Reflections on 2017

Reflections on 2017

The year is drawing to a close, and while it is yet weeks from New Year, the office christmas party season is in full swing, and my mind is turning to an upcoming holiday. I am approaching the end of my current assignment and am going into my annual leave without knowing what I will do or who I will be working with next year. It seems I am very much in internal exile in the minor provincial bureaucracy on which I depend for my livelihood.

I have a crushing sense of defeat in what I suppose I may still call a career. All the qualities that I have seem unwanted, and I can only suppose that the consultocrats and courtiers who run my Castle have decided rightly that I will never be a loyal follower to them. I need to begin to look elsewhere, and to find hope and purpose in more nourishing lands.

So, it occurs to me this morning that one way I can reconnect with a sense of strength is to reflect on this year through the lens of my blog. In many eyes it has been a dark year, but events of the world and events in the life of the mind have different rhythm.

So today let me recap the topics of my posts this year, and next week allow me to reflect on the themes and stories of the year.

In January, I had returned from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia during which I reread the redoubtable After Tamerlane by John Darwin.

  • It led to a post on the unravelling of empires “adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence” that defeat beliefs in any unitary imperial order, as we see today, when America declines into narcissistic tantrums and China redreams the One Road of Tamerlane.
  • A post on massacres in history discovered a precedent for Islamic foreign fighters in Syria in the exodus of youthful enthusiasts for Hellenic and Christian culture to the Greek war of independence. Among these fighters was the original literary psychopath – mad, bad and dangerous to know – Lord Byron.
  • Then my failure to read Don Quixote, led me to reflect on reading ambitions, and the sheer impossibility of realising them all in our media-saturated world. But the attempt led me to pose the paradox: “In our madness is our truest dignity?”
  • By the end of the month, by now returned to work, I began my series Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, inspired by Wallace Stevens poem with the same perspectives on a blackbird. I described this series as “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.”

In February, I wrote posts in response to stanzas I through to V of Stevens’ poem, each with a new subtitle: I vigilance amidst stillness; II the three-eyed raven; III the craft of the cameo actor; IV in unity is death; and V the beauty of the bureaucrat.

In March, I completed the series, Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, with VI through barbaric glass darkly; VII at the feet of thin men; VIII involved in what I know; IX servants of Utopias; X flight in green light; XI people who live in glass coaches; XII the thaw, the flight; XIII the long waits of winter. I felt the last few posts were rushed, more lapidary, more gnomic. I have since collected all 14 posts together, and may yet expand into a short book. But I am so wary of the publication industry; I may simply self-publish.

In April, I turned to more literary and cultural themes. In that month I was intensely preparing a secret government report on violence and mental illness, and what, if anything could be done, to prevent acts like the Bourke Street vehicular homicide.

In May, I experimented with writing posts late at night in bed in response to the daily prompt on wordpress and fragments composed on my daily commute. It was, I confess, a search for readers.

  • I reposted a series of older posts from my blog, like six asides about culture (and Havel), and going sane writing, which was prompted by a role model of sorts the British psychoanalyst and essayist, Adam Phillips.
  • I curated more of my content, linking to an essay and conference paper I wrote on “Why is alcohol policy difficult?” This paper I presented to a conference of public health scholarly zealots. At least one person came up to me after my talk and expressed appreciation for what I said.
  • I reflected on Hannah Arendt and her philosophy of natality, which “spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.”
  • I appreciated Kenneth Slessor’s poem, Five Bells, linking to a beautiful radiophonic performance, and continuing the thoughts on natality:”To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success… Only for those five bells”

In June, I returned to something of a more stable pattern. I reflected on Robert Frost’s practice of poetry and the form of the blog in Waste books and epigrams.

  • I wrote an essay “On Humility” prompted by one of my favourite quotes by Jung and likely prompted by still more humiliations and rebuffs at work.
  • I posted the complete paper that I had presented to a conference on children’s voices and the history of emotions. The paper was about how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse created a new way of feeling about trauma. I will return to this paper, and my reflections on this inquiry in the tradition of truth and reconciliation commissions, over coming months, since I am committed to writing a long essay on the significance of this public event.
  • I castigated the Nobel Prize for literature for awarding Bob Dylan the prize.
  • I explored the powerful metaphor of the infinite conversation, which emerged for me as an important theme for my writing, my recovery and my psychotherapy.

