Friday, July 17, 2009

Romulus, My Father

A book which is already a classic of Australian literature is the elegiac memoir Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita. Gaita is an internationally renowned philosopher, and in my opinion one of the best philosophers living. He spends half the year teaching at Kings College, London University, and half here in Victoria, especially at his home near Baringhup where he grew up. That is just outside of Maldon in central Victoria.

In 1998 Gaita published Romulus, My Father, a book which was the development of the elegy he gave at his father’s funeral.  He transformed and published it at the encouragement of friends.  It is currently on the VCE list of books.  I wrote a masters thesis on it, a kind of moral philosophical literary criticism, as a part of my broader project of translating the methods of philosophy into the practice of psychotherapy (see here for my blog about philosophy applied to depression, anxiety, relationships and so on).

There is so much about this book that I love, perhaps because there is so much that resonates with things which go deep in me: a sense of gratitude for my parents; and the humanised descriptions of the Australian landscape.  Something in the latter connects with my earliest and most precious memories, of the the morning and dusk colours in the sky and on the distant, suggestive horizon; and of the warm, red dust under my shoeless feet as a young child living at my grandmother’s farmhouse in the Mallee.

Motorcycling is a re-connection with the landscape which approximates to that wonder and openness which I felt as a child. It re-connects me with those memories in ways which give them a new shape. A memory is not a static thing, but something we constantly reshape, giving it new meanings which seem to become intrinsic to it, for a time. 

It is as though the land has shaped my very core.  My memories constitute moments when the land, natural and humanized – scrubland, paddocks, small towns pregnant with the past - entered into me in a wash of colour and smell and light.  An expansive, Australian light. The space and place and people which have shaped me and which continue to live in my language and in even the ways I notice things, mean that when I get on my motorcycle, enter a freeway, and head north into the country, I am returning home as a return deeper into myself which is at the same time a place somewhere out there. Through motorcycling I have somehow found myself. And yet never quite – I roam about and no place is ever truly ‘here I am’. That is my condition.

Here is a passage from the Romulus, My Father

“At the beginning of the summer of 1957-58 [my father] allowed me to ride the Bantam, at first only in the paddocks, but later on the roads and eventually to Baringhup. […] Riding the motorbike that summer, through the hot yellow grasslands of central Victoria and around the expansive waters of Cairn Curran, wearing only shorts and sandals, crystallized in me a sense of freedom that I possessed earlier, but never so fully, and which I always associate with that time in the country. I felt I could do anything provided I was respectful of others. The law and other kinds of regulations seemed only rules of thumb, regulative ideals, to be interpreted by individuals according to circumstances and constrained by goodwill and commonsense. From my father and from Hora I had already acquired a sense that only morality was absolute because some of its demands were non-negotiable. But I was too young to be troubled by that. I was eleven years old, riding my father’s motorbike to collect the mail and visit friends, yet no one was troubled by this breach of the law. It left me with a sad, haunting image of a freedom, impossible now to realize, and which even then the world could barely afford.”

Gaita’s father did not own a car for a long while and got about first on a BSA Bantam, and later a Sunbeam. I am guessing that the Sunbeam was an S7, which had fatter tyres compared to the more standard tyres of the S8.

“We travelled everywhere by motorbike. I was particularly proud of the Sunbeam. It was a fine machine with tyres as thick as those on a small car and driven by a shaft rather than a chain. Although my father rode at speed and often dangerously overloaded it, he was always conscious of how inherently dangerous motorbike travel is.
‘They only have two wheels,’ he reminded people.
Anxious for my safety, he decided I was more likely to slip off the back pillion than he was to crash and fall onto me, so until I was eight I sat on the petrol tank of whichever motorbike we happened to be using.
He wore a long leather coat, leather gloves, leather helmet and goggles. I wore an army greatcoat which trailed half a metre on the ground, with newspapers protecting my chest against the cold, a leather helmet, mittens and goggles. My father parked his motorbike outside the cinema wherever we were, and I was embarrassed as he dressed me in this outfit in full view of the crowd which gathered on the footpath to talk about the film for some time after it had finished.”

No motorcycles compare to big British bikes in my mind.  That low growl or pulsation, and the spin of a heavy flywheel at low rpm. Unlike the Japanese motorcycles with their high-rpm power and prowess, and incredible smoothness, all of which invites technical prowess on the road, the old British bikes invite a different experience. The gentle pulse of a big single, one beat per telegraph pole, draws you into greater communion with the bike but also with the landscape. As opposed to the hurried scream of a modern multi-cylinder, these old motorcycles have an expansiveness about them which invites an expansion of awareness and contact with the scene through which one moves. And that is essential to motorcycling as I love it: the experience of the landscape in which you are moving as a deep constituent of the experience. There are other passages in Romulus, My Father where Gaita evokes the beauty of that landscape through which I spend so much time riding, and this is another reason that I connect with the book so much.

