Ali Alizadeh is an acclaimed writer and poet. His books include the historical novel The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, the short story collection Transactions, and the literary memoir Iran, My Grandfather (shortlisted for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award), as well as three poetry collections Towards the End, Ashes in the Air (shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry) and Eyes in Times of War.
Ali is a senior lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University. His poetry is set for high school study in Queensland.
ASTRID: Ali Alizadeh is an acclaimed poet and writer. Ashes in the Air, a poetry collection was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and both the short story collection Transactions and the memoir Iran, My Grandfather were shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Ali is also a senior lecturer at Monash University. Welcome to The Garret Ali.
ALI: Great, thanks for having me.
ASTRID: Now you’re a memoirist, a poet and a novelist and today I’d actually like to talk to you about two of your works: your latest collection Towards the End and also The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc—forgive my French pronunciation, I know the English say Joan of Arc and the French don’t—which is a historical novel, obviously about Joan of Arc. And that’s where I’d like to start. So, it was published in 2017 and my first very obvious question is what drew you to the fifteenth century and, of course, to her story?
ALI: I mean I’ve always been interested since I was a child, so I’m not exactly sure why one becomes interested in anything as a child. But I think I retained an interest because she continued to be so baffling in so many ways. You know, she’s a very surprising image. A lot of people who come across her are kind of taken aback by many different aspects—all the paradoxes and contradictions of this young peasant woman leading an army. All of that which seems to be something out of fantasy fiction, frankly. Out of Game of Thrones I’d imagine, I haven’t seen it. But, incidentally, the Game of Thrones novels were inspired by a series of French historical novels which were based on the Hundred Years’ War, so there’s a sort of connection there. The image of the warrior woman is more interesting and surprising to us today than it was at its time in the late middle ages. It wasn’t exactly common, but it was less shocking maybe. There were tonnes of Catalans or especially noblewomen who, to encourage their men to go and die for them, would put on a suit of armour and say, ‘Hey, go and die for me’. It wasn’t very uncommon. So, she does fit in a tradition in her own socio-cultural context, but for us today she’s more surprising because we think of the middle ages as a time of terrible backwardness and in many ways they weren’t. So, she’s interesting for a lot of reasons.
My continued interest in her, I guess, is to do with once one gets past these sort of cultural assumptions that make her surprising and interesting, we get to the core of the story and the core of the story to me is a question of individual political subjectivization if you like. How does one become so radicalised in a political way that makes one not just want to participate in politics, but to actually transform it; and not just want to do it, but to actually do it? And this last part is a thing that I’ve found really surprising and interesting—how do you actually do it? And for her it was a question of being some sort of a military genius, I guess. It’s a romantic idea—the idea of a born genius—but I think in a way she was. This seventeen-year-old peasant girl was a sort of Napoleon or Frederick the Great, ahead of her time.
ASTRID: Now, this wasn’t the first time that you’d written about her of course. I believe that you wrote an epic poem…
ALI: (chuckles) Yes.
ASTRID: Now that hasn’t been published.
ALI: (chuckles) No. It’s a very good thing (laughs)
ASTRID: (laughs) Look, I want to talk about this novel, but it does fascinate me that a writer who, as you’ve just explained, is interested in not only the figure but what she represents and what she managed to do in her time, that firstly you chose the form of epic poetry—which is not necessarily common in our time, although it is a beautiful form that has never left us throughout literature—and then published a historical novel. So, first off why did you pick the epic form? And then, did that influence what eventually was published in novel form?
