The infinite conversation and survival

The infinite conversation and survival

I have written before in the Burning Archive of the metaphor for writing, and its eternal companion, reading, that I have prised from the title of Blanchot’s work, The Infinite Conversation

I have written here of how writing secures our rare and precious fragments of understanding against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them in their frail forms to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

And I have written here, in more cryptic and plangent terms of how for me writing is my chosen method of going sane and staying sane. To chant the songlines of human heritage, regardless of audience and social esteem, is my path. As I wrote in 2015, surprising myself with this record of my thoughts preserved from the flames:

“it is only the lonely tenacity of single sane souls that invests in the harmless runes of prophecy. But from those chance meanings, spread like disorder across time and space, will emerge the infinite conversation.”

The infinite conversation emerged as a guiding metaphor from a dialogue with my psychotherapist. She posed the question what values are important to you when you write. For me fame is not the spur, nor wealth, nor even impossible immortality. But a kind of survival through braiding my gentle voice with the threads without end of literature.

I do not have ready access to Blanchot’s text to deepen my imagination of the meaning of a mere title to his work. The best I could do was to find the text of a brief tribute by Jean-Luc Nancy on the occasion of Blanchot’s still living centenary. 

This existence is not life as immediate affection and self-perpetuation, nor is it its death. The ‘dying’ [‘mourir’] of which Blanchot speaks—which is in no way to be confused with the cessation of life, and which is, quite on the contrary, the living, or ‘living-on’, or ‘sur-viving’ invoked by Derrida when he was at his closest to Blanchot -forms the movement of the ceaseless approach to absenting as true sense, destroying in it all trace of nihilism.

Such is the movement that, being written, can ‘give to nothing, in its form of nothing, the form of something.

It is this form of survival that I cherish in writing. This survival of ghostly incantations and keener sounds comes from the borderlands of the mind, and a solitary wanderer’s habit of paying loving attention to the voices in his head. This survival promises renewal from isolation. It promises dream from the injuries of the day. And it makes from our evanescent words fragments of beauty that may wander the earth forever.

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An accidental tourist

Here is a poem of mine from about a year ago.

When the wind blows from I know not where
And stained visions crowd my troubled sleep
I wake late, mistaken and stripped bare
Only to stumble on the rock where I am told to leap

Leap into words infinite and sentences dread
Into the equations of the unreal and forbidden
Into these whispers that press past me like strangers
In a city, where even the streets are made of ether

And where I land and if and why
Are not mine to know

I land in some foreign place
Unimagined and unplanned
An accidental tourist chained in chance again.

 

Jeff Rich

 

 

Mr Dylan’s bad language

Mr Dylan’s bad language

I like to check out the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world of books in our highly literate world is so vast that any pointers to quality oeuvres that speak of different histories is welcome. It is how I discovered Symborska and Transtormer and a few others.

You can imagine my shock then, late last year, when the Nobel Committee declared the 2016 winner to be the over-celebrated bard of the 60’s, Bob Dylan. 

Shock grew to doubt about the Nobel’s claim to award distinctions, and then to searching questioning about what this meant about the culture. It was not the first unconventional choice by the committee. The year before a Russian journalist won the prize; but at least her deep testimonies of the experiences of post-communist Russia were unequivocally her own work, and she showed up to accept the prize.

Mr Dylan struck out on both counts. He did not go to his award ceremony. He had other commitments, a schedule full of the kind of unbreakable commitments made by aging rock celebrities. A rather sheepish American ambassador appeared in his stead, and duly read what she had to say was Mr Dylan’s speech.

But it gets worse. The Committee insisted that to claim the prize, and the substantial money attached, Mr Dylan must give an acceptance speech. So he did, a mere couple of days before the deadline, when he would have lost his cheque. But the aging rolling stone could not make it to Sweden; he posted his speech to YouTube, a 30 minute ramble about the great literary traditions from which he sprang, including Moby Dick.

Perhaps this is innovation? Perhaps it is a sly parody of formality from which he chooses to stand apart. Or perhaps it is lazy, arrogant and incompetent contempt.

