Ode to Inga

Inga Clendinnen

Did any of you catch Inga Clendinnen on the Best of Late Night Live about ten days ago? I chanced upon the repeat halfway through — more accurately I woke up at some ungodly hour after falling asleep with the radio on — and was at once entranced by this quirky, lucid, sensuously intelligent voice talking about why Kate Grenvilleâs misuse of historical events in âThe Secret River❠was so wrong. Having recently read the âThe History Question: Who Owns the Past?❠in which Clendinnen addresses this same concern, I realised at once who the speaker must be. It did nothing to lessen my interest.

I find I can at times be terribly moved by what seems to me a certain quality of intellectual and emotional purity. A distilled essence if you like. When a fine intelligence and sympathetic nature have had time to mature, to suffer some of what life has to offer on the dark side, to face the follies of narrow ambition, then something rich and passionate and yet oddly impersonal will sometimes emerge. Reading âThe History Questionâ, and listening to her speak, I felt I was in the presence of such a mind.

While they are even better when read in their full context, consider, for example, these brief excerpts from her musings about Anzac Day:

âOne of my few relics is a buff-coloured card from my fatherâs furniture manufactory. It has ‘From Bench to You’ printed on one side, with the factoryâs address and telephone number, and on the other, in my fatherâs elegant upright hand, this. He must have been going to read it at the Dawn Service.

‘Now let us praise famous men. And our fathers that begat us. There be of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be which have no memorial, who are perished as thoâ they had never been born, but their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace and their name liveth for evermore.’

My throat still tightens as I read these words. The sound of the lone bugle, the murmur of magpies in a grey dawn, sweep me back into that strange blend of emotions â pride, grief, anger â as if it were yesterday.â


âAs for the nationsâs political health: contrast Anzac Day with the stories Germans made to console themselves after the defeat of 1918. I think our mode of celebrating Anzac Day is unparalleled in its sober mourning for young lives lost, wasted, broken. There is no triumphalism about it. For me, then and now, the giant question âGallipoli❠and its commemorations raise is âWhy?❠Why this waste, with the reasons for battle so tenuous and the deaths so real? It is only now that I realise that it was my childhood awareness of the horror and pity of war which determined the focus of my later work, as I struggle to understand the social and psychological forces which can lead men into the organised violence of war, and then keep them there.

Anzac Day is for me, as I think it is for many Australians, a personal possession. It holds my childhood memories of family and neighbourhood, when war was at once distant and immanent. That is how ritual works, as a portmanteau of past experience and of present emotion. Like most of my generation, I am practiced in irony, but I feel no irony about Anzac Day.â

With no little humour she goes on to say âNaturally, therefore, I am offended by change. I am almost as conservative as the RSL about that, for much the same reasons. But time tirelessly attacks the rituals we design to arrest it. As Humphrey McQueen neatly put it (on 25 April, 2003), âAnzac Day has never been what it used to be.ââ

Or consider this where she ponders the seductive dangers of thinking we can enter into times past by the use of imagination:

âFor Malouf, as for Grenville, historians create only a âworld of factsâ; novelists so stimulate our imaginations that we think we are actually there. And for him, too, the empathetic experience is redemptive: ‘I keep wanting to say societies can only become whole, can only know fully who they are, when they have relived history in that kind of way.’

Some engaged reading, some preliminary flexing of the imagination, a run, a vault, and presto! you are there. How do you know you are now in the past? Because while the place might look exotic, you understand it so much better than the complicated place in which you usually live. In the novelistâs âpast❠everyone behaves delightfully in character, and everyone submits to the plot. The novelist might surprise her readers. She will never surprise herself.

By contrast, the real past is surrounded by prickle-bushes of what I have to call epistemological difficulties. (From a handy online dictionary: âin a nutshell, epistemology addresses the questions, âDo you really know what you think you know?❠You do epistemology all the time â as when you assess the likely truth of a rich piece of gossip.) Access to the actual past is slow, always problematic, and its inhabitants can be relied upon to affront our expectations. I was cured of any residual faith in the utility of empathy by spending rather more than a decade in company with Aztecs. I knew they were human. I was reminded of that a dozen times a day. But it quickly became obvious that their minds and emotions were ordered differently from mine. This meant that if I were to penetrate any distance at all into the Aztec world of the imagination, I would have to keep my own imagination on a very short leash, because my imagination, like my emotions and assumptions, has grown organically out of my own experiences within my own cultural milieu.â

In addition to a rather lovely writing style, what I particularly responded to in the essay was the constant sense of self-examination that Clendinnen brings to her analysis, the clear belief that it is only through the exercise of discipline, careful research, intelligence and not least a touch of humility that historians have any chance of fulfilling what she sees as their calling:

âGiven the power of stories, historians must be on constant alert regarding their uses, because, like their cousins the archeologists, their obligation is to preserve the past in its least corrupted form. Citizens will go on exploiting the past for all manner of private and public enterprises, reputable and disreputable; historians will go on resisting opportunistic appropriations.â


âTo embrace uncertainty and ambiguity is the historianâs special duty. But if history is to inform present choices â to make them both more intelligent and more compassionate, as I believe it can â it must abide by the iron rules of the discipline.â

As will by now be more than obvious, if you havenât yet read it I strongly commend this Quarterly Essay (QE23). For those who wish to listen to the LNL interview, itâs fortunately still available on the ABC web site. For my part, well . . . . I intend to get hold of a copy of her latest book âAgememnonâs Kiss: Selected Essays❠and see whether the warmth of my feeling survives a more extended encounter.

