Poem: Snow falls on the suburban plain

Poem: Snow falls on the suburban plain

Here is a poem that I will before too long include in a collection titled Dr Cogito’s Rebellion.

Snow falls on the suburban plain.
I shelter, wrapped in a library of wool.
The prophecies of last winter
Stand unproven before me.

Was the doom of governments so sure?
Did the blood-dimm’d tide swell and fall
On the innocence of the world?
Who, if anyone, escaped the burning of books?

Ashamed of error, I dismiss my men
To walk stooped and love-shorn
To the silent shore of the undreamt world
Where I cast my runes again.

Who is Zarathustra with no omens?
Who will heed my hammered song?
As snow turns sleet turns rain,
The runes speak only of pain.


Jeff Rich


On the history and meaning of the eight hour day

On the history and meaning of the eight hour day

Today, something a little different.

I have been looking over my old digital writing files: fragments, half-done essays, pain-ridden diaries and so on.  This lifelong testimony reminded me of the difficulty I have experienced in becoming the writer who I am.

But amongst all that pain has been some achievement, even if there has been little recognition of those works.

So today I thought I would post the article published from my doctoral thesis on the history of the building industry in nineteenth century Victoria, and the culture that emerged celebrating the eight hour day.

2006 Rich J Traditions and significance of 8 hour day for building unionists

You can also read this article in its published form here: Julie Kimber, Peter Love, The time of their lives: the eight hour day and working life, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Melbourne, 2007.

I wrote this article by editing one of the chapters from my PhD thesis, about 14 years after completing the thesis. By that time I had abandoned dreams of working as an academic historian, and was working in the public service. I had passed up the opportunity to rewrite my PhD as a book, despite a half offer from Cambridge University Press. I had no connections and no network of support to make my way in that world, and was struggling to make my way in a new career in government, despite the constant doubts about my purpose and suspicions that I would never belong in this culture. Then, fourteen years later, I got wind of plans to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the eight hour day, in part sponsored by the Victorian Government. I wrote an email to Terry Moran, who was then head of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, suggesting I should play some kind of role in the celebrations, and was ignored. But I made contact with the conference organisers, and suggested I give a paper from my thesis.

Editing the chapter of the thesis had its challenges. I had lost touch with the academic world,  and felt no affiliation with the clapped out Marxist culture of the Society of Labour History. I no longer inhabited the mental universe, filled with ideas from Foucault that saw class as a form of the truth/power all mixed up with a more authentic perspective inherited from E.P. Thompson to save these unionists from the condescension of posterity. I also soon found that my digital files of my thesis, written in WordPerfect (does anyone remember that word processing program, with its blue screen and flashing cursor?) were corrupt and unreadable after so many years. So, I scanned the pages of my thesis using an OCR photocopier, and slowly corrected all the formatting mistakes and misrecognitions of words and footnotes.

I gave the paper at the conference at the University of Melbourne in June 2006. I spoke to a full lecture hall – one of the few occasions when I have performed in this way. I remember I stayed briefly after giving my talk, feeling out of place, and returned back to work in the afternoon.

The story I told in this article still has resonance for me. It was a story about how, even in the apparently material conditions that defined work and industrial conflict, the meaning of events were inseparable from the striving for recognition and the webs of significance that we, culture-making beings, weave through the time of our lives.

Image source: National Museum of Australia

The poet in a time of terror

The poet in a time of terror

In December 2017 a man in a black SUV drove his car into a group of pedestrians crossing the street outside Flinders Street station in central Melbourne. The incident had occurred less than a year since the Bourke St event, two city blocks away, leading to the deaths of six people, a traumatised city, a suspended coronial inquiry that will test the response of the police, and a yet-to-be conducted trial which will hinge on the mental state of the accused.

Both incidents were soon dismissed as not terrorist incidents, even if they had a terrifying impact. And of course, there has been a string of vehicular murders over the last two years, emerging from a whirlpool of personal, social and political grievance, unmoderated by decency. The most recent attack in Toronto in April 2018 has prompted Canada to look at what Melbourne learned from the Bourke and Flinders Street incidents about the city in a time of terror.

