Raimond Gaita is an Australian philosopher and writer. His books include: Romulus, My Father; A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love & Truth & Justice; The Philosopher's Dog; and After Romulus. He was educated in Victoria, Australia, where he received a BA (Hons) and an MA (Hons) from the University of Melbourne. He is a Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at King's College London.
Conversation with Raimond Gaita
In a conversation with our guest editor, Sorayya Khan, writer-philosopher Raimond Gaita spoke of the nomadic impulses, processes, and origins of his work. In addition to his many academic books, Gaita is the author of Romulus, My Father, a memoir, and After Romulus, a collection of essays, some of which ruminate on his memoir. Here are a few edited excerpts of their chat.
Raimond Gaita. 2015. Photo courtesy Jaqueline Rai Gaita.
On how Gaita’s family heritage, which includes multiple places, including former Yugoslavia, Germany, and Australia spanning through eras, influences the sense of place in his work:
My sense of place is, as you say, complex. Like much that contributes to who and what one is, it is not always transparent to reflection. I didn’t fully realise until I wrote Romulus, My Father at the age of 50, how important growing up in the harshly beautiful landscape of Central Victoria is to my sense of who I am.
My father was born in 1922 in a Romanian-speaking village in the former Yugoslavia. He always considered himself to be a Romanian. My mother was German, and I was born in Germany in 1946. In 1950 my parents emigrated to Australia. My mother suffered from manic depression, of which heightened sexual desire is often a symptom. Already on board their ship she had affairs, and soon after landing in Australia she took one of my father’s good friends as a lover. His name was Mitru Hora. His brother, Pantelimon (who my father called, simply, Hora), became my father’s closest friend and, because my mother was mostly absent, a second father to me. Mitru killed himself in 1956 at the age of 28. Two years later, on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, my mother did the same. A year and a half later, my father succumbed to madness from which he never fully recovered.
Until I was sixteen, I lived with my father and sometimes Hora in a derelict farmhouse in Central Victoria. (It was rebuilt with uncanny fidelity to detail for the film of Romulus, My Father only a hundred metres from where the original house stood.) When I was eleven, I was awakened with a “shock” (as I put it in Romulus) by a sense of the beauty of nature. The landscape, much denigrated by my father and his European friends, revealed itself to me as one of delicate beauty, as though, I say in the book, “God had taken me to the back of his workshop and shown me something really special”.
Like most immigrants, my father found the countryside alien. I fell in love with it, but because I accepted my father’s European fatalism and because of the dramatic events of my childhood, I saw the light and the colours of Central Victoria as those of tragedy. I think of tragedy as a genre that is partly defined by the calm pity in which it bathes the affliction it depicts. When I finished Romulus, My Father I thought of it as a tragic poem, hoping that it showed that same pity to the suffering of the people I wrote about, broken rather than bent, yet with their humanity undiminished.
My father looked upon our vulnerability of misfortune as a defining feature of our humanity, rather than a contingent and regrettable fact about it. That is what I mean by his ‘fatalism’. In After Romulus, I have tried to explain how my sense of the landscape of Central Victoria affected the entire mood and tone of Romulus, even perhaps the rhythm of its sentences. Commenting on my work, many people have remarked that they hear in it a distinctive voice. That voice was formed growing up in the landscape of Central Victoria with my Romanian father, with his Romanian friend Hora, haunted by my German mother, and with the Anglo-Celtic men and women who farmed it and worked in its towns.
Some years ago, an Aboriginal friend from Queensland took me to some of the sacred sites of his country. ‘Country’ in Aboriginal English is a word with spiritual resonances informed by the relation of particular Aboriginal clans (mobs they call themselves) to territories in parts of Australia. His name is Col McLennan, and he features as Bo in Alex Miller’s prize-winning novel Journey to the Sone Country. One day Col said to me, “I’ve shown you my country. It’s time for you to show me yours.” He knew from reading Romulus and from conversation how deeply rooted I am in Central Victoria.
My wife Yael and I have a property of 147 acres only eight kilometres from where I grew up. Col was viscerally affected by the landscape and its boulders. When he saw a granite boulder over ten metres high, striking for the way it dominated a hill, I saw the awe in his face and his entire demeanour. It was his response to his sense of its spiritual significance to the Djadjawurrung people who had lived in the area before white settlement. I noted the tenderness with which he spoke of an undercut boulder: he believed it was almost certainly a birthing cave. His visit made Yael and I painfully aware that ethically speaking we were not the owners of the land from which the Aboriginal peoples had been dispossessed, but rather, temporary custodians of it, their absence now uncannily haunting.
