Pacify Thyself

Described by literary critic Peter Craven as “an attack on the modern corporate university,” Hannie Rayson’s play Life After George (2000) is also about the idea of what a university is and can be. 

The “George” of the title is Peter George, an ageing Professor of History who’s been married three times and, according to his first wife, is “impulsive, passionate, and full of folly.”  George is someone committed to Leftist ideas of a good society and the role of education.  He believes in academic excellence and the importance and value of the humanities.  But at fifty-eight (and at the end of the millennium) these passions and beliefs — indeed these professional principles — now seem marginalising and inconsequential. 

When the history department is identified as a “non-performing sector,”  George’s second wife Lindsey, Dean of Arts, says, “Within twelve months you’re looking at slashing a quarter of your subjects and sacking five or six Senior Lecturers.  And that’s optimistic.  You’re not getting any clients.” 

George protests.  His enrolments are up, he says.  “But,” Lindsay replies, “your students don’t pay fees.”  “So we should be teaching tourism, marketing and hospitality management?”  Lindsay calls George an elitist, and he in turn responds by preferring to think in terms of academic excellence, as if to ask, When did excellence suddenly become elitist?

Who today would call George an elitist?  Especially when we see news headlines like these: “Cuts to humanities departments are cuts to our ability to reason,” “Students defy PM’s push to get them away from humanities degrees,” and “Don’t be a HASS-been, HSC leavers: the humanities will make you job-ready (just ask Kamala Harris).”

Rayson wrote her play in the wake of reforms to higher education made by John Dawkins (Minister for Employment, Education and Training, 1987-1991).  The Dawkins reforms wanted higher education to respond more to the needs of industry and in line with national interests and objectives.

According to Glyn Davis, author of The Australian Idea of a University (2017) and former Vice Chancellor of University of Melbourne, the Dawkins reforms allowed universities “to charge up-front fees to international students.  In time, this would create a huge export industry for Australia, and allow government to reduce financial support for universities.”  These changes provoked “intensified concerns about a managerial logic,” and debates often took the form of “a narrative of decline in traditional university values.” 

Obviously this has only intensified.  Almost daily, news items and commentary report the problems facing higher education funding as well as the downsizing of departments and entrenched casualisation, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, which has turned the economic garment worn by all of us inside out, revealing how insecurely everything is stitched together.

In Hannie Rayson’s play, George believes students are being turned into corporate fodder.  He feels passionately that the function of a university has been lost sight of — to produce educated citizens, not “compliant employees.”   

George stubbornly remains true to his own history and beliefs, to his own committed idealism, which is “the most precious and profound human capacity” because it means you are not for sale.  And for George, the question of the future isn’t how he’s going to assist in implementing a corporate agenda, but how he’s going to fight it.  In its own small way Life After George, the first play to be nominated for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, therefore continues a tradition of investigating the contradictions between materialism and idealism.

But George doesn’t live long enough to fight for idealism — he’s killed in a freak plane crash.  The play is also then quite marvellously about grief and the lives we share with friends and spouses.  And yet Rayson’s work achieves its most final emotional coherence, its most affecting portrayal of tenderness and love, in the relationship between father and daughter, which is to say that such relationships may be the only aspect of life where idealism serves you well.

“There are no full stops in history”: On Kafka’s The New Advocate

Though I’ve read it dozens of times I still go back to those three paragraphs and that single page of Kafka’s short story The New Advocate. I revere those beguiling sentences and consider endless hermeneutic possibilities, but always find myself asking: Why should a warhorse become a lawyer?  

The horse was once Alexander the Great’s favourite battle-steed, Bucephalus.  Yet Kafka reimagines the creature as an advocate in the courts of justice.  “We have a new advocate, Dr Bucephalus,” says the narrator, who is someone working within the profession and witness to the new appointment. There’s an oratorial aspect to the story, too, as if the narrator or speaker is standing to make a speech with a tone of approval.  “Given the present order of society,” he says, Bucephalus is in a difficult position,

and that he deserves for that reason, as well as on account of his historical importance, at least a sympathetic reception … [I]t really is best to do what Bucephalus has done, and immerse oneself in the books of the law.