In July, I published two poems of mine – The state of politics, and Nouriel’s shoes.

In August, I turned back to themes of politics. I was struggling to find a new place role for myself, and began to reach out to the powerful men who I knew as mentors if not as patrons.

  • I wrote some starting hypotheses for a planned essay, Republics in Distress. “So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.”
  • I wrote on my long held view about the restrictions of freedom of speech and freedom of thought for public servants.
  • Then I wrote a darker piece, The death of the soul, prompted by debates in the press about the decay of culture and decline of religion, in which I asked: “How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts?”

In September, amidst work I was undertaking on lone actor terrorist attacks, I reflected on the return of sacred violence, and this was a kind of dissent against comforting progressive notions of the causes and responses to terrorism.

  • I commented indirectly on the debate on destruction of monuments to historical figures who are no longer as widely esteemed. Here I said: “There is enough war in history; we do not need history wars and culture wars that both consecrate and desecrate public memory. We need rather to practise humility in asserting and nurturing our mercurial identities, while kindly forgiving, if not forgetting, the sins that lie in all of our pasts.”
  • And I posted more poems, with the best being Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel.

In October, I wrote about sorrow in response to my aged mother’s declining health and cognition; the Red Nostalgia I observed at a lecture on the centenary of Red October, the Russian Revolution; and the meaning for me of Keats’ poem, When I have fears:

  • “In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.”

In November, I returned to reflections on major cultural figures with Conrad’s DarknessForgetting Foucault; and Self-portrait in a time of hunger, which was a kind of premonition of this review of my own work. This last post contained some reflections on my enduring purpose and abiding concerns:

  • “I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?”

Lastly, in December, I have written just last week’s post On revenge, stirred by images of Captain Ahab, and this long recapitulation of the year.

Such has been my year. Reviewing my words, my reading, my images from the year has given me new strength. The verdicts of courtiers and consultocrats should not bother me. They bring nothing to the infinite conversation. I will survive beyond their defeat of me. I will walk unburnt from the flaming archive.

 

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Conrad’s darkness

Conrad’s darkness

“I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Joseph Conrad, 1922, in correspondence with Bertrand Russell.

A new biography of Joseph Conrad has come out. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is written by Maya Jasanoff, an American historian, who has set out to make sense of this dark pessimist as a response to the troubles of the first globalised century.

Her book has prompted a rash of reviews, not the least of which is by the mordant critic of censorious liberalism and all beliefs in progress, John Gray. It is from John Gray’s review, “Homo Duplex,” that I have taken the epigram of this post. It is an epigram I could subscribe to myself.

I first encountered Conrad in reading a little grey-backed student’s guide to English literature, which had been handed down to me from my grandmother’s student days. It must have been published in the 1920s or 1930s if I remember rightly. In this textbook, Conrad appeared as a certain form of stylist – a plain style in contrast to the complex eloquence of Thomas Browne – and a novelist of the high seas.

I went on from this coy introduction to read much of Conrad – Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, and, of course, The Heart of Darkness. He evoked like few other writers the gloom and glower of the world, and the futility of all our grandiose enterprises.

Perhaps the passages that have had the longest, deepest impact on my reading and writing are the portraits of his narrator, Marlow. This wandering storyteller was separated from his society by both experience and vision. His tales are those of a dark prophet spurned in his own country. They are tales of the barbarism in all civilisations.

At the start of The Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes the floating steamer on the Thames, on which Marlow will tell his tale of the horror, the horror of the Belgian Congo. Conrad evokes the great historical voyages of English navigation and English piracy – “the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure” – and exclaims: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Then he turns to the sun setting on the great metropole of London – “the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” It is then that Marlow speaks: “”And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'”

No-one really responds to Marlow. His words were accepted in silence, as expressive of the enigma that he was. He did not tell tales like the other sailors. and did not find in life the direct simplicity, the easy satisfactions and the disregard for secret knowledge of other men.

