Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Poetic Justice (Sydney Morning Herald, 22/03/2008)

Bernadette Brennan (ed.), Just Words? Australian Authors Writing for Justice
UQP; $32.95; 216pp

The front cover of this collection of essays depicts the dirty imprint of a boot. This is an allusion to Joseph Brodsky’s Laureate lecture, ‘An Immodest Proposal’ (a lecture referred to in Gail Jones’s essay, ‘Speaking Shadows: Justice and the Poetic’), in which Brodsky recounts the bittersweet story of how a book of poems bearing just such a mark was found in a concentration camp in France at the end of WWII. This story has its uplifting side, which has to do, in Brodsky’s words, with a book of poetry ‘finding its reader’. But it is also, of course, an image of oppression, a recognition that freedom of speech is allergic to authoritarianism.

Fear that Australia has itself succumb to a species of authoritarianism is the motivation behind this book. As Bernadette Brennan writes in her preface: ‘This collection of essays is designed to contribute to that vital, ongoing conversation about writing and justice that is happening in this country despite the many powerful forces operating to thwart it.’ These ‘forces’ include the legislation limiting press freedoms and civil liberties in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the concentration of media ownership and ‘ever-shrinking arts funding’.

Brennan raises some important issues, not the least of which is the Howard Government’s attempt to undermine the relationship between journalists and their confidential sources. However, the case is overstated. Indeed, the image on the book’s front cover is a good indication of its informing hyperbole. That image inevitably brings to mind George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Winston is told by his interrogator, O’Brien: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ I don’t think it is being politically quietist to point out that the situation in Australia is nothing like as bad as that and that the comparison with totalitarian societies (even when accompanied by solemn caveats) is unlikely to help the cause of those who seek to reverse the offending legislation, inviting as it does accusations of hysteria. Orwell, who is invoked at least twice in this book (incompetently, in the case of Peter Manning), had little time for such moral equivalence.

Nevertheless, Just Words? does broach some urgent moral and political questions and inspires some interesting meditations on how, or whether, Australian writers can treat of them in their chosen genres. Thus, Noel Rowe explores what he calls ‘a poetic of justice’ in Judith Wright’s poetry, while Bernadette Brennan, the collection’s editor, provides a close and subtle reading of Clara Law’s film, Letters to Ali, which expertly exposes the running sewer beneath John Howard’s premiership – the detention of ‘illegal’ immigrants. I especially liked Anita Heiss’s survey of Indigenous children’s literature, though am sceptical about her recommendation for literary ‘collaborations’ between Indigenous communities and the publishing industry. Despite the examples of the King James Bible and the 9/11 Commission Report, good literature written by committee is rare.

The biggest criticism one can make of Just Words? is also the biggest compliment one can pay it – namely, that it undermines its own thesis. When, for example, Peter Manning compares the Australian media to a ‘state media’ one knows that it cannot be the case simply by dint of the case having been made. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The price of eternal vigilance is humbug.

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