Climb the rock

Return to Uluru, Mark McKenna, Black Inc.

Mark McKenna’s new book Return to Uluru is an example of truth-telling regarding the particulars of our history. The book, besides being a surprisingly handsome hardcover edition, draws you in by starting with an overview of the continent, talking about the vast, almost waterless centre that so bedevilled European explorers (but which, McKenna notes, some explorers arrogantly thought they could claim in a James Cook-like act of flag-planting), then concentrates on one (forgotten) instance of white crime against Aboriginal people. (In this way it’s a little bit like Ted Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend in that it mixes observations of beautiful countryside and Aboriginal legend with remembering a tragic death.)

In the 1930s Bill McKinnon, remembered in white society as a pioneering, no-nonsense bush policeman and ‘protector’ of Aborigines in Alice Springs, shot and killed an unarmed Aboriginal murder suspect in one of the caves at Uluru. At the subsequent trial, there were issues raised over McKinnon’s violent treatment of prisoners and an enquiry was called by Canberra, though McKinnon was let off. While McKenna tells this true-crime story he raises wider issues – the level of understanding (or not) of British and Australian law by Aboriginal people, the disparity between the harsh treatment of Aboriginal people and the leniency or even immunity given to whites, the imposition of an outsider, white cultural and legal view on the country’s original inhabitants, the cover-up and historical amnesia, or simply indifference, and the way white settlers have claimed the countryside, including sites such as Uluru, as if it had been virgin territory.

McKenna writes about the ‘closing’ of Uluru – the recent restriction on climbers, in the light of the inequalities in central Australia, and without analysing it much, he manages to show what the rush to climb the rock before people weren’t allowed to says about lingering attitudes to Aboriginal land ownership, about an irreverence, almost a nastiness, on the part of some of us who remain sceptical about issues that concern Aboriginal people – the darker side of a national reluctance to think about deeper things, and a recurring sense that the land must be claimed in some physical way for it to mean something, that it must be not just appreciated but conquered, scaled, by hiking boot or four-wheel drive.

The issues McKenna raises are difficult. Reputations are injured, Australian mythology is questioned. But the book’s story is also an example of how the past can be revisited, the truth patiently drawn-out and reconciliation begun.

Compensation in an afterlife

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, Bart Ehrman, Oneworld.

In the 1980s Australian pop band Eurogliders had a hit with their song ‘Heaven’ – ‘heaven… must be there.’ Although more worldly in focus, the song expressed the hopeful sentiment that living in a place beset by troubles ‘must’ be balanced by a future place of comfort and security. In his history of the afterlife (primarily in Judaism and Christianity), Bart Ehrman suggests the idea of life after death develops in scripture, and that a desire for justice or recompense for trouble often informs attitudes to the afterlife, even if some ideas about the afterlife accepted widely in Christianity simply aren’t found in scripture.

In the USA, Ehrman informs us, 72% of people believe in heaven, and 58% in hell (variations on this statistic can be found elsewhere), suggesting that the idea of an afterlife retains a hold on Americans, but I also think the difference shows the idea of hell, and of fire and brimstone, is somewhat out of fashion, and that even the nonreligious think of the afterlife as reward but not punishment. Even an orthodox theologian such as David Bentley Hart has written about how an eternal hell just doesn’t fit with a loving God and teachings of grace. Yet, says Hart, it is an issue for which he has received much criticism. Many Christians, it seems, (over half) are fiercely certain that the wicked should be punished. (And in centuries gone, it was as much a fear of hell, as the promise of heaven, that kept churchgoers in their pews.)

Ehrman, a former evangelical scholar now trending firmly towards skepticism, says Jesus’ view was that there is an afterlife of sorts, but that the wicked would be annihilated, and reading an eternal hell into Jesus’ talk of Gehenna is a misunderstanding. (Hart says the same.) Similarly, Ehrman says when Jesus speaks of ‘darkness’ we should read this as unenlightenment, a figuratively destructive situation. (This does, though, create some problems with how to interpret the story of Lazarus and the rich man.) The Dantean picture of hell is just not there in the Bible. (Unsurprisingly, Ehrman reads the Book of Revelation as ‘obviously’ a commentary on contemporary Rome, in code, rather than a prophecy about the End of Days. Many Americans don’t agree on that.)

