The power of words: Love and Fury

Love and FuryI have just finished watching Love and Fury: Judith Wright and ‘Nugget’ Coombs on ABC. It documents the clandestine relationship between these two intellectual Australians, mainly through their letters, which were released from embargo in 2009.

As The Australian’s article in the Review over the weekend warned, this is a powerful documentary, and I am moved to immediately record my thoughts. The relationship between Wright and Coombs is inspiring – the exchange of ideas led to each of them feeding one another’s passions and work.

Their relationship began the year Gough Whitlam came to power, and through the film clips of his three years in power I was first and foremost touched by the intellectual arguments of the day. There is often a sepia hue to the social movements and the radicals of the past, but Whitlam’s legacy has always been about the power of ideas to make change. Coombs was directly part of this, as a consultant to Whitlam.

There is a clip of Gough Whitlam in 1975 with a handful of red dirt, his hand poised over Vincent Lingiari’s as the soil slips from one hand to the other. There is Whitlam speaking of how all Australians are diminished while Aboriginal people remain dispossed of their land. These moments are part of history, yet Whitlam’s actions and words are powerful, and from across the decades I am moved.

Many of today’s indigenous affairs commentators lament the idealistic focus on treaties and landrights, native title and the right to live a traditional lifestyle, blaming this focus for the problems of domestic violence or alcohol abuse that remain in some communities.

But what these critics forget is that it is these ideas that inspire. These ideas have the power to catch the interest of the wider population, to make indigenous affairs an issue that everyone cares about. Similarly with the environment, Judith Wright’s prediction – that science without an appeal to emotion would not be enough to make meaningful change – has proved awfully accurate.

Watching Whitlam speak, in the context of a documentary that is so much about words, is a reminder of the power of language – something that our leaders seem to forget. The connection between ideas, language and action is too often lost.

To return to Wright and Coombs, the other thing I must mention is their letters. Oh, the beauty of their most intimate words shared on paper with ink, by pen or by typewriter. You could argue that it is only aesthetic – that the same effect of language and communication could be acheived on a computer screen in an email program. Perhaps, but the mere fact that burning these letters destroyed them utterly, finally and completely says something about their delicacy and so too their value.

I wish I had more of Judith Wright’s poetry on my shelf, so that I could quote here the lines read in the documentary that refer to her sense of not belonging in the Australian landscape because she comes from a conquering people. Instead, I have only Seven Centuries of Poetry in English to draw on, which contains four of her poems. Some lines from ‘Train Journey’:

I woke and saw the dark small trees that burn
suddenly into flowers more lovely than the white moon.

This is what words and language do: awaken me, so that what is dark – perhaps neglected – bursts into a bright brilliance.

Watch Love and Fury: Judith Wright and ‘Nugget’ Coombs on iView.

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