Reviewed by Stephen Knight
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In a Gothic story a sensitive young person is plunged into a world of mysterious and terrifying forces. But by being true to the self, with courage, faith and often a few powerful friends, the innocent survives to tell the tale.
And here we have it, written in sandstone.
Andrew Riemer relates how a clever young man from Budapest strolled slowly into the monstrous cave of the Sydney University English Department, to emerge some forty years later with his body bruised by Leavisites, hair singed by the breath of theorists, clothing ripped by urgent feminists.
The faith that sustained him was learnt on the hard benches of the old quad from donnish men and one prima donna, Thelma Herring. They instructed him in the dates, biographies, sources and rhyme schemes of the major English authors, a litany of fetishised fact which amounted, they thought, and Andrew was persuaded, to civilisation.
The word ‘civilised’ tolls through this book like a bell, a little knell. The civil neophyte did well, so off to Britain for the doctorate, back to Sydney for the lectureship, the old golden road. But it all went wrong; instead of a quiet life reheating and serving up dates and biogs to the stewnce, Gothic reverberations crepitated about the lad’s head.
The Leavisite brigades from Melbourne moved in, but were driven off after a few year’s academic trench warfare. Then came more assaults on civilised scholarship, from Australian Literature led by the charming menace of Countess Kramer; other figures move in the gathering gloom of Andrew’s nightmare — theorists with cries far from wordless, feminists imposing rights (and a few lefts), the politically correct with their always incorrect demands, and worst of all those who insist on giving students wide choice, and so weaken the defences of Castle Canonical, that bastion of the best that was ever thought and footnoted.
It’s a sad story in that Andrew really felt and lived this melodramatic misery. The witty and cultivated man who joined the department six months ahead of me did indeed like others grow psychic scar tissue from the antics of clever, intelligent, but rarely sensible man Sam Goldberg. Sadder yet is that the Sydney department’s only response to the Leavisite assault was to recoil into unargued faith in the old scholarship school of civilisation, a system actually out of date even at Oxford by the mid 1930s, as Brian Doyle (of Cardiff) outlines in his excellent book English and Englishness.
Not only a curriculum turned to stone. This book is the longest complaint I’ve read since Piers Plowman, and not as well written: Andrew’s usually rather elegant footwork often becomes a shuffle of semi-cliché. The Latinate old dons would have called this a liber querulus; they weren’t always wrong.
But the book also suffers from what is left out. Andrew’s account of thirty teaching years at Sydney lacks almost all the colour and vigour, indeed the contribution to civilisation, made by that members of that department. Staff and student involvement in the Vietnam debates, the Women’s Course strike, the bustling development of new local voices in poetry and prose. Charismatic — and sometimes eccentric — teachers were at work like Bill Maidment, Bernard Martin, Terry Sturm, Terry Threadgold, Jim Tulip.
True, some of the department’s electricity was somewhat negative, and lively people could be repelled into other more positive spheres like David Malouf, Nick Enright, David Marr, Dorothy Porter. But publishing, reviewing and a whole range of cultural carry-on was enlivened by campus identities like Michael Wilding, Don Anderson, Rosemary Creswell, Judy Barbour. From Vadims to the Hotel London, English staff helped cultures grow, subsidised Frank Moorhouse’s champagne, foresaw the future over flounder sandwiches at the Forest Lodge.
There were indeed negatives, but they are only represented in Riemer’s account in reverse, as a stalwart defence of civilisation. The strength with which Gerry Wilkes protected his own position, and with creditable fidelity those who had supported him in the battle with Goldberg, itself became a rigidity. Babies went astray with the Goldbergite bathwater, notable among them film studies, gender criticism, critical theory and non-canonical literature, all areas of intellectual dynamism in the last twenty years: their comparative lack has made Sydney seem to many in the academic profession a beached whale of a department.
Academic ecologies are quite fragile; they require constant monitoring and renovation for healthy life. Personal effort and a real talent — and Sydney has had plenty of both — don’t without a benign structure add up to what Leavis (ironically) called an organic community. It’s this lack that Riemer identifies in his feel-bad book, though it is too dark inside the whale for him to detect the real cause — the long-standing failure of department management to make innovations in curriculum and staffing.
Aca-ecological change is elsewhere managed better: in many English departments around the world business is booming, and scholarship is thriving along with and even through the multiple voices of modern civilisation. But there are no flounder sandwiches.
Stephen Knight, who spent twenty five years before the mast in the Sydney English department, is now Head of English at Cardiff University. This review was originally commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald which then did not run it. The review is published here for the first time.
Andrew Riemer, Sandstone Gothic: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, Allen and Unwin.