Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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At what stage of your university career did you move from teaching into putting more emphasis on research? Could you context that for me?

I don't think I ever did because I see the activities as absolutely complementary but where my life suddenly expanded was when I left the University of Melbourne, where I was only a tutor, which is essentially a temporary but extendable position. Had a year away when John took sabbatical leave with the children and I was able to go down to Mexico and I went down for a month, actually, on my own and then they came down and joined me. And I was already pursuing a research topic. I'd found Diego de Landa, we've talked about him, but when I came back, La Trobe University was just being founded. It was to have a big history department and it was being established by a remarkably dynamic and idealistic historian called Allan Martin. His wife Jean was also Professor of Sociology and was one of the first people to work systematically on the migrants who were coming into Australia at that point. And they both, for some reason I've now forgotten, decided that Mexico would be a great first year subject that you could have half a year with the historians and then the sociologists would take over. Now that was the beginning of an extraordinary teaching university where all the staff in History and in Sociology were deeply absorbed with improving teacher student relationships. At Melbourne they'd been good but we had taught in the old-fashioned tutorial with 50 minutes, you know, people sitting around trying to get a conversation going about some past moment. At La Trobe we introduced three hour workshops. So we would take a slice of people's lives and we also kept another hour for films and things like that. I mean you couldn't possibly do Mexican history without seeing Marlon Brando in 'Viva Zapata' and we had a lecture, a more formal lecture, to give a continuing strand. But the innovation were the workshops and I must say they went brilliantly. La Trobe had a very different student clientele from Melbourne. At Melbourne people did tend to mumble because of the silver spoon in their mouth. This very much annoys people who are still at Melbourne University but it was true. On the whole you had sophisticated kids who knew what it was reasonable for a university to demand of them, because their brothers and sisters had gone through university, Melbourne University at that. At La Trobe we had kids, first generation migrant kids or first generation Australian working class kids. They had no notion of what could be expected of them. The university was a scary new world. At La Trobe we also had a marvellous innovation called the Early Leavers Scheme. People who had through necessity left school at 14 or earlier, but who always had a desire to come back, could if they went through a very gruelling selection process. They had to write an essay on why I want to come back to the, go to the university. They had to write a short essay or book review, and these are people who'd had no practise in writing for years in most cases. And they had to front up to a terrifying interview with four or five senior academics and we would interrogate them, and while we were all volunteers and all deeply in favour of the scheme, it must have been a very scary thing. However, the people who came through it would be great nuisances in their first year because they would be so unself-confident. They'd fuss and they'd be sad and they'd get terribly worried and then they'd get their A's for the year which they were always going to get and then they'd be set. And those people would do anything for you. They were marvellous students. Many of them were mature age, you know, very mature age. The students, the young students sometimes moaned about having the early leavers but in fact you got the most preposterous alliances between - I had one class where the tight alliance was between a 75 year old woman and an 18 year old boy and they managed to control the class in a most extreme fashion, I thought. The other innovation - do you want to hear about the workshop method?

Particularly as it relates to you and what you enjoyed about it.

Ah well, I enjoyed everything about it. I think getting to know other people's minds is one of the most fascinating and absorbing and educational processes you can be involved in. And having to find ways to introduce people to the real and absorbing problems of history is a deep pleasure to me. We used to bring these disparate people in for their first workshop, they wouldn't know anybody, they would be frightened. They didn't know what they should be doing, what might be asked of them. And we would make them play something called The Name Game. [INTERRUPTION]

