Bibliotherapy and Paul Howse

From the Bibliotherapist’s Bookshelf: Paul Howse and Vanity Fair

Writers have a lot to tell us about the way the world works. I therefore often approach literature in a medicinal fashion. There are some people and some situations just crying out for a prescription of literature, the application of a poem, play or novel to a psychological or moral wound. Bibliotherapy has a long and noble tradition. I can think of a few people for whom I’d like to prescribe a restorative dose of literary insight. Paul Howse (and a few other Left luminaries) would, for example, benefit from a good solid reading of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. This isn’t because Thackeray was a sensitive new age guy. In fact, if there are some authors one does not want to have known, then I suspect Thackeray was one of them. Vanity Fair, however, is a wonderful book. Beautifully structured, perfectly unfolding like a dark flower from its central premise – that the world is a colourful pageant of fools and knaves, hucksters and haters – its wild and racketing progress is marked for us by the author as cicerone. Thackeray’s ironic authorial voice plays anti-Virgil to a netherworld which gives us humankind in all its rich and multifarious duplicity and shallowness. There are many ways to be a fool and a villain, and Thackeray covers a Vanity Fair’s worth of them.

Now that the fallout from the hectic events of 2010 is beginning to settle in the nooks and crannies of the collective (and possibly selective) memory, I’ve been wondering what exactly Thackeray would make of our political situation. I hate to break it to those of our political and intellectual class, but the Australian political scene is a very small (and not very deep) pond. Apart from a few who look like they’ve wandered in from the more significant production playing to packed audiences next door (Malcolm Turnbull, for example, who surely deserves a leading role in one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – this is a man who understands the moral code that underlies a Roman’s noblest ambitions; Kevin Rudd, whose genuine – and probably misinterpreted – convictions would make him a handy Luther or Sir Thomas More; or the dark-starred Mark Latham, the grim unwinding of whose personal tragedy the Greeks would have a place for), our political players are a group of amateur thespians playing to the suburbs. History will make nothing of them.

Comedy, on the other hand, can – which is where Thackeray comes in. Just to take one neat example, Thackeray, with an entomologist’s precision, pins down a particular moral failing of which many of us have a smarting recollection, that those who hurt others tend to blame the victim. (Now this is where you should start taking notes, Paul.) In Vanity Fair, Mr. Osborne (the fickle George Osborne’s father) justifies his failure to help his long-time friend and business partner by blackening Mr. Sedley’s name and reputation. “From a mere sense of consistency”, Thackeray notes, “a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain – otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself.” This is particularly so when a debt is owed (as did the Labor Party to Kevin Rudd for the resounding Kevin ’07 election). “When one man has been under very remarkable obligation to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be.” Hmm. One has to wonder what Thackeray would have made of the unedifying display of nastiness and schadenfreude – not by the Coalition, but by his erstwhile colleagues – which so marked the weeks after Kevin Rudd’s toppling last year. What a weight of resentful indebtedness was there exposed!

Kevin Rudd was anathematized by a roll call of co-conspirators for everything from his vocabulary to his personal responsibility for the worldwide decline in Brazilian coffee prices (okay, okay, not the coffee thing). I mean the poor sod couldn’t break wind without a full-scale inquisition. Leaks! Leaks! Meanwhile, Rudd himself couldn’t respond. He just had to take it. It was a singularly unpleasant spectacle, and not one which is going to be forgotten in a hurry. In those secret Labor Party election post-mortems one hopes that this got a guernsey. Here’s a postcard from reality for the clipboard-holders and the backroom boys – friends, if the bloodletting lost you votes, the gleeful dancing around afterwards almost cost you the election. A party process which resembles a cross between Lord of the Flies and the assassination steering committee from Julius Caesar does not represent the tone for which a political party seeking re-election should be aiming.

Thackeray would probably observe that Kevin Rudd paid a political price twice. Once for the errors and miscalculations he made while Prime Minister, and then again to assuage the guilt of those who engineered his downfall. Like Mr. Osborne, all too many in the Labor Party played the ugly psychological game of blaming the victim. The very stridency of the “He got what he deserved” meme signposted the discomfort of those most forward in advancing it – and Jill and Joe Public, with the unerring BS-detector of the political realist, gave these protestations the weight they deserved, i.e. next to none at all.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, and one hopes that political parties of all persuasions have marked the page for future reference. Don’t make the electorate pay for your problems. They don’t want to know. While Australian voters understand that politics can sometimes be a rough business, what they find unacceptable is when it descends into the mean and vicious. In fact, there is growing discontent in many quarters with the incivility of public life. The immediacy and seeming-anonymity of the digital world has increased the tendency to download thought bubbles into plain view (evidence for which need be sought no further than Larissa Behrendt’s recent gross error in taste and judgement). In the flickering kaleidoscope of the 24hr news cycle, society’s frontal lobes seem to have been disconnected from public discourse. Ours is less a Newspeak, and more a Twitterspeak kind of world. The Id rules, and higher reason, it seems, has gone on permanent holiday.

Memo to people in political life: engage those intellectual gears, give us your ideas, leave your pathology at home. I prescribe the prophylactic administration of literary reflection at regular intervals, to ensure that, like a Roman general at a ceremonial triumph, in whose ear was whispered that he was merely mortal, our intellectual and political elite are reminded of their personal, and their public, moral purpose. Otherwise beware, there’s sure to be a Thackeray around somewhere sharpening his surgically-precise quill. I can see the space right there in my bookshelf just waiting to be filled.

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