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale that brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 8

This story seemed to lay down a way of being I would emulate in my own life, in my own writing. Marlow spoke of the mysterious and the strangeness we only see in darkness. He spoke as one sailor among others who yet pursued another course. He spoke as a man who made his way through the world, and yet was forever marked off by the cultures he connected to. They made him into a stranger in every world he passed through. Of Marlow, Conrad writes: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.”

It would seem the most natural thing in the world then that Conrad would make an appearance in the strangely beautiful tales by W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, which have changed forever my sense of what it means to write. Conrad – “whose protracted bouts of despair were henceforth [after his trip to the Belgian Congo] to alternate with his writing” – would appear in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as both a witness to the human destructiveness that haunts the narrator and the prelude to the tragic story of Roger Casement’s fatal opposition to the horrors of King Leopold’s monstrosity: it would lead to Casement’s brutal execution and the extirpation of his name.

Sebald, Conrad, Marlow, and if this does not seem an imposture, myself: our thoughts are connected by a deep pessimism, from which writing is the only escape. Action in the world is too marked by fatality; but writing allows us to say the things that our silent readers will ignore and accept as just like Marlow.

It is these thoughts too that John Gray speaks of in his undefinable political philosophy marked by scepticism towards all illusions of progress. If I maintain the tradition of Marlow, speaking my strange stories on a floating steamer as the sun sets on our monstrous world, then John Gray maintains the traditions of Conrad’s darkness. Let the final words of his review of Jasanoff’s biography close my post for today:

If Conrad sounds cynical to readers today, it is because he voices truths that are now deemed unmentionable. He did not believe in what Russell, in a 1937 essay, called the ‘superior virtue of the oppressed’. All human institutions, including newly independent states, were steeped in crime; barbarism and civilisation would always be intertwined, with old evils continually reappearing in new guises. It is a vision as disruptive to the censorious liberalism that holds the reins today as it was to imperial fantasies of progress a hundred years ago.

 

Red Nostalgia

Red Nostalgia

During the week I attended a lecture at my old university on the meaning of the Russian Revolution today, 100 years on from Red October. The lecturer, Mark Edele,  gave an entertaining and insightful talk to perhaps 600 guests, some alumni, some students, some dignitaries associated with the large philanthropic donation that had enabled the creation of the professorship, of which this was the ceremonial inaugural lecture.

The event was not without some pain or embarrassment for me since I had a year or more ago applied  for a job as one of the new lectureships in History at the University of Melbourne, created by this gift from the Hansen Trust, and meant to be dedicated to improving the teaching and public engagement of history. Here was the professor appointed in that batch, alongside a number of lecturers whose experience in the world outside the academy was not exceptional. Here was the living example of the path I did not take, and that still mourn, but which despite my brief hopes in the winter of 2016, I will not ever be able to return to.

While there was mingling offered with drinks and nibblies before the event, I took myself to one side and wrote down some reflections on my day, which had seen rejection for one job, and an interview, despite expecting rejection, for another.  It made me recall the note I had written to the former head of the History Department, as I sought to return there over a year ago: advice for a prodigal son. But wandering I would remain. I scanned the faces of the minglers, and saw no-one I could recall, except one faded peter pan, with unruly hair and modest clothes, who I remembered as a tutor from my university days.

The lecture itself provided a stimulating account of the many processes of revolution, civil war and breakdown of authority that constituted the events of the Russian Revolution. I learned of the new scholarly account of the revolution as an event that spanned the years 1916 to 1923 and all regions of the vast Russian empire, not only the familiar events of Red Petrograd.

Indeed, before this lecture I had not realised the significance of the containment of the imperial breakdown, with revolts across Central Asia, the Caucasus and European Russia, by Lenin thorough a structure of federated soviet republics, based on frustrated national identities. I had read indifferently of the discussion of the nationalities question, but had not realised its significance. Indeed, it was a principal dispute between the old Bolsheviks, Lenin and Stalin (pictured in the featured photograph from 1919, source, wikipedia). Lenin’s view prevailed. He sealed the imperial breakdown in amber, despite Stalin’s objections. In doing so, Edele pointed out, he left what Vladimir Putin described as a “time-bomb” in the constitution of the Soviet Union. The time bomb duly exploded after 1989.

