Dürrenmatt: an anecdote by Feyerabend

Feyerabend was referring to a seminar series he ran while teaching at Zurich university. One of the invited speakers was Freidrich Dürrenmatt. He

…came to speak on Platonic entities, and used a chair instead of a bed as an example. His conclusion: the Platonic chair is nothing but the idealised hind end of the sitters. Dürrenmatt had been warned that there would be other talks and that he had to restrict himself to twenty minutes. ‘Oooch’, he replied. ‘I won’t know what to say anyway, I won’t talk for more than ten minutes.’ He was late, and we started without him; when he arrived, he produced a huge manuscript and would have gone on forever if he hadn’t been stopped after twenty-five minutes. (Mrs Huber, who was chairing the meeting, hestitated to interrupt, but I, sitting next to her, egged her on: ‘No exceptions for big shots!’) Dürrenmatt didn’t say a word. He came to dinner with us afterward, tried to get me drunk, told me he had read Against Method, and entertained us with stories about himself and Hohler. But he refused to come again. ‘You don’t let a person finish!’ he yelled at the organiser when he next rang him – and hung up.

It’s time to talk about Brian

It’s time to talk about Brian

Brian Medlin optimised

On a certain Sunday in 1970, I was still at primary school and we were still devout Roman Catholics, though all this was about to change. The day before had seen a huge demonstration in the city, the first in my town of the famous Moratorium marches against the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across Australia marched against the idea of the war, and in particular against the conscription of young men like my father and his friends to provide cannon-fodder for the Americans.

On this certain Sunday we went to church and the priest started a usual sermon about the usual subjects. We were there with various friends of my parents who had marched the day before and slept on the floors of our house in order to watch what was going to happen now. My father stood up in church and interrupted the sermon. How could it be, he called out, that a priest would talk about anything that day except the momentous events of the day before? I recall the drama of the moment, the confusion of the priest, but nothing more.

The day before, Brian Medlin, a philosopher who saw no boundaries between philosophy and life, a radical leader of the anti-war movement in Australia, was arrested and spent some weeks in gaol. Although he had nothing but good things to say of his treatment while there, one might point out that this was the same police force which was infamously stained for its brutal murder of homosexual academic George Duncan shortly after. Not surprisingly, ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) saw Medlin as a person of interest. He was watched in this period, his files released some years ago.

In the US, France and Australia, the student unrest of the sixties and seventies was intimately connected with the Vietnam War. However, it spread in many directions. Barbara Ehreinreich in her important account of the early stages of the demise of the Middle Class – Fear of Falling – was one of those students. She recounts the fact that academic staff were mostly conservative and reactionary in their fearful and angry attempts to deal with the students in this period. One can even suppose that when the military and the police shot and killed student demonstrators in the US, academia might have given it the nod.

In Australia, without that level of bloodshed, the same things happened: radicalisation of students at university level in particular (though schools could be involved too) leading to serious conflict with academic and administrative staff. By far the most radical was the newly established Flinders University where Brian Medlin taught Philosophy. At its high (some will say low) point, the students occupied the administrative headquarters of Flinders for an entire month. In this period, they were able to establish the CIA connections of the (American) Vice Chancellor.

Teachers could be for or against the students. Medlin, unlike most teachers, was generally speaking on the side of the students. He was without doubt an inspirational teacher. He introduced political philosophy – the study of Marxist-Leninism and Maoism. He insisted on a politics in art course. He introduced ‘women’s’ studies. His content and ways of teaching were radical and above all were about the real world. Philosophy for him could not be separated from the real world. Nothing was abstract.

All this had real consequences. NOT citations. If you want to measure the man in metrics, you will find him sadly lacking. But if you want to understand, for example, the important mainstream interaction of politics and folk/rock/pop music as is still ongoing in Australia, it comes from one person. Brian Medlin, who inspired students through the politics in art course to take this as their lives. Red Gum was the start. Many others were to follow.

