Truth, Truthfulness, Self, Voice: Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres

Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres, NLA, 2017

This week Mr Gums, Brother Gums and I went to one of the highlights of Canberra’s literary calendar, the Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia.  It’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. This is the third one Mr Gums and I have attended, the first in 2015 being given by Robert Drewe, and last year’s by David Marr.

Raimond Gaita is best known to Australians as the author of the award-winning Romulus, my father, which, he informed us, is not-a-biography-nor-an-authobiography. He’s not, he said, a writer like those other Seymour speakers such as David Marr and Robert Dessaix. If we thought he would then go on to expound his theory of biography/autobiography/memoir, as might be expected for a “biography lecture”, we were mistaken, because philosopher Gaita had other plans.

And here is where I come a bit unstuck, because philosophy is not really my thing. I am therefore going to simplify – hopefully sensibly – what was a seriously philosophical argument that I tried to follow while also taking notes. I am going to limit my post to a few points that grabbed me – and that I believe I got right! I must say, though, that even if I didn’t catch all his arguments, I was thrilled to finally see this thoughtful, considered man in person.

“a tragic poem”

Raimond gaita, Romulus my fatherWhile Gaita didn’t engage, in the expected way anyhow, with the theory of his subject, he didn’t ignore it either. He explained that he doesn’t see Romulus, my father as biography or autobiography because it doesn’t contain “the critical psychological probing” you expect (or, perhaps, that he thinks we expect) in biography. He sees the book, rather, as “tragic poem”, as being about “broken lives” but not “diminished” ones. His described his book as tragedy, which he defined as reflecting “calm pity for the suffering it depicts”.

He wrote it “truthfully” as witness to the values by which his father lived, the father who, he said, gave him his “lifelong moral compass”. He discussed criticisms of his book, those arguments that had he been more ethically critical or more psychologically probing, he would have presented a more understanding picture of his mother. Don’t you love the way people are so ready to criticise what writers don’t do, rather than focus on what they do do? After all, the book is called Romulus, my father! I know, I’m being a bit ingenuous, since writing about his father does necessitate writing about his mother, but I stand by my point nonetheless.

Now, back to Gaita … to explain himself, he quoted Iris Murdoch’s statement that understanding another person is a work of “love, justice, and pity”. However, he said, he was 12 years old when his mother killed herself. He did not know her as an adult, had not conversed with her as an adult. He can, for example, speculate about what his father and his father’s friend Hora might have thought about things, but he didn’t know his mother: she doesn’t have an “individuated presence” for him. He sorrows for his mother (and admits that in writing about her he has put her under “intense scrutiny”) but he knew her only as a boy would.

At this point, he referred to Freud’s describing biography as being “vulnerable to psychological distortions”. Were Christine and Romulus really as he depicted them? Well, not, I understood him to say, in an absolute sense (but yes, he hoped, in his own sense). You ask seven people, he said, to describe a person and you’ll get seven different descriptions. You cannot match/judge these narratives against a single (simple? absolute?) notion that would guarantee “truthfulness” about that person’s life.

Truthfulness, et al

Gaita then went on to say that he is currently writing essays about people who have mattered to him. These essays have to be truthful but they can’t say everything. He hopes, however, that what is left unsaid will not compromise the truthfulness of what is said. He’d like to think that this is a justified hope. I think, in the right hands, it is!

One of his essay subjects is Martin Winkler who taught him German at school, and with whom he maintained contact long thereafter. Winkler is, he said, the wisest man he’s known. Around half of his lecture drew, in fact, from this essay on Winkler. I’m not going to repeat all he that said in detail here, but the essay, from what he shared with us about Winkler’s beliefs and ideas, would be well worth reading when it’s published.

So, just a couple of points. German-born Winkler loved German language and culture, but he was not blind to what Germany did during the war, which “lacerated his soul”. Winkler knew the dangers of following tradition which enables hiding behind respectability and which, in effect, enabled the Holocaust. However, he did not believe this had to diminish his love of Bach, or of German culture. Later in the lecture, Gaita commented that who would have thought that we would be now placing our faith in the Germany of Angela Merkel. (It just goes to show, doesn’t it, that people and/or nations can change. We live in hope!)