Edele spoke about the conflicting views of historians of Red October as a coup or a popular revolt. It was, I guess I would summarise his view, as a coup with the backing of the power of the radicalised crowds on the streets. Edele seemed less critical of the Bolsheviks as cynical manipulators of this radicalised crowd, compared to the account of paid demonstrators, funded by German money, orchestrated through the German agent, Lenin, that appears in McMeekin’s recent account of the Russian Revolution, which I read a short time ago.

The “radicalised” crowd is a trope of revolutionary history, and part of a kind of Red Nostalgia. I recall reading, in my undergraduate years, George Rudé’s celebration of the revolutionary crowd in the French Revolution, and his portrayal of this crowd as a serious actor in an historical drama. The radicalised crowd is a contrast to the violent mob. A long tradition of thought, which began at least one source of the history of emotions, sought to find an explanation in group psychology and emotional response to the phenomenon of violence in the radicalised crowd. In response to this tradition, Rudé tried to find the reason, indeed the emerging class consciousness, of this radicalised crowd in their material conditions. Bread prices and not fury explained the crowd in this Marixist view. Simon Schama’s Citizens inoculated me forever against this view.

Despite the new fashion of Marxism in some intellectual circles, Edele’s only concession to this view was to speak of the radicalised crowd. This simple word, radicalised, is, despite all attempts at academic civility, a trigger for red nostalgia. It contains within it whirlpools of emotion, strange psychologies, and much responsibility for violence. Today,  we try to explain to ourselves how relatively prosperous settled people can radicalise as terrorists. There is no simple explanation, and no single process that leads from grievance to fighting in foreign wars and seeking martyrdom in Islam. It was likely was no simpler in Petrograd in 1917.

The sentiment of radicalism is immune to scholarly inquiry. It lingers on, and surely some level of red nostalgia played a part in the large audience attracted to this lecture. Edele was polite towards this nostalgia, only gently chiding the sentimental Marxism that has hidden the violence and the chaos of Red October for so many years.

But one unrepentant revolutionary spoke out in question time after the lecture. With only a brief time for questions, one ragged, aged Trotskyist, whose face seemed familiar from decades ago handing out the dreadful rags of propaganda put out by the Socialist Workers Party and similar organs, stood up and made a comment. He was disappointed in the lecture. Edele had not conveyed the grandeur of the Russian Revolution – surely the greatest of them all, better than the French or the Glorious English Revolution. And why should we care of the Constituent Assembly was abolished? It was a corrupted institution. And did not Alexandra Kollontai bring feminism to the world as part of the Revolution? Why did not Edele speak more of the great and true historians of the Russian Revolution – Isaac Deutscher, Stephen Smith and E.H. Carr?

Professor Edele politely demurred. Those books are now very old. It is true that even factions were banned under the Communist Party – how could that represent a true democracy? But there, alas, the time for questions was exhausted, and so the evening ended in a bitter red sunset.

I was left to question: where do our political passions come from, and in what kind of thought process are they grounded? Surely, it is not in the material facts of history.

The return of sacred violence

The return of sacred violence

“Central to both torture and terror is the political psychology of degradation”  Paul Kahn, Sacred violence: torture, terror and sovereignty

Violent imitation, which makes adversaries more and more alike, is at the root of all myths and cultures. Rene Girard, Battling to the end.

It is a characteristic of our time that as political authority disintegrates, political violence for a cause is resurgent.

This is a troubling phenomenon, but its difficulty should not lead us to avert our eyes.

Its most obvious form is in the appeal of Islamist terror to a small group of Western muslims.

But we have also seen acts of extremist violence from across the political spectrum. On one side, so to speak, Antifa and its violent protests, a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting Republicans at a charity baseball match, d a comedian pictured with a severed head of a democratically elected President. On the other, the spectre of white supremacists, nostalgic for the confederacy, shouting “jews won’t replace us,” and then driving a vehicle, the mobile weapon of choice in these times, into a crowd of leftist demonstrators.

Identity politics, in all its forms, from the rainbow coalition to the white supremacists shouting “you won’t replace us” , lives on the edge of violence. In asserting identity, it soon insists on the degradation of those who differ in their identity. Tolerance and respect are not values of importance for identity politics. They tend to be sneered as as the condescending gestures of a hegemony to be replaced.

