Greg Dening

Greg Dening is emeritus professor of history at the University of Melbourne.

Standing on the Wharf, Weeping: Australia

Greg Dening, 25 September 2003

Earlier this year, bushfires engulfed the east coast of Australia. In Canberra, where I work, five hundred houses were lost. The National University was in a state of shock. Mount Stromlo, an icon of Australian astronomy since Federation, is gone, with all its telescopes and research data. In Melbourne, where I live, the air was thick with smoke from fires 300 km away. The stench frightened...

Mahu on the Beach

Greg Dening, 22 May 1997

‘Soyez mysterieuses,’ Paul Gauguin had carved into the lintel of his last residence in the South Seas, the ‘House of Pleasure’, or ‘House of Orgasm’, as some would translate Maison du Jouir. ‘I am not a painter who copies nature – today less than before. With me everything happens in my crazy imagination.’ In September 1901, at the urging of that crazy imagination, Gauguin had left Tahiti. The simple savages he looked for were no longer there. They were to be found, he thought, in the Marquesas. At Atuona, on the island of Hiva Oa, he built his House of Pleasure.’

Where am I?

Greg Dening, 31 October 1996

There has never been a ‘Pacificism’ to go with Orientalism, the South Seas having always seemed more luscious than mysterious. The obligations felt by the ‘civilised’ to turn South Sea islanders into something else was too strong for there to be any thought of learning from them, and scholarly encounters seemed a little too hedonist to be serious. Any politics of palm-trees,grass-huts and ‘cannibal kings’ was seen as more laughable than real. Such Pacificism as there has been was Eurocentric, romantic in its excitement at ‘discoveries’, nationalistic in the competition of one empire against another to appear to be doing good or to show which did the least harm, prurient towards the liberties taken by those who ‘went native’. The ‘idea’ of the South Seas was always theatrical: the sexual titivations of Tahiti, the triumphs of James Cook and then his death, the loss of Jean François de la Pérouse, the mutiny on the Bounty, the debates on the good and evil effects of missions.

Dirty Linen

Patrick O’Brian, 4 August 1994

Both these books are concerned with the sea in the days of the sailing Navy and with the nature of command, so much enhanced in distant waters when communication with government might take half a...

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