Making Culture Bloom

By McCalman, Iain | Cultural Studies Review, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Making Culture Bloom


McCalman, Iain, Cultural Studies Review


EDITOR'S NOTE

This paper was originally delivered as the Telstra Address at the National Press Club in Canberra on 16 June 2004. The speech marked the occasion of the establishment of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS), a new umbrella body representing the diverse but allied interests of researchers, educators and practitioners working across those disciplines. lain McCalman rose to speak to a room full of academics, administrators, practitioners and policy experts who had descended upon the national capital to meet with federal parliamentarians to exchange views and learn about each others work. Before the afternoon was out, that audience would bring CHASS into existence at Us inaugural general meeting. As McCalman noted, it was an auspicious day indeed.1

On 16 June 1904, exactly one hundred years before the establishment of CHASS, an Irish Jew of Hungarian extraction called Leopold Bloom set off on a twenty-four hour perambulation around the streets and bars of Dublin.2 This fictional incident is the basis of James Joyce's Ulysses, the greatest novel of modern times. It has also given rise to Bloomsday, a kind of Irish literary holy day celebrated in cities all around the world. It was a specially appropriate moment for us to celebrate the birth of our new peak body, because Bloomsday provides a perfect parable for why the Australian public and government should cherish our sector.

How is it a parable? For a start, Bloomsday shows us the serendipitous way that humanistic culture can bring economic benefits to a nation, or to use the jargon of our day, how it can produce commercial spin-off. James Joyce could not have imagined that his novel would one day generate festivals around the globe, as well as a swag of income for his country of birth. When he wrote the novel, just after the First World War, he was, as usual, desperately poor, and Ulysses didn't have the look of a commercial goer. Not only was it one of the most unorthodox and intellectually demanding novels ever written, it was also bawdy enough to be banned in much of the western world. Though Joyce loved Ireland with a passion, he wrote Ulysses in part as a satirical blast against the materialism and narrowmindedness of his day. An early example of the humanities brain drain, he fled in exile to Europe where he spent the bulk of his later literary life. It was from there on 16 June, twenty years later, that he wrote wistfully in his notebook: 'Will anyone remember this date?'3

What a change he'd find, if he could return to his homeland today. Last year, being the centenary of Poldy Blooms Dublin walk, the celebrations in Ireland were especially frenzied. Bloomsday became a five-month-long festival called 1Re-Joyce 2004', extending from April through August.4 Organised by a specially convened government committee, it featured a carnival of parades, multimedia spectacles, exhibitions, films, street theatre, concerts, dances, lectures, conferences, seminars, sports events and tours. More recondite Bloomites could even attend a Yiddish Ceildhe on the Esplanade. The head of the Irish state was the official sponsor of all these activities and presided at such commemorative events as the 'parable of the plums'.5 This is an incident in the novel when two old ladies clamber up on Nelsons pillar to ruminate about life and spit plum pips at the passing citizenry. Since Nelsons pillar was long ago blown up by the IRA, the festival had to make do with its replacement, a building called the Spire situated on O'Connell St at the edge of the River Liffey. In true Bloomsian fashion Dublmers call this tremendous tower The Stiffy on the Liffey'. James Joyce would have approved.

Joyce would also have found, if he could return to Dublin today, that conditions have become a great deal more hospitable for writers like himself. For a start, he'd not have to pay tax on the earnings of Ulysses or any other of his writings. …

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