my column

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Sun Nov 26 05:56:26 MST 2000

1. For Books

The sale at Emma's was a temptation too far for me I fear.  I staggered out
bearing a massive number of books.  A dear friend asked me "Why?"  and
pointed out that I have more books than I could ever possibly need. I have
to admit that it is true that chez moi nearly every available space seems
to be covered with a book to the deep despair of those who still hope that
somehow, despite all the evidence, I can be rescued from domestic
chaos.   Moreover I have longed realised that my childhood ambition to read
everything is impossible. Yet I cannot resist a book sale.  Among the
treasures I picked up were a selected Gerard Manley Hopkins - one of my
favourite poets, Selections from the Sacred Writings of the Sikhs and the
Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad's In Theory. So there you have some of the great
competing obsessions in my life -poetry, religion, Eastern mysticism and
Marxism. And you can also throw in that Hopkins was a gay martyr -one who
suffered torments about his sexuality because he lived in a time before gay
liberation. Moreover he was also a lecturer who found the experience of
academic life, especially marking, to be the sheerest torture, and that was
long before we had universities for the real world.

2.  For poetry

The poems of Hopkins that I like best are the 'terrible sonnets' which are
among the best expressions I believe of personal despair and mental
anguish. I suppose they may border at times on self pity, but I have always
been rather partial to that emotion myself and so tend to be more tolerant
towards its manifestation than your average classically trained literary
critic. What I like much less though is the expression of English
nationalism in the poem "To seem the stranger lies my lot, my
life".  Especially as this is contrasted with the experience of being in
Ireland, where Hopkins taught.  He was bitterly opposed to Irish
nationalism one of the great progressive causes of the 19th and 20th
centuries.  But he was not the only English man to have that fault.  How
though could he write of one of the most murderous nations of all times - "
England, whose honour O all my heart woos"? Or worse how could he speak in
a letter of 'the (British) Empire's mission to extend freedom and
civilisation in India and elsewhere"?  By contrast Marx, as Aijaz Ahmad
points out, for all the mistakes he made in writing on India clearly saw
the brutality that the British practised there.

Still we should be grateful for the intense humanism and the elegiac
quality of poems such as Spring and Fall.

Margaret are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah, as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

3.      For faith…

My interest in Eastern religion and thought has been sparked by Roy
Bhaskar's latest book From East to West: The Odyssey of a Soul.  Bhaskar is
the world's greatest living philosopher and the founder of the
philosophical movement of Critical Realism. He began his career as a
brilliant philosopher of science, but as a result of a psychic and
spiritual crisis in his 50s he turned towards religion.  To the dismay of
many Critical Realists he unveiled this year in From East to West a
philosophy which is a mixture of, among other things, New Left thought and
New Age mysticism.  I was less shocked by this than I once would have been
and though many have attacked the book I find it to be full of wisdom and
beauty.  It is indeed just these same qualities that I found to my great
delight in the Sikh hymnal that I dug out of Emma's.

Among my favourites are those by the saint Kabir (1380-1460).  I especially
identify with his hostility towards institutional religion and his
rejection of the caste system.


In the womb of his mother
No man knoweth his caste;
All men are born
 From God's one spirit.
Saith Kabir: Only he
In my estimation
Is a true Brahmin
Who meditateth on God!

and the beautiful

The Lord first created Light:
 From the Lord's play all living creatures came,
And from the Divine Light the whole creation sprang.
Why then should we divide human creatures
Into the high and the low?

4.      For Marx

A reader once phoned me and began a litany of accusations with the
rhetorical flourish - "How can you write such things and still consider
yourself a Marxist?" He was outraged by my support for the candidature of
the anarchist Brian Laver for Lord Mayorship of Brisbane.  I rejected his
attitude as outmoded sectarianism and, though I have been as sectarian as
any Marxist in my time, I have come to realise that we must seek to build
the broadest possible of progressive movements.  It must be a movement that
has a space for everyone who wants humanity to flourish.

I like to think that my little corner of that movement will still be
Marxist even though it is a Marxism of an increasingly libertarian
hue.  But I have no interest in any dogmatic definition of what it is to be
a Marxist.  I simply describe myself as one because I find much that is
powerful and attractive in Marx's writings. Moreover despite all the crimes
and failures of the Marxist movement, when one encounters a true Marxist
intellectual, such as Aijaz Ahmad, one sees the power and clarity of
Marxist thought at its best.  This is especially true of Ahmad's demolition
of Edward Said, one of the most influential postmodernist thinkers of our
time.  While acknowledging Said's strengths, such as his defence of the
Palestinian people, Ahmad's ruthlessly exposes the inconsistencies of this
doyen of postmodernism in his formulation of the key concept of Orientalism.

5.      For politics

Neighbourhood News's front page on Queensland politics has been shown to be
startlingly accurate.  The arena has now become a federal one and this week
one of the coldest and most pragmatic, i.e. ruthless, of political
operatives, a true high flyer, will be named and plucked.  I have no
sympathy for this man.  That he represents a working class constituency is
yet another shameful betrayal by the ALP.  It is not quite as bad though as
that which was visited by the party on the decent folk of Woodridge when
they gave them first the criminal Bill Darcy and then the opportunist Mike
Kaiser as representatives.

The exposure of the federal figure will be a blow to ALP leader Kim
Beazley, for the latter has foolishly placed a great deal of importance on
this man's advice. The fear is now spreading that not only will the Beattie
government will be brought down, but that we will have another electoral
victory by John Howard's government.  Such an eventuality would be truly
tragic.  Howard would use another term to continue his assault on the
protection of the poor through the welfare system. However we should not
let our hatred and fear of the Liberals drive us all too easily into the
embrace of Labor.  Recall, dear reader, that we had 13 years of Labor Rule,
from 1983-1996.  There should be no future for any illusion that would
imagine that the ALP has been or ever can be transformed into the party
that will establish an egalitarian Australia. It is because of this that it
is vital that we move beyond Labor and reinvent a Left.

For some, that means voting Green.  Not for me though. There have been
rumours in the Press that the Leader of the Green Party, Drew Hutton, has
been making overtures to Rob Borbidge.  I have no idea why Hutton is
talking to the National Party once more.  Borbidge and Hutton is even an
odder couple than Doug Slack and Hutton made.  What I ask myself would Pat
Gillespie, the former journalist and Borbidge adviser have to say about it?

Now I know I have said all this before but let me spell it out for the good
people that support the Greens.  Any attack on the Labor Party must be from
the Left.  If you like, think of Ralph Nader.  His whole campaign may have
cost Gore the Presidency.  However his platform and policies represented a
clearly more progressive alternative.  The Democrats may whinge about
'Darth Nader' but they now know that if they want Nader's 2.5% they have to
move to the Left. By contrast when Hutton brought down Goss' Labor
government he did so by attacking it from the Right.  The tragic result is
that now above all times there is no left alternative to Labor.  We cannot
punish the corruption and cyncial careerism of the ALP by electing decent
people. Instead we remain trapped in a hell where the only alternative is
the unspeakable Borbidge.  And some people still wonder why the ALP never
gets any better.

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