RD Robert Dessaix
AL Andrew Leigh
RD But the siesta, no, I am completely committed to the siesta, as is my partner and my dog. At 1:30 we all go to the television room where we have recliners and we sit in a recliner, put our heads back and have half an hour’s siesta. This is an act of resistance. This is thumbing our nose, this is cocking a snook at capitalism. And so that’s what we do.
AL My name’s Andrew Leigh and welcome to The Good Life, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. While I’m a politician and an economist, this isn’t a podcast about politics or economics. It’s about living a good life, which is an idea that goes back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. What Aristotle meant by a good life was the life that one would like to live. A life with pleasure, meaning and richness of spirit, the life that most of us were trying to live until everything else got in the way.
In this podcast, I’ll seek out guests not because they’re smart but because they’re wise. I’ll speak with writers, athletes and social justice campaigners, with people who’ve been lucky and those who’ve experienced hard times. I found their stories fascinating and I hope you do too.
Robert Dessaix is the quintessential Australian public intellectual. You may know him from hosting Books and Writing on ABC Radio from 1985 to 1995. Or from more than a dozen books including novels, editor’s collections, nonfiction works and two autobiographical volumes. Born in Sydney, Robert never knew his father, who was killed in a plane crash shortly after Robert’s birth. He was adopted at a young age by Tom and Jean Jones and educated at North Sydney Boys High and the Australian National University.
Robert worked as an academic, a translator and a radio producer before becoming a full-time writer two decades ago. Among his best known works are A Mother’s Disgrace, Night Letters, Corfu, And So Forth, Twilight of Love, and The Pleasures of Leisure, which he is currently promoting. Robert lives in Battery Point with his partner of some 30 years, writer, Peter Timms. Robert, thanks so much for joining me on The Good Life podcast today.
RD It’s my pleasure, Andrew.
AL Now, one of the striking things about your upbringing is that you’re raised by a man who was born in the 1880s. What is that like? How are you different for having been raised by an adopted father born in the age before Federation?
RD I think that I’ve stayed a 19th century person in some queer kind of way. My love, when I studied Russian literature and taught Russian literature, was always the 19th century. I’m not sure that I’ve ever completely made the change into the 20th, let alone into the 21st century. I love the language of the 19th century. And my father, who was uneducated, spoke beautiful English. Many people did in those days, without actually having learnt grammar.
He learnt grammar in order to speak French to me because he knew that I was of French descent, so to speak, broadly speaking, blood-wise. So he learnt French and to do that, he had to learn what verbs were and what nouns were. And it’s very touching, really, looking back, to see that a man who left school when he was about 12, I think, just went to a parish school in Port Augusta, South Australia, would do this for a little boy who wasn’t actually his.
I think being adopted is one of the greatest gifts that you can ever have. I think that you are loved in a particular way. Not in a better way or a stronger way but in a very particular way, which gives you freedom to choose who you want to be. You don’t have to be like Uncle Albert or you don’t have to be like Auntie Maisie because genes don’t come into it. You have this amazing freedom.
And when I was very, very little, my father said to me, I don’t care whether you’re a fireman or a ballet dancer or whether you’re a university teacher, I just want you to be happy. And all these years later, goodness me, it must be over 60 years later. Here I am writing a book about this.
AL What would your father’s idea of leisure have been?
RD Well, it was to speak French, as a matter of fact, which is, I’m sure, partly why languages are right at the top of my list when it comes to leisure, playing with them. I’m learning Indonesian at the moment. I will never speak Indonesian. I’m hopeless at it. I love playing with it. I love the look on people’s faces when I try it out. It was languages, it was learning French, in his case. Learning the subjunctive, which blows your mind. And it was gardening. He loved gardening. I’m not such a gardener but I live with a gardener. I make the tea.
AL Language is such an extraordinary part of your life, just run us through your first language and those that you have accumulated over the course of your life.
RD Well, it’s not a great number. It’s just that I started learning French when I was very small, really, very small because my adoptive father kept talking to me in French. And then he made us join the Alliance Française and then we joined a more working class French society in Sydney called the Franco-Australian Society where you met visiting sailors and people from a lower socioeconomic stratum.
Then, because I was collecting stamps, as little boys did, but oddly enough, very few little girls do, I decided to learn Russian in order to read my stamps. And I ended up teaching Russian at the ANU here in Canberra. That’s how a hobby can turn you into a connoisseur and change your life.
