Issue 1, 2006 | Prof. Richard Bosworth

Seek Wisdom

‘Seek wisdom’ — when you think about it a curious motto for UWA. Not make a profit, not find a job or a career or a lifestyle; not win victory, unity, national glory, gold medals or cleverness. ‘Seek wisdom’. OKOK. Somewhere in the Bible there must be a line about seek and ye shall find and so an eventual status in the suburbs or the cemetery must be imaginable. But seek remains an active, even activist term, critical, unsatisfied, urging a life as a happening and not a thing, to steal a phrase from the historian, E.P. Thompson. And wisdom? That is an even more complicated matter but, personally, I would not look for it from Shane Warne or Russell Crowe, Brendan Nelson or Philip Ruddock, Janet Albrechtsen or any of Mr. Murdoch’s columnists. No doubt each of you has your own list of where not to go for wisdom and it is thankfully very different from mine. So it should and must be in a democracy. In any case, maybe wisdom is something that can only be quested and never be found since, if you are rash and arrogant enough to think you have found it, you haven’t.

‘Seek wisdom’ — indeed a peculiar motto in an Australian university in 2006. Vast tracts of contemporary Australia deride ‘impractical’ and ‘non-vocational’ intellectual pursuits, mocking both the intellect and the pursuing, and especially for those who do the ‘useless’ Arts. Even at UWA, even in the Faculty of Arts, there are courses that teach the answer to some question and, once there is an answer, the quest is over, the search is done. I am very old of course and old men grow curmudgeonly. I am very unimpressed by the bureaucratisation of Australian universities which, in my view, has lessened our independence in thinking and dumbed us down, making us anything but the clever country. I am notably unconvinced by the bureaucratisation of course assessment, that fatuous triumph of the ‘Measurers’ as Manning Clark labelled them with biblical ring and old testament scorn.

Perhaps I should control my bile tonight. Even under the Measurers’ domination, the prime point of engaging in the teaching process is to leave questions and to sow doubt, in your students’ minds. All decent teachers are the delighted, astonished and troubled first students of their own courses, perpetually wondering if they are good enough to pass them. All decent students have times when they are annoyed and unsatisfied by their teachers. All decent courses are incomplete and aim to nag away at the subconscious of those who have attended, to go on annoying them, to prompt seeking, endless seeking, infinite seeking. As John Keats put it at the start of Endymion: ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever. Its loveliness increases’; it cannot wither. Or perhaps Dr. Who’s tardis is the better parallel, that object which, like the Arts, is mysteriously bigger on the inside than on the outside and indeed is probably infinite and timeless and indestructible, just like the Arts (or at least I hope so, even in contemporary Australia).

Tonight you may be wearing a gown and you may boast a degree. My job is to congratulate you on your achievement which is of course a great one. But now the bad news. You can celebrate tonight but you haven’t finished with what you have begun. UWA Arts will have failed you if, in five years, ten years, twenty years, fifty years, wherever you are, whatever you do, whatever identity you have forged, whatever employment you pursue, you don’t stir in your sleep and reach out for a book, an idea, a phrase, a musical expression, an artistic image, that first irritated you as an undergraduate and left you feeling pleasingly incomplete. UWA Arts will have failed if you haven’t been corrupted by philosophy, history, literature, music, art, film and the rest for ever. They should have rendered you humble; they should have rendered you brave. They should have left you seeking.

