The cliff face


Since our society avoids talking about death, Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End (Virago) may initially be confronting reading, but it soon becomes fascinating. Roiphe’s way of understanding death is to investigate six prominent writers – Susan Sontag, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas (above), Sigmund Freud, James Salter and John Updike – their final months and days, and the manner of their dying. We speak of death as like a curtain, but really it is a cliff face, and in our society its presence is removed from the centre of society, despite its ubiquity in films and the media, sealed off hermetically in hospital rooms. Roiphe suggests that this remoteness does enhance its fascination, while at the same time its unfamiliarity breeds discomfort. She says that her investigation is less about ‘wisdom’ and more simply about confronting a fear of death.

Updike is the only one here with a conventional religious faith, if we can put it that way, growing up Lutheran and spending most of his life as an Episcopalian. Roiphe, while not antagonistic, admits she simply doesn’t get religion and finds it hard to understand Updike’s approach to death, which he calls an ‘adventure’ (a description echoed by Maurice Sendak, below) and about which he writes a final book of poems after learning of a fatal diagnosis. Roiphe is honest about her puzzlement over Updike’s mix of sincerity and irony towards his faith, a mix that many of faith will recognise (even though those without religious faith may find this at odds with a simplistic picture of what faith entails) and that is also to be found in one of Updike’s favourite writers, Kierkegaard.


Roiphe shows how these writers tended to confront death in their works and contrasts Sontag, who clung desperately to life, with Sigmund Freud, who calmly documents his demise as he would a patient’s, and Updike, who tells his wife emphatically that he is ready to go. Then there is Dylan Thomas who although, famously, in his poetry, was to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, seemed to rush headlong towards it via his drinking. Roiphe decides that his marital problems had a lot to do with it, and she opines that in the midst of such woes, sometimes ‘death does not seem like an unsensible solution’. Roiphe is sceptical that we can properly prepare for death, and that may be true, but some of the writers here show that we can go a certain way towards it.

Do more Kellys


Sidney Nolan: a Life, Nancy Underhill, NewSouth.

Sidney Nolan was notoriously cagey about his life. And liked to distort his biography in order for it to fit the image of himself he held. Like a painting, he seemed to view his life as a work in progress, with possibilities for reinvention, the creation of myths, portraiture at a remove from reality. He was relentless in steering his career, manipulating friends, colleagues and celebrities. And yet many of them described him as wonderful company and a good friend.

This biography by Nancy Underhill concentrates on the life more than the art. She goes over the old ground of the complicated relationship shenanigans of Heide, but she is also unafraid to reassess received judgments about Nolan and his work. And her work is a mix of intrepid scholarship and earthy language. (At one point she describes Nolan as ‘daffy’.)

Books and literature, myth and story played important parts in Nolan’s work.  But his work also had a naïve, primitive quality. And it was stylistically eclectic, which ensured that in his early days critics found it difficult to get a handle on what he was trying to achieve. Nolan of course was simply experimenting, trying to figure out what worked successfully, in both artistic and commercial ways. Indeed the Kelly paintings are as iconic as any Australian artworks, and succeeded as much as anything in making Kelly into a mythical rather than simply historical figure, but there was also a hard edge to Nolan’s production of the series, with his wife suggesting he should do more Kellys simply because of the income more of these paintings would create.


Did it happen?

Martin E Marty

Some historians question whether the nailing of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses actually happened. (The story seems to be somewhat apocryphal, even if it is likely.) Whether it did or not (the theses’ content is more important than the means of their being brought to the public’s attention), the celebrations for next year’s (2017) 500 year Reformation anniversary centre on this event. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty (above) hones in on this date in his appropriately titled October 31, 1517 (Paraclete Press).

The book is a short summary, something like the style of Yale’s Little History series, of Luther’s grievances and in it Marty writes, surprisingly, that the main theme of the Reformation was repentance – rather than grace, freedom, sola scriptura, papal corruption, heresy or whatever else we might imagine. And rather than searching through Luther’s voluminous works, he suggests an easy way to understand Luther’s theology, and that is to study the seal Luther chose for himself, the Luther Rose. Against the image of Lutheranism as self-berating (‘miserable sinners’ and all that), the Rose demonstrates the overall positive nature of Lutheran theology. Although repentance is somewhat out of fashion generally, Marty notes that it is, appropriately for the anniversary, a celebratory response to whatever God has done for us, rather than what we have done for ourselves. It is realistic about human beings’ tendency to mess up relationships, but tuned to the future, as God has liberated us, once and for all. And there is possibly the hint of, from Luther the Augustinian, a recognition that God makes complete what we are incapable of completing ourselves.

