Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

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History is something that you have said requires the use of imagination. How does that fit in your view that it's important to understand the difference between fiction and history?

If you are to understand any human situation you have to exercise the muscle of the imagination. There's no other way of doing it. You have to make the huge recognition that these people you're reading about once were real. Now that is a hard thing to do. And to comprehend that in anything like its fullness, you have to work at imagining. For example, the Aztecs had a certain view of how the gods appeared in the heavens. So they had a very particular view of what dawn meant and what the movement of their sun god meant as he rose, slowly took on his full glory and then declined, turned a sullen, aching resentful red as he was dragged down into the underworld by malign forces of darkness. So they had a whole dramatic narrative about that, what we would call, a natural phenomenon, and if we're to understand why the presence of their gods was immediate and coercive on their domestic affairs, in a way that our much more rarefied notions of what gods get up to and where they get up to it is, you have to, as it were, consciously and conscientiously stare at a lot of sunrises, stare at a lot of full moons, and comprehend it and you're only going - then you will think, "Ah, I've seen it. Now I know why they say that". It would be something about the landscape in that particular place too. I know with, I think I might have mentioned this earlier, I was very puzzled that Mexican warrior spirits were meant to come back after death just for four years as butterflies sometimes. I could see that butterflies were sun related. They only happened when the sun came out. They might look like spirits called into existence by the presence of the sun, but butterflies, those poor little doomed creatures, you know, fluttering on their path to oblivion, warriors? Why? Then I went to Mexico and I was lucky enough to be there at the right season, to see great swaggering mobs of butterflies, huge things, glorious things, preening and parading and flexing their wings and I thought, "That's why". Now that isn't quite imagination, it's observation plus imagination. But the great enterprise is to recognise that these people were actual, their lives as complex as ours, but differently ordered and that has to take all the imagination you've got.

You've talked a lot in your writing about good history and bad history. What's the difference and how do we as the general public tell when we're being offered bad history?

The difference is relatively easy. Bad history has a present day agenda. The interest is not in uncovering the several layers and complexities of a real past situation and giving due respect to the hopes and beliefs of the very different people implicated in it. It really is the old-fashioned business of trying to know what actually happened. History written from a present position - I mean of course we'll be interested in certain questions which might not have been dominant in the minds of people in the past. For example, a conscious evaluation of how much freedom women had, but you can be quite sure that if women were constricted in ways they minded, you'll be able to find that out. You know, the emphasis is new but the issue is always there of how much freedom women have. How you tell is very difficult for the general public. I'm afraid, and I've thought about this a lot, it comes to down to a sort of trust because in reality the historian has been dealing with a multiplicity of documentation. You know, a huge amount of stuff and in honesty, the historian can't give the poor old reader all that, it would take them as long to get through it as it took the historian. What I think you need to do is to offer a few examples of how you go about interpreting a document from the past. You do it up front, in slow motion, you say this is what happened as far as we can reconstruct the action though it blurs at this point, we just don't have any information, but then we can see what happens after that. And what I make of it is as follows, and that gives the reader a chance to think, "Oh, well I don't think that's what's going on. This interpreter tends to put too much emphasis on such and such", or whatever, you know, and that means that as you go on reading you're in a position to be slightly sceptical of the interpretations that are being offered you. If you're a committed reader of history, you really should read the footnotes. Often they are astounding and they blow what's being said on the page out of the water because in my view the really great historians are people who conduct a dialogue between themselves and their sources on the page. It needn't interfere with their telling of stories and their analysis of problems, but they take the reader into their confidence as to the strengths and limitations of the documents they've got for the inquiry they're trying to make. And, you know, I really do believe that it's the great ones who do that. The compelling ones because you know how they've got there and you think, "By golly, on the whole, I think that's got to be right".

Both in the history that you do and in your writing about your personal life in 'Tiger's Eye', you use memory a lot, your own memories and the memories of others. I assume from that that you've thought quite a lot about the nature of memory.

That would be true.

What, what have you thought about memory?