The early Old Testament view of the afterlife is probably that all were simply annihilated, that death was the end, or, as the Greeks thought, that the soul – a pale imitation of a person (not their true self) – floated down to a shady underworld. Then again, ‘Sheol’ may have been, Ehrman says, just a metaphorical way of talking of the finality of death (or perhaps of the uncertainty of knowing).

Some Old Testament writers hint at death being final, but then, as in the odd story of Saul consulting an occultist, there is contact with the dead, a variation on simply belief in an afterlife. Later Judaism became ‘muddier’, with emphasis on resurrection of the body, especially in apocalyptic literature (including some non-canonical books, which Ehrman explores). Famously, the Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees didn’t, being more aligned with worldly power and in no need of compensation in an afterlife (a recurring theme).

There is a certain logic in resurrection of the body (rather than transmigration of the soul), which, incidentally, is part of the creeds, even if some Christians think that after you die, your soul goes up to heaven. The church fathers seemed to dismiss this vague idea of souls floating off, but the high-minded Greeks scoffed at resurrection of the (impure) body, something Paul combatted in his letters, where he argued emphatically for resurrection, though of a transformed and perfected body. In the era of the early church there was all manner of speculation on what resurrection would involve, including one bizarre riddle about cannibalism. (Paul, you may recall, dismissed such silly speculation.) At least one church father found it all too hard and reverted to the Greek version.

Resurrection of the body fits with a modern idea that identity is tied to the body. It also fits with theodicy – that at some point God will correct injustices in what Jesus termed the Kingdom of God, the exalting of the humble and the humbling of the mighty, and the world restored. Somewhere this developed into the idea of eternal bliss or punishment, which is not quite what Jesus argued. Ehrman is also of the opinion that Jesus was more worldly-focused, that he equated spiritual badness with the selfishness of the rich and powerful and that the Gospel writers turned Jesus’ teaching about following his example into a faith purely centred on the rewards of the afterlife.

What is intriguing about Jesus is that, as Paul and the early church recognized, and the church has generally taught, he seemed to think the division was less about life and death, but instead thought the transition point centred on his ministry, where death and the darkness of the world were already defeated, the world transformed, and the poor and forgotten resurrected, reborn, something replayed in the early church’s emphasis on being filled with the Spirit and transformed, in order to follow Jesus’ example. So, for these followers of Jesus, the afterlife had already begun.

Bit of bad weather

Tornado God, Peter Thuesen, Oxford University Press.

Tornadoes have the fastest winds on Earth, and while hurricanes/cyclones have wider impact, tornadoes are the most destructive. They are formed when cold and hot air mixes in a deadly waltz and although they occur worldwide, the US has the most, and the fiercest, due to its geography. The deadliest was in 1925 – over 700 people – but in 2011 there were over 500 deaths. While forecasting has improved, tornadoes’ destructive power is exacerbated by their individual unpredictability, and population increases put more people in harm’s way.

Tornado Alley, in the middle of America’s Great Plains, is tornadoes’ ballroom, and it happens to be the place where Christian belief is also particularly prevalent, a combination that means there has been a lot of theological speculation over the years on the phenomena, something explored in Peter Thuesen’s book, which is as much theology as meteorology.

Tornadoes, as with other natural disasters, are a particular challenge for the idea of providence, that God intends things to work out for the best, or even that God provides disproportionately for the faithful (a contradiction to Matthew 5:45 – God ‘sends rain on the just and the unjust’). Since the European settlement of America, tornadoes have been a spectacular provocation for asking why one person is killed, or their house destroyed, while another is spared. Why does God permit, or even intend this to happen? (Thuesen tends to play up the exceptionalism of Americans dealing with this issue, but bushfires or floods may prompt the same question for Australians.)

The English colonists, says Thuesen, used the weather to describe God, echoing Old Testament language, where God is in the whirlwind, but they also saw God’s hand in the weather, reading into natural disasters God’s intention, and especially God’s concern for the faithful when they survived them. Whereas these days we might question God when natural disasters happen, or dismiss entirely the notion of a providential God as old-fashioned nonsense, New Englanders were likely to flock to churches after storms, fearful that God was punishing them and calling them to repentance. One minister, preaching on the Lisbon earthquake, which the likes of Voltaire thought proved there was no God, said that it was a sure sign of God’s punishment of those idol-worshipping Catholics. But there were also those who questioned this theology, especially when the faithful conveniently saw storms as a test of faith for themselves but punishment for their neighbours.