The December 2017 incident occurred two days before I was to go on leave, at 5 pm as I was walking out of the door. I had spent nearly the whole year at work working in the shadows cast by the Bourke Street incident and attempting to find ways, if indeed there are ways, to prevent such actions or at the least to respond better to them. This work was productive, and led to the establishment of a Fixated Threat Assessment Centre.

The months spent learning about terror, violence and its links to mental illness, addiction and disordered grievance also inspired a post on the Burning Archive on the Return of Sacred Violence, and the following poem, which I wrote in the wake of the Flinders Street incident.

The poet in a time of terror

No words can describe this.
The bodies flew up like dolls.
A father spoke by phone to his thirteen year old son
When the car struck him.
The politician played Augustine:
He declared this an unspeakable act of pure evil –
But Anna’s Requiem found the words.
Long songs of sadness.
Black-eyed Pierrots with a cigarette clasped by their lips.
The old songs are lost in the sirens
And empty books broke memory.
In this world a man himself is nothing
And there ain’t no other world.
The poet bows his head to the porcelain wall
And lets out his tears in rain.
The radio repeats the same information, over and over
Until silence itself is known
As the greatest terror.
The silence of early morning
Woken in fear, wretched and worried.
The closer you are to Caesar the greater the fear.
Every city is stained.
Code names instead of pen names.
No Skalds now,
No epics. The old songs are forgotten.
The poet with the suspect bag sits in the gutter.
Trembles. Mutters bits and pieces.
Who can write poetry after this?
Who cannot?
The real heroes stand by the wounded.
Heal them. Speak kind words
In their agony, drive
The ambulances to the hospital.
One off-duty policeman
Pulled open the attack vehicle’s
Door, and prised out
The jihadist madman – or addict,
Or was it just an impulse
A storm of grievance in his prison mind? –
Wrestled him into arrest.
What point do threnodies serve?
I am not even Marlow
On the Thames,
Accepted in my strangeness.

Jeff Rich 2018

Image source: ABC News Gus Goswell

The collapsing new buildings of government

The collapsing new buildings of government

“In truth, the problem of declining trust in political institutions, is better conceived as the collapse of authority of the new nomenklatura in liberal democracies. And that, I hypothesise, has its roots in the disintegration of the civic cultures that these elites attempt to govern.” from The Burning Archive (22 April 2018)

My apologies for quoting from my own posts; but it seemed the simplest way to connect today’s post to last week’s and its promise to explore the cultural roots of the collapse of political authority in liberal democracies.

I find myself too enfeebled this morning to write in fluid prose and extended argument. The problems I point to in this concluding paragraph trouble me deeply. I dwell and labour among these difficulties each day at work. In response I have committed myself to a purpose: to write in my own voice on the ordinary virtues of governing well.

I write this testimony with the burden of sad prophecy. I can have no hope of seeing large scale transformations of the institutions I work in or the broader society.  I do not have the will, the temperament or the skills to direct changes in the world. I am no schemer. I am no powerful insider. I am rather an outcast who has embraced his exile, and made of its suffering an idea to teach to my tormentors. I do not seek to change the world, but  I turn instead to cultivate my own garden, and make of myself a more virtuous life. All I can hope for is to put my own garden in order, to know and to hold close to my true heritage (in tryst it will not be reft from me), and to give these words of self-transformation – for I too am full of weaknesses, temptation, folly and mistakes – to the infinite conversation that will succeed beyond me.

So, instead of a mini-essay, let me offer some stammering notes and quotations on my theme, which I may extend to better prose another day.

The collapse of authority

* The collapse of trust is the common way to see problems of democratic disobedience. But there is little substantial evidence to show that trust has declined in liberal democracies or even that trust is a problem for democracies.

