Inhabiting the body

Everybody: A Book about Freedom, Olivia Laing, Picador.

Kate Bush has a song on her Hounds of Love album called ‘Cloudbusting’ which is about Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who was initially a disciple of Sigmund Freud but was pushed out of Freud’s circle due to some of his ideas about sexuality, which were a bit too eyebrow-raising even for Freud.

Reich theorized that mental trauma lingered in the body physiologically, something that seems reasonable now, though his solutions through sexual release are a little more controversial. Reich was practicing in Norway when the Nazis came to power and when his visa expired, rather than return to Europe, he escaped to the US where, somewhat ironically considering his anti-fascist views, his books were burned, partly because of his promotion of a phone-booth size box he labelled an orgone accumulator, which harnessed the life force he claimed he had discovered, and which he also claimed could, amongst other things, cure cancer. (William Burroughs and later Kurt Cobain both tried the accumulator and gave it the thumbs up.)

This was not his only kooky idea. He later invented a gun he called a cloudbuster, which he claimed could control the weather, and with which later he battled aliens (again, he claimed). Bush’s buoyant, string-laden song, inspired by a book written by Reich’s son, refers to rain and sunshine, which I assume is a literal reference to the cloudbuster’s capacity, though it may also refer to Reich’s capacity for hope despite the darkness in his life. Bush’s song contains the refrain, ‘I just know that something good is going to happen’. Bush is not the only musician to be inspired by Reich – Patti Smith and Bob Dylan also have songs featuring Reich, and he inspired much of the ideology of the sexual revolution (a term he invented, apparently) in the 60s.

Reich is the central figure in Laing’s book, his biography the trunk from which other stories and biographies branch. (Much like Albrecht Durer is in Philip Hoare’s latest book.) Like her previous book Funny Weather, Everybody parades various characters at society’s margins. Auden and Isherwood pop up in Berlin. She writes about the artist Agnes Martin, her ferocious independence, and her hermitic tendencies. Reich pops up in surprising places, as someone inspiring liberation, particularly for women wanting to be free of the control and violence of men and the expectations of society. Laing is not convinced by his arguments for cloudbusters or accumulators (and he is easy to mock, she says) but admires his generosity and dedication.

Nor is she convinced always by the arguments of feminist Andrea Dworkin – another subject – particularly her rigid categorization of men, but one of the good things about Laing is her willingness to understand, to work through the issues that preoccupy her characters, so she understands the urgency with which Dworkin tackled feminist issues driven by Dworkin’s sometimes traumatic life. (One may not always agree with Laing either – say, on seeing, as she does, the Marquis de Sade as asking tough questions about power, rather than him simply being misogynist and, well, slightly deranged.)

It’s not all sexual politics. She writes about Nina Simone’s and Malcolm X’s experiences of racial politics, while simultaneously looking at prisons in America, their ineffectiveness for rehabilitation and their (sometimes deliberate) part in continuing racial inequalities.

As a further example of her capacity for inhabiting the body of another, Laing writes about the very different ways Kathy Acker (whom she ventriloquized in her novel Crudo) and Susan Sontag dealt with cancer diagnoses, understanding their approaches but also pointing out their flaws. Sontag met her diagnosis (or diagnoses) head-on. Survival was all, and no matter what was excised from her body or what trauma treatment entailed, Sontag thought it worth it, even insisted on the most intensive paths. Part of her philosophy was that an almost-military determination would see her through. Laing cautions that a corollary of Sontag’s philosophy of the right attitude being able to beat anything was that it suggested some cancer victims fail because they simply don’t want to live enough, an obviously incorrect extrapolation, a ‘blind spot’, Laing writes. Acker, on the other hand, sought help in alternative therapies, which Laing once dabbled in and which Laing sees as mirroring other parts of Acker’s life, where Acker avoided the mainstream path, often embracing the chaotic, Laing writes, in contrast to Sontag’s faith in reason.

Such choices, how they affect the body, their association with notions of freedom, crop up in relation to BLM and Covid. Briefly, at the end of Laing’s book she comments, thinking about protests against vaccinations and having to wear face masks, and the way the rhetoric of freedom is used to mask discrimination, that freedom is not freedom if it allows one to harm others. In the context of the US, Laing is pointing to the value of seeing freedom as generosity rather than individualism.

Too much water

Holding Back the River, Tyler Kelley, Avid Reader Press

A River with a City Problem, Margaret Cook, UQP.

Patrick Nunn says in his latest book that while nomadic settlements are more like moving targets, cities on rivers are sitting ducks. But the appeal of settling by a river is understandable, since it provides access to transport, fish and birds, often good timber and good soil (not to mention the appeal of the picturesque). But a river works against prolonged settlement and the building of structures associated with a city because in geological timescales a river is a fluid thing – not just in the sense that it carries water.

