1: On Living a Poetic Life

Poet.jpg

Paul Monk on Living a Poetic Life

 

00:00 Paul:  

[Chopin Nocturne in B Flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1]

LXXX: Listening to Chopin

The combination of protracted convalescence,

Bouts of exhaustion halting all my projects,

Melancholy news of Venezuela

And wintry thoughts of my relentless aging;

Have me, lately, turning down the lights

And listening intently to some Chopin -

Chiefly to his nocturnes, late at nights -

And feeling deeply privileged, overall,

To be myself, disposed oneirically,

Equipped with such advanced technology;

 

To have the scope, in quiet, private space,

The means, the education and good grace,

The access to such high fidelity

Recordings, by the Warsaw Philharmonic;

But, not least, our love, my bold, creative muse,

My own George Sand, with her cigars and trousers –

At least if we see them as metonyms –

Whose novels outsold those of Victor Hugo;

Who’s been with me to lakes up in the mountains

And taken her composer to Mallorca.

 

Yet Chopin never wrote a book on China,

Or a book of thirty essays on the West;

Or a book of sonnets, set in B Flat minor;

Or political opinions in the press.

There’s much, in short, that Frederic didn’t do,

Even with Amanthe Lucile Dupin,

That I’ve done, in my fleeting years with you

And, having cheated death, perhaps still can.

But when I’m gone, if your lone psyche yearns

For all we were, read these – my own nocturnes.

 

01:50 Nick: That was the opening bars of Frederick Chopin's Nocturne in B Flat minor, Op. 9 No. 1, and Paul Monk reciting his recent poem Listening to Chopin.

 

01:58 You're joining us on Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, featuring conversations with people who have led meaningful, interesting and flourishing lives in order to better understand ourselves, each other and the world around us.

 

02:11 My name is Nick and today I'm talking with Paul Monk: poet, essayist, scholar of history and international relations and former senior intelligence analyst of at the Defence Intelligence Organisation, and author of ten books.

 

02:23 Now, Paul, today I'd like to talk with you about why you write poetry, how you write it and why anyone reads poetry at all. Can we perhaps begin by having you explain what lead you to write the poem you just recited?

 

02:34 Paul:   Yes, I had been convalescent for some time after a prolonged battle with metastatic cancer. So, I still get quite a bit of fatigue and for three nights in a row prior to writing this poem, I was feeling particularly tired. So, at nights I would put on those Chopin Nocturnes and turn out the lights and lie back in a recliner and just listen to the music to relax before retiring for the night.

 

03:00 On the third night, it occurred to me that to be able to do this at all was a privileged thing. It was a beautiful thing. It was expressive of my whole way of being and the way my life has worked out, and because I'd been writing quite a bit of poetry, that thought suggested itself to me as a poem.

 

03:21 So, I thought - because I often do this - okay, I'll take that thought with me to bed. I'll sleep on it and in the morning, the poem will arise, which indeed it did. The beauty of it is that I began, as the listeners will have noted, by simply describing what had happened that night in the opening stanza. Then, the poem began to unfold and I had the idea of my muse, my wife - my partner in life - being like Chopin's muse, George Sand.

 

03:51 So, I drew metaphors from their relationship and having done that, the third stanza occurred to me because I thought, you know, I've done quite a few things too and Chopin didn't do those things. So, the poem emerged like that. It wasn't mechanically produced and it was only right at the end that I realised as I say in the final couple of lines, that actually these poems, including this one, are my own Nocturnes. So, I think it turned out - you might say 'nocturned out' rather nicely.

 

04:20 Nick: Ha, ha. So, you've written quite a bit of poetry over the years and the last several last decades actually. Could you sort of talk us through what got you started and what that process was like?

 

04:29 Paul: Yes, and the shortest possible answer is that it was a very prolonged process. I, when I was very young, wanted to live you might say a poetic life. I had encountered little bits of poetry. In my personal case, the richest encounter was the poems in the Lord of the Rings but there were other things that influenced me to imagine what it would be like to have a life that was actually suffused with poetry, and that included very coloured pictures in children's books which I had when I was a small child or other stories, adventure stories that I'd read, or history books which were about the big, wide world.

 

05:11 But it took me a long time before I wrote any poetry that I felt was actually quite good and it took me decades before I had the confidence to write poems about almost anything that occurred to me as meaningful or moving which is what I'm able to do now.

 

05:28 I think part of the problem was that nobody around me when I was young wrote poetry. Very few people read poetry and certainly nobody at school, no English teacher at school ever said, "How do you write poetry? Let's write poetry."

 

05:44 I think some people are introduced to it at school. I was not. So, I was really on my own and I felt eccentric for a number of years because I thought I want to write poems and I like poems but they seem like they're from another culture, another time and place, they're just in old books and it's an odd thing to do. So, it's taken quite a while...

 

06:03 Nick: They're quite a structured disciplined thing as well, to do it well.

 

06:05 Paul: It is. It's a skill, like any other. I mean, we refer to Chopin in that first poem there and how did Chopin become a great pianist? Well, by a lot of practice, and he lived in a culture where people did that kind of thing but it still took a lot of practice. It is said that he was very good at improvising at the piano but he agonised over turning it into a composition. That's the work of creativity and certainly poetry is the same but I've gone from a child who longed to do it, to an adolescent and young adult who fumbled in trying to do it, to a man of mature years who is now increasingly comfortable in doing it and finds it very satisfying.

 

06:43 I might give us an example, if I may. A poem that was written very recently refers us back to when I was a little boy. I talked about coloured pictures in children’s book and this poem is about coloured pictures in a particular book I was given when I was only about six or seven years old.

 

07:00 It was a children’s book about the life of Marco Polo, and the images from it and the story that it told made an indelible impression on me as the poem relates. It's simply called Little Marco.

 

07:12

I: Little Marco

The picture books of Lawrence Peach -

John Kenney’s pictures chiefly -

Filled my childish mind with coloured dreams

Of exotic countries and far off times –

Beginning with Marco Polo.

 

Travelling much, in intervening years,

I’ve marvelled, more than ever, as an elder,

At his images of Caesar and of Alfred;

Of Harry at Agincourt, Nelson at Trafalgar –

But, not least, of little Marco Polo.

 

The very opening pages show the boy

Crouching nimbly on the Venetian docks,

At the age I was when gaping first at him;

Looking with round-eyed wonder

At Chinese characters on a bale of silk.

 

‘Little Marco Polo,’ Peach intoned,

‘Whose father was a merchant, often stared

At the queer Chinese or Arabic writing’,

Pondering, as did I, from whence

These bales of wonder had derived.

 

Niccolo, his father, brought the bales

From the rim of the Euxine Sea,

Which Jason crossed, in fables, long ago;

But they’d come from farther, Peach related:

On the longest road from the farthest Eastern lands.

