CASUALTY OF THE CULTURE WARS.
Andrew Riemer's contribution to the genre of the academic memoir is professedly modest. It falls under two high Victorian subtitles: `A Sentimental Education', the young Andrew's romance with the canon of English literature; and `Culture and Anarchy', his mature-age summation of the imperium centre and its loss of centrality. Sydney undergraduate years in sandstone neo-Gothic buildings, followed by postgraduate studies in London redbrick, only led him away from the true romance of Oxford's `dreaming spires' and now to his thoroughgoing disillusionment with the academy and institutionalised Eng Lit.
Riemer rehearses his role as a bit-player in not one, but two culture wars -- the Leavisite invasion of the English Department at the University of Sydney in the 1960s, and the takeover by a troika of isms -- feminism, postmodernism, postcolonialism -- in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Whereas Leavisism came up from Melbourne and in due course retreated to its natural environment in the south, the isms seem to have arrived without warning from all over and to be resisting attempts to blow them away.
Riemer recalls his student days at Sydney University in the 1950s in images of a fascinating Anglophilia, the longing for England that pervaded and shaped post-World War II Australian intellectual culture. For Riemer, the child of emigre parents from Budapest, ambivalence rules inside academe's Anglophiliac discourse of English Literature, and a conflicting current of ambivalence besets relations to the Sydney milieu outside the bulwark of virginia-creeper covered sandstone. He is still striving to understand the consequences of such contradictory alienations:
Throughout the years of my academic life I did not attach any particular significance to these areas of literature that engaged my interests -- whereas my academic engagement with Dickens and Wordsworth, Milton and Keats, Austen and Tennyson was merely cerebral and professional, in the way that a construction engineer might be fascinated with the materials he uses without feeling the least emotional attachment to steel and concrete. Only latterly, as I have been making sense of this, have I come to suspect the deep, perhaps disturbing explanation for that phenomenon.
Particularly early on in his days as a student, Riemer sees himself as a pretender; someone who has a facility with language and ideas, and is thus able to mimic literary criticism -- but not a person who is really at home in this discourse, or its institutions. Discovering Renaissance drama, however, does makes his pulse race, engaging his feeling and leading to `academic work of a higher calibre, even perhaps of value'. After completing an undergraduate degree and surviving a teaching stint at Sydney University -- brushing with Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and Jill Ker -- Riemer, at twenty-five, sets off for London, initially aiming for Oxford but swerving at the last minute. In London `another nostalgic imitation' occupied him for three years of a doctoral dissertation on an obscure renaissance dramatist (though not his preferred choice). He comes to enjoy living in the city of London, becomes acquainted with the peculiarities of late-imperial manners, and even finishes his thesis despite the near absence of any interest from his bibulous supervisor.
Equipped with his meal-ticket, Riemer returns to the neo-Gothic scene of English australised at the University of Sydney to take up a lectureship. However, times have changed. Samuel Louis Goldberg is appointed to the Challis Chair and, accompanied by his trusty lieutenants, he brings the Cambridge disease to infect the Sydney Oxfordians. Criticism and passionate discrimination of a tiny canon of literary works vies with historically based scholarship and research. In this version of the primal scene of contemporary literary studies (compare this with John Docker's far more racy account in his 1984 In A Critical Condition) what follows is a late vindication of Wilkes, Riemer and others' rout of the overreaching Leavisites. Riemer reads the events as Elizabethan melodrama, at times bordering on Shakespearean tragedy with Goldberg's fatal flaw undoing him in the end. Goldberg and Maggie Tomlinson are evil and power-hungry; decent people are silent, afraid to confront the interlopers; Wilkes is a consummate poker-faced player in the groves of academe but civilised and ethical -- his silence, it is hinted, wells up from a professional rectitude not shared by his opponents. Wilkes's ultimate triumph was achieved by gaining the numbers, but it was ordained by the university hierarchy. Riemer records his sympathy with many of Goldberg's innovations (curriculum reform, ensuring that students have access to texts that are being studied, promise of a better-organised and systematic degree). He fundamentally disagrees however with what he sees as the Leavisite abandonment of professional detachment and the spirit of civilised tolerance.
