Seymour Lecture 2017
With Raimond Gaita
Talks / Lecture
Hear from Raimond Gaita, author of Romulus, My Father as he tackles the big concepts of truth, truthfulness, self and voice in his writing. What do they mean when one is writing portraits that express gratitude to people one loves, unapologetically in a personally inflected voice? Raimond explains further:
I’m writing a book of essays that express gratitude to, often love of, people I have known who have mattered deeply to me, some of whom have inspired me. I’ll include part of one of those essays in my lecture. Perhaps they are better described as elegies. Or, portraits. Some are of teachers, others of friends. One is of my late father-in-law. Writing about him I will, inevitably, write about my wife. The essays (I’ll continue to call them essays) will be worthless if they are not truthful in intent and achievement. In such small pieces (none is longer than 5,000 words) that explicitly express gratitude many things will be left unsaid and I’ll encounter the usual kinds of difficulties non-fiction writers do when they write about people. The difficulties inevitably lead to failures, many of them psychologically and ethically motivated. They make the ambition to be truthful appear naïve, perhaps even culpably so.
Nonetheless, anyone who reads those essays will wonder, “Was that person really like that?” They won’t mean, ‘like that in some respects’. They will mean, ‘like that in essence’. I hope the answer will always be, yes. How could I not? Yet I know that I hope in the face of well know scepticism, often grounded in the observation that when you ask seven people what someone they know well is like, you are likely to get seven different answers, and that the differences may forever be unresolved. More radically, some will say that the difference cannot, in principle, be resolved in a way that could reveal what the person was really like because there nothing in this world, no fact, that is what someone is really like”, against which we could match narratives to assess their truthfulness. Against that, I’ll take heart from, and reflect upon, Iris Murdoch’s remark that to see the reality of another person is an act of love, justice and pity.
*Speakers: Marie-Louise (M), Raimond Gaita (R)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 12 September 2017
M: Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia and to the annual Seymour Biography Lecture. I'm Marie-Louise Ayres, the Director General of the Library. As we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their Elders past and present for enriching our history, our community and our country through their culture and traditions. It's a great pleasure to see so many of you here for this year's Seymour Biography Lecture, an event that has become a real highlight on our annual calendar.
Tonight is a celebration of telling true stories about people's lives. It is also an opportunity to explore the craft of life-writing and in fact Ray has been at pains to say to me today that he hasn't written a biography or an autobiography but I think we can think of life writing in all its forms and how biography can play an important role in not only helping us to understand the person but also their work. The Seymour Biography lecture is named in honour of John and Heather Seymour who are both with us this evening and without whose support the lecture would not be possible. John and Heather are passionate supporters of the Library and also the literary forms that we call biography, autobiography and memoir. John and Heather have chosen to express their interest in life writing through their support for the lecture and also an annual scholarship. This is for a young scholar, a PhD scholar and after 10 years of this support I can look back at these young scholars and think the whole trajectory of their research lives was changed because of their scholarship here at the library.
So Heather and John, of course, don't want to be mentioned but I said to them that if I was a member of this community sitting here tonight and heard that members of our own community made it possible, I would actually feel better about my community. So that is what we're doing, okay. So thank you very much for your ongoing support.
Now this year's Seymour Biography Lecturer, Professor Raimond Gaita, is well known to all of us, he's one of Australia's most distinguished philosophers and in fact we are very happy to claim him as one of our own. It's a claim that we almost could not make. Raimond was born in Germany in 1946. With his parents, he migrated to Australia in 1950. He's now a Professorial Fellow in the Melbourne Law School and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne and also Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at Kings College, London. He's also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. The University of Antwerp awarded Raimond the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa for his exceptional contribution to contemporary moral philosophy and for his singular contribution to the role of the intellectual in today's academic world.
And I'll just say that after what will be a quite gruelling event this evening, Ray is actually doing an ABC radio interview at 10pm on issues that speak directly, I think, to the contribution of the role of the intellectual in today's academic world. Ray's books, which have been published in many languages include Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, A Common Humanity, Thinking About Love and Truth and Justice, The Philosopher's Dog, Breach of Trust, Truth, Morality and Politics, After Romulus and as editor and contributor, Why the War was Wrong, Gaza, Morality, Law and Politics, Muslims and Multiculturalism, Singing For All He's Worth, Essays in Honour of J.G Rosenberg with Alex Miller and Alex Skovron, and Who's Afraid of International Law Gerry Simpson.
Now of course it was Ray's Memoir, Romulus, My Father, published in 1998 and made into such a beautiful film in 2007, that captured the hearts of many readers. After dividing his time for over 30 years between London and Melbourne, Ray now divides his time between Melbourne and Shalvar, a property in Central Victoria, very close to where he grew up.
Tonight he's going to tackle the big concepts of truth, truthfulness, self and voice in his writing and in fact whatever else he feels is important to say tonight. So please welcome Professor Raimond Gaita to present the 2017 Seymour Biography Lecture.
R: Thank you very much, Marie-Louise, and I want to thank John and Heather Seymour, of course, for making this event possible and also to Sharon O'Brien who has been so helpful in facilitating my visit here and to Catherine.
It's a bit long, I'm afraid, but you'll be relieved to know that it's not 16,000 words which is what it started off as. Well I'm deeply honoured, obviously, and who could not be to have been asked to give this lecture and though I hesitated to accept the invitation because I've not written a biography or autobiography as Marie-Louise noted. Nor have I reflected on these forms of writing with the depths, knowledge and literary refinement possessed by some of the previous lecturers, David Marr and Robert Dessaix, to name just two. And that's partly because they are writers, real writers, writers with a capital W, which I'm not.
