I’m just back from the launch at the IPA – or rather re-launch for it was first published in 1980 – of The Heart of James McAuley by Peter Coleman. It was a star studded cast of launchers. Tony’s Staley and Abbott did the launching but Peter Coleman was also there to respond.
Each of the speakers spent a good deal of their time bashing the left. A certain amount of left bashing was appropritate in the circumstances given McAuley’s passions and the speakers’ views on these things. But for the celebration of someone for his poetic, literary and intellectual prowess it was close to a travesty it seems to me.
Reacting against the easy left wing nostrums of his time and as several speakers commented being essentially right about some of the central issues like communism, obviously rates more than a mention. It was a central part of McAuley. But if McAuley was as great as they suggested he was, that was just the backdrop – the starting point. Unfortunately it occupied most of the time and energy of the speakers.
Still all the speakers had something worthwhile to offer. Tony Abbott offered some interesting reflections on religion and politics – which will no doubt appear on his website. After rehearsing his objections to all the calumnies heaped upon the dead McCauley, which are reproduced in the preface to the book, Peter Coleman concluded by describing a scene of great pathos with McCauley and the victim of his great Ern Malley hoax, Max Harris reconciled at least a little reflecting on what they shared rather than what had torn them apart.
And Tony Staley recited McAuley poems he had learned by heart and which he said were crucial guides to him in his life to great effect, Not least this one Because. It continues over the fold, but the fold commences where I recall (rightly or wrongly) Staley’s exerpt concluding.
My father and my mother never quarrelled.
They were united in a kind of love
As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald,
Rather than like the eagle or the dove.
I never saw them casually touch,
Or show a moment’s joy in one another.
Why should this matter to me now so much?
I think it bore more hardly on my mother,
Who had more generous feelings to express.
My father had dammed up his Irish blood
Against all drinking praying fecklessness,
And stiffened into stone and creaking wood.
His lips would make a switching sound, as though
Spontaneous impulse must be kept at bay.
That it was mainly weakness I see now,
But then my feelings curled back in dismay.
Small things can pit the memory like a cyst:
Having seen other fathers greet their sons,
I put my childish face up to be kissed
After an absence. The rebuff still stuns
My blood. The poor man’s curt embarrassment
At such a delicate proffer of affection
Cut like a saw. But home the lesson went:
My tenderness thenceforth escaped detection.
My mother sang ‘Because’, and ‘Annie Laurie’,
‘White Wings’, and other songs; her voice was sweet.
I never gave enough, and I am sorry;
But we were all closed in the same defeat.
People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?
Judgment is simply trying to reject
A part of what we are because it hurts.
The living cannot call the dead collect:
They won’t accept the charge, and it reverts.
It’s my own judgment day that I draw near,
Descending in the past, without a clue,
Down to that central deadness: the despair
Older than any Hope I ever knew.
Postscript from today’s Crikey.
By Charles Richardson
It was a much smaller group than paid to hear Mark Steyn a couple of weeks ago, but those who turned up at Melbourne’s Institute of Public Affairs last night not only got their food and drink for free, but got more intellectual nourishment than Steyn would have provided.
Tony Staley, Tony Abbott and Peter Coleman all spoke to launch the reprint of Coleman’s biography of poet and Catholic activist James McAuley, The Heart of James McAuley (Connor Court publishing). Not surprisingly, media comment has focused on Abbott’s contribution; The Australian provides an excerpt this morning, while The Age reports it as news.
But what was newsworthy was not anything Abbott said, but simply the fact that a federal minister can hold his own in a serious intellectual discussion. I should say that I think Abbott’s worldview is spectacularly mistaken. He says that his ethical positions do not depend on religion, even though only religious people hold them (ever seen an atheist right-to-lifer?); he says that his opponents are opposed to the idea of truth just because they do not agree with his “truth”.
But there is an intellectual, even humanistic core to traditional Catholic scholarship, and Abbott showed his command of it in impressive fashion. It’s hard to see any of his ministerial colleagues putting on such a performance. Most of them would be intensely uncomfortable in such an environment; they gladly cheer Steyn’s fevered rantings, but to debate ideas rather than prejudices is beyond them.
Nonetheless, it’s important to point out how selective Abbott’s history is. Yes, the Catholic church tolerated humanists like Erasmus and More, but it persecuted many others, and for centuries it fought scientific and political progress every step of the way. In the last century, the Catholic political movement of which McAuley was a part gave aid and comfort to the fascist regimes that dragged Europe back to barbarism.
And just today it is reported that the Pope’s advisers are scheming to revisit the church’s backing of evolution, opening the door to support for the madness of creationism.