Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

The following poem is from my Burning Archive collection.

It had its origins in a strategic leadership program I attended some years ago at the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. We, the participants, sat in a large circle of maybe 30, and were invited by the facilitator to declare something about ourselves, some thing we aspired to do, but had not. It was an exercise in getting out of our comfort zone, and into the kind of psychodynamic group space beloved by the Tavistock Institute.

There were some dull confessions and rote ambitions, and then it came to my turn.  I said, “I had always wanted to be a poet, but never had fully given myself over to it.” I was teetering on the verge of the perpetual crisis of my career – a dichter  lost in the maze of power. I heeded the call of the strange gods that I serve, and set out on my unique path.

Later in the leadership program, we were asked to develop a policy response to the immigration and refugee problem in Australia. We were shipped around Melbourne to meet various stakeholders, including one remarkable community leader of the Afghani refugee community in Melbourne. Nouriel was her name – I have forgotten her surname over the years.

When we presented our proposals to the group we were invited to be as imaginative as possible. I closed out our presentation, with an improvised story about Nouriel’s shoes, the gifts she gave to her home country in the hope that women would be educated, and her society would find peace and no longer need to be a source country for refugees.

Here is the poem.

Nouriel’s Shoes

 

Nouriel does not know time wasting.

She does not know carelessness.

Asylum seekers – she cannot forgive them,

For buying their way to freedom,

For walking past crying millions in the camps.

And the lawyers, who parade

Their bookish rights, like flash cars,

She despises.

 

She fled Kabul in ’79,

An educated woman in a liberal society

that just did not take.

Paris schooled her for a time –

Just like Khomeini, another exile –

Before the Great Southern Land

Gave her freedom,

But not a home.

 

She remembers Kabul:

Its ordered streets and fruit-trees,

The women laughing in the sunshine,

The children dressed in fine cottons,

Playing in the gardens.

Then, the tanks, the shells, the war, the hatred

That brought Afghanis to this kitchen,

At the other end of the world.

 

Here she returned the gift:

Making scarred men into kitchen hands;

Running English classes for the women;

Outwitting the men who would wrap

Their women in silent ignorance

To cocoon their cards and drink and faith;

Nouriel’s freedom must be worked for.

To those many who do, she gives all that she can.

 

Now she returns to Kabul,

after the Taliban

Have fled her city for now.

In abandoned parks, children play bare-footed

Between rubble and shells.

Schools barely hold their girls against poisoned faiths.

To these schools she decides to give;

So no more Afghanis will flee to her wealthy refuge,

But stay in her remembered home.

 

She buys the children shoes,

Hundreds of boxes of shoes.

One summer she visits a school with her gifts.

Watching as the children begin their long walk home,

She sees one girl carrying her box,

Still bare-footed, in the hard dust of the street.

Nouriel asks: “Why don’t you put them on?”

The girl replies: “I must wash my feet first.”

 

Jeff Rich

 

Image source: Getty images

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

 

 

Commuting fragments

My ride is half an hour

Beside me, left and right,

Private conversations

Blown to the stale wind.

Cognac on the menu tonight?

I’ve got a few hours to kill

Before the footy.

The nagging phone call

From the end of the day.

Sounds like we’re in.

But we don’t want you.

We just want to help

In any way we can.

None of these words

Are worked to rhyme

Or reason, only marked

By my arbitrary stop

The dreams of my day.

Why is alcohol policy difficult?

About 10 years ago I took a job running an alcohol and drug policy unit in the minor provincial government in which I serve as a lowly under-castellan.

It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, at least if you count the intrinsic rewards of work as the most important. I met some remarkable people – Robin Room, Stefan Grunert, David Best – and also struggled with some of the hardest questions, so it seemed at the time, of public policy.

Alcohol, so my colleagues kept telling me, was one of those wicked problems. For me though, coming to terms with the difficulty of alcohol policy was something more of a personal journey of recovery.

Serving the wayward and the drunken, it turned out, did very little for my career. I plunged deeper and deeper into a kind of career crisis, in a smelly eddy far away from the flow of success. But I also accomplished many things, and not the least of those things was a kind of understanding of my conservative disposition in which grew my attachment to the ethos of my institution.

It was that ethos that I saw forgotten and dishonoured all around me. It was the realisation that I had fused my identity with a culture that was disappearing from the world that would in time lead me into despair. About a year or so after leaving the alcohol and drug policy job, I wrote a conference paper that tried to make sense of it all. I gave this conference paper to the Kettl Bruun Society conference.

