Friday, October 30, 2015

Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead

My forthcoming book on Australian literature is about to be released by the University of Sydney Press. The link can be found hereThe book is a summation of my quarter-century of studying Australian literature and is even, on the fringes, partially autobiographical as I tell the story of how I, an American with no organic Australian affiliations, came to be in the field. The book surveys Australian writers from the time of 'late modernity'--welfare-state social democracy from 1945 to 1980---to that of neoliberalism---the global unleashing of the free market and its creative and, mostly, destructive energies from 1980 onward. Its subtitle, "a world not yet dead," refers in the first instance to the declaration by the journalist Rosemary Neill in 2006 that Australian literature as a category was dead. More broadly, it refers to way neoliberalism, with its promotion of inequality between rich and poor,  heartless bimodal division of humanity into winners and losers, the central and the marginal, has shredded what Edmund Husserl called the 'life-world'. Australian writers have been faced with a challenge to re-articulate a vision of affective and compassionate life, and they have done so, albeit in many diverse ways.

If there is a possibility that your community or university library could purchase it, I would really appreciate it--it is even fairly reasonably priced for an academic book. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nicholas Birns--fall update 2015

Just an update on activities in the recently concluded summer and recently commenced fall--this summer I had an enjoyable five weeks in China lecturing and conferencing in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hohhot, followed by a week in Shropshire, Denbighshire, and Cheshire also conferencing and lecturing. Today I am off to Leuven, Belgium, for a talk at the Catholic University there and a conference on the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Anthony Trollope. I am chairing and opening a panel on Trollope and the Antipodes there. Speaking of the Antipodes, my book on contemporary Australia literature, with a very little bit on New Zealand, is in the final stages of copy editing at Sydney University Press and should be released in the next six weeks. As we have seem recently, Australia  is in great political tumult, and, though I do not make specific references in the book to current politicians, my book does show why Australia right now is a very relevant places for discussions of such issues as neoliberalism, social inequality, and whether we have ever been modern. Another book of mine, co-edited with Nicole Moore and Saraj Shieff, is called Options for Teaching Australian Literature and will come out in 2016 from the Modern Language Association, 

I have also been able to do some traveling in the US, visiting western Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, and various parts of New Jersey over the summer. In late October, I will go to the Cincinnati area for the annual conference of the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church. I will be speaking at Grace Church in NYC on October 4 and October 25 on St. Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians. 

I am continuing my work on Latin America, taking a more active role with the Council on Hemispheric affairs, speaking on Ricardo Palma and Asia at the Asians in the Americas conference in Philadelphia in November, and writing a chapter on the Peruvian literary criticism of late modernity for a major reference work on Peruvian literature. I will also be appearing at a forum on Roberto Bolaño at the New School on October 28 and continuing to edit, along with Juan E. De Castro, Roberto Bolaño as World Literature for Bloomsbury. 
I have begun my teaching for the fall and have a full slate of classes and, so far, highly enthusiastic undergraduate students. In October, I will begin the second half of my course on Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time at the New York Society Library. The 2016 conference of the Anthony Powell Society, at which I will be giving a plenary address,  \will be held in York in early April 2016 and the CFP is posted online

Finally, the 2016 conference of the American Association for Australian Literary Studies is being held in Seattle March 31-April 2 2016; I will be offering a paper on Eve Langley and Jeannie Gunn as novelists of settler mobility. 

I am also beginning organizing for a third Interim Shared Eucharist in the greater New York area between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church, this one to be held in New Paltz, New York; this is a follow-up to the Eucharist held at the John Street Church last March. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lewis Turco's brilliant Enkidu retelling

Lewis Turco is one of the great-undiscovered treasures of American poetry: though those who really follow the scene know his work well, both as poet and as critic. In that latter role, he has not only provided cogent commentary on major poets and on the mode of poetry itself (and I say that being a less ‘formalistic' reader myself than Turco is, but granting and celebrating his percipience) but has also  championed a major early nineteenth-century American poet in Manoah Bodman. He has taught at SUNY Oswego for many years and has been a vigorous and constructive participant on the poetry scene. Though I know full well that Turco was born in 1934, that he was already mature and established by the time I started reading him in the early 1980s, it astonishes me to think of him as over eighty, as his work is not only still buoyantly being produced but vitally contemporary: offering perspectives on imagination just not available elsewhere.