On investigation it appears Mr Dylan was not capable of giving an authentic account of his literary craft, and too narcissistic to believe he would be found out for his failure. His speech contained dozens of sentences cribbed like a lackadaisical student directly from Spark Notes, that well known den of scholarly scoundrels. Andrea Pitzer at Slate makes the case, complete with laid out comparisons of Mr Dylan’s and Spark Notes texts on that US high school text, Moby Dick, and puts the compelling question: is the current Nobel Laureate a not very literary plagiarist?

So what does this mean for the culture? What does it tell us about the destructive flames of contemporary life that threaten to burn to the ground our precious archive of memory, history, tradition, literature and culture?

I fear it is another sign of the death of culture. I fear it is a sign of a new bourgeois stupidity that we not yet know how to fight, as Flaubert did in another age.

But perhaps I could speaking to the twisting nether, and ask this of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize: take the prize back from Mr Dylan’s slack and begging hands. It is time for Culture to mutiny against Mr Dylan’s bad language.

From flashbacks to testimony – reflections on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse

In September last year I delivered a paper to a conference sponsored by a major research centre on the history of emotions. It was a step away for me from the hidden bureaucrat who never speaks in public or who does not share the depth and range of his thoughts. Perhaps I hoped it might take me on the path not taken, and leading me back to my early career aspiration to be an historian.

But that was not to be. But I did receive a pleasing response to the paper from the conference attendees.  The paper concerned the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse, which has since 2013 been inquiring into the many cases of child sexual abuse in the churches, in schools, in government institutions, in the entertainment industry and so on.

It has been a remarkable event in Australian public life. At a moment when public institutions are locked into a degrading tit-for-tat spiteful conversation about all that is petty, this Royal Commission has found a way to speak in the most dignified, profound way about issues that are distressing and difficult. It was this enigma that I wanted to portray, and I sought to connect it to the history of emotions.

Martha Nussbaum has written of the use of emotions in public and political life, and of the importance for democratic societies of tragic spectatorship, and providing a form for the difficult social emotions that can bring public life down. Here, she speaks in a timely meditation on finding a better way to be angry – surely a task for our times. And it was precisely this way of giving form and art to difficult emotions was at the foundation of the Royal Commission’s achievement.

I still think I might write a short book or a long essay on the Royal Commission, which will complete its report soon and publish it just before Christmas this year. But in the meantime I am posting my talk at the conference on Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia.

*****

The remembered child who speaks of trauma – reflections on the Child Abuse Royal Commission.

Jeff Rich

Paper to conference held by ARC Centre for the History of Emotions

Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia

Session – Voices that testify

September 9, 2016

The Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia Symposium explored the status of children’s voices and their ability to tell their own stories. The symposium heard from neuroscientists, historians, legal scholars, literary scholars, mental health and child welfare practitioners, and most importantly children and young people themselves.  My contribution is a little different since it looks not at the voices of today’s children, but the remembered voices of children, as spoken by the adults who have testified at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Children’s Voices and Royal Commission Testimony

Sometimes during the many survivor testimonies at the Royal Commission, you can hear summoned from the memory of a 40 year old, a 60 year old, even an 80 year old, the voice of the traumatised child. Though spoken by adults, they are children’s voices nonetheless, even if filtered through all the prisms of memory, later experience and narrative reconstruction. To attend so carefully, at last, to these voices is one of the great achievements of the Royal Commission.

Although they are not strictly contemporary children’s voices, the way the Commission puts them on the public stage is demonstrating new possibilities for how we all respond to children today. Indeed, the example set by the Royal Commission through its inquiries, public hearings and most significantly its private sessions is reshaping community attitudes and institutional responses to children. Fragile, sometimes dissociated, remembered voices of traumatised children are no longer brushed aside as sob stories from too long ago. And so the Commission has borne witness not just to the facts, but also to the emotions carried in these voices.

More than that – and here I think the ARC Centre for History of Emotions could play a role – the Commission is reshaping our emotional responses to trauma – even inventing a new emotional regime (to use the term of William Reddy, the historian of emotions).

