Emotions and the Sacred in Bach’s ‘Weihnachtsoratorium’

Music Review: album cover
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio I-III. Leopold Lampelsdorfer (boy soprano/Tölzer Knabenchor), Thomas Riede (alto), Jan Hübner (tenor), Georg Lutz (bass), Musicalische Compagney, les hautboïstes de prusse (director, Georg Corall),
Holger Eichhorn (musical director). Querstand 1238 (1 CD)

Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) is a Christmas-holiday music standard in German-speaking countries, similar to our holiday favourites like ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’, ‘Silent Night’ and even, in more classical circles, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Accordingly, musicians often approach these ‘sacred’ pieces with trepidation. Should they even attempt to re-record these classics? Or, should they leave them be, allowing the listening public to keep worshiping at their same tried and true recordings (which are usually decades old)?

In the end, musicians tend to opt for the two safest routes: either, they leave these ‘sacred’ pieces be, admitting defeat to a finicky and demanding public who would likely reject their renditions; or, they record them in the safest route possible, modelling their version on the previous best-selling style and interpretation.

For the Querstand’s label release of the World Premiere Recording, Part I-III of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Querstand/Codaex: VKJK 1238), the collective Musicalische Compagney rejected these two safe routes. Instead, they opted  for the boldest approach possible. Under the guidance of musicologist Holger Eichhorn as musical director, singers Leopold Lampelsdorfer (boy soprano of the Tölz Boys’ Choir), Thomas Riede (alto), Jan Huebner (tenor) and Georg Lutz (bass) and instrumentalists from les hautboїstes de prusse recorded a truly unique interpretation of this German Christmas classic in September 2012.mc-logo

For 76 minutes, these musicians threw caution to the wind, approaching Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium with complete abandon. As such, they accomplished the impossible. By rejecting its ‘sacred’ status, they approached this work as they would any other less publicly ‘sacred’ work. They disregarded its public status in favour of revealing the true nature and beauty of the work, letting it shine through with new and vibrant historical performance practice interpretations.

Needless to say, this abandonment of public opinion and corresponding novel interpretations did not go unnoticed by the German public nor its music critics. Rather, as Michael Wersin wrote on 21 December 2012 in Rondo Magazine (a German Classical and Jazz music magazine), it caused quite the ‘small sensation’ shortly before the Christmas holiday, with the record selling out completely in less than four months. Those who had not scored a copy by the 2012 Christmas season had to wait until a new batch of recordings were released the following year.

Recorded in Berlin, the musicians wanted to offer something new, refreshing today’s dialogue on this piece. One of the ways they did this was to exclude the use of a choir, which is typically used in other recordings of this piece. The German audience took notice with Neue Züricher Zeitung reporting on 14 December 2012 that such choices as this ‘remind[ed the critic]…a bit of the pioneer days of historical performance practice’, labeling the Musicalische Compagney and its director Holger Eichhorn as ‘…pioneers indeed’.

In early music, one of the few places musicians can still experiment is the number of musicians who perform a piece. Of course, sometimes it is successful when musicians experiment with this; other times, it goes disastrously wrong. For Eichhorn’s experimental choice of a male solo quartet with boy soprano, to perform the recitatives and arias as well as the choruses and chorales the oratorio was remarkably refreshing. It certainly made me sit up and take notice on my first listen through of the recording.

The result of this ‘Weihnachtsoratorium experiment’ was pure sacred bliss. The voices shone through the music, emerging rather than bombarding the listener – which is one of the greatest differences between true early music practitioners and those from classical music who merely foray (or rather stomp) into the genre, making excessive noise to make their presence known. Instead, the musicians in this recording took into account the true nature of the work: recognising, after all, that it is a religious oratorio.

And although some critics, like Peter Uehling Großmeister of the Berliner Zeitung may feel that the work’s vocals ended up ‘…a bit pale…’, no one can deny the effect of such a choice. Should not the voices sound heavenly rather than if they shriek from the depths of hell?

Eichhorn continues this approach to the instrumentalists, never overburdening the delicacy of Bach’s work. les hautboïstes de prusse took it even further, dedicating themselves to fastidious articulation, which beautifully support the Bach’s text. Their use of historical reeds, which lacked the modern-day enhanced ‘heart’ in the reeds’ cores, elicited a true sensory experience. Going against today’s homogenous, mainstream Bach recordings, les hautboïstes de prusse brings the listener closer to their – and Bach’s – intensions. Clearly, the instrumentalists are more than simply accompanists in this recording. They are equal collaborators with their own voices.

The result is simply sublime: a beautifully balanced and certainly poignant recording which will surely become the new tried and true Weihnachtsoratorium recording. It is a unique textual interpretation, which kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This recording of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium breaks today’s recording barriers, enticing today’s audience to experience this time-loved piece in a whole new and exciting way. Finally, its well-worn competitors can be replaced with a breath of fresh air.

By UWA PhD candidate Patricia Alessi. For more on her research and writing, visit her research profile or follow her on twitter at @Patricia_Alessi .

Through your eyes: Cultures and emotions

Nanjing diary notes

A conversation between some of the most inspiring historians of emotions, published in the American Historical Review in December 2012, revealed quite forcefully that ethnocentrism is a limit of the historic profession and of the history of emotions as well. The prominent American Sinologist Eugenia Lean shrewdly observed that “the very question of ‘do emotions change over time’ more often than not results in a temporal mapping of emotions in the West”. Likewise, she had reservations about the growing attention historians of emotions are devoting to the life sciences, as these too generally reflect “a vision of medical science, and assumptions about the body, that are historically specific”. Significantly, Lean added, “the idea that emotions are to be located and managed by the brain is quite foreign to Eastern cultures”. In traditional Chinese medicine “the kidney—not the amygdala—is identified as crucial in governing emotions”.

My recent visit to the University of Nanjing as part of an exciting series of collaborative initiatives set up by the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne and the Nanjing History Department  proved an invaluable opportunity for stimulating debate about cases, concepts, and challenges in the history of emotions, with special attention being given to the associated risks of cultural bias, over-interpretation, and ideological fault lines, not to mention the failings of armchair comparativism.

1.Japanese earthquake prints from the final decades of the Tokugawa period featured depictions of mythical giant catfish (namazu) who, according to popular legend, caused earthquakes. Some prints show the ambivalent side of namazu. Here, they are seen rescuing people from the rubble  © National Diet Library, Tokyo, Japan

Japanese earthquake prints from the final decades of the Tokugawa period featured depictions of mythical giant catfish (namazu) who, according to popular legend, caused earthquakes. Some prints show the ambivalent side of namazu. Here, they are seen rescuing people from the rubble © National Diet Library, Tokyo, Japan

My lectures focused on early modern Waldensian cartography, namazu-e prints (i.e. Japanese disaster prints from the final decades of the Tokugawa Era), and a late 18th-century Japanese hanging scroll illustrating the efforts of three different groups of countrymen to extinguish a fire consuming a multi-storey pagoda (probably a subtle metaphor of broader cultural and medical comparativism). I tried to show how cultural differences and cultural encounters profoundly influenced early modern emotional responses to natural disasters (earthquakes, fires, etc.), conflicts, and collective experiences of displacement and exile, and the enduring memories they produced. A visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial provided further and poignant awareness of the tension between the inner life of emotions and their public and collective expression, apprehension, and standardization.

In Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (New York: Routledge, 2001) art historian James Elkins notes regretfully that for the most part professional scholars – perhaps worried they might comes across as unprofessional – claim to don a protective shell of earlier, preparatory readings when approaching a text or painting. This armour makes them invulnerable to any emotional faltering, laceration, or gushy sentimental involvement, which befit the ignorant, uneducated, or illiterate alone. Learning appears to kill emotion. (Elkins also relates how Ernst Gombrich once told him that despite writing a whole book about caricature, he had hardly ever smiled let alone laughed about it). And yet, Elkins concludes, history itself is an addiction and as such cannot be entirely unemotional. The meeting with graduate students at NJU, kindly organized by my delightful host Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang, provided the setting for a stimulating discussion about the emotional involvement of the researcher, in other words, the degree to which personal and identity-related motivations, and the feelings that attract us towards a particular area of research, as historians,, can take over and impact on the reliability of the research results themselves.

I am deeply grateful to Professor Antonia Finnane (the proactive coordinator of the Visiting Programme to NJU), to Professor Zhang Shen, Chair of the History Department at NJU, and to Professor Luo Xiaoxiang and all her colleagues and students for offering me such a wonderful opportunity for personal and intellectual development.

Fom left: MA student Zhan Shaowei, Prof Luo Xiaoxiang, Dr Giovanni Tarantino and MA student Zhao Yuqian

From left: MA student Zhan Shaowei, Prof Luo Xiaoxiang, Dr Giovanni Tarantino and MA student Zhao Yuqian

A brief report submitted by MA student Zhan Shaowei appeared in the NJU newsletter. Shaowei has kindly agreed to submit the following extended version in English for our Blog. His piece appears below.

Dr. Giovanni Tarantino’s Visit to Nanjing University

The “University of Melbourne Historians Forum” started at Nanjing University in November 2014. The theme of the lecture series was History and Memory. The first lecturer was Dr. Giovanni Tarantino from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Melbourne. During his visit to Nanjing, he gave two lectures, hosted by Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang from the History Department, entitled Early Modern Eastern and Western Emotional Responses to Fires and Associated Memories, and Emotions, Cartography and Memory. In the first lecture, Dr. Tarantino introduced his recent study about collective emotional responses to natural disasters, more specifically earthquakes and fires in Eastern and Western societies. Such responses, he showed us, are not merely instinctive, but are manipulated or influenced by social practice, cultural tradition, religious belief, or political propaganda. In both Western and Eastern societies, natural disasters were often interpreted in early modern times as divine punishment for corruption, disorder, or lack of morality in the secular world. In his second lecture, Dr. Tarantino introduced us to the “affective turn” in historical studies. We learned that the meaning of “emotion” has changed over time. Pleasure, pain, passion, and hatred have all played important roles in the historical process, and it is the historian’s job to find the “agency” of emotions, thereby adding a further dimension to our understanding of past society.

Besides the theoretical introduction to the history of emotions, the audience was also intrigued by the methodology of this new field. In his lectures, Dr. Tarantino showed us how prints and maps are interpreted and used in his studies. A scroll painted by Japanese scholar Shiba Kōkan, for example, shows, in the lower part, three men, respectively from Japan, China, and Holland, sitting around a table, while the upper part contains a representation of a burning pagoda. Different fire-fighting techniques – Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch – are also depicted by the painter. Compared to the buckets used by the Japanese and Chinese, the modern pump and hose used by the Dutch are obviously more effective. Shiba Kōkan seems to be acknowledging “Western” and “modern” techniques and knowledge. But in a small illustration in an anatomy book on the table, Dr. Tarantino also detected an element of parody of the Dutch. Self-criticism, we were reminded, does not mean self-denial. Tarantino offered a similarly thorough interpretation of Waldensian cartography. The illustrations, cartouches, and even the orientation of the maps are shown to have been carefully conceived by cartographers to convey important messages to viewers.

The lecture audiences were mostly graduate students and faculty staff from the fields of history and sociology. They expressed appreciation of the lectures and raised some interesting questions. The “history of emotion” is a very new concept for Chinese scholars and students, and the questions, content, and methods of Dr. Tarantino’s studies are completely different from traditional practices in Chinese academic life. As graduate history students, the two lectures gave us lots of food for thought, offering insight into one of the vanguard fields of historical studies, and encouraging us to interpret textual and visual materials in new ways.
3_Giovanni at NJUDuring Dr. Tarantino’s visit to our university, Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang also arranged a student meeting. About 10 graduate students from the field of Chinese history met Dr. Tarantino on Wednesday afternoon. The meeting started with an introduction to the “Robbers Cave Experiment” (an experiment in social psychology conducted in the United States in the 1950s). After showing us a marble similar to one found by a graduate student when visiting the site of the camp, and which she invested with a meaning that most likely reflected her feelings, Dr. Tarantino raised the question of subjectivity and objectivity in historical studies. The meeting then turned into a progress report. Each student introduced their research interest and master thesis topic. In turn, Dr. Tarantino made suggestions, especially about how to relate our topics and materials to emotion. The meeting provided a valuable chance for us to talk about our own researches and studies with foreign scholars. We were all grateful to our department and the University of Melbourne for having organized this academic exchange activity.

Zhan Shaowei
MA student, Department of History, Nanjing University

Peaceful or love-mad? Happy Valentine’s Day…

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1484–1486. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

According to Wikipedia, St. Valentine’s day, possibly celebrating the early Christian Valentine who performed marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry, first became associated with romantic love in the time of Chaucer; and in the Victorian period, in addition to the other tokens we would recognize today, lovers were giving each other keys meant to unlock the heart’s secret, as well as to children, to ward off Valentine’s malady – epilepsy. How did epilepsy come into symbolic contact with romantic love?

Plato’s notion of two loves, the good love—Urania, the heavenly Aphrodite—and bad love, Pandemia or earthly love—holds the key to two opposed concepts of love which are equally crucial for the thought and art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Western Europe. The first views love as a divine force and the only way for Man to transcend the limitations of this world; the second, as a dangerous physical, mental and spiritual condition, and a threat to Man’s sanity and salvation .This dichotomy runs deep in medieval and Renaissance thought and art, and it should come as no surprise that it is still with us today.

