Steep Stairs Review. Volume 8

September 17, 2012

There is always an eclectic mix of articles and reviews in Steep Stairs Review, drawn as they are from the various interests and passions of a disparate group of academics, teachers, students and researchers. It’s not easy to declare a ‘theme’ for the issue and to procure erudite responses at a whim, as mostly we write about what has recently crossed our desks, engaged our imaginations, or otherwise inspired us to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Despite there being no theme, the collected contributions contained in this issue never-the-less hang together, albeit tentatively, on some common ideas – desperation, the ways societies react to power, horror, and in sublime contrast the pleasures wrung from art and life as it transforms and shifts with the tides of change. There is a real feast for the senses here, some more pleasurably sensual, others challenging and disturbing but equally engaging.

To begin, our Review Essay on David Marr’s very recent Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott, Finessing the Principles, Frightening the Punters: Tony Abbot, Future PM? by Glen Jennings. How does Abbott’s more than 30 years in politics provide a guide to the nation’s political future?  Then an exploration of The Future of Jazz, an inspiring address to students of jazz by Richard Finch on the directions of the jazz scene, and how this sometimes controversial music genre has the future hard wired into its’ continually changing topographies.

Michael Heald celebrates the end of the long wait to see the poetry of Tomas Transtromer finally recognised for its ability to evoke the details below the surface – conveying the ‘unmanifest’ in Heald’s words: ‘The Seen and the Unseen in One Mix’: The Nobel Prize Winning Poetry of Tomas Transtromer.

The next two reviews, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus: What Becomes of the Retuned Soldier? reviewed by Gayle Allan, and The Apartment, by Greg Baxter. Skimming Slowly and Deliberately Across the Surface, reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell, are both dealing with the uncertain, contingent position of the warrior in the social world. Allan’s nuanced and very detailed consideration of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, reveals that even in Shakespeare’s time the returned soldier found himself a fish out of water. The Apartment by Greg Baxter has as its first person narrator just such a returned soldier – back from Iraq – and unable to find a place to call home anymore.

The final two pieces, though sharing a common idea, are quite different explorations of the ways that the sometimes unspeakable can be enculturated into society: into theatre in one case, Hell House: A Tour with Back to back Theatre, by Rosalie Ham, and in the other even become a bizarre tourist attraction in Thailand: Demented Disneyland: Benedict Anderson and the Fate of Rural Hell, reviewed by Glen Jennings. And finally, the review you’ve been waiting for to find out what all that fuss earlier this year was all about, Fifty Shades of Grey – The review to read so you don’t have to read the book, reviewed by Olivia Clarke

Please enjoy reading, and make comments, tweet and retweet, share with your friends and colleagues. Keep Literature and Culture alive.

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David Marr, Quarterly Essay 47 Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, Black Inc, September 8 2012.

Review Essay by Glen Jennings

 

What would Tony Abbott do if, as Australian Prime Minister, he had a serious dispute with Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Pussy Riot? Would he deliver his infamous death stare to a disconcerted Chancellor? Would he punch a wall, pound a table, or kick in a window? Would he throw the sinners out of the church and bemoan the decline of religion and morality? Would he go for a swim?

As David Marr’s well-researched and entertaining Quarterly Essay shows, and as Australia’s numbingly repetitive and tediously reported political opinion polls confirmed almost every day from late 2010 to early September 2012, Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National Party Coalition is on track to defeat Julia Gillard’s ALP in the next federal election. So ‘Tony Abbott PM’ is a potential reality upon which to reflect. Now.

What is Tony Abbott’s history? What are his principles? What is in character or out of character for Tony Abbott? And how does his more than 30 years in politics provide a guide to the nation’s political future? If Tony Abbott were to become Australian PM, how would Australia be represented both to itself and to the world?

Tony Abbott is very unpopular with the voting public, especially with women who find him aggressive and who remain suspicious of his conservative Catholic views on issues such as abortion rights. But his disapproval ratings do not disguise the fact that the Coalition has been miles ahead of Labor. Barring a major disaster within Conservative ranks – something along the lines of a “Clive Palmer for PM” or a “Gina Rinehart for Supreme Overlord” campaign, or the revelation that a senior Liberal Party functionary is secretly funding people smugglers in Indonesia to keep the refugee boats coming – it is difficult to imagine how Labor can permanently reverse the electoral tide of the past eighteen months, despite the nation’s strong economic position under successive Rudd and Gillard governments and a solid record of passing legislation through a hung parliament. Campbell Newman in Queensland and the Liberal Premiers of NSW and Victoria may be causing concern in the electorate by cutting public service jobs and slashing provisions for health and education, but unless Tony Abbott can be tarred with a very large and sticky brush, pundits and pollsters have claimed he is on cruise control for victory.

