“Civilisation begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos” or so said Will Durrant American historian and philosopher. But what do you see when you hear the term civilisation? Ancient Greece, a modern European city, your creation on Forge of Empires? The oxford dictionary defines civilisation as “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. The next question is of course; what does advanced refer to? Does there have to be the use of tools or technology, or does man need to have risen above his base nature – be intellectually separated from his physical needs and desires. Or does it just refer to built structures and the formation of cities and laws to govern operations within it?
Is order established and chaos banished via the rule of law, through education and the cultivation of morals and ethical behaviour or through fear and power? Anaximander, a pre-socratic philosopher pondered that there were many forces in the world that were often in opposition and balance/order could only be maintained while no one force dominated. Philosophers went on to argue over what these forces might be and how we could observe and measure them to establish truths and laws. This could be seen as an advancement in our knowledge but somehow the importance of balance was lost along the way in pursuit of the segments.
While to civilise means to lead people to an advanced state, to be civil refers to an ordinary citizen or to be polite and courteous. Is a civilised state more simply one where people behave well towards each other? Where we recognise our place within society and our responsibilities relevant to it? Is a genuine civilised society one that is concerned with balance and advancements in technology, laws, education and civic structures and driven by this goal?
It is common for Australians to say that our politicians are overpaid, they set their own wages and conditions and that they don’t earn the money they get. Why should we pay them anything?
Last thing first. Politicians are paid as a result of an initiative proposed by the Australian Labor Party in the very early days of our Federation. Before then, only rich people could afford to forego a few years income. Paying politicians, meant that ordinary people, ordinary workers could represent an electorate without starving their family. Consequently we were able to have a train driver as a Prime Minister, and a very good Prime Minister at that.
Politicians don’t set their own wages. There is a commission, a committee, that sets the wages of our judges. And politician’s wages are indexed to theirs. We pay our judges well, so that we can get the best legal minds to give up lucrative practices and serve the state and country. Most senior barristers (SCs or QCs) take a substantial cut in their income when they accept an appointment to the bench. Usually their pay cut is around 50%, sometimes more.
That they don’t earn the money they get, is a common opinion among the Australian public. An Australian public who has never seen how hard they work. Yes I’m sure, that there are some lazy sods out there, but they are the exception. Politicians on both sides can expect never to take more than a week off a year, and they can forget about having a weekend at the beach with their family. Somebody would take their picture, and there on the front page of the paper would be them sunning themselves in the sand with a caption sarcastically pointing out how hard they are working.
Imagine a job where you’d have to read the equivalent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, every week. Every single week. Sick or well. Holidays included. Journalists frequently call them at 11 o’clock at night and start again at six in the morning. If they can’t get access to them by phone they will camp outside their house! You always have to be on your guard, you can’t say a sarcastic one-liner, or smile at an off-colour joke or have done something stupid in your past near a camera. You can’t trip on a step, drip a bit of tomato sauce on your shirt or wear anything remotely commentable. Everything you do, is watched, analysed and reported upon. Further, when they’re finished with politics, when they’re voted out or retire, they are not really suited for much other work outside of universities or being on a board of directors even if you’re not too burnt out to contemplate doing anything but sleep and hug your family.
So the next time you’re at morning tea at some community group and you see your local politician turn up, drink a cup of tea, chat and leave. Imagine what it would be like to go to 6 of those every weekend. And then when you get back home there is a pile of reading to do and papers to sign. And woe betide you if you miss an important point or if you fail to grasp the ramifications of that letter in front of you, because that can mean the end of your political career. The end of your job. And you will be remembered as the idiot who did the unthinkable thoughtlessly.
Another new year has begun and if we haven’t felt the urge to set new goals then we are often reminded by those around us with the annual question. What is your new year’s resolution; what are you going to do better this year? But, is this the best way for us to enjoy life or create a meaningful existence? Schools continue to encourage students to set goals, to strive to improve, to move forward. At the same time, they have also embraced mindfulness as a way to combat increasing levels of anxiety and depression.
Are goal setting and mindfulness compatible? Psychologists explain that goal setting requires us to not only think and plan for future outcomes but fundamentally it requires a dissatisfaction with the present. There is no dream future if we are happy with who we are and how we are living. Studying to achieve a goal is not focussed on the enjoyment of learning but only on its ability to help us achieve something in the future. Hence it feels like a chore and we can’t wait for it to be over; to enjoy our hard-earned future where everything is better than it is now. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of our present, without judgment. To notice the sights, sounds, smells around us, our impact on them and their effects on us. For those that have tried, this is not easy as our minds have ensured our survival by planning and calculating. But goal setting is more than forward planning it is driven by a philosophy of perfectability; a belief that there is an ideal that we should be progressing towards. What if my goal is to become more mindful? Is that wrong? Is it self-defeating? Or is it merely a shifting of our understanding of goals from a search for improvement to one of understanding?