* Elites blame their inability to command authority on the declining trust of the public. The public’s scepticism of the performance of elites is a more accurate judgement. Elites should look to their own failures to explain the disobedience of the public: they are not able to exercise power rightfully, with clear purpose, to make reluctant others serve a worthwhile purpose.

* Former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard once said of the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that she had a problem with authority: “It has neither ideals, or an idea of where it wants to take the country, and it is this lack of direction that is disabling (Julia Gillard), as well as, of course, her lack of authority.” What he said of this government is true more broadly of modern governments. Their authority has collapsed.

* Trust is a problem of commerce. Without trust, buyers are too wary of sellers. The problem of politics, the essence of governing, is authority. Without authority, citizens do not obey the state.

* Authority is an unusual attribute. It is a quality that the powerful seek, and that only those who are reluctant at first to follow them are able to grant.

* Authority rests in culture and institutions, not individuals. Individual political leaders only borrow the authority of the institutions and cultures which they scramble their way to the top of. Without a strong culture and institutions, these individual political leaders are the feckless pseudo-celebrities, confected products of political marketing machines – the “real Julia” – that we know today. However, skilled and professional they seem to be, however hard they work at “retail politics”, they lack the character that is the product of culture, and the authority that is the product of institutions.

The new nomenklatura

* The nomenklatura was the name given to the party officials and bureaucrats who ruled the East European communist states. Sometimes they were also known as the new class.  They were a caste apart whose careers were dependent on patron-client relationships that controlled government appointments and on submission to empty slogans of orthodoxy.

* The political institutions of Western liberal democracies are increasingly subjected to a new nomenklatura. It is a new class that is more open than the Soviet system, and composed of some competing factions: Labor vs Liberal, Democrat vs Republican, red vs blue. It is not identical to the old Soviet system; many of its characteristics are only imaginable in our infomercialised society.

* But it has some essential similarities. It spawns through patron-client relationships, fostered by appointments within governments, parties, and the para-political institutions of think tanks, lobbyists, interest groups, advocacy groups and consulting firms. It encloses the minds of the network members in orthodoxies that insulate them from the lebenswelt of ordinary people. It is a cultural world dominated by talking points and gesture politics that rarely breaks through to making substantial change in people’s social condition. It deforms political institutions by cultivating the loyalty to the network and the skill at positioning the individual within the network, rather than educating citizens and rulers alike in civic virtues.

* The new nomenklatura is in part the product of the growing professionalisation of politics – not political leadership but the subsidiary game of political marketing – over the last 50 years.

* It is also the product of the rising dominance in society since the early 1970s of the the merchant caste, to use David Priestland’s characterisation.  The careers of the new nomenklatura rely as much on affiliated business leaders, philanthropists and communications firms, who celebrate the creative energies of the private sector rather than the institutional cultures of government, as they do on appointments within parties and governments. They bring the same cast of mind – political marketing – to government, and view the institutions of government as arenas in which they perform, like parasitic celebrities, and not traditions in which they are born, live and die.

The disintegration of civic culture

* Zygmunt Bauman, the great cultural sociologist, wrote of the liquid modernity of our times. He also once observed that more British young people had voted in Big Brother evictions than had voted in the British general elections. Is there a better example of the degradation of civic culture, without which a virtuous state is difficult to enact?

* Or as Bauman also said: “Can notions of equality, democracy and self-determination survive when society is seen less and less as a product of shared labour and common values and far more as a mere container of goods and services to be grabbed by competing individual hands?” Or again, no-one is in control: and we are all flying in an unpiloted airplane: afraid, ignorant, impotent and unable to assume responsibility.

* He goes on to argue that over the last fifty years power – the ability to do things – has become separated from politics – the ability to choose together which things to do. The state has withered in affluence, and the proliferation of identities consequent of cultural fragmentation. The state is overwhelmed and overflowing with the projects of its captors. It is overtaken by viruses and parasites, and no longer has the inner strength of civic culture that enables resistance to its enemies.

* The disintegration of civic culture is part of the malaise of identity politics as diagnosed by Jordan B. Peterson.