But living in Europe, one has had a bit of a go at Polish and Finnish and Spanish and Italian and one thing and the other. I did try Greek but that was impossible. Japanese was a total disaster, I have to tell you. I just couldn’t get into it at all. It was way beyond me. I’m an Indo-European. And so I love Indo-European languages.
AL And then there’s K, your own language.
RD There is. I wasn’t expecting you to mention it. There is my own language which, again, I started making up as a little boy. I mean, really little. Because it was a way to work through things without the filter of somebody else’s language.
I think usually when we speak, we’re unaware of how speaking English or speaking even the Australian dialect or speaking French, whatever it is we might speak, frames us. It forces us to say things we may not have actually thought until we opened our mouths and said it in Mandarin or in Japanese, whatever language we’re saying it in.
When it’s your own language, you can play. You can say things you couldn’t say in anyone else’s language. This was mine. And I worked through all sorts of deep things, actually, religious things but also political things, through my own language and made up a land to go with the language.
AL Have you written a dictionary of K or does it all reside in your head?
RD I started but yes, it does. I thought, who would care, really?
AL Correct me if I’m wrong, I thought you, at one point, described the complications of K by referring to the fact that English has a single adjective, green, which works in all contexts, whereas in K, the similar adjective has many, many different variants.
RD I might have been talking about Russian in which, of course, the word for green has many, many different endings, which is never a problem in English. But yes, when we’re talking about language, we quite often refer to colour because we think, as English speakers, that it’s quite clear what is green, what is blue, what is red, what is pink. When you are actually making up a language, you realise that you can divide up the rainbow in whatever way you like. And so in K, I can have two words for two different kinds of green.
Afghans, I understand, I don’t speak any Afghan language, have one word that covers green and blue. English is, of course, an incredibly rich language. I love English. When I speak French or speak Russian, it’s not that I don’t love English. English is my homeland. It’s more my homeland than, if I might say so, Australia is, really. I live inside English. But in my living room, in every room of my house, actually, I have guests from other languages. But it is my homeland. It is where I am most deeply myself.
AL Now, before you were a writer, you were a translator. What does being a translator give you as a linguist and what did it give to your writing subsequently?
RD Have you ever done it?
RD Never. Well, I always translate into English, of course, because you should really always translate into the language in which you are most proficient, in which you have the most number of resources at your fingertips. So I always translate into English. It makes you love English more. When you’re translating from French in particular, I think you are aware of just how vast English is. This gives me deep, voluptuous pleasure.
Russian is a much richer language than French for the same reason that it has many roots, [unclear] Germanic and Mongol and German and French and all sorts of other languages apart from Old Russian. But even so, the main joy is in acquainting me more intimately with my own language. That’s the great joy of translating.
AL And for more than two decades now, you’ve been a writer. Do you have particular routines as a writer? Do you write first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening or simply when the muse strikes?
RD I hope I don’t look as if I’m a man who has routines. No, I have no routines. I really do practice what I preach. I write when I feel a certain passion to write. I can’t write with a pen anymore, I have to have my laptop.
Some people are the opposite. I have a feeling that Marion Halligan here in Canberra is the opposite of it. She has to have a pen and paper, she can’t do it on a computer. And many writers are like that. Must have a computer so that I don’t think about what I’m doing. So that the words go straight onto some kind of page. But I don’t have a routine, you should write when you are in love with what you’re trying to describe. When you’re trying to make it real, to embody it. Love is involved.
AL Your autobiography, A Mother’s Disgrace, is very much about finding your own identity, meeting your birth mother at age 46. What advice would you give to others who are thinking about writing their own personal story, which is, I suppose, often the book that people who haven’t written before look to write?
RD Yes, it’s often the one they start with. What I would remind people is, no one gives a stuff about you. No one cares about you, where you’ve come from, whether you’ve met your mother or not met your mother, whether your grandfather was Aboriginal or Maltese, no one cares. What you have to do as a writer, unless you’re just writing for your children, family, is you have to make people find things out about themselves or want to. People want to know about themselves, not about you.
So when I wrote that book, what happened is that about 300 people immediately picked up their pens, those were the days of pens, and wrote me a letter saying, thank you very much, I very much enjoyed your book. Now, let me talk to you about me. And they would write five pages about themselves.
I will never meet them and, of course, couldn’t care less, basically. But I had liberated them to find words, to talk about their own lives, to find patterns in their lives. And that’s why they loved my book, not because I’m of any interest. I’m of interest to nobody except my partner.
