We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn. —attributed to Michel de Montaigne
One third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field —The Epic of Gilgamesh
As a child in the 1960s, in the then newish Melbourne suburb of Forest Hill, I attended Saint Timothy’s Primary School. The little church in which I was confirmed and where I confessed my drab sins was a wooden fire hazard. I went to a service there every Sunday with my father’s mother—my own parents having separated. On one side of it were the school’s classrooms, and on the other a nunnery, both buildings made in what looked like, then, to be a modern style. The school was established in 1962 by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. I had no idea who they were. To the seven- or eight-year-old me they were the handsome, unthreatening mystics of education who never said an unkind word.
I do not recall having religion forced on me. We said a prayer now and then before running out to play. Occasionally there was a bit of unruly, awful squealing of hymns in the church. And the nuns chose me to appear in ‘dramatic’ reënactments of the nativity story. Even at nine or ten years of age I knew that painted cotton wool beards were not a good look, so I pulled mine off just before walking on stage and tried to look wise without it. This kind of disruptive behavior should have permanently blotted my curriculum vitae: ‘Not a team player.’
I wanted to know what the deal was with these nuns. During an afternoon nap, while lying on the floor near Sister Henry’s workbench, I determined to look up her chalk-covered tunic to see if there was anything there that would provide an answer to the mystery of her manly face. There was nothing. Just layers of perplexing, impenetrable, black underskirts. —Anyway, I was ten. Someone was walking on the moon. I ran home to watch it on tv.
The Sisters of the Infant Jesus handed me over to the Christian Brothers to complete my befuddlement.
When I was twelve and in the first year of high school I helped fellow classmates cheat at Latin, allowing them to steal my answers in order to escape the sarcasm, and strap, of the unchristian maniac who ruled our Latin and math classes. I didn’t think I could help with the math; I felt hopeless at that. This was the year that maniac was hit by a car while riding his bike. For a couple of weeks this chastening episode turned the rancorous sadist into the mild and kind teacher he should have been all along. And then, without warning, ‘Mr Hyde’ returned.
Family circumstances required me to sample the educational services of four different Christian Brothers Colleges. After Thomas More’s Boys College (now called Emmaus College), I attended Cathedral College in East Melbourne for two weeks, and then St Mary’s in West Melbourne.
A middle-aged man who was a customer of my mother’s business began to use puns in his brief conversations with me that were intended to suggest he knew of my interest in sex. I had not heard them before but, after checking my Chambers Dictionary, instantly recognised them as verbal concussion grenades. One morning, at St Mary’s in West Melbourne, I armed these grenades and chucked them in a history class without bothering to take cover. The lay teacher looked at me for what seemed like a long time while the meaning of what I had said sunk in and he tried to figure out if I had actually meant to use the anatomical pronunciation of ‘aboriginal’. Something about my face must have suggested I had. He sent me down to the principal’s office, where the whole story of my new interest in punography had to be revealed.
St Mary’s principal was a severe-looking bald man who demonstrated his eccentricity and his modernism through the medium of Vespas. He rode his scooter everywhere. He travelled even the short distance from St Joseph’s, where the brothers lived and which was to be my next college, to St Mary’s by scooter. It was one block away. He put his helmet on, started the scooter, turned one corner, and he was at work. When I told him how I had become so expert at upsetting adults, he immediately sat down so as to bring himself on the same level with me. He spoke to me with an unfeigned concern about how important it was for me to avoid the man in my mother’s restaurant. I knew the nameless thing he was warning me against. I had sensed it, but not felt in any danger.
On sports days many of the St Mary’s students would walk along Victoria Street to the Melbourne City Baths to go swimming. One of the younger religious brothers at the school inexplicably decided to go swimming with us, which required him to be naked in the changerooms. When this happened, I suspected he was secretly trying to announce that the brothers were, after all, ordinary men. We thought his arse was too hairy and were distressed we had to look at it.
In the first years of the 1970s, boys of my age could see the chaos in Vietnam had been worsening, even as news of Australia’s decreasing involvement in the war there made no impression on me at all. No adult ever mentioned or tried to justify to me why Australia was involved in the fighting. It seemed to have escaped the notice of the adult world that there were children waiting in the wings of its drama and we had no idea what we were going to say or do when it was time for us to be pushed into the spotlight. The matter was urgent because we sensed our bodies were changing even as the threat of conscription increased. The election of a Labor government was a relief.