Bill Roorbach the author of Writing Life Stories, challenges memoir writers to a series of practical exercises with the aim of improving their writing. This exercise from page 75, “On…” encourages the writer to choose an abstract noun to go with ‘On’, something everyone can relate to, something we are all expert on. Then, just use the freedom to write whatever comes to mind, no editing on the go, “no storytelling, no scenes, a chance to speak from the present”. I found it an exercise in freedom – no filtering of thoughts or striving to keep to the theme or find a better word. My Noun: ‘Loss’, Vicki
Everyone experiences it. It has levels of depth, levels of pain. It is and will be an undercurrent of every person’s life, in fact not just persons, but all living things; humans and animals experience loss.
An autumn leaf has to die to make way for new life. A vine has to be pruned to bear new fruit. Is that what loss is about, making way for new life?
I don’t mean: lost, like loss of an item in a wardrobe that hasn’t had a Marie Condo makeover or the loss of your favourite piece of Tupperware in the corner cupboard or the second utensil drawer that is so stuffed despite every attempt to keep it tidy, you never can find what you want in a hurry. Nor do I mean a glib: ‘Oh that is a loss,’ when you hear of a movie star or significant contributor to your world passing away. I don’t mean loss of the car keys temporarily or losing the final in your favourite sport to your arch rival.
I mean the heart wrenching, painful, never forgotten experiences of life when one farewells a parent, aborts an unborn child, buries a child, leaves loved ones behind in another country when fleeing persecution, when your bank forecloses on your home of forty years because your job has been made redundant, when the summer wild fires consume your community and burn up every last living thing including homes in its wake with families and fire fighters trapped in the flames. When one builds a business over years of anguish and commitment with eventual success only to see it gone in moments with little reason.
I mean leaving your sick ageing and lifelong pet that has loved you through every character flaw at the vet knowing full well she won’t be coming home. I mean the loss the farmer experiences when he guides his valuable stock with generations of breeding onto the abattoir truck because he has no water to grow their feed. I mean the loss of cultural heritage and language when stories are not passed on from generation to generation. I mean the loss of communities that thrive on Islands edge when the rising and warming seas wash away their livelihood.
Loss, everyone experiences it. Loss is a death of something, a never to be replaced something or someone. It is heavy, unwieldy, raw, unspeakable, unimaginable until experienced; in the moment it is unbearable. We run from loss not towards it. We choose not to re-live it. Sometimes we don’t recognise loss until it is too late, like a relationship breakdown that is irretrievable, (where forgiveness and grace couldn’t be found).
But then, loss provides inspiration to live more, write more, love more, speak more, be more, do more, grow more. Without the experience of loss, living, writing, loving, speaking, being, doing, growing, remain in status quo; unchanged, unaffected.
On loss, it is never let go or forgotten, as if never to be visited again, it is moved aside, for a moment. It makes way long enough to let the pain of it inform something wonderful and new like: birth, renewal, restoration, reconciliation, courage, inspiration.
On loss, everyone experiences it, everyone can use it.
“Fiction is like a Trojan Horse”, Fatima Bhutto explained at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, as it can carry uncomfortable, difficult or dangerous ideas in a form more easily accessed. Literature in all its forms has the capacity to change us without us even noticing. It exposes us to new worlds, new ideas and new ways of thinking. The Brisbane Writer’s Festival is over for another year, but it presented to audiences works of both fiction and non-fiction on the theme “This Way Humanity”.
In this age where there is increasing distrust in political leaders, a fracturing of traditional media and uncertainty around the accuracy of our information we often turn to science to provide us with the one ‘truth’, the answer, the solution to the problems we have created. Science has an important contribution to make but who is asking how these problems were created? What were the behaviours, the systems, the ways of thinking that brought us to this point and how do we need to change?