There is in historical writing a booming field of the history of emotions. This field has diverse  origins in the study of the mass psychology of crowds and irrational irruptions of violence in civilised societies. The field has explored contrasts between modern rationalised societies and their medieval or anthropologically remote counterparts, the birth of manners and civility, the emotional experience of family, art and many quotidian experiences. Since the 1980s, the field has received great impetus from discoveries and borrowings from the life sciences, as many disciplines learn from new understandings of how the nature of the brain, cognition, emotion and culture are intertwined in human evolution and history. Socially, too, it has been spurred by the diffusion of self-help groups across many social movements and health concerns, and this practice has prompted historians to ponder the existence of “emotional communities” – affinity groups of akin styles of expressing and acting on emotion. This opening out of historical writing to felt experience, and its examination of how emotions are shaped and adapted over time, how cultures and institutions give rise to particular patterns of emotional life, and how they enable particular ways of understanding, expressing and acting on the shifting impulses of feeling. It has led to a boom of studies of fear, anger, shame and violence that can deepen our understanding of the community response to the Royal Commission, and go beyond general arguments about social attitudes or indeed lazy clichés like “moral panic” which, in the past, have been tagged to people concerned about child sexual abuse.

William Reddy is among the most distinguished practitioners of the history of emotions.  In a strange irony, Reddy’s The Navigation of Feeling was, in fact, published the day before the terror attack on the twin towers buildings in New York on September 11 2001, and the history of emotions has ever since perhaps spoken to the anxieties of our time. Reddy has coined two terms “emotives” and “emotional regime,” which can be used to examine the articulation of emotion through the Royal Commission. “Emotives” refers to a certain characteristic of utterance of emotion – mid-way between an unacknowledged instinct and a fully intentional expression of a known self. It is an exploratory and incomplete articulation of feeling, whose point is its own experiment with expression, not revelation of truth or purpose.  In an interview, Reddy explained:

“Emotional expressions, in this sense, are neither constative nor performative, in Austin’s sense. They are a third kind of utterance: this is why I coined the term “emotives” for them…. An emotional expression is an attempt to call up the emotion that is expressed; it is an attempt to feel what one says one feels. These attempts usually work, but they can and do fail. When they fail the emotive expression is ‘exploratory’ in the sense that one discovers something unexpected about one’s own feelings.” (Plamper, “Interview”, 2010, p 240)

Reddy defines “emotional regime” as “the set of normative emotions and official rituals, practices and ’emotives’ that express and inculcate them.” In the Navigation of Feeling he explores contrasts between the emotional styles or regimes of Revolutionary France and later nineteenth century France, and argued that each regime led to different qualities of emotional suffering, with the regime in nineteenth century France offering more choices and hope to the individual.

This way of thinking about how societies shape and use emotions, or indeed how emotions shape and use societies, is of profound importance to understanding the Royal Commission. It is a truth commission that is not solely investigating documentary and analytical truth, but the truth of felt emotion. It is cultivating ways of speaking of the intimate shame of victims, bringing to light new truths about the failures of our social institutions, and new truths about how we can go beyond them. Shame is not an emotion that has been extensively investigated in the history of emotions, but it is central to the more philosophical work of Martha Nussbaum. In Hiding from history: disgust, shame and the law she explores how responses to shame and disgust are profoundly revealing of social and political distinctions, and through “projective disgust” can readily lead to derogation of the rights of others. By accepting our embodied, vulnerable and animal states, we become more accepting of others, more compassionate. But if shame leads to the separation from the strange and disgusting other, then it leads to some of the worst cruelties of humanity.