Marty also argues that there is nothing in Luther’s emphasis on grace over sin that is contradictory to (uncorrupted) Catholic theology. In that vein, the book then (again, surprisingly) takes us down a side track to argue for the benefits of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and the significance of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (which perhaps explains why it was published by the good people at Paraclete Press, a Benedictine organisation that undertakes ecumenical publishing).

Wry relaying


In Gratitude (Bloomsbury) collects the late Jenny Diski’s articles in the London Review of Books about her terminal cancer and her friendship (or pseudo-parental relationship) with the writer Doris Lessing. A memoir of sorts. The title refers to the fact that when Lessing took Diski in as a ‘troubled’ teenager Diski was unable to figure out how she was meant to show her gratitude, as well as being unable to figure out exactly what Lessing was thinking of her. Her ‘gratitude’ in this book is somewhat qualified; she is critical of Lessing, in the way that a family member might be critical of another, all the while assuming that the relationship is a given. Diski’s own family was something of a train wreck, and there is a frankness as well as a dismissiveness about events in her childhood that is quite alarming at times. Diski writes at one point to the effect that there is little point trying to work out if something was ‘abuse’ when it is in the past and unchangeable. A reader with less of an unsentimental attitude than Diski may feel their heart tugged towards the youngster that Diski was.

There is a frankness too about her drug use and ‘use’ of men and Lessing’s 60s live-and-let-live attitude, which Diski suggests was not exactly what Diski needed at the time. And an unsentimental attitude extends to her cancer treatment and looming death (she died earlier this year, about the time the book was published). A reluctance to gloss over or weigh up the good with the bad, in favour of a certain wry relaying, grabs one’s attention, as does her prose, but one wonders at times how such fine writing can emerge from the crumpled youth she describes. Lessing obviously saw potential, in her equally unsentimental way.

Lessing comes across as a very determined woman, dictatorial at times, but concerned that her acquaintances just get over things and get on with life, for their own good. This attitude seems to have been picked up by Diski to a certain extent. But Diski doesn’t aim to make such summations, though they may appear almost by accident. The book’s strength is the description of the relationship, rather than an attempt to extract some sort of homily, which would probably only have ended up simplifying a complex relationship (as long-standing ones often are), to the detriment of the book.

English eccentric


God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, Rupert Shortt, Hurst Publishers.

There is a strain of English Christianity that sees faith as entirely reasonable and sensible, like packing an umbrella when the weather looks inclement. We see it in the theology of Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne, who make arguments from natural theology, who can explain how belief in God fits in with quantum mechanics and philosophy, who explain God as ground of being, necessary mover of the universe, and so on.

To an extent, Rupert Shortt (a biographer of Rowan Williams) is of this school, arguing for a ‘coherent’ Christianity that can make a certain amount of sense to outsiders. And so this short book is an apologia for Christianity as compatible with modern science, and a summary of how clichéd, superficial and wrong-footed the thrusts of the New Atheists are. He recruits McGrath and sympathetic writers of his ilk, as well as Thomas Aquinas, and gets into the nitty-gritty of theodicy, the historical Jesus, and evolutionary theory and belief-forming, all in a whirlwind tour of 100 pages. Like David Bentley Hart and Terry Eagleton, Shortt has a way with words, perhaps without quite the same withering wit.

At the same time, as writers such as Jacques Ellul point out, Christianity stands radically at odds with secular society, just as an English eccentricity exists alongside English sense. Therefore, Shortt may have an uphill battle convincing nonbelievers. As Saint Paul says, Christianity is ‘foolishness to the Greeks’, so the convincing must occur through lifestyle, not merely argument. This is the clincher that Shortt wisely recognises, giving the book balance, much as Saint Paul both argued philosophically and encouraged life in the Spirit. Shortt notes that we come to faith largely through living it. Christianity makes sense from the inside, through worship, family life, sharing bread and confronting injustice, not just in philosophising about the origins of the universe.

(Originally reviewed for Crosslight magazine.)