A book of maps I have contains a striking map of the course of the Mississippi River over thousands of years, and it is a surprisingly beautiful thing, with its colours differentiating the varying courses, a multicoloured tangle. But it also shows how frequently the river has shifted course. Civilization and commerce, on the other hand, require certainty, stability – ‘predictability’ in the words of Tyler Kelley, writing about the Missouri and the Mississippi and the history of ‘taming’ rivers in the USA. Commerce requires transport, and rivers were the first roads, but they are meandering, shifting ones, which is not particularly helpful, so in the spirit of nineteenth century dominion of nature, rivers were engineered. It is somehow appropriate that the government body responsible for the control of rivers in the USA is the Army Corps of Engineers, both for America’s emphasis on the military and for the Western tradition of rivers and nature generally being something that required warring against, rather like native peoples required war before they could be (supposedly) civilised. (David Blackbourn’s book The Conquest of Nature makes a similar point about Germany.)

For the Mississippi this has meant straightening, levelling, removing obstacles and regulating flow, often for the result of speeding the river (and therefore transport and occasional floods). All this requires levees, dams and locks. In the early twentieth century, the focus was on this kind of engineering to ‘tame’ the river, even to beautify it, as nature was seen as unruly and ugly. Now, in the early twenty-first century this infrastructure is ageing, having not caught up with more frequent river traffic, but also crumbling because government and public focus is on road and rail (and air). Although rivers transport billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural and other goods each year in the US, they are ‘invisible’. Until a flood, that is, says Kelley.

‘Taming’ a river increases pressure and flow and removes the river’s natural safety valves – large floodplains. A river has a natural ‘regime’, its topography and volume (and river flows are still not properly understood, their dynamism seemingly always underestimated.) When the course of a river is altered – and it is always done so to provide quicker, more regimented flow rather than the other way round – the river is likely to try and meander somewhere else. This, says Kelley, is its natural tendency – water likes to spread (as well as loving to shift huge volumes of silt around). So, flood management often means a problem shifted rather than fixed. Problems of flooding can get worse in areas other than where flood mitigation is focused. This is understandable but not always considered.

In New Orleans, the attitude that relocation is not an option means it is seldom attempted, in favour of ever greater engineering. (Levees in the south are now preposterously large.) ‘This is the USA’ writes Kelley of the prevailing attitude, and Americans stand and fight, not retreat, I suppose. But New Orleans is sinking. Because of engineering – locks and dams – not as much sediment is coming down to the Mississippi mouth and being deposited in the delta. This is a problem because the delta itself is sinking because of the weight of all the sediment, but that sediment is now not being topped up. Kelley says oil extraction hasn’t helped either. Then, of course, there is sea level rise.

Not only that, but a fixed city relies on a fixed river, but the Mississippi delta is shifting, as it has continually over its life, and as most rivers do. This is unavoidable but the city is not planning for it. Kelley suggests half of the city could be underwater in coming years. As Patrick Nunn points out, it is nuts to think that a city like New Orleans can go on forever when the land it sits on is impermanent.

Margaret Cook, in her book about the Brisbane River, suggests that the concept of a flood is a rather anthropocentric way of looking at things. While a river may shift course, it is also entirely natural for a river’s levels to go up and down. This was evident to indigenous people, who didn’t settle permanently on the Brisbane River floodplains, and who warned the British settlers. The colonists were possibly lulled into complacency by the memory of tamer rivers in England. (And more predictable and less extreme weather.) But the lure of waterfront land was as much a factor. Land on the riverfront is valuable for whoever lives there, as well as for government, so there is a temptation always to take the risk. As Cook says, one could live on a floodplain and not see a flood for fifty years. The original planners of Brisbane even envisaged a riverfront boulevard, which would have made something of a buffer for floodwaters, but the land itself was too tempting for building.

Cook writes that after a flood, there is much hand-wringing but eventually things go back to ‘normal’, which involves risky riverside development. Post-1893, some recognized the folly of building in a floodplain, but equally there was talk of how to stop floods through removing corners and building banks (in an effort to speed floodwaters away from prone areas). In Brisbane, as in the USA, there has been an attitude that humans should be able to control and remove flood threats.

Cook writes that Brisbane’s papers were full of theodicy-related editorializing after the 1893 floods, which, she says, obscures the culpability of humans for damage. Labelling the flood an act of God, something that shouldn’t happen, ignores the frequency and naturalness of floods. After the 2011 floods, the reasoning was less theological, but there was an underlying attitude that human beings should be able to prevent floods. Brisbane has for decades relied psychologically on its upriver dams, but the 2011 floods, which were due partly to large water releases from the Wivenhoe Dam, showed that the dams are not unassailable. Sometimes there is just too much water. There was also the question in 2011 as to whether droughts conditioned the Wivenhoe Dam operators to hold back too much water which then had to be released when the situation became critical. Dams as water storage facilities conflict with their role as flood mitigators. In any case, in Queensland post-2011 there was an attitude that someone (human) was to blame – someone had messed up – while others cautioned that flood planning must take into account the unpredictable, and the blame must fall on planners, developers and the public who hubristically think floods can be tamed.