Nussbaum also explores systematically the role of emotions in public political institutional and cultural life. Her argument is that there are two main tasks of political emotion in liberal societies. The first task is to cultivate love,  sympathy, and strong commitments to worthy projects that require effort and sacrifice. So, a prime example is to cultivate the compassion for others that underpins paying taxes to support others in a full range of activities, and to redistribute some resources to the poor and frail. The second task is to hold at bay “tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others,” especially on how societies handles fear, disgust, envy, and shaming others. (Nussbaum, Political Emotions,  p. 2)” Emotions do not simply exist as passing feelings within an individual’s psyche. They find cultural and symbolic form to motivate, and they become embedded with institutions, and so become intrinsic to the institutional responses to common human dilemmas. Hence governments need to craft the use and institutional form of emotions carefully along two tracks. Nussbaum writes:

“In other words, government may attempt to influence citizens’ psychology directly (for example, through political rhetoric, songs, symbols, and the content and pedagogy of public education), or it may devise institutions that represent the insights of a valuable type of emotion— as a decent tax system, for example, could represent the insights of a duly balanced and appropriately impartial compassion. …. the motivational … is always in dialogue with the institutional” (Political Emotions, p 20).

The Royal Commission would perhaps have made a more stirring example in support of Nussbaum’s argument than the tax system.  The Royal Commission is establishing institutional arrangements to support victims, perpetrators, and bystanders to speak of their difficult emotions. And by its example, and in response to the widespread public discussion of the many stories from the Royal Commission, it is triggering a change in our history of emotions, prompting the formation from thousands of individual and institutional responses a new emotional regime, in William Reddy’s terms. It refers to the modes of emotional expression and thought that are dominant in a particular time period and cultural context. An example of changes in an emotional regime is the turn to a more effusive emotional style in the decades before and during the revolution  associated with sentimentalism and Rousseau’s writings, including his Confessions.

And, I think, unless we do create a new emotional regime to respond to trauma – we will not be able to really succeed in establishing the flexible, robust and supportive responses to children’s voices that we aim for. It is part of the practical genius of the Royal Commission that it is not only focussing on a new regime of laws and policies and systems, but developing practices, stories and changes in heart that can support such a new emotional regime.

About the Royal Commission

For three and a half years – since April 2013 – the Australian public have grown accustomed to the stories from this Royal Commission being a regular news story. Over that time we have heard many moving and distressing accounts of child sexual abuse in every major social institution with responsibility for children. 45 of 70 case studies have been heard. The most widely known cases involve Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church – which for a week earlier this year put the Commission in the global news spotlight. But the Commissioners have investigated poor responses by many other institutions – various faiths, churches and their affiliated welfare services, schools for the elite and the disadvantaged, orphanages, disability services, hospitals, health regulators, sports organisations, State child welfare departments, youth justice centres, the YMCA, child care centres, and the police; still more institutions are to come.

It has been an extraordinary reckoning with a troubling past, ongoing failures, and some difficult questions of why? Why did this occur, and can it be prevented in the future? Why do people do these terrible things? Why do children not speak up or are not listened to? Why can it take decades before a person can disclose abuse? Why do good people fail to act when they know about them?

How I became connected to the Royal Commission

I was introduced to the work of the Royal Commission from an unusual perspective. For about two years I was coordinating the responses of the Victorian Health Department to the Royal Commission – including examining our archival and historical records for documentary evidence of any past failures in Victoria’s health institutions.

While there was some abuse in health institutions, it appears to have been much less common than in orphanages or out-of-home care, religious institutions and schools. As a result, my work refocussed on the broader interpretation of the Royal Commission – what was the significance of this public event, and what impact was it having on the community, especially the health of the tens of thousands of survivors of abuse?

Now, I am no longer in that role, but I left the role remaining curious about what the Royal Commission told us all about our shared emotional life, and those difficult questions of “why?”.

The Royal Commission seemed to be like a great rolling scandal that revealed the spirit of the times, like the Dreyfus case in nineteenth century France. So I conceived the idea of writing a book about the Royal Commission. It would share the remarkable stories from all the people who appear at the commission – the victims, the perpetrators, the bystanders, the leaders of institutions, and try to explore some of the perhaps unanswerable questions that the Commission, with its obligation to develop careful legal argument and actionable recommendations, could not address. And this paper is a first public venture of some of the ideas for that project.