“Conscious of […] the fact that I was the only boy in the area who did not kill rabbits even though they were a destructive pest, I took my father’s rifle and went to a hill on the far side of Cairn Curran to shoot rabbits for our dinner and for the dog.
I reached the hill in the mid-afternoon. For the first time in my life I was really alive to beauty, receiving a kind of shock from it. I had absorbed my father’s attitude to the countryside, especially to its scraggy trees, because he talked so often of the beautiful trees of Europe. But now, for me, the key to the beauty of the native trees lay in the light which so sharply delineated them against a dark blue sky. Possessed of that key, my perception of the landscape changed radically as when one sees the second image in an ambiguous drawing. The scraggy shapes and sparse foliage actually became the foci for my sense of its beauty and everything else fell into place – the primitive hills, the unsealed roads with their surfaces ranging from white through yellow to brown, looking as though they had been especially dusted to match the high, summer-coloured grasses. The landscape seemed to have a special beauty, disguised until I was ready for it; not a low and primitive form for which I had to make allowances, but subtle and refined. It was as though God had taken me to the back of his workshop and shown me something really special.
It was inconceivable to me that I should now shoot a rabbit. The experience transformed my sense of life and the countryside, adding to both a sense of transcendence.”

I referred in another essay to the notion of a “summer-coloured humanism” and attributed it to Gaita. His sense of this landscape informs a summer-coloured humanism which, because of the conditions of human life, is also a tragic humanism. These two forms of humanism are present in the passages I have quoted when taken together with the following, which shows how the experience of the landscape can come to inform the way we make sense of, and live in, the world as well as 'in' our self. This passages refers to a visit the fourteen year old Gaita makes to his father who has just admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital, having fallen into insanity under the weight of the protracted sufferings and tragedies which the book describes.

“The hospital represented a foreign world to me, one whose beliefs were shaped by ideas I instinctively felt to be in conflict with those that had enabled me to understand the events of my childhood. I could no longer see my father’s illness just from the perspective of our life at Frogmore. Strange though it may sound, my sense of that life, of the ideas that informed it, was given intensity and colour by the light and landscape of the area. The hills looked as old as the earth, because they were rounded by millennia and also because the grey and equally rounded granite boulders that stood among the long yellow grasses, sharply delineated at all times of day by the summer sun, made them look prehistoric. More than anything, however, the glorious, tall, burnt-yellow grasses (as a boy they came to my chest and sometimes over my head) moving irregularly against a deep blue sky, dominated the images of my childhood and gave colour to my freedom and also to my understanding of suffering. In the morning they inspired cheerful energy of the kind that made you whistle; at midday, in partnership with an unforgiving sun and alive with insects and other creatures, they intimidated; but in the late afternoon, towards dusk, everything was softened by a light that graced the area in a melancholy beauty that could pierce one’s soul, as it did mine on the day I went in search of rabbits, and many times thereafter.
Religion, metaphysics or the notions of fate and character as they inform tragedy are suited to that light and landscape. The assumptions of psychiatric medicine, affected as they are by psychiatry’s debunking of metaphysics in its long struggle to become accepted as a science, were not […].”

Gaita is right: there is something in the landscape which, while fundamentally non-human and neutral with respect to meaning, yet – as a kind of contradiction of that thought – illumines an irreducibly humanist sense of life. It is at odds with the ideas, arisen from Europe and city life, which seek to reduce humans (reduce them to biology, to mechanics, or to whatever basic substance is scientifically fashionable). Perhaps it is that the city – a landscape almost purely constructed out of ideas - encourages us to become lost in ideas, to find them supreme even when they ought not to be.  Whereas in the country ideas easily come up against a greater domination: the natural landscape, against which their stubborn clamour may be silenced or humbled.  Humbled by the sun and distinctive heat in some part of the country, the colours and the smells and the threats and all the fertility and desolation which it chooses to offer us and which often we must involuntarily suffer. The beauty and the harshness of rural Australia will not let us reduce the universe to an idea, and neither will it let us reduce ourselves to an idea of something less than fully human, as psychiatry and psychology have often invited us to do.

My rides refresh in me, in a quiet and accepting way, this deeper sense of what I am. The moment I become surrounded by the domination of concrete and structures upon my return to Melbourne, the balance shifts against its favour. This is a part of why I ride.

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