The angel and the unicorn

Albert and the Whale, Philip Hoare, Fourth Estate

In a New England museum there is a painting by a Dutch artist of a prosaic beach scene, albeit with an unusual amount of people. Or at least it would be prosaic. Recently it was cleaned, and it was discovered that a beached whale had been in the original painting but had later been painted out. Philip Hoare wonders if at some stage someone decided a beached whale was just too confronting for some sensibilities. Anyway, this explains the amount of people on the beach. That Hoare writes about this is appropriate enough, considering his recent oeuvre, where he writes about whales, that inexhaustible subject, and thinks it possible that Durer saw stranded whales, though he can’t be sure exactly, he tells us. Whales were everywhere, or at least their remains were. Living, though, they were mysterious.

Typically for Durer, if he didn’t see whales, this didn’t stop him drawing them. He didn’t see angels either (presumably) but adds enough detail for them to be convincing. The same goes for the rhinoceros, the subject of one of his famous drawings. There was at least one rhinoceros in Europe, in the possession of Leo X by way of India. A rhino was no more or less fantastical than a unicorn or narwhal. Durer drew him presumably from descriptions. He also took some liberties. Hoare notes how in Durer’s world trees become animals, humans sprout wings. There are chimeras everywhere, he writes.

But Durer’s vision of the natural world matched his inner eye for fecundity. A patch of grass is as luminescent as the heavenly hosts. Hoare is lucky enough to have private viewings of watercolours and etchings. He is gobsmacked and wonders why. The energy, perhaps. The detail. The highlight on a hare’s whisker is pointed out to him, the width of a brush bristle. John Ruskin told his students to try and emulate Durer but warned they wouldn’t get close. The drawings are masterful, the etchings ‘almost uncanny’.

As the book progresses, Hoare’s writing fizzes like Durer’s drawing, words bumping against each other, emulating the lines in the etchings. Images pile up as in a fever dream. Durer’s biography spills out into the biographies of others. He can’t be contained. Who does he touch? Like Olivia Laing’s recent books (Hoare thanks her in the acknowledgments), or Hoare’s Risingtidefallingstar, a parade of characters march through the book: Durer’s other biographers, Thomas Mann, W G Sebald, poet Marianne Moore, Hoare’s family and friends, the Aztecs. (The conquistadors brought back gold objects in the shape of animals unseen by Europeans.) Susan Sontag (one of the subjects of Laing’s recent book) gets a mention, by way of Mann. Hoare compares Durer’s ageing body to his own illness, a dodgy tendon that causes a curl in the finger. Durer may have been similarly afflicted.

Somehow he gets to deep sea diving. He mentions Thomas Merton who said, more-or-less, that the natural world is full of meaning for humans, full of symbolism we have placed upon it. Like the buried whale in the painting, there is symbolism in diving beyond a monochrome surface, immersion in the phosphorescent, the intriguing, the strange. Durer would have liked the very deep.

Durer lived in Nuremberg, later famous for its Nazi connections. Durer’s art survived allied retribution on Germany (not to mention disgruntled gallery-goers). Hoare holds a lock of Durer’s hair in a museum, but it is the art that survives better than the body. Durer draws himself later in life and is typically forensic, noting the sagging muscle. But what is remembered of Durer is the intense gaze of the handsome young man in the portraits. And, Hoare wonders, beyond the detail, considering the threat of extinction that hangs over parts of the animal world, the most remarkable thing about Durer’s art is that it may outlive some of the animals he chronicled, their images as ungrounded as the angel and the unicorn.

A Neptunian rather than a Plutonist

Caves, Coprolites and Catastrophes, Allan Chapman, SPCK.

This is a positive, if somewhat hagiographic, succinct, clearly written and appealing biography of William Buckland, the British clergyman and scientific celebrity. While filling in the details of his pioneering life in geology and paleontology, Allan Chapman also puts Buckland in his context, and does some myth-busting at the same time.

Buckland lived in an extraordinary era of discovery, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and in a country – Britain – which, along with France, was a crucible for the natural sciences. Chapman describes Buckland as pioneering geology, paleontology, hydrology and speleology (cave exploration), as well as the promotion of these disciplines in public. At this time, it was common for clergy to pursue what we now think of as science as a hobby, but not a genteel hobby – Buckland and his ilk scaled glaciers and dangled precariously into caverns. The intellectual side of these pursuits was equally daring, as they tried to make sense of the increasingly bizarre finds that prompted speculation on the age of the Earth and the creatures that had populated it but were now extinct.

