ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR…

All that is solid melts into air

….so Marx famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto(1848). He was describing the experience of modernity. With the collapse of the old institutions and traditions and the ever-increasing and quickly superseded products of the new age, life itself was shot through with contradictions and uncertainties. What to hold on to in such times of rapid change? Marx’s answer involved seizing the means of production in the new age of mechanisation.

We are still in the throes of modernism. Our age is characterised by fast-paced change at every level: global, national, local, inside the office and inside the home. Contradictions and uncertainties abound; we hardly know where we’ll be next week, much less next year. Mechanisation has given way to automation; work is no longer a certainty, the solid presence of friends and family can no longer be relied upon. The only presence we have, the only object we have is the self, or rather ‘myself’, as current speech would have it. (When did the word ‘me’ become obsolete, to be replaced with the more emphatic ‘myself’?). Our own individual self. It’s solid.

Descartes’ I think therefore I am has become in the contemporary age, simply, I am.

But how solid is it really, this self? With the various digital platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on – we are able to tweak the self, promote this bit over that, skim this, shave that, show our best side, our most interesting side, show brains, show beauty, skewthe self several times daily. This self, this individual which is all I can rely on, I am constantly reshaping and remodelling, undermining and usurping, this self that we reach for in our age of flux, this self that could be solid is, in our treatment of it, no more solid than air.

__________________

Millions of Australians of voting age and younger looked forward to a change of government on May 18th, 2019. We were not naïve enough to think that all the wrongs would be righted, but we did expect a more compassionate approach to refugees and asylum seekers, a more proactive approach regarding climate change, a redistribution of public monies to strengthen health and education services, and a greater independence from the US. When the conservatives won another term, the loss I felt, as did many of my friends, was the loss of a better Australia.

I hardly recognise my country any more, this Australia that imprisons innocent refugees on Manus and Nauru for years, that holds on to coal when the rest of the world is giving it up, whose tricky maths has the nation meeting climate change targets, whose efforts to dampen independent and open surveillance through a free press are counter-balanced by covert surveillance into the private lives of its citizens. I hardly recognise my own country and I certainly do not want to embrace it. Following the election, I talked with like-minded citizens in a sort of collective venting of sadness and disappointment, indeed, I seemed unable to talk about anything else for several days. And then I did what so many people do in times of extremis, I reached for books. Solid and enduring books.

I was tempted by Jane Austen. The complete novels would keep me cocooned for several weeks during which time I would accommodate to the situation (like accommodating to chronic pain). That would have been the easy solution. But I needed to understand what had happened, because without understanding it will happen again and again.

So I reached for the work of progressive public intellectuals, writers with a good serving of humanistic values: Timothy Snyder, Zygmunt Bauman, and through Bauman to the Canadian, Henry Giroux, whom I’d not read before. Tony Judt would have made up the foursome but I’d read his last (Thinking the Twentieth Centurywritten in conjunction with Timothy Snyder) and with his death there were no more.

The titles of the books were a promise of better things to this heavy heart:

The Road to Unfreedom. Timothy Snyder.
Liquid Eviland Retrotopia. Zymunt Bauman. (Retrotopiais Bauman’s last book published in 2017, the year of his death.)
Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalismand The Violence of Organized Forgetting. Henry Giroux. (Several of his lectures are on Youtube.)
All that Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall Berman (from 1982, and still a rich read, particularly for those with a literary bent).

I’m still reading these books, I’m still adding to my understanding of what is going on in Australia and elsewhere. Through these books I feel connected to a mode of being in the world, one in which critical discourse still prevails, the false lures of nostalgia are rebuffed, the destabilising effects of non-stop consumerism are revealed, individualism is shown to be bereft and self-destructive, and the loss of community is deplored.

While there is much more to be found in these books, it is not my intention to provide synopses here, rather I want to emphasize what books have always done. Yes, they provide comfort and confirmation and a community, but as well they illuminate and question and debate, and most particularly, when all seems futile and the forces marshalling against all that you hold dear are simply too great, you can connect with great and generous minds, feel as if you’re not alone AND find answers.

And you can share your emerging understandings with others who will have their own emerging understandings. These are dynamicconversations, productive and often surprising conversations, through which it is possible to shape some changes. And these changes, unlike so many changes that impact on contemporary life in the 21stcentury, are under our control. Our Control. For all the current emphasis on individualism, we are at the whim of fads and fashions, we are caught in a social life that is non-stop busy yet leaves us empty at the end of the day. Through the solitary act of reading one can become, once more, an active participant in one’s own life, a life connected with other people.

Often I find myself recalling the last line of Tennyson’s Ulysses: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. The words give me strength, the words are a timely refrain in the strains and perplexities of today’s world. The words are solid.

 

Me, You and Us: the Problem with Memoir.

We are suffocating in memoir. Titles clog the bookshop shelves: My Life, Living with Cancer, My Abusive Mother, Poor Little Rich Girl, Poor Little Rich Boy, Skating on Thin Ice, Running a Marathon, Starving for Love, Living Black, Living under Cover.

The list goes on. And every month there’s another avalanche. Of course, in the rubble there are some gems, memoirs that reach out to a reader, that are about much more than Me Me Me, memoirs with ideas and reflections that stretch beyond the events of a single individual’s life. But unless you already know the author – Oliver Sacks, for example, or Jenny Diski, or Robert Gottlieb (his Avid Readeris a gift to all writers and readers) – it can be hard to find the good amongst the dross.

There’s a mistaken belief that memoirs are true, but when someone writes a memoir they select from life and they select from memory. It is not the whole story, it is not even an accurate portrayal of part of it. When people write a memoir they do so for one or more of many possible reasons, and those reasons shape what goes into the memoir. Of course a memoir does not reveal the truth, the full truth, the only truth.

