On the First Years at Sydney University

Kingsgrove, NSW

In 1981 with an amount of street-wise after resigning from the Police Force, I commenced on the first of my degrees, a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University.[1] Without too much thought for future employment, not uncommon for those of us enrolled in the much deprecated Arts, I selected my four core units of study after the requisite hand-to-hand combat with the Faculty’s hefty handbook: General Philosophy, Modern Greek, Linguistics and Government. I relished the three years it took to complete this degree, above all the pleasure of discovering a great read and as C.S. Lewis might add, ‘never again to be completely alone’. This passionate love for books surprised me for though I was an inquisitive child and liked to read, I was no more than average at school with some occasional results in English and History. Another critical thing I came to quickly appreciate was the importance of a good teacher. Often I would select a subject if it was taught by someone with a reputation as a charismatic instructor.

During these first impressionable years of my introduction to tertiary studies I was enormously fortunate to study under some inspirational teachers, including the internationally renowned linguist Michael Halliday[2] the originator of systemic functional grammar (SFG) and the legendary political analyst and founding editor of Media International Australia (MIA) Henry Mayer.[3] It was a tremendous thrill too, to finally sit in the lecture room of the famous duo of Modern Greek scholars Michael Jeffreys and Alfred Vincent to hear these neohellinist Englishmen analyse and read the major Greek poets in their original tongue![4] The philosophers John Burnheim, Lloyd Reinhartd, and W.A. Suchting each a reference point in their own right, instilled in us the drive and motivation towards higher learning.[5] J.B. [Pragmatism] tall and dignified a former Catholic priest he was the very definition of a philosopher both in speech and demeanour; L.R. [the Ancient Greeks] was at the same time hugely erudite and unapologetically bawdy; W.A.S. [Marxism] urbane and outwardly relaxed but totally tenacious on the inside. There were other splendid scholars as well and to have walked in the shadow of these learned and enthusiastic academic personalities was one of life’s milestones.[6] And in an era, too, without the disruption of the iPad or mobile when we really had to listen and to fervently take down notes (there is still a deep indentation on the tip of my middle finger in that place where my pen was hard pressed).

The lecturer who would have the strongest influence and inspire my life-long interest in philosophy, and more specifically in existentialism, was Paul Crittenden (formerly a Catholic priest and still in holy orders when I sat in his classes).[7] This compassionate and genuinely discerning philosopher’s lectures on Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard in particular, were responsible for opening up new modes of thinking in me. I would not view the world or understand myself in quite the same away again. Things were not as simple or as ‘linear’ as I once might have imagined or wanted them to be. My early brand of Christian fundamentalism, thankfully, would not stand a chance. Then there were those ‘grey areas’ particularly to do with the fundamental nature of being and knowledge, where no amount of scaffolding would rise high enough for the definitive answer once the taste for “doubting” had been ignited (as the disciple Thomas himself would discover wanting to plunge his fingers into the wounds of his teacher).

From these significant years I would also delight in the discovery of such literary genii as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, Kazantzakis, Sartre, Beckett, Camus, and Hemingway. But of course not in equal measure. Sartre I would abandon, Beckett I would still occasionally visit (and remain grateful for his ‘introduction’ to Joyce but from whom I would also later depart company). To the others I would remain a dedicated reader from that time onwards. Clearly these are not all “existentialists”.[8] It remains disappointing that the general perception continues to be that ‘existentialist literature’ only deals with despair and alienation (or the absurd i.e. Beckett). And Camus, himself, would distance himself from any such direct affiliation. I became fascinated in the collective contribution of the pre-Socratics to our philosophical and scientific traditions and awe-struck like most neophytes with Plato’s gigantic contribution to western thought. There was also Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Pascal, Locke, Hume, Marx, and the Pragmatists. The Department of General Philosophy with promises of boozy parties and merriment (the infamous ‘philosophy wars’ were still ongoing)[9] threw everything and anyone at us, including the now very highly regarded but then much younger Stephen Gaukroger lecturing on Karl Popper and the philosophy of science.[10]