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The Future of Jazz

September 17, 2012

Address to the Juilliard Winter Jazz School at Trinity College

By Richard Finch

As someone who likes to haunt the jazz clubs of Melbourne I frequently receive emails telling me who is performing where, on which night.  A recent email from Megg Evans, the manager of Bennetts Lane contained a joke which went something like this:

A man told his friend that he had just read a science fiction novel which was set five hundred years in the future

 His friend asked him:  how did it portray the jazz scene in the year 2500 A.D?

 To which his friend replied: there wasn’t any jazz in the novel

 Why was that, asked his friend?

 Because – said the man – it was set in the future.

I laughed at the joke, but it also made me feel a little sad, a little unnerved.   Jokes sometimes harbour truths, or at least half truths, and I was concerned that this witticism might somehow signify the demise of jazz.

Was jazz dying?  Did it have a future?  What would prompt the manager of a club to include such an unsettling aside in one of her emails?  Was she feeling despondent because she had hosted too many occasions at which exceptionally talented musicians performed to too few people?  I, myself, have been at gigs where the members of the band have almost outnumbered the members of the audience – and as the fractious rhythms of piano and drums merged with raucous squeaks and squawks of the brass section, filling the room with a joyous, glorious, rapturous, polyphonic sound, I have wondered:  Where is everybody?  Why are there so few people here to experience this magic?

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By Mike Heald

Although the American response to Tomas Transtromer winning the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, was, in certain quarters, a ‘who?’ and a ‘huh?’, as the Washington Post observed, the Literature Department here at Trinity’s Foundation Studies Program has long known of Transtromer’s quality, with several of his poems always present in our Poetry Anthology. ‘After Someone’s Death’ and ‘Espresso’ have been regular inclusions, for example. The latter is a natural choice for coffee-addicted Melbourne:

The black coffee they serve out of doors

among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations

filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

This extract displays that characteristic swoop of Transtromer from the mundane to the metaphysical. In ‘After Someone’s Death’, one of his major preoccupations – the way that we manifest as distinct selves, and yet have an acute knowledge of how we perform ourselves, and of how we will soon disperse back into the elements from which we emerged, is in evidence:

It is still beautiful to feel your heart throbbing.

But often the shadow feels more real than the body.

The samurai looks insignificant

beside his armour of black dragon-scales.

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Coriolanus (2011), dir. Ralph Fiennes
Coriolanus Films Limited, DVD Edition. Distributed by Icon Film Distribution Pty Ltd.

Reviewed by Gayle ALLAN (with thanks to Chris Palmer)

Your voices: for your voices I have fought;
Watch’d for your voices; for Your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of; for your voices

(Coriolanus 2.3)

Caius Martius Coriolanus is a classic, tragic figure – a man who falls from great heights because of his fatal flaw, a victim of his own arrogance and pride. But not entirely. He is also the victim of political maneuvering and manipulation by a system that he reluctantly participates in, and which eventually destroys him. Caius Martius, given the name “Coriolanus” after his capture of enemy city Corioles, is a consummate warrior, a soldier’s soldier, but he’s no politician, and definitely no diplomat. While his progress from war hero to civic leader is presumed inevitable, it is clear from the start that his place in society is on the outside of it, defending it, rather than living in it.  Coriolanus’ predicament is a favourite topic for Shakespeare in many of his plays – questioning how society deals with soldiers outside the battlefield. What happens to them when they return to the social and domestic space? Like Macbeth, and Othello, and other Shakespearean generals and warriors, Coriolanus is at home on the battlefield, where he can exercise great violence and be valorised for it, yet back in civilised society he is a “fish out of water”. He is a man used to discipline and the relatively simple rule of kill or be killed, but is now expected to play by very different rules. The public require and demand uncompromising ferocity from him on the battlefield but are surprised and offended by his roughness of speech and manner when he returns. Not surprisingly this transition is neither easy nor smooth, and Shakespeare’s returned soldiers are often vilified and rejected by those who once encouraged them and benefited from the security the soldier’s previously sanctioned violence brought them (this has resonance in any historical period including our own). When this happens to Coriolanus, his sense of betrayal is profound and he is baffled by the people’s ingratitude. He fought and suffered for the people but, manipulated by political operators Sicinius and Brutus, the people reject him and it this that sets him on the path of bloody revenge.

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Greg Baxter, The Apartment. London: Penguin, 2012.
Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

The cover of this book tricked me – it was somehow suggestively warming – the title giving an immediate sensation of somewhere cosy, personal and stylish – a safe retreat from the cold, snowy city and the glacial harbour depicted in delicious greeny blues. The reviewers descriptions of the novel tricked me too. It was supposed to be about a man and a woman looking for an apartment in a cold European capital – the present tense action all confined to one day. It sounded cosmopolitan and romantic, maybe an exploration of urban history, the search for home and experiences, a shared adventure of exploring a city and weaving together the threads of a new relationship.