We have here a man whose country origins, in the middle of the edge of nowhere, a town on the Goyder Line, never left him. As soon he could read, he became a poet and we see in Medlin an important type of character in white Australian history, the bush poet. And this poetry is not the stuff of dusty slim books, it is true poetry, to be spoken, shared around a camp fire while swatting flies. Drunk. As blokey as it gets. No matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine a female in the setting.

He had no need to be important, he was important if there was need to be. Flinders University saw him as a total disaster and generally speaking, his colleagues wished they had never set eyes on him. Yet he was larger than all of them combined. He suffered fools not at all. In 1957 he wrote “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism” an essay against objectivism. I’m guessing it’s the only thing he is cited for. His real work was for the environment, and that in a small, personal non-polemical way. He simply took land and healed it. Made it what it used to be. What better occupation for a philosopher I wonder?

I see a connection between Feyerabend and Medlin here. Neither was really interested in the business of being an academic, the paper work, the course work, none of it. Despite this (or because of it?), they were inspiring teachers. However, Feyerabend was a lost soul, spending his life on the road, being famous in one place and then in another. Feeding off that. The adulation, the money, the faux insistence on seeking solitude. Medlin on the other hand had no need to prove his cleverness, he took it in his stride. He absolutely knew every moment of every day that his home was the Australian bush.

In his reminiscences of Medlin after his death, David Armstrong recalled the poem written by the philosopher Charles Martin about Brian.

Some of his bones
Were broken by others
But most
Were broken by himself.

He loved
Far more
Than he hated
But the fight
He fought
Called more
For hate.

To make up the rest
Anger, feeding anger
Would have to do.

And thus Armstrong had to admit that despite the ferocity of their antipathy for its many years’ duration, it was never Hate.

It was a strange period for children of parents who were questioning society, the rules, how they should live in that period. A year or so after the Sunday of the Questioning of the Priest, I found myself in a school with one of Medlin’s sons. The school was a place for people who could afford to, to lodge their misfit kids. I didn’t know that at the time. My parents asked me if I wanted to go there, it was a Summerhill inspired place, and I, knowing no better said yes. I found it depressing to discover that in a school of misfits I did not fit in. Even amongst them I was a misfit. I don’t know how Brian’s kids managed, it must have been terribly hard having such a man as one’s father. Fortunately, in the end, we are able to grow up and escape our childhood homes.

I gather somebody is going to write about Medlin and I hope it isn’t too late. I confess, I’d love to do it myself. I hope they understand the idea of the sort of person Medlin was. A country boy whose brilliance took him to Oxford. They have to understand the Goyder Line and moving animals across Australia, which is something Medlin did pre-Oxford. They will have to look at his brother, Harry. This town of Orroroo produced two boys who became prominent academics. Harry was older and I suspect that the experience of WWII prior to his education must have severely challenged his relationship with his brother. Certainly it’s an old story, that one, the boy who goes and the boy who doesn’t in Australia. (Brian was too young to go). Harry spent years of the war in the infamous Changi, went to university after his release and became an important part of the University of Adelaide. I can’t help thinking this would make such a great story, the two boys, so close and not. Harry was no Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, but he was no arch conservative either. When the Adelaide Festival committee in the 1960s refused as a censorship move to stage one of Patrick White’s plays, Harry insisted that the University Play Group put it on and they did such a great job of it that White gave them other premieres. Teaching science he once asked a girl what she thought about something. She said coming from the sexist European background that she did, she’d never been asked that before. What did she think?

Whoever writes this book has to examine this relationship, strangely almost non-existent, as far as I can see, in public, but there must be more to it, surely. How strange it is that Harry’s wiki article doesn’t mention the existence of an important academic brother. Still, at least he has one. Brian doesn’t. Metrics aren’t good enough.