Order restored on page 178 of Riemer's reminiscences, we are only given another forty-odd pages to bring us into the present day. In the wake of the Leavisites, Riemer is able to become a modestly accomplished teacher and scholar -- at least until the early 1990s when it all becomes too much: bureaucracy's relentless march overtakes him, the literary canon is transformed, the poorly educated theory-lovers reign, and teachers and students call each other by their first names. A bit too democratic really, as Riemer makes plain at the outset with an epigraph from Don DeLillo's White Noise: `It's amazing how many people teach these days'. Riemer escapes into the `public cultural sphere', to a second career reviewing and writing books that are more widely read.
This resolution to Riemer's memoir raises intriguing questions of its employment. In his book, Riemer convincingly anatomises the project of Australia as an outpost of England, and English, and the effects this has had on his own life. But the associated nostalgia persists, particularly when, in his view, he has become fully assimilated. Thus he wishes to preserve what he takes to be the kernel of the English inheritance:
I believed that beneath what seem to be mere posturing and vanity lay values and commitments that our society would not abandon while English continued as the centre of our imaginative and social life. We sensed that if the experience of many centuries which that language had preserved and embedded in writers' imaginations were allowed to atrophy, our lives -- both individual and communal -- would contract into a kind of barbarism.
In the late sixties and much of the seventies, Riemer cannot imagine that the barbarians are at the gate, but as the seventies dissolved into the eighties the centre cannot hold. Multiculturalism and multicultural students mean that assumptions about a common cultural heritage cannot be sustained. Riemer believes that this was the time when the old, Anglophiliac dispensation could have swallowed the new cultural diversity:
In the late seventies or the early eighties, when the fabric of academic life had not yet frayed entirely, when it could have been restored with careful mending, we should have thought strenuously about how to retain the capacity of an apparently irrelevant culture to support an emerging and confused society with little faith in the models of the past.
He believes that other academic disciplines managed to evolve the structures and institutions able to reconcile the old and the new, `to evolve structures and institutions capable of retaining the best and most relevant aspects of a linguistic heritage'.
English studies fumbled, however. `We became fragmented, quarrelsome and purposeless'; one of the reasons being the divide that grew between tradition Eng Lit and the emerging academic disciple of Oz Lit. Leonie Kramer is the representative figure here. Succeeding Wilkes in the chair of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney in 1968, the only such post in the country at that time, she attempted to `ensure that the study of Australian literature did not retreat into a ghetto', framing syllabuses that juxtaposed Oz Lit with the classics of European culture, Tolstoy, Melville, Mann, Dostoyevsky. According to Riemer, this program foundered on the shoals of post-colonial theory -- `dead white males were irrelevant to the experience of post-colonial Australia' -- and Kramer's wish to `command greater influence than the chair of Australian Literature, as she inherited it, exerted', hence her establishment of a separate department. The other explanation Riemer offers for the missed opportunity for English studies to renovate itself yet keep faith with the preservation and transmission of knowledge lies in the intellectual shallowness of the discipline: `the deep-seated dilettantism of the British model of academic literary criticism'. Riemer here observes a certain distance from some of his conservative colleagues who `ascribe the blame for the sorry state of literary studies in universities and elsewhere to certain contemporary fads: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism -- these terms are practically interchangeable in the public arena'.
A deep vein of ressentiment is exposed in Riemer's account. He is dismissive of those proposing that universities need to rethink their teaching and research -- particularly feminists and those concerned with migrants and ethnic minorities. He glibly singles out those with a view that universities need to be more inclusive, culturally diverse and fairer as radical `middle-class men and women of predominantly European ancestry', and engaged in a bit of political correctness (PC) polemic borrowed from North American literary academics. (In fact, it was the conservatives on the Australian scene who consciously sought to entrench their privilege by manufacturing the PC-panic rhetoric from uncritically swallowing whole the self-pleading of Dinesh D'Souza and others.) The cumulation of these woes for Riemer is the disintegration of the canon, the loss of scholarly standards, and the abandonment of the role of teacher as authority figure for debased gig as `moderators of discussion sessions'. He argues that the consequence of this erosion of values was that university administrations -- the deus ex machina of the Goldberg debacle -- lost faith in English departments, particularly Sydney's, and cut funding. The 1990s represent the endpoint of the undoing of the scholarly standards and professional ethics commenced by the corrosive Leavisite attacks in the 1960s. Other conservative critics see the political, social and countercultural revolutions of the 1960s as sowing the seeds of the collapse of traditional cultural values; for Riemer, the fall is projected onto the evil Leavisite incursion.
