A tribute to Clive Hart

What sense can we make of a life? Granted, there may not be any single meaning. But is it possible we might find something robust to hold on to? Perhaps a family of meanings?

These questions grip me as I reflect on the life of my step-father, Clive Hart, who died last week. He had one of the most searching minds of anyone I’ve known, and about the widest interests.

The parts of our lives that intersected were Clive’s middle and old age, and my childhood and early adulthood. A scholar, much of his energy was directed to research and writing. Until recently, I’d never read any of his books. What I picked up was something about his habits of mind, his way of being in the world.

It’s only now that I find myself – for want of any other way to communicate with him – looking through things he wrote. And asking my mother questions that I wish I could ask him.… This is what I’ve got so far.

‘the first riddle … when is a man not a man?’ [1]

In his youth, Clive was torn between interests in science and literature. Although he was recognized in his first year at the University of Western Australia as the most promising Physics student of his class, he ended up majoring in French. A scholarship took him to Paris in 1956-7. There he became interested in James Joyce, and this led to doctoral research on Finnegans Wake. But throughout this time, he sustained an interest in flying machines, and his first books on flight appeared around the same time as his first books on Joyce.

Hart 1962-67_Structure+Kites

Structure & motif appeared in 1962, and Kites: an historical survey in 1967.

In looking for clues to how Clive’s interests fit together, Joyce is not a bad place to start. In the attempt to understand Joyce’s work – especially his most experimental book, Finnegans Wake – one needed to know almost everything (at least, everything that Joyce knew). Allusive, playful, riffing on homologies in multiple languages, making inventive and subversive use of other ‘public texts’ such as the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dante; in describing this one captures a lot of Clive’s spirit.

But – to anyone who’s opened it, this hardly needs to be said – Finnegans Wake is hard to understand. Written in words that the author derived from some 20 languages; without stable characters or plot; with neither beginning nor end; it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery. After decades of work, even tentative answers to the questions of how the book was structured, or what its central themes were, were elusive. “The student of Finnegans Wake needs to be a humble person,” Clive wrote in the introduction to his concordance to the book. [2] Those who claimed truly to understand it he viewed sceptically. In the mid-1980’s, he withdrew from Joyce studies for a while. As he confessed, “[I had a] general sense that Joycean studies, along with much recent criticism, had begun to lose sight of the artistic goals that mattered (to me).” [3]

Levitation and love

Around this time Clive’s research on art and flight entered a new phase. By paths I have not yet charted, he was drawn particularly to Baroque-cum-Rococo central Europe, where billowing clouds and levitating figures make up a large part of the repertoire. Several summers during my childhood were spent being dragged around Germany and Austria as he and my mum documented paintings on church ceilings in places like Würzburg and Melk. In his earlier works on flight, he’d ranged widely through space and time – through Chinese kites, Biblical representations of the creation of birds and fishes, and the escapades of eighteenth century balloonists [4, 5] – but now he was digging deep into the art and worldview of a particular historical moment. In another way too, it represented a sharpening of focus, as he came to concentrate most of all on flight as a metaphor for love. [6]



Tiepolo, Allegory with Venus and Time (c.1754)

After his formal retirement from Essex University in 1998, Clive continued to write, but from this time onward the majority of his intellectual effort went into translating or commenting on medieval and early modern tracts about women. [7, 8] A crude summary of his research interests might go something like, “kites > flying ships > imagery of flight > love > women” – with Joyce a more or less perennial concern. But rather than being a series of infatuations, his various interests were layered on top of one another. None of the new topics he fell in love with diminished his interest in those that had gone before.

Looking for patterns

In 2003 Cabinet magazine reprinted a compendium of ancient attempts at heavier-than-air flight that Clive had once compiled. [9] The issue, devoted to the theme of flight, was accompanied by an audio CD – music and recordings that reflect some of the romance of the topic: An audio recording of Yuri Gagarin broadcasting from near-earth orbit; a piece of choral music from Papua New Guinea, by a rainforest people invoking the spirits of birds….

Although I don’t think he had a hand in compiling the CD, the disc helps me think about how Clive’s interests in flight, visual art, literature, and women might be related to his other great passion – music. In his final years, as his eyesight was failing, and speaking and writing became more difficult, Clive spent more and more time listening to music. His tastes were broad, but the things he listened to most were (to my ears) challenging.

“It’s strange,” he’d sometimes say after listening to a piece by CPE Bach. “I don’t understand it.”

What stands out for me about Clive is his extraordinary curiosity about the world; and – what is, perhaps, almost the same thing – the tolerance he had for confusion, in expectation of eventually discerning some pattern.

But in trying to make sense of his life through his work, I wonder whether I’m looking in the wrong place – or looking (as in the story about the the drunk who lost his car keys) only where the light’s best. After all, life doesn’t necessarily obey the same rules as art; and making sense of it need not involve the same processes. Life is somewhat like text, somewhat like imagery; but that’s not all there is to it.

Clive’s first wife, Helen, died before him; he is survived by his second wife, Kay, and by three sons, a step-son, and four grand-children. As the messages that have poured in from colleagues and students in the past week attest, there were many others – some of whom never met him – who admired him, to whom he was meaningful.

“What were we looking for?” Clive once wrote of the years he’d spent analysing Finnegans Wake. “Were we looking for the wrong thing?” [10]

In trying to make sense of his life, I wonder as well.



Clive and Jed. Paris, 1987.



[1] Joyce, J. (1939). Finnegans wake. New York: The Viking Press, p. 170.

[2] Hart, C. (1963). A concordance to Finnegans wake. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. i.

[3] Hart, C. (1998). Fritz in the early awning. In R. Frehner & U. Zeller (eds.), A collideorscape of Joyce: festschrift for Fritz Senn. Dublin: Lilliput Press, p. 9.

[4] Hart, C. (1972). The dream of flight; aeronautics from classical times to the Renaissance. London: Faber.

[5] Hart, C. (1985). The prehistory of flight. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[6] Hart, C., & Stevenson, K. G. (1995). Heaven and the flesh: imagery of desire from the Renaissance to the Rococo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Hart, C. (2001). Genitalia: rhetoric and reticence in the early modern period. Clacton-on-Sea: Gilliland Press.

[8] Hart, C. (2002). A new argument against women, in which it is demonstrated that they are not human beings: the anonymous tract Disputatio nova contra mulieres, qua probatur eas homines non esse (1595): a critical edition with translation and commentary. Clacton-on-Sea: Gilliland Press.

[9] Hart, C. (2003 [1983]). An abridged directory of heavier-than-air flying machines in western Europe, 850 BC-AD 1783. Cabinet 11: 70-71.

[10] Hart, C. (1998). Fritz in the early awning. In R. Frehner & U. Zeller (eds.), A collideorscape of Joyce: festschrift for Fritz Senn. Dublin: Lilliput Press, p. 8.


The family invites donations in Clive’s honour to the following charities:



This entry was posted in art, books, inspiration, UK and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A tribute to Clive Hart

  1. jpginestier says:

    Thank you , Jed, for this illuminating tribute. I had never got close enough to Clive to know him well. For example, I knew nothing of his talent for physics, although I knew about his flying, as a flight lover myself. Big hug to all of you, JP

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s