Chapman reminds his readers that in Buckland’s day, what we now think of as science was just another side of understanding an ordered world created by God. Science was not subordinate to the Bible; rather, they were interlinked – two ‘books’ in dialogue. In fact, the binaries of faith and science didn’t really exist (just as they don’t really today either, except in the minds of some propagandists). There were, instead, multiple interpretations of rocks and fossils and Scriptures. And the stereotype of stubborn clergymen is just that – Chapman shows how, while theories were fiercely contested, many, including Buckland, were open to having their opinions swayed by newly unearthed evidence. Besides, Chapman writes, geology was in its infancy, the evidence was scarce and there was much speculation. Theorists were not locked into rigid positions because of religious beliefs. Buckland in particular was not one who took his view of geology from a literal reading of the biblical Creation account and made the evidence fit no matter how improbably. Rather, he had the confidence of someone who believed in a Creator God but used careful human deduction for the details.

Buckland is sometimes caricatured as a wrong-headed promoter of a global Flood, including by Helen Gordon in her recent, otherwise thoughtful book Notes from Deep Time. Buckland was a Neptunian rather than a Plutonist in the prominent debate over which force was responsible for shaping the world – water or fire. (Consequently he was also a catastrophist rather than a gradualist.) But Chapman points out that while Buckland certainly accepted the theory of a global flood determining landforms, he only made passing references in his written works, and was quite happy to alter his thinking on its importance later in life, especially as he was persuaded that glaciers formed in the Ice Ages were responsible for much of the dramatic countryside of northern Britain and Europe. Buckland’s views could not be described as fundamentalist, as he accepted portions of the Creation account at face value but thought the Earth had a long history before the arrival of humans. Despite what is often written about his contemporaries, Buckland was not alone in this.

Chapman suggests that Buckland was gentlemanly in his arguments, unlike, say, the notoriously cantankerous Richard Owen. Chapman emphasizes Buckland’s generosity, fun and sociability. Charles Darwin, hardly the life of the party, described Buckland as ‘good natured’ but sometimes ‘like a buffoon’. Buckland has a reputation for eccentricity, especially due to his habit of eating whatever of the animal world he could lay his hands on. What is less publicised is the practical and humanitarian side of this. While the early nineteenth century was an age of discovery and ‘progress’, it was also one of cruelty and poverty, and in sampling the edibility of Britain’s wildlife Buckland was trying to find ways to feed Britain’s hungry classes. This practical side can also be seen in his work on fossil feces (coprolites), which he believed made excellent fertilizer for crops, and his pioneering hydrological work. Buckland must take some of the credit for the discovery that cholera was caused by contaminated water supplies. This was complemented by his preaching against bad water and negligent landlords from the pulpit of Westminster. Chapman adds that it is wrong to think of the Oxford education of the day as elitist and irrelevant and emphasizes instead how Buckland’s schooling was focused on understanding the natural world and how it could be used for the betterment of humankind. Christian faith only emphasized further how it was one’s duty to do so.

In writing about Buckland’s contemporaries, Chapman also challenges some other myths of scientific history. He writes, for example, that Mary Anning, although held back somewhat due to her working-class roots and gender, was not shunned as is sometimes asserted. Buckland supported her findings, and eventually she did quite well out of her fossil hunting business. Additionally, and an indication of the esteem she was held in, Anning was the first woman to be given a eulogy by the president of Britain’s geological society.

After Buckland died in 1856, the study of prehistory accelerated, especially in regards to evolution and the antiquity of humans, which Buckland had not accepted and which can, with hindsight, pin him as outdated in his views, rather than the visionary he was, although he might have changed his mind, Chapman speculates, if he had lived long enough to see the evidence. Buckland changed his mind about other things, and this openness is just one of the appealing aspects of his religious and inquisitive character.

Pulverized precious materials

Art and Faith, Makoto Fujimura, Yale.

Makoto Fujimura is a Japanese-American painter who thinks deeply about his vocation of artist and how this intersects with and enlivens his Christian faith. He argues that creating art – using the imagination – is a theological process, but one that is never-the-less marginalized both by an economically rational society and a church sometimes infected by society’s utilitarianism.

For the church, first of all, art can be important but ultimately marginal to the process of evangelization and the emphasis on redemption. But Fujimura argues against what he labels a ‘plumbing’ outlook, which values ‘fixing’ over a more inclusive and generous idea of what Christian life entails. In doing so, he can be provocative, arguing that the church can be too focused on being ‘useful’ rather than giving love generously. He suggests that Jesus’ ministry was to those society deemed ‘useless’.

