Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Land of the Beigists

Could the national epidemic of somnambulism and mediocrity become an election issue? Steve Burrell set the ball rolling in last weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald with a competent if not overly original article on the current intellectual and spiritual malaise overwhelming this country. He was careful not to slide into political polemic, for the current Federal Government is merely one symptom of a chronic distemper that has afflicted the land down under since its earliest days as a colony. The old excuses no longer wash, however, and it seems our egalitarian legacy is only ever flaunted these days in defence of the average. I encounter people almost daily brimming with energy and ideas, but what Steven Burrell and many others are worried about is that they seem to be working in a bubble that eventually either bursts quietly or drifts off north of the line to people more receptive to the fresh and extraordinary. It is not a problem unique to Australia, of course, as the post-war generation ages and constantly shifts the cultural, economic and political goal posts to suit its changing needs, but we are perhaps more vulnerable than most because more practised than most at dragging down the “tall poppy” in the name of an egalitarianism that never really existed.

Now the deputy leader of the ALP, Julia Gillard, has stepped into the debate with her address last night to mark the 75th anniversary of the Australian Quarterly. She views the erosion of once vibrant cultural institutions in this country as a deliberate and sustained attack by some on the right of politics who feel compelled to fall into line with the nascent “global monoculture” of expediency and silence. “Their attempt to denigrate people like our philosophers, artists, writers and even climate scientists as out-of-touch, inner-city elites, and to claim that our egalitarian values are unsuited to new economic necessities, risks subsuming us into the blancmange of an emerging monoculture.”

Fighting words, Julia! But I would take issue with her on the origins of this attack. As far as the old right-left divide holds any relevance at all, there has been a steady erosion of values coming from both sides, often from within the very institutions themselves. I find it ironic that the culture of the individual has fostered a resistance to comprehensive education in much of the three post-war generations and that this has in turn peopled the world with semi-literate somnambulists barely cognisant of their rights and potential, let alone how to go about defending them.

In the world of international poetry, to bring this argument a little closer to home, there are already strong signs of this monoculture taking hold as the academies spit out armies of bright shiny things, their heads crammed with faux Ashberrian angst and the latest post-modern antitheses of eloquence and aesthetic. Anyone who doubts my take on things (and they are legion, I’m sure), please take some time from your busy schedule to surf the net and sample what’s on offer in all the major English-speaking cultures re all things poetic. Then track down some of the latest work being translated from the French, German, Romanian, Russian etc and much the same pattern emerges. Does this reflect the majority of what is being written and read and experienced by young poets, or simply what is being sought by their ageing, cloistered doyens? Some of it is very good, of course, but I am concerned here with the emerging global monoculture and what poets could and should be doing to arrest or even reverse it. The poetic, after all, is a duty not a right. Comments always welcome.

1 comment:

robwalkerpoet said...

Right on, Justin!
The saddest thing about politics -and culture- at the moment is this lip-service to diversity as everything becomes more homogenised and monolithic. Rudd seems to think that that he can only compete with Howard by being even MORE bland! But I guess nothing is likely to change when all Australians seem to care about is interest rates & their latest plasma screen...