Fragments from Dr Elizabeth McMahon’s Dorothy Green Memorial Lecture ‘Australia, The Island Continent: A new literary geography’

One of the highlights for me of the 2012 ASAL conference in Wellington, New Zealand, was Elizabeth McMahon‘s Dorothy Green Memorial Lecture. As Elizabeth Webby commented at the end of the hour-long talk, McMahon began with despair and despondency – and ended with wonder.

There is no way I can do justice to the breadth, depth and erudition of McMahon’s ruminations on islands, nations, literature, origins, the future, in a blog post. But I will attempt to capture some fragments of what she said – if only to entice you to look out for her talk when it’s published in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (JASAL) later this year.

McMahon said she was going to weigh into current debates on Australian literature, especially as there aren’t many women involved in this discussion – and consider the fate of national literatures in a globalising world. To consider the future of Australian literature we need to consider its origins.

Islands are figures, metafigures, of origin. Prospero‘s island, Robinson Crusoe‘s island.

Literature’s origins lie not in classical rhetoric but in literary modernism and the institutionalisation of literature in the colleges of the 19th century and in universities after the First World War.

The institutionalisation of Australian literary studies is even more recent, dating to the first chair in Australian literature which was created in 1962, and the rise of Australian literature courses, organisations such as ASAL, literary prizes, etc.

McMahon’s concerned with mapping our literary origins then leaving it open, troubled, to see where we’re going to go. There’s a progress narrative with literary studies, we’re always moving onto something else, anything else.

Simon During‘s work on the decline of literary studies since the fall of socialism and the rise of endgame capitalism is significant, but there’s a ‘terrible occupation and evacuation of meaning’ about it, a despondency, which McMahon would like to move away from.

And to do so she turned to islands. The idea of the repeating island derived from chaos theory. Islands are at the forefront of global change issues.

The episodic nature of Homeric epic follows Odysseus’s travels from island to island. British Arthurian legends – with their islands – underpin the geography of Spanish Amadis and of Don Quixote, said to be the first modern novel.

In 1623 John Donne wrote ‘no man is an island’. The year marks the moment when the British first take an island in the Caribbean.

There was a shift from a cosmological to a cartographical way of seeing in the Renaissance.

‘Island’ is a key place to write a modern man’s subjectivity. Derrida says he’s never found a female in an island (Brigitta says she’s found one, the first).

The island’s status is as figure of origin. Island of origin, a single origin rather than from two parents, a new beginning, natural and supernatural origins like Prospero’s island, the origin of writing.

The first utopian text appears at the very dawn of modernity: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). DH Lawrence’s fable of solipsism, The Man Who Loved Islands.

The island appears somehow as a natural sovereign state. There are only a few islands in the world where there are more than one state, eg Papua and New Guinea, and they are usually sites of some conflict.

‘A fetish is a story masquerading as an object’ – aura relies on distance.

For Gertrude Stein the thrill of the modern is the capacity to see the whole from a distance. For example, her view of the United States, as if from above, with the states clearly marked.

As Jameson notes, utopia has always been a political issue – and in 2005 he noted that utopianism has revitalised in the face of endgame capitalism.

There is a crisis of imagination over how the future might look and behave.

Utopias and dystopias are usually islands.

Deleuze‘s island as a parthenogenetic egg.

The great achievement and wisdom of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria – the space does cohere for the indigenous characters in the novel. It constructs a dialectic between two different ways of living. Poverty v spiritual evacuation.

There are two cataclysms in the novel: one is set up by culture, the explosion of the mine, made by men and destroyed by men; the second is a force of nature, a cyclone which destroys the town.

The temporality of the mine is excised before the temporality of the cycle is revived.

The rebirth of the future cannot be known but it takes place on an island.

Andrew McGahan’s 2009 novel Wonders of a Godless World reads like the underbelly of Carpentaria. It seems to come from nowhere. It’s a very strange novel.

Reviews saw it as McGahan’s way of writing his way out of realism, but neither of the reviews in two major Australian newspapers has any way into the novel.

McGahan said he wanted to write a novel about the interplay of the earth and the elements. But that wasn’t working so he introduced some characters, archetypal figures, such as an orphan, an archangel, a witch.

Carpentaria resists the surrender to the mining company but not to the cycles of the Rainbow Serpent.

Both Carpentaria and Wonders of a Godless World use ‘wonder’ repeatedly.

The ground is alive with vibrations, of the earth, of mining.

How does this relate back to our institutional future?

1. the need to attend to our writers.

2. the need to listen to people who aren’t at the centre of globalised knowledge.

3. a specific wisdom pertains to confusing and clarifying notions of continuity and discontinuity.

Alexis Wright has cleared the ground for us. But she does not give us an answer.

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One Response to Fragments from Dr Elizabeth McMahon’s Dorothy Green Memorial Lecture ‘Australia, The Island Continent: A new literary geography’

  1. Pingback: To Niew Zilland « LadyRedJess

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