The historian of folk beliefs Keith Thomas wrote that once providence gets a hold intellectually, it is all-powerful and hard to dislodge (like, I presume, the ideas of American exceptionalism or that the US election was rigged). The arguments of the Enlightenment philosophers didn’t really shake (in the US) the idea of God being behind tornadoes and destructive storms, but there were arguments over how much people could read into the weather. One clergyman said that if every bit of bad weather was a sign from God then God must be worryingly chaotic in his ways. Randomness in nature is just part of God’s plan. Others thought this argument was on the slippery slope to the disengaged ‘Watchmaker God’ of Enlightenment deists.

In the early twentieth century there were debates about whether prayer can change the weather. Some said, of course, some, of course not. (And yet our churches continue to ring with prayers for rain, etc.) Thuesen notes that this was a change from the certainty of the colonial era, where praying for storms against the enemy was commonplace.

In these debates, many have returned to the Book of Job, and to its ‘non-answer’ to the question of why bad things happen. But today many evangelicals (many of whom live in Tornado Alley) persist in seeing disasters as signs from God, and Calvinist theologians tend to be strong on providence, and baulk at mention of a chance-filled universe. However, the random path of a tornado is not easily explained theologically, and trying to see some purpose behind the death of a child, say, can compound grief. Yet Thuesen writes of one example of a father driven to, rather than away from, faith because of the inexplicable death of a child.

Thuesen suggests that chaos theory upsets providential theology but that unpredictability also upsets the progressive notion that science can explain all. There are too many variables in tornado prediction to be able to confidently predict their paths. This doesn’t make them automatically a supernatural phenomenon, but some humility is helpful, and in the end, uncertainty might be good for faith. Many tornado watchers speak of tornadoes in terms of inspiring awe, and there are parallels with religious awe, in being humbled before something unpredictable and more powerful than ourselves.

Legal tradition regarding land

Truth-telling, Henry Reynolds, Newsouth.

Recently we had our annual debate over Australia Day, which in some ways is a debate about whether we recognize the uncomfortable truth of our past or persist in celebrating the myth of a non-violent European settlement. The philosopher Plato said that nations are built on myth, in order to hide the violence that often accompanies nation-building, so Australia’s mythologising is nothing out of the ordinary. At the same time, we recognise the need to tell the truth, and just in the past week we have had some movement from state governments towards ‘truth-telling’, so it is timely that Henry Reynolds’ new book is on this topic. Reynolds, the so-called black armband historian, in his latest book, looks again at this uncomfortable history, and in particular at the (controversial for some) 2017 Uluru statement and its contention that Aboriginal (First Nations) people owned the land and never gave up that ownership. He asks whether this is true, in the light of British legal history, and wonders then about the implications for how we think of ourselves as Australians.

After travelling up the east coast of Australia, James Cook, under orders, claimed half the continent for Britain, but the act of stepping onto an isolated beach and claiming to own thousands of square kilometres from that point on was as dubious legally then as it seems today, because British law stated that land must be unoccupied by others and possessed by the claimants (neither of which was the case, obviously). (There is evidence that later Cook himself had doubts of the legitimacy of such colonial endeavours). Reynolds suggests Cook and his crew conveniently decided the continent was more-or-less uninhabited, which created a problem when Arthur Phillip arrived and found that this was decidedly not so. Phillip and his colleagues also recognized that Aboriginal people around Sydney were not nomadic, but resisted encroachments on their land, though Phillip later claimed half the continent anyway.

Curiously, in claiming the continent for Britain, the British made Aboriginal people, theoretically, British citizens, but as frontier clashes escalated, settlers and government alike spoke in terms of war, as if Aboriginal people were foreigners. Phillip decided ‘war’ was an option because he recognized that Aboriginal people could not compete with British military might. Otherwise, previously, he had been careful to talk of co-habitation. By the mid-1800s British authorities, spurred into action by appalled humanitarians and clergy, returned to talking of Aboriginal people being citizens and requiring protection, but they could do little about it. Many Australian settlers were keen to be rid of Aboriginal people, and the fluctuating legal status of Aborigines was just a convenience. In the case of Queensland in particular, in order to ‘solve’ the problem of frontier violence notorious native police simply shot Aboriginal men, women and children and burned their bodies. (Compare this with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comment that ‘some mistakes’ were made.)

