Cursing and Breast-Beating

Ross McKibbin

  • An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark by Mark McKenna
    Miegunyah, 793 pp, £57.95, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 522 85617 0

Manning Clark’s funeral, on 27 May 1991 at – to the surprise of many – St Christopher’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Canberra, was attended by much of Australia’s ‘progressive’ elite: the governor-general (Bill Hayden), the prime minister (Bob Hawke), the deputy prime minister and future prime minister (Paul Keating), all of them at one time leaders of the Labor Party, along with much of the federal cabinet, the chief justice of the High Court and six hundred others. Although not a state funeral, it was a very good imitation of one. It attested to Clark’s standing as the representative spokesman (especially after the death of Patrick White a few months before) of a certain kind of Australian radical-democratic nationalism. Had the conservative parties been in power, the funeral rites would have been rather different: Liberal Party grandees would not have crowded the cathedral. As Clark became a public figure, and he worked very hard at becoming one, his work came in the eyes of conservatives to epitomise a left-wing interpretation of Australian history that excluded alternative explanations, especially conservative ones. His critics argued, with some justification, that Clark’s work consistently denied the significance and worthiness of the British institutions and constitutional arrangements Australia had inherited. Above all, in the minds of such conservatives as John Howard, it was designed to maximise Anglo-Australia’s guilt for what happened to the Aborigines; something for which late 20th-century Australians could not be held responsible. This was the ‘black armband’ school of history, a phrase popularised, though not coined, by Howard himself. And it’s certainly true that Clark argued that the European settlement of Australia was a catastrophe for the indigenous population.

The extent of conservative hostility to Clark was demonstrated by two incidents not long after his death. In August 1993 Peter Ryan delivered, in the conservative journal Quadrant, an extraordinary attack on Clark’s six-volume History of Australia, which he had shepherded through publication at Melbourne University Press. He was, he said, ashamed to have published it: Clark was a fraud. He also repeated criticisms many had already made of the volumes. Ryan, it seems, had long nourished resentments against Clark and was driven, too, by his strong dislike of the anti-Britishness of Paul Keating, by then prime minister, and a feeling that Clark was partly responsible for Keating. Ryan’s criticisms were widely publicised and regarded by many on the right as confirmation of what they had always believed.

Three years later, the Brisbane Courier Mail printed a story claiming that Clark had been in some way a Soviet agent, an accusation founded partly on his ambiguous relations with the Soviet Union but also on a recollection by the poet Les Murray, then the literary editor of Quadrant, that at a dinner party in the 1970s he’d seen Clark wearing the Order of Lenin. The Courier Mail was forced to withdraw the accusation and was reported to the Press Council, but many were still prepared to believe the story: Howard used it to attack once again the black armband school and its ‘demonisation’ of those on the political right. Both of these affairs – in themselves mere storms in teacups – were significant because they established the centrality of Clark in Australia’s culture wars. Whether he was right or wrong was less important than who and how many believed him to be right or wrong; less important, indeed, than what he actually wrote. Politically, much hung on these things; to some extent it still does.

All this and much more is examined in Mark McKenna’s outstanding biography of Clark. It is a book of thorough and scrupulous research, which draws not only on Clark’s huge archive – which, as McKenna points out, he helpfully annotated and dated for the benefit of future biographers – but also on the papers and memories of friends, ex-friends, family and associates. It is a sympathetic account, but Clark emerges as someone hard to know or to like. At a personal level, the book is dominated by Clark’s relationship with his wife, Dymphna Lodewyckx. It is a difficult relationship to judge. She remained loyal to him – though she left him a couple of times – and he had a desperate need for her, especially when they were apart, but his relations with other women, often on his side intense and flirtatious, caused her much distress. She also felt that nothing she did would ever satisfy him, not even giving her life over to him. In public they could appear loving, or something like it, and Clark always gave her generous acknowledgment in the introductions to his books. But his utterly solipsistic diaries are full of deeply distasteful complaints about her, in particular her failure to understand his intellectual and spiritual needs. She did not read the diaries while he was alive, but did, as he must have known she would, after he died. He also behaved thoughtlessly towards his children. He specified that his sons should speak at his funeral but made no mention of his daughter, Katerina, herself a historian. She was not asked to speak, so she didn’t.

