Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Book review: The Art of Time Travel, Tom Griffiths (2016)

This book is published by Black Inc, property developer Morry Schwartz’s Melbourne publishing outfit, which also brings us ‘The Monthly’ and ‘The Saturday Paper’, and a lot of the historians it singles out for discussion are from the southern capital. I used to read ‘The Monthly’ but I found that it relies unwontedly on a stale stable of local contributors. I got a bit fed up with it because it is so Melbourne-centric and I haven’t read it for years now. For the record: I was born in Melbourne but grew up in Sydney.

In a real sense Griffiths’ book chronicles a true renaissance in history writing in Australia that was part of the post-war counter-culture that controversial historian Geoffrey Blainey – who appears in the book – so decried. This phenomenon embodies a coming-of-age for antipodean historical scholarship that should make Clio herself flush with pride, to grab a trope from another era altogether.

The book is also something like a memoir as it ropes in dozens of people Griffiths has known personally who have written about history in the years since the war, a time when Australian universities burgeoned to service a national economic boom that also impacted on the health of the professions.

One drawback in the book is the appearance there of highly-Latinate language. This form of verbalising is often the resort of writers in the social sciences looking to create about themselves an aura of authority, to claim the title of “science” rather than that of the less-respectable “humanities”. You find it in disciplines that lie on the margins between the sciences and the arts. When I was studying media practice I found it to be an absolutely crippling defect in a book on PR theory.

It comes about, for example, in such things as the use of “express” instead of “say”, “arrive” instead of “come”, “desire” instead of “need”, “obtain” instead of “get” and “occasionally” instead of “sometimes”. The plain, Germanic word is in all cases to be preferred over the ornate and elitist Latinate word, but it is to be regretted that from time to time Griffiths unnecessarily falls prey to this vocabularic distemper in the book. Excessively-Latinate language makes for unpleasant reading as it means the text lacks the solid, dependable cognitive hooks that Germanic words provide, and your eye tends to skid across the surface of it, searching for purchase.

At other times, Griffiths shows himself to be adroit at understanding complex words that usually lie within the ambit of literary studies. His definition of “myth” as a place where the past inhabits the present, is a notable case of an evident mental flexibility. There are plenty of places in the book where the author shows himself to be as able to write on the shortcomings, say, of Kate Grenville’s novel ‘The Secret River’ (2005) as on the strengths of Inga Clendinnen’s response to it, ‘The History Question’ (2006).

For people wanting a quick guide to the changes in the study of history in Australia since the war, this is the place to go. For myself, I shall be looking in more detail at the works of Graeme Davison, who wrote about modernity in urban Australia, for a book I have sketched out in my head on brutalist architecture.

People like Davison who write historical works – just like the novelist Eleanor Dark and the poet Judith Wright did in the past – are part of a valuable cohort of people in the community who can speak with authority on subjects that have a material relevance for ordinary people. Our shared conversations about history guide us in the present and help us to understand who we are. They form part of the superstructure of our civic life.

And although Griffiths points to the emergence of postmodernism in the 70s and 80s, he is wise to avoid using the terminology it usually comes couched in, because to the average reader it is incomprehensible. I tried, for example, to read McKenzie Wark’s ‘General Intellects’ (2017) hoping to learn something new from people who have written with originality on the world in recent years, but even the introduction to the work was quite beyond my abilities. It was the same problem I had with the history of the Frankfurt School I reviewed this month, ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ (2016). Technical terminology – otherwise known as jargon – has a place in the broader public sphere only if it can be translated for convenience into regular language of a type that anyone can understand.

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