Beautiful Silence

By David Walsh

Forty years ago I remember waking up in recovery, and squealing like a child (which causes no shame, for I was a child) to be taken back to the ward. What the dismal, antiseptic-smelling, chicken pox-inducing children’s ward of The Royal Hobart Hospital had to offer is not clear to me, all these years later, but that was where I wanted to be. They took me back there, as they always intended when I awoke. I can’t remember if I was satisfied. I had appendicitis then, resolved with professional disinterest, but with sufficient credibility to maintain my childlike faith in intervention, which fed, through the intervening time, my scientific soul’s confidence in evidence-based medicine.

But forty years later, or two days ago, I remember the recovery room only because the orderlies pointed it out to me as they wheeled me through to theatre. A long, empty room, but not empty of all things; empty of the beds which obviously should fill it. I was on one of those beds later, wheeled in after my disk replacement, but I don’t remember.

This ward, the ward of two days ago, was worth shouting for. A single room with a door outside, into the garden. The most desired room at Calvary, the hospital manager told me. My room, because I was lucky, or more probably, because I was getting very special treatment.

The day after the operation I went through the door into the garden, already feeling ok, the tour of the garden in no way diminished by the noise of the traffic on Augusta Road, nor by the waft of stale cigarette butts flicked into the garden by those too sick or lazy to use the bin. I loved the garden then, one day ago, and even more when I stepped through the door into the garden today to leave the hospital. I loved it because it was there and I could see it, and walk around it, not perfectly steadily I admit, but I could walk around it without pain.

I went to the hospital to have my neck operated on, because my shoulder hurt. The MRI, taken on my wedding day two weeks and a few days ago, showed my disk was exactly where it should be but the rest of me about half a centimetre off, to the left. My shoulder hurt like fuck, and Mr Hunn concluded, with the aid of the MRI and my demonstrable weakness, that my spine was misplaced. Mr Hunn offered to fix it, to replace the displaced disk with a mechanical contrivance, an M6c, an American device not yet approved for sale in America, and therefore exported to the antipodes, to be implanted in me. I accepted his offer.

It worked, and I can walk in gardens only fifty-two hours after the operation. Nineteen days after my wedding I am married, all of me, not just the part of me that said yes, or I do, but all of me. Now no part of me is incessantly screaming ‘I’m in pain’ into my right ear, drowning out bewitching words from Kirsha, and allowing only bewildered words from me.

Again, I have no pain now, and there is nothing to prevent me smelling the pungent shouts of the show-off flowers, nor hearing the beautiful silence of the written word.

Human beings

By Elizabeth Pearce

Gee Americans are swell. We just had Steven Pinker and Mark Changizi visit us at Mona. I was expecting Pinker to be arrogant (he’s pretty famous and important) and possibly Changizi, too (he’s not famous but he’s terrifically clever) but no, both were delightful and polite. I know Yanks get a bad rap, what with all the cultural imperialism and ‘Nam and whatnot. But they sure know how to act like human beings in public, don’t you think?

Someone who doesn’t yet know how to behave like a human being, in public or otherwise, is my four-month old, Jack, who is a fairly constant addendum to my person, an ‘external fetus’ as I have heard young babies described. I’m pretty sure I came across this description on one of the many websites I have read in my endeavor to find evidence to support my chosen parenting style, which I’d describe as ‘attachment lite’. Basically, the idea is that human babies are born prematurely in their development in order for their big melons to fit out our pelvises (no words to describe this experience. I’m pre-verbal, traumatised, a veritable infant; and that was with an epidural). As a result they are ill equipped to deal with any sort of sustained separation from the mother’s (or other primary caregiver’s) body, including at night, for at least the first three months of life outside the womb. Furthermore, human breast milk is low fat and, like other mammals’, designed for frequent snacking as opposed to the infrequent meal-sized bursts that better suit our modern lifestyles. Like I said, this is justification for something I’m going to do anyway: hold my baby a lot, feed him whenever he is hungry, and sometimes sleep with him in my bed, despite the fact that this is not recommended by that bastion of parental terror, SIDS and Kids. (This all may seem banal but we first-timers are told to put the baby down as much as possible, feed it according to a schedule, and that people who put their babies in their beds are mentally ill, evil and so forth.)

The reasons I am sharing my irrelevant-to-everyone-but-me opinions on parenting are:

  1. I had to take the baby with me to work to meet Pinker and Changizi, as opposed to having him babysat. I’ll come back to this in a sec.
  2. At lunch with the Americans, baby in tow, I was asked by David (the one with the wacky taste in art) whether Jack could be considered human yet.

