Playing in the Furnace


I’ve had the idea for this post in my head for a while; it came to me during the season of Amadeus a few weeks ago. Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer, is a modern theatrical masterpiece and traces the relationship between Mozart and a rival composer, Antonio Salieri, who develops a rather consuming jealousy of the former’s gifts–and then declares ‘war’ on God for making Mozart (who is characterised in the play, partly accurately, as an infantile foul-mouthed child-man) His chosen instrument, and not Salieri. I had several small roles and I would spend a lot of time backstage during a performance, listening to Shaffer’s wonderful language. At the beginning of Act Two, Salieri issues my favourite line in the whole play: ‘Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.’ And I would think, I must write a blog about that line.

So the idea snowballed and I thought initially that I would riff about courage–about why it’s such an important commodity for any artist, but (I think) for writers especially. Here on The Island, courage is personified for me by Richard Flanagan; the author of several novels, a film script, a collection of essays. His first novel, Death of a River Guide, is set on the Franklin River during a rafting expedition and unfolds in the time it takes for the main character, Aljaz Cosini, to drown. It is a stunning book and confirmed for me, at a crucial stage in my own development as a writer, that Tasmanian writers could tell our stories–and do it bloody well.  Anyway, Richard landed himself in some very hot water after the death about ten years ago of Labor Premier Jim Bacon, who succumbed to lung cancer. Richard is a staunch environmentalist, and Jim had (among other things) profoundly insulted him and other artists on The Island by referring to them as ‘cultural fascists’ during a session of state parliament.  This was in response to a threat to boycott the then-newly-established arts festival Ten Days on the Island because Forestry Tasmania had become a major sponsor–an absolute red rag to a bull, as far as many of The Island’s artists were concerned. After Jim passed away, there was a considerable outpouring of grief, and an enormous state funeral in Hobart–something that Richard criticised in an article published in The Age.  The fury this article attracted is difficult to describe, but it was intense and prolonged. Tasmanians–especially those in positions of power–clearly were not ready to have one of their own skewered so soon. And perhaps the timing was less then delicate. But it was gutsy, and even if you flinched at Flanagan’s temerity, you had to admire his fortitude. (His life became a misery, by the way, for several months afterwards; nuisance phone calls, general harrassment.)

A writer needs courage. What does art do but hold up a mirror to society? Sometimes society will not like what it sees–but it should be made to look, occasionally. Additionally, sometimes a writer will tackle a controversial or difficult topic in their work, and here I reminded of novelist and poet Peter Goldsworthy, and especially his novel Wish. Briefly, this book details the relationship between a scientist and a female gorilla who he is teaching to communicate using sign language. (Another of his novels, Honk if You Are Jesus, deals with attempts to clone a Tasmanian Tiger from DNA extracted from a foetus preserved in a jar, so there’s a nice Island connection.) The experiment with the gorilla proceeds well–and then the scientist falls in love with her. And then–in what is probably the most memorable scene of fiction I have ever read–the relationship is consummated. You might appreciate that this could easily sound…icky. But it’s not. In the context of the story, it’s the next natural step, and Goldsworthy handles it with extraordinary skill.

More recently–in the course of the last week–I’ve been reminded that it’s probably a very brave man who makes an enemy of a writer. We have long memories and (at least in my case) a lot of what goes in, stays; especially the juicy bits, the lovely words, the strange man on the street corner, that perfect sunrise. I was “named and shamed” on a Liberal Party candidate’s Facebook page simply because I clicked ‘Like’ on a satirical story that he clearly found rather offensive; it was to do reports of the candidate’s death (he’s a former military officer) while on active duty being greatly exaggerated, in the style of Mark Twain’s famous quote.  Myself and about a dozen other people found their names and places of work (drawn from our Facebook profiles, probably) posted on his Facebook page with a threat to write to our employers by a certain deadline–5 pm last Sunday–if we didn’t retract our support for the satirical article. I was alerted to this by a colleague and I was enraged. (Followers of this blog will know that I have little time for right-wing conservative politicians; I blogged a little while ago about my exchange with Michael Ferguson over some postcards.) Happily, others were also quite incensed and the story received coverage in the Fairfax media–the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald–yesterday. His dummy spit has also gone viral online, attracting comments from overseas. He blocked me from his ‘supporters page’ on Facebook (admittedly after I’d poked the possum a bit, if you know what I mean) so that I couldn’t respond to comments, meaning I had sit and watch as he and his acolytes stuck the boot in–naming me personally–and saying the most ridiculous, insulting, pompous, self-important things. It was like being held down while they kicked me.  I would not have been surprised to have woken up the following morning to see burning crosses in my yard. The pointy white hoods can’t have been too far away. The most absurd thing is that, of all the political comments I make on Facebook and elsewhere (I’m rarely shy when it comes to sharing an opinion!), simply clicking ‘Like’ is what started a veritable shitstorm–caused by a sad little man who isn’t even campaigning for office yet, and who clearly does not understand satire. His name is Andrew Nikolic. If you have the opportunity when the next federal election rolls around–ie. if you live in the federal electorate of Bass–don’t vote for him. He’s not worthy. This is not the first tantrum he’s exhibited, either. (In my house, now, my children don’t have tantrums–they ‘chuck a Nikolic’.) I should state that Nikolic has removed the ‘name and shame’ post and other comments threads from his Facebook page. I have also been notified that he has been ‘dealt with’ internally by Sam McQuestin, the State President of the Liberal Party. I have no issue with the Liberal Party itself–but I have enormous issues with actions taken by people representing it, especially when threats are made against me. In what I believe is called ‘The Streisand Effect’, the original satirical article is now forgotten–Nikolic’s reaction has become the story.

So every now and then, the price of playing in the furnace of art will be to get singed, sizzled, a bit crispy around the edges. Fire is a wonderful metaphor for creativity; the elemental forging of ideas, shaped and refined by heat, crafted by the blacksmith within all of us. The trick is, when the flames get slightly too hot, not to turn away.

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