Saturday, April 13

‘Cancel Culture’ A Hundred Years Ago

While in Oz recently, I was telling a friend from my student days at Sydney University about work I was doing on the letters of a prominent academic of the early twentieth century, Christopher Brennan (1870-1932). In 1925, Brennan lost his post as Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Sydney University; the person who oversaw the dismissal was the Vice-Chancellor, Mungo MacCallum.  My friend was puzzled at this news – as I had once been myself – since one of our memories of student days was taking classes in two linked buildings: the Christopher Brennan Building and the Mungo MacCallum Building. Antagonists in life, and fifty years later, joined in death.

The story is more complicated than this, needless to say. Nowadays, disputes over the attitudes of academics or others with a public profile, such as sportspeople or entertainers, tend to centre on questions of gender and sexuality (notably relating to LGBTQI+ people), or on debates over ethnically-based cultures: should anyone be censored / censured / ‘cancelled’ for articulating beliefs about such issues that many others find offensive? In the case of Christopher Brennan, the reasons for the ‘cancellation’ were different, but there was a similar sense of disquiet in dealing with someone who was unconventional.

Christopher Brennan was a larger-than-life figure, both physically and in other ways, someone whom those who met him never forgot. Two decades after his death, Brennan’s friend the artist Lionel Lindsay recalled that he ‘always wore a tremendously big black hat … and then he had the biggest pipe in the world, and he had the biggest mind’. Brennan was the eldest child of an Irish couple who had emigrated to Sydney: his father had worked in brewing and went on to own a pub. An academic career was not an obvious goal for a boy of such a background in the late nineteenth century, but Brennan had the advantage of a fine education in the Catholic school system, which encouraged intellectually promising boys. High-school education for them was still focused on the classical languages (Latin and Greek), and Brennan hoovered up the great works of classical literature, notably the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides. He followed up these interests at the University of Sydney, venturing also into French, German and Philosophy. As a result, he won a travelling scholarship to study for a doctorate in Berlin.

Always an avid reader of poetry, in English and several other languages, Brennan decided to become a poet as well as a scholar. His primary importance in Australian culture is in fact in this capacity: he produced a significant body of poetry, and his work had a major impact on later generations of Australian poets. The poetry was however steeped in Brennan’s formidable learning: among other influences, he was much stimulated by the works of French poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé.

So what went wrong? On his return from Berlin to Sydney, Brennan encountered a period of widespread economic depression, and struggled to get work. Eventually, he landed a post as a cataloguer at the NSW Public Library, but it was a long time before he was offered a secure academic post at Sydney University. After several attempts there and elsewhere, he became an Assistant Lecturer in Modern Literature when he was nearly 39, before securing an Associate Professor role in his fiftieth year. One problem was that he had returned from Berlin with a broader academic knowledge, but without the doctorate he was supposed to have attained. Another was that French literature was considered daring but also sleazy, so poems of his bearing traces of dubious French poets attracted suspicion. You get the impression that Brennan was only offered positions when the University had no other options.

One aspect of Brennan’s larger-than-life quality was that his erudition, when put on display in lectures and other classes, was very inspiring to students. In an era when academics could be personally quite remote figures, he was generous with his time, and generated much loyalty among them. But the lectures could also be quite rambling, and as Brennan’s personal circumstances became more unhappy, he grew less reliable in carrying out his university duties – in turning up to or completing lectures, and even in marking exam-papers. Too often, he was much the worse for drink, and lacking in personal hygiene. So the university authorities came to have quite ambivalent feelings about him.

The main cause of Brennan’s depression was an unhappy marriage, and an unhappy marriage in the early twentieth century was hard to escape from. Brennan had returned from Berlin without a doctorate, but engaged to Elisabeth Werth, his Berlin landlady’s beautiful daughter. The marriage seems to have been a disappointment from quite early on – although we have little direct knowledge of his wife’s view of the situation. Brennan wasn’t much suited to domestic life; he and his wife had little in common; his relations with his children were difficult; he was often in debt. Nor did he get on with his German mother-in-law, who came out to join her daughter. Spending less and less time with the family, Brennan fell for a New Zealand woman named Violet Singer – or ‘Vie’ as he called her, ‘Vie’ meaning ‘life’ in French.  

The immediate catalyst for the dismissal from the university was Mrs Brennan’s application for a judicial separation from her husband on the grounds of adultery. Or rather, the catalyst  was the fact that this news got into the papers. In retaining Brennan on the staff once his behaviour was known, the University would publicly defy accepted moral standards. To judge from the surviving evidence, some academics on the University governing body were unwilling to dismiss Brennan: they were also aware that by the time of the newspaper report in June 1925, Brennan’s lover Vie had been killed in a tram accident, so that the adulterous liaison was over. The authorities were however somewhat constrained by the precedent of another staff member whom they had already dismissed for the same reason.

The remaining seven years of Brennan’s life, without Vie, without much work, and always struggling for money, were grim. His verbal skills remained impressive: he once recited from memory the first third of John Milton’s long epic poem Paradise Lost, making only two errors. Brennan also did a bit of work in translation and teaching, the latter provided mainly by the Catholic school system. He renewed personal and spiritual ties with the Church, which after all had been proven more forgiving than the academic world. But significant further efforts in scholarship or poetry were stymied by ongoing unhappiness, and Brennan’s consequent inability to control his drinking.

Christopher Brennan’s reputation in his later life and after his death seems to have been mixed. But friends did rally round during his lifetime and defended him posthumously. One strand of thinking evident there was that really brilliant people should not be judged by the same standards as others, especially as more ordinary people were often incapable of understanding the brilliant ones. Is such a view relevant to current disputes? I am not sure – but certainly those who end up offside with authorities, even if they are not invariably brilliant as Brennan was, still tend to be unconventional. This unconventionality can involve behaviour which is not relevant to the source of the disputes they find themselves in, but which might then increase their risk of being targeted. If the authorities already consider you a problem, they’re more likely to go for you when a more substantive grievance comes up.

Nowadays of course, attitudes to sexual behaviour have much changed, at least in Western cultures, and adultery would no longer be grounds for dismissing an employee. Yet universities and other institutions are still often as much concerned with second-guessing the public impact of any measures they might take – concerned with their own reputations, in other words – as with treating employees justly. Even if a few decades later, they might end up deciding to name buildings after those same employees.