The 2007 Seminar

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  • Post published:August 26, 2007
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It was a dark and stormy night, but the lights were shining, hot drinks available, and the fires were taking the edge off a Melbourne winter evening as the JSA assembled for its 14th Annual Seminar on July 6 at the English-Speaking Union.

While other games were being played around the City, we observed our own code’s conventions. Another resounding win for our home-team festival of ideas was the result. Barrie Sheppard, JSA Treasurer, in a talk dedicated to the memory of his one-time Monash philosophy tutor Rusi Khan, escorted us deftly though the maze of Metaphor and Time, Logic and Space, to Johnson’s most devastating comments on the English metaphysical poets—which elicited some of his funniest rhetorical questions (Who indeed but Donne would think of a man as a telescope?)—and we learned yet again that when Johnson is wrong he is often worth attending to most closely.

Wallace Kirsop delivered an all-new, elegant and scholarly account of his continuing work in progress on the one-time Methodist, latter day Melbourne Spiritualist, elocutionist (pupil of Sarah Siddons), publisher, writer and lexicographer (and energetic if unfashionable defender of Johnson), Benjamin Suggitt Nayler (1796-1875). We are surely to hear more about this busy, able, creative and well-read Melburnian (I mean Suggitt)—the more so if and when his papers turn up and a full record of his publications is assembled. This was an important contribution to the history of the book in Melbourne, and it was warmly welcomed by its audience.

Jan Lowe returned to her early affection for the poetry of Goldsmith, and drew some very striking parallels between The Deserted Village and the current ecological, environmental and demographic crisis in rural Victoria—a vigorous defence of Goldsmith, and followed by a lively discussion.

Geoff Brand, marine biologist and bookseller, told us that ‘Botanists do it with style, but there is a stigma attached.’ And so it was. In matters classificatory and evolutionary, Geoff edged out the self-promoting Linnaeus and preferred Buffon, the latter anticipating modern cell theory and the idea of ‘guided self-assembly,’ Geoff then   turned to Johnson’s own critique of The Great Chain of Being, one of the great (but few) moments of passionate Johnsonian irony. This was history of the practice and philosophy of science at its most lucid and informative.

Barbara Niven’s illustrated lecture on the musical sources for John Gay’s ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera (1728) was a witty and thoroughly researched introduction to this ‘smash hit.’ However familiar its songs, I don’t think any of us had seen the words of Nottingham Ale sung to Lillibulero: so imagine our surprise when we also learned that Venus had not arisen from the waves, as everybody had previously believed, but from the froth from a barrel of Nottingham Ale!

Barrie Sheppard gave us a brief account of the Pembroke College, Oxford Johnson conference which he attended with John Byrne, (who has just discovered that his genealogical roots include Johnson’s good friend Bennet Langton). The seminar was much entertained by the Pendragon Dreaming consort of Welsh music (voices, flute, guitars, harp, and didgeridoo); and Barbara Niven is already at work commissioning the authors to provide her with publishable versions of their papers.