‘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.
CFP: 2014 Environmental Humanities Conference, “Affective Habitus: New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions” – 19-21 June, 2014, Humanities Research Centre, ANU
Perceptions, values and representations of our relationship with the physical environment have been read anew in the Anthropocene century through the lens of ecocriticism and affect theory. At present we are witnessing a turn in ecocritical theory to the relevance of empathy, sympathy and concordance, and how these move across flora and fauna. This conference seeks to refine the turn, while articulating the expansion to the analysis of the environmental humanities more broadly.
Confirmed speakers include: Tom Griffiths, Eileen Joy, Michael Marder, John Plotz, Elspeth Probyn, Ariel Salleh, Will Steffen and Gillen D’Arcy Wood.
Areas for consideration include:
Archives, encyclopaedias and images of the natural world
Colonialism: pre-histories and the present
Cultural studies: art, dance, film, literature, music, new media, photography, theatre
Ecocriticism and Critical Animal Studies: theory and practice of empathy
Emotions and the environment: learned feelings and historical variability
Environmental history: from the Middle Ages to the present
Europa-Terra Australis: adaptation and heritage; continuities and disjunctions
Green pedagogy: agency, senses and the lifeworld
Mappae mundi: emotional geographies and territories of affect
Open to others: more-than-human worlds in non-western spaces
Renaissance emotions: animals, minerals, plants
Seeds and seed banks
Studio based inquiry in one of the following fields: (a) climate change; (b) botany; (c) fauna (either extinction or migration)
Affective Habitus is the fifth biennial conference of the Association for ths Tudt of Literature, Environment & Culture, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ); an Environmental Humanities collaboratory with The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; and a Minding Animals International partner event. Selected conference papers will be published in the Animal Studies Journal, and the Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology.
Please direct inquiries and paper and panel proposals to 2014EHC@anu.edu.au. The deadline for submission of abstracts (c. 200 words) is March 30, 2014.
Posted by Grace Moore
See also a longer Summary of the day here.
The purpose of the Study Day in Literary Emotions Methodologies (which took place 11 October at the University of Melbourne) was to focus specifically on the theoretical and methodological questions that are particularly relevant to the intersection between Literary Studies and the History of Emotion. The first roundtable of the day looked specifically at methodologies from other disciplines of emotion studies that can be readily applied to Literary Studies. Works by William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Herni Bergson were plumbed for their application to literary studies and close readings. The second roundtable of the day explored the deployment of methodologies in literary studies and offered papers that do the work of emotion interpretation in literary texts.
Through our various discussions, both formal and informal, the participants agreed on a few major tenets of literary studies and emotion methodologies:
- That literature is particularly good at representing the aspect of emotions that are concerned with movement, change, ambiguity, multiplicity, process, complexity, instability, and creativity. That literary emotions rarely describe what a single emotion “looks” like or “feels” like, but rather is interested in the processes and results of feeling. That literature is interested in “becoming” rather than “being.”
- That it is useful to think about literary emotion in terms of its communities: emotional, textual, imagined, etc., and that these communities might be utilized to explore notions of genre, reader, audience, and/or book materiality.
- Linguistics can be effectively used to read and describe the nuances of emotional dynamics in texts.
We also are in the process of developing a bibliography specifically for emotion and literary studies (available on the summary page), and we encourage you to use it and contribute to it by contacting email@example.com for any additional entries.
Peter Holbrook and Aleksondra Hultquist will be organizing a second Literary Emotions Methodologies Study Day which will, hopefully take place in 2014 at the University of Queensland. If you are interested in participating, please do keep your eye on the schedule of events.
Posted by Aleksondra Hultquist
I’ve just finished convening a PhD elective on the History of Emotions here at Melbourne. We ran the course in four sessions over two weeks, which meant that it qualified it as an “intensive” – apt enough! Numbers were such that we had outgrown our allocated room even before the course started, and so had to find a new space for some 25 PhD candidates, and their three (!) convenors: myself, Sarah Randles, and Giovanni Tarantino (both postdoctoral fellows in the School of History and Philosophy at Melbourne). We assembled in a larger but somewhat awkward seminar room in the corner of Old Arts, the three of us armed with coffee pots and brownies in the hopes of sustaining conversation over the course of the next three hours. Of course, we needn’t have worried. With topics ranging from archeology and seventeenth-century music to contemporary poetics, film, child abduction narratives, and journalism, the discussion was free-flowing and debate often vigorous. On the Tuesday we visited the Ian Potter Musuem of Art (from whom we received permission to use the gorgeous Strutt painting of bushrangers on the Histories of Emotion banner) for a session on “Objects” and “Images”, organised by Sarah and Dr Heather Gaunt, who were joined by Matthew Martin, assistant curator of International Decorative Arts and Antiquities in the National Gallery of Victoria.