* The warning bells on civic culture have been ringing deeply for a long time. Some samples:

“We had thought, or our forefathers had, that modern liberal democracy would be spared the kind of erosion and decay that both Plato and Aristotle declared endemic in all forms of state. Now we are not so sure…. The centralization and, increasingly, individualization of power is matched in the social and cultural spheres by a combined hedonism and egalitarianism, each in its own way a reflection of the destructive impact of power on the hierarchy that is native to the social bond.” Robert Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority (1975)

“Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people. Human loyalties, uprooted from accustomed soil, can be seen tumbling across the landscape with no scheme of larger purpose to fix them. Individualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace. There is a widely expressed sense of degradation of values and corruption of culture. The sense of estrangement from community is strong.” Robert Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority

The burden of sad prophecy

* Cassandra should not fool herself. But neither should we forget the truth of the laments of the past.

* In fin-de-siecle Europe a prophet wrote:

“In our time, the more highly developed minds have been visited with vague forebodings of a Dusk of Nations, in which the sunlight and the starlight are gradually fading, and the human race with all its institutions and achievements is dying out amidst a dying world.” Max Nordau, Degeneration (1892)

* And even longer ago, Gregory of Tours wrote

“With liberal culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the Gallic cities there were many deeds being done both good and evil: the heathen were raging fiercely; kings were growing more cruel; the church. attacked by heretics, was defended by Catholics; while the Christian faith was in general devoutly cherished, among some it was growing cold; the churches also were enriched by the faithful or plundered by traitors-and no grammarian skilled in the dialectic art could be found to describe these matters either in prose or verse; and many were lamenting and saying: “Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the written page.” Hearing continually these complaints and others like them I [have undertaken] to commemorate the past, order that it may come to the knowledge of the future; and although my speech is rude, I have been unable to be silent as to the struggles between the wicked and the upright; and I have been especially ­ encouraged because, to my surprise, it has often been said by men of our day, that few understand the learned words of the rhetorician but many the rude language of the common people. Gregory of Tours (539-594 C.E.) History of the Franks 

* Life is decay, to transform Salisbury’s adage. It is the burden of the sad prophet to know this.

Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies

Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies

During the week I was discussing with a young colleague at work the preparation of a briefing. I gave them some guidance and some encouragement: the briefing did not need to be long, but the words ought to be carefully selected and focussed on what was most important. After all, I said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

To my surprise, my young colleague, who is aged somewhere in the late 20s and had studied journalism and international relations at university, said he liked that phrase, and had not heard it before. Taken aback, I confirmed with him that he was serious, and in truth had never heard the phrase.

This incident was a minor example of the impoverishment of the cultural commons we are witnessing today. How can it be that two university educated people from the same city, although not the same generation, do not share knowledge of this basic cultural reference, Shakespeare’s widely repeated and evergreen advice to any writer?

The cultural commons is being impoverished by cultural fragmentation, which in turn is generated by the profusion of wealth, self-expression, image-making and identity-formation in our affluent societies. Our garden is overrun with the sprawling higgledy-piggledy plants more and more of us have planted. We can no longer see the shapes and beds of the garden’s early design, and some of the more precious heritage plants are being smothered and deprived of light.

The fragmentation of the culture is not wholly a bad thing. Cracks of freedom open up. New voices emerge. Terrible new beauties are born. The art of living is rethought and remade. Like the breaking up of Pangea, new continents, new ecosystems of cultural forms, drift apart and forget the times when they shared a common identity. The fundamental processes of differentiation and development take hold, and, within the broken continents of a once shared culture, new dramas are performed in old theatres.