Yet, it wasn’t quite any of those things at all. What happens in this book isn’t much – there’s not a great deal of plot -being mostly digressions and descriptions of minutia, and it initially appears to be a first person narrative of a traveler in a strange city, feeling his way through an expanse of time minute by minute. At times he is drawn to longer reflections which convey to readers recollections of the past, while the narrator tries to keep warm on the buses, trains, bars and streets he travels on and through on the way to buy a coat, to eventually arrive to see the apartment Saskia has circled in the paper. But then you realise after quite a while what this detail, this minutia, this skimming across the surface is all about, and what this deferring and delaying perspective is temporarily obscuring.

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Benedict Anderson, The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand, London, New York & Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Could Christianity benefit from a Theme Park of Hell? Grimacing statues of naked humanity suffering endless torments might be instructive to sinners. Graphic scenes of eternal punishments might prove a source of sanguinary “justice” to the powerless who are sinned against with impunity in this earthly realm: paedophile priests defenestrated by a mass of tiny hands from the third floor of a model Vatican; murderers hung from hooks; gluttons skewered through pot bellies; adulterers cleft in two; corrupt investment bankers and insider traders scorched by rivers of molten gold; lying politicians pierced through their tongues and strung up together like kebabs in congress; the intrusive paparazzi and their gossip-hungry consumers blinded either by traditional red hot pokers or the modern flash of redeye-reducing phone cameras with everlasting batteries.

Recalcitrant sinners, moral waiverers, the nervous and timid might take lessons from the concrete or plastic representations of the damned in Christianity’s Theme Park of Hell: lessons to mend their ways, or to think wholesome thoughts. But can such depictions of suffering shock and awe the modern citizens of the Western world? Can people familiar with violent movies, explicit video games, and images on the nightly news of massacres in American cinema complexes, on picturesque Norwegian islands, or in bombarded villages from Syria to Sudan, feel actual dread and disturbance when confronted by plastic art? Are our contemporaries likely to act selflessly, compassionately, and with a sense of acceptance and proportion on the basis of a plastic – or even digital – display of the fruits of sin and a breach of the Ten Commandments? Are they any more likely to be “good” than our ancestors from the Middle Ages who were brought up on fiery sermons and graphic pictorial images of hell’s torments displayed on the walls of mediaeval churches? The Crusades, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and various witch-hunts do not speak unequivocally of the civilising effects of religious advertising.

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By Rosalie Ham

Hell House, performed by Back to Back Theatre.

Meat Market Arts Centre, North Melbourne, August 3rd – 5th, 2012

Photo courtesy Ponch Hawks

Recently my friend and I popped over to the Meat Market in North Melbourne for a tour of Hell. Our guide was a particularly good-looking Devil’s disciple, complete with Grim Reaper costume, black lips, but only tiny horns. Scurs, really. After a brief time in a chapel in the care of two very creepy undertakers, organ music playing softly, candles and sympathy cards flanking a bowl of complimentary mints, a funeral took place. Our Devil’s disciple condemned to Hell the young man snug in the coffin in front of us because he had contracted, and died of AIDS. His ‘parents’ were appropriately aggrieved, though we were not sure if it was because of grief or because the hovering disciple was malevolently cruel in a very theatrical way in his condemnation of victims of Auto Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Our Devil’s disciple then led us past a teenage girl crying, ‘I want my baby’ while enduring a gruesome abortion, the ‘foetus’ dismembered and tugged from her loins. She was suffering the consequences of indulging in premarital sex in the back of her Dad’s BMW. We stepped over the fake blood stained gauze and cloth offal in the abortionists dish and wound our way through dark tunnels created form black plastic, the din of anguished cries reaching us from suffering sinners off in other parts of the Hell created between the brick walls of the Meat Market Arts Centre.

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E L James,  Fifty Shades of Grey, Vintage, 2012

Reviewed by Olivia Clarke.

I was ambivalent about reading this controversial best selling work by E L James, the first in a trilogy of similarly best selling books, yet I felt, without being fully able to explain why, that I had an obligation to read it. My intrigue began when many women of all ages (I am 19) started asking about and buying 50 Shades of Grey at the department store where I work.

After reading the blurb and some reviews online, I found the prospect of reading a book filled with BDSM-style sex confronting, but still intriguing in a strange, slightly shameful way, actually similar to how the female protagonist of 50 Shades reacts to the idea of exploring the new world of  BDSM. Unfortunately, this unease about actually purchasing and reading never left me. Many times I wanted to put the book down, sometimes due to boredom, and other times through simple disgust.

50 Shades of Grey has become the fastest selling paperback of all time, as well as being a popular e-book. (Needless to say, I was too ashamed to buy it from a shop, so I downloaded it as an e-book) This novel has created a sexual storm, and after reading it I can easily understand why.

50 Shades of Grey follows graduating literature student Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele and details in graphic prose her deepening relationship with successful, handsome business entrepreneur Christian Grey. Ana cannot stay away from the handsome, alluring and sensual Grey, who also finds it difficult to leave the pure, innocent Ana alone. Grey tells Ana to stay away from him, but she finds herself being drawn to sensual danger which, as a virgin, Ana has never experienced before.

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