Over the course of the elective, we talked a lot about “sources” for the history of emotions. What are they? How do we use them? But we spent considerable time discussing critical approaches, too. Monique Scheer’s “Are Emotions a Practice (and is that what makes them have a history?)” remains a favourite, and Emily Robinson’s “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible” spurred us on to thinking about the researcher’s own emotional response to the archive. What to do when your archives are overseas and how might this impact your research? Can you have an “emotional” response to a digital archive? And what about when you do travel to that long-anticpiated space; what then? A session on terminology (affect? emotion? passions?) led by Stephanie Trigg kicked off the series, and offered perspectives on the importance of humanities research, as compared with the sciences, and in contemporary Australia. This in itself was a point to which we kept returning: in short, how do we “do” the history of emotions in Australia, and how might that be different from elsewhere in the world?
I’ve called this post “teaching the history of emotions”, but that little describes my own experience of the course. I couldn’t have learned more. Thanks to all the students who took part and enriched the seminars with the energy and clarity of their ideas.
In the spirit of their generosity with us and with each other, here’s a copy of the course outline and readings. Feedback welcome!
Session One: Monday, October 7, 10am-1pm
Old Arts Seminar Rm 143
We’ll supply morning tea/coffee.
Part One: Intro to the History of Emotions (SD, SR, GT)
Questions for discussion:
- What are our sources for the history of emotions?
- How do we write the history of emotions?
- What do emotions ‘do’? In history? In society? In culture?
Dixon, Thomas. ‘Emotion: History of a Keyword in Crisis,’ Emotion Review 4.4 (2012): 338-344.
Frevert, Ute. Emotions in History: Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011). [Extracts]
‘AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions,’ American Historical Review (December 2012): 1486-1531.
Additional (all available online through the Baillieu)
‘Forum: History of Emotions,’ German History 28.1 (2010): 67-80.
Matt, Susan. ‘Current Emotion Research in History: Or, Doing History from the Inside Out,’ Emotion Review 3 (2011): 117-124.
Plamper, Jan. ‘The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,’ History and Theory 49 (May 2010): 237-65.
Part Two: Feeling, Emotion, Affect (ST)
Language and taxonomy in the history of emotions. Discussion lead by Stephanie Trigg (SCC).
Stephanie Trigg, ‘Emotional Histories: Beyond the Personalization of the Past and the Abstraction of Affect Theory,’ Exemplaria (forthcoming 2014).
* * * * * * * *
Session Two: Tuesday, October 8, 10am-1pm
The Ian Potter Gallery
Meet at main entrance at 10am – TBC.
Part One: Objects (SR)
This session will consider the ways in which humans form emotional attachments to objects and the ways in which they might use objects to represent and manage their emotional states.
Matthew Martin (NGV) will speak on selected artifacts in the National Gallery permanent and temporary collections.
Guy Fletcher, ‘Sentimental Value,’ The Journal of Value Inquiry 43 (2009): 55-65.
Roberta Gilchrist, ‘Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Late Medieval Burials,’ Medieval Archaeology 52 (2008): 119-159.
- How do objects acquire or produce emotional significance?
- How do they represent or regulate emotional states?
- How do the inscribed emotional meanings of objects change as their physical, cultural and temporal contexts change?
Part Two: Images (SR)
Heather Gaunt (Potter Gallery) will lead introduce selected works in the Potter collection.
NB: we may need to organize smaller groups in which to see the collection.
Will organise/finalise these at the first session.
James Elkins, Pictures & Tears: a History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (London: Routledge, 2001). (extracts)
Elina Gertsman, ‘The Facial Gesture: Misreading Emotion in Gothic Art, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 36.1 (2010): 28-46.
- How do artists employ various visual techniques to depict and elicit emotions?
- How do the conventions of depicting emotion in art change over time and in different cultures?
- How are our emotional responses conditioned by our own circumstances/experiences?
* * * * * * * *
Session Three: Monday, October 14, 10am-1pm
Old Arts Seminar Rm 143
We’ll supply morning tea/coffee.
Part One: Places (GT)
What is ‘affective cartography’? This session explores ideas of emotional belonging and religious identity in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century.
Source texts/images available for download on the LMS
- What can maps and visual descriptions of place offer historians of the emotions?
- How are politics/geography/religion etc. implied?
- How might ‘affective cartographies’ relate to ‘emotional communities’ (Rosenwein)?
Part Two: Texts (SD)
This session considers literature as a source for the history of emotions, with a specific focus on texts from the late medieval period.
Sarah McNamer, ‘Feeling,’ Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, ed. Paul Strohm (OUP, 2009), 241-257.
Tracy Adams, ‘Performing the Medieval Art of Love: Medieval Theories of the Emotions and the Social Logic of the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris,’ Viator (2007): 55-74.
(primary) Thomas Hoccleve, ‘The Letter of Cupid,’ ll. 15-49. In Poems of Cupid, God of Love, ed. Thelma S. Fenster and Mary Carpenter Erler (Leiden, 1990).
We’ll look at this text together in class – I’ll supply extracts.
- What does the study of text and genre bring to the history of emotions?
- How do we deal with questions of ‘sincerity’ and ‘artificiality’?
- What limitations/advantages exist in the study of how texts express, represent, and generate emotions or emotional states?
* * * * * * *
Session Four: Tuesday, October 15th, 10am-1pm
Old Arts Seminar Rm 143
We’ll supply morning tea/coffee.