Then there are the fictionedmemoirs, like Siri Hustvedt’s new book, Memories of the Future, and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. These are memoirs with a glaze of fiction, a hybrid form that seems to do little justice either to fiction or memoir, but gives ample room for a writer to resurrect aspects of her/his past and dwell on these. Clearly the author gets something out of it, or else they wouldn’t bother: a sense of play perhaps, or an innocent indulgence, or the pleasure of placing one’s own experience centre-stage. But when the subject matter draws on the author’s relationship with a well-known writer, as is the case with Halliday’s book, there can be something quite instrumental and calculating in the events selected. (Can Halliday’s book stand on its own, without the Roth connection? Yes, it can. It’s well-constructed, and well-written. Is it one of the best May-September novels ever written? No it’s not. Would readers have taken notice of it, and, more to the point would publishershave taken notice of it – it’s a first novel – without the Roth connection? Probably not.)

So what is happening here with all these memoirs and fictioned memoirs? Why in an era where the self has so many platforms and stages, do books need to be co-opted as well? Surely with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with blogs and millions of web groups, with reality programs occupying more and more of free-to-air TV, the self has ample opportunity to bare its chest, to dance a tango, to do whatever it likes. And it can do it all the time. With people posting on social media numerous times daily, and checking for ‘likes’ even more often, the self never need to take a break from itself.* And perhaps that’s the nub: the self and the selves of our circle (which, these days, can stretch to thousands of strangers) are our main project, and for some of us, our sole project.

So many of the memoirs portray the self, the central character, as a victim. Of course, the very fact of writing the memoir, means the author has triumphed over their victim status, over adversity, but why would anyone want to dwell on it, and dwell for the years it takes to write a book? Why would I want to share my pain with you, a pack of strangers? And why would you, strangers all, want to read about me?

Voyeurism is not the whole explanation, but it plays a role. In much the same way that hardship stories fill the magazine programs on TV, we are drawn to hard-luck stories, particularly from the comfort of our own lounge room. But there are other factors at work here. The boundary between life and entertainment has blurred, and what’s real and what’s contrived/invented has similarly blurred. And being a promoter of self is so easy; it takes far less effort and imagination than learning about other people, people different from you. In the current world we reveal ourselves to people who are like ourselves, and vice versa. In this world, despite its porous borders and its multicultural societies, we are in danger of becoming more insular than ever before. Then there’s the clamouring NOW. Being a promoter of self, roots you in an ever-present, and history becomes irrelevant. With the demise of history, the major source of analysing and understanding the present is being lost.

Not so long ago (but, I’m pleased to note, before Invented Liveswas published) a friend asked me where all the good novels had gone. ‘Into memoir,’ I replied, ‘into memoir.’ Memoir is replacing fiction, self is replacing character, remembered facts are replacing an active imagination. The plethora of memoirs is doing more than just filling our leisure time, it is feeding a new type of person whose major concern is the cultivation of self, whose imagination is sluggish, who is constantly busy, stressfullybusy, with little to show for it at the end of the day.

I have often joked that fiction readers make better citizens. But the fact is that the deep immersion in fiction, the connecting in an imaginative way to characters/people who are very different from you, who might live at another time and/or in another culture, develops an understanding of life beyond your own experience. Fiction can take you into the world, and indeed the mind, of a dictator, a child soldier, a politician. Fiction can take you out of yourself. And what a gift and a relief that can be.

 

* What exactly do we derive from those ‘likes’? That people appreciated your post? Understood it? Laughed at it? Engaged with it? Or is it all about you wanting to be reassured you are not alone in your life? When togetherness is reduced to a click, we’re in a good deal of trouble.

IDENTITY AND THE ALPHABET or NO ONE IS AN ACRONYM

Five years ago it did not exist, but these days LGBTQI is everywhere.

The LGBTQI community is referred to in the audio media, the LGBTQI community is in the print media. Every right-thinking person can let those letters roll off their tongue. They believe they are being inclusive, they believe they are rescuing a bunch of marginalised people from invisibility, they believe they are revealing their liberal credentials. These motives are fine, indeed, they’re very welcome, but using this absurd term is not the way to proceed.

LGBTQI. In this unpronounceable acronym which becomes a clumsy 6-syllable word, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer and intersex people are all lumped together – very fairly, it must be said, with each group being allocated a single letter, so no one can complain of discrimination.

BUT —

It is oxymoronic to put all these different groups together. Moreover, it’s a travesty of the complexities of identity to reduce a person to their sexual preferences. Imagine if we were to refer to the heterosexual community as a single homogenous grouping. Julia Gillard would be there with Tony Abbott, Emmanuel Macron with Theresa May, along with Fraser Anning, Waleed Aly and Jessica Mauboy. To reduce these people to their heteronormative status tells us nothing about who they are, what they believe, how they participate in the world.

In the case of the grouping LGBTQI, six entirely different sexualities (NOT identities) are combined into one, so even the quality that marks these people as non-heterosexual is watered down. Indeed, the only quality that unites lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, transgender and intersex people is that they are NOT heterosexual. Is this any more useful than defining someone as not black, or not red-haired, or not tall?

This acronym, this clutch of letters, designed to make non-hetero people visible, actually emulsifies difference. Lesbians have no more in common with transgender people as do most heterosexuals, and they’d probably have a closer identification with other women rather than GBTQ and I people. Throw everyone in together as a bunch of letters and it’s a great way of making people disappear.

