Filmed over three years, Moira Fahy’s remarkable documentary, Afterburn: In the Tiger’s Jaws, offers extraordinary insights into the emotional journeys of bushfire survivors. Framed by a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the work explores how the world can become uncanny and unrecognizable when catastrophe strikes.
The small rural village of Steels Creek was ravaged by fire on February 7, 2009, the day now known as Black Saturday. As is well known, 173 people died in Victoria on that day and more than 4500 square kilometres of land were burned. In the Steels Creek community, ten people were killed and sixty-seven properties destroyed in a fire from Kilmore East that most residents believed would never reach them.
Initiated by Jane and Malcolm Calder, one of the three couples whose stories are woven together in this astonishingly beautiful film, Afterburn is, as Libby Robin has noted, a very important part of the healing process for the Steels Creek community. In addition to the Calders, the documentary tells the stories of Edd and Amanda Williams, who watched their ecofarm and bed and breakfast business burn to the ground, and Rob and Julie Fallon, who left Steels Creek belatedly on the day of the fire with their two young children. In addition to losing their home, the Fallons lost two sets of neighbours, very dear friends who decided to stay and defend their properties, and who were burned to death when the fire roared through the valley.
Interlaced with moving accounts of the different types of grief, pain and trauma experienced by each of the couples, are contributions from three experts. Their input offers valuable contexts for understanding the history of fire in the region, the trajectory and destructive force of a bushfire, and the many pressures that accompany survival. Fire historian Tom Griffiths draws important yet sensitive parallels with the deadly bushfires of 1939, commenting that, ‘the most haunting aspect of this tragedy is its familiarity’, while reminding us that ‘fire always returns to the same place’. Peter Stanley, a social and military historian, offers a vivid account of the trajectory of the Black Saturday Fires across the landscape, which is accompanied by footage from the day, while psychologist and disaster expert Rob Gordon provides an overview of the physical and mental pressures that each of the survivors will endure in different ways.
Each family deals with the fire in its own way. The Calders hurl themselves into community work, but to begin with, take little time for themselves. The Fallons decide to leave Steels Creek and, in quick succession, purchase both a unit and a camper van, embarking on an extended trip across Queensland, before settling down in a new home. Julie Fallon speaks movingly of her grief at the loss of the ‘simple bush life’ she had wanted for her children, while her husband Rob talks with great regret about their tremendous losses when he says, with great pathos, that having lost both home and friends, ‘we would look to the bush for identity, but that’s gone too’. The final couple, Edd and Amanda Williams, set to work to rebuild the home and business that they have lost, creating an underground fortress, designed to withstand the onslaught of any future fire.
Charting the passage of time and milestones in the recovery process with haunting shots of the landscape and its regeneration, Fahy sets up a beautiful contrast between the natural world’s swift renewal and the much slower recovery of the delicate human beings, whose lives have been redefined by the fire. Rob Gordon’s commentary is valuable here, as it explains the protracted emotional and physiological toll of rebuilding, outlining in particular how adrenaline can save us when we are faced with an immediate threat. Prolonged exposure to adrenaline, however, leaves us trapped in a survival mode, which then hinders our ability to get on with everyday life. In particular, Gordon points to survivors’ frantic attempts to re-assert their old lives through hard work and rebuilding, before outlining the emotional slumps that they experience in trying to do too much, too soon.
Events like natural disasters can, according to Rob Gordon, trigger the re-emergence of past traumas, forcing survivors to confront incidents from their lives that were never resolved. Some of the Steels Creek survivors featured in Afterburn find themselves reliving previous ordeals, while others find that, having pushed their bushfire experiences to one side, they suddenly catch up. Jane Calder speaks of suddenly becoming very tired (which, Rob Gordon explains, is part of the replenishment of reserves that will allow survivors to go on), while Amanda Williams observes, towards the end of the film, that it has taken two years for her to allow herself to grieve, particularly for the loss of her dogs.
Roger Newcome’s narration brings Moira Fahy’s elegant script to life, setting the tone for a subtle, thoughtful journey through devastation, sorrow and fortitude. The stories are concluded with a bittersweet mixture of success and numbness, while Rob Gordon warns that recovery has to be about much more than building a house or creating fortifications.
Afterburn is a profoundly moving piece of work and perhaps the words that reverberate through it most strongly are those of Tom Griffiths, who warns that, ‘Fire is something that we have to live with, not triumph over’. Moira Fahy’s outstanding film reveals the paradoxical combination of resilience and fragility that make us human, with her delicate touch allowing the three families to tell their own stories. Touching and inspiring, Afterburn has much to teach us about the emotional process of learning to live with fire and its destructive power.
Afterburn is part of a bigger bushfire recovery project in the Steels Creek community, details of which may be found here: http://steelscreek.vic.au/publications/
Professor Tom Griffiths of ANU has written about the emotional background to Afterburn here: http://history.cass.anu.edu.au/monthinhistory/afterburn-emotional-legacy-bushfire
Another film by Moira Fahy about the 1939 bush fires, ‘Black Friday’, may be viewed here: www.abc.net.au/blackfriday/
Posted by Grace Moore
In recent months I’ve been working on an extended piece dealing with Anthony Trollope’s deeply affective response to the Australian environment. Trollope visited the Antipodes twice. Once between 1871 and 1872, when he based himself in Australia, but also travelled to New Zealand. He returned in 1875 for a shorter trip, when he mostly remained in New South Wales.
Trollope’s son Frederic had settled in Australia as a young man having, as his father expressed it, ‘resolved on a colonial career when he found that boys who did not grow up so fast as he did got above him at school’. Fred was not a very successful farmer, at least partly because of his attempts to transpose European agricultural methods onto the southern hemisphere terrain. Anthony Trollope was, nevertheless, fascinated by the settlement of Australia, channelling his experiences into works like the novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874) and his novel, John Caldigate (1879).
Like many other Victorian writers Trollope was fascinated by the fortunes to be made in the southern hemisphere. Yet, unusually, he also felt that settlement in the empire should be a long-term commitment—that men should not simply plunder the colonies only to return home with their riches, but rather they should commit to their new home in a whole-hearted and respectful manner. The most extensive account of Trollope’s time in the antipodes appears in his two-volume work, Australia and New Zealand (1873), in which he charted the ecological vandalism that European settlers inflicted upon the landscape. He weighed in on controversial issues like the ring-barking of trees (of which he disapproved) and he also wrote a damning indictment of the wholesale damage caused by gold prospectors.
Trollope was, for the most part, intrigued by the strangeness of life on the other side of the world, but his appreciation for its fauna was somewhat inconsistent. Moving from a description of some of the world’s deadliest snakes (of which he remarks, ‘I do not think much of Australian snakes’, he rather perplexingly comments, ‘Australia is altogether deficient in sensational wild beasts’. While Trollope’s knowledge of Australian fauna is undoubtedly patchy, he astutely captures its endangerment at the hands of European settlers. Although at home in Britain he was a keen hunter, Trollope approaches most Australian wildlife with respect and curiosity. He also reveals deeper insights into precarious ecological and anthropological balances in the Antipodes when he ostensibly writes of proliferating animals. Commenting of the possum,
The opossum, –‘up a gum tree’, where he is always to be found, –seems to be the most persevering aboriginal inhabitant of the country. He does not recede before civilization, but addicts himself to young cabbages, and is a nuisance. As the blacks die out there is no one to eat him, and he is prolific. He sleeps soundly, and is very easy to kill with a dog… But there is no fun in killing him, for he neither fights nor runs away.