Part One: Your work
Bring a source of some kind (an object, an image, a text, an idea) and be prepared to introduce it for a few minutes.
Part Two: History of Emotions Review
Theorising the emotions; “doing” the history of emotions; the historian in the archive.
- (after Scheer): Are emotions a kind of practice?
- Is there a future for the history of emotion in collapsing the boundaries of the humanities and the sciences? eg. neuroscience; cognitive psychology
- How ‘useful’ is the history of emotions? For the historian? For you?
- What role is there for the historian’s own affective response?
Robinson, Emily. ‘Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible,’ Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-20.
Scheer, Monique. ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is that what makes them have a history)?’ History and Theory 51 (2012): 193-220.
Reddy, William M. ‘Historical Research on the Self and Emotions,’ Emotion Review 1.4 (2009): 302-315
Posted by Stephanie Downes
The work I’m doing at the moment examines the somewhat romantic place that the campfire occupies in Australian settler culture. It’s part of an attempt to understand how nineteenth-century European settlers imported northern hemisphere ideas of fire to the antipodes, as well as an examination of how they were forced to re-evaluate their understanding of burning. As I work this paper up into an article over the coming weeks, I’ll be aiming to broaden my own understanding of the Australian sublime, seeking to theorize the emotions projected onto the outback and to understand how fires were used to assuage threats from the bush, both real and imaginary.
Fires have long been associated with story-telling as well as warmth, and while narratives such as Henry Lawson’s ‘A Camp-Fire Yarn’ celebrate the ‘mateship’ fostered around the fire, they also elide its potential for danger and destruction. European colonists have had a fraught relationship with fire in Australia, not least because of imported ideas about the meaning and management of burning.
Tom Griffiths has noted that, ‘Fires are strangely historical. They inspire stories, disturb dreams and evoke memories’ (Forests of Ash, 183). Luis Fernandez-Galiano carries this idea further in his study Fire and Memory (2000), arguing that the combination of fire for warmth and fire for cooking creates a home. According to this logic, the lighting of a campfire is an act of what Janet Myers calls ‘portable domesticity’, albeit a temporary one and, in this paper, I’m going to examine representations of the campfire and its perceived role in drawing settlers closer to their new environment. Following Richard White’s argument that Australian national culture was founded in a ‘city-dweller’s image of the bush’ I shall examine the anxieties that settlers projected onto the uncanny landscape and the role played by the campfire in either exacerbating or diminishing their concerns. I want to consider how—and whether—the campfire was deployed to tame the environment and, interpreting the lighting of a campfire as an act of (attempted) domestication, I will argue that it offered colonists an illusion of mastery over their surroundings—a mastery that was often both temporary and tenuous.
The campfire was, as the comment from Griffiths suggests, also connected with nostalgia. Gaston Bachelard has written of the dreaming and remembering which occur in front of the fire, connecting repose with ‘reverie’ and the recollection of a sense of well-being (The Psychoanalysis of Fire,14). The lighting of a campfire seeks to replicate the sanctuary of the domestic hearth, to impose domesticity, order or familiarity on a landscape that resists such attempts to tame it and, as such, the act is fraught with tensions. While it may offer comfort to the weary traveller, a fire in the Australian wilderness means something very different from a fire in a forest in the Northern hemisphere and as a result, I would suggest, the campfire is always surrounded by a frisson of danger and uncertainty at the same time as it is evocative and homely.
According to Bill Garner, the Australian colony began as a collection of tents. Garner argues that ‘the environmental circumstances of Australia…made campers of the English who came here, and camping out was a significant part of the process that eventually made them Australians’ (Land of Camps: The Ephemeral Settlement of Australia, 11). It is, then, hardly a surprise that the campfire quickly attained iconic status in Australian culture to the extent that the publication of campfire songbooks, stories and poems became a big business from the 1850s onwards. Julia Bowes has written of the work done by Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson ‘to particularise the campfire experience to an Australian context’, citing the use of a specialized vernacular of ‘billies’ ‘swagmen’ and ‘billabongs’ to claim the campfire experience for the bush nationalist cause (In Richard White & Caroline Ford (eds), Playing in the Bush, 101). While Bowes argues that ‘the campfire was a site where national stories were told to the backdrop of the Australian bush’, many of these works had a fairly oblique connection to the campfire (101). Sometimes the fire was invoked as a catalyst for a sequence of sketches of life in the bush and often it was a plot device designed to appeal to metropolitan readers, who spent more time imagining the Australian countryside than inhabiting it. Nevertheless, the campfire in fiction and in fact was used as a place to tell stories about the countryside and its strangeness, mediating anxieties about exposure to the landscape and its hostilities in what appeared to be a safe space. The lighting of a fire was, in some ways, a point of continuity between the northern and southern hemispheres, a point of convergence and conviviality and also a space to remember past fires, on the other side of the world. Thus while the campfire story often asserted the type of Australianness identified by Bowes, it was also tied to a longing for the north, which was emphasized by the otherness of the Australian terrain.
