Reviewed by E.B. Heath
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. William Faulkner
Tom Griffiths’ new book The Art of Time Travel, has been a revelation! I understood history as static, a dry, dates-and-dead- people package, but I now find myself in the grip of an enthusiasm experienced by the newly converted. This engaging must-read-book discusses the differing professional perspectives of fourteen historians, including some details of their own history that influences their work to some degree. Although only a few of the chapters are reviewed here, all of the historians are a riveting read when presented by Tom Griffiths.
In the prologue Griffiths explains his approach to history, and it is refreshing. The job of historians, he says, is to be astonished and to understand, balancing the familiar past that speaks to our own experience, with its strangeness that expands our ideas of what it means to be human.
Historians move constantly between reading and thinking their way into the lives and minds of the people of the past – giving them back their present with all its future possibilities . . .
In this approach the idea of time past becomes fluid, as new perspectives are discovered in the present, our view of the historical shifts.
The past is a quarry of ideas, an archive of possible future scenarios. Physicists say the same of time. In the fundamental laws of physics, time forward and time past are treated as equal.
It might occur to the reader that this works against the western cultural view of time as progressing in a linear direction; the above is perhaps more in line with Indigenous Australians’ perspective of time as vertically stacked. From the Indigenous cultural perspective the past, present and future connects to the eternal now of the Dreaming; the land embodies the Dreaming, connecting time to place. History is understood in social terms through links to land, ancestors and descendants, plants and animals.
Indigenous Australians and the land are central to many of the perspectives represented in The Art of Time Travel. Griffiths gives the reader a brief account of John Mulvaney’s life and archaeological education in Cambridge. His time there coincided with advancements in carbon dating, which enabled him to discover that Australia has a Pleistocene past; reasserting Aboriginal cultural identity is considered ‘one of the most significant developments in Australian intellectual history’.
Griffiths’ first historian is novelist Eleanor Dark. The Timeless Land brings Indigenous Australian Bennilong onto centre stage in the re-telling of Australian eighteenth century history. In Griffiths’ words:
. . . this precipice of human history, the moment when peoples with immensely long and intimate histories of habitation encountered the furthest-flung representatives of the world’s most industrialized nation, when the circle of dispersal of modern humans out of Africa more than 70,000 years earlier was finally closing.
Dark presented her history from the inside looking out. From her home in the Blue Mountains her family walked the same trails as the explorers. They made two caves, deep in the bush, a place of refuge for weekend retreats. Her perspective swung from invader to the invaded, with sympathy for the latter. Her research into the life of Caroline Chisholm gave insight to colonial treatment of convicts, women and Indigenous Australians; cohorts discounted, while professional historians celebrated the white male pioneers for years to come. As Griffiths points out, Dark was ahead of her time in understanding that the big story about colonization was the encounter between settlers and the Indigenous race, with Bennilong carrying the narrative as its tragic hero. Having brought Bennilong to public attention, Dark would be thrilled, I’m sure, to see that he lives on. Historians have continued to research our hero and his end becomes less tragic as he is now believed to have re-united with Eora clans, eventually dying as an honoured elder.
Griffiths presents Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land to the reader as ‘a path-breaking work of historical imagination’. He is correspondingly enthusiastic about Eric Rolls’ environmental history of the Pilliga Forest in A Million Wild Acres for its poetic qualities. It has been compared to the Book of Genesis, a long campfire yarn and an Icelandic saga. He refers to Les Murray’s manifesto ‘Eric Rolls and the Golden Disobedience’.
Eric’s disobedience, explained Murray, was his freedom to sidestep received literary sensibilities, his ability to transcend the conventional boundaries between fiction and non-fiction and between humanity and nature, and his commitment to ecological democracy.
His ‘ecological democracy’ confronts the idea that the wilderness, primeval jungle, we value and want to protect is in fact the result of settlement. His book, written during the time of campaigns of protectionism, caused some controversy among scientists and protectionists. Rolls told his story as he saw it. He received death threats when he alerted the public to the destruction wrought by feral cats, and, as he did when publishing on the use and abuse of water resources, he ran the gauntlet of conservationists, developers and bureaucrats alike.
‘The Journey to Monaro’ explores how Keith Hancock’s personal motivations prompted and affected his environmental research on the Eden-Monaro area, in Discovering Monaro (1972). Hancock’s work was generally acclaimed as pioneering environmental history. Although admiring his work, Griffiths points out that Hancock remained blind to Indigenous Australians in the Monaro area.
Chapter six, ‘The Creative Imagination’ – Tom Griffiths’ pays homage to his teacher and mentor Greg Dening, who was clearly a brilliant and beautiful man. All educators would benefit from reading Griffiths’ account of Greg Dening.
In Greg’s hands, history was no mere subject at university; it became a form of consciousness, a definition of humanity, a way of seeing – and changing – the world.
In Chapter Ten – History as Art: Donna Merwick – Griffiths gives an interesting account of history at the University of Melbourne and its revered hierarchy of historians, forming the ‘Crawford School’. In other chapters Griffith gives an insight into such topics as:
academia and accounting for the ‘history wars’;
Judith Wright moving from poetry to politics and history;
Geoffrey Blainey, the magpie;
And Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith, whose new book is The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (2013).
Every chapter of The Art of Time Travel is enthralling. Every chapter is expressed elegantly and wittily. Every chapter is enlightening. Every chapter is a must-read. Professor Tom Griffiths is now on my (short) list of best writers.
Highly, Highly Recommended.
By Tom Griffiths