Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers

If I were to teach a course on the history of Australians in the global nineteenth century, I would begin with a reading of this most remarkable book, perhaps turning attention to Inga Clendinnen’s close reading of the episode of the Spearing of the Governor (Arthur Phillip) in a misunderstood stumbling dance of strangers divided profoundly by culture. Culture, she understands, is “the context of our existential being: a dynamic system of shared meanings through which we communicate with our own.”

Her attention to communicating those near-lost shared meanings through the sources, her search for clues to mental states in action, her scrupulous intelligence, her avoidance of empty isms and abstractions, and her exquisitely limpid prose are all exemplary. Above all, she has listened to the attentive, if imperfect, witnesses of the past and allowed their voices, small matters that hold great moments, and significant episodes to murmur to us again. Towards the end of her book she writes:

“History is not about the imposition of belated moral judgements. it is.. based on the honest analysis of the vast, uneven, consultable record of human experience. To understand history, we have to get inside episodes, which means setting ourselves to understand our subjects’ changing motivations and moods in their changing contexts, and to tracing the devious routes by which knowledge was acquired, understood and acted upon. Only then can we hope to understand ourselves and our species better, and so manage our affairs more intelligently. If we are to arrive at a durable tolerance (and it is urgent that we should), we have only history to guide us.”

I can imagine few more curious, compassionate and steady guides than Inga Clendinnen.

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