TEXT review


Speaking of dreams

review by Ruby Todd

 

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Southerly: Australian Dreams 1
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Volume 74, Number 2
The Journal of the English Association
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2014
ISBN 9781921556739
Pb 263pp AUD29.95

 

An affirmatory reimagining of the jeremiad – that historical synergy of lamentation and prophetic warning in oration and writing, beloved of preachers, politicians and revolutionaries alike for its rousing potential – runs overtly and covertly throughout Volume 74 (2) of Southerly.

The potential of the jeremiad to also be didactic, totalising and blindly ideological in expounding an agenda might explain co-editor David Brooks’s ambivalence toward it when, recognising the tone of his editorial in its roll-call of oversights, outrages and losses –  humanitarian, political, ecological – of our nation, he states, ‘[t]he list goes on, and on, but I don’t want to deliver a Jeremiad’ (2014: 9). As Brooks asserts, our national reality at present is one in which many of the values constituting the dream(s) of Australia are at stake. However, he emphatically resists appealing by way of contrast to some mythical Australian origin, a prelapsarian ideal from which we have fallen. To do so, Brooks notes, would be to negate the long history of violence and destruction – of Indigenous people, and of our natural environment to start with – which have been ongoing since the time of European settlement. Brooks also recognises that a singular “Australian dream” does not exist, and instead emphasises the plurality and subjectivity of Australian dreams, a spirit to which the disparate visions collected in this issue of Southerly all broadly attest. As Brooks cautions, ‘[o]ne person’s dream is another’s poison. The very idea of ‘Australia’ is a nightmare to some’ (2014: 8).

The Australian dreams which the essays, poems and stories of this issue variously trouble, dismantle and lament are wide-ranging. Mobilised by concerns of social, political, economic and environmental justice, they navigate questions of individual and collective responsibility and agency, philosophy and policy, social and political complicity, and how to move forward. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the overwhelming tone is elegiac and searching, preoccupied by ethical conundrums and how to think through them.

In ‘Against Progress: Dreams, Nightmares, and the Meaning of Abbott’, one of several stand-out essays, Joshua Mostafa examines what he determines to be the ethical vacuity of political leadership, and the fear and complacency that permits and fuels it. In doing so, Mostafa also speaks to what he sees as the dark irony of the Liberal interpretation of “progress”, which, he argues, continues to insidiously negate the very concept of hospitality as the ethics of relating to the other. Discussing our present and previous governments’ treatment of refugees and distortion of the relevant statistical realities, Mostafa asks, ‘how is it that the policies of short-sighted pursuit of personal gain, selfishness and a rabid defence of territory have such currency in the body politic of the ‘lucky country’?’ (104). To this end, Mostafa examines the problems of ‘economic triumphalism’ (105) and its reliance on negative ideology rooted in fear, and short term economic self-interest – permitting such decisions as the carbon tax repeal – and a commitment to an ‘idea of progress…bound up in imperialist expansion, and the violent displacement [of indigenous people]’ (108). Mostafa wonders how ‘a revitalised politics of social justice, hospitality, and respect for ecology’ (110) might develop without old ideas of progress, and whether the Australian dream is possible without it. In the cautionary lament of his conclusion, Mostafa too strikes an understandably jeremiadic tone:

The plundering of the earth on which our current way of life depends cannot go on indefinitely… Perhaps the settler society of Australia, that has found it so hard to utter even cheap words of apology, will find it easier to cry for help – if it’s not too late. (111)

Hannah Forsyth’s penetrating and acerbic analysis of Australian universities in ‘Dreaming of Higher Education’, explores ‘the dreams Australian academics often think they have lost’, while also considering ‘who else the dream is for’, and the potential for ‘bigger dreams than our institutions currently offer or represent’ (120). Forsyth interrogates the narrative of what she calls a ‘“jeremiad” genre’ (120), which she describes as involving scholars lamenting the lost dream of an academe which nurtures scholarly freedom and passion, and its erosion by economic rationalism and bureaucratic hoop-jumping. This, Forsyth contends, ‘is a whiney literature that does not recognise the sad truth that unscrupulous, elite professorial boys clubs of the past probably earned the increased scrutiny that made some of this happen’ (120). In arguing that academics themselves have been insidiously complicit in perpetuating gender, class, and racial inequities in tertiary education, Forsyth also reminds us that the act of teaching offers means for change, suggesting that any viable dream for the Australian university must be a more inclusive and plural dream, grounded in a ‘lived political commitment to our students that turns our classrooms into laboratories for change’ (137). Not everyone will agree with Forsyth’s weightings of blame, and certainly a more sustained engagement seems necessary with how the effects of casualisation, career insecurity and increasing workloads in our universities might undermine the agency of so many teaching academics to fully realise such a ‘lived political commitment to students’. Regardless, Forsyth’s analysis represents an incisive contribution to ongoing discussions concerning the future of universities nationally and globally.

 Alongside Mostafa and Forsyth in the chorus of critical inquiry is a moving and incisive call for Aboriginal self-determination by Jim Everett, but there are also voices just as searching, in other registers: a lyric essay by Frank Moorhouse examines personal intersections between encounters with wilderness and the formation of self; a short story by Cecilia Harris navigates the metaphorical richness of snow; and a poem by Judith Rodriguez recalls the 2001 SIEVX refugee boat tragedy whose victims ‘have no memorial/ but the love that could not hold them/ and the care that was their due’ (117-8).

This is a timely collection of work by a constellation of writers at pains to reckon with the realities of Australian dreams past and present, in order to imagine and actively move toward a future in which social justice, racial equality and respect for ecology are reflected not only in the way we dream, but also in the way we live. As Brooks reminds us, realising such a future demands we each recognise our responsibility for it, and resist ‘the assumption that others will do the speaking for us. If we leave it to others, then we give tacit permission for others to do so also’ (11). In this way, Australian Dreams 1 speaks to Kate Rigby’s call for visionary writing which aims to ‘awaken us to another way of thinking and being’, and to compel ‘just and compassionate action’ (Rigby 2009).

 

Works cited

 

 

Ruby Todd is a writer of prose and poetry, with a PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Theory from Deakin University, where she teaches. Her current research investigates the connections between elegy, ethics and ecology.

 

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TEXT
Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
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