Clearly, love and loss of equilibrium go together, and not everyone was happy to idealise the spiritual rewards of love’s suffering. Fear of love is the second most important attitude to love in Medieval and Renaissance societies, diametrically opposite to the attitude which idealised it. Medieval Renaissance medical and theological treatises consistently portray love as a condition which can lead to weakness and death. Galen describes the symptoms in the second century AD and recommends sex as a cure, as does Constantine the African in On Melancholia and Sexual Intercourse in the eleventh century.  Andreas Capellanus, Bernard de Gordon, Timothie Bright, Jacques Ferrand, Robert Burton, Pierre Petit and other medieval and early modern thinkers also catalogue love’s torments and devote much attention to cures, some of which are quite outlandish, such as rubbing the patient’s genitals with gall of cramp fish, or beating him until he begins to rot.

Christian works on spirituality treat love madness as lust, one of seven deadly sins, which should be resisted rather than sought. And since the story of Genesis links women’s agency in the medieval mind, the joint workings of the medical and theological discourses contribute to love madness (and women, who cause it) becoming viewed as a source of danger that virtuous men should avoid. Early modern treatises on mental and spiritual health –Thomas Adams’ Diseases of the Soule (1620) and Mystical Bedlam, or the World of Mad Men (1621), Phineas Fletcher’s Joy in Tribulation (1632) or Richard Overton’s Man’s Mortalitie (1643) all treat erotic love of women as a thing of the Devil. This, of course, is in delightful contrast with the poetic discourse of courtly love and Petrarchism, which accord women beatific and salutary powers.

As a result, Renaissance love poetry is never at peace with itself and teems with frustration, pain and violence towards the woman it purports to adore. It is the vitality and power of this contrast that speaks to us of love across the centuries— and goes a certain way towards explaining love’s eternal relevance.

by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Danijela Kambaskovic of The University of Western Australia.  For more information on work on the subject of ‘Love’ within CHE, visit the deliciously named ‘Love Cluster‘ of researchers working on this complex emotion.

From medieval Bergen with love

Posted by Kimberley-Joy Knight

See also Kimberley’s article on Valentine’s Day gifts at The Conversation

This week the British Museum Shop has been running a Valentine’s Day competition to win afternoon tea with bubbly – all you have to do to enter is tweet them what inscription you would engrave on a love token. I couldn’t resist: my research on love tokens has uncovered so many emotionally charged statements of affection and desire that it wouldn’t be difficult to find inspiration.

Some of my favourite medieval love inscriptions are not found on expensive jewelry or precious objects, but on small scraps of wood. These sticks are inscribed with runes and have been found across Scandinavia. Many inscriptions were discovered in Bergen after a fire in 1955 razed part of the historical wharf to the ground. In the aftermath of the fire, archaeologists began to excavate the area discovering items of everyday life including leather goods, ceramics, jewelry, objects relating to craft, and metal items. In 1956, the first runic inscription on a piece of wood was discovered and many others followed until around 600 had been collected.

Bergen by night. Wikimedia Commons.

Bergen harbour by night. Wikimedia Commons.

A significant number of medieval runic inscriptions contain messages that provide an insight into licit and clandestine interactions. These disposable inscriptions range from the sexually crude, to expressions of unrequited love, homosexuality, adultery and betrothal, and demonstrate the ways in which love and desire were communicated in the high Middle Ages.

Some of the rune sticks from Bryggen appear to have been inscribed in the moment. One thirteenth-century inscription on a 14cm scrap of flat wood reads simply: ‘My darling, kiss me!’

B17 My darling, kiss me

Other inscriptions appear to have been carefully composed, containing both rhythm and rhyme:

B118 Love me I love you

Not all runic inscriptions were in the vernacular. Some rune carvers took their inspiration from Virgil, inscribing Omnia vincit amor (love conquers all), into their sticks.

Such intriguing communications revealed in these inscriptions add a valuable dimension to the study of emotion as they are free of the binding conventions of literary narrative and present a faithful picture of how love and desire were expressed and enacted. Just as love tokens can be mnemonic devices that can transport us across time and space by evoking memories and eliciting emotions, these inscriptions conjure images of the people of Bergen exchanging their messages of affection.

Of course, these ‘twigs’ or ‘sticks’ are not love tokens in the traditional sense as they do not appear to have been treasured keepsakes. These inscriptions are more likely to have been disposable, perhaps not too dissimilar from our own Valentine’s Day cards. The messages that we write in Valentines cards might be poignant and filled with emotion on the 14th February and then thrown away by mid-March.

With so many wonderful inscriptions from which to choose, you might imagine that selecting a love inscription for the competition was difficult. It wasn’t. I adapted my favourite inscription which gives an insight into the emotions of a man who was conducting an adulterous affair with a woman:

B644 I love that man's wife

Thus, my entry for the love inscription competition read: ‘I love you so much that the fire feels cold.’ What better way is there to express burning love in a cold climate?

See all the entries to the British Museum Shop competition at #BMshopValentines

Tweet me your favourite love inscriptions @drkjknight


Brygge, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Brygge, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Affective Classroom Encounters

Image: The Carte de Tendre or Carte du Pays de Tendre, François Chauveau c 1654. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“All writers are mapmakers—writing is like a map”

(Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer)

Since the Arts Faculty at the University of Melbourne introduced PhD coursework three years ago, CHE has offered a graduate elective class.  While in previous years postgraduates have been able to take a course dealing with emotions and material culture, this year’s offering was focused loosely around cartography and the environment.

Map-making is an emotional and political issue and while maps seek to chart territory in a definitive way, they can be instruments of imperialism, imposing artificial and contested boundaries.  Beginning with a broad overview of emotions theory, students were introduced to some of the many beautiful old maps held at the State Library of Victoria by Dr. Anna Welch of the Rare Printed Collections Department.  As well as thinking about the aesthetics of the map as a material object, Anna introduced students to controversies surrounding mapping and naming, using Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia as a case study.  Highlighting the suppression of Flinders’ maps during his imprisonment and the privileging of those drawn up by the rival Baudin expedition, Anna guided us through the fraught process of naming, and thus taking possession, of land.

The appropriation (and at times erasure) behind cartography formed a significant component of Giovanni’s work on the persecution of the Waldensians in the late seventeenth century and the ways in which maps were harnessed as weapons of oppression (see Giovanni’s new article “Mapping Religion (and Emotions) in the Protestant Valleys of Piedmont”, just published in ASDIWAL: Revue Genevoise d’Anthropologie et d’Histoire des Religions 9 (2014).  With a strong environmental thread running through the course, we also devoted a session to natural disasters and the cultural responses that can be evoked by floods, fires and earthquakes, while also thinking about how catastrophic events can change our understanding of the terrain very swiftly.

Key questions underpinning the course involved asking whether we are able to generalize about landscape, cartography and emotions across time and culture.  Students from a variety of scholarly backgrounds asked what it means to ‘discover’ a new territory, particularly when the land is already inhabited, while we also considered how cartography can be connected to ambition.  Other concerns included whether maps can generate a sense of belonging and/or comfort, and we also paid attention to geographies of fear, literary cartographies, as well as mapping, extinction and endangerment.

