Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

We Need Silence to Find out What We Think: Selected Essays

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

We Need Silence to Find out What We Think: Selected Essays

Article excerpt

Shirley Hazzard, We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, Edited by Brigitta Olubas, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. US$30.00 ISBN: 9780231173261

Few JASAL readers will be unfamiliar with Brigitta Olubas's extensive scholarship on Shirley Hazzards life and work. In 2012, Olubas published the monograph Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist. That same year she convened a Hazzard symposium at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. Papers from that event were later collected in Shirley Hazzard: New Critical Essays (2014). Now, in We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, Olubas takes readers on a geographical, political and literary tour of Hazzard's life and mind.

This book, which contains some previously unpublished material, spans forty years of Hazzard's lectures, reviews and essays. Through an uneven five-part structure we are introduced to Hazzard as a self-educated, extraordinarily well-read literary commentator; as a public intellectual aflame with a sense of institutional and political injustices and incompetence; and as a traveller who establishes homes in Italy and New York but who becomes, through reading and political engagement, very much a citizen of the world.

The titular essay, originally published in the New York Times Book Review in November 1982, opens the collection and draws attention to Hazzard's deeply-felt belief that literature, expressed in 'accurate' language and in such a way that 'tone, context, sound and syntax are ideally combined,' is uniquely placed, among the arts, to articulate the truth of human existence. Hazzard dismisses style and form as idiosyncratic. The right words, arranged correctly 'in the silence of the writer's intimacy with his or her reader,' will be 'intuitively felt' and understood, she argues.

The three essays which constitute the remainder of Part 1 were transcribed from transcripts of the Gauss Seminars, delivered by Hazzard at Princeton University in the first half of 1982. Here the autodidact, speaking at a time when postmodern literary theory and practice seemed to be gaining a powerful hold in the academy, worries about 'our modern age.' She bemoans the 'degradation of language,' the 'modern industry of interpretation.' From a literary criticism perspective these essays read somewhat anachronistically. Yet, in place of analysis or interpretation, Hazzard traces the development of the hero, the anti-hero and the concept of duty, in an extravagant tour through the great works of Western literature.

Hazzard's erudition shines throughout this collection. In 'Translating Proust' (1994), she notes how a 'dozen years or more ago... I set myself the game, on summer evenings, of comparing favorite passages of the Recherche.' Through various textual examples she demonstrates her acute respect for, and appreciation of, the difficulties and beauty of the art of translation. Again, in Hazzard's introduction to Geoffrey Scott's The Portrait of Zélide, she offers a moving, understated glimpse of her admiration for Francis Steegmuller's work and of the stimulating intellectual companionship they shared.

Hazzard published two monographs about the United Nations: Defeat of an Ideal (1973), and Countenance of Truth (1990). Believing her work in this area to be insufficiently acknowledged, Olubas has drawn together six compelling essays that constitute a scathing indictment of the UN, under the then Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim. There is real energy in these pieces, generated by Hazzard's palpable fury at 'wasteful exercises,' the 'institutional shambles,' the 'impenetrable bureaucracy, incapacitated by corrupt appointments and monumental maladministration:'

In the UN, as in the league, a perfect paradox was created: an institution that would proclaim standards only to undermine them; that would profess beneficence while condoning-actively or by silence, or through inconclusive debate-every form of barbarism. …

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