One of the things that struck me as I observed Manny reading this book is that he had no respect for it. This was partly because he saw Brian Medlin as an academic with little in the way of citations – and therefore isn’t worthy of consideration as a thinker – and partly because Iris writes so little back. The most superficial of interpretations is that she was obliged to write back. So he doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny as a ‘real’ friend of a celebrated writer, as Iris was (I feel her standing is steadily decreasing for the moment).

Another issue for Manny was that these letters from Brian were not well written. They weren’t Letters, they were letters. Who could have thought to write like that to the great Murdoch.

It’s not such a hard question to answer. A friend. A friend who loved communicating by the written word, at least if the spoken was not available when words meant more, harder to write and harder to speak to one’s audience. It is precisely the point that he didn’t write Letters. Not pompous literary epistles with a view to their ultimate public unveiling, but a mishmash of this and that which can only derive from real friendship.

I don’t know if I can capture Medlin in a way that will make Manny – or others to whom the culture is alien – understand that he is important. But I will end with this, written by Professor Brian Matthews on the release of this book. Source is Eureka Street.

It was January 1968. In those summer days before the start of my first term as a university lecturer, I’d arrive early in the morning, go into my room and more or less skulk there. I didn’t even go to morning tea. I knew two people in the whole School of Language and Literature at Flinders University and they were both on leave.
After about two weeks of my reclusive behaviour, I was startled one morning when there was what sounded like not a knock but a kick on my door, which then burst open before I could speak, and in walked Brian Medlin, inaugural professor of philosophy.
‘Look, mate,’ he said, ‘if you’ve taken a vow of silence for some reason, then of course I’ll respect it. As a matter of fact, there are a few people round here I wish would emulate you. But if that’s not the case, why don’t you come and have a cup of tea and meet some of your colleagues, for what that might turn out to be worth.’
So I did, of course, and my life at Flinders changed radically for the better under what became a stern, no bullshit but straightforwardly affectionate mentorship.
Though in general, like most of us, Brian loathed meetings and committees, the committee room was one of the many stages on which he gave some of his more memorable performances. I would often sit with him at the meetings and so had a privileged view of the theatre that frequently followed his entry into a debate.
At one meeting, while Brian was speaking I could see that on the opposite side of the table a self-proclaimed Medlin antagonist was becoming quietly enraged and the moment he had an opportunity he launched into an extraordinary tirade. When the chairman offered Medlin the right of reply, he said, ‘Mr Chairman, I did not say what I said with the express intention of driving our colleague opposite into an apoplectic fit. That this has in fact happened I can only regard as a bonus.’
At another characteristically tumultuous meeting, the head of the discipline of fine arts handed round a printed page headed ‘Propositions’. There were 11 propositions but as it turned out not enough of the sheets to go round. When one of them reached me I put it between us and we both read it. Brian, having studied it intently for a few minutes, passed the page on for those who still might not have seen it.
When the item came up for discussion there was a quarter hour of the usual swapping of opinion, outrage, assent and objection. Then Medlin entered the fray. Still without a copy in front of him, he said something like this: ‘If proposition 4 is true then propositions 8 and 10 can’t be; if propositions 8 and 10 are in doubt then proposition 6 becomes redundant, if we scrap Proposition 6 then Proposition 1 becomes …’ and so on.
It was an extraordinary performance and the question of whether or not there was any flaw in his analysis — though no one pointed any out at the time — became secondary to the sheer cavalier daring of his intervention.
Medlin expected such daring of others. In May 1988, having heard that I was going to Sydney, Brian asked me why and I told him it was because I’d won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award. He was genuinely delighted to hear this and asked me if I would have to give a speech. I told him I would but had no idea what to say.
‘The Elder Cato’, Brian said, ‘ended every speech to the Roman Senate with the words, “And furthermore Carthage must be destroyed — Carthargo delenda est.” You should end like that,’ he said as if nothing could be more obvious.
Well, with difficulty and severe contortions of sequence and logic, but with the ameliorating help of a judicious amount of alcohol, I actually did contrive to end my short acceptance speech with Carthago delenda est.
During the drinks afterwards I met Ed Campion, an old friend, Jesuit educated, a fine writer and a priest.
‘What did you think of my Latin conclusion?’ I said incautiously.
‘Delenda est Carthago would have been more elegant,’ he said.
I reported to Brian on my return and quoted Campion’s amendment.
‘Fucking Jesuits,’ he said.
Brian Medlin, on his own admission, left the publication of his life’s work to his last few years, but the passions, gifts and lyricism of this poet, essayist, philosopher, naturalist and storyteller were set free in an extraordinary correspondence he conducted with British novelist Iris Murdoch.
Now published as Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie, edited by Graham Nerlich and Gillian Dooley, their letters cover more than two decades and, with love, wit, subtlety, argument and insight, address an inspiring range of subjects until, with both writers terminally ill, Murdoch’s last letter tapers off tragically, movingly:
‘How much time has passed … Much love dearest Brian, do write —
Iris.
Also; love, mortality and the meaning of life.’