This (2) reminded me of, and was possibly a deliberate reference to, an argument presented in Pinker’s The Blank Slate (discussed in a previous post, wherein I also suggested parenting style didn’t matter much. What can I say. I’m hedging my bets). The argument is as follows: there is no essence to us, no ‘ghost in the machine’ that sets in at a certain moment in our development. The self or soul ‘inheres in neural activity that develops gradually in the brain of an embryo [and] breaks down piecemeal with aging and disease’. We have chosen the moment a baby exits its mother’s body to grant it human citizenship; other cultures in other times and places sit that marker elsewhere in the human life span, at puberty, for instance, or the onset of language. We are always in the process of becoming, or un-becoming, human. There is no clear line in biology to tell us when it is ethical to affect an abortion, or to turn off the life-support machine, or that stem cell research is permissible; that it is ok to kill ants but not horses.

There is no solution to these dilemmas, because they arise out of a fundamental incommensurability: between our intuitive psychology, with its all-or-none concept of a person or soul, and the brute facts of biology, which tell us that the human brain evolved gradually, develops gradually, and can die gradually.

This doesn’t mean we thrown in the towel or surrender to absurdity, only that we should know how to separate (respectfully) our emotions and our reason; more specifically, to ‘reconceptualise the problem: from finding a boundary in nature to choosing’ one. The choice should revolve around minimising pain and maximinsing happiness. A slippery little sucker.

My answer to wacky-taste Walsh was that yes, Jack is human now. At about three months I could sense the seat of his sentience. He began to think, I think (without words, which is weird). And the whole ‘attachment’ thing began to cramp his style.

So the tot came to Mona with me, airing his fresh humanity.

I am conducting an experiment, you see, in caring for a baby and working at the same time. Literally the same time. Now, I’m no feminist for doing so: as Sarah Hrdy has shown, women have been taking their babies to work with them throughout human history (the 1950s ideal of the stay-at-home mum was a short-lived anomaly). The difference in today’s world lies in what Marx would call the modern alienation of ‘man’ from ‘his’ labour: in a capitalist mode of production, work is abstracted from our basic human needs. In short, you can take your baby berry-hunting in the bush nearby but not into meetings with investors in the city (or whatever it is you people with real jobs do).

This generates a moral, personal and economic problem. Most people want to procreate and the bulk of childcare usually falls to women. It’s not fair, and not good for productivity (work harder, Boxer!), that as a result women fall behind in the workplace and suffer loss of income as well. An employer’s attitude to working mothers and the opportunities afforded them is surely one the last bastions of first-world feminism, and beejesus an important one. A sister-concept to the human-as-a-gradual-process notion outlined above is that of our expanding circle of who is afforded proper human rights and citizenship. The female experience, which usually involves motherhood, is not a subset to the human experience. Working mothers should not be thought about as special cases or problems to be solved. Industry itself should adapt to make them the norm: bringing your baby to work, if that’s practical; childcare on site, working from home, flexible hours. (A friend of mine came up with the idea of forced paternity leave: in one fell swoop evening up mothers’ opportunities in the workforce and fathers’ in the home. A smidgen draconian but I like her style regardless). I don’t think employers should be asked to tolerate low-achieving workers, that’s not the way the world works (it turns out, after all this time, I’m not a socialist, I’m a capitalist lite!): the response of Wacky Walsh to my request for understanding re: combining work and childcare was something along the lines of ‘As long as you do the job you are paid to do’ (I remember he used the ‘f’ word but I can’t for the life of me imagine how. That’s dedication for you).

I was told once that I should stop writing about my family because it wasn’t very Mona, not radical enough. I do not consider myself especially radical. I order my Huggies from Woolworths online and my second-favourite actor (other than Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Jennifer Aniston (my friends mock me for this and you may, too. But I dare you, I dare you! to look deep into that woman’s eyes, a la Ross, and surrender to the tender empathy you find there). I would like to point out that Mona’s objective was never to be radical, either; simply to clear the path to expression uncluttered by convention. In this case, it has achieved its goal. Wacky Walsh isn’t being a radical feminist by allowing me to do my job in whatever manner suits my maternity. He’s just treating me like a human being.

Another one’s gone

By David Walsh

I put ‘pen to paper’ the day of Nelson Mandela’s demise. My intention was to celebrate a life I thought worth celebration. And then I kept my thoughts to myself; others would have more to say. Of course, they did. And I felt that apparently idolising Mandela, or anyone, is promoting the notion that some of us do better by force of will. Mandela did do better, but luck, as always, played a part. His earlier response to injustice, which may itself have been unjust, led to an incarceration that forced introspection. While he was jailed, a community rallied around him, he an undead martyr, and a myth was made.

I went to South Africa for a few months in 1992. I had a recently dead brother, a new girlfriend, a South African resident racist soon-to-be-ex-friend, and inadvertent access to circumstances that were about to make me an art collector.

South African cities confused me. I couldn’t breathe Joburg’s air, couldn’t comprehend Durban’s kitsch, and couldn’t help but be mesmerised by Cape Town’s complicated cultivation.

In South Africa, it was easy to start up a conversation, and to make friends. All one had to do was mention Nelson Mandela. By then Mandela had been released, but not elected. Almost everyone I spoke to told me that South Africa was heading for a better place, and most thought Mandela would be the pilot.

