|University of Technlogy, Sydney|
To one who is perhaps compulsively analytical, these are welcome notions,
as gratifying as Robert Louis Stevenson's assertion that only the idle
possess the ability really to see what is around them. Distracted by the
imagery that most strongly vies for our attention, we're liable to make
automatic assumptions, a key one of which today might be that we live
in highly original times.
But although technology continues to expand our notion of what constitutes
a text - and an author - it's worth remembering that art has always been
a collective enterprise and not much is really original. We all draw from
the past. Postmodernism is defined by it. Virgil modeled his Aeneid
on Homer; Roman poets lifted from Virgil; Aristophanes took lines from
Aeschylus and Homer. There is no better example of creative 'borrowing'
than the cento, an ancient form of mosaic or collage poem composed entirely
of lines taken from works by other authors. Its literal meaning is 'stitched
together' or 'patchwork'.
According to Wikipedia (the cento's modern cousin?), the Roman poet Ausonius
(c310 - 395) established guidelines for composing these works. They could
be from the same poet or several. Verse could be taken in entirety or
divided in two and used in different places in the poem. But the 'rules'
are different wherever you look. Many forbid taking more than a single
line from another work; the poems might rhyme, but they don't have to.
The cento is also linked to the number 100, so some centos are 100 lines
long. The common denominator appears to be that authors are credited and
that a coherent and new whole must be created while staying true to the
original lines. Commissioned centos can be wholly original, authored line-by-line
or verse-by-verse by numerous participants. Definitions of what constitutes
a 'true' cento vary, but it is not random. The American poet David Lehman
has suggested that 'Writing a cento may be a kind of
extension of the act of reading, a way to prolong the pleasure' (2006).
We see this kind of homage in music sampling and rap. Other forms of literary
tribute are commonplace books: originally bound volumes in which aristocratic
readers in the Renaissance would copy out works by their favourite writers.
More visual were emblem books, filled with allegorical images that required
knowledge of the Bible, classics, philosophy and history to decipher.
The active nature of the commonplace book - the creation of a personal
anthology that is also a new work - emphasises the role of the reader/author.
These books - prose and verse miscellanies; collections of political letters,
speeches and aphorisms; devotional aids - can be regarded as precursors
to today's weblogs. Never finished, they are a continual work in progress,
responding to and quoting from the world around. A commonplace book 'is
in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record
of what occurs remarkable in every day's reading and conversation' (Jonathan
Swift, cited Academy of American Poets, n.d.). Foreshadowing
the realm of hypertext, these books elaborate, just as essays do.
Phillip Lopate, in his wonderful introduction to The Art of the Personal
Essay, argues that the Renaissance essay partly grew out of the custom
of keeping these books, which were filled with quotations. Quotation lends
authority. No less a master of intertextuality than Montaigne said, 'I
make others say what I cannot say so well, now through
the weakness of my language, now through the weakness of my understanding'
(cited Lopate 1995: xli). The essay form - questioning,
conversational, digressive - has long been associated with experiment;
it is by definition 'an attempt'. In privileging the fragmentary it
mirrors our plural natures: 'Because we think, we're always in two places
at the same time' (Auster 1995: 142).
Theodor Adorno saw subversive potential in the anti-systematic nature of the essay and its power to open up philosophical discourse:
The essay is a form suited to our times - playful, accessible and 'tangential
to the marketplace'. In 'An Apology for Idleness', Robert Louis Stevenson
praises the loafer: 'Idleness
has as good a right to state its
position as industry itself
is a symptom
of deficient vitality [people without] a faculty for idleness
no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations'
(Robert Louis Stevenson, cited Lopate 1995: 221, 225).
I've been keeping scrapbooks, news clippings and books of quotes and
poems for over 20 years. They're a (surprisingly consistent) record of
what provokes me, of my interests and passions, and a way of synthesising
experience. As a writer, it's pleasing to find they can be 'useful' as
well. If the essay is a form of thinking out loud, commonplace books are
a source of inspiration, a partial map of the mind and a means by which
one might integrate the private and public spheres.
Montaigne advised, 'We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs. You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself' (Montaigne 2004: 107). But I don't advocate a retreat into Self (expression); I say things first to myself so that I may engage more clearly with the outside world. Edward Said argued that there is no distinction between 'texts' and the world, but rather that what is important ' is the liberation of as much territory as possible for discussion, analysis, contest' (Said 2004: 60).
The reader became the book
On the subject of whether reading makes people 'good' a
reviewer recently noted, 'Why is it that the really
well-read can be such repellent people? Hitler was well-read' (Adelaide
2006). I'm not sure how one qualifies 'well-read' but this is a disingenuous
comment, surely? Hitler is far more known for burning books than reading
them. A dictator is not my 'ideal' reader. Cynical reductivism such as
'Is good reading really good for you?' denies the power of language; and
asserting that 'texts', even fictional ones, have no purpose beyond that
of 'creative escape' overlooks the issue of free speech. If books, words,
have no power, why are they so often the target of censorship? Salman
Rushdie was issued with a death sentence not for anything he did, but
for something he wrote.