For Trollope, the possum is hardy and adaptable, able to change his diet to accommodate non-native plants, like cabbages, and to adjust to the differences of settler life. The possum is, however, curiously vulnerable because of the trust he places in humans. Thus, Trollope’s sense of an Australian eco-system is, accordingly, unable to accommodate compassion for the land’s traditional custodians, expressing approval only of those with what he sees as the vigour to change.
Trollope’s attitude towards dingoes, the wild dogs whom he describes as ‘the squatter’s direct enemy’, is remarkably similar to his position on indigenous Australians. He regards the dingo as a pest and describes, in graphic and shocking detail, some of the attempts made to obliterate the dogs, who posed (and continue to pose) a threat to livestock and hence to livelihoods, too:
The squatter attempts to rid himself of the dingo by poison, and consequently strychnine is as common in a squatter’s house as castor oil in a nursery. On many large runs carts are continually being taken round with baits to be set on the paths of the dingo. In smaller establishments the squatter or his head man goes about with strychnine in his pocket and lumps of meat tied up in a handkerchief. Hence it comes to pass that the use of a shepherd’s dog is impossible, unless he be muzzled. But the dingo likes lamb better than bait, and the squatters sometimes are broken-hearted.
The anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has written of what she calls the ‘violent unmaking’ of dingoes in Australia’s Northern Territory today, charting the ways in which they continue to be poisoned and treated as vermin. According to Rose, the dingo pits itself against the pastoralist, who destroys the dogs in order to assert or display dominance (See Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, 93). Far from being a companion species like his domesticated European counterpart, the dingo opposes himself to imported ideas of the pastoral, feeding on sheep instead of herding them; actively resisting the idea that the countryside can be parceled up and fenced in. The dingo is, for both Trollope and Rose, what Raymond Williams would term a counter-pastoralist—albeit a particularly feral one—who pits himself against Europeanized farming practices and ideas of property ownership. Ignoring the boundaries imposed upon the landscape by settlers, the dingo continues to treat the land as a source of ‘innate bounty’. Indeed, as Australian sheep stocks grew after 1850, so the number of dingoes trebled. The dingo is a living, plundering reminder of just how incompatible imported ideas of land ownership are with the vast and wild Australian terrain.
Towards the end of his travelogue, Trollope offers an account of a dingo hunt, which is, for him, ‘great sport’. His depiction reveals how a privileged sector of settler society sought to contain—and possibly also to redefine—the dingo by treating him as they would an English fox. There are distinctions, as he explains, noting that while a fox who is shaken from a bag declines to run, the dingo is much more obliging. For the most part, Trollope focuses on the hunters themselves, recounting how they crash into fences that are too high, lose their mounts and generally prove to be unequal to the differences involved in riding to hounds in the bush. Trollope is so weary by the time he and his fellow huntsmen and women catch up with the dog that he declares, ‘I cared little what it was’. This particular dingo is taken alive, having been pursued for two miles, although what happens to him next is not reported. Most dingoes who were caught up in hunts were killed as vermin and newspapers contain numerous accounts of the stalking of dingoes, sometimes as a bloodsport and sometimes in response to the theft of sheep.
While on the one hand a replication of an English country pursuit that is for some an important tradition dating back to the sixteenth century, on the other the Australian version of the hunt is something more. Hunting in England is about the pursuit of an individual fox, with no sense that these enemies of the farmer might ever be eradicated through this highly ritualized chase. The hunting of dingoes, however, was part of a much more widespread and systematic process of extermination that hinged on the labeling of the wild dog as a pest. The hunt might thus be regarded as an attempt to express mastery, albeit one that fails, according to Trollope’s descriptions of fallen riders and general calamity. The transposition of this aspect of English rural life to the bush is far from seamless and fails to account for the many differences between the countryside at ‘home’ and the much more rugged Australian terrain. In many ways, Trollope’s dingo hunt highlights the numerous challenges that the land threw in the faces of migrants, challenges that were exacerbated by such willful attempts to impose aspects of the pastoral onto a resistant environment.
Trollope allows some of the ideas that sanctioned and legitimated the dingo hunt to permeate his contribution to the debate surrounding invasive species. Once more invoking the idea of the ‘pest’, he remarks that, ‘the rabbit has become so great a plague in Victoria and parts of Tasmania that squatters in some localities are spending thousands with the hope of exterminating them’. He notes that one farmer claims to have spent more than fifteen thousand pounds in attempting to eliminate rabbits from his property, an aim which modern-day land managers know to be futile. Yet while on the one hand he registers the nuisance posed by the rabbit, on the other he voices an admiration for its ability to proliferate in new climes. Trollope writes of imported European animals ‘thrusting out the aboriginal creatures of this country’, noting with approval that ‘The emus are nearly gone. The kangaroos are departing to make way for the sheep’. He continues to celebrate the ‘numerous’ sparrows, also asserting that the ‘busier bee from Europe’ has quickly displaced his Australian counterpart, in terms of sheer numbers, but also production of honey. When read alongside Trollope’s dismissive comments regarding indigenous Australians, remarks of this kind become inflected with contemporary notions of natural selection and racial vigour. While today’s ecologists are perturbed by introduced species, for Trollope the fact that they were able to thrive in the Antipodes became a legitimation of the colonial venture and an implicit assertion of mastery. European creatures were stronger and more spirited than their Oceanian counterparts and were therefore, just like white settlers, able to displace those who had occupied the land for millennia.
This entry is a compressed account of an article, ‘”So Wild and Beautiful a World Around Him”: Trollope and Antipodean Ecology’, which will be published in 2015.
Posted by Grace Moore
The second ‘Languages of Emotion’ collaboratory took place in Perth during a very hectic week for the Centre, with chief investigators, postdoctoral researchers, advisory board members and administrative staff converging from around the country and beyond for our mid-cycle review by the Australian Research Council. While thoughts and energies were sometimes distracted and anxiety levels high — not least because our director and conference host, Philippa Maddern (who has since passed), was gravely ill — the collaboratory certainly benefited from this adventitious influx of unofficial participants. We were able to live stream some of the proceedings to include colleagues unable to attend, which we’ve linked to below.
Our previous language collaboratory had invited papers on ‘concepts, codes and communities’, exploring, for example, the emotional investment of writers in particular languages, languages defining emotional communities, and the emotional nuances conveyed by multilingual writers through the operations of code-switching. It was Philippa’s hope that this one would really to come to terms (as it were!) with historical variation and evolution of emotions concepts.
Linguist Anna Wierzbicka (ANU) threw down the gauntlet with her lively opening keynote, ‘Exploring human emotions from non-Anglocentric and non-chronocentric perspective’. Wierzbicka, inventor of ‘Natural Semantic Metalanguage’, argued passionately for the application of this instrument to historical emotions, that we should recognize and replace our English folk-psychological terms with cross-culturally intelligible descriptions based on universal ‘semantic primes’. Our second keynote speaker, Naama Cohen-Hanegbi (Tel Aviv), plotted shifts in the vocabulary and taxonomies of emotion terms in medical works written in Italy and Spain between 1200 and 1500 to reveal key moments in the transmission of ideas between different fields of knowledge. Cohen-Hanegbi’s magisterial paper demonstrated that medical sources appropriated a wider range of ‘emotions’ terms in the later middle ages from religious discourse – but also, to some extent, secularised them. Our final keynote speaker, cognitive linguist, Javier E. Díaz-Vera (Castilla-La Mancha), led a postgraduate masterclass drawing on linguistic, visual and architectural data to build up a finer-grained picture of the Old English concept of ‘awe’ than would have been possible through textual sources alone. While CHE chief investigators were called away for interview by the ARC during this session, reports from the postgraduate attendees were very appreciative and saw potential in Díaz-Vera’s multimodal approach to emotion conceptualisation for application in their own research.