Killing Time by Paul Feyerabend

Much has been written about Feyerabend. My two cents’ worth.

A striking aspect of this book is that philosophers and scientists, even (or perhaps specially?) the greatest of them walked hand in hand. They listened to each other. Am I incorrect to say that now there is a complete schism? It’s all very well to blame the philosophers who generally avoid science because it’s too hard.

But an equally fair generalisation is that scientists now are culturally ignorant. They don’t read, they don’t go to theatre or engage in philosophical argument. They don’t even do science. They have tiny fragmented parts to play in something which might or might not have a big picture. They refuse to be engaged on some other tiny bit even if it sits right next to theirs, or to the small big picture. That, at any rate, is my overall impression and needless to say there are obvious exceptions, at least on the goodreads site. Clearly if they believe that they can do a good job of being a scientist with nothing even remotely approaching a world view, they are scarcely going to see any advantage in an interdisciplinary education or way of engaging with the world.

Feyerabend is enormously well-read and seems to read anything. I suspect if he seems like an odd thinker it is partly because he takes from so many places. Not much, I’d say, from feminism. I note that he mentions many lays in this book, none of them are attributed with a surname. Why? If it were to protect their anonymity, he could at least have given his wives surnames since they are no chance to remain unknown.

Feyerabend was a lost soul, a person with no purpose, who drifted into everything he did in life. His only love appears to have been for opera and theatre, but that is probably only because he didn’t make it in these areas, though he might have fought to do so at various times. It is clear that he only wants what he can’t have, once he gets it, whether it be a woman or a job, very shortly he is planning where else to be. Added to that, he is easily led to ambiguity.

One can readily imagine how this happened, a difficult childhood followed by army service for the Nazis during which he was seriously and permanently wounded. He seems to have disassociated from it as it happened. The journey back, his gift for his last wife, must have been cathartic and painful. With very few words indeed, he once or twice manages to show his shame at his own behaviour. He never feels sorry for himself, though many would in his shoes. It is not easy for any non-Jewish German to write about their attitudes in the Nazi period. I can’t say I am convinced by his arguments.

From all this, however, towards the end of his life, he came to the conclusion that the only thing that mattered was love. It’s really terribly moving to see him trying to explain this. What a pity he could not read Romulus, My Father, which does it so very well.

The account is matter of fact, but eloquent, regrets contained by humour. Anybody who wants an idiosyncratic, thoughtful, renegade view of Austria from the twenties through to after the war, academia around the world up to the early nineties, and the theatre and opera during all of this period is warmly recommended to this book. Bring some tissues for the denouement.

William the Fourth by Richmal Crompton

Early last year I came upon the dregs of the library of a very wealth Swiss family. The dispersal of the expensive chattels of the estate, including the better books, was undertaken by one of those auction houses that specialises in the disposal of rich history. But the dregs of the books, as well as other very minor bits ended up in the stock of one of the sellers I frequent at the open air book markets in Geneva. A few of the items, though valueless, had the emblem of the house upon them, which is why I could tell what they were.

