Raimond Gaita on 'Romulus, My Father', Suffering, Morality, and Humanity

~ Full transcript of interview below ~

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Melbourne, 10 June 2019

Melbourne, 10 June 2019

Interview with Raimond Gaita

Monday 10 June 2019

Raimond Gaita on ‘Romulus, My Father’, Suffering, Morality, and Humanity 


Nick: (00:00:00) Welcome to Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, which features conversations with people who have led meaningful, interesting and flourishing lives in order to better understand each other, ourselves, and the world around us. In this episode, I am joined by my friend Lucy Wark, a Melbourne based writer, editor and interviewer. Together, we were lucky to interview acclaimed Australian philosopher and author Raimond Gaita.

It’s a long and rich conversation beginning with the biography and history of the Gaita family’s migration to Australia, before examining the literary impact of Romulus, My Father as well as tracing the philosophical influences of Gaita’s work, and how these ethics and values might be applied to a range of contemporary issues. So without further delay, I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as Lucy and I did.

It’s a great pleasure and honour to be joined here today with philosopher and award-winning author Raimond Gaita, who became known widely to the public through his book Romulus, My Father, which was a moving eulogy about his father transformed into a book and years later a film. My high school philosophy teacher who invited Raimond to give a lecture to philosophy students, noted that he writes and thinks beautifully, and you see a heart and mind at work. It’s a great privilege to be with you here today, Rai and thank you for your time   

(00:01:08) Oh thank you, I’m honoured that you should want to do this.

Nick: (00:01:11) Now we are also joined today by my good friend Lucy Wark who is a writer in Melbourne and has a wonderful history of doing radio and other live interviews as well so Lucy great to be here with you

Lucy: (00:01:23) Thank you, Nick, and thank you for that extremely generous introduction

 Nick: (00:01:25) That’s okay. So Raimond, one of the things that strikes me about your life and career is how it has been informed and shaped by history and circumstance and I suppose forces beyond the individual’s control in many ways. So if you were to give a snapshot of your life story and work for our listeners who may not be familiar with you or your publications, how would you do so?

Raimond (00:01:47) Well, I was born in Germany, that is important to a lot of my thinking, that I was born in Germany in 1946 and for a variety of reasons mostly because my mother suffered badly from Asthma and was advised that Melbourne of all places would be good for Asthma - it’s one of the worst other places in the world  - we came out in 1950. She suffered already actually when I was born I’m quite sure from what turned out to be manic depression and symptoms of manic depression not universally but often [include] spending things, spent just a hell of a lot and also sort of heightened sexual desire which often leads to promiscuity and that led to my mother and father effectively separating when we got to Australia. She was in a camp in Bonegilla, we landed we, both of us, three of us, went to Bonegilla but my father because of the conditions of his passage was sent to work on the construction of a reservoir in Central Victoria.

My mother stayed in Bonegilla, and people would come down to the camp in Central Victoria - the location is Cairn Curran - and they would tell my father that I was running wild, my mother was stealing their husbands, and so I ended up in the camp with my father though it was a men’s only camp. I was very fortunate in that he had met in that camp two Romanian friends. I should say, I didn’t say this before but my father was born in the former Yugoslavia but in the Romanian village on the border and he always considered himself to be Romanian and Romanian was his mother tongue.

So he met these Romanian two brothers. One whose name was Pantelimon Hora and the other his name was Mitru Hora, Mitru was younger. Pantelimon and my father shared night shift day shift sort of roster so that I could be looked after in this camp. But eventually the authorities said that I had to leave because children were not permitted in the camp so we managed to rent a dilapidated farm house in Central Victoria where my father and I lived for about ten years or a little longer actually.

My mother came occasionally to visit but to cut a long story short she fell in love with Mitru, Pantelimon’s brother, and who had been a close friend of my father’s and they lived together, had a daughter Susan and my mother was pregnant with another daughter, Barbara, when Mitru killed himself largely because he had become desperate I think because of her promiscuity and spending, she would, he would earn six pounds a week or something like that and she might buy a dress for twenty pounds which meant that he was working two jobs. She was incapable of looking after Susan, genuinely incapable it’s not that she didn’t want to, she just couldn’t and that drove him to such desperation that he killed himself and she killed herself about two years after that… on the eve of her thirtieth birthday.

So, when I wrote interestingly perhaps I might as well say this now, at this stage of the conversation, when I thought I should write about my life having been encouraged by the response I got to the eulogy that I had published, that I had given at my father’s funeral. I didn’t want to publish originally but people pressed me to do it. I then thought I might write a book and thought well I’ll write it on weekends and so on but what drove me finally to write the book which completely surprised me was that my daughter had given me a tape for my fiftieth birthday of music she liked and though I would like and so on, and on that tape there was a song by a Country and Western singer called Emmylou Harris and the song its refrain, well it’s called Goodbye and it has a refrain - “I can’t remember if we said goodbye.” It’s not a great song but she has a haunting, a haunting voice and for whatever reason it really got to me and in this very room I played it for a week … on those quite big speakers all the glasses in the cabinets over there were rattling … and I thought always about my mother as I was listening to this and then I said eventually to Yael my wife, that I was going off to the country to where I grew up, to write. So in fact I was inspired to write this book, I don’t know if inspired is the right word, but anyway I’m- perhaps enabled, occasioned, I don’t know what it is, but to write this book about my father thinking about my mother and this book I wrote in three weeks, the first draft, and sort of mad intensity…

Nick: (00:08:15) Feverish is how you described it, yeah

Raimond: (00:08:17) …well feverish, and it was sort of oscillating between joy and depression. But the first week I wrote about my mother; one week in three is quite a lot, so when people ask me as naturally as they do, why did you write this book?  I honestly have to say I don’t know why I wrote it. There is an answer on the surface which is I wanted to celebrate my father’s values, but I could’ve written some kind of – well in fact I did in a book afterwards called ‘After Romulus’ I wrote an essay in which I quite explicitly discuss the effects that his thinking and his life, mostly his life,  had not only on my thought about how one should live but on meta, what philosophy called meta questions about the very nature of morality. But so I could have done that if all I wanted to do was to reflect upon on his values and so there was… also the fact I think instinctively I wanted to tell a story and write in a narrative form.

But then there was always a constant thought about my mother and though she - about half way through the books she is gone - and she’s died, but about fifteen years later I wrote an essay about her called ‘An Unassuageable Longing, which well the title speaks for itself.


Nick: (00:10:07) Thank you very much for that. As we mentioned earlier, you are best known for Romulus, My Father and you have done a whole range of other philosophical works such as ‘A Common Humanity’ and ‘The Philosopher’s Dog’ and a range of other different works as well, but if we were to sort of ground the discussion in Romulus as both sort of text and film, I think it is neatly encapsulated by Helen Garner’s summation of it in The Monthly some years ago, and she wrote and I quote “It is a story of suffering, obsessive love, sexual betrayal and jealousy, abandonment of small children, violence, madness and despair, two suicides, repeated acts of forgiveness and loyalty, that are nothing short of heroic, and threaded through all of this is the miraculous blossoming of a child’s intellect. The book changed the quality of the literary air in this country. People often take an unusually emotional tone when they speak about it, as if it had performed for them the function that Franz Kafka demanded: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." Reading it, with its stiff, passionate dignity and its moral demands, can smash open a reader's blocked-off sorrows. Out they rush to meet those that the book relates.” There is a lot to unpack there, but what stands out most to me is the profound impact that the book - simply and movingly told - seems to have on people of all walks of life over the past 21 years. So why do you think this is the case? 


Raimond: (00:11:27) To tell you the truth I don’t know. Before we started this, we talked a little about how I went last year to the Melbourne Grammar School to talk, well to a philosophy class, but also to astonishingly a year nine class on Romulus, My Father. First of all I was surprised how well they understood this book which I wouldn’t have thought. But I was also surprised that these young people, and it’s happened many times before when I’ve talked to school kids, and I always think of what they prize most of all is a kind of cool urbanity, coolness above all, and that they should be so taken, well I’m sure a lot of them aren’t but a lot are, are taken by a book which is about a man who celebrates his passionate intensity. I’ve sometimes thought about my own work, that I could probably truthfully subtitle just about everything that I’ve written ‘against urbanity’, so it has surprised me and I don’t know…I tell the story in a book called ‘After Romulus” of a time when I was asked to give a reading of Romulus, it was just after it had been published, at the Sacred Heart Mission which is not far from here in St Kilda and I had refused at first because I thought they’ve not come for literature they’ve come for lunch, I felt it would just seem presumptuous but you know I was convinced to do it and I was asked, I asked for how long should I read? 

And normally when I read it would be for thirty minutes or forty and even… and people would then ask questions, and the man who was in charge said to me “try ten minutes” and I was there for two and a half hours and I had to just say “I’m sorry I’ve just got to go.” 

But what was for me, really profound about that occasion was that there was a man sitting at a table probably a metre and a half from me and he was obviously mentally ill, I could see by the way he had his hands around his head and suddenly he exclaimed “There’s God in this book!” and I had as a student worked in a mental hospital and being very idealistic I had started a debating society called  - it was Larundle (Mental Asylum); I called it the ‘Larundle Literary and Debating Society’. And at the first meeting a man…a young man who had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic picked up a chair and hit another with the chair and that was the end of Larundle Literary.

 And when this man said “there’s God in this book” he said “I mean it’s filled with love” and not long after he had got up and walked around the room and threw open his arms and again in an exclamatory voice said “Your father was a genius” and he then explained “I mean a genius of the spirit” and I was incredibly moved by this.

 I was also very moved by the fact that sitting also the same rough distance from me was a group of young women, I don’t think any of them were twenty, who were street girls feeding heroin habits, and they asked me to read again and again and again and again about my mother and I assumed it was because they saw how in her broken tormented life something of their own and I don’t know if this is true, I hope it is true, Anne Manne wrote in the introduction to the text classics edition that she surmised that those girls hoped that somehow their life might be viewed with the same compassion that Anne thinks the books shows towards my mother.

Raimond: (00:16:15) The thing that apart from all that being very moving for me in itself, much more moving than anything else that’s happened in regards to the book and has mattered to me much more than all the praise and so on that it has received is the fact that I, and this didn’t occur to me straight away…but afterwards I realized that I had managed to find a voice in that book that could speak to people who suffered really terrible affliction and in a way that didn’t condescend in any way to their affliction even though I made a bit of a joke about this fellow being quite mad actually, it was something that I know was true of my father that he could respond, and he responded to a friend of ours who was quite mad, a man called Vacek, and who was visibly mad: talked to himself, cooked in his urine and so on, without a trace of condescension.

Something I myself had consciously come to realize although I must have instinctively realized already as a boy, but consciously realized indeed after I had written the book and I was on a publicity tour with a couple of journalists from The Age and I took them to where Vacek had come to live amongst these two boulders that he had covered with bits of whatever, and one of them asked “Did Vacek appear weird to you as a kid?” and I said “No” and then afterwards I thought why the hell didn’t I think he was weird as a kid? He was. He was weird. And I realized then that it was because - and wasn’t just because my father ordered to… had responded to Vacek without a trace of condescension which if there had even been a trace of, I would have with a kind of cruel sensitivity that children have, had realized that Vacek wasn’t entirely one of us.  Even though I wouldn’t have liked to he was very kind to me, and he was always kind to me and obviously I would have liked him but I wouldn’t have been able to respond so spontaneously without thinking to that question –‘was he weird?’, by saying no. Had he of not appeared to me in the light that that my father’s behaviour cast on him. When I said before that I wrote in After Romulus an essay reflecting on what I had learned from my father then that was one of the most important things I had learned from my father and came to witness again in a much more dramatic form when I was a young man working in a psychiatric hospital.


Lucy: (00:19:33) In one sense, what a beautiful thought that the ideal reader and the most prized audience for your work is not a critic or a professor but is someone who that sense of affliction and the sense of being understood or compassionately viewed is most relevant to. I think it’s unsurprising having read the book, and you know read the stories of Hora and Romulus that that might be your ideal audience.

One thing that actually strikes me in that story you were telling is that it reminds me so much of Simone Weil and the, who is a sort of philosopher, activist, mystic who clearly has been a kind of constant thread in your work and you tell that story in A Common Humanity where you sort of reflect on her belief that compassion for the afflicted is miraculous and advance that distinction between the coldness and distance of egalitarianism and more complicated notion of goodness and I was wondering a) if you could tell us how you know you came across her and what she means to you and the way that she comes through in your work…


Raimond: (00:20:47) I came across her… I wasn’t interested in moral philosophy as a student. I went to England in fact to work on logic and metaphysics, moral philosophy I thought was tedious and I had no axe to grind about changing moral philosophy so… but someone had recommend to me Iris Murdoch’s book, ‘The Sovereignty of Good’ which I liked, but it never occurred to me that I would go on to do moral philosophy but she was very much influenced by Simon Weil and that then I read Simone Weil and I responded immediately to her because of what she says about affliction, and the reason I responded immediately to her was because of an experience, well there was my father of course and Vacek, and also because of the affliction I had seen in my father and a time when he came indeed to my school, I’ve told this story more in Romulus My Father, and my father was quite mad, he had been in a psychiatric hospital and he came looking evidently mad and I could perhaps read the description…


Nick: (00:22:29) Of course

Raimond: (00:22:29) … from the book, if I can find it I’m really bad at finding things. But my father came to visit me at the school with Vacek and this is how I write about in Romulus, My Father:

 “A few weeks later he visited me at school in Ballarat with Vacek. As soon as I saw him I knew that his illness had again overtaken him. He came dressed in a dishevelled navy pinstripe suit with a dirty white shirt open at the neck, the collar partly covered by the collar of his jacket. He seemed shrunken, stooped not with age, he was only 39, but with the burden of his affliction. Most startling was his face - thin, unshaven - his eyes not dead as is often the case with depression, but burning with the terror of his visions; all made worse by the fact that his almost shaven head made him look as though he had come from a concentration camp. Vacek walked beside him in a neatly shabby beige suit and open dirty shirt wearing as ever his beanie. He no longer had a beard and his open amiable face was covered in stubble. His eyes focused on no one, his lips were hardly ever still moving in sometime silent sometimes audible conversation with himself or imaginary partners. Afterwards the teacher asked me if one of the men had been my father. “No” I replied. I was later tormented with guilt and shame for having denied my father but I knew not quite for what I was ashamed because I also knew, that terrible though it was, my denial was not prompted by cowardness”.

When I think it is in After Romulus, I reflect on that passage because it is very dense there what with when I say it wasn’t guilt, I feel it was guilt and shame, and I think I was no longer able to see my father, his full humanity because of his affliction. What I was able to see in a boy in Vacek in which he enabled me to see. That deserted me by the time I myself was a teenager at school. And I’m sure that something like that is true, because it would be true that I would be astonished if the teachers who had been teaching don’t simply say that Ray was very embarrassed or something like that or felt embarrassed in front of his peers and although that probably played a part in it I think it went much deeper than that, and the deeper thing that’s revealed in something like that is as Simone Weil says, is that it is almost impossible to see the full humanity of someone who is radically, radically afflicted. And for that reason, it is almost impossible to respond to them without, with a compassion that is not in some way laced with condescension.


Lucy: (00:25:42) Yeah that a sort of a compassion that comes from a principled egalitarianism is not, cannot avoid being condescending…


Raimond: (00:25:50) Well it needn’t be that either; I don’t know if it will take up too much time to tell the story about that….


Nick: (00:25:52) It’s fine, yeah

Raimond: (00:25:53) Well when I was sixteen or seventeen, I can’t remember, I worked as a ward assistant in a psychiatric hospital for three months in a ward where people had been, some had been for twenty or thirty years and in the time that I was there not one of them had a visitor and they were treated really, really brutishly. If you have seen the film ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ then it was really a bit like that. But worse actually. And as an example of how brutish it could be, often when they sat in this sort of gravel yard under the one tree that provided a bit of shade and then soiled themselves as happens, and you’re really asked to just shove them under a shower and push prodding them into the shower with a mop and washing them down under that shower.

Simone Weil has a wonderful expression where at one stage she says that people who are radically afflicted that the silent cry that she says comes from the heart usually means people are hurt which is the cry ‘why am I being hurt?’, which is sometimes silent but it is never dead it’s just that they are struck with a dumb and mute lamentation that somehow characterises these people.

And they were treated brutishly by the nursing staff and by most of the psychiatrists but there was in that hospital a small group of psychiatrists who treated them well and who were ridiculed by their colleagues as being naive idealists and who were really stuffing things up really rather than making them better. But I, one of them in fact spoke to me, and it was the first time I heard the expression of the inalienable dignity of those people and I didn’t understand what that expression meant but it moved me.

So I was very, very impressed by these psychiatrists, by their compassion, by their preparedness to put up with ridicule, by how hard they worked. But one day a nun came into the ward, and at first there was nothing at all remarkable about her but when she started moving amongst the patients I was suddenly wonderstruck by the fact that her demeanour and her tone of voice when speaking to them revealed to me that she responded to them without a trace of condescension but the reason I was so struck by her was that I had still before my eyes even there so to speak the behaviour of the psychiatrists, whom I had so admired and I realised only when behaved as she did towards them, that they as - and I too had responded to these, patients with a kind of benign condescension.

 And that was, I tell this story in A Common Humanity and I try to tell it in other places because I keep trying to capture the right words in characterising my astonishment. I sometimes want to describe it as ‘an affront to reason.’ I wanted to emphasise that it’s not merely that reason can’t capture it because I think it is true of all morality actually that it’s not underwritten by reason, so I wouldn’t say look here is something that is astonishing because reason can’t capture. That’s why I sometimes use a word like affront to reason, or deeply and profoundly unnatural but there was an occupational therapist in that hospital and she I am mentioning her in response to your remarks about egalitarianism. She was a wonderfully, warm hearted woman and she was very, very kind when these patients came to occupational therapy but she too responded I realised again, only after being a witness to the nun’s behaviour, she too the occupational therapy responded with an element of condescension and when I describe her behaviour in After Romulus, I say I suspect she would have found it unintelligible that there was any other way properly to behave towards them and I suspect that she might have said to suggest that there was some other way to respond to them other than with a loving but benign condescension would be insulting to them because that’s the truth about their condition.

And she might even go on to say ‘how can you be so stupidly high-minded as to pretend anything else?’ And that, but so I tried so many times as to capture what was so astonishing and extraordinary about this and why I’ve referred to my own response to it as a kind of act of witness which I would never want to say about ordinary moral things even though I have spent a lot of time arguing that reason won’t underwrite our most basic moral concepts.

But because I’ve written about her in this way and because I talk and said that what she revealed if I wanted to talk about it would be the inalienable preciousness of people, these people. The reason I call it inalienable is because affliction can’t take it away. You’re not alienated from it by affliction, I’ve wanted to argue that in this kind of case what we call the inalienable dignity of human beings is revealed in fact in that kind of saintly love and the reason why I have in later on in my work, though I haven’t yet published it, I’m writing a book for Columbia University Press, have been so resistant now to talk of inalienable dignitary is because it is always inflected in an heroic key and in fact it has been used in political struggles against oppression precisely because of that heroic key.

And because it could, I want to say, it creates the illusion that no matter how, Simone Weil again has this expression that some people suffer such affliction that they are on the ground writhing on the ground like a half-crushed worm. That’s the position that people can be reduced to and to pretend that in that position they could open their shirts as it were, like Superman used to open, Clark Kent used to reveal the S but not an S, but a big D the Dignity, that though you’ve lost anything that people would call dignity and so manifestly they’ve lost it, that you’ve got a dignity that you can’t lose.