It is important therefore, that we also turn to the philosophers, the historians and the writers to ignite these discussions. Writers’, Book and Ideas Festivals are a great way to immerse yourself in these debates but reading alone or as part of a book club can open the mind to possibilities never before considered. French philosopher and neuroscientist, Catherine Malabou, believes that ‘we cannot be without being affected’. Everything we read, see, feel, experience changes us. Consequently, the more diversely we read and experience, the greater will be our capacity for understanding and some would say humanity. Even what is considered light fiction can highlight many social issues (check out Anita Heiss’ chick lit). So spend some time in the Community Library, chat to a Librarian and find yourself a great story to experience.
“I honestly believe human beings are not meant to live like this. We are meant to live in loving communities and be around nature every day and grow our own food and create art and not work every day and night until we die. This longing for another life is not human nature, it is a symptom of modern society”. This was the lament from a young business woman that I read on social media recently. In many ways it asks the questions that most of us don’t have the time to stop and think about and gets to the heart of a very modern story – longer working hours are just the new reality.
So, why do we work? Should it be a means to an end or the end itself? There is of course no one answer to this as it flows from our individual beliefs about what we want from life. Does your work give your life meaning or does it simply provide the resources for you to live the life you desire? I believe it is important to stop and ask ourselves these questions and encourage our children to do so as well. Otherwise, it is very easy to be swept along by the current story in society – we all need to work hard and therefore make work your passion, so you enjoy working lots of hours. This story may work well for some people, but it necessarily leads to a prioritising of work over family, community, nature etc. Are you a failure if you don’t have or can’t ‘find’ your passion? Are you lazy if you choose a relaxed lifestyle over aspiration and ambition?
Today, we have never owned as many things, and we certainly don’t have to work as physically hard as our ancestors and yet being time poor, depression and anxiety are common modern complaints. Is it time to reassess the role of work in modern life?
I have recently been reading a book on the prehistory of Britain and Ireland and it has revealed to me that so much of what I was taught in history at school was only one theory among many competing ones. Yet for convenience or time constraints it was presented to me as if this was fact; the Truth. There were of course facts embedded in what I was taught but the theory, published in the school text, was only one story woven around these facts to try and explain them and other stories were and are possible. Some of these stories have been told for so long that it is hard to distinguish them as such. For example, we assume that the shift was made from hunter gathering to land cultivation and animal domestication because this was an ‘improvement’, a moving forward in civilisation. However, new stories are being woven which see this shift occurring out of necessity, due to changes in weather or food availability. This explains why it happened at different rates in different localities and why in places such as Australia the indigenous people never made this shift. Not because they were backward but because it wasn’t required to achieve quality of life. Why do the hard work of cultivation if food is plentiful and easily available? Adaptation is a different story to progression and has implications for how we see ourselves and the world.
The theme for this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival is “we need new stories”. There are many modern Australian stories that we seem to have accepted as fact that may benefit from a new weaving. Just a selection for you to ponder:
Australia needs a coal industry for jobs and future prosperity,
You can’t have a manufacturing industry in a high wage environment,
Longer working hours in order to get ahead are just the new reality,
Studies in what may be termed collective psychology are essentially in keeping with the spirit of the present century. The examination of the mental tendencies, the intellectual habits which we display not as individuals, but as members of a race, community, or crowd, is offering a fruitful field of speculation as yet but little exploited. One may, therefore, not without profit, pass in review the relation of the poetic instinct to the intellectual development of the present era.
Not the least noticeable feature in the psychological evolution of our time is the rapid disappearance of poetry. The art of writing poetry, or perhaps more fairly, the habit of writing poetry, is passing from us. The poet is destined to become extinct.
To a reader of trained intellect the initial difficulty at once suggests itself as to what is meant by poetry. But it is needless to quibble at a definition of the term. It may be designated, simply and fairly, as the art of expressing a simple truth in a concealed form of words, any number of which, at intervals greater or less, may or may not rhyme.
The poet, it must be said, is as old as civilization. The Greeks had him with them, stamping out his iambics with the sole of his foot. The Romans, too, knew him—endlessly juggling his syllables together, long and short, short and long, to make hexameters. This can now be done by electricity, but the Romans did not know it.
But it is not my present purpose to speak of the poets of an earlier and ruder time. For the subject before us it is enough to set our age in comparison with the era that preceded it. We have but to contrast ourselves with our early Victorian grandfathers to realize the profound revolution that has taken place in public feeling. It is only with an effort that the practical common sense of the twentieth century can realize the excessive sentimentality of the earlier generation.
In those days poetry stood in high and universal esteem. Parents read poetry to their children. Children recited poetry to their parents. And he was a dullard, indeed, who did not at least profess, in his hours of idleness, to pour spontaneous rhythm from his flowing quill.