As a CHE ‘collaboratory’, Philippa had wanted this event to be interdisciplinary, open-ended, and to embrace contributions from both early career researchers as well as established experts. Harpist and performance practice researcher, Andrew Lawrence-King (The Harp Concert), delivered an engaging paper on the integration of verbal, musical and gestural language in early opera. Brid Phillips (UWA) elicited the emotional connotations of colour terms in early modern English drama; Bronwyn Reddan (Melbourne) highlighted the difficulties of translating the terminology of love from the French fairy tales of seventeenth-century author, Henriette-Julie Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat. Andrea Rizzi (Melbourne) also grappled with problems of translation when attempting to gauge the contemporary reception of the – to modern ears – extreme and offensive public insults routinely hurled by Italian Renaissance humanists (most often in Latin). Bob White (UWA) carefully unravelled the tangled associations of English ‘rue’ through historical culinary and medical texts in the hope of arriving at an understanding of what Ophelia might have meant when she told Hamlet’s mother she ‘must wear [her] rue with a difference’. While his paper offered a history of the word, the full historical meaning of the emotion, ‘rue’, may forever be irretrievable. Andrew Lynch’s discussion of terms of courage and cowardice in Anglo-Saxon battle narratives prompted consideration of the extent to which such texts were normative or idealising in their representation of historical emotions. The difficulty if not impossibility of recovering historical emotions from textual sources, especially literary ones, was a recurring theme in the conference — although Professor Wierzbicka was more optimistic about that possibility. In the final session, Juanita Ruys (Sydney) and Yasmin Haskell (UWA) took tentative first steps towards a word history of affectus (‘emotion’?) and its cognates through a sample of medieval and early modern theological and philosophical texts. Several participants expressed interest in contributing to a larger book on this topic.
Early modern cultural historian, Charles Zika (Melbourne), nicely summarised the main themes arising over the three days in his concluding remarks. He first expressed appreciation for the conference welcome, in Nyoongar language, by Alan Dench, head of UWA’s Graduate Research School, a researcher of Australian indigenous languages – Professor Dench’s attempt to articulate the emotions of another culture paralleled our own historical work of reconstructing the emotional lives of medieval and early modern Europeans. Professor Zika noted the mobility, fluidity, and miscibility of emotions concepts that had been highlighted in many papers. But if we ended on an aporetic note, with historical emotions resisting translation or transforming with viral elusiveness, the collaboratory had the salutary effect of clarifying what it is that we (CHE researchers) think we are doing when we study the ‘history of emotions’. There was consensus, at least, that it could not exhausted by the history of words or concepts. While we were made aware of the walls of what Wierzbicka has called the ‘prison’ of English, our strategies for escaping that prison seem to depend on the directions in which our quite diverse research projects are running. Sadly, my co-host, Philippa Maddern, was unable to attend any of the conference which she had done so much to set up. She would have been pleased, I think, that debate was heated, language was colourful, but that humours remained even-tempered.
By Professor Yasmin Haskell (Chief Investigator, UWA)
Notes on a recent CHE Symposium on Feeling Exclusion in Early Modern Europe convened at The University of Melbourne by Giovanni Tarantino and Charles Zika, compiled by Giovanni Tarantino. On April 13, 1986 Pope John Paul II made an official visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, in what was the first ever visit by a pope to a place of Jewish worship. In his address to the Jewish community of Rome, the Pope alluded to the improvement of the relations between Jews and Christians brought about by the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions “Nostra Aetate” issued by the Second Vatican Council. He then said something which is of particular relevance to the topic of a recent symposium promoted by the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/events/feeling-exclusion-emotional-strategies-and-burdens-of-religious-discrimination-and-displacement-in-early-modern-europe.aspx): The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ for us, but rather it is, in a certain way, ‘intrinsic’ to our religion. In this regard, therefore, we have affinities that we have with no other religion. You are our well-beloved brethren and, in a certain way, one could say our elder brothers. Amidst the widespread euphoria over John Paul II’s visit, it was left to the historian Carlo Ginzburg to point out that the term “elder brothers” is not just a bland expression of friendship, but refers to Romans 9:12: “The elder shall serve the younger. Just as it is written: Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” By a sort of unintentional theological lapse, just as he was striving to blunt the edges of existing divisions between the two religious communities, John Paul II once again became entangled in the traditional theology of typological thinking: the elder brother Esau, standing for Judaism, has been superseded and replaced in the history of salvation by his younger brother Jacob, who represents the Christian Church (see “Pope Wojtyla’s Slip,” in C. Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (Verso, 2002)). I decided to introduce our symposium on “Feeling Exclusion in Early Modern Europe” with this intriguing insight by a historian who has done path-breaking work on the victims of Inquisitional persecution, in that it seems to me to graphically illustrate the way in which the internalization of a stereotypical representation of religious alterity, or alterity as a whole, is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome in the process of building a more inclusive society – a society that does not wave the flag of identity as a weapon to separate insiders from outsiders, a society capable of engaging with and accepting diversity, with curiosity, humbleness and respect rather than with diffidence, fear, mockery and dismissiveness. The symposium set out to investigate the emotional strategies that contributed to or resisted the depositing of these stereotypes in culture and daily life in various European contexts between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, when, as a result of political and religious upheaval, an unprecedented number of people were forced to flee from their native lands, to live in a state of internal exile and to devise strategies of dissimulation and secrecy. Religious refugees were variously received by their host communities: some were welcomed and helped, while others were met with hostility and contempt. The duration of their exile also varied from the temporary to the permanent. But as foreigners in an unfamiliar land, they all invariably experienced profound feelings of estrangement and disorientation, worked to set up new patterns and channels of communication and to deal with their sense of displacement and alienation. A further aim was to explore the relationship between the emotional experience of exclusion, persecution or exile and the emergence, articulation or justification of tolerant and intolerant attitudes or policies. The Huguenot sceptic Pierre Bayle, who was himself a refugee in addition to being an influential theorist of toleration, was deeply suspicious of anyone who even thought of being able to define true religion. He believed that any effort to put up fences, however innocuous they might seem, reflected an underlying attachment to an ideology that would ultimately lead to the erecting of further fences. Emotions were considered first among the strategic devices of excluded individuals and communities seeking support and assistance from co-religionists across Europe, and from family and friends who had emigrated to supposedly more tolerant regions. In our quest to uncover emotions, we did not just consider ego-documents but also sermons, parodies, trial proceedings, biblical quotations, “hate literature” (I would suggest that the Toledot Yeshu might also fit into this emotional genre), memorials, depicted sounds and dancing, tolerationist and anti-slavery stances. They all turned out to be suggestive media for representing or projecting emotionally charged views of both the “religious Other” and marginalized, exiled or displaced subjects and communities. Gendered and bodily expressions of emotion were also considered. Culturally specific ways to control, express, mobilize, or repress emotions were touched on across the papers, and discernible changes in emotional reactions to comparable phenomena were also highlighted. One example was the fascinating case of changing attitudes toward witchcraft in the twilight of early modern Spain. This brought to mind Barbara Rosenwein’s penetrating criticism of Norbert Elias’s narrative depicting the history of the West as the history of increasing emotional restraint. In Rosenwein’s view this grand narrative no longer holds up. The new narrative, she says, “recognizes various emotional styles, emotional communities, emotional outlets, and emotional restraints in every period, and it considers how and why these have changed over time.” The discussion of the emotional vocabulary employed by the Portuguese New Christian Abrunhosa to rebutt the