In the 1970s the High Court argued, somewhat understandably, that they could hardly recognize Aboriginal sovereignty if that eroded the basis of their own authority to rule on the status of the land. But in the Mabo decision the court finally recognized that the Mabo family owned the land they had cultivated for generations, restating, not subverting, the long-held British legal tradition regarding land, and that Aboriginal people occupied the land, and so owned it.

The question, and the point of all this, of course, is, why is this version of Australian history so untold and controversial? The answer, of course, is that it is troubling and embarrassing for our (white) leaders, especially when we pride ourselves on our fair and easy-going ways. But the past, and whether the story is rightly told, is important to the identity of those in the present. Reynolds writes that at Anzac Day we say, ‘Lest we forget’, and it is equally important – perhaps more so – to remember how the country was taken. The Frontier Wars were as important as the wars fought overseas, and recognition is the first step to reconciliation.

Concreted wastelands

Killing Sydney, Elizabeth Farrelly, Picador.

English Pastoral, James Rebanks, Allen Lane/Penguin.

These two books may be about two very different locations – Sydney city and a Lake District farm – but they are similar in their concern over the modernization process and how that has impoverished our lives and the places we live and work in.

Killing Sydney, from architect, columnist and former city councilor Elizabeth Farrelly, is an angry book but it is anger born from seeing the destruction of the Sydney she and many of us love. Part of Sydney’s charm is its patina, its layered history and trees and sandstone, its surprises and eclecticism. Farrelly lived in (inner city) Redfern, from where she could see the Centrepoint tower at the end of her street, in the ‘heart of things’, but this heart is increasingly expensive, competitive and compromised by uninspired development. Redfern, which is not alone, is being turned from a haven for Aboriginal people into a suburb of bland high-rise.

Farrelly describes terraces replaced by soulless apartment buildings or taken over by the ‘barrister classes’, the poor being turfed out of the inner city, public parks ‘activated’ by being built over, heritage listings ignored by councils and a (conservative) NSW government hell-bent on selling off public assets to developers, usually with the excuse that more housing is needed but, says Farrelly, really just for developer profit.

The public gets cronyism, concreted wastelands, destruction of century-old trees and heritage buildings for no good reason, not to mention an old-fashioned focus on roads rather than public transport that, she says, threatens to turn Sydney into – God help us – Canberra (a city she suggests is designed for cars, not people). And this is not just inner Sydney – Parramatta is an epicentre of developer philistinism.

Farrelly gets quite philosophical at times, even suggesting that city design can have feminine elements – inviting, surprising, nurturing – but that many cities suffer from an excess of macho bravado – all surface and competition (Sydney’s new casino being a prime example). She overstates the self-centredness of the suburbs. They can be places of community-building too, with sports clubs, churches and the like. And she overstates at times the communal aspects of parks and cinemas – I think it’s a stretch to say going to see a movie fosters community spirit. But she is rightly concerned that a focus on homes as self-sufficient fortresses doesn’t help, and Sydney planning and NSW government decisions disastrously echo, perhaps unsurprisingly, the dominant neoliberal ideology that says selfishness (rather than community) is the driving force of society.

Both books reference Jane Jacobs, the American critic of twentieth century city planning, who argued for, among other things, variety in helping make cities livable. James Rebanks, author of the best-selling The Shepherd’s Life, argues in English Pastoral that this equally applies to farming, and he spruiks a return to a more traditional, rotational style of farming. Farrelly makes the point that the city is unnatural but that it can interact with nature in good and bad ways; Rebanks similarly argues that farming will always involve modification, and he is not against innovation, but he likewise thinks deeper about the long-term and the healthier. This has added weight because Rebanks is a farmer who writes, not just a writer who writes on farming.

If Canberra is Farrelly’s example of getting it wrong, the American Midwest is Rebanks’ – he laments the industrial scale, the monocropping, the reliance on fossil fuel and chemicals, the loss of tradition and wildlife, the money pouring into the pockets of corporations. He describes growing up on his family farm with the looming threat of American-style farming, how his grandfather disdained the ‘modern’, how his father tired to keep up with their modernizing neighbours and how the industrialization and monoculture wrecked the soil and pride of farmers, not to mention the wildlife that contribute to the health of the land. An evocative illustration of this is his remembering that when he was a child, flocks of birds would follow the plough; by the time he inherited the farm, the birds were gone and the soil was lifeless. With a renewed sensitivity to what the land needs, his farm now is not the most profitable, but it is healthy.

