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.