 

The ancient Silk Road led to Xanadu,

To the awesome Mongol courts of Kublai Khan

And there, Peach showed, the youthful Marco went

While I, all eyes, went with him on his journey

And, aye, have done, on all my travels since.

 

08:29 Nick: Yep. One thing that strikes me about that poem is the sense of wonderment and playfulness of the language and I suppose the child-like perspective. Could you reflect on the differences in your relationship to poetry when you were at the foothills of life to your perspective now, both in terms of the types of poetry you find fascinating and interesting and engaging now and I suppose the different levels of comprehension and understanding you have, having lived over, you know, five decades or so?

 

08:58 Paul: Yes. The first thought that springs to mind in answer to your question is that of course when you're very young, you're only beginning to master language itself, so you might exclaim joyously, you might have a lot of free emotion but you don't have a sophisticated vocabulary or capacity to express yourself.

 

09:17 Nick: The language lasso around a thought or feeling...

 

09:19 Paul: Yeah, you know, and you try and do it but there's a lot of learning to do. When you get to my age now - I'm in my sixties - it's very different if you've pursued education and been working at poetry, where you find and increasingly you have a superfluity of the capacity to express yourself and it becomes a matter of choosing the form of expression - the words you'll use, the rhythms that you'll use, the topics that you'll choose.

 

09:50 What's interesting in that case is that I was able to give expression to the experience that I had a long time ago which I couldn't have done when I was little but the feeling, the memory had always been there, and it's deepened in terms of meaning precisely because I'm looking back and so much has happened since.

 

10:07 Nick: Of course, many poets are able to write poetry by reflecting on experiences that they had thirty or forty years ago and infuse it with meaning in the present, but other poets of course write poetry or are inspired by current events and other people as well. Has that experience occurred to you as well?

 

10:24 Paul: Well, yes it did. Of course, when I was little like most of us, I was a child in a conservative family in a little community and so I had very limited experience of things that I might write poetry about as well as lacking the language and the skill to write poetry at all.

 

10:41 Having had quite an adventurous life, I've now got a super abundance of topics, but for many poets of course, it's very particular kinds of experience that prompt them to write poetry and famously, one of those experiences is you hit adolescence and you start getting smitten by members of the other sex or let it be said, members of your own, though that wasn't my experience.

 

11:05 It was certainly true for me that in adolescence - particularly late adolescence and early twenties - I did fall in love with women or girls that I wanted to write love poems but I didn't know how to do that well.

 

11:17 There were times when I would write a poem and even give it to a girl and get often confused responses which were a combination of, "So, why is he doing this? People don't do that in Australia," or, "It's a bit of a, you know, an awkward poem," you know, it's not a great poem or they might be touched by the fact that one had written a poem...

 

11:39 Nick: Not sure how to respond.

 

11:40 Paul: Not sure how to respond, right? So, one of the very - you know, looking back - very rich experiences I've had is gradually getting better at that so that I've now got to a point where the muse of the poems for whom I write my current poems is my wife. She is somebody with whom I have many shared memories and a very close relationship and a creative partnership, and so I don't have the problems I had as a fumbling adolescent, right? It's no longer a matter of adoration from a distance and writing something intense. It's a matter of putting into a form of words things that we've shared, things that we dream about together.

 

12:18 Nick: That question of audience - who the poem is written for on any creative work - is always quite an important one, isn't it?

 

12:25 Paul: It is, you know? I mean, a poet in one sense, I think it should be said, writes for themselves. So, you can look at almost any poet and they've had an experience. We'll come shortly to talk about say William Wordsworth and one or two of his poems where he's reflecting on an experience he has had, but other people when they read the poem can relate to that kind of experience and also to the beautiful expression that he gives to that kind of experience. They may even then go to the place where he was when he wrote such a poem in an effort to capture that kind of experience for themselves.

 

13:00 Nick: So, if we were to distil it into a definition, what is poetry? What is actually going on through this medium, this construction of human language?

 

13:08 Paul: I think the point of departure has to be that as human beings, we're language animals. Human beings have language and from the time we're born basically, we start learning it. We hear it, we pick it up, we acquire vocabulary, we start burbling away and then constructing phrases and sentences.

 

13:26 Poetry is an extension of that and it's very ancient in human experience, but another way to describe it and Edmund Muir, the Scottish poet, said this precisely about half a century ago is that poetry, when you stop and think about it, is like a combination of language and music and it used to generally be something that was chanted or sung. When it turns into something on the written page, you can't hear the music but it would normally have a musical pattern, a metrical pattern.

 

13:57 Nick: Providing it's read aloud, that can come through as well.

 

13:59 Paul: That's right, but if it's recited - and we still have performance poetry which is the case, where the rhythm of the language and the stanzas is very much part of the experience.

 

14:11 I think most people would concede that if such a poem or any form of words is put to actual music and performed, the music can really lift it up, you know? If you see a concert - one of my favourite examples of this is a concert that the Rolling Stones performed in Havana a couple of years ago. They start singing classic songs like Gimme Shelter or Brown Sugar and this audience – a huge audience, half a million Cubans - are dancing and singing along. They're ecstatic. Now, that couldn't happen if Mick Jagger stood at a microphone and recited the words. It just wouldn't happen, right? In fact, you might even listen to those words or read them on a page and think well that’s...

 

14:49 Nick: Quite bland...

 

14:50 Paul: Yeah, right. So, music is key and I think that when somebody listens to a poem, even if there isn't actual music - if it has musical characteristics, if it has a metrical pattern of an appropriate kind and rhyming language or assonance in it, those elements themselves musically affect the brain.

 

15:09 So, the answer to your question in short is that poetry is a human proclivity to be very expressive in language and try and communicate musically and meaningfully and not just informationally, and it’s heightened language.

 

15:25 Nick: Why has it been essential to human evolution? We think about hundreds of thousands of years ago in our development. What was it about music that preceded language and is so deeply rooted in our selves and our sense of connection with others but also the interior connection with ourselves or, dare I say it, a higher being or a higher reality?

 

15:45 Paul: Yes, that's a profound question. Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, remarked about sixty years ago, "Music is the supreme mystery of humanity." He was trying to figure out where did music come from because it's so pervasive and so integral to our way of being that we can forget that it is. We breathe like fish swim. We don't think about why do we do that?

 

16:09 There is an argument. Gary Tomlinson in a very recent book called A Million Years of Music - and he's a theorist of opera - advances this fascinating argument that music as such, that is the sense of rhythm and rhythmic motion, is older than language. So, when it gets us moving, when the crowd in Havana as I mentioned a moment ago start dancing, something quite profound and intrinsic to our humanity is taking place.

