It’s to the credit of the Institute of Public Affairs that it is interested in the idea of an Australian canon and it would be a mistake to see the list it released late last year – primarily of our significant books but also of paintings, songs and films – as some conservative plot.
Besides, there’s the memory of a day in New Haven, moving towards twilight, when the great literary critic Harold Bloom said, in a tone of wonder and almost with a look of pain, “I suppose that’s what we are, cultural conservatives.” The lifelong Democrat was the Yale professor who propounded the theory of the canon and wrote a book about it, but he was hyperconscious that the classics of our literature were under threat and needed to be defended.
The importance of pushing for the idea of certain works having an enduring value – and an enduring truth because of the moral depth out of which they come – is an ancient concern that Samuel Johnson, the greatest of English literary critics, and Aristotle, the supreme theorist of these things, both understood. But in the past century we’ve seen canons within canons – Cambridge literary critic FR Leavis and his disciples saying a lot of the great books were not that great – as well as a relativism that says you just like what you like for more or less predetermined social and political reasons.
This is hogwash. The greatest critic of the 20th century, TS Eliot (who was also one of the greater poets) believed literature was a timeless order that was modified by every subsequent work of literature. This is a philosophically idealist position but it cannot be disproved. A high proportion of people who care about these things would say the greatest prose fiction of the renaissance high modernist period of the 20th century was James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. But those same people would want to find a place for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest from the 1990s or the novels of Roberto Bolano.
Scott Hargreaves, who heads the IPA canon project, doesn’t want us to forget Sidney Nolan or Fred Williams or Clifford Possum among painters or Clive James and Rai Gaita among autobiographers. He wants us to remember not only Watkin Tench’s elegant, very Enlightenment account of the first white settlement but also Manning Clark’s mythology of Australian history (and, as Don Watson said in Clark’s defence, you can’t disprove the idealist theory of history, either.)
Inevitably, the greatest weight falls on literature. You can argue that an Australian canon is an oxymoron, that the world trumps the mere nation any day. It’s true that a poem such as Kenneth Slessor’s Five Bells won’t bear comparison with, say, Eliot’s Four Quartets, but could any Australian who knows it fail to feel the stab and the poignancy of this extraordinary harbour elegy?
And if you want a contrast to the buoyancy of Banjo, try his pessimistic fellow traveller Henry Lawson in that great and desolating short story The Drover’s Wife.
You can argue about the respective merits of Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony compared with her school story The Getting of Wisdom, which Germaine Greer ranks higher. But Richard Mahony was certainly an influence on Patrick White, and the IPA’s list includes not only Voss, that extraordinary story of telepathic communion between the explorer and Laura Trevelyan in Adelaide, but also the great biography by that distinguished man of the left, David Marr, of the man who came back from the war with the face of an indomitable pastoralist. Marr’s grand life of Australia’s greatest novelist provides the circumstantial background to the sequence of masterpieces White wrote, from The Aunt’s Story in 1948 to The Twyborn Affair in 1979. It is to Hargreaves’s credit that he highlights White’s work.
The effort to see how the canon changes as the world changes is reflected by the inclusion of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. Tony Ayres’s television version had an absolute fidelity to Christos’s vision and made it look like a masterpiece.
We have to strive to conserve our treasures just as we must be open to the shock of the new.