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Reviews

Andrew McCann. Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia: Literature and Modernity in Colonial Melbourne. Carleton, Victoria: Melbourne UP, 2004. ISBN: 0-522-85122-3. Price: AU$49.95.

  • Terra Walston

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  • Terra Walston
    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Logo for Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

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Andrew McCann’s Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia introduces readers to a figure little known to North American and European literary scholars. Clarke, who emigrated from England to Australia in 1863, became one of Australia’s premier journalists and novelists, yet despite his notoriety in colonial Melbourne, he found little recognition for his work outside of Australia—the fate of most Australia-based writers then and, to some degree, now. As McCann suggests, Clarke’s most well known text, His Natural Life (1874), is the only nineteenth-century Australian text to have achieved anything resembling canonical status outside of Australia. On the other hand, the recent trend toward transnational literary criticism indicates that the nation-based exclusions of literary canons are breaking down, and rightfully so. As such, McCann’s book is a timely contribution to critical conversations about the production and circulation of texts in a world structured by the imbricated forces of capitalism and imperialism.

McCann implicates Clarke in these global structures, but he also points to the ways in which Clarke’s geographic position allowed him distinct insight into their operations. For writers of the 1870s who had lived in metropolitan and colonial locations, it was “still possible […] to grasp the abstracting forces of capitalism without the redeeming effects of national belonging” (5). Settler locations like Australia “distil the essence of modernity” by virtue of an undeveloped Australian national consciousness and an abundance of cosmopolitan influences (5). In Clarke’s works, these conditions translate into a literary aesthetic that highlights the dislocations of colonial modernity, denying Romantic essences and making colonial identity (if there is such a thing, McCann qualifies) hinge upon instability and dislocation. For the settler society, there is no past national culture or value system against which capitalist modernity is defined; rather, settler origins are modernity.

The Bohemian embodies this sense of dislocation. He (and McCann explicitly genders the Bohemian male) figures in Clarke’s writing as a homeless itinerant or vagabond who explores and adapts to every location he inhabits, however temporary. His rootlessness renders him marginal and yet, at the same time, representative of the settler colony as the condition of modernity itself. In much of Clarke’s journalism, this cosmopolitan Bohemian appears as a “peripatetic philosopher” who plumbs the depths of “Lower Bohemia,” revealing Melbourne’s metropolitan aspirations to be vacuous and the moral and aesthetic value of entertainment similarly empty and commodified. He is grotesque narrator on the outside of society, yet he is “still able to move within [society] as an impostor preying, sometimes resentfully, upon its stupidity” (69). Clarke’s “Lower Bohemia” is as ephemeral as the literary marketplace, and Clarke’s writing often parodies its own pretentions to literary genius through excessive citation of more well-known writers. In one of his most interesting claims, McCann argues that Clarke’s comic approach to the marketplace also naturalized settler society, recoding the colonization process as peaceful and natural.

McCann draws heavily on Marxist aesthetic theory, particularly that of Walter Benjamin, and takes as his point of departure the assumption that literary texts may tend toward the utopian in their evocation of pleasure, but that textual production is undergirded by a dialectical relation between the utopian and the commodified. Inevitably, the same texts that offer up utopian fantasy are embedded in material conditions, thus enabling a productive juxtaposition between real and ideal. According to McCann this is no textual unconscious: Clarke’s corpus—from his journalistic writing to his novels and short stories—attempts to foreground and meditate on its own material production. Clarke’s formal choices illustrate his fascination with the logic of commodity capitalism and the marketplace for entertainment. These include an interrogation of Romantic claims toward a distinction between pure imagination and technical spectacle. Clarke’s “light literature”—including, trivia, puzzles, jokes, and a wide variety of popular fictional genres—generates effects comparable to staged magic in the manner of “phantasmagoria.” Where Romantics saw phantasmagoria as indicative of “the pejorative space of mass culture as opposed to the morally renovating space of the Romantic imagination,” Clarke’s work purposely dissolves this aesthetic hierarchy implicating all artistic labor in the operations of capitalism (145).

