Beginning in the winter of 1966, Meanjin published a new series of commentaries on the reality of present-day life and living in God’s Own Country.
And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus on their specific grievances.—George Orwell, 1984.
ONCE, the great barn in West Melbourne had been simply ‘the Stadium’. Hungry-eyed men had packed it on Saturday nights, seeking escape and release and perhaps a new identity. The roar as the boxers entered the ring and slugged their way desperately through the bouts came from men who were as much participants as partisans. But the money went out of the fight game. The old Stadium, refurbished and regraded, became Festival Hall. The same tough-faced attendants watched suspiciously as eager customers slipped through half-open doors. But the cavernous bleachers now stretched open to swallow affluent young worshippers in the temple of Pop. For most of the old crowd, Saturday night at the Stadium was a corner carved out of life. For many of the young crowd Festival Hall is life itself.
This night it was not some new pop star, accoucheured by the Brodziak-Wren combine. It was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, declaiming and posturing his way through the poems that were, in his own country, making history—in the non-metaphorical sense of the expression. After the recital came the argument—it seemed to me the same argument, repeated over and over. The poems, it was said, were prosaic, moralistic, naive, over-simplified; at the end the point was driven home with a pile-driver:
so that on earth all men will have the right
to say to themselves: ‘We are not slaves!’
It was not possible to combine the personal vision and integrity of the poet with accessibility to audiences of thousands. They claimed the day of public poetry was done…
In a sense it was an argument between generations—between those, the older, who were not yet prepared to throw the last spadeful of clay onto the coffin of ideology, and those for whom grass had already covered its grave.
POLITICS determines our living; it may decide our dying. Once it seemed that ordinary people might mould politics to their will. But the political process has slipped beyond our grasp; and losing a grip on politics, we lose control over our lives and deaths.
To many of the post-war generation the Bomb has represented the final, impersonal threat, our inexorable destiny. But the Bomb is not self-acting; it is subject to politics. It is not the Bomb but the men who control the Bomb who are beyond our rational argument and control.
Start from the top. Parliament, long held the pinnacle of British democratic achievement, is no longer an arena for rational debate. The effective decisions are made not in Parliament but in Cabinet, sometimes even by individual Ministers. Cabinet determines what shall be discussed, and when, and for how long. Cabinet controls caucus; backsliders from Cabinet decisions lose not only preferment but pre-selection. Within the party rooms critics may protest and propose, but Cabinet prevails. Of what use is it for the individual member on the government side, or for the whole of the opposition, to think, to work? The Whips ensure that what they say might just as well have gone unsaid. Individual cases may be raised, individual interests pressed. Here and there a concession may be made. The conscientious politician, believing in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, spends more and more of his time on the needs of his constituency and the woes of his constituents. For there can be no effective debate of the great issues, because these are pre-determined.
Pre-determined by popular vote, perhaps? Hardly. The great issues are barely raised, let alone decided by the electoral process. Reality is hidden by the cliché, the smear, the half-truth, the lie. Each of the two parties, one eye on the swinging vote, seems determined not to look too different from the other. The parties huddle together for comfort, holding out hesitating hands with a little more of this and a little less of that. ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ is the theme; there is no suggestion of ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing one of your policies’. Only when the great issues are wedged between the parties from without do they tend to fly apart; otherwise the issues are left to rest in peace. And meanwhile, shying away from fundamentals, the party directors hot-foot to the agencies to discuss the image.
Whatever images may be, they are certainly not rational. The Australian agencies, filling the prescriptions of the American old masters, probe for warmth, security, adventure, envy, the hidden fear, the collective unconscious, the outer reaches of the Id. Harold a-go-go … Arthur might be everybody’s mum. Warning: voting is compulsory. You pays your taxes and you takes your choice—but whoever you vote for, a public relations man always gets in.
Is THERE then no difference? There is, of course, but it is more sociological than political. Most workers still vote Labor; most non-workers don’t. And because Labor was built on the workers’ votes, its structure is different from that of its opponents. In principle it is a mass movement which determines its basic policies by democratic process, and delegates its parliamentary representatives to carry them out. In principle its opponent is a group of like-minded parliamentarians underpinned by a mass of more or less-enthusiastic supporters. And there is some reality in this distinction: the ‘faceless men’ of the Labor Party are in fact elected, and therefore not faceless at all; the ‘faceless men’ of the Liberal Party are self-appointed, and so self-effacing that they do not seem even to exist.
