Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Richard Flanagan, the fiery Tasmanian novelist, has penned a superb piece that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday ('Love of art will stop the advancing barbarians').

It contains strong opinions and ends, with a flourish, with poetry. But it also contains truths we are in danger of forgetting in our endless race for lucre.

[A]rtists and the art they make exist in opposition, speaking to those things that we need as individuals but which seemingly threaten us as societies: truth, freedom, non-conformity, desire...

"Art is, of course, a guarantee of nothing. Nor is love."

Flanagan is a leading intellectual in Australia. His most recent book is a roman engage in a long tradition practiced in Europe from earliest times.

Curiously, Flanagan quotes Napoleon in the piece. This suggests, to me, the idea that modernism was a European import, beginning in France. This further suggests that the Romantic project, which reached its apogee in the nineteenth century, may be reemerging as a cultural engine.

Certainly, Flanagan's suggestion that love and art provide easy avenues for (a) transgression and (b) innovation (the two are usually found together) is valid. But I went further, on the same day, in an email to a friend, and before I had read Flanagan's article:

Like culture itself, the erotic moment creates, by dint of the interplay of aspirational personas, loci of transgression. Many denigrate their high-wound tenor but we see daily that common alternatives are not acceptable in a free society.

And, further:

We also see that people always in every country and in every year, seek out their liberating miasma:

We know that culture is the most plastic agent of human activity. The Tale of Genji, the first ‘novel’, was written in the 11th century by a Japanese noblewoman but that country would require another 800 years to even be able to supply clean drinking water and sufficient food to feed its large population.

Even in the most sophisticated polities, culture provides avenues that can lead to valid innovation. In the 19th century, in Britain, the aspirations of a religious minority contributed to a mini-reformation that happily reveals a remarkable tergiversation of tropes. Here, the classical narrative of freedom that had belonged to the Protestant faction for centuries was effortlessly appropriated by the Catholic faction, leading to practical refinement of manners.

Many of the early fans of Wordsworth were young Catholic priests busy establishing themselves following the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. We see here, as in the case of Blake’s first groupies (young, fundamentalist Christians), that a repressed minority can contribute, through a valid aesthetic response to perceived injustices within the supposedly enlightened main-stream, to profound changes in society.

Flanagan's piece ends, in a sentence of such delicate rage, with a series of metaphors that link immediately to his recent book (The Unknown Terrorist, 2007). It is fantastic!

The empire's prefects and satraps take counsel only from the abacus, call on the flagellator to restore order, and cannot understand why the barbarians are advancing.


1 comment:

Miao said...

I wrote a poem, it's posted on my blog and I would appreciate it if you could provide feedback. Thanks.