Silencing children and the context of abuse

The Commission has exposed so many failures by so many institutions. As Justice McLellan has said “there has been a time in Australian history when the conjunction of prevailing social attitudes to children and an unquestioning respect for authority of institutions by adults coalesced to create the high risk environment in which thousands of children were abused” (Speech, 2015). The actuarial assessment is that 60,000 survivors will come forward to seek redress. We do not know how many have already died from suicide, crippling shame, alcohol and drugs. This great tragedy was a “system failure” [to use the term the Royal Commission prefers] in which “those in responsible positions who failed to provide appropriate policies to guide the institution and practices to inhibit the actions of offenders.” (Speech, 2015)

Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with in the Royal Commission was how perfectly ordinary and common this failure was. It was not just evil doers or a dark Vatican conspiracy; but good people who did good things, and yet failed to respond effectively to this great epidemic of human suffering. The hearings show over and over again, that “well-intentioned people did not understand and did not respond to failures which should have been obvious in the institutions of which they were part.” (Speech, 2015)

This failure cannot be explained without thinking about the history of emotions, and how emotional regimes drove responses to the children who spoke of their abuse. So, if as Julia Gillard says the Royal Commission will “change Australia”, it will be change not only in what we do – the policies and laws and systems we put in place – and but also how we feel, how we express and act on those emotions – especially shame and the difficult emotions provoked by childhood trauma and abuse.

We need an emotional regime in which difficult emotions in tragic situations involving vulnerable children do not drive people – victims, perpetrators, bystanders, witnesses – into frozen, silent shame that can ignore any rulebook of good policies and procedures. I do not see much evidence yet that the history of emotions as such is on the radar of the Royal Commission although as it completes its final report perhaps it should be. In some ways, however, the Royal Commission’s practice is ahead of its theory on this issue. In its most important role of bearing witness to victims, the Commission has shown a remarkable sensitivity to emotional truth and developed several practices have created a safe stage on which the remembered voices of childhood trauma can be spoken.

The Commission has devised a certain way of speaking trauma to power through its private sessions, its case studies, its preparation and support for witnesses, its publication of a hundred anonymized stories of abused individuals, and through the respectful conduct of the Commissioners and the lawyers representing all parties. It has instructed victims in simple forms of retelling their stories that have brought these private histories of trauma safely into the public discourse. Yet in doing so, it has not tampered with the fragmented, dissociated and vulnerable voices of trauma. It respects the conflicted emotions. It honours the lapses and faults in memory. It stands as a guardian for the voice of trauma that can now speak despite its fears, and the threats and the intimidating authority of the courtroom, and indeed of the Royal Commissioners as the supreme representatives of investigative powers of the state, of the symbolic blessing of the Crown. The courtroom is transformed from a site of retraumatisation to a place of healing where victims can speak of their difficult histories.  In so doing these voices are heard beyond the private and become a public cathartic drama for us all.

Parramatta case

I want to give just one example of the appearance of this remembered voice of trauma. It is from case study 7 which examined the Parramatta Training School for Girls and the Hay Institution for Girls.

Both institutions have a quite shocking record of abuse – they were subjected to harsh discipline, which went to extremes at the Hay Institution – As the Royal Commission reports:

“Witnesses said that girls were subjected to military-style discipline and forced to march everywhere with their eyes to the ground. They were only allowed to talk to each other for 10 minutes a day.  At both institutions, girls often faced severe punishments for disobedience. They might be deprived of food or told to scrub floors. But the worst punishment at Parramatta Girls was being sent to an isolation cell. (Report on case study 7, pp 5-6)”

Here girls were sent for periods of weeks in an underground isolation cell, known as the dungeon, where girls were regularly physically and sexually abused by staff, including the superintendents running the facility. Again I do not want to focus on the details of the abuse, but as we are now learning to expect, this abuse has long term and devastating impacts on life opportunities and mental health – ex-residents all experience ongoing psychological trauma, including depression, stress disorders, flashbacks, trust issues, relationship issues, problems feeling any belonging to community, and suicide attempts.