 

16:39 Poetry it seems to me is the interface between that very deep relatedness to rhythm and to the emotions that music can literally tap into and articulate speech. Therefore, if it's done properly, if it's done consciously, it can be really quite profound.

 

17:00 Nick: Do you have an example where that's done particularly well?

 

17:03 Paul: Yeah, there's a famous poem of Wordsworth which he wrote when he was still very young in 1798 called Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. He was walking into Wales with his sister, Dorothy, and he'd been there before some years ago, five years before. He was so moved standing, looking down at Tintern Abbey and its surrounds that he wrote this poem almost on the spot.

 

17:28 Anyway, it's opening lines read as follows:

 

Five years have passed, five summers with the length

Of five long winters and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain springs

With a sweet inland murmur – Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs

Which on a wild, secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky

 

17:52 That's Wordsworth more than 200 years ago, and I think if you talk with people who know their poetry, in particular English Romantic poetry, that poem about Tintern Abbey is one of the better-known ones.

 

18:06 It's evocative, not only of landscape but of the experience of landscape and the sense of nature and of personal being that it evoked for Wordsworth. So, it's a rather nice example of what poetry actually is.

 

18:23 If we move from Wordsworth specifically to the more general question of what poetry is, I think we could probably say three specific things. The first is that the mode of expression in poetry is meditative. It's rhythmic or as I said, a more or less musical use of language.

 

18:42 The second is that as we see in that fragment from Wordsworth, there is reflectiveness as distinct from reactiveness, so it's not just as it were an emotional exclamation or shout or something. It's the articulation, the putting into words of something that's otherwise inchoate but moving. In other words, it's an exercise you might say in extracting meaning and not only having sensations or impressions.

 

19:12 The third is that as we can see in Wordsworth's case because he opens with this very statement, there's a sense of time giving depth of meaning to what is seen and to being in the world.

 

19:25 One very famous exercise in that which is not normally regarded as poetry but which is highly poetic in the sense that I've been describing it in Marcel Proust's vast novel a hundred years ago In Search of Lost Time. The language he uses is exquisite and again and again, what he's doing is looking back on his childhood or his earlier life and remembering things that occurred and finding all sorts of meanings in it, precisely because he's looking back. It's not that he's recalling all those meanings from that moment. He's able to recall the meanings looking back - a) because he's had so much more experience, and b) because recalling it in the context of time makes it more poignant.

 

20:11 Nick: Just when we think back to you now writing poetry 40 or 50 years ago since your own childhood and the way that you're able to relive or reexperience those childhood memories which were they not given expression in the fullness of your language and poetic structure would be lost, but is that what's at work here as well? You can actually sort of come to relive and reexperience and feel again things that were lost to time?

 

20:37 Paul: Very much.

 

20:37 Nick: In Search of Lost Time and Proust, right?

 

20:38 Paul: Yes, precisely so. I mean, you're absolutely right. Take that little exercise with Marco Polo. It was a personal experience I had. Nobody but me had that precise experience. If it's not distilled into a form of words that has some structured characteristics, then it just disappears. It's gone.

 

20:59 Once it's put in that form of words, not only does it capture my experience but it's available to others who could then read that poem as they read say Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey poem and relate to the kind of thing that it's saying as well as being pleased one would like to think by the form in which it's stated.

 

21:17 Nick: But there are gradations of experience, right? I mean, one might have 80% of the experience of Wordsworth or Paul Monk or Mick Jagger's poetry but there's a sense of fully inhabiting a poem and its import, its meaning, which you can only fully experience having written the poem. Is that also your experience from being a reader to a creator of poetry?

 

21:39 Paul: There is that sense and certainly if you've written a poem that does capture well and express well an experience you've had, there can be a great deal of satisfaction I have found in going back to it and saying, "Wow, that gives form and structure and endurance to something that was otherwise ephemeral or inchoate."

 

22:00 But there's an important adjunct to this which is that other people, while they cannot - no matter how well you've written a poem - they cannot recapture your personal experience. What they can do however is first of all get some sense of your personal experience and sometimes it's a very fine expression of it, but above all it sharpens their own perceptions of what a poem is, of what that kind of experience is and they will carry away an interpretation of your poem in the same way that you have carried away the experience of the original incident, right? That's what meaning is all about. It's very subtle and enlivening.

 

22:38 Nick: Can you give us another example of the interconnectedness of this tradition, of this exchange across centuries and millennia?

 

22:44 Paul: Yes. There's a poem I wrote called How to Use Our Tongues which is in fact an exploration of the poetic tradition. What have we inherited? How did the capacity to write poetry develop?

 

22:59 This draws on a passage in Homer's very famous epic, The Odyssey, and ends up suggesting that not only can you appreciate his poem but through reading this particular passage in it, you can use it as a metaphor to understand what poetry as such actually is.

 

23:19 So, it goes like this:

 

XVII: How to use our tongues

There is a passage in the Odyssey

In which the beauties of Icmalius’ chair

Are brought before our eyes;

Almost so that we, in wonderment,

Like it’s fabled footrest,

Find ourselves mortised in the frame,

Draped with a heavy fleece

And listening, as Penelope

Instructs her house help, Eurynome,

To seat the guest for story.

 

Imagine that fine Icmalian craft

And conjure, in your mind, the scene in which

Penelope, in her own voice declares

‘I wish our guest to tell his story whole

And patiently to hear me out, as well,

As I’ll be full of questions, point by point.

I want him, seated in our polished chair,

To tell me of his travels, in good time.

For this stranger, who has come into our halls,

May know somewhat of Odysseus himself.’

 

All poetry is such an Icmalian chair:

Its music mortised into practiced frames;

Mellifluous rhyme and artful assonance

Cast over it, like Homer’s softened fleece.

Through aeons, both these crafts have been refined,

Since earlier than Gilgamesh or Ur

And they have fitly shaped the conversation,

From Pindar’s odes to Martial’s epigrams,

Of all that we call prosody or verse -

And taught us better how to use our tongues.

 

 

24:36 So, notice how in that poem I draw upon the rich tradition of other western poetry and how poetry itself has developed and how it works and how to do so, how to generate it in a poetic manner.

 

24:50 This is available in principle to us all but gaining access to this skill requires education which is to say being led into it from one or another of the Latin verb's educate, to lead or bring up, rear, raise or bring away. I think this goes to the heart of what we mean by culture or higher education or good education.

 

25:15 Nick: I'd like to come back to your own formative process in an educational and cultural sense but before we get there, I think it's worth thinking about some modern forms of poetry or post structuralist or perhaps post-modern poetry which struggles to I think satisfy a few of the criteria that you set up for poetry. Could you maybe reflect on the state of modern poetry and I guess how we sort of broaden the definition to include things which seem to be totally unstructured.

