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Love of language

David Malouf, writer, 20 March 2010

DAVID MALOUF: It is very good to be here, especially at a function of Manning Clark House, and thank you all for coming. I have been a writer for the last 40 years or so; before that I was a teacher; and writers and teachers really, among the people in the society, [are the ones] who care most about language. I would say that, as a writer, I care about language particularly because I think of the English language as being the place that is like my real home. Nation is one thing, community is one thing, and both of those things are important but, essentially, for a writer the language is the place where he most deeply belongs. So I have a great concern about the language, both as a teacher and a writer.

But I do want to say something about that concern. I am not worried about change in the language. Change is essential to any language and English, of all languages, is the language in which change has been most important to the making of it. I am worried about the decay of the language.

I also want to say that I make a distinction between the language as it is spoken and the language as we write and read it, and I want to speak a little bit about the limitations of both. Of course, literacy is very, very important. We take a great deal of trouble these days with the literacy of our children; and we are enormously worried about the fact that Aboriginal children do not have standards of literacy like the rest. Because literacy essentially in a society like ours is power, and if this society is any kind of way to be just, literacy is one of the keys to it.

But I would just point out that literacy is a very, very late phenomenon. Most societies have been illiterate - some of them literate to a small degree and largely illiterate - and one of those societies was say the world that Shakespeare grew up in. Illiteracy does not necessarily mean that you do not have a rich grasp of the world’s experience. One of the things I would want to say about Shakespeare is that he was fortunate at coming at a moment when the English language absolutely exploded in terms of vocabulary. He was also very fortunate in having grown up in a largely illiterate society. That is a society in which people get most of their experience by listening hard and looking hard. We would not have anything like the richness of experience that goes into Shakespeare if his way of life had not largely been based on the fact that most of his experience came to him in the way of illiterate people by close looking and listening. When we talk about literacy, we need to remember that most of the world produced the large number of things that we value and regard as absolutely culturally indispensable at a time when it was largely illiterate.

The other thing I would want to say against language is that we live in a society now when we have more language than we can deal with. I don’t suppose there can be any time in the world’s history when we were so absolutely bombarded with language, most of it ephemeral, useless, time wasting. What I mean by that is that the television runs 24 hours a day on channel after channel after channel, pouring words into our head; the radio goes on all day pouring words into our head; and at so many of the occasions that we find ourselves at, like book launches for example. Book launches are a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. You go to a book launch and someone stands up, while you have to stand there, and talks for three quarters of an hour about the book that is being launched, and the author then gets up and talks for another half an hour.

I mean, we don’t need most of the words that we are bombarded with. The overuse of language is a large contributor to the debasement of language. Language is precious enough stuff, words are, that we ought to be more chary of their use, particularly on those kinds of public occasions. The amount of noise that language now gives rise to is a serious problem, it seems to me.

One of the other reasons why I am concerned about language is because really the language we speak is not simply the language in which we communicate, it is the language in which we think, and the kind of thinking we do in a language is determined by the kind of language it is. I mean, thinking in English is not like thinking in Italian or thinking in German or thinking in Chinese. It is not only that what the language contains is its own culture which we all grow up in, its own traditions of institutions and all of those things which are absolutely embedded in the language, it is that the actual shape and syntax of a language determines the kind of thinking you can do in it.

It is no accident that the kind of empirical bias of most Anglo-Saxon derived thought, and the aversion that kind of world has to theory and to abstraction is part of what the language itself presents. Whenever that language produces its culture, it is a culture in which example, specifics, particularities are always prioritised - to use that horrible word - over principle. That is one of those ways in which the whole British world is so absolutely different from the continental world and why, whatever respect we have for French or German thinking, its way of looking at the world is repulsive to us [laughter] - and has resulted in truly terrible things which our world has mostly been protected from.

One of the things that is so liberating about English is that it is an absolutely bastard language. It has no investment in the kind of purity of language that say French and German has: the way in which the French are always jumping up and down, because the language is being invaded by English vocabulary for example; or the way Germans have always resisted using Latin or Greek terms for new products in a way that they feel is antithetical to the language. They would rather say ‘fernsehen’ rather than television, for example, two nice German words put together in that habit of German of putting words together and making new words and illustrating new concepts by putting older words together.

