Archive

James Ley reviews 'On Evil' by Terry Eagleton

James Ley
Monday, 06 July 2020

One of the more robust responses to what has come to be called the New Atheism has been that of the influential literary critic Terry Eagleton. He weighed into the argument early with an aggressive and widely cited critique of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) in the London Review of Books, in which he charged Dawkins with theological ignorance. He extended his argument in a series of lectures, published as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate (2009), which condemned the atheist movement for its allegiance to an outdated form of nineteenth-century positivism and for its optimistic belief in the virtues of progressive liberal humanism. His latest book, On Evil, is a kind of supplement to the debate, in which he attempts to drive home what he considers the naïveté of such a view.

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How complex a task it is to write the biography of a writer. For writers, whose daily business is making things up, the truest experience may be one they have imagined. All biographers need to be storytellers and private detectives, but the biographer of a writer must also be a literary critic, must account for how the work relates to the life and escapes the life; beyond this, how the experience of writing it might change how the author apprehends those other parts of experience, called facts.

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Australian war historians usually find their theme in the army. Mike Carlton, a well-known journalist, thinks it is time to praise the Australian warship Perth and its men: ‘They were the flower of Australia’s greatest generation. No other has been so tested.’

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Needless to say, yet needing to be said, Australia’s twenty-third prime minister, R.J.L. Hawke, emerges from this interesting, sometimes engrossing yet disconcerting book smelling like roses. When MUP decided to publish, it must have seemed like a good idea. Deployed on television, Bob and Blanche were a marketing dream. But the result has a fatal flaw; it neither enlarges Hawke as a political leader nor advances d’Alpuget as a writer.

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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Australian involvement in World War I has in recent years attained a high profile in books, film and television. The trend has been to demythologise the legends of heroism and courage associated with war, and the theme often adopted is the rapid and brutal transformation from naivety to understanding of how baseless the myth was. Although this might be considered well covered ground, Geoff Page in his first novel, Benton’s Conviction, has returned to the war setting. However, because he concentrates on an aspect which hitherto has not been fully explored, and sustains the work with deft prose, Page has succeeded in producing a novel of originality and consistent interest.

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From the very beginning of The Rearrangement the reader is involved in themes which will play repeatedly through the poems: learning, knowledge and memory, and the way in which these work to satisfy, or frustrate, a metaphysical sense of order, even truth. 

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Lyn Jacobs reviews 'Blue Notes' by Laurie Duggan

Lyn Jacobs
Friday, 12 June 2020

This collection of poetry is similarly accommodating. It is shaped by four quite different tonal movements: ‘All Blues’ (eight lyrics closely observing the ‘still life’ within season, art-work, society and self), ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (a travelogue of past times and places where conscious reflection momentarily counters the movement and cross-currents of historical process), ‘Dogs’ (where Diogenes’ cynicism is invoked to ‘lower the tone’, reminding me of the blues singer’s injunction to ‘laugh just to keep from crying’) and ‘More Blues’ (where episodic vistas of ‘blue hills’ unfold from Tailem Bend to Mount Segur). The collection ends with a nine-part retrospective called ‘The Front’ which is partly about the art of making poetry or music in the face of ‘prevailing imagery’. Here a littoral between performance and reputation is reached as today’s determined play with a language is set against inherited ‘fixed ideas’.

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The prospect of reviewing a ‘Survival Manual for Live Poets’ was daunting enough, but became positively intimidating when I came across its author’s views on critics. Critics, he says, are like leeches and there’s only one way to deal with leeches: ‘take a small stick and insert it into the ... anus of the leech, pulling the leech back over the stick like a condom, impaling it, inside-out, like a shiskabab, ready to heat’.

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This is a first novel from Alexander Buzo, the playwright of the 1960s and 1970s who gave vitriol a new status in the Australian vernacular and who, through characters like Coralie Landsdowne (Coralie Landsdowne Says No) and Edward Martello (Martello Towers), raised pretentious speech to new levels of social acceptability. In a published comment on audience reception to Martello Towers, Buzo describes Edward Martello as ‘an educated ‘rake’, who is, in keeping with the style of the play, articulate beyond the grounds of naturalism’ and concludes, ‘Still, as long as they’re enjoying themselves’. Defensive disclaimers from writers hint at a nervousness which must, eventually, find its way into the writing usually in the form of overkill. The worst recent example of this is the introduction to Clive James’s Brilliant Creatures in which a rather affected statement of pre-emptive failure is intended to head the critics off at the pass if they were to do anything as unkind as suggest that the work was any more frivolous than intended by its author, who, of course, intended it to be.

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