And authority – the one essential attribute for the effective exercise of governing power – is despised. Yet authority alone can constrain violence.

Is the return of sacred violence across our world closely related to the cultural decay described in this blog? Here in closing this brief fragment are the thoughts of Rene Girard:

“I began to see the end of war as a subject in itself. The last days of an institution whose purpose was to control and restrain violence corroborates my central hypothesis, namely that for three centuries all rituals and institutions have been crumbling. War, through its rules and orders, also helped to create meaning by establishing new equilibria over an ever growing geographical area. It has generally ceased to play this role since the end of  World War II. How did the system suddenly disintegrate? How has political rationality finally become powerless?” Rene Girard, Battling to the end

 

Image source: Science News

The death of the soul

The death of the soul

In The Australian this weekend Greg Sheridan, the conservative and perceptive foreign affairs journalist, comments on the decline of religion and its impact on Western liberal mores. He restores Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, who proclaims to an indifferent crowd that God is dead, and then revokes his claim,  but still sees a dark prophecy:

“Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Sheridan’s article, entitled “Is God Dead?”, poses the question of whether that time has indeed now come. He sees the failing vital signs of the Christian God all around him. The last Census in Australia found that only a small majority identified as a Christian, and a third of us professed no religion. Sheridan sees an assault on the Church, brought on by its own weaknesses, including above all its tragic failure to respond to child sexual abuse. But this attack grows ever more shrill, until it chases the Church from the public square, ignorant of the thousand acts of kindness, humility and compassion in hospices, in churches, on the streets that make us a society, not a market. The assault of the progressive world on the institutions of traditional morality has grown more venomous, Sheridan implies, when liberalism or progressive modernity forgets the deep reservoir of holy water from which we all drink. Religion, which once was a spiritual foundation for liberal and progressive beliefs, has become a discriminatory and embarrassing constraint on the dreams of efflorescent identity, beloved by our society of consumption.

Against this forgetting, Sheridan poses the Churches’ long history of charity, of education, of nurturing the very foundations of the culture, which this blog watches mournfully dying in flames. Sheridan refers to the work of Larry Siedentrop, Inventing the individual: the origins of Western liberalism. Siedentrop traces to the monasteries of the Middle Ages a birth of an alternative way of living, or in Sheridan’s words “an early expression of human freedom.” “People chose to be monks,” Sheridan writes “and therefore to have a life beyond that dictated by circumstances of birth and family.” By conserving their symbols, music, texts and religious objects and sacralising their lives in a cherished institution bonded by rules of tradition, they were midwives to a great and vital culture.

Without knowing Siedentrop’s book, the thought resembles my reflection on our impending dark ages, and the reasons for hope in these times:

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?

Nietzsche’s madman had asked his liberal crowd, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from the dagger plunged in the heart of God:

“What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Festivals of atonement indeed. Is this a way of describing the modern parades of virtue signalling and spasms of shaming of the people who are uncomfortable with ready-to-wear sexual and political identities? And these festivals of atonement have created a new authoritarianism, as we know from the rainbow guards who police sentiment itself in the new politics of identities.

Identity politics troubles Sheridan, as it troubles me, despite being my thoughts made from a different, more secular cloth. Identify politics reflects “a certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism,” and this panic drives the new liberal authoritarianism. “Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.”

“Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics. This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.” (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

Donald Trump is as much a manifestation of identity politics as the campaign for gay marriage – it is the demand of resentful American whites demanding their identity politics too. The public square has descended into the melee at Charlottesville; one side shouting black lives matter, the other shouting back white lives matter. Neither side speak to each other’s reasons.

The significance of this polarisation of politics to Sheridan’s broader argument is:

The abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.”(Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

At its heart is the dissolution of the soul in modern culture.

Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil. This leads… ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake. This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is antisocial self-absorption…. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

This leads, I think, to Sheridan’s deepest observation.

But the soul – the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny – gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017, my emphasis)

Sheridan, of course, is not the first to see this withering of the soul, this paradoxical abandonment of the depths for the shallow celebration of trinkets and baubles.

“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?” Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

We have lived 137 years under the shadow of that question. Perhaps those years are no worse than the millennia before them. Religion has, after all, been an ark of grievance as much as a cowl of faith. Sacred violence lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

But for at least some of those 137 years, the archive of our culture was not burning.