Women have for aeons been sexualised. This term LGBTQI sexualises in the same way, reducing complex human beings to a highly specific sexual identity. So the well-published academic with a world-renowned reputation is just a T, and the criminal lawyer who’s also a fine cricketer is just a G, and the tennis player with umpteen tournament wins who works for the rights of women is only an L. It’s ludicrous.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people do not form a community, they do not form a single group. Every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex person is also many other things: a sportsperson, a worker, a parent and relative, a Muslim or Jew, black or white, a traveller, a cook. Each is the entire alphabet.

Starting All over Again (2). The Genesis of Invented Lives.

There’s a residue left when a novel is finished. You rarely recognise it at the time; only later, when the next novel is nearing completion do you see a connection with the one that preceded it.

While writing The Memory Trap I was vitally interested in monuments, in particular, how voluble they were about political and social currents. Following the break up of the Soviet Union, there was an avalanche of falling statues and monuments throughout central and Eastern Europe – as if the communist years could be so easily shattered. And, more recently, there’s been a rise of new monuments exemplifying a revised perspective and understanding of the Soviet years, including a number of monuments erected to the victims of communism.

The Prague Monument to the Victims of Communisms (Photo by Serje Jones.)

 

 

 

 

 

The Memory Trap was finished and in production when I found myself reaching for books focussed on Putin and contemporary Russia. Apart from the usual Russian novels (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak, etc) and the poets (Pushkin, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva) I’d read nothing about Russia. I did not bother to analyse this new direction in my reading: a novel was finished, I needed to fill up again, I know it to be a hapahazard business. I quickly realised that to understand Russia today required a knowledge of the Soviet years; and to understand the revolution and the years that followed required knowledge of Russia under the Czars. So back I went. My reading petered out around 1880.

I read the stunningly informative and always engaging Orlando Figes. (They are all good but The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is unique, compelling and unforgettable.) I reread Nabokov novels and autobiographical works, and I read biographies of both him and his wife, Vera. I read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s autobiographies Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned, both extraordinary documents of Stalin’s terror and beyond. I read Russian fiction and Russian poetry, I read one book after another. After a while I realised all this Russian reading must be taking me somewhere. Familiar with the need to fill up again when a novel is finished, and well-acquainted with the uncertainty that accompanies the writing of a novel, I was not too concerned to understand where these Russian books might be taking me.

At the same time as I was immersed in Russia of the past 140 years, the media was full of the Australian Government’s policy towards asylum seekers. Turn back the boats. No one who arrives illegally by boat will ever be permitted to settle in Australia. Politicians actually boasted of the success of the policy. Either they did not stop to think how cruel and brutal it was, or they did think about it and simply didn’t care. Desperate displaced people were seeking asylum, seeking safety with us, and we were treating them like criminals. As for the queues politicians and their supporters kept referring to, when your very life is being threatened, queues don’t matter. Queues won’t save you. Queues won’t protect you against rape, against mutilation, against rampaging soldiers intent on killing you and your family.

It seemed self-evident to me that no one would willingly choose exile. No one would willingly separate from one’s culture, land, language, friends and family, unless one’s very life was threatened. Why were we demonising these people? The politicians were whipping up hatred, and much of the press was following suit. Where, I wondered was our compassion, where our understanding? And why this fear of difference? Aboriginal Australians are the only indigenous Australians, the rest of us are immigrants. We were welcomed and yet now we refuse to welcome those seeking our help.

I was reading about Russia and the Soviet Union and I was thinking about exile and I knew that from 1979 to the break-up of the USSR, many Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate – to Israel, to the US, to Canada and to Australia. And so the character of Galina Kogan started to form. Born in Leningrad in 1961, Galina travels to Australia alone in the mid-1980s.

It occurred to me there might be advantages to setting a novel in the recent past. A little bit of distance not only eliminates any of the bias directed at current political and social circumstances, it also provides a clearer view of these circumstances. Reading about the recent past almost automatically prompts a comparison with today.

It was in thinking about the 1980s that I created my married couple, Sylvie and Leonard Morrow, both born in the 1930s and married in the 1950s. Two people who experience exile – nothing to do with moving country, but exile from their own true selves. And their son, Andrew, an intensely shy young man, in exile from the social community that others inhabit with such ease. And so I started to write a novel that in a very deliberate sense, democratised the experience of exile.

The novel grew, the drafts mounted up. It was very late in the process when I realised the novel was also exploring the notion of self-invention. I came of age at a time when Erving Goffman and R.D. Laing were required reading. Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Laing’s Self and Others are still on my bookshelves, while the ‘Looking glass self’ theory of the sociologist Cooley, is etched into my memory. All the characters in Invented Lives shape their personas according to the particular environment in which they find themselves. This is what we used to do prior to the digital age and social media. And back in those days you would receive immediate feedback from others in the environment through facial expressions, gestures and/or utterances, and make adjustments accordingly.

I knew very little of this at the beginning of writing Invented Lives. But that’s the magic of fiction. And now that Invented Lives is finished, I am filling up again with books about death. I wonder where that will take me.

 

BRING ME FICTION

Recently, while on a wilderness expedition with several others, I found myself talking with a man, a counselling psychologist. Apropos of nothing in particular, he said that when it came to novels he always read the last few pages first. It sounded like he was bragging. At this point, another member of our group told him I was a writer, a novelist.

‘What sort of novels do you write?’ he asked, not the least embarrassed.

I described them as contemporary fiction, character based, that while they told a story they also explored ideas.

‘Like what?’

‘The book I’ve just finished, Invented Lives, explores the notion of exile, the one before, The Memory Trap, looked at the complexities memory.’

He said he wouldn’t like my books. ‘They sound like too much hard work.’

I asked him who he liked to read. He said Dan Brown.