After that day Col and I spoke differently to one another, in voices determined by our histories and by our newly understood—in my case transformed—relations to the land that we loved. It could not have been otherwise if we were to be faithful to our friendship and, therefore, truly answerable to one another.
No one knows where such conversations could take relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Obviously, parameters cannot be set in advance nor by one party. At present in Australia it is generally assumed that even if the most radical aspirations of the indigenous peoples were realised, they would be content to be Australians. But we cannot know what would happen if, through such conversations, non-indigenous Australians understood better how aboriginal peoples experienced the crimes committed against them. We cannot know how that understanding would—or indeed should—inform the ways that aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples would be able to say “we”, truthfully and justly, in political fellowship. It might not be “we, Australians”.
The Holocaust and my marriage to Yael has also had another, less obvious, but no less profound, effect on my work and responses to it. When I was sixteen, I worked as a ward assistant in a mental hospital in which some patients had been committed for over thirty years, most of the time in locked wards. They were incurable and treated brutishly. When they soiled themselves, as some often did, they were dragged to a shower, forced to undress and then washed down with a mop, sometimes still partially clothed. When I read Simone Weil writing about people who had suffered radical affliction as having “sunk in a state of dumb and ceaseless lamentation”, I remembered those patients. In that hospital I witnessed the wondrous behaviour of a nun who responded without a trace of condescension to the patients whose afflictions were deep and ineradicable, and whose humanity appeared irredeemably degraded. She revealed the full humanity of those degraded people. For that reason, and, also because of the affliction my father suffered when he went mad, I responded with immediate recognition, and have often quoted Simone Weil’s remark that compassion for the afflicted is a “miracle greater than walking on water, healing the sick or raising the dead.” Perhaps because the affirmation that every human being is inalienably precious has been central to my work, it is often received as not only implicitly religious, but also Christian. I have constantly denied both, but usually to no avail.
Before I retired from my post at King’s College London in 2011, Yael and I spent every Christmas in Germany with my aunt and cousins. I love my aunt dearly, as though she were a second mother to me, in part because she looks and sounds like my mother and, also partly because, though she was only fourteen, she looked after me when the onset of manic depression, at seventeen, made my mother incapable of it. So: I was born in Germany to a German mother for whom, as I put it in After Romulus, I still have an unassuageable longing. I have a German family that is dear to me. I have a Jewish wife and Jewish step-children. Hardly a day passes when I am not at some level aware that in the lifetime of my parents and my aunt most of the nations of Europe were glad to see Jews exterminated like vermin, unfit to live on this earth. Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism made that possible. For that reason, I could not be further from being a closet Christian. To become a Christian would feel to me like a betrayal of the Jewish part of my family. That, too, is now part of my heritage.
On memoir and academic writing, and the linkages therein:
Romulus, My Father is not a book of philosophy, but it has been received as a philosophically reflective narrative that, amongst other things, reveals the meaning of the Socratic affirmation that it is better to suffer evil than to do it. Perhaps for that reason, philosophers have said that it enabled them to better understand my first book, Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, better.
I learned from my father and Hora what morality could mean in a life beyond it being a guide to conduct. I have known no other people who lived so passionately the belief that nothing matters more than to live decently. I learnt from my father that one could be morally severe in one’s assessment of what someone had done – believe them to have done something morally terrible, for example – yet not be judgemental in the sense implied by pointing fingers at them or turning one’s back. He therefore influenced me as a man by being what people call “a moral compass,” and he also influenced me as a philosopher who thinks about the kind of seriousness morality can have. To put it in the jargon of the discipline: he influenced not only my normative perspective, but also my meta-ethical one.
When Romulus, My Father was first published in 1997, I read from it at a refuge for homeless people. I was reluctant for I was aware that they came for lunch, not for literature. At one stage, a man, who was obviously mentally ill, called for me to stop. He raised his head, which he had held in his hands, and exclaimed, “God is in this book!” I remembered the times, when as a student, I worked in mental hospitals and was anxious about what he would do next. “I mean,” he explained, “that it’s filled with love.”
On that same day, five or six young women, prostitutes, not one of them yet twenty, asked me again and again to read about my mother. I read passages I had not read before or since in public because it is too painful for me to do so. They saw something of their own in my mother’s life; I hope they saw her suffering (and theirs) in the light of the love of the man who spoke before them.
The response of the man, who was destitute and mad, but even more the response of the girls, moved me more than any other responses to the book. I prize them more than all the accolades the book has received. They made me realise that the voice in Romulus, My Father, could speak to, and be heard by people who suffer severe affliction and are bereft of all social standing. It could do so, I believe, only because I kept a distance from the discipline, especially as it is now practised in the degraded institutions that universities have become.