ALI: Yeah, I mean the epic poem was my PHD in creative writing project, so it’s the kind of thing that one does as part of a scholarly project to say well I’m going to study previous forms and do something with them. I think the reason that I came to the epic form for my PHD project was my interest in history and also, I guess, what we might call broadly the politics of literature. I find that if literature has any correspondence with politics, which to me doesn’t mean parliamentary politics and people getting paid tonnes of money for just going to a place called parliament and falling asleep, that’s not politics. The kind of radical politics that to me is, again, about transformation and all of that. If it has any correspondence with literature, I think it will be a historical one—again, I’m utterly against this uber-modernism that says, no the past is shit and we have to move forward to new forms of being all the time. I think there’s something there and the epic poem to me is one of the great moments where there was a sort of overlap between politics and literary aesthetics. And I mean epic poetry proper: Iliad, Odyssey, etc… I just thought is there a possibility of that in the contemporary? I think based on my project the answer is sadly no (chuckles), which may not be such a bad thing. It’s simply that literature doesn’t have the prominence of place, especially the kind of literature that existed in the predominantly oral cultures that gave birth to epic poems. Of course, that devolves over time into the novel and that’s I guess why I’ve moved to the novel. But one has to say, even today the novel doesn’t have the prominence of place anymore. Even the cinema doesn’t. The great movie experience, that everybody has to see: ‘Oh my god, this movie has just won the Oscar. We must all go and see it,’ that’s not there anymore, either.
ASTRID: No, I mean going back to Game of Thrones, everyone just stays at home and streams it, it’s quite sad.
ALI: Exactly, and that sort of takes away what Walter Benjamin called ‘the spontaneous public experience’. You know, like everyone would go and see a movie like Battleship Potemkin or Gone with the Wind—that was a communal, public experience, the seeing of it. Whereas, today you just don’t.
ASTRID: Obviously I haven’t read your PHD, it’s not public. But I did want to chat about it because my background is classics and The Aeneid in the original is one of my favourite works. Of course, that is a beautiful work of literature, but as you say the politics is personal and that was written and paid for on the dollar of the leading politician of the time. So, as beautiful as it was and remains, it was a piece of political theatre done for a buck.
ALI: No, absolutely and that’s a big challenge because of a few things: a). Virgil decided that it should be burnt before he died…
ASTRID: (Laughs) clearly not.
ALI: Secondly, it’s an unfinished work. The Aeneid ends at this bizarre point, it’s clearly unfinished. And I think Virgil struggled to reconcile its politics. I mean, one could say that he sincerely believed that Augustus was a great thing, and I think if you’re a Roman of Virgil’s class living at that time, you genuinely think that Augustus means the end of all these wars and terrible things and so on. So, he may have really believed that the poem that he’d written, which is kind of an allegory in praise of Augustus, is not a bad thing. But he obviously has misgivings about it.
But coming to our time, surely most of our artists propaganda in the same way too: we get government funding, there are the same sorts of ideological things, you know. I mean, getting funding to do projects from Australia Council to help writers of colour is frankly propagandist in the precise sense of the word. So, you know that’s the state of the game today. So, I think it remains to be seen if the literary form has some kind of a radical political potential. Again, I’m drawn back to the form itself—not the intentions, not who sponsors it, not how it’s read, not what the political claims of its author might be. Authors are full of pretensions of saying we want to save the planet: ‘I’m going to end global warming by writing a novel’. I mean, I think all that is BS. But does the form itself have some way of contributing to a transformative politics? And really what is that transformative politics? In the time of Virgil, it may have been supporting Augustus, frankly.
ASTRID: That was at the end of a long civil war.
ALI: Yeah, exactly! Today what is it exactly? I mean, we think there’s this thing called the progressive, good political project and we’ve signed up to it. No, we haven’t. I’m at the end of the day not sure half the time if a good deal of ideas that are here, that are considered to be progressive or left leaning or whatever, are in fact anything of the sort. I find them to be sometimes borderline fascistic.