Clark could be a difficult colleague. He was very touchy about reviews; a bad one could throw him completely off balance, and a friend who wrote a critical review could soon become a former friend. People became, McKenna suggests, more and more reluctant to review his work for fear of private and public ‘vilification’. McKenna gives a good account of an extraordinary incident in which Clark moved heaven and earth to prevent an unfavourable review by Jack McManners (a friend) of the first volume of the History of Australia from being published. In the end he couldn’t stop publication but did bully McManners into writing a letter to the same journal effectively apologising for what he had written (though McManners made no such apology privately). It was, McKenna says, ‘one of the least edifying episodes in Clark’s career’, but it was not unique.

One of Clark’s most alarming characteristics – also one of the most interesting – is his apparently complete absorption in the tragic drama of his own life. His diaries are a record of sin and redemption, guilt and blame, the search for some sort of absolution. He arranged for a priestly friend to say private Masses for his soul and as he got older edged towards a Graham Greene-like Catholicism, though without ever being formally received into the Church. It is difficult to know how seriously to take all this, to know how far it was a pose. For there was much of the poseur in Clark.

He could assimilate other people’s experiences without, it seems, being aware that he was doing so. In a neat piece of detection, McKenna shows that two of Clark’s most significant ‘epiphanies’ – the moments that he claimed determined the way he would write Australian history – never happened, or not to him. The first, his arrival in Bonn the morning after Kristallnacht, was drawn from Dymphna’s experience. She was there the morning after; he was not. And the epiphany in Cologne Cathedral in 1938, his reaction to a portrait of the Madonna behind the high altar, didn’t happen either. This transformative moment seems to have been borrowed from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. These are the recollections of an older man trying to give meaning to his life and work. They do however represent a kind of fictional truth. In autobiography such episodes are not uncommon. But to discard the facts in pursuit of a higher truth is a slippery slope for a historian.

When he returned from Britain to Australia in 1940 (he had been studying at Balliol), Clark found what he, like many others, thought a shallow and derivative culture, a poor imitation of England. But he believed that the grand themes of human existence, or of European human existence, were part of Australia’s history too and that the country’s past was fit for historical study. Australia’s historical narrative encompassed the struggle between the Enlightenment and religion; Catholicism (often good) and Protestantism (usually bad); philistinism and culture; Celt and Saxon; the racial struggle of white against yellow and white against black; the juggernaut of European imperialism. And these themes were acted out in a harsh and strange landscape, one that seemed to mock human hopes. The quasi-official novelist of this landscape was Patrick White, and its quasi-official painter Sidney Nolan – which is why Clark was so attracted to both and so anxious to retain White’s affection and approval.

As history, Clark’s History of Australia, published over more than twenty years starting in 1962, is deeply flawed. Part of the problem is that there was too much of Clark in his history. The many factual solecisms, which he regretted, seem less careless mistakes than statements that Clark wished to be true – rather like the autobiographical epiphanies. There were also technical blemishes. The chapters are ill-organised, and drift from one theme to another. While the reading is wide, the range of evidence employed is more narrow than the sources suggest. Literary sources are used at the expense of other evidence: a handful of poets support a disproportionate weight of the argument.

There is much too on the mental states and turmoils of his historical actors, a good deal of which seems to be based solely on Clark’s assumptions. People and crowds are always in a rage, or raving, cursing, swearing, breast-beating. The Irish are particularly prone to madness in the blood. His historical argument is based on stage props that are wheeled in and out as needed. ‘Bourgeois’ or ‘British philistinism’ or the ‘petty bourgeois’ love of private property, even the bourgeoisie itself, do heavy analytical duty. Clark seems to think that as terms of explanation they are self-evident. Equally irritating are the sneering descriptions of individuals he dislikes or comes to dislike. In the fifth volume, for example, Alfred Deakin, one of the founding fathers of federal Australia and an early prime minister, is Deakin in the first half but ‘Mr Deakin’ in the second. Clark hopes the reader will see the reason for this. But the only reason I can infer is that Clark likes Deakin in the first half and dislikes him in the second.

