Opening speech by Clive Probyn

Opening Speech - Swift and Defoe

10 June 2009

Professor Clive Probyn
School of English, Communications and Performance Studies
Faculty of Arts
Monash University

Asking how a Rare Books Collection comes into being is rather like the question put to the English gardener about how one might create a good lawn: you simply cut it and roll it regularly—for about 200 years.

My acquaintance with the Monash Collection is not as extensive as many here, but it does go back to 1981, when I dropped in as a visiting professor. After what seemed the longest but most enjoyable interviewing process for any job in academic history, I left six weeks later as professor of English designate. It was during that six weeks that I worked in this library, then presided over by Susan Radvansky (a Polish countess, I was told). I also tutored undergraduates and gave several public lectures, at the request of David Bradley, on authors and texts that began with V—Patrick White's Voss and Ben Jonson's Volpone to mention only two. I only just escaped the daunting prospect of putting together a lecture on Mrs Vulliamy.

A couple of public lectures also were given on the satire of Jonathan Swift. The response was gratifying, but the audience was unusual, to say the least, for at each lecture there was a Vice-Chancellor (a Chemist) and several deputy vice-chancellors (from Materials Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics, I recall) in the front row, with chairs of various departments behind them. I naturally assumed that they were keen Swift scholars as well as members of the chair selection committee. I still count some of that first audience as my close friends, and they still ask me what I am currently working on. This was the first of several high points, none of which was predictable.

There was the occasion when I had one of Monash's previous Vice-Chancellors paged at Melbourne airport. The question I asked him was: Would Monash pay 5 thousand dollars for a Bible inscribed and signed by Queen Anne? The answer was an immediate, if throaty 'Yes, Clive'. Jetlag, research, the library, finance, scholarship, all went hand in hand, it seemed. Yet it was in the days of Telex, not email, and our offer to purchase Queen Anne's bible arrived the next day, and we missed out by half a day, having been beaten to the draw by an American university collection.

A second anecdote, involving a previous librarian, indicated that opportunism was no enemy to proper process, and could in fact be the same thing. In its formative years, when we were in the market for quality purchases and could still afford them, the usual sequence involved me receiving an early tip-off by telephone from my West Australian Swift scholar and friend David Woolley. There would be a map, a manuscript letter, a pamphlet annotated by Swift, or a book at a London bookseller that we ought to have, he would suggest. I would then beard the Librarian in his remote office and a ritualised pageant was then enacted on each such occasion consisting of mock-horror at the price, disbelief in the possibility of acquisition, surprise that the request should be made at all, delight that we might be able to get it, and, finally, a quiet, ironic satisfaction that we could. A requisite consultation of the financial ledger would, astonishingly, discover as if by complete accident a pocket of money, a margin of possibility, for the item requested But not without that little performance each time. The condition was always that the Library would need a contribution from some other source in order to complete the transaction, and it was usually the English Department and, more frequently, the Friends of the Monash Library who would be there to help at the right moment. I assume that my colleagues interested in the history of mathematics, children's literature, Blake studies, Pacific history, Australian literary studies, fantasy writing, and popular culture were treated in a similar fashion.

If so, then the result of all this bibliographical comedy was that important work was and is able to be done here at Monash. Apart from regular use by staff researchers, Honours, MA and PhD students—some of the latter group, such as Robert Phiddian, now academics here and in other universities around the globe— international scholars find their way here, too: Hermann Real and Heinz Vienken from the Ehrenpreis Centre of Swift Studies in Muenster, Germany; Claude Rawson from Yale. And there are of course local and interstate scholars who have worked here on related research (Harold Love, Brian McMullin, Wallace Kirsop and Ian Higgins to name only four). It has been, is, and should still be possible to nominate Monash as a place that can support high-level, ARC-funded research in the Humanities in Australia. No less is expected by our colleagues overseas, and it is vital that we maintain this potency.

I have mentioned Swift, but who is this Defoe fellow? Why does he find himself in such company? Although Ian Ross once wrote a book about the two contemporaries, they never met, never discussed each other's work, and the former affected not to be able to recall not even the name of the author of Robinson Crusoe. Yet readers of Gulliver's Travels will know how closely the first page echoes and parodies the first page of Robinson Crusoe. They each lived at the same time, but not in the same cultural space, it seems. Richard Overell's inspired idea to combine the two of them in the same exhibition reminds us that we all live in different worlds, perform numerous roles, in any given day, and that most of the time we are indeed and perhaps necessarily unaware of the other worlds around us. Both of these writers had the capacity to extrapolate and escape from the present into imagined worlds, to a land soon to be named Australia and occupied apes and talking horses, or to a Caribbean isle of sunshine, gardening and cannibals. Each wrote one great classic of world literature that still speaks to us, and both were intensely grounded in the politics of their day (Swift was a Tory in Church of England politics, a Whig in state politics: Defoe, a Dissenter, wrote for both Whigs and Tories, and sometimes for both at the same time). As a senior ecclesiastical statesman in Ireland, Swift never needed to write for money (though he was paid 200 pounds for Gulliver's Travels by a delighted and grateful printer), but Defoe was one of the most prolific of all authors, constantly turning the printed page into money—an astounding example of how trade can become literature and literature can become a trade. Defoe is the foremost example in the first generation of truly professional writers. Both writers continue to demand our interest.

I delivered my last formal lecture at Monash a week ago: it was, appropriately enough, on Samuel Beckett's Endgame (originally titled Fin de Partie). If that strange text means anything it points to life as a series of endless repetitions without the necessity for progress, The play questions our dependancy on what has been called 'grand narratives'— the ideas of Progress, Reason, God, Man, Science. Even in this bleak world, however, Beckett rescues and reasserts the idea of narrative itself: we must tell our stories, whatever they may be. We are narrating animals by nature and necessity. This exhibition displays some of the work of two of the greatest early modern tale-tellers, each of whom prefers to tell the truths of fiction as well as record the fictions of reality.

It is my great pleasure, then, to formally open this superbly chosen exhibition of Swift and Defoe items, and I hope that you will not only enjoy the exhibits themselves but also celebrate the fact that this is an achievement of which Monash should be justly proud. And finally, I wonder what this collection will be like when we get the lawn mowers out in 150 years from now?