I think that’s an illusion, but a very noble illusion. But the concept of nobility itself is a concept in an heroic key and this what I learnt in this hospital that those people weren’t, whatever was - however you might respond to the nuns’ behaviour it wasn’t revealing that the heroic dimension as such…because of this people have thought I’m a closet Christian…

But I keep saying I’m not religious and -  though I do think that it probably is part of Christian history and the deeds of saintly love that we have been able to affirm such, what would seem a kind of ridiculous thing, to affirm anything beyond what this wonderful social - occupational therapist that there could be something beyond.

But because I think it is so astonishing, I wouldn’t want to criticise the occupational therapist. I think in A Common Humanity that I actually say the nun’s behaviour showed up the psychiatrist. I would not say that any longer, because that sounds like a criticism of them. And it doesn’t capture as it were, the distance and it makes the sound as though that they are on the line and the nun is a little further on the line. A superwoman of compassion whereas they were just ordinary mortals, the occupational therapist a little lower and the nursing staff. Wouldn’t that be, the idea that she is on a line, really high up on a line, is for me, mistakes the character of her compassion.  

But the other reason this is why I mentioned before that it is important to my sense of things that I was born in Germany is that I am married to a Jewish wife and there is hardly a day goes by in my life, where I’m not conscious of the fact that in the lifetime of my parents, they would have been eliminated as though were vermin unfit to inhabit the Earth and that was made possible in part, not in but certainly a significant part by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and so for me to be tempted to Christianity let’s say would be for me a betrayal of my Jewish family.


Lucy: (00:37:16) I’m just reflecting on the fact that this whole process of you know this book and line of thinking and what you became to the public began with a simple eulogy as well. And what I wonder about that is in a eulogy who do you think the audience is – is it the dead or the living?


Raimond: (00:37:45) That’s an interesting question I’ve never thought of. Well let me first of all say I think you can, the dead can be an audience, and I’ve tried to argue in my work that the dead can be irreducibly the object of our obligations our pity and so on, and that we are not to all think that this depends on any belief in their having survived their death or anything like that. And people are tempted of course when you say well of course I don’t believe they have survived their death. They’re going to say what you are really talking about is the memory of the dead, not the dead, in some way or a rather. If you admit that they are gone, how can they be the object of your pity? To which I simply say is to say that they are gone is to say they are dead. This is always a really interesting exercise with students actually in seminars, I write on the blackboard “Can the dead be harmed?” And then students will always say of course they can’t be harmed if they are dead, and I mean if course if they in some way survived then they might be harmed they said but they can’t feel anything. I said well that’s true, but dead isn’t missing out on the black board, can the dead be harmed?

Then they say well how can they be upset by anything? They can’t be upset, they’re dead. So the tendency was always to say, to object that the idea that the dead could be the irreducible object of the same obligation or pity; it will always be saying how can you pity them if they are dead they can’t feel anything, to which you say of course they don’t feel anything, they are dead. It was a very, very interesting exercise because their thought was the dead could not be the irreducible objects of our thoughts or our obligations or our pity unless they weren’t really dead. And, but of course, to the Ancient Greeks it wasn’t because they believed in the Gods that they pitied Achilles when he was, sorry Hector when he was being dragged around the walls.  So, in answer to your question I’d say it when you’re giving a eulogy it is very important that you honour the dead and what that demands by way of, well it is that you don’t dishonour the dead….


Lucy: (00:40:57) But not necessarily because they can feel?


Raimond: (00:40:58)

I want to say that doesn’t mean dishonour their memory. Or let me put it this way, if you are dishonouring their memory that is by saying things that are untruthful about them. What’s wrong about that is that it you are dishonouring them. What the consequences of that are for truth telling in a eulogy, people can argue about it I think everybody is pre pared in the case of a eulogy to allow a little latitude for the exaggeration of virtue. But there comes a point in which, if for the sake of your audience, your eulogy is quite untruthful. There are others that want to say, the person for whom that eulogy has been given, is reading to someone.

 Lucy: (00:42:00) In the eulogy that you gave for your father, did you feel that you had the opportunity to have said those things or were they understood between you before his death or in some sense?


Raimond: (00:42:15)

No, I don’t think they were. It was a kind of revelation to many, actually.  My father and I, and I don’t try to hide this in Romulus, My Father, had sometimes a tempestuous relationship. But the fact that the tribute I paid him came out so spontaneously and I think truthfully. I asked Hora after I wrote the book what he thought of the book and he said “he tells the truth” which for me was very, very important so now it was a kind of revelation.

Nick: (00:43:09) The thing for me about the end of the book, is when you are saying to your father in German you know I love you mein father, I love you mein father and the last words that essentially your father heard before he passed on, there is that sort of small indication of the love that you bore for your father which didn’t fully become I suppose manifested and fleshed out until you wrote the eulogy and then the memoir and the book that we have here which is a work of non-fiction and it is a huge gesture to honour the memory of your father but I think even in that - those sort of final moments with your father, and that understood affection and love that you had while living that strikes me as being mould breaking I think in a lot of Australian society in which you know relationships between men especially between fathers and sons or friends are often are almost sort of exclusively sort of non-emotional, you know we sort of are afraid to step into that space and one of the amazing things that I think your work has done in selling so many copies and becoming so sort of widely known and part of the lore of Australia and even it’s been translated as well is, to go back to Lucy’s point as well about intended audience, given your father is of a life beyond death through memory but also helped to expand the possibilities of masculinity I think.

Raimond: (00:44:31) Well I hadn’t thought of that. It certainly wasn’t my intention to do it and if anything as I have already indicated witting Romulus, My Father has made it absolutely clear to me that authors aren’t the best people and certainly their views on their books of this kind and can’t be authoritative. In a book of philosophy if someone says I don’t think this argument is any good I will say alright well tell me why, and either accept that its not or argue that it is and it is relatively simple.

In a book of Romulus My Father, you know if someone says to me well I find your writing about your mother you know quite cold, which some people have said then I can - the only thing I can say is well I hope that you’re wrong and say that others don’t find it but there is nothing I can do, which is the equivalent of saying tell me why you think this item is not a valid argument. Or tell me why you think the facts are not as I planned them to be or whatever. So, my father was not in himself a physically affectionate man, certainly not to me, and I think I am a physically affection person and quite, my wife keeps saying to me ‘how come You emerged like this?’ But, I there are all sorts of ways in which he, I knew that he expressed his love for me very deeply all through my life so I was never unsure of his love and on the one occasion I said you don’t love me and he was really upset and said do you mean that?  And I said I did mean it but it was only because I wanted to upset him not because I did mean it.

Nick (00:47:01) One of the more I think extraordinary aspects of Romulus as both text and film, is the depiction and poetic descriptions of what are sort of conventionally understood to be quite harsh central Victorian landscapes where you and your family found yourselves. So can you reflect on this further in naturalistic and poetic terms, so what is it about this landscape that I guess impelled you, you know to write about it in ways I haven’t sort of come across in a lot of Australian literature but also how you know this distinctive country fostered in you a sense of the beautiful, the sublime, and the transcendent along with a sense of home and belonging in Australia, while it was such a different case for your mother and father in that it sort of persisted as a reminder of their own displacement from their homeland in Europe perhaps rendering them as a stranger in a strange land as it were?


Raimond: (00:47:58) Yeah, yes well a sense of how that countryside can appear on a Summer’s day to someone from Europe or England, and in this case I am talking about an English person. I went with my German cousin and her English husband to where the house had stood, Frogmore, where I grew up and the husband is quite a laconic, not at all an emotionally expressive lad, boy from Birmingham and we were standing there and he leant against a fence post and I thought he was just resting but he was looking at the remains of the house and I looked at him and I saw tears in his eyes and afterwards he said I thought how hard it would have been for your mother. So for a laconic lad from Birmingham who would be very reluctant generally to express his emotions or even to say I don’t know if he has said, I hope he has said to my cousin ‘I love you’. He might find even that hard let’s say.

To become tearful and need the support of a fence post when he saw how harsh this landscape was and how hard it must have been for a young woman from a German City who was in love with culture in all sorts of ways, to live there. For me, I think partly because I grew up there with such freedom. Able to ride my father’s motorbike when I was eleven, all over the place. I’m sure it was in part because at eleven years old I had an epiphany. When I went to shoot some rabbits. All my friends had killed rabbits, they were real pests and you would get two shillings for a pair or something like that. I was a bit embarrassed by the fact that I was not that kind of country boy so I thought, I took my father’s rifle and his motorbike and drove to this spot and walked up this hill and that was about five o’clock on a summer’s afternoon and the sun lit up the long yellow grasses, that was swaying in the wind and it was a rocky sort of landscape, they are very impressive boulders everywhere too, and I just suddenly fell in love with it. As I say inRomulus, My Father it was, I was awakened with a kind of shock to the natural world.

(00:51:35) It harks back to that Iris Murdoch sort of notion of transcendence through nature as well

Raimond: (00:51:40) Yeah I don’t know, yeah…I rather regret using the word transcendent at that point because it can carry sort of mystical overtones and I’m not so sure that I want and I don’t want it to feed into people’s ideas that I’m really a closet Christian.

So but, an expression that I have used, though not in that passage but I think later when I talk about sailing with Hora on Cairn Curran and my sense of the natural world then, was it-it it awakened in me a kind of love of the world.Which I sometimes called unconditional, though of course it is not unconditioned, it’s conditioned by all sorts of things but unconditional in that it’s not based on a simple assessment of whether things are going well in the world or whether they are not going well in the world and it seems to be one of the most important things if one can encourage in young people, a love of the world. One which, because one never knows what the future is going to be like. One never knows whether one is going end up living in a dark age, where the amount of evil in the world makes you curse the day you were born. And that’s why on one hand it may sound airy fairy, but on the hand and this can be done actually through, it’s not just the natural world, it can be done through art for example.

In the Philosophers Dog I quote Pablo Casals talking about that every morning for eighty years he says, he would go to the piano and play a prelude or fugue of Bach. He said he calls it a kind of benediction on the house and says it reminds him I think his phrase is, of the incredible marvel of being a human being and says there’s not a day when he hasn’t been awakened with a fresh amazement of the beauty of nature.

So in that absolutely wonderful passage which is so obviously written in the key of gratitude you have the connection of the natural world or the human world. I mean the incredible marvel of being a human being, it’s not just nature. You could never imagine such a person, the person who wrote that passage being a misanthrope for example and that is very important because there are people, especially these days with climate change being such a terrible threat to human kind, there are increasing numbers of people becoming misanthropic saying that it’s the human beings that have fucked everything up. And, I mean there is transhumanism, posthumanism, in all sort of ways, the ethically reflective ways in which we talk about humanity like in the expression “a common humanity” being in one way or another undercut.

And-so what I think is wonderful about that passage from Casals is it brings together if you like the transcendent, but all I mean by this now is that it transcends any assessment of whether the good in the world is outweighing the bad in the world. That’s all I would really mean by that. And I’ve sometimes quoted in disconnection this passage, Wittgenstein’s remark on his death bed he says to his doctor tell them, meaning his friends, that it’s been a wonderful life. And the person who reports this Norm - a student of his, Norman Malcolm in his memoir, says how moved but also surprised he was that Wittgenstein would say that because in many ways his life was an unhappy one, but what’s clear it seemed to me from the way it is written and also other things one knows about Wittgenstein that he wasn’t making an assessment of his life, he wasn’t saying something which would make it logically or conceptually appropriate to say, even if it might be presumptuous, but still conceptually appropriate to say “come on Wittgenstein are you sure it was wonderful? I mean really, realistically it was hard to say it was good.”

That’s so it wasn’t it was as much as, as much as Casals it was a reflection of gratitude for his life and again one can see by the parody that I’ve just made is not vulnerable to a line of working out you know how much good there was in it and there is a point in which you say for god’s sake it must have been absolutely miserable


Lucy: (00:57:30) I was just remembering the final tweet “It’s all been bloody marvellous”…

Nick: (00:57:37) Um Mark…

Lucy: (00:57:39) This is the problem his last name was escaping me and he used to host PM and the sound…


Nick: (00:57:44) Mark Colvin!

Lucy: (00:57:46) Mark Colvin, yeah, his final tweet you know and he was such a prolific user of twitter so apologies for lowering us from the sublime to the tweeting. Bu the same sentiment came through I think sort of, and his last few years have not been bloody marvellous or anything close to it…

Nick: (00:58:02) The last two decades really, he suffered from chronic illnesses, was in hospital a lot but it also reminded me of Oliver Sacks, an American I think British actually, who one of the final books he published was called Gratitude simply, but at the end of his life, and I think he died a prolonged death from cancer, was an overwhelming feeling he had of gratitude for being a sentient being on this marvellous blue planet I think that sort of sentiment is echoed in Colvin but also through what you referenced there as well.

Lucy: (00:58:37) But you’re writing a book about gratitude or around the theme…

Raimond: (00:58:40) It’s a book about people who really matter to me and it’s called, it’s going to be called Portraits in Love and Gratitude and most of the people are unknown to the world. I mean some are philosophers who have been who, but then its not biographies of them. In one way it could almost be an intellectual biography, autobiography.

Lucy: (00:59:15) In saying that, I think one of the things that about Romulus, My Father that has always struck me is that, it’s this form of moral education that seems so rare, particularly in this day and age in the sense that it-it uses the lives of real people which is something that you have sort of spoken about; Hora emphasising and believing that it was very important that you tell stories of real men and women who have lived in order to understand qualities of goodness and virtue. That part of it has always seemed, very sort of  different to the time in which we live and also the fact that it celebrates lives that were not lived on a grand scale either, and you know it doesn’t celebrate people who achieve celebrity or fame or power and it doesn’t occur in a fantasy world, it doesn’t use sort of religious figures; it tells those stories. Do you feel that that is a form of moral education that is lacking or that we could use more of?


Raimond: (01:00:16) Well I think we learn through being moved by examples that strike us as authoritative. And I don’t think we learn morality from a set of principles. I don’t think my father had any principles actually, he is often described as a man of strong and often rigid, rather rigid principles…


Nick: (01:00:53) Moral severity, or severe judgement you said?


Raimond: (01:00:56 It could be morally severe and one of the things that I learned from him, that you could be morally severe without being judgemental. And moral philosophy is obsessed with praise and blame you know, philosophy students studying freedom of the will, and they say ‘God, if the will is not free you can’t blame anyone.’ You know, really?  

 As if the worst thing in the world is that you should not be able to blame; who needs your praise anyway? That was a very important lesson that I learnt from my father that there could be such a thing as you know, a kind of severe pity for somebody. Severe because it was insistent that a moral description of their conduct, that was the case, that they had done something morally bad and terrible and even, but the appropriate attitude might be, or certainly some peoples’ attitude just is one of sorrow or pity for that person. And that is partly why I think I was moved to say in Romulus, My Father that I compared, what I compared, my father to Socrates but that he shared the Socratic belief that it is better to suffer evil than to do it.

 Socrates did claim the same dialogue in which enunciated that that evil doers are necessarily miserable and pitiable. And emphasise it necessarily because, not because, of anything else I will suffer. And there is in fact a wonderful moment of that dialogue which philosophers often miss because it is a literary moment, or I mean what is powerful, is its literary quality where Socrates has enunciated the idea that it is better to suffer evil than do it. Which his interlocutors are just incredulous that anybody could think of something so stupid and one of them Polus, says to him “Come on now this is Tired Arcalaus and he’s done terrible things, he got the power by putting his brother down the well, murdering his brother and but everything is fine. You’re going to tell me that he is miserable and pitiful.” And Socrates replies, “I don’t know, I don’t know how he stands in regard to good and evil.” I take it he means by pathos but I don’t know if your description of him is true, not that I don’t know if it were true, then it would…


Lucy: (01:03:36) How to judge those actions…

Raimond: (01:03:40) And Polus, so having said I don’t know how he stands in relation to good and evil, Polus says with shock “What, it depends just on that?” and Socrates says “Yes just” and this is the moment of great pathos in the dialogue which gets missed because it is a moment of great pathos, because what most commentators what Socrates means is that in the end if you lack virtue you won’t flourish. And there is even a myth at the end of the Gorgias about the afterlife and so on but Plato was a great artist and he wouldn’t have a moment of such wonder - extraordinary pathos - and then undermine it by saying at the end if you don’t cop it in this life you will cop it in the next. That would be a complete failure.

So Socrates did actually-actually think that if you really understood what it was, if you really understood the evil that you were confronted with and the deeds of a particular person, if you really understood that then you would pity that person. 

Now that is a very strong point that is conditional as it were upon understanding that you pity the person. But you can make a, there is a weaker version of the point, which is we know that say mothers or fathers or parents, sorrow that if their children if they have done something wrong and terrible, just because they have done something wrong and terrible.

And if they are lacking in remorse then they will sorrow even more. So it’s not that they are sorrowing because they are remorseful, and unhappy and miser-miserable in that sense, or and it’s not that they are sorrowing because they fear as a matter of fact other consequences will follow which might be the case. They sorrow because they have become terrible wrongdoers. And a person who is seriously remorseful, it’s not that the person sorrows for himself because that would be self-pity and inconsistent with the serious remorse but that person is shocked.

I mean I’ve often written that the characteristic expressions of remorse are boiled and shocked recognition of oneself as a wrongdoer. It’s a form of understanding, not an emotional response to the fact that you violated a principle for example, or not an emotional response to an independently characterizable understanding of wrongdoing. It’s an expression of that understanding. And so, so much of my work has been trying to emphasise that it’s through coming to fully understand certain kinds of examples with which what’s confronting.

But of course, you have to reflect on the fact that you are moved by those examples, you can’t just accept it. But it would be naive because you might be moved because you are sentimental or given to pathos or goodness knows why. But want I’ve wanted to emphasise in my work is that it is not enough, if somebody says look you need rationally to assess how you are moved I want to say well of course you do but the concept of a rational assessment doesn’t exhaust the critical concepts you have to deploy in that assessment. You might have been irrational, but more often actually the reason we are moved when we shouldn’t be moved, is not because we are being irrational it’s because we are being given to kitsch, we are tone deaf – deaf to tone. And I’ve wanted to argue against philosophers like for example Peter, Peter Singer who you interviewed…

Lucy: (01:08:05) Several episodes back


Raimond: (01:08:07)

But there is a vey narrow conception of reason. It’s not that I want to say reasoning – my point is that reason has its limits and that we give over to emotion, I want to say there is no such thing as reason. There is thinking well and thinking badly, that’s what there is. And-and whether you’re thinking well or badly depends on what you are thinking about; what kind of concepts govern thinking about this or that, domain of reflection and if you come out of the theatre and say “Gosh I never - I’ve really come to see something. I’ve never understood this before, or sort of understood it but not so deeply” then I might say to you “yeah, I know you feel that, you are always yielding to your sentimentality, every time we go to the theatre together you come out saying this and this and this”. 

Now I might be right and I might be wrong, but that’s a concept that needs to come into play in a critical assessment of how we are moved by art of one… in one. And what’s striking if you do any course in moral philosophy in the English speaking word anywhere, there will be lots of talk about reason, objectivity, are moral judgements true, are they false, are they objective, are they not objective, and all that but you won’t hear a discussion of what do concepts like -  you are being sentimental, you have yielded to pathos, what role do they play in our assessment of you thinking badly or well or badly? Of whether to take the big Socratic category of whether you are being legitimately persuaded or whether you are being illegitimately taken to it, even if it’s a true belief. I - ….