Another idea Gaita shared relates to love, ethics and values. For instance, he said, a feeling or emotion such as enthusiasm is ethically neutral, but love is “good”. It, in showing what people love, can be revelatory of value. He quoted Plato’s statement that love never proceeds by force or submits to force. Gaita also shared Winkler’s view that the core of responsibility is to be responsive to the needs of others in the lived context, which I assume means understanding people in terms of their lives rather than via some idea of absolute values.

Around here, if I remember correctly, Gaita returned to Romulus, his father, and in particular to Romulus’ compassion for his wife and her lover, which was evidenced, for example, by his providing financial support for them. Some of Romulus’ friends did not understand this (did not understand his father’s “goodness”). They felt his behaviour – his foolish heart – led him to dishonour himself. In other words, Gaita pointed out, another person would tell a different story about Romulus. So, the question is, was he a good man or a cuckold? There is no ethically neutral ground by which you can weigh the facts of his life to give one right answer or another. (Again, I think I’ve understood his point correctly. At least, what I’ve written makes sense to me, so that’s perhaps good enough!)

(Later, in the single-question Q&A, Gaita elaborated on his ideas of goodness and character. His father’s “goodness”, he said, was completely absent of condescension or superiority, something which many of his compatriots did not see or accept. Gaita, though, believes there should be more of such “goodness” in the world.)

For Gaita, growing up with such a man, seeing such compassion, was a gift. And it’s largely because of this that he did not grow up bitter. To be able to love, he said, is as important as being loved. You can, he said, be morally clear-sighted and at the same time love clear-sightedly. (I like this.)

Around here, we got into a discussion of facts and their meanings. You need, he said, to be truthful about the meaning of facts, which is more important, or relevant, than the facts themselves. (Regular readers here will know how much I liked this idea.) By example, he talked about the final sentences of Romulus, my father and of language choices that can convey different meanings. He could, for example, have written that his father was buried “not very far from” or “close to” or “near” his mother. He eventually chose “close” for its layered meaning – but he worried for a long time about whether the world also conveyed “sentimentality” (which emotion he sees as antithetical to truthful or authentic feeling). In the context, I think he made the right choice.

So, a very different biography lecture to the previous two we’ve attended. But, when you ask a moral philosopher to speak, that is, I suppose, to be expected. In other words, although we got a lecture which did address ideas regarding “truth” in writing about a life, it was also one that extended way beyond this to a discussion of values. My mind was certainly stretched – and is probably the better for it.

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
12 September 2017

22 thoughts on “Truth, Truthfulness, Self, Voice: Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture

  1. Thanks for the interesting summary. I remember trying to read one of Gaita’s philosophy books a long time ago and finding it so dense and complex I couldn’t finish it. But I do admire the way he explores ideas in such depth.
    Have you read Richard Ford’s ‘Between Them: Remembering my parents’? He also tackles the difficulty of knowing and describing someone accurately, aware that’s it’s never the full picture.

  2. Your analysis of the lecture is very enlightening. Thank you. I didn’t hear the talk, so your comments are really valuable. I am trying to think of biographies where there is ‘critical psychological probing’ and I can’t recall any. I must say it sounds horrible – critical psychological probing! Maybe you can tell me books you know of where it’s done. David Marr and Robert Dessaix and Robert Drewe don’t go in for it. Who does?

    • Oh Carmel, that’s a very good question. I guess it depends a bit on what we (and on what Gaita) means by “critical psychological probing”. For a start, I did think he was being a bit self-deprecating when he compared himself unfavourably against Marr and Dessaix. I would define “critical psychological probing” as a biographer trying to understand the mind of his/her subject, and why s/he did what s/he did? I feel that my favourite biographies have tried to do this in some way? That is, they try to work out “who” the person was/is? What do you think “critical psychological probing” means?

      • I think I found the conjunction of the three words ‘critical psychological probing’ quite unpleasant. It might have been the use of ‘probing’ that really drew my attention. I think much of the point of biography and autobiography is to write about what the subject did and why the subject might have done it. The unconscious mind of the subject is not usually examined in depth in these works, so I was surprised that Raymond Gaita brought the subject up at all. (Reading biographies is one of my great delights.) And of course the word ‘critical’ is always a tricky one, carrying as it often does a suggestion of the negative.