We mostly don’t do that. We are very happy to import into the language all those Greek and Latin words, and that is because the language was always a bastard language. It began as a Germanic language in Anglo-Saxon and then, after the Norman Invasion, it became really a Frenchified-German language. Then at a certain point when people perhaps saw the advantage of that in the Renaissance, they decided the best thing to do was to absolutely flood the language with new derivative words from Latin and Greek.

What then constitutes the particular quality of English is the huge vocabulary we have and the huge number of synonyms we have for similar things. If you look at English poetry and then look at German or Italian poetry, you see how absolutely narrow the vocabulary is in those other languages and how much of the meaning of the same word in those languages depends on context. We don’t do it that way; we have this vast range of synonyms. We have all sorts of nuances of feeling so that we don’t have to use the same word. The meaning of a word in an English poem doesn’t depend nearly so much on context as in Italian or German, for example.

So that’s part of the history of the language that has determined how the language is. My concern about that would be, as I’ll come to in a moment, the watering down of that richness of the vocabulary and that nuance of words in the language, because there are other accidents of history which now affect English.

One of those accidents of history is that it was England that produced an Industrial Revolution, which led to England becoming the dominating economic power in the world. It led to their having a huge empire; it led to the rise of one of those originally colonial places, America, as a power even larger than the power of England once it replaced it in the twentieth century; and what that has done has made English the universal language, the lingua franca of this planet at this time and one wants to say from this point on.

I would strongly suggest that what that means, if we look at the precedence of history, is virtually the end of the English language as we know it. Once a language becomes a lingua franca spoken in the marketplace by millions of people who actually have no access to the complexity of the language and who have not been educated mostly in the language so they don’t understand the relationship between the structures of the language and the culture and traditions of the language, once language has fallen to the point where all it is is a system of ready and immediate, but mostly shallow, communication, then that language dies. That use by the majority of the people in the world of that language in a shallow and ignorant way eventually feeds back into the main sources of places of the language, and the language disappears.

The other reason why the language disappears at something like that point - and I am thinking of what happened to both Greek and Latin - the other reason why that language becomes threatened is because the quality of the language and the quality of a culture always depends on the best users of the language, the best thinkers in the culture and the most cultivated people. If those people change their value system, then the language and the literature of the language can largely disappear - that happened to Latin.

We now know that, of the classical languages, about 80 per cent of all writing in Latin disappeared by the third century. If you look at the Greek language, of the 400 or 500 plays that were produced in classical drama, we have plays of only three tragic dramatists and Aristophanes; and, of the tragic dramatists, we have nine each of Sophocles and Aeschylus and another nine plus a few more of Euripides. They survived only because, in the Alexandrian world, classics were chosen and put in an anthology, and only the plays that were put in that anthology for a few elite students have actually survived - all the rest disappeared. Virtually the whole of Greek science, all of Greek philosophy and all of Greek lyric poetry would have disappeared for the simple reason that the most highly educated people in that society, when they turned to Christianity, decided that all of these things were vanities and were no longer to be read. If a book at that time was no longer read, a text was no longer copied; and if a text was no longer copied, it disappeared. About 90 per cent of all literature and thinking in those cultures disappeared, because the best educated people in the society had changed their values.

What you have to watch out for in a society like ours is what kind of thinking we are doing when it comes to valuing the literature. I would strongly suggest that, if you look at what goes on these days in academic English departments, literature is doomed. [Audience noise] I mean, literature is absolutely of no value in most academic English departments now unless it has some social value, and once you do that, it is gone.

The other thing I want to say quickly is that in another kind of way we do have to be extremely wary of overvaluing language to this extent. One of the things that again has happened in our universities is for purely business reasons. Almost all places where people once practiced arts, whether it was the visual arts or music arts, those places have now been incorporated into universities where they have absolutely no place. One of the things that happens there is that, because we value and overvalue language over other kinds of things, a person who is training to be a musical performer or a dancer or a composer is now required to write a thesis on what they are doing as if that kind of self-conscious analysis had anything to do finally with performance. That is just a kind of nonsense in which you say that the articulation and the translation into language of things which language has no place in is a necessary part of practice. Much as I love and admire language and as important as I think it is, there are places where it does not belong. All that illustrates is yet another example of the way we are flooded with language which we don’t need in places where language is absolutely not at home.

