Books

Tom Griffiths
The Art of Time Travel

Time flows steadily; it dictates chronology; it lazily supplies causation. It relentlessly propels us into the future, snatching the present from us, making the past strange.

Yet, writes Tom Griffiths, that perception of the onward rush of time is an illusion and while physicists may investigate the cause of time’s directionality, “it is up to historians to make sense of our experience of it”. Hence, The Art of Time Travel.

Griffiths, an award-winning environmental historian based at the Australian National University, writes marvellously about his profession. Historians “cultivate wonder as a technical skill” and approach the past as “a testing ground for thought”. In practising the art of time travel, they:

move constantly between reading and thinking their way into the lives and minds of people of the past – giving them back their present with all its future possibilities – and seeing them with perspective, from afar, with a bracing sense of their strangeness.

Looking back over Griffiths’ published work, both scholarly and mainstream, it’s clear that this book has been 20 years or more in the making. That same period has seen history make headlines as contested ground (the history wars, black armband history), with fiction pitted against fact, and settler narratives against reckonings from the other side of the frontier. The Art of Time Travel addresses those contests, but not head-on. Rather, it refracts them through the long lens of historiography – which, if it sounds dull, is anything but. The writing of history, in Griffiths’ telling, is bound up with personality and personal history, with cultural shifts and schools of thought, with politics and, yes, with time.

Griffiths considers different approaches to the past, across time and in relation to time, through the work of 14 thinkers not all of whom are, strictly speaking, historians. Eleanor Dark was a novelist, John Mulvaney and Mike Smith’s field is prehistory, while the creative output of Judith Wright and Eric Rolls transcended disciplines. Others evoked by Griffiths, as counterpoints and antagonists to his main cast, include Keith Windschuttle in the chapter on Henry Reynolds, and Kate Grenville for Inga Clendinnen. Readers may be surprised to find that Manning Clark is not among the featured 14, but “mischievously appears … only as a minor character” – the mischievousness being not Clark’s but (evidently) Griffiths’ own in having omitted the man with the hat from his rollcall.

He states up front that his selection of historians is unapologetically personal. But the book is no group hagiography. “The Magpie”, his chapter on Geoffrey Blainey, is critical but nuanced, seeking to illuminate the source of Blainey’s stubborn imperialism and rejection of “the new”. If he finds fault with Blainey’s histories for privileging humans at the expense of nature, Griffiths also rejects histories of a “dark green” taint that disregard people in favour of ecology. “The result is bad history, for there is no meaning, no agency and no hope.” He writes with insight of Henry Reynolds’ moral certainty and his “daring” approach to frontier history which, far from advocating separatism, says Griffiths, “attempts nothing less than the integration of Aboriginal history into the great theme of Australian settler nationhood”.

The point of Griffiths’ profiles is not to be admiring or critical but, cumulatively, to illustrate a range of approaches to historiography that, over time, has affected how the past is understood. By his account, temperament is as much a determinant as intellect in shaping those approaches and the histories that ensue. Temperament, intellect and – not unrelated – the company one keeps.

Griffiths’ own chief formative influences seem to have been Greg Dening and Donna Merwick, who taught him at Melbourne University in the 1970s. The Art of Time Travel devotes a chapter to each and they serve as the book’s presiding spirits. Their work and teaching, says Griffiths, broadened the imaginative reach and collaborative spirit of the practice of history in Australia. 

The book takes as its starting point Eleanor Dark’s 1941 novel The Timeless Land, which began with “Bennelong” looking out from the edge of an uninvaded continent. From there, Griffiths establishes a mosaic of influences and reactions. Eleanor Dark to Manning Clark, Clark to John Mulvaney, Mulvaney to Mike Smith. Judith Wright to Tim Bonyhady. Russel Ward to Henry Reynolds. The book weaves through histories of frontiers (including Antarctica), families, city, suburbs and scrub, and ends with an evocation of deep time, through prehistorian Mike Smith’s discoveries in the Cleland Hills of central Australia. Throughout, Griffiths shifts his focus from the history on the page to the historians behind it to the big picture on which their whole enterprise (or Griffiths’, anyway) is predicated: people in the environment. 

Griffiths declares himself “enthralled by the craft of discipline and imagination that is history”. Archives are “enchanted places … where historians know who they are and what they do”. More than once, he describes the practice of history as “exhilarating”. Footnotes, an irritant to the lay reader, are, for Griffiths, a declaration of debt, a sharing of sources, and evidence of his discipline’s collaborative spirit.

He writes of Greg Dening: 

[He] was impatient with thinkers who want the last word, and with disciplines that claim a final truth. He was bemused by “the culture of envy” in academia and the “blood sport” of debunking. 

Griffiths shares his former teacher’s impatience and bemusement. “An historian’s finest insights,” he writes, “are intuitive as well as rational, holistic as well as particular – and therefore always invitations to debate.” His own books, including this one, exemplify that ideal. But it is an ideal. Forty years after Dening taught Griffiths, too many works of history still either assume a triumphal tone, as if their saying so proves the thing, or else, distrusting intuition, err on the side of contingency. And many are chokingly narrow in focus.

But The Art of Time Travel is not one of them. Generous in spirit, intimate of detail yet vast in outlook and imagining, it is truly exhilarating.  FL

Black Inc, 336pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel". Subscribe here.