You can read it here:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265728731_Why_is_alcohol_policy_difficult_Reflections_of_a_bureaucrat

Or if you don’t want to bother with research gate, try this Why is alcohol policy difficult Kettl Bruun conference September 2014

Some time later, a student interviewed me about the experience when another great city took fate in its hand and succumbed to the grand follies of controlling the availability of alcohol.

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

After a morning during which I searched my ravaged memory for the concealed door to my troubles, I opened an old box which contained five old, forgotten notebooks of mine. Their black covers and red spines revealed nothing to me of when I last used them to gather observations, thoughts, fragments of lines, like a dark sponge wiping up the mess of my mental life.

I opened the first notebook of the pile, and flicked through the pages. Quickly I dated it to the months or years around 1999.  There I have noted the words spoken by Steve Bracks on election night in 1999, when he defeated the apparently invincible, more despised, but more enduring figure of Jeff Kennett. Bracks: “a victory for decency, honour, compassion.” Beside it, I have scrawled thoughts that record my state of mind – “the joy of seeing a tyrant brought to his knees. The reminder that government is not execution. A child’s eyes pleading for mercy in the midst of horror. A reminder that there can be a reward for waiting and persistence. The heroism of enduring.”

They are not surprising thoughts, except I am struck today with the sense then that the dramas of even minor provincial politics still held for me this fascination to find ordinary virtues – “the heroism of enduring” – in my struggles as a lowly under-castellan.

But these residues of reactions to old news are not the most surprising finding in this notebook. There in the early pages I have written:

Francis Ponge wrote this (or something like this) “an artist has one duty to set up a workshop and to bring in the world for repair as he finds it in pieces.” So the experience, day to day, is transcribed and out of intuition, some poetry found.

Ponge was one of the many French writers who I came to know through my strange search for an artistic identity through the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. I was in my 20s and at university, and my first sally into the world of adult identity had failed dismally, when I had sought election as a student politician and failed. I never really belonged to that world in any case, and my true affiliation was with the worlds of dream, madness, transgression and outlandish thought. It was this world that welcomed me as an outcast from reason, familial life and all practical careers, which I believed myself then to be.

Through them, and the ultimately futile attempt to think like them and not like myself, I discovered Ponge, and Leiris, Blanchot, Bataille, Rene Char, Beckett in a new way, Artaud, and the truly enigmatic Raymond Roussel. I tried but could not really understand the philosophy, but I completely absorbed the idea of consecrating my life through an unique and idiosyncratic practice of writing. Just now I picked up Leiris’ Manhood from my shelf, with its frightening, disturbing image of a naked Judith holding a knife and the severed head of Holofernes,

Leiris.jpg

and read from the prologue these words, which spoke to me then and still do today:

My chief activity is literature, a term greatly disparaged today. I do not hesitate to use it, however, for it is a question of fact: one is a literary man as one is a botanist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist, a doctor. There is no point inventing other terms, other excuses to justify one’s predilection for writing: anyone who likes to think with a pen in his hand is a writer. The few books I have published have won me no fame. I do not complain of this, any more than I brag of it, for I feel the same distaste for the “popular author’ genre as for that of the “neglected poet.” (Michel Leiris, Manhood, p 4)

Unlike Leiris or Bataille, to whom Leiris dedicated his self-inquiry, or Bataille’s friend Blanchot, I never gathered on my shelves the works of Francis Ponge. Where I learnt of the quotation that the artist brings into his workshop items of the world to repair one at a time, I do not know, and a cursory google search cannot conceal the sloppiness of my literary scholarship in that notebook, penned at a time of desperation, when I did not know how to continue being what I was, a literary man, and still succeed in the world.

All I remember of reading Ponge is struggling to find my way through Derrida’s essay Signponge – and wondering what it was that provoked such an extraordinary text. I think now, as I read more of Ponge’s attention to the thing itself, simple things, ordinary things, reimagined with puns, dad jokes, word play, that it was simplicity itself that so infuriated Derrida, and made him turn the pun of Ponge’s name into an attack on any aspiration to find meaning in things themselves, outside the endless commentary of differance.

At the same time I would deliberately set aside the too difficult question announced by this word; it escapes any frontal approach, and the thing [Ponge’s name, the thing that is not a thing, and yet is declared in Derrida’s sentence] that I am going to talk about obliges me to reconsider mimesis through and through, as an open-ended question, but also as a miniscule vanishing point at the already sunlit abyssal depths of the mimosa. (Derrida, Signponge, (1976, trans 1984) p. 4

The aggressive brio of the scholar. Shots fired a the podium. Words as weapons.