Farrelly mentions how Tony Abbott once lectured a group of businesspeople that a Christian’s job is to ‘subdue’ the earth (read: let development rip) and how megachurch prosperity theology encourages greed, but it would be a shame if this bad theology was the last word. Rebanks quotes Leviticus’ requirement that part of the harvest should be shared with the vulnerable, and he takes that to mean wildlife and future generations as well, a nicely holistic and caring take. And Farrelly, in offering a way forward for revitalizing urban communities, speaks in terms no less than those of Christian love – concern for others, living humbly. Christian values probably don’t come up that often in urban planning sessions, but our cities and countryside can be more community-oriented places if we challenge the modern selfish paradigm and are more attuned to communal gain, preservation and a long-term outlook.

Church turned into a tavern

American Revolutions, Alan Taylor, Norton.

Alan Taylor’s book is the latest in an exhausting, long line of histories of the American Revolution and its personalities. The plural in the title gestures towards the fact that the revolution is far more multifarious than traditional, patriotic histories have it. Additionally, his history suggests that, in the midst of all the recent fractures and Capitol-storming and racism and inequalities and lies, it might not be that prudent to appeal to long-standing notions of American decency, honesty and equality, because the revolution was born in the midst of quite the opposite.

The most glaring example is of course the issue of slavery, followed closely by the treatment of indigenous Americans. It was well noted at the time, even by patriots, that there was a degree of hypocrisy in arguing for freedom from British tyranny while holding slaves. Some slave-owners even made their slaves protest against tax ‘slavery’. It’s not that they were unaware of the irony. There was widespread belief that blacks were not equal to whites. It is well-known that the Founding Fathers (a disreputable lot, if you believe what they said about each other) generally thought ‘all men are created equal’ to mean white men. Indeed, they scoffed at their wives suggesting that women should be included in that ‘men’. In fact, Taylor argues that a shared feeling of superiority over blacks united the hitherto divided white colonies. Historian Gary Nash suggests, similarly, that the American dream that drove the revolution, of autonomy and land ownership, was inseparable from the negation of black and Native American alike. A Georgia congressman put it bluntly. ‘We the people’ ‘does not mean them’. This was not just southern prejudice. In the north, a black preacher and former slave who had set up a church was turned out and his church turned into a tavern. But there was uneasiness too and a lack of unity. Plenty of the Fathers spoke of the evils of slavery. Some freed slaves, noting the hypocrisy.

When it came to the issue of parting from Britain, Taylor suggests that a third were patriots, a third loyalists and a third indifferent. As with other issues in American history, the radicals made the most noise and badgered the indifferents into supporting the revolution. In some cases, it was mob rule. And, Taylor says, as much civil war as revolution, with families divided. Benjamin Franklin was a patriot, his son a loyalist, and this estranged them permanently.

Taylor notes that small landholders, angry at the corruption of land speculators, teamed up with Indians, though they were then turned against the Indians when Indians attacked settlements in retaliation for land theft. The British had tried to restrict expansion, while colonial gentry were eager to possess more land. The Indians had been successful at repelling the colonists when aligned with the British, but the British eventually betrayed them, in order to resume trade with the colonies. Indian allies of the revolutionaries were similarly discarded and betrayed. The availability of guns and horses escalated old native rivalries into bloodbaths.

The point of all this is that the revolution was messy. There were shifting loyalties and motivations, uncertainties. And violence, injustice and lawlessness was rife, all papered over by high rhetoric and historical fictions. Taylor pokes holes in the grand narrative. Riots, burnings, shootings, shameless lies and uneasy alliances of leaders and angry mobs have deep roots in American history. As does rebellion for selfish reasons. So, in one sense, the Capitol riots were in the revolutionary spirit. But the other side of this is exemplified by the fact that black Americans have used the letter of the law, and not the original spirit, of ‘all men are created equal’ to argue, rightly, for equal rights. There is something pleasingly subversive in the fact that they have taken the phrase at face value and suggested that despite America’s bloody history, good can come of the rhetoric.