Raimond: (01:10:02) …I just wanted to emphasise that because I don’t want in any way to be taken as someone who is a kind of irrationalist…


Lucy: (01:10:11) Yeah or an advocate for a false distinction of between reason and emotion or something along those lines…


Raimond: (01:10:15) … no. And I’d say let’s get rid of the concept of reason. Rationality has its place, a limited place, it’s really important. I take it as just obvious that you have to try and be rational I take it should be obvious too if we actually reflect on the concept with which we assess whether we have been rightly persuaded to believe something or to make a claim to understanding something more believable but we need other concepts as well as they say. And when people get moved by someone like Trump, someone, it’s not just because reason has deserted them and been thrown into a ditch, it’s because they yield.


Nick: (01:10:58) At the outset of Romulus you cite Plato, who said that those who love and seek wisdom are clinging in recollection to things that they once saw. You go on to list how many of the virtues and qualities of character that defined your life, you learned from observing and emulating both your father and Hora. South African novelist JM Coetzee later noted that Romulus comes to serve as a lifelong moral compass to you, and via you, to us as readers. This is all neatly encapsulated by the image of the bees being given life by light and heat, which frames the film. This is reminiscent of Plato’s famous analogy of the Sun. Where the Sun is representative of the life giving Good which is kind of what Romulus and Hora were like to you. Could you reflect on Plato’s influence on your writing and life?


Raimond: (01:11:42) Well there are a number of issues there. One is the metaphor of vision and light of the Sun. And in fact someone else is, wants to wrote a book about my work, which I think is, the title is going to be something like ‘Seeing…’ I don’t know ‘Seeing the World as Rai Gaita does’, or something. Anyway the thing is, the emphasis is on seeing. And in a way, I look, it is very natural to say see the world this way or and in fact I say I came to see Vacek in the light of, light cast….


Nick: (01:12:31) Yes, you did say that.


Raimond: (01:12:34) But I’ve never had, I really want to emphasis speech. Cos I think I, I learnt from my father and from Hora and through their conversation what it was to be able, to be someone who has something to say and that conversation, as in the loaded sense in which we speak of conversation, you say, “the last time I had a real conversation with somebody,  the last I really found someone to talk to”; through my father and Hora, but especially through Hora actually I realised how fundamental the possibility of such conversation, how fundamental too the possibility of such conversation is the idea of what I’m calling, what I’ve called ‘a call to seriousness.’

That no matter what, how light-hearted a conversation may be, anything - at any time - something could come out and someone might say “for god’s sake, how could you say that? I never believed you would say such a thing” and then there has to be a response to that and I called it an individuating response; you are really called then to speak out of your mind because you can’t just say anything if someone says “for god sakes stop talking over the top of you” now, it literally matters.

 Kierkegaard has this wonderful expression of living your life, your own life, and nobody else’s. And when you call somebody to seriousness, that is what you are asking them to do and it’s a place for the idea of authenticity. I actually think that this gets quasi-technical, if you are asked what gives normative authority to concepts like sentimentality when they function as criticisms of thought not feeling. If you come out of the theatre and say “I came to understand something”, and I say “yeah you think you did, you’re just being sentimental”, I’m not criticising your feeling I’m criticising what you now claim to believe.

Nick: (01:15:15) Yep

Raimond: (01:15:16) So if you ask, what gives normative authority to that, the question being analogous to what gives normative authority to the concept of irrational, or what gives normative authority to a concept of an invalid inference; well I I’d want to say what I am calling ‘a call to seriousness’ is partly what constitutes the normative authority of those concepts, those critical concepts by which I mean concepts which we use to assess whether we are thinking well or badly. So in that sense conversation becomes utterly fundamental to the kinds of assessment for example, of our response to someone’s example.  So when Aristotle says if you want to know what the justice is look to the just man but implicitly, I don’t know if he says it, but implicitly of course there is you have to have eyes to see.

It’s so natural how the metaphor of vision functions there but I would want to say when you are moved by someone you think to be just and you ask yourself have you  been rightly moved or have you ben conned by their charismatic personality; then it’s no good looking, then you have to reflect. So I disagree, I disagree very much with Iris Murdoch about this when she says there are two big metaphors in philosophy, the metaphor of vision and metaphor of movement. That might be historically right, but you know her big example of this which has become really famous is in a kind of polemic against Wittgenstein’s private language argument. She gives the example of a women reflecting on her daughter in law and the woman is M and the daughter in law is D, and M had thought that D was always a bit vulgar, a bit noisy and a bit this and a bit that and the example is of M just through reflection and attention but nothing else, changing her view of D.

But of course, I mean, what Murdoch doesn’t think of here is of what D might think of M re: thinking, D might come up and say “for God’s sake you are so fucking arrogant. First of all you thought I was a stroppy bore, now you think I’m this and that, none of it with talking to me, you could’ve come up to me and said hey what ab-… anyway you could of” to put it in my language “you could have called me to a certain kind of serious when you are just there fuming over what you thought to be my vulgarity.” But then you get away from, you get into dialogue.

Lucy: (01:18:46)

So the call to seriousness almost always necessitates conversation or a neces- 


Raimond: (01:18:50) Yeah I gave an example of this in After Romulus when talking about Hora where, do you know…


Lucy: (01:19:00) I do, I’ve been wrestling with the essays in After Romulus all week and this is one of the ones that I’m really glad that you’re actually talking about it because it’s interesting and it’s a nuanced point as well…


Raimond: (01:19:12) Hora had fled from Communism and he thought it was very, I think rightly thought, it was a brutal regime and he also thought as many people did, whether Communism is right or wrong, but he thought that other, that the Communists infiltrated the trade union movement and various other things and when I was a student I was attracted to quite radical left wing politics in fact I flirted with joining the communist party and I had a guitar and I went; Hora and I were living in the same house, renting rooms in the same house and I went to his kitchen and said “do you want to hear a song?” and he said “yeah fine” so I played this song, the union song: “the scabs crawl in, the scabs crawl out, the scabs crawl over and all about”.

And he lost his temper and said “so this is what university education does, don’t you know that the union has been infiltrated by the communists and don’t you know what brutal mass murderers the communists have been or in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.” And he knew of course that I knew, because he had told me. And he didn’t speak to me for about three months though we were in the same house, and though I went into his kitchen a number of times trying to… It’s natural to take this simply as an example of a man turning his back, saying “I won’t speak to you again” in that tone. I’m quite sure it wasn’t that, it was just Hora felt if I could be so superficial as not to care that I was singing the praises of mass murderers or people associated with mass murderers who themselves didn’t care about the mass murderers, if I could be so superficial – what could we ever talk about?

Because and you might say, we could talk about all sorts of other things about which of course, is true. But the point I wanted to make about conversation is we might-we might talk about anything, but it might come up at a certain point where we, someone says “well how could you think that?” So he thought that what he had valued so much in our relationship, he thought had at least for some time, been made impossible because he thought I could never be brought to a seriousness because I had revealed myself to be so superficial about something so fundamentally important as the lives of thousands of people. So even a chat about sailing on Cairn Curran or but even that, we couldn’t even talk about that, that had been so morally and deeply important to him.

So if, let’s say just imagine that if we were to reminisce about the days on Cairn Curran, it would be a kind of reminiscence in bad faith from his perspective because he would think that whatever he might have thought I got from that clearly I hadn’t.


Lucy: (01:23:15) That you had missed what he had tried to impart?


Raimond: (01:23:17) So I think he was literally incapable of he thought it was ethically impossible to have a certain kind of conversation, but not that he would to angrily turn his back on me.


Lucy: (01:23:33) The notion of a call to seriousness and the way that that relates to the ability to converse and have dialogue, I’m curious if you try to take that notion and expand its scope to public dialogue or to the way we have debates with each other in societies?


Raimond: (01:23:53)  Yeah, in fact I do want to claim. Well take the recent election where people who think of themselves as progressives have been accused of a kind of condescension to people in QLD and people in the mining communities, and, well let me tell a story that I think I have written about in a quarterly essay.

When I was writing The Philosopher’s Dog, I was renting a cottage out in the country and I’d go into the Pub and have a meal and talk to people and it was a time of the Tampa Crisis and so inevitably we would start talking about boat arrivals and things like that and it was the time that children had been behind  razor wire for up to four, five years. So the discussion would always go “you cant have queue numbers can you? Obviously you have to have an immigration policy you cant just let anybody in and so on”. And I’d say “yes, yes it’s a complex thing and of course you can’t just let anybody in but do you think if we can possibly tolerate a policy which has children behind the razor wire watching adults sew their lips and some adults trying to commit suicide?” and they’d say “well, yes but you can have queue jumpers and if you let the kids” and so on and so on.

And often this would be standing up, up at a bar, and so there is the physical aspect is important actually because what I found interesting is was, when I’d say “yes but let’s just focus on the children” they would shuffle from one foot to the other and look away and this was back then a call to seriousness. I’d say stop, just look at me and tell me can you have a policy? And they would say “in the end, no we can’t”. And then I’d say well what about the adults now, and again I know we can let anybody in but need we have a policy as cruel as this one is to them? And it would be the same thing and it was always - actually quite literally getting them to stand still and look into your face and talk about the embodied nature of conversation, necessarily embodied nature of the possibility of conversation. So now, when I heard someone, a miner in QLD say “look I have to eat, I have to have a job, my kid have to have a job my grandchildren need to have a job”, there must have been then , of course there was a possibility of someone saying “hey  but we understand this, but think too of what will happen to your grandchildren if what people say about climate change.” There is the, I think of democratic politics as always envisioning the possibility of coining a fellow citizen to seriousness. To say “hey look we, you voted for this, it really buggers me up if this were to happen.” Like this is what the miners says. They were wanting to call people down South…

Lucy: (01:27:54) …To call progressives to seriousness


Raimond: (01:27:55) Yes its like but who do you think you are? You come up you roll in with your caravan and god knows what - so anyway, the tone of this person who say was, well look I need a job, my children need a job; he was, that was a call to seriousness which should have been, which  has to be answered. So I think of democratic politics as being a politics in which you can imagine your fellow citizens and this is what is constitutive of them as your fellow citizens as people being that you could, at least in principle if you were to meet them and above call them to seriousness.


Nick: (01:28:37) Now we are fast running out of time so I think this is a very profound and thought provoking moment to end the interview on. Raimond Gaita thank you so much for being here with us today.

Paul Monk on Poetry and Living with Meaning and Authenticity

Transcript of interview below ^_^

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In this podcast, Dr Paul Monk and Nick Fabbri discuss the nature of poetry, the origins of music and language, and how to live life with meaning and authenticity.

Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China

Melbourne, 3 August 2019

Melbourne, 3 August 2019

Interview with Dr Paul Monk

Saturday 3 August, 2019

Paul Monk on Poetry and Living with Meaning and Authenticity


00:00 Paul:  

[Chopin Nocturne in B Flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1]

LXXX: Listening to Chopin

The combination of protracted convalescence,

Bouts of exhaustion halting all my projects,

Melancholy news of Venezuela

And wintry thoughts of my relentless aging;

Have me, lately, turning down the lights

And listening intently to some Chopin -

Chiefly to his nocturnes, late at nights -

And feeling deeply privileged, overall,

To be myself, disposed oneirically,

Equipped with such advanced technology;


To have the scope, in quiet, private space,

The means, the education and good grace,

The access to such high fidelity

Recordings, by the Warsaw Philharmonic;

But, not least, our love, my bold, creative muse,

My own George Sand, with her cigars and trousers –

At least if we see them as metonyms –

Whose novels outsold those of Victor Hugo;

Who’s been with me to lakes up in the mountains

And taken her composer to Mallorca.


Yet Chopin never wrote a book on China,

Or a book of thirty essays on the West;

Or a book of sonnets, set in B Flat minor;

Or political opinions in the press.

There’s much, in short, that Frederic didn’t do,

Even with Amanthe Lucile Dupin,

That I’ve done, in my fleeting years with you

And, having cheated death, perhaps still can.

But when I’m gone, if your lone psyche yearns

For all we were, read these – my own nocturnes.


01:50 Nick: That was the opening bars of Frederick Chopin's Nocturne in B Flat minor, Op. 9 No. 1, and Paul Monk reciting his recent poem Listening to Chopin.


01:58 You're joining us on Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, featuring conversations with people who have led meaningful, interesting and flourishing lives in order to better understand ourselves, each other and the world around us.


02:11 My name is Nick and today I'm talking with Paul Monk: poet, essayist, scholar of history and international relations and former senior intelligence analyst of at the Defence Intelligence Organisation, and author of ten books.


02:23 Now, Paul, today I'd like to talk with you about why you write poetry, how you write it and why anyone reads poetry at all. Can we perhaps begin by having you explain what lead you to write the poem you just recited?


02:34 Paul:   Yes, I had been convalescent for some time after a prolonged battle with metastatic cancer. So, I still get quite a bit of fatigue and for three nights in a row prior to writing this poem, I was feeling particularly tired. So, at nights I would put on those Chopin Nocturnes and turn out the lights and lie back in a recliner and just listen to the music to relax before retiring for the night.


03:00 On the third night, it occurred to me that to be able to do this at all was a privileged thing. It was a beautiful thing. It was expressive of my whole way of being and the way my life has worked out, and because I'd been writing quite a bit of poetry, that thought suggested itself to me as a poem.


03:21 So, I thought - because I often do this - okay, I'll take that thought with me to bed. I'll sleep on it and in the morning, the poem will arise, which indeed it did. The beauty of it is that I began, as the listeners will have noted, by simply describing what had happened that night in the opening stanza. Then, the poem began to unfold and I had the idea of my muse, my wife - my partner in life - being like Chopin's muse, George Sand.


03:51 So, I drew metaphors from their relationship and having done that, the third stanza occurred to me because I thought, you know, I've done quite a few things too and Chopin didn't do those things. So, the poem emerged like that. It wasn't mechanically produced and it was only right at the end that I realised as I say in the final couple of lines, that actually these poems, including this one, are my own Nocturnes. So, I think it turned out - you might say 'nocturned out' rather nicely.


04:20 Nick: Ha, ha. So, you've written quite a bit of poetry over the years and the last several last decades actually. Could you sort of talk us through what got you started and what that process was like?


04:29 Paul: Yes, and the shortest possible answer is that it was a very prolonged process. I, when I was very young, wanted to live you might say a poetic life. I had encountered little bits of poetry. In my personal case, the richest encounter was the poems in the Lord of the Rings but there were other things that influenced me to imagine what it would be like to have a life that was actually suffused with poetry, and that included very coloured pictures in children's books which I had when I was a small child or other stories, adventure stories that I'd read, or history books which were about the big, wide world.


05:11 But it took me a long time before I wrote any poetry that I felt was actually quite good and it took me decades before I had the confidence to write poems about almost anything that occurred to me as meaningful or moving which is what I'm able to do now.


05:28 I think part of the problem was that nobody around me when I was young wrote poetry. Very few people read poetry and certainly nobody at school, no English teacher at school ever said, "How do you write poetry? Let's write poetry."


05:44 I think some people are introduced to it at school. I was not. So, I was really on my own and I felt eccentric for a number of years because I thought I want to write poems and I like poems but they seem like they're from another culture, another time and place, they're just in old books and it's an odd thing to do. So, it's taken quite a while...


06:03 Nick: They're quite a structured disciplined thing as well, to do it well.


06:05 Paul: It is. It's a skill, like any other. I mean, we refer to Chopin in that first poem there and how did Chopin become a great pianist? Well, by a lot of practice, and he lived in a culture where people did that kind of thing but it still took a lot of practice. It is said that he was very good at improvising at the piano but he agonised over turning it into a composition. That's the work of creativity and certainly poetry is the same but I've gone from a child who longed to do it, to an adolescent and young adult who fumbled in trying to do it, to a man of mature years who is now increasingly comfortable in doing it and finds it very satisfying.


06:43 I might give us an example, if I may. A poem that was written very recently refers us back to when I was a little boy. I talked about coloured pictures in children’s book and this poem is about coloured pictures in a particular book I was given when I was only about six or seven years old.


07:00 It was a children’s book about the life of Marco Polo, and the images from it and the story that it told made an indelible impression on me as the poem relates. It's simply called Little Marco.



I: Little Marco

The picture books of Lawrence Peach -

John Kenney’s pictures chiefly -

Filled my childish mind with coloured dreams

Of exotic countries and far off times –

Beginning with Marco Polo.


Travelling much, in intervening years,

I’ve marvelled, more than ever, as an elder,

At his images of Caesar and of Alfred;

Of Harry at Agincourt, Nelson at Trafalgar –

But, not least, of little Marco Polo.


The very opening pages show the boy

Crouching nimbly on the Venetian docks,

At the age I was when gaping first at him;

Looking with round-eyed wonder

At Chinese characters on a bale of silk.


‘Little Marco Polo,’ Peach intoned,

‘Whose father was a merchant, often stared

At the queer Chinese or Arabic writing’,

Pondering, as did I, from whence

These bales of wonder had derived.


Niccolo, his father, brought the bales

From the rim of the Euxine Sea,

Which Jason crossed, in fables, long ago;

But they’d come from farther, Peach related:

On the longest road from the farthest Eastern lands.


The ancient Silk Road led to Xanadu,

To the awesome Mongol courts of Kublai Khan

And there, Peach showed, the youthful Marco went

While I, all eyes, went with him on his journey

And, aye, have done, on all my travels since.


08:29 Nick: Yep. One thing that strikes me about that poem is the sense of wonderment and playfulness of the language and I suppose the child-like perspective. Could you reflect on the differences in your relationship to poetry when you were at the foothills of life to your perspective now, both in terms of the types of poetry you find fascinating and interesting and engaging now and I suppose the different levels of comprehension and understanding you have, having lived over, you know, five decades or so?


08:58 Paul: Yes. The first thought that springs to mind in answer to your question is that of course when you're very young, you're only beginning to master language itself, so you might exclaim joyously, you might have a lot of free emotion but you don't have a sophisticated vocabulary or capacity to express yourself.


09:17 Nick: The language lasso around a thought or feeling...


09:19 Paul: Yeah, you know, and you try and do it but there's a lot of learning to do. When you get to my age now - I'm in my sixties - it's very different if you've pursued education and been working at poetry, where you find and increasingly you have a superfluity of the capacity to express yourself and it becomes a matter of choosing the form of expression - the words you'll use, the rhythms that you'll use, the topics that you'll choose.


09:50 What's interesting in that case is that I was able to give expression to the experience that I had a long time ago which I couldn't have done when I was little but the feeling, the memory had always been there, and it's deepened in terms of meaning precisely because I'm looking back and so much has happened since.


10:07 Nick: Of course, many poets are able to write poetry by reflecting on experiences that they had thirty or forty years ago and infuse it with meaning in the present, but other poets of course write poetry or are inspired by current events and other people as well. Has that experience occurred to you as well?


10:24 Paul: Well, yes it did. Of course, when I was little like most of us, I was a child in a conservative family in a little community and so I had very limited experience of things that I might write poetry about as well as lacking the language and the skill to write poetry at all.


10:41 Having had quite an adventurous life, I've now got a super abundance of topics, but for many poets of course, it's very particular kinds of experience that prompt them to write poetry and famously, one of those experiences is you hit adolescence and you start getting smitten by members of the other sex or let it be said, members of your own, though that wasn't my experience.


11:05 It was certainly true for me that in adolescence - particularly late adolescence and early twenties - I did fall in love with women or girls that I wanted to write love poems but I didn't know how to do that well.


11:17 There were times when I would write a poem and even give it to a girl and get often confused responses which were a combination of, "So, why is he doing this? People don't do that in Australia," or, "It's a bit of a, you know, an awkward poem," you know, it's not a great poem or they might be touched by the fact that one had written a poem...