‘So you like plot,’ I said. ‘You like a fast-paced story.’

He nodded.

‘But still you read the end first.’

He nodded and smiled. Very self-satisfied he was.

‘You’re clearly not a man to take risks,’ I said, letting politeness off the leash. ‘You want to know the destination before you embark on the adventure.’ It was a comment made sharper by the fact that we were currently on a real-life adventure.

The barb missed its target. He was happy with his performance, indeed, he seemed a man entirely contented with himself. If he was aware of having insulted me, he didn’t care. It was hard to see him as a counselling psychologist.

I would be appalled if someone accused me of being risk-averse. It conjures up a warm-water-bath life, the years mounting up into decades of sameness. And I was appalled as a writer. Writers spend years shaping the journey, and this Dan Brown reader basically says, ‘Fuck you’ when he goes to the last page.

I was relating this incident to a friend of mine, one of Australia’s finest writers. D said she often consults the end of a novel first, in order to get the plot out of the way. She wants to savour the journey, and not be swept along in plot’s white water. She wants to linger in the language and the evolving fictional world. This is a desire I understand – and share. But I choose a different approach: I’ll succumb to the pull of the narrative on a first reading and return for the language and the nuances on a second – at least that’s the plan, but with so many books waiting to be read, the second reading is often little more than a cursory glance.

I suppose I should have been grateful that the counselling psychologist at least read fiction. Many men don’t. They read non-fiction and news sources, books and periodicals, but not fiction. They admit this not as some sort of shameful confession, but rather as a boast, as if to say ‘I am above the fluff of fiction. My time is too important to waste on stories.’ Their not reading fiction is not a fault in them, but a fault in fiction.

It is true that many women do not read fiction either, but in their case, they’ll announce – generally apologetically – that they are not really readers. They don’t read fiction because they don’t read anything.

At a cursory glance fiction can appear to be a curious anachronism in the fast-paced, multi-tasking digital age. The long, slow immersion in fiction, spending a weekend with Christina Stead or Julian Barnes becomes increasingly unlikely when 24/7 connection is the measure of not simply one’s place in the world, but of identity itself – a shockingly frail sense of identity, it must be said, one that can soar or collapse with a battery of likes/dislikes. And gauging others in this fast-paced world is similarly fraught when confronted with an avalanche of ever-changing data; it seems that the kitbag of tools once available for making considered judgements is emptying fast. We follow people like us; we visit sites that confirm our opinions; if we read news outlets (and most of us don’t) it will confirm our political views. The whole world is just a swipe or tap away, and yet for many people the day-to-day world seems to be getting smaller.

I’ve long believed that fiction makes the reader more understanding, more tolerant. The reason is obvious. Through fiction, you are exposed to characters – people – who are different to yourself: different life experiences, different family circumstances, different culture, different eras. For 12, 15 or 20 hours you are immersed in a world not your own, seeing it from the point of view of people who are not yourself, actually experiencing it from beneath the skin of strangers who are no longer strange. The other becomes a familiar through the process of reading a novel. This is an intense learning experience: it’s also an intensely enjoyable and stimulating experience, one that exercises concentration and attention and memory. There is no other activity that exposes a person to such a diversity of human experience in so concentrated and economical way.

So many works of fiction appear in lists of great books: The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, all of Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, to mention only a few. Fiction exposes our complex human longings, it shows anxieties, jealousies, cruelties; it reveals shame, anger, joy and love. Fiction provides a context for understanding what drives us, what tempts us, what destroys and uplifts us. Fiction stops the flashing lights and flabby noise of our on-on-on lives and allows for reflection and understanding.

Imagine it: an hour at the end of every day, after work and before the night begins. You make yourself a coffee (or tea, or pour a glass of your favourite tipple), collect your novel and adjourn to the couch. You kick off your shoes, settle into its cushions; the dog (cat) jumps up, lies down next to you head on your thigh. Your phone is out of reach, in fact, it is out of hearing. You open your book, remind yourself where you are up to, and slip quickly and easily into a world of other people. This is bliss.

THE FIERY MAZE. The songs.

Live demos of the songs that make up the show, The Fiery Maze, are now available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play.

Tim writes:

‘I know many of you have been asking where you can access the songs from The Fiery Maze, a theatre production I developed with the late Dorothy Porter. A production brought to life by Andrea Goldsmith and featuring the vocals and musicianship of Abi Tucker and Brett Adams.

The Fiery Maze demo tracks that you can stream on Apple Music, Spotify and Google Play, were recorded live, in a workshop situation. This was the first time we had played all the songs through in sequence. There were literally three people in the room. Director Anne-Louise Sarks, lighting designer Nick Schlieper, and Andrea Goldsmith. But the determination of us all to make this a reality led to the Melbourne Malthouse Theatre season in 2016 and eventually the Sydney Festival.

I’m excited to be able to share these very raw and passionate performances with you all…Tim’

 

Above: Tim, Abi and Brett.

L: Original MS of song, Off the Planet.

R: The sublime Ms T.

 

 

 

And my note:

The Fiery Maze
We burned for each other…

It is January, light years ago. You’re in Ballarat and you meet someone who quite literally takes your breath away. 

You fall. You fall hard. It’s wild. It’s hot. It’s risky. A matter of weeks and you’re lost. 

You pull yourself out just in time. But years later, the force of that passion, that Fiery Maze, still burns. 

When a poet of passion joins with a great musician you get…The Fiery Maze. It’s an explosive journey from first sight through wild ride to (something or other). Tim Finn and Dorothy Porter wrote these songs in a period of white heat 24 years ago. Abi Tucker makes them live.