Given the difference of structure and social base, my preference is Labor. The working-class base ensures that Labor will be more egalitarian, more conscious of mass welfare, than its opponents—at least in purpose. The democratic structure offers hope that policies and rational discussion can be initiated from below. But between hope and fulfilment is the party machine.
Labor’s decisions are made at the top, and the top is three removes of indirect election from below. Only thirty-six men get there, and they are all men who have devoted the best part of their lives to this end. A long apprenticeship in the innumerable and interminable committees of the movement is demanded of those who would reach the heights where policy is made.
Perhaps this is a characteristic intellectual grievance. Yet it is not an objection to hewing the movement’s wood and drawing its water—even when the wood is brittle and the water stale. Most intellectuals who are involved in the Labor movement are happy to speak or to write for it, to knock on uninterested doors, to push leaflets into unresponsive letter-boxes and how-to-vote cards into the hands of unwilling voters. Most would like to use their minds for the movement. But they are unwilling to accept the unremitting demand of the committees on their time. And so the only political machine which holds out hope to those who believe that reason is the proper foundation of politics is left to those for whom the machine is sui generis.
WHAT DOES it mean to say that reason is the proper foundation of politics? Let the petrol bowser stand symbol for the ultimate irrationality, the psychosis of a whole society. The visitor from space who, landing at Albury at 3.30 a.m., approached the disciplined ranks of bowsers with the demand, ‘Take me to your leader,’ had misread the situation. The bowsers were already in collective inanimate control. Who dares challenge the bowsers? Who is there to say that all petrol, disguised though it may be with additives and balloons and party hats, is still benzine? That we do not need a gasolinatorium on every corner of every crossroad? That all internal combustion engines are an abomination and the time has come to Save Our Lungs? That any man who is found with a tiger in his tank should get six months? No-one will say it, because it means demanding a state-distributed one-brand petrol; it means challenging the automobile companies with a state-made Stanley Steamer; it means making urban travel by private automobile so expensive that commuters will accept a re-planned public transport; it means denying the right of car-owners to pollute the atmosphere and slaughter their fellow-citizens; it means denying the right of the developer to pervert the land for his personal profit. To blow up the bowsers means to reconstruct society. Who will save us from the bowsers? That is what I mean by reason in politics.
THIS Is the great intellectual heresy—the demand that reason has the right to push criticism and the statement of alternatives as far as evidence and logic will allow. This is a politics not of compromise but of conflict, not of ‘a little more of this and a little less of that’ but of fundamental change, the change from an irrational, disordered, out-of-control society to a society in which men are subjects and not merely objects. And this is a politics that most politicians fear and hate.
When governments, and even oppositions, are challenged to reconsider the assumptions underlying their positions—whether on the proliferation of petrol bowsers, or literary censorship, or the desirability of sending conscripts to Vietnam—they characteristically respond with the magical incantation, ‘pseudo-intellectual’. A ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is someone who investigates and challenges assumptions. But if there are `pseudo-intellectuals’, somewhere there must be real intellectuals, and where are they? My guess is that, in the minds of many politicians, they are to be found in the advertising agencies, preparing pre-packed images. Or, perhaps, dancing around the margins of the consensus in celebration of the end of ideology.
The ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is damned because he disturbs the even tenor of pragmatic politics. (The expletive is only used, I should point out, by those who have some pretence to intellectuality themselves; for those who don’t, ‘intellectual’ by itself is sufficient to condemn.) The pragmatist takes refuge in an arcane expertise. The ‘pseudo-intellectual’ knows either too little—or too much. He sees too far ahead—or not far enough. He forgets a mass of detail that would invalidate his argument —or drags in side issues that are irrelevant. But the real objection to the `pseudo-intellectual’ is that he thinks.
THIS is no new phenomenon. Pragmatic politicians have always been opposed to thought which leads towards far-reaching change. But that is where thought must lead. To analyse any phenomenon, to define it, is to state the alternative conditions which might exist. To analyse a whole society is a profoundly revolutionary act.
That is why so many intellectuals made revolutionary politics their own. Pragmatic politics is not based on reason, except in the very limited sense of horse-trading for votes. Only that kind of politics which traces inhumanity and injustice back to its social roots, and then attacks those roots, is fully rational. It was not some apocalyptic death-wish which drove intellectuals towards revolutionary solutions, nor even some ingrained and half-comprehended guilt. It was rather a life-wish, the wish for a life regulated and ordered by reason. And it was a social force outside the framework of pragmatic politics—the working class and other dispossessed groups—whose action would restore the rule of reason.