When we were fifteen a classmate and I experimented with the social effects of our own precocious hairiness by going to an R-rated double-bill at the Forum Theatre on the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets in Melbourne. It was The Wicker Man, followed by something in the vampire-sexploitation genre. The first movie seemed to be about burning Christians. We were disappointed there was not more sex, naked actresses notwithstanding. During the intermission we discovered that our hairy-arsed teacher had also been in the audience with us. He asked us if we liked the movie and we answered in a way that avoided telling him what we really thought, while still pretending to be three years older than we were. I do not think it worked, but he did not seem to mind.
At St Joseph’s College, in 1974, a beautiful student whose parents came from Sri Lanka started calling me “Stevie Wonder” and tickled my palm flirtatiously when he shook my hand. Was I being mocked or flattered? Gough Whitlam was prime minister and anything seemed possible. I listened to Motown, and liked it. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Melbourne.
It was the golden age of religious educational indifference. The Christian Brother who taught me nothing about Australian history before 1788 stood one day behind a not-quite-closed door and spied on the ‘Year 11 agnostic society’ pooh-poohing transubstantiation and putting the resurrection of Jesus down to a bad case of food poisoning. When we noticed him we expected our religious auditor to establish an inquisition. Instead, he took his nose out of the crack in the doorway and walked away. In retrospect, this now seems like the mature response.
One hundred years after the death of Winwood Reade I got around to reading his book The Martyrdom of Man. The initial excitement wore off after a while and I entered a long period of theological apathy.
Young boys and girls everywhere, before they reach what we have come to refer to as adulthood, trip over the idea that adult convictions are a charade. We stand up, mud on our faces, feeling that we are at the same time cynics and anarchists; we want to preserve what is in our interests and to agitate against the failures of the world we have found ourselves in. Some people manage to maintain an expectation of revolutionary possibility about their own selves and about the world.
In the second half of 1977, construction of the World Trade Centre was completed. Airliner ‘terrorism’ was in its first flowering. Voyager 2 was being launched. There was a uranium export debate in Australia. In August, a ‘docudrama’, The War Game, was shown at the Longford Cinema in Toorak Road, South Yarra. This BBC production by Peter Watkins was a critical event in the life of the friend sitting next to me. When the movie ended most of the audience decided not to leave and, instead, started the conversation right there in the theatre about what could be done. It took me a few more years to find the failure I would agitate against.
In retrospect, the educational mystery of my childhood is how I could have been treated so gently by most of my teachers, spent so long in the care and company of outwardly religious people, and ended up sharing so few of their beliefs. Why do people believe what they believe, and why do others’ prejudices always seem more urgently troubling than our own? Attacking and shaming people for their opinions and beliefs has become a blood-sport, usually played while crouching behind an anonymising avatar, but often, and just as viciously, among ‘friends’.
In the 1980s the appearance of the AIDS virus turned my theological apathy into disgusted atheism, not because I thought an omnipotent god could have avoided such misery but because there were suddenly a lot of angry people spitting at my friends while claiming to be concerned with morals. At this time, my humanistic, progressively-oriented opinionatedness was in full flower, until I saw the world in its proper scale. I had a ‘Hubble moment’. It dawned on me that all the stars of the night sky I had been looking at all my life were just the lights of my local galaxy and altogether less than a hundred-billionth part of the universe. This universe was, if properly imagined, too large for spiritual and ethical systems focussed on what people did with their genital systems.
For a while I did volunteer work writing advertisements and pamphlets about sex. It was a subject I never claimed to know very well, but there were a lot of experts willing to talk, and there was a lot of ‘literature’: I made careful note of the interesting bits and tried to pass on the best intelligence.… Then I worked as a writer for a union. I knew even less about Leon Trotsky than I knew about sex and, therefore, resorted to the same creative process.… Computers appeared on desktops and jobs started to disappear in the printing industry. The ‘workplace’ had already been invented, many years previously, as an object of study, regulation and control; but now people who worked in offices or for large organisations started to talk to each other using the language of business reports, even at home.