        • Thanks very much for this Carmel. I put this in quote marks and am pretty sure they are the actual words he used! I sure hope I haven’t misquoted him.

          Firstly, I felt he used the word “critical” in that analytical sense, the way I’d like to think we use it when we write “reviews”, but it is a problematic word I agree and I often shy away from it. As for “psychology”, I hadn’t really thought of its being purely “the unconscious mind” but I suppose in a way it is. I wonder what he meant. To me, wondering about why the person did something does mean thinking about their psychology. You’ve really got me thinking now.

          I can see, though, that “probing” might have been the word that really did it for you – it does sound a bit intrusive doesn’t it?

  3. This is lovely, bringing this lecture to us in this way.
    Re what Gaita thinks we might expect: I think that postmodernism that influenced the writing of contemporary bios so much that we can expect to expect anything and everything! We recognise now that any bio is a selective slice of a life, just as much as an autobiography has always been subject to self-censoring and self-editing whether conscious or not. The values of the biographer impacts on everything from the choice of subject to the themes explored

  4. Thanks for this, Sue. I’ve attended a few of the Seymour Biography lectures when they bring them down here to Melbourne. This would have been a very different lecture, given his identity as philosopher, rather than historian or political commentator as the Seymour lecturers often are.

    • That’s exactly it RJ. His perspective was quite different from the “norm” – from a political animal like Marr or a traditional biographer like, say, Rowley or an author/memoirist like Drewe or Dessaix. Such different places they are all coming from

  5. Wow: what an experience that must have been! Some of what was discussed reminds me of things that Alice Munro has said about writing the collection of short stories rooted in her autbiographical experiences (The View from Castle Rock). I’m sure it was quite an exercise to collect your thoughts and observations but they read very naturally here, so thanks for having done the heavy lifting for us.

  6. I have enjoyed this intelectual discussion but much went over my head. (I have such a science brain, not lit). I enjoyed the talk of the ‘critical psychological probing’ and don’t quite understand the various examples of this. Might see if google recognizes it. Thanks for expanding my mind once again. 🐧🐧🐧🐧

  7. Many thanks for this and the many quotes. They made me wish even more to have been there.

    I am not familiar with the theories of biography, I was under the impression that a biography would have a lot of factual information. Even references.

    His book is a story of his impressions and understanding. The quote a “tragic poem about broken but not diminished lives” is such a beautiful one.

    • Thanks Gabrielle. Yes, I think biography is more as you say – and “good” ones have references – but they can try to understand WHO the person was which can move them beyond “pure” fact I think. It depends a bit on the biographer. Karen Lamb’s biography of Thea Astley is more than straight fact though she does, as I recollect, provide “evidence” for any conclusions she draws.

      I actually think Gaita’s book would fall more into memoir. My guess is he referred to biography because that’s the name of the Lecture but in fact it’s subject matter is really broader to encompass “life writing”, which allows for a wider variety of speakers.

  8. Like you, Sue, the lecture on Tuesday evening wasn’t exactly the ‘biography lecture’ I had anticipated. It was not so much concerned with the art or craft of biographical/autobiographical writing as with the impetus for engaging in it in the first place. To what end did Gaita write about his father? – to bear witness, perhaps; or, even more, to bear clear sighted witness.
    Some of the earlier comments on this post put me in mind of David Carlin’s ‘Our Father Who Wasn’t There’ (published by Scribe). I wonder if that book might fulfil Gaita’s brief of ‘critical psychological probing’, although the critical probing is as much directed by Carlin towards himself as to his subject.
    (The National Library of Australia will make a recording and transcript of the lecture available soon. Joining previous lectures, it will be found here:

    • Thanks very muchTessa. I was going to check in a few days for its appearance on line, but of course the link to the page is there already, as you say, and they’ll just add this one.

      I haven’t read the Carlin. From what you say, I’m now keen to.

      I think you’re right about why he wrote about his father. Perhaps it was also to encourage us to think about “goodness”, about selflessness and empathy though I think he was a bit suspicious of that word, perhaps because it’s been overused.

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