AL But that’s almost a bigger impact, perhaps, than that of the readers who simply absorbed and loved your story, to have evoked such an outpouring of personal writing. You joke about it but it strikes me as pretty impressive.
RD Well, thank you. No, I’m good at words, it’s the only thing I’m good at. I can’t drive a car or plant spinach in the garden or any of those things. I’m good at words. But I think that the way I use them makes people think, I can touch something in myself if I read this book and bring it to life. That’s what Robert helps me to do. I can bring something inside myself that’s been mute to life.
When they start to speak about it, they say I loved your book. But it’s not really, I think, what they meant. Of course, over time, one becomes a bit of an identity to people and therefore, to some extent, of interest, I suppose. I’m interested in Turgenev, I’m interested in Tolstoy. I’m interested in Pushkin because they are worlds and of course, they are great writers.
I’m none of those things. And so I can’t expect people to be interested in everything I write in quite the same way. But if I can nudge you to start talking to yourself about what it means to be adopted or not be adopted or what religious ideas might mean to you. Why I might be writing so favourably about Hinduism, for example, as I have in my last two books, if I can get you to ask yourselves, not in a contested way but in a relaxed way, interesting questions about these things, then you will say, I liked your book.
AL You aren’t just a ferociously impressive wordsmith on the page, also in the spoken form. And I suppose, as a teenager coming to love literature through my high school years, you were very much the voice that I associated with literature through hosting Books and Writing. How did that shape you as a writer, to be the person who was interrogating writer after writer every week?
RD Well, it was utterly formative. When I first went to the ABC to make this program, I had no intention of being a writer, I never really wanted to do anything very much. I wanted to be something, not do. If possible, in Paris, but that somehow didn’t work out and I found myself back in Canberra.
What the ABC did, I suppose, was help me find a voice. And for those of your listeners who are interested in writing, would really love to write something, I would just like to say that there’s only one question of truly great importance and that is crafting a voice. It’s not the voice you use in the kitchen. It’s not the voice you use with your children or your dog. It’s not the voice that you use when you’re writing your blog. It is your literary voice, even if you’re writing nonfiction, your literary voice. It is not you.
And what the ABC helped me craft was a radio voice that all these people, mostly women, I have to say, despite the fact that you were listening and one or two other men. But basically, it’s educated women who used to listen to me on the radio, who listen to the ABC in general, I suppose, who come to book events all over the world. They heard a voice that they felt they wanted to keep listening to. It is voice, that’s all it is. And it has to be crafted. You’re not born with it.
AL So you felt that the voice that you had crafted on air then made it easier to find the right voice in print, is that it?
AL Got it.
RD Because what you’re taught is that you must never address everybody on the radio. You’re taught that by the people who teach you how to speak on the radio. You must find someone and tell her what you want to tell her. She knows what you think is funny and what isn’t. She doesn’t approve of everything that you say. But on the whole, she’s really deeply fond of you.
Now, I have one or two women who think like that about me. I address them. Everyone else, including you, it would seem, can eavesdrop. And if you don’t think everything I say is funny, that’s fine. You’re only eavesdropping. It won’t bother you because you know that that’s what you’re doing. But I’m talking to Suzie.
AL One of the debates that’s emerged over recent years in the US quality press is this question over whether reading great literature makes us better people. And there was a to and fro, I think, in the New York Times and Time Magazine, a piece by Gregory Currie arguing that there’s no evidence that great literature makes us better and a lovely response from Annie Murphy Paul saying that you have to distinguish spiritual reading from carnal reading and that spiritual reading really does make you better.
Do you have a view on this? There’s certainly, your favourites in the 19th century Russian tradition were, I think, writing with a mind that they were going to make their readers better people.
RD Yes. It’s a wonderful question. Of course, I have an opinion. I have an opinion on all sorts of things, particularly if I know almost nothing about the subject. I think that we think these books are great books partly because we have a sense of having been amplified by them. I would avoid, of course, words like better. I would avoid particularly words like spiritual. Carnal, I would play with but I would not use spiritual. And sometimes I talk about that in my books, that I want to avoid this word.
I think that we call books great when they amplify us, when they magnify our inner being. So I don’t know if they’re making us better but they’re certainly making us bigger, deeper, wider, taller. And that’s why we love them. If you think that listening to a Beethoven sonata is the same as listening to a Kellogg’s jingle then I think you’ve misunderstood something about the world. And I would say the same about reading Anna Karenina as opposed to reading your best friend’s blog. Of course there’s a difference.
AL Does great literature make us more egalitarian?
RD No, I don’t think so. Why would it?