The vignette, ‘Memory’s Influence’ which appeared in Walter Dollman, Jr’s Bush Fancies and Campfire Yarns (1898) neatly exemplifies the campfire’s connection to memory and domesticity. It opens with a vision of a neglected, untended fire:
A campfire, on a calm night, at the time of year when the warmth of a fire comes welcome. It is not brightly blazing, as one might expect, but seems neglected, and is slowly whitening into ashes the sticks which have been heaped together earlier in the evening. Now and again a half-burnt stick falls into the ashes beneath it, and a few sparks fly and crackle, then all relapses into silence again. But if we look closer we may see a human form stretched upon a rude bed of blankets alongside the fire, and a human face apparently gazing intently into the smoldering pile (67)
Dollman’s narrator continues to describe that man as a ‘shell’ whose eyes look beyond the fire and into his past. We learn little of the man, other than that he is thousands of miles away from home. The fire, which has stimulated his reverie, causes him to recall his boyhood. It also, though, offers him a curious, mystical vision of his parents in the present, impelling him to move towards his old life, gravitating towards home and kinship. The unnamed man, a kind of unsettled settler, has not been successful in the colonies and his life has been one of ‘hard living and ill-fortune’, yet the dying fire (which is implicitly connected with his dying parents), brings about a ‘softening’ in his ‘hardened composure’. This alignment of fire with memory draws on Victorian symbolic realist conventions which, Kylie Mirmohamadi and Susan Martin have argued, were frequently deployed by nineteenth-century settlers to interpret and understand the antipodes (see Colonial Dickens: What Australians Made of the World’s Favourite Writer). The landscape here is dismissed very rapidly, though, as ‘desert drear’, something to be traversed on the way home, and nothing more. The makeshift, temporary fire exposes the makeshift temporariness of life in the south, pointing the way home through its evocation of the past.
In 1878 Ada Cambridge (writing as ‘Mrs Cross’) published the poem ‘By the Campfire’ in the Australian Ladies’ Annual. While the piece begins as an appreciation of Australian pastoral, with whispering gum trees and glimmering golden wattles, it quickly moves through clichéd European ways of framing the landscape to become something much darker. Initially, the campfire draws creatures to it, ‘an opossum flits before the fire light,–pauses, peers,–/I see a round ball where he sits, with pendant tail and pointed ears’. For Cambridge, the campfire is a type of defence, as it was for many nineteenth-century settlers, both literally and figuratively. While it may attract the apparently tame, charmingly different bush creature, it provides an implicit deterrent against the wilder aspects of the bush. Cambridge writes of the ‘curlew’s thrilling scream’, which stirs echoes through the mountain and is described as ‘the wildest bird note ever heard accentuating the horror reverberating through the darkness.
The ‘soft scratchings, up and down’ and ‘weird undertones’ also point to possible danger encroaching on the campsite from the bush. At the height of her unease and, significantly, at the mid-way point through the poem, the speaker tells us in heavily Gothicized terms:
The darkness gathered all around is full of rustlings strange and low;
The dead wood crackles on the ground, and shadowy shapes flit to and fro;
I think they are my own dim dreams, wandering amongst the woods and streams.
It is neither the bush nor its fauna that pose a threat to the poem’s speaker, rather it is her own vivid imagination. The bush, then, is not the source of fear, rather it is the settler who has projected her anxieties onto the environment, mediating the world around her through an Australian sublime that, Meaghan Morris—writing of a very different context–has noted ‘displaces the often bloody human conflicts of colonial history with a pale metaphysics of landscape in which Man confronts the Unknown’ (Identity Anecdotes, 85). The difficulty with this displacement is that it is incomplete and that the rustlings and cracklings and shadows of the unfamiliar landscape and its fauna continually recall the suffering that is no longer visible.
Curiously, though, the poem’s tone then shifts radically and somehow the incredibly sinister ‘tangled trees…full of eyes—still eyes that watch me as I sit’ and the sound of feet, stealing through the darkness’ mutate. Instead of signaling the horror of the countryside closing in on the speaker, who opened the poem by noting the mountains ‘enclasping’ her, the forest becomes empty and melancholy, leading to nostalgic recollections of England and a beloved who has been left behind. The reverie inspired by the combination of the fire and the landscape’s extreme otherness leads to a yearning for the north and the comfort of the familiar. Thus, nostalgia and longing become entangled with a desire to retreat or escape from the bush. Like Dollman’s vignette, Cambridge’s poem rejects the claustrophobia of a land that is paradoxically larger than that which has been left behind, but which also threatens to entrap and overwhelm the speaker. As Christina Thompson puts it, the Australian landscape is, for many migrants, a ‘nothing appalling and horrible…a nothingness which is actually something’, and that nothingness in turn becomes a space to which Europeans brought their guilty fears. Ada Cambridge is far from alone in this regard, with other nineteenth-century writers like Barbara Baynton pointing to an intangible terror apparently emerging from, yet more probably projected onto, the bush.