One survivor the 65 year old Coral Campbell gave evidence on the final day of the four-day hearing on Parramatta. There she said: “I walked through the big green door of Parramatta Girls as a little girl and I came out of its big green gates a slut and a prostitute” (Campbell, Transcript Day 50, p 5141, lines 43-46 )

She still suffers flashbacks and horrible memories. These flashbacks are often triggered by the number 11, as she told the Commission, because number 11 was her nominated number at the institution – that was how she was spoken to. Like many victims, she did not tell anyone in authority or the police about the abuse because she did not think she would be believed. Indeed, like many she did not say anything about the abuse until much later in life when she was 55 years old, 43 years after the events. Whenever she heard the word Parramatta or 11 she would freeze in a flashback –

“It opened up that Pandora’s box that I tried not to think about. Little things would click and I’d go back. I’d go back…. From the dungeon at ground level sat a little girl at night-time, looking through those bars. You could see the hospital. Very frightening to be on your own, not knowing what to expect next time or what’s coming up.” (Transcript Day 50, pp. 5143-44)

The abuse led to great confusion in her mind – was she a good girl, was she a bad girl? She went on “And I’m still confused today. When I first reported my statement, wrote my statement, for the Royal Commission, I was scared. I was scared. Will they believe me? Would anybody believe me? I never even told my mother and father what happened to me in that home.”

What happens next in the courtroom is both moving and revealing of the changes in practice that the Commission has introduced. The Commission did indeed gain Ms Campbell’s trust through a private session where she received the welcoming attention of two Commissioners, and therapeutic and legal assistance with preparing her statement. Nonetheless, the Counsel for the Commission wanted to draw attention to the topic of redress, or financial compensation as one of the systemic issues being investigated by the Commission. Had she ever applied for compensation?

“Oh, Mr Atkinson asked me that in the private session. I said to him, “I don’t want compensation. All I want is a funeral by the State, a wake for my friends and family and a headstone saying that Coral was a good girl. That’s all. What can money buy? What can any financial situation – if you did get it, what can it buy? It can’t bring back that little girl that I was looking for but could not find.”

To me, this testimony shows the exceptional thing about this Royal Commission; that this voice of the remembered child – both very strong and very fragile – is allowed to speak, without challenge at this Royal Commission. Indeed, this voice is given greater respect than all the lawyers, government officials and senior church figures who traipse through the court, still unable to speak with quite this raw vulnerability.  There in front of the assembled silks of NSW, in front of a long table full of over-briefed barristers, this remarkably brave woman seeks only restitution of the shame she suffered as a child.

In this way the Royal Commission is, I think, doing some of the work of staging public emotions that Martha Nussbaum discusses in her Political Emotions: why love matters for justice and her book on shame and disgust, Hidden  from humanity: shame, disgust and the law. In Political Emotions, she describes this work as “tragic spectatorship” and argues it is essential to form bonds of compassion, love and justice within a community.

So, by sitting together the voices of power and recalled trauma, the Royal Commission is bringing about lasting change. This “tragic spectatorship” can dissolve authority’s frozen shame about its dark history of child welfare. By creating institutionalised practices that can cradle the voice of traumatised children, at whatever age they choose to speak, and by cradling the difficult emotions of shame and voicing these tragic stories of remembered children on the public stage, the Commission achieves an important task – for thousands of survivors now it has sensitively and justly turned their insistent traumas of childhood into safer histories of abuse. Together with the survivors, the Commission has turned flashbacks into testimony.

 

References

Nussbaum, Martha, Political Emotions: why love matters for justice (Cambridge Mass./London, 2013)

Nussbaum, Martha, Hiding from Humanity: disgust, shame and the law (Princeton, 2004)

Plamper, Jan, “The history of emotions: an interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein and Peter Stearns” History and Theory 49 (May 2010) pp 237-265

Reddy, William, The Navigation of Feelings: framework for a history of emotions (Cambridge, 2001)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Report of Case Study No. 7: Child Sexual Abuse at the Parramatta Training School for Girls and Hay Institution for Girls (October 2014)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Redress and Civil Litigation Report (August, 2015)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Interim Report (June 2014)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Speeches, accessed from http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/media-centre/speeches

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Transcripts of Public Hearings for Case No. 7, accessed from http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/f5e0f634-5670-4abf-bdf6-c7d8a58d677f/case-study-7,-february-2014,-sydney

 

 

On humility

For many years I have believed that Carl Jung once said or wrote that “you must stoop to drink from the river of life.”