How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts. How do we live well in the face of such losses, we who have never had a religious belief, but have consoled ourselves in the word-hoards of our culture? How do we write the Benedictine rule for our times?

Image credit: A scene from GÖTTER­DÄMMERUNG, Wiener Staatsoper

Republics in distress

As I look around the world at the state of politics, I conclude that our democratic republics are in distress.

This judgment is not a mere oppositional response to Donald Trump or Brexit or any form of disappointment that my preferred leader or team has lost the electoral lottery. It is a more deeply and long held view about decay of our political, governing and public institutions. It is a view I have gestured towards occasionally on The Burning Archive, but never fully articulated. The full argument is the work of a long essay or a short book, but let me at least stammer out some brief fragments here this morning.

1. Politics has turned into a spiteful shouting match, little more than highly conventionalised panel shows.

2. Our political leaders chant mantras of grandiose reform, overwhelmingly about the economy – not humanly measured care for our fellow humans. They have abandoned the true grounds of democratic politics – practical morality, concerned for our neighbours and strangers alike – to preen themselves before the merchant masters of the universe.

3. Governments have lost authority. People mistake this for the public losing trust in politics. But trust is the basis of personal transactions. Authority is the basis of politics. Authority is earned by rightful action, and while it may be claimed by the governing, it can only be bestowed by the governed. Our republics have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

4. Political elites have become parasites on government. They no longer direct the institutions of the republic towards commonly agreed goals, but use those institutions to market themselves to their followers. Elites is too kind a word to describe the camp of followers who seek to make their careers through the exploitation of the resources of government in this way.

5. Political parties have become husks of their former role of mobilising ideas and networks towards a purpose. They have become empty marketing machines which are only viable through commandeering the patronage and marketing resources of government.

6. Governments in these conditions fail to deliver the basic, of ever evolving, services and infrastructure people want. This is Fukuyama’s judgment too. It is for this reason – not social media or fickle people – that public trust is so low. It is a function of poor performance.

7. Political patronage networks and marketing/managerial ideas have cannibalised public institutions, which were once among the independent platoons of democratic society. These institutions, including the public service bureaucracy, professional services and universities, have become spritless shells of their former selves.

8. Public debate has plummeted with the dominance of professionalised party machines, marketing and spectator media. Sources of better public debate – the public institutions – have been sidelined in favour of celebrity, spin doctors and automaton politicians with talking points.

These are gloomy points on a gloomy winter’s morning, and may be refashioned over time.

But how should one respond to the republics in distress? That is a great conceptual and ethical dilemma. To respond with populist sentiment – power to the people? – would be naively heroic. To respond with partisan sentiment – party X is the best, most responsible, most progressive of the credible alternatives – would be heroically naive. To respond with serene optimism – we have faced crises before and we will find a way through this one too – would be Panglossian and stupid.

I am drawn rather to images of endurance, withdrawal and renewal. Our civic problems of governing have escaped our control. We cannot stop the disintegration of our political institutions, and all the adverse consequences of our broken tools of governance, the cascades of spite and failure we see each night on the news; no more than we cannot stop climate change, economic inequality, cultural fragmentation, the unravelling of empires and geo-strategic conflict.

We are entering a new Dark Ages, and the history of those times may provide a lamp to guide us on our long walk to a better life. In the monasteries and margins of the Dark Ages, new ways of living in truth took hold. We should look today to the actions within our control that can serve as the wellsprings for new ways of living. This blog, this practice of writing despite the destructive flames that threaten the culture I hold dear, is one such practice. So too is the care of my family, and the practice of the ordinary virtues (dignity, compassion, humility, respect for human frailty) at work. In acceptance and commitment therapy, I also see a path. There, you deal with life’s adversities my taking committed action that approaches your values. So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.

The antidote to our republics in distress is the commitment by each of us to living in the truth, and an ethical stance of dissidence, in which our spaces of freedom, such as these blogs as a new samizdat, become sanctuaries from the flames for at least one seedling of a virtuous life.

As Vaclav Havel wrote and as I have drawn on his inspiration before

“I favour… Politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favour politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative. (From “Politics and conscience”) “

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