of the choir's singing of the Reproaches (the setting by Vittoria, I think), by turns loud and very soft.

As we finished we could hear a crowd gathering outside the church, the Melbourne City Churches in Action's seventh annual Stations of the Cross Walk. It had begun at the city's oldest Catholic church, and ended at St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral, picking up people along the way from a Welsh church, a Church of Christ, a Wesley Church, St. Peter's, St. Patrick's Catholic cathedral, the German Lutheran church, a Uniting Church, the Scots Church and a Baptist Centre; the Salvation Army sent a banner. At each stop part of the passion narrative from John is read and a prayer or meditation or reflection furnished by that church (each quite different from the others even in style!), followed by a verse of the passion anthem from Bach's Matthäuspassion. It's a nice idea, my first real experience of ecumenism, though I was by the end of it very sick of the dirgelike Taisé chant we sang in all manner of keys as we moved from one church to another, "Jeeeeeeesus, remember meeee, when you come into your kiiiiingdom..." But it was a nice way to spend a sunny noontime on a public holiday, and fun, as we spilled down Collins Street, to see people's reactions. A panicked young body-pierced couple in black who hadn't noticed us coming round the corner looked like campers caught in a flash flood.

In the evening I came back to the Scots Church for a performance of Bach's Johannespassion, which I hadn't intended as a Lenten austerity but became so, starting with an evangelist who sounded like a squeaky attic door. (The choir, orchestra and one of the base soloists were fine.) But even so, it was impressive to have a big church full of people devoted to such music sung in German in the Antipodes.

Saturday night I went back to St. Peter's for the Easter Vigil, which started at 10:30 and lasted until well past everyone's bedtimes. It was very slow, needlessly so. Some visitors from a local Islamic society had come, and I imagine they went home reassured that Anglo-Catholicism is a harmless wraith. This is a pity, since the change from the darkened church to the bright first eucharist of Easter should (one might have thought) be the perfect occasion for appreciating the spirituality behind its theatricality.

This morning, being Anglo-Catholicked out, I decided to go across the street to St. Jude's, the Anglican church my friends talk about like al Qaeda. (In America we'd call it evangelical.) It was a combined service for adults and children, and kids were running up and down the aisles when not asked to participate, making noise to the band which accompanied us through bland modern anthems (the text in powerpoint) or lining up with balloons with the words of the Bible quote we were to memorize on them, the youth minister popping them one by one to jog our memories. The sermon was delivered by a youngish male priest, a recently returned missionary by the sound of it, but the rest of the service was run by women. This wasn't what I was expecting at all, since the Sydney Anglicanism I've been told St. Jude's represents is dead against the ordination of women, and so committed to male "headship" that it argues for a hierarchical Trinity.
Then came the biggest surprise. A bare-bones communion - "symbols Jesus gave us to remember his sacrifice by" - was said by a woman, a layperson, in ordinary dress! It felt like a Tupperware party. Shocking! The priest came out to help share the bread and wine, but was nowhere to be seen during the consecration of the sacrament. Of course it probably wasn't meant as a "consecration" but as a "commemoration," and they probably think of it as a "symbol" rather than a "sacrament." (Someone has suggested the Sydney Anglicans are best described as Neopuritans.) I remembered another thing I'd heard about Sydney Anglicanism - that they're going full-tilt for what they call "lay presidency." Who needs priests anyway? It hadn't occurred to me when I read about this that it might prove a back-door way to a form of women's ministry.

What a broad tent is the Anglican Church, unbelievably broad, really. How sad it would be if its various factions were to break apart; its great gift to the larger Christian community is precisely the variety it manages somehow to sanction, if not always to celebrate.

Friday, April 06, 2007


Easter joins the list of things in Australia that seem like America stood on its head. Most Australians are not religious, but schools and universities get a week or two off and everyone gets a holiday for Easter, indeed a 4 day weekend! (Not sure why Easter Monday needs to be a holiday for anyone.) With ads for Easter chocolates all over, it's strangely like Christmas in America - a once religious holiday now become a secular and commercial one. Perhaps one of the comedians at The Melbourne Comedy Festival (which uses this weekend to take flight) could explain how you secularize this literally excruciating event when it isn't even Spring - not to mention in a land where the importation of rabbits has proved disastrous! (In the Shepparton paper I even found an analog to the "put Christ back in Christmas" campaign, a picture of a foil-wrapped chocolate bunny with the caption "He didn't die for your sins.")

Care for a hot cross bun? This is just the normal one from the Bakers Delight down the street. (Actually it's from their website.) But their special chocolate chip hot cross buns each have at least 100 chocolate chips in them. Maybe they were inspired by - or inspired! - that Americanized Aussie Mel Gibson in his gorey reimagining of the passion story. More wounds, sweet wounds, mmmmmn!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Macedon it is!

Almost forgot to mention that the offer my sister and her husband made for the cosy house they saw in Mount Macedon has been accepted! I fell in love with the house too, the day not even a fortnight ago when I picked up this pine cone, still closed...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Can you see the rain between me and St. Jude's, the church across the street? I can see the church much better than I used to, thanks to my ever provident friend K, who noticed a queen sized bed in search of a new home outside one of the neighboring houses after dinner one day last week. Like good New Yorkers we dragged the thing in, and my days of living like a kidnapping victim on a bare worn out mattress on the floor are over! Unlike the St. Jude's rain, which stopped a few minutes after it started, the largesse of K - who put me up my first few weeks here, introduced me to the SLV and to various people who have access to free tickets to things, and taught me where people go and don't go in the laneways of the CBD - just keeps pouring down!