 

25:40 Paul: There's no question that in the 20th century particularly, in most fields of creative endeavour - poetry being only one, it's happened in music, it's happened in plastic and graphic art - there has been a breakage with traditions, with formalism.

 

25:56 Nick: An entropic sort of deterioration or decline, isn't it?

 

26:00 Paul: Well, that's the way it seems. I mean, people - others have insisted that it's breaking free and it's immensely creative and it's progressive and so forth. That's a debate one might have all on its own, but one way to put it without being excessively judgemental let's say is to liken what's been done in a lot of 20th century poetry or let's say modern poetry/modernist poetry, to let's say jazz.

 

26:32 I mean, when the saxophone was invented, when jazz started to be composed for that or other instruments, there were many people whose habituation was to classical music or romantic music who were horrified. They were, "This is not music, this is nonsense. This is anarchic."

 

26:48 Well, it was anarchic. Whether it was nonsense is another matter and many of us now think that jazz is a very fine mode of music and it's a very playful mode of music. So, it darts all over a melody, it lifts it up and raises it and varies it and so on.

 

27:02 So, in the best cases, a lot of let's call it post melodic poetry is doing with words, doing with the very idea of metre or meaning, things that are somewhat anarchic.

 

27:17 Nick: And sometimes it's absent of metre and rhyme and everything.

 

27:20 Paul: Exactly so, but if it's any good at all, it never the less impinges on our minds, our imaginations with its sharp use of language, with its very angularity, with violating expectations, with very colourful use or even novel uses....

 

27:40 Nick: Typographical arrangements and things...

 

27:41 Paul: Yeah, all sorts of things. I haven't myself written for the most part that kind of poetry and I have two feelings about that which are at loggerheads with one another. One is I don't really want to do that. I want to write something that's more intelligible and immediately accessible, and I want - because I do a lot of analytical work, I'm chary about writing stuff that's too hermetic or opaque because I think maybe it's just nonsense, maybe it doesn't mean anything at all. On the other hand...

 

28:11 Nick: Solipsistic and...

 

28:13 Paul: Yes, but there's another part of me of course which says well, let's be a bit more broad minded and experiment. Let's try out other things and see whether they work. So, there is in the body of work I'm preparing at the moment quite significant variation in rhyme, metre, rhythm, assonance, stanza length and construction. Not so far at least in what might be regarded as really radical and certainly not completely hermetic forms but certainly very experimental.

 

28:46 Nick: What springs to my mind is the relationship between form and structure and meaning and whether were you writing in the style of sort of post melodic form or formless poetry writing that's I suppose conventional now, you would be able to achieve the same levels of meaning as you have done so by replicating Shakespearian sonnets or Petrarchan sonnets or experimenting with sort of quite structured rhyme and metre forms from centuries and millennial ago. Even Sapphic Odes and things that I've seen you write as well. So, do you want to reflect on the relationship between form and meaning?

 

29:24 Paul: Yes. I think the first thing to say is that if you discard those forms of rhyme and metre or rhythm, you can lose the ear of the recipient because they can't follow the soundwaves. They can't absorb just the beauty of the use of language. They have to focus in on the meaning of specific words and they have to grope or search for what's really being said here.

 

29:53 I confess that in reading a number of 20th century poets, literate though I clearly am and attuned to what poetry is and what it's for, I often struggle to figure out what is this poet trying to communicate. That gives me pause and a friend said to me recently - and he's an intelligent man though he's not a poet but he said to me with regard to a particular poet whose work I had said I had difficulty understanding - he said, "Well, mate, if you can't figure it out, who can?"

 

30:25 But of course what modern music also did - you know atonal music and so on - is quite deliberately moving in that direction in order to challenge people to think and not just be more passive or conservative. Whether it's achieved that, whether that is a desirable way to go is a debate that's well worth having.

 

30:45 Nick: One thing I find fascinating about your poetry is it sort of stands outside of that linear progression of poetic forms across human civilisation. So, you know, it's one thing for poets of the 21st century in Melbourne, Australia, to sort of reflect the spirit of their times through the different modes and formal structures they apply or do not apply in their poetry. We can all agree it's kind of similar in the way they're going about it or you think about like Langston Hughes' poetry was very much a product of its time in its sort of shape and rhythm and feel, but yours is sort of somehow really quite interesting in that it sort of stands outside of all that and is sort of playful with different structures and ways of creating meaning which could go back millennia which I find interesting, but I always wondered why yours hasn't sort of, you know, become part of...

 

31:31 Paul: ... part of the flow. I would say the short answer to that is because I didn't grow up as part of an artistic movement. I didn't publish poems as a young person in journals. I had never been part of a literary clique that wanted to be fashionable. I have only come to poetry as an avocation outside of my analytical and historical work because I wanted to give expression to what I was experiencing. I wasn't trying to meet a fashionable criterion.

 

32:08 You know, when I wrote the Sonnets for example, I was fully conscious that really nobody writes sonnets anymore in Shakespearian mode, and I write in a preface to my book Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty why therefore did I write sonnets? Well, I wrote them to please myself. I wanted to see what it would be like to write sonnets in the manner that Shakespeare had, albeit with a contemporary vocabulary, and demonstrate to myself as much as anything that I could move around freely in the western cannon in terms of myth and poetic style.

 

32:37 I did that, and what other people make of it is a secondary consideration. To some extent now, what I'm doing is very much self-expression. It is a much wider range of that expression and of subject matter and I'm finding that a growing number of people are saying, "I really like what you're writing."

 

32:59 Nick: Yeah, and the primary motivator or inspiration behind your poetry as you mentioned is your wife, Claudia.

 

33:05 Paul: Yes, she is. This is something that arose over a period of time because she arrived in my life fortuitously 15 years ago and right from the get go, she was fascinated by what I did and the breadth of my reading.

 

33:24 Unlike any other woman that I had known, many of whom I had written poems for, she said to me, "You are a writer and a poet. That's what you should be. Don't just treat it as a sort of eccentric thing you do on the side or privately. Fulfil yourself, do it."

 

33:42 This was crystallised one day when I emerged from the office because I was working as a consultant. We met after work and I came out of the office with a suit and tie on and carrying a briefcase and she said to me as if it was with surprise, "You look like a businessman." I said, "Well, I am a businessman," and she said, "No, you’re a writer and a poet."

 

34:03 What's actually happened in the 10 or 12 years since then, more than that now actually, is that I've gradually come to identify myself as precisely that, as a writer and a poet. I've said to her recently she is the perfect muse because she not only sees in me what I have longed to be and have now in an important sense become, but she has encouraged it, cultivated it, challenged it. We've travelled together. We read things together. We talk about everything and so it's a fantastic partnership in that sense.