But google has taught me humility, or perhaps I simply do not have the energy after a long week at work, which taught me humility, to hunt my quarry quote with true literary scholarship. I get nothing when I type these words into a google search.

Humility is one of the Christian virtues, which might make a reader sceptical if he/she were steeped in Nietzsche or Machiavelli. Is it just the philosophy of slaves or the rationalisation of those on whom fortuna does not smile?

But Machiavelli practised a kind of intellectual humility. When after he had been humiliated, tortured and dismissed from his public office, as perhaps the most (posthumously) famous bureaucrat of all time, and sent into a kind of internal exile, from which he would never return,  he turned to the humble craft of writing, and produced the insightful, yet puzzling tract on politics and power, The Prince.  He introduces this enduring enigma – is it an imaginative response to the trauma of his torture and downfall? – from the viewpoint that the humble may not inherit the earth, but they can observe the battlefield of power as well as its princes:

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people. Machiavelli, “Dedication”, The Prince

I wonder too what the poet-philosopher-philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche would make of today’s new aspirants to be Übermensch, the vast cult of Leadership in organisations. Everyone in today’s organisations, even in the bureaucratic ones that I wander through like a reviled exile, wants to be a Leader. Leadership appears in almost every job description, and is most often interpreted as managing up, a kind of impression management to appear always in control, and always in conformity with the wishes of your masters.  In the vast literature on Leadership, humility struggles to be authentically expressed, and appears to be little more than a sort of understated modesty that is happy to share the limelight with other members of the club. So here in a randomly selected article on the eleven characteristics of great leadership, humility appears with false modesty:

Humility: There’s nothing wrong with accepting praise for accomplishments so long as there’s as much willingness to accept criticism, to declare weaknesses, to seek opportunities for personal development, and to value others as much as oneself. That, in essence, is balanced humility.

If we set aside the modern pseudo-secular celebration of Leadership, as a symptom of a culture in ruins, and return instead to older, longer and deeper traditions, we can practise humility as one of the ordinary virtues.

Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in his accounts of responses to the degradation and inhumanity of the German concentration camps. He contrasted ordinary virtues that, in these circumstances, allowed some to endure the unconscionable. In those destitute times, the celebrated heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice – or we might say Leadership – would have led to compromise or death, the ordinary virtues reasserted in the worst conditions simple, small actions of daily life. Todorov identified three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.

Todorov’s work assumed humility, since the virtues are practised by those who suffer the regime, not those who administer it. But leading the life I do, I must speak up for and live out the practice of humility in the outer halls of power.

I remember in my early years as a public servant seeing this ordinary virtue practised by the then head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Peter Kirby. It was a more formal era prior to email and ubiquitous texting. Mr Kirby would give instructions to his direct reports through a neatly written sentence fitted into the margins of letters and briefs, and would always begin them Mr or Ms Surname: Mr Moran, please advise.  But the humility he practise, which is spoken of if not demonstrated in the obituary I have linked above,  was shown in another memory I have.

It seemed that he would lunch several days a week with a relatively low status person within the Department, Fred Warmbrand, in a modest cafe restaurant where all could see him. Just what was the purpose of these lunches – whether they were acts of friendship or ways to feel the pulse – I never really knew.  But I always remember this way of dwelling with the ordinary and the humble, even when he occupied one of the most powerful positions in the state. I rarely if ever saw his successors do the same.

