From the Burning Archive – new book out now

I have published From the Burning Archive: essays and fragments 2015-2022. You can buy it as print or e-book here at Amazon and also at other online retailers.

Here is an excerpt of the introductory essay of that collection. It tells how a dream image became a poem became a blog became a podcast and then an author platform.

I will be doing a video on my YouTube channel @theburningarchive on how I wrote and published From the Burning Archive in the next week or two. I would love it if you could subscribe to my YouTube channel and to enjoy the videos I am posting there on history, culture, books, writing, and geopolitics – all the kaleidoscopic stories of the multipolar world and my intellectual life.

Check out all my content at my linktree

The story of the Burning Archive

In 2015 I began writing a blog, The Burning Archive. It was my second blog. Between 2010 and 2014 I had secretly written The Happy Pessimist blog, largely concerning national politics in Australia. But The Happy Pessimist was cloaked in a pseudonym, Antonio Possevino, who was a sixteenth-century Jesuit diplomat, priest and author. I identified with Possevino, who became my digital avatar, because he also published tracts without his true name. So my first blog, The Happy Pessimist, was haunted by the prospect of the outing of its author. Its voice was muffled by fear of reprisals since that author had a day job as a minor government official subject to draconian speech codes that discouraged living in truth. When I began writing The Burning Archive, I defied those codes. I wrote in my own name, with no obfuscation of my occupation, and I released my voice and my mind to wander where they may.

The blog began in a period of deep personal crisis when freedom of speech and freedom of thought were essential, as I suppose they always are, to endurance through pain, suffering and defeat. Although at that time I did not know the poem by Kahlil Gilbran, “Defeat” (1918), it was as if I was in this blog screwing my courage to the sticking place and acting out Gilbran’s final stanza.

Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,
You and I shall laugh together with the storm,
And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,
And we shall stand in the sun with a will,
And we shall be dangerous.

The personal crisis was in itself related to my decision eighteen months earlier to close down my Happy Pessimist blog in fear. A public servant in Canberra had been sacked for a statement on social media. Governments of all stripes were controlling the communications of their servants, and suppressing the right to freedom of speech and freedom of thought of minor government officials. Major government officials who spoke in partisan ways in support of the government had nothing to fear. But lowly under-castellans such as me could threaten their careers by stating their mind in plain language. At that point I wanted to protect or even advance my career and obtain the rank long denied to me. So I decided to suppress my writing and seek favour in the court, but I was not successful. Then the recognition of this failure and the silent price I had paid provoked a major personal crisis.

So, The Burning Archive began. Although the fire began with personal crisis, the distressed emotions seeped only a little into the writing shared with the Ethernet of silenced screams. I had other outlets to express my inner torment: sessions with a psychologist; the love of my family; a series of black notebook journals, each titled poetically to evoke the soul-deepening experience I slowly made my way through; and my poetry and fictional writing. But I found my authorial persona on the blog, where I commented pessimistically on my sense of cultural or historical crisis, which I pointed to in the very name of the blog. The archive of our culture, with all its social memories and inherited institutions, was in flames. I had written poems before on this metaphor of the burning archive, and these poems were later published in 2021 in Gathering Flowers of the Mind: Collected Poems, 1996-2020. But I had not dared to share the image with the world. It was too intense, too painful, too precious. As poems, the image of the burning archive amplified my cries, and did not diffuse my pain. So by making the burning archive prosaic, the blog helped to map my way out of my personal crisis, and to turn a haunting poetic image into prose diagnosing a new time of troubles. From the start, I wrote with the idea that the blog could be an experimental art form, emerging in uncontrolled conditions, and a kind of digital samizdat in which the thoughts of people excluded from the published scene could describe, more truthfully than over-promoted authors, a culture on the brink of collapseAs I wrote on the first day, The Burning Archive would be “reflections and readings of today’s political, social and cultural orders, and my search for traditions in history, culture, and literature that I choose to preserve, so I might ward off an uneasy feeling of cultural collapse.”

Today that uneasy feeling of cultural collapse, or at least senescence and sabotage of the West and other traditions, is a commonly expressed concern, certainly among more conservative social observers. Yet I had drawn the image from one of the founders of radical cultural Marxism. The poetic image inspiring the blog blew first from one of Walter Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history. In this aphoristic text of fragments, the oddly mystical cultural Marxist imagined an Angel of History, blown forward by a firestorm of progress, yet looking back with tenderness at both the horror and the glory of the ruins. In those dog days of 2015, when I had no anticipation of any audience or any reception, I set out how I intuited the writing ahead:

The burning archive is an image of human history, learning and heritage being destroyed through our own actions of forgetting and destruction. … My blog is an extended meditation on both what is lost and what, despite the flames, is preserved, especially my most loved fragments of culture and literature. The blog is evolving into its own form of artwork, a new form of artwork made possible by the simple democratic tools of creativity in our digital age.

The advent of this archive in flames released my mind from an imprisoning magic ring of fire of my own making. For so long I had encased my spirit in an ill-chosen vocation: public servant, bureaucrat, and policy adviser. By choosing this path, I thought I walked the low road of the vita activa, and not the high road of the vita contemplativa.