Kangaroo café

Oh, how I love teaching! I'm not getting many chances this year, but I had one on Monday. As I mentioned way back when, a group of us are learning Pitjantjatjara, an Aboriginal language from the center of Australia. Or at least we meet occasionally to compare notes - two or three times a month. Alas only one person's been able to come every time. (I missed many weeks because of my travels.) Worse, this is without a proper textbook and without a teacher who speaks the language, so we don't even know how to pronounce things! In short, we were going nowhere, and are not much farther along than when I first went in October or November.

Until this week! We'd decided a few sessions ago to take turns designing some kind of learning game, so someone brought in a big drawing of a person with the names of various body parts, someone else offered a tree of family names (which became impossibly complicated, kinship structures being very involved), and another devised hand-signals for practicing the nine pronouns for 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular, dual and plural. This week was my turn, and I tried to recreate the drills I found most useful when teaching English in Japan.

So I drew four sets of pictures, which we had to ask each other questions about, forming and using sentences and changing them one word at a time: Rosemary, do you see a man eating food? - No I don't see a man eating food. I see a woman eating food. Karina, you see a woman eating food? - No, I don't see a woman eating food, I see two women eating food. Anthony, do you see two women eating food? - No, I don't see two women eating food... It was the first time we'd put sentences together, the first time anyone spoke more than once every ten minutes, and the first time we really had fun! The hour was over before you knew it, and people stayed on!

Now I certainly can't take credit for inventing drills. But I suppose I can take credit for one thing. You learn more if you're having fun, and you have fun if you get to say silly things. (You also can test if people really understand the way a language works better if you give them nonsense sentences to translate.) It sounded like we were having party by the time my drawing led to these exchanges: Susan, do you see Bruce (someone added this name, not me) drinking coffee? - No, I don't see Bruce drinking coffee. I see two women drinking coffee. Debbie, do you see two women drinking coffee? - No, I don't see two women drinking coffee. I see two kangaroos drinking coffee! (Indeed, they were clearly enjoying flat whites under a sign saying KANG- KOFF-, doubtless on Lygon Street.)

And then I pointed at the joey in the pouch of one of the kangaroos and all hell broke loose!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Best "cities" in the world?

Shock, horror: the cities of New Zealand are more livable than those in Australia! According to the just released 2007 Worldwide Quality of Living Survey, Sydney ranks 9 but Auckland is in the top 5! (Melbourne limps in at 17.) Something's clearly wonky in their formula, since the top ranking cities (I know people who live and have lived in the middle three) were:

1 Zurich • 2 Geneva • 3 Vancouver • 4 Vienna • 5 Auckland

And New York City? How could they let it be the index (100.0 points) and then give higher scores to forty-seven other cities?! Aren't cities supposed to be gritty and stressful and noisy anymore - not to mention, big?

What ought not to be

I'm tweaking a section in my first chapter where I criticize a recent and widely praised book, Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought (2002), for building its whole account on the "fact (sic!) that the world contains neither justice nor meaning." Is that a fact? Is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

I agree with many things Neiman says. Every time we make the judgment this ought not to have happened, we are stepping onto a path that leads straight to the problem of evil. Note that it is as little a moral problem, strictly speaking, as it is a theological one. One can call it the point at which ethics and metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics meet, collide, and throw up their hands. At issue are questions about what the structure of the world must be like for us to think and act within it. But (you know what I'm going to say) is the world composed only of indifferent events interrupted by evils? I trace Neiman's question back to Schopenhauer, who thought that all the deepest religious and philosophical traditions determined that the whole world "ought not to be."

Most people think Schopenhauer was a crank - why have readers accepted Neiman's pessimistic assumptions, indeed praised them for their moral seriousness?

What I want to say - tell me if this just sounds wrong - is that we sometimes also think something very like this ought not to have happened at goods: the child pulled safe from a well, the parents who adopt the killer of their child, the story told in "Amazing Grace," etc. Perhaps we throw up our hands here, too, along with ethics and metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics, but to wave our clap our hands in delighted disbelief and gratitude. Certainly: "ought" means something different here. (It would be interesting to pursue how different - it may in some cases be less different than you'd suppose.) But isn't it in fact (sic!) the case that our expectations - including our expectations of what by all rights should have happened - can be upset by good things as well as evil?

Monday, April 02, 2007

See this film

Just saw the young German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's amazing film "Das Leben der Anderen," somewhat flat-footedly translated as "The lives of other." It should probably be "The lives of the others" or even "The life of the others," since the film gives us the lives on both sides of Stasi surveillance in East Germany. Also misleadingly translated is "Sonate vom guten Menschen," the name of a piece of music which plays a central part in the plot and reappears as the name of the novel the writer publishes at the end; it could also have been the name of the film. It should be "Sonata of the good person," not, as I recall its being rendered, "Sonata for a good person."

Don't let these mistranslations put you off seeing it, though if you've seen it already perhaps this can be an excuse for you to go see it again! See it as a sonata, see it as disclosing two worlds by showing the ways they subvert and inspire each other. The film is fantastic, and worth seeing for the acting, for the script, for the cinematography, for the music. And (if you're into that sort of thing) because it's about goodness.

The "Sonate vom guten Menschen" was, I've learned, composed by multi-multi award winner Gabriel Yared. Sebastian Koch, the actor who plays the good writer, says he only found his way into his character through playing this piece on the piano - a piece of which his character says: how could anyone hear this music and not become a good man?