Rich or not, this was a family which had loved reading over hundreds of years and here were items from the 1920s to 1970s or thereabouts, reflecting their interest in English literature for young and old. Some of it I bought out of sheer curiosity, authors like Barbara Pym I’d never read, but perhaps I should. William I bought because I adored these books as a kid and haven’t read them since the 1960s.

They had aged well then – this early one was first published in 1924 – and fifty years later again they are still standing up as fresh, fun and elegantly written. Apparently an attempt is being made to rehabilitate Crompton as a writer for adults. I must dip into that: if they are anything like as good as her books for children, they’ll be a pleasure to snort over, taking care not to spill one’s cup of tea while doing that.

Most of the stories are strong – I see one or two complaints on GR that they are repetitive from book to book, but children want that. If they are going to reread the same book over and over, why not stories that are the same but different?

I particularly love the one where a big company opens a sweet shop in the village, undercutting Mr Moss with whom they have always shopped. Come Saturday they take their money to the new shop, get served by a girl who doesn’t care and thinks having to sell to them in h’penny lots is ridiculous. As they walk along chomping on their lollies, they pass Mr Moss’s shop. He is very sad, quite unlike his usual jolly self. He can’t put his prices any lower, but, just like Amazon, the new shop has the financial power to sacrifice short term profits for the long term gains of putting Mr Moss out of business with the cooperation of the locals. He stresses to the boys that they are doing the right thing, of course they have to go to the cheaper shop, but vague ideas appear in the minds of the boys.

William and his gang start realising that it isn’t necessarily good to buy cheapest. They want Mr Moss to be happy. They talk about how when they buy from Mr Moss he cares, he is always interested in what they buy. He welcomes their purchasing a h’penny worth at a time. They are sure, now that they think about it, that his sweets taste better too. But what to do? Start a campaign to make people buy from Mr Moss, but how can they, they have no weight, why would anybody notice?

Ah, but William, as usual has a plan. And as usual, no matter how many plans go awry, his followers fall into the next without a moment’s hesitation. The Duke is going to be in town to open a Sale of Work. When he appears on stage to do that, unbeknownst to him, he has a big sign on his back advertising Mr Moss’s shop. As he wanders around the Sale, the locals summon the Vicar to tell the Duke what’s on his back, a large crowd following him around due to the unlikely sight. Just as the Vicar explains and takes the sign off to show the Duke, William and his cohorts appear, each wearing placards with creative spelling announcing the various benefits of Mr Moss’s sweets.

The Duke can recognise a ringleader when he sees one. He asks for William to be brought to him. William in his tripping over his tongue enthusiastic way explains about Mr Moss and the Amazon-like attempt to close him down and how much they want to help and that nobody would notice them unless, he thought, they could put their sign on an important person who would be decent enough to care.

Well, the Duke’s been to more Sales of Work than he cares to think about and this is the first bright moment he’s had for many an appearance. He tells William and the others that they must discuss this further over ices. The eager captive audience of lads listens to his tales of adventure like big game hunting and together they discuss Red Indians and pirates. Then the Duke, with boys in hand, goes to visit Mr Moss. He buys a pound of sweets for each boy and he makes a standing order for himself of cokernuts. Instantly Mr Moss is known as supplier of  cokernuts to Royalty. The Amazon shop closes down, Mr Moss is reinstated as the place to go to.

And of William?

It was Miss Spence who voiced the prevailing sentiment about William. She did not say it out of affection for William. She had no affection for William.

William chased her cat and her hens, disturbed her rest with his unearthly songs and whistles, broke her windows with his cricket ball, and threw stones over the hedge into her garden pond.

