December 2006 - January 2007

Arts & Letters

‘Nobel Lecture: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2005’

By Chris Middendorp

The uncredited introduction to this anthology somewhat meekly proposes that we shouldn't take high honours in literature too seriously. Reminding us of the sublime authors who were not awarded the Nobel - Tolstoy, James, Conrad, Woolf, Nabokov, Greene, among others - the anonymous writer blithely concedes that, since its establishment in 1901, "the Literature Prize has been subject to its fair share of contradictions."

All contradictions aside, this heady volume of 20 recent laureates' lectures holds a succession of worthy lessons about the pathways through which language can either condemn or redeem. With perfervid lyricism, Toni Morrison (1993) examines how language is manipulated by powerful groups to dominate and cajole. "Oppressive language does more than represent violence," she proclaims, "it is violence." Chinese writer Gao Xingjian (2000) speaks compellingly of how words can free us: "literature allows a person to preserve a human consciousness."

Does language serve ideology or does ideology serve language? Too often, says Harold Pinter (2005), "language is actually employed to keep thought at bay." He goes on to excoriate all US foreign policy since World War II. Is this Pinter or Pilger? More serenely, Wole Soyinka (1986) talks of "the black race's capacity to forgive" white subjugation. His gentle ruminations on the process of Africa's recovery from colonialism are deeply affecting.

The most whimsical lecture of the set is by the Italian satirist Dario Fo (1997). Relating how injustice is the by-product of ignorance, he includes a series of drawings intended to supplement his argument when words are inadequate. Fo's crude doodlings provide a telling reflection on the limits of writing, no matter how accomplished. Assembled as narratives, words may serve to inspire or subdue people, but they are always symbols of something deeper. Writing can register human behaviour, yet the soul remains ineffable.

Cover: December 2006 - January 2007

December 2006 - January 2007

From the front page

Image of chair of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission and former Fortescue Metals chief executive Neville Power

Building back better?

The government’s pandemic response is taking a familiar shape

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

An unavoidable recession

The pandemic got us in, the treasurer must get us out

Child's illustration

The screens that ate school

What do we really know about the growing presence of Google, Apple, Microsoft and more in the education system?


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Donald Bradman & Boris Karloff

The usual suspects

‘Quadrant’ at 50
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Jumblats Pty Ltd

Some things we don’t yet know

Robert Hughes’s ‘Things I Didn’t Know’

More in Arts & Letters

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Still from ‘The Assistant’

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

Photograph of Dua Lipa

Snap-back: Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

The British singer’s serendipitous album delivers shining pop with a reigning attitude of fortitude

Still from ‘The Platform’

Consolations in isolation: ‘The Platform’ and ‘Free in Deed’

What is the future of cinema without cinemas?


More in Noted

Cover of ‘The Trials of Portnoy’

‘The Trials of Portnoy’ by Patrick Mullins

The finely detailed story of the legal fight in Australia against the censorship of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

Cover of ‘The End of October’

‘The End of October’ by Lawrence Wright

A ‘New Yorker’ journalist’s eerily prescient novel about public-health officials fighting a runaway pandemic

Cover of ‘Fathoms’

‘Fathoms: The World in the Whale’ by Rebecca Giggs

The Australian writer’s lyrical consideration of our relationship with whales is a new and ambitious kind of nature writing

Cover of ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’

‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ by Cho Nam-Joo (trans. Jamie Chang)

The coldly brilliant, bestselling South Korean novel describing the ambient harassment and discrimination experienced by women globally


Read on

Image of Australians queuing at Centrelink in Brisbane.

Moral bankruptcy

Robodebt stemmed from the false ideological division between the deserving and undeserving poor, but the government still clings to moralistic language

Image of Gough Whitlam in October 1975

It’s about time

The High Court’s landmark ruling on the ‘Palace Papers’ is a win for Australian social democracy

Image of Robyn Davidson

Something mythic

For Robyn Davidson, her acclaimed memoir ‘Tracks’ was an act of freedom whose reception hemmed her in

COVID-19 versus human rights

The virus is the latest excuse for governments to slash and burn the individual rights of prisoners


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