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Friday, 20 April 2018

It’s easier to do democracy than to do literature

Miles Franklin is to Australian letters what Washington Irving is to American letters: a competent practitioner with more than a little talent who nevertheless failed to set the world on fire. In America, the fire was first lit and nurtured by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1830s. In Australia, it wasn’t until about 1940 when Patrick White started to publish the novels that would lead to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Democracy began to be practiced in Australia earlier. In 1856, the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales was for the first time filled with elected representatives. In America, of course, we mark the beginning with the signing in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence. After these events, it took a generation or two in these countries until substantive works of literature were to be published that would cause the world to pay attention. White’s Nobel has already been mentioned. For Poe, the gauge of his importance is to be found in the fact that Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, translated his works into his native language in the middle of the 19th century.

Why is literature harder to do than democracy? Well, it’s not always the case that it is. Take Egypt, for example. Just as one example in the modern era, they have produced Alaa al-Aswany, a novelist of some talent whose family has been connected to politics for generations. They also have Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. But they haven’t managed to negotiate a settlement that takes into account the demands of religion in the country. The elected president Mohamed Morsi was in power from 30 June 2012 to 3 July 2013 before the generals deposed him.

I think it has something to do with culture. When Jurgen Habermas, the Frankfurt School thinker, wanted to find the origins of the public sphere he went to the English coffee houses of the 18th century. I would qualify that finding myself and extend the notion back a century to the 17th century, a time in England when public discussion of politics was animated by the demands of religion as people fought for supremacy in a struggle for domination that finally ended with the installation on the throne of William of Orange in 1688. Religion would continue to be a distinguishing element in the realm of personal identity for a long time after this, but never again in England would so much blood be spilled to prove a theological point.

Australia inherited its disputative culture from England after London agreed to allow some NSW residents to elect representatives so that they could make decisions about the collection and expenditure of public money. Just as American settlers in the years after 1759, the year Montreal fell to the British, were vocal in demanding the same rights as natural-born Englishmen. The reason for their disagreement with George III was the same as that which had animated Parliament in London in 1649, when Charles I lost his head: no taxation without representation. Charles had prorogued Parliament but then had gone ahead to raise levies on the people to replenish the Treasury.

New Zealand pipped Australia at the post when it came to demanding suffrage for its residents, which was granted in 1852, even though the jurisdiction continued to be a colony until the following century. New Zealand is notable also as being the first place in the world where women were granted the franchise. And Australia became the first place where women could be elected to public office.

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