AL Well, one of the arguments is that it allows us to better understand the human experience and therefore to make us feel more in touch with others who are different from us.
RD Oh, well, that’s true. But I don’t think that’s the same thing at all as feeling egalitarian. I think it makes us feel more hybrid. And it makes us understand that the world is actually very hybrid despite what the ideologues in various political parties and religious organisations try to tell us. And I think that that’s what they do.
I would probably avoid the word egalitarian because I don’t think we’re all equal in any department of life. Perhaps God thinks we all are. But clearly, some people are smarter, some people can run faster, some people are better at designing bridges, some people are better at loving other people. We’re not all equal.
AL But to be an egalitarian is to value people in the same level rather than to think that they are identical clones. And I suppose it’s that valuing of others which I have in mind with egalitarianism, rather than looking down and seeing the upper class as being better than the working class in some sense.
RD Well, if you want to talk about class, yes. Yes, of course, it does work like that. I think it’s true that it makes you feel that others have a right to work out their own system of values. But I don’t think that anyone should feel obliged to adopt anyone else’s values, mine or yours, or anyone’s. The Pope’s, whoever’s it might be, you shouldn’t feel obliged to adopt them.
But I think that as you grow older in particular, it’s not quite so true, I think, when you’re 19. As you grow older, you do indeed, in your sense of the word egalitarian, feel you have an equal right with my right to make your own choices about what seems good to you and, I would say, what seems pleasurable to you. Yes, there’s that.
AL How do you read? You were saying before, you’d moved from pen to computer, have you moved from paper books to e-books?
RD To Kindle.
AL To Kindles?
RD Yes, I have. Well, it’s just easier, isn’t it? It’s backlit and you can adjust the font.
RD But the author doesn’t get as much return financially from Kindle. Yes, I’ve done that. That’s how I read. I don’t read a lot during the day. This is the Protestant thing where I still feel, despite what I’ve written in this new book, there’s something slightly sinful about going to the cinema and about reading while the sun’s still up. Isn’t that odd? Except possibly on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon. But otherwise, no, I read in the evening.
I like a recliner chair for reading, sit in the recliner. I like the dog to be in the room, if possible, just snoring very lightly in the background. And I’ve moved, as have many people, for reasons that I don’t think anyone quite understands, much more into nonfiction in recent years.
It’s a noticeable drift that booksellers will talk to you about, and publishers. We’re interested in literary nonfiction all over the world, in various languages. And the novel no longer occupies such a glamorous place, let us say, such a must-read place in our culture as it once did. Nor does poetry, for example, nor does going to the theatre, nor does opera. Cultures change. And I think the novel simply does not occupy that same highly valued, much-loved, must-read space.
AL Do you think that’s because the best nonfiction writers have become better storytellers? Think of people like Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, who are just first-rate tale-tellers while conveying nonfiction.
RD Well, you’re probably on to something. I honestly don’t know.
RD But that probably is true, that a lot of nonfiction is now beautifully written but has a storyline. If you take one of those books about, let’s say, what might it be? Say, the book called Salt. Or I’m busy reading a book about the East India Company at the moment, they have a very satisfying narrative.
They open up not just the story of salt or the East India Company but the story of India, the story of who we are as descendants of the British. Or in the case of Salt, who we are as human beings because unless you understand salt, it turns out, you don’t really know what it means to be human.
AL Do you finish books? Or do you often discard them midway through?
RD Oh, that’s a great question. When I was younger, of course, and much more virtuous than I am now, I would always finish them. And I would never leave the cinema, either, before the film ended, even if I loathed it. Now, yes, I just throw the book firmly across the room if I’m not enjoying it.
Life suddenly appears to me very short, of course, at my age. And so I’m not going to sit in the cinema or keep watching the DVD or finish the book if it’s not feeding me, nourishing me. I’m going to avoid saying nourishing my soul but you know what I mean.
AL Absolutely. Well, as an economist, I wouldn’t think of it as being less virtuous, I would think of it as not committing the fallacy of the sunk cost. Once the purchase price has been paid, your choice is simply whether you want to then continue investing time on top of the money that you value, you put in.
RD On top of the money, exactly. And I don’t, quite often. People don’t, do they? But you read for so many different reasons. When I’m on holiday, I might be more inclined to read some rather shallow detective novel, simply because it gives me a rather vulgar thrill. But I’m on holidays, I want different things when I’m on holidays, for my money and to fill my time with.
