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”
While 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