As this posthumous collection shows, Inga Clendinnen’s faith in the public defined her work. “I … think my readers are as enthralled by the tough issues as I am,” she writes. “ ‘Popular history’ need not mean – must not mean – dumbed-down history.”
Clendinnen’s early scholarship focused on the Aztecs but she developed a considerable general readership for her later work, particularly the memoir Tiger’s Eye. This book, the third collection of her writing, showcases her immensely attractive conversational style, with Clendinnen treating her readers as confidants, even collaborators, as she muses over historical dilemmas.
How was Cortés able to conquer Mexico so quickly with only a handful of soldiers? Why did a group of Indigenous people suddenly spear Governor Phillip, a man with whom some of them were on decidedly friendly terms? What motivated the Auschwitz SS to conduct elaborate parade drills with inmates they’d already reduced to living skeletons? As she unravels these puzzles, she addresses us as equals, as if we are working with her to solve the past’s mysteries.
The power of her writing comes less from her very fine prose than from the old-fashioned liberalism that underlies it, a philosophy that takes for granted a common humanity shared by the historian, her readers and the long-dead people about whom she writes. It’s that which creates such an appealing reading experience, intensified by its comparative rarity today, in an era so firmly fixated on difference.
Throughout the collection, Clendinnen contemplates moments of violence, cruelty or anguish: from the brutal efforts by the Yucatan Franciscans to stamp out idolatry, to casual racism against Indigenous drinkers in Townsville, to her own experience (“shaking, yellow, cradling my distended belly in my arms”) of a liver transplant.
What did the Aztecs think they were doing when they forced captives to engage in ceremonial battles, then cut out their hearts, dressed in their flayed skins and roasted their flesh with dried maize stew? You might imagine that a book providing a long and thoughtful answer to that question would be unbearably bleak. But you’d be wrong. Despite her grim materials, Clendinnen writes with an optimism almost entirely absent from the public culture of 2021. That’s because for her, history isn’t a nightmare or an accumulation of wreckage but a human experience from which, even at its darkest, human values can be distilled.
She explains how, as a scholar, she avoided Australian material, scarred by a primary school curriculum consisting of “a doleful catalogue of self-styled ‘explorers’ who wandered in what [her teacher called] ‘dretful desarts’ glumly littering names about – Mount Disappointment, Mount Despair, Mount Hopeless – until, thankfully, they ‘perished’.” She finds her way back into the history of her own country by reading the diaries of George Robinson, the so-called “Protector of the Aborigines” in Tasmania. Robinson, she decides, is foolish, impatient, humourless, priggish, jealous and vain – as well as brave, independent and tough.
“Is it necessary, then, to like them?” she asks of the people she studies. “No. Is it desirable to trust what they are saying? On the contrary: it is essential to acknowledge that one’s subjects had the wit to deceive” – that is, they can fool others, but they can also fool themselves.
Clendinnen writes of different times but, of course, she also writes from them. Many of these pieces come from the interregnum that followed the Cold War, a time when the divisions of the past were dissolving and new political alignments were yet to harden.
Decrying what she calls “Mr Howard’s campaign for orchestrated flag worship”, Clendinnen breezily predicts that we “will manage rather easily” to avoid the belligerently patriotic history taught in the United States.
Well, not so much, as it turned out. The 21st century has proved both more unstable and nastier than many liberals expected. In the post-Trump era, with environmental catastrophe looming, it’s far harder to present, as Clendinnen sometimes does, social clashes primarily in terms of cultural mistranslations. Her urbane humanism takes for granted a certain tradition, so that when she writes of race relations, she describes a “we” and “them” – and the “we” is invariably European.
Yet, on the occasions when Clendinnen’s work jars with contemporary sensibilities, it’s often because of her strengths, rather than her weaknesses. For instance, her defence of history as a source of civic virtue might seem archaic, but it’s clearly the fount of her public scholarship – a mode desperately needed in our own era of crisis.
She writes about moments of violence partly as a moral choice. “Attention ought,” she says, “to be paid to extreme suffering and we must do what we can to make some human sense out of it.”
But her subject material also reflects a particular philosophical and political logic. If we can demystify cruelty, we can, at least in theory, bridge the gulf between the brutaliser and the brutalised, and thus make possible reconciliation or justice. Even when contemplating photographs from the Holocaust, “it is not enough to loathe the perpetrator and to pity the victim, because in that scene they are bound together. We must try to understand them both.”
The potential for empathy gives, she says, history its value. Citing Richard Rorty, she suggests that, through studying it, we can “learn to recognise that people physically and culturally remote from us were moral realities too, as worthy of our compassion and our regard as our kin and kind”.
In his introduction, James Boyce quotes Clendinnen as denying that the past was dead. A familiar observation – until then she adds, “Its hand is on our shoulder.” That image – those long-vanished people gently but insistently asking to speak – perfectly captures her project.
La Trobe University Press, 400pp, $34.99
La Trobe University Press is a Black Inc imprint. Black Inc is a Schwartz company
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "James Boyce (ed.), Inga Clendinnen: Selected Writings".
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