Tag Archives: Raimond Gaita

Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss

Sebastian Smee, Net Loss: The inner life in the digital age (Quarterly Essay 72), plus correspondence from Quarterly Essay Nº 73

The cover of the quarterly essay, which includes a small inset image of the  Mona Lisa's smile.

I postponed reading this Quarterly Essay for months for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand the guilt if I read one more well articulated argument about the dangers of social media. And second, I’ve discovered that I prefer to read a Quarterly Essay after its successor has arrived, so that I can read the follow-up correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind.

The guilt factor decreased when I quit Twitter a couple of weeks ago (I haven’t missed it), and then Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (to be read in a couple of months’ time) arrived in my letterbox. So there was no need for further delay. Sebastian Smee’s essay turned out to be a delightful read. If, for reasons of your own, you haven’t read it, it’s not too late for you too to change your mind.

Like many of us, Smee is attached to his fruit-based or other device and a constant user of social media, and feels uneasy about it, not just because of the emergence of what Shoshana Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism, though that looms large in the essay, but also because of how it affects his sense of himself, and his relationships to other people and to the world – what he calls his inner life. ‘Can we protect ourselves,’ he asks

from corporate incursions into our private life by telling ourselves we have some hidden, impregnable inner life to which the algorithms can never gain access? Is this even realistic? It’s very hard to say. One thing we do know is that individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think. That’ in part because perception itself is almost infinitely fluid.

(page 24)

In a nutshell, that’s the question the essay addresses and the response it comes up with.

The most startling single phrase in the essay is ‘the commodification of our attention’. It’s not Smee’s coinage – a quick web search finds the phrase cropping up in many places. But it encapsulates the way we are being influenced and exploited to contribute to the unimaginably large profits of Facebook, Google and the like.

What Smee does is to embody the kind of attention that has not been whittled down and shaped by social media. He’s a self-described arty type, and here he elucidates the subtleties of passages from Chekhov, explains how a particular painting by Cézanne represents a revolution in ways of seeing, describes and spells out the implications of video works by contemporary artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. He uses language in a way that invites thoughtful consideration, and stands as a living contradiction to his argument that we have entered an age of distraction.

The correspondence up the back of QE73 is, as always, excellent. The closest thing to a disagreement is a beautiful piece of writing by Fiona Wright, a string of cameos illustrating how her life is enriched by social media. There’s some heavy-duty philosophy from Raimond Gaita. Imre Salusinszky indulges some high-level nostalgia for, of all things, John Hughes’s movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Smee responds with the same grace and generosity that permeates the essay itself.

Added 18 April 2019: I’ve just listened to the podcast of David Gillespie talking with Richard Fidler the effects of iPhone and social media on especially teenage brains. It amplifies and makes urgent the gist of Sebastian Smee’s essay. You can get it here.

Edwina Shaw’s Thrill Seekers

Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (Ransom 2011)

This is a Cutting Edge title – part of a ‘gritty’ Young Adult series from Ransom Publishing UK. A gang of Brisbane children progress from mucking around in Oxley Creek to more risky adolescent thrills. In what might seem a standard children’s or YA literature trope, the father of the main characters dies in the first chapter, and their mother is pretty much lost in grief and alcohol. In what follows the young people go more and more out of control. There’s an awful lot of flagon wine (‘goon’) and marijuana, a range of other drugs, quite a bit of violence, some awful sex and a lot of wretchedness. The most vulnerable character goes horrifyingly, dangerously mad*. At the end there is a glimmer of hope.

That might make it sound like one of those ‘problem’ books for young readers that periodically stirs up the moral panic merchants. And maybe it is, but it’s a book with a lot of integrity. It treats its difficult subject matter without romanticising it, and without moralising. It resonated strongly with elements of three excellent books I’ve read recently: the dangerous play of Watch Out for Me, the heartbreak of After Romulus, the drugs and risk taking of The Life (blog entry to come when the Book Group meets), and the madness/psychosis/mental illness of all three.