Whenever I listen to Don Watson I am always enormously amused and then enormously depressed, and I am going to end on a note of even greater depression. [laughter] One of the things that has happened in our society is that, for whatever reason, over the last 30 or 40 years economics has become the guiding principle of the culture. Once that has happened, economics not only takes over the whole management of the culture but also ends up providing the philosophy behind the culture and the language behind that philosophy – and that’s largely what Don was talking about.

I don’t know that there is now any way back from that, and it is interesting to see what that language is. Of course, in any language there will always be multiple languages being used and spoken at any moment. We all have our own culture of language. A writer particularly is interested, when he is creating a character in a novel, in what the peculiar language of that person is because we make up our own language out of the large language. Some of that is determined by experience; some of that is determined by gender; some of that is determined by the profession we belong to. I’m not wanting everyone to speak the same language or speaking against the fact that we have multiple languages and that we make up our own language out of that great pool. The way in which business language, executive language, managerial language has now taken over almost everywhere is not simply the matter of people in a particular profession speaking their jargon, but it has behind it a kind of philosophy that says, ‘The only thing that really matters is the world of business. The only philosophy that needs to be applied in almost any context is one which will work in business and the only language in which that can be done is this kind of language.’

It’s interesting just to see where that language has come from too, because partly it is a language of pseudo-science. That pseudo-science is the language which comes originally from the social sciences, not from the sciences that are based on fact but sciences which are based on speculation. The social sciences, when they needed to establish their legitimacy, took over the language of real science and pretended that that language applied to the pseudo-sciences, which are the social sciences. What has then happened after that is the language of the humanities and the language of management has taken over the language of that pseudo-social science based on original science, as again, a way of legitimising what they are presenting.

How we ever move back from that, I don’t know. I was saying to somebody at morning tea break that there is a way in which we can rebel against that: it’s by having a kind of revolution; but the revolution starts with every single one of us. I’ve got into the habit where if I’m at a conference or sitting at a board table, I will simply say, ‘I’m sorry. If you use that kind of language I will leave the room.’ And I do. [applause]

JOHN HARMS: Thank you David. David is going to take some questions but I get to ask the first few. In this latest novel of yours Ransom, in the couple of pages at the end - I can’t remember if you call it the afterword, the epilogue or whatever - you mention ‘Miss Finlay’. Who’s Miss Finlay?

DAVID MALOUF: I had a strange education because… this begins with a bit of family history. We had a girl who lived in the house. She was called ‘the girl’ but she was called Cassie and she largely brought my sister and me up. My sister is two years younger than me, and we fought a great deal. When I was about four Cassie simply said, ‘Look, either he goes or I go,’ so I had to go to school. But, of course, there’s no school for a four year old, so my mother looked in the paper and found an advertisement of somebody who had a Dame school in Blakeney Street, West End [Brisbane]. I went to that school when I was four. There were five of us to to start with and ten of us by the end. I was there for six years. Then I went to West End State School and at West End State School, my teacher was somebody called Miss Finlay. In those days you had the same teacher right through so she taught us everything.

The story I tell there is that one Thursday afternoon when we were supposed to go out and play tunnel ball it was raining so, instead of going out and playing tunnel ball, she read us the story of Troy. That was the first time I think I ever heard that story and I was kind of shocked by it. First of all, I translated all of that heroic stuff straight into the playground so for me it was really all about red rover and the gangs in the school yard. And then also what struck me and made me very scared was the fact that this was 1943, and Brisbane was a city that was completely occupied by American soldiers. I mean, there were 200,000 American soldiers in the city and every building in the whole city was sand bagged. We were sort of sitting there waiting for the Japanese to come. So the story about a city that was under siege which was inevitably going to fall and in which everybody is going to be slaughtered wasn’t to me very remote, and that became for me a kind of archetypal of experience about war, about the use of force, about warriors. But really seeing it from the other side, not seeing it all from the side of the people with power but from the side of the people who were about to get it.