Even then it was clear that a comprehensive political peace would advantage both the disenfranchised and the empowered. Attending the horse races in Durban, we discovered three grandstands, receding in orderly fashion from the finish line, for whites, for coloureds, and for blacks. This level of service duplication cannot be constructive, even for those who benefit from inequity.

Societal violence is sufficiently infrequent that, even in those societies that are riven by conflict, the chance of a visitor witnessing an incident is low. Nevertheless we did witness such an incident, at a union march (COSATO) in Cape Town. Corralled into a route by closed streets and buildings, the marchers were spat on by some (seemingly very few), who decanted their puerile commentary from upper-story windows fronting the streets. The result, a near-riot, quelled by rifle fire and accompanied by a few fatalities. The level of South Africa’s dysfunction, though, was best illustrated on another occasion in another city. A newspaper headline read ‘Maritzburg policeman dies of natural causes’.

It was obvious that something needed to be done.

I read, and have read, about Mandela’s humanity. Those who knew him, his friends, his jailers, his political enemies and rivals, even his would-be assassins, spoke of his honour, decency and integrity. I am most fascinated, however, by his unswerving commitment to change. Prior to his prison days he clearly thought violence was a legitimate path to justice. Perhaps because violence failed, or perhaps through a moral transformation, he wholeheartedly embraced an altered strategy, one of inclusion, negotiation and forgiveness. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, he behaved like a decent human being while seeking a political end. That seems to have gotten the job done.

When there is an adult around, kids don’t squabble. Will we still behave, now that the adult has left the room?

It didn’t look good for a while. Even before he was dead his family used the court system to promote absurd agendas concerning rival burial sites. At his funeral a psychotic signer substituted farce for solemnity. Blogs appeared, vilifying him, ostensibly for his early support of violence, while promoting their own vitriolic racist manifestos. Through all this, Mandela stayed honourably dead.

I notice, again and again, that we hold our principles most steadfastly at times of introspection. And we are most introspective at times of loss. Not loss through being affronted, though. That just motivates a desire for revenge. The losses that we learn from are the unfortunate, and the inevitable.

Nelson Mandela may have learned what to value in the twenty seven years when, for him, action wasn’t an option. Did we learn a lesson about taking time out? His death caused us to pause, but soon after, we went on our way. Do we need a Mandela to die every day? Was this the point that the disciples of Christ were trying to make? If so, why did they poison the chalice with polarities, and thus sow the seed for schisms? Perhaps they should have had Christ die of natural causes. And stay dead. In the meantime, I do hope no one proclaims Mandela our saviour.

…And another one

By Elizabeth Pearce

Philip Seymour Hoffman was my favourite actor. The only thing I remember about that memorable movie Boogie Nights is the look on his face (he played Scotty the porno-techie) when he sees Dirk Diggler’s willy for the first time. I think I must have been a teenager at the time because the look captured the essence of nascent sexuality, adolescent in my case and homosexual in Scotty’s: ambivalent longing and fear, and the combination of self obsession with the thoroughgoing belief that no one, ever, anywhere, could possibly find you attractive in return. Well, that’s how I felt anyway, but to be honest I was a little bit chubby. As was Scotty, and Philip Seymour himself.

I am a new mother (thank you for your kind enquires as to the health and wellbeing of my vagina. You know who you are) so forgive me, please, some soppy sentiment (which is the reason for my absence these months: my mind runs in tired, soppy circles; not good blogging material. And I don’t mean ‘tired’ as sleep-deprived, to be honest that’s all a big beat up, boo effing hoo.1 I mean tired as in utterly sick of my own obsessive thoughts about my baby’s wellbeing. He’s fine, thanks. And he’s, like, totally advanced, and everything he does is massively fascinating). My soppy sentiment is this: I cannot stop thinking about how Philip Seymour’s mum must feel. I don’t know anything about his mother; I could google but I don’t want to, it doesn’t matter. Cf. I haven’t eaten today because I am so nervous about taking my baby for his four-month injections. And that’s serious because for me, as I intimated above, eating is no casual pastime.

It is an unfortunate habit of mine (I’m working up to the point of this little appendage, pun intended, to David’s essay) (I’m not saying David has a little appendage; according to Kirsha, his wife-to-be, his portrait in our book Monanisms does him no justice at all. Cold day etc.) to periodically assume and discard various prophets and doctrines on my road to self-knowledge. Prophets so far, in order:

  1. Jesus.
  2. My headmaster, Mr. d’Ath; my older brother dubbed him ‘Dr. Death’, which I found gravely offensive.
  3. Postcolonial theory.
  4. My obstetrician.