Inquisition’s allegations and mainly drawn from the lexicon of honour and shame, offered further insights into the gradual cultural shift from action to identity in the emotional construction and labelling of the religious Other. This process involved an increasing emphasis in its transcultural rhetoric with the transcultural rhetorical stress on purity and impurity, cleanness and contagion, rationality and madness. It also appeared to mark a stress on male honour, a characteristic that Ute Frevert considers one of those “emotional dispositions” that translate into different practices according to gender, age, social class, national belonging and religion. The crucial connections between emotion, religion and conflict demand and deserve to be addressed by historians. On behalf of Charles Zika and myself, I would like to thank the participants in the Feeling Exclusion symposium for engaging in our common ambitious project of identifying emotional discourses as drivers of major cultural, social, and political changes. The following more detailed conference report, soon to appear in Italian in the Bulletin of the Society for Waldensian Studies (BSSV), was generously provided by Giuseppe Marcocci (Scuola Normale of Pisa), one of the speakers at the symposium. The history of emotions: report on an Australian symposium On 29–31 May 2014, the international conference Feeling Exclusion: Emotional Strategies and Burdens of Religions Discrimination and Displacement in Early Modern Europe was held at the Graduate House of the University of Melbourne. The event was organized by the local node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, consisting of a network of research groups active in five of Australia’s major universities (Melbourne, Adelaide, Queensland, Sydney and Western Australia). This was set up in the context of a project funded for the period 2011–2018 by the Australian Research Council, which decided to invest in one of the most lively and innovative areas of research at an international level. Fifteen speakers took part in the conference; ten were from Canada, the UK, Italy, Spain, the US and Switzerland. The anthropologist Paola von Wyss-Giacosa (University of Zurich) was also due to give a paper entitled “Visual emotional strategies in Cérémonies et Coutumes Religieuses de tous les Peuples du Monde”, but she had to pull out at the last moment. After the “Welcome to Country” by an elderly member of the local Aboriginal community, who stressed the significant coincidence that a conference on exclusion and discrimination was taking place during National Reconciliation Week, and after the welcoming remarks of the Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Arts, Janet Fletcher, representing the University of Melbourne, work got under way with introductory reflections by the conference organizers, both members of the local centre for the history of emotions: Charles Zika, a specialist in the history of witchcraft, and Giovanni Tarantino, a scholar of the history of toleration. Zika and Tarantino stressed the social and religious fracture caused by the processes of exclusion in European history during the modern age, linked to the best-known episodes of expulsion of Jews and Muslims, and to the exiling religionis causa of entire communities belonging to minority Christian confessions in the respective countries, following the rift provoked by the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion arising from it. The speakers were invited to explore the emotional dimension of these events as they emerge from historic sources, not just as an instrument for gaining a better knowledge of the way in which the protagonists experienced those dramatic events – sometimes forging community ties between the excluded, at other times prompting acts of discrimination shared by the majority of the population – but also as a possible means of studying forms of engagement by different groups in the multi-layered process of achieving religious toleration. The first day’s papers all concentrated on aspects associated with divisions within European Christianity. The correspondence of Protestant exiles formed the basis for the papers of Ole Peter Grell (Open University) and Susan Broomhall (University of Western Australia). The former discussed the emotional lexis and strategies to be found in requests for help sent by refugees in the German-speaking world during the Thirty Years’ War to Calvinist congregations in the rest of Europe; the latter explored the affective universe of Huguenots resident in France and the Low Countries at the end of the 1660s by looking at a group of intercepted letters sent to relatives and friends in exile in England. The composite emotional experience of French Huguenots at the time of the wars of religion in the second half of the sixteenth century was analyzed by Penny Roberts (University of Warwick). She showed how, besides a rhetoric of demonization, rage and hatred for the enemy, the letters and memoirs of those who continued to live in France or moved to England or the Swiss Confederation also reveal dynamics of frustration and hostility among co-religionists, while expressions of shame and fear, joy and pain, tended to remain concealed. David van der Linden (University of Leiden) rounded off this first set of very compact and tightly knit papers by drawing the audience’s attention to the sermons directed at French Huguenots exiled in Holland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). The diaspora of English Catholic communities in European cities between the end of the sixteenth and the mid eighteenth century, with particular attention to nunneries, was the point of departure for Claire Walker (University of Adelaide) to reflect on, amongst other things, the development of political and religious activism in conditions of exile. The circulation, in Europe, of the representation of the “martyrdom” of the freemason John Coustos, tried by the Portuguese Inquisition in 1743–1744, offered Giovanni Tarantino (University of Melbourne) scope for a perceptive investigation of the impact of singular emotional patterns among the Huguenots of the diaspora. The first day was rounded off by Edoardo Tortarolo (University of Eastern Piedmont) with a report on non-Catholic minorities in Italy between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; he focused in particular on the case of the philosopher and mathematician Giovanni Francesco Salvemini di Castiglione, who converted to Calvinism in Lausanne after having left Tuscany in 1736, and developed an attitude of minimalist secularism towards religion. Episodes of persecution, expulsion or purification of a community were the connecting thread of the first three papers on the second day. Starting from a series of specific cases drawn from the history of the confraternities in Italian cities between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto) gradually broadened his perspective to offer an overall analysis of the connections between reformation and the dynamics of exclusion in modern Europe. Gary K. Waite (University of New Brunswick) concentrated on the vicissitudes of the Anabaptists, examining numerous sources, including visual ones, regarding the persecution suffered by the Dutchman David Joris and the emotional dimension of the messages which, in the mid sixteenth century, he sent to coreligionists from the safe havens of Antwerp and Basel. On the other hand, Giuseppe Marcocci (University of Tuscia) drew on private documents to explore the reaction of a noble Portuguese family which, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, defended their social honour against the charge that they had Jewish blood and practiced Judaic ceremonies. Witches, the possessed and Jews were the focus of the second half of the day, which started once again from the Iberian peninsula, with the sensational case of the possessed of the village of Tosos (Saragozza), which, in 1812, became intertwined with the anti-Napoleonic wars of independence, subtly recounted by the Spanish scholar María Tausiet. This was followed by a brilliant discussion by Charles Zika (University of Melbourne) of processes of exclusion and emotions expressed in the iconographic tradition regarding the dance of witches. The circulation in the modern age of a parody of the life of Jesus and of the origins of Christianity, the Toledot Yeshu, composed in the Middle Ages in Jewish circles, was traced by Daniel Barbu (University of Berne), who went on to reflect upon the relation between emotions and identity and to try to evaluate the nature of the anti-Christian sentiments of the Jews. The third day of the conference was opened by Dolly MacKinnon (University of Queensland), who examined the emotional strategies adopted by the Scottish covenanters in order to resist the religious persecution inflicted by the English monarchs between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century. John Marshall (Johns Hopkins University) then presented the final paper on the programme, looking at the emotions connected with the sufferings of the Quakers in seventeenth-century England and their connection with the genesis of forms of religious toleration and positions of open condemnation of the slave trade. A lively concluding discussion, opened by some reflections by Yasmin Haskell (University of Western Australia), brought together into a single, albeit problematic, frame, the many issues dealt with over the course of the three-day conference. It offered an opportunity to dwell on doubts about methods and research perspectives that emerged in the course of a conference destined to leave a deep mark on the history of emotions and over a wider field as well.