But one day, as she watched William progress along the ditch – William never walked on the road if he could walk in the ditch – dragging his toes in the mud, his hands in his pockets, his head poking forward, his brows frowning, his freckled face stern and determined, his mouth pucked up to make his devastating whistle, his train of boy followers behind him, she said slowly: ‘There’s something about that boy –

In some ways it’s a mystery I’d like these books so much, books about a boy who doesn’t like to read (except the worst books), likes to fight and get dirty and climb trees, all of which I’m happy if I never do in my whole life. But the thing is that William is above all for fairness. Admittedly his attempts in the first story of this book to introduce Bolshevism into his family fail, but his mates are all share and share alike. He loves the life that poor children live around him, he hates the comfort of his bourgeois existence. All this is at some gut feeling level, it isn’t an intellectual pose. But how can one not admire it. Then there is his ingenuity, his inspiring leadership, his creativity and imagination. He’s splendid.

Lately I’ve been trying my hand at Little Nicolas, who is a sort of French equivalent, entertaining, but not a patch on William. Now that I’ve refreshed my memory of this series, I think maybe part of the reason is that William has an additional layer in it. Little Nicolas has small children and adults. William also has his older brother and sister who are substantially his senior, dating and so on. It will not be a surprise to hear that his siblings’ interest in the opposite sex is rather disgusting to him. He simply cannot understand what young men see in his sister Ethel when he knows the truth of how awful she is. Big sisters. Uggh. He could tell them a thing or two.

This reminds me of the time in my life I really feel like William was my model. I went to a large school in Adelaide in my primary years which had an area out the back where boys would park their cars and girls would join them to pash. I doubt it went much further than that, late sixties. My siblings and I, who being oldest was the leader, occasionally had to hang out at school waiting for my mother, a teacher. We would sometimes go out to the back and dance around the cars like a bunch of Red Indians maybe, saying ‘No spooning here’. ‘Kissing banned’. ‘Stop pashing’. And such like. We were highly amused by ourselves and thought we were terribly clever, though I’m not sure we even knew what ‘spooning’ meant. Probably the kids in cars didn’t either, it was already an anachronistic word. The teenagers must have been ropeable, restrained, no doubt, by the knowledge that anything they did to us was to the kids of a senior teacher. We were probably untouchable, luckily for us.

Come to think of it, I wonder if every occasion I was bad as a kid was because of William? I’d never thought of blaming him at the time, but I did find it hard to separate my reading from life, so who knows? Just hoping now that I don’t regress. I wonder how many of them I’ll have to read before that happens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Years Solitary by Edith Bone

I have a friend who’s a rellie of Edith Bone and as a consequence discovered her story which is truly astonishing, every bit of it that we know and no doubt the parts that will continue to unfold as classified documents from MI5 and Soviet counterparts are made more available.

But for now, looking at only her period of isolated imprisonment, I offer this from wiki:

In 1949, Bone was acting as a freelance correspondent in Budapest, affiliated with the London Daily Worker. She was accused of spying for the British government when leaving Hungary, arrested by the State Protection Authority (AVH) and detained in solitary confinement without trial or a prisoner identification number for seven years. During her detention, Bone managed to avoid the mental instability or insanity that typically accompanies isolation. She developed a series of mental exercises, including reviews of geometry, the several languages she knew and vocabulary. She mentally reconstructed the plots of all of the books she had read, made a comprehensive list of all of the characters in Shakespeare she could remember, and made letters out of the dense black bread she was fed; out of these she composed poetry. Perhaps most stunning was the weeks-long effort she put into to removing a very large nail from the iron-hard oak door of her cell. To accomplish this, she slowly removed single threads from towels and wove them into a solid rope with which to work the nail. After weeks of straining effort to get the nail to begin to wiggle and then loosen, she finally got the nail out. She then sharpened it on the concrete floor and used at as a drill to create a small peephole in her cell door so she could finally see out of her cell. She used these projects to keep her mind stimulated, to fill her time with goal-oriented actions, and to keep her sanity during her long period of extreme isolation.

Bone was freed during the last days of the revolutionary Nagy Government in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A student group had seized control of the Budapest political prison where Bone was held, and processed political prisoners for release.