And others but I’m bored of this now, the point is that my current prophet is Steven Pinker, which is good timing because he is about to pay us a visit at Mona to discuss the possibility of blessing one of our future exhibitions. I just finished reading his book The Blank Slate (2002), which is kind of dated now – and the reason it is kind of dated is because it is such a goddam powerful and convincing rhetorical tour de force that its ideas have ascended to – nay, shaped – our intellectual mainstream. Yes, there is a human nature. Some highlights:

  1. The drama of our nature resides in the tension between our ultimate (evolutionary) and proximate (immediate, apparent) motives. Eating high-fat food / going on a diet, for instance.
  2. Self-deception is adaptive, natural; and also lies at the root of our suffering.
  3. It is as human to be kind and forgiving as it is to be vengeful and cruel.
  4. Boys and girls are different. I know. Shocking.
  5. People of different races are not very different.
  6. ‘Natural’ and ‘right’ are not the same thing.
  7. Postmodernism has slaughtered – slaughtered, I tell you! – the arts. I must admit it fills me with glee to discover that the artists he uses to exemplify this slaughtering are represented at Mona: Chris Ofili (he specifically mentions our Holy Virgin Mary) and Andres Serrano, who is, incidentally, the artist who took the nudie shot of David I mentioned above. And of me. David thinks I’m being unfair to Pinker here, taking his argument out of context: the book is a work of advocacy, a statement – necessarily polemical, even strident – against the powerful doctrine of ‘the blank slate’: the belief that we are infinitely malleable, and that society can be born anew, if only we would try. Well, we can ask him in a week or two what he really thinks of postmodern art. We are especially interested in whether or not it is appropriate to take into account non-traditional art forms (including postmodern and conceptual) when considering the possibility that art is an evolutionary adaptation. (This is the subject of a future exhibition, in which we are very much hoping Pinker will take part).
    And finally, the most significant revelation for me, and the point of my appendage:
  8. Children turn out the way they are going to turn out, the good and the bad, regardless of how they were raised. Genes play a significant (but not totalising) role and their chosen peer groups do as well. But as parents, we neither ‘make’ nor ‘ruin’ the men and women they become.

This is both disappointing, and liberating: I am not centre stage in my child’s life, and I am not centre stage in my child’s life. My friend Amy (another prophet, I forgot her) also told me when my baby was born that there’s no A+ for parenting, only pass or fail, a C (for trying your best) or an F for otherwise. Which amounts to the same thing, really, as what Pinker is on about. Is all this love going to waste? Of course not. As Pinker points out, parent-child is a real human relationship, and (this is me now) relationships are all that really matter in the end. Perhaps all a parent can do is make the first phase of life as happy as the child’s nature will allow; to offer it a chance to become the best possible version of him or herself.2

I couldn’t resist it, I googled, and it seems that’s just what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mother did for him. His Oscar-acceptance speech for his role in Capote:

My mom’s name is Marilyn O’Connor and she’s here tonight, and I’d like if you see her to congratulate her, because she brought up four kids alone. We’re at the party, Ma, you know? And she took me to my first play and she stayed up with me and watched the NCAA Final Four, and her passions became my passions. And, you know, be proud, Mom, because I’m proud of you and we’re here tonight and it’s so good.

Regardless of the terribly sad way it turned out, those memories and pleasures are real. I wish I could tell her it wasn’t her fault, and that she has more than earned her C.


1 It’s been over three weeks since I sobbed hysterically at 3am or googled ‘can you die from lack of sleep’ (you can).

2 My kingdom for a gender-neutral pronoun!

Now that we don’t have Lou

By David Walsh

In the early 90s my endless search for technological satisfaction resulted in me adorning my stereo with a five CD changer, and it had a shuffle mode. It would occasionally play songs twice in a row, the programmer of its shuffle mode model having, presumably, used a die for a model, not a deck of cards. But that didn’t matter much, I was happy to listen to songs from the Velvet Underground’s Loaded – the one album that was perpetually on the CD player – over and over again.

Oh I do believe
You are what you perceive
What comes is better than what came before

Can that still be true, now that we don’t have Lou?

On the same album he gave us some sage advice on how to pick up famous actors, advice more relevant today than ever. Just persevere with your obsession until the object of your desires is old and fat, then they’ll be ‘Over the hill right… and looking for love’.

We never got Lou to a MOFO but we did get his Velvet Underground colleague, John Cale. He concluded a tremendous gig with a Velvets song, penned by Lou, the dark but potent Venus In Furs. A friend commented to me, with a tear in his eye, that he loved the new Hobart, because it reminded him of the old New York.

I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

Among my favourite albums is the Lou and John Cale record Songs For Drella, wherein they dissect their relationship with Andy Warhol, and find themselves wanting.

And then I saw Lou
I’m so mad at him
Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me
I mean is it because he thought I’d bring too many people
I don’t get it
Could have at least called
I mean he’s doing so great
Why doesn’t he call me?

It is great art, I think, to look through others’ eyes and see yourself. And when those others’ eyes are Andy Warhol’s, then it is great pop art.