Derrida’s words no longer fascinate me. But through Ponge I discover things that can renew poetry. I read also that Ponge became a recluse in his later life. In this fate he shared with Blanchot, I see my own. The writer who is a recluse looks like Narcissus into the pool and hopes to see his psyche’s echo.

It reminds me of the poem I published in ars poetica IV in May 1997, a couple of years before I penned my thoughts in this notebook, at a time when I hoped to escape the dreariness of a life in servitude as a lowly under-castellan to a minor provincial government, an escape which I have never been able to effect.

 

Dream Life

I

In that small moment dream takes

to fly from memory and become

the nagging image of forgetfulness

the muted clank of psyche’s hold

I can turn too well in bed

and learn the pains of comfort.

II

Whenever these rivers of the night

Dry hard into red scorched beds

Depression takes over my daily self

Like the avenging angel of time.

Scouring winds rub out the image

Leaving behind the carcase of summer.

III

Suppose thought gave way to dream.

Bridges would collapse. Our simple talk

Would become a spree of metaphor

Not even poets could afford.

Self would reign over all meaning

And again the tower would fall.

IV

But why do these solitary creations

reveal their meaning first to others

as if the dreaming tongue betrayed

its beloved solipsism? Eyes wrapped

in fabrics of truth and lies,

the dream asks its interlocutor: who?

V

A tree springs from my stomach.

Nebuchadnezzar’s madness overcomes time and reason

to plant itself in my soil

to come alive again as if

all history is compressed by night

into an image none can forget.

VI

This drowning boat, this fish river,

this medusa returning as a bowl

of squirming snakes which I eat:

these dreams lie like abandoned gifts

but still share their secret being

with listeners to my night’s echo

 

Jeff Rich (1997)

boyd nebuchadnezzar

(Image: Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of a Tree)

The first line of Derrida’s Psyche: Inventions of the other: “What else am I going to be able to invent?”

Metamorphosis

You can twist at the foot of the stems
The elastic of your heart
It is not like chenille
That you will know the flowers
When more than one sign
Your Rush to Happiness

He shuddered and jumped
Joined the butterflies …

Francis Ponge

Strange salt

Strange salt

All I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve  caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.”

Robert Lowell

I have been reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell. Setting the River on Fire: a study of genius, mania and character. It is a lusciously detailed and clinically informed study of Lowell bipolar disorder, its treatments and the endurance of his writing through the many crises his madness bestowed on him.

In the late 60s Lowell began to take lithium for his illness. Lithium, this strange and ancient salt, would change Lowell’s experience of illness and mania. For the next 15 years the frequent, yearly or more, attacks of mania would subside. These attacks had harrowed Lowell’s soul and left him with a constant fear of the recurrence of mania. Jamison insightfully compares the trauma of mania or other psychotic episodes to the trauma of war. After lithium Lowell could live through a late peace.

There is a debate about the quality of Lowell’s poetry in these years of less strife and torment. Jamison takes the view the lithium gave Lowell more years to write without the ravages of madness. Jamison can speak with authority. She has known those manias and the falls, and has written a wonderful account of her own descent as a psychiatrist into her personal bipolar hell. I share her view, knowing in my own life how a little pill can school an errant mind.

Surely poetry, literature, art do not demand the sacrifice of the poet, writer, artist, prophet to the destructive gods of madness. Surely we can shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature. Surely we can make this small offering of a little salt or a pill to appease the gods of destruction.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

“Psychoanalysts don’t usually write essays; they tend to write lectures or papers or chapters, or what are called, perhaps optimistically, contributions.” Adam Phillips “Coda: up to a point” in One Way or Another: New and Selected Essays

If Phillips’ invitation, masked in the form of a provocation, is true of psychoanalysis, how much more true is it of my own profession – public servant, civil servant, bureaucrat. Bureaucrats do not write essays, or so some people might believe. They write briefs, presentations, summaries, talking points – in descending order of intellectual significance. Indeed among many of the bureaucrats among whom I have made a kind of living – like some transplanted flower placed by a bumbling gardener in too much sun or too much shade, in the acid soil, where its roots soak all day in water – to write an essay is a phrase to denigrate a staff member who has put too much thought into a paper, and simply cannot reduce it down to memorisable talking points to be scanned for performance in front of your superiors. “Don’t give me an essay…” they will say “just tell me what I need to know.”