While the campfire offers comfort, familiarity and continuity between north and south, it also becomes something different in an Australian context. Part of what makes a campfire both thrilling and slightly terrifying is its potential to cause devastation if it is not controlled properly. A 1961 campaign by the NSW Bush Fires Committee, urging campers to ‘make fire your servant, not your master’ and reminding them to extinguish their fires points directly to this danger. This idea of settlers asserting mastery over fire is more broadly problematic in relation to the renewal of the landscape and the natural role of fire in Australia’s eco-system. However, we might regard the lighting, feeding and subsequent extinguishing of a campfire as a staging of this control. Julia Bowes has commented:
The exercise of building a campfire gave Australians an opportunity to enact the national myth of man overcoming nature. In the same way that the pioneers overcame the harshness of the Australian landscape by developing survival skills and bushcraft, campers and bushwalkers often remarked on their triumphs over the dangers of fire as they harnessed and domesticated it to serve their own purposes (106)
Domestication here is roughly synonymous with Europeanization, suggesting that the campfire’s comfort stems from its apparent containability. The building of a campfire re-enacts in miniature the pioneers’ ‘management’ of the landscape, as well as their exploitation and abuse of it. The campfire is fed by the forest—not always responsibly–yet there is an art to building and maintaining it that Bowes identifies as ‘bush craftsmanship’. There is, though, something rather awkward about the idea of ‘bush craftsmanship’ in that it suggests a deliberate misshaping and re-fashioning of the bush that is both artificial and an attempt to impose European ideas of order and safety upon it.
The danger behind the campfire is occasionally registered in its stories , as it is in JCF Johnson’s An Austral Christmas (1889). Set at a cattle station in Queensland, the work comprises a sequence of campfire stories told by thirteen men—some of whom are former diggers from the goldfields—who take it in turns to tell stories around a campfire after they have finished their Christmas lunch. In one story, ‘Old Crab, the Growler’, set, as its narrator tells us, just six weeks before the devastating fires of Black Thursday (February 6, 1851), a bushfire breaks out near the home of a former convict, Old Crab, who is known for his misanthropy. Old Crab is hated by everyone around him, except for a fourteen-year-old boy, Fred Thorn who loves him, for reasons that never really become clear. There is no warning that the fire is coming and when it is first sighted nobody takes any particular notice. It moves closer with great rapidity and the narrator takes plains to explain its swift-moving danger emphasizing the forest’s highly flammable qualities and its complicity in starting the fire:
[A] fire in a stringybark forest is most to be feared in the bush, as (unlike a fire on the plains, amongst the grass only) it is next to impossible to stop it, or combat it any way. The blaze first catches the fibrous, ragged bark, mounts rapidly amongst the foliage, which, containing as it does so large a quantity of essential oil, soon ignites, and then, if the wind be at all strong, leaps from tree to tree, one vast sheet or roaring flame (52).
The plot is a fairly predictable one, in that a horse breaks its neck, thwarting escape plans and the eponymous cantankerous ‘old Crab’ sacrifices himself to save a young man, Fred, who has previously nursed him through an illness. Having bestowed his worldly goods on Fred, whose horse opportunely carries him away, even as he is expressing his reluctance to leave Old Crab, the reformed convict is presumably burned alive. The narrator draws a veil over the particularities of his death, simply commenting that ‘the smoke and flame parted them forever’ (54). While I’m interested in the melodrama and sacrificial elements of this story (there are quite a few suicides in post 1880 bushfire stories), what is immediately interesting is the presence of a bushfire in a campfire tale. Implicitly, it points to the danger behind burning anything in the bush, reminding those who are listening (or reading) of the layers of fiction surrounding the Australian campfire. While the fire may ward off venomous creatures, it can also draw in strangers, not all of whom may be welcome and, most importantly, if it is not observed closely, the fire may burn out of control at any moment. The bushfire plot embedded within the campfire story reminds us that a lot can happen while you’re waiting for the billy to boil, as tragedy and comfort are awkwardly juxtaposed.
Percy Clarke’s Three Diggers (1889) also exemplifies the different levels of fear that settlers associated with fire. Technically, the novel isn’t a campfire story, although as it begins in the diggings at Ballarat with three men sitting around a brushwood fire, in front of a canvas tent, it is possible to make a case for reading it as such. The work follows three adventurers who have come to seek their fortune in the diggings and, towards the end of the story, they are caught up in an act of arson when some bushrangers set fire to the landscape. This is part of an extensive, fantastically vivid description:
The fierce demon of fire, so useful a slave, so unruly a master, is truly in his element. He flings all his bonds and shackles aside, and with electrical speed he circles around massive tree-trunks, snapping up the twigs and the leathery resinous leaves as he climbs the highest gum, embracing each neighbouring tree in in his fiery touch both alow and aloft in the twinkling of an eye. See, as one speaks, the great branches flare up, redden, and crash down, while the trunk itself, half-eaten by the demon’s savage and remorseless tooth, sways and falls, in hideous embrace bringing ruin around it (227).
Clarke’s explicit connection of two apparently disparate aspects of Australian settler life points to the layers of anxiety with which migrants approached the countryside and the levels of discomfort that I discussed before in relation to Ada Cambridge’s poem. While Clarke’s narrator equates the uncontrollable fire with a freed slave, to a nineteenth-century Australian reader, the discarding of bonds and shackles would surely also have evoked thoughts of escaped convicts and their awkward, unnatural positioning in relation to both the landscape and settler culture. The alignment of convicts and fire points to something savage, possibly sublime and definitely untameable in both, as well as signaling the guilt and neurosis that Morris reads in European reactions to the environment. Both are something that settlers believed they could control and repress, yet both have the capacity to flare up and overwhelm.