The story lends itself easily to allegorical interpretation. Some critics have argued that Bucephalus might be a metaphor for writing, that for Kafka writing was always at risk of losing its vitality and ferocity. Others have stated that, because Bucephalus is dramatically out-of-place, seemingly at odds with his setting, he stands for Jewishness.

But there’s always this question of “might” (or “could”) with Kafka, for he is the poet of modality, of verbs of possibility.  As in modal logic, truth value depends on accessible worlds, but in Kafka, those worlds need only be accessible in our imagination to be true.  Thus, Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find himself turned into a giant bug while still in bed, and Josef K, also still in bed “with his head on the pillow,” discovering he’s under arrest.  Both openings are notably threshold experiences.  They occur after sleep but before being fully awake and out in the world.  No wonder it’s important for Josef K to get a clear picture of his position, which repeatedly eludes him. 

But Bucephalus is not suffering from metamorphosis, and unlike Josef K, he’s on the right side of the law, so to speak.  Nor is The New Advocate a literary act of magical realism.  It’s more a case of historical transposition, where the out-of-placeness of Bucephalus comes to represent the rise and fall of empires, or more elusively, the epochal shifts of history. 

Writing of Napoleon – a megalomaniac like Alexander of Macedon who, in exaggerations and frenzies of power, sought to be feared – Hegel famously said:

I saw the Emperor – this world soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance.  It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.

The horse is given its role in the mega-machismo of the military leader.  Homer said of Achilles that he had “immortal steeds,” but it’s the charioteer who confers this supernaturalism on them, for without their master they stand mournful and heart-stricken, “their manes sweeping the ground.”  Here’s the thrust of The New Advocate.  Bucephalus is now without rider.  He has been transposed.  The natural order of things has been disrupted.  As Ulrich Raulff observes of Kafka’s story in Farewell to the Horse, “the time for heroes is over and with it that of warhorses.”   Perhaps battles are now to be fought in the courts, as Dickens also articulated satirically in Bleak House with the interminable court proceedings of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. 

It’s astonishing that Kafka wrote The New Advocate during World War One (between November 1916 and June 1917, according to Malcolm Pasley).  Biographer Reiner Stach writes that “Kafka’s notes reveal little about the visible aspects of the war … [H]e saw no need to chronicle what he witnessed.”  And in a diary entry for August 2, 1914, Kafka noted: “Germany has declared war on Russia – Swimming in the afternoon.”  In his cynicism, Kafka is perhaps closer to us.  But our age has no time for allegory. 

Kafka was a clerk at a workers’ accident insurance institute, and once said to his friend Max Brod of the injured workers seeking compensation: “How modest these men are; instead of storming the Institute and smashing it to pieces, they come and beg” (this appears in Brod’s biography of Kafka).  I cannot escape the idea that the absurdity of a war horse becoming a lawyer is also a demotion of masculinity, a demystifying of the megalomania of the male ego.  And yet Bucephalus receives a sympathetic reception.  Such is a male-dominated profession, or indeed world.  

But the absurdity of the situation remains, which I take to be the persistence of something obsolete.  Hasn’t it had its day already?  Why still here?  In our “present order of society” we rightly describe certain outdated expressions of maleness as “toxic,” in the hope of categorically banishing them once and for all.  And yet Kafka’s story seems to suggest that there’s no clean break between generations or between eras, that all reality cannot be done away with so as to create another one.  As Samir Puri argues in The Great Imperial Hangover, “there are no full stops in history. One epoch does not stop before another one starts.” It would be hasty to think otherwise.