For twenty years, while I led a mediocre career in government, I had kept my writing and intellectual life hidden. But it refused to be cowed. I wrote poetry. I began and never finished novels. I wrote essays for the drawer. I struggled with saying `I am a writer’, not `I am a public servant’. I tried to make my working life as a policy bureaucrat a kind of intellectual vocation. I created a personal myth of the despised private intellectual, in which I, like Machiavelli, shared my thoughts privately with patrons, but remained unknown as a writer in the present. I believed, not without reason, because of my exposure to so many issues and so many people through government, that I knew more of the world than the journalists, academics, business flakes, advertising executives and NGO activists who make up our chattering classes. I tormented myself to believe my realm of knowledge, experience and thought was closeted and despised. It would only ever be known by some future archivist who might discover the genius of my boxed briefings a century on from now. My insights were privileged and secreted. I lived in a split world, experienced as a divided psyche, where I wrote for the Cabinet by day and for the drawer by night. This splitting of my psyche shackled my prose. I thought my commentaries had to be about the constructed practical and not the imagined real. I thought I had to control my topics to those in which I could authoritatively claim to be a subject matter expert—the practical policy judgments of governments. I thought I could not stray in public writings very far from the social consensus, capable of ready implementation, unlikely to provoke misunderstandings or conflict. I thought I had to choose between writing and bureaucracy, and that one path excluded the other. `Am I a writer or a bureaucrat?’ I would ask this question, over and over, ever doubting the course I had taken. I believed that the only sign that writing was my vocation was by conventional publishing success, and that there was no way that an outcast such as myself would ever be admitted by a publisher to the world of commercial book sales. I thought my habit of withdrawing from the practical world to dream of unfinished novels, histories, poems, notebooks of aphorisms, intimations of madness, and diatribes about the treasonous clerks who I encountered day to day only proved my impotence as a writer and my incompetence as a bureaucrat. I thought that anything I wrote would bring social opprobrium on me, and that every action I took looked fearful, trembling, and pathetic to the alpha males and females who prowled the corridors of power.

But the personal crisis of 2015 dispelled the magical prison I had cast upon myself, and broke the hard casing of my vocational identity. In that long winter of 2015, I mended the split in my life between writer and bureaucrat, and began slowly to fire an integrated voice in the kiln of the burning archive. I stood among the flames, and found a way to walk out from the fire naked, renewed and empowered. I embraced my life as an outcast from two disordered regimes. I became dangerous.

I began to write on different topics and in different ways. History returned to my writing, after a long exile. I wrote about the books I read. I shared the troubled prophecies that previously I had cast in magical runes. I dared to write on anything and to disrespect any authority. I condemned experimental poetry and considered conservative political thought. I even predicted the victory of Donald Trump, at risk of mockery by the progressive crowd who still dominate the cultural and political institutions of Australia. I went back to old notes I had taken in my twenties about Derrida, Ponge and Blanchot, and speculated on mirrors. I shared my poetry. I doubted the wisdom of our rulers. I learned off the cuff, and did not try to hide it.

Rather to my surprise I found readers. Not many, but appreciative, and more than I had ever previously known. Now in August 2022 my blog has been viewed more than 16 000 times. These figures are trivial compared to the top tier of blogs, but, in the despair of 2015, when I began in the depths of a threefold crisis of career, psyche and culture, I did not expected more than 100 accidental views.

In early 2021 I found the blog started to transform. I decided to focus on bringing to publication my collected poems, which were published in June 2021 as Gathering Flowers of the Mind: Collected Poems 1996-2020. In April 2021 I launched a podcast, which I initially intended to name “The Tragic Sense of History”, but then built around what was emerging now as my author platform, The Burning Archive. The podcast evolved into a regular show exploring history and culture. It grew from my reflections on the blog over six years, concentrating on abiding themes that I began to explore as hypotheses on this history of our times: imperial rivalry, political disorder, cultural decay and social fragmentation. Producing these spoken word essays on history each week led me to rethink the role of the blog in my writing. In September 2021 I began a new experiment, a kind of live journal where I noted from my black notebooks, my reading and other sources the fragments, inspirations and flowers of my mind, evoked in the title of my collected poems. Each Saturday morning I would gather these flowers and share them on my blog, in all their transience. From mid-2022, I began new experiments as my writing persona bloomed.

It seemed that my blog had returned to earlier fragmentary traditions, such as the live journal of that strange Russian intellectual Dmitri Galkovsky and the hand-written cahiers of Paul Valery. I saw shape and completeness in the extended writing project I had undertaken on The Burning Archive over six years. So I decided to gather and publish the texts of the blog as a book. I have excluded from this collection the poems I first published on my blog, and that are now available in print. I have also excluded most of the posts on politics or governing. These posts on politics will be published together with other essays and fragments in another book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat. Nearly all other posts are gathered, edited and now transformed in this collection of essays and fragments.

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