The campfire and the stories told around it offered a means of mediating, if not completely containing, some settler anxieties about the difference and hostility of the Australian environment for those who were immersed in it and for those who simply liked to imagine it. While some, like Ada Cambridge’s poetic persona, were able to identify themselves as the source of the horror in the bush, others invoked the campfire as a means of allaying the most confronting aspects of migrant culture. The fact that for Europeans fires have traditionally prompted nostalgia and reverie adds a layer of complexity to the fire’s apparent security. If the lighting of a campfire is an act of portable domesticity, then it is a fleeting one that signals the many challenges settlers faced in seeking to assert a permanent presence on the land they had stolen. Furthermore, it is an act that is loaded with memories, personal and collective, pleasant and horrific and a melancholy that for many was associated with the permanence of the makeshift world of the bush. Campfires should ‘disturb dreams’, to return to the words from Tom Griffiths with which I began this post, not least because they disrupt all sense of belonging both to the bush and to the Antipodes.
Posted by Grace Moore
I love the collaboration the CHE engenders. It is truly thrilling to hear about the work of neuroscientists, social psychologists, historians, musicologists, literary critics, and many others. It is intriguing to understand the kinds of questions each discipline asks, and be exposed to the methods of analysis and particular to each way of thinking and organizing results. A few months ago, at a Methods Collaboratory, the question arose: what should humanities “do” with such information? Can maps of the brain, for instance, help us to produce a more clearly situated “history of emotions”? From that series of questions came the more precise questions of discipline specificity. Several Literary Studies scholars expressed an interest in more clearly defining a methodology for how literary scholars might best use the History of Emotions. What are our questions? Who are our models? What is our bibliography? And, most importantly, what can we build upon and use?
The Literary Emotion Methodologies Study Day was born of these concerns and questions. The Study Day focuses specifically on the theoretical and methodological questions that are particularly relevant to the intersection between Literary Studies and the History of Emotion. We plan to discuss, share, and create methods for literary theoretical application within the vocabulary and methods of the history of emotion, though anyone working in the history of emotions is encouraged to come along and join in the conversation. In the spirit of (inter)disciplinarity, we share below the program for October 11. Please register with Jessica Scott to attend if you haven’t already!
Date: Friday, 11 October, 2013 Time: 9.00am – 5.30 pm Location: Old Physics-G16
(Jim Potter Room), The University of Melbourne, Parkville
Dinner on Thursday 10 October at 7pm on Lygon Street.
REGISTRATION Deadline: 4 October 2013.
Contact Jessica Scott (Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org. au) to register and receive reading pack.
More information: www.historyofemotions.org.au
The morning sessions will consist of roundtables that will explore methods of the history of emotions as applied to literary studies and literary texts.
In the afternoon sessions we will discuss pre-circulated readings that provide models and methodologies for literature and the history of emotion.
• Merridee Bailley, The University of Adelaide
“Reading Emotions in Dramatic and Non-Dramatic Literary Texts for Early Modern Merchant Audiences”
• Peter Holbrook, The University of Queensland
“‘Process Philosophy’, Literature and the Emotions”
• Aleksondra Hultquist, The University of Melbourne
“The Passions and Literary Love in the Eighteenth Century”
• Rebecca McNamara, The University of Sydney
“Emotional Communities and Literary Genre”
• Grace Moore, The University of Melbourne
“By the Blazing Firelight: Campfires and Portable Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century Australia”
• Stephanie Trigg, The University of Melbourne
“What is an emotive?: William Reddy’s The Navigation of Feeling and (In) Direct Discourse”
Posted by Aleksondra Hultquist
It’s been an exciting week at the University of Sydney thinking about emotions. Professor Patricia Fumerton is vising from the University of California, Santa Barbara, as a guest of the CHE http://www.english.ucsb.edu/people/fumerton-patricia. On Monday evening Patricia gave a public lecture which was live-streamed by the CHE: ‘Broadside Ballads and Tactical Publics, “The Lady and the Blackamoor”, 1570-1789’. Starting her presentation with a late eighteenth-century American newsclipping—of a slave murdering his master and the master’s family before killing himself—she traced this ‘news story’ back to its sixteenth-century origins as a ballad.
Patricia is the Director of the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) at UCSB http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/, and she used the site to show a few Early Modern versions of the printed broadside and to play a modern recording of the ballad. Taking us through the ballad’s manifestations in various broadside prints as well as its sung form, Patricia argued that the ballad of ‘The Lady and the Blackamoor’ was not necessarily about race in the Early Modern period. Instead, she talked about how the ballad might have resonated emotionally with different groups of audiences, and used these emotional implications to help locate the Early Modern senses or themes of the ballad.
