Thea Astley, The monstrous accent on youth (Review)

I was going to start this post with that well-known quote by Sophocles – or was it Plato – complaining about the young people of today, but a little bit of research turned up the fact that that quote is somewhat spurious. It was probably inspired by Plato’s Republic in which he presents a dialogue with Sophocles about the ideal education, advocating a “stricter system” to ensure young people “grow up into well-conducted and virtuous citizens”. It was not a tirade on “the youth of today”. That permutation was the work of variously identified twentieth century writers/speakers.

So, instead, I’ll dive straight into Thea Astley‘s essay, “The monstrous accent on youth”. It was written in 1968 and reproduced in last year’s Meanjin anthology which contains a selection of essays organised by decade, starting with the 1940s. I plan to dip into the anthology over the year as there are essays by writers like Patrick White and David Malouf, poems by Judith Wright, and so on. A treasure for dipping into.

I was, I suppose, surprised by the Thea Astley essay, though in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have been. She was never one to go lightly and she sure doesn’t here in criticising the youth of the 1960s. She talks of discussing moral dilemmas in a “middle-class girls’ high school” and being horrified by her students’ callous responses to her questions about conscription during the Vietnam War:

Girls, like female spiders, want to have their men and eat them, too. I was appalled by the selfishness of their reactions and wondered if this were merely a by-product of thinking in a Liberal Party voting area.

She suggests that the generation of the 1960s were frank and (by implication “progressive”) about sex and drugs but had a “hard conservative core”. She then talks of discussions at Macquarie University and says attitudes were more liberal there, “particularly noticeable in the nuns”. (I went to Macquarie University in the 1970s and had many nuns and seminarians in my tutorials. She’s right. They were usually thoughtful tutorial participants.) But, she’s discouraged by the narrowness of the reading. Her students hadn’t read, she said, “Compton Burnett, Cheever, Edmund Wilson, Nabokov, Gordimer …”. Hmm, must say that, with the exception of Nabokov, I hadn’t read those writers then either – in fact, I didn’t even hear of Gordimer until the 1980s – and yet I called myself a reader.

She ponders the reading issue, wondering if that generation spent more time drinking than reading, and worries that “their livers are in more danger than their morals”! I found this fascinating given the current concerns about drinking and the young …

Anyhow, I started to be concerned that the essay was simply going to be a rant against the young and, while it is that to a degree, her main concern is more to do with social change, I think. She writes:

The permissiveness of our generation to the younger has created the monstrous over-rated importance of youth. Oldies – pregnant, sick, reeling – can tremble vertical upon trains and buses while thick-thighed youngsters cling to their seats.

“Thick-thighed”. That sounds like Astley. But, back to the argument. Here in this paragraph near the end of the essay is her main point: “life is so easy for the young and, because of this, so difficult”. She is, in other words, not completely critical of the young. She sees their behaviour in a wider social context, as something that’s partly of her generation’s own making. Perhaps she would have approved of Plato’s “stricter system”?

Thea Astley
“The monstrous accent on youth” (1968)
in Meanjin Anthology
Melbourne University, 2012
(Kindle ed.)

12 thoughts on “Thea Astley, The monstrous accent on youth (Review)

  1. So much to say on this one. I think she’s hard on young people–who after all haven’t got it all worked out and haven’t read everything either. I think many of us would blink and gaze at our 16-year-old selves who were, no doubt, obnoxious & loud but oh-so-unsuspecting of what lay ahead.

    • Oh yes Guy, I agree … she saves it for me at the end by her recognition of why young people may be as she sees them, though she doesn’t mention those growing-up issues specifically. She also recognises at one point the very different lives of the Depression generation … She was born at the end of it as I recollect.

      I’m not into “youth bashing” …. Life is tricky even when, as she says, it seems so easy.

  2. I think there is a universal law that says every generation thinks the ones following it are somehow lacking. Astley seems to save herself though by admitting some culpability in the older generations. It made me think of “helicopter parents.” Do you have them there? They are the parents who are so involved in their child’s life wanting to protect them and make things easy for them, that they are always hovering around ready to step in and fix things. As a result the kids are unable to accept failure and don’t know what to do when it happens to them. They also don’t know how to be assertive figure out what to do with themselves when every minute of their day is not scheduled for them. And they continue to look to their parents to help them do things. It’s terribly frustrating for school and employers and psychologically damaging for the kids.

    • Oh yes, there is isn’t there, Stefanie … Which was partly why I wanted to start with Socrates! I’m always deter,inked not to buy into it a lot. Youth vary now, just as they (we) always have I reckon! And yes, we do have the helicopter parent issue here … To various degrees. And that NY woman who let her child ride the subway when he was 9 or thereabouts has been out here talking. She’s good value I think.

  3. When I actually chanced to get a seat on the chockers streetcar one morning this week (people are usually pressed right up to the doors), I wanted to look around and shout “I’m not a rude young’un, I swear! I have a concussion! My body is bruised and aching! Don’t judge me for sitting!”

  4. Ahh youth. I confess I do have a home rant from time to time (I have four no-longer-children not always in the house), but I’m the first to starting blaming myself for their behaviour or untidiness mostly. Even last night I had to speak to my son who is often living at his (Italian) grandmother’s, where the television is on, food is ready, washing in the hands of someone else, and he is living a gilded nagging-mother-free life. One of my main concerns though, is that he is not reading anything! At least at home I can put a good book in his hands and get him started on the Russians.. Last night I told him Watch out you’ll turn around and you’ll be forty and you won’t have read a thing!! Whatta mother hey?

  5. Catching up on last week’s posts and must say how much I enjoyed this!
    I take Hannah’s point about the maim and the halt on trains, but my goodness! there must be a veritable army of young people with hidden injuries for I see so many them, thick-thighed and otherwise, blissfully unaware of frail old men and women, and very pregnant mothers-to-be ….
    As to whether they read, it is as much a matter of *what* they read, IMO…

    • Oh, I’m so glad that you liked it Lisa … I must say that I’m always thrilled when a thick-thighed youth of either gender offers me a seat! I usually take it – not that it happens much, partly cos I don’t use public transport – because they feel good offering it and I want to encourage them! Occasionally, though, if I’m feeling very fresh I’ll say no. As to “what” they read … that’s another whole question … but we have to be careful about imposing our idea of what’s “good” on a different generation sometimes, don’t we? Or, at least be open to things they discover and love.

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