The trouble with a classicist he looks at the sky
He doesn’t ask why, he just paints a sky
The trouble with an impressionist, he looks at a log
And he doesn’t know who he is, standing, staring, at this log…

I like the druggy downtown kids who spray paint walls and trains
I like their lack of training, their primitive technique
I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school
I think sometimes it hurts you when you’re afraid to be called a fool

There were many other albums and many other moments. A decade before, but still a late discovery, I played The Velvet Underground & Nico until my record player’s fingers bled. It didn’t make me a junkie, but I learned some of the attractions of dissolving.

Ah, when the heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
And thank God that I’m as good as dead
And thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care

In the end heroin, and alcohol, and being born over seventy years ago, killed him. About others I sometimes say it is tremendous good fortune to have the opportunity to die, because that means that one has had the tremendous good fortune to be born in the first place. Each of us has, among other things, enjoyed an unblemished ancestral record of at least 700,000,000 consecutive successful matings. So Lou was lucky to be born, and lucky to die. I’d like to thank all Lou’s ancestors, the bacteria, and the fish, and the shrews, and his mother, for being horny, and for being attractive.

Lou Reed recorded a song about The Day John Kennedy Died. Some days we know we are going to remember, because our lives are inextricably bound to them. I’d better do something worthy today.

Photo by Marcelo Costa

Photo by Marcelo Costa

True Life

By Elizabeth Pearce

In about two weeks, so I’m told, I’m giving birth to a gi-mungous baby. It is a strange pause, as though before death: do not get me wrong, I am tremendously excited about receiving this child into my life (which is weird. It’s already here. More ‘here’, arguably, than it will be once it’s outside my body, ‘in true life’ as my husband’s eight-year-old rather wonderfully refers to it). It feels like the school holidays leading up to Christmas: you kind of want the days to last, to revel in their warm promise and simultaneous decline (the last days of my true life, or possibly my false one; but either way, the one I like a lot), but at the same time you are stupid with anticipation. And nor do I mean ‘like death’ to refer to pain, intensified by the arrival of a child cheerfully described by my obstetrician as ‘top of the class’ and ‘a chunky kid’; more coolly by the scan-ologist as ‘in the ninety-fifth percentile’ for its size. Good lord. Never mind, luckily I have my heart set on thorough and immediate pain relief. If I needed a justification for this (which I don’t, I don’t!) it would be this:

Some women feel strongly about natural childbirth, and I really do respect that: one reason they feel strongly about it is, as far as I can tell, about taking control of an experience that has been siphoned into patriarchal, institutional processes. But for me, there is nothing more natural than a person coming out of my vagina. That is beside the point, now that I think about it, because I don’t really privilege the natural above its supposed opposite: isn’t it ‘natural’ for us clever human beans to develop more and more sophisticated means to help our species suffer less the burden of our humanity? and other such folksy ponderings. i.e. You wouldn’t have your leg cut off without anaesthetic. This is all starting to smack of desperate justification, so allow me to continue: Compared to other apes, our babies have very effing big heads to accommodate brains that can do really cool things like invent pain relief to ease the transition of the giant heads – through pelvises made narrower by the advent of upright walking – into the world (true life). Why should the female of the species, the ones doing most of the work in this whole ‘evolution’ business, be the ones to luck out on the benefits of our accelerated intelligence?

There are two stolen ideas in that sentence, above. Firstly: the notion that women are ‘doing most of the work’ is a bastardised version of the hypothesis put forward in a book I have just finished reading, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy. Hrdy’s impressively nuanced, cross-cultural, historically informed and broadly inter-species reading of the shaping force of maternity in the process of evolution demands closer analysis, at some stage when my brain feels less baby-fried, and once I have the energy to pose a proper argument about bio-cultural feminism. But basically, she paints a picture, at once bleak and liberating, of motherhood as an intensely strategic state of being. There is such a thing as a maternal instinct, but a wildly contingent one, less pretty and far more flexibly applied than ‘I loved my baby at once’ or ‘mother love is selfless’. Indeed, mother love, it seems, is radically selfish, in that it is engineered to promote the procreative successes of the maternal subject, and not to serve some free-floating, transcendental human ideal. So do human infants – those wobbly-headed lumps of useless cuteness – come into the world prepared to fight to secure the richly rewarding – but not automatically assigned – mother love, so crucial for their survival, and to push through the bottleneck of infant mortality and into the next genetic generation. This is surely feminism (and infantism?), but unlike any feminism I have ever known. Hrdy’s definition of patriarchy is one of the more useful ones I have encountered: so often, ‘patriarchy’ is unthinkingly invoked as though akin to air or water: a transparent agent, self-evident element. In contrast, her definition hinges on a distinction (coarsely applied in this essay, but not in her book) between the procreative interests of men (quantity: lots of sperm, lots of kids) and women (quality: one egg at a time), and on the need for men to counter the disempowerment of uncertain paternity:

Patriarchal societies are those in which patrilineal interests have, over time and by whatever means, come to prevail over strictly maternal ones. The goal is to produce offspring – often many of them – of undisputed paternity, no matter the cost to their mothers.

