I’m a Coogee and Kings Cross youth who ended up teaching politics and philosophy at the London School of Economics and living in London. My son Nick went into banking and ended up working for Macquarie Bank. He lives in Sydney with his family. Hence my life is a tale of two cities. And I return regularly not merely out of family sentiment but also to commune again with old friends from Sydney High or the university, friends dating back — horrible to relate – as far as the 1940s. They are always hearty, if not always hale.
Every return is, of course, a new beginning. One notices different things. This time it was to decide that the default expression of the Australian face is a smile. If you make eye contact with people, they smile back at you. This is no doubt part of the reason why the world thinks that Australians are nice, amiable people. Social scientists tell us that smiles are not only good for our social life, they improve our health as well. Those who smile apparently live longer.
One class of Australian who could do with a little smile therapy is politicians. I arrived in the wake of the misogyny scandal. Politicians often illustrate exactly what they denounce, and Ms Gillard’s self-righteous attack on Tony Abbott was itself a perfect illustration of exactly the ‘hate speech’ she purported to reject. No argument: merely domestic brawling passed off as political discourse. The remarkable thing is that such a performance should have called forth so powerful a resentful echo in many people.
Soon after arriving, I was taken to the opening of an exhibition of paintings by John Walker at the Utopia Gallery in Waterloo. They are very striking indeed, and Nick, who is a patron of modern painting, already has several of them. Walker’s work reflects rural landscapes merging into abstract patterns. Abstraction of this kind is central to the distinction between the aesthetics of painting on the one hand, and photographic representation on the other.
Abstraction in art is one thing, however, but there is another kind of abstraction that marks the way we often pursue both desires and resentments in recent times. It consists of finding convenient ways of satisfying a desire without the often tiresome context that may limit satisfaction. The classic version of this corruption is, of course, pornography, which promises sexual pleasure free of any need to respond to the wearying concerns of an actual love object. Technology helps in facilitating this easy availability of uncomplicated satisfactions. Cell phones, for example, make chatting to friends a pleasure that dispenses with any immediate need to see them. Human life is a mixed thing, and we imagine that eliminating inconvenience is always happiness. In fact, it may be failure of commitment. And the negative version of such abstraction is to be found in the category resentments politicians can so easily induce in dim people, even in the most fortunate of populations.
The night of Walker’s exhibition, we went to Salome at the opera house, based on the story of Salome’s desire for John the Baptist. Salome has a juvenile passion to kiss the Baptist. In Strauss’s opera, the principle of abstraction is taken to its ultimate mad culmination. The Baptist of course won’t entertain the idea of kissing Salome; his essence is holiness. Salome’s stepfather Herod has been lusting after her so violently that he promises her anything if she will dance for him. She does the famous dance of the seven veils, and when he asks what she wants in return, she says: ‘Bring me the head of Johannan – the Baptist.’ He has promised her anything. Nothing else will satisfy her. There is no alternative for Herod. His promise means he must order the execution of Johannan, and Salome does indeed end up with his mouth to kiss. But she is caressing a head without a body, the abstract fulfilment of her desire. The horrified Herod orders her to be killed.
In the same week, I went to listen to the Acton Lecture on religion and society, sponsored by the Centre for Independent Studies, and given by Dr Ryan Messmore, president-elect of Campion College, a Catholic liberal arts institution. He deplored the secularist drive in modern societies to relegate religion to an essentially private realm. Secular universal rights often blocked the religious freedom to establish an institutional order that expressed their beliefs. By coincidence, the blogs have recently been discussing the case in an American university of a Christian society being forced to accept non-believing office-holders on pain of being charged with that evil thing called ‘discrimination’ — something that in the education of my time was regarded as the mark of an elevated sensibility. It was hard not to sympathise with this position, though the lecturer did not deal with the problems arising from dissension between different types of Christianity. Even more dramatically, the problems arising from different religions in our less than homogeneous society could be even more testing. As the bishop of South Sydney remarked in thanking the lecturer: to describe Islam, for example, as a ‘faith’ merely reveals how ambiguous a term ‘religion’ is. It is not at all easy to combine freedom with a multicultural society.
Unfortunately nothing is simple in the human world. We had hardly nodded in agreement with this argument for greater autonomy in institutions before we were shaking our heads in dismay at the form that the culture of ‘beer, chicks and footy’ had taken in some of the colleges at Sydney University. Nothing wrong, no doubt, at least with beer and chicks, but the further reported ramifications in these closed societies of bullying, intimidation and vandalism do suggest that a bit of decent universality has something going for it.