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Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Thanks Ingolf. I agree that Clendinnen is a very lucid writer. Expressions like ‘what it is to be human’ appear slightly more often than I’d like though. I thought her book (I think it was called ‘Reading the Holocaust’) was full of interest and insight, somehow a bit out of her depth. (I guess it’s hard not to be out of your depth if you take that subject on.

17 years ago

HUZZAH! Another LNL listener. Or should that be Gladdie? Here’s a tip. Get yourself a decent quality MP3 player. Preferebly one that takes SD memory. Then download a piece of software known as Juice. Go to the wonderful ABC Radio National podcast site, get the link for whatever RN program you wish and plug it into Juice. Run the program once a week and you never need miss an RN broadcast again!
Makes for very satisfying bedtime listening.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Yes, she’s very good. I think “Dancing with Strangers” was pretty marvellous (from what I read of it in the press and heard on the radio – but I didn’t buy it).

I do associate her with a rather precious school of history in Victoria. I did honours in history and audited lectures by Greg Denning at Melbourne Uni. He was all the rage and was into history as a kind of exploration of alternative ‘readings’ of things. Paul Carter was another one with all his stuff about maps.

Now I really got off on history as the recovery of meaning that had been lost to us. But somehow although that was Denning’s schtick he didn’t and doesn’t impress me. There was something that I thought was affected about his whole enterprise – as much as I was sympathetic to its origins. Indeed I tried to practice history in a similar way. But beyond trying to recover original meaning, I think Denning took it a bit further. He somehow took it to a place where it seemed to me he showed a kind of preciousness about the unusual nature of his historical ‘readings’. Viz Captain Bligh’s Bad Language.

Inga flirts with the same kind of theory – but I think she’s more grounded than Denning. I admire her journey into the South American Native societies. I admire the way she speaks of her quest – to render them intelligible by understanding their differences from us. But I’ve only read her apologias for her studies on this stuff, not, sadly her books on this subject.

Though I agree with her points against the ficionalisers of history – and I think her points were well made – I still detect a slight vein of preciousness about her enterprise.

Anyway – that’s all for the record – a bit of nit-picking on someone whose writing and speaking I always find thoughtful and provocative. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Yep, I agree. Not really accusing Clendinnen of what I’m accusing Denning of. I’m just suggesting there’s a slight whiff of his preciousness there – but (with the possible exception of her ‘Reading the Holocaust’ I’m not really accusing her of that in her interpretations.

And her fastidiousness is one of the things I like. I’m a purist too. No point in falsifying history when the whole point is to see how far you can get to the truth of the matter. What other point could there be. It’s the truth of the matter that the novelists claim for themselves too, but I think she deals with them well. (At least with Kate Grenville – not sure about Malouf.

I guess I think she fancies what she’s doing as a little more than it is. I don’t have it on me any more – I sold it to a second hand shop I think – but reading the holocaust (from memory) had too many self conscious references to her own venture into what was possible for the human being etc for my taste.

But it really is just my taste – a pretty minor point.

17 years ago

I have only read Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay, which does bang on about Grenville a bit. Though to be fair, Grenville has banged on about herself and should, I believe, be prepared to pay the piper.

I think a lot of our writers are a bit precious – with the exception of Martin Krygier, whom I heard speak with Geoffrey Robertson at MWF last year. He was very much in my mind as I read your comments above. It is hard, perhaps, for people not to be precious about intellectual endeavours they build their lives around, especially in a country that hardly notices them at all really.

I don’t blame historians for wanting to keep fiction writers honest and I really struggle with renovated historical fictions that play fast and loose with the facts in the name of a good story, all the while protesting that they have some ability to channel the truth while they do so. A lurid example is Lynne Reid Banks’ books about the Brontes. Ewwwh, they were horrid. Simply horrid.

Tony Harris
17 years ago

Ingolf, I think your comment on Martin Krygier’s abuse of Quadrant was rather revealing, since you say you have hardly the magazine in recent years. I have been reading Quadrant reguarly and I find Martin’s views to be seriously overstated. Quadrant serves a broad constituency and there will always be views expressed in it that some readers will find objectionable. They have thoughtfully produced a Tshirt for you to wear, saying “I don’t read Quadrant but I hate it” or words to that effect.

Tony Harris
17 years ago

Sorry, my exaggeration, the wording is more like “I dont read Quadrant and I don’t like it”. Checking out the Krygier piece, he commented on that slogan and wrote that people at least need to read the stuff to have an opinion.

It may be helpful to explore the reasons why Martin Krygier and others have such strong negative views on Quadrant (after Robert Manne). I think this reflects a very unhappy situation that has come to pass in the humanities and social sciences since the troubles of 1968 and after. This is too long ago for most people to remember and the nature of the transition has not been adequatly documented so far as I know, although bits trickle out in books like Andrew Reimer’s “Sandstone Gothic”. Actually that book was more about departmental politics, losing the plot and dumbing down, but all those processes went on in parallel with more overt politicisation in other schools and departments.

The core of the matter is that the social and political sciences have been politicised to such an extent that it has become quite normal and acceptable for prima facie academic work to read like a party politcal pamphlet. A prime example is Us and Them, eds Sawer and Hindess, reviewed on Catallaxy.


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