She uses a number of examples from the human and animal kingdom to exemplify this patriarchal state of play. I would like to think more about to what extent it applies to ‘our’ kingdom, the world of the individual and the nuclear family, of work and money, childcare and child support, paternity tests and privatization.

These thoughts came home to me quite strongly during a sneaky (because deeply embarrassing) viewing of Look Who’s Talking (shut up). Now, you may think it impossible for a film that revolves around Bruce Willis ventriloquizing an infant (‘Look at that – I’ve got a third arm. How am I going to get that in my mouth?’) to have much to offer us in terms of shedding light on male and female procreative strategies, but it’s all there: a woman learning to split her time (like women have done throughout human history, according to Hrdy) between work and motherhood; her appropriation of substitute parental care for her child (i.e. babysitting; again, nothing new there); the timeless tussle between male and female interests (the male too busy looking for new mates to raise his existing children; the woman balancing the pay-offs of bagging a high-status male against his unreliability: ‘I look like I could play the lead in Night of the Living Dead and your father deserted us so he could pork his interior decorator. I think you could safely say that it can’t get any worse’).

John Travolta and Kirstie Alley in that seminal 80s classic, Look Who's Talking.

John Travolta and Kirstie Alley in Look Who’s Talking.

Now, Kirstie Alley (I said shut up) may be compromised, but she is far from helpless. The impossibly cute babysitter of course turns out to be a dream pseudo-father. Poor John Travolta, a lowly cab driver, is resigned to stick around to raise a child belonging to Kirstie’s rich, good-looking first choice; to perpetuate, in other words, the genes of another, more sexually successful competitor. Her choice – imperfect, but hers nonetheless – plays out in the scene of her first attempt to have sex with John T, in which her initial passion, set slightly creepily to the song Daddy’s Home (To Stay), blends into a nightmare vision of their future family life: she, barefoot and pregnant, waits for him to come home from a hard day of cab-driving to feed a Catholic-sized family with food scavenged from a dumpster. But this is the 80s, goddamn it, and she can not only control her own fertility, she can also go out to work in her high-paying job as an accountant – just as long as she has someone to help her watch the baby. In the end, that’s just what she winds up with, along with the double jackpot (in evolutionary terms) of a reliable father figure and good genes for her child.

One more thing, and then I promise to never mention Kirstie Alley again: Interesting for my purposes is the labour scene itself, in which Johnnie is driving her to hospital in his cab, and urging her to ‘breathe’ for pain relief and not to take drugs because it’s ‘better for the baby’: ‘The only people who say stupid things like that are men, because they’re idiots!’ (Later, to the doctor, in an Exorcist voice: ‘Fuck my breathing.’) Now, John is definitely asking for it here. But note how men are ‘idiots’ for trying to give us pain relief, as per the natural childbirth scenario I outlined above, and also for trying to withhold it. The Ancient Mariner comes to mind: ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…’ (‘Patriarchy, patriarchy, everywhere…’ admittedly doesn’t have the same ring to it). I guess what it comes down to is that I’m the one pushing ‘something the size of a watermelon through a gap the size of a lemon’ (Kirstie again; ok, that was definitely the last time) and so it’s up to me. Especially since my watermelon may be extra pink and fleshy. If you mention my lemon, I’ll kill you.

And so to the other stolen idea that I mentioned above: the big-brain justification for pain relief. This one comes from a book I talked about in an earlier blog, Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy, in which the narrator wrestles with the pressure from other women to give birth without an epidural. But that is less interesting to me than the deliciously simple dichotomy Goldsworthy sets up, throughout the book, between birth and death, most poignantly in a scene in which she is taking her young son to visit his great-grandmother, Moggy, for the last time. Earlier that morning, she promises him a trip to see some ‘funny statues’ at the museum and tries to prise socks onto his recalcitrant feet; the action is repeated later for her grandmother, whose mild surrender to being loved and clothed amplifies the child’s robust vitality. Indeed, as he kisses the old lady for a final time, ‘a kiss into oblivion’, and waves merrily goodbye:

‘We going to see some funny statues now, mummy?’
How soon we are erased.

Part of a mother’s job, it seems, is to introduce a child to their mortality. I feel I am a little unprepared in this regard. I blame my mother. But nor is this what I mean when I claim, dramatically, to be poised (rhetorically) on the brink of death. What I mean, rather, is that I know a lot of what I care about now will no longer seem to matter as much. I don’t speak for all mothers-to-be but I know this of myself. Here and now, two weeks before, it is sad, in the same way that death is sad for the bystanders but not for the dead – who don’t, after all, care anymore. But unlike the full stop of death, I’m dicing here with a semi-colon; a breath before a passage elsewhere, true life.

Atmosphere

By David Walsh

Merriam-Webster defines ‘engaged’ as:

1. Involved in activity: occupied, busy
2. Pledged to be married: betrothed
3. Greatly interested: committed
4. Involved especially in a hostile encounter
5. Partly embedded in a wall (an engaged column)
6. Being in gear: meshed

I am engaged. I refer to the above definition and engage 2 and 3 particularly, and also 1 and 6, but also occasionally 4.