Ridiculously fertile soil

People of the River, Grace Karskens, Allen and Unwin

There are two colonial names – Nepean and Hawkesbury – for the same river, called by Aboriginal people Dyarubbin. Perhaps this is symbolic of a disjointed colonial way of looking at things, and of the fact that there are two histories of the region, one flowing into the other, but the more recent one at risk of swamping the first.

Grace Karskens has written a remarkable, intensive history of this region – the extreme west of Sydney, the liminal area where outer suburbs yield to the Blue Mountains and the river acts as a border. Her history is rich with the voices of its protagonists and historical detail, and drills down, literally in the case of investigating the geology and archaeology of the river’s course, covering farming, floods, culture, religion, Indigenous and colonial lives and their connections.

The book concentrates on the colonial era, the time of contact, English settlement, the pushing out of Indigenous people. When early colonists looked for suitable farmland (Sydney Cove was an unproductive, rocky landscape to European eyes) they found some at Parramatta and then on the Nepean, a rich alluvial plain, and gradually farms were taken up (on tribal lands). Aboriginal women had cultivated yams, the ridiculously fertile soil produced bumper wheat and maize crops that fed Sydney. Periodic floods destroyed all but couldn’t wash away white settlement permanently.

Karskens is not afraid to question accepted histories, including those of historians and archaeologists who neatly separate the Indigenous and colonial eras, and that of Indigenous annihilation. Of course it was an invasion, with often catastrophic results, and this region was one of the first to witness ‘flashpoints’ of frontier violence, but she also shows how Aboriginal people intermingled, traded, adapted, hung on to tradition, survived.

This is not to minimise the fact that there were antagonisms and violence, to do with different concepts of land and ownership, cultural clashes, kidnappings and reprisals, duplicity and greed. But not always. Colonial authorities and locals alike accepted co-ownership, if that is the right word. But in hindsight there is a sad inevitability, as there was in the US, in the creep of takeover of land by whites. As in the US, there was an assumption the natives would just have to become civilized.

Against the stereotype of the Sydney colony as merely a harsh penal settlement, Karskens argues it was always envisaged as also a new colony for farmers. And just as she argues against the stereotype of noble but backward Aborigines as passive victims, she argues against the image of fearful and ignorant English pining for green and pleasant England. In reality, many settlers grew to love their new land, adjusted practices and innovated, and appreciated Indigenous attitudes and abilities. The first settlers didn’t chop down all the trees but had small plots and let their animals into the bush, which was seen as common land (as in the older, pre-enclosure British tradition). She says settlers lived not unlike Aboriginal people – foraging, hunting, fishing, cultivating, building homes of bark and timber that could be easily replaced after fire or flood.

The image of small landholders as yokels often comes, Karskens says, from rich landholders who used any excuse to squeeze out the little guy, but who were restricted by authorities who wanted to avoid the American experience of a frontier of lawless land-grabbing.

Karskens, like Meredith Lake in her book The Bible in Australia, notes that convict settlers were far from irreligious, attested to by the frequency of old churches in the region (including the oldest in Australia). Settlers were church-goers, if fairly casual, Bible stories guided the way they saw the land, and Christian rituals ordered their lives. One can understand why she refers to Christianity as a destroyer of Indigenous culture, although, as with other things she writes about, it may be more complicated than this. But it is true that much of the colonial religious landscape overlaid the spirituality and sacred places of Indigenous people, the records of which, in rock art and other sites, are scattered richly throughout the Dyarubbin region, attesting to the depth of pre-colonial Australia.

Any old scene

Spirit of Place, Susan Owens, Thames and Hudson

There’s nothing quite like the landscape ink blot drawings of Alexander Cozens, (though I suppose there are similarities to the modern art of the likes of Frank Auerbach). The eighteenth-century painter devised a system of splashing ink onto paper and then using the results to draw an imaginary landscape. The idea was to place a piece of paper over the top and trace and then embellish, but the ink blots are evocative enough, showing how the mind fills in detail, makes correspondences, from previous experiences of viewing landscape.

This might suggest that landscape is partly a disposition, not just a geographical set of facts. Indeed, Susan Owens shows in her book Spirit of Place how English artists and writers approached the landscape, what filters they viewed it through, what history is layered in landscape, how landscape is in many ways a state of mind.