11:39 Nick: Not sure how to respond.


11:40 Paul: Not sure how to respond, right? So, one of the very - you know, looking back - very rich experiences I've had is gradually getting better at that so that I've now got to a point where the muse of the poems for whom I write my current poems is my wife. She is somebody with whom I have many shared memories and a very close relationship and a creative partnership, and so I don't have the problems I had as a fumbling adolescent, right? It's no longer a matter of adoration from a distance and writing something intense. It's a matter of putting into a form of words things that we've shared, things that we dream about together.


12:18 Nick: That question of audience - who the poem is written for on any creative work - is always quite an important one, isn't it?


12:25 Paul: It is, you know? I mean, a poet in one sense, I think it should be said, writes for themselves. So, you can look at almost any poet and they've had an experience. We'll come shortly to talk about say William Wordsworth and one or two of his poems where he's reflecting on an experience he has had, but other people when they read the poem can relate to that kind of experience and also to the beautiful expression that he gives to that kind of experience. They may even then go to the place where he was when he wrote such a poem in an effort to capture that kind of experience for themselves.


13:00 Nick: So, if we were to distil it into a definition, what is poetry? What is actually going on through this medium, this construction of human language?


13:08 Paul: I think the point of departure has to be that as human beings, we're language animals. Human beings have language and from the time we're born basically, we start learning it. We hear it, we pick it up, we acquire vocabulary, we start burbling away and then constructing phrases and sentences.


13:26 Poetry is an extension of that and it's very ancient in human experience, but another way to describe it and Edmund Muir, the Scottish poet, said this precisely about half a century ago is that poetry, when you stop and think about it, is like a combination of language and music and it used to generally be something that was chanted or sung. When it turns into something on the written page, you can't hear the music but it would normally have a musical pattern, a metrical pattern.


13:57 Nick: Providing it's read aloud, that can come through as well.


13:59 Paul: That's right, but if it's recited - and we still have performance poetry which is the case, where the rhythm of the language and the stanzas is very much part of the experience.


14:11 I think most people would concede that if such a poem or any form of words is put to actual music and performed, the music can really lift it up, you know? If you see a concert - one of my favourite examples of this is a concert that the Rolling Stones performed in Havana a couple of years ago. They start singing classic songs like Gimme Shelter or Brown Sugar and this audience – a huge audience, half a million Cubans - are dancing and singing along. They're ecstatic. Now, that couldn't happen if Mick Jagger stood at a microphone and recited the words. It just wouldn't happen, right? In fact, you might even listen to those words or read them on a page and think well that’s...


14:49 Nick: Quite bland...


14:50 Paul: Yeah, right. So, music is key and I think that when somebody listens to a poem, even if there isn't actual music - if it has musical characteristics, if it has a metrical pattern of an appropriate kind and rhyming language or assonance in it, those elements themselves musically affect the brain.


15:09 So, the answer to your question in short is that poetry is a human proclivity to be very expressive in language and try and communicate musically and meaningfully and not just informationally, and it’s heightened language.


15:25 Nick: Why has it been essential to human evolution? We think about hundreds of thousands of years ago in our development. What was it about music that preceded language and is so deeply rooted in our selves and our sense of connection with others but also the interior connection with ourselves or, dare I say it, a higher being or a higher reality?


15:45 Paul: Yes, that's a profound question. Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, remarked about sixty years ago, "Music is the supreme mystery of humanity." He was trying to figure out where did music come from because it's so pervasive and so integral to our way of being that we can forget that it is. We breathe like fish swim. We don't think about why do we do that?


16:09 There is an argument. Gary Tomlinson in a very recent book called A Million Years of Music - and he's a theorist of opera - advances this fascinating argument that music as such, that is the sense of rhythm and rhythmic motion, is older than language. So, when it gets us moving, when the crowd in Havana as I mentioned a moment ago start dancing, something quite profound and intrinsic to our humanity is taking place.


16:39 Poetry it seems to me is the interface between that very deep relatedness to rhythm and to the emotions that music can literally tap into and articulate speech. Therefore, if it's done properly, if it's done consciously, it can be really quite profound.


17:00 Nick: Do you have an example where that's done particularly well?


17:03 Paul: Yeah, there's a famous poem of Wordsworth which he wrote when he was still very young in 1798 called Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. He was walking into Wales with his sister, Dorothy, and he'd been there before some years ago, five years before. He was so moved standing, looking down at Tintern Abbey and its surrounds that he wrote this poem almost on the spot.


17:28 Anyway, it's opening lines read as follows:


Five years have passed, five summers with the length

Of five long winters and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain springs

With a sweet inland murmur – Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs

Which on a wild, secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky


17:52 That's Wordsworth more than 200 years ago, and I think if you talk with people who know their poetry, in particular English Romantic poetry, that poem about Tintern Abbey is one of the better-known ones.


18:06 It's evocative, not only of landscape but of the experience of landscape and the sense of nature and of personal being that it evoked for Wordsworth. So, it's a rather nice example of what poetry actually is.


18:23 If we move from Wordsworth specifically to the more general question of what poetry is, I think we could probably say three specific things. The first is that the mode of expression in poetry is meditative. It's rhythmic or as I said, a more or less musical use of language.


18:42 The second is that as we see in that fragment from Wordsworth, there is reflectiveness as distinct from reactiveness, so it's not just as it were an emotional exclamation or shout or something. It's the articulation, the putting into words of something that's otherwise inchoate but moving. In other words, it's an exercise you might say in extracting meaning and not only having sensations or impressions.


19:12 The third is that as we can see in Wordsworth's case because he opens with this very statement, there's a sense of time giving depth of meaning to what is seen and to being in the world.


19:25 One very famous exercise in that which is not normally regarded as poetry but which is highly poetic in the sense that I've been describing it in Marcel Proust's vast novel a hundred years ago In Search of Lost Time. The language he uses is exquisite and again and again, what he's doing is looking back on his childhood or his earlier life and remembering things that occurred and finding all sorts of meanings in it, precisely because he's looking back. It's not that he's recalling all those meanings from that moment. He's able to recall the meanings looking back - a) because he's had so much more experience, and b) because recalling it in the context of time makes it more poignant.


20:11 Nick: Just when we think back to you now writing poetry 40 or 50 years ago since your own childhood and the way that you're able to relive or reexperience those childhood memories which were they not given expression in the fullness of your language and poetic structure would be lost, but is that what's at work here as well? You can actually sort of come to relive and reexperience and feel again things that were lost to time?


20:37 Paul: Very much.


20:37 Nick: In Search of Lost Time and Proust, right?


20:38 Paul: Yes, precisely so. I mean, you're absolutely right. Take that little exercise with Marco Polo. It was a personal experience I had. Nobody but me had that precise experience. If it's not distilled into a form of words that has some structured characteristics, then it just disappears. It's gone.


20:59 Once it's put in that form of words, not only does it capture my experience but it's available to others who could then read that poem as they read say Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey poem and relate to the kind of thing that it's saying as well as being pleased one would like to think by the form in which it's stated.


21:17 Nick: But there are gradations of experience, right? I mean, one might have 80% of the experience of Wordsworth or Paul Monk or Mick Jagger's poetry but there's a sense of fully inhabiting a poem and its import, its meaning, which you can only fully experience having written the poem. Is that also your experience from being a reader to a creator of poetry?


21:39 Paul: There is that sense and certainly if you've written a poem that does capture well and express well an experience you've had, there can be a great deal of satisfaction I have found in going back to it and saying, "Wow, that gives form and structure and endurance to something that was otherwise ephemeral or inchoate."


22:00 But there's an important adjunct to this which is that other people, while they cannot - no matter how well you've written a poem - they cannot recapture your personal experience. What they can do however is first of all get some sense of your personal experience and sometimes it's a very fine expression of it, but above all it sharpens their own perceptions of what a poem is, of what that kind of experience is and they will carry away an interpretation of your poem in the same way that you have carried away the experience of the original incident, right? That's what meaning is all about. It's very subtle and enlivening.


22:38 Nick: Can you give us another example of the interconnectedness of this tradition, of this exchange across centuries and millennia?


22:44 Paul: Yes. There's a poem I wrote called How to Use Our Tongues which is in fact an exploration of the poetic tradition. What have we inherited? How did the capacity to write poetry develop?


22:59 This draws on a passage in Homer's very famous epic, The Odyssey, and ends up suggesting that not only can you appreciate his poem but through reading this particular passage in it, you can use it as a metaphor to understand what poetry as such actually is.


23:19 So, it goes like this:


XVII: How to use our tongues

There is a passage in the Odyssey

In which the beauties of Icmalius’ chair

Are brought before our eyes;

Almost so that we, in wonderment,

Like it’s fabled footrest,

Find ourselves mortised in the frame,

Draped with a heavy fleece

And listening, as Penelope

Instructs her house help, Eurynome,

To seat the guest for story.


Imagine that fine Icmalian craft

And conjure, in your mind, the scene in which

Penelope, in her own voice declares

‘I wish our guest to tell his story whole

And patiently to hear me out, as well,

As I’ll be full of questions, point by point.

I want him, seated in our polished chair,

To tell me of his travels, in good time.

For this stranger, who has come into our halls,

May know somewhat of Odysseus himself.’


All poetry is such an Icmalian chair:

Its music mortised into practiced frames;

Mellifluous rhyme and artful assonance

Cast over it, like Homer’s softened fleece.

Through aeons, both these crafts have been refined,

Since earlier than Gilgamesh or Ur

And they have fitly shaped the conversation,

From Pindar’s odes to Martial’s epigrams,

Of all that we call prosody or verse -

And taught us better how to use our tongues.



24:36 So, notice how in that poem I draw upon the rich tradition of other western poetry and how poetry itself has developed and how it works and how to do so, how to generate it in a poetic manner.


24:50 This is available in principle to us all but gaining access to this skill requires education which is to say being led into it from one or another of the Latin verb's educate, to lead or bring up, rear, raise or bring away. I think this goes to the heart of what we mean by culture or higher education or good education.


25:15 Nick: I'd like to come back to your own formative process in an educational and cultural sense but before we get there, I think it's worth thinking about some modern forms of poetry or post structuralist or perhaps post-modern poetry which struggles to I think satisfy a few of the criteria that you set up for poetry. Could you maybe reflect on the state of modern poetry and I guess how we sort of broaden the definition to include things which seem to be totally unstructured.


25:40 Paul: There's no question that in the 20th century particularly, in most fields of creative endeavour - poetry being only one, it's happened in music, it's happened in plastic and graphic art - there has been a breakage with traditions, with formalism.


25:56 Nick: An entropic sort of deterioration or decline, isn't it?


26:00 Paul: Well, that's the way it seems. I mean, people - others have insisted that it's breaking free and it's immensely creative and it's progressive and so forth. That's a debate one might have all on its own, but one way to put it without being excessively judgemental let's say is to liken what's been done in a lot of 20th century poetry or let's say modern poetry/modernist poetry, to let's say jazz.


26:32 I mean, when the saxophone was invented, when jazz started to be composed for that or other instruments, there were many people whose habituation was to classical music or romantic music who were horrified. They were, "This is not music, this is nonsense. This is anarchic."


26:48 Well, it was anarchic. Whether it was nonsense is another matter and many of us now think that jazz is a very fine mode of music and it's a very playful mode of music. So, it darts all over a melody, it lifts it up and raises it and varies it and so on.


27:02 So, in the best cases, a lot of let's call it post melodic poetry is doing with words, doing with the very idea of metre or meaning, things that are somewhat anarchic.


27:17 Nick: And sometimes it's absent of metre and rhyme and everything.


27:20 Paul: Exactly so, but if it's any good at all, it never the less impinges on our minds, our imaginations with its sharp use of language, with its very angularity, with violating expectations, with very colourful use or even novel uses....


27:40 Nick: Typographical arrangements and things...


27:41 Paul: Yeah, all sorts of things. I haven't myself written for the most part that kind of poetry and I have two feelings about that which are at loggerheads with one another. One is I don't really want to do that. I want to write something that's more intelligible and immediately accessible, and I want - because I do a lot of analytical work, I'm chary about writing stuff that's too hermetic or opaque because I think maybe it's just nonsense, maybe it doesn't mean anything at all. On the other hand...


28:11 Nick: Solipsistic and...


28:13 Paul: Yes, but there's another part of me of course which says well, let's be a bit more broad minded and experiment. Let's try out other things and see whether they work. So, there is in the body of work I'm preparing at the moment quite significant variation in rhyme, metre, rhythm, assonance, stanza length and construction. Not so far at least in what might be regarded as really radical and certainly not completely hermetic forms but certainly very experimental.


28:46 Nick: What springs to my mind is the relationship between form and structure and meaning and whether were you writing in the style of sort of post melodic form or formless poetry writing that's I suppose conventional now, you would be able to achieve the same levels of meaning as you have done so by replicating Shakespearian sonnets or Petrarchan sonnets or experimenting with sort of quite structured rhyme and metre forms from centuries and millennial ago. Even Sapphic Odes and things that I've seen you write as well. So, do you want to reflect on the relationship between form and meaning?


29:24 Paul: Yes. I think the first thing to say is that if you discard those forms of rhyme and metre or rhythm, you can lose the ear of the recipient because they can't follow the soundwaves. They can't absorb just the beauty of the use of language. They have to focus in on the meaning of specific words and they have to grope or search for what's really being said here.


29:53 I confess that in reading a number of 20th century poets, literate though I clearly am and attuned to what poetry is and what it's for, I often struggle to figure out what is this poet trying to communicate. That gives me pause and a friend said to me recently - and he's an intelligent man though he's not a poet but he said to me with regard to a particular poet whose work I had said I had difficulty understanding - he said, "Well, mate, if you can't figure it out, who can?"


30:25 But of course what modern music also did - you know atonal music and so on - is quite deliberately moving in that direction in order to challenge people to think and not just be more passive or conservative. Whether it's achieved that, whether that is a desirable way to go is a debate that's well worth having.


30:45 Nick: One thing I find fascinating about your poetry is it sort of stands outside of that linear progression of poetic forms across human civilisation. So, you know, it's one thing for poets of the 21st century in Melbourne, Australia, to sort of reflect the spirit of their times through the different modes and formal structures they apply or do not apply in their poetry. We can all agree it's kind of similar in the way they're going about it or you think about like Langston Hughes' poetry was very much a product of its time in its sort of shape and rhythm and feel, but yours is sort of somehow really quite interesting in that it sort of stands outside of all that and is sort of playful with different structures and ways of creating meaning which could go back millennia which I find interesting, but I always wondered why yours hasn't sort of, you know, become part of...


31:31 Paul: ... part of the flow. I would say the short answer to that is because I didn't grow up as part of an artistic movement. I didn't publish poems as a young person in journals. I had never been part of a literary clique that wanted to be fashionable. I have only come to poetry as an avocation outside of my analytical and historical work because I wanted to give expression to what I was experiencing. I wasn't trying to meet a fashionable criterion.


32:08 You know, when I wrote the Sonnets for example, I was fully conscious that really nobody writes sonnets anymore in Shakespearian mode, and I write in a preface to my book Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty why therefore did I write sonnets? Well, I wrote them to please myself. I wanted to see what it would be like to write sonnets in the manner that Shakespeare had, albeit with a contemporary vocabulary, and demonstrate to myself as much as anything that I could move around freely in the western cannon in terms of myth and poetic style.


32:37 I did that, and what other people make of it is a secondary consideration. To some extent now, what I'm doing is very much self-expression. It is a much wider range of that expression and of subject matter and I'm finding that a growing number of people are saying, "I really like what you're writing."


32:59 Nick: Yeah, and the primary motivator or inspiration behind your poetry as you mentioned is your wife, Claudia.


33:05 Paul: Yes, she is. This is something that arose over a period of time because she arrived in my life fortuitously 15 years ago and right from the get go, she was fascinated by what I did and the breadth of my reading.


33:24 Unlike any other woman that I had known, many of whom I had written poems for, she said to me, "You are a writer and a poet. That's what you should be. Don't just treat it as a sort of eccentric thing you do on the side or privately. Fulfil yourself, do it."


33:42 This was crystallised one day when I emerged from the office because I was working as a consultant. We met after work and I came out of the office with a suit and tie on and carrying a briefcase and she said to me as if it was with surprise, "You look like a businessman." I said, "Well, I am a businessman," and she said, "No, you’re a writer and a poet."


34:03 What's actually happened in the 10 or 12 years since then, more than that now actually, is that I've gradually come to identify myself as precisely that, as a writer and a poet. I've said to her recently she is the perfect muse because she not only sees in me what I have longed to be and have now in an important sense become, but she has encouraged it, cultivated it, challenged it. We've travelled together. We read things together. We talk about everything and so it's a fantastic partnership in that sense.


34:41 I'd like to share a poem with you that is called The Pact We Formed and it's a pact that I formed with Claudia who I should point out for your listeners - this will surprise a lot of people - lives in Venezuela. She lives on the other side of the world. We haven't cohabited now for more than a decade but we've grown closer, and that's a whole story in itself which you aren't going to hear but as a result of living apart, we've had to work very hard at what keeps us together and we have discovered that there are profound things that keep us together.


35:14 Three years ago, I went and visited her in Venezuela and then flew on from Venezuela to Brazil. When I landed in Rio, I had an experience that took me back six years to when she and I had been in Buenos Aires and this poem gives expression to that, and it means directly even in terms of language with Tintern Abbey, with the Wordsworth poem, because he begins five years ago and I begin this poem six years ago. Not to echo Wordsworth, it just so happens that we're having similar experiences and we're looking back in time as a reference point.


35:48 So, the poem goes as follows:


XXXVIII: The pact we’ve formed


Six years ago, in Kirchner’s Buenos Aires,

You turned to me and said, in a quiet tone,

‘Look carefully at all you see around,

Since this, as cities go, in all the Cone,

Is the finest and the grandest that you’ll see.

It’s all downhill in quality from here.’


But how, in saying such a scathing thing,

Could you have failed to take into account

Great Rio, with its beach and circling hills?

For, once one’s breathed the air of Ipanema

And heard Brazilian music in the streets,

I have to say, one takes a different view.


I drove in from Jobim by private cab

And revelled in the pulsing sense of place.

Confessing to imprisonment in English,

I told my man, in halting Spanish phrases,

That all the world finds Rio fascinating;

As much, in truth, as any city known.


He answered me in swishing Portuguese,

With warmth that showed he’d plainly understood

The root and sense of all I’d tried to say.

He pointed, then, to Corcovado Hill,

Upon which stands the giant, sculptured form

Of Cristo the Redeemer, as he’s called.


But it was not the sculpted, looming Christ

That made me feel redeemed on Rio’s strand.

It was, instead, Atlantic Avenue:

The beauteous sweep of Copacabana Beach;

It’s contrast with the grimness of Caracas –

And the pact we’ve formed for bravely thinking big.



37:09 Nick: It's very beautiful. I think it's rendered with more meaning, having heard the relationship that you and Claudia have had over the last 15 years or so, but when you mentioned that she was the one who said, you know, you were a writer and a poet and the way that actually gave you licence to subsequently go and create and I suppose become who you really are, it did immediately recall in my mind the Greek aphorism of Gnothi Seauton, ‘become who you are.’


37:43 I think it’s quite profound thinking back to the image of Claudia almost sort of uttering an incantation that you are a writer and a poet. It brought this into being and it made me think of the phrase which we have used before about living poetically, living one's life with a sense of heightened meaning and purpose but also sort of with the sense of now looking back on you and Claudia as almost characters in the story you both shared and that that you've independently but now you’re entwined in sort of a poem or a song together. Do you want to sort of reflect on those sentiments?


