Live Burial: Andrew Riemer's Sandstone Gothic:
Confessions of an Accidental Academic
A review by Melissa Hardie
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Responses have been received from both Lisbet de Castro Lopo and Jillian Dellit to Riemer's memoirs and reviews of the work by both Stephen Knight and Melissa Hardie.
The discovery of the bodies of Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler in the early hours of January 1, 1963, defines that year in my mind as one whose auguries were opaque and dankly tragic. Frozen in time on the banks of the Lane Cove River in grotesque and incoherent poses, their bodies were arrested as if in a snapshot, with those same extraordinary powers of evocation. The Bogle-Chandler case, still unsolved, hangs over the mid 1960s as an icon for the curious position of intellectual, bohemian, suburbanite, academic and swinger as it permutated in that decade.
Another dank journey reached its defining moment of arrest that year, it seems, according to Sandstone Gothic: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by A. P. Riemer (to quote Riemer on the use of initials, "I must describe these people in the way they were known to us" (9)). Riemer's book offers a less lurid account of the marriage of the intellectual, the bohemian and the suburban than does Bogle-Chandler, though ultimately one as insolubly clueless, and similarly pivoted around the year 1963 as one of catastrophe not averted.
If the conundrum of Bogle-Chandler is an arrested syntax, Riemer's puzzled account of his dreadful experiences of that year is by contrast agitated and fluid, a gothic narrative stripped of few of the convolutions characteristic of the genre. That year Riemer began working as an academic in the English Department, University of Sydney, where he stayed, mostly unhappy according to this account, for the next thirty years: a prisoner of his own desires or "infatuations." Equally, then, it is a tale of arrest or detention, of professional stasis, which curiously companions his detailed recall of agitation and turmoil in the purportedly staid precincts of the University.
Pastiche becomes a familiar theme in his memoir, from the section titles ("A Sentimental Education" and "Culture and Anarchy"), to Riemer's frequent apostrophes to the University and its English Department as "Edmund Blacket's loving exercise in pastiche and imitation" (77). His memories of his own early work as a parodist in undergraduate years implicate, we are told, his subsequent professional life. He describes revue sketches he composed; notably , "a parody of Chekhov, with overtones of Dostoyevsky, called, predictably enough, 'The Idiots' "(23). According to Riemer it was "a disturbing portent of things to come;" things, he suggests, consequent upon being "a 'virtuoso' in a language not fundamentally your own" (23). For Riemer, the satire "chimed in . . . with the provisional, hypothetical and essentially parodistic" (23) success he achieved in his subject, and certainly such a nostalgic tidbit as "The Idiots" casts a pall over his subsequent successes.
For Riemer, English was "not the natural or inevitable choice," (7) though at the time it seemed both when, as a twice-failed medical student, he switched to studying Arts. Riemer's early lack of distinction in the subject was soon remedied, he claims, by the adoption of "skills in parody and mimicry sufficient to walk away with a high distinction," (24); Riemer owns that he knew in his "heart of hearts" that "success had been due largely to sleight of hand" (4). For Riemer, mimicry, imitation, parody and other forms of in authenticity are constitutive of much of his career. His narrative of his student days limns the subtitle of the work, as we follow his sometimes "accidental" acquisition of first high marks, then a scholarship, then a thesis (or a "plausible simulacrum of a thesis," (94)), and finally a job.
If the simulacrum might normally be understood as a suspension of notions of plausibility in place of the principle of iterability, that might better explain the sense of sameness that imbues Riemer's progression through the various rites of passage which are required of the academic. This, after Flaubert, he titles a "sentimental education," but one presumes with irony, as nothing could be more distinct than this account from Flaubert's of the rites of passage that credential the man of sentiment.
Riemer's position as naïf is supported in the text through the principle of accident: things happen to him almost despite himself, through forces that are given here as a parody of the conventions of romance: fortuitous happenings and ineluctable fate. But parody and accident seem strange bedfellows, in that all these acts of impersonation would seem counter to the principle of fortuity and actually rather deliberate. One might suppose Riemer employs the figure of the parodist as a topos of modesty, were it not for the fact that he elsewhere characterises himself as rather talented, if principally at parody; his description of the work required to complete his Ph.D. is as "remarkably easy" (94), and he remarks upon his "gift" for teaching (32): the "virtuoso" of accident, perhaps. Riemer's confessions of parodic performance, from the construction of a thesis which was primarily an "illusory edifice," (94) to his amusing account of months of fruitless research in the Public Records Office, work to convey less a sense of the accidental than of the disappointed. In that, he does seem somewhat Flaubertian, though one might then expect the logical consequence of that would be for the second half of the book to be more in the style of Bouvard et Pecuchet, and surely the material is there.
