20thC/ Visionary Imagination – Remembering Babylon- David Malouf- Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”

David Malouf is arguably one of the finest authors writing in English today. His deep interest in the way imagination is a tool for understanding the world more completely than any scientific or psychological analysis might do. His vision- through story telling- of how early colonists might have responded to an outcast (Gemmy Fairley) shows a penetrating understanding of the Australian psyche, how it is largely ruled by Xenophobia. Only a few characters in the book – Janet, Lachlan, Jock, Frazer- have the capacity to see how a living contact with this outsider can bring an entirely new experience of reality, of oneself. To open to the other, is to open to oneself, to free oneself from the regimented responses that shape most of us, most of the time. Such regimentation, cutting us off from the truly best things in life, is powerfully conveyed in W.H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” which ironically depicts how conformity, to opinion, to taste, to lifestyle, to religion, is a straightjacket. You can read the poem here.  So while Malouf’s novel, published in 1993, focussed on the mid-nineteenth century in Australia it also applies powerfully to our situation in Australia today with our attitudes to refugees or to anyone of a different shape or colour. Malouf’s novel can provide a real antidote to such Xenophobia, showing us, through powerfully imagined scenes, how contact with “the other” can be the catalyst for epiphanies that help to create a new, deeper experience of life.  William Blake -one of Malouf’s many mentors- put it this way ( in “The Divine Image”:

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, turk or jew.

Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.


Blog Topics for Week 8:

1/ Respond briefly to the idea that opening our heart to some one outside our comfort zone can be a real catalyst for personal growth and awakening. Base this on your own experience.

2/ Take a single line from Malouf’s novel and write a paragraph (drawing on your own experience of a signficant event) and try to write as closely as you can in Malouf’s style (word choice and sentence structure!).

3/Write a short account of how Auden’s life differed dramatically from the life of the Unknown Citizen that he satirizes in his poem.

4/ In the vein of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”, write an imagist poem based on your own experience of the world around.

5/ Whether you are candidates for Visionary Imagination or for The Literature of the 20th Century, create your own highly creative topic and produce……. !:)

6/ Briefly discuss your understanding of the last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”.

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