 

34:41 I'd like to share a poem with you that is called The Pact We Formed and it's a pact that I formed with Claudia who I should point out for your listeners - this will surprise a lot of people - lives in Venezuela. She lives on the other side of the world. We haven't cohabited now for more than a decade but we've grown closer, and that's a whole story in itself which you aren't going to hear but as a result of living apart, we've had to work very hard at what keeps us together and we have discovered that there are profound things that keep us together.

 

35:14 Three years ago, I went and visited her in Venezuela and then flew on from Venezuela to Brazil. When I landed in Rio, I had an experience that took me back six years to when she and I had been in Buenos Aires and this poem gives expression to that, and it means directly even in terms of language with Tintern Abbey, with the Wordsworth poem, because he begins five years ago and I begin this poem six years ago. Not to echo Wordsworth, it just so happens that we're having similar experiences and we're looking back in time as a reference point.

 

35:48 So, the poem goes as follows:

 

XXXVIII: The pact we’ve formed

 

Six years ago, in Kirchner’s Buenos Aires,

You turned to me and said, in a quiet tone,

‘Look carefully at all you see around,

Since this, as cities go, in all the Cone,

Is the finest and the grandest that you’ll see.

It’s all downhill in quality from here.’

 

But how, in saying such a scathing thing,

Could you have failed to take into account

Great Rio, with its beach and circling hills?

For, once one’s breathed the air of Ipanema

And heard Brazilian music in the streets,

I have to say, one takes a different view.

 

I drove in from Jobim by private cab

And revelled in the pulsing sense of place.

Confessing to imprisonment in English,

I told my man, in halting Spanish phrases,

That all the world finds Rio fascinating;

As much, in truth, as any city known.

 

He answered me in swishing Portuguese,

With warmth that showed he’d plainly understood

The root and sense of all I’d tried to say.

He pointed, then, to Corcovado Hill,

Upon which stands the giant, sculptured form

Of Cristo the Redeemer, as he’s called.

 

But it was not the sculpted, looming Christ

That made me feel redeemed on Rio’s strand.

It was, instead, Atlantic Avenue:

The beauteous sweep of Copacabana Beach;

It’s contrast with the grimness of Caracas –

And the pact we’ve formed for bravely thinking big.

 

 

37:09 Nick: It's very beautiful. I think it's rendered with more meaning, having heard the relationship that you and Claudia have had over the last 15 years or so, but when you mentioned that she was the one who said, you know, you were a writer and a poet and the way that actually gave you licence to subsequently go and create and I suppose become who you really are, it did immediately recall in my mind the Greek aphorism of Gnothi Seauton, ‘become who you are.’

 

37:43 I think it’s quite profound thinking back to the image of Claudia almost sort of uttering an incantation that you are a writer and a poet. It brought this into being and it made me think of the phrase which we have used before about living poetically, living one's life with a sense of heightened meaning and purpose but also sort of with the sense of now looking back on you and Claudia as almost characters in the story you both shared and that that you've independently but now you’re entwined in sort of a poem or a song together. Do you want to sort of reflect on those sentiments?

 

38:14 Paul: Yes, you've put it very well and in fact, Claudia has a gift for that kind of insight and challenging formulation. There was another occasion in which she said to me many years ago, "Do you realise that we are living a story that has not yet been written?"

 

38:32 She used to urge me to write stories and she still urges me to write our story and in a sense with the poems I'm doing that, at least in part, but the precise question you're asking is if you're living poetically, how does that occur? What does that mean?

 

38:51 Nick: But also looking at living as writing, right?

 

38:54 Paul: Yes, that's - well, if we're language beings and literate beings, there ought to be some kind of strong and positive correlation/relationship between language, writing and being, the way we live, but for many people those things become adrift. So, it's notorious that many people in terms of their everyday communication and in terms of their supposedly intimate relationships ended up stuck in banalities, right? They don't communicate in any depth; they don't have real intimacy.

 

39:25 Nick: When we think about social media and digital communications as sort of being circumscribing mediums by which we can communicate as well...

 

39:31 Paul: Well, that seems to me to aggravate the problem more than...

 

39:34 Nick: Yes, indeed.

 

39:34 Paul: But it's a very old human problem and the way I think about living poetically is that you live your story, so there's authenticity in this. It's not affectation. Certainly, one can write poetry in an affected manner and there are many people I think who have a view that poetry is artificial, that it's pretence, that it's fantasy, that it doesn't have any strong relationship with reality.

 

40:02 There are occasions where that well may be true and if people live their lives in a certain way that's not very poetic then they make it true, but suppose instead you live your life inside story and you're creating a story authentically with depth of meaning and you're giving expression to that story in your poetry, then I would say that's the real deal and that, I don't blush to say, is what I've been able to get to, and I recommend it to others. It's not easy. It's not a little game, right? It is real and it's challenging.

 

40:39 Nick: Do you mean to say that being able to write, think and feel poetry has heightened your everyday experience and also heightened your feeling of being in the world phenomenologically since childhood to adolescence to early adulthood and now maturity as well?

 

40:55 Paul: Yes. It means two things. One, as we said earlier, I have come to the point now where I can give articulate expression to things that previous I couldn't. You know, I would experience them but I couldn't give it articulate or poetic expression. Now, even looking back 50 or 60 years, I'm doing that.

 

41:11 But more importantly in a way, what I now find is that I can have an experience, I can have an encounter with somebody, I can reflect on an object - even a simple household object - and poetry just arises because I'm experiencing it as you say phenomenologically and so much more meaning comes alive for me than it does for people who for instance think of any given object around them, if they think about it all it's just an object.

 

41:39 Nick: A humble podcast microphone for instance.

 

41:41 Paul: Yeah. I mean, the way I think about objects, whether it be a podcast microphone or a teacup or whatever... [sirens in the distance]

 

41:47 Nick: This is thoroughly unpoetic. It's a horrible...

 

41:51 Paul: Well, you see there are assumptions built into saying that it's horribly unpoetic but think about it this way. Using your expression, phenomenologically, any given object we encounter - and a microphone is a perfectly good example - is phenomenal. It is an awesome thing when you stop and contemplate what brought this into being? Why is it possible? How is it possible to do what we're doing and recording something with considerable fidelity and considerable autonomy? This was not possible a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago. It wasn't possible in the ancient world, right? The technologies that we dispose of now when used intelligently, when appreciated sensitively are extraordinary.

 

42:32 Nick: It actually is extraordinary, isn't it, because it was a conversation we were having in your living room here in a beautiful corner of Melbourne which will be beamed out into the world and connect with other people who will be listening to this podcast and intellection and perhaps find some gradation of, understanding and resonance themselves.

 

42:51 Paul: I mean, that's the technological projection. That's what it's capable of doing, but when we talk about poetry here, I'm saying the meaning inherent in that object, its mere existence is a source for wonder. If we just stop and reflect for a moment, instead of taking it so entirely for granted that it's just some dull thing, right?

