The great Australian historian or writer, Inga Clendinnen has died.
Image Source: http://www.smh.com.au/national/people/warrior-of-the-mind-20140810-3dha8.html
There is a moving obituary by her publisher at Text, Michael Heyward, over at The Australian.
There Heyward quotes Clendinnen saying that her turn to writing in response to her life-threatening illness “liberated me from the routines which would have delivered me, unchallenged and unchanged, to discreet death.”
Her books are exemplars for me. Her writing is so lucid and so insightful about human psychology and culture. She respects formal genres, but writes beyond them, with a graceful grief for the loss of formal well-written academic scholarship. They take good parts of history, memoir, essay, anthropology, and serve the reader on a quest to imagine all the possibilities of being human.
As a tribute to this great thinker and writer, who I wish I could emulate, let me quote from her essay. “The History Question: who owns the past? (2006).
“The most assured historians reveal their moral vision in everything they do: through tone, the sequencing of topics, the interspersion of comment, the selection of particular moments for deeper inquiry. That is why my most engrossing aesthetic/intellectual pleasure from words on the page, excepting only poetry, comes from watching a master historian at work. It is a preposterously ambitious enterprise, trying to make whole people, whole situations, whole other ways of being out of the dusty fragments left after real lives end, but that is what the best historians set out to do.” (p 55-56)
I have written elsewhere about Clendinnen’s masterful account of the first encounters between the first Australians and the Europeans who arrived on one small part of their shore in 1788 – Dancing with Strangers. I have yet to read her great book on the Aztecs, which preceded her illness, but often think about the themes of Reading the Holocaust, which she wrote as a non-specialist after her illness. This work is especially important to my own reflections on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Close to the end of that work she writes, in response to the conflicting emotions stirred by a photograph of an act of violence from the Holocaust:
“An awakened, outraged sensibility demands systematic inquiry… it is not enough to loathe the perpetrator and to pity the victim, because in that scene they are bound together. We must try to understand them both.” (p 206)
So she goes on to say “only disciplined, critical remembering will resist the erasure of fact and circumstance effected by time, by ideology, and by the natural human impulse to forget.” And then with a graceful turn, so characteristic of Clendinnen, she turns to the words of Wislawa Symborska, frankly admitting she had only recently discovered her with her Nobel Prize award, and with her poem “Could have” ends her great essay on the holocaust, with the observation that Symborska “says much of what I have been trying to say over these many pages in as many words.” (p. 207)
So, let me end this elegy of sorts with the same poem, whose kindred spirit has guided me and perhaps also this great tiger of the mind whose eye has finally closed against the world.
Could Have (Wislawa Symborska)
It could have happened
It had to happen
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.
You were in luck – there was a forest.
You were in luck – there were no trees.
You were in luck – a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant….
So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or
Listen, how your heart pounds inside me.