If you happened to have read an earlier post you will be aware that I was in the US when my younger daughter had an accident. I glossed over my purpose for travelling. Now, with Grace recovering, I think I can reveal that (and I may have already given the game away) I was in the US to propose to Kirsha. Kirsha is American, and she gave up a great deal to move to Tasmania to be with me. So it seemed fair to take her home while I got down on the proverbial bended knee. As the context may also have implied, she said yes. Yay!

David and Kirsha

The deed was done in New York, where Kirsha has lots of friends. I also, to her satisfying stupefaction, secretly imported a few from elsewhere. We had a celebratory dinner afterwards. Several of Kirsha’s best friends collaborated on the dinner, the highlight of which was a table crafted from blocks of ice. This proved to be apropos; New York was in the midst of a heat wave.

A few weeks before, while planning our somewhat one-sided rendezvous, I was preparing a quasi-contract for our mooted marriage on this very iPad in the middle of the night when Kirsha awoke, a rare event indeed, and asked me what I was writing. As a diversion I started writing a poem, and it turned out better than I had any right to expect, given its improbable genesis. I later got local musical polymath Dean Stevenson to turn it into a song.


Atmosphere

Most nights I listen to the soft susurrus
As you draw in and process atmosphere
Making it your own and owning me
As I’m surrounded by your exhale.

I breathe for you and your odour
More rich by the nighttime heat
The night chill comforts me
But I sneak some warmth to enhance your ripeness
And then pick you and prick you
Inflate your balloon with my sticky air

I don’t see you except as my mind sees you
I don’t need to see you
I am invigorated by the darkness
And the darkness within me
I feel you like hot plastic or cold comfort
I feel you and though I am spent
Another deposit wells within me
And burdens me with uncertainty

Sometimes I make a strategic withdrawal
For fear of taking too much
But you need my lust for love and ego
And you tell me so
And I know it to be so
But doubt lingers a little
Not often at all

Sometimes, not often (at all)
I awake, not knowing I slept
And I feel you caressing
My back and kissing
Just as you were
Before sleep overcame me
And made me a victim
Of your relentless
Passion and redeeming

And I am not whole
But I am all I need be
And you are not all
But you are all that I need

My most familiar faith

By David Walsh

Over dinner last night Elizabeth, Kirsha and I chatted about my recent blogs and I remonstrated with myself that they focused on death, darkness and injury. Although that seems to not entirely be my fault I thought it might be time to court some controversy instead.

Another topic of conversation was the significant number of comments appended to Diary of a Disaster that offered prayers on my behalf. That’s curious, as I have made plain my opposition to belief without evidence but, on the whole, I understand that those who made the remarks have my best interests at heart, and prayers are unlikely to do me damage. I say ‘unlikely’, but if I were a devotee of the power of prayer, harm might well have ensued. A widely reported study of the efficacy of prayer determined that there was no difference in recovery rates of cardiac bypass patients between a group that was prayed for without their knowledge and a group that was not prayed for. However, a third group, members of which were prayed for with their knowledge, performed significantly more poorly than the other two groups, presumably because they assumed that if their condition required divine intervention things were going very poorly indeed. This might be analogous to the nocebo effect.1

Anyway, the dinner table conversation reminded me of the odd things I used to believe. I was raised by my mum to be a devout Catholic. Mum was tolerant of other religions, she could only feel sympathy for them; after all, non-Catholics were headed for damnation. What didn’t occur to me then, but has occurred to me and many others before and since, was to query the value of belief in the ridiculous. So that’s the subject of today’s sermon.

After considerable indoctrination, and a quick refresher from www.catholicbible101.com, here’s how I remember the Ten Commandments.

I am The Lord Thy God.
1.     Thou shalt not have other gods besides me.
2.     Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
3.     Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.
4.     Honour thy father and your mother.
5.     Thou shalt not kill.
6.     Thou shalt not commit adultery.
7.     Thou shalt not steal.
8.     Thou shalt not bear false witness.
9.     Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.
10.   Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Curiously, the first commandment originally didn’t seem to be because there was only one God. One rendition goes on: ‘(For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth’ (Deuteronomy 6:15). Jealousy, by definition, involves more than two. And promising retribution reeks of attention monopolising. Early Jews were monolatrous, not monotheist.

Violating the first three commandments would cause no obvious harm. They are rather stupid and apparently unnecessary rules, really. But nevertheless, they are at the top of the list. Christ got in trouble for violating the Sabbath when he fed his disciples. A couple of centuries before that, the Hasideans initially refused to fight on the Sabbath:

We will not come forth, neither will we obey the king’s edict, to profane the Sabbath Day… Let us all die in our innocency: and heaven and earth shall be witnesses for us, that you put us to death wrongfully. So they gave them battle on the Sabbath: and they were slain with their wives, and their children, and their cattle, to the number of a thousand persons (1 Maccabees: 2).

