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Friday, 14 June 2013

On the cultural cringe and the infinitude of things

This is the Fisher Library Stack at the University of Sydney seen from a vantage point near the Great Hall, one of the uni's outrageous late-19th-century gothic constructions. The library dates from 100 years later at which time I was a small boy. The Stack features in my new long poem, which I've titled provisionally 'Victoriana', and the building appeals to me in the same way as the privately-funded art gallery Nabokov describes in his 1969 novel Ada - where the charge for entrance is a silver dollar and reproductions of paintings are stored in long file cabinets - since the Stack holds such a wealth of information stored in books. My ideal house would be an annex to a building such as the Stack, a private library which would grant access to members of the public for a nominal fee. Set off one side of the building, my house would have access to it via a door separate to the point of public access.

This idea stems from my attempt, in the author's note to 'Victoriana', to locate the work in progress within an aesthetic tradition, sort of like the way the colonial Victorians tried through the vehicle of architecture to situate the new university within an English tertiary education tradition - even the institution's motto, 'Sidere mens eadem mutato' ('The same mind under different stars') points in this direction. My literary models being William Cowper's 1785 The Task and William Wordsworth's 1805 The Prelude. Two things concern me. One is freighting my poem with associations distilled from reading my favourite authors from the past; am I just sublimating a personal obsession with the early Romantics as an aesthetic choice that may not, in fact, be all that accurate? Other influences might in fact be more relevant to the work I'm undertaking and because of my own lack of critical distance I may not indeed be the best person to make such assessments. So this gives me disquiet. The other thing that makes me anxious is the kind of knee-jerk stance vis-a-vis the "great masters" that you plainly see in the facade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is really a very ordinary Neo-Renaissance construction built at a time, immediately prior to Federation, that hardly embodies the kinds of attitudes that I personally value in relation to art. On the building's facade names like Giotto and Michaelangelo run around the front with all the subtlety and sophistication of a 'To Let' sign placed in front of a block of apartments. You have to ask whether the designers of the University of Sydney were equally unself-aware when they decided to plug into the Gothic Revival movement in England at the time.

There is something endearing and specifically Australian about such self-conscious positioning, and I wonder if that inheres in my author's note as well, a kind of blatant self-aggrandisement that is actually motivated by cultural insecurity; the cultural cringe we're supposed to have abandoned since the 90s  at the same time as cappuccinos became widely available throughout the suburbs in our big cities, those greedy and unforgiving urban agglomerations our nation's founders - naval men all of them - situated conveniently next to the sea. Australian cities - where two-thirds of the population lives - are all about harbours, which are traditionally places that have been outward-facing, optimistic, heterogeneous and money-hungry. None of those sleepy, politically-conservative rural cities that you find throughout the United States. Our outward focus possibly tends to always require placing native cultural products within a wider context, and ideological and historical links with other, more important, places mean we're always comparing ourselves to someone else. There is no recognition as interesting, to an Australian, as one that is given to a local product by a prominent foreign person, be it in the arts or in politics.

So what books would my ideal private library contain? It would be, like Fisher's Stack, a cornucopia of world culture, a resort for the emotionally tired and the aesthetically exhausted, a place where you could really learn, for example, about everything. When I was a boy I had two episodes of spiritual panic when I descended into hysteria because I was overcome by the overwhelming complexity and vastness of creation. I remember these episodes very clearly, though I was out of my senses at the time. Perhaps my ideal library-home stands as an answer to that feeling of helplessness, a place that closely bends toward my deepest fears, an oasis of knowledge in a confusing world.

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