In contrast to 'good' writing is that which evades. Below is the opening paragraph of a panel that introduced an exhibition - about Palestine - at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum in 2003:
Beauty is all the more satisfying when its fragility
is appreciated. Rich traditions of arts
The original copy read:
A complex and controversial story of significant contemporary relevance
was turned into a decorative arts pageant by partisan lobbyists operating
behind the scenes. Australia's largest museum cited lack of space for
removing posters and cutting 45 of 50 photographs intended for display.
All images of Israeli soldiers (including UN relief agency photos) were
culled and of three documentaries only one, about embroidery, was shown.
The Powerhouse Museum's then director Kevin Fewster had refused to consult
with the Arabic community on the content of Treasures of Palestine
but took care to assure the Australian Jewish News, before
the exhibition opened, that it was 'free of propaganda'. What is propaganda?
Whose stories do our public museums tell?
After news of the censorship aired in the media (initially on the ABCs
Lateline, 17.11.03) the museum received a flood of complaints.
As one writer said, 'I am advised that this has been done out of concern
about Jewish sensibilities
I wish to inform you that censorship
is what offends my Jewish sensibilities'. A Hungarian-born Jew and the
child of Holocaust survivors wrote, 'Like many other Jews in Australia
and around the world, I believe very strongly that there can be no possibility
for any resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict without open discussion
and debate in the public arena'. Unlike the ABC, for example, the Powerhouse
Museum has no formal and transparent process for handling complaints.
Texts that inform and demand an engaged reader/viewer have the power to make us better citizens - by which I mean more knowledgeable, sceptical and critical. In response to the notion of reading as self-improvement, with its prim Sunday-school overtones, I suggest good reading, and good writing, is that which encourages questioning. I agree with Paul Auster though, when he says 'Anyone with the wit to get his nose out of a book and study what's actually in front of him will understand that realism is a complete sham truth is stranger than fiction' (Auster 1995: 117). And doubt is often preferable to conviction. To paraphrase Adorno: while the essayist may not discover any dramatic certainties, neither is he or she likely to advocate any zealous falsehoods.
Primitive figure of a cosmos in which the
dominant star, the sun, was the mouth.
'Nine in ten Americans believe in God - but how they vote or see the US war in Iraq depends on the different views they have of God's personality. The most detailed survey of religion in the US found Americans hold four different images of God' (Reid 2006).
Sixty-three per cent of authoritarians support the war in Iraq; an invasion based on certainty (that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction) rather than reason.
The opposite of religious belief is not atheism or
secularism or humanism.
Charlatan cultists are tolerated - and often encouraged - by democracies
increasingly willing to curb the freedoms of other citizens. Members of
the Exclusive Brethren (a fundamentalist Christian sect with about 20,000
members in Australia) are forbidden to use computers and mobile phones,
watch TV or listen to radio, attend university or vote. Fathers and husbands
rule. As Adele Horin pointed out, 'When Peter Costello next decides to
tell Muslims that Australian values are "not optional" and that
migrants who don't share them should be stripped of citizenship, he should
keep the Brethren in mind ... When recalcitrant Christians
defy mainstream standards, the cheerleaders for conformity fall silent'
In September 2006, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali gave a sermon at Sydney's
Lakemba mosque comparing 'immodestly' dressed women with lumps of meat
and blaming them for rape. The sheik's claim that he was 'misinterpreted'
was unconvincing and his words received the outraged response they deserved.
The Australian's Inquirer section ran a reasoned
full-page story headed 'Islam's Gender Crisis' (Hope 2006).
No problem there. But here's what ran across the top and tail of the page:
'Clint Eastwood's new war movie, Frank Brennan on mixing religion and
politics, David Uren, Matt Price, Greg Sheridan, Noel Pearson, Christopher
Pearson, Chris Masters.' Gender crisis indeed.
And scrutiny is selective. While the sheik received days of bold face, multimedia criticism for his offence to women and contempt for Australian values, Israeli Ambassador Naftali Tamir's reference in October to Asians as 'the yellow race' virtually escaped attention. A tiny column in the Sunday Telegraph quoted his comments in an interview with the liberal Ha'aretz newspaper:
So, at a time when it seems we can't stop talking about race how did
this particular episode play out in the press? After two weeks of silence,
with the Hilali and 'Cronulla riot' stories still receiving strong coverage,
a small article buried inside the Sydney Morning Herald reported
that the ambassador 'has been cleared to return to
work after the controversy over his alleged comments about Asia' (Banham
2006). But the comments were clearly not about 'Asia', they were about
Asians? Why was the ambassador not recalled? Where were the cartoons?