From the time I wrote Romulus, My Father, I've been called a philosopher and a writer or sometimes a philosopher and an author and I understand why. I know I'm not here because I wrote Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception or edited with Gary Simpson Who's Afraid of International Law. But I'm not being coy when I say that I'm not a writer. I'm often appalled by the clumsiness of my prose but when my efforts to ameliorate that are even partially successful, those efforts don't give me the kinds of pleasure, the kind that writers take, I think, by definition, I'm almost inclined to say in a well constructed sentence.
A dear late friend, the poet and essayist, Peter Steele wrote a wonderful essay called Poetry as the Mind in Love. You can read it in a collection of his essays titled, Braiding the Voices, Essays in Poetry. Poetry as the Mind in Love could be generalised to become writing as the mind in love. In love, of course, with language. And I'm not that kind of lover. It's true that I've said to my wife, Yael, and to some friends that I wish I could write poetry, but one reason I know that I never will, or never could, is just because I'm not that kind of lover.
I'd like to write poetry, not because I'd like to create poems in which I and others could delight, but because I believe if I could write good poetry it would make me - make my sensibility more adequate to the wonders, complexity and beauty of the world.
When Robert Mann became editor of Quadrant following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a collapse that made cold war politics obsolete, I wrote over 50 columns for him. I say for him because I wasn't naturally a Quadrant author. Readers complain to Rob every month saying they couldn't understand a word that I wrote. And one - although - I won't - one wrote a letter to the editor in which to say something like this. Each month I wait with masochistic anticipation for the arrival of Quadrant, to see what new barbarities Raimond Gaita has perpetrated on the English language. And when I read that I was reminded of a fellow student at the University of Melbourne in the late 1960s who wrote when he reviewed an article that I'd written, Gaita says [unclear 10:35] distinguishes what he calls things in themselves from things for themselves, but if you ask me the whole thing is up itself. He'll understand that I think why, when some people urge me to write about my father and our life together in central Victoria, I replied that while there might be a good story to be told, I was not the person to tell it.
Well I did write it and people now call me a writer and always I protest sincerely that I'm not and always with people think that I don't really mean it. Well I don't think of Romulus, My Father, as I said, is an autobiography, still less - as a biography and still less as an autobiography, because it doesn't contain the degree of critical psychological probing that would justify being called Isa. I've described - I just want to - this is not a distinction I'm prepared to die for being a - but anyway, that's the reason that I decline describing myself in that way. I've described Romulus as a tragic poem and I hope that doesn't sound pretentious. Obviously I don't mean to compare it to the great tragedy, especially the Greek ones that so affected me. But the reason that that category or the genre, that is of tragedy came to mind is given in the book itself.
After I described how I felt at the age of 15 visiting my father in a psychiatric hospital after he'd gone mad, I say that as a student and I quote now, tragedy, with its calm pity for affliction it depicts was a genre that first attracted my passion at allegiance. I recognised in it the concepts that illuminated the events of my childhood. They enabled me to see Mitru, who was my mother's lover, my mother, my father and Vatsik, living amongst his boulders as the victims of misfortune in their different ways broken by it but never thereby diminished.
I didn't avoid psychological probing because I feared it would reveal to the reader or to myself for that matter things best left undercover, not consciously at any rate. Instinctively I wrote in a genre not suitable for such probing. A friend of whom I showed the first draft suggested I put it away and later when I was ready, write a much longer book who's deeply and professionally interested in psychoanalysis and I'm sure wanted me to reflect on my relationship with my parents, especially my mother. I declined his suggestion because I realised immediately that it would not make for a better book of the kind that I had drafted but instead make for a book of a different kind altogether. And it was what informed my understanding of the kind of book it was, was as I said my understanding of tragedy as I characterised it a moment ago as showing a calm pity for the suffering that it depicts.
I didn't know what I was doing when I wrote the first draft of Romulus, My Father in three feverish weeks, oscillating between exhilaration and depression. I'd only written philosophy before that and though I said I instinctively wrote in a certain genre, I had no conscious intention to do so and few other conscious intentions other than to write truthfully and to be a kind of witness to values by which my father lived. I think despite the book's many failings, I achieved that and I'm grateful to people like John Kirsaya and a philosopher Jean Curthoys, whom I'll quote now, who seemed to acknowledge that. Kirsaya, for example, wrote one of the features of Gaita, as a philosopher, is his interest in embodied values in an ethical truth that lives in the world. It's not because he preaches certain values, but because he embodies certain values that the unlettered blacksmith, Romulus Gaita, came to serve as a lifelong moral compass for his son and via his son to us.
And reviewing a book of essays in my honour, Jean Curthoys is a philosopher, had been at Sydney, writes making clear that the tribute is to my father rather than to me. I quote it's a mark of Gaita's persistent reminder of how much he learnt from his father to so many of the prominent writers and academics who have contributed to this collection of essays and two poems on Gaita's ethical thought and this was the important bit, except Romulus as the ground of that thought. And I'm comfortable with the idea that a man barely educated, a blacksmith of peasant background, a man who once contemplated murder and who never fully recovered from the psychosis to which he succumbed in mid-life, had a depth of understanding which when presented in the language of moral philosophy put that profession to shame, as endorsements to the second edition of Good and Evil, a test.
While some people, or some critics indeed have said, that had I been ethically more critical and psychologically more probing of my father, I would have been able to enter more fully into my mother's take on the world on her perspective on the world. I think they missed something fundamental because they failed to see as people often do what is involved in understanding another person's take on the world.
I was 12 when my mother killed herself. I hadn't seen her for almost two years before that and not much before that in my life. To see the world as someone else sees it you need to be imaginatively inward with the concepts in whose life they understand themselves, others and the world. And if some of those concepts are fragmented only partially understood by the person who possesses them as was obviously the case with my mother in regard to her illness. Then you have to understand that too. Iris Murdoch said that the understanding of another person is a work of love, justice and pity. For it to be a work of justice you have ideally to be in conversation with a person or at least in imaginative conversation with them, to be able to speak to them, to ask them why they believe this or have done that and then listen and possibly respond to their replies.