Posted by Giovanni Tarantino
A Report from the International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, MI, May 2014)
It was difficult not to feel smug when I first walked into room 2016 in the Fetzer Center and saw that it was absolutely packed. Dozens of sessions were taking place in that time slot, but ours still had a spectacular turnout. This became a familiar sight over the next two days, as our five sessions on emotion in the European Middle Ages unfolded.
These sessions were the fruit of a collaboration between the Swiss Association of Medieval and Early Modern English Studies (SAMEMES) and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (ARC CHE). We agreed that we wanted session titles that played upon two themes: the idea that emotions themselves are not fixed or static, but frequently in flux or working across space, time, and language; and the way that emotions attach themselves to the very ‘stuff’ of human life—clothes, plant matter, animals.
Denis Renevey, Stephanie Downes, and myself managed to convince the ICMS organizing committee that the time was ripe for a series of sessions on emotion: two on ‘Materiality and Emotion’ (run by the ARC CHE), two on ‘Motion and Emotion’ (run by SAMEMES), and a jointly run roundtable on ‘Feeling the Middle Ages’. These sessions included papers on history, art history, and literature; topics derived from such varied fields of study as English legal history, French literature, and German sculpture.
Despite the breadth of material covered across the three days of discussion, a number of general trends kept resurfacing. One of these trends was a resistance to ‘isolating’ approaches to the study of emotion—past or present. The ineffability of emotion often prompts scholars to erect artificial barriers between emotional subjects, processes, and experiences. Scholarship often considers reason, feeling, thinking, and sensing separately, for example, or separates human emotional experience from non-human existence. But papers and roundtable presentations at ICMS challenged these forms of artificial isolation by emphasizing what is most muddled, coextensive, and ‘enmeshed’ (to use Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s word) about emotion. Both matter and the immaterial—plants, skin, swords and knives, the elements, and other non-human factors—were shown to carry powerful emotional charges, and even to be possessed of surprising emotional agency. (Indeed, as Valerie Allen showed, the affective was even deeply connected to such acts as measurement and calculation.)
The second thing that was evident across all three days of discussion was that we were all deeply interested not just in what emotions are, but also—drawing on Sara Ahmed’s work—in what emotions do. And they do a lot. Indeed, it was clear not only that ‘Emotions make history’ (in the words of the ARC CHE motto), but that emotions situate us in relation to history. Emotion can both establish and strain relations between individuals, different communities, or even between different periods of time. The very act of naming or categorizing emotions has its own emotional and, some have argued, moral impact. Emotions persuade and emotions trouble, particularly when they cannot be named or pinned down, as in legal accounts of individual suicides (Rebecca McNamara), or when, like Gawain’s green girdle, the objects to which they are attached shift in terms of their meaning or ownership (Sarah Randles). As Stephanie Trigg demonstrated, emotion can also determine where objects are felt to ‘belong’, or where they eventually end up. Emotions make things happen: as Evelyn ‘Timmie’ Birge Vitz suggested, we might consider emotions to be the ‘motors’ that ‘drive’ texts. And, as Spencer Young pointed out during his roundtable presentation, emotions are making scholarly history right now, shaping and directing the research of countless scholars around the globe.
Conversely, presentations and discussion also often turned to the question of how (or whether) we ‘do’ emotion, or how (and if) emotion is something that we can avoid doing or feeling. To what extent can we view emotion in relation to a kind of self-generated causality, according to which cause cannot be distinguished from effect (Karl Steel)? To what extent are emotions capable of being practiced, cultivated, or repressed? To what extent does the ‘performance’ of an emotion make manifest something that lies within, or to what extent does it bring emotion into being? Emotion is made up of processes and stimuli over which we have varying degrees of control, and of which we are aware to different extents.
So how do medieval emotions ‘move’ and why/how do they matter? The list of titles below will give you a sense of how presenters engaged with these questions over the three days of sessions. Other thoughts, comments, and reflections, from those who were there and from those who weren’t able to make it, are most welcome!
MATERIALITY AND EMOTION I: Skin and Threads
Lara Farina, West Virginia U, ‘Vines, Petals, Nerves: Feeling Floral Skins’
Gabrielle Parkin, Mount St. Mary’s U, ‘Feeling Fabric: Margery Kempe, Mysticism, and a Love of Clothes’
Sarah Randles, U of Melbourne, ‘Was Gawain’s Girdle a Relic?’
Katie L. Walter, U of Sussex, ‘Plastic and Prosthetic Skin’
MATERIALITY AND EMOTION II: Sticks and Stone
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington U, ‘Love of Stone’
Brigit G. Ferguson, UCSB, ‘Emotions in Stone: Sinful Anger and Saintly Joy in a Thirteenth-Century Stoning of Saint Stephen’
Karl Steel, Brooklyn College, CUNY, ‘Spontaneous Generation and the Problem of “Automatic” Agency’
Rebecca F. McNamara, U of Sydney, ‘Weapons of Self-Destruction: Materiality and Suicide in the Middle Ages’
MOTION AND EMOTION I: Movable Texts
Marcel Elias, Cambridge University, ‘Emotional Rhetoric in Middle English Crusade Romance’
Amanda Taylor, U of Minnesota, ‘”Feeling Words” and the “Mayd Martial”: Passions and Porous Bodies in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’
Louise D’Arcens, U of Wollongong, ‘Feeling Medieval: Transhistorical Emotions’
Stephanie Trigg, U of Melbourne, ‘Where Do Medieval Things Belong?’
MOTION AND EMOTION II: Textual Triggers
Laura Ashe, Oxford University, ‘Empathy and Socio-political Discourse in High Medieval Literature’
Ayoush Lazikani, Oxford University, ‘Sensing and Feeling in Thirteenth-Century Devotional Lyrics’
Valerie Allen, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, ‘Protective Measures: Some Late Medieval Charms’
FEELING THE MIDDLE AGES (A ROUNDTABLE)
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington U, ‘Feeling Enmeshed’
Fiona Somerset, UCONN, ‘Feeling, Emotions, and Cognition: Together or Apart?’
Mary C. Flannery, U of Lausanne, ‘How Not to Feel’
Evelyn Birge Vitz, NYU, ‘Perspectives on the Emotions in Medieval French Literature’
Spencer Young, U of Western Australia, ‘Vices, Conversion, and the Emotions in Late Medieval Religion’
Posted by Mary C. Flannery
University of Lausanne
As we approach Anzac Day, it’s right that we remember, and reflect on, the importance of war in Australia’s 20th C history. The year 1915 was quickly marked down, even at the time, as a turning point. The role of Australian troops at Gallipoli, in Egypt and in the trenches in France became a source of national pride, an index and icon of national identity and the basis of Australia’s claims, after the war, to have a strong voice in the shaping of the (then) new world order.
But of course there’s always the other side – the dreadful costs of war. Not only was the World War I deathrate among Australian troops appalling; not only did many return permanently physically disabled; but the emotional and psychological costs were immense, and terrible. Years after the war, the sufferers of what was then called shell-shock were still hospitalized and incapacitated for ordinary life; men who had gone to war mentally and physically fit returned to a life of alcoholism and mental illness.
Nowadays, we would call these injuries ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, and increasingly (after Vietnam and Afghanistan) we recognise that it is a condition that can and must be fully acknowledged and well treated. But it hasn’t always been like that.
‘Shell-shock’ victims in World War I were sometimes thought to be in some ways ‘weak’ or insufficient to the needs of war (a classic case of blaming the victim).