Really, though, I can’t even pretend to write a sensible review, because the author is my eldest niece. It’s not that I worry I’ll seem nepotistic, and it’s absolutely not a matter of being tactful – as in, ‘I’m sure the target audience will love it.’ I can say up front that it’s a terrific book. But you know, even though Edwina is a mature woman, mother of two, teacher of yoga, blogger, disciplined writer, wise and warm lender of support to other writers including myself, she is still inseparable in my mind from the person whose exultant joy at being able to crawl I had the privilege of sharing more than forty years ago, and even though I know this book is fiction my avuncular heart recoils from following that cheerful little girl into these dark places.

Versions of some of the chapters have been published as short stories. You can read some of them online here and here. That last one didn’t make it into the book, and confirms my sense that, if anything, the world of the book has grown less harsh on its transition from book for general readership to a YA title.
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* I’m deliberately saying ‘mad’ rather than ‘mentally ill’ or whatever . Raimond Gaita writes with characteristic acuteness about this kind of language in After Romulus (pages 71 to 74). Referring to the lines from King Lear, ‘Oh, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!’ his discussion ends:

Lear’s cry is not heartrending because he suffers ‘social stigma’. And it would not move us as it does had he said, ‘Oh, let me not fall into bipolar disorder.’

Edwina’s story of Douggie includes the social stigma, but it also takes us into, using Gaita’s words again, ‘the unique terror that the word madness conveys’.

Sylvia Johnson’s Watch Out for Me

Sylvia Johnson, Watch Out for Me (Allen & Unwin 2011)

Sylvia Johnson has made occasional pseudonymous appearances in the comments section of this blog. A couple of weeks ago she wrote asking if I’d like to read her novel, which she was expecting from the publisher any day. Never one to knock back a freebie or an invitation to be in the in crowd, I said I’d be delighted. The book arrived on my doorstep an hour before I was due to go to the airport for a long flight, so it joined Raimond Gaita’s After Romulus, incongruously I thought, in my carry-on bag.

I guess Watch Out for Me is a genre book – a psychological thriller. The Woods children – Hannah, Richard and their little sister Lizzie – spend a couple of weeks each summer in the 1960s at Bradley’s Head on Sydney Harbour, playing in the park, exploring the disused lighthouse and racketing around the abandoned tunnels with other summer visitors. One year, the Year Everything Changes, their family takes in their cousin Toby, about the same age as Lizzie, who has been traumatised by the erratic behaviour of his mother (shades of After Romulus!) and is timid, careful and eventually traumatised all over again by the teasing games of the young mob. That world of free-range childhood with its exhilarations and terrors is wonderfully evoked, including a tense moment of dawning eroticism in the pitch black of the tunnels. Then something terrible happens in the park, and the children’s dramas are caught up in a bigger, nastier drama.

The summer of 1967 is told from a number of points of view, some of them recalling events four decades later, when the US President is visiting Sydney amid a high security alert. Two other narratives unfold in this other time – in one Lizzie is besieged by an anti-Western mob in a North African town, in the other Hannah and Toby are meet again in Sydney for the first time since that  pivotal summer, and it gradually becomes apparent that something creepy and dangerous is going on around them – something even worse than the brutishness of the US security forces and the strident commentary of the radio shock-jock (who, incidentally, played a disgusting role in the 1967 story). These stories, which turn out to have other links besides the ancient history, unfold to properly scary, operatic climaxes.

And there’s a fourth story, told entirely through clippings from the British press: the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man who was shot by police in the aftermath of the London Underground bombings in 2005. These clippings add a kick to the book: the Woodses’ story is fiction, and you might read it just for the thrill, but de Menezes’ was killed in the real world, and its presence makes the Woodses’ story seem more pressing. In After Romulus Raimond Gaita says he is convinced that people are moved by his father’s story because they trust that he ‘tried to tell it truthfully and that it is truthful’. I think the press clippings have a similar effect here: they act as a kind of pledge from the author that in her imagined story she is trying to tell something truthfully, that the account she gives us of the world is truthful.

I’m not suggesting an equivalence between this book and anything by Raimond Gaita, but my two plane books did speak to each other seriously, and I think Watch Out for Me succeeds in being persuasively, chillingly truthful.

Raimond Gaita after Romulus

Raimond Gaita, After Romulus (Text 2011)

As the title suggests, this is a follow-up to Raimond Gaita’s Romulus My Father and as the cover suggests this time there’s a focus on his mother.

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.