‘Landscape’ or the older ‘landskip’ are words borrowed from the Dutch. Sometimes they indicate a worked landscape, and it took a while for the English to see the worth of wild landscape, though by the time of Cozens we have extraordinary responses to it and disagreements over what ‘good’ landscape might be. The Romantics, as is well known, favoured the sublime and trudged off to the remote highlands and the mountains, where before these places had been avoided as ‘horrid’ and ‘disagreeable’. The Romantic response was, in contrast, ‘pleasure mixed with fear’.

Previously, there were protocols of how to depict landscape – framing devices and necessary picturesque elements. Her book’s title comes from Pope, who was writing of slightly modified nature, in accord with principles of artistic harmony. One painter insisted that cows must be depicted in groups of odd numbers for harmony’s sake. Painters of the Enlightenment liked illustrations of industry and ‘improvement’. There were also practicalities. Owens tells us that it was expensive to paint in oils, and oil paintings were usually commissioned portraits – artists couldn’t afford to paint any old scene and then hope someone would buy the painting. But sketches were ok, and she notes Van Dyck’s perceptive sketches of the English countryside, while he was in England engaged in portraiture. (Sometimes the trees in his sketches reappeared in the backgrounds of his portraits.)

Of course, later artists painted landscapes for their own sake, and the love of landscape painting grew in inverse proportion to time spent by the populace in it (if we are thinking of landscape as not encompassing cities). So Owens also covers the recent flourishing of nature writing, and modern art that not only depicts landscape but tries to make something artistic of our relationship – often disconnected – to the countryside.

My sore finger

Tragedy, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

Being Evil, Luke Russell, Oxford.

In normal parlance tragedy means devastating loss with little or no redeeming features. Terry Eagleton points out in this study that the artform called tragedy (to be contrasted with comedy, which has a happy ending) tends to try and find some meaning in it, although what that could be is hotly contested amongst theorists.

As with his other books on other similarly grand themes, Eagleton trawls literature and philosophy for what they say about the subject, and he finds much disagreement. He says that tragedy, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, is an artform for times of tumult, such as our own, but then again, most times are ones of transition, and in this sense, tragedy is universal – a way of getting to grips with the way tradition and innovation, individual and community collide. Yet tragedy is a distinctive Western artform and some argue, with a recent general faith in progress and human goodness, that we have lost the idea of humans at the mercy of a malevolent universe. (Some even argue tragedy as an artform lived and died with the ancient Greeks.)

Theorists have thought of tragedy as, variously, elitist and egalitarian, in the service of the state and subverting it, revealing an underlying cosmic order and revealing none, relentlessly bleak, hopeful, containing moral lessons and none, supremely Christian, anti-Christian, revelling in the strength of the individual and showing the individual’s powerlessness.

Modern tragedy, like Christianity, typically reinforces the view that everyone is valuable. In contrast, Nietzsche thought the common people dispensable in the cause of the privileged few triumphing over tragedy. (Guess which camp Nietzsche imagined himself in.) For some, tragedy engenders empathy. For Nietzsche, that is a pitiful Christian emotion, and he thought tragedy simply forges hardiness.

What is the point of tragedy, if any? Eagleton suggests that for postmodernists who think unity of purpose is an illusion, tragedy simply highlights the fact. Certainly, an enduring point of tragedy is that some tragic events serve no obvious purpose. (Jesus hinted at this when he said that the collapsed Tower of Siloam wasn’t punishment, but only showed that bad stuff happens.)  But for many, those events may point to an eventual reconciliation of things, as in the Christian vision, where, as Eagleton points out, the seemingly lowest point (the crucifixion) reveals the greatest good.

While the tragic may point to a lack of obvious meaning, an underlying randomness, for the ancient Greeks it was tied to the malevolence of the gods, and in the everyday sense of the word, we are likely to ascribe the tragic to the presence of evil in the world. Many events seem more than unfortunate – they have a deeply troubling appearance of malignant force, a reality Luke Russell acknowledges in his book on evil.

Russell implies that contemporary, rational people don’t believe in supernatural evil, as a kind of counter-balance to God, but there is a level of wrongdoing so severe that it makes sense to use the word evil. Unsurprisingly perhaps, philosophers are divided on whether evil exists. And, as was famously said about pornography, evil may be hard to define but we know it when we see it.