The background and program notes to The Fiery Maze, together with photos, is in my post of 12/8/2016: titled The Fiery Maze.

It was a dream partnership: a poet who thrived on rock music and a rock musician with a poetic soul. And so it remains….

 

Gods, Power and Knowledge

Throughout human history we humans have created gods to help explain our existence. We look to these deities to give meaning to our circumstances, our actions, our past and future, our blessings and our sufferings. That these gods, with their immortality and their extraordinary powers, are often given human form is an interesting paradox: we create them because they are NOT like us, and yet we domesticate them by giving them our bodies and other human characteristics.

The Greeks set the barre high when it came to numbers of immortals. They had gods for almost all aspects of human existence: love, war, hearth and home, harvest and hunting, wine, fire, message delivery, wisdom, fertility, and much much more. The Egyptians put up a stiff competition, so, too, the Romans. Then came the Jews, and after them the Christians and Muslims who dispensed with all but a single omnipotent being – though the Christians with their Trinity might be thought to be having two bob each way.

The Greek gods, despite their immortality and godly powers, reveal a range of familiar human characteristics. They are jealous and envious, they lie and deceive, they love and hate, they play favourites, they protect and they bully, they can be shockingly violent and they can soothe and heal. What is fairly consistent across all the gods, and humans too, is that if they have power, they want to hold on to it, while those who are powerless strive to get it. The problem for both gods and humans is you can’t have it all. As Shelley so aptly wrote in his Prometheus Unbound:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.

Shelley’s verse drama, Prometheus Unbound, takes off where Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound finishes. Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play of a trilogy known as the Prometheia. While there are distinctive differences in the approaches taken by Aeschylus and Shelley, they both present a Zeus who is stubborn and violent and vindictive, and a Prometheus who is wise and generous, also inclined to stubbornness, but always humane. (In some versions of the story, Prometheus, one of the immortals himself, fashions the mortal humans out of clay. He is often referred to as the creator of humankind. It seems entirely apt, albeit anachronistic, to describe him as humane).

The story of Prometheus is shaped around the enduring conflict between those with power and those with curiosity; the authority of rulers on the one hand, and the free will of ordinary people on the other; the exercise of the intellect versus god-given laws. The story is also concerned with the power that comes with knowledge.

There are several different versions of the Prometheus story, but all versions agree that Prometheus defied Zeus by giving the pitiful, uncivilised mortals fire. The story is set at a time not long after the creation of the world out of chaos. The humans in these times were a wretched, barbaric underclass. Prometheus took pity on them. He taught them how to build shelters, how to sow crops, how to hunt. Zeus ordered that whatever help Prometheus gave, he was not to give the humans fire. Zeus knew that fire was an immensely powerful possession.

Prometheus disobeyed. He hunted out the source of fire and carried it to the humans, ‘And fire has proved/ For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.’ With fire the humans learned to make proper tools, to cook their meat, defeat cold and disease; fire enabled them to pursue science and culture.

Zeus was furious. He ordered that Prometheus be chained to a mountainous crag, there to remain for all eternity, forced to suffer winds, ice and heat. And if this were not punishment enough, an eagle would attack every day and eat his liver; the liver would regenerate every night only to be attacked again come daybreak. Zeus, along with the ancient Greek dramatists could fashion highly imaginative violence.
Hephaestus, the god of fire, was ordered by Zeus to carry out the punishment. He didn’t want to do it, but like those at Nuremberg several thousand years later, he excused himself by saying he was only following orders. He acknowledged that ‘Power newly won [like Zeus’] is always harsh’ (line 31), but authority is authority and orders are orders. Hephaestus does what Zeus commanded him to do, and Prometheus is chained to the rock.


Prometheus defies the authority of Zeus and cops the punishment. But what is he being punished for? Is it because he disobeyed Zeus? Is it because he saved the human race (who might later constitute a threat to Zeus)? Is it because he exercised his own free will? Or is it because he gave the gift of knowledge to humankind and thereby empowered them? Or perhaps a combination of these possibilities? In which case, Prometheus’ actions resulted in multiple threats. (And there’s an additional element in this story that further threatens Zeus: Zeus knows that Prometheus holds the secret to his own eventual downfall.)
Similar themes percolate through the story of Adam and Eve, two more ‘first’ humans. Adam and Eve defy God’s authority by taking the apple from the tree of knowledge. Maybe they could have got away with a potato from the soil of stupidity – but not knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is power, wisdom even more so.

Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism: ‘a little Learning is a dang’rous Thing’. Knowledge as something radical, that threatens the status quo, pervades the Christian era. This belief is still prevalent today in certain religious sects.

With the rise of fundamentalist interpretations in Christianity, Judaism and Islam across the globe, more and more people are forfeiting their free will to authority. Fundamentalism is exactly that: a way of life based on certain finite fundamental beliefs and behaviours. Fundamentalism holds things in place while world events whizz past at an ever increasing rate. Fundamentalism holds the believer in place while others grapple with the uncertainties and demands of contemporary life. For true believers doubt does not exist – and what a relief that is. There is no need to question, because all the answers are already at hand. Reason, memory, individual and idiosyncratic attachments are all neutralised. Religious authority cannot be questioned, its laws are immutable. All is pre-determined. Knowledge beyond religious lore is unnecessary, wisdom is heresy. Followers feel safe. And yet from those on the outside, they appear to be enslaved.

