Idle Hands and the Devil’s Amusements

devilIt is said that when Germans approach the Pearly Gates and see a signpost pointing to heaven in one direction and to lectures about heaven in another, they always choose the lectures (it was a German who told me this). And certainly I was once surprised in Frankfurt to see how many people turned up to my lecture about Shakespeare and medicine: many times more than if I had given it in England.

When it comes to exhibitions, I am a little like the Germans. If I see one on my way to somewhere else, I invariably enter. And so, en route for the Centre for Independent Studies’ new offices in Macquarie Street, I slipped into the nearby Sydney Museum to see the exhibition of Lloyd Rees drawings called “Painting with Pencil 1930–1936”. I was immediately captivated.

The drawings reminded me of those of Breughel the Elder. There is an unmistakable intensity in their vision that gives to their realism an oneiric quality. The Sydney that he drew so obsessively seems almost an old European city, in which the works of Man do not overwhelm Man himself, and the grandeur (such as it might have been) was not a matter of mere prepotency. Rees seems to have been depicting eternity in a moment and a world so visually satisfying, could we but see it, that we should never wish for change; we would come to regard our constant hustle and bustle as we would regard white noise after Mozart. The kingdom of heaven is not so much within you as around you, if you would but look; and apparently Rees once said, of misty mornings around Sydney, that they were so beautiful that he could not wish for heaven, which would be a disappointment by comparison.

The years from 1930 to 1936 were the Depression years, of course, but economic travail does not enter the drawings, albeit that the economic contraction made the selling of new art difficult to impossible. Perhaps the contraction was even of benefit to Rees (the Owl of Minerva taking flight at dusk and all that), inasmuch as he had only himself to please with his drawings and might not have done them if he had had a clientele to please. Fashion at the time did not favour attempted timelessness, but rather modern movement and agitation. There is not a wheeled vehicle in sight (apart from a couple of parked cars in the distance in one drawing), and such steamers as ply the waters of the bay are slow boats, whose smoke is greater than their speed.

In his book about Istanbul, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk says that there are two kinds of writers, those who need to move about the world in search of inspiration and those who find their inspiration in the little area into which they were born and in which they are content to spend their entire lives. I suppose you can divide dichotomies into two, those that are suggestive and those that are not (for none is literally true); and Pamuk’s falls into the first category. Artists are the same as writers; and while Rees was not born in Sydney, he made a small part of it, and its surrounding landscape, his subject. He did not require other inspiration.

As I viewed the exhibition, I felt a growing envy of the artist: not so much of his talent, which I was born quite without, but of his lack of restlessness, his ability to concentrate on, say, a fig tree for hours, days, weeks, if necessary, and to find in it all the interest, stimulation and consolation that he needed. This, surely, is a fundamentally religious sensibility which, alas, I do not share. I can look at The Giant Fig Tree or Rock Formation at Waverton for longer, perhaps, than many, to judge by the other people at the exhibition; but before many minutes had passed I was like the great mass of Mankind, I grew restless and sought further stimulation. As Pascal might have said in this context, all the unhappiness of men comes from one thing, their inability quietly to contemplate a fig tree or a rock formation.

Boredom is one of the greatest curses of Mankind, at least (or especially) once the struggle for existence has been won; and the efforts to avoid or evade it are responsible for a great deal of social pathology. With his talent and sensibility, Lloyd Rees was able, I surmise, to avoid the affliction of ennui as not many men are. Whether a sensibility is innate or achieved I am uncertain; if a little of both, I think we are not in an age propitious for the development of the contemplative sensibility. Even I begin to feel withdrawal effects if I am separated from my e-mail for too long (about six hours, say); and this, even though I spent months at a time earlier in my life completely incommunicado from all who knew me, loving every moment of my isolation.

Not far from the Sydney Museum is the Justice and Police Museum, and to this I directed my steps on the following Sunday afternoon. Having spent so much of my professional life in the company (or should I say the presence?) of criminals, I continue to find the whole subject of deliberate wrongdoing endlessly fascinating, perhaps because there is no complete answer to it. Man is born a sinner, and sometimes a rotter too; and that is that. A world without crime is unthinkable.

The exhibition there, “City of Shadows”, took advantage of four tons of glass negatives taken by the Sydney police between 1912 and 1948. Some of the years, then, overlapped those of the Lloyd Rees drawings. They were of scenes of crime, victims of murder, notorious criminals and of people photographed for no known reason—the accompanying archives relating to the pictures having been lost.

This was the end of the golden age of murder, according to George Orwell—at least in England, if not in Australia. For a really good murder:

[the] murderer should be a little man of the professional class—a dentist or a solicitor, say—living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience. Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny, unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison. In the last analysis he should commit murder because this seems to him less disgraceful, and less damaging to his career, than being detected in adultery.

The murder scenes in “City of Shadows”, however, are sordid in the extreme: blood spattered on the sheets of an unmade bed in a low boarding house, that kind of thing. They speak of sordid desperation rather than of cunning, let alone of struggles with conscience. I am afraid that the murders in the trials of whose perpetrators I have given evidence have all been of this kind, as the overwhelming majority of murders are and always have been: the only slight point of interest, as Sherlock Holmes might have put it, having been in the disposal of the body, in which some spark of originality was sometimes shown.

I don’t think anyone looking at these pictures, however unrepresentative of their time, would feel much nostalgia for the years in which they were taken. The scale of the raw poverty was unlike anything today.

But one thing did strike me very forcibly. The faces of the people in the photographs—from shoplifter to murderer—were much fuller of character than would be the faces of their equivalent today. Most of them did not have the kind of faces that would make you cross the street if they came towards you, as the faces of so many criminals have today. They may have been bad, but they didn’t look brutal. Some of them even looked refined and, dare I say it, contemplative.

Where does the new facial brutality come from? Admittedly it is much more common in England than in the small part of Australia I have been able to visit this time. I suppose it comes from ennui.

Anthony Daniels visited Australia in April as the Centre for Independent Studies 2016 Scholar-in-Residence. His latest book is the essay collection Out into the Beautiful World, published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.


2 thoughts on “Idle Hands and the Devil’s Amusements

  • says:

    From your article Anthony/Theodore – “Boredom is one of the greatest curses of Mankind, at least (or especially) once the struggle for existence has been won; and the efforts to avoid or evade it are responsible for a great deal of social pathology.” – I would phrase it differently and come to slightly different conclusions, and not only because I do not share your obvious love/appreciation of certain art.
    To my mind the only people who get truly bored are those whose existence is guaranteed by the efforts of others. And I would add that much of societies current [and past] ‘drug problems’ – including that of alcohol – come from the need to overcome this boredom and the sense of worthlessness/lack of self esteem that comes with it. Religion once attempted to fill this void, and still does in Islamic and other more medieval societies, but increasingly does not in western societies.

  • Jody says:

    When I was teaching high school I drummed into the students the importance of the ‘inner life’ – the belief in something external to self and much bigger than it. For all but the few I might just have well been speaking Japanese to them, since these things need reinforcement in the home. Fortunately they were in the 1960s when I and my 3 other sisters were all growing up. We had a music-loving family; a mother trained as a classical pianist and an engineer father who, though not musical, appreciated it all in between reading engineering stuff!! Their parties were legendary.

    That’s when I realized there are many more things in life than the material; that music, art, literature, film, engaging with others and with politics – these and our family and meaningful friendships – are what make our life worth living. I’ve never been bored for a second in my 60+ years!!!

    When that song by Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” would turn up on the radio my mother would say there was great depth of meaning in that song and that we shouldn’t ever all into the trap of thinking that ‘that’s all there is’.

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