That it's profoundly unreliable and profoundly coercive. Memories can seem absolutely real, realer than reality, as you know quite well when you get a sudden whiff of a scent and you're transported back into some situation you'd thought you'd forgotten and you remember everything about it. You know, the sound of the magpies, the smell of the grass, it's there, held in that whiff of scent. But what I, what I think about memory is this. I think we construct our memories. I think we have vivid sense impressions and out of them we construct a narrative and the narrative is about the sense we make of what's happening to us and our dominant mood and what we think matters about the scenes we're involved with. And we classically do this very slightly, of necessity, after the event. And then those memories which are personal and private and vivid can become consolidated into a kind of group narrative as with family memories. Remember the day when Aunty Nora did such and such? And in fact you don't know if you remember the day or even Aunty Nora, but you remember the story, but you will treat it as gospel truth and you will feel it to be gospel truth because it matters to you. There's a whole lot of social meaning been invested in that family tale. The problem comes up very painfully with the memories of Holocaust survivors. Now sometimes it is possible to demonstrate that cherished memories, which you have to remember is all they have now, is false in certain material matters. It couldn't have been that city, it couldn't have been that month, it couldn't have been that occasion. And that's the problem with human memory. It's both fallible and creative, and it's also our most private and personal possession. Our most cherished possession. So you attack someone's memories and you're attacking the seams of their being. Nonetheless it's historians jobs - job to tackle other people's memories, and therefore of course their own. And I really hadn't understood just how perverse and creative memory was until I started doing a very close scrutiny of my own.

The same of course, in a different way, is true of written records. You know from looking at contemporary written records like newspapers how often they're not correct. So what do you do about that?

Well typically once you're into a literate society that keeps a multiplicity of records you can do your cross-checking between records and other kinds of sources, tlthough that's also very difficult. You know, some naive historians take oral history as sacred truth. Heavens, you know, it's - all human products are fallible, wherever they are, and they have to be critically evaluated, which is done in intimate terms about that particular object whatever it might happen to be. When my old Aztec men are reminiscing about their youth, idealising it like crazy clearly, you have to watch them for their little slip ups. They say, "In our day nobody ever drank. And if they did drink we stoned them to death". You know, and you think, "What? What's going on?" And then there'll be an account of a ritual in which a lot of pulque, which is their fermented maize beverage, has been drunk and then you get a picture of what it's like when it all breaks up, and these drunken characters go lurching off. So you have the idealised statement, which your general knowledge of how old men's memories work, will have alerted you to the possibility of a problem and then you get these marvellous little moments of recollected, direct observation that blows the artificial model out of the water. On some issues, you will not be able to resolve it. You won't know and then all you can do is say, "Reader, I don't know".

You've been interested in a lot of activity, human activity that many would describe as evil. Warrior societies that were to us unimaginably cruel seeming. The Holocaust. What do you think about the idea of evil?

I think it's an external judgement made out of a fantasy of metaphysical timelessness which cannot illuminate anything as complex and dynamic as human action. What you - the first thing you have to do with people you might be tempted to call evil, whether they be Nazis or Aztec warriors, almost anybody, because one person's evil is another man's idealism, and you have to go into as close a focus as you can to see what they think they're doing. What it is they're trying to effect by what they're doing. Now you might judge having done that that they are chronically destructive and dangerous people. Such people clearly exist. You might decide that they're psychotics who really don't have much understanding of what they're doing but are impelled inwardly to do these shocking cruelties. There won't be many of them. But you have to understand what they understand themselves to be doing which will have, if you come across anyone who says "What I'm doing is evil, tee hee hee", you're just in a bad melodrama, aren't you? I mean humans don't in fact operate like that, because it's only by understanding their precise circumstances, the vision they have of the world, what sustains that vision, what might conceivably change that vision, how much familiarity they have with the actual actions that are being carried out on their behalf, are they doing this directly? One reason I admire Aztec warriors is that any shedding of blood they do is done up close and intimate. Very different from an Adolf Eichmann. So, you know, there are these things called blanket categories like evil and I think they're completely unhelpful. It's only the close up and the tense and intense analysis of the actual situations of these persons and what they do, that would illuminate you as to the peculiar way in which they have detached themselves from what we'd see as normal, imaginative identifications with other human beings.

In 'Reading the Holocaust' you looked particularly at the ordinary men and women, the every day ones that did these things and about their motivation. What did you discover?