In passing, Russell mentions that in centuries past, in the English language, evil was just a synonym for bad. (If I lived in the middle ages, I might describe my sore finger as an evil, whereas these days that might seem an exaggeration.) So what’s changed? Since the Enlightenment tragic acts have been hard to reconcile with a rational universe and a hands-off deity. In a disenchanted world, there seems to remain a need for an explanation of atrocious acts that don’t come under the definition of simple misfortune, that seem determinedly morally corrupt. In typical philosopher’s fashion, Russell attempts to systematically come to a definition of what evil might be, while distinguishing between evil acts and what it might mean to be an evil person, while also shrewdly avoiding the philosophical ‘problem of evil’ (why does God allow bad things to happen?).

He asks whether we should judge evil on consequences or motivation, whether there is something in particular but hard to put a finger on that puts wrongdoing on another level in order to make it evil, and whether we can objectively call something evil or whether there is a degree of subjectivity involved.

Eagleton has also written a book on the topic of evil, and he similarly notes problems of definition. Both authors conclude that there are a lot of seemingly evil acts out there, and that it is wrong to underestimate their severity, but that the use of the word can sometimes put people and events into boxes that in hindsight makes them seem unavoidable, as tragedy in the Greek sense often seems – you can’t run from the will of the gods. Rather, we might like to think about how wrongdoing can be redeemed or prevented. For the religious, evil, like original sin, might seem a necessary opposite of good, but Christians work towards turning around even the most seemingly intractable evil.

Teaching chimps to point

A Letter to Layla, Ramona Koval, Text.

Ancient Bones, Madelaine Bohme with Rudiger Braun and Florian Breier, Scribe.

Ramona Koval is an Australian broadcaster and writer with an interest in where we’ve come from, and what type of world her grandchildren will inherit, Madelaine Bohme an expert in the field of hominin paleontology, with an ability to explain lucidly complicated science and tell the stories of some Indiana Jones-style detective work, and both of these new books cover the ground of what we currently know about early humans and their ancestors.

Bohme upsets a few paleontological apple carts with her controversial but increasingly likely dismissal of the ‘out of Africa’ thesis of where humans developed. Just like with dinosaur paleonotology, there have been significant discoveries in recent years, not just in South Asia, but also in Greece and Georgia, and these discoveries have indicated that rather than spreading from Africa like ripples in a pond, the development of human sub-species was likely full of cross-currents. We know now that modern humans contain some Neanderthal and Denisovan (another early human species) DNA, suggesting assimilation rather than simply replacement. And human prehistory is full of migrations and mingling. Koval suggests, if we are thinking of relevance to our present, that this should take some of the wind out of the sails of racists and radical nationalists.

Yet both books also make a point of how different we are to our cousins, the great apes. As Bohme explains in detail, different physiology makes a huge difference to ability – with our shorter arms, longer legs, toes closer together, arched feet and spinal columns under rather than behind our skulls we can stand upright, and, crucially, run for long distances. (And Bohme writes about how one of the wonders of the human body is how our vision remains stable when we run.)

Once we began to use fire for cooking, which saves time in foraging and delivers more nutrition, we went ahead in leaps and bounds. Intelligence-wise, we left chimps in the dust (or the trees). As Koval puts it, only humans ask why, and study the past. (We speculate on why we speculate.) We can envisage things we can’t see directly with our eyes, and can plan. Koval reports on how attempts to teach chimps to point have repeatedly failed, yet babies do it early. We have the capacity to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

While some emphasise our rapacious nature, it’s our capacity for cooperation that got us places. Both books point out how island-hopping early humans in South East Asia, as well as requiring the ability to conceptualise sailing to a chosen destination, needed group work to accomplish their travel feats.

Koval also speculates that the human capacity for spirituality (of whatever sort) is one of the key things that separate us from the other animals. Others say art. Koval talks to a French expert on cave art who links the two, and I might add that art, spirituality and group cooperation are all linked, through our unique, extraordinary mastery of language. Being tuned into unseen forces, and expressing that through creative means, is deeply ingrained.

As far as the future goes, Koval talks to those who want to move further away from our ape cousins. She tries to get some sense of where we might be heading by delving into the speculative worlds of AI, cryogenics and transhumanism in America. Frankly, most of the people she talks to sound nuts, and many display a sad desperation and selfishness to live longer. Alternatively, as our deep past shows, in our long participation in the spiritual, part of being human is dealing with the natural cycle of life, death and ageing.