38:14 Paul: Yes, you've put it very well and in fact, Claudia has a gift for that kind of insight and challenging formulation. There was another occasion in which she said to me many years ago, "Do you realise that we are living a story that has not yet been written?"


38:32 She used to urge me to write stories and she still urges me to write our story and in a sense with the poems I'm doing that, at least in part, but the precise question you're asking is if you're living poetically, how does that occur? What does that mean?


38:51 Nick: But also looking at living as writing, right?


38:54 Paul: Yes, that's - well, if we're language beings and literate beings, there ought to be some kind of strong and positive correlation/relationship between language, writing and being, the way we live, but for many people those things become adrift. So, it's notorious that many people in terms of their everyday communication and in terms of their supposedly intimate relationships ended up stuck in banalities, right? They don't communicate in any depth; they don't have real intimacy.


39:25 Nick: When we think about social media and digital communications as sort of being circumscribing mediums by which we can communicate as well...


39:31 Paul: Well, that seems to me to aggravate the problem more than...


39:34 Nick: Yes, indeed.


39:34 Paul: But it's a very old human problem and the way I think about living poetically is that you live your story, so there's authenticity in this. It's not affectation. Certainly, one can write poetry in an affected manner and there are many people I think who have a view that poetry is artificial, that it's pretence, that it's fantasy, that it doesn't have any strong relationship with reality.


40:02 There are occasions where that well may be true and if people live their lives in a certain way that's not very poetic then they make it true, but suppose instead you live your life inside story and you're creating a story authentically with depth of meaning and you're giving expression to that story in your poetry, then I would say that's the real deal and that, I don't blush to say, is what I've been able to get to, and I recommend it to others. It's not easy. It's not a little game, right? It is real and it's challenging.


40:39 Nick: Do you mean to say that being able to write, think and feel poetry has heightened your everyday experience and also heightened your feeling of being in the world phenomenologically since childhood to adolescence to early adulthood and now maturity as well?


40:55 Paul: Yes. It means two things. One, as we said earlier, I have come to the point now where I can give articulate expression to things that previous I couldn't. You know, I would experience them but I couldn't give it articulate or poetic expression. Now, even looking back 50 or 60 years, I'm doing that.


41:11 But more importantly in a way, what I now find is that I can have an experience, I can have an encounter with somebody, I can reflect on an object - even a simple household object - and poetry just arises because I'm experiencing it as you say phenomenologically and so much more meaning comes alive for me than it does for people who for instance think of any given object around them, if they think about it all it's just an object.


41:39 Nick: A humble podcast microphone for instance.


41:41 Paul: Yeah. I mean, the way I think about objects, whether it be a podcast microphone or a teacup or whatever... [sirens in the distance]


41:47 Nick: This is thoroughly unpoetic. It's a horrible...


41:51 Paul: Well, you see there are assumptions built into saying that it's horribly unpoetic but think about it this way. Using your expression, phenomenologically, any given object we encounter - and a microphone is a perfectly good example - is phenomenal. It is an awesome thing when you stop and contemplate what brought this into being? Why is it possible? How is it possible to do what we're doing and recording something with considerable fidelity and considerable autonomy? This was not possible a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago. It wasn't possible in the ancient world, right? The technologies that we dispose of now when used intelligently, when appreciated sensitively are extraordinary.


42:32 Nick: It actually is extraordinary, isn't it, because it was a conversation we were having in your living room here in a beautiful corner of Melbourne which will be beamed out into the world and connect with other people who will be listening to this podcast and intellection and perhaps find some gradation of, understanding and resonance themselves.


42:51 Paul: I mean, that's the technological projection. That's what it's capable of doing, but when we talk about poetry here, I'm saying the meaning inherent in that object, its mere existence is a source for wonder. If we just stop and reflect for a moment, instead of taking it so entirely for granted that it's just some dull thing, right?


43:10 Experiencing life that way means when you encounter as for example we all do in Melbourne - you encounter someone who is a beggar, whose life has fallen apart for whatever reason. You could walk past them. You could have some stock standard or banal attitude towards beggars, or you can pause and reflect on what this signifies - this person, what background they've come from, how striking it is that there's such a contrast between their life and yours, to start imagining how might it be possible even in principle to resurrect that life, to do something for that person and what would it be and so on.


43:51 So, at every point in your life, whether you're eating, encountering people, using everyday objects or reading literature, this awakened sense of significance, meaning, perspective is what it means to live poetically. Then, giving expression to that by capturing your experience in articulate speech enables other people to share in those perceptions and perhaps to acquire through that sharing the very idea of doing that themselves and how you might experience life that way.


44:26 Nick: We've just been talking about living poetically and how you feel that you are now at this stage of your life able to do so. Have you given effect to this feeling or sensation in any poetry?


44:37 Paul: Yeah, I have and it won't surprise you if I say that the poems I've written along those lines have been very recent ones because it's only been in the last two years that I've reached this point of thinking I've arrived, I feel as though I am living poetically.


44:53 One of the poems I wrote only in the last six months or so is called Robert Graves on Majorca. Some of at least of your listeners will know that Robert Graves calls himself a poet and a novelist and a writer and a poet, as it were. He died in 1985 and he was very old when he died. He was one of the famous great war poets. You know, he emerged from the first world war and his initial poetry – mostly - was about that.


45:24 Then, he couldn't bring himself to stay in England, live in England. He wanted to be a writer of a distinctly kind of - he left England and went to the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean, and he spent most of the rest of his life living in Majorca with his muse, a woman called Laura Riding. He wrote most of his poetry and books about the nature of poetry and his famous novels like Claudius, Belisarius and so on, there in Majorca.


45:51 I wrote a poem called Robert Graves in Majorca because I was thinking and had thought for many years, "Gee, I'd like to be like Robert Graves. I'd like to go to a place like Majorca and just write poetry and write novels."


46:05 As you'll see or your listeners will hear in this poem, I reflect on that and then come to the realisation in the poem and at the end of the poem that actually, I don't need to go to Majorca because right here, right now is my Majorca; I’m doing this, right?


46:21 It was really nice to see that emerge in the poem because again I didn't mechanically conceive of that and then just sort of hack it out. I started writing about Graves in Majorca and then I realised as I wrote the poem where this was taking me.


46:34 It goes as follows:


XXIV: Robert Graves on Mallorca

Poetry is housed at Canallun, so Graves decreed -

Once at that faraway home, to which he’d fled

From the scars of war - and domesticity -

With a new muse and a fugitive longing:

To write in devotion, to sing history.


Deia, where he lived, sounds so like goddess;

And there, we know, he wrote his paean to her:

The White Goddess of his fond imagination -

The Moon, the Muse of ancient times;

To whom he could or would not say goodbye.


His grasp of myth was imprecise,

His arguments quite whimsical;

Yet here he walked, each morning,

Through the hills, down to the sea,

Read The Times and wrote prolifically.


Here, he later wrote, was such tranquillity

And that was why he made Mallorca home:

The sun, the sea, the hills and olive trees,

Sans politics and superfluous luxuries,

Gave him grace for memoir, myth and verse


I’ve longed for years for some such Canallun;

A writer’s refuge lived in with my muse -

A hamlet with a better Laura Riding -

But could I find it, would you choose

To dwell with me in hiding?


I first read Graves’s verse when I was young:

‘Love without hope’, ‘Lost love’, ‘One hard look’;

But now the notion tingles on my tongue

That these soft songs, the poems in this book,

Are our abode - our living Canallun.



48:04 So, notice that the poem draws upon not only the refined resources of languages but on the poetic past in the form of life and poetry of Robert Graves, imagined geography and personal memories of love and loss, ideally with poetic feeling but not least how as it concludes, it finds a surprising insight. One not anticipated at the beginning of the poem. Not obvious, but itself made in the process of rendering the reflection poetic; that one may long to be Graves or be on Majorca, but one's own poems such as this present one - are one's own Majorca, and one is a poet now.


48:43 Nick: I think that brings the arc of our conversation today, Paul, to a natural end but before we do wrap up today, I just wanted to ask a question not so much about poetry but literature and its status or I suppose utility as a human art form which enables knowledge of the self, of others across time and this has been reflected throughout a lot of your readings today, in paralleling your life to Graves or Wordsworth and so on or even Homer for instance, but its ability to kind of allow us to understand humanity and the human condition across the centuries and millennia.


49:25 So, the quote I'm going to read today to sort of kick off your subsequent reflections hopefully is one from one of my favourite books. It's Michel Houellebecq’s Submission which I reference a little bit too much around you, I think.


49:38 It goes as follows: "The special thing about literature, the major artform of a western civilisation now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy. Like literature, painting has the power to astonish and to make you see the world through fresh eyes but only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit as a whole, with all its witnesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettiness’s, its obsessions, its beliefs.


50:09 With whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant, only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave; a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you'd have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know."


50:31 So, what do you make of that? Does that sort of have resonance in you and your attitude toward literature?


50:38 Paul: It absolutely does and in three ways that I'd specify. The first is that I've always been a reader of literature and history. I was a precocious reader as a child and I completely relate to this idea of gaining access through the written word, a quality written word, to a world of reality and imagination that's otherwise just not there.


51:01 The second level which I relate to is that there have been particular works of literature which expanded my imagination way beyond what straightforward factual studies or discipline studies have done.


51:17 I feel as though I've said this a couple of times in interviews with you and I probably, if people are observing, say it a little too often but that's only to show how significant it actually was, and that is that when I was a very young boy, our fifth grade teacher read us a number of children's stories. I said to her in recent years that those stories made an indelible impression but above all, The Lord of the Rings which she read to the class, it just made a huge impression on my imagination as a child.


51:49 I should emphasise by way of closing out that second point that, that impact on my imagination was not such that it took me off into a fantasy world. I've not actually read a lot of fantasy literature. Rather, what the Lord of the Rings opened up to me was the very idea of a whole world, his imaginary and in miniature.


52:11 I thought to myself when I was still very young what would it be like if you had that kind of integrated, diachronic understanding, the understanding across time and history and meaning of the real world. I've spent my life trying to acquire that one and understanding.


52:27 The third and perhaps most important point is this and it's one that I would say I derive principally from reading the works of George Steiner many years ago. If we think of language as the way - I have some friends who are analytical philosophers, who do think of it this way - as a medium that is supposed to communicate simply straightforward, transparent, logical information, we thoroughly misunderstand what language is all about, to say nothing of literature.


52:55 As Stier used to argue, the whole point of language, the way it in fact works for human beings and what gives it its magic and its great power is that it defines our identity and our experience over, against and around and past and beyond objects. It isn't just about communicating truth or facts. It's about generating meaning and interpretation and alternative possibilities. That's what literature does if it's any good at all. That's what poetry does if it's any good at all.


53:23 So, metaphor and simile and the language of futurity and possibility, you know, the conjunctives mood - sorry, not the conjunctive; the subjunctive mood, octative mood. You know, the very idea of dream, of imagination is crucial to our capacity to set ourselves free, even in dire circumstances, by remembering and imagining and projecting and countering, alright? That's to live poetically if you can do that and if you can share it powerfully with others.


53:57 Nick: Thank you very much for your time today, Paul.


53:58 Paul: You're most welcome. It's always a pleasure.


Paul Monk on Sex, Love, Life and Poetry

Listen on PodBean here:

Transcript below ^_^

Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking ChinaIn this podcast, Paul and Nick discuss the biological origins of sex and sexual desire, the nature of love and its human possibilities, and artistic expressions of love.

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Interview with Dr Paul Monk

Saturday September 1, 2018

00:00 [Music - Angie, Rolling Stones]


00:30 That was the legendary Mick Jagger singing his wistful song, Angie, about a love that had slipped away. I've been fascinated about the elusive and profound nature of love ever since I read The Road Less Travelled by American psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, when I was a teenager. It's a stunning and mature work which, among other things, makes the distinction between sexual desire and romantic love.


00:55 I decided to interview my friend, Paul Monk, about this topic because aside from being a poet who has written a lot about love and infatuation, his own life has been a kind of road less travelled.


01:05 Nick: So, Paul, if you were to sum up love, you know, in a succinct manner, how would you do so?


01:08 Paul: Well, you know, as a poet I could - perhaps later I will - wax lyrical about that but it seems to me that there is a folk wisdom about this and I would be inclined to distil it into two quite simple maxims. They're not sentimental ones.


01:17 The first is that love will make a fool of you, but life is bleak without it. I think each in our own way we do experience the truth of this and it goes back a long time.


01:23 The second is that there is no remedy for mortality. We age, we die and that's in the best case, and the losses that are entailed in aging and dying are poignant. The things that are most poignant are the loss of the things and the people that we love.


01:42 Between those two maxims it seems to me one might claim to have summed up the importance of love to human beings and the depth of feelings that it stirs so that would be my summary, if you like.


01:50 Nick: Do you feel as though you’re able to articulate those two maxims as succinctly and eruditely as you have done so just now, having lived a lifetime in which you have experienced love and romance and intimacy and desire, and all various facets of human intimacy as opposed to when you were maybe 18 and sort of just setting out on life...


02:15 Paul: Absolutely. I mean, look, I would say - and I speak from personal experience in this - when you're 18/19/20, even well into your twenties, and people offer you stuff from wisdom literature or in many cases lines from poetry or offer you advice, it can sound cliched and weary and not very interesting because you are just - your hormones are raging, and you want love, you want passion, right? Everything in your being is screaming out for it.


02:49 After you've lived a few decades and lived and loved, you begin to understand why there is poetry and what is the difference between wisdom and superficiality and, you know to perhaps quote something that's overquoted, it was I believe John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," and that's absolutely been true in my case.


03:07 I had many plans and most of them came unglued. I had many loves and most of them came unglued and along the way I kept learning, and that's why such maxims now mean a great deal to me. They're not empty.


03:19 Nick: Yeah, something sort of comes through in those maxims but also in our various conversations is this - and the reference to the M. Scott Peck's work as well - is this dichotomy or definitional difference between love and sexuality or love and infatuation. Scott Peck famously refers to it as ‘the illusion of falling in love’. If you could set up the difference between love and desire, I mean, how would you do so?


03:49 Paul: Well, I think we need to think or let me put it more generously, we can think for the sake of clarity about this subject in terms of a kind of pyramid with three steps. The first is the biological world. Sexuality is biological. It's absolutely fundamental and the whole animal and plant kingdom is full of sexuality. Every spring, there's blooms to life and animals getting into the mating season.


04:10 The second level is the distinctively human. What is it that makes us any different from any other animal when it comes to attraction, to display, to courtship, to mating, the reproduction?


04:19 The third beyond those basic human characteristics is what is it that is possible for human beings, what heights can we rise to in the kind of love we can experience and give to others? And we might perhaps make progress by addressing those three steps, one after another.


04:35 Nick: So, if we were to begin with the biological - you referenced spring. It is the first day of Spring today in Melbourne though you wouldn't know it by the freezing cold temperatures outside. 


04:42 Paul: It's a Melbourne Spring, after all.


04:43 Nick: It is a Melbourne Spring indeed. It keeps you on your toes but if you were to give a lot of biological basis for sexuality and thereafter love and intimacy, how would you do so?


04:54 Paul: Well, if you look at the poetry, the song, literature of virtually every human culture on earth, one thing that springs to the eye straight away or the ear if you will is that sexuality constantly draws on metaphors from the natural world - of spring growth, of the winter of lost love, of the beauty of flowers and trees, of the magnificence of animals and their courtship rituals, of the beauty of various kinds of animals and their display, and human beings themselves of course give flowers in romance and dress themselves in finery and they display and they compete. So, this is age old.


05:50 What we've discovered in the last 150 years or so is the whole science of biological evolution which has thrown a lot of light on what's going on in the plant and animal world, on the nature of sexuality and has given us access if we take the trouble to inquire to a better understanding of the nature of sexuality and the traps it actually sets for the unweary because the whole thing about attraction, desire, the compulsion to sexuality and the consequences that flow from that is something we experience by trial and error in every generation and it's only by learning - hopefully before we've made fatal mistakes - that we can rise to a higher level and gain ourselves freedom and dignity. That's what the human thing is all about.


06:31 Nick: Sexuality and the compulsion towards romance and mateship and courtship is nothing more than, I guess, a function of life reproducing itself. Is that kind of what you're referring to?


06:40 Paul: At the most fundamental level, absolutely and unequivocally. And let's not consider that that's selling it short. You know, Nick Lane in a recent book called Life Ascending points out that there are two basic kinds of biological cell in the world. The prokaryotic cell which reproduces itself by cloning - bacteria do this - and the eukaryotic cell which reproduces by swapping genetic information and this is the foundation of sex. What we’re doing in sexual relations is swapping genetic material...


07:15 Nick: … eukariotically.


07:17 Paul: … eukariotically. and all animal life and plant life on the planet is essentially eukariotic so the profusion of colour, of display, of song - birdsong, etc., all the repertoire of human courtship and romantic behaviour...


07:34 Nick: All the beauty we see in the world really, isn't it?


07:35 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, Lane put this very well when he said sex makes the difference between a silent and introspective planet full of dour self-replicating things and the explosion of pleasure and glory all around us, alright?


07:48 Nick: That is amazing.


07:49 Paul: That is the biological reality.


07:49 Nick: That is incredible.


07:51 Paul: … and if we fail to understand that, not only do we not understand the natural world and other creatures, we fundamentally fail to understand ourselves.


08:01 Nick: So, if we were dour self-replicating beings, what's the point of it all? This seems like so much of our telos - our purpose in life seems to be partnership and romance and courtship and that kind of maybe sometimes get misconstrued with the, you know, sort of the external manifestations of love and romance and desire, right, rather than I guess the ultimate nuts and bolts of it, if you will, of actual reproduction.


08:34 Paul: Well, notoriously...


08:34 Nick: In a universe in which all we had to do was reproduce which we've acknowledged is the point of sex and attraction and whatever, why do I need all this fanfare?


08:42 Paul: … because otherwise we wouldn't bother. We have to be tricked into it. I mean, I'm perfectly serious. When you look at other living creatures, leaving aside human pretentions and illusions, our living creatures do these things, right?


08:56 … and they do it seasonally and males compete brutally and often, you know, for female favours. There are variations on the theme but one or other gender tends to engage in a great deal of display in terms of colour and physical beauty or dance or song and all sorts of things to attract a mate, alright? This is about reproduction, alright?


09:12 There's a wonderful book by Richard Prum which was published only a couple of years ago called The Evolution of Beauty and his argument is that we have neglected the role of beauty in mate selection and therefore in evolution to our cost, in terms of understanding ourselves and life on the planet.


09:29 … and I think if we do understand this, not only can we take these things more seriously, but we can also gain a certain amount of freedom from our own compulsive behaviours, right? We need to rise above the automatic to generate what's distinctively human which is a free and creative approach to the whole issue of desire, attraction...


09:58 Nick: … impulse.


09:58 Paul: … courtship, impulse exactly. So, not only in moral terms, but in poetic terms. In terms of making something of our lives that's distinctive and free and dignified and this is where the philosophy as well as the morality of sexuality kicks in and ultimately - and in my view at the pinnacle - where poetic creativity enters the picture.


10:27 Nick: That's all fascinating and I will touch on in the interview the nature of human love and what it means to be human and participating in this exchange but, you know, it's remarkable to thing that there are prokaryotic cells in the world which sort of fulfil the same function without all the circuitous and often painful and, you know, difficult...