The certainties of structured religion keep adherents ignorant. But for the believers, far from feeling ignorant, they possess the truth, they have all the answers. Anyone who has tried to have a discussion with a fundamentalist of any sort – and fundamentalism is not the sole province of religion, there are plenty of political fundamentalists to be found, as there are fundamentalists on certain social issues such as abortion – knows that they argue from a closed position where everything is self-evident. There can be no argument.
People often wonder about the continuing relevance of the Greek myths to we moderns. Prometheus demonstrates free will, wisdom and courage; he shows the power that comes with knowledge. An immortal himself, he teaches by example what humans can achieve with courage, with risk-taking, with taking a stand for what is right. Zeus, in contrast, is the fundamentalist preacher/Ayatollah/Rabbi shoring up power, building a compliant army of the faithful, who will obey their leader without question.

Followers like this will burn down villages, they’ll rape and maim women and children, they’ll set fire to abortion clinics. Followers of fundamentalism will feed their children breakfast, strap bombs to their waist, wrap them in warm coats and kill them before lunch – and not need to give it any thought at all.

 

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO…

Jewish Book Week Gala performers.

The 2018 Jewish Book Week in Melbourne opened with a gala choreographed by Galit Klas along with Evelyn Krape. 6 writers were asked to write a short piece shaped around the phrase: The World According to… While others chose a specific person (e.g. a 16th century mathematician, Batman, a Batmitzvah girl) I took a different tack. The readings were accompanied by music and large screen visuals. The evening was tied together with some fabulous singing from Galit. The piece I performed is written below.

 

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO….

Pamela Simon was an excellent wife, an excellent mother, and an excellent grandmother. Indeed she had been imbued with excellence from childhood when, as Pammy Silverstein, she had excelled at her studies, played flute in the youth orchestra, and lead the school debating team to the state finals.

She had married the very excellent David Simon straight after university, and while she had planned to continue her studies with an MA and then a PhD in the border frontier of philosophy and literature, she knew she could return to university later. In the meantime she kept a note book in which she transcribed interesting and punchy quotes from poets and novelists, philosophers and other thinkers.

Ambitions change – or perhaps are supplanted when babies come: first Jonathan then Melanie. And by the time Melanie started kindergarten, rather than a return to university, with David’s printing firm thriving, Pamela joined him in the business.

The years passed, the children flourished, the business went from strength to strength. Every now and then Pamela would pick up her quote-book and read through the inspiring lines; very occasionally she added a new quote drawn from her current reading

The years turned into decades. With David now in his mid-sixties, Melanie was taking over more of the day-to-day running of the business. Retirement was on the horizon, and Pamela was eager for the next stage.

Then her excellent life exploded.

David was indeed retiring from the business, but not to be with her, not to do the things they had long planned together, but to live with Kylie from accounts who was expecting his child. If it were not her own life, her own tragedy, Pam would think she had stumbled into a political soapie.

David moved out of the house and in with Kylie. With the bedroom of the past forty years now full-strength toxic, Pam withdrew to her sewing-come-hideaway room. Jonathan and Melanie, both appalled at their father’s behaviour, tried to coax her out. But she did not want to be coaxed. Her life was over.

‘I would prefer not,’ she said when Melanie on the other side of the closed door invited her mother for lunch, for dinner, for outings with the grandchildren.

‘I would prefer not,’ Pam says, recognising it as a quote from someone. She rummages through her book cases, and there it is: ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, a short story by Herman Melville. ‘I prefer not,’ Bartleby says, when assigned various work tasks that do not appeal.

Hard to argue against that.

 

The voices begin soon afterwards.

The 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer is first: ‘Life is a miserable thing’, he says. ‘I have decided to spend my life thinking about it.’

Pamela is smiling, the first time in weeks, and then actually laughing when she recalls that the world according to Schopenhauer was not known for its laughs. It’s a pleasant respite in her life of woe. But before long she’s back in the stifling blackness, back in the gluey swamp of grief, loss, anger, misery.

‘The emotions are not skilled workers.’

Another voice, again faintly familiar, cuts through the silence. Pamela, perched on the day bed, reaches for her old quote book. She wipes the dust from the cover, and leafs through the pages of faded ink. So many wise words in this book of hers, all written out in her hand. And there, she’s found it, and another smile. The words are Ern Malley’s, the non-existent poet created by James McAuley and Harold Stewart in what became Australia’s greatest literary hoax. In the world according to Ern Malley:The emotions are not skilled workers.

‘You’re probably right,’ she says aloud. ‘But emotions are so damned insistent. So intrusive. So domineering. Reason doesn’t stand a chance.’

Outside the sewing room, Melanie and Jonathan are eavesdropping on their poor mother. She needs help, they decide, professional help. But how to help someone who refuses to be helped.

Inside her room Pamela is pacing. ‘I liked my life as it was.’

The world according to modern historian Tony Judt intrudes with its usual perspicacity. ‘Nostalgia makes a very satisfactory second home.’

Pam is quick to respond. ‘At least nostalgia dulls the pain. The loneliness, too.’

On the other side of the door Jonathan and Melanie decide on an emergency home visit from the doctor. They hasten from the house their mobile phones clamped to their ears.

Inside the sewing room the conversation continues.

‘Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.’

Pamela riffles through her quote book. Yes, there it is, the world according to the American poet, Marianne Moore. Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.

And hasn’t she longed for solitude day after day, year after year, through the clutter and noise of her busy life?

The world according to the artist and poet Jean Arp joins in.

‘[Human beings] ha[ve] turned [their] back on silence,’ he says. ‘Day after day [they] invent(..) machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.’

Jean Arp wrote this more than seventy years ago. What on earth would he think of the constant talking, typing, texting, beeping, buzzing, connecting of today’s world, Pamela wonders.

So much activity and so much noise. No time to think, to contemplate, to loiter in the imagination. And if we don’t think and we don’t imagine, how are we live? And how will we live with people who are different from ourselves?

