On the Genealogy of Democracy : Reading Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America

As the epigraph for True History ifthe Kelly Gang (2000), Peter Carey chooses these lines from William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun (1950): 'The past is not dead. It is not even past' (Carey, True 2). Contained in these words is an implicit refutation, designed to counter the view that the seemingly dead conflicts of the past no longer exercise any meaningful influence on the present. Friedrich Nietzsche labels the task of this spirit of refutation 'genealogy,' digging through the discursive layers of history in order to reveal not only the continuities, but also the accidents, contingencies, and disavowals that have produced the present. Thus, in works like On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) and The Anti-Christ (1888), Nietzsche examines the formation of modern culture from a long series ofrewritings and appropriations. History's turning-points are transformed by the genealogist from a simple evolution into a complex tale of irony and contradiction: Nietzsche shows, for instance, how even the most ardent secularist is influenced by religious ideas like good and evil, or how anti- Semitism borrows unconsciously from Jewish culture. Nietzsche's approach continues to resonate in contemporary culture, not only in the work of influential historians like Hayden White and Michel Foucault, but also in literary authors such as Carey, who in his fiction repeatedly calls into question the conventional narratives we use to understand and define the present. In his recent novel Parrot and Olivier in America (2009) Carey undertakes perhaps his most daring genealogy yet, examining the historical rise of democracy in a way that challenges the prevailing consensus, from Churchill to Fukuyama, that this system represents the indisputable apex of human political organisation.

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Published 1 June 2012 in Volume 27 No. 2. Subjects: Australian literature and writers, Literary criticism, Literary portrayal.

Cite as: Mathews, Peter. ‘On the Genealogy of Democracy : Reading Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, 2012. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.46ea59780c.