Thursday, November 21, 2013

of conscious art

One more post on Watkin Tench from me, at least one more because I know that Robert Hughes, who must have read or reread Tench for The Fatal Shore, called him "An eye that noticed everything" with "a young man’s verve, a sly wit, an elegant prose style," and Tench's posthumous editor L.F. Fitzhardinge wrote in 1979, "Less detailed than Collins, less matter-of-fact than Phillip or White, Tench is the first man to mould Australian experience into a work of conscious art," but, putting aside the accuracy of that statement, it's the consciousness of his art sometimes that troubles me, or makes me feel betrayed, and why betrayed?

Betrayed because of this sentence: "He was a man of middle age, with an open cheerful countenance, marked with the small pox, and distinguished by a nose of uncommon magnitude and dignity." (Emphasis mine: from A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson.)

The nose cuteness exists primarily in the word "uncommon;" take away that word and it is almost gone although it would leave some of itself behind in the words "magnitude and dignity." "Uncommon" makes it opaque. Why do I not like the nose cuteness? Because it betrays itself: because it puts a magic-making word ("uncommon," exceptional, magical) in a miniaturised or disrespected position where it is funny. It makes fun of the quality that it is pretending to represent: the extraordinary.

I read it and I see a little person being fooled.

I see someone turning to a Christmas tree and saying, "You know, you're made of plastic."


  1. For me the giveaway word is actually 'distinguished', when he could equally well have said 'with'

    1. That's true, but "distinguished" could have been followed by something else -- "he was distinguished by an air of severe rectitude" "he was distinguished by the presence of a beautiful grand dog that ran next to him." "Nose," for me, is the moment when the sentence commits itself to cuteness. "Distinguished" is the teaser trailer. "Nose" is the opening credits.

  2. Why not just "a large nose"? He makes fun of the nose, of his drawing attention to the nose. Whoever owned the nose is being made fun of. Is the ennosed personage a comic character, or is this fun-poking dishonest, an easy joke? The easy jokes are hard to resist. I am going through a new ms right now, striking out easy jokes. I hope there's something left when I'm done.

  3. It's an easy joke. A group of them went out for several days, exploring the banks of a river near the settlement at Port Jackson, and they met a man in a canoe: "While this was doing, a native, from his canoe, entered into conversation with us, and immediately after paddled to us with a frankness and confidence which surprised every one. He was a man of middle age, with an open cheerful countenance, marked with the small pox, and distinguished by a nose of uncommon magnitude and dignity. He seemed to be neither astonished or terrified at our appearance and number. Two stone hatchets, and two spears he took from his canoe, and presented to the governor, who in return for his courteous generosity, gave him two of our hatchets and some bread ..." He's not a funny person, he never does anything funny, and Tench doesn't make anything else about him sound funny, even when he's sprinting up a tree. "To us it was a matter of astonishment, but to him it was sport." Every so often he has these moments when a funny thing occurs to him, or a bit of poetic diction ("the vertic beams of the sun"), but they don't come consistently. They're always a possibility with him, never a certainty.