JOHN HARMS: So when you are a kid - I know you have written about the Queensland readers before which seemed to exist for years and years - where does your love of language and love of story come from?

DAVID MALOUF: Look, my mother read to me for as long as I can remember. I also grew up in a kind of reading household, because my mother and Cassie - both of those women would have left school when they were 12 or 13 but they were highly literate as you were if you went through a Queensland primary education and read those readers. Those readers were initiated in 1906 and were in continuous use in Queensland until 1974. So everybody who grew up in that state, all those writers would have absolutely been brought up on the same diet. The idea of those things was that people would leave school at either 12 or 13, because only seven per cent of people in Queensland until 1957 went on to secondary school. But if they were to leave school at that age they would have to be utterly numerate, utterly literate and have already been introduced to virtually the whole of English poetry and wads of Shakespeare and extracts from 59 novels. The other people who were in there were [Ivan] Turgenev, [Leo] , Victor Hugo, [Charles] Dickens, [Abraham] Lincoln and [Ralph Waldo] Everson - all of that was there. That was the literary background that you grew up with.

But in the house, my mother and Cassie read aloud to one another every afternoon. So from the age of three I would be sitting there listening to whatever they were reading. They were usually the old-fashioned books that my mother would have read previously when she was younger, so they were all those novels of Mrs Henry Wood. I’ve read about 19 novels of Mrs Henry Wood. I can’t think there is any other person in Australia who’s done that - and Mrs Henry Craig [maybe should be Isa Craig] and Hall Caine. Every afternoon those two women while they were doing whatever they are doing - sewing or peeling potatoes or shelling peas - would take it in turns to read to one another, so I simply took it for granted that reading was the major activity that happened in the world. If you are a little kid of five and you don’t go out of the house and you are still growing up in that woman’s world, which is where little boys start before they get chucked out, reading seemed to me to be the major activity if you were not shelling peas or peeling potatoes, and the two things were connected.

JOHN HARMS: When did you then make the link from reader - for you to be reading something someone must have written it - when did you start to think of yourself as possibly a writer?

DAVID MALOUF: First of all, I learnt to read spontaneously. I can’t ever remember being taught to read but, because I followed the page while my mother was reading, I learnt to read that way. Earlier than that the main thing I realised was that there were these marks on the page, just marks on the page, and somehow magically they became something you could produce as a voice that became stories. So that seemed to me right from the beginning like the one magic trick that was worth learning.

JOHN HARMS: So when did you want to learn that trick to actually write?

DAVID MALOUF: Almost immediately, I would have thought, and I would have started trying to write something. I have often told the story - because it was in Little Women and Good Wives which is another one of those books that I have heard read aloud, I think in that book Jo and her other sisters produce a newspaper of their own, and I thought that would be a really, really good idea. I knew what should go into that. I was a very astute eavesdropper. As I was saying, I was still growing up in that world of women that you begin with. My mother used to have people come in the afternoon to afternoon tea and she had bridge parties, and those women would discuss all sorts of things - usually their husbands. So I produced a little newspaper that told all the secrets, including the gossip about neighbours, and then distributed it in the neighbourhood. That was my first literary effort.

JOHN HARMS: You were very patient in a way because you did not publish until 1975. Were you writing in the lead-up to the 1970s or was it because you were busy as a teacher?

DAVID MALOUF: No. I was teaching in England from 1959 until 1968 [said 1958 but I think it should be 1968]. During that time I wrote the 12 poems that went into my first book which was published in 1962 called Four Poets; I wrote virtually all the poems that went into my first book Bicycle and Other Poems which was published in 1970 after I came back; and I wrote the first six, seven or eight drafts of Johnno, which were all terrible – they were all during that period. But I never published anything. I’ve always done that. I’ve always not published poems until I have a book ready. I’ve always made the distinction between writing and publishing. I’m interested in writing and a lot less interested in publishing.

JOHN HARMS: As a writer, do you have a project? Is there something that you’re trying to do in your writing?