Fujimura points to how often beauty is mentioned in the Bible and argues that upholding beauty – including simply seeing the beauty in others – is part of what the biblical writers term the New Creation, a renewal of the world that results in something better than before.

This is the essence of a particular traditional Japanese practice he describes called kintsugi, which is the art of mending broken teacups with gold, making something more beautiful than before. Fujimura describes this as transformation rather than mere fixing, and although it originally lacked Christian connection, the extravagance and surprise of kintsugi has an obvious spiritual profundity and is an apt symbol of the Christian promise of the New Kingdom. (Incidentally, Fujimura’s own art has a degree of extravagance in its production, as he uses pulverized precious materials in his large abstract paintings.)

Extravagance and generosity are part of the process of art, imitating a Creator God who makes the world just for the fun of it. Theologians have typically argued that God has no need for us but has a relationship with us for the love of it. Fujimura suggests that part of God’s extravagant love is ‘wasting’ time on us (just as we should ‘waste’ time on others without evaluating a return). This, by the way, is not a frivolous view of God, but rather a considered view of God’s nature as Creator, a theme emphasised throughout Scripture.

As to art’s place in society more widely, in emphasizing creativity, Fujimura creates a generous space he calls ‘culture care’, a direct response to the tighter territories of those involved in ‘culture wars’ and an acknowledgement that God works beyond the walls of churches and the houses of believers. Rather than demarcating spiritual and non-spiritual art, he welcomes all artists into a spiritual calling, and implies that upholding the worth of artistic endeavour, as central to human activity rather than an indulgence, helps us become a more generous society.

Enjoy the job

How Good is Scott Morrison? Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen, Hachette.

If a week is a long time in politics, then six months is… well, longer. Finishing this book at the start of the year, Errington and Van Onselen wrote that Scott Morrison is good at political miracles and, despite the failings that they pile up here, looking unassailable for the next election. But recent months may put that into doubt.

This book concentrates largely on Scott Morrison’s time as prime minister, and the pandemic naturally takes up about half of the book. ‘Most people wouldn’t think of Scott Morrison as a great leader,’ they write, but he did manage the Australian response to the pandemic in 2020 reasonably well. Wartime PMs are always given a boost, and opposition leaders fade into the background. The pandemic has also distracted from sports rorts, Murray-Darling allocation anomalies, and, more recently, car park pork barrelling. This has helped Morrison buck the trend of revolving doors for recent PMs. The public’s lingering distrust of Labor has also helped.

This year’s vaccine roll-out has been not so good, to put it mildly, exacerbated by contradictory comments on Astra Zeneca. And siding with NSW over Victoria hasn’t helped his image as a prime minister for only some. Then there are accusations of ‘menacing’ behaviour on top of a sexist culture within parliament. The book doesn’t exactly refute the charge that Morrison prioritises PR over policy, spin over substance, though at times the PM has also been ham-fisted when it comes to PR. The authors note that while he has a politically pragmatic nature, shifting policy when needed, he also has a stubborn personal side.

This manifests in a refusal to take responsibility for government actions that he has not personally decided. He tried to shift blame on aged-care Covid deaths, and we have recently seen him being dragged kicking and screaming to an apology over the roll-out. When he does apologise, there is a tone of anger at having to do so.

We saw this belligerent and stubborn side of the PM in the bushfire crisis, when empathy was needed. (No wonder the government paid big money for empathy training.) Morrison says he has learnt from these mistakes. He was more compassionate over the NDIS, but the authors say here this was because of personal connections.

The authors make much of the government ditching the budget surplus goal, but that was pretty much forced upon them. What the 2020 budget, described as ‘blokey’, did show was that the empathy is piecemeal. The authors suggest it was an excuse to snub enemies, particularly in sectors seen as intractably hostile to the Coalition, such as the arts. And casual workers, already disadvantaged by uncertainty in the workplace, were neglected.

The budget confirmed a reluctance to act on climate, and the authors show how closely this is related to the Coalition’s ties to fossil fuel interests (and why, perhaps, Malcolm Turnbull didn’t have a hope). The Opposition of course hasn’t shown as much vision here as they could. Morrison is not a reforming PM, seeming to enjoy the job for the job itself, rather than what he can do with it. For some in the Coalition, keeping Labor out of office is enough.

Morrison is the first prime minister with a Pentecostal evangelical affiliation (a long way from his childhood Presbyterianism, Errington and Van Onselen note), with links to Hillsong, matters of interest to the media. There is suspicion among some journalists, for whom Morrison’s faith is puzzlingly exotic, that he is slyly pushing evangelical agendas, not helped by comments about secret prayers. The media seized on his comment ‘I have always believed in miracles’, but this was probably a throwaway line, and the authors suggest Morrison quickly learned to separate faith from politics, to keep faith private. The reality is likely more complex, but the ‘God-bothering’ doesn’t occur much in the public eye.

