History

Were you one of those reluctant mathematics students who complained, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ If so, rest assured: Michael Brooks has made a compelling case for the role mathematics has played in making ‘civilisation’ possible. If you still need convincing, he also discusses research suggesting that doing maths is good for your brain.

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While France provided a relative trickle of immigrants – the French in Australia numbered only four thousand at the end of the nineteenth century – its influence in Australia was surprisingly pervasive. Some years ago, an exhibition entitled The French Presence in Victoria 1800–1901 drew together an extraordinary range of materials, including French opera libretti and school textbooks printed here, together with original Marseille tiles and sumptuous fabrics. But Alexis Bergantz’s new book, French Connection, is not concerned with the spread, or penetration, of French goods. Rather, it is a careful examination of the idea of France. It is typical of its verve and elegance that the cover captures this nicely: Fragonard’s frilly beauty swings high at the top, a world away from the bottom-left corner, where Frederick McCubbin’s bushman sits Down on His Luck. (Tom Roberts got it in one: his well-known painting of Bourke Street includes the French tricolor, flapping from a shopfront.)

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Tongerlongeter was surely one of Australia’s toughest military leaders. Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements expressly narrate his story to affirm the place of the Frontier Wars in the Anzac pantheon. Reflexive conservative responses to such arguments – that Anzac Day commemorates only those who served in the Australian military – are flawed and outdated. The Tasmanian frontier is one of Australia’s best-documented cases of violent operations against Aboriginal people. In 1828, Governor George Arthur, unable to gain control over the ‘lamentable and protracted warfare’, issued a Demarcation Proclamation later enforced by the formation of Black Lines, military cordons stretching several hundred kilometres across southern and central Tasmania to secure the grasslands demanded by white settlers.

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In 1994, the Afghan mujahideen commander, Abdul Haq, rebuked the United States for forgetting about Afghanistan once the communist-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah had fallen in 1992. He predicted that Washington would rue its neglect: ‘Maybe one day they will have to send in hundreds of thousands of troops,’ he told The New York Times. ‘And if they step in, they will be stuck. We have a British grave in Afghanistan. We have a Soviet grave. And then we will have an American grave.’

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The myth and reality of the Anzac legend has proven a perennial subject of inquiry and argument for over thirty years now, since the publication of Ken Inglis’s justly famous articles in Meanjin and elsewhere in 1964–65. These prompted a spirited exchange with the late Geoff Serle and others. More recently, John Robertson examined the Gallipoli campaign in terms of the myth (1990), and found the critics of Australian martial performance wanting, while Eric Andrews took the Anglo-Australian relationship between 1914 and 1918 to task (1993), and found duplicity and manipulation in the construction of the Australians’ image.

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World War II drew the still-marginal profession of psychiatry into the war effort, with psychiatrists screening recruits for mental disorders and predisposing histories. Trauma, or the fear of trauma, hovered. But after treaties were signed and soldiers returned to their loved ones, and the memory of war faded for those not condemned to be visited by it daily, what role was psychiatry to play? In Mad by the Millions, historian of science and psychiatrist Harry Yi-Jui Wu writes about the peace time ambitions of postwar psychiatry, which were marshalled in the unlikely, bureaucratic setting of the International Social Psychiatry Project (ISPP) run by the Mental Health Unit of the World Health Organization.

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In the era of perpetual Covid lockdowns, many of us can relate to the isolation of the mid-twentieth-century housewife. Like her, we’re stuck at home, orbiting our kitchens, watching the light move across the floorboards. Each day mirrors the last, a quiet existence spent mostly in the company of the immediate household. Yet whereas we can flee our domestic confines via Netflix or TikTok, last century’s housewife had fewer avenues to the wider world. There was reading, of course – books or magazines or newspapers – but this was usually reserved for the end of the day. For most waking hours, her hands and eyes were needed for cooking, cleaning, mending, childcare, and a thousand other tasks.

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When I was a graduate student in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, Russian friends used to talk a lot about World War II. Their stories were of hardship and suffering stoically borne by the population and finally vindicated by victory in 1945. This was not dissimilar from what was published in the Soviet press on the subject, but without the press’s obligatory references to the wise leadership of the party. Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer tell basically the same story as my Soviet friends. Invoking the image of a ‘levée en masse spirit’ in the wartime Soviet Union, they admit that ‘strict discipline and repression certainly played a role’ in the state’s ‘unprecedented feats of mass mobilization’, but they put their interpretative emphasis elsewhere: ‘without the support of the vast majority of people and workers in particular, the great achievements on the home front would not have been possible’.

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Walter Scott at 250: Looking forward by Caroline McCracken-Flesher and Matthew Wickman

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September 2021, no. 435

Walter Scott, born on 15 August 1771, turns 250 in 2021. This event has been celebrated in Scotland with events such as a ScottFest at ‘Abbotsford’, his home, and a major international conference. But Scott, almost certainly the most popular and widely known author in the world in the nineteenth century, fell disastrously in public and critical esteem, to the point that E.M. Forster, in his influential Aspects of the Novel (1927), could sum him up with the wearily dismissive question ‘Who shall tell us a story?’ and the equally dismissive answer ‘Sir Walter Scott of course’. For Forster, Scott had ‘a trivial mind and a heavy style’.

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How best to tell the history of literature? – a long, chronological survey tracing broad arcs of development, or as a tight focus on a single, transformative year? The dedicated study of a single writer’s life, or the story of a movement, of several writers brought together for a time by some common cause? In recent years, the history of modernist literature has enjoyed these and other treatments. In Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The literary history of a meal (2014), Lucy McDiarmid takes as her subject a single evening: a dinner, held in West Sussex on 18 January 1914, in honour of the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and attended by six other poets, including W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. That famous evening serves to focus a wide-ranging discussion of literary friendship and romance, collaboration and rivalry.

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