McCann interweaves numerous critical strains and his shifts reflect the breadth of Clarke’s interests and aesthetic choices, for as McCann notes, the chapters, “like Clarke’s own writing, often seem to be quite peripatetic” (19). The sheer heterogeneity of texts and contexts McCann lays out in his introduction seems to necessitate a preemptive apologia:

This is not a matter of perversity. On the contrary, the highly mobile forms of textuality this book examines require a critical idiom that is adequate to the realities of cultural transportation and dislocation in the period. To mediate between the imperial metropolis and the colony, to cover an intercultural context and a local one, to track the mobility of cultural sensibilities and their specific adaptations, I have constructed chapters that shift their attention accordingly.

19

This explanation is perhaps unconvincing in a rather short introduction that does not elaborate the critical connections between, say, the function of Bohemian identification in a colonial metropolis and colonial appropriations of Romanticism that use uncanny affect to criticize Aboriginal beliefs. McCann’s two agendas—a Marxist analysis of textual commodities in an urban marketplace and a postcolonial analysis of textual forms implicated in ideologies of race and colonial practice—are not always as integrated as he intends. The first three chapters are weighted more heavily toward the former and the last two to the latter, yet by the end of book McCann’s dual agenda is more clearly articulated.

For readers interested in Clarke’s less well-known writings, chapters one and two dovetail nicely, discussing Clarke’s journalistic representation of a grotesque city. The first chapter traces Clarke’s representation of Melbourne to Charles Dickens’s London and Victor Hugo’s Paris, the effect of which is to leave Melbourne “nebulous, lost in citation” (24). Clarke’s recovery of the city comes from his fashioning of a Bohemian literary identity predicated on imperial cosmopolitanism. Chapter two examines Clarke’s response to colonial Melbourne as a site of popular entertainment that constitutes taste and morality (or lack thereof). His journalistic writings undermine Melbourne’s aspirations for cultural capital by identifying fashion and taste as unstable and ephemeral functions of commodity capitalism, a topic McCann explores through Clarke’s disapproving responses to sensational spectacles of the body such as waxworks and anatomical museums.

One constant in Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia is McCann’s serious attention to the interrelation of generic conventions and ideological structures. This focus is particularly apparent in the last three chapters which include extensive discussion of His Natural Life and Clarke’s other full-length novel, Long Odds (1869). These chapters are most interesting for their theorization of a “Gothic commodity.” For McCann, the Gothic commodity highlights its own positionality within the marketplace by dramatizing the “simultaneity of pleasure and its objectification […] such that the constitution of the relationship between writer, text and reader, based on a notion of repressed desire, is both in excess of but also internal to the marketplace” (108). Chapter four discusses the uncanny affect of the Gothic commodity as both negating and deriving from Aboriginal belief systems (19). This chapter on indigenous people adds a much-needed dimension to the book, for while McCann periodically discusses the racial politics of Clarke’s writing in his earlier chapters, his focus on capitalism writ large at times marginalizes what he seems to recognize as a constitutive aspect of colonial modernity. The final chapter, focusing on His Natural Life and the novella The Mystery of Major Molineux (1881) but also touching on the Australian Romantics Charles Harpur and Henry Kendall, adopts the by-now critical commonplace that the exposure of monstrosity in Gothic literature provides a means for readers to consume the transgressive. In the white settler context, this points to repressed anxieties and guilt over the violent origins of settler colonialism—origins that are masked by Clarke’s cosmopolitan imaginings of Bohemia. These reemerge, however, in his use of the conventions of melodrama and sensation fiction where “sympathetic sociability is pitted, albeit ambiguously, against sovereignty” represented as “abusive, tyrannical law” (186). Ironically, Clarke’s excavations of sovereign violence become reified by the same generic repetitions that allow for their emergence; the Gothic may reveal something of the anxieties of settler colonialism but its place in a culture of consumption results in an overdetermined repetition of conventional pleasures.

McCann ends by suggesting that the radical potential of literature in a pre-national settler colony has significant limitations. Where Clarke’s position as a colonial writer gives him a privileged awareness of the functioning of commodity capitalism, the same forms he so cleverly maneuvers to critique middle-class values and taste short-circuit a critique of settler violence. As McCann argues, Clarke’s awareness of the conditions of literary production in a modern world provides ripe food for an ongoing examination of the interrelation of colonialism and capitalism. By pointing us to the instabilities and dislocations that underwrite these conditions, McCann provides us with a needed examination of settler-colony contributions to the literary project of modernity.

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