Is it because of the general contempt in this profession of contumely for the most inventive and flexible genre of prose that fiction writers have left us more caricatures and few grand characters who are bureaucrats? A few years ago I recall a lifeless panel run by the local institute of public administration that asked the latest bunch of mini (very) celebrity bureaucrats what books they felt best represented life in the bureaucracy. The responses were so pallid, except for one, from a genuine reader, who nominated Hilary Mantel’s rich portrait of that man of affairs, Thomas Cromwell, in Wolf Hall and its sequels. When you search google for best novels about the bureaucracy, you get a rather tired old list. Kafka’s Castle. Heller’s Catch 22. Gogol’s Dead Souls. and then a few references to satires of communist bureaucracy – as if it were only an East European institution – before slipping in a reference to Yes, Minister, or similar light television comedies, including in the Australian context Utopia. A few mention David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Pale King – from which I recall surely one of the funniest literary names for a government department – the United States Office of Unspecified Services – USOUS – which you may well pronounce as youse owe us.

But these representations of life in the bureaucracy have never really registered with me as genuine engagements with the life of the mind as it is practised in our government offices. Yet, it is that very culture, with its foibles and traps and few moments of genius, that I have dedicated the greater part of my working life to. It is that life of the mind in which I have experienced problems as deep, ethical dilemmas as thorny, practical judgements as meticulous as any second-rate university research seminar. But the world would not know this – because bureaucrats do not write essays.

So maybe they should, and maybe I should, and maybe I have already begun. Adam Phillips is an inspiration to me in this task, this attempt, this essay, in more ways than one. He has stepped outside the sterile code of his profession and lifted from its place, discarded on the floor, one of the traditions that exceed the profession’s histories. After all, Freud was a great essayist, perhaps a greater essayist than a psychologist (the opposite may be said of his disciple turned rival Carl Jung). And within my profession – with some flexible interpretation of its boundaries across a long and diverse global history – there have been some great essayists, some great investigators of the human spirit as it is tested in the public life of the mind. There are the Chinese ancients for a start. Confucius was, after all, a public official dismayed at the demoralisation of conduct in public office, who roamed the country for years with his teachings that sought to inspire a nobler spirit of duty. There were the great Byzantine scholar-bureaucrats. Indeed, there is the extraordinary  Anna Comnena and her portrait of her father, Alexiad. There is Francis Bacon  – although we might reach with him perhaps more for the title of statesman and grandee, but still government official he was. His essays speak still across the centuries to the peculiar obligations, duties and privileges of the bureaucrat who offers advice to a modern-day prince. “The greatest trust, between man and man,” Bacon wrote around 1600 “is the trust of giving counsel.” (Francis Bacon, “Of Counsel”, The Essays)

So if Bacon’s essays can endure these 400 years, and preserve a wisp of this peculiar, secreted and yet all too human life that I have led as a government official, surely I should honor this tradition by picking it up from its dusty corner and finding a new reinvention of the essay form to speak of the true experience of bureaucracy.

Long ago – maybe ten years ago – I took it into my head to write one such essay about the real life of the mind of bureaucrats – at least the kind of public official that I aspire to be – that would take its cue from Wallace Stevens “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.” Over the years the yearning to express the true spirit has grown stronger as I have watched public institutions and public culture decay around me, and read other testimony of such decay, as in Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order  and Political Decay. The first impulse of this essay was to speak as a wistful, even comic, challenge to the many “stakeholders” I had met over the years who had treated me and other faithful public servants with sneering contempt. Take a look at the world through my eyes for a minute, if you will. Think of me as Stevens’ manifold blackbird, and do not fixate on a cardboard cut-out image of who I am, what I do, and especially how I think.

As the years have rolled on, however, my thoughts on the essay have turned in different directions. I have wanted to write a “J’Accuse” to all the treasonous clerks who have profited from office, sought to break the greater traditions of the profession, and betrayed the higher purposes of public service. Some even proclaim nonsense like the “public purpose sector” to describe all the consultocrats and tax farming firms who thrive on advantageous government contracts, tolls and partnerships. In yet another mood, “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat” is an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.

Still, what is writing for, if not to write sad songs that honour the traditions that represent the best of who you are? And who can say that my laments may not inspire at least one of my fellow officials to rise above the muck of daily talking points, the ill-considered decisions, the bluff and bluster of those consultocratic courtiers who know no better way?

So with those questions, let me end for tonight, and promise a mini-series of posts – 13 episodes in all – each prompted by that great poem on perspective – “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat.”