Raimond Gaita, After Romulus (Text 2011)
There’s an essay on the process of turning the book into a film, surely be among the most emotionally charged essays of its kind, made all the more poignant by the author’s repeated, convincing assertions that he works hard at avoiding sentimentality. I can’t imagine a better antidote to the world weariness of Radio National’s Movie Show or the consumerism of Margaret and David. The emotion isn’t anything as trivial as authorial pique. This is about passion: according to Gaita, Richard Roxburgh didn’t want to become a film director, he just wanted to direct this film, and the description of the moment when Gaita finally meets Kodi Smit-McPhee, the actor who plays young Rai in the film, comes like a thunderclap.
But that’s just one of five essays. There are two pieces more or less in the manner of the earlier book. One (‘A Summer-Coloured Humanism’)deals with Hora, an important character there, his father’s close friend and almost a second father to young Rai, and the other (‘An Unassuageable Longing’, the longest essay and the book’s reason for existing) with Christine, Gaita’s mother, who was seen pretty much from his father’s point of view the first time around. Raimond Gaita probably couldn’t write a shopping list without at least alluding to philosophical profundities, and his writing about these two towering figures from his childhood is richly philosophical. But he saves his main philosophical powder for the other two essays, ‘Character and Its Limits’ and ‘On Truth and Truthfulness in Narrative’, in which he expands on and corrects some of the philosophy raised in Romulus My Father or in responses to it. He reflects on his father’s moral behaviour and sees in it the source of key elements of his own philosophical thought.
‘Philosophy always needs to be read slowly and more than once., Gaita writes.’ I would happily read these pieces several times, which is also true of his A Common Humanity and The Philosopher’s Dog. I can’t say that I follow his thinking all the time, but I do trust him. What appeals to me most strongly is the way he roots his philosophising in experience: there’s a deep sense through all the book of each human being as unique and irreplaceable, and of thinking as embedded in a human life. Some of the philosophy is hard to grasp, but I found it tantalising rather than annoying. He distinguishes between obligation and moral necessity, between affection and desire, between moral inflexibility and moralism, between sentimentality as the cause of error and as the form of the false. He writes of the importance of serious conversation, of the way people who share a life can fail to understand each other, of the difficult feat of responding to someone who suffers ‘the utmost degradation’ with ‘compassion that is entirely without condescension’.
I read this on a long plane trip. There was something wonderful about reading his careful, deeply felt ruminations on the importance of honouring a child’s need to love and honour (in this case) his parents, even when they have betrayed his trust, and the harm done by disdaining the parents of such a child while the young man next to me had Will Smith waving a gun around on his laptop and the woman on the other side was alternating between a book of sudokus and Rich Dad, Poor Dad.