The Tiger’s Eye closes for the last time

The great Australian historian or writer, Inga Clendinnen has died.


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There is a moving obituary by her publisher at Text, Michael Heyward, over at The Australian.

There Heyward quotes Clendinnen saying that her turn to writing in response to her life-threatening illness “liberated me from the routines which would have delivered me, unchallenged and unchanged, to discreet death.”

Her books are exemplars for me. Her writing is so lucid and so insightful about human psychology and culture. She respects formal genres, but writes beyond them, with a graceful grief for the loss of formal well-written academic scholarship. They take good parts of history, memoir, essay, anthropology, and serve the reader on a quest to imagine all the possibilities of being human.

As a tribute to this great thinker and writer, who I wish I could emulate, let me quote from her essay. “The History Question: who owns the past? (2006).

“The most assured historians reveal their moral vision in everything they do: through tone, the sequencing of topics, the interspersion of comment, the selection of particular moments for deeper inquiry. That is why my most engrossing aesthetic/intellectual pleasure from words on the page, excepting only poetry, comes from watching a master historian at work. It is a preposterously ambitious enterprise, trying to make whole people, whole situations, whole other ways of being out of the dusty fragments left after real lives end, but that is what the best historians set out to do.” (p 55-56)

I have written elsewhere about Clendinnen’s masterful account of the first encounters between the first Australians and the Europeans who arrived on one small part of their shore in 1788 – Dancing with Strangers. I have yet to read her great book on the Aztecs, which preceded her illness, but often think about the themes of Reading the Holocaust, which she wrote as a non-specialist after her illness. This work is especially important to my own reflections on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Close to the end of that work she writes, in response to the conflicting emotions stirred by a photograph of an act of violence from the Holocaust:

“An awakened, outraged sensibility demands systematic inquiry… it is not enough to loathe the perpetrator and to pity the victim, because in that scene they are bound together. We must try to understand them both.” (p 206)

So she goes on to say “only disciplined, critical remembering will resist the erasure of fact and circumstance effected by time, by ideology, and by the natural human impulse to forget.” And then with a graceful turn, so characteristic of Clendinnen, she turns to the words of Wislawa Symborska, frankly admitting she had only recently discovered her with her Nobel Prize award, and with her poem “Could have” ends her great essay on the holocaust, with the observation that Symborska “says much of what I have been trying to say over these many pages in as many words.” (p. 207)

So, let me end this elegy of sorts with the same poem, whose kindred spirit has guided me and perhaps also this great tiger of the mind whose eye has finally closed against the world.

Could Have (Wislawa Symborska)

It could have happened

It had to happen

It happened earlier. Later.

Nearer. Farther off.

It happened, but not to you.


You were saved because you were the first.

You were saved because you were the last.

Alone. With others.

On the right. The left.

Because it was raining. Because of the shade.

Because the day was sunny.


You were in luck – there was a forest.

You were in luck – there were no trees.

You were in luck – a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake

A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant….


So you’re here? Still dizzy from

another dodge, close shave, reprieve?

One hole in the net and you slipped through?

I couldn’t be more shocked or


Listen, how your heart pounds inside me.


Taking time with Szymborska

One of the pleasures of disconnecting, if only for a few months, from the real world, and from its rush and press, the deadlines and overloads, its grinding work and gasping wishes, is to take the time to enjoy poetry again, both as a writer and a reader. The other night, with no obligations attached any more to the things I read, I took up the last collection of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems, as translated from Polish to English, Map: collected and last poems (Houghton, 2015).

W. Szymborska z filizanka

I learnt of Szymborska when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, and have long cherished the collection published on the heels of that fame, View with a grain of sand (Harcourt, 1995). She wrote with an unsentimental irony and a witty enjoyment of inverted perspectives. Just how does a grain of sand view the world from its place on a window sill, which only we, not the grain, sees as a window, sees as a view?

And she reflects often on the past, with a deep appreciation of the terrors of the world – after all she was a survivor of East European socialism – and a fetching lightness of touch. So in “The Letters of the Dead,” she writes:

We read the letters of the dead like helpless gods,

but gods nonetheless, since we know the dates that follow.

We know which debts will never be repaid

Which widows will remarry with the corpse still warm

Poor dead, blindfolded dead

gullible, fallible, pathetically prudent.

And then at the end of this poem:

Everything the dead has predicted has turned out completely different.

Or a little bit different – which is to say, completely different.

The most fervent of them gaze confidingly into our eyes:

their calculations tell them that they’ll find perfection there.

For me Szymborska is one of those East European writers, like Milosz, Havel, Zbigniew Herbert, who represent a life of writing outside the whirligig of celebrity, consumption and false fame. Writing made against an often hostile world, and more courageous and authentic for that. Although in her early writing career she adopted the values and propaganda of the socialist party, she broke with the party from the mid-1960s, and then later in her career, if that is really the right word, contributed to samizdat publications as part of the dissident movement. Turning away from commercially modified productivity and socially sanctioned words, these writers present to me an alternative path. This near invisible blog is part of a new samizdat movement, in which culture may bloom from the outside truly, distinctly and originally, and abstain from becoming just another branded product.

Her opus, they say, is less than 350 poems. Asked why she did not publish more poems, she said she had a trash can at home. Her wit is exceptional, and her imagined worlds undying and yet knowing of their artifice. So let us conclude with the ending of “The Joy of Writing” from her 1967 collection, No End of Fun, which was reproduced in the feature on Szymborska with her Nobel Prize.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.