 

43:10 Experiencing life that way means when you encounter as for example we all do in Melbourne - you encounter someone who is a beggar, whose life has fallen apart for whatever reason. You could walk past them. You could have some stock standard or banal attitude towards beggars, or you can pause and reflect on what this signifies - this person, what background they've come from, how striking it is that there's such a contrast between their life and yours, to start imagining how might it be possible even in principle to resurrect that life, to do something for that person and what would it be and so on.

 

43:51 So, at every point in your life, whether you're eating, encountering people, using everyday objects or reading literature, this awakened sense of significance, meaning, perspective is what it means to live poetically. Then, giving expression to that by capturing your experience in articulate speech enables other people to share in those perceptions and perhaps to acquire through that sharing the very idea of doing that themselves and how you might experience life that way.

 

44:26 Nick: We've just been talking about living poetically and how you feel that you are now at this stage of your life able to do so. Have you given effect to this feeling or sensation in any poetry?

 

44:37 Paul: Yeah, I have and it won't surprise you if I say that the poems I've written along those lines have been very recent ones because it's only been in the last two years that I've reached this point of thinking I've arrived, I feel as though I am living poetically.

 

44:53 One of the poems I wrote only in the last six months or so is called Robert Graves on Majorca. Some of at least of your listeners will know that Robert Graves calls himself a poet and a novelist and a writer and a poet, as it were. He died in 1985 and he was very old when he died. He was one of the famous great war poets. You know, he emerged from the first world war and his initial poetry – mostly - was about that.

 

45:24 Then, he couldn't bring himself to stay in England, live in England. He wanted to be a writer of a distinctly kind of - he left England and went to the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean, and he spent most of the rest of his life living in Majorca with his muse, a woman called Laura Riding. He wrote most of his poetry and books about the nature of poetry and his famous novels like Claudius, Belisarius and so on, there in Majorca.

 

45:51 I wrote a poem called Robert Graves in Majorca because I was thinking and had thought for many years, "Gee, I'd like to be like Robert Graves. I'd like to go to a place like Majorca and just write poetry and write novels."

 

46:05 As you'll see or your listeners will hear in this poem, I reflect on that and then come to the realisation in the poem and at the end of the poem that actually, I don't need to go to Majorca because right here, right now is my Majorca; I’m doing this, right?

 

46:21 It was really nice to see that emerge in the poem because again I didn't mechanically conceive of that and then just sort of hack it out. I started writing about Graves in Majorca and then I realised as I wrote the poem where this was taking me.

 

46:34 It goes as follows:

 

XXIV: Robert Graves on Mallorca

Poetry is housed at Canallun, so Graves decreed -

Once at that faraway home, to which he’d fled

From the scars of war - and domesticity -

With a new muse and a fugitive longing:

To write in devotion, to sing history.

 

Deia, where he lived, sounds so like goddess;

And there, we know, he wrote his paean to her:

The White Goddess of his fond imagination -

The Moon, the Muse of ancient times;

To whom he could or would not say goodbye.

 

His grasp of myth was imprecise,

His arguments quite whimsical;

Yet here he walked, each morning,

Through the hills, down to the sea,

Read The Times and wrote prolifically.

 

Here, he later wrote, was such tranquillity

And that was why he made Mallorca home:

The sun, the sea, the hills and olive trees,

Sans politics and superfluous luxuries,

Gave him grace for memoir, myth and verse

 

I’ve longed for years for some such Canallun;

A writer’s refuge lived in with my muse -

A hamlet with a better Laura Riding -

But could I find it, would you choose

To dwell with me in hiding?

 

I first read Graves’s verse when I was young:

‘Love without hope’, ‘Lost love’, ‘One hard look’;

But now the notion tingles on my tongue

That these soft songs, the poems in this book,

Are our abode - our living Canallun.

 

 

48:04 So, notice that the poem draws upon not only the refined resources of languages but on the poetic past in the form of life and poetry of Robert Graves, imagined geography and personal memories of love and loss, ideally with poetic feeling but not least how as it concludes, it finds a surprising insight. One not anticipated at the beginning of the poem. Not obvious, but itself made in the process of rendering the reflection poetic; that one may long to be Graves or be on Majorca, but one's own poems such as this present one - are one's own Majorca, and one is a poet now.

 

48:43 Nick: I think that brings the arc of our conversation today, Paul, to a natural end but before we do wrap up today, I just wanted to ask a question not so much about poetry but literature and its status or I suppose utility as a human art form which enables knowledge of the self, of others across time and this has been reflected throughout a lot of your readings today, in paralleling your life to Graves or Wordsworth and so on or even Homer for instance, but its ability to kind of allow us to understand humanity and the human condition across the centuries and millennia.

 

49:25 So, the quote I'm going to read today to sort of kick off your subsequent reflections hopefully is one from one of my favourite books. It's Michel Houellebecq’s Submission which I reference a little bit too much around you, I think.

 

49:38 It goes as follows: "The special thing about literature, the major artform of a western civilisation now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy. Like literature, painting has the power to astonish and to make you see the world through fresh eyes but only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit as a whole, with all its witnesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettiness’s, its obsessions, its beliefs.

 

50:09 With whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant, only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave; a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you'd have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know."

 

50:31 So, what do you make of that? Does that sort of have resonance in you and your attitude toward literature?

 

50:38 Paul: It absolutely does and in three ways that I'd specify. The first is that I've always been a reader of literature and history. I was a precocious reader as a child and I completely relate to this idea of gaining access through the written word, a quality written word, to a world of reality and imagination that's otherwise just not there.

 

51:01 The second level which I relate to is that there have been particular works of literature which expanded my imagination way beyond what straightforward factual studies or discipline studies have done.

 

51:17 I feel as though I've said this a couple of times in interviews with you and I probably, if people are observing, say it a little too often but that's only to show how significant it actually was, and that is that when I was a very young boy, our fifth grade teacher read us a number of children's stories. I said to her in recent years that those stories made an indelible impression but above all, The Lord of the Rings which she read to the class, it just made a huge impression on my imagination as a child.

 

51:49 I should emphasise by way of closing out that second point that, that impact on my imagination was not such that it took me off into a fantasy world. I've not actually read a lot of fantasy literature. Rather, what the Lord of the Rings opened up to me was the very idea of a whole world, his imaginary and in miniature.

 

52:11 I thought to myself when I was still very young what would it be like if you had that kind of integrated, diachronic understanding, the understanding across time and history and meaning of the real world. I've spent my life trying to acquire that one and understanding.