Empathy, or at any rate the desire and the capacity to understand as fully as possible how another person understands things, is essentially, I mean it belongs to the very nature to be a dialogical engagement. And this is how I put it in an essay about my mother, whose title is An Honest Way to Belonging pushed in After Romulus, 13 years after the publication of Romulus, My Father, as the quote.
When I drive to Shalvar, at the house that my wife and I built in the country, passing through Castlemaine and then Malden on roads my father and I travelled on often, or when I'm on the beach road driving to Mentone in Malvern where Hora lived, I miss them sometimes intensely. I don't miss my mother in that way. I sometimes also wonder what my father would think of the film or the book or what Hora would think of the film but I can speculate knowing them that they might think this or think that or that they would be unpredictable in the way that only human beings can be. My mother of course had a distinctive perspective on the world. Neil Mickelson who was as a young farmer was I suspect in love or at least infatuated with her, described her to me before I wrote Romulus, My Father as quote, a woman of substance. Commenting on that in the book I say that he probably meant not merely that she was no scatterbrain but that she had the arresting presence of someone who experienced the world with a thoughtful intensity.
I never knew my mother like that, not because I knew her differently but because as a child I could not make such a judgement. She doesn't have for me the individuated presence of an adult, a distinctive perspective on the world. So I can't imagine being with her as though she did. But that's how she would have to be if I could miss her in the way I miss my father and Hora. I wish I could miss her that way.
When I miss my father and Hora I imagine this in conversation. I could miss my mother as I do then only if I could talk to her as an adult. If I could ask her why she did this or that, or if I could comfort her were she to ask for it or to forgive her for the wrong she did me, if she were inclined to ask for that, for which I sorrow but do not judge her. But I cannot seriously conceive of any of this. I knew her only as a boy. Even when I wonder anxiously what she would make of the book or the film, Romulus, My Father, and of this book, After Romulus and of me, her son, who put her under intense public scrutiny, I know that, though I can frame the question that I would put to her, it's incoherent for me even to try to imagine a conversation with her. That's the end of that quote.
I read it at such length because I think it's an important point about empathy which is now such a prized virtue. There is yet a deeper reason why I didn't know what I was doing when I wrote Romulus, My Father. For some months after I decided to write about him, a decision triggered by responses to the publication in Quadrant of a eulogy that I gave in 1966 - sorry, 1996, at his funeral. After that I failed to write more than a few pages. Being late January of 1997, I listened to a tape of music that one of my daughters has given me. On it was a song by a country and western singer called Emmylou Harris, called Goodbye. I can't remember if we said goodbye [unclear 21:28]. It's not a great song but that haunting refrain suits the melody and her voice. For a week I played it every day loud, so loud that the glasses rattled in their cabinets and the bass rumbled in my guts. And then I told my wife that I would rent a cottage near where I grew up and write the book about my father, but I spent the first week of three weeks writing about my mother.
Well that obviously provides rich material for psychological speculation but I don't think much of it would add to an understanding of Romulus, My Father or even of the essay, An Honest Way to Belonging. It would fill no interesting interpretative gaps I think unless they were forced into those gaps by didactic theoretical perhaps ideologically reduction of dispositions.
Peter Gay says in his biography, Freud, the Freud wrote to Stefan Zweig saying quote, whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had. End of quote. That's Freud at his worst. I say that as an admirer, indeed as someone who's trying to finish a long overdue essay for the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. At best Freud's comment is an exaggerated way of saying that biography and autobiography are vulnerable to psychologically motivated distortions. But anybody who took it as read, took what Freud said literally, word for word as it were, would not read biography or autobiography nor would anybody who took it as read be interested in the Seymour lectures on biography unless they came them only to see if someone at last had the courage to tell the truth, as Freud did. Peter Gay obviously didn't take it seriously otherwise he wouldn't have written his biography on Freud.
Well if someone were to ask as of course many people have asked, was Romulus or Christine Gaita, as his son depicts them, someone answer that they were and others that they were not. Theories about my actual complex psychological state, I mean as state was rather than as it appears in the book, will not settle or even help to settle those questions. Of course someone who believes that they were not as I described them might invoke psychological accounts of my unconscious motives in order to explain why I failed to characterise them as they were. But those accounts will not establish that they were not as they were.
So I had no idea of what I was doing when I wrote Romulus, My Father but I do believe I know what I'm doing in the yet unfinished book of essays that express gratitude to often love of people I've known who have mattered deeply to me, some of whom have inspired me. It's a book that I'm writing. I'll include part of one of those essays in this lecture. Perhaps they're better described as elogy or portraits, some are teachers, others are friends, one's my late father-in-law, writing about him. I'll inevitably write about my wife. My publisher calls it my mentor's book and I understand why he does it but mentor is not a concept that can capture adequately how some of the people I write about have mattered to me. At its deepest and most precious it's a love of the world of a kind that's not conditional upon a weighing up of the good and the evil in it. Sometimes it was mediated by the beauty of a natural world and sometimes by the beauty of things human beings have created.
Because for me the latter, that is the things that human beings have created, extend back to ancient Greece, I lived joyously in an extended continuously in an extended continuous presence. Plato is my companion so are [unclear 25:38] and Kant, to name only a few great philosophers. Ditto for Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Bach, and of course there are others. I couldn't imagine my life without them.
The essays I'll continue to call them essays, would be worthless or will be worthless when they're finished if they're not truthful in intent and achievement. In such small pieces none is longer than 5,000 words that explicitly express gratitude, much will be left unsaid, just as in fact much is left unsaid in Romulus, My Father. My hope, as it was, when I wrote Romulus, is that what is left unsaid will not compromise the truthfulness of what is said. There will of course be many psychological and ethical motives urging me to write as I would wish things to be rather than as they were or are. But the scepticism about the possibility of truthfulness of a more radical kind than psychological that I want to talk about this evening.
