It’s time to talk about Brian
Prompted by Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence Between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976-1995 edited by Gillian Dooley
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
Were broken by himself.
Than he hated
But the fight
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 —
Also; love, mortality and the meaning of life.’