AL So there are so many topics I want to ask you about. And I settled on the notion that the only way of tackling it was just to approach you with a fast round of questions which, since we’re having this conversation first thing on a crisp Canberra morning, I’m sure you’ll be up for. Multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism?
RD Well, I have no confidence in multiculturalism at all, no, and have not for a long time. To me, multiculturalism is simply immigration policy. It has to do with creating a society in which many cultures are honoured. But this is of little interest to me, particularly if those who follow these different cultures are ghettoised, as they often are. Not just in Australia but in various parts of the world.
I’m interested in the cosmopolitan human being. The woman in particular and the man. That’s what interests me and that’s why I prefer the word cosmopolitan. And multiculturalism can produce cosmopolitan human beings but quite often produces bicultural human beings. And this is of little interest to me, really.
AL Tea or Coffee?
RD Tea, of course. Tea is playful. Tea stimulates. Tea doesn’t stimulate, I’m wrong there. Tea refreshes. Tea lifts the spirits. Coffee, I think, is much more obviously a drug and more obviously addictive. And it’s to give you energy to keep producing for your boss. That’s what it’s for. Whereas tea is for your own pleasure.
AL Epicureanism or stoicism?
RD Deep down, I think I’m more a stoic, to be honest.
AL That’s a wonderful admission for a man who’s just written a book called The Pleasures of Leisure.
RD I know. But I’m not naturally good at leisure. I do point this out in the book. It’s something that I’ve had to learn. And it’s always why I write books, in order to learn about something. Academics write books in order to tell you everything because they already know everything about a certain subject. I don’t do that. It’s why I was a hopeless academic. I write in order to find out.
And I think that stoicism is probably closer to who, deep down, I am. I particularly like the stoic notion of not taking offense, by the way. You don’t have to take offense if you’re a stoic, simply refuse to do it. And living as I do, as you do, in a society where everybody’s taking offense all the time, it’s very important to me to say, actually, no. Are you rude about homosexuals? I don’t take offense. I think that you are mistaken. I think that that’s a cruel thing to say. I think it’s a counterproductive thing to say but I do not take offense.
AL I love Martha Nussbaum’s notion that anger is a waste of time.
AL It’s a beautiful way of thinking about living life. Siestas or sleeping in?
RD Well, both. I’m not very good at sleeping in, again, because of the Protestant thing, I suppose. I do try sometimes. We have church bells in Hobart. So if you try to sleep in on a Sunday morning, by about five to eight, you’re woken again. And then they ring again at ten o’clock. You can hear them right across the city and you have to get up whether or not you go to church.
But the siesta, no, I am completely committed to the siesta, as is my partner and my dog. At 1:30, we all go to the television room where we have recliners. And we sit in a recliner, put our heads back and have half an hour’s siesta. This is an act of resistance. This is thumbing our nose, this is cocking a snook at capitalism. And so that’s what we do.
AL Your own personal beginnings of a revolt against the great system.
AL Moscow or Petersburg?
RD Well, Petersburg is a city where you can find pleasure. Moscow just looks to me like a cross between Pyongyang and Dallas, I have to say, and indeed, have said. I think it is dedicated to wealth, to money and to manipulating the masses. I don’t like Moscow, although I have spent quite a bit of time there. St Petersburg has its roots in the world where my roots are, I suppose. And that’s Western Europe.
AL What’s your favourite method of travelling? Mode of travelling.
RD Well, the train but it’s very hard to… Oh, but we don’t have any trains in Australia, clearly. There are things on tracks but I wouldn’t really call them trains in the sense that you have trains in Europe or trains in India. To go to an Indian railway station is just one of the most blissful things you can do. It makes me euphoric beyond all belief. Trains are the way to travel. Don’t you agree? Don’t you think trains are wonderful?
AL Oh, I love it. To get around India on a proper sleeper.
AL The likes of which we no longer really have in Australia.
AL Just to be lulled into sleep by the gentle click-lack of the tracks.
AL To be woken up by the sellers shouting, chai, chai, is just glorious.
RD It is glorious but it’s just not so easy to do. I like to travel alone, if that’s an answer to your question. I have travelled with friends. I never travel with my partner. But I like to travel alone because I can be anyone I want. Whereas if I travel with a friend, I can’t pretend to be a Romanian Prince, you see, when I get up in the morning. If I'm alone, I can. There’s no one to tell me I’m not.
AL Walking or jogging?