Nonetheless, the academic discipline of philosophy is important to me, not least because it is in universities that young people are introduced to philosophy and may come to love it. That is why, despite my ambivalence and increasing distance from the academy, I have tried to articulate an ideal of the university—what an academic vocation could be if one took that ideal and the concept of a vocation seriously.
On truth, purpose, literature:
I distinguish between studies in human nature and reflection on the human condition, though the distinction is not always sharp. I think of human nature as revealed in experience, corrected and deepened by the sciences. Claims about human nature are characteristically empirical claims and when there is non-collusive agreement about them certified by a community of relevant scholars–usually scientists of one kind of another—they find their ways into textbooks and encyclopedias and sometimes earn Nobel prizes.
Refection on the human condition, by contrast, relates to the meaning human beings have made of the big facts of life—birth, death, sexuality, and most importantly, our vulnerability to misfortune. It is also reflection on what we are to make ethically of the discoveries of the sciences, how to take them into our lives. Reflection of this kind makes no ground-breaking discoveries. In fact, the concept of discovery as in the way it applies in science is for the most part alien to it. Writers receive Nobel Prizes, but, rightly, no prizes for uncovering truths. Yet literature is indispensable to our reflection on the human condition.
I don’t think literature has a purpose, certainly not a single one. It may, of course, play a number of roles in a culture, but that does not mean that the people who write it have such roles in mind. Romulus, My Father has played a significant role in discussions of immigration and multiculturalism, in Australia and abroad, but I did not intend such a role for it. Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country is an informed discussion about the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people, but I do not believe he wrote it for that reason. Sometimes it may play such roles just because writers do not have them in mind. And, of course, sometimes writers put their writing to the service of political ends or hope that it has political consequences.
I think there are no obligations intrinsic to the idea of being a writer, nor for that matter to that of being an intellectual. Obligations would be ‘intrinsic’ to both if lucid reflection on the concepts of a writer or an intellectual could, of itself, derive distinctive responsibilities. Nothing I’ve said should be taken to deny that some writers may justifiably believe that they have incurred moral or political responsibilities in certain circumstances, simply as human beings or, perhaps more commonly, as human beings who have a political persona, perhaps as citizens of a nation, or as citizens of a global community.
I do not believe one can derive responsibilities for writers from the fact that they are often regarded as intellectuals. The concept of an intellectual is irredeemably mediocre. Intellectuals are people who write and speak in the public domain about culture and politics and who have a particular interest in ideas. Many of them have served political causes, showing little independence of mind, either because they never had it or because they sacrificed it to the cause. Both types might have much to answer for, but reflection on the concept of an intellectual will not reveal what it is. Considered as a rebuke, “My God, you call yourself an intellectual!”, can only be a joke. Discussion of the responsibility of intellectuals has a long and respected history, but it has mostly been sterile. When it hasn’t been, it’s because the focus has been on the place of truth in politics. Even in politics, truth is a need of the soul.
But, of course, literature sometimes has political consequences. One of the most important lies in the fact that all good writers try to avoid kitsch, sentimentality, pathos and more. Insofar as they succeed, and readers expect it of them, literature is indispensable to the education of the kind of sensibility needed to think well about the meanings of things in our lives: it is a sensibility that is necessary if we are to think well about the human condition. Sadly, our understanding of the nature of that necessity is now weak. Many people regard the criticism that something is sentimental as equivalent to saying that it expresses sentiment, and therefore that the desire to avoid sentimentality is the desire to make one’s thought or writing free of feeling—tone-free indeed. That is one reason why political discussion is distorted when people draw a contrast between reason and emotion that expresses a mistaken understanding of both, and therefore also of the conditions under which we may regard ourselves or others as having been legitimately persuaded to believe something.
In turbulent political times such as ours, this misunderstanding of when we have reason to trust ourselves to have been legitimately persuaded is especially dangerous. “Hold onto your reason,” someone will say in the face of impassioned, demagogic rhetoric. And, of course, we must because, as everyone knows, emotion can cast it aside. We ignore or deny facts and arguments that are not congenial to the beliefs to which we are emotionally committed. Journalists and others have emphasised this since at least the time when Trump’s presidential campaign became part of what people mean by ‘post-truth’. But usually it is not because emotion defeated reason that we affirm beliefs that we regret holding and acting upon when we become morally clear-sighted. We affirm them because we were bereft of an educated and disciplined sensibility that would have enabled us to detect the sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated, sentimentality and pathos in the propaganda that seduced us. Literature cannot guarantee that we will have an ear for what rings true and false in speech that moves us, but without it we will not even understand what it is to have such an ear, and why, quite literally, our lives may depend upon it.