At the NGV – Degas


It’s a little ho-hum that the NGV’s winter blockbuster exhibition is yet another Impressionist exhibition, not because of the quality of the art of course but because of the predictability of the public’s love of Impressionist art, but then if you are going to see an Impressionist, Degas is the one, at least from the perspective of someone interested in drawing. Degas is one of the few artists in this league for whom drawing plays as important a role as painting, and is not merely preparatory study, as it would continue to be right through the twentieth century. And in an exhibition like this the comparison of the pastels and the paintings (let’s leave aside, for the moment, the charcoals and prints) is invaluable. Firstly, it shows how similar they can be. His pastels have the depth and work of the paintings, while there is something about the luminescence of some of his paintings that are like the effect of pastels. And his technique is similar in both media – the angled, jabbing strokes, not only finely worked but overlaid. Indeed, apparently, the exhibiton notes tell us, Degas used layering of pastels to achieve the depth, applying lacquer in between the layers. He was something of an innovator when it came to media, occasionally crushing pastels, wetting the powder and applying it with a brush, which then blurs the line between painting and drawing. He experimented with tools for engraving and also revived the craft of monotype (the method of applying paint or whatever to glass or metal and pressing paper onto the plate to make a generally once-off print) which was barely used in his day, but became much more popular into the twentieth century. One can perhaps see why when we look at Degas’ prints, which have a decidedly modern feel to them.

Degas was not quite the entire Impressionist. He rarely ventured into painting the countryside en plein air. When he did do outdoor scenes they were primarily to show his beloved races, and the countryside is merely a backdrop for his groupings of figures, in this case, horses. Indeed, groupings, groupings everywhere in this exhibition. The odd angle, the cut-off bodies and heads, the asymmetrical groupings all show the effect photography, and its ability to candidly capture and not arrange, had on his art. Compare his earlier painting of Spartan youth, which required a great hulk of a building to hold down the centre of this very classical painting, to the later paintings of groups of ballet dancers where he was unafraid to whack a great hunk of nothing in the middle of the painting (or even better, not quite in the centre of the painting). His paintings and drawings of nude women or dancers, in particular show how keen he was on capturing the awkward pose in an attempt to convey not elegance but everyday life. (If you count ballet as everyday life.)


The exhibition also contains a fair smattering of his bronze figures which are charming in their disarming size and continuation of his fascination with the contortions of the human body.

Where are the philosophical books?


When we think of Art with a capital ‘A’ we tend to think of paintings in galleries, in public galleries most of all, of superstar artists, and of the viewing of art as some sort of reverent, contemplative experience, much like, no doubt the experience of pilgrims viewing relics or taking the stations of the cross in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it is not an uncommon analogy to liken art galleries to cathedrals, or to declare that art galleries have replaced churches as the place for transcendent experience. Or at least that is the kind of bourgeois or elitist view of things, and it is that elitism that philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff rightly takes a shot at in his latest book Art Rethought. After-all, as he says, where are the philosophical books about the deeper meaning of memorials? Or quilting or folk songs? Why when we think of the philosophy of art do we automatically assume we are talking about Western painting? (We might think that something like Australian indigenous art is an exception, but most Australians still encounter it as painting in a gallery in an aesthetic contemplation experience.)

To answer this we have to, as Wolterstorff does, take stock of the ‘grand narrative’ of the trajectory of modern art, realise it is a narrative and not just the way the world must be. And then we might have to, as Wolterstorff does, look at some outsider art, in the wide sense of the term as being outside the elite art establishment, think about what it does and why it is of value and then we might decide that ‘transcendence’ is not the only criteria to judge art on. Wolterstorff makes a great case here for the value of art as propaganda (in the generous sense of the word) or as craft or as made for purposes other than simply aesthetic contemplation (as worthy as that is of itself). He suggests that when we view art in galleries we are actually viewing if often outside of its original purpose (as political statement or as a means of conveying religious messages, say). Take, for example, he says, Bach, who never wrote music outside of the purpose of worship within a church. Aesthetics and other purposes are not mutually exclusive of course, but aesthetics are not the only gig in town. Besides, suggesting art is merely aesthetics can also be a cover for other, non-aesthetic agenda.

As an example of artists denigrated, or at least ignored, because they are not purely aesthetically-focussed, Wolterstorff discusses the German artist Kathe Kollwitz (below), who not only made visual art in a medium that was not painting, but made strongly political statements with her enthusiasm for the working poor in her (beautiful) prints and drawings. Not that she is unknown, but she has not received her due precisely because she had a non-aesthetically exclusive agenda. And yes, Van Gogh and Picasso and others had their pieces to say too, but they were secondary to the aesthetic innovation they are famous for. It is, as Wolterstorff says, that if an artist makes art for a purpose other than aesthetics, the art is somehow lessened and heavy-handed. In fact, says, Wolterstorff, a philosopher well-known for writing about justice, it is creating more injustice to dismiss art made for the purpose of confronting injustice as mere propaganda. It is to his credit that Wolterstorff patiently, and in a very philosophically methodical way, points all this out.