The sprawling quadrilateral

During my time in Richmond, between 2008 and 2018, I saw thousands of apartments being built. These constructions were, as we shall see, an ironic reversal of the suburb’s historical development, which since the middle of the nineteenth century tended to favour industry over the residential, and as such, the suburb had mostly been working class. And encroachments of industry into residential space had been the history of Richmond as it grew and developed into the twentieth century.

But then former sites of industry vanished and were transformed into huge apartment complexes. Once a suburb of industrial labour, Richmond was now a place for retail living. It’s history had been turned on its head.

Richmond is a sprawling quadrilateral.  One wouldn’t describe it as hugger-mugger.  It’s design is clear and orderly, making it … well … clear and orderly, or if you like, bland. Its boundaries are Victoria Street to the north, Hoddle Street to the west, and Swan Street to the south.  Although, we could extend the boundary further south, beyond Swan Street to the Yarra, to include Cremorne and Burnley. Geography, rather than municipal boundaries, makes better sense of these inclusions.

The eastern boundary of Richmond is again the Yarra River.  Cross over the bridge and you’re in Hawthorn.  But do that at your peril.  If you’re broke and living in Richmond the big houses on the hills of Hawthorn look down upon the south-eastern flank of Richmond with the glint of class divide in their eyes.

*

On a clear day you can see all the way east to the Dandenong Ranges from Richmond.  But you have to look past the cars banked up to the crest of Richmond Hill, the sun intensifying their colour as they loosen into streams of movement when the lights change.  And you have to look past the criss-crossing nerve ends of tram wires strewn above the road, past the signs — the signs for beer and shoes, the signs for the hospital and for dresses, food and real estate – and past the buildings that in the summer heat look as though they’ve been rescued from a kiln.

Look past all this and you’ll see the great distance of the mountains to the east. And if you walk in that easterly direction, up Bridge Road and over the hill and keep one eye on and one eye off what the poet Judith Wright calls the “flowing and furious world,” you can exist simultaneously among the shops and the people in the streets and in the freedom of the distant mountains. 

But the view is more than this.  It’s an immaterial link to the past and one of the few things that will remain, if there is anyone left to see it, of the early years of the city and its expansion east into districts such as Richmond.  This view or “perspective” predates even buildings considered historic because it inspired their construction.

Between the lolly-bag scene of Richmond retail and the distant ranges, dimensions of time open up.  The elevation that gives you this view is the result of geological activity that occurred over 400 million years ago.  Your eye is not only connecting the two points.  They are already connected geologically by Silurian-aged deposits over millions of years.

It was precisely this vantage point and its dazzling view stretching east to the mountains that attracted pioneering gentry in the 1830s and 40s.

Richmond was named after Richmond Hill in England, where the view was protected by an act of Parliament, the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act (1902), the only one of its kind in Britain, brought into being under pressure from those who protested against development of the area.

Here in Australia, Richmond’s “hill” also offered commanding views of a vast plateau, but one ripe for the developments of farming and grazing, and later, industry. Historian Janet McCalman tells us that Richmond’s social fate was determined by its topography.  Richmond began its colonial days as a semi-rural home for the well-to-do.  But it quickly became an over-crowded suburb of the working classes.  This change in Richmond’s demography was foretold by the industries that began moving into the area from the 1860s. 

Tanneries, wool-washing plants, a brewery, boot and furniture making all took advantage of the wide, flat land by the river.  The disused silo still standing in east Richmond was used for wheat.  Closer to the heart of the suburb you can see the silos of a disused malthouse, which were converted into apartments and described by Philip Goad as forming “a brutish totemic tower of inner-city living.”  Through industry, Richmond became a creation of the late Victorian boom. In another hundred years it’ll probably be seen as the creation of early twenty-first century gentrification.

*

Richmond hardly bears a visible trace of the past.  Richmond Town Hall no longer reveals its Victorian era, revivalist gothic architecture.  In the 1930s it was remodelled as a Council priority.  And yet there are traces of an industrial past, evident in the malting silos in the far southwest corner of Cremorne, next to the freeway and by the river.  If you notice these silos it’s probably for their billboards.  And if you walk the backstreets you might glimpse a bluestone wall or a cobble-stone segment of road.  But these things don’t amount to much.   