Turco's latest book, The Hero Enkidu: An Epic, available on Amazon, is particularly timely, as we are all thinking about Mesopotamian civilization in the light of the atrocities toward archaeological remains in Iraq and Syria of the terrorist group calling itself IS. Or at least we all should be. Sadly, many of the same people who celebrated the movie The Monuments Men, about the heroic attempts of a special detachment of the US Army to save European art treasures both from Nazism and general wartime destruction, do not seem to give a darn about these ancient Near Eastern antiquities, Not only are they so remote from most of us, erected by people whose languages are no longer spoken or known—not Arabs no more than they were Israelis—but the ancient Near Eastern monuments were built by people often described as villains in the Bible, and under the aegis of harsh-ruling kings whose combination of rigid authority and appreciation of artistic skill and craft brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism. This is true of the history of Western art works, often born of hierarchy and privilege. But in the Middle Eastern context it is far more obvious, that we’ cared about Palmyra more than we’ did about Hatra or Nimrud simply because Palmyra, architecturally, shows Greco-Roman influence, and was influential on neoclassical architecture, is the proof of this shameful bias. Western concern about Palmyra may have--knock on wood—stopped the IS from utterly destroying it. But we should have spoken up just as much for Hatra and Nimrud.

This Western bias against the ancient Near East has extended even to the most prominent document of Mesopotamian civilization, the poem called Gilgamesh. As the recent scholarship of David Damrosch and Wai-Chee Dimock has shown, Gilgamesh has assumed privileged role in accounts of 'world literature', and has in turn been translated by writers as various gifts and dispositions as David Ferry, John Gardner/John Meier, Herbert Mason, and, most recently, Stuart Kendall. As Michael Palma reminds us in his splendid introduction to Turco’s book, the Gilgamesh poem has also inspired a para-literature of epic, fantastic, and historically minded retellings.

One might see Turco’s focus on Enkidu, the best friend, homosocial soulmate, and sidekick of our hero Gilgamesh, as simply another instance of the various postmodern retellings of canonical stories from the vantage point of subordinate or alternate points-of-view. But Turco is turning to Enkidu for a different reason: to make sense of the tremendous distance between us and the poem, or the cultural origins of the poem, as figured not only by 'our’ indifference towards the terrorist atrocities in Iraq and Syria but the way it is acceptable to be an intellectual in the humanities and have near-complete ignorance of ancient Mesopotamia. For instance, a literate reader of one of the translations mentioned above said to me, in deprecation of his ultimate abilities to assess the translator’s achievement, that he did not know the original Sanskrit! As if Sumerian was Sanskrit, a language that it has as little relation to as it does to Sindarin!

Turco uses Enkidu as a prism through which to relate to the poem: as Enkidu's earthiness, primal rage, and unbridled bundle of emotions are closer to us psychologically than Gilgamesh’s heroism, always imbricated with themes of piety to both his gods and his city, barriers that do not hinder our view of Enkidu, wild, unfettered in Turco's words “hairy and naked” and thus unacculturated in Mesopotamian civilization. With this psychological proximity, Turco gives us verbal proximity: by making the bold, but infinitely successful, decision to approach the material through the verse forms of Anglo-Saxon and alliterative Middle English poetry.

Turco is not just making a  a comment on the comparable ‘state’ of civilization between the two cultures, but also providing a meditation on the possibility that Gilgamesh might have had, in Mesopotamian culture, a similar role to what which Beowulf might have had in Anglo-Saxon culture. (We can never know, as both works were rediscovered much later, after much of the other elements of the literary corpus of those cultures had been lost). Though we actually are as much at sea concerning the original date, author, or cultural purpose of Beowulf as we are of Gilgamesh, we have linguistic connections to Beowulf we do not to Gilgamesh, and even more to the Middle English alliterative corpus such as Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Turco’s verse maximizes these connections, especially in his deft use of alliteration:

Nimrod entered
The fertile forest
And found the traps
That he had dug
Had all been filled
with soil and scrub;

Turco even uses rhyme at times. Even though this is highly anachronistic, as rhyme only entered the Western tradition in the High Middle Ages-the Greeks and Latin’s, as I discuss in chapter 4o of my recent book Barbarian Memory, did not use rhyme—it is our primary mode of poetic coherence. Since Turco only uses rhyme sparingly and tactically, it does not make the verse mawkish or clanging, as too much of it might:

Enkidu stopped,
To stare, astonished,
at this wonder,
then stood in sorrow,
in agony and woe
to see this man aglow
with manliness as though
he were godlike crown to toe.

This is disciplined and restrained, and coexists happily with the alliteration, blank verse, and Turco’s own elegant attempt sot simulate the distich-structure of the Mesopotamian originals (as the text was first written in Sumerian then 'adapted' into Akkadian). The very end of the poem also rhymes in ways both apt and gratifying. My favorite mode, though, is the alliteration, which can capture ingenuous cultural truths in a sly apothegm, as when the gods,  Anu and Inanna, are called "sky sovereigns”: simple, supple, and stark. In something i read by him in the 1980s, Turco pointed out that his middle name was Putnam, and that this was the same surname as that of George Puttenham, the great Elizabethan anatomist of metaphor. Turco's deft and seamless handling of figuration would have warmed the heart of his Elizabethan forebear. 