It is perhaps a fanciful, nostalgic dream to imagine that our cultures –  in today’s conditions of more highly educated people than ever before with more time, freedom and widely available means to produce, share and consume cultural artefacts – could ever be bounded by a single book of common prayer.  Noone in these conditions can stand against the forces of continental drift. The historical forces of divergence and convergence in our cultures are very strong and very deep. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has argued that these antagonists have long fought their subterranean battle through the deep history of the world. Writing against a backdrop of political enthusiasm for globalization and its discontents, Fernandez-Armesto pointed to the long, deep history of divergence in human cultures which turned, around 1492, towards a history of convergence for another 500 years. Yet beneath the superficial unity of a world brought together in the name of Western culture, new dreams of differentiation were emerging:

“If recent history has a lesson, it is that whenever a big state is nestled, smaller-scale identities and political aspirations incubate under its shell until eventually they poke their beaks through the cracks and take flight.” Millenium (1995), p 704

I am perhaps a member of those dying generations who imagined a reforging of myth, tradition and culture through the 20th century practice of modernist bildung. I can see that this dream of a shared culture is impossible in today’s conditions. There is too much to read. There are too many human possibilities to explore and to encompass within any one story, without a constriction on freedom. The institutions of education have been overrun by commerce and new philistines. The great words are repeated incessantly by fewer and fewer of us; fewer seek the company of cold skulls over the frisson of the pumped up dance floor. There is a proliferation of cultural communities online, and yet no shared embodied customs: no church in which we stand to hear the common prayer; no university in which we practise bildung, rather than vocational learning. The besieged city has lost its theatre, which stands in broken, neglected ruins. Yet still, strange flowers grow among the ruins, and throughout the city small groups come together to create the rituals of new cults. Perhaps these new cults and strange flowers will sustain the generations to come?

I recognise the reality of these conditions, and still I mourn what we have lost. To echo Ezra Pound from last week’s post, I can only put my faith in the love of my true heritage, and trust that what I lovest well shall not be reft from me.

One thing we have lost amidst our cultural fragmentation, and which I encounter most days in my day job as a government bureaucrat, is a civic culture of governing. Our political communities have been shattered. We are riven by identity politics and hyper-partisanship. We fight culture wars and proclaim fluid fissured identities that separate us from traditions of civil dialogue. We have lost the art of talking to strangers, and working across the aisle. Government has become a  theatre of activists, spin-doctors, marketers of political brands, “social innovators” and a new mercenary class of political condottiere and consultocrats. This new class has colonised the institutions of government, and suborned once strong autonomous institutions, which through their autonomy had created traditions of value and their own esprit de corps – to the fractious, factionalised, fickle, impatient, self-absorbed purposes of this new nomenklatura.

The ascendancy of this new nomenklatura – which one day I will find a better name for – is only possible in the conditions created by the breakdown of civic culture and cultural fragmentation. They are the bandits who emerge when the city lies in ruins. It is the common complaint of these bandits that the people are fickle, have “expectations” that cannot be delivered, and lack trust. As the OECD says:

“Trust in government is deteriorating in many OECD countries. Lack of trust compromises the willingness of citizens and business to respond to public policies and contribute to a sustainable economic recovery.”

Foolish citizens and business: they do not respond to public policies in the ways desired by the new nomenklatura.

In truth, the problem of declining trust in political institutions, is better conceived as the collapse of authority of the new nomenklatura in liberal democracies. And that, I hypothesise, has its roots in the disintegration of the civic cultures that these elites attempt to govern. But the further exploration of this hypothesis will have to wait till my next post.



Cantos from a cage

Cantos from a cage
What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
From Ezra Pound Canto LXXXI
If modernism was a kind of Renaissance of this last century, as the critic Peter Craven intimates, then Ezra Pound is surely one of the greatest and most troubling figures of these dying generations, this botched civilisation.
His poetry reaches across cultures and centuries like a prophet in a tower. He is the great progenitor, whose heritage is stained by both his politics and his madness.
Overshadowing his poetic achievements – and the magnificent difficult music of the Cantos – are his failures as a man of judgement. Broadcaster for Mussolini. Convicted traitor, but spared by a sentence of insanity. Caged outside Pisa, where in the arid ruins of Europe, he sang the broken magnificent threnodies, the defiant laments of Canto LXXXI: what thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee.
Here is Pound himself reading from this most enduring Pisan canto. Unlike so many poets, Pound’s voice gives an extraordinary timbre to his lines, a shaking echo of suffering.
And then there is the great controversy of his stay in St Elizabeth’s lunatic asylum. Was he mad? Was he bad? Was his poetry the mind of poison or of greatness? Strange that Pound should not be a symbol of the language of madness in Foucault’s histories. Was the salon he kept an indulgence? Were the poets who gathered around him, and forgave him his misjudgements, naive fools, willing traitors, unwitting collaborators with the atrocities of antisemitism?
What do I learn from Pound? Neither acclaim nor ostracism can extinguish the voice. Neither tradition nor its breaking can constrain the voice. Neither madness nor politics can define the voice. Out of the cages of our lives, we sing our greatest cantos.