You see you have the brutal fact that most of, most Holocaust activities, because it was such a massive enterprise, had to be carried out by ordinary people. We couldn't pop them all into SS uniforms and shiny boots and say they've been trained to it, though there were some of those of course. And because we're trying to understand the dynamics that work on people to detach them from their ordinary concerns with other people within their ordinary landscape, how is it possible to treat these other people as other than human, because that's what you've got to do. Your best hope is to trace the process these ordinary people when they go in go through until they come out as killers on the other side, because only a close narrative of those changes will satisfy anyone when it comes to the question of saying, now we understand how they did it. We might still be left with a gap because we might have to say at the end of this close description of what influences they came under, what experiences they had, what rhetoric they had to live, listen to, what social coercions they came under, we might still say, I still wouldn't have done it. And that's a very difficult question and one you have to agonise over because you have to be quite sure that in fact you wouldn't have done it and if you wouldn't do it, why not? When would you have said no?

And what was your answer to that question, Inga, for yourself?

My answer was I wouldn't have done it and my, my justification for that was I would have said no very much earlier, and that doesn't make you a hero. Some people did, in this particular case I'm thinking of which was of ordinary - the book is called 'Ordinary Men'. And it's a police unit who's been used for police services in, within Germany and then is shipped out to Poland and their first job is to slaughter the women and children and old in a Jewish village, leaving the young men, who'd be some use for labour, alive. So it's, as they might say now, a big ask, and it comes out of the blue. They're only told what they're to do when they're assembled in the dawn outside the sleeping village and we know what they did. We can follow them through. Some men said "No, I won't". Very few said, "Sure, no problem", though at the end of about six weeks most of them were seasoned killers. They'd taken out a lot of villagers. Now that's one of the most interesting questions you can ask, isn't it? What happened? How were they brought to do it? What were the forces on them? I think very few questions matter as much as that. And you can get an answer.

And do you think in those situations the really dangerous thing is to even put your toe in the water?

No, because you can't keep out of the water, water is everywhere. You have to practise resisting appeals to loyalty, to duty. You have to face the hostility of your peers. You have to be ready to assert the primacy of the individual conscience against the multiplicity of extremely powerful and largely invisible forces that act against it. It's not easy and it does seem to me - and I have thought a lot about this and I've listened to a lot of people talk about this - it seems to me that it takes practise, because once - one friend was telling me when she acquiesced in an action she in fact thought was wrong and she acquiesced in it because of loyalty to a brother, she hadn't been putting the time into the issue, she felt guilty, he wanted it, she did it, she regretted it. So you need to reflect on moments like that which show you how you can become implemented, implicated in an action even at the time you think to be wrong, but you go along with it, and I think we, I think we face those moments so often.

What do you think about the idea of good? You find the idea of evil fairly useless, what about the idea of good? [INTERRUPTION]

I have to say that in all my experience of life, I have relied on the kindness of strangers, time and again. I've believed in the general benevolence of the world, and I must have been disappointed sometimes, but I've never been directly denied, you know, some sort of kindness. I've never been hit, I've never been, I have been molested I guess, but I could understand why that was happening. Now it would therefore seem to me very odd to start peddling a view of human nature as naturally wicked. It is no part of my experience. I've been met by kindness, not just in this country but in other countries, even under quite difficult circumstances. I've also, of course, had a personal experience of overwhelming kindness and good with the whole process of being taken in late middle life, when it would have been quite reasonable to think time for this old lady to fall off the twig, and instead of that I get conscientious, affectionate, sensitive and extremely expensive treatment from a cluster of people who'd been complete strangers to me, and through the extraordinary benevolence of an unknown family, I'm made healthy again by having an organ transplant. And when you look at the way organ transplants are arranged in this country, it is a beautiful model of egalitarianism and practical humanity. Now all that is solid evidence. I have friends who say, "You can't trust anyone and the world's an evil place and this and that's going to happen". They're outraged if someone breaks their rear-vision mirror without leaving a note. Evil? So I think our assumption is of benevolence and we get away with it, thank heavens.

And so you find the concept good much more useful?