Should one gather statistics of the enormous production of poetry some sixty or seventy years ago, they would scarcely appear credible. Journals and magazines teemed with it. Editors openly countenanced it. Even the daily press affected it. Love sighed in home-made stanzas. Patriotism rhapsodized on the hustings, or cited rolling hexameters to an enraptured legislature. Even melancholy death courted his everlasting sleep in elegant elegiacs.
In that era, indeed, I know not how, polite society was haunted by the obstinate fiction that it was the duty of a man of parts to express himself from time to time in verse. Any special occasion of expansion or exuberance, of depression, torsion, or introspection, was sufficient to call it forth. So we have poems of dejection, of reflection, of deglutition, of indigestion.
Any particular psychological disturbance was enough to provoke an excess of poetry. The character and manner of the verse might vary with the predisposing cause. A gentleman who had dined too freely might disexpand himself in a short fit of lyric doggerel in which “bowl” and “soul” were freely rhymed. The morning’s indigestion inspired a long-drawn elegiac, with “bier” and “tear,” “mortal” and “portal” linked in sonorous sadness. The man of politics, from time to time, grateful to an appreciative country, sang back to it, “Ho, Albion, rising from the brine!” in verse whose intention at least was meritorious.
And yet it was but a fiction, a purely fictitious obligation, self-imposed by a sentimental society. In plain truth, poetry came no more easily or naturally to the early Victorian than to you or me. The lover twanged his obdurate harp in vain for hours for the rhymes that would not come, and the man of politics hammered at his heavy hexameter long indeed before his Albion was finally “hoed” into shape; while the beer-besotted convivialist cudgelled his poor wits cold sober in rhyming the light little bottle-ditty that should have sprung like Aphrodite from the froth of the champagne.
I have before me a pathetic witness of this fact. It is the note-book once used for the random jottings of a gentleman of the period. In it I read: “Fair Lydia, if my earthly harp.” This is crossed out, and below it appears, “Fair Lydia, COULD my earthly harp.” This again is erased, and under it appears, “Fair Lydia, SHOULD my earthly harp.” This again is struck out with a despairing stroke, and amended to read: “Fair Lydia, DID my earthly harp.” So that finally, when the lines appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1845) in their ultimate shape—”Fair Edith, when with fluent pen,” etc., etc.—one can realize from what a desperate congelation the fluent pen had been so perseveringly rescued.
There can be little doubt of the deleterious effect occasioned both to public and private morals by this deliberate exaltation of mental susceptibility on the part of the early Victorian. In many cases we can detect the evidences of incipient paresis. The undue access of emotion frequently assumed a pathological character. The sight of a daisy, of a withered leaf or an upturned sod, seemed to disturb the poet’s mental equipoise. Spring unnerved him. The lambs distressed him. The flowers made him cry. The daffodils made him laugh. Day dazzled him. Night frightened him.
This exalted mood, combined with the man’s culpable ignorance of the plainest principles of physical science, made him see something out of the ordinary in the flight of a waterfowl or the song of a skylark. He complained that he could HEAR it, but not SEE it—a phenomenon too familiar to the scientific observer to occasion any comment.
In such a state of mind the most inconsequential inferences were drawn. One said that the brightness of the dawn—a fact easily explained by the diurnal motion of the globe—showed him that his soul was immortal. He asserted further that he had, at an earlier period of his life, trailed bright clouds behind him. This was absurd.
With the disturbance thus set up in the nervous system were coupled, in many instances, mental aberrations, particularly in regard to pecuniary matters. “Give me not silk, nor rich attire,” pleaded one poet of the period to the British public, “nor gold nor jewels rare.” Here was an evident hallucination that the writer was to become the recipient of an enormous secret subscription. Indeed, the earnest desire NOT to be given gold was a recurrent characteristic of the poetic temperament. The repugnance to accept even a handful of gold was generally accompanied by a desire for a draught of pure water or a night’s rest.
It is pleasing to turn from this excessive sentimentality of thought and speech to the practical and concise diction of our time. We have learned to express ourselves with equal force, but greater simplicity. To illustrate this I have gathered from the poets of the earlier generation and from the prose writers of to-day parallel passages that may be fairly set in contrast. Here, for example, is a passage from the poet Grey, still familiar to scholars:
“Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honour’s voice invoke the silent dust
Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?”
Precisely similar in thought, though different in form, is the more modern presentation found in Huxley’s Physiology:
“Whether after the moment of death the ventricles of the heart can be again set in movement by the artificial stimulus of oxygen, is a question to which we must impose a decided negative.”