Could there be compensation for this suicidal commitment to arbitrary rules?

The first three commandments are, in fact, deliberately ridiculous. At a time when those who weren’t your friends were your enemies (nearly every time before modern secular states), recognition of those within your group and those outside your group was paramount. The compensation comes from un-counterfeitable in-crowd recognition. Those who share your beliefs are part of your tribe. And those who won’t contemplate them are clearly not your friends.

Rules that make sense, like ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘Thou shalt not kill’, are cross-cultural and therefore do not serve to differentiate between friends and foes. So the most pointless rules are, oxymoronically, the most valuable, as far as in-group recognition goes.

As I said, I believed in all this stuff when I was young. It seems that our capacity to learn quickly as children is enhanced by initial credulity. When a young child is shown how to do something with a few unnecessary steps, he or she will mimic the demonstration with the extraneous steps in place. Chimpanzees don’t do that, and for a while their constant questioning accelerates their learning. But, as tasks become more complex and thus not obviously amenable to analysis, human children surge ahead. It seems that a kid’s willingness to accept what they are told, from the rational to the resurrection, is co-opted by religion to bind us to our tribe. And the effort required to stop believing costs us; often, isolation results. That can cause suffering when one leaves a cult, and it can cause death when one loses one’s support system.

Because the consequences of failing to recognise a stranger can be severe, the method employed to recognise strangers can be extreme, as illustrated by the biblical derivation of our modern word ‘shibboleth’ (defined, in part, in The Free Dictionary as ‘A custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to, or as a stumbling block to becoming a member of, a particular social class, profession, etc.’) Apparently, ‘shibboleth’, which in Hebrew means an ear of corn, is difficult for foreigners to say, viz.:

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand (Judges 12:5-6).

Throughout history many outrageous (to an outsider) beliefs have defined many peoples. Jared Diamond (in the wonderful The World Until Yesterday) gives some examples:

There is a monkey god who travels thousands of kilometers at a single somersault (Hindu).

A woman who had not been fertilized by a man became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, whose body eventually after his death was carried up to a place called heaven, often represented as being located in the sky (Catholic).

Men who sacrifice their lives in battle for the religion will be carried to a heaven populated by beautiful virgin women (Islam).

On a hilltop near Manchester Village in western New York State on September 21, 1823, the Angel Moroni appeared to a man named Joseph Smith and revealed to him buried golden plates awaiting translation as a lost book of the Bible, the Book of Mormon (Mormon).

A supernatural being gave a chunk of desert in the Middle East to the being’s favourite group of people, as their home forever (Jewish).

To this, I append a few of my own, and I start with Buddhism, since it has so far gotten off scot-free.

Many Buddhists in Burma believe that the Islamic sacred number 786 suggests that Islam intends to overthrow Buddhism in the twenty-first century, since 7+8+6=21. This apparently justifies a violent suppression of Islam.

Sadly, desperate times generate even more desperate beliefs. In South Africa in the nineteenth century, a teenage girl, Nongqawuse, preached that if her Xhosa people destroyed their own crops and cattle the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea. Improbably, over 300,000 cattle were slaughtered, and the resultant famine reduced the local Xhosa population by about 40,000. Nongqawuse labelled the small minority who refused to kill their cattle the ‘stingy ones’, and blamed them for the failure of her prophecy.

Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in 1997 so that their souls could board the alien spacecraft that was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp.

If those last few examples of crass commitment suggest that cults are more way out than established religions, consider martyrdom, the Crusades, the inquisition, and institutional sex abuse, just to use my most familiar faith as an exemplar. Martyrs are a byproduct of strong group identification, whereas the latter iniquities are a pathology of an extraordinarily strong desire to preserve and promote the in-group over others.

In grade six my teacher told me the story of Dominic Savio, who was a member of the Salesians, the order that founded my school (which was then called Savio, but now Dominic). Although Savio died at age fourteen there were, apparently, many indicia of his sanctity, including his ability to remember a page of catechism after one read (plausible), and his ability to be in two places at once (less so). A little research has led me to believe that the latter claim was fabricated by the priest who told us these tales, since it doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere. However, at the time I accepted the veracity of both tales without consideration of Carl Sagan’s (and other’s) dictum: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. We ignore this self-evident standard since we have a long (evolutionary and societal) history of benefiting from in-group identification. Had I then had reason to question my priests and teachers I would have suffered repercussions. Believing is both easier and more binding than feigning belief.

A couple of years later, after the Christian house-of-cards had collapsed around me, my questioning of the tenets of another priest resulted in me being forced to stand outside, whatever the weather, while religious instruction was given. Despite himself, he did me an enormous favour.

And here I note that contained within my short essay are 83,000 fatalities (not counting the victims of prayer), and a threat to wipe non-believers from the face of the Earth. Next stop, Hollywood.


1I don’t usually feel the need for references but some might wish to follow this one up. H Benson, JA Dusek, JB Sherwood, et al. ‘Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: a Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.’ American Heart Journal, April 2006.