But revolutionary politics, once it had established itself, proved just as pragmatic as the rest. Again those who propounded new critiques and total solutions were condemned as ‘pseudo-intellectuals’. The real intellectuals were advised that they were ‘engineers of the human soul’—operating on blueprints drawn by the architects of communist man.
Pragmatic politics denied the claims of reason; revolutionary politics betrayed them. Politics, which controls our lives and deaths, has slipped beyond the control of reason. The rule of the political machines has come.
IN SIMPLER times, solutions were possible. Within the framework of family and local community, it seemed that men could make their own decisions, control their own lives. In mass industrial society this can no longer be done. The ‘machino-facture’ of politics is complemented by, indeed based upon, the mechanisation of production.
The central social facts of modern industrial technology are the displacement of men by machines, and the division of labour. Man as producer is fragmented and denied. The Australian labour force draws nearer the American model. Unskilled labouring and process work is vanishing. Technologists and social servicemen increase. Man returns to his pastoral beginning—except that, instead of shepherding unthinking animals he shepherds machines which calculate. Increasingly, no man can know or control the whole process of production; only the machines can do that. The area of choice and effective decision declines. Man is liberated from nature and enslaved by the machines.
Not only is material production fragmented, but intellectual production too. The state’s education system prepares its lambs for, and reconciles them to, the industrial slaughter. The universities, which once claimed to provide universal knowledge for universal man, are reduced to making impotent gestures towards ‘the cross-fertilisation of disciplines’. But no-one now can comprehend the whole of life. The machines demand servitors, and the universities provide them.
Once, ideology meant an explanatory model of the human condition, at the same time an analysis of man’s nature, his culture and society, and a prescription for change. Ideology presupposed that men made their own history, that there existed the possibility of choice, of moulding society and culture to the human will. But the very technological revolution which liberated man from nature and seemed to deliver his destiny into his own hands externalised society and culture and made of them vast bureaucratic apparatuses beyond control. And ideology was buried. To proclaim the end of ideology is to concede the victory of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and to abandon the possibility of choice.
THE POLITICAL and productive machines stand apart from and inimical to man. Reason, which created the machines, has lost control. With the defeat of reason on the central battlefields there begins the retreat from reason on all the peripheries of human endeavour.
The time is long past when Australian workingmen proclaimed that their condition was the consequence of the middle-class monopoly of knowledge, and set out, through unions and societies and mechanics’ institutes, to acquire that knowledge which was power. The knowledge they did acquire gave them some understanding of their condition, but not of how to liberate themselves from it, for the social relations created by the new technology changed faster than did their understanding; and knowledge, instead of being a revolutionary means of reconstructing society, became a means of self-advancement within it. The rational comprehension of society as a whole gave way to a technical understanding of one small cog in the machine.
But the retreat from reason has proceeded much further than this. Let us consider some isolated cultural phenomena, to determine whether there are any underlying themes.
Twenty years ago the music at student parties was traditional jazz and blues. Today it is the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and whatever other groups are currently heading the charts. Superficially there is some resemblance. Both have the insistent rhythm and the urgent expression that offer immediate kicks. The Beatles and their epigones use an attenuated version of the musical language of jazz, and some of them do it with considerable technical skill. But there the resemblance ends. Jazz required attention and thought. Louis, Jelly Roll, Bix, Mezz—each was a unique creative artist with a history that demanded to be known. The blues were a philosophy (‘Doncha leave me here, doncha leave me here; But, sweet papa, if you must go, leave a dime for beer…’) and a way of life (‘Stood on the corner with her feets just soakin’ wet…Beggin’ each and every man she met…If you can’t give a dollar, give me a lousy dime…I wanna feed that hungry man of mine…’). The techniques of scholarship were brought to bear on jazz history, sociology, discography—but who but Brian Epstein would want a discography of the Beatles? And at the most elementary physical level, the gut-tearing sexuality of Bessie Smith (‘Bought me a coffee-grinder, got the best one I could find, So he could grind my coffee, ’cause he has a brand new grind’) is streets of experience removed from the immature and mindless lyrics of the Beatles. The reach towards the heights and depths of emotion, the search for perfection, and the need to know how and why all this was happening, give way to self-immolation in the pre-adult, asexual dream world of ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. The walking transistor is only one short technological step removed from Ray Bradbury’s fifteen-year-old nightmare (in Fahrenheit 451) of the transistorised receiver small enough to fit into the ear, but large enough to block out the rest of the world.