It's now commonplace to observe that if you are like seven people, to describe someone they all know, they'll tell seven different stories. And it's an observation that can point in two directions. Taking us in one direction it directs attention to psychological difficulties that stand in the way of an account upon which all seven could converge. For so long as the difficulties are only psychological disagreement is at least in principle if not likely in practice to be attainable - sorry, disagreement is likely to be resolvable and agreement attainable. But when the observation to seven people will tell seven different stories about the same person known to them all takes us in another direction, then scepticism implicitly note is more radical. It claims that the difference cannot in principal be resolved in a way that could reveal what the person was really like because there's nothing in this world, no facts that is what it is for someone really to be like against which we could match narratives to assess their truthfulness.
What I said in response to Freud I say again now. Anyone who professes that kind of scepticism will not read biography, autobiography, narrative history or anything else that relies on the assumption that there is at least in principal an answer to the question, was so and so really like that. It will be asked of the portraits in my new book. I hope the answer will always be yes, how could I not hope that. For the remainder of the lecture now I want to discuss why I think that is a justified hope. And I'll do it by reflect - I hope that A, in principal, justifiable and I hope that I myself realise.
And I'll do it by reflecting on an extract from one of the essays in this new book. Its subject is a man whose name was Martin Winkler. Winkler taught theology in Germany in the 1930s with the great organist and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. When he was around 40, Schweitzer gave up his university post and concert career and trained to become a doctor. After graduating in medicine he went to Africa where he built a hospital in order he believed to bring the benefits of western medicine to one of the many places in the world where it was desperately needed.
He asked Winkler to accompany him but because Schweitzer worked as Winkler put it, 26 hours a day, Winkler declined. Not long after however he went to New Guinea to do there the same sort of work that Schweitzer did in Africa though not as a doctor. Winkler trained as a nurse. When war broke out he was arrested as an enemy alien and brought to Australia where he spent the remainder of the war in internment camps. When he was released he practised as a Luther and pastor and worked for some years as a labourer until he was employed to teach German at Ballarat Grammar School. Though I went to another school as a boarder, Saint Patrick's College, Winkler taught me German at the grammar school from Year 9 until the end of Year 11 when I left Saint Patrick's College to attend Melbourne High School.
Winkler was perhaps the wisest man I have known, eccentric and a strong passionate personality, he was more than a little daunting but in Year 11 threatened with expulsion from St Pat's I found refuge each week in his study. The headmaster told me that I corrupting the boys because I had read Bertrand Russell on education and had spoken enthusiastically to them about his attitude to sex and sex education. I don't like the way you think, Gaita, but I like the way you play football, he told me, explaining why he hadn't yet thrown me out. It was a big footballing school, St Pat's and I wasn't a great footballer but they called me the tank because I couldn't see so I just went through everything. The headmaster took what was in fact a disability as the virtue of courage. That's why he said, I like the way you play football. He thought I had what they call character, of one kind anyway.
Well Winkler liked the way I thought so when he learned about the cause of my trouble he gave me a book to read at home, I should say, because I was about to go there on vacation. He's superficial, he doesn't understand what he attacks but you might as well understand why you are in such trouble, he told me. He author to whom he referred was Russell and the book was called Why I'm Not a Christian, which he took the trouble to borrow from the Ballarat City Library.
Despite reading Russell or perhaps as the headmaster of St Pat's probably thought because I read him, my energies at the time were more directed to becoming a juvenile delinquent than to study, infatuated as I was then by the rebellious glamour of Elvis Presley, Jimmy Dean and Marlon Brando. Why did Winkler path Bach to me when I came to him to learn German in order to read the humanities at university? Well Winkler, more than honour of his responsibility to do that but in the process I came to see how the love of his subject, German language and literature, his love of Bach and Handel and of much German cultural history were inseparable.
Without compromising the need to do what was necessary to enable me to pass my examinations, he taught me what it can be to love a language, a natural language, steeped in the history of its peoples who shaped it and were shaped by it. For him the study of a language was a kind of anthropology that enabled one only to not only to understand the people and their mode of life but also a way of being human in their language. I'm sure that's why I've emphasised in much of my work the importance to our thinking of almost everything that defines us in the human condition, the importance of that of it being expressed in a natural language used creatively at full stretch.
Winkler was in fact initiating me to what Plato would have called a form of pedagogical eros, initiating me into the art of loving as Socrates put it in the symposium. Conscious though he was of the greatness of much of what's called Western civilisation, he was a European through and through, steeped in German culture. His knowledge of the evils of Europe especially of Germany lacerated his soul as much as love of its treasures nourished it. For a man like him it could not have been otherwise so soon after the holocaust. One of the least complacent men I have ever met, he knew the dangers inherent in revering tradition. He knew that a certain kind of respect for tradition, perhaps the most common kind, excluded and silenced voices from the past and paradoxically by wrapping them in the cotton wool of respectability muted, even those that celebrated, depriving them of a power actually to shake us. He knew also that as George Steiner put it, we come after, that is after the holocaust, and we cannot, having come after the holocaust, justifiably have the confidence of people who came before in the capacity of the humanities to humanise.
But he also believed that the holocaust should not diminish his love of Bach and much else of German culture. As a human being he wanted and as a teacher he felt obliged to share that love with his students, hoping that they would find it worthy of their love and nourish in them as it had in him a love of the world. For me in latter years thinking about the holocaust about how it should be characterised morally, legally, politically, about what it shows about the prospects of a common humanity and about the hopes we can place in education, this was a gift.