Truth is stranger than fiction: he simply denied the comments
and his denial was accepted. It's not credible that a career diplomat
could be so misquoted. Why would an Israeli journalist simply make
up those several detailed sentences? (In Sweden in 2004, another Israeli
diplomat got himself into trouble for physically attacking an artwork,
Snow White and the Madness of Truth, in a Stockholm museum. He
defended his action by claiming the work - created by a member of Jews
for Israeli-Palestinian Peace - condoned terrorism against Israeli civilians.)
By now, we're used to hearing calls for 'moderate' Muslim voices to be
raised. But, to paraphrase one newspaper letter-writer, who wants to listen
to a Muslim in a suit and tie? Similarly, although many moderate Jews
and Jewish organisations oppose Israeli policies in Palestine, the media
is rarely interested in their views.
Novelist Ian McEwan has spoken of the:
In an era of growing fundamentalism, violence and absolutism, when people
are murdered for making films, threatened for producing offensive cartoons,
forced into hiding because they produce fiction that makes people think,
it's more important than ever to locate 'the energy of resistance' (Said
2004: 65). Totalising movements and systems of thought, whether political
or theoretical, are ultimately disabling; they should, and can, be resisted.
A carceral matrix of power/knowledge is not 'all there is'.
In 1999, Salman Rushdie expressed concern that the new millennium showed signs 'of being dominated by consistency of all types: the great refusers, the wild quixotics, the narrow-minded, the bigoted, and those who are valiant for truth' (Rushdie 2002: 67). My interest is to find a counterpoint to these censors and silencers. It is vital, as Baudrillard has put it, to have things in which not to believe.
In dreams begin responsibilities. The way we see the
world affects the world we see.
It may be delusional to think that the 'right' words can change anything,
that books can 'do good', but it's a delusion I cling to. In a democracy,
the only reasonable way to re/claim territory is through language (including
the law) and art. In response to the increasing politicisation of religion
and the absurdity of the values debate I thought it would be interesting
to create 'communal' centos that dealt with these subjects, to gather
some views that might serve as a counterpoint or challenge to the perceived
With the obvious exception of the selection process (I wasn't looking for the mythical 'man in the street'), I wanted to keep the responses as unmediated and spontaneous as possible. To this end I employed email, writing to 22 friends and asking each of them to contact four others, simply requesting a line on their concept of 'God' and their view of the term 'un-Australian'. Stating nationality was optional. I explained only that the result would form part of a writing exercise. The responses appear in order of receipt. Authors are aged from six to over 70 and their backgrounds span five continents.
I'll take all your books. But the cathedrals I'll
Edward Said talked about the way great works make their way in
the world and reach out to other works, how in their anti-metaphysical
quality they are about some form of engagement. In opposition to Foucault,
whom he described as 'ultimately
the scribe of domination', Said
saw opportunities for intervention everywhere (Said 2004: 138). It is
not necessary to 'begin at the beginning' - we can complete pictures that
are partial (histories of the dispossessed and marginalised), take advantage
of ambiguities and exploit contradiction to transgress boundaries and
posit alternative viewpoints.
To take another perspective, it is salutary to look
beyond what is 'in' books and to consider, as Jonathan Franzen
does, what we can bring to them. For those who remain unconvinced that
certain types of reading can make us better in any way it is perhaps enough
to accept that books can preserve something. At the very least,
they remind us that throughout history people have firmly believed things
that were later proved to be wrong.
To cultivate doubt, to express equivocation and uncertainty, can challenge the status quo. As one of the cento contributors said after reading a draft of this essay, 'Ya gotta remember Socrates was eliminated by the state for asking too many questions'. Roland Barthes warned that those who don't re-read are condemned to read the same text for the rest of their lives. The commonplace book provides continuity with the past and the opportunity to (re)order fragments in play.
List of works cited
Academy of American Poets (n.d.) 'Start
a commonplace book', http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5637 return
Adelaide, Debra 2006 'Is good reading
really good for you?', Weekend Australian, Review, 28-29 October,
return to text
Montaigne, Michel de 2004 The essays:
a selection, London: Penguin return to text
Reid, Tim 2006 'It's their view for
god's sake', The Australian, 14 September, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20408555-2703,00.html
return to text
Rushdie, Salman 2002 Step across
this line: collected non-fiction 1992-2002, New York: Random House
return to text
Said, Edward 2004 Power, politics
and culture: interviews with Edward Said (edited and with an introduction
by Gauri Viswanathan), London: Bloomsbury return to text
Karin Vesk is completing a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at the University of Technlogy, Sydney. She has a particular interest in issues of censorship and ethics in Australia's museums and galleries.
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Vol 12 No 1 April 2008
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb