Melbourne Writers’ Festival ’09 – Pt. 1

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MWF 2009

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2009 kicked off last weekend, and how! It’s been a jam-packed program, and I thought I should give a rundown of some of the excellent and some um-ah sessions I attended.

Let me say, my focus this time was less on writing sessions and more on the academic-ish ones. Maybe it’s withdrawal from not having been in uni for a while, but I had a yen to attend sessions I wouldn’t think of attending otherwise, like on theoretical physics and erotica. 😐

The highlight of the Festival so far, has been hearing Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader talk on a number of issues regarding the past, forgiveness, condemnation and reconciliation. Schlink was also a judge, so there was a strong legal element to the sessions. And of course, controversy too. The session Guilt about the Past: A Response where Schlink’s keynote speech was addressed by philosopher Raimond Gaita, and CEO of Melbourne University Publishing, Louise Adler, had a particularly high element of tension to it.

First let me say, I am a young Indian, brought up a long way (and a long time away) from mainland Europe and its history. My knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust began on a roadtrip to some obscure Indian town when I was 10 and my father, running out of his usual stock of mythological epics and fairy tales, decided history would make for an interesting narrative. The Holocaust remained with me for a long time as this other-worldly depiction of good vs evil, victims and perpetrators, the Allied and the Axis  Powers. It was years before my reading and my education directed me to an understanding of the war that was more political and less polar.

This session was therefore, illuminating. The details will take up more space than I can afford, but for now, let me say, that there were a lot of audience members of Jewish background who took on Schlink and his expressions of guilt in Germany, particularly post-war, with a lot of disgruntlement and borderline resentment. There were uncomfortable questions asked, particularly with reference to Schlink’s refusal as a German to contribute an opinion to modern Israeli politics. “We need to talk about the past. We need to talk about the Holocaust, as Germans and as Jews to reach any level of understanding,” one (Jewish, I presume) audience member declared. But Schlink refused to comment.

I can only recollect walking away from the fabulous BMW Edge auditorium with an overwhelming relief that I was neither German nor Jewish. I am not sure I have it in me to walk in the shadow of World War II for as long as I live. But there was also a niggling POV that I am still part of history, that as humanity, mass murder, genocide, and the Holocaust were all of our burdens in small ways if not big. Raimond Gaita highlighted this point when he took Hanna’s plaintive question in The Reader where she asks the judge what he would have done, and stated that the question places a false onus on humans as all being capable of evil. Clearly, he said, some people in the most extreme circumstances, during the Holocaust and the Nazi occupations, resisted evil, even when faced with horrors and death. And if some are capable, then all can be capable.

I have been avidly consuming a lot of Gaita’s writings, ever since I was introduced to his essay Justice and Hope in the collection of the Best Australian Essays for 2006. Gaita is a moral philosopher and academic, and has a perspective of good and evil from rational and humanistic points of view. I have been yearning for an opportunity to hear him speak, so when I saw his name pop up more than once in the Program, I promptly booked myself in for his other session too, called Why I read where he shared the stage with Alice Pung [The Unpolished Gem] and Steven Carroll [The Time We Have Taken].

Carroll and Pung were both remarkably honest and articulate about their literary influences, and very personal. And so was Gaita, who read an excerpt from his memoir Romulus, my Father on events in his early childhood that drew him to marvel this world as depicted in books, and at this point something curious happened to me. I got ridiculously emotional. Feeling idiotic that I now was hardly paying any attention to what Gaita was saying (thankfully, it only went on for a few more minutes, and the session wrapped up), I wondered if I could approach Gaita and thank him for his words, but certain I would babble something even more embarrassing than my state of mind, I fled.

Sitting outside painted in light and shadow, as I tried to put my chaotic thoughts into order, my friend A who lives in Missouri, called me hoping to chat. Timing can be so ironic, and I can’t remember what I said to postpone the talk. 😐

Now to some of the other sessions, that were less memorable. I attended Monash Uni’s philosophy session Searching for Civilisation by John Armstrong, with whom I seemed mostly opposed in ideology from. Armstrong talked mostly about a new definition of  ‘civilisation’ which is its best through its art and architecture (such as Renaissance Florence), and concluded that the world needed to reach that level of  ‘civilisation’ where citizens took on some form of collective responsibility for the betterment of their society. It all seems idealistic, but personally, I think the term’s usage has gone out of fashion, and I think Armstrong’s POV is simplistic in light of imperialism and developmental economics. But it was thought-provoking nonetheless.

The other philosophy session was with Dr. Dr. Neil Levy called Free Will and the Brain. Now this one was quite a doozie. Maybe it was because I was tired, or whether I was distracted or just a plain ignoramus, but ten minutes into the session I zoned out. Like out, out. I didn’t think I’d be as at sea as I was, having read enough of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and some Dennett to have some idea of the nature of the debate. The talk veered off into neuroscience and the way free will is perceived in the light of neurons and brain activity, and for the life of me, if you ask me to elaborate on more than that, I wouldn’t be able to. And my thinking, that maybe I wasn’t the only one so lost, was disproved easily enough at Q&A time, where everyone seemed to follow the discussion. 😐 So, my apologies to Dr. Levy.

Now the session I wrapped up last weekend with was the grand scientific one – Life, the Universe and Nothing with Lawrence Krauss. After the philosophy doozie, I was worried this would be another one, but thanks to Krauss’ obvious skill as a public speaker (and my engineering-nerd brother’s enthusiastic explanations to me of relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory) I could follow this one with relative (haha) ease. Krauss does know how to depress though — “We are utterly insignificant”, “Our brilliantly dynamic expanding universe will come to a standstill in a 100 million years” and “Depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist, every place is the centre of our universe, or no place is the centre of our universe.” 😀 If you ever get a chance to hear him speak (yes, this means you Prashanth) do so; I cannot recommend him highly enough.

I intend to leave the sessions for the second week for another post (even though I have attended two of them already and there’ll be lots to say) I’ll just wait till Sunday when I can hopefully round them up right.

In the meantime, it has been exactly one week since my brother landed  in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to start a degree in Aerospace Engineering, and I have this strange theory in my head, where I feel like because the physical distance between us has doubled (he was in India till a week ago), I am now trying to stay in touch with him twice as often to compensate. 😀 Happy tourist-ing till your term starts, Prash!

I am also dreading the end of the MWF. What else on earth can I find to keep me going after it? 😦

Still to come next week: Writers & Dalí, a sold-out rib-tickling session on erotica, Hitomi Kanehara and the psychology of her character, How to Read Everything Like You Read an Essay, Religion and whether we’re hardwired for it and raiding your attic of creativity!

If you’re looking for other insights into the Festival, please do check out official Festival bloggers Estelle Tang and the howlarious Simon Keck on the Festival Blog.

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