When Gandhi was asked what he thought of western civilisation he said it would be a good idea. Winkler was not long out of the internment camps when the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals began. A year after the trials the UN passed declaration on genocide, describing it to be quote, a shock to the conscience of mankind, as contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations. And as a crime which the civilised world condemns. Raphael Lemkin who coined the term and who developed the first account of the concept believed passionately that as an establishment, as a distinctive category in international law was an imperative for quote, a civilised jurisprudence.
Many people have pointed out that civilised is a word that is itself ethically compromised by association with a racist incapacity of Europeans who formulated international law to see depth and meaning in the lives of cultures, that they then described as primitive and the people as savages which included of course the cultures of most of the peoples of the earth including many who had been victims of colonial genocides.
Inevitably therefore many of the readers on my essay on Winkler might be suspicious of a German Luther and pastor who went to sub missionary in New Guinea in the 1940s. When I first met Winkler in 1961, in 1960 the great Australian anthropologist, Bill Stanner wrote, that the culture of Australia's Indigenous people can express, and I quote now, all the beauty of song, mime, dance and art of which human beings are capable, end of quote. It reflected in the new - in the west a new capacity to see in black cultures an ever deepening responsiveness to the finding facts of the human condition and mortality, our sexuality, our vulnerability to misfortune. And therefore to see them as cultures from which we can learn.
Winkler spoke to me in the same spirit about the people with whom he lived and worked in New Guinea. He told me often that he'd learnt more from them than they had from him, especially about what it means really to understand the connection between our humanity and to live that understanding of the connection between our humanity and our embodiment, or if you like to understand fully that we are human beings rather than just persons or rational agents inescapably, living inescapably and if we understand its significance fully, joyfully as part of nature.
It would of course be natural for me to say that Winkler was an inspiration to me but I resist doing so any rate doing so flatly as it were because inspiration is a word that is too general to describe Winkler's effect on me, covering as it does a multitude of virtues and vices. Inspiration can be corrupt and sometimes it is, merely the effects of enthusiasm and even when enthusiasm is passionate it'll be banal if directed towards things that are banal. Because it's contagious enthusiasm can be a pedagogical asset but it's ethically neutral with respect to what it's directed towards.
Love on the other hand Plato was perhaps the first to see his incomplex ways related to the good. One can be a passionately enthusiastic debunker but love asked to celebrate the beloved, even more than enthusiasm love can be a pedagogical asset, a psychological aid to making something attractive or energising students who are not interested in those studies. But much more important than that is the fact that love can be revelatory. It's sometimes an indispensable means to seeing the value of something. Often we something as precious early in the lives of someone's love for it.
So you see, when I speak of love I really do mean love. If I'm told that someone is passionate about this or that I always want to know whether the concept of love and the distinction between what it really is and its many counterfeits would be essential in elaboration of that passion.
With no pedagogical strategy about how to bridge my delinquent interests and ambitions, and the fine things he put in my way, Winkler never talked down to me. The quality of his attention to things that he loved made me trust their value and to trust him. We become like what we love, Plato said, it's true. Winkler's love made him the kind of person I trusted and was right to trust, though often I didn't understand until much later sometimes many years later the full significance of what he said.
For many years after I left school I visited Winkler at home in Ballarat and for many years he showed me love's role in teaching. In my first two years as an undergraduate I studied psychology. Together with two friends I started a magazine Critical of Behaviourism and more generally of scientistic approaches to psychology that were then fashionable in the department.
When the Beatles came to Melbourne one of my co-editors wrote an article about the enthusiasm of young people in the audience which he called a form of mass hysteria. Mass culture and alienation were popular themes at the time. His article was an earnest, slight prissy lecture on social responsibility. Winkler didn't like the article. He listened while I defended it at length. Eventually after midnight he draw himself up and placed his hands on his large dining room table, he had six children, and leaned towards me and said, Gaita, do you know what the core of responsibility is? It's responsiveness to the needs of another in a lived encounter, I'm quoting from memory, of course. He then said I should read Martin Buber's book, I Am Thou.
I was humbled and moved, though I didn't fully understand them, his words stayed with me for years. Sometimes when we don't understand everything that another person says at the time they say it, we trust what they say and allow it to enter our lives to find in its own time ways to engage with what we already know and without capacities, emotional, intellectual and spiritual for understanding.
We often learn most deeply when we're moved by what people say or do in life or in art. And when we're moved we often claim to have understood something we had not understood before or understood so fully before. We sometimes say we've seen depth or even sense where we had not seen it before. And when we find wisdom in words or deeds because a particular person has spoken or done them, when the authority of someone's speech or practical example moves us to take something seriously that we hadn't taken seriously before or that we did not fully understand or to find depth where we had not found it before, then usually over time and sometimes not even very consciously we critically assess whether we are right to believe the words to be wise words. Right to have been moved in the way that we were.
And then we must try to assure ourselves that we did not yield our sense only because we are naïve or callow or sentimental or liable to pathos or gullible and so on. And for that reason we have to step back from what has moved us in order to assess critically whether we were justifiably moved and whether we can trust ourselves for being moved as we were. When he draw up at the table that evening, Winkler called me to a kind of seriousness, to consider a possibility that had never occurred to me, but also just to think for he detected intellectual a moral laziness in the way I was speaking and what I said. I was touched as I often was by his loving severity.
Years after I first met him when I despaired of teaching, Winkler told me that there are two ways to think about teaching. One is to dream of pulling a switch that will make a thousand lights come on; another way of thinking is nourished by the image of passing a candle from one person to another or of planting seeds not knowing when or where they will grow. The former, that is turning a thousand lights on, is a temptation to charismatic teachers. Earlier I said that inspiration was not the most important word to capture Winkler's affect on me. It doesn't distinguish the teacher who inspires and seeks disciples, who abuses their trust by eroding their freedom to descent. It doesn't distinguish such a person from one like Winkler, who, though a forceful personality and because of love of his subject, never abused that trust.