The autobiography suggests an overriding rationale for this experience of inauthenticity: Riemer's status as exile. The state of exile is evoked as a consequence of his early migration to the country but also through his characterisation of academic life in Sydney as exile per se, with the institutional life of the academic portrayed as a sequestration from more proper places in which to pursue the life of the mind. "Preserving the great traditions of scholarship in Sydney was," he writes, " a form of exile" (11). It's an experience that as a domestic exile, Riemer can only imitate, but imitate well from his position as already-exiled:
I, for my part, conscious of my own life of exile (thought I was never quite sure from what), picked up more readily perhaps than many of my contemporaries the small, unrecognized hints conveying that longing and desire. I began to suspect that for several of my teachers life in Sydney was a curious state of suspension: six years of anticipation, waiting for the moment once every seven years . . . when they could board a great liner and sail through the Heads towards Oxford, the land of heart's desire. (11)
A topos of parodic locale becomes the prevailing means by which Riemer imagines the University qua University, as he writes repeatedly of the Main Quadrangle, and its architectural homage to old world learning, in a series of insistently repetitious reprisals of the style of sandstone gothic, from which he draws the title of the book:
Sometimes it seems to me that the forty years, a life time, I spent in the shadow of the magnificent neo-Gothic folly Edmund Blacket fashioned for the University of Sydney were no more than a long infatuation with the world that building mimicked in honey-coloured sandstone. (3)
Whilst the decision to do English is cast as misleadingly "inevitable" in its conception, it precipitates inevitable consequences: choosing to pursue his studies in English "sketched out so relentlessly the rest of my life in the course of those bitter days early in 1956" (7). So inevitable the consequences are of this infatuation, that even from his plane seat he spots what his time in England reveals to be quite possibly a "gimcrack" (79) but all too familiar sandstone gothic edifice as his flight makes its final approach toward Mascot in the equally bitter year of 1963, a Rebecca-like moment of gothic return.
For an account of accidental identity, then, much in this book has the sense of inevitability, and nothing more so than his return to Mandalay in 1963. From a narration of an inevitable success in his thesis, to an undaunting job application and appointment, to a journey home rife with trivial misadventure, his return is shocking only in so far as something has actually changed while he was gone, in the appointment of a new chair.
This catastrophe of 1963 is first grimly forecast in one of a series of proleptic asides. "At the time of my return to Sydney in 1963," Riemer hints, "the Department embarked on one of the many self-inflicted martyrdoms that characterise academic life." (12). These prolepses constitute Riemer's most sustained commentary on academic life per se, as they prefigure his soon characteristic modus operandi: as the horror of what was to come next careens us ever forward, we see its shadow in everything that came first, most strikingly in the later portions of the book which concern, roughly, post-1963 matters.
Whilst it is interesting to see recondite debates such as the C P Snow-Leavis wrangle over the "two cultures" revisited in this rather strange antipodean rehearsal, they do feel less than urgent. But this memoir seeks to convey urgency above all, and in particular the urgency surrounding the "martyrdom of 63," and its subsequent traces in Australian academic life. The year that saw Riemer's appointment also saw the appointment of Sam Goldberg to the Chair of the Challis Professor of English, an act whose consequences were profound for Riemer and others in the department as they contemplated the proper work of the academic.
Touching on such matters as timetabling and lecture schedules, and a series of verbatim reports that just fall short of the verisimilitude they are presumably designed to evoke, his unforgiving account of that episode and its players sits in the section of the memoir named, after Arnold, "Culture and Anarchy." It gives the reader a fairly profound sense of how disturbed everyone was by this passing contretemps, if not precisely of what generated the heat. For those of us familiar with the history of the English Department, Riemer's anatomical elaboration of that year comes only as a predictable surprise. It's hard to know how it would read outside that context; to me it seems improbable, at first glance, that anyone outside the Department would want to read it at all.