We borrowed the notion of The Name Game from educational innovators of the time. The students would be divided into pairs, just where they happened to sit, no selection. One would be nominated A, one would be nominated B. A would interview B about their childhood for ten minutes and they would - they were all warned that what they said would, might be spoken about later so we didn't want true confessions they didn't want aired. And then B would interview A and then we'd go back to the whole group and A would tell us about B from what he or she had been told in the interview and then B looking severely startled at what happens when other people represent you would talk about A and so on round the group. Now the superficial, the overt aim of this game was that people would learn names but of course much more crucial things were happening. They were getting used to talking in a big room. They were getting used to representing someone else from what they could remember of what they'd said and of course the whole thing opened into some marvellous methodological problems because I'd then ask them, "Okay, what did you think childhood was?" because some people stopped their notion of childhood at the end of primary school, other people went on to the end of secondary school. One other person, one person was struggling not to relinquish it, I remember, in a very first class, saying "No, no, I haven't finished it yet. I'm still hanging in there". So effortlessly they had spent three hours often - I mean they loved the sociability, they need to get to meet people at university and here suddenly they would know 15 or 16 people, pretty well, so they could have coffee with them without embarrassment - and they were also beginning to learn lessons about thinking in class individually and then putting their insights together and expressing themselves without terror, because there's not a right answer for any of this, and they were also being introduced to the way that unstated conceptualisations, like one's image of childhood, control what one says in what looks like a free situation. So we were off and running. And after that the workshops always had the format where the students discussed themselves given work. We then pooled what had been found out by them and I'd systematise it a bit, covertly on the blackboard, so it was easier to work from later, and we'd then look at the underpinning concepts and do some critical analysis of them. And I was astounded at how quickly they developed real sharpness in these kinds of areas. Now that meant I could take them into extremely difficult material, which no one in America would try on postgrads, in their second and third year because I took on my own course in the second and third year, on analysing extremely difficult documents drawn from the Aztec period. And initially they'd be bamboozled but then they would work like beavers and they would come to read them with marvellous sensitivity and what impressed me was that they became self-critical as they did it. They realised that people were humans, even these peculiar people called Aztecs who did very peculiar things to themselves and to others, they were humans all right, but they really saw the world differently, and they became fascinated in how they did see the world and how these different views added up to a coherent and plausible whole. So it was pretty damn sophisticated stuff, these pass students at second and third year were doing and you can see how that fed directly into the issue of how I'd communicate my own research, because it flushed out my own unstated assumptions and prejudices too. So it was, you know, exciting, enjoyable, learning how this marvellously various range of minds actually worked, and it was of immeasurable help to me also in clarity of statement, because if you're not clear and you're not interesting people are going to stop reading and kids are going to stop listening.

You've said that you really liked the teaching because it was wonderful to get an insight into how other people's minds work. Was there anything particularly about teaching history that you enjoyed too?

Oh sure because they could be faced with exotic situations - you had to make them realise these people were exotic. It's often difficult. The temptation is to think that the people in the past are ourselves in fancy dress, you know, a lot of practising and alas historians operate on that assumption. But if you take a seriously exotic culture, and Amerindian cultures are seriously exotic to us, they've developed on their own without European intrusion until the late 15th century, so they really do march to a different drum. And it seems to me there's a vast advantage in teaching out of such a culture. For one thing no one is advantaged. You know English-speaking background, Italian-speaking background, who cares? It's not going to help you with Aztecs. Secondly, there are no entrenched positions. It's very hard to do a class analysis, I'm happy to say, of Aztec society. The rules of social organisation are different. It's very difficult to apply any ready-made theory to them. They can't be easily dealt with in conventional political terms, and I think that eased relationships within the class vastly. No one was advantaged, and no one had a prior position, except some of the Christians and they were a bit of a difficulty. But, so I would - I remember arguing the case for a compulsory first year subject in Aztec history before a row of stone faced Australianists who thought this was rank heresy, you know, appalling, but I still think it's true. It shakes people out of conventional thinking, taken for granted thinking, into pure astonishment at how different other people are.

During that period that you were teaching really quite intensely because it started at Melbourne and moved to La Trobe and covered 20 years really -more...


You, you - that was your main thing, that you were teaching. What, what did you teach apart from the Aztecs? I mean have you had other major areas of interest in that teaching period?

I taught Salem witchcraft - I do go to extremes - and apart from that I stayed with that territory because there's no end to it, because what I was doing during that period - and it can't really have been 20 years, can it?

I was asking.