Love, Plato says in the symposium, I quote, its beautiful line, never proceeds by force nor does it submit to force. And by that he meant including the force of a charismatic personality. Truth, Plato rightly believed, is a need of the soul but possession of it is food for the soul only if we come to it in the right way. Winkler honoured his responsibility to the world that he loved and he honoured the responsibility to his students to, as Hannah Arendt put it, and I quote Arendt now, never to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something foreseen by no‑one.
Winkler's advice about teaching was the wisest I'd ever received, as was his rebuke when I defended my co-editor's article on the Beatles. The seeds he planted in me were then still germinating. They grew only many years later when I wrote Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception which I dedicated to him. I could have subtitled it responsiveness to need. Winkler's words which, as I said, stayed with me for many years, engaged with something I knew from my life with my father and I suspect that's why they stayed so long with me.
My father showed a compassion that strikes me as wondrous towards my mother who deserted him and her lover, Mitru, who had been his friend. He even paid their rent when as happened often they were threatened with eviction because my mother could not control her impulse to spend, sometimes twice as much as Mitru earned. The impulse, compulsion indeed, is a symptom of manic depression from which my mother suffered from her teenage years until she killed herself at the age of 29. Mitru had killed himself two years earlier at the age of 27.
My father found it impossible to turn his back on their desperate need, which I think he believed would destroy. My mother and Mitru responded in complex ways to my father's compassionate response to their need but even as a boy I accepted it as a gift, though I did not fully understand why until I was an adult.
People have often asked me how I survived my childhood reasonably sane and some believe they know the answer, or some believe I'm sane but that's another matter there. Most believe they know the answer and which is that I knew that my father and Hora left me deeply and that I never doubted it. That's an important part of the answer to be sure but there's another part that's just as important and it's this. The fact that I came to see the world in the light that my father's goodness cast upon the world prevented the pain of my childhood from becoming bitterness. It's bitterness rather than pain that corrodes the soul, deforms personality and character and can even tempt one to misanthropy.
My father's goodness enabled me to love my mother without shame or serious resentment, though I was painfully aware of the distain many people showed towards her because she neglected me and later my half sisters and because she took many lovers, which can also be a symptom of manic depression, inseparable in her case from her romanticism of her attitude towards love and other things in life. To be enabled to love is as important as to be loved, a fact that we must constantly hold before our minds when we deal with children who have been psychologically and spiritually wounded.
Some of the barriers to loving are of course psychological barriers, but as my reference to loving without shame implies, they can also be moral or rather as my father taught me, not by his words but by his examples, by a moralistic distortion of morality. I learnt from him that the aspiration to be morally clear sighted which sometimes requires a morally severe assessment of what somebody has done is never inconsistent with a need to love clear sightedly. He never denied that my mother had wronged him. Some people find incoherent the idea that love can be morally severe and yet not be judgemental or resentful. The roots of that incredulity go deep in western culture, at least back to Aristotle.
Winkler's love of Bach awakened the same love in me. I drew on it, I needed it when I wrote Romulus, My Father. Writing about such things that affected me profoundly including my father's dissention to madness when I was 14, living alone with him in a dilapidated shack in the country, writing such things I had to resist as much as possible all dispositions to pay Pathos or to sentimentality. And that's not merely a personal remark. Anybody in similar circumstances should do the same. But in resisting these I wasn't trying to get feeling out of the writing, but I was in fact trying to make the feeling true. I don't mean that I wanted to be sincere, sentimentality is sincere more often than it's not, in practice probably always sincere.
In resisting sentimentality I wasn't so much trying to feel right but trying to see things right, to understand things right and to be truthful not about the facts as I told them but about the meaning of those facts, the meaning of the facts that were fundamental to the story, to be true to the meaning of those things I listened to Bach. The distinction as I've just expressed it between facts and their meaning is simple enough, if one thinks of facts in a worker day sense that we've - as we mean it when we talk about facts you get in textbooks or in encyclopaedia or as when a judge might use the term saying to an emotional witness, stick to the facts, please. In that sense the distinction between fact and meaning, I think, is pretty clear.
At the end of Romulus, My Father, I described as seeing outside the church door, after I had given the eulogy at my father's funeral and I caught sight of a man who I did not at first recognise because I hadn't seen him for 40 years or more. The first draft read like this. I quote from the draft. When I went towards him I saw that his eyes were filled with tears. It was Neil Mickelson, the man who had been kind to my mother and who had fallen from the haystack when my father worked for him. Every word you spoke was true, he said, your father saved my life. His presence and his words moved me. I thought again of Frogmore and my life there with my father. My father was buried in the Maryborough cemetery, not very far from my mother. That was the first draft and that was it, that's the closing sentence.
Well my publisher and editor, Michael Heyward, said we needed another sentence between I thought again of my life with my father and the sentence, my father was buried in the Maryborough cemetery, not far from my mother. Well I could see he was right so I produced one. In the light of what I said earlier about the circumstances in which I read the book, you'll see why I produce them when I do, and this is it, I quote. I remembered my mother, laughing, as she talked with Mickelson at the chicken wire gate. So, and I also changed the very last sentence to read - not to read - it had read my father's buried in the Maryborough cemetery, not very far from my mother. I changed that to my father was buried in the Maryborough cemetery close to my mother. Well the - now the published version, in case you'd forgotten of that reads, his presence and his words moved me. I thought again of Frogmore and my life there with my father. I remembered my mother laughing as she talked with Mickelson at the chicken wire gate. My father was buried in the Maryborough cemetery close to my mother. That's the end of the quote.
