Judith Brett kicked off the MCAS re-launch season last night with a brilliant lecture about ‘The Enigmatic Mr. Deakin’. Her insights into Deakin’s political career, spiritual life, contemplative writings and stunning oratory were a revelation to me. His life seemed to embody so many of the ‘troubles’ for intellectuals in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century.
It isn’t often we end up with an intellectual as a Prime Minister. This is not to say I don’t think our political leaders aren’t smart: they really have to be; or at least sharp enough to keep up with the relentless media cycle and able to spring into words and seeming action at the drop of a hat. It’s just that the kind of intellectualism and self-questioning Deakin seemed to inhabit is not a quality usually associated with strong leadership. Nor with the outward charm and cheerfulness he exhibited in public. (We have, of course, an intellectual in the White House at present, though there too is a leader regularly critiqued for a perceived lack of action or decisiveness.)
What struck me in listening to Judy’s paper was how much Deakin shared with other artists and thinkers of his time, not least what might be characterised as a problem with modernity. Here was a man struggling to confront 20th-century questions with a 19th-century toolkit, not yet able to access the new ways of thinking which would revolutionise the humanities—and Deakin clearly consistently wondered what it was to be human—and perhaps also constrained by the prejudices of 19th-century racialist thinking. He was doing fine when progress, in the Victorian sense, seemed assured; but couldn’t turn failure, melancholy, sadness, also into positive features of human culture; and ways, also of being Australian. In other words, he wanted to be new, but couldn’t bring himself to be modern.
A great seminar, such as Judy’s, sets one thinking about a wide range of issues: she has inadvertently kicked off my teaching which begins next week: about modernism in Australia (and Miles Franklin, I think, was also one of those new-not-modern souls); and also in the MA English 1850-present, in which we trace with wonderful postgraduate thinkers the strange ways in which Victorian modernity shaded into modernism and beyond. Thanks Judy!
A video of Judy’s paper will be posted shortly on the MCAS website.