Much more, except it doesn't do anything. All it does is explain, it's too big, the concept. I like up close, particularities, close analysis. So I mean I'm certainly extremely wary of any person who describes themselves as good. That usually means trouble.

When you were a kid, when you were an adolescent, that's when most people get called wicked or bad or naughty. Were you ever called wicked or bad by anybody?

Quite often, but I had my lesson about that very young. My mother made a very unwise grab towards organising the authority of deities in controlling me at a very young age. And do you know how in old weather-board houses there used to be ventilators in the wall, sort of griddy things? And it's true that if you looked at them quickly you seemed to see a flash of movement, and she said that living up behind the grid there was a man, a little man, a little person and he had a golden book in which he wrote down your good actions, and he had a black book in which he wrote down your bad actions. And she would control me by looking up anxiously at the grid if I was doing something wicked. And I would look up and I'd think I'd see someone and I'd think, drat. And then as it went on, I thought, well I can do evil or whatever other people might call evil in other rooms, and then I realised there was probably a network behind the walls and he could probably get into every damn room where there was - and I checked out all the rooms and in every room there was a little ventilator so evil would have to become an outdoor enterprise. And then I thought, so what? He never wrote in the golden book, to my knowledge, and what if he did? So I thought, scribble away, and I was liberated from all notions of extra-human, extra-natural control. So really those concepts never had any reality to me and being of an analytic turn of mind even when young, I used to win the scripture prize all the time, because I would look at what claims were being made and what conduct was being said to be virtuous, and I would be extremely dissatisfied, which is unsurprising seeing we were looking at stories that came out of a blood-drenched, tribal culture.

So you weren't terribly worried about what other people thought? You'd worked it out for yourself.

I worried about being shamed, I didn't like that. But, no, I didn't worry about my actions and - if I got away with them - and I didn't really in the long run mind much what other people thought, except my brother, but his approval was automatic so it didn't matter.

Were you ever shamed very publicly? [INTERRUPTION]

Well, attempts were made to shame me publicly because that was the technique used in state schools all the time by teachers. [INTERRUPTION]

Can I ask you in that context about another big thing that I wanted you to talk about which is courage, because we talk about courage and bravery and we associate it a lot with the very warriors that you're talking about, but it's a more complex issue, isn't it?

I think it is.

Can I ask you about your view of what courage is?

Well I saw the best exemplification of courage I've ever seen in a quiet, suburban housewife, pretty, well turned out, a tennis player, all the things that I tend to think don't matter and when it came to consistent, stoical courage she was unmatched in hospital. I met her first in a hospital ward where she'd already endured a year of eruptive illnesses, you know, extraordinarily demoralising and difficult illnesses which involved painful operations, painful tests and whereas - she had a liver transplant before me but she'd already had many other things and she'd been a healthy woman until two and a half years before that. And she had a liver transplant, and where everything for me went beautifully, she ran into very many difficulties, and difficulties mean pain, discomfort, nausea, endless taxing of limited energies. And her demeanour never slipped. She was tranquil. She would listen to what the medicos had to say and she'd say, "I see, yes". When one test went wrong and the medicos' faces were grey with what she was going through, there was no moaning and there was no complaint. It was an absolutely extraordinary display of steadfast courage under pain, humiliation and an increasingly likely prospect of death after you'd gone through everything possible to avert it. Now I must say I was impressed by most people's courage when the chips came down, they were tremendous, but she was in a class of her own. And I don't think she knew she could do that, but she did it when she had to. And I asked her how she did it, and she told me, and that helped me a lot too.

And what did she tell you?

One of the things that destroys you in hospital is that there are many people coming in and plucking at you. They're taking blood or they're making you do this or they're taking you off and you get - if you're very worn out - you get, you begin to feel your control just shredding and going. You, you're not going to be able to stand much more of this is what you feel. Just, that there is a sort of way in which the flesh gets weak. It won't take any more, and she had - I was beginning to feel that - and she had been through so much more and so much more was happening to her as we lay side by side and she said, "I keep a space in my head, just a small space and I don't let anybody in. Not husbands, not nurses, nothing, not pain, nothing, there". And that inviolate self survived and gave her that core strength.

[end of tape]

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