Humility, and endurance of difficult experiences, are qualities I admire in my heroes. For me Vaclav Havel‘s story – stripped of status and imprisoned, yet sustaining faith in simple virtues that would become the foundation of a new state – is the embodiment of the ordinary virtues.  If we could bring down our modern courtiers, and restore public institutions, like those led not so long ago by Peter Kirby, where compassion, dignity, the life of the mind and humility prevailed as the ethos, we would not reach nirvana, but we would have restored some rare and precious things.

It is heartening that there is at least one project out there, the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut that appears to be attempting the same thing.

Adam Phillips, In Writing

‪Adam Phillips: “Writing needn’t be a world domination project… but just the attempt to find enough people who are interested in what matters to you‬”

This quotation comes from Adam Phillips’ latest collection, In Writing.

I sourced it from the review in The Guardian.

How timely I should stumble on this remark – I have begun to ask: what values guide my writing and what matters to me in writing? These questions came to me in therapy, and Phillips’ practice of writing is a model for my own. It appears I can find company by going sane writing.

Thank you for being interested in what matters to me.

Waste books and epigrams

Waste books and epigrams

“The excuses we make to ourselves when we want to do something are excellent material for soliloquies, for they are rarely made except when we are alone, and are very often made aloud.”

George Lichtenberg (1742-99), The Waste Books, #22, p 8

I collected from the local library The Notebooks of Robert Frost, which features on its cover an emblematic photograph of the aged poet writing in his Vermont home in 1958, as if he were painting at an easel.

Robert Frost.jpg

Image Source: Alfred Eisenstaedt via Prospect magazine

The notebooks stretch from the 1890s to the 1970s, spanning a life’s adventure in writing that is surely both too majestic and too humble to be known as a career, and contain all manner of writing, reflection, experiment and, as suits their form, annotations. Notebook 20 dates from 1929, and begins

“These are not monologues but my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.” (The Notebooks of Robert Frost, p 267)

The thought reminds me of Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the infinite conversation, which I imagine as the eternal, if enigmatic, survival of the solitary murmuring of the great words that sustain the connection between the dead and the living. To be part of this infinite conversation is why I write. To attend to the dying murmurings of this conversation, the words that are at risk of ashen destruction in the burning archive, is why I write, and why I devote so much time, despite no show of social success or fame or even much of an audience, to this life in literature.

It comes with a moral imperative, an ordinary virtue of dignity and grace in defeat, evoked in Herbert’s “Envoy of Mr Cogito”

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
To be an old, grey, wizened and solitary man, like Frost in his Vermont home, and still to repeat these old incantations is my path of redemption.
Strange, though, that all we write is so perishable, so vulnerable to fire and neglect, and yet these impermanent notebooks endure. It is a paradox that these words survive beyond death when they are ephemeral, a temporary incantation against the chaos of the world, in which the poet-priest marks the lost place of truth and beauty in the world as if in a disappearing rite. These are words consigned to “waste books,” the flames and the mould, and not inscribed defiantly in stone like the original epigrams.

 

The introduction  to Frost’s Notebooks compares them to the “Waste Books” of George Lichtenberg.  Out of these scraps of notes, ideas, drafts, quotations, the ordinary observations of life emerged, after death, Lichtenberg, the great aphorist. The temporary words of waste books become in time monuments of soul-making.

Is the blog the new waste book? It is somewhere else surely. It does not have the  privacy of personal experiment, but nor does it have the polish and mirage of publication. Still it seeks to endure beyond its act of writing, just as Frost kept and preserved his notebooks. He dated them. He organised them. He secured them against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

So too this blog finds its way to endure, even if it is always written in a first draft, with little plan or attempt to impress, to manufacture a brand. I pen the words, and cast them adrift on the digital ocean. It is one of the ordinary things that give me the accomplishment of form without the drag of organisation. It is one of the lesser forms that endure.

“Fortunately too no forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s cooperation; a basket, a garden, a room, an idea, a picture, a poem.” Robert Frost, Letter to The Amherst Student, quoted in Notebooks, p xv

And a blog. Even if, or perhaps especially if, that blog has few readers, no great name.

The work is solitary: that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of solitude.” (Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude” in The Gaze of Orpheus, p 64)