ASTRID: As I was reading The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, I couldn’t stop thinking about the contemporary world and the politics that we live in. Obviously, we are recording in 2020 and it is an incredibly strange and fractured couple of months already. For me as a reader, one of my responses to this novel was the deeply personal way you deal with your main character and protagonist Jeanne who is obviously a historical figure, but also the politics of the day and how that is driving the war and how the politics still hasn’t changed that much. 600, 700 years later nothing much has changed which is distressing. And I have a quote which is from page 32-33, and you’re writing from the English point of view: ‘They start to name the French an inferior race – and soon, frogs. This precious terrain – and yes, its women’s valuable bodies – should be inhabited by intrepid, progressive Anglo-Saxons, not the lazy, conservative, Latinate Franks.’ It’s distressing, it’s not funny, but I did stop and laugh at the distressing nature of the fact that, you know, there is just so much there. And all these centuries later it’s still the Catholic church, it’s still the Anglo-Saxon imperial conquest, it’s the brutality of rape, it’s what we do to people who aren’t like us in any given circumstance and it doesn’t feel like history has changed at all. So, my question to you as a writer—were you making, I mean is it even possible to make a comment on today with a historical work of fiction? Are you posing questions for today?
ALI: I think probably not, not in a direct sense—if I wanted to talk about today, I would just write a book about today. I guess the task of a writer is sometimes to make something historical contemporary for the sake of communication with readers. I mean, some of the things about that passage you read out are actually historical: the term ‘inferior race’ actually does appear in a document of the time from the English parliament, where the regent John of Bedford is asking for a new war tax and the members say, ‘Look, why do you want more money?’ He says, ‘to beat the French,’ and they say, ‘but aren’t the French an inferior race?’ That’s from the record, so I use the term. The word frog is not used until later, which refers to the fleur-de-lis which is the royal emblem of the French royal house. And it’s not until the English kings basically give up on the idea of incorporating France. You know, for a long time the fleur-de-lis continued to be featured on the insignia of English royalty because their claim is also the throne of France. But when they give up on that throne, partly because of losing the Hundred Years’ War, they start to look at the fleur-de-lis and say, ‘well, we don’t actually want it. It’s not a flower, it looks like a frog’.
ALI: So that’s where that begins. Look, I don’t know, I’m sort of a bit hesitant personally to want to reduce history to an ideological message for today. I mean, Jeanne d’Arc is a very specific and explicit case of that happening excessively. And someone like me has spent decades studying her and reading the documents that remain of her life. I’m now quite reluctant to say she is a symbol for our struggles today. I mean, in fact I’m quite opposed to that. I think she certainly appears at a moment in human history, and us being humans and part of a continuum of history are therefore her contemporaries insofar as she was one of us, one of the members of our species who lived on this planet only a few hundred years ago. So, in that case, yes, we are her contemporaries. But to translate her struggles—for example, to see what happened in France of the Hundred Years’ War as an allegory of European colonisation later—I mean I think that’s not very helpful.
ASTRID: You refer to Shakespeare several times in the work and I’m really interested in what you did there. Now obviously Shakespeare was writing well after Joan of Arc lived, and he doesn’t write about her but all of the people around her. Shakespeare writes play of many of the Henries and it’s his historical plays that you’re referring to, and the people that were contemporaries of Joan of Arc do appear in some of his plays.
ALI: Well she does too.
ASTRID: Which play?
ALI: Henry VI.
ASTRID: I’m exposing my ignorance. But you actually call it out, and this is near the end of the novel, ‘a very long list of illustrious writers who have made use of Jeanne d’Arc’, and you’re including William Shakespeare, but also Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and a bunch of others, as well as other artists and politicians etc… So, I guess my question is, you’re changing point-of-view and voice and you’re making a comment from the 21st century in this historical novel. It was fascinating…
ALI: I’m one of those writers too, guilty as charged. Yeah, sure. Look, I don’t think what I’ve done is necessarily different, and I think it could be seen in such a way. And I found the book, incidentally, came out at the time when there was this debate about same-sex marriage in Australia. And in my book, as a fiction writer I suggest that Jeanne d’Arc might have been lesbian. And when the book came out, some people assumed that I’m making an ideological statement in support of this current Australian campaign and I’m not, and I wasn’t. I have no intention whatsoever to offend the sensibilities of Catholic readers who may be opposed to same-sex marriage who might read the book and think I’m making a point. Not at all. Nevertheless, I could be seen in such a way that I’m trying to kind of give a contemporary gloss to the story. And look, I hope I’m not. My interest as a writer is to talk about the truth of her reality, as weird as that might be. And I have a very particular writing method—that’s where I differ from these other authors. I’m sure I’m a worse writer, but I’m more conscious of my writing method and I’ve tried to invent a new way of storytelling in order to maybe be less complicit in an ideological instrumentalization of her.