How much simpler, and yet how far superior to Grey’s elaborate phraseology! Huxley has here seized the central point of the poet’s thought, and expressed it with the dignity and precision of exact science.
I cannot refrain, even at the risk of needless iteration, from quoting a further example. It is taken from the poet Burns. The original dialect being written in inverted hiccoughs, is rather difficult to reproduce. It describes the scene attendant upon the return of a cottage labourer to his home on Saturday night:
“The cheerfu’ supper done, wi’ serious face
They round the ingle form in a circle wide;
The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal grace,
The big ha’ Bible, ance his father’s pride:
His bonnet rev’rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin an’ bare:
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion wi’ judeecious care.”
Now I find almost the same scene described in more apt phraseology in the police news of the Dumfries Chronicle (October 3, 1909), thus: “It appears that the prisoner had returned to his domicile at the usual hour, and, after partaking of a hearty meal, had seated himself on his oaken settle, for the ostensible purpose of reading the Bible. It was while so occupied that his arrest was effected.” With the trifling exception that Burns omits all mention of the arrest, for which, however, the whole tenor of the poem gives ample warrant, the two accounts are almost identical.
In all that I have thus said I do not wish to be misunderstood. Believing, as I firmly do, that the poet is destined to become extinct, I am not one of those who would accelerate his extinction. The time has not yet come for remedial legislation, or the application of the criminal law. Even in obstinate cases where pronounced delusions in reference to plants, animals, and natural phenomena are seen to exist, it is better that we should do nothing that might occasion a mistaken remorse. The inevitable natural evolution which is thus shaping the mould of human thought may safely be left to its own course.
Most of us never stop to think about the mechanics of language. We learned to speak before we were conscious of learning, and to read and write before we could question our teachers. The first time many people are forced to face the construction of language is when they undertake the challenge of learning a second one. As an adult attempting to express yourself in a new language, you quickly discover that you often can’t say exactly what you want to. You have to learn a new way and that way conveys a slightly different meaning. In some languages it is almost impossible to prevaricate or be overly polite eg. in Norwegian you can’t say I would like, only I want. In English we know that people can talk around and around a point without ever actually getting to it so is the Norwegian language rude, blunt or just culturally appropriate. Students of semiotics, linguistics and philosophy among others, then ask the question does culture construct language or does language create culture?
English language is an incredibly dynamic one that was formed by the
agglomeration of many older ones that passed across the lands of Britain. As such new words are added to the dictionary
each year and the meanings of existing words are changed all to reflect changes
in our culture and society. If you
stumble across a sub culture you haven’t experienced before, at a poetry slam,
youth oriented or maybe an indigenous event you will hear words, once used to
demean, being reclaimed and new words created to give expression to an
experience outside of the mainstream culture. Language is our voice and as such
the words we use are an expression of ourselves if we are conscious of the
import of them. There is a difference
between calling someone an illegal immigrant rather than asylum seeker, a
victim rather than a survivor, an elderly spinster rather than a mature
professional woman. Language is powerful and how we use it can mislead and
manipulate or inform and communicate.
To steal a recent New York Times headline, “What Happens When Women Stop Leading Like Men?”. This was of course a response to the world wide love and respect for Jacinda Adern’s handling of the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting and it raises quite another unwritten question, are women essentially different from men or have we all just been constructed differently by society and culture? The most prominent wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s proclaimed that women were equal to men and this meant that they could do anything that men could do. The male example/experience/existence was taken as the standard to which women must measure up. Philosophers such as Luce Irigaray argue that for women to achieve real equality there must be a shift in this perception of male (and a certain type of male) as the benchmark against which all else is judged. We must begin to recognise and appreciate difference for itself not as a lesser version of the standard.
example of Jacinda Ardern as reported by Tina Brown in the NY Times illustrates
this point well. Many of the attributes
Ms Ardern has displayed during this period would once have been criticised for
being weak and overly emotional. In
short, too female. Unlike many previous
women leaders who have worked hard to show that they can be as tough as any
man, Jacinda Ardern has been unashamedly herself and fought to demonstrate that
empathy and shows of emotion are characteristics of good leadership. Whether
you believe these are inherently female characteristics or simply something women
are more likely to have been taught is not as important in the end as the
question; what are these arbitrary standards against which we are all
judged? How were they established and
why do we accept them as a truth rather than just an opinion? Next month I will
explore the role language plays in establishing and maintaining these truths.