But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.

Ezra Pound from Canto CXVI

EP & White Cat_edited

Axel’s Castle, a mirror and an encyclopaedia

Axel’s Castle, a mirror and an encyclopaedia

When I was about fifteen, I found Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle in a library. It was my introduction to literary modernism, and their progenitors, the French symbolists. Over time I would read most of the authors to whom Wilson was my accidental host: Yeats, Joyce, Proust, Valery, Eliot, Stein. In time, I would find other guides to the great modernist canon. But the symbol of Axel’s Castle would remain as a ghostly survivor of my initiation into high culture.

There was nothing in the outward circumstances of my teenage life that would have led me to value the pursuit of writing as a form of symbolist transcendence of mundane reality.  My parents were primarily interested in science, but with an occasional indulgence of Rilke and Hopkins. I spent much of my childhood reading Wisden, and playing cricket, in the forlorn dream of overcoming my physical limitations to become a professional cricketer. My maths teacher at school, impressed with my talent with trigonometry, algebra and arithmetic, urged me to become an actuary. I had no literary friends – few friends really – except perhaps two girls, whose literary tastes involved a love of Leonard Cohen songs, which I could not share, and who I have never seen again since high school

But inwardly, as the pain of my family breakdown, my mother’s madness, my father’s greed and grandiosity compounded, I grasped for the symbols of inner experience beyond the real. So, Axel’s Castle became my symbol of a higher inner life. But it was and has long been an oppressive illusion because I could never live like the disdainful aristocrats of the soul imagined in Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s lonely, isolated tower: “Living? our servants will do that for us.” Nor could I ever bring together around me the salon of the spurned genius, Mallarmé, who puffed smokescreens between himself and reality, and engaged in the most radical experimentations with the limits of poetry, its incarnation in the letter and its instantiation by chance.  And Nerval’s ecstatic transportation into madness frightened me, as for years I would help my mother find her way to treatment amidst her hypomanic fantasies. The dream of Axel’s Castle took me on a night journey of enriching torment, but left in my catatonic fear of its denouement: the suicide pact and the renunciation of life.

The lonely, gothic occult tower took me down a path with many waystations of self- destruction; but ultimately it was a path that opened into a clearing, where I learned to write in my own way. And now that I have shaken off its magic, it is time perhaps again for me to walk with my pen into the great forest again.

The strange thing too, as I write these words of reflection prompted by this persistent memory, is that I have begun to doubt whether I ever read Axel’s Castle at all. Certainly I have never read Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axel, from which the archetype that has ruled my literary life was born. But now I wonder if it was only ever in a footnote reference in a compendium volume of studies on modernism, edited by Malcolm Bradbury, which was really the book I acquired at fifteen from the library, where I was captivated by the symbolism of Axel’s Castle. So all that I imagined in that title truly only came from my preexisting imagination, and I have long imprisoned myself in one of my own illusions.

It is like the Borges story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, that labyrinthine story, in which the narrator tells of the history of Tlön which he discovered – through the “conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia” – in a single edition of the Encyclopaedia of Tlön. Except that he reveals in his narrative, no-one else can find this edition of a book to which he has devoted much of his scholarly life.

already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty – not even that it is false…. A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön. (Borges, Labyrinths pp. 41-42)