By showing different versions of the ballad’s imprinted woodcut, as well as highlighting changing typescripts and other bibliographic details of the printed broadside, Patricia showed how the form of the broadside shifted the ballad’s symbolism and meaning over time—down to the very stripping of image and change from blackletter to Roman text in its appearance in an eighteenth-century American newspaper. This talk was a fascinating introduction to what is in store for scholars of the history of emotions, Early Modern media, and English ballads in Patricia’s forthcoming book The Moving Matter of Broadside Ballads: The Lady and the Blackamoor (University of Chicago Press).
Patricia then gave a masterclass on Tuesday, ‘The Digital Recovery of Moving Media: EBBA and the Early English Broadside Ballad’, presented by ‘Putting Periodization to Use: Testing the Limits of Early Modernity’, an interdisciplinary research group (of which CHE postdoc Una McIlvenna is a member) funded by the University of Sydney Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Collaborative Research Scheme. Postgraduate students and faculty members from English, History, and Music listened as Patricia explained the rationale behind the way the EBBA website works.
What I found most fascinating was the way in which the EBBA team has created a digital experience of the broadside ballads which somewhat replicates the way that these objects operated in the Early Modern world and in their afterlives as they were collected by scholars and antiquarians. The broadsides were ‘piecemeal’ or collage-style objects, consisting of woodcut imprint, blackletter text, title, and prescribed tune—and each of these pieces could be interchanged within a single ballad and across different ballads. Accordingly, the EBBA website allows researchers to see the broadside in various forms, to hear the ballads sung, and to search across images, tunes, titles, and text to grasp the rich diversity of this medium. I know this online archive has been invaluable for CHE postdoc Una McIlvenna’s project on Early Modern execution ballads, but the form of the website and the way in which it presents its materials can be instructive for history of emotions scholars working in a range of disciplines and periods, and particularly for those interested in digital humanities.
Online archives, digital editions, and websites serving as a locus for studies on particular authors or texts have flourished in the last decade. I assume that almost every CHE researcher is using online sources in some form—the digitization of some of our primary sources is, I presume, what makes many of our projects on the history of emotions in Europe 1100-1800 feasible while working from Australia.
I wonder what online collections and websites have other history of emotions scholars found useful for your work? And are there features of the sites themselves that have enriched the kind of history of emotions research that you do?
Posted by Rebecca F. McNamara
In the immediate aftermath of the Canberra bushfires of January 2003, Australian Prime Minister, John Howard referred to the devastating blazes as ‘our summer terror’. Seeking to draw a parallel between the conflagration and the still-raw horror of the terrorist attacks in the United States, Howard’s emotionally-charged phrasing was calculated to evoke global sympathy and to encourage a sense of community in adversity among Australians.
Howard’s vision of the ‘summer terror’ works to create what the sociologist Benedict Anderson has termed an ‘imagined community’, bringing together individuals who have nothing in common beyond their shared nationality, and uniting them behind a common cause. For Howard, the enemy is clearly the fire itself, although if we think about his rhetoric a little more critically, we might ponder the contributions of drought, sun, wind, lightning strikes and Canberra’s famed pine plantations to the catastrophe. His attempt to draw on the deep emotional responses to 9/11 was, though, not designed to be unpacked, but rather to directly transfer affective responses (or perhaps emotional capital) from the North American context to Australia.
John Howard’s canny efforts to unite a nation quite literally under fire are nothing new. As I’ve discussed in a book chapter, ‘Surviving Black Thursday: The Great Bushfire of 1851’, many nineteenth-century fire stories sought to create unity through crisis. Mid-Victorian stories, like Ellen Clacy’s fabulously melodramatic, ‘A Bush Fire’ (1854), frequently emphasized the indestructability of the homestead, which offers shelter against the hostile burning environment. A little later in the century Anthony Trollope’s Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874) stressed the need for settlers to put aside their differences, uniting to combat arson attacks. Different though these two stories may appear, they share a common investment in fire as a type of social leveller. Ellen Clacy’s heroine, Julia, must be rescued from a fire that represents her own repressed desires before she can accept the suit the shy—and socially inferior—sheep-farmer, Hugh Clements. Trollope’s Harry Heathcote must tame his arrogance and class prejudices to discover ‘mateship’ in the bush, with his neighbour (and eventual brother-in-law), Medlicot.
Clacy and Trollope both explore fire as a plot device to bring about unity in a less socially stratified country than the England they knew. However, bushfires have also been mobilized in more overtly political ways, during times of conflict, when the propagation of an imagined community, unified against a hostile foe, formed an important propaganda tool. HJ Weston’s famous recruitment poster of 1918 asks, ‘Would you stand by while a bushfire raged?’, whilst urging, ‘get busy and drive the Germans back’. The poster neatly displaces the annual trepidation and terror of the fire season onto a geographically distant enemy. Moreover, given the debates about nationhood and the sacrifice of young Australian men for an indifferent mother country that circulated throughout the Great War, Weston’s poster masterfully transforms the European conflict into an urgent and pressingly familiar problem.
