Let’s start with endings. In the final essay of The Best Australian Essays 2012, Nicolas Rothwell makes a convincing, if idiosyncratically digressive argument that between the 18th Century Frankist cult of revolutionary Judaism, which sought to ‘smash this false world’s laws; pollute every religion and every positive system of belief,’ and the emergence in 1972 of the Papunya art movement, there is a common thread. Like Frankism, Papunya was intended to transgress. It broke for all time the old tradition of keeping secret the sacred symbols of culture; it forced the death of old ways of believing, so that new ways could emerge.
This theme of endings, or at least the reckonings they prompt, seems to have caught the ear of the collection’s editor, Ramona Koval. The essays she has collected ask: How did we get here? What does it mean to be here? Is this really the end? Is there a way forward that we can live with?
John Bryson writes on the final ruling in the Azaria Chamberlain case, reminding us of the shameful trial by public opinion that characterised its long, cruel history. Gillian Mears is heartbreaking on horse-jumping and the irrevocable claim that multiple sclerosis has made on her body. Tim Flannery marks the end of the life of Robert Hughes, and there are a couple of centenaries of birth as well: Gideon Haigh on the prolific American interviewer Studs Terkel, and Andrew Ford on another American, John Cage, the composer of those 4’33’’of silence.
Of the essays that give the collection its political colour, the most interesting are those that deal with the character of national leadership. The 2010 collapse of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership became current again when he unsuccessfully re-challenged for the Labor leadership in February. Here, the events surrounding Gillard’s challenge in 2010 and its meaning are told by two insiders, James Button and Rhys Muldoon, whose sympathies for Rudd are at some divergence. For two-party balance, Koval has chosen an extract from David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbot, which famously shows the Liberal leader to be nothing if not a consistent political destroyer.
The national tendency toward political destruction appears both petty and maddening in the light of Robert Manne’s frankly apocalyptic assessment of the state of the battle between climate science and the vested interests of denialism. The latter have so successfully driven their misrepresentations into the heart of public discussion about climate change that any real political momentum for meaningful policy change that might once have been possible to shift the planet’s future has dissolved. Manne believes us doomed. In this context, the Gina Rinehart of Nick Bryant’s portrait of her tips from someone who might even be deserving of sympathy, into a clear-eyed player whose self-interested reach for the growth of the mining industry is positively malevolent.
This interest in the difficult relationship we have with the natural world extends also to our relationship with animals. Anna Krien writes with balance on the slaughter of live-export cattle in Indonesia, Romy Ash considers the transformation of a rabbit from an animal into meat, and Helen Garner is brief but disturbing on the mutiny of her daughter’s dog while it is assigned to her care. Perhaps, more than any other, these essays are trying to make sense of something the culture is facing, an ending, an apocalyptic transgression of the kind Rothwell imagines, doing the work we might need to do to rethink of ourselves as the thing we really are: just some other kind of animal.