With student expertise spanning History of Art, Cultural Studies, Indigenous Studies, History, Criminology and Literary Studies, to name but a few, class debates were vigorous and wide-ranging.  Student projects ranged from a study of graffiti in Melbourne’s inner city, to an examination of chariot racing in the ancient world, thus offering a fascinating variety of perspectives on material that included social mapping, spatial politics and ideas of the sublime.  One student, Angelique Stastny, has written an account of her experience of the course (and a subsequent workshop for postgraduates and Honours students), which appears below.  You may also peruse a selection of short film clips in which students round off their experience of the course by applying emotions theory to something connected to their own research projects.  The presentations were universally excellent and while it isn’t possible to include them all here, thanks to CHE’s Lucy Burnett, we are able to offer some examples of the outstanding work by Melbourne’s affective cartographers.

Giovanni Tarantino & Grace Moore


Affective Cartography and Beyond: A Postgraduate Perspective
Angelique Stastny

I first found out about the Centre for the History of Emotions while enrolled in the PhD elective subject “Affective Cartography”, run by CHE researchers Dr. Grace Moore and Dr. Giovanni Tarantino, at the University of Melbourne. I have always been interested in the power of maps to control, colonize, shape emotions, and alter relations to people and to land, but also to reflect people’s worldviews that sparked my interest in this subject.
What I gained from “Affective Cartography” far exceeded my expectations. It introduced me to the thought-provoking history of emotions, of which I was previously unaware, and it opened up exciting new pathways for my research. Using history of emotions theories and methodologies for my PhD research on Indigenous re-empowerment through clan- and community- based education in Australia and New Caledonia has made me consider places as agents of emotional and relational change and explore the emotional legacy of institutions on cultures and people.

With the hope of exploring further the potential of the theory and methodology of emotions for my own research, I subsequently attended the two-day workshop for Prospective Students in the History of Emotions held at the University of Melbourne in December 2014. This gave me the chance to learn more about the Centre and to meet some of its staff. The two days of the workshop comprised informative sessions on the Centre’s research programs and staff (including the enlightening contributions by current postdoctoral and postgraduate members). The time allocated between sessions to mingle with fellow postgraduate students from across Australia was equally enriching. But what made this unique event stand out was the sheer enthusiasm and intellectual excitement of the speakers. Their passionate and energetic presentations pointed to the great dynamism of the Centre and made it very attractive to prospective CHE researchers. Inclusive, eclectic, supportive, and inspiring; these are impressions that many attendees may have shared regarding CHE. The multi-disciplinarity of CHE and its sense of being a work in constant progress are, I believe, among its strongest assets.

With a tremendous impetus for the development of a ground-breaking project and rich in its diversity, the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions has garnered the key ingredients of an academic community with a promising  and vital future.

Crocodile Tears

CHE Senior Research Fellow at Grace More.

CHE Senior Research Fellow  Grace Moore.

Last Monday I visited a crocodile sanctuary in Queensland’s far north.  Or so I thought.  I should say at the outset of this post that I have a conflicted attitude towards zoos at the best of times. I find it hard to reconcile their important role in conserving rare breeds with the ways in which captive animals are turned into a spectacle.  Of course, the zoos of today are very different from the caged enclosures of my childhood, and I am lucky in that I live close to a well-run zoo in which the animals seem happy and well cared for.  Nevertheless, going to the zoo remains an emotional experience for me and, as the parent of a young child who wants to learn about wildlife, I find myself visiting them more frequently than I would otherwise.

Mesmeric, terrifying and sublimely majestic, crocodiles are the exemplar of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.  With their extraordinary power, their great stealth and their clear link back to the prehistoric, these merciless predators are living reminders of how little control we are able to exercise over the natural world.  Crocodiles can clear beaches and render rivers no-go areas and, as the Australian ecofeminist Val Plumwood reminds us, human beings are their ‘major prey species’.

For anyone working in ecocritical studies in Australia, the slightest reference to a crocodile is deeply resonant, immediately recalling Plumwood’s famous and near-fatal encounter in the Kakadu Wetlands.  Plumwood’s account moves between the crocodile’s great beauty to the total abject terror of being caught in a death roll:

Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience    beyond words of total terror. The crocodile’s breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim’s resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll.

What is clear from Plumwood’s analysis of her experience is her sense of her own position in food chain and her deep respect for the creature that so nearly took her life.  While the rangers who eventually found her were eager to shoot a crocodile (any crocodile, it would seem) in an act of vengeance, Plumwood protested vehemently against any form of counter attack.  For her, what took place in the Kakadu National Park was a ‘humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability’.  It was a reminder that we are not the only predators on earth and that what we perceive as our exquisitely civilized behavior is simply a mask for the fact that we are pieces of meat, just like other animals.

Plumwood’s haunting account echoed in my mind as we arrived at the crocodile sanctuary.  I’ve seen captive Nile crocodiles in the past and have been amazed by their strength and the grace with which they move through the water.  Having never seen a fully-grown saltwater crocodile, I was intrigued by what lay ahead.  However, it turned out that the sanctuary was only one part of the story and where I had expected to feel awe-inflected horror at the majesty of individual beasts, what I found was mostly abjection.

Crocodile farming took off in Australia in the 1960s and 70s, partly in a bid to combat poaching, which had seriously depleted numbers in the wild.  While marketed as a sanctuary, the park that we visited on Monday is also a commercial crocodile farm, where the animals are bred primarily to satisfy the European luxury goods market’s demand for skins.  The argument is that farming has saved the crocodile from extinction and that reserves in the wild have recovered as a consequence of the industrialization of the process. The reality for many of the crocodiles living in Australia today is bleak and raises questions about continuity of a species versus the quality of its life, which are certainly not specific to crocodile farming.

The farm I—accidentally—visited is divided into two halves.  One part is a wildlife park, where about twenty crocodiles swim in a large artificial lagoon.  Some of these creatures are almost ninety years old and the largest are almost five metres long.  Tourists cruise along the water in boats, while rangers demonstrate crocodilian might by dangling chicken carcasses for which the giant predators repeatedly and impressively snap.croc in lagoon

The other half of the enterprise is a farm.  Here, crocodiles are kept in concrete enclosures until they reach a particular length, at which point they are transferred to large tanks.  In the wild, crocodiles are fairly solitary creatures, but in farming situations they are clustered together, with some of the larger-scale operations housing as many as thirty thousand reptiles at any one time.