And that’s okay.  An absence of the past in Richmond means you don’t have to hear, see, or smell the slums.  In 1916 a Richmond local despaired:

The aspect presented to the train traveller between  Richmond  and  South  Yarra  is  one  of most unsightly backyards, and the mental impression of this  city  conveyed  is  that  it  is  a slum neighbourhood excelled in unsightliness by nothing else between here and Sydney.  Where it is not a slum, it is advertising hoarding, and the odours are certainly not those of ‘Araby the Blest’.

(Richmond Guardian 26 February 1916)

The blessed aromas referred to here were those of an Arabian Bazaar. The south ward of Richmond was very poor, cramped and narrow.  There were lots of unmade streets with a lot of mud in winter and dust in summer.  This area was once known as Irish Town. To the north were the fresher airs and leisure gardens of the homes on Richmond Hill, whose drainage ran south, downhill, into Irish Town.

Walking in Irish Town, this local further observed that the streets were “full of horse manure, waste papers, empty tins, rabbit entrails, dead cats and such-like flotsam and jetsam, whilst the channels contained a quantity of malodorous slush.”

In James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), there’s a story called “Araby,” which begins in a street in Dublin called North Richmond.  The narrator of the story is a boy who wants to go to the Araby Bazaar in Dublin to buy something for a pretty girl he likes.  But he’s held up, waiting  for his drunk uncle to come home and give him some money.  By the time he gets to the Bazaar it’s too late.  Nearly all the lights are out and the stalls are closed   The boy leaves with nothing.  Later, reflecting back on this time, he says, “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, argues that the Bazaar in Joyce’s story has a real-life counterpart in the Araby Bazaar which came to Dublin on May 14-19, 1894.  Was the Richmond local familiar, like Joyce, with the Araby Bazaar in Dublin?  Had he read Joyce’s story?  And if so, did it inform his low opinion of Richmond?  Was “Araby” a cultural variable in his social observation?

Remembering his childhood journeys into the city by train in the 1920s, the narrator of George Johnston’s novel, My Brother Jack (1964), says

All the way through to the city proper there was nothing to break the drab flatness of this unadventurous repetition except the club flags flying over the grandstands of some football ground or other, or a particular factory smokestack that impressed by its height or shape or the amount of reek it gave off, or the grimy brick wall of the Rosella Jams and Pickles Factory with the cloth-capped girls working and chattering behind the railway-sooted windows.

This description is one long sentence.  Which is deliberate, because it imparts a sense of the out-stretched distance of the journey.  Johnston wants to say that travelling through the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, past Cremorne and to Richmond, is like an overly long, uninteresting sentence given pause only by the commas of particular sights (a football field, impressions of industry) and the semicolons of train stations. The full stop is achieved, so to speak, at either end of a flat diffusion of dull geometry and sad habitations, namely, the city or the last suburban “outpost.”

*

Walking in Richmond parklands one evening, down the south-eastern corner of the suburb near the river, I came across an old dead gum tree.  It stood at least twice my height, and because it was surrounded by tall scrub and leafy trees and set back from the path, I’d never really noticed it before.  But this particular evening, the sun going down, there was an eerie light which seemed to indicate the significance of what stood inconspicuously behind the surrounding scrub.

I found out that it was a Corroboree Tree, which once marked a boundary between Aboriginal tribal lands.  This was a site for meetings between Indigenous tribal groups and for the performance of song and dance.  It was a place for stories and exchange.  And as a shady, wide-open area to gather and meet, the parklands are still, in a way, serving this need. But in a place of dog shit and laughter, that bare tree stump is a haunting symbol of dispossession. Here more than anywhere else in the docile inner-east the terror of history will strike a blow.