My next writing job was explaining science to journalists: I tried to make laboratory fractionation dramatic, and offered to fact-check their articles; they wrote articles about three-eyed fish and called me a fascist. I learned that a good many, if not most, scientists are, in their hearts, engineers who want to know how things work, to make things work better, and to apply knowledge to practical problems or unproven theses. The most impressive scientists I met were working with heat exchangers to improve the energy efficiency of bakeries; extracting the active components of mussels to find why they appeared to have anti-inflammatory effects on humans; and finding ways to inoculate chickens against salmonella.
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s reports began to appear in the media about abuse of children by Catholic priests. The institutional failure of Catholicism to protect children from abuse, to admit the wrongs done, and to offer reparations, provides evidence of a general failure of religious people to face reality. In this milieu, in the months before he died, Christopher Hitchens became the modern-day Winwood Reade, interpreting the whole history of Western civilisation with the wit and clarity of a man who has few words to waste.
I used to imagine religious fanatics and authorities could be cowed with public lashings of pure reason. But the faith at the centre of religious belief is password-protected, unassailable and shameless. Both atheists and believers arrogantly treat the ‘faith’ at the core of the other’s belief system as though it were merely a deep layer of intellectual stubbornness—a hardened, shrivelled core of ignorance that, because it will not go away, must be mocked in order to make it hide itself. It has become a standard trope of proselytising atheism that the wisdom of religions is unnecessary: we need only apply the ‘golden rule’ to everything, and a fully-formed ethical system will naturally unfold from within us. I don’t buy it. The smarter we think we are the less we think we need the lessons of religious books, and hope that reading ‘literature’ or science will do the trick. Does reading anything make me a better person, even if I only feel improved?
Religious belief is imagination speaking to darkness; but, in a way, that is what science is, too. What can a former Catholic do with a feeling of loss that is also the hope of loss? Any man or woman who is honest with themselves must get used to abandoning prejudices and wrong beliefs. The judge “standeth before the door,” and that judge is the world. Is this the reason, or only one more reason, why we are double in ourselves?
In 2012, after many months of tiredness and a feeling of disorientation, I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling. And he, in turn, spoke to a nurse about what he had heard me say. They were concerned I might have had a stroke. My friend called an ambulance. He knocked on the door of my flat and, when I answered the door, two paramedics were standing behind him. All three of them insisted that I would have to step into the vehicle that had been manoeuvred into position so I could step into it directly from the rear door of my apartment in St Kilda. One of the paramedics asked me a couple of questions designed to ascertain whether my mind was still in one piece. The ambulance moved onto the street and toward the nearest hospital. Sometime in the next minute I was unconscious, and then in an induced coma for several weeks. There were no distant, mysterious lights. There was, unfortunately, no music.
It was a long while before the wound on the back of my left leg, caused by a bacterial infection, had healed sufficiently for me to be able to stand again. I was confined to a hospital bed and drugged for months, and the demarcation between my dreams and the real world became very unclear. In the days between Christmas and New Year, 2013, I imagined, and for a while actually believed, the surgeons of The Alfred hospital had grafted a reproduction of a painting by Canaletto to my thigh using a new technique to disguise the scarring of surgery. By mid-January 2013 I was at war, somewhere in rural Italy, in sets made by Cinecitta designers and photographed by Pasolini. The electrical substation that was the locale of my small part in the war had a touch of HR Giger about it—and, yes, there were well-dressed Nazis who looked like they had just stepped off the set of a Mel Brooks video. When the body is in ruins, the mind works on, regardless. Among the beliefs most difficult to abandon is that we have a firm grip on reality. Seen in retrospect, what we believed is as substantial and changeable as a dream. Certainty is in the here and now, where we are sure we know what is real, and where we are almost always in some way wrong.
Fifty years too late, perhaps, I’ve reached an age where The Epic of Gilgamesh makes sense as a fiction about life—something it is difficult to see when you are young. We are all the bad rulers of our own domains. In the end, we look to the places we called home, forced to accept we will not survive; but the work, the city, its culture, and even its empty fields, will outlive us.