The authors note that his faith’s influence on policy is ‘not much’, beyond, in typically Pentecostal fashion, seeing material success as a blessing. He has made the odd, minor incursion in the culture wars, and was one of the few to dissent on same-sex marriage, against the majority, but this has largely been forgotten. He shares a conservative faith in self-reliance.

This may be a blind spot for Morrison, and a failing of the Coalition generally. There is a tendency to think those who need help are just ‘leaners’. In the midst of a pandemic, looming ecological crises and continuing refugee issues, though, we may need more focus on those who need lifting up.

Hunt for a stuffed bear

Gentle and Fierce, Vanessa Berry, Giramondo.

Many of us who live in cities, and even those of us in country towns, can be distanced from the animal world, but Vanessa Berry, in her book Gentle and Fierce, finds ways of connecting through domestic and suburban encounters and through depictions of animals in our material culture.

In her book Mirror Sydney she looks at the overlooked – the quirky and the neglected places of suburbia. Here, in this new book, she writes about animals and writers, animals in unexpected places, animals in memories and dreams and animals as images. Many of the pieces in the book pivot on contrasts, as indicated by her book title – how we encounter the wild in a human-controlled setting, how the past is injected into the present, how we can find the world in a room. The book aligns with the way in a global pandemic we have been forced to focus on the local and simple.

The book fills in more of her personality; the pieces add up to a biography of sorts. We learn about her childhood, about feeling a misfit at school, about dark teen years, her travels, her relationships with family and friends. The title refers to sides of her personality, which emerge in the style and flair of her writing. She describes herself as shy, but she writes strongly (as might be expected of someone who teaches creative writing).

The title refers to animals too, of course: how wallabies on the Isle of Man have established themselves in the countryside after escaping a zoo, how animals survive in the city despite the pressures. She wonders how, in a further example of contrast or paradox, humanity’s favourite animals are often the most threatened by human activities.

There are pieces on Robert Smith from 1980s band The Cure dressed up as a spider, and her hunt for a stuffed bear in a university museum, a memory from childhood. Many of her encounters are with kitsch representations of animals such as porcelain or glass figurines and pandas on tissue boxes and t-shirts. Just as Mirror Sydney is about parts of the city that aren’t grand tourist magnets, she writes about animals without heading into the wild.* As she writes about these in her cluttered workspace, she shows how the ephemera of urban life can connect us to the wider world. Rather than be dismissive of such second-hand relationships to animals, she finds positives. These relationships can foster sympathy for our animal companions and wild animals that need protection. She remembers how watching Lassie on TV mediated her relationship with her own dog. Meditating on her book title, she notes how care, whether it be of humans or animals, requires both a quiet, soft touch and force, resolve. And she notes how gentleness is itself a kind of strength.

*There is a website where Berry writes more about some of the places in Sydney that are the settings for her animal encounters.

Getting dirty

Has Archaeology Buried the Bible? William Dever, Eerdmans.

Digging Deeper, Eric Cline, Princeton.

Archaeology and the Bible have had a both close and wary relationship. In Has Archaeology Buried the Bible? William Dever says that in the nineteenth century one of archaeology’s purposes was to illuminate the Bible. For the British, he writes, this meant ‘illustrating’ the Bible. Americans had a more forthright attitude, using archaeology to ‘defend’ the Bible (possibly from European scholarship). By the 1980s the roles were reversed, and as archaeology trod its own path, the Bible was seen as useful by archaeologists only when it could further illuminate the finds of archaeology.

Dever is a former seminary student who gravitated to archaeology, and he says he takes a ‘middle ground’ approach. I would imagine he would agree with theologian Tom Wright, who has said that we have little to fear from scholarship of the Bible. Dever’s answer to the provocative question posed by his book’s title is ‘no’. Or perhaps ‘no, but…’. In some cases, archaeology reinforces the biblical text, but then again, sometimes it makes us rethink and re-read.

For example, Dever writes, Joshua and Judges contradict each other as to how exactly the biblical Israelites became dominant in Canaan and what happened to the ‘original’ residents. The evidence suggests that it was more a peasant revolt than invasion. Often the evidence points to shifts less dramatic and triumphant than some of the biblical stories. Archaeology also helps us to hear the voices of the poor, which are in the Bible but can be muted when the Old Testament history books focus on leaders.