ASTRID: So, for those listeners who haven’t read the novel yet, and I do recommend that you read it—it is a beautiful work of historical fiction, highly entertaining and engaging. Talk to me about this method.
ALI: Well, I’ve had to try to name it and I’ve come up with some awfully clunky academic language like ‘paratactic historiographic metafiction’…
ALI: …or some other nonsense. But I would say that there’s an element of polyphony and an element of parataxis. I mean, since the modernist fiction—since Joyce and Woolf—we’ve accepted that a point-of-view in a work of fiction doesn’t have to be homogenous, and it can incorporate elements from outside of it freely or indirectly. And I think that I’ve taken that a step further to say, well what if I can just talk to Jeanne and then let her speak via her own statements in the records of her trials in the same sentence or in the same paragraph? I think the result has been a little bit disorienting for some readers. Look, I’m a writer and I like my readers, but if I can I also want to have a go at the reader and say, ‘please, please, it’s not that hard’. My novel is not an avant-garde, difficult fiction, I really don’t think it is.
ASTRID: It’s not difficult, it’s a beautiful read.
ALI: Oh, thank you. But I mean some of the responses that I’ve had, especially from some reviewers in the mainstream press, is this is on par with Finnegans Wake, and it’s not. It really isn’t. And I kind of feel like the contemporary reader, I have to say, compared to the readers of twenty or thirty years ago have become a bit lazier. And I think that literary aesthetics have become a bit dumbed down, I have to say. I think I was mentioning to you before I’m doing a very in-depth analysis of The Exorcist, the novel from 1971. If The Exorcist came out today it probably would not be such a bestseller because lots of mainstream readers would find it difficult. And frankly it’s not. I think we’ve become accustomed to extremely aesthetically simplified prose, and that’s fine. I get where it’s coming from—the social and cultural factors. But at the same time, I felt that I could do aesthetic innovation in this novel and be safe that people would read it and not be alienated by it. And I think, it’s great to hear that you weren’t, but some readers sadly were.
ASTRID: No, I really… look I picked this up and I am a person who does enjoy historical fiction, so I’m willing to go there anyway. But the question I actually had about your prose—and for the first page or so I thought, what are you doing to me? And then I got into the rhythm and loved it—was sometimes I felt I was reading it and where I would normally expect a comma, or a conjunction I got a full stop. I’m like what are you doing? That’s not a complete sentence, but wait I love this. So, can you explain that for me?
ALI: Yeah, great! I mean, I guess that’s the idea of what I said about parataxis. Since we’re talking about Roman literature, a famous example of parataxis is Julius Caesar’s famous accord, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.
ASTRID: (Laughs) Veni, vidi, vici.
ALI: That’s right. In theory those three causes have nothing to do with each other. You came to where? You saw what? And you conquered what? But the connection between these three clauses does imply a meaning: coming, seeing and conquering. We assume that we get it. So, we have to construct a meaning out of those three seemingly disparate linguistic units.
ASTRID: And deeply arrogant, by the way.
ALI: Yeah! So that’s parataxis. So, I think it’s really important, like: ‘I came,’—that’s an incomplete thing. ‘I saw,’ what? That’s incomplete. I like that incompletion, so that’s where I’ve used stronger punctuation than a comma like a full stop, to sort of break off and then create that space where the reader can form their own meaning. Which is, I think, what ultimately makes a statement poetic: the absence of completeness of a sentence.
ASTRID: Look, I want to say again I really enjoyed it. And sometimes—oh gosh, maybe I will have to take this out—but I read a lot: more than 150 books in 2019. And I often don’t find prose that is beautiful, and prose that makes me think about the artform that I love—the written word—in a different way. So, thank you for doing that.