There are some aspects of Turco’s poem I could have done without-I did not liked the intrusion of Biblical personages based on, but not themselves present in, Mesopotamian myths and histories although this objection is merely “Johnsonian” on my part and not meant to be taken as universal cavil. On the other hand I rather like the intrusion of Tolkienian references, based on Tolkien’s use of “Erech”—the Hebrew rendering of “Gilgamesh's home city and the version, rather than “Uruk”, employed by Turco—to the resting-place of the Faithful Stone brought to Gondor by the Númenoranean exiles, themselves fleeing from a flood much like the Gilgamesh story's Utnapishtim.  

On their trek to Erech
Lilitu told
Enkidu the tale
of the city’s founding:
“In the second age
Isildur carried
Out of the ruins
of golden Númenor
A great globe
made of stone.
Upon the stone
he etched an oath
And caused the great
King of the Mountains
To place his hand
upon the rock
And swear that he
would bear fealty,
To Isildur’s lineage
and to Erech when
Its temple and walls
were raised upon
The crown of the hill.

I myself explore this connection in my essay on Tolkien and Mesopotamia in Jason Fisher’s Tolkien and the Study of His Sources. Turco uses the Tolkien allusion to explore how the Gilgamesh story contains both history and prehistory, both the human and the supernatural. Turco’s moving poem shows how literature can be a bridge between the immortality Gilgamesh vainly seeks and the frail mortality that envelops even the ferocious Enkidu:

When he saw its walls
He also saw
that they were hiss
for they would last

Walls can in fact be destroyed, as we have seen all too vividly recently, but the stone tablets of the Gilgamesh story miraculously made it into the permanent record, and Turco has given us a thoughtful, innovative, and perceptive expansion on it, a contribution to he literary trove in its own resplendent right.

St. Paul, the Corinthians, and Transgender issues

Just rereading St. Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians (the theme of next fall's Grace Church Adult Ed program) light of the current discussion of transgender issues, this line, 1 Corinthians 7:20,  caught my eye..."each person would remain in the situation they were in when God called them." On the one hand this could read that people should tay where their biology calls them, if you are born a man, you stay a man, and the same for women...which would surely be the 'conventional' reading. But it seems to me it reads just as much that 'people should stay as who they think they are at the moment God calls them', so if e. g.  you think you were born a man, you feel that, you should not be a woman just because people say you should be given your biological condition that if you were called by God when you felt yourself to be a woman you should remain in THAT state....St. Paul could be very inclusive, even if not consistently. Later on he says women should not speak  in church. Yet he ends the epistle receiving warm greetings from a house church run by two women....the New Testament cannot be described in either 'liberal' or 'conservative' terms, but it is way more open on gender issues than many suppose....

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Wally Osterholz 1942-2014

(From remarks made at the New School on March 30, 2015, at Wally's memorial service)

As a child, Wally for me was neutral ground: she knew both my parents, who were divorced but both taught at the New School, Unlike others who knew them both, Wally was not on one side or the other; her relationship with both my parents was a professional one. Precisely for this reason, when I saw how she interacted with both I gained a perspective on their peculiarities and learned better how to situate myself between both of them. This was a skill I think Wally had to exercise many times working as an omni-administrator at the New School for over four decades: interacting with people of various dispositions and enabling the institution to negotiate among and around their various quirks. She was warm yet competent, caring yet efficient; and this humanistic demeanor helped her work well with the other unusual and resourceful thinkers—Reuben Abel, Allen Austill, and Al Landa, who epitomized the New School of the 1960s and 1970.s. Academic traits that are buzzwords today---interdisciplinarity and, yes, public engagement--were unarticulated then, but Wally’s work, in the most ingrained way possible, was fostering these tendencies. Just the fact that she worked both with my father, a political scientist, and my mother, a literary scholar, showed me that thinking across disciplines was possible. Wally helped the New School show this to many through her four decades of service and through many institutional permutations and redefinitions.

      Often, one or the other of my parents would leave me in the fishbowl room to read while they taught. Wally was there to ultimately watch over me but never interfered, just letting me read and adventure amid real and imagined worlds. Meanwhile, I would hear Wally typing—one still typed back then—and talking on the phone, laughing, improvising, reacting, arranging, and above all receiving the Hogarthian parade of humanity that processed through the third floor. To me she was the New School. I was not far off.