Well, I'm not sure I never count, was exploring anthropology. The other thing that happened to me at La Trobe was that a man called Greg Denning, who'd been a legend at Melbourne, but whom I'd never known and who'd taken his PhD in anthropology at Harvard, had come back to La Trobe and was in sociology and he taught a course in the History Department on social theory to which I went. Also a member of the - a staff member of that seminar was a man called Rhys Isaac - who'd been at Melbourne with me but whom I didn't really know as a scholar, only as a person, I liked him very much - he also turned up at La Trobe. A few years later, he wrote a book on the hidden social dynamics in Virginia, he called it 'The Transformation of Virginia on the Eve of the Wars of Independence' and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize - so that, you know, he's a pretty good historian. Greg had been one of my examiners for my MA and he's very good at the small question. When I had said, you know, with great fluency why it was sadly impossible to penetrate the understandings of the Indians, I was just stuck with my Spaniards, he said "Why not?" And I thought, goodness, why not? And that made me embark on a hectic self-education program in anthropology directed by one of the great minds of the twentieth century, an anthropologist called Clifford Geertz who was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton at that point and I was lucky enough to go over there a couple of times and spend six months, it would be very difficult to sit at his feet because he moves very fast, but, you know, doing my best. And his writings, every sentence of them seemed like a private illumination to me, you know, quite extraordinary, one of the miracles of literacy is that kind of extraordinarily intimate intellectual relationship that's possible. And he continues, you know, as he writes, I read and I'm illuminated. So that was happening and absorbing some of that time but I was in fact researching through teaching, I suppose, but then during this time I managed to complete 'Ambivalent Conquests' which in fact is a tripartite narrative. One narrative on the secular Spaniards, and their invasion and conquest of Yucatan and their understanding of the locals. One narrative of and from and in the frames of reference of the missionary friars who proceed to the torture campaign when they uncover what they think is backsliding among their converts, focusing on Diego de Landa and turning into a psychological study of him. And then one, the shortest section of the book by far the hardest to write, an enquiry into what the Indians might have been up to, what would be intelligible conduct given all the things we know about their ways of thinking and, you know, it was a good book to write.

Was 'Ambivalent Conquests' your first book?


When did you first go to Mexico?

Oh dear, I don't remember.

Again, we don't have to have the year but if you just sort of place it in your life. It was...

I don't think I went to Mexico till the children were little, till they were sort of three and five. That doesn't seem right. [INTERRUPTION]

In what circumstances did you first go to Mexico?

Well I went to the United States as a wife with John, with the two children. John will tell you that - no wait on was that - yes, I had still not committed myself to Yucatan at that point and I went off leaving him in Hawaii with the two children to go to Washington state. It was at that point I was still thinking of working on Haciendas and they had a good collection of papers there. But I think it was later on that same time in the United States that I went down to Mexico and began to pursue Landa, and then on the next sabbatical leave, again with the children, this time taking them for the whole time, we went to Mexico and went to the major sites in Yucatan and explored around in that territory. And I can't remember now when I first went to Mexico City and checked out the anthropological museum and the Collegio de Mexico and places like that. But it was made possible because of the absolutely secure notion of sabbatical leave for tenured academics and then once I got a tenured job, you know, we made sure our leaves coincided and the children were getting to be more independent. I think they had one more trip with us when they were sort of 12 and 14 or so.

By the time you went to Mexico and went to the sites, you'd read a lot, you knew a lot, what was it like for you then to actually go there? Can you just...

It was like going home, it was like going home. Yucatan - I loved Mexico I just felt relaxed there, at ease there. We went with great passports in the form, when we went the first time with two small children, one of them a redhead and in Yucatan particularly these sort of dour, tough old Mayan peasants with their machetes would be sort of on the bus - we went everywhere by these little old buses - and then a hand would come out and rub Steve's head. Rich at three got mumps and we were staying in a tiny little hotel where I'd go in and cook the kids' meals to make sure they were okay, and people love children in Mexico. They're very indulgent to children, they like them and like the people who've got children and who are treating them right, you know. And Rich was taken off by a curandera, a woman curer, who used to have very bad habits when it came to children in about the 1700s, and she led him away because the woman running the hotel was so frantic that she should come and see him. He wasn't very good as a, as an informant. He said, "Oh well she gave me something to drink and I drank it and I did this and I did that and then she brought me back". But I felt I was pushing research too far when I saw his little figure going off hand in hand with this very large lady in sort of snowy huipil. So we cracked and we flew out to Veracruz and took him to a European doctor. But it was a place - the landscape, it's limestone, arid. In the territory I was in the rainfall increases as you go south, but the vegetation has got an Australian feel to it. It somehow felt familiar and I liked the Maya very much indeed, aloof, dignified. It's still a state of Mexico in which the local language remains dominant. It's the most successful Indian territory in Mexico. And I did know a lot, so I kept recognising things that made sense to me.