Weston’s drawing together of war and natural disaster was designed to inspire the same type of patriotic unity as John Howard’s remarks in 2003. Weston’s alignment is, of course, the reverse of Howard’s and through invoking the bushfire, he draws on a threat that is both instantly familiar to all Australians, which brings with it a unique sense of national identity. Leonard Stretton captured this shared understanding of the menace posed by fire in his Royal Commission report into the fires that raged across the state of Victoria in January 1939. Stretton’s report is famed for its wonderful literariness, and his attempt to contextualize the fires of Black Friday (13 January 1939) show the effect of the fires upon all Victorians, not just those who were involved in the blaze:
In Melbourne, more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water…The rich plains, denied their beneficent rains, lay bare and baking; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder…Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen.
Stretton’s insightful, sensitive and quite beautiful prose draws upon a collective understanding of waiting for a fire whose outbreak is inevitable. Whether his readers dwell in the country or the city, Stretton writes with the assumption of an instinctive understanding of the arid ground and the murderous effects of a hot summer. Primarily a political document, Stretton’s report is also a deeply moving and compassionate account of the day when, as he puts it, ‘it appeared that the whole State was alight’.
The fires of January 1939 killed 71 people and burned nearly two million hectares of land. Although Black Friday, because of its strong winds, was the most extreme day, fires had been raging since December and continued for much of the month of January. While he was not in Victoria to witness the most intense days of the fires, the seventy-two year-old HG Wells visited the State* between January 4 and January 10, touring some of the fire-effected areas with the Governor-General. Having written so vividly of fire in his 1895 novel, The Time Machine, it is hardly surprising that Wells was drawn to what he describes as ‘that streaming smoke curtain’ (46). He wrote of his experiences in an article, ‘Bush Fires’, which appeared in the News Chronicle in England on 30 January, 1939 and was later re-published as part of Travels of a Republican in Search of Hot Water:
I anticipated an advancing wall of flames, leaving blackness behind, being held back by natural and artificial clearings, by beating and by water. The reality was not like that at all: A bush fire is not an orderly invader, but a guerilla. It advances by rushes, by little venomous tongues of fire in the grass; it spreads by sparks burning leaves and bark. Its front is miles deep. It is here, it is there, like a swarm of venomous wasps. It shams dead and stabs you in the back (47).
Surprised by both the scale and the unruliness of the fire, Wells couches it in adversarial terms, anthropomorphizing it as a malicious invading force. As his account unfolds, he goes on to stress the camaraderie inspired by the disaster, noting that the fire ‘exhilarates’ and asserting with great force that ‘bushfires eliminate class and feuds’ (49). Wells’ position here is remarkably similar to that of Anthony Trollope in 1874, with his suggestion that destructive fires promote egalitarianism and mateship. This emphasis on community-building is one reason for the bushfire’s great strength as a rhetorical tool for politicians, yet Wells, with characteristic controversy, took his analysis a step further.
Following his invasion metaphor through to its logical conclusion, Wells ponders its meaning and significance on the eve of World War Two. He writes of the possibility of deliberate fire-lighting as a battle strategy, sinisterly anticipating Stretton’s famous assertion of the role of ‘the hand of man’ in the Black Friday fires. For Wells, Australia and other ‘well-wooded’ countries need to be vigilant and to understand the harnessing of fire as a weapon. However, his discussion then broadens to consider the importance of air defence for a nation in which major cities are so distant from one another:
Perth, Adelaide or Brisbane could be wrecked or even occupied, while Sydney or Melbourne looked on incapable of help; for purposes of mere defence they carry isolation to its logical consequences. Like these scorched homesteads we visited, their real and effective protection lies in going to the source of the evil and beating it out there in time (51).
Wells’ conflation of fire and enemy occupation demonstrates just how threatening he found the largescale burning. Yet his imaginative leap from scorched forests to aerial bombardment seems, at face value, to be a big one. There were discussions in the immediate aftermath of the fires as to how aircraft might be used more effectively to quell the flames and the Stretton Report recommended a much more systematic use of planes on days of fire danger. The movement from bombardment with water to an air offensive with weapons is, for Wells, an obvious next step from his vision of enemy fire-lighters. In the process, his broad-brush approach to the deadly burning turns it into a powerful political trope, creating not just national unity, but kinship with Britain and her allies too. His imagined community thus takes on a global, or perhaps imperial, dimension.
Bushfires hold, because of their capacity to devastate landscapes, homes and communities, a potent and evocative place in the imaginations of many Australians. While wildfires and forest fires occur with increasing frequency across the globe, the intensity of the Australian summer renders the bushfire separate and different in terms of both its scale and the difficulties involved in fighting it. It is hardly surprising that this annually-appearing common enemy should have been harnessed by politicians and writers as symbolic of an Australia under attack. Images like the surviving chimneys that I wrote about in my last post, or the iconic photograph of Sam the koala drinking from a fire-fighter’s water bottle in 2009, instantly appeal to a sense of collective identity that encompasses tragedy, loss, heroism, mutual support, neighbourliness and rebuilding. The bushfire has become a repository for a wide-ranging collection of emotions and its political usage therefore warrants a considerable degree of further scrutiny.
*Wells was in Australia to address a meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association of the Advancement of Science in Canberra.
Posted by Grace Moore