Goldberg's espousal of Leavisite criticism, which is given in redacted form by Riemer, contested many of the precepts that framed Riemer's understanding of the duties of the academic, duties which seem, mostly, to cluster around the governing principle of "indifference". On the one hand, devotion to scholarship required, in Riemer's account, maintaining a sense of separation from the everyday practice of academia, and, as Riemer foreshadows, "such habits and casts of mind, which were to absorb me at first emotionally, later intellectually, came to seem indefensibly vain and irresponsible" (11). On the other, such isolation produced the governing principle of indifference. Indifference to debates which investigated notions of literary quality as an observance of the vicissitudes of colonial isolation; indifference to students as a mark of respect: indifference informed the scholarly cast of mind as it grappled with texts foreign to the culture that framed it, and with students whose most basic need was often to be left alone, according to Riemer.1
The topos of the gothic university precinct serves as a way of collecting all these notions of parodic identity and second-hand infatuation, and even curiously turns the parodist into the most fitting inhabitant of the institution; Riemer spends much of his memoir justifying his decision to teach as he was taught, on the grounds of a fairly straightforward account of pedagogical exemplification; it worked for him, in short.
And yet there are already moments of contradiction in his account. Why, for instance, would his own confession of the sleight of hand which was at the back of academic success support an argument that the "indifference" of staff was an appropriate pedagogical method; wouldn' t it suggest the opposite? Presumably, except if imitative sleight of hand were understood to be either the stamp of the Sydney academic according to Riemer (as the sandstone gothic was his icon), or of the old principle of antipodean scholarship in toto, always removed from the possibility of an authentic relation to its subject.
The brief onslaught of Leavisite Goldberg on the scholarly department was still the story of choice when I was an undergraduate at Sydney in the early to mid 1980s, and it is almost like the return of an old friend, or at least acquaintance, to see A. P. Riemer back with this story, still, it seems, as transported by the inequities and collateral career damage as he was then. The fact that the notorious appointment of a Professor from Melbourne for a short time should so derail his memoir exemplifies his ability to draw disparate and chaotic facts into a masterplan of Moriarty-like genius.
Riemer writes for instance, of a chance meeting with a former student, in which that student apologises for having, in the past, "made fun" of him behind his back; Riemer expresses surprise, and the student "paused for an instant and then, looking me straight in the face, went on: 'Oh, but you must have known, everyone did.' " (154) For Riemer, this constituted proof of a "deliberate campaign to discredit and discourage" (154) waged by Goldberg himself. This episode, and others such as a subsequent wrangle at a faculty meeting proved to Riemer that what he had "strayed into" was "not the world of altruism and high-mindedness I had dreamt about" but "a brutal world filled with those hungry for power and those who tried to save themselves, no matter how questionable their means" (176).
In its wake, and with retrospect, Riemer suggests that the security of tenure "emboldened people, made them more prepared to stand up for what they believed, and also, sadly, to employ often underhand means to fulfil their ambitions" (179) whereas changing conditions of employment have made academics "pusillanimous, fearing that putting one foot wrong might cost them their jobs" (179). Ironically, then, pusillanimity also seems almost characteristic of many of the contestants here as represented by Riemer, at least when contrasted with many of the furious debates over curriculum and pedagogy I have experienced and even engaged in over the last few years. Despite Riemer's lurid depiction of this as an episode characterised by "the explosive combination of an inflexible and punitive ideology, promoted with religious zeal by its adherents, and a brutal, undisguised lust for power" (136), the tiredness of the contest now seems to haunt his account in such a way that one wonders if it were not tired even then.