On the whole this was a wonderful time with the making of new friendships [Kay, Georgina, Judy, Paul, John, Rodney, Thomas … where are you] confidence very high, and the OCD under some tolerable control. Except for those days when a trigger would set if off, more often than not when I would be in the library (either at Fisher or up the road at Moore College) having to “solve” the discrepancies of the Bible. It was also during the last year of this degree when I was offered philosophy honours but declined to start on my theological studies, that I would begin my first meaningful reading of the Church Fathers.[11]

I loved Fisher Library, that overwhelming colossal hive of books, but it often proved difficult to go there. The books are out of place… put them right, Michael… put them right… by year; by colour; by height… symmetry… there must be symmetry. “Oh, I am so sorry. Are you closing?” So I started to buy the books on our reading lists. At home, on my shelves, they would sit just right. No gaps… unless absolutely necessary. I would keep awake to read, not that I could ever understand it all. Not much of this bottomless sea of oscillating words would stay in my head or make good sense to me; it would take many years for some sort of practical comprehension of the fundamentals to start filtering in. I like very much what Ezra Pound has said, “[m]en do not understand books until they have a certain amount of life, or at any rate no man understands a deep book, until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents.” This process of discovery will not end and is what makes learning exhilarating, having to know. I would dip into as many of the other greats as I could, Homer, and Dante, and the plays of Shakespeare. These demon story-tellers would manage to stock more revelation into one or two heart-stopping paragraphs than others might manage in a hundred pages.

This was a vibrant universe of exotic names and magical writing. I desired to touch and to taste as much of this world as I could. Tolle et lege [take up and read] as Saint Augustine continues to prompt. Later on when I was better equipped there would be time enough for the concentrated reading of these writers and the others that I would uncover. For now the emphasis was more in the doing than in the being: an accumulation without the necessary sorting. A dumping ground, hopefully a fertile one, for beautiful words and noble ideas. I had decided that my education would not stop here. But this would lead to another question, and this had to do with “canon” which would many years later become the central focus of my doctorate. How much of an author’s canon must we read before we can genuinely pass any reasonable judgement or criticism on their work? Is it enough to have read four or five of Shakespeare’s plays to join in the conversation? How much of Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes, for example, must we have read before we can damn one and praise the other? What if we have only managed Wittgenstein’s Blue Book notes but not yet made it to the Brown Book? Can we still make some reasonable observations on Plato or Aristotle if we have not spent decades reading them as Heidegger might want? There are Christians who still do not agree on the final composition of the Old Testament canon and yet they consider it inspired by God.

I have found that one of the ways around this problem is to acknowledge our limits and be clear as to where we set our margins: and what other ancillary readings we are introducing into the discussion to inform our argument. For ultimately we are all, whether professor reading the latest journal or store keeper reading the local newspaper, reading out of context.[12] No one can claim to see the entire Picture or to comprehend the profundity of the 'knowledge canon'. I remember reading in some place, the last person on earth whom we could reasonably assume to have possessed all of the knowledge available to him during the course of his life was the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE). We cannot solve the ‘problem’ of knowledge, “[t]here are only different ways of understanding our world, some of which work better for some kinds of questions, and some of which work better for others.” This might not be ideal or acceptable to some, but as the philosopher and linguist Ray Jackendoff writes in his stimulating A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning where he also distinguishes between rational and intuitive thinking, “…it’s the best we can do, so we’d better learn to live with it.”[13] In the fifth century BCE we were bequeathed one of the famous dictums and doubtless the single most important lesson of relativism from the Greek philosopher Protagoras, “[m]an is the measure of all things.” Or alternatively, that knowledge itself is perspectival. [14]  Regrettably, for most of us, we arrive at this truth when we are way too deep into our lives for it to make any real difference.

Like when this generation will grow up to find that “browser knowledge” has robbed them of the deep reservoirs of wisdom and “surfing the net” of the best years of their lives.


