Not long ago, Peter Bishop stepped down as the Creative Director of Varuna, the writers’ house in Katoomba. The house is the former residence of Eleanor and Eric Dark and after their deaths it was retained as the centrepiece of the Dark Foundation as a place for writers to work. The Darks were politically engaged people. She was a writer of novels and he a doctor, writer and political activist. Their story is one worth knowing and can be found in Barbara Brooks and Judith Clark’s biography, Eleanor Dark: A Writer’s Life. Eric’s political activities with the ALP Left attracted the attention of the conservative forces of the Menzies era and the couple were surveilled by ASIO during the 1940s and 50s. The political legacy of the Darks is today somewhat overshadowed by the function of the house as a government subsidised institution but is nonetheless significant that this visionary couple had strongly held views that were at odds with the political status quo.
Set back from the road, bordered by tall forest and enclosed within a rambling garden, Varuna is a writer’s heaven. It is our Yaddo. The residential program offers peace and quiet, home-cooked meals, simple but comfortable furnishings, an extensive library and, importantly, the company of other writers. In 2009, I was fortunate enough to win a Varuna Fellowship for work on my first novel and since that time I’ve returned to Varuna on occasion to work and will do so again in early December as one of five writers in the Varuna/Scribe Short Story Masterclass program convened by Australian writer Cate Kennedy and Robin Hemley, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop . My time at Varuna has been significant for a number of reasons, one of which has been the chance to work with Peter Bishop, an extraordinarily gifted reader and mentor to too many writers to mention here. When asked what Varuna offers, Peter’s response is ‘conversation and community’. A place to meet other writers, to feel part of a literary community, and to engage in the kind of conversation that in the course of workday life can be elusive.
I mention Varuna because without the conversation and community I continue to enjoy there, and the alumni program, my struggle as a writer may have overwhelmed me. Because, as those of you who write will know, it is a delicate thing this melange of intelligence and intuition, conviction and procrastination, research and imagination. In an age in which lived time is a vortex and the forces of production compel us to pragmatic activity, the often vague and uncertain work of writing is easily threatened. Which brings me to Overland.
The editorial of the March, 1959 edition of Overland calls for closer relations between artists and the labour movement.
We have tried to find readers and subscribers among working people, and contributors too. We have tried to promote a kind of two-way traffic, between the labour movement on the one hand and “intellectuals” on the other, to the mutual benefit of both …The situation is vastly aggravated in this country by many factors. Some of them are Australian factors, such as the historical evolution of the labour movement and the fact that we are a small country into which is poured an overwhelming mass of canned and crated “culture” from abroad, thus preventing the development of creative artists and creative thought.
By quoting this passage, it is not my intention to open up a high-low culture debate. Nor do I think it was the intention of the editorial to promote intellectual elitism over popular culture. Having grown up in a family steered by parents who had very little formal education but who possessed a keen appreciation of economic and social power relations, I am not about to argue that higher education is a prerequisite of acute political analysis. I am suggesting, however, that writers and intellectuals have some responsibility in countering the most debilitating social effects of mass consumer culture and populist politics.
Writing in the The New Yorker, veteran political correspondent Hendrik Hertzberg reflected on the ‘shellacking’ Obama copped in the midterm elections and what he calls the ‘political cognitive dissonance’ displayed by ‘the American people’, who:
Frightened by joblessness … rewarded the party that not only opposed the stimulus but also blocked the extension of unemployment benefits. Alarmed by a ballooning national debt, they rewarded the party that not only transformed budget surpluses into budget deficits but also proposes to inflate the debt by hundreds of billions with a permanent tax cut for the least needy two per cent. Frustrated by what they see as inaction, they rewarded the party that not only fought every effort to mitigate the crisis but also forced the watering down of whatever it couldn’t block.
‘The American people’, it would appear, possess scant collective short-term memory and are guided by appeals to base emotion fuelled by highly orchestrated disinformation campaigns, and the inability of incumbents to sustain a credible narrative. In drawing on this example, I am not arguing in favour of neo-Keynesian remedies for the deeper problems underpinning global financial hegemony, nor for the agenda of the Obama administration, despite it being a considerable improvement on its predecessor. I use the example simply to point to a malaise that is also endemic to Australia.
Crikey correspondent Bernard Keane makes a useful observation in a recent column:
We’ve entered what now might be termed post-reform politics, in which the basic political narrative of the last thirty years, of engineering prosperity through endless economic reform, seems to be losing its electoral appeal. Despite being delivered significant rises in living standards by successive generations of reformist politicians, voters remain immensely discontented, constantly finding new reasons to harp about the failure of governments to Do Something. Currently it’s the purported rise in the cost of living, which is actually only a rise in the cost of aspirational lifestyle choices, but if it wasn’t that it would be something else.
Keane echoes Hertzberg’s notion of ‘political cognitive dissonance’. It is an indication, I think, of the inevitable sense of disappointment inherent in the consumerist model of existence. The sense that nothing is ever enough to satisfy us and, as a result, we seek retribution driven by frustrated desire. It is a deep, metaphysical dysfunction at work in our social psychology and it is a dangerous dissonance, the momentum of which may well be unstoppable.
The founding motto of Overland was ‘Temper democratic, bias Australian’, which sounds a little stuffy and nationalistic today, yet the core of its meaning remains relevant. In recent weeks, the Overland blog hosted a lively, extended discussion about the relationship between literature and social engagement, the latter being a rather clumsy euphemism for political activity. The provocateurs in this debate were Emmett Stinson, Rjurik Davidson, Jacinda Woodhead, Jane Gleeson-White and Jeff Sparrow, all of whom had written articles or posts that drew on parallel debates taking place in other parts of the literary world. Debates about the place of the academy in literature; about the role of new media as catalyst for the ways we think about and practice writing and publishing; about literary style and historical legacies; between high and low culture; about the awkward dance of art and function. These discussions were tremendously engaging and valuable, rambling and taciturn, focused and generous. Their importance cannot be measured in outcomes so much as in process. For as the sometime Overland contributor and wily political commentator Tad Tietze wrote to me recently: ‘We are starting at the beginning in many ways.’ I took this to mean that despite not knowing what the end result of the current groundswell of political change will be, we do know, as much as we would sometimes prefer not to, that things cannot remain as they have been. Something must be done.
I am wary of a reflexive resort to ‘isms’ as a means to imagining the future. Prescriptive solutions are, in my opinion, too prone to atrophy, as history shows. As disinformation campaigns and outright attacks against progressive ideas and movements increase, it is not enough to evoke political theories as ready remedies or templates for a new world. As Tad says, we are indeed starting at the beginning – which is not to say that we can ignore the past. Quite the opposite. But we cannot fall victim to romantic notions of political renewal. Lazy accusations of ‘watermelon’ socialism will continue to be used by the reactionary media and fellow travellers in an attempt to stem the flow of ideas and discredit the voices coming from what has for decades been a largely disenfranchised sector of Australian politics. In response, we can meet here in these virtual pages and in the comforting certainty of print to bind our community together in conversation that affirms the role of writing, thought and conviction.