RD Oh, well, I am deeply opposed but not offended by jogging. Jogging, it seems to me, is simply to display your body anxiety in public. Always, of course, on a main road. In Hobart, people only jog on Sandy Bay Road. I live just off Sandy Bay Road. Nobody, in ten years, has ever jogged past my house. You only jog on Sandy Bay Road where everyone can see your body anxiety displayed.
You’re usually half naked and you push everyone else off the footpath. It ruins your ankles and it has no cardiac effect at all that other more pleasurable activities, which I can’t mention on your program, afford you. I’m against jogging, of course.
Walking, particularly with no purpose, is heaven. And you can do that in Hobart. I think you can do it in Canberra. It’s much harder in, say, Sydney or Melbourne because you could appear to be loitering, which our culture doesn’t approve of. And if you’re a woman, you’re not allowed to loiter at all, of course.
AL Were the Kelly Gang gay?
RD No, because gayness is an American fetish, so they weren’t. Whether they were up for a bit of same-sex sex, I can’t say, but quite possibly. Going quite often to India, as I do, and also to Indonesia, I’m very aware of how our division of human beings for political purposes, and for very useful political purposes. Our division of human beings into gay and into straight is a cultural game, really. And it’s not observed in India, let’s say, where plenty of same-sex sex goes on, but without that nomenclature.
It’s not that I believe in the infinite gamut of queerness, no at all. I don’t believe in that. I think that is an invention of the academy, I must say. I think most people are perfectly aware of how they feel about sex and what their fantasies are. But I think that our culture sometimes pushes people to make choices, to inhabit a certain room that they’re not actually cut out for.
AL In your own case, your sexuality’s evolved through your life.
AL How does that shape how you think about living a good life and about sex itself, now?
RD No one’s asked me about sex yet on this book tour, I must say. So I’m slightly shocked. The great tragedy for gay men of my generation, I think, is that we deeply love women, you see. And I was married, of course, for a long time, to a woman. I could live in a world without men but I couldn’t live in a world without women. That is the great tragedy of my life. But in terms of sexual fantasies or sexual acts, it is sexual acts with other men that I find most exciting. And there you go. That’s not a choice. It’s simply how my mind works. And I’m not upset about it.
It’s very easy now, thanks to Australia’s liberal culture and certain politicians, to live like that. But I do wish that, and perhaps it’s happening with young people, that masculinity in Australia had more openness in it and less fear of vulnerability, which is what, of course, I love about women. And allowed men to chat more, as you are now doing with me, rather than make announcements, which for most of my life is what men have done.
When it comes to sex itself, so I’ve said in this book, I think that it is, of course, important for most of us but not everybody, that you have an anchor, an emotional anchor, which probably begins as sexual. If it goes on for a long time, probably after five to ten years, it won’t be sexual because other things simply overwhelm that. And the novelty that is so important for male sexuality is no longer there.
But that aside, I do think, and I write about it playfully, I suppose, in this book, is that the dalliance comes into play. I’m a great believer in the dalliance. The dalliance is a form of play and indeed some cultural theorists would say the highest form of play in the world because the dalliance, properly conducted, contains rules.
It takes place at a certain place at a certain time. There are other rules, no names or names or you may meet my partner or you may not meet my partner. There are always rules. There is romping. But there are other activities that may or may not happen. It is bounded. You also are recreating something, which all good play does. Whether it’s mass in a Roman Catholic church, or whether it’s playing chess.
You are recreating something, I won’t say metaphysical, but beyond the self. That’s always important in play, it must be part of play. Dogs do it on the beach, they recreate being a raw dog. Every pet animal does it. And in the dalliance, you recreate the old, old, old human sense of being a lover. Of course, it’s dangerous but I can’t conceive of living without the dalliance.
AL You had an experience in 2011 where you had a heart attack and your heart stopped on the way to hospital, and twice. And you wrote afterwards that it made you value the passing time, that it made you, as I interpreted it, try to squeeze more out of each day. How does that manifest itself practically? How does a near death experience help you live a better life subsequently?
RD Well, the intensity with which you feel those things, of course, for the first six months or year, diminishes naturally because just to survive, you have to forget trauma up to a point. But I would probably use different words. It’s important to me, since that experience, to give up any notion of achieving and to give up any notion of being in the thick of it. It doesn’t matter. It leads to nothing.
I want to have a life that matters to those who matter to me. And that’s it. It also taught me, thanks to the poem of Philip Larkin’s, Days, that days are to be happy in. You are a politician, you probably believe that days are also to help other people in or to improve the world in or to produce good in. I wouldn’t start with that, I would hope to do it. And of course, one fine form of leisure, for example, is to teach the illiterate how to spell.