Even more interestingly, understandings of their deep emotional pain differed very markedly in different places throughout history. Joanna Bourke, studying the emotional effects and regimes of war in 20th century Britain found that deeply-embedded British notions of class affected their readings of World War I post-traumatic stress disorder. Upper-class army officers were of superior calibre; they could experience ‘shellshock’. But working-class troops under their command couldn’t aspire to shellshock – they (it was thought) suffered only from the much-despised ‘neurasthenia’ or nervous weakness. Amazingly, the same understandings were extended to animals. Officers’ horses, like their masters, could become shell-shocked, while the lowly mule was thought to be immune.
What about emotional reactions to wars in the long past? After all, from pre-Classical times right through the middle ages and early modern period humans have engaged in brutal, bloody, hand-to-hand wars. Did their warriors get post-traumatic stress disorder, and if not why not? The question intrigues Professor David Konstan, who went looking for recognisable accounts of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Ancient Greek epics. At first, it doesn’t seem to be there. Then he looked closer at the accounts of the warriors fighting in, and returning home from, the legendary wars of Troy. What did he find? On the one hand, they are presented as heroes, almost godlike beings who must be admired, and if possible imitated. On the other, they fly into irrational rages, beat and enslave women and servants and in the case of Ulysses, arbitrarily slaughter a crowd of his wife’s supposed suitors, even though she has remained entirely and strictly faithful to him over the long years of his absence! It might sound like classic post-traumatic stress disorder behaviour to us; to them, it’s just what heroes do, par for the course.
Like practically every other emotion, then, post-war trauma has never been understood the same way in different places and at different times in history. We believe, nowadays, that we have a much better, and more humane, understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and its treatment. We should remember with pity and perhaps remorse the plight of those returning Anzacs who suffered from the lack of acknowledgement of their mental state and the need for its proper treatment. But we should also remember that how we think now may not be how we think in the future. In the year 2114 people may be wondering why we (apparently) knew so little, and did so little, for the traumatized from our own wars.
Posted by Philippa Maddern
Try Walking in My Shoes: Empathy and Portrayals of Mental Illness on Screen
The Dax Centre, University of Melbourne, 13 & 14 February 2014
As a film scholar, the study of emotions is central to my work. Films have long been called “moving pictures” and I like to think this isn’t just because of cinema’s origins in individual picture frames spliced together to create the illusion of movement. The term “moving pictures” captures for me the essence of the emotional experience of film viewing: films can move us to tears, to laughter, to fear. In my view, it’s impossible to talk of cinema (or indeed television) without also talking about emotions.
One particular emotion that film and television can elicit is empathy: the ability to share the emotions of another person, to imaginatively put yourself in their shoes. Screen media can tap into our capacity for empathy through a variety of techniques: for example, music can express a character’s emotional state; an actor can wordlessly convey their character’s emotions through facial expressions or gestures; a screenplay may use voice-over narration to give the audience privileged access to a character’s internal thoughts; or the director may externalise a character’s emotions through their choices of lighting and camera shots (eg. handheld ‘shaky’ camera work that mimics the character’s agitated emotional state). The significance of this empathetic relationship between the character on screen and the viewer lies in its ability to help us see the world from a perspective that may be different from our own. In this way, empathy provides insight and can lead to greater understanding.
My cinema studies PhD examined the portrayal of mental illness in a selection of feature films from Australia and New Zealand. While empathy was a key concept in my thesis, this focus only emerged in the final stages of research and writing (as happens so often in the PhD journey!). I was keen to return to the study of empathy and explore this more fully from an interdisciplinary perspective, looking beyond how film studies scholars have used the concept thus far, towards theorisations of empathy in history, psychology and philosophy.
The potency of empathy in film and television was the focus of a recent symposium Try Walking in My Shoes: Empathy and Portrayals of Mental Illness on Screen, which I co-convened with Dr Victoria Duckett (Deakin University) and Patricia Di Risio (University of Melbourne). The aim of the symposium was to explore the significance of empathy – as well as its limitations – for the depiction of mental illness in a range of screen media: feature films, documentaries, TV shows, and short films. The symposium was supported by CHE’s Shaping the Modern Program, and presented in collaboration with The Dax Centre, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes mental health and wellbeing by fostering a greater understanding of the mind, mental illness and trauma through art and creativity.
From the outset, it was important to us that we have a range of perspectives represented in the symposium’s program, given not only the richness of the theme of empathy but also the complexity and sensitivity of the subject of mental illness. We invited filmmakers, mental health professionals and consumers to join the conversation alongside screen studies scholars, who included postgraduates and early career researchers as well as established academics. The symposium brought these diverse groups together with the express purpose of encouraging dialogue and the sharing of information and insights across two days of presentations, screenings, workshops and tours of The Dax Centre’s gallery.
Our keynote speakers played a crucial role in setting up the theoretical framework for our discussions. Associate Professor Jane Stadler, from the University of Queensland, provided a comprehensive history of the various ways in which empathy has been theorised in screen studies, and she advanced our understanding of how empathy operates in relation to television’s long-running character arcs through her compelling close analysis of the NBC series Hannibal. In a wide-ranging survey of art and the history of film from the silent era until now, the University of Melbourne’s Professor Barbara Creed drew provocative links between humans and animals in her exploration of emotions and mental illness. Professor Raimond Gaita, also from the University of Melbourne, examined both the necessity and the limits of empathy – and its relationship to ethical concerns – to our understanding of mental illness. To illustrate his argument, Professor Gaita reflected upon his childhood and his parents’ experiences with mental illness, as portrayed in his much-loved memoir Romulus, My Father and the 2007 film adaptation, starring Eric Bana, Franka Potente and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Professor Gaita’s keynote beautifully ‘set the stage’ (indeed, the screen!) for our special event, an evening screening of Romulus, My Father, followed by a panel discussion with perinatal psychiatrist Dr Samuel Margis, script supervisor on the film Katherine Fry, myself and Raimond Gaita. These four panellists were intended to represent the range of perspectives we hoped to capture across the symposium: those of the mental health professional, the filmmaker, the academic, and the person with a lived experience (with Raimond uniquely contributing as philosopher, author and carer).
Romulus, My Father is a film I have watched many times for my research, but it had been quite a while since I had seen it on the big screen with an audience. The film’s stunning wide-screen photography of the landscape around Frogmore in rural Victoria, its haunting musical score and the luminescence of young Kodi Smit-McPhee’s face struck me anew. Watching this film in the presence of the person whose life was being recreated on screen – and who had earlier shared with us his candid reflections upon the film – was an incredibly poignant and privileged experience.
I thought I knew this film so well, that I was ill prepared for the emotional response it drew from me. As I watched Franka Potente’s performance as Christina (based on Raimond’s mother) in the scene where she decides to end her struggle with an undiagnosed mental illness and take her life, tears started to roll down my face. On one level, I imaginatively felt Christina’s pain, but I suspect my empathetic response was as much to the loss and grief I knew would soon be felt by her husband and son on screen and, more powerfully, towards the man sitting somewhere in the auditorium who had experienced this loss at such a young age.
When the house lights went up after the end credits and the panellists gathered for their discussion, the tension and apprehension were palpable – how could anyone speak after such an intense communal viewing experience? In the end, it fell to me to acknowledge the atmosphere in the auditorium and to express our gratitude to Rai for being so generous in sharing his life with us, through his writing, through his keynote, and through this film. I’m not sure exactly what I said, as I was still dealing with my own emotional response, but several people have since told me they were glad I expressed what many people in the room were feeling that night.