 

52:27 The third and perhaps most important point is this and it's one that I would say I derive principally from reading the works of George Steiner many years ago. If we think of language as the way - I have some friends who are analytical philosophers, who do think of it this way - as a medium that is supposed to communicate simply straightforward, transparent, logical information, we thoroughly misunderstand what language is all about, to say nothing of literature.

 

52:55 As Stier used to argue, the whole point of language, the way it in fact works for human beings and what gives it its magic and its great power is that it defines our identity and our experience over, against and around and past and beyond objects. It isn't just about communicating truth or facts. It's about generating meaning and interpretation and alternative possibilities. That's what literature does if it's any good at all. That's what poetry does if it's any good at all.

 

53:23 So, metaphor and simile and the language of futurity and possibility, you know, the conjunctives mood - sorry, not the conjunctive; the subjunctive mood, octative mood. You know, the very idea of dream, of imagination is crucial to our capacity to set ourselves free, even in dire circumstances, by remembering and imagining and projecting and countering, alright? That's to live poetically if you can do that and if you can share it powerfully with others.

 

53:57 Nick: Thank you very much for your time today, Paul.

 

53:58 Paul: You're most welcome. It's always a pleasure.

2: On Sex, Love, and Poetry

Poet.jpg

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Interview with Dr Paul Monk

Melbourne
Saturday September 1, 2018
 

00:00 [Music - Angie, Rolling Stones]

 

00:30 That was the legendary Mick Jagger singing his wistful song, Angie, about a love that had slipped away. I've been fascinated about the elusive and profound nature of love ever since I read The Road Less Travelled by American psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, when I was a teenager. It's a stunning and mature work which, among other things, makes the distinction between sexual desire and romantic love.

 

00:55 I decided to interview my friend, Paul Monk, about this topic because aside from being a poet who has written a lot about love and infatuation, his own life has been a kind of road less travelled.

 

01:05 Nick: So, Paul, if you were to sum up love, you know, in a succinct manner, how would you do so?

 

01:08 Paul: Well, you know, as a poet I could - perhaps later I will - wax lyrical about that but it seems to me that there is a folk wisdom about this and I would be inclined to distil it into two quite simple maxims. They're not sentimental ones.

 

01:17 The first is that love will make a fool of you, but life is bleak without it. I think each in our own way we do experience the truth of this and it goes back a long time.

 

01:23 The second is that there is no remedy for mortality. We age, we die and that's in the best case, and the losses that are entailed in aging and dying are poignant. The things that are most poignant are the loss of the things and the people that we love.

 

01:42 Between those two maxims it seems to me one might claim to have summed up the importance of love to human beings and the depth of feelings that it stirs so that would be my summary, if you like.

 

01:50 Nick: Do you feel as though you’re able to articulate those two maxims as succinctly and eruditely as you have done so just now, having lived a lifetime in which you have experienced love and romance and intimacy and desire, and all various facets of human intimacy as opposed to when you were maybe 18 and sort of just setting out on life...

 

02:15 Paul: Absolutely. I mean, look, I would say - and I speak from personal experience in this - when you're 18/19/20, even well into your twenties, and people offer you stuff from wisdom literature or in many cases lines from poetry or offer you advice, it can sound cliched and weary and not very interesting because you are just - your hormones are raging, and you want love, you want passion, right? Everything in your being is screaming out for it.

 

02:49 After you've lived a few decades and lived and loved, you begin to understand why there is poetry and what is the difference between wisdom and superficiality and, you know to perhaps quote something that's overquoted, it was I believe John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," and that's absolutely been true in my case.

 

03:07 I had many plans and most of them came unglued. I had many loves and most of them came unglued and along the way I kept learning, and that's why such maxims now mean a great deal to me. They're not empty.

 

03:19 Nick: Yeah, something sort of comes through in those maxims but also in our various conversations is this - and the reference to the M. Scott Peck's work as well - is this dichotomy or definitional difference between love and sexuality or love and infatuation. Scott Peck famously refers to it as ‘the illusion of falling in love’. If you could set up the difference between love and desire, I mean, how would you do so?

 

03:49 Paul: Well, I think we need to think or let me put it more generously, we can think for the sake of clarity about this subject in terms of a kind of pyramid with three steps. The first is the biological world. Sexuality is biological. It's absolutely fundamental and the whole animal and plant kingdom is full of sexuality. Every spring, there's blooms to life and animals getting into the mating season.

 

04:10 The second level is the distinctively human. What is it that makes us any different from any other animal when it comes to attraction, to display, to courtship, to mating, the reproduction?

 

04:19 The third beyond those basic human characteristics is what is it that is possible for human beings, what heights can we rise to in the kind of love we can experience and give to others? And we might perhaps make progress by addressing those three steps, one after another.

 

04:35 Nick: So, if we were to begin with the biological - you referenced spring. It is the first day of Spring today in Melbourne though you wouldn't know it by the freezing cold temperatures outside. 

 

04:42 Paul: It's a Melbourne Spring, after all.

 

04:43 Nick: It is a Melbourne Spring indeed. It keeps you on your toes but if you were to give a lot of biological basis for sexuality and thereafter love and intimacy, how would you do so?

 

04:54 Paul: Well, if you look at the poetry, the song, literature of virtually every human culture on earth, one thing that springs to the eye straight away or the ear if you will is that sexuality constantly draws on metaphors from the natural world - of spring growth, of the winter of lost love, of the beauty of flowers and trees, of the magnificence of animals and their courtship rituals, of the beauty of various kinds of animals and their display, and human beings themselves of course give flowers in romance and dress themselves in finery and they display and they compete. So, this is age old.

 

05:50 What we've discovered in the last 150 years or so is the whole science of biological evolution which has thrown a lot of light on what's going on in the plant and animal world, on the nature of sexuality and has given us access if we take the trouble to inquire to a better understanding of the nature of sexuality and the traps it actually sets for the unweary because the whole thing about attraction, desire, the compulsion to sexuality and the consequences that flow from that is something we experience by trial and error in every generation and it's only by learning - hopefully before we've made fatal mistakes - that we can rise to a higher level and gain ourselves freedom and dignity. That's what the human thing is all about.

 

06:31 Nick: Sexuality and the compulsion towards romance and mateship and courtship is nothing more than, I guess, a function of life reproducing itself. Is that kind of what you're referring to?

 

06:40 Paul: At the most fundamental level, absolutely and unequivocally. And let's not consider that that's selling it short. You know, Nick Lane in a recent book called Life Ascending points out that there are two basic kinds of biological cell in the world. The prokaryotic cell which reproduces itself by cloning - bacteria do this - and the eukaryotic cell which reproduces by swapping genetic information and this is the foundation of sex. What we’re doing in sexual relations is swapping genetic material...

 

07:15 Nick: … eukariotically.

 

07:17 Paul: … eukariotically. and all animal life and plant life on the planet is essentially eukariotic so the profusion of colour, of display, of song - birdsong, etc., all the repertoire of human courtship and romantic behaviour...