The fascination with pop is a denial of the claims of reason, and it spreads far beyond the new world of the Beatles. True, the latest pop-art product to win the New York accolade of ‘camp’—the revived Batman—has not yet hit us. But the Boeing 727 has revolutionized the culture lag, and where Pan-Am goes, can Batman be far behind? Meantime, we have the Westerns.
Cinema has been ‘in’ with the intellectual young for thirty years or more. Twenty years ago discussion was of the symbolism of Eisenstein, the psychopathology of Caligari, the humanity of Renoir. Films conveyed ideas, and ideas were to argue about. Today there are new gods—obscure Hollywood producers who make films about cowboys. What the film says is no longer important: it is not even necessary to suggest that the western story may be a degenerate modern form of the morality play. All that matters is technique: the camera and the cutting. Visual sensation—or in the case of the Bond films, which are widely popular among young intellectuals, brilliant technical gimmickry—replaces reason, meaning, and emotional response.
The same is true of much of the currently fashionable ‘abstract expressionist’ painting. In principle the artist presents a visual record of his emotional experience through his paintings; in practice, what the observer experiences is a purely visual sensory response. (‘Op art’, happily short lived, was a self-proclaimed manifestation of the same phenomenon.)
The elevation of sensation above reason and emotion has even invaded literature, traditionally the home ground of these qualities. This is not just a matter of the word-painting indulged in by poets, the endeavour to recreate in words (without analysing or illuminating the nature of the experience) a sensory response. It goes much closer to the heart of modern writing than that—what is at issue is the cult of the orgasm, whose high priests are Miller and Mailer and William Reich.
The point becomes obvious when one contrasts, say, Another Country with the Tropic books. Orgasm is obviously tremendously important to Baldwin; he writes of it with great passion. But it is only one part—a central part, certainly, but not the whole—of the terrible complexity of the relation between man and woman or man and man. The sexual relation symbolises the whole relation; orgasm is seen in an emotional and rational context. For Miller, a kick is a kick is a kick.
The isolation of the sensory aspect of sex finds a theoretical base in the writings of Reich, the text-books of the libertarian onslaught on traditional moralism. In the hands of the Sydney Libertarians this becomes the basis for a profound and reasoned attack on conventional mores. But for many, all that remains is the sensation.
The same sort of point can be made about the other great cult among young intellectuals—the drug kick. (This is a touchy subject, and perhaps I should make it clear that I have no personal knowledge of the use of drugs. Nor do I believe that they are widely used among young intellectuals in Australia—but pub talk with students suggests that there is a certain fascination with marihuana and LSD.) Drugs are of two kinds. On one side are alcohol and the various pep pills (the amphetamines which circulate under the name of dexedrine, purple hearts, and so on) ; on the other are marihuana, mescalin and LSD. The former are stimulants; they encourage sociability and the interchange of ideas which, even if they may seem more lucid at the time than they do in retrospect, at least aspire to rationality. The latter turn the users in on themselves—into a world of enhanced sensation. It may be that student fascination with the idea of reefers and LSD is no more than the normal and desirable youthful interest in self-enlargement through new experience. Or it may be that this, too, is linked—although the links are not articulated—with the elevation of sensation over reason.
THE ELEVATION of sensation is the subversion of reason. With the exception of the use of drugs, it is a form of subversive activity which the establishment generally endorses (although, for tactical reasons, it may give in to moralistic pressure groups which object to the orgasm cult).
But reason also faces a frontal attack—cabsurdise literature and the ‘antihero’.
A distinction should be made between these trends, which have had some influence on Australian theatre and among Australian readers but little as yet on Australian writing, and ‘pop art’ which—at least in its Australian form—has had a rational content, satire. ‘Absurdism’ purports to be the opposite of satire; it is not a rational attack on social mores or society itself, but a denial that any rational basis for life exists. In practice, though, audiences seem to ignore the assumptions behind ‘absurdism’: Ionesco’s brilliant dialogue is taken as rational parody of social behaviour, rather than as a denial of reason itself.