I have a friend who goes to the Northern Territory every year and teaches Aboriginal children how to spell. That is leisure for her. But I think you should start with Philip Larkin’s notion, the very simple line in the poem, days are to be happy in. And that’s what that experience taught me. And I do try to live by that.
And I try to live, as this new book says, in splodges. That was the other thing that lying in hospital after the heart attack taught me, that life is not one bead after another on a necklace. Life is a horizontal phantasmagoria, really, of splodges of different colours and sizes, and one should hop from one to the other. One should not go in a straight line towards the last bead. And so that’s what I try to do. I don’t succeed very often, but I try.
AL You seem exceptionally good at what, in the cliche is, growing old gracefully. And you write at one point that each age is capable of its own perfection. To what extent is it important to find new activities to make that work? How do we achieve perfection in each of our chronological ages?
RD Well, you aim for perfection, don’t you, really? Rather than achieve it. You have to admit as you get older, particularly once you’re over about 55, that there are things that the body won’t want to do, really, anymore. I can’t go trekking for example, which I would love to do. It wouldn’t be fair to my fellow trekkers. So I don’t do that.
I go on walks if I’m in, say, Ladakh, or I’m in wherever I might be, I might be in France or I might be in Tasmania. I wouldn’t trek now, I would simply walk. I think that you have to look at what your body can gracefully do. I don’t think that there is much point in pretending that your body is a 22-year-old’s. That’s vanity. I do think that’s vanity. And when you look at Mrs Trump, you can see where vanity of that kind leads you.
AL Let me conclude with a handful of questions which I ask each of my interviewees. What advice would you give to your teenage self, Robert?
RD That’s a wonderful question, that really is. And it’s quite painful to answer, I suppose I would say to my teenage self, you don’t know almost everything as you think you do. And you will find that you know less and less as life goes on, not more and more. And you will decide eventually, perhaps in the not too distant future, that meaning will always escape you but beauty will not. So concentrate on beauty.
AL How have you concentrated on beauty? You’ve had an interest in art early on. How else does the love of beauty manifest itself?
RD Well, the love of beauty in art got stomped on a bit because I took up with Peter Timms, who is an art critic and knows an awful lot about art. So I felt I should really shut up and just ask him what was beautiful and what wasn’t. But of course, yes. I went to a Grace Cossington Smith exhibition in Brisbane the other day and I cried. And then I was approached by a lesbian and told not to cry and that she really loved my books. And so I cried again when she said that.
AL I’m sorry, I’m laughing at your crying.
RD Beauty is largely an emotional thing. I’m sure you know what I mean, Andrew. It’s an emotional thing. It’s not just the Himalayas but I do feel a sublime euphoria, a mixture of fear and thrill in the Himalayas, which I do not feel in the Australian Alps and I do not feel in Tasmania.
I think Tasmania is lovely. But once you’ve seen Kanchenjunga, lovely isn’t quite enough. Or once you’ve been to Ladakh, for example, that kind of beauty sweeps me off my feet and makes me forget time and who I have been. But one can’t spend one’s life in the Himalayas.
And so it’s beauty in language and beauty in relationships. A small number of relationships, trying to refine them, trying to deepen them, trying to find a different kind of tenderness in them, or even a different kind of roughness in them. But a different quality from the quality that I have, up till that point, loved. What else can I do, really?
I don’t find peaceful landscapes attractive. Some people do, particularly if they have a stressful life. I don’t have a stressful life. I have a very nice, rather doglike life. But I don’t have any desire to go and lie in a beautiful resort in Fiji. I do understand that you may want to or someone else may want to, that it might refresh you or give you a sense of being in heaven. I don’t want to do that. I love to go to India because I feel more alive. And at my point in life, I do not want stillness. I want to be vivified.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
RD I do not believe that religious organisations have any useful role to play in my life.
AL But in the life of others?
RD If they think so, who am I to say that that is not so? I think if you live in a very populous country, such as China or India or some African countries, probably in those sorts of highly communal societies, religion does have a part to play. But not all religions are quite as, what would you say, organisationally rigid as Christianity.
One of the things I like about Hinduism, it’s not that I believe in the realities of Hinduism, I don’t think that Shiva is sitting up near Dehradun somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas. Of course I don’t believe that. But I like the way that in Hinduism, there isn’t much organisation beyond the temple itself. And it’s not about being right. One of the things about Christianity that I suppose I’ve left behind is the notion that it’s important to be right. Hindus aren’t interested in that.