ALI: That’s very kind of you. I really appreciate that.
ASTRID: I’m a reader and I love writers. Let’s move now to your latest collection Towards the End. This is poetry, this was published in 2020 so it’s just hit the shelves. We’ve obviously mentioned your epic poem in your PHD before. You have written several collections before; I believe this is your fourth of poetry?
ALI: Yeah… I mean third or fourth or something like that.
ASTRID: You’ve written so much you can’t count them.
ASTRID: Explain for me—and I admit that poetry is my weaker area—the pull of poetry for you.
ALI: Well, I mean that’s a really good question because I write other things as well. I’m drawn to narratives strongly at the moment—just reading horror fiction or philosophy (laughs) that’s about all that I read.
ASTRID: I love that you can cross so many genres (laughs)
ALI: Yeah, well it seems like they have a lot in common actually. I think poetry is close, I mean I have an interest in quote unquote ‘truth’, which to me is a profound philosophical idea close to the Absolute with capital A. It’s a philosophical quest that has nothing to do with facts or knowledge; truth is kind of a transcendent idea, but nevertheless I think it’s an animating thing. So that’s why I like horror fiction, because who is the demon that possesses poor little Regan in The Exorcist? We don’t know, it could be Pazuzu or she could be mentally ill but who knows. That lack of knowledge hints at truth to me. And we find that in philosophy as well—all great philosophy is about truth. Poetry is about that; poetry is about the encounter with truth. I think that’s why Plato didn’t like it. Famously in the Republic he says poets should be kicked out of the republic—it’s because they are the rivals of the philosopher. They’re not the enemies of truth, they just get to truth in other ways. Poetry comes closer than any other literary form to truth. You know, I said that horror fiction—yes it can do that, but within the confines of the genre. You have to write tonnes of pages to introduce a character and to create a setting before you can hint at the haunting presence of the truth. Poetry can go straight to the source of truth by making the sort of statements we talked about, like an incomplete sentence. So that’s great. The problem of poetry is precisely that as well—it can have the seduction of truth. It could have the siren song, you know, ‘When I write a poem I feel like, oh my god I’m really getting to the bottom of my feelings’. That could be a simulacrum, that could be a lie, that could be a falsehood. Truth may be altogether more difficult to approach from a literary point of view. So that’s to me the thing—writing a poem is wonderful, it’s exhilarating, it fully activates every faculty of jouissance in my mind—but at the same time it could just be bullshit.
ALI: It could just be putting some words on a page to appease my own pathetic ego and make myself feel romantically brilliant. It’s a very difficult thing, yeah.
ASTRID: I’d like to ask you to read a poem from your latest collection: The Cancer.
ALI: Oh okay. Oh yeah, that one (chuckles). Okay, cool.
ASTRID: So, I guess the background to why I’m asking you to read that particular poem is the world is a particularly distressing place, as I’ve mentioned already in this interview. We are recording this in the week that the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and as I read this poem, well I’ll leave you to read it and I’ll comment afterwards.
ALI: I’ll just say for me, I think a poem doesn’t need this, but I wrote it after going to a bank in Dubai in the time of the global financial crisis and being encouraged to buy a ribbon. And I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.
Foreclosures abound, of the kind
bankers spread. They want me
to buy a blue/pink ribbon. Misery
loves company, management, CEOs
who render Nosferatu ethical. What
’s my cancer donation worth
when hundreds of thousands (many of them
, yes, testicular/breast cancer sufferers) lose homes
when bankers wage wars of attrition
while peddling blue/pink ribbons? Red
is far more apposite
for the great foreclosure
when together we find the cure.
ASTRID: Thank you for reading that. I had so many responses to that poem and the obvious cynical one was, goddamnit when is someone going to ask me when to buy a pandemic ribbon?
ALI: Oh my god! Yes. What colour? We should not make light of it.