Pamela searches through her quote book. Whose thoughts are these? Whose world? She can’t find the source, quickly grabs a pen and writes the thought down on a fresh page in her quote book.

People often praised her for what they called her intuitive understanding of others – even when the person was very different from herself. But it was simple really: she would IMAGINE what it was like to be in their position, to be them. Being an avid reader of fiction had honed this ability. She would read about people so different from herself, people who lived in different countries, different eras, different cultures, different circumstances, and by entering the world of these characters so her imagination was fed. Perhaps fiction readers make better citizens, wiser and more welcoming citizens, and she quickly jots that down too. Whatever the reason, she did seem to understand others, and not just Mrs Nextdoor, or the pharmacist, or family and friends. She understood what it was like to be so desperate you’d risk your life to take a leaky boat to a distant shore where you know no one where you don’t speak the language, where you are exiled from all that is familiar. She can imagine what it’s like to flee persecution in your own country only to be imprisoned by another, a country that you thought would be safe, would be kind. What she can’t imagine is what on earth goes on in the minds of those who demonise these desperate people.

She turns to the world according Thomas Hardy in her quote book.

 

We are getting to the end of visioning
The impossible within this universe,
Such as that better whiles may follow worse,
And that our race may mend by reasoning.

To reason and imagine in the way Hardy suggests requires uninterrupted time. She has plenty of time. The imagination requires solitude. She has plenty of solitude. The imagination does not like boundaries and schedules. With her life blasted to pieces, she lacks boundaries and schedules.

You must change your life.
You must change your life.

The world according to the German poet Rilke sets up a chant.

You must change your life. You must change your life.

The words come rhythmically, they take her over like music. She rises from the bed, collects her hand bag, checks her makeup, leaves the room, walks down the passageway, opens the door and leaves the house.

As she enters the street, the voice in her head shifts to a different register. It is the world according to Emma Goldman and it puts bounce in her step:

If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

ODYSSEUS AND ME

I have always believed that, at a personal level, anything is possible, that if I desire to be a particular someone or do a particular something I can. All my desires have been realistic: no hankerings for time travel or reinvention as a theoretical physicist – though both have enormous appeal – my desires have been possibilities: working as a volunteer in Africa, joining a choir, mountaineering, falling helplessly in love, winning the Miles Franklin. The only things to stop me would be lack of ability, lack of application, and/or lack of courage – all of which, given enough time, could be worked upon and overcome.

Time, so recently as abundant as air, is now suddenly in short supply. One day everything seemed possible, and the next, my life wasn’t exactly on its knees, but neither was it leaping with anticipation.

When did it happen that all the things I planned to do became the things I will never do? I will never climb a mountain, I will never win the Booker, I will never sleep alone in the outback under a big Australian sky; even the choir and the hot love affair have gone the way of all flesh. The list of things not done, so recently sparkling with possibility, now weighs as heavy as sludge, and no matter how numerous your wins and achievements, it’s hard not to feel a failure. Harder still not to blame yourself for all this wasted opportunity.

This is not a good state of mind, not when you are planning on another quarter of a century of healthy and active living. I recall an interview I heard years ago on Late Night Live. Philip Adams was in conversation with the American sociologist Studs Terkel. Terkel, who published consistently throughout his long life (he died at the age of 96 in 2008) was in his early eighties at the time and had just published his latest book. Philip asked him how he managed to remain so productive. Terkel replied that he made a point of doing something new each day. It might be visiting a park or a gallery for the first time; it might be finding a new author or reading a new book; it might be listening to familiar music and hearing it differently (this happened, memorably, to me a couple of years ago when Andrew Davis conducted the MSO playing Mahler’s Third), or watching a spider build a web. It might be a journey, like one I made recently to Iceland, where I ventured into volcanic, snow-covered wildernesses. Being immersed in these beautiful and tranquil environments made me unusually and surprisingly happy.

Something new every day keeps building a life, keeps creating a dynamic growing you. The future might be diminishing, Terkel was saying, but you are not.

On my return from Iceland I was determined to hold on to the sense of wonder and aliveness I’d felt in that country, of being attuned to my environment: to be, as it were, a tourist at home. But it didn’t seem to work. It was as if home activated a stronger force. There was something about its comforts, its familiarity that slowed me down and, at the same time, dulled the questioning mind. I was lulled, stilled, my edges were blurred – like in a warm water bath. And the list of things not done was a constant background presence that grew into a punchy accusation.

And yet I had been ready to come home, and was, at least initially pleased to be back in my own space. But before long it felt as if I were functioning at half-strength. When I mentioned this to people my own age they all nodded knowingly: what I was experiencing, they said, was a fact of advancing years. But it made no sense to me that I was on the final slope, inexorably sliding down to the end. Just days before I’d been hiking over iced lakes; I’d held my ground on the side of a cliff in a bluster so strong that in the end I wedged myself in a cleft of rocks so as not to be blown off; I’d wandered snowy wildernesses alone towards unknown destinations. Age alone could not explain what was happening to me.

It was in this state that I read a review of An Odyssey. A father, a son and an epic by the American classicist, translator and essayist, Daniel Mendelsohn. I know Mendelsohn’s work, have enjoyed his essays in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I checked the Readings website, the book was in stock at the Carlton store, I bought myself a copy.

Rationally, I have no special reasons for being drawn to this book. Sure, my reading group has decided on the Greek dramatists for 2018 – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – which might make me more susceptible to a book that enters the ancient Greek world; but if this were the case, surely I’d reach for Homer himself. And while I like Mendelsohn’s work, I like the work of so many of the contributors to the NYRB and I haven’t sought out their books.