The "golden years" post-Goldberg (179) are treated summarily, although Riemer does pause to give a laudatory account of his own teaching practice, concluding that:
Teaching well seemed to me the most practical and honorable way of justifying a life which some people beyond the university considered of no particular benefit to any but those fortunate enough to enjoy academic sinecures. (181)
For Riemer, there came a brief period of time in which the sense of an "impersonal, seemingly self-indulgent Sydney style, so easy to mock and malign . . . embodied a noble ideal" (183), but those golden years are barely touched upon. Instead follow more disillusioned reminiscences as he realises that the very basis for his discipline was evanescing in the face of changing standards of education, a changing constituency of students, and other vicissitudes of time more obliquely signaled; he writes that in the late seventies and early eighties "the fabric of academic life had not yet frayed entirely . . . it could have been restored Ð with careful mending" (189). But Riemer's life in the department after the traumas of ' 63 is characterised, again, as disappointment, though a disappointment that is foreshadowed in his early experience of collegiality, according to him. Riemer writes early on of the "unfocussed, purposeless malice" that characterises academics "of all persuasions" (42), and much of this book is a catalogue of slights, ranging from the purely professional to the trivially personal.
Riemer's acquaintance with the Shakespearean Sam Schoenbaum, the elaboration of which elicits the comment above, is a case in point. His first encounter with this individual in his supervisor's rooms at the University of London prompts him to change the topic of his Ph.D. thesis from Brome to Shirley; Riemer's decision sits heavily over his subsequent account of that process, as he frequently alludes to the dreariness of his new topic, and the anticipated richness of the one he did not pursue, and also the possibility that Schoenbaum's stray comment on the matter was designed to steer the tyro away from that topic, perhaps through design or that "purposeless malice."
Later encounters with Schoenbaum take an even odder turn as Riemer recounts not only Schoenbaum's failure to contribute to the cost of petrol on a journey from Calais to Paris (45), but then his disappointment that Schoenbaum rejects an essay on Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism in the late plays, a disappointment that turns to suspicion when Riemer reads the usually feted Frances Yates:
In the chapter on The Winter's Tale I was dismayed to find arguments similar, perhaps identical to the essay I had written in 1969. Was this coincidence or had Schoenbaum told her about my argument without identifying the source? (46)
Riemer records that the "bitterest pill" (46) was acknowledging Yates' work in his own book on The Winter's Tale, but there are many bitter pills, and much bitterness in this account of academic life seemingly bereft of a sense of agency; Riemer's career is largely marked in this telling by what has been done to him, rather than his own work.
Riemer's exit from the house of parody he felt he occupied is similarly cast in the form of indignation, though shrouded in mystery: he writes that "prudence and tact" (224) is required to account for it, though certainly his new found prosperity as a book reviewer must have beckoned as an unexpected respite from a career he describes as "no more than mediocre" (212). Even that decision, though, is understood to be indicative of the flaws of academia, as Riemer suggests that the Goldberg tyranny, and his failure to "network" (212) assured his limited prosperity.
I imagine it was difficult to write this book, and I suppose it required some courage to elaborate in such careful detail a career that he perceived to be in many ways so blighted. One wonders to whom that detail is addressed, and what purpose it serves in clarifying his second life as a reviewer, essayist, and writer of memoirs. Little in the book imparts to me the intellectual generosity and collegial respect (not indifference) that I know as defining characteristics of many of his colleagues.
A book like this is personal by design, of course, but it leaves curiously unsatisfied any sense of a diverse and in some cases prolific intellectual community of which he was a part, perhaps shadowy, for over three decades. As anachronistic as the revivified Leavisite debates, perhaps, is any collateral revivification, on the heels of Riemer's sad history, of a tired account of the English department as a refuge of the intellectually unambitious, always looking to somewhere else as the logical point of intellectual engagement. It bears little relation to the work that is done there, and the people that are doing it.
In The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Sedgwick enumerates some trademark features of the gothic, including:
The priesthood and monastic institutions; sleeplike and deathlike states; subterranean spaces and live burial . . . unnatural echoes or silences, unintelligible writings, and the unspeakable; garrulous retainers; the poisonous effects of guilt and shame. (9)
Sandstone Gothic's account of academic life in the Department of English supplies all of these in abundance, and with all the sense of fictiveness they might be expected to convey. His scattered jibes at the "unintelligible writings" of contemporary scholarship seem half-hearted when compared to the animated rebuttals of Leavis et al, and his sedulous rehearsals of ancient slights. That "state of suspension" which Riemer saw as the life of his teachers seems to have been his also, certainly in the very noticeable fact that this book does little to give a sense of an intellectual biography.