I’m sure it’s true that the Hungarians intended her to die as a result of her privations. Apparently they couldn’t actually kill her directly as it was known she had disappeared, though the British did precious little to get her out. Why doesn’t that surprise me.

There will be more of her incredible life to come. I will end by noting that Aung San Suu Kyi gained her inspiration to survive from reading her book as a teenager.

Edith Bone wrote her own epitaph:

Edith Bone (1889-1975)
On Myself

Here lies the body of Edith Bone.
All her life she lived alone,
Until Death added the final S
And put an end to her loneliness.

Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller

I can’t see that we are ever so good that this play can be missed. At its most obvious it’s about what the Germans and their collaborators did to Jews and other inferior types. But even to extrapolate to present day is an inadequate representation of what it’s about.

It is a discussion of the human condition, its wretchedness, and the capacity of a few to rise above it. The amazing Hora, who did much to see to the shaping of the philosopher Raimond Gaita in Gaita’s younger years, believed that always

…even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved….

Hora and his migrant friends had lived through WWII in Europe. This play, Incident at Vichy, captures one of these moments. An Austrian aristocrat, caught in a roundup meant for not the likes of him, is sitting with Jews and a Gypsy waiting to be interrogated. We know that most, if not all of them, will never be let out. Whilst waiting, they share their various views on the nature of the Germans and whether it is really possible that the things they don’t want to mention are really happening. One says it’s a ridiculous idea, that the Germans would want to kill them. The Germans are rational. Of course they simply want them for labour. No biggie.

The Austrian prince passionately explains what is really happening. How could you be so stupid as to think it is about being rational. These people are nothing and they make themselves something by what they do, by what they believe in. What they are doing, the mass murdering of Jews is a moral principle.

At some point he gives a great speech where he too says the same as Hora. It is a tiny number of people who redeem the rest of us. Unfortunately I don’t have the play, or I’d share it. And then, at the end, and I didn’t see this coming though I should have, he turns out to be that man. He goes in second to last, reappears with a get out of gaol free card and gives it to the waiting French Jew so that he can escape. We assume that the prince will be killed in his place.

And all this made me remember a book I have, a book of little consequence I expect.

Gutmann, Moritz Ritter v.
Konradin der letzte Hohenstaufe: Tragodie in 5 Acten
(Mahr.-Ostrau: Druck und Verlag von Julius Kittl: 1891) Decorated cloth lettered in gilt pp. 87. A play about the short-lived but famous Konradin, this is the Author’s inscribed copy to his cousin Flora.

Gutmann was an extremely wealthy Austrian, Jewish, related to the Rothchilds. He bought and lived in Vöslau castle from 1901. He died in 1934.

To my mind I would have expected this to be a big story in the newspapers and it could be that I have been bad at finding it (thanks to Matt for helping me look for info!) But in Austria things had already been really bad for the Jews for years at the point of his death. Maybe this was why. I assume Vöslau stayed in the family until: ‘In the course of the Aryanization, the castle was acquired in 1940.’ I don’t know if that’s just bad google translate, it doesn’t seem like the most politically correct way of describing that process. In Austrian (German?): ‘Im Zug der Arisierung wurde das Schloss 1940 von der Gemeinde Vöslau erworben.’

At any rate, presumably due to the extreme difficulties already presented by being Jewish in Austria, by the time Gutmann had died, The NY Jewish Daily Bulletin reported, the rest of the family had all become ‘non-Jews’ by marrying non-Jewish people. As we know, they may have thought that was the effect of their marriages, but it certainly wasn’t what the Nazis thought.

I have not yet found out what happened to his relatives past his death.

Going back to Miller, his Austrian prince, a cultured man who abhorred what was happening, in giving his life, seemed to me to be giving it for this other cultured family of whom I can find no lasting trace.

We saw the play at King’s Head Theatre Islington, a rerun after a season at The Finborough. Both fantastic upstairs from pubs theatres, stunning stuff, tickets cheap as chips. I think that this one could easily go wrong. It needs a stellar cast to pull it off, a group of men sitting on a bench waiting for a buzzer to sound. NEXT. The buzzer really should have had a place in the credits, it was horrifying.

