Black Inc

On the Line: Notes from a factory by Joseph Ponthus, translated by Stephanie Smee

by
June 2021, no. 432

Few books immediately suspend time; few need no warm-up and almost demand to be read, reread, underlined. Stephanie Smee’s rendition of Joseph Ponthus’s multi-award-winning first solo book, On the Line: Notes from a factory, is one such read. It is the autobiographical story of an intellectual with a career in social work in the suburbs of Paris, who, having moved to Brittany for love, can’t find a job in his field and is forced to sell his labour as a casual worker in the local food-processing industry. Here we couldn’t be further from postcard Brittany, whose wild nature, hazy skies, mysterious language, and inhabitants inspired a Romantic generation of poets in search of an exotic fix without the hassle of leaving the Hexagon.

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Young writers may turn to the page for catharsis – for writing-as-therapy – but that’s not why we read them. The ageist view, that a writer mustn’t pen their memoirs until they are older and learned, neglects the breadth of excellent work by precocious writers who have a story to tell. Naïveté and inexperience can enchant, sometimes more so than brilliant craftsmanship or intellectual maturity.

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The distinguished historian Mark McKenna has written an elegant and hungry book about the pull of Uluru, that place of mysterious significance to Australians, black and white. Of course, in recent times, the Uluru Statement from the Heart – the heart that had a stake driven through it the moment it was entrusted to the most powerful whites in Canberra – is a complicated domain of passion and polemic. McKenna’s work, pro-Aboriginal and postcolonial in spirit, is itself an addition to the long history of romancing Uluru, albeit with a focus on a hero who seems like an anti-hero by the time this book is done.

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Disaster movies tend to follow a similar arc. Our band of heroes not only has to survive flames engulfing the skyscraper or sea water flooding the cruise liner, but must also triumph over the calculated selfishness of others who are also scrambling for salvation. The implication is that, with few exceptions, Thomas Hobbes was right. Amid the upheaval of the English Civil War, Hobbes declared that our natural human condition is a war of all against all, and that order can only be secured by a powerful ruler, a Leviathan, that keeps our naked urges in check. The social contract of considerate behaviour and thoughtfulness towards others is a thin veneer. Under pressure it peels away, and we are soon at one another’s throats in a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

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In the mid-1990s, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paid me to research the year 1948. Although a little narrowly conceived for my liking, it wasn’t a bad job for a recently graduated PhD in history. I lasted a year. Most days I would head to the National Archives of Australia, then nestled among the panel beaters and porn shops of a Canberra industrial estate. My task was to work through departmental files, identifying and photocopying the most promising candidates for inclusion in a series of published foreign policy documents. The idea was that the general editor, a formidable old historian with a large corner office back in the city, would then select the documents to be included. The job itself, or at least the way it was organised, was itself redolent of an industrial world that was flourishing in 1948 and on its last legs by 1995. Indeed, I recall a demonstration in the department that very year of a newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. I took away from the demonstration that it was the internet with fancy pictures.

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Besides a capacity to write well, critics need to be well-informed. I sometimes get exasperated by reviewers without sufficient expertise in the topics they are considering. On the other hand, academic pedantry can also be off-putting, particularly when couched in a clunky style. In general, I’ve found the most memorable pieces to be those which say something about the reviewer as well as the author under review, like portraits which work through a kind of double vision, offering insights into the painter as well as the sitter. There was a very good essay on Les Murray by J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books a few years ago which had this double-edged quality.

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In the frantic days after the recent US presidential election, Donald Trump’s team – led by his attorney Rudy Giuliani – held a media conference in a suburban Philadelphia carpark. The establishment that formed the backdrop to this unusual performance is called Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Neighbouring businesses included a crematorium and an adult entertainment store (soon translated on social media into a ‘dildo shop’). At the time of writing, the explanation for how this had happened is still not forthcoming, but most commentators assumed a mix-up with one of the city’s major hotels, also called Four Seasons.

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In her essay On Beverley Farmer, Josephine Rowe recounts a 2013 visit to Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s Late Works. Among the drawings and sculptures on display was The Waiting Hours, described by Rowe as ‘a series of twelve small oceanscapes’ each of which shifts fluidly, a ‘darkening whorl around the small white axis of a singular source of light shrunk to a pinhole … at once a pivot point and a vanishing point’. The effect on Rowe of this encounter was ‘one of powerful undercurrent. I felt not much and then, abruptly, disconsolate. Swept out of depth. A plunge, a plummet: the inrush towards that oceanic sense of recognition experienced most commonly in dreams, but sometimes spilling over into waking life – encounters in art and music, in nature or, more rarely, in meeting (as though hello, again).’

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The dual crises of the recent bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed structural weakness in Australia’s economy. Our export income is dominated by a few commodities, with coal and gas near the top, the production of which employs relatively few people (only around 1.9 per cent of the workforce is employed in mining). The unprecedented fires, exacerbated by a warming climate, were a visceral demonstration that fossil fuels have no role in an environmentally and socially secure future. Global investors are abandoning coal and, in some cases, Australia. Meanwhile, industries that generate many jobs – education, tourism, hospitality, arts, and entertainment – have been hit hard by efforts to reduce the spread of the virus.

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The women that Robyn Davidson had a powerful effect on, Richard Cooke tells us, include author Anna Krien, adventurer Esther Nunn, and his wife. ‘I watched as the power of this book and its author, their energy and weight, worked an entrainment across cultures and generations,’ writes Cooke. In some ways his essay charts his struggle with that power. How not to fall into the trap that others who have tackled Davidson have fallen into? ‘I lagged decades of writers and pilgrims, interlopers and fans. Reading interviews to try to chicane through the questions already asked was pointless. They most often sought answers about the same thing – her first book, now published forty years ago.’

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