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”?
“The monstrous accent on youth” (1968)
Melbourne University, 2012