I wish this play was seen as eternal rather than issues-driven and therefore relevant today. If it was, it is one of those things, like the books of Raimond Gaita about Romulus, that could influence us in major ways for the better.

If you are reading this and in London it’s on for another couple of days. I was disappointed that the small theatre was only about half full when we went (admittedly a matinee and a ‘nice day for London’) It got a standing ovation from me and that rarely happens.

After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

If you thought that this was obvious, a sequel, cashing in, you couldn’t be further from the truth. This companion to Romulus, My Father is the product of, on the one hand, the needs of the philosopher Gaita to process various ways in which the consequences of this book affected him and on the other, the needs of everybody who read it. Although I complained in my review that Romulus, My Father had been ignored by the world at large, it deeply moved Australia.

So you write a book, a philosophical – because you are a philosopher – account of the life of your truly heroic and brave and encompassing of all the best human virtues, father and his friend. You write of your life in the Australian countryside, where nothing happens except madness and the aftermath of madness. You make the prose sing like a poem, but still, it is just a book about a migrant and other people around him going mad. And it becomes such a thing, that before you know it a movie is being talked about. And eventually is made.

Gaita warns the reader at the start of this book that it is hard to read. To paraphrase the xkcd cartoon ‘Stand back, I’m doing philosophy’. Things could get dangerous. And certainly difficult. At that they do. I put my hard hat on and my brain still got a bit of a battering. Clearly there are, as Gaita himself advises, chapters that need to be reread and rereread as he talks about Romulus, My Father from a relatively formal philosophical viewpoint.

But Gaita wants nothing more than to be there with the reader every step of the way. It might hurt, but I’m holding your hand, see? And much of it is straightforwardly interesting. By a complete coincidence just before I started reading this, I had put about 200 volumes of autobiography/biography on the shelves. I didn’t know why, given that it is not something I ever read. But his discussions of memory and understanding have given me some perspective on that now. Perhaps I will learn something about the process of writing this sort of thing from reading the books I’ve gathered together.

The musings on the nature of memory continue on in a different form. He discusses at length, partly because he has been asked to by his readers, the making of the movie. Very few people will have seen this movie outside Australia, it was a typical Australian triumph, small movie, small budget, big effect if one cared to watch. Some of you will even have heard of the actor who played Romulus because it was The Hulk. The making of the movie was an incredibly painful process for Gaita. Much as he highly praises it, (and certainly I thought it was wonderful, having watched some years before reading the book) it could never be the same as what was in his mind. Worse, though, it changed things. There were many discussions about this, much angst. The film still stays true to the soul of the book and the changes are minor in general, but how each one must have ripped a little of Gaita’s innards apart.

Imagine it is your memory being played with here. You go to the movie and from the moment you start watching your own true memories are being contaminated. It must be so hard. Everybody remembers things others don’t. We are surprised when our friend can’t remember x, he is equally mystified that we have no recollection of y. But sometimes, do you not find, that somebody else’s memory of you becomes more than just his memory, it becomes yours. I’m scared when that happens, it isn’t just adding to you in some way, it’s changing you. How does Gaita see his life now except through those movie scenes?

He talks of poetry. The important of the book being poetic. The movie capturing that. But above all it is this gift of more of his father and his father’s extraordinary friend Hora. If everybody lived like this two great men, the world would be okay.

I have this idea in my head now that Gaita is the antidote to the world as it is travelling at the moment.

Chapter one on Hora:

When I was fourteen and fifteen we often went sailing in the boat he built with my father. He told me stories as we sailed. Usually they were stories of men and women who had been persecuted or ridiculed for their beliefs or who had resisted tyranny. He spoke in a resonant voice that held me spellbound as we sailed our small boat. Sometimes he spoke with hushed tones about the men and women he admired. Always, he said, even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved, sucking hard on his tightly rolled cigarette.