As small children gently stroked the belly of a very young crocodile, the tour guide explained that in two or three years the very skin that they were patting would be exported and would fetch multiple thousands of dollars.  In the wild crocodiles can live for as long as a century, but a farmed crocodile is unlikely to live beyond four years.  Hearing the guide speak with great affection of some of the older crocodiles housed in the sanctuary, I asked, ‘don’t you ever become attached to any of them?’  ‘Yes’, she responded, ‘those on the other side definitely have character and we all have our favourites.  Here…we know not to become attached’.
crocs in concrete
While the guide spoke with great animation and passion of the creatures swimming around the lagoon, her coping strategy when speaking of the farmed crocodiles was to refer to them as ‘products’, even though these significantly younger animals were of exactly the same species.  This labelling is an important part of what Plumwood (following Carol Adams) has termed a ‘radical disassociation’ (Environmental Culture, 157) which allows us to turn a living, breathing creature into a commodity.  On one side of the park were crocodiles, while on the other there were leather goods and this distinction legitimized the difference in the treatment meted out to the animals.  By seeing the crocodiles as what they will become, rather than what they are now, their keepers are able to preserve a form of emotional distance.  It is, after all, difficult to feel compassion for a pair of shoes.

As an outsider (and a vegetarian), I was struck by the segregation at play in the sanctuary and the rigorous emotional control that those who work there must have to exercise.  Crocodiles are dangerous creatures, but they also have an important role to play in Australian ecology.  In Cairns any crocodile who is discovered is removed to a sanctuary or a farm where it can no longer pose a danger to the public, but this process is also altering the ecological balance of local waterways in ways that may not be healthy in the long-term.

Plumwood is very helpful in attempting to think all of this through in that she points to our discomfort at the prospect of being another creature’s prey, thus undermining our sense of ‘mastery’ over the world.  The crocodile thus becomes a ‘public danger’ or a pest and, as Deborah Bird Rose has noted, ‘Many thoughtful persons have noted that once an animal is declared “pest”, or “vermin”, or even “invasive”, something happens within the sensibilities of many humans.’*  It is, then, a short journey from ‘pest’ to ‘product’, albeit one that requires the suppression and manipulation of a wide range of emotional responses.

I don’t love crocodiles, but I’m happy to admire them—and the idea of them—from afar.  What Monday’s excursion reminded me is just how easy it is to suppress emotional reactions and how doing so can lead—often unwittingly—to cruelty and exploitation.

* Deborah Bird Rose has written brilliantly—using the work of Emmanuel Levinas—on the boundaries between the human and the animal and how they are manipulated when compassion is inexpedient. See, in particular, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (2011). See http://deborahbirdrose.com/ for more on this.

A Year with Bluestone: An Emotional History

BluestoneEmotions are everywhere. We most commonly think of them as governing inter-personal relationships; or, as much CHE research is showing, as driving political and historical change.  But as many contemporary thinkers are realising, the “human” is not the only category to think with.

Aligned with work in the environmental humanities and eco-materialism, one of my research projects for CHE is a cultural and affective, or emotional history of human relationships with stone. But it is also very much a local history, as the particular stone I am concerned with is the volcanic basalt — commonly called bluestone — that spreads over much of the state of Victoria, and that has become such a distinctive feature of the built environment, both in rural Victoria and the city and suburbs of Melbourne.

As a volcanic stone, basalt has undergone violent transformation from molten lava to the solid round boulders that spread from south-western Victoria to the western and northern suburbs of Melbourne. These boulders are typically held together by sticky black clay (even this Merri Creek mud is famous, used as the basis for the cricket pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1859). The basalt plains of Victoria are the third largest in the world. In the built environment, bluestone is characteristically cut into long rectangular blocks or square pitchers. It is a hard and unyielding stone that resists carving into decorative or figurative features. Yet even in its most common appearance as a building block, bluestone has some very evocative and emotional associations that are crucial to Victorian history, and local understandings of, and feelings about heritage culture. Bluestone “frames” Melbourne, in the foundations of many buildings, the basis for many iron railings and fences, the laneways that are such a distinguishing feature both of its central business district and its suburbs, and in the kerbs and trims of so many of its roads, to say nothing of its use in some of its most distinctive buildings and landmarks: Pentridge Prison, St Patrick’s Cathedral and other churches, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Grammar School. Regional Victoria also boasts significant numbers of bluestone gaols, churches and other buildings.

The book I am writing will constitute an emotional history of the way people have worked with this natural phenomenon, shaping their world with it, and reflecting on its characteristic features and affects.

Many of the earliest bluestone buildings in Victoria, for example, were built from bluestone quarried by convict labour. The irony of prisoners cutting bluestone blocks to form the walls of their own prisons is inescapable. Made of this very dark stone, bluestone prison walls seem particularly forbidding, though as a former prison guard at Pentridge explained to me, the stones of the prison cells were so large, and fitted so neatly, it was relatively easy to pull the stones out and escape.

The architecture of the original Pentridge site is a curious mixture. Its imposing front entrance with its crenellations and circular towers invokes a medieval fortress, while inside it is modelled on Jeremy Bentham’s ‘modern’ panopticon: archaeologists have recently uncovered the bluestone foundations of the old exercise yards: high walled wedges of a circle with a surveillance tower at the centre. One guard could see all the prisoners, but none of them could see each other.

The front gate of the famous Pentrage Prison.

The front gate of the famous Pentridge Prison.


After Pentridge was closed in 1997, much of the vast site in Coburg was sold to private developers to build housing stock. One developer consciously modelled his estate — Pentridge Piazza — on Italian walled towns, preserving many of the bluestone walls as features. As one resident explained, living at Pentridge is “like being someone special.” House prices increase, the closer they are to the original walls. In the context of the housing market, any gloomy penal associations have been displaced by the cultural capital of heritage and tradition.

In other contexts, however, like modern heritage tourism, bluestone prisons like the old Melbourne gaol in Russell St actively capitalize on the haunted gothic associations of convicts, prison labour and executions. The famous Victorian bushranger Ned Kelly plays an important role here. Kelly spent time at Pentridge and the Melbourne gaol, where he was executed. He also spent time on the prison ship Sacramento, anchored in the port of Williamstown, the site of another bluestone quarry. Tourist guides at Williamstown claim that Kelly would have broken many of the bluestones used on the foreshore and in other buildings there. Of the millions of bluestones used in Victorian buildings, laneways and streets, it is irresistible to think of just a few of them bearing an individual touch. In the same way, I am regularly told the story of how certain bluestones, carved with prisoners’ initials, were taken from the old Melbourne gaol in 1930 as part of a project of building a sea wall at Brighton beach, as a depression-era work project. One of these stones is said to bear Kelly’s initials, too, though it is no longer visible.

Bluestone is often associated with the gothic, with penal culture, or the haunted past. But it is also linked to the prosperity of the state of Victoria in the gold rush and the flourishing of Melbourne in the second half of the nineteenth century. More recently it has become a sign of heritage culture and the symbolic value of the past. Bluestones carry a strong affective charge, and have the capacity to tell an intriguing story about a city’s sense of itself. They are regularly recycled and used in modern gardens and other projects, like the labyrinth made of bluestone according to an ancient design, made by local residents along the Merri Creek in Collingwood, and now become a site both for meditation and all-night parties.

