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I’ve just finished Romulus, My Father. Many people have told me it was a wonderful read, and as time went on, it seemed more and more were telling me this, so it seemed timely that I went and saw Raimond Gaita in conversation. I picked up this ticket (and one for Philip Henser that morning) as afterthoughts, and both sessions turned out to be highlights for me. My notes below, though, don’t reflect this, as while I sat in the audience, scribbling, I found I wasn’t following a lot of what was being said, so my notes aren’t coherent, more scraps of meaning and insight than anything else. But it was the discussion around morality and rights that was fascinating and has sparked a desire for an enquiry of my own.

So I bought Romulus after the session, as well as another (A Sense for Humanity, which is a collection of essays not by Gaita but about him.*) Romulus is such an empathetic memoir, and fascinating to see the beginnings of Gaita’s philosophy, also to read of his upbringing in country Victoria. It’s a rare book that so penetrates the inner world of another person (as Gaita does with his father’s psychology) to lay out his motivations, positions, beliefs and values and in learning about Romulus Gaita and his world, we learn more about ourselves. It sounds cliched but it’s true.

I lined up and got the other book signed, and while he was signing it I told him that I’d heard Alex Miller and Helen Garner (who he mentioned a couple of times during the event) at Mildura recently, and when they’d touched on the concept of ‘evil’ Miller said: For an understanding of evil, or a better discussion, you need to go to Rai Gaita. As I told him this he laughed, and I laughed and launched a spit bubble onto the table near his arm. I’m so glad it didn’t go on his face. And I’m glad that I resisted the urge to say sorry and reach out and rub it away. That way we could both pretend it hadn’t happened.

‘So,’ I said. ‘Can you recommend where I can start reading about evil? As a layperson. I don’t have the philosopher’s language.’ He told me to read his book A Common Humanity. I didn’t tell him I’m wanting to read up on evil because of research for fiction, I forgot that bit. So I’m not sure what he made of the possibly-mad woman crouched in front of him, asking about evil. And spitting at him.

Gaita spoke to Maria Tumarkin and here is some of what he said. I found parts hard to follow, my fault not his.

– Philosophers should be prepared to be told ‘you reckon you know all about everything – but maybe you don’t’

– Gaita asked an MA class (a ‘morality’ class) the other day who had heard of Helen Garner. One person put their hand up. Alex Miller: no hands. Richard Flanagan: again, zero. ‘I thought there’s no point in going on,’ Gaita said. We, the literary audience, laughed in wonder. How could it be?

Gaita talked about love:

There can be all sorts of passions that can be banal, but love can never be banal… we can agree that there can be a love of truth but five minutes later we will all be talking about passions again

He does work with the Mirabel Foundation, which cares for orphans of people who had drug addictions. These are children who often feel shame about their parents. ‘If you don’t love your parents, it’s difficult to learn to love someone else.’

On the language of rights: why do you use the rights language to do moral work? Gaita dislikes relying on human rights or talking about rights because the language is inadequate to describe the hurt and damage that can be done to people.

Wrongs suffered can only be described in language far richer than the language of rights… you can never describe the hurt done to someone by saying “their rights have been broached”

And this tendency to talk about things in terms of rights means that we are increasingly inarticulate in talking about things morally. (Gaita said he didn’t want to denigrate the historical struggle for hard-won rights, where would we be without that, he asked.)

Maria Tumarkin asked: how does a morally thinking person cope?

Be wary of people without question marks (I’m not sure that’s what he said). Gaita said he is one of the few philosophers who believes some things are ‘undiscussable’ (I got a bit lost here). I need to read his philosophy obviously.

It’s not serious if it’s just chatter

– I have a note to look up an Alex Miller talk on Hannah Arendt that Gaita said was given the week before. I wondered whether it was at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

Our biggest obligation is to give our children something to love

Gaita said that he considers we are part of an extended continuous breath, that when he thinks of links to philosophers he, and he means it seriously, loves. Some are long dead. It allows him to love the world, regardless of whether good or bad things are happening. When he said this, I got it, though reading it now it seems flat on the page. But it reminded me of some Buddhist thinking, about managing to achieve a kind of disconnect which is still caring and present.

You don’t need philosophy to learn about morality

Gaita finished with a story about doing entrance interviews at King’s College in London. One student, when asked why he wanted to study philosophy (and this kid had done some philosophy at school) said ‘I want to know what’s real.’ Gaita said ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, I want to know if you’re real, if I’m real. If that fire is real.’ Gaita asked the boy ‘Are you serious?’ and the boy said yes, he was. Gaita asked another two times whether the boy was serious, and each time the boy said that he was. Gaita picked up the phone: ‘I’m calling the college doctor. Clearly you’re mad.’ ‘No, no, no,’ said the boy. ‘But I asked you three times. This is just chatter. You’re not serious, you’re a dilettante.’ And when Gaita said that final word, and it makes sense now that I’ve read Romulus, My Father, it was as if that is the worst thing a person could choose (or not choose) to be. Someone who potters on the surface or does it for show.

 

* What’s the protocol of getting an author to sign a book that’s not by him but about him? I’ve only just realised this is the book I asked him to sign – and he did – but was this another faux-pas in the realm of the spit bubble?

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