In contemporary Australia those who seek are desperately needed. Ex-Liberal Senator Peter Baume said in January that he was ashamed now to be an Australian. I don’t altogether agree with him since I’ve never been proud of being one. You may have noticed that I refuse to sing the national anthem. I hate reference to ‘Australian values’ although I am indeed in favour of civilized values. These values are what the Arts, and only the Arts, embody. My alarm when Peter Costello told us we needed to use Australian values as a political test is not really because I am discontented with my Australian birth, career and tax bill or because I have been a Pakistan cricket supporter since 1955. Rather it is because I refuse to have my empathy nationalized. As an academic historian I want to be a citizen of the world and in that sense I must be a rootless cosmopolitan. There will be many in the audience who are gagging at my arrogance and ‘disloyalty’. Yet it does seem to me that now more than ever we must keep our empathy our own when the hegemonic neo-cons lead us to aggressive wars and to a cheerful acceptance of collateral ‘damage’ (viz when some pilot-less ‘Stealth’ airplane bombs a Pakistani border village in the hope of killing an Al-Quaeda leader, who has not been tried and found guilty through any legal process, and fails to kill him but does murder some women and children). So, too, when these neocons press on us their ever expanding final solution of economic ‘reforms’ which evidently benefit the rich but seem simultaneously to augment the number of the poor and certainly increase the number of the irrational, someone has to doubt, to deny, to criticise, to ask, to seek.

OKOK. Too much politics, perhaps, and too many echoes of the 1960s when I did Arts at Sydney and began my unfinished quest to comprehend humankind, a quest made pretty cosy by professorial salary and ‘success’. Let me briefly become just an historian. I may currently be writing about nationalism but my most recent published book is a study of how Italians lived their Fascist and ‘totalitarian’ dictatorship. Mussolini’s malign rule brought premature death to a million or more people, used weapons of mass destruction (poison gas) in its empire, was sexist and racist and engaged in aggressive wars. It tried very hard to Fascistise and to nationalise the empathy, the sensibilities, the lives of Italians. But it did not altogether succeed (even if plenty of Italians in the Arts then kowtowed to their dictator). Mussolini himself was as likely to think about his family as the nation. One of his most brutal underlings, Roberto Farinacci, still boasted that ‘I never forget my friends’ and played patron-client games ahead of any commitment to ideological purity, while Mussolini kept him in some check by retaining a copy of Farinacci’s fully plagiarised law thesis in his desk draw (under the regime Farinacci had become one of his country’s best paid lawyers). More ordinary Italians sought advantage if they could from their dictatorship; they were capable of murder, theft and the rest. Yet they also remained Catholics, family members, people with identities differentiated by gender, age, region, and the rest of those marvellous variations which characterise the human condition in every place and time.

There was the priest from Chioggia, fond of women and fame, less fond of saying mass, but the great protector of the local fishing families until the regime decided he had gone too far when he tried to run his own foreign policy towards Albania in the Adriatic. There was the builders’ labourer, splendidly named Boccaccio, Lorenzo Boccaccio, drunk and disorderly (with five mates one Spring evening he consumed twenty-five litres of wine, perhaps more), who was arrested and gaoled for singing the socialist song, ‘The Red Flag’ in his village streets during the wee hours. Although he did not seem to have been a particularly good husband or father, then, in a time of emergency, his family rallied around him and their appeals, and the contradictions in the everyday functioning of the Fascist dictatorship, had him amnestied after a year. There were the women who dreamed of emasculating the Duce if they could lay their hands on him or of giving him cancer somehow or who listened when a strolling musician turned up in their village square in wartime and told them the official party news was all rubbish and should be ignored.

I don’t want to endorse the patronising myth that Italians are ‘nice people’ and only that. ‘Mussolini’s Italians’ were pretty dumb a lot of the time. They lost a lot of battles. They were cruel and self-interested. Yet they, too, were, almost against their will, seeking wisdom, seeking, seeking, seeking. The great majority of them did not possess a final solution. They were not just Fascists. In our own society there are far too many pundits, politicians and celebrities who like to declare that they have the complete answer. As I mentioned earlier, they are given to sneering at the hedging, fudging, uncertain, incomplete arts (even if most in private must sometimes tremble at their inadequacy, their lies, their foolishness). We of the arts must resist them. We must defend human variety, difference and so-called failure. We must cling to our own empathy and not surrender it to the nation or the sportspersons or the celebrities or the bosses or the ideologues. If, sometime arts student, you do anything post-UWA, opt to seek and be ready not to find. Then, through your fragile efforts, maybe those you know and you yourself will occasionally be granted fleeting and inadequate glimpses of wisdom.