A bluestone maze frequented by walkers of the Merri Creek trail.

A bluestone labyrinth frequented by walkers of the Merri Creek trail.

What can this particular stone tell us, then, about our relationship with our own environment, and our own history?
Over the course of this year, I am blogging my research into the affective history of bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria at http://stephanietrigg.blogspot.com.au/. Everyday I post a picture, or discuss an image or a reference to bluestone. CHE readers are warmly invited to follow this blog and send images and stories of bluestone by email to Stephanie Trigg or on Facebook or Twitter @stephanietrigg using #BluestoneCHE.

Emotion and Reason at the MLA

Jennifer Clement

Blog post Author and CHE Associate Investigator Jennifer Clement

I was in Vancouver to attend the recent Modern Language Association convention earlier this month, where I was lucky enough to pick up a two-volume paperback copy of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in Vancouver. Turning to the first page I find this sentence:

“In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility.”

That’s a quintessentially Calvinist way of thinking. For Calvin, humans are indeed worthless and miserable, but through fear they can move closer to God and recognize their need for grace. Calvin gives us a very dynamic understanding of the passions, in fact, because his Christian is always moving between fear and love, misery and hope, pride and repentance. So although the word “emotion” doesn’t come into general use until the end of the seventeenth century, there’s a sense in which it’s important for understanding early modern Calvinism, which is very much about the movement – the motions – of passions or affections (the two words Calvin himself, and his contemporaries, would have used).

At the MLA itself, a couple of days later, I attended one of the best panels there, on Shakespeare and religion. The best paper in the panel was Brian Cummings’, tracing the persistence of secularist assumptions in early modern literary studies. But most relevant to my aims here, he noted that, in modern scholarship, there is often a tendency to avoid thinking of Calvinism as a passionate faith, or Calvin as a writer who engages the emotions. And yet, Cummings said with truth, you can’t read more than a few lines of Calvin without running into the passions.

I was particularly excited to hear Cumming’s views because the panel I proposed and chaired for MLA, on early seventeenth-century English sermons and emotions, was designed precisely to focus on the central role played by the passions or affections in English mainstream Protestantism, which is certainly Calvinist even if not as reformed as most Continental churches (Philip Benedict’s book on Calvinism is a good source for understanding this history). It’s interesting to think about the roles of emotion and reason in these sermons because they usually work together, rather than being opposed as is often assumed. There are exceptions, of course – from the more Arminian or Laudian end, Launcelot Andrewes writes intense, highly allusive and intellectual sermons that don’t exactly prioritize emotion, although they also don’t avoid it altogether. And at the more Puritan end, the influence of Ramist techniques of sermon-writing can result in very dry, incredibly chopped-up and subdivided sermons that look appallingly dull as laid out on the page, even before one starts to read them.

But speaking generally, what we might call the average, mainstream clergyman of the early seventeenth century is going to care most about moving his congregation rhetorically, to help them towards salvation. It’s a longstanding truism that, to persuade effectively, you must move your audience’s emotions, and early modern sermons are, above all, rhetorical documents. We three panelists drew attention to various aspects of rhetorical performance in early modern sermons, aspects that clearly invoke emotions in varying ways.

My co-panelist Daniel Derrin focused on the role of humor in this process, a dicey topic because as I’ve written above, most Protestants tend to focus on the soul’s need for fear, sadness, and repentance. Collapsing the distinction between the humorous and the not-serious, Daniel argued that, in fact, humor in sermons could be very useful and, indeed, crucial for serious attempts at rhetorical persuasion. Daniel instanced the mockery directed at the Pope in early modern sermons, as well as towards ineffectual and boring sermonizing. And he made the audience laugh, which is always good! My other co-panelist, Emily King, took a more affect-theory inflected approach, arguing that affect contagion – a concept taken from current work in neuroscience – can help us understand what John Donne achieves in his famous sermon “Death’s Duel.” The gruesome images of corruption Donne includes in this sermon, Emily suggested, are part of an attempt to make his congregation feel fear and anguish, and to demonstrate these emotions through their tears.

My own paper focused very tightly on a conventional term repeatedly used by most clergymen in the seventeenth century as an address to the congregation, “beloved,” and asked what that term could tell us about the preacher’s own role in relation to his congregation. I argued that, by studying the uses of this term and its variations – “my beloved”, “dearly beloved”, and the like – we can recognize how much love, in early modern sermons, is most usefully understood as a kind of institutional emotion, rather than a personal one; and also that these sermons depict feeling in general as something that can be shaped and directed, and not simply as a force to which humans are helplessly subject. Put differently, sermons often accentuate a sense of agency in relation to emotion.

All of these topics would bear much further discussion; sadly there’s not room for it all, but in due course all our papers will probably see print. My point here is that all of us were interested in thinking about rhetoric as a technique for drawing emotion and reason together, and thinking about the possibilities and problems inherent in that technique. The seventeenth century church, in sermons, brings emotion and reason together through the sermon, in a way that – in spite of obvious differences – seems to me analogous to academic events like the MLA, because the MLA convention itself is an emotional space, an emotional event, as much as it is an intellectual one. This was my third MLA, and the first one where I wasn’t interviewing for a job. Because of the physical layout of the convention centre, in fact, a lot of the job interviewing took place in areas where I wasn’t going, so I was less conscious of the tense anxiety that always accompanies that part of the convention.

Which is not to say it wasn’t there. My husband, who also has a PhD, and who worked for years on short term contracts – he now works as support staff at another university and does research in his own time – turned his ID tag round and wrote on the back, in caps, “ADJUNCT WHO QUIT.” This drew a lot of attention, as you might imagine, some of it quite guilt-ridden, some of it approvingly amused. They were emotional responses, in other words, although that isn’t to say they weren’t rational responses as well. It seems to me important to remember that occasions like MLA bring together intense intellectual effort and equally intense emotional reactions. These conventions and conferences are occasions when we can think about the emotions involved in our intellectual work and careers, and what the conjunction of emotion and reason means when yoked together in a time of increased professionalism and pressures to produce more, faster, with fewer (if any) resources.

By CHE Associate Investigator Jennifer Clement

Good Fortune: 50 years of the New Fortune Theatre

On September 19 to 21 Bob White (CI) and Penelope Woods (Research Associate, UWA) attended the  spectacular opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre (Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski) in the Old Town of Gdańsk in Poland. On behalf of the Centre for the History of Emotions and UWA’s New Fortune Theatre, they made a presentation on the historic occasion to Professor Jerzy Limon, the distinguished Shakespeare scholar who more or less single-handedly raised the money to build the theatre. The opening was hailed by the European press as ‘one of the most important events since Poland gained its freedom 25 years ago’.

Reconstruction of the theatre based on the builder’s contract, drawn by W. H. Godfrey in 1907. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The spectacular building, costing some £18 million to construct, contains within it a recreation of the Elizabethan playhouse, the Fortune Theatre (1600), which is the prototype for UWA’s faithful reconstruction, the New Fortune Theatre, itself celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2014.