It is difficult to know exactly what Clark’s argument is. There is a sense in his writing that Australia has a radical-democratic political culture which is constantly being undermined by the philistinism of its elites. Clark suggests that the experience of bush life could encourage a mutuality and a rough sort of democratic egalitarianism – rather as Russell Ward did in his Australian Legend (1958). But the History of Australia demonstrates a persistent failure to achieve this. The conservatives nearly always win because ‘Australians as a people were too wedded to the petty-bourgeois ideal of the ownership of property to create the first Paris Commune in the New World’ – a statement which, stripped of its melodrama, is obviously true. Clark’s own politics don’t help. He liked, for example, to present himself as a boy from the bush who was a victim of and thus hostile to the British class and caste system. But his own experience as a student and then briefly as a teacher in Britain doesn’t support this. If anything, the British system, whatever it was, was rather protective of him, and his feelings about it were unresolved. When the Whitlam government stopped giving imperial honours in Australia, Clark was awarded one of the decorations in the new Order of Australia. When the conservatives returned to office, knighthoods were restored. Patrick White, like Clark awarded the Order of Australia and like Clark a republican, encouraged the other holders of the order to return their awards in protest. Not only did Clark not do this, he accepted his award from the queen and appears to have been proud of it.

Clark enormously admired Whitlam and invested much emotionally in his government. But both Whitlam and Keating could be considered failures, especially Whitlam. Both were Western European social democrats, Whitlam by education and inclination and Keating by his own efforts; both tried to tie a version of Australian radicalism – a radicalism without the racism of traditional Australian nationalism – to European high culture, though in Keating’s case with a touch of Irish resentment thrown in. But Australia’s egalitarian and democratic impulses were (and are) significantly weaker than Australians think: this is one of the reasons Whitlam and Keating came to grief, and it is one of the lessons of Clark’s history, though he seemed reluctant to admit it.

Despite their flaws, Clark’s books were extremely popular. The style, though frequently maddening, is curiously compelling, especially in the earlier volumes. There is a narrative drive that carries the reader along. Some of the set-pieces, the descriptions of the convict colonies or the life of the gold fields or the Gallipoli campaign, are very good. There is also a certain raciness in the pen portraits, however unreliable they may be, and despite its idiosyncrasies and omissions there is a lot of history in his history. But the main reason for its popularity is that Clark convinced many people that Australian history mattered. Launching Clark’s Short History of Australia, Whitlam said that ‘no one has done more to refute the myth that Australia has no history, the myth used for generations to keep Australian history out of our schools and even our universities.’ The teaching of Australian history in schools had all too often been dire; Clark gave it colour and drama. He even made ‘the explorers’ interesting, as Patrick White had done in Voss. Earlier generations of Australian schoolchildren must have wondered why ‘the explorers’ didn’t just ask the Aborigines how to get there (wherever ‘there’ was). Clark gave an answer. He also did not duck the racism or the fate of the Aborigines: something many people were aware of but were discouraged from admitting. And by putting Australian history in an international context he gave it breadth. His two-volume Select Documents of Australian History (1950 and 1955) became standard in Australian schools and universities because there was nothing else quite like them. Clark’s work catered to a view of Australia as non-philistine, egalitarian and republican and so appealed to people more or less on the left, particularly in the arts, journalism and the universities. This helped give him a position in Australian political life that technically better equipped historians never had and perhaps never wanted. But Clark’s wishes actually ran counter to what was, despite himself, his argument: Australia’s future was unlikely to be non-philistine, egalitarian and republican.