DAVID MALOUF: Usually it is to find out why I’m trying to write what I’m writing. What I mean by that is that you pick up something, and it’s really a question and you don’t know why that particular thing nags away at you. So in writing whatever it is, whether it’s a poem which happens very quickly or a novel which you have to stick with for a very long time, for me it’s really trying to find out, ‘What’s my connection with that that makes me not be able to let go of it?’ The writing partly comes about because of the necessity of finding out something. In the end, it’s usually something about yourself.

I usually think of experience out there as being something that’s like a great big piece of material with thousands and thousands and thousands of hooks. One of those hooks grabs hold of you and you can’t get free, and eventually what the book is is whatever that hook pulls up out of you which is connected with that other big thing out there. The book really is a way of trying to find out something. It’s trying to find out what’s your connection with that, why you have to worry about it, why you have to write it.

JOHN HARMS: Are there questions that have nagged at you say in the years leading up to that decision to do that? Are they major questions that you’re pursuing?

DAVID MALOUF: I think the reason that one thing rather than another grabs hold of you is because there are a whole group of things that you’re really concerned with. I think that’s the way in which you see writers go back and back to the same kind of subjects. When we talk about the body of a writer’s work, we partly mean the set of concerns that belong only to him or to her and that distinguish them from other writers.

But we also mean the works they’ve come up with which answer to that in some way. When we define the difference between [Charles] Dickens, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky and [Honoré de] Balzac, just to name people who are connected but who are very, very different from one another, it’s because there are particular things we think of as Dickensian subjects, Dostoevskian subjects or Balzakian subjects - and that just means that they too keep going back to the same questions, but whether they’re big writers or small writers depends on the range of those questions. Some people have more and bigger questions than others - they’re bigger writers.

JOHN HARMS: A question that’s really intrigued me for a long time, and I read a piece in The Monthly about it called, ‘What is Queensland?’ - have you come to an understanding of the place which you grew up in?

DAVID MALOUF: One of the things that interest me most about Australia is that we had to celebrate Federation in 2001 so noisily because it never really happened. The states are very, very different from one another. If you’ve lived in Queensland, as I did for 24 years, and then lived in New South Wales, you know how very different places are. It’s because they have different histories. They begin in different places; they have a different demography.

One of the peculiar things about Queensland, which I think people don’t understand, is that there were very few English settlers in Queensland. The settlers in Queensland were Irish, Scots, Welsh and German, and for that reason we speak a different language up there. I didn’t realise that until I went to England. When I tried to teach in a classroom in London, all the words I wanted to use in the classroom the kids didn’t understand because they were not their words - they’re southern English words. When I moved to the north of England and taught in Birkenhead, suddenly I was back with people who used the same words in the classroom that I would. The word ‘press’, for example: nobody in Queensland ever uses the word ‘cupboard’, except a kitchen cupboard; anything else is a press and where the books are kept in the schoolroom is the press. That’s exactly what you would do in northern England or Scotland; it’s not what you do in southern England. There are loads of words like that. Partly that’s Queensland: it’s another language and it’s another history.

But it’s also something which I understand quite well, and that is it’s always been in Australian history the place which is both socially most backward and socially most progressive - both sometimes at once. Queensland had a socialist government before anywhere else in Australia and instituted all sorts of social and welfare things that we now take for granted decades before the rest of Australia. It’s a very complex and contradictory place, and I feel about a lot of aspects of it the way [William] Faulkner must have felt say about the Deep South. You don’t always approve of the way people think but you actually understand why they think that way.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Now that English has become the language of aviation throughout the world - in every country in the world it’s the English language that’s used, small as the vocabulary may be - can we be excited about that?

DAVID MALOUF: Can we be excited about?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: The fact that it’s our language which is used as the language of aviation?

DAVID MALOUF: I suppose we might feel proud in some kind of way, but I think it’s fatal to the language. I really do think it’s the end of the language. All languages and all facts have strengths and weaknesses, and their strength is their weakness. The weakness of English now is that it is the strongest language in the world.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Albert White. I can understand what you say about the translation, and translation from one language language base into English. But I’m a bit concerned, if I heard you correctly, in relation to English and its extensive use as a means of communication perhaps more as a commercial language as opposed to a language of intimate communication. Because of the risks which, if I interpret you correctly, you suggest in relation to English and we are communicating more or less by cypher, does that necessarily mean that we’re undermining the need for cognitive analytical brain functioning, and that we may also undermine the aesthetic function of the frontal lobe so we might account for the apathy and lack of revolutionary zeal that we have in the community at the moment, and maybe even extending into a conspiracy for subjugation of the population.