Riemer here and elsewhere in his memoir downplays the public and strident role he played during the 1980s and early 1990s in decrying such trends in literary studies, and fighting moves to reform the canon of works studied. Fresh from the department at Melbourne University where the Leavisite remnants had been routed by new theories of criticism, I found the atmosphere of the English Department at Sydney University in 1987 anything but civilised and tolerant; Wilkes, to name one, was intent on securing the citadel against the incursion of new theories and new generations of interlopers from the south (or elsewhere). Cultural critique that questioned the sources of the authority and power of the incumbents was particularly unwelcome. A decade or more later, pluralism does have a surer purchase in the department, with the result that alternative approaches can at least be debated openly, and even taught and researched.
A more interesting anomaly is what Riemer identifies as the lack that has fissured English studies: its reluctance to engage in ideas, its speculative urge. Riemer identifies two North American-trained lecturers who were appointed to the Sydney department at the same time he was in 1963 as being possessed of an unfamiliar rigour and preparedness to ask deep questions of literary studies. This is something he wistfully finds in his three famous contemporaries who make cameo appearances at key points in the book. Hughes, Greer and Conway, represent a `connectedness' and an intellectual achievement removed from the petty positioning of scholarly circuits of exchange. In retrospect, Riemer feels that his life as a university teacher `had encouraged a divorce from broader intellectual seams of a kind that Hughes and Greer had tapped into -- beyond institutions, it is true -- and Jill was also following, even though, to all intents and purposes, her career had taken her far from narrow concepts of academic life'. He daydreams of what might have been if the `complex cosmopolitan culture of Budapest' had survived the years after World War I, and finally finds himself, one presumes, as the reviewer and memoirist (his less spectacular version of The Road from Coorain).
Yet his exit into a realm outside the university raises some troubling questions. Riemer mourns the passing of the education he received in the 1950s, something that was reconstructed with the banishment of the Leavisites into a settlement that lasted into the 1980s. Yet his sense of loss amounts to something more than mourning, it rather more resembles melancholia -- an impossible mourning which does not end. And it is attached to the impossibility of ever really becoming a part of English culture. Riemer himself sounds the death-knell of this nostalgia, yet it persists as a consolatory vision. He suggests that a mix of the old and the new, English literary studies and the best of European culture, provides a way for high cultural practice in the face of a very different Australia from the way in which he was educated. One suspects, however, that Riemer wishes for the endurance of the arrangements -- for all their barren unadventureness -- in which he presided in the two-odd decades after Goldberg. Having achieved some measure of assimilation, a niche in the order, within sight of the sandstone signpost to the British empire, he did not wish to embrace an alternative path proposed by new entrants into institutions of Australian culture.
Riemer's book cries out to be read alongside two excellent histories of the literature as apparatus: Gauri Viswanathan's 1989 Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, which shows how modern academic conceptions of literary study were as much produced in the margins of empire, in the service of colonialism, as in merry old England; and Leigh Dale's 1997 The English Men: Professing Literature in Australian Universities, with its analysis of the Leavis debacle as an instance of how `what is most bitterly contested is that which is radically proximate, the "other" in which we can see our self' -- in particular the self in which `professional identity plays a central role'.
Perhaps what is most troubling for Riemer is that feminism, post-colonialism, postmodernism, and even changes in the governance and functions of university, do offer different ways to understand the self that displace the older models he found so attractive yet constraining. They also offer the sorts of `connectedness' to other realms and other cultures, that Riemer has found in reviewing and non-scholarly writing, or he feels his much admired Hughes and Greer have found in their own ways. Riemer values the way that the direction that Ker Conway's life has taken `did not entail conflict between the intellectual and the practical, the academic and the corporate', and how this may be a sign that `in certain parts of North America at least, university people were not as isolated from or hostile to the outside world as many Australians were in my experience'. Yet he has earlier cited criticisms of Leonie Kramer's role as an `influential public figure', without making quite clear how he views this. (Certainly no mention here, either, of the more radical version of the literature professor as public intellectual that Veronica Brady, among others, might represent.) The developments Riemer criticises are those very forces that are bringing out different linkages between universities and public cultural realms, and offering different ways to engage in the world than the pilgrimage to the mother country. Part of their attraction is the promise of academics being able to engage rigorously, robustly and ethically with ideas in their teaching and research, while also circulating in other public spheres. Meaning perhaps that one does not have to wait until retirement before reinventing oneself as public intellectual.
Gerard Goggin really is finishing a doctorate on British Romantic literature in the English Department, University of Sydney. His e-mail address is: email@example.com.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
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