How's your Spanish?

Perfect for speaking to Indians because their Spanish is pretty bad too, so we'd totter along happily together.

And how important was it to you to develop a familiarity with the - what remains or what could be found still extant of those languages - the Indian languages?

You mean how much time did I give to...


Very little. You have a choice there. You can give five years of your life to language study so you can squabble with your fellow linguists over what actually - how words had been said and what they actually meant in the sixteenth century, which is the period that interests me - or you can chose to use that five years reading in linguistic theory or in anthropological linguistics or in a range of other things so you've got some sense of why these things matter or might matter. I have to say too that I 've been treated very generously by Nahuatl scholars in clarifying the very few tiny areas where something significant seemed to hang on how a word was used, but it was a transition period from oral culture to literate, to literacy from local languages to Spanish. It's a very hard century to get reconstructed accurately linguistically because records weren't kept really for the first 50 years after contact.

How do you decide what you're going to focus in on to do your own particular work on? I mean there'd been a context set for you fortuitously, you're pointed in the direction of Mexico, but then when you actually started to hone your own areas of interests, how do you do that?

The ones that interest you, it's terribly simple. They're the ones where you find yourself reading furiously, puzzling over some opaque passage or other. It's delivered to you. It's what you care about getting clear in what seems to be going on. So I never took, as it were, a rational decision. I now can see, and this is a recent revelation, a post-illness revelation, post-reflection revelation, that obviously one of the things that attracted me powerfully to the Aztecs was their taste for one to one combat with sacrificial death as the penalty for the loser. It's a very slow motion form of combat and the identification between the two warriors is intense and dramatised ritually at every point. I won't alarm you by giving you too much detail on that...

A bit would help.

I'll give you the best bit. They fight obviously according to protocols. I worked out what the protocols were, no one else had really looked at this. People shy away from examining the blood and guts bits but the blood and guts bits were clearly where the action was for these people. It's what compelled them, you know, it's - and so they're closely matched these warriors and it's a fairly formalised mode of combat, as you'd expect. One of them is finally brought down. He is then kept like a fighting cock, displayed, celebrated, jeered at, and then on the appointed day, he's stripped of his warrior's regalia, daubed with the white of the sacrificial victim and white feathers, and is taken to the gladiatorial stone, as we've dubbed it, which is an elevated stone about a metre high and about so wide, rather less than two metres wide, and he's tethered to that by one ankle to a ring in the centre. And he is given a club, which is a standard combat weapon, but this club instead of being studded with obsidian blades, is covered in white feature down, so he doesn't have the sharp, the razor sharp blades. And these are new rules for combat. I mean nothing like this has happened before. And then against him come in sequence four Aztec warriors, not the one who beat him, four others, leading warriors from either one of the two great warrior orders, the eagles and the jaguars. And they strike at him and their aim is to cut him delicately, clearly around the legs, because that's the only bit they could get to, so that he will slowly lose blood, bleed a lot, until he collapses on the stone, and then he has his heart excised and offered to the sun god. Now he has a great advantage because he's got the height and he's got the waddy. Now if he can adjust in time fast enough to his absolutely unfamiliar situation he could do a lot of damage up there, and it might be legendary, but one great warrior was meant to have dispatched four of the warriors coming against him. It's a great public spectacle. There are people crowded and screaming and, you know, elevated by this. Now comes the good bit. He's dead. He is then - the skin, his skin is then taken off, and I can give you details of how that's done if you want it, by specially trained old men, so you've got something like human skin long johns, if you like - you know, sort of union suit. And the warrior who took him in combat, with whom he is being identified in every way, who's watched him fight because it's himself fighting there, it's his valour being tested up there on the stone, he cares desperately that he fights brilliantly. He climbs into that clammy, bloody skin over his own naked body and he wears it over the next days of the ceremony while it rots and dries and tightens on him. He's experiencing the death that he's given the other young man. And his kin eat a small piece of the flesh on specially dried maize corn - it's a most sort of simple, ritualised meal - and weep as they eat and he doesn't eat of that flesh because it's his own flesh. So they really dive into these heavy, heady psychological waters with passion.

[end of tape]

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