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My English Teachers 5: Bill Maidment (revisited)

16 Nov

See my earlier entry where I mention a problem with the Quadrant site. This is now fixed, and “Men Without Borders” by Neil McDonald is back online.

It was Maidment’s ability to analyse every nuance of an individual passage of literature, elucidating the rhythm, symbolism and allusions, then to place it in the context of the work as a whole—all the while keeping us aware of the period when it was written—that was of special value to us all as film critics and teachers. In addition, there was his deep understanding of imagery, traditional emblems, heraldry and associations with the paintings of the period of the work being examined. Unlike many contemporary critics, Maidment was particularly good at defining a genre, exploring precisely how it related to other literary forms…

I learnt from Bill to ask these questions about any film or literary work I was examining: What does it mean? What did it mean when it was first released or published? What is it about? What is it really about? What does it assume? What does it assert? And what does it imply? …

Bill Maidment’s influence on my work was, I believe, more extensive. I first encountered him when I enrolled in his Eighteenth-Century Literature option in 1963. It was a small group, and we soon became friends. Even after I began to write Shakespearean criticism, Bill continued as mentor and friend. When my first article on Macbeth was rejected in 1964, he was there with encouragement and advice: “Certainly it has some rough edges, but it deserves to be published.” And it was, by Frank Moorhouse no less.

OFTEN OVERLOOKED by even his warmest admirers was how good a Shakespearean critic Maidment was. Only very recently he pointed out to me how the breaking of even the most trivial of oaths had a religious significance in Elizabethan England—very difficult to convey to a modern mainstream audience. Consequently when Kenneth Branagh adapted Love’s Labour’s Lost to the screen, he needed the wartime setting to create an appropriately serious modern equivalent to explain the lovers’ partings. When I was teaching Shakespeare using the Elizabethan theatre models made by my father, it was Maidment who pointed out that the playhouse itself was part of the play’s imagery. This coupling of imagery and form became vital when I worked on Shakespearean film. It was Bill who alerted me to the way Orson Welles played cinematic variations on Shakespeare’s imagery as well as enhancing the word pictures with visual equivalents…

The intellectual rigour and sceptical tolerance Bill instilled in his students gave us the confidence to see through, refute and ultimately systematically ignore the jargon-infested discourse theorists, open and covert Marxists and dogmatic gender-studies experts—who have come close to destroying film studies in recent years. There was really no debate: their want of elementary film scholarship made them easy game whenever they wrote or spoke to anyone but each other. There would be lots of eye-rolling, heavy sighs and throat clearing, but rarely any argument. Quadrant readers have, in a way, experienced this phenomenon for themselves. I have only to raise a political issue for the letters column to be filled with missives of dissent. I have even taken issue with our editor! And this is as it should be: a journal of ideas like ours is no place for unquestioned opinion. But when I accused the New South Wales Board of Studies of compelling students to misrepresent their set films for ideological reasons in my article “How Not to Teach Film”, and attacked jargon-ridden film criticism in “Screen Studies and Lantana”, the silence was deafening…

AS A MAN Bill Maidment was gentlemanly and unassuming to a fault. In his prime he was very handsome, but dressed down as if he feared any sartorial display would distract from his teaching. All Bill’s students know of his battle with his stammer, which, in the early 1960s, threatened to destroy his career as a teacher. By the way—who, today, would hire a lecturer with a stammer? Professor Wesley Milgate did, and gave the English department at the University of Sydney one of its greatest scholars and teachers of the last century. So how did Bill survive as a lecturer? He had Milgate’s support, and the students didn’t want to forgo what this unassuming, brilliant man had to offer. I remember vividly how we would simply sit there, willing him to keep going so we could make our notes and read or re-read the text he was discussing, knowing we were getting insights that few other lecturers could provide.

The stammer too was the basis of some of the best Maidment stories. No one dared so much as move during his lectures for fear it would put him off! So when, during a lecture on D.H. Lawrence, Bill mentioned that the writer’s sexual problems were rooted in his relationship with his mother, there was dead silence. The class remained quiet when he added that Lawrence’s sexuality was also rooted in the English Puritan tradition, and continued to be silent as Bill used the same word to describe a whole range of other influences in which D.H. Lawrence was rooted. The joke that went around campus the next day was that Maidment had managed to root Lawrence fifteen times! When I mentioned the story to Bill, he couldn’t remember the incident, but added, “I’m sure there was some deep-seated Freudian significance.”

Interwoven with Bill’s battle with his stammer were the triumphs. These were the occasions when it was heard around campus that Bill Maidment was about to lecture on one of his many specialties, and it would be standing room only. These lectures would be received in hushed silence, followed by a rousing ovation at the conclusion. Ultimately Bill overcame his stammer by deciding that it simply didn’t matter…

Confirming and extending my own memories of this remarkable teacher.

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One response to “My English Teachers 5: Bill Maidment (revisited)

  1. Susannah

    July 11, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you for this, Neil.
    I remember nothing of Bill Maidment’s stutter.
    He was my beloved tutor in First Year (1961) and, in my freshman ignorance, it did not occur to me that he lectured.
    His was the only voice of real academic encouragement and I have him to thank for my high marks at the end of that year.
    I was tossed like a cork in a tempest by the Goldberg upheaval, which I didn’t understand at all, and I yearned for the quiet, scholasticism in Maidment’s study which, for most of my subsequent life, I suspected I’d imagined.
    Susannah

     

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