10:50 Paul: … and very time consuming.


10:51 Nick: Yeah, and process of mating and falling in love or reproducing. So, I don't know, it's almost existential, like why are we eukaryotic and not prokaryotic? It's extraordinary and why is it that the eukaryotic cells seems to have attained a state of sort of primacy on planet Earth?


11:08 Paul: Well, there are two ways to answer that question. The first is that eukaryotic cellular structure and behaviour makes things possible that have never been achieved by prokaryotic cells and from any aesthetic point of view, if you were as it were, a godlike being looking at the planet, the emergence of eukaryotic cells and complex lifeforms is far more interesting than anything that happened before, alright?


11:30 … and if you're a human being and you take an interest in the natural world, you would surely reach the same conclusion.


11:34 On the other hand, from a prokaryotic point of view, all of this is in one sense a departure from the norm because for about two and a half billion years, the whole of life on earth consisted...


11:49 Nick: … prokaryotic.


11:50 Paul: … of prokaryotic cells, alright, and they had the planet to themselves.


11:54 Nick: Dour and grim and efficient.


11:58 Paul: Well, from our point of view but from their point of view, that's life, alright? 


12:03 Nick: … but why life? Yeah, go on. Let's not answer that.


12:06 Paul: Well, you might - of course, without digressing at too great length here, you might still ask as people do, okay so we're human and we have all these impulses and we do all of this stuff but what's the point? What is the meaning of life?


12:15 Nick: So it’s like telos before, what is the meaning essentially?


12:18 Paul: Well, now that's a whole big subject.


12:19 Nick: Another podcast.


12:20 Paul: It's one that philosophers and poets in their own way attempt to answer and at the very least, in the case of poetry, attempt to give a liveable answer here and now to that question.


12:30 … but to cap off an answer to your question about prokaryotic and eukaryotic - as you know at least but your listeners won't - one of my early poems is called Wekaryotes and it makes precisely this distinction and without reciting the whole poem, it opens by saying How would life be? Would it still be erotic had it made you only simply prokaryotic? 


12:55 Nick: This is an interesting point to jump off into the nature of human love rather than biological or material, functional love. What, if anything, distinguishes human love from everything else we see around us in the world, not just prokaryotic exchange but, you know, the love and the courtship rituals of lions for instance or ants or bees or whatever it might be? You know, when we speak about human love, do we mean anything beyond that in a different form?


13:26 Paul: Well, this is where we have to make a couple of distinctions. So, one way to answer your question is to say on the whole there isn't any very great distinction. If you look at the way birds or dolphins or whales or monkeys and others court one another, you can go into the insect world, there are countless variations on the theme. They differ in detail but fundamentally the same thing is happening. That is, on an intraspecies basis, male courts female or vice versa and they reproduce, and another generation grows and that's extraordinary as a phenomenon and then they grow up and they do the same thing all over again and it's been happening for millions and millions and millions of years.


14:01 Our species has been doing it for, well it's now estimated in the case of our particular species perhaps 300,000 years but our stories are almost entirely confined to the last few thousand because it's only then that we've had writing, but I would say this. 


14:19 At one level, generically speaking, there's no difference. We're just like other creatures in our own way but there is a sense in which what's different about human beings is that what's possible for human beings, not what happens automatically....


14:36 Nick: It's something you have to work at, it's not an impulse.


14:38 Paul: It has to be culturally and even personally generated in order to rise above the completely automatic and banal. In any given culture, overwhelmingly people go through the same rituals. Why? Because neither they nor the people around them have terribly much imagination in terms of making it in any way different. This is just what you do.


15:04 Physiologically, there are impulses. Culturally, there are rituals, and generation after generation, that's what they do, and it seems to add a certain amount of meaning to have rituals that go back at least decades, sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia.


15:19 What the poet tries to do is to give it a whole new meaning. What the philosopher tries to do is to understand what's really going on here and what's possible for human beings more generically is to keep rising through those levels of meaning and giving felt meaningful expression then to their personal love.


15:36 Nick: So, before we jumped into this interview, we sort of spoke about Plato's Symposium as the first or I guess the seminal work that tried to distil or unpack or define/understand this idea of human love. So, do you want to sort of speak about that?


15:49 Paul: Well, you know, it certainly wasn't the first attempt of course to do that. Human poets, long before Plato, had been attempting to give expression lyrically and reflectively to their experience of love and the possibilities of love and not just in the Greek world.


16:03 … but what's interesting about Plato's Symposium is that it consists of a dialogue among a number of educated Greeks at the height of the glory of Athens, the 5th century B.C. In fact, in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, the dialogue can be dated to 416 B.C., and several famous historic figures are present. Socrates is there. Aristophanes, who is the great comic playwright, is there. Agathon who is a tragic dramatist is there and he's won the prize at the Dionysian festival for his tragic drama. Alcibiades, the statesman, is there who is a young protégé of Socrates and they've had a kind of erotic involvement which Alcibiades reflects on.


16:48 … but the subject of their drinking party, their symposium, is this question, what is love? And Plato of course wrote it and it's a consummate work of dramatic art because he begins with love or Eros being described in fundamentally biological terms just as we have done. And Aristophanes who is a comic playwright has this hilarious scenario in which he says, you know, originally human beings didn't have four limbs, they had eight because they had two sets of genitalia and they were joined in such a way that they could copulate whenever they wanted, and they rolled around, tumbling around on their eight limbs.


17:29 Nick: Prokaryotically.


17:30 Paul: Well, not so much prokaryotically but certainly erotically, and Aristophanes says but the God's eventually became disgusted because there was this constant sexual congress and so they decided to crack down a little and they bisected all of these eight limbed human beings, the way he says you split an egg in half with a hair.


17:59 And as a consequence, he said human beings have ever since been running around looking for their other half and we feel very happy if we find our original half and we feel a great sense of unity and completeness but it's very hard to find our authentic other half. And it's complicated by the fact that some of us were originally two male bodies or two female bodies, not just one male and one female, and so we're attracted to our own sex.


18:22 This is quite an ingenious piece of writing and it's completely unashamed from the point of view of later puritanical morality and Agathon then speaks and he says in a very highbrow way that Eros is about all the highest ideals and the greatest fulfilments and happiness. And Socrates then says well, you know, that sounds find, but is it really true? And he reflects in a more analytical way on what's really going on, what love really is and perhaps what it's not.


18:50 And he ends up suggesting that there is something that's available here that the others had either failed to noticed or skimmed over and that is that yes, there's the biological and yes, human beings run around and they need to find another half as we even say now but he says there comes a point where you can realise that there is the beauty of another human being to which you're attracted but that rather than just feeling this compulsive attraction to an individuals, you notice that there is beauty in one, there is beauty in another, there is beauty in a third. In short, there is beauty as such and that it's beauty that really draws and that it's incidental in a sense which individual draws you or is idiosyncratic.


19:46 Once you realise that sororates, you can start to reflect that beauty in its own right and the creation and regeneration of the beautiful is what draws you. Well, he says, that can bring you to a whole new level of freedom and dignity as a human being and a commitment to creation and preservation of what is beautiful to treating the other as beautiful rather than simply desirable.


20:10 This makes the dialogue profound and then Alcibiades bursts in and he's drunk, and he's come late, and he hasn't overheard what's been said but he makes clear that, you know, Socrates is a rather strange individual, but he's had personal experience with Socrates. He says, you know take it from me, I tried to seduce Socrates and he wouldn't be seduced. He was trying to instruct me the whole time and I eventually realised that this was authentic, and this was a most unusual human being. I haven't been able to rise to the standards that he sets. I'm much more worldly but I think Socrates is extraordinary.


20:49 Now, that's a bold summary of the symposium but I mention it because of two things. One is that the view of sexuality is very candid. It's not puritanical and yet at the same time, we're being offered the possibility of a transcendence of let's call it animal sexuality. Not because one is condemning sexual desire but because one is seeing through and beyond it to human possibilities.


21:19 Later, in our culture Christianity and on the borderlands of Christianity but coming from the same biblical route, Islam, were much more inclined to be puritanical and condemnatory of sexual desire, much more haunted by it and ill at ease with it than you find in the symposium.


21:32 So, if we a refreshing and free approach to sexuality and love in our time, we could do a lot worse than begin with the symposium.


21:39 Nick: That's a fascinating summary of the philosophical nature of love, Paul, and made more astonishing by the fact that it was written 2400 years ago but supposing you were Alcibiades 2400 years ago, bursting in on the symposium, and you want to sort of outline what love means for you in terms of human possibilities as you references, what would you say? What has it meant for you?


21:59 Paul: Look, I would say that in a sense, every one of us who picks up the symposium now to read it is Alcibiades. We're bursting in on the drinking party which is already taking place and we come in with that kind of ingenuous and worldly question.


22:17 Socrates is offering a rarefied vision here. How do we rise to that standard? What does it mean for us? In my person case, of course I read the symposium a long time ago and I've always regarded it as a classic.


22:37 And to me, when I was younger and first read it, what it indicated was that sexual desire is an impulse that can lead us either to physiological entanglement and/or to a kind of sublimation of that desire, to an appreciation of the beauty of another person and a beauty of such which opens up being human in a whole other way.


23:11 And I wanted that for myself, but I wasn't sure as a young man, of course, how do you do that, and it took a long time. You know, I was a romantic from way back. I mean, I’ll never forget for example more than 30 years ago when I had an encounter with a woman who I went on later to write poems for and it was a case - a classic case - of being smitten. That I was standing in my dorm room at a university and she walked past my open door. I was talking to a male friend and she looked at me and smiled and, I tell you, I was smitten on the spot, just I thought wow and it was beauty that struck me. I didn't know the girl. I got to know her somewhat better later, but I was smitten by beauty and I had to wrestle from that point for several years with that smitten and the question of beauty and the other person and sexuality, and I tell you, it was a painful lesson and I wrote my first half decent poems in wrestling with that.


24:13 And that wasn't the first time I'd fallen in love and it certainly wasn't the last time, but it was an indelible moment and all those questions that were raised in The Symposium were being raised right there.


24:24 Nick: There's a really interesting distinction you've made just now through appreciating the beauty of another being just by virtue of themselves and appreciation of another being is almost like a vessel towards a form or an ideal realm of the beautiful which Plato refers to in The Symposium. Can you kind of - not necessarily with reference to that person in the example you just gave - but comment on that distinction and whether maybe Plato's - I don't know, it doesn't seem right to me in many ways, to think about other human beings as vessels to the beautiful, where we're actually in love with the form of beauty and the human particular is almost incidental.


24:59 Paul: I think there is a danger of that of course and if that is what happens, you can end up with a rather cold idea of beauty. So, we have to hold a certain tension between the transcendent vision and as you rightly say, the particular human being.


25:17 Nick: … which is the physical manifestation of that reality.


25:20 Paul: It's a mortal being with their own concerns and needs and an organic being. We're living beings. We're not abstract entities...


25:30 Nick: Yeah, who lives an individual life as unique as your own.


25:34 Paul: … and it's full of vulnerabilities and uncertainties and so a personal love is a way of the exploration and it's almost an infinite journey and potential into understanding and caring for and appreciating the complexity of another person. And the wonder of it is when that's reciprocated, when you find that the other person is...


25:56 Nick: Totally and completely.


25:56 Paul: … exploring you but if you can do that...


25:59 Nick: … and appreciating you and accepting you.


26:01 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, it's a fraught journey. We know this is not all, as we say, wine and roses but if we are operating at more or less this philosophical level as urged by Socrates, then I would say - and I would say this this as a matter of personal experience - while we love that individual, we can see the nature of love and the attempts we're making at loving in a transcendent context.


26:31 All the religions claim of course to do this in their own ways. The philosophy here is separate from and I would say free from any idea of punishment of hell or heaven, of angels or rituals. It's about real experience and how it can rise to a level of vision and appreciation and awe that otherwise is largely subconscious and strongly driven by biological impulses.


27:00 What we need to be able to do ideally is dance with the two and our most creative endeavours, our greatest achievements in music and poetry, in ballet, in dance, do exactly that.


27:11 Nick: So, I'm fascinated by the poetic, literary, musical, artistic expression of love which to me seems to be like another step on from - I think you articulated this earlier - but from the biological to the human nature of love which we've just touched on in the philosophical nature of love, but then there's this sort of like almost expressive transcendent kind of articulation of that human experience which I think not everyone can access but everyone can relate to. You know, we all love, you know, beautiful love songs or like we started the whole interview with Angie by Rolling Stones, right? So, there's something in that which kind of like distils in its purest form what it means to be human and someone who seeks to love and be beloved on this earth.


27:53 Paul: … and, you know, we asked before about whether there are differences between human beings and other creatures in this regard and I said well, at a very generic level, no. We just do in our own way what they all do in terms of courtship and mate selection and reproduction and the cycle of life, but we are a distinct species.


28:17 Now, two of the things that set us apart are language and music and they are key to our possibilities in the area that we're talking about in terms of love and vision and creativity because language is not as most of the sonic systems - birdsong or whale song - language is not limited in the ways those are to certain kinds of signal or expression.


28:49 Nick: … or expression or whatever, yep.


28:51 Paul: Language is generative of all sorts of subtleties and modes of reference to past, to future, to possibility and through it if we use it - and a poet uses it pre-eminently - we create meaning. We articular our experience. We have it shape than other people who are less perhaps linguistically gifted find that they want to inhabit. As you said, you know, you listen to a song, you know...


29:14 Nick: I suppose feeling these emotions I think are quite similar or...


29:17 Paul: Exactly and the music enhances that, and the musicologists and our theorists of music have been establishing in recent decades in terms of neuroscience and everything else that music seems to be even more deeply rooted in our being than language.


29:31 And one of the most fascinating ways this emerges is that people can have Alzheimer’s or dementia and they can seem far gone. They don't speak anymore. You start playing music and they'll tap their feet. Sometimes they'll even burst into song. You think they can't speak and they'll sing. This is extraordinary. This is music and music is distinctively in that sense human and we're only beginning to, as it were, do an archaeology of how did this come about?


29:54 That’s a profound area and when you see a concert and you see thousands of people responding to an elite musical performance and they're just profoundly physically moved by this - they dance, they chant, they're full of emotion.


30:15 Nick: It's rhythmic, it's primal.


30:17 Paul: Absolutely so and it's worth reflecting on that. You know, we talked about Plato and the sense of beauty. If you go to a concert, you can get carried away with the music. If you're also philosophical, you realise this is a profound experience and you get a kind of binocular vision of this, the immediate experience and the meaning of that experience. And if in addition you are a creative human being, you take it another level again, you contribute to that.


30:43 Nick: Before we move onto poetry and your experience of it, is it not also true that, you know, animals do experience love as well?


30:51 Paul: Yes, there's a continuum in life. You know, if I might put it this way, I briefly refer to my poem Eukaryotes and I asked will I still be erotic if we were prokaryotes instead of eukaryotes? And the answer in the poem is well, no, not really. But from that point where eukaryotic cells start to exchange information, there's this very long slope - we would say upwards slope - to creatures becoming more and more elaborate and experiencing life more and more fully, more and more emotionally.


31:35 And clearly that varies over a broad spectrum of lifeforms, but we know - every person who has paid the slightest attention knows that the animals we associate with - dogs famously, horses - we know in the wild elephants...


31:57 Nick: Whales, pigs, monkeys...


31:58 Paul: Whales, pigs, monkeys, etc., there's a lot of feeling there. There's a lot of sentience, a lot of awareness.


32:01 Nick: Capacity for suffering but also of love.


32:03 Paul: Clearly. I mean, dogs can be enormously affectionate and loyal. Elephants have long memory and we observe animals...


32:07 Nick: … grieving.


32:07 Paul: … in various kinds - grieving, mourning, mating, flirting. You know, monkeys famously and of course, they're very close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. So, the short answer to your question is absolutely and we've done a disservice to ourselves in the modern world where we've tended to see animals in a Cartesian sense as just unfeeling machines. That's simply not the case.


32:30 Now in the 21st century, some of us at least are edging back in another direction saying animals have rights, you know? They're sentient beings like us and we need to pay attention and give them more love and that industrial farming for example is simple criminal because of the pain and distortion it inflicts on animal lives.


32:47 And you can link that back to our central concern with human love by saying that if we treat another human being - any human being - simply as an object of physical exploitation.


33:01 Nick: Gratification.


33:02 Paul: Gratification, right. We are in a way doing to them what our industrial farmers do to chickens and pigs and so on. We're treating them as an unfeeling, pointless thing and that's the very opposite of love and physical abuse of another person should in no way be confused with love.


33:31 Nick: You said earlier when you were a young man, you felt these great set of impulses or a compulsion to write poetry, to give expression to the sort of rich feelings or this rich interior life that you had with regard to, you know, emotion and love and attraction to other women and so on.


33:46 Paul: Not other women because I'm a male, ha ha. You can leave that in, that will be funny.


33:53 Nick: I'll leave that in as well, but how did you get there? How did you sort of overcome the fact that when you first starting writing poetry or analytical writing about the nature of love - it was difficult and fumbling and maybe not altogether expressive and lucid as it clearly is today - so what was your sort of transformative slope, as it were?


34:15 Paul: Well, the simplest way to put it would be trial and error, you know? And I have to say that a thought that's occurred to me in recent years is if I had in fact succeeded in the ordinary romantic sense in any of my early loves and married in a conventional way and had children, etc., I wouldn't have become a poet. Almost certainly. I wouldn't have had the time. I wouldn't have learned enough. I wouldn't have had the leisure to practice. I wouldn't have had the, you know, varied experience that I've had with different woman, different loves, different kinds of failure and above all, I wouldn't have met the woman who finally has become my muse and who more than any other has inspired me to write good poetry and with whom I have a very authentic loving relationship.


35:16 It's in many ways deeply satisfying to be able to look back on that and see how much I've learned, often very painfully let it be said, but I do remember saying to a younger male friend about 20 years ago when he had lost a girlfriend who had left him, and he was desolate as one tends to be. I said my advice is exploit this for all it's worth by listening to the best soulful music and song which has been composed by people giving expression to what you're going through. Find the better poetry and take it to heart because you're discovering how real it is.


35:39 Nick: You can mine it and excavate it.


35:40 Paul: Absolutely, you can, and you build your own interior world. And I did do that and, you know, one early step along the way was almost fortuitous. I was staying at a university college 35 years ago and the English tutor in the college decided to run a sonnet competition and the girl I was seeing at the time said, "Are you going to write a sonnet?"


36:08 My initial response was no, I don't write poetry. You know, I'm a political scientist and historian and she said, "You're very good with words. I think you should have a go."


36:21 Nick: Amazing.


36:23 Paul: And I did. I wrote a sonnet and how did I get to write a sonnet? Well, first of all, one is supposed to write a sonnet. That was the competition but secondly, to teach myself I read Shakespeare’s sonnets. There's 154 of them. I read the lot.


36:39 By the time I had read all these sonnets I thought well I get the hang on this, this is what a sonnet is. Then I simply had a crack at writing one and it turned out to be a good one. From that point, over the years when I fell in love which I did many times, I would write sonnets.


36:51 It took me a long time before I became free enough emotionally and in terms of self-confidence to have a crack at other kinds of poems and it didn't really happen until I met my current partner and muse and she really lit up the landscape for me. So, I've written better and much more varied poetry with a whole variety of rhyme and metrical forms and themes and moods for her than for anyone else.


37:16 Nick: If you had to pick one to read now, what would you choose and let's have a read of it, I think.


37:22 Paul: Well, to kick it off with, I...