It's a fact that my mother talked with Mickelson on at least one occasion by a fence whose metal frame - sorry, by a gate, whose metal frame in fact it was a bed frame was covered in wire of the kind to keep chickens out. It was a fact too that I remembered her laughing on at least one such occasion. It's also a fact that my father's grave is approximately 10 metres from my mother's grave. But had I written all that as I just read it, Michael would not have been pleased. The statement of those facts cannot convey their significance in the way that the sentence I produced for him does, by its rhythm and tone. But a sentence like that is of its very nature vulnerable to sentimentality, [unclear 55:03] fulfilment among other vices. I worried for a long time as to whether I should - once I'd replaced not very from by close, whether I should say near to because near to is a space, still a spatial concept whereas close brings all sorts of things that I wondered whether I wished to be true as opposed to actually being true. So that's why I'm trying to explain the difference here between concern for fact and concern for the meaning or the significance of those facts.
But I suspect it's not an exaggeration to say that anybody who read that sentence that I wrote in response to Michael's request wouldn't also understand why I published An Earnest Way to Belonging 14 years later and why the essay has that title. I owe the title to Helen Garner who wrote about my mother this, quote. In her son, whom she repeatedly left in the care of his father and Hora, she, that is my mother, inspired An Earnest Way to Belonging when she came back and lay depressed in bed all day, unable to do the work of a wife and mother, he used to creep into the bed beside her to bask in the warmth of her body. End of quote.
Alex Miller writes, and I quote, when Ray told me he had titled this essay on his mother, An Earnest Way to Belonging, I thought of Emily Dickinson's image and the quote is, the craving is upon the child like a claw it cannot remove, end of quote. Later in the same essay he says he believes it's not yet over, that my writing about my mother had not come to an end and perhaps I'm right now proving him right.
Well in much of my work I've written - and now this is the sort of philosophical bit that is supposed to honour the title of this lecture. It's about five minutes. I'm sorry it's a bit dense. In much of my work I've written about what I've called the realm of meaning. I'm not like that to be taken as a technical expression, though the word realm gives it a slightly technical intimidating ring that I don't intend. When I coined it I had in mind a way of thinking about the meanings of things in our lives, about what it means to love or grieve truthfully, about why it matters and the way it matters that we should suffer wrong rather than to do it. What counts as thinking well or badly about these matters is in part determined by concepts more often used in assessments of literature than it is in other more scientific disciplines, even in metaphysical philosophy, categories like as I've suggested, sentimentality, pathos, cliché, tone deafness, for example.
Thinking about the meanings of things is necessarily answerable to such concepts because they partly determine the cognitive character of it. I called it a realm, I could have called it a domain or a space, because I thought of the concepts that determine the character of such thinking as constituting a conceptual space or realm in which thought and feeling, style and content are inseparable. They yield a distinctive content different from science and metaphysical philosophy, they yield a distinctive content to the expression trying to see things as they are rather than as they appear. And also indeed to what it is for things to be as they are in the realm of meaning.
And that the critical categories that determine as distinctive cognitive character are also the critical categories deployed in the assessments of literature, indicates that reflection in the realm of meaning should never wish to distance itself too much from the natural languages that nourish it steeped in by the contingencies of history and culture that shape and are shaped by the lives of peoples. The point is of critical importance, not just of the assessments of narratives of one kind or another but also and again I learnt this from Winkler, to the formation of a critical social and political sensibility.
In 2017, the National Portrait Gallery had an exhibition called All That Falls, Sacrifice Life and Loss in World War I. Amongst other exhibits there were crude propaganda posters intended to shame young men into enlisting and especially to shame the men in front of their girlfriends or women especially. In an essay that I wrote for a booklet that accompanied the exhibition, I commented on the fact that our cultural and temporal distance from these posters might dispose us to condescend to their crudity.
And here, may I say, I warn against that and I thought about this again, about that kind of condescension when recently I wrote an essay on Donald Trump, which by the way I'm talking about on Late Night Live tonight, an essay on Donald Trump and I was urging in that essay, readers never cease being incredulous that such a man is the President of the United States. But who, I asked in both essays, who can say with justified confidence that in the clamour that accompanies great upheavals, they will retain an ear for what rings false. It's not enough, I go on to say to hope that one can hold onto one's reason. In such circumstances you need to do more than hold on to your reason and in the right circumstances everybody is vulnerable to the danger that's always present and against which we seldom protect ourselves or even see the need to do so, and that is to develop a sensibility in which head and heart - feeling and head and style and content just can't be separated. And it's art and narrative including narrative in history that performs the most often deliver such a sensibility to us.
It's sentimentality, a disposition to pathos, a failure to register what rings true, a tin ear for irony, these things undermine lucidity far more than when emotion overcomes reason. Winkler knew that deep in his bones, he had heard some of Hitler's speeches and seen the murderous consequences of sentimentality and kitsch in German propaganda. That's why he played Bach for me and talked so often to me of German poetry and literature and why he was perhaps a little neurotically fearful of romanticism. Who could have thought that we in the west should now place our hopes for democracy and civil decency in the Germany of Angela Merkel.
In character analysis, an essay in After Romulus, I write of how my father's European friends criticise his compassionate responses to the needs of my mother and Mitru. They criticised it as dishonourable and shameful. I try to take the reader to a perspective from which she could see - he or she could see that his friends did not understand the conception of goodness that transformed his understanding of what fear and dishonour and shame come to.
What, however, if someone who had criticised his sense of honour should say, what if someone like that were asked was Romulus Gaita really like his son Raimond Gaita describes him. And supposing that he replies that Romulus didn't say the things that his son said he did in the book about him, but that while his son celebrated Romulus' values he despised him. They were, I'm supposing, this interlocker to say, the values of a man whose foolish heart led him to dishonour himself by paying his wife's rent when she lived with man who cuckolded him. They were, he continues disdainfully, the values of someone who believed that a man who was clearly mad. This is a friend who lived between two boulders near us so he'd gone mad and he cooked in his urine, talked to himself, was evidently mad. They were, this person continues, the values of a man who believed that someone who was clearly mad who lived between two boulders on a hillside where he talked to himself while he cooked in his urine, should be treated fully as a friend. Quite clearly someone who would say such things about my father would tell a different story to the one that I told.