ASTRID: We should not, it’s…
ALI: But I just thought wouldn’t that be funny, like one day saying, ‘By buying this red ribbon, we’re going to help end capitalism and communism by buying this’. And I thought well, that’s one thing a bank will never sell. It will sell all kinds of ribbons but not that one.
ASTRID: No, and look I am a chronically ill person and there are ribbons that people can buy on behalf and I don’t want anyone to buy those ribbons, because they don’t end up helping the people with that condition. It’s a ridiculous, meaningless public statement.
ASTRID: In the work of yours that I’ve read, you include a personal element. Your poetry can be quite personal, you are referring to, maybe, some life experiences that you’ve had. Also, you are making statements about the GFC and broader things that we all see splashed across our news. Is there anything that you as a writer and a poet have found that you can’t express through poetry?
ALI: Look, I think quite a lot. I mean, I guess I found when I was trying to write the epic poem about Jeanne d’Arc, I ultimately realised the novel form was more interesting because I could use the generic expectations that a reader would have of the form of the historical novel to my advantage. You know, you take a form and you think, can I change or subvert or activate it in a way that can do something that I want it to do? So, I ultimately found that the poem was not good for a subject matter like her. In fact, it’s possible that poetry’s not very good for history. I mean, it’s an interesting discussion to be had. I know there are a lot of people writing historical poems.
The historical novel is an interesting convention that we have, I’m not a big fan of it as a genre—I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. But I think it nevertheless creates a contract with the reader who says, ‘Look I am going to read this novel by you, even though it’s written in the voice of someone who lived 500 years ago and is clearly a mimicking or an artificial construct. I’m prepared to suspend my disbelief.’
But the poem readers are very tough. With a poem, we don’t suspend that disbelief, that’s one of the keys. That’s why poetry’s close to belief itself. Poetry is the burning body of truth or something like that. That’s why it’s so close to religion, in a way—that’s why religious texts are poetic. Because it’s supposed to be a direct extension of one’s actual, authentic being. And I think that means it’s got great capacity for talking about certain things, for example. Like if I want to talk to my son about something that’s difficult, like stop playing so much Fortnite, instead of writing a short story I might write a poem if I wanted to use the literary medium for that kind of communication. It probably has more immediacy or something, but I think that therein lies its great limitations as well. So I think that, you know, it’s kind of interesting—poetry is at the forefront of liberalisation of art in the nineteenth century, where all the boundaries of art are breaking down in tandem with the boundaries of economy breaking down by the bourgeoise. Poetry is liberalised—we get free verse—and there’s an impression at that moment that poetry can do anything. In America we get that especially with the American avant-gardists: Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson—all these people trying to make poetry more and more capable of expressing the actual existence of humanity. And I feel like those are all the reasons why poetry can’t do any of those things. I think there are all sorts of more prohibitions. The freer I think I am, the more limits I have. I think I can do everything, therefore I end up doing nothing, if you like. If I can do everything, then I don’t have to get up in the morning. If I have all the freedoms, if I have all the opportunities, why should I even bother to struggle? Why should I even bother to do anything? So, I think that’s the danger of poetry. Can poetry do anything? Well there is the problem then of addressing big problems with poetry, like politics, truth or history. The modern poem—be it lyrical or experimental, and I don’t see much difference between those two—is certainly capable of expressing the personal, it can do that. But then one finds that that’s a very limited, sometimes even facile exercise. If all I wanted to express is my personality, well now I can just take a selfie and put it on Twitter.
ALI: Mission accomplished. If that’s all a poem needs to do, then it can be done in many other, perhaps more immediate ways.
ASTRID: Poetry is not normally a bestseller, and most or many publishers in Australia don’t do large print runs or kind of avoid poetry altogether. You are a published poet, and I even hesitate to use the word commercialisation in a sentence with you, Ali. But can poetry be commercial in Australia? And I’m aware of the problems of my sentence asking you can something make money? But I’m genuinely asking, because I know there are writers and poets who listen to The Garret and they also want to pay their bills.