This screening was a potent demonstration not only of the power of film to move us, but its ability to harness this emotional response and lead us to think about and reflect upon the experience of living with mental illness. Here was empathy in action.
Posted by Dr Fincina Hopgood
School of Culture and Communication
The University of Melbourne
‘The Art of Response: Recording and Collecting Black Saturday’ opened on the weekend (Saturday March 8) at the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum in Lilydale. The exhibition, which runs until June 15, is a thoughtfully arranged collection of artistic responses to the catastrophic fires of Black Saturday.
The exhibits are eclectic and the contributors from all walks of life. Some of the artists are children, others are community members and still others are art therapists. The collection embraces the mixed responses that are evoked by a traumatic event, with some pieces exploring feelings of loss and vulnerability and others celebrating heroism, survival and renewal. While some artworks make dramatic use of colour to capture the bushfire’s intensity, others are more melancholy. The thoughtful arrangement of this exhibition respects these different reactions, while also celebrating the great beauty of a number of ‘found’ objects, including an ironically singed ‘Day of Total Fire Ban’ warning sign from Yarra Glen.
Highlights of this excellent exhibition include a phoenix quilt, designed and stitched by a group of women to remember the dead of the Steels Creek Community. Other objects on view include melted bottles and fused glass, along with a surprisingly attractive charred vase from Marysville. Art by children is an important part of ‘The Art of Response’ and the Dax Collection (which will mount its own bushfire exhibition in 2015) is represented through several colourful drawings by primary school pupils.
One of the most moving artworks from my perspective was a diorama and painting by Sam Beecroft, who made the work as part of a school program. A vibrant picture of Sam’s house as it was before the fires hangs next to what looks from a distance like a nativity scene. Close up, the scene is in fact a sculpture of the devastation that Sam and her family found on returning to the site of their home on the morning after the fire. This scene was created with some objects that Sam salvaged from the remains of her house and includes a tiny, heart-rending miniature fireplace and chimney that is made from tiny blocks of burned wood.
Memory and family are key to Sam Beecroft’s work, as they are for Ali Griffin, who has fashioned two nests which she describes as being made from ‘barbed wire, burnt objects, paper and memories’. The nests are formed from strips of paper, printed with childhood memories of a piano, which Griffin recorded as a source of comfort in the immediate aftermath of February 7. The effect is striking, as it brings together both happy and sad recollections, shaped into a representation of a natural form of home. Sitting behind glass, the two nests look exposed and displaced, effectively conveying the experience of a life that is touched by a bushfire.
Art therapist Tina Tasiopoulos has two pieces on display. One is a bright and beautiful collage, which represents generations of migrants connecting to the Australian land, celebrating the Australian diaspora, connecting to indigenous culture, yet also thinking of human frailty. The words ‘protect’, ‘fragile’ and ‘vulnerable’ appear in smoky newsprint, casting a shadow on the work’s otherwise brilliant colours, as a reminder of how exposed humans can be in the face of natural disaster. Tasiopoulos has worked with bushfire-affected children and families since 2009 and her second piece, a gorgeous acrylic painting of flames on black fabric, entitled ‘Black Saturday’, is an imposing one, overhung with branches and a foreboding mask. Tasiopoulos explains the wok’s huge emotional resonance in the detailed commentary that accompanies the exhibit:
Exposed to the stories, I initially experienced vicarious trauma and started to question how safe I felt in the world. Sharing in survivors’ stories was emotionally exhausting. To make sense of this experience I felt the need to create experientially. Not only was the creation of the art pieces therapeutic, it also enabled me to express in art form the grief, horror and rage that were circling my thoughts.
Tasiopoulos offers here an incisive insight into how trauma can reverberate beyond survivors and into the broader community, offering important insights into how we can form emotional emotional connections to events that we may not directly have experienced. The experience of trauma at one remove does not make it any less real to those who suffer from it, and this exhibition provides space for those whose grief and devastation may not have been evoked by direct exposure to the events of February 7, 2009.
Perhaps the most haunting of all the works on display is a trio of paintings by Amanda Ruck, who writes of her initial resistance to creating art that responded to Black Saturday. ‘The Clearing (If You Go Down to the Woods, Today’), ‘Try Not to Worry So Much’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’ were all painted in 2010 and Ruck comments, ‘I kept avoiding the theme ‘fire paintings’, but these three poured out of me. Painting these landscapes allows me to breathe into the experience. Each of the three pieces is an acrylic on canvas, showing prominent, blackened tree trunks against skylines that are both eerie and mesmeric. The contrast between the darkness of the trees and the unmistakable lighting of a bushfire’s skyscape is remarkable, and Ruck encapsulates the sense of the unheimlich that overhangs a fire-devastated forest. Wonderfully minimalist, Ruck’s charred trees evoke the strong sense that all is not right with the world that is so often pervasive during fire season.
Distressing, moving, beautiful and haunting, ‘The Art of Response’ is overwhelming at times, yet it is also a triumph of human creativity when faced with bleakness and destruction. The collection’s diversity is one of its many strengths, as it gently guides us through the emotional maelstrom evoked within fire-affected communities and beyond.
Posted by Grace Moore
The state of Victoria, where I live and work, is presently in the grip of a heat wave. The temperature has been above forty degrees for much of the week and there is no relief on the horizon until the weekend. As householders seek relief by running fans and air conditioners, power outages are frequent across Melbourne at this time of year. The nights are sticky and unpleasant. It is difficult to sleep, which in turn makes it difficult to focus and to remain patient.
For much of the week newspapers and public advisory units have provided advice on how excessive heat can impact upon our emotional states. The American National Academy of Science has recently published an article on how our bodies provide ‘heat maps’, demonstrating how bodily temperatures fluctuate according to emotional states. External heat can also interfere with emotions, with experts like Professor Tony McMichael of ANU’s College of Medicine, Biology and Environment warning,
It [heat] does effect mood, people get more angry on the roads, in the cars. They get frustrated in the work place because it’s harder to concentrate. There are always risks of making bad choices in the workplace, incurring physical injuries and of course these situations, sometimes just lead to conflict. We’ve seen plenty of that unfortunately with young people late at night. And if we’ve got very, very hot nights tempers can be provoked and fights can break out. (source: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/01/15/heatwave-conditions-prompt-health-warning)
Hot weather can make people irritable, then, and in some cases those feelings can escalate with tragic results. Media outlets report an increase in domestic violence cases during prolonged spells of hot weather, as people’s anger and frustration is projected onto those closest to them.
Climatic extremes can, though, also lead to other emotional responses. While I think often of the early settlers on these hot days (largely because of my work on bushfires and nineteenth-century migrants. See http://historiesofemotion.com/2013/01/17/burning-questions/), I was surprised to be drawn back to my other research, on Charles Dickens, by an article which appeared this morning, addressing the severe effects of the heat on Melbourne’s homeless population (http://www.theage.com.au/environment/weather/melbournes-homeless-moved-on-from-sheltering-in-cool-public-spaces-20140115-30v5w.html). The piece, by Aisha Dow, is an important one in that it draws attention to the lack of shelter for those who live on the streets, pointing to their vulnerability on excessively hot days. Dow writes of the homeless as being ‘moved on’ from public spaces, and in doing so she evokes Dickens’s depiction of Jo the Crossing Sweeper in his novel Bleak House (1852-3).