Did my father pay my mother's and Mitru's rent? He did and that's a fact. Was he therefore a good and generous man? A man of quite extraordinary goodness or was he a cuckold who dishonoured himself still further. To tell a story that would show who he was, what kind of man he was, we would have to answer that second question but there's no neutral ground, no ethically neutral ground on which to plant one's feet when we fight to do it, no ground on which reason by itself or facts could favour one answer over the other. Thank you.
M: I think we've just been treated to natural language used creatively at full stretch and for that, Ray, I thank you and I'm sure the audience does as well for just using language in such precise ways and so expansively. I was also thinking about whether that person who wrote to Robert Mann all the time after your 50 columns saying what is going on here, whether those seeds might have been planted and at this very moment that person might be thinking, aha, now I understand, as you did, with Winkler. So we probably have time for just a few questions. Ray was a bit worried about going over time tonight and I reassured him that you're here to listen to him rather than to yourselves, but I think we do have time for a few questions. Those who come regularly know the drill, it's actually great, please, if you just wait until a microphone comes to you so that those using the hearing loop can hear your question and so we can film it. So I've got lights in my eyes but if anybody would like to ask a question put your hand up, yes, and we'll - mic over there, thank you.
A: In your book, Romulus, My Father, I didn't quite understand why you denied he was your father when he visited you at your school. Thanks.
R: That's - the question in case you didn't hear it is, why did I deny that Romulus was my father -
R: - when he visited me at school. Obviously mad, he had not long before, in fact, when I was still at home with him asked me to shave his head, he was unshaven. He had a dirty pinstriped suit, a white shirt that was underneath, the collar was over, and beside him there was this man I mentioned, Vatsik, who was talking to himself as they were walking through the school. A teacher asked me afterwards, was one of those men my father and I said, no. And what I go on then to reflect on is why I said no, because it wasn't ordinary - I don't think it was what one would ordinarily could just call shame.
And I have to expand on this a bit because it's a very important question. When Romulus, My Father was about to be published, I went on a literary tour through the areas where the book was set and I took the journalist and the photographer to the boulders where this man, Vatsik, had lived and it's just two big round boulders that he covered with bits of whatever. And one of the journalists asked me, did Vatsik appear weird to you when you were a boy, and instinctively I said no and afterwards I wondered why he hadn't appeared weird because he was weird in so far as that word means anything. Someone who cooks food his urine, offers you it and talks to himself while he was doing it is weird.
But the reason I instinctively said no, I realised later, was that neither my father nor Hora had ever responded to Vatsik with a trace of condescension, which in the tone in which they spoke to him and in their bodily demeanour towards him. He came and lived sometimes with us and they actually befriended him in the sense of friendship that implies a sense of equality, not a sense that you - and I realised that's how, as a boy I saw Vatsik. Now I couldn't do otherwise. But had they not responded that way, had they shown in their demeanour and whatever that they thought that he was not fully their equal then with a cruel sensitivity that children often possess I would have thought he wasn't really one of us. I always thought he was kind and good because he treated me really well and Hora often said to me how Vatsik is a very good man, a kind hearted man.
Now I know that everybody thinks that we should treat people like Vatsik as my father and Hora did, but I'm now 71 and I can count on the fingers or two hands how many people, probably not - probably I wouldn't get to the end how many people I've met who are like that. And the interesting question is why are people not like that. And my answer is it's not like asking why aren't people really courageous, let's say, why aren't people as courageous as some hero. Because there you have the idea that this person is this courageous, this person is that and you go along a line until you get to - right. And you can get kind heartedness like that too. And you can get kind heartedness where some people are more kind hearted and some people are really good kind hearted people, but consistent with their kind heartedness they would respond with a trace of condescension.
And not only would they respond with condescension, some of them if they were reflective might say that is the only way truthfully to deal with such a person because they are afflicted and have lost so much of what gives meaning to people's lives and they would say that's how you should be. So it's not a matter of my father being on a continuum here, I think it's a different kind of thing. And I think it's a wondrous thing and in a way I wanted to give witness to it. And I've always regarded it as quite different and that's in fact I entitled the essay that I mentioned in my talk, Character Earnest limits, I wanted to talk about the limits of character. The character in so far as it deals with virtues like integrity, nobility, courage, my father had and lots of people when they praise my father, praise him for those virtues. Had they been his only virtues I don't think I - I'm not sure but I might not have written the book because it wasn't these heroic virtues. They're all heroic, nobility, courage, all that, character, moral, muscular stuff. Resilience is another such concept.
But the goodness my father showed involved a kind of renunciation which is why - and he showed it in his attitude to Vatsik but he showed it also - it showed - renunciation of any sense whatsoever of superiority. And he showed it also in his relation to my mother and Mitru, and that's why his compatriots raised on a conception of honour as a focal ethical concept, despised him. Well they actually didn't so much despise him, they despised his behaviour. So it's, as it were, there are two big ethical frameworks, one has concepts like honour, nobility at a centre, another has goodness as a centre. My father actually lived between the two, which is why he was in fact a complex man because as you read the book you'll know he went off to shoot somebody at one stage, so he wasn't a good - essentially a new age guy full of - anyway. I'm sorry it was so long but it's a very important question.
M: If that doesn't send us all back to read Romulus, My Father, I just don't know what actually will so I encourage you to do so. We are going to leave it here now because Ray has kindly offered to sign some books in the foyer and we'd like you to join us for some refreshments but before we finish I'd just like you to join me again in thanking John and Heather for making tonight possible but also thank you very, very much for -
R: No, thank you.
M: - that language at full stretch. So thanks, Ray.
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