The Gdańsk theatre is built on or near the site of the seventeenth century Fencing School, an unroofed, galleried building used for fencing classes, bear baiting, and by visiting English actors in Shakespeare’s time. Dark Belgian brick on the windowless outer walls gives intimidating bulk against the skyline, while the interior is pale cream and light, constructed from Bulgarian marble and Polish birch. An engineering and architectural marvel, the theatre can be transfigured in many different ways, and there is a spectacular 90-tonne retractable roof that opens in three minutes to allow for daylight performances in good weather. The building was three-quarters funded largely by the European community, topped up by corporate sponsors and local authorities.

The opening attracted about 3,000 spectators outside, who watched an astonishing sound and light display around the ramparts and roof, while inside royalty and corporate magnates were regaled with speeches.

On the day following the opening there was a performance of Hamlet by the Globe Theatre, the 43rd stop on the ‘Globe to Globe’ tour of the play to every country in the world. The company will reach Australia in June 2015. On the following night, Bob attended the acclaimed one-man performance by Tim Crouch in ‘I Malvolio’.

Bob White and Penelope Woods

Bob White and Penelope Woods at the opening of the Gdański Teatr, showing pictures of the New Fortune Theatre at UWA.

Later in the month, the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre hosted the city’s 18th Shakespeare Festival, which has so far staged more than 200 different subtitled productions from 40-plus countries. Both the Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski and the Globe are part of the important European Shakespeare Festivals Network, which includes other reconstructed theatres and also ‘Hamlet’s Castle’ in Elsinore, Denmark.

Our Australian New Fortune Theatre is internationally hailed and coveted by theatre historians as one of the earliest and most important of such reconstructions. Built from the dimensions given in the Fortune Playhouse contract of 1600, the New Fortune Theatre at UWA offers an accuracy of dimension and layout that the reconstructions of the Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, VA or the Globe Theatre in London cannot, since the contracts for these buildings did not survive. With the erosion over some years of the drama and theatre studies staffing at the University of Western Australia, and the current trend for the monetization of University spaces, this asset is currently underutilized and undervalued.

CHE, together with the Graduate Drama Society (GRADS) and the Faculty of Arts at UWA, however, have been working hard to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the New Fortune (and Shakespeare’s 450th birthday) and to raise its profile at UWA and Australia. We organized an historic collaboratory in 2011, ‘Performing Old Emotions on the New Fortune Stage’, which involved the world’s most important theatre historians who had themselves been involved in reconstructions, material and digital. This was followed in 2012 by the international conference, Shakespeare and Emotions’, as a collaboration between CHE and the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association and the arrival of the internationally acclaimed Two Gents Production Company from London via Harare (or vice versa) in February 2013 to perform The Two Gentleman of Verona  and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet. These performances were accompanied by a special re-performance by Perth’s celebrated Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company of the five sonnets they translated in Noongar and performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012.

On 29 January 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the day of the very first performance in 1964 of Hamlet, an official ceremony celebrated the occasion, and was followed by a full season of Hamlet by GRADS. Pen and Bob, with Steve Chinna, taught an honours course in first semester on “Fortune Theatres Old and New” in which Merridee Bailey (Adelaide) participated as a distinguished visitor. Pen raised funds through the UWA Arts Faculty, Cultural Precinct and CHE to build a ‘tiring house’ on the stage which has since been used for various theatre research experiments, and Steve has recently directed a spectacular ‘chopped’ version of Titus Andronicus.

On 14 November the celebrated director Aarne Neeme delivered the Second New Fortune Lecture-Performance (the Inaugural one was given by John Bell). His title, ‘Fortune Tellers: Shakespeare and Dorothy Hewett’ recalls his own productions over thirty years, and valorizes Hewett, a former member of staff in English at UWA, whose plays are powerful, spectacular and unjustly neglected.  Enjoy a video recording of the 50th Anniversary lecture/performance here.

In these and other ways, we are trying to persuade the University that the New Fortune is as historically significant and worthy of investment as ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ and ‘Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski’. It is not only a priceless heritage site, ideal for diverse community involvement, but also remarkable in its unused potential as a thriving theatre space for Elizabethan and contemporary, experimental, Australian, and Asian drama; as well as being ideal for teaching and researching the theatrical dynamics and emotions of early drama on a faithfully reconstructed stage.

by Chief Investigator Bob White.

(Ab)Using Brian Massumi

This post is a revised version of a short paper from the ‘Emotions Work in the Historical Past’ workshop, University of Melbourne, November 13, 2014.

Posted by Grace Moore


On Thursday September 13, 2001 Diana Pharoah Francis of the University of Montana Western posted a message to the Victoria list server, in which she said:


As I’m going to teach my Victorian class today, I plan to talk about the Indian Mutiny. I have been struck by the US response (personal rather than national) to the attack. In particular, as I try to make some sense of it for myself, I was thinking about how the British must have reacted to the news of the mutiny. I have been a member of the postcolonial listserv, and a number of people there have pointed out that the US foreign policy is largely responsible, and how did we expect them to react? It gets at the complexity of the issue, even as I can hardly bear to hear it.*


Francis, like many working in the humanities, turned to her work as a means of making sense of what had happened in the United States just two days before, and also possibly out of a need to make it meaningful in a time of crisis. Her posting led to a sequence of responses in which a number of Victorian scholars—some of them highly distinguished—played out their responses to 9/11, sometimes in a highly emotional manner. One contributor followed a tirade with the words, ‘I will no doubt apologize for this outburst in a week or so…’, unable to stop himself, all the same.


I recall, at the time, feeling a great sense of pathos, peppered with despair, when reading some of these messages. On the one hand it seemed as though the scholarly rigour of the list had been compromised or contaminated through attempts to tease out transhistorical parallels, while on the other I experienced deep discomfort in watching list members deal with their shock and grief in this semi-public manner. More than a decade on, these messages have stayed with me in a way that the—sometimes hundreds of—other posts I receive from the list-server each week have not. And over the last couple of years, that issue of the transhistorical parallel has become a type of intellectual sticking point for me, as I’ve leaned on Brian Massumi’s work on the ontology of threat to explore literary—and sometimes literary-historical responses to bushfires.


To date I’ve used Massumi for two projects. The first is a co-authored piece on John Kinsella’s 2013 poem ‘Bushfire Approaching’, a work that uses fire in the Western Australian wheatbelt as a means of exploring broader issues of climate change and extinction. The second is an exploration of emotional responses to arson in Anthony Trollope’s 1872 novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil and a handful of short stories about arson from the nineteenth-century Australia periodical press.