Events in the Book of Kings conform to archaeological evidence. There have now been more than a dozen temples unearthed in Syria, and they have similar floorplans to Solomon’s, as it is described in the Bible. But a book such as Judges, in conjunction with the archaeological evidence, gives us a better idea of the lives of villagers. Such things as when camels were domesticated challenge some of the chronology, but other finds confirm the nomadic lifestyle of Abraham’s descendants, which also explains, Dever notes, the nomad’s wariness regarding towns, an undercurrent of the story of Sodom and others. In Digging Deeper, Eric Cline mentions that clay tablets found in the Middle East confirmed the Babylonian exile.

Cline’s is a little book about the practice of archaeology, similar to those in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series. He has excavated in Israel, particularly at Megiddo, where ‘Solomon’s Stables’ were found. (In the end, archaeologists decided they weren’t stables at all.) He writes about what to expect on sites, how sites are chosen, how they are laid out, measured, excavated and recorded. He writes about how artefacts are preserved.

He describes the importance of pottery styles for dating, but also says that context is important. Despite us being in what he calls the ‘Third Scientific Revolution’ for archaeology, refining aerial surveys and dating techniques, digging (and getting dirty) is still important. The correlation of artefacts in the layers tells archaeologists much.

He has a sense of humour and says that if his favourite trowel was found at a site, it would be classified as an antiquity. Short as the book is, he also moves beyond techniques to finds and their implications. Four-thousand-year-old mummies in China, in just one example, suggested surprising cross-continental travel, way before Marco Polo. Five-thousand-year-old Otzi the Iceman, found in the Austrian Alps in the 1990s, was so well preserved that a Czech professor could commission a shoemaker to replicate Otzi’s leather boots. (They turned out to be more comfortable than modern hiking boots.)

Cline finishes by discussing the problems of looting in the Middle East, particularly disastrous after the US invasion of Iraq and the actions of the Taliban and Isis, but also driven by the practice of private collectors paying big money for antiquities. Cline insists that ancient artefacts should not disappear into private collections but should be accessible to researchers, subsequently helping with the general public’s understanding of the past, even if what is dug up may prompt a rethinking of cherished narratives.

Not Fed Square

Melbourne Circle, Nick Gadd, Australian Scholarly Publishing.

I had the same idea for a book, inspired, as was Nick Gadd, by Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, though my idea was slightly different in that I imagined walking the Ring Road, a more literal aping of Sinclair. (Maybe one day.) Nick Gadd takes a more meandering circuit, but nevertheless he aims for a psychogeographical ramble (‘psychojogging’ he sometimes calls it), even if there’s less emphasis on the psycho, as there seems to be in Sinclair’s books, where Sinclair’s vision is kaleidoscopic and intense. But Gadd’s out to chronicle something of the ‘curious feelings’ places can evoke as they prompt memory, and as we peer behind the facades of suburbia. He shows the value of walking in the city, not just for commercial reasons but for the pleasure of discovery, and in this follows in the footsteps not only of Sinclair, but also of the likes of Dickens and Patti Smith.

The book emerged from a blog of his and his wife’s walks around Melbourne. His wife died before the book was published, and it is also a tribute to her, their relationship and the memories of shared walks. As Rebecca Solnit notes, walking does things for noticing and writing. Gadd’s walking prompts interest for stories ‘small, local and hidden in plain sight’. It’s a view of Melbourne from a Western suburbs perspective – looking for the quirky and not so picturesque. He writes about the Yarra and its mangroves, but also the other river, the Maribyrnong, and Stony Creek, which runs through the Western suburbs (and has a parallel to the likes of Sydney’s Cooks River, subject of a fascinating history). The places they visit are not Fed Square, the Block Arcade or Botanic Gardens. It’s a circle whose arc begins at Yarraville and crosses points of working-class interest, from the Westgate to a Footscray cinema to old factories in Cremorne. It’s the Melbourne of Paul Kelly, the Nylex sign, weapons manufacture sites, football. Like David Sornig in his book Blue Lake, Gadd describes being stalked by security guards while walking the docks.

Like Vanessa Berry, Mirror Sydney blogger and author, Gadd is attracted to ghost signs (traces of ancient signs that recall lost brands and businesses). Particularly interesting is a sign of a footballer advertising Champion football studs in Richmond. The kicking footballer is modelled on a player but in its rendering becomes cartoonishly ballet-like. I think of a ghost sign behind the shops of Sydney Road, Coburg, advertising a now long-gone bookshop. The sign remains at the back of a two-storey brick building, where, as with the others, there are odd, mismatching juttings, landings, stairs – all giving the sense of seeing the other side of the uniform face of retail, a more private peek, and the sign gives one the sense of also peering into the past. Gadd muses that such signs can indicate the transitory nature of commerce, the promise of eventual demise. Or they can be seen as survivors, somehow clinging on, offering something resembling continuity, even if thread-bare, in a fast-changing city.