37:23 Nick: Here's one you prepared earlier.


37:25 Paul: Yes. Yeah, well we talked about biology as the foundation and about evolution and beauty and so on and there is a poem that I wrote a few years ago called Fire in the Wheel which is about exactly that. The central conceit of it is a poem is that the same couple - let it be said in this time of all sorts of gender variations that it's about a heterosexual couple, not a gay couple. I'm heterosexual, you know. People with different experiences and identities will write poetry about that. I'm uncomplicated in being heterosexual. This about a male and female who live through the whole human evolution over millions of years and it's addressed by the male partner to his beloved partner, looking over the many many millennial, the millions of years in which they have been reincarnated as it were again and again.


38:23 And so, it brings together the biological theme that I mentioned with this specifically human and then being upon, it instantiates a third, so it gives you the whole pyramid.


38:34 Nick: A very nice end way to sum up.


38:35 Paul: It reads as follows. I've loved you from the beginning with the simplest of gestures, with inarticulate cries, with unselfconscious mimicry. I've loved you since the first fire wielding when we yelled together at encircling beasts, feasted on fire roasted insects and nuts, huddled around the flames in awe. 


38:56 Was that Eden, that long-ago eon? As the hand formed, and the inner eye, the larynx and broker's brain, before ever we sang to one another. Or was Eden a time of hand-axes, as all this came together in our hearts and hunting, from old Andalucía to the Chinese rivers? 


39:13 What years those were of wide exploring. Eurasia was ours with new spheres, exulting in our uncanny craft, we wondered at what we were. Our long days fell like forest leaves. They endured like evergreens. Our fire circles lit the long nights, changing our dreams. 


39:32 Were those shimmering years, those many hundred millennia before our love made music, truly our golden age? Did you feel loved then, as the wide seas rose and fell, as the ice advanced and retreated, as the giant forests shifted again and again? Or was it only later that sentiment came and crooning, coaxed by oxytocin out of the flicker of long light under the waxing moon? Was I a caricature to your mind of all that was possible? Possible for a singing hominid under the sun. Was I stone in need of shaping? 


40:07 Ah, we buried each other many times, again and again with grief and ochre, over ages under the ageless stars, from [unclear] to [unclear]. Remember the times sheltered from the harsh climate shift in the north when we relished our little piece of Africa in Andalucía, those idyllic coasts and caves. 


40:27 But your love transformed me. Your call for songs and stories. You’re playing to me on bone flutes. Your vivid art of changing forms. We shook the shackles of the ancient trees, hailed the sky-god with high hands. We took to the open horizon, pitched bold camp on the stark step. 


40:46 There at last, you carved me into shape. Your love cut antler into a figurine and I, deer hunter, roamed forth graviton, making long lasting legends on the plains. You wove me a coat of wool, dyed in wondrous new colours, finer than any cured skin and I revelled in your homespun beauty. Even that was a long age of ardour under the high wheeling stars, rich with rumour of far mountains, with mammoth hunts and possibilities. 


41:15 Then the revolution came at last. The wheel. The mastering and mustery of horses, the making of wanes and war chariots, the being of bright, burnished bronze. Ah, sky-gods, the wheel and the horse brought an end to our long cycles. Ah, my lover with golden hair, the wheel set us rolling, riding, racing in the chariot of the sun, did it not? 


41:36 Since then, everything has gone in a flash. A riotous blur of songs and innovations, a nightmare of blood and terror. I've loved you from the beginning. Let's not now go under the wheel. All our myths are confused. I long only for your beauty.


41:57 Nick: That's a really, really stunning poem and I think - you know, not that I've read it recently - but it seems to me to be remarkable because it encapsulates the expansive feeling of love in the way that you've sort of straddled it or extended it, kneaded it, across space and time and matched it to the entire history of human evolution and development on the planet through the story of one love which is reincarnated and almost eternal and infinite which I think at its deepest expression, all love should be thought of in a metaphysical, eternal sense which transcends the brief time you have together on earth.


42:58 Paul: The immediate, and the banal.


42:59 Nick: The immediate, exactly. Well, not necessarily the banal, but the immediate and the confined, necessarily mortal nature of love. One thing that struck me as I was listening to that was the fact that, you know, the idea of being ground under the wheel - the wheel of life - was the fact that how many, you know, billions of stories - individual human stories and individual human loves - have there been on this planet since homo-sapiens or this animal - this human animal - sort of evolved consciousness and the ability to think in this manner. You know, and they’re all essentially ground into the dirt and then just sort of lost for all time. It's striking. If you think about it. One likes to think that one’s love transcends and it immortal and is eternal.


43:29 Paul: Well it's a conceit of course because it isn't but in cultural forms, whether a poem or a treatise like The Symposium or a great song, things can endure and be passed on long after the author is gone. You know, we could read a poem - for example, Shakespeare famously wrote a poem saying that his poem would immortalise the life of his beloved. We read the poem and we get his sentiment, but we haven't any idea who the beloved was.


44:03 Nick: No, exactly. But I suppose for Shakespeare in writing in, in any writing, perhaps it feels - perhaps it is a conceit, like a literary conceit, but you know, I do still feel as though for the author, when you set down and you express in writing - maybe in music or in art - that feeling and that relationship that you have with that particular person who hopefully if it was love, felt the same way about you, authentically. You know, one likes to think that it will endure in some way.


44:45 Paul: Well, think of it - here's another way to think about it. If we make up a melody in enthusiasm and if we're able to do that but we don't have any means to record it - we don't have notation, we don't have a recording device - it can disappear. We might even personally forget it. We whistle it to ourselves on a morning walk and then we can't set it down and we can't remember it after a little while, and we certainly can't share it readily with others. But if we had notation, we can write down the rudiments of it. Somebody else can then take that notation and say, "That's not bad but if you did this and this, you could enhance it," and then you get a musical ensemble and they start to perform it. And they said, "What if we added this instrument and that variation and this?" and it just becomes something bigger, right?


45:33 Nick: But in your example with Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty, it was almost metaphysical in a sense that the story behind your writing of that was you might explain yourself but your love that inspired that particular set of poems said that whatever comes with this, at least this will be like a lasting testament to our love. It doesn't matter if - no one reads this stuff. It was there, and you set it down in writing and it's almost enough for you...


46:00 Paul: Yes, that's of course - within literary human cultures, that's an ancient aspiration, you might say, or conceit. Specifically, what happened, and I did share this story with you was that - I must have written about 40 sonnets for this particular young woman a long time ago now and I was madly in love with her and she loved the poems. She loved the fact that I wrote them for her. She said to me things like, "Other men have written poems for me but never like these."


46:25 And then one particular night, she held up one of them on the piece of paper I'd written it on and waved it in the air and she said, "You must get these published then in years to come, whatever happens between you and me, I'll be able to hold up your book and say I inspired this."


46:38 That's a lovely thing to share and I did get them published eventually. Not the 40 but 12 of the best arranged in a sequence and illustrated and with commentary and it makes a lovely book.


46:54 We had long since gone our separate ways by the time that happened and I've no idea - I've lost track of her completely - I've no idea whether she ever got hold of the book but it's there. It does exist and for me at least, quite apart from whether she ever gets to hold it up and say that it inspired her - and I hope she does so, I hope that it consoles her, whatever the condition of her life now is - but for me it made something beautiful out of an ephemeral love affair that fell apart and left me heartbroken.


47:33 Nick: Yeah, so what do you say to those people who kind of are cynical and sceptical and say we don't really need love and it's all...


47:41 Paul: I would lay good money that they are being disingenuous but it's a defiant way - like in the old Simon and Garfunkel songs saying, you know, I'm a rock, I'm an island, I don't need love. They're fooling themselves. Either they actually do want it and they're defiantly pretending they don't or they're so shut down emotionally that they don't realise what they're missing and then one feels a little sad for them.


47:58 I would rather have the pain of unfulfilled passion or loss than not love and I've tried to express that in my poetry. If I may, if we have time, I'd like to add a second poem. This is one that I also wrote in recent years. It's called Dance me on down from Toledo and it attempts to capture this idea that once you've formed an intimate partnership and just to the extent that there really is love and it is working, it becomes a kind of dance.


48:28 Dance requires cooperation, you know? Even in most classical forms of dance, a man may lead but if a woman is not there with him and not moving with him, it doesn't work. So, it is with love.


48:46 So - pardon me - this one goes: “Come and dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Dance me speechless to high snow-capped mountains from which orchards and pastures are fed, and the cypresses, arches and fountains of Alhambra, the Isle of the Dead. There the rich Andalusian musers sing softly to all who can hear, though a pallid blue past still confuses the mind and the heart and the ear, for vengeful and dark Catholic violence five centuries since overthrew and condemned to the grave or to silence the voice of the Moor and the Jew. 


49:31 But dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Though golden Al-Andalus perished, suppressed by the cepted and crossed, the ballads and songs gypsies cherished plucked song lines from ruinous loss.


49:47 The spirit of Arabi lingers in the genius of Spanish guitar, in flamencos for feet and for fingers, in [unclear] and in [unclear]. Those flamencos and song lines in flower, the soul of Granada reborn so offended the fascists in power that they murdered poor [unclear] at dawn.


50:04 Still dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. From there, let's dance on out of reason with our hearts full of [unclear]’s deep song and to beauty has come into season and we know that that's where we belong.


50:23 While we dance, let's sustain that illusion with whatever good faith we can find. May our steps take us wide of confusion. May our love keep us blissfully blind. For to sing and to dance in our yearning, to share our deep song face to face, to glide into each twist and turning is to live with both freedom and grace.


50:49 And so dance me on down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. 


51:01 Nick: Stunning. 


51:04 I would think that there is another note which we might perhaps finish on that is to do with communicating and just intimacy. So, that last poem was about in a sense the movement of life, dealing with the twists and turns and challenges of life. But there's a very important sense in human love though not as we hinted earlier, altogether absent in the lives - emotional lives - of other animals with the dogs or whales, etc.


51:30 But that is that you want to be understood by the other person and you want to think that they want to be understood by you. There is very subtle elements to that and I've written a short poem which is actually a variation on a poem by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, and it's called So that you will hear me.


51:48 It goes like this: “So that you will hear me my words like lithe chameleons are changing shape and tone. Before you touched them, my words will murmured darkness and cold stone, but you soothed my psyche, persistently making murmurings light, lamps over the muttered. Now I want my words to say what I want to say to you so that I will hear you say that you want to hear me say them. I want my words to form a necklace of pearls for your hidden self, for your heart's throat.”


52:17 Nick: Stunning. Well, thank you very much for your time, Paul. As always, it's been a great pleasure.

Peter singer on animals, effective altruism, and the ethical life

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A conversation with Professor Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. The interview looks at his life story, and touches on his works which helped shape the modern animal rights movement and advanced our understanding of practical ethics in relation to international aid and development. 

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Interview with Peter Singer

Monday 13 August, 2018


00:00 Nick: It's a great honour and a privilege to be here with Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne.


00:14 Peter is consistently described as one of the leading philosophers and public intellectuals in the world, and I think he is one of the most influential and significant Australians of all time for his work in founding the modern animal rights movement and also in his work in practical ethics and international development and the eradication of extreme poverty.


00:32 Before we begin, a quick disclaimer that I'm not a philosopher, nor even a student of philosophy in any meaningful sense. Peter has spent a lifetime answering the most serious and challenging questions about morality and what it means to be human, while the most pressing questions I deal with are what to order for dinner on Uber Eats each night, but I am interested in human beings and what it means to live an ethical and authentic life in the 21st century. And also, how Professor Singer uses his own contributions to humanity and life on earth.


00:55 So, for listeners and readers not familiar with you and your work, Professor Singer, could you please give a brief vignette-filled overview of your life story in your terms, including that of your family's migration to Australia and your education at Ormond College and University of Melbourne and your work as a philosopher.


01:15 Peter: Okay, happy to do that, Nick. But first, I think you'll need to learn how to cook so that you can stop ordering from Uber Eats.


01:23 I was born in Australia in 1946 and that was just after the war. My parents came to Australia just before the war. They were refugees from Austria, from Vienna. They were Jewish so once the Nazis marched in, they realised that they had to leave, and they were fortunate enough to have met an Australian who offered to sponsor them to get a Visa. It wasn't easy to get a Visa to come to Australia. So, that's where they landed.


01:48 I grew up in Melbourne and went to the University of Melbourne, originally intending to study law but an advisor here suggested I do a combined arts/law degree because I'd done well in my arts subjects.


01:59 And I got interested in the arts side more than the law. I completed an honours degree in philosophy and history, and then decided to go on to do first a master’s which I did in philosophy. And then I was also fortunate enough to get a scholarship to go to Oxford, so I did further graduate studies at Oxford.


02:24 It was at Oxford that I got interested particularly in applied ethics which was - you couldn't really say it was a new field because it had been done for many centuries earlier, going right back to Socrates.


02:42 But when I was at the University of Melbourne, most of ethics was really conceptual analysis. It wasn't really about how we ought to live or what we ought to do. It was considered that they were not really proper questions for philosophers to answer.


03:03 But like everybody in the department, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher called John McCluskey who did political philosophy and was concerned about questions like, "What's the best kind of state? Or what should the limits on an individual freedom be?" 


03:15 But a lot of other philosophers at that time thought that the business of philosophy was to analyse the meaning of moral words. This was a time when there was a lot of student ferment. The Vietnam War was on. I'd been involved in Melbourne in protests against the Vietnam War and I thought that philosophy could actually connect with this. Traditionally, it had. Traditionally, philosophers discussed questions like, "Should we obey an unjust law?"


03:46 So, I tried to connect my philosophy with those issues that interested me. And I found an advisor at Oxford, R M Hare, who supervised my thesis on whether we ought to obey the law in a democracy, if we think we disagree with the law, are we obliged to obey it or not?


04:06 So, iI was getting into what you’d call normal ethics or anywhere normative political philosophy. And then I started writing about ethics as well, getting into questions about the obligations of the affluent to people in extreme poverty, which was something that was triggered in part by the crisis in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, when the Pakistani army brutally suppressed a movement for autonomy in that part of Pakistan and 9 million people fled over the border to India to escape the Pakistani army. So, 9 million refugees in a small area in a very poor country and not getting nearly enough assistance from the rich nations of the world. 


05:00 That's what got me thinking about what are my obligations as an individual. I didn't have a lot of money. I was living on a scholarship and my wife was a school teacher but still, living comfortably. And what were our obligations to help people in such desperate need?


05:19 Nick: So, while I was preparing for this interview, I found it most helpful to start with your 1972 essay 'Famine, Affluence and Morality.' I was able to understand your subsequent work on animal rights and effective altruism which we'll explore later throughout the interview, with a grounding in this essay. So, can you touch on - I guess in greater depth and perhaps you've already done so - the suffering and devastation that was then occurring in East Bengal and how it prompted you to write the essay? But I suppose more relevantly because you've already covered this off, what it was that you were saying that had not been said before or had not been heard in that particular way such that it had the impact that it did?


05:53 Peter: Right, well ‘famine, affluence and morality’ is the essay that I was referring to that was prompted by that situation. But also prompted by the desire to write something that was applied ethics and that was relevant to a large number of people. So, not a sort of arcane question that you were not likely to come across. Questions like 'Is capital punishment justified?' are not questions that really have a practical significance for most people except as citizens voting I suppose, but otherwise only for people in government making those decisions.


06:37 Whereas questions about 'Are we justified in spending money on luxuries that we don't really need when there are people that are in extreme poverty in the world?' are questions that really affect everybody who can afford to buy a cup of coffee which costs as much as some people in the world have to live on for the entire day.


06:54 So, the situation in what's now Bangladesh was really a dramatic way of raising this question, but the question is one that goes on all the time, whether there is such a crisis or not because there are people in extreme poverty. We can help them quite inexpensively and the question is whether we're justified in ignoring that, whether we can think of ourselves as living an ethical life if we don't do something significant for people in extreme poverty.


07:23 So, what did I say that was new in that essay? Well, it's pretty hard in philosophy after two millennia of philosophy to say something that nobody has said before. So, I'm not going to claim that I did but I certainly said things that nobody was saying at the time. Pretty much nobody in philosophy.


07:50 In fact, as I mentioned in the article, some of what I was saying was really quite consistent with traditional Christian and more specifically Roman Catholic teaching because I think I quoted Thomas Aquinas who said that the right to property exists in order to help us meet our basis needs, to help us better meet our needs.


08:22 But if in fact it's standing in the way of meeting those basic needs, then you don't have a right to that property. Say, for example I'm a wealthy man and I'm putting on a big, lavish feast for all my friends and there's somebody who is starving or whose family is starving, and he is able to come to the table and take a loaf of bread and put it under his cloak and walk off with it, he's not stealing according to Aquinas. He's not stealing because I have no right to this abundance when his needs are going unsatisfied. So, he actually has a right to that loaf of bread.


08:57 Nick: And so, in the context of what was happening at the time, I remember there was this great example that you raised about the exorbitant spending on the supersonic aircraft and the comparatively little funding that was spent on addressing the human suffering of I think 7 to 9 million people you mentioned. Is that an example of what you're saying?


09:23 Peter: Yes, that's right. I was talking about the amount being spend to develop Concord which was the first supersonic commercial passenger plane and clearly, it was not a great success because it was withdrawn after use. It flew for some years, a small number of flights, very expensive. A couple of them crashed and then it was withdrawn, so that was actually with a benefit of hindsight, we can see now, really a vast waste of money. And that money could have gone to help people in extreme poverty, to meet their needs.


09:56 So, I did then, and I even more firmly do now think that we ought not to have spent that kind of money when there are other people in extreme poverty.


10:09 Nick: So, perhaps with reference to effective altruism and your 2009 work, The Life You Can Save, can you expand upon this notion of moral cosmopolitanism which I think maybe even in referencing Christian theology - the idea that every soul is of equal worth - can you expand upon the idea of moral cosmopolitanism and the idea that all lives are equal, and that individual suffering is worthy of our attention, regardless of geographical distance or other factors such as familial connection or even time - the idea that we should consider future generations?


10:37 Peter: Yeah, that was certainly a large part of the argument because the article started by using this example which has acquired a kind of fame of its own about seeing a small child in danger of drowning in a pond and thinking about whether you should rescue this child. It's not your child. You're not responsible for it in any way. It's the child of a stranger and you don't know where the parents are.


10:58 But should you rescue it, even at the cost of ruining your really expensive clothes that you happen to be wearing and that you wouldn't have time to take off if you were going to jump into the pond and save the child?


11:09 So, pretty much everybody agrees that you should rescue the child there in front of you, even at the cost of spending let's say a few hundred dollars on replacing those expensive clothes.


11:26 But what you need to do then is to think about well, if it would be wrong to leave the child to drown in a pond, is it wrong to leave the child to die of malaria because there are no bed nets in that village, despite the fact that malaria is prevalent there and children often die of it?


11:47 That's just another example where we can for a modest amount of money, save a life or certainly reduce the chances of a child dying.


11:57 And then you have to say well, yeah, but the one child is in front of you and the other child is on the other side of the world. One child, you can actually see. The other child, you don't know who the child is that you'll save. One child is - you'll solve the entire problem there by pulling the child out of the pond. The other child, let's say you'll donate enough to save one child's life but there will be other children who are still going to die from malaria.


12:20 So, I examined whether those kinds of things make a difference. Do they make a difference to your ethical obligations? And a significant part of the argument of that article is to argue that they don't. So, I'm arguing that we do have - as you were saying - cosmopolitan moral obligations.