Massumi’s essay, ‘The Future Birth of the Affective Fact’, has been incredibly useful for both pieces because of its exploration of trauma and what he calls the ‘anticipated threat’. The annual seasonal menace of the bushfire makes Massumi’s work on the fear of future catastrophe a near perfect fit for the work I’ve been engaged in, with its heavily traumatized characters and cyclical disasters. He writes:


Threat is from the future. It is what might come next. Its eventual location and ultimate extent are undefined. Its nature is open-ended. It is not just that it is not: it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with it. Even if a clear and present danger materializes in the present, it is still not over. There is always the nagging potential of the next after being even worse, and of a still worse next again after that (53).


Taken in isolation, this analysis seems to lend itself perfectly to a reading of JS Borlase’s bleak little story, ‘Twelve Miles Broad’ in which an act of arson leads to a dramatic suicide, causing the survivors to abandon their home because they can no longer live either with the memories that it evokes or with their deep fear of future bushfires. Massumi writes beautifully of what he calls the ‘smoke of future fires’, reading the fire alarm through the semiotician Charles Peirce as an ‘index’ which ‘acts upon the nerves of the person and force(s) his attention’ (64). For the survivor of a fire who returns to the site of the home, there are usually two possible responses. One is what the fire historian Tom Griffiths has identified as a type of willed amnesia, in which the memory of the fire is contained by casting it as a freak event, something unnatural that can never happen again. The other is to live in what Massumi identifies as a state of heightened arousal, endlessly fearing the next disaster, interpreting the merest whiff of smoke as a signifier of impending catastrophe.


My major stumbling block is that Massumi is not, of course, writing about bushfires in the late nineteenth century, nor is he concerned with the West Australian wheatbelt. Rather, his work is engaged very specifically with the climate of paranoia, uncertainty and terror which followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. His theories of anticipated disaster were formulated in response to the visceral fears of New Yorkers in the days and months that followed that terrible September day. A world in which white powder signified anthrax and in which when a plane crashed in New York City two months later, a witness was quoted as saying, “I heard the explosion and I looked out the window and saw the flames and the smoke and I just thought, ‘Oh no, not again’.”


Massumi, then, is and is not a perfect fit for my research and, while I continue to use him, I’m troubled by a sense of scholarly irresponsibility in using work that is so politically, historically and geographically specific to unpack responses to very different forms of fire. The question which began at the back of my mind, and which is pushing itself increasingly to the forefront is, ‘Does trauma “translate”?’, or can there be such a thing as a transhistorical emotion?


Ann Kaplan’s Trauma Culture a 2005 work that she describes as a ‘belated’ response to 9/11 offers me some legitimacy here and it is to Kaplan that I am indebted for the idea of emotional ‘translation’. Kaplan herself is a New Yorker and writes very movingly and personally about her traumatized reactions to the two smoking towers. Kaplan is mostly concerned with what she calls ‘quiet trauma’ (or the very personal), but she argues compellingly that disaster can cause history, memory, time and space to collapse into one another. To support this idea, she analyzes how the terror attacks caused flashbacks to her childhood in the London of the Blitz, bringing long-buried fears to the surface one more, combining with her more immediate trauma and leading to a dread of what the future might hold. Kaplan is not alone here, and New York Holocaust survivors have also spoken of being plunged back into memories of traumas past, while at the same time living with what Massumi terms the ‘ontology of threat’—a threat that is both real, but also manufactured and manipulated by politicians and the media (and I’ve written elsewhere on John Howard’s rather cynical attempts to draw parallels between the attacks of 2001 and the Canberra bushfires of 2003 through his notion of the ‘summer terror’.


What Massumi and Kaplan show us, I think, is that trauma is a very mobile response, in which reactions to the present collapse into those of the past, and in which the suddenness of an event can lead to a type of catastrophic anxiety in relation to the future. Kaplan tells us, ‘Trauma can never be “healed” in the sense of a return to how things were before a catastrophe took place, or before one witnessed a catastrophe; but if the wound of trauma remains open, its pain may be worked through in the process of its being “translated” via art’ (19). Whether trauma is an historically transferrable emotion remains for me an open question that sits uncomfortably alongside my engagement with Massumi.


On an obvious level, we live in a media age, which saturates us with images of disaster—for some this leads to vicarious or secondary trauma, in which empathy for unknown suffers can be overwhelming. For others, over-exposure to disaster leads to a state of anesthaesia, in which it becomes impossible to feel anything. While I can read about fictional and actual bushfire survivors from the nineteenth century, I remain uncertain about what they felt; about whether the fear they experienced in the menacing Australian bush was the same as the terror I feel when a kookaburra cackles through the wilderness. Certainly, while I identify many of my subjects as ‘traumatized’, they wouldn’t have labeled themselves in this way and I find myself endlessly troubled by my own historical situatedness as I try to capture emotions in history. The J.S. Borlase story that I mentioned before ends with the narrator voicing fears for his wife’s endangered ‘reason’, which to me signals deep trauma. Yet in a Victorian context, the mechanisms for dealing and not dealing with this emotional response are so different from those of today, that I must also ask how useful it is to anachronistically impose the term ‘trauma’ upon people and characters of the period.


To end somewhere close to where I began, I want to go back to the Indian ‘mutiny’ of 1857.** It was an event that, like 9/11 elicited highly emotive and very public responses, in which writers and thinkers including Charles Dickens responded to what was essentially a military insurrection that got out of control by advocating mass genocide. The parallels between the events of September 2001 and the subsequent wrath of the Bush administration are tempting here (and I’m using the term wrath with a strong awareness that it is for the most part an historically-bound emotional response). Diana Francis and those responding to her post were mostly able to situate themselves in relation to a critique of US cultural imperialism. The ‘mutiny’ was very much a media event, in which erroneous reporting whipped up a racist furore in England (albeit much more slowly than the real time in which CNN dramatizes disaster). As with 9/11, there were clear signs for those who were willing to see them that some sort of uprising was inevitable. Yet, what makes me pause with both this unwieldy comparison of events separated by more than 150 years, and my application of Massumi, is the question of shame.


Queen Victoria’s immediate public response to events of May and June 1857 was to declare a day of national fasting and humiliation, and more than 150 churches opened their doors to members of the public who wished to humble themselves. For the Victorians, this event was an expression of divine disapproval (and large-scale fires were often interpreted in the same way). The acceptance of shame, if not responsibility, was part of their grieving and healing process and a much more wholesale, visceral and public experience than the way we express shame today. I can say, ‘I am ashamed of British/American/Australian foreign policy’, but it would not occur to me to express that shame through starvation and abjection, actions which are both personal and collective and which might, it occurs to me, be cathartic too.


It is here, then, that I see and feel historical distinctions and an embodied emotional response that is deeply alien. With that knowledge, I need to continue to question the utility and responsibility of myself collapsing disasters into one another, and to accept that the historical emotion might be elusive and inscrutable, even while I continue to chase it.


*I am grateful to Diana Pharoah Francis for permission to cite her post to the VICTORIA-L listserv


**I use this term because this is what the Victorians called the event now known as the first Indian War of Independence.


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