ALI: Yeah, I guess there probably already is. One major form it takes is the popular song. There are tonnes of poets who become multi-billionaires by singing out their lyrics.
ASTRID: You’re the first person who has made that link to me…
ASTRID: …which is an obvious link, but…
ALI: I mean, to me that’s super obvious. I mean, I literally don’t get why somebody would say Leonard Cohen is not a poet—that’s ridiculous. Of course they are. There are so many other ways. I mean, clearly a lot of poets take their linguistic capacity into other more commercial forms. In terms of the poetry book, you know this paper object making tonnes of money, I can’t see that happening in any way that is about the directing exchange value of the commodity. I think, sure, as we said grants are there, ideological instrumentalization—you could say, ‘Hey, I’m a poet of a marginal identity, therefore in order to express my direct truth you need to give me money, and that expression of direct truth will benefit the society’. I mean, if one wants to play those games, sure. I would be against those. I mean, look, one has to pay the bills, but poets have always found it hard to pay the bills. I mean, there’s never been the golden age where poets are great celebrities. In fact, it’s probably our time, or perhaps from the 60s to the 90s—the age of the great singer-songwriter. That is the era of the, maybe not the best poets, but certainly poets making tonnes of money from Dylan—Bob Dylan, I nearly said Dylan Thomas—Bob Dylan all the way to Tori Amos. They wrote poems, sang them and made shitloads of cash.
ASTRID: And performed them.
ASTRID: This is a leading question, but I find myself quite interested in your response to it. Is there a role, or has there ever been a role, for the public intellectual as a writer? The public, writerly intellectual in Australia?
ALI: Ooh that’s a really good question. Globally I’d say yes, but even in places like France and Germany that’s in decline. Where we do get, say in France, a creative writer who has actually got serious intellectual investment, we find that it’s on the wrong side of politics. I’m thinking of [Michel] Houellebecq for example. And so that’s a very interesting one. In Australia in particular, I find that very difficult to conceptualise. I think there’s certainly writers, novelists, poets etc… Playwrights importantly—we forget that in Australia for a very long time that very description you gave fitted playwrights: Williamson, Hannie Rayson and others. I think that today for that to happen, yes sure there are tonnes of writers that speak to socio-ideological concerns of the day, of course, but the public intellectual doesn’t just do that. The public intellectual also contributes to a debate. And frankly we don’t have a space for public debate in Australia. I don’t want to diminish the work of people like your good self for example, or even the Q&A show on ABC TV or whatever. But a public debate to me will have to be much less ideological, and will have to take a dramatically different kind of format in which there is real possibility for people to say things that others might find disagreeable. That’s certainly not possible in Australia today. I don’t want to add to the existing criticisms of quote unquote ‘political correctness’, I will just say that the first criticism of political correctness that I’ve come across is from the far-left—it’s from Walter Benjamin in an essay of his from the 1930s. So, we have to be really aware of what’s happening: the current culture in which rampant capitalism is ruining the world and the lives of ordinary people, whilst at the level of official culture we’re also supposedly concerned with the victims, is frankly a grand hypocrisy. But so it is. We can’t talk about anything but affirmation of various types of victimhood and marginalisation. That does not produce a culture for the intellectual who may have to contest precisely those things.
ASTRID: God, you’ve given me so much to think about. We are both teachers—you are more senior than I am, Ali—but nevertheless, you teach at Monash and I teach at RMIT. And we find ourselves in front of students. One of your poems really confronted me, it’s called The Academy. Will you read it for me?
Tomorrow’s meeting, a farce
of a way to start the semester. Coffee
will of course be instant
-ly undrinkable. Dreary métier
served up as an essential role
an eminent imago to conceal
earning mere life as a prol
behind a ‘professor’ nametag. It’s
the jouissance of teaching
bamboozled brats to feign intelligence
or its appearance. I think I’ll become
a hologram, my heart to dispense
blood inside a hollow machine
ASTRID: (Laughs) You made me muse on what I do when I turn up to work. But going back to your comments before about the lack of space for the public, writerly intellectual. We stand in front of students who want to write, and I believe in their desire to write. It’s a conundrum that I don’t even know how to formulate the question for, but I’m interested in you responding articulately to my blather.
