Interview: Protest, prayers and the odd duck
Having left school in Melbourne with little in the way of qualifications, Michael Leunig has gone on to become a cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet. His work appears in Melbourne’s The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as on his website, leunig.com.au.
Being 20 at the time of the Vietnam War, he says his ‘political consciousness intensified radically’ after reading his notice of military conscription, sent to him from the Australian government. Decades later, he was an outspoken critic of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. His cartoons offer a mix of anger and serenity, political engagement and spiritual retreat, depression and hope. As well as cartoons he has published a series of prayers in weekly newspapers.
So much political cartooning is acerbic, cynical, vitriolic, but yours has a tone of its own.
Well, it has had its time like that, depending on world events. But in general, yes, I try to find another way into these things, rather than affirming one side and defaming the other. I think I’m trying to find the sanity of a situation. Rather than what’s effective, or what’s the right decision, it’s the sanity or insanity. For instance, when a nation goes to war, that’s a very interesting time: what the government is saying, what its opponents are saying, what this says about the culture. What does it say about us? I turn my attention to us, our part in the tragedy or the dilemma. Not ignoring politicians, because our democratic system requires scrutiny, but don’t leave it there. Turn your gaze to us, the people. The people are not always right, they can be a lynch mob.
If your tone has sometimes been angry or bitter, was the Iraq War one of those times?
Yes, it has been. It’s a kind of dismay. The time of the Iraq War disturbed me a lot. The military impulse is latent always in western society, so trigger it and it appears – the war impulse and a sadistic impulse. We don’t talk of those things generally, but a nation can sometimes need a critical mass of primal sadism; people want another nation hurt and punished. I’m interested in how you point to that. So I look not just at parliament but human nature.
There’s often in your work a sense of a lone figure in a world that’s maybe not a good place for them. Is that how you see things?
That’s true. And of course I think we are all that lonely person sooner or later. And I think it’s an important place, because a certain vision comes of being the outsider – this is Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, the one who feels exiled, who is a member of society or culture but feels not wholeheartedly so. A lot of great literature or philosophy comes from that position.
So I value that and try to bless that. Your little suspicions and instincts – you’re not an expert but you have instincts about life and they are important. And they are part of the democratic process if we dare to have them, if we dare to feel life…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the April 2020 edition of Reform