The ‘anti-hero’ poses a rather more complex problem. An ‘antihero’ is, of course, not a villain. The distinction is significant. To envisage a situation in terms of heroes and villains assumes the existence of moral standards and the possibility of moral choice—on the part of the writer as well as of his characters. The ‘anti-hero’ denies morality. But the denial may take two forms. It may assert (as does one school of contemporary psychology) that choice is an illusion, that all behaviour is determined—in which case there is simply no point in making moral judgments. Or it may assert (as seems to be the case with the ‘antiheroes’ of The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) that the moral pretensions of ruling elites are merely rationalisations of interest, that interest and not morality determines ends, and that ends justify means. The deterministic ‘anti-hero’ is by definition anti-reason, for if moral choice is impossible, so is rational choice. The ‘anti-hero’ who is the victim of the circumstances and the rationalisations of power does not deny reason in principle, but assumes that the realities of political and social existence make rational choice impossible.
THE TWIN CULTS of orgasm and drug-taking are endemic among intellectuals in the advanced capitalist democracies. Australia adds one new facet—the cult of sport. In no other country of the Anglo-American culture is sport such a cross-class phenomenon as in Australia. A much-travelled New Zealand friend once commented to me that Australia was the only country he had visited in which the conversation in the men’s pissoir in the University Staff Club was the same as that in the pissoir at his local pub—the football and the races. An American colleague recently told me that he had never studied, or indeed read, Ring Lardner (senior, not junior); Lardner was one of the greatest American writers of this century, but his stories were mostly about boxers and baseball players.
Elsewhere, intellectuals disdain spectator sport, or confine their spectating to such approved sports as cricket. Here, intellectuals will be found on the flat or in the outer, sharing the hopes and dreams of the millions. I am not suggesting that participation in spectator sport is in itself a retreat from reason: the assiduity with which some intellectuals attempt to apply reason to racing, so that chance may be reduced to order, suggests otherwise. But there is one area of sport which does fit the pattern I have been creating.
The potential cult-hero of Australian existentialism is the surfie: riding the waves and soaking up the sun, and life is reduced to pure sensation. The surfie has not yet been beatified, but if my diagnosis is correct his day will come.
THIS IS, I agree, a one-sided picture. I have not attempted to describe the whole of Australian society, or of its culture; I have tried only to delineate one trend. What I am saying is that the Enlightenment principles, the belief in the power of reason, which have shaped our thinking for two centuries or more confront their moment of truth. Reason is denied by absurdism, subverted by the elevation of sensation as an end in itself.
The retreat from reason does not derive from fashion, or ,intellectual perversity; it is a response to a social situation—a situation in which men confront the possibility of their involuntary participation in the mega-death race, in which they seem no longer able to control the productive and political machines they have made. Those who think of their condition rationalise it in the form of determinism or absurdism; those who do not, relax and enjoy their fate. The retreat from reason is the end-product of human alienation; denying the mind, man is left with only his senses which become himself.
This is not counsel of despair. I believe in Reason, as some men believe in God, for the acceptance of reason is finally an act of faith. There are countervailing tendencies—notably the response of the young to particular situations which they believe to be inhuman or unjust. But this is as yet an immediate, almost an instinctive response; the protestors are like Orwell’s proles who cannot yet generalise from their specific grievances. There are alternatives to the retreat from reason, and they can be stated in relatively simple terms: the rehumanisation of politics and the restoration of ideology.
The essential revolutionary demand is for the revolt of people against the machines, both political and productive, which are at present external to them and dominate their lives. But revolutionary action requires consciousness, or ideology—both a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the present impasse, and the conviction that choice is meaningful and can be made effective. Education must be directed towards the twin ends of developing this understanding and conviction, and asserting the claims of reason and emotion over the accumulation of sensation. Whether enough people think this possible, or worthwhile, is of course another matter.
IT was another night at the Stadium/Festival Flail. This time it was not the poet who had become a voice of his generation of young Russians, but the singer who spoke just as surely for young Americans and Australians.
Bob Dylan’s hazy images and half-articulated thoughts had brought to the surface the instinctive responses, the fears and hopes of the young millions for whom he sang. Now the figure on the stage seemed too slight to support this burden; the glaze over his movements hinted at automation; the pallor suggested doubt and withdrawal. Dylan’s agonised drawl demanded
You know that something’s happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr Jones?
It was Everyman’s question to Everyman, and the answer awaits.
DR I. A. H. TURNER, senior lecturer in History at Monash University, is the author of Industrial Labour and Politics.