Unlike the street dwellers of Dow’s article, Jo seeks shelter from the biting cold of Victorian London.* He is a product of a particularly angry and emotional phase in Dickens’s career, during which the novelist became increasingly despondent at the state of industrialized Britain and the social divisions he saw across the nation. Unlike the sentimentalized figures of his early novels, Oliver Twist and Little Nell, Jo the Crossing Sweeper is notably real. He is ignorant, he is rough, he smells and he is described by one character as ‘more difficult to dispose of than an un-owned dog’. In presenting him in this way, Dickens does not seek to strip Jo of his dignity, but rather to horrify his readers by offering them an insight into the life of one of those regarded as part of the ‘surplus population’.
As those who have read the novel will recall, Jo eventually dies after being ‘moved on’ once too often. His passing is reported in one of the most chilling moments in Dickens’s oeuvre when the novel’s omniscient narrator addresses its readership directly:
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.
Here, Dickens uses his narrator to speak to anyone with power who might be reading his work, implicating them in Jo’s death and alerting them to the broader social problems around them. In invoking the ‘heavenly compassion’ in their hearts, Dickens also signals a shortfall that is often associated with emotion: its fleetingness. Readers of Dickens’s fiction had, for years, been responding with great emotion to figures like Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol or the orphaned Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, yet the well-documented tears that they wept for these characters seldom resulted in any form of action to aid their real-life counterparts.
Moving forward to the early twenty-first century, we might do well to question what has changed. While Dickens may have been despondent in the 1850s, he would have been so much more depressed had he foreseen that we would be reporting on the same issues, echoing his words, more than one hundred and fifty years after the publication of his magnum opus. How many readers of this morning’s article will have been moved to act, rather than simply moved to tears? And how do we channel a transient emotional response to turn it into something more meaningful? Heat might make us angry, but the fury or irritation we feel at our short-term physical discomfort could be directed into action. Our emotions might thus work to aid those who are on the frontline when it comes to environmental hostilities.
*The Shaping the Modern program is developing a research strength in emotions and the environment and we will be posting some of our findings in this field over the coming months.
**I have written elsewhere, with my colleague Tom Bristow, about Bleak House as an early climate change novel. (Link: http://theconversation.com/ecocriticism-environment-emotions-and-education-13989)
Posted by Grace Moore
Last week the Shaping the Modern program hosted ‘Fire Stories’ at the University of Melbourne, a conference dedicated to examining emotional responses to fire across the ages. The event brought together academics from a range of disciplines, curators, survivors of bushfires and even fire-fighters in what turned out to be a fruitful, cross-disciplinary gathering.
Following on from the ‘On Species’ symposium, hosted by the Australian Centre on December 4, ‘Fire Stories’ began on a high note with a beautiful Murnong Song. Performed by artist, Indigenous languages expert and Wurundjeri woman, Mandy Nicholson, the song engaged with fire through the Murnong flower, which regenerates after a burn. Danielle Clode of Flinders University then gave an extraordinary keynote, exploring emotion and evolution in response to bushfires and addressing issues like risk-taking and preparedness.
Papers through the day included a panel by CHE members Richard Read, Giovanni Tarantino and Charles Zika, which explored fire-fighting, Apocalypse and the interpretation of ‘fire from the sky’. Michelle Smith, Kate Rigby and John Schauble addressed bushfire-writing for both children and adults, sparking a stimulating debate as to why there are so few novels that are centred around this form of fire. Education and Outreach Officer, Penelope Lee gave an inspiring lunchtime floor talk at the Dax Centre, where she gave delegates a taster of the Bushfire Exhibition that will open in 2015.
In the afternoon, Malcolm McKinnon, Lindy Allen and Donna Jackson spoke of their work ‘Illuminated by Fire’, which drew in members of the community and encouraged them to respond creatively to the idea of living with fire. Another panel, featuring Tom Bristow and Joshua Comyn, considered representations of fire in contemporary writing. While Joshua presented a detailed consideration of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and its apocalyptic undertones, Tom spoke of the fear of fire that haunts John Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully. John Kean, Irena Zdanowicz and Eric Riddler formed a wonderfully diverse panel, which examined a range of artistic responses to fire. Jessica Sun, Jane Southwood and Aleksondra Hultquist represented a more literary group, looking at fire in the works of Aphra Behn, John Donne and Marguerite Yourcenar.
The last panel of the day was presented by Christine Hansen and Amanda Reynolds, who offered two wonderfully complementary papers. Christine used the chilling phrase ‘all gone dead’ as her starting point to consider two different fire stories, separated by 170 years. Amanda spoke of her collaborative work at the Melbourne Museum’s First Peoples exhibition, telling the story of Waa the crow and his gift of fire.
The day ended with an outstanding keynote by Bill Gammage (ANU), whose talk built on his research into indigenous fire practices in 1788. ‘Burn, and burn regularly’ was Gammage’s advice to modern-day land managers, as he pointed us to the past for lessons on how to live with fire in this sunburnt country.
Day two began with an energetic and wide-ranging study of beacon fires by Alan Krell (UNSW/CoFA), whose astonishing talk moved from flames in ancient Greece to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Arguing for a reading of the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria as a form of monumental sublime, Krell also considered signal fires as emotional markers or beacons. Lauren Rickards, Terry Twomey and Jana-Axinja Paschen delivered an excellent set of papers, which revolved around emotional landscapes, paying particular attention to that most emotional of issues, climate change. Rachel Fensham and Andrish St Clair offered a panel addressing performative responses to fire, which was followed by a dance performance in which Ellen Davies demonstrated a balletic response to the bushfires of February 1926, ‘Spirit of the Bushfire’. The breathtaking performance was organized by Rachel Fensham and accompanied by Jack Tan, who provided an excellent rendition of Schumann’s Sonata Opus 22 on the piano.
The afternoon saw bushfire survivors present on their experiences, with Daryl Taylor theorizing some of his own fire memories. Katrin Oliver talked about her experiences as a social worker, helping Black Saturday survivors to deal with trauma through creative work. Artist Louise Foletta then spoke of the danger to her farm on February 7, 2009, while showing a selection of her extremely powerful paintings of the catastrophe. Artistic responses to fire continued to be a key concern for art therapist Janine Brophy-Dixon, who spoke of her postcard project, which enabled bushfire survivors to represent their personal fire stories through annotating and illustrating cards. Chris McAuliffe then went on to think about visual depictions of fire from the nineteenth century, most notably William Strutt’s famous Black Saturday of 1862.
Art historian Julia Alessandrini combined with literary scholars Christine Choi-Williams and Jack Tan to create a panel that revolved around fog, fire and smoke in nineteenth-century literature and culture. Authors Carmel Macdonald Grahame, Kate Rizetti and Karen Throssell read from their contributions to Delys Bird’s superb anthology, Fire (Margaret River Press, 2013), while also discussing the research and affective responses behind their work. The proceedings ended with a brilliant keynote by Pat Simons (U of Michigan) who took the audience on an astounding and incisive tour of fire representations from the ancient to the modern, focusing particularly on the hearth.
As CSIRO scientist Phill Cheney noted in 1995, ‘At the moment fire is considered as a dangerous animal which charges across the countryside whereas, in fact, it’s as natural as the rain spreading across the land.’ ‘Fire Stories’ examined both how we have lived and how we must continue to live with fire, teasing out the conflicting emotions that it generates and examining the creativity that it can inspire. The calibre of the papers was consistently excellent and the conference has begun an important sequence of debates that will contribute to the Shaping the Modern program in years to come.
The full program for the ‘Fire Stories’ conference is available here: http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/events/fire-stories.aspx
Posted by Grace Moore
 Country in Flames: proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia – Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3 Deborah Bird Rose (editor) Biodiversity Unit Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995.