ALI: Well, look especially when we talk about the academy, let’s remember where it comes from. Since you’re interested in classics, well okay in the west it does come from the Socratic tradition and let’s not forget what happened to poor old Socrates: precisely because he criticised democracy, literally for that very reason he was forced to drink poison and kill himself for corrupting students. I mean, that is precisely what would happen today. If I got up in front of my students and said, ‘There are no givens, let’s talk about multiculturalism, let’s talk about this and that,’ things that Astrid, I will not say here now because I’m worried, I would lose my job. This is not a right-wing conspiracy, this is happening. This culture of fear of speaking about precisely the things that are worth speaking about is destroying the academy. Culture, alongside all the other things that are destroying it, alongside neoliberalisation, casualisation; so sometimes I get really worked up but I have to calm myself down and say that’s a libertarian worry primarily. My biggest worry about our profession is the material conditions of it—more than 70% casualisation at Australian universities now, that is extraordinary.
ASTRID: And this week we saw University of Tasmania announcing a cut of something like 75% of its programs by 2021 and we’re recording in 2020, which is cutting out the heart of that university.
ALI: Yeah and there are people who will lose their work because of it. So, to me that’s really… any sort of worries we’re having about doing proper Socratic education is happening against the backdrop of that, and perhaps partly because of it. So, I do sort of get why some of our more activist minded students are more anxious in classrooms to talk about certain issues, because they’re anxious in general and anxiety has a material basis. So even if we were determined to push forward a culture of free-thinking and inquiry in the classroom and confronting the taboos of political correctness, ultimately it would probably fail because who’s going to do that? Someone who’s on an insecure job? Somebody who may not be able to pay their rent that month? That person is going to be the great Socratist of our time? No.
ASTRID: You are a beautiful writer and you hold a place at Monash, but [also] in the Australian literary circuit and in the publishing world. And you have a way with words that I think other writers, particularly unpublished writers, may want to emulate. What would you like to say to them? No pressure or anything (laughs).
ALI (Laughs) Okay! Well… I think reading is really important, I know it’s a very silly thing to say. Can I just paraphrase a famous communist joke? The joke in heaven, or hell maybe who knows—and hell may not be such a bad place for Marxists anyway—but Marx, Engels and Lenin are sort of sitting in a bar in heaven or something and they say… Sorry, this joke is a communist era joke, because it’s know that one of Lenin’s famous comments at the time when he leaves Russia to go to Switzerland and do nothing but study Hegel, they say, ‘What are you doing? Start a revolution’ and he says, ‘No, I’m going to learn, learn, learn.’ Okay, so with that in mind I’m going to get on with this joke. And, yes, it is a gendered, sexualised joke, sorry. Someone says, ‘What’s better? A mistress or a wife?’ And Marx being who he was says, ‘Of course the wife. I love Jenny, she’s my life.’ And they tell Engels who was a notorious philanderer and he says, ‘A mistress’. They tell Lenin, and they say, ‘Which one would you do? If you have a wife and you have a mistress, which one would you choose?’
And he thinks and says, ‘Look, I’ll tell my mistress that I’m staying with my wife so I can’t see her anymore. I’ll tell my wife that sorry I’m leaving you for my mistress, I can’t see you anymore. And then I’ll go away to learn, learn, learn.’
ALI: I think that would be the task for writers. Writers should tell their urges to get published that sorry, I’m a true artist. I don’t care about being published. You must tell your urges to be a true artist, that sorry I’ve got to earn a living, I must get published, I can’t be a true artist. And then they must go away to learn and read, experiment with writing, and do nothing but just be a lifelong learner of the craft of writing. If you can resist both urges of either being a great, acclaimed genius, or some incredibly rich person, that would be a good thing.
ASTRID: Thank you so much for your time today Ali.
ALI: No problem, thank you.