[1] http://sydney.edu.au/about-us.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Halliday

[3] http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mayer-henry-17251

[4] http://www.ocla.ox.ac.uk/biog_jeffreys_michael.shtml

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Burnheim

[6] A poignant moment a few years ago when I was by now a lecturer myself at UOW to find that another of my favourite lecturers was at this time a Fellow at the same institution, an eminent Australian philosopher in her own right, Denise Russell (Rationality and Irrationality). Karen Neander who was with John Hopkins at this time one of my best tutors (Sanity and Madness).

[7] http://www.amazon.com/Changing-Orders-Scenes-Clerical-Academic/dp/1876040866

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-a-8xBbr05Y

[9] Or alternatively “The Sydney Philosophy Disturbances” http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/sydq.html

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Gaukroger

[11] My ‘discovery’ of the Church Fathers during this period was seminal in my future understanding of Church History and the development of Christian doctrine. The first patristic literature I made efforts to read at that time were compilations from Augustine, Gregory Nazianzen, and ‘copper guts’ himself Origen.

[12] I have only recently come across this informative paper from Jack A. Meacham where he dissects the intriguing question of the connection between wisdom, the context of knowledge, and our traditional models of intelligence: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240419729_Wisdom_and_the_context_of_knowledge_Knowing_that_one_doesn%27t_know

[13] http://www.amazon.com/A-Users-Guide-Thought-Meaning/dp/019969320

[14] Though I have personally qualified that statement in my own life with another equally famous motto, that of the eleventh century philosopher and theologian Saint Anselm, fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding].

What they did not understand

Gerringong, NSW

The philosophy of the ‘enlightened elite’

What they did not understand was how I would find their respective ideologies abhorrent, and that I would reject this philosophy even during the desolate hours. This would anger them more than their growing antipathy towards me. I had heard this philosophy of the ‘enlightened elite’ with its roots deep in Gnosticism a number of times, but never more persuasively argued than by these two charismatic figures in their attempts to draw me into their respective worlds: we are the enlightened ones and to us has been given the great responsibility to fix the course of the world. One of these was my Confessor. He entered my life when I was twenty-three, brimming with hope and preparing for the priesthood. The other was a mysterious entrepreneur. He would cross my path twenty-seven years later in a hotel on the outskirts of Bucharest after I had missed my flight to Sydney on account of a dream.

There is such a thing as dead water, and dead light. There is also dead spirit. And it was this which terrified me. For they were very fast to swoop down on their prey these two… my Confessor and the entrepreneur. Sometimes they would remind me of the peregrine falcon with its high-speed morphing of wings.

It was not until I had read John Banville’s exquisite novel Doctor Copernicus that I was able to find the exact paraphrase for the words which I had heard on those two occasions when these powerful individuals sought to convert me. The first of these conversations took place when I had informed the Confessor of my intention to leave the priesthood, and the second when I was presented with an employment opportunity which sounded too improbable to be true.

Later I will speak more on these temptations and of the big empty frames. And of beautiful porcelain, brittle like frozen petals, falling through my fingers.

"And yes, I know, Katina. There will be some price to pay for this. But you said, did you not, that I could write whatever I wanted?"

The makers of supreme fictions

“Ah. The common people. But they have suffered always, and always will. It is in a way what they are for. You flinch. Herr Doctor, I am disappointed in you. The common people?-pah. What are they to us? You and I, mein Freund, we are lords of the earth, the great ones, the major men, the makers of supreme fictions. Look here at these poor dull brutes… [t]hey do not even understand what we are talking about. But you understand, yes, yes. The people will suffer as they have always suffered, meanly, mewling for pity and mercy, but only you and I know what true suffering is, the lofty suffering of the hero. Do not speak to me of the people! ... [t]he people -peasants, soldiers, generals- they are my tool, as mathematics is yours, by which I come directly at the true, the eternal, the real. Ah yes, Doctor Copernicus, you and I –you and I! The generations may execrate us for what we do to their world, but we and those rare ones like us shall have made them what they are…!”[1]

[1] John Banville, Doctor Copernicus, (Picador, London, 1999), 136.