12:41 Another way to look at it is to say we ought to take a universal point of view. We ought to not simply look at the world from where we are today. That is, here I am in Melbourne, there are people in some need close to me in Melbourne but there are people in significantly greater need elsewhere or needs that can be more easily and effectively met elsewhere in the world.


13:16 So, should I first look after the needs of people in Melbourne, even if I can help more people with the limited resources I have if I help people far away from me? I would argue no, we ought to give equal weight to everyone's interests, irrespective of where they are, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their race, their religion, whatever. And that means that we ought to really be focusing much more on people in developing countries than in our own community.


13:41 Nick: As you mentioned in the article, it does kind of run counter to millennia of human psychological evolution in that we are kind of hardwired to be more concerned about the child drowning in the pond in our immediate vicinity or perhaps the child who is part of our family. Essentially, privileging the tribe or those who are most like us rather than the other or someone who is maybe many thousands of kilometres away and that seems to many people to be a natural response. 


14:10 With thinking about that, can you perhaps comment on how globalisation and technology has eradicated these boundaries to empathy and concern to fellow human beings, what the implications are in the 21st century when there are no real barriers to have communications with or having connections with people around the globe?


14:36 Peter: Yes, you're right of course that we have now technologies to relate to people on the other side of the world that we never had until relatively recently. That enables us to know what their needs are. It enables us to respond to urgent needs like drought, famine, civil war and so on.


14:55 And I do think that creates obligations which people didn't have a few generations ago when they couldn't really help. I mean, if you can't help somebody far away, clearly you don't have an obligation to help them.


15:10 So, that has made a difference. And it's also made some kind of psychological difference because we can see more of what's happening and image is often very powerful emotionally as the image of the small Turkish boy, the child of Syrian refugees who was washed up on the shore. That made a huge impact on people's support for refugees and the amount that was contributed to organisations helping refugees.


15:49 So, emotionally seeing something - even seeing a photo - makes a difference. And seeing something directly in front of you when it's not a photo makes a bigger difference. And I think, as you were hinting at, there are obviously evolutionary reasons why that should be so, why we should be geared to help people that we can see and that we can help and that mostly will be part of our own tribal or social group because that's how our ancestors lived, in quite small communities.


16:20 But the ethical question is so, okay, it does make a psychological difference. You could even say its natural in some way to respond to someone you can see rather than a stranger you can't see. But given that we're aware of the situation, given that we can know that we will save a child, given that will be a real child - just as real as the child in front of me, even if I never know who that child is - then I would argue that our psychological readiness to help the child near doesn't really translate into an ethical difference. It doesn't mean that it's required of me to help the child in front of me and not required of me to help the child far away who I don't see.


17:07 So, taking it one step further from the individual's responsibility in an ethical sense, how should governments prioritise the collective ethical responsibility of taxpayers, for instance, in terms of making decisions about allocating funds towards hundreds of thousands of people in international aid programs, for instance in Indonesia, or a smaller collective of farmers here in Australia? Does the same kind of principle apply at the government public policy level?


17:35 Peter: I think the general principal is that you should try and do the most good you can, whether an individual or a government. But it's true that governments are responsible to their electors, at least if we're talking about democratic governments - and I do think that democracy is the best available system or as Winston Churchill put it, the worst system except for all the others.


18:10 So, I favour that, and I recognise that governments have to please their voters, or they will be thrown out of office and there's no point in doing things that are going to be undone by your successor.


18:22 So, I think here governments need to lead and encourage voters to see this as something important, as something that's not going to hurt them to spend a modest amount on effective aid overseas.


18:35 And it is an extremely modest amount that we're spending. In fact, in Australia I would say it's a shamefully modest amount. We're spending about 22 cents in every hundred dollars that the nation earns, so about one-fifth of 1% of what we earn as a nation, and that's way below other countries that we compare ourselves with. It's only about a third of what the United Kingdom spends on foreign aid.


19:03 So, I think governments ought to educate the public as to how little we are spending and why the right thing to do is actually to spend more.


19:16 Nick: So, with this idea of moral cosmopolitanism and empathy for other sentient beings in mind, regardless of other things we've talked about like vicinity and other things like familial connection. I'd like to move to a consideration of your work in the animal rights movement which largely started with your 1975 work, Animal Liberation. So, I'd like to begin with the question of humankind's relationship to animals and the concept of animal rights as an extension of your reconsideration of humankind's concern for the suffering of other beings and by simple extension, the suffering of animals. That question didn't come out so well as it was written hastily over lunch. 


19:45 If I may, I'll open with a quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Enemies, A Love Story’ which you referenced at Melbourne University the other day. “As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought. In their behaviour towards creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with another species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principal that might is right. In relation to them, all people are Nazis. For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka”


20:11 So, that quote seems to echo Thracymachus’s assertion that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger from Plato's Republic. Can you speak about the notion of speciesism which features strongly in animal liberation?


20:28 Peter: Yes. It's a very powerful quote obviously. I don't think that Isaac [unclear] or Herman, the person who he is speaking through, is saying the same as Thracymachus. Because I think for Thracymachus is really taking a cynical view that there is no such thing as justice. When he says justice is really the interests of the stronger, that's a deflationary kind of justice. You know, if that's true, then sure, the stronger might force us to do what they want us to do but that's not justice. That's compulsion.


21:11 So, I don't think that IB Singer - who incidentally is no relation to me - I don't think that he is being cynical about justice. He's just saying that the relationship between ourselves and animals parallels the relationship between Nazi's and their victims, particularly Jews, in that they are stronger, and they do what they want to do. And of course, that's unjust in both cases but that's not to say that there isn't such a thing as justice.


21:43 It's a very powerful quote before of course Singer is a Jewish writer and some people would find that offensive, that to compare effectively in some sense Jews with animals - if you are comparing what we do with the animals with what the Nazis did to the Jews, then sort of the Jews are in the position of animals. Again, that's not what IB Singer was saying.


22:08 But he was saying these are situations in which we fail to deal rightly with people who are in our power. In fact, we deal very wrongly with them.


22:21 And although I've generally avoided making that comparison between Nazis and the way we treat animals, I can see why Isaac Bashevis Singer is making it because he is appalled at what's happening. We do it without much thought for the victims of it and we do it when we don't need to do it.


22:52 So, I think in that sense, it's an accurate account of our relationships with animals which is one where generally we simply use them as our means, as we wish to do so, with very little thought for their interests.


23:07 Now, that's not the case perhaps with dogs and cats and horses, other animals that we feel fondly about or have some relationship with. But it's very definitely the case with most of the animals who we eat because they're reared in factory farms with no real concern for their interests. The limits to how much we will crowd them together or misuse them are really just the limits of whether we'll reduce our profits because so many of them will die that we won't get the products at the end that we want to.


23:47 Ian: It's obviously a sensitive question but growing up in the shadow of World War Two and the Holocaust and your own family's experience, but how much did your family's experience inform your instinctive feelings and philosophical work in regard to repulsion towards totalitarian regimes and arbitrary cruelty, violence and suffering? Is that something that was...?


24:06 Peter: I'm sure it played a significant role. It's very hard to trace the influences on yourself, especially when they began when you were a small child. But obviously I knew a lot about Nazis. I knew a lot about what the Nazi's had done to my family and although my parents escaped, my grandparents did not and three of them were murdered in Nazi camps.


24:34 So, that was very present. As I got older, I read quite a lot of history. As I mentioned, I did both history and philosophy here at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate. And in history, I did a lot of different periods. I ended up doing quite a lot of history of the rise of fascism in Europe and the rise and fall of the Third Reich. So, I was aware of the brutality that was involved, of the breakdown of law and order, of the Nazi SA thugs in the streets and the things that they had done to my family when the Nazi's marched into Austria.


25:25 So, I think an abhorrence of that probably did play a role in forming my attitudes about the importance of the rule of law, the importance of decent institutions, open society, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and also concern for the weaker and the victims.


25:45 Of course, I could have had it without any Nazi background. Many people do but I think in my case, I was influenced by that.


25:51 Ian: You've also written about how when you went to Oxford, I think you started speaking with your wife and suddenly you have this volta or change in your attitudes. You said something like, "I think we need to stop eating meat," or something. It was a decision you came to together.


26:04 And like with the example of the suffering of millions in East Bengal, was there any particular personal experiences which spurred you on to adopt that position?


26:18 Peter: No, I mean, I think the encounter I had with a Canadian student, Richard Keshen, who was a vegetarian and a vegetarian because he didn't think it was right to treat animals as the animals that we're eating were treated. It was really the trigger for that.


26:37 I'd never really thought very much about the ethics of how we treat animals up to then. And I know that will sound pretty strange today when it's impossible to imagine that you get to being 24 years old and a graduate student at Oxford without having encountered people who are ethical vegetarians and who are stimulated don't think about that issue.


26:56 But that's how it was. I had never met a - if I'd met a vegetarian at all, I think it was a Hindu, and obviously I didn't relate to that. But I don't think - until I met Richard Keshen, I don't think I'd met someone who was an ethical vegetarian for non-religious reasons.


27:20 That wasn't really an issue that was being discussed. There was the RSPCA which was concerned mostly about cruelty to cats and dogs but there was no discussion of the treatment of animals in factory farms. So, I hadn't really come across that but once I did and once I went into it a little bit, then obviously the question of whether we were justified in eating meat arose. And as you said, I had a discussion with Renata, my wife, about that and she agreed that we should make that change.


28:01 I was ready to make it, so we did, and that was - of all the things that my work in ethics had actually on my personal life, the impact that it had on my personal life - that was by far, the most momentous because here it was changing something that we did every day. Twice a day, anyway. We didn't eat meat for breakfast as some Australian's do but twice a day anyway, I was usually eating meat. And this was something we had to change.


28:25 So, that was a big step and that did lead to this turning point and we also started thinking about our obligations to the poor and donating 10% of our income it was at that time, to Oxfam for its anti-poverty work. So, that was certainly a turning point in my life.


28:44 Nick: This is a bit of a long question, but I think one of the most beautiful and impactful pieces of writing in Australia in the last decade was Anna Krien’s 2012 Quarterly Essay, Us And Them. 


28:58 It opens with a sophisticated vignette about the slipperiness between our notions of humankind and animals and how we're often able to recognise in animals those qualities we like to think make us human and vice versa.


29:10 It makes very compelling and emotive reading and by blurring the lines between animal and human, encourages us to see animals as other ‘beings’ rather than mere ‘things’ whose suffering isn't morally relevant or can be explained away or even justified, biblically or otherwise.


29:21 So, can you reflect on the role of empathy in changing attitudes towards consuming animals? Like, for instance we don't eat other human beings because they are like us, exactly so. We don't eat species we keep as pets because we see ourselves in them and have feelings for them. 


29:35 We are generally more comfortable eating non-mammalian creatures like fish rather than animals such as cows and sheep. And people are generally non-plussed about eating non-sentient beings without central nervous systems like oysters. So, there seems to be a bit of a hierarchy based on likeness to us.


29:48 Peter: I don't agree if we are talking about Australians - and I don't think most people are at all uncomfortable about eating pigs and cows unfortunately. I think they should be, but I don't think we've got to that point.


30:01 I think the better contrast is to say we're very uncomfortable about people eating dogs and pretty uncomfortable about people eating horses. So, we think it's appalling that the Chinese and Koreans eat dogs, but we don't really transfer that over to well, isn't it just as appalling that we eat pigs? After all, it wasn't for nothing that George Orwell made pigs the leaders of Animal Farm above the dogs because pigs are at least as intelligent as dogs. But we don't have them running around the home, so we don't relate to them in that way.


30:44 I think that's the major boundary - the idea that there are some animals who we admit to our home and almost because part of our family and we love them and care for them. And then there's others that we don't have much to do with and they are mostly out of sight as well, living indoors and in huge sheds. We just buy pieces of them at the supermarket and that's where the empathy cuts out.


31:11 So, show us a picture of the dog markets in Seoul and yes, empathy comes in. Pick up a piece of pork at the supermarket or steak or cow or whatever it is, and there's very little empathy. 


31:24 So, I think the trouble with empathy is it's often too geared to those kinds of emotions, and it takes an effort to actually say, "Hey, wait a minute. Pigs are also animals that can have a good life and that it's wrong to inflict a miserable life on just because we want to eat parts of their body."


31:50 And so, it's a kind of a cognitive empathy that we need, not an emotive empathy if we're really to get beyond these pretty arbitrary lines that we draw.


32:05 Nick: This leads onto my next question about, how hard is it to be human (in your philosophy), because humans don't like thinking and cognitive empathy certainly very difficult and something that requires effort. So, how hard is it to be human - when we are flawed and self-interested in the most part - and to do what your philosophy demands with regards to our relationship to animals? I feel sick sometimes when you think about 60 billion animals slaughtered and one trillion fish each year for human consumption. I become quite misanthropic and almost left in a state of despair and yet, I still haven't changed my behaviour in some years about eating meat.


32:42 I was vegetarian for 18 months for a time and then I suppose, you just forget about it. It just becomes easy amidst the business of life to not think about other beings.


32:56 Peter: Well, I'm not quite sure how to respond to that because I think it's always there and I don't actually think it's all that difficult - certainly it's not difficult to be vegetarian. Being vegan is sometimes a little more complicated, but I don't think it's really hard to stop eating animals.


33:16 Yeah, my life is busy too but that doesn't mean that I somehow would save a lot of time if only I went out and bought a steak or something like that.


33:28 So, is it hard? I don't think it's really hard to be human in this way. If by being human, you mean living out the ethics of how we ought to live. I think there are various pressures - psychological pressures, group conformity pressures - that lead people not to do it. But I think it's really easier than many people imagine.


33:58 Nick: I did it for 18 months. I was there...


34:01 Peter: Right. We need to have a conversation about why you went back to eating it after not doing it for 18 months.


34:06 Nick: Swordfish steaks was the gateway back to - real steaks. Anyway...


34:10 Peter: Okay, so some people think the solution to people like you is to produce steaks from plant-based products or invitro cell culture that are real meat but don't involve any animal suffering and fewer greenhouse gases.


34:27 So, maybe it's actually that we have some capacity for ethical thought but it's weak and therefore, it's outweighed often by your desire for swordfish steaks or your desire for T-bone steaks or whatever they might be.


34:41 Nick: But I think the point remains - going back to the 1972 piece about if you can be moral and there's a very little cost to it, then you should act to save the child, despite getting your boots wet or so on.


34:50 You mentioned it before. If you could have a plant-based substitute and in many ways, all the grain production on earth could sate the human need or demand for protein, why wouldn't we do it? It seems to be more a question of human pleasure or desire for animal products rather than it does about meeting a basic need as perhaps it once was, which bore out of necessity to eat the meat.


35:15 Peter: As I said, I think it's partly a kind of peer pressure. I think we are rather like sheep in not wanting to go our own ways as individuals as many people are. I think it may take a critical mass of people to refuse to eat animals for it to become easier for other people to do so.


35:45 And maybe we're getting there. Certainly, the number of vegetarians and vegans seem to be rising or at least the vegan and vegetarian food is much more evident now than it used to be. It's much easier to find in your supermarket aisles or in your restaurant menus.


36:04 So, maybe that's going to create some sort of tipping point. Or maybe, as we were saying, it's the production of better alternatives to meat that will do it. But I certainly don't despair of us actually getting there.


36:17 Nick: Yeah, it kind of leads on to a question about will, really. You're famously an atheist but I think that a lot of the things you advocate for which is essentially compassion and kindness towards other beings - as regards to the things we've discussed today - would be a lot easier if we could be certain of the existence of God. Not because we fear of being struck down by some omnipotent and retributive force when we stray from what is objectively right or true but because we could be certain of particular model truths which would make it easier to object to factory farming and eating meat, supposing God had forbade those things.


36:52 And as it happens, the converse is true where a lot of the attitudes towards eating meat are justified by the biblical hierarchies set out in Genesis 1, that is that God granted man dominion over the fish of the sea and animals of the land for his use and consumption.


37:11 So, when faced with what Camus called the 'benign indifference of the universe' - that is, a universe without God which is indifferent to our suffering and the suffering of animals on earth - why should we ultimately and metaphysically be concerned about the suffering of animals?


37:25 This might a bridge too far but if you can keep with me. To borrow ridiculously Plato’s example of The Ring of Gyges, why should we act in a moral way in a godless or atheistic universe in which there is no punishment for injustices, particularly when we consider that all morality may be socially constructed including your own, and the ones that you outline in Animal Liberation?


37:55 Peter: Well, I don't think that all morality is socially constructed. I do think there are objectively right ethical principles. And I think for example, inflicting suffering pointlessly is something that any rationale being, whatever society they had grown up in and indeed whether they were human or some other form of rational life, would be able to see was wrong.


38:22 And that has nothing to do with a belief in a God because there's the famous dilemma in Plato’s Euthyphro about, do the gods command things because they're right or are they right because the gods command them? Unless you want to make the god's arbitrary tyrants, you have to say the gods command them because they are right. So, you would need some sort of notion of what was right to make sense of that idea.


38:57 Of course you can ask well, what will motivate us to do what's right? One possible answer would be because well, we see that it's right and we're rationale beings and that in itself is a motivation to do what we see as the right thing to do.


39:12 But that doesn't seem to be a powerful enough motive for many people. So, I do think we need to add that in fact it's a fulfilling and rewarding kind of life, to do what is in accordance with our values and to feel that we're living to some purpose and that purpose is not only our own happiness, but it's a purpose of making the world a better place.


39:35 And I know that motivates me and it motivates a lot of people in the effective altruism movement. So, I do think that’s real and there's also plenty of good psychological studies that back that up, that show that people who are more generous and caring about others are actually more content with their lives and have a greater life fulfilment and satisfaction than others.


39:54 Nick: To wrap up - I know you've got to run - but when you look out to the horizon of the 21st century, what are you most optimistic and pessimistic about for humankind and other beings on the blue planet?


40:08 Peter: Well, I'm pessimistic particularly about our ability to deal with climate change. That seems to be the major worry at the moment, that we're not doing what we need to do. That the result is going to be a warming planet which is going to be much worse for billions of the world's poorest people and that's going to exacerbate a lot of problems.


40:35 If it were not for that, I'd be reasonably optimistic about our ability to make progress in feeding the world, in finding solutions to violence and generally also in increasing concern for animals as we decreasingly actually need to use them because of technological advances.


41:03 So, you could say I'm broadly optimistic except for the problem of climate change which is a particular dilemma because it requires everybody to act together. It's not enough for one individual or even one nation to act on it. It does require coordination so it's a kind of problem where it's in short term interests of everyone to be free riders on everyone else's actions, and that's why it's so hard to solve.


41:27 Nick: I forgot to add - this is one for a friend, a very quick one. There have been massive moral and social transformations in the last 75 to 100 years, for instance attitudes towards homosexuality or interracial marriage. Looking forward to the next 20 to 50 years, what are some things that you think may be considered wrong or whatever now but which you think might become accepted?


41:49 Peter: Interesting the conservative American columnist, Charles Krauthammer was asked to discuss that question in a column. Our attitudes and treatment of animals was the thing that he mentioned although not been known previously as someone who was particularly concerned about that or a campaigner about that.


42:12 So, obviously I do think that's something people will look back on and they'll be appalled at the way we treated animals as we are now appalled at the way that slave owners treated African slaves or Romans treated Christians in the arena.


42:33 But it's very hard otherwise to predict the things that have not yet been raised, that are not yet on the horizon. I don't have a crystal ball for seeing.


42:38 Nick: Professor Singer, thank you so much for your time today. It's been a singular pleasure.