Muslims are, I think. Christians are, Jews are. It’s a desert religion thing. I don’t think Buddhists are, particularly, although they have strong notions about things that are better than other things. I just think it’s very individual. And the thing I do like about both Hinduism and Buddhism, although I’m not a believer or an observer in any way at all, is that they are not vast framing organisations which follow how you lead your life and punish you if you make a mistake.
AL When are you most happy?
RD With my dog on the beach, I suppose. When I’m watching her, as I like to think of it, being raw. What I am, cooked. I’m very cooked. Culture has cooked me. I was cooked at the ANU, I have been cooked by good books. I’ve been cooked by clever friends. I’m heavily cooked.
The dog, on the other hand, is raw. And so when I’m with the dog, she is just being a ludicrously happy pack animal in a way I can’t be. But I can edge closer as I observe her with her friends.
AL What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
RD Learn Indonesian, at the moment, and go to Indonesia and walk around.
AL Do you have any guilty pleasures?
RD That’s a very good question. I don’t smoke anymore and I have never drunk alcohol. Some would think that I should be guilty about dalliances but I’m not because my partner is aware of them. And I write about them. I don’t usually give names. What would I be guilty about? Can you think of anything? I’m trying to think.
I’m one of those people who don’t think that sex is of itself wrong, any more than I think eating rhubarb is wrong. I think that stuffing yourself with anything and becoming addicted to something is a shame. Or behaving violently towards others, particularly if they don’t enjoy being behaved badly towards, which is usually the case, is wrong. But I don’t think sex, of itself, is wrong.
AL And which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
RD An ethical life? That is a very hard question. Nobody has ever asked me that. I find that really difficult to answer because if I were to say Seneca or somebody like that, I’m aware at the same time that, of course, Seneca did dreadful things. He had slaves, after all. But that wasn’t his fault because that was just what people like Seneca did. That was the society that he lived in.
If I were to name religious figures such as… Who would it be? I don’t like St Augustine, I must say. But if I were to mention Jesus or Mary Baker Eddy, let’s say, I would have to say, yes, they’ve had a huge effect on how I think and I admire them. But I’m not anybody’s disciple. Who else? I don’t like Tolstoy. It’s really difficult to think. It’s a very good question and I’m now going to go and chew it over.
AL You spoke about your father, Tom Jones, at the start. It sounds as though he had quite an impact on shaping you, or was that more in terms of your intellectual side than your ethical side?
RD No, I think in terms of my ethical side, really. Tom was from a family of 13 children. He was a lapsed Catholic, he lapsed very heavily at the age of about 12. Never went back or showed the faintest interest in Catholicism for the rest of his life.
He was a generous soul, which I’ve not always been. He was a deeply generous, loving soul. And he was not embarrassed about kissing me and about holding me in a way that European fathers will kiss and hold their children but not many Australian fathers will.
And I think this, what does this do to you? It makes you hungry, really, for expressions of emotion and warmth. But I didn’t understand that at the time. He embarrassed me. He wore loud Hawaiian shirts and he was overweight. And he wasn’t my like friends’ fathers at North Sydney Boys High School who tended to be one or two notches higher up the social ladder than he was.
It was in Lane Cove that we lived. In those days, Lane Cove was really lower middle class, you see. 1940s. I believe it’s gone up. I never go back to have a look. I don’t really want to see what’s happened to Lane Cove.
AL But that love and generosity must have been an extraordinary gift to bestow on a young boy.
RD I was his treasure, he said, you see. And he hadn’t expected a treasure. And he was old. I was adopted when he was 55, which was illegal but it was during the war. And so rules were broken during the war because fathers and mothers were killed. And so there was a bit of, what do you say? Fudging, is that what you say? People broke the rules.
My mother was also not young. She was also her mid-40s. And this has an effect on a child, naturally. But what the adopted child feels is that they have been chosen. And as a result, choosing, this is important in the new book, has become a very important verb in my vocabulary because I grew up with having been chosen.
AL Well, Robert, you said you weren’t generous but you’ve been extraordinarily generous to us today and sharing your beautifully chosen words and observations of wisdom on the world. So thank you for the conversation.
RD It’s your questions, I'm sure. And I thank you for them.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. If you liked this podcast, please let your friends know on your favourite social media app. And if you are interested in politics or policy, you might want to check out my Andrew Leigh: Speeches & Conversations podcast, including a recent speech on [unclear] reducing inequality. Next week, I’ll be back with a new guest to discuss living a