There have been times in my life when the right book for the right time has simply presented itself. I never expect it, I never willit, it is an inexplicable wonder of the imagination (and heart and soul) and something for which I am deeply grateful.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odysseyturned out to be one such book.

It tells a simple story. In the first semester of a new year, beginning in the depths of winter, Daniel Mendelsohn will be teaching a weekly, semester-long class on The Odysseyat Bard, a liberal arts college, about 140 kilometres north of New York City. His 81-year-old father, Jay, a retired mathematician and a man heavily steeped in the sciences, asks to attend the class. While surprised at the request, and a little worried about the effect his father might have on the other students, Daniel nonetheless agrees. Each week for a semester his father makes the long journey from NYC on the Thursday, stays with his son on Thursday night, attends the class on Friday morning and returns home by train in the afternoon. The students taking this class are under-graduates, Jay would be older than most of their grandfathers.

As a father and a very particular type of scientist there are no shades of grey for Jay. X is X, and if it’s not then either you are wrong or you need to return to the drawing board. When it comes to Homer’s great epic two fundamentals emerge as obvious to him: so-called ‘heroic’ Odysseus is not a hero because he cheats on his wife, and, given that all his men die, the so-called ‘great leader’ is in fact a poor leader of men. This becomes a regular refrain throughout the course, Jay’s regular complaint.

During the semester Daniel and Jay take an intellectual, psychological and literary journey through Homer’s epic, and when the class finishes the two embark on a physical journey: a cruise tracing Odysseus’s travels through the Mediterranean. During the course of these two journeys Daniel comes to understand his father in new and nuanced ways. The Odyssey, or rather his father’s response to it, helps explain his father’s dogmatism, his reluctance to show physical affection, his autocratic paternalism; it also makes sense of those rare and surprising occasions when warmth and softness do seep out. Mendelsohn also takes we readers on two journeys: that of Homer’s Odysseus (and a great introduction for those who have never read Homer) and that of a modern-day father and son on a journey of their own.

Mendelsohn, a translator of Cavafy, draws attention to Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’ (1911) with its emphasis on the journey rather than the destination: don’t be in a hurry, is the message of this poem, don’t be impatient, embrace the risk and surprise that infiltrates all life’s journeys, soak up all the new experiences. Mendelsohn mentions an earlier version of ‘Ithaka’ called ‘Second Odyssey’ (1894), in which Odysseus, having arrived home after an absence of twenty years – ten years of the Trojan Wars, and ten years trying to get back to Ithaka – finds home dull and boring; he does not feel himself. So, too, in Tennyson’s great poem ‘Ulysses’. In Tennyson’s poem, after striving to return to Ithaka, to his wife and son and ageing father, despite all the dangers he faced on his travels, the set-backs that occurred, the yearnings that plagued him, Ulysses decides to leave home again. (A long-time favourite of mine, I always take a copy of this poem on my own travels.)

I put Mendelsohn’s book aside to reread Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ and search for a copy on-line for Cavafy’s ‘Second Odyssey’. (I have three different volumes of the collected Cavafy, as well as a biography, and in none of them is printed the ‘Second Odyssey’.) When I have finished reading I am steeped in journeying and alert to the shortcomings and deceptive pleasures of home, but most surprising of all, I feel lighter, happy even, and more energised than at any other time since my return from Iceland. And these poems I thought I knew so well, I seem to be reading them anew. Suddenly my diminished future doesn’t matter any more, and, in not mattering, neither does it feel diminished any more.

I’ve had an invigorating time these past few days with Mendelsohn, Tennyson Cavafy and, of course, Odysseus himself; all of these books and poems, these words and ideas have rejuvenated me. It’s the same sort of feeling I had in Iceland as I wandered the snowy wilderness, that sense of newness, of increased understanding, of possibility– Terkel’s way. But there has been something else as well. These Odysseys of Mendelsohn, Homer, Tennyson and Cavafy have nourishedme; even more, they have illuminated and provoked me; and they have armed me for the way ahead. They have been journeyings. And they’ll always be there. Books don’t die, they don’t leave you, they don’t lose their mind. They sit on their shelves waiting for you to find them again and again and again.

When you stop adventuring, when you avoid risk you feel useless. When the brain grows sluggish you feel useless. Life itself demands care and attention, work and revision. It can be difficult sometimes to find the right nourishment, after all, you can’t hop on a plane and fly to Iceland every time you feel bleak and useless. But books, your favourite books will always be there, offering something new and provocative on every reading. So easy to lose sight of this.

Home, certainly the ideal of home, is all about comfort and certainty. If you’re not careful, this can be counter-productive in one’s advancing years. ‘Don’t expect Ithaka to make you rich’, Cavafy writes. While there are rewards and fulfilment to be found at home much more are to be found when you venture beyond your front door – whether physically or in your imagination. To have a zest for life is to relish being alive in the first place. And life is not a warm and cosy nest, though that may be part of it, life is also the clinging to the side of a cliff and feeling the wild wind in your hair.

 

POEMS 

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare sensation
touches your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from those who know.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

THE SECOND ODYSSEY (1894) – copied from the web, translated by Walter Kaiser.

A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps.
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.

Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaka was small.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.

And like rays they faded.

The thirst
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbours you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
Bored him.

And so he left.

As the shores of Ithaka gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.

 

ULYSSES by Tennyson.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, & sleep, & feed, & know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of all them;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d & wrought, & thought of me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

 

 

INTELLECTUAL HEROES

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety of manifestation, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silence as a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could have been so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturday warrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough not to meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this is the voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they do give us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether you are enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauung clouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacy of reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spent or Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear his voice in the process of my deciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes to creative loves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steiner has inspired. This is what heroes do.