Sedgwick writes: "no nightmare is never as terrifying as is waking up from even some innocuous dream to find it true" (13). I wonder if Riemer didn' t feel something like that after completing Sandstone Gothic, a very perplexing memoir of a professional life. Certainly, by exemplification if not explanation, Riemer's account of the dark days of '63 and beyond helps to explain some of those long term contests that lurk amongst some of its survivors and inheritors; contests which have always seemed to be buried in some Chancery-like web of incoherent and etiolated dispute. In Bleak House, of course, the interminable Chancery case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce is miraculously brought to an end; one hopes for a similar fate in this case, at last.
For Riemer, the decline of English Studies roughly matched the decline of his investment in them, and this is a most personal account of a complex shift in intellectual practice in this country, which are mostly relegated to sketchy outline in the last fifty pages. That sense of decline in the face of evidence to the contrary is peculiarly Australian, in many ways, and hardly matched in the exciting work that has been done in reconstituting the subject of textual theory in a myriad new critical formations; these, for Riemer, remain outside the purlieu of his private disappointment, though assuredly not outside the institution where he experienced it.
Of course, 1963 remains primarily significant to me as the year of my birth: as a thirty-something academic in the almost impossibly choked teaching machine of the late nineties, I am, like so many of my colleagues of similar age, tantalised by accounts of an earlier era when jobs were brokered through corridor nods and grunts; anxieties about security somehow floated free of such basic privileges as "tenure," and such reassuring phenomena as regular advertisements of multiple positions.
Over thirty years, something critical has happened in Australian academia, and it seems futile to suggest that problem has its basis in generational agonism or theory contests; those may simply be its most banal and misleading symptoms. Banality is of course instructive, as Meaghan Morris has more than persuaded us. But disinterment, it seems, proves fruitless as a means of historical vindication, unless one takes at face value the exposition offered. In a curious way, Riemer's excavation of a thwarted life leaves many more unanswered questions than the grotesque tableau of Bogle and Chandler's corpses that was the tabloid counterpart of the mysterious wrangling between sandstone gothic denizens. As Conan Doyle writes:
"As a rule," said Holmes, "the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, feature-less crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify."
Much that is commonplace in this book is difficult to identify or even parse for its historical freight, unless, I presume, one is amongst the original interlocutors, ideal readers, perhaps of this text. Or else, if one comes to this book for one's own sentimental education in the ways of the academy, unaware of its generosity, complexity, and the productive discomfort which it engenders in all of us. Surely those of us used to the vigorous elaboration of viewpoints contrary to our own, and to seeing our professional and intellectual lives garishly caricatured, can learn one thing from this book. Ressentiment, which still tinges some aspects of intellectual life, is sometimes better left buried.
Melissa Hardie is an ex-student of the Department of English at the University of Sydney where she now lectures.
Responses have been received from both Lisbet de Castro Lopo and Jillian Dellit to Riemer's memoirs and reviews of the work by both Stephen Knight and Melissa Hardie.
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Red Headed League, in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, ed William S. Baring-Gould, London: Murray, 1968
Andrew Riemer, Sandstone Gothic: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1998.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, New York and London: Methuen, 1980.
1. On the consequences of colonial displacement:
The brave new world that was supposed to save English Studies in Sydney from unthinking imitation of distant models was itself imitation and pastiche. Despite the talk of relevance, the insistence that only deep personal responses justified notions of literary greatness, and despite the scorn for such traditional pursuits are literary history, the study of genres, conventions, and a concern with writers' biographies, the new model was content almost entirely to rely only on texts and ways of approaching them approved by Leavis and his British followers. Though Goldberg and the Tomlinsons frequently accused us, the remains of the old dispensation, of slavishly following Oxford habits, they themselves were doing little more than replaying in their antipodean fortress the battles of Downing College, Cambridge. (150)
Its effect on teaching:
Undergraduates were required to go through the motions of adulating someone [D H Lawrence, not James Shirley] who wrote about social conditions hopelessly alien to their experience (150).
On indifference to students:
Fundamentally, the department (and indeed the university itself) was unashamedly elitist. . . . That attitude manifested itself in all sorts of ways, not the least in the apparent indifference to students, for which university people were to be so strenuously criticised in later years. There was indeed an icy, magisterial disdain in much of their dealings with us. And yet few of us resented it, because it was recognised by many Ð certainly by me Ð as a sign of respect. (13)
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