Models for a good life and an honest death

Agamemnon’s Kiss, by Inga Clendinnen. Published by Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2006. ISBN 1 920885 67 6. RRP $32.95. website 

Models for a good life and an honest deathIn the essay that gives this collection its title, Melbourne historian Inga Clendinnen proposes an engrossing archaeological tableau. A tireless if ethically questionable excavator, Heinrich Schliemann, unearthed five skeletons with gold masks near the Lion Gate at Mycenae. The skeletons crumbled in Schliemann’s hands, but he said of the masks, "Today I kissed the lips of Agamemnon." Well, he didn’t—none of the masks came from the Greek king’s tomb—and Clendinnen points out in her final words that in any case such a kiss is not a physical matter, but comes about through words and thoughts; this embrace is given only to "we happy breed who practise the magical arts of History".

That is a splendid, moving boast and one which many of us would admire, but does it hold water? It does if you accept a statement proposed in an earlier essay, "Backstage at the Republic of Letters", which began life as a lecture and is, despite the author’s wry disclaimer, all the better for having that format. Here, the author proposes that "history is a democratic discipline" because it is the means by which ordinary people manage the world—another proposal that is instantly attractive, and also persuasive because it sets up l’homme moyen sensuel as a conscientious deliberator, an evaluator of the past striving to find a path through this troubling, misleading present.

In the light of these professions of faith, Clendinnen shows herself to be an optimist, and her 20 essays show various facets of this positive approach, which is expounded in the collection’s introductory essay, "Big Louis". Both point to the massive life-altering position she found herself in 16 years ago, when she was told that she needed a liver transplant; she was lucky enough to get one after a four-year wait, and the medical and hospital experiences took her into the close-knit community of transplant recipients. But the physical changes to her lifestyle meant that she could no longer follow her academic career, nor could she travel to carry out fieldwork in her field of expertise: the Mayan and Aztec civilisations, and the coming of the conquistadors. As compensation, a new door opened and she became a writer of high calibre, the recipient of awards in several states and the Boyer Lecturer for 1999.

Models for a good life and an honest deathAgamemnon’s Kiss is divided somewhat loosely into three sections, each of them holding one substantial piece surrounded by satellites that cover some of Clendinnen’s enthusiasms, and several topics on which she has a singular outlook. Her major essays comprise wry observations on dying and funerary customs, an incisive commentary on white Australia’s incomprehension about Aborigines, and an appreciation of British writer Hilary Mantel that seems to have sprung from the authors’ shared experiences of severe illness, and their rejection of central aspects to organised religion.

As you would expect, the main thread running through this collection has to do with history, but Clendinnen sees her discipline as a broad church, one that can take in reviews, recollections of her own childhood, multi-coloured reminiscences of her working career, informed discourse on simple events or complex ideas. She moves with ease from a report on Norman Mailer's findings about the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, through a review of a brace of Anne Frank biographies, to a moving description of contributors to the Holocaust Museum at Elsternwick. She adds a personal strain to the current History Wars involving Windschuttle, Manne and others, thanks to her insights as a one-time tutor at the University of Melbourne.

Along with breadth of subject matter and an eye for topicality, Clendinnen also reveals a tempered tolerance that seems to have been inherited from her favourite essayist, Montaigne. Several of that urbane Frenchman’s more famous epigrams and mots are cited with approval, held up as models for conducting the good life or playing out an honest death. But at the core of her observations, Clendinnen shows an honesty and awareness of her own fallibility that brings you back to extend that rarest of compliments to an author—a re-reading.

Her "Postcard from Townsville" is as fair-minded a description of the Queensland town’s troubling racial problems as I’ve come across. In "Breaking the Mirror", given as a talk to a psychoanalysts’ conference on narcissism in 2001, she holds two central loops—the Aztec sacrifice ritual and her own illness—juxtaposing and bringing them together with unexpected subtlety. Her memories of seaside holidays in "At the Beach" encourage nostalgia in those of us who come from Clendinnen’s generation, but even her harking-back to simpler times shows practicality and common sense—the sharp edge and eye of an observer-participant who has the gift of combining emotional sympathy with even-handed evaluation.



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