DAVID MALOUF: I am not sure I understood all of that. [laughter] What I would say is that language - I’m not quite sure of the last part because I really couldn’t hear properly - at its best is a rich form of communication, and I think that’s true as much between individuals or in families as in societies. Once language becomes simply a cypher for communication so that really what is being communicated is not richly complex material, even in terms of feeling as well as in terms of whatever kind of concepts you’re dealing with, then something is really missing not only in the language but also in the actual relationships between people. It’s not true necessarily in societies where everybody is speaking the one language or where everybody in that society is a native speaker of the language, but what we’re mostly dealing with in societies these days where English is spoken is that very large numbers of people have their own first languages and are using English as a second language of communication.

Now in a place like Australia that can be very important, because I would say that the only thing that real settler societies like ours has that holds them together is the language that everyone speaks. This question has particular importance in places that are settlers societies like ours, but I think you do have to worry about the extent to which the language in which people are communicating is a kind of second-hand and diminished, thin language.

ROLY SUSSEX: I’ll be on later on with Sue Butler. I’ve got an anecdote and a question: the anecdote is about John Ralston Saul, the economist who is an anti-economist. I met him at the ABC a few years ago, and the ABC wanted to talk to him about his book, Voltaire’s Bastards and The Collapse of Globalisation. The thing he wanted to do was to be taken to the bits of Brisbane which were behind Johnno and the rest of David’s writing. It struck me that he got his priorities just about right.

My question is about writing, the activity: you talk about writing as if it’s a friend, something which you are engaged in. Are you a digital writer or a manual writer? Do you think before writing; do you write while thinking?

DAVID MALOUF: I have to confess yet again that I’ve never owned a computer. [Audience claps] I still write by hand. Until quite recently I was like Manning Clark, I still wrote with ink. Mostly these days – I think only because the nib broke and I didn’t want to go to the Parker company to have it fixed up - I now write with biro. But essentially I do that because I really do strongly believe in some kind of relationship between the hand and the brain. For me, writing by hand is the right pace. It both allows me to leap ahead and have flashes that are leading the writing. But on the other hand it slows me up enough to do some critical thinking at the same time. So for me that’s the right pace. I find that you can do the right kind of correction.

I do think also that not having a computer has enormously saved me from being bombarded with those kind of words that I don’t want. I resent the postman. [laughter] I basically don’t want to be communicated with because I’m going to have to do something about it. So the idea of getting 30 emails a day just fills me with horror. People say if you had email, people would find it easier to communicate with you, and I said, ‘That’s why I don’t have it!’ [laughter] The other thing is I don’t want to give up the amount of time that people now seem willing to give up to their email and their computers. So I’m an absolutely unregenerate Luddite.

JOHN HARMS: We might finish with that image of you writing in our minds, David. But before you leave the stage, it’s come to my attention that today is your birthday.

DAVID MALOUF: It is, yes. [applause]

JOHN HARMS: So we have bought you a pineapple, a banana, some macadamia nuts and a voucher for a Weiss’ fruito bar. Thank you very much, David Malouf. I know you love opera.

DAVID MALOUF: Yes.

JOHN HARMS: So we have our own soloist to sing you Happy Birthday.

FEMALE SOLOIST: You might like to sit down, David. This is from the Cat in the Hat songbook, I’m sure most of you know it. It includes various wonderful songs, but most of all this birthday song.

Happy Birthday to Little Sally Spingel Spungel Sporn, who on this wondrous day was born. And Happy Birthday also to Frederick Foots and Spells, who was born upon this wondrous day as well. And Happy Birthday likewise to Waldo Wilberforce, Happy Birthday also to Paul Revere’s fine horse.

You can tell it’s an American song. [laughter]

But most of all we sing to honour you [darling David] Born upon this great, great, great day too.

[applause]

JOHN HARMS: Happy Birthday, thank you David.

Date published: 2 August 2010