He writes about Garden City, in the Port Melbourne area. Here’s an example of jarring perspective shift – an area of Melbourne unlike the rest but recalling instead mid-century Britain, always a surprise when I see it, in its semi-attached double storey houses, and controversial at the time for its separation of housing and business, prefiguring the suburbs of the 1950s. He wonders at one point about the newer estates and how they will create memories. Recently I walked through Docklands, the office buildings uniformly glass and steel, made individual by cheap architectural tweaks, like London’s docklands, at risk of losing history for a fast buck. It’s at first glance an area wiped clean, with no layers of history, no palimpsest. It’s hard to imagine the buildings here gaining a patina. But underneath there are already odd alleys, street art, remains of industrial buildings such as the long brick warehouses that now house groovy offices. Most places in the city offer glimpses of the past in their odd layouts, remnants, relics.

Like watching a movie

The Mysteries of Cinema, Peter Conrad, Thames and Hudson.

Peter Conrad’s book Creation: Artists, Gods & Origins contained the rather silly proposition that artists, in the act of creating, had proven God irrelevant. At the beginning of his new book about the movies he makes a similarly provocative proposition – that cinema ‘challenges religion’ with its power to create worlds. Yet he compiles a wealth of evidence to suggest that over cinema’s hundred-plus-year history this is exactly what movie directors have thought of themselves and their art. Conrad notes that while they often describe themselves as dictators and generals, they also think of themselves as priests. For much of the twentieth century, the weekly cinema experience rivalled the church-goer’s in providing transcendence.

Conrad notes that in the early days of cinema actors were known as stars because, in emulation of the way the Greeks thought about the cosmos, they seemed god-like. Stars were also referred to as saints. We might note too that at the Oscars, the host is not the star but the priest who facilitates worship of the stars.

Somewhat like the way Terry Eagleton writes books, Conrad piles up a teetering stack of references from cinema’s history, from the films of Tarkovsky and Charlie Chaplin to American Beauty, in chapters outlining the ways this modern artform has altered our view of reality. He concentrates more on the pioneering and golden ages of cinema, when its creators were puffed up with their own ability, before the art’s settling into predictability. Partly, the hyperbole was driven by the fact that cinema combined the ages-old art of theatre with mind-boggling new technologies that, like the train, the car and the telephone, messed with traditional measures of space and time, making filmmakers seem like magicians and alchemists, as well as miracle-workers.

Cinema, unlike music or painting, is a wholly realised imitation of life. Conrad suggests that while sculpture, say, is concerned with space, and music with time, cinema is concerned with both. Theatre does a similar thing, so cinema is not as unique as Conrad makes out, but in the artform’s ability to use all the tricks of the editing room and the special effects program, it is certainly able to outdo theatre in its ability to suspend disbelief for the viewer. (Conrad drolly suggests that this does not extend to such recent ho-hum fare as the Cats movie.) But as such, says Conrad, it is able to focus more intently on aspects of life. We can see, he writes, how much cinema has affected our worldview by the way eyewitnesses often describe disasters as being like watching a movie. And cinema is able to depict a ‘God’s eye-view’ (which, says Conrad, is explicitly referenced in films such as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire).

Cinema amplifies life but also offers alternative versions of it. While the earliest examples of cinema were documentary-like, movie-makers soon realized the potential for making previously unimagined worlds. As soon as we could show the world as it is, we tried to show the world as it isn’t. This, perhaps, is no different from other art, such as novels, but it may be more intense. Novelists too can mess with time, as in backward plots and ‘sliding doors’ scenarios, and can create whole worlds, but in the cinema we see and hear them.

The movies make us believe in another reality, and Conrad argues that cinema engages in a ‘metaphysical battle’ for which reality is the real one, much like how religion often argues for a truer reality beyond our current one. Director Eric Rohmer said that movies see ‘into that world beyond’. And we can see, from all the examples Conrad marshals, how often cinema refers explicitly to this spiritual-like ability.

Cinema can be life as we wish it would be – say, in a romantic comedy – emulating the promise of heaven and a happy ever-after. But not always – films also revel in the Devilish ability to create hells, either to shake us in our complacent real lives, or to make us more grateful for them. Some directors, like Quentin Tarantino, simply show a perverse enjoyment of fictional misery.

Is cinema’s heyday past? With online movies, the ritualistic weekend cinema trip has become somewhat irrelevant. In this way perhaps, movie-watching has become like how spirituality is spread across the week, not just a weekend communal activity. (And the now ascendant art of streamed TV miniseries stretches this further.) But here the movies also diverge from church-going, being a more solitary activity, without even the pretense of community that comes from sitting in a room full of strangers to watch a film. And of course, despite the moral lessons films can teach us, they remain entertainment, rather different to the hard task of building community through selfless acts towards one’s neighbour.