 

07:34 Nick: All the beauty we see in the world really, isn't it?

 

07:35 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, Lane put this very well when he said sex makes the difference between a silent and introspective planet full of dour self-replicating things and the explosion of pleasure and glory all around us, alright?

 

07:48 Nick: That is amazing.

 

07:49 Paul: That is the biological reality.

 

07:49 Nick: That is incredible.

 

07:51 Paul: … and if we fail to understand that, not only do we not understand the natural world and other creatures, we fundamentally fail to understand ourselves.

 

08:01 Nick: So, if we were dour self-replicating beings, what's the point of it all? This seems like so much of our telos - our purpose in life seems to be partnership and romance and courtship and that kind of maybe sometimes get misconstrued with the, you know, sort of the external manifestations of love and romance and desire, right, rather than I guess the ultimate nuts and bolts of it, if you will, of actual reproduction.

 

08:34 Paul: Well, notoriously...

 

08:34 Nick: In a universe in which all we had to do was reproduce which we've acknowledged is the point of sex and attraction and whatever, why do I need all this fanfare?

 

08:42 Paul: … because otherwise we wouldn't bother. We have to be tricked into it. I mean, I'm perfectly serious. When you look at other living creatures, leaving aside human pretentions and illusions, our living creatures do these things, right?

 

08:56 … and they do it seasonally and males compete brutally and often, you know, for female favours. There are variations on the theme but one or other gender tends to engage in a great deal of display in terms of colour and physical beauty or dance or song and all sorts of things to attract a mate, alright? This is about reproduction, alright?

 

09:12 There's a wonderful book by Richard Prum which was published only a couple of years ago called The Evolution of Beauty and his argument is that we have neglected the role of beauty in mate selection and therefore in evolution to our cost, in terms of understanding ourselves and life on the planet.

 

09:29 … and I think if we do understand this, not only can we take these things more seriously, but we can also gain a certain amount of freedom from our own compulsive behaviours, right? We need to rise above the automatic to generate what's distinctively human which is a free and creative approach to the whole issue of desire, attraction...

 

09:58 Nick: … impulse.

 

09:58 Paul: … courtship, impulse exactly. So, not only in moral terms, but in poetic terms. In terms of making something of our lives that's distinctive and free and dignified and this is where the philosophy as well as the morality of sexuality kicks in and ultimately - and in my view at the pinnacle - where poetic creativity enters the picture.

 

10:27 Nick: That's all fascinating and I will touch on in the interview the nature of human love and what it means to be human and participating in this exchange but, you know, it's remarkable to thing that there are prokaryotic cells in the world which sort of fulfil the same function without all the circuitous and often painful and, you know, difficult...

 

10:50 Paul: … and very time consuming.

 

10:51 Nick: Yeah, and process of mating and falling in love or reproducing. So, I don't know, it's almost existential, like why are we eukaryotic and not prokaryotic? It's extraordinary and why is it that the eukaryotic cells seems to have attained a state of sort of primacy on planet Earth?

 

11:08 Paul: Well, there are two ways to answer that question. The first is that eukaryotic cellular structure and behaviour makes things possible that have never been achieved by prokaryotic cells and from any aesthetic point of view, if you were as it were, a godlike being looking at the planet, the emergence of eukaryotic cells and complex lifeforms is far more interesting than anything that happened before, alright?

 

11:30 … and if you're a human being and you take an interest in the natural world, you would surely reach the same conclusion.

 

11:34 On the other hand, from a prokaryotic point of view, all of this is in one sense a departure from the norm because for about two and a half billion years, the whole of life on earth consisted...

 

11:49 Nick: … prokaryotic.

 

11:50 Paul: … of prokaryotic cells, alright, and they had the planet to themselves.

 

11:54 Nick: Dour and grim and efficient.

 

11:58 Paul: Well, from our point of view but from their point of view, that's life, alright? 

 

12:03 Nick: … but why life? Yeah, go on. Let's not answer that.

 

12:06 Paul: Well, you might - of course, without digressing at too great length here, you might still ask as people do, okay so we're human and we have all these impulses and we do all of this stuff but what's the point? What is the meaning of life?

 

12:15 Nick: So it’s like telos before, what is the meaning essentially?

 

12:18 Paul: Well, now that's a whole big subject.

 

12:19 Nick: Another podcast.

 

12:20 Paul: It's one that philosophers and poets in their own way attempt to answer and at the very least, in the case of poetry, attempt to give a liveable answer here and now to that question.

 

12:30 … but to cap off an answer to your question about prokaryotic and eukaryotic - as you know at least but your listeners won't - one of my early poems is called Wekaryotes and it makes precisely this distinction and without reciting the whole poem, it opens by saying How would life be? Would it still be erotic had it made you only simply prokaryotic? 

 

12:55 Nick: This is an interesting point to jump off into the nature of human love rather than biological or material, functional love. What, if anything, distinguishes human love from everything else we see around us in the world, not just prokaryotic exchange but, you know, the love and the courtship rituals of lions for instance or ants or bees or whatever it might be? You know, when we speak about human love, do we mean anything beyond that in a different form?

 

13:26 Paul: Well, this is where we have to make a couple of distinctions. So, one way to answer your question is to say on the whole there isn't any very great distinction. If you look at the way birds or dolphins or whales or monkeys and others court one another, you can go into the insect world, there are countless variations on the theme. They differ in detail but fundamentally the same thing is happening. That is, on an intraspecies basis, male courts female or vice versa and they reproduce, and another generation grows and that's extraordinary as a phenomenon and then they grow up and they do the same thing all over again and it's been happening for millions and millions and millions of years.

 

14:01 Our species has been doing it for, well it's now estimated in the case of our particular species perhaps 300,000 years but our stories are almost entirely confined to the last few thousand because it's only then that we've had writing, but I would say this. 

 

14:19 At one level, generically speaking, there's no difference. We're just like other creatures in our own way but there is a sense in which what's different about human beings is that what's possible for human beings, not what happens automatically....

 

14:36 Nick: It's something you have to work at, it's not an impulse.

 

14:38 Paul: It has to be culturally and even personally generated in order to rise above the completely automatic and banal. In any given culture, overwhelmingly people go through the same rituals. Why? Because neither they nor the people around them have terribly much imagination in terms of making it in any way different. This is just what you do.

 

15:04 Physiologically, there are impulses. Culturally, there are rituals, and generation after generation, that's what they do, and it seems to add a certain amount of meaning to have rituals that go back at least decades, sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia.

 

15:19 What the poet tries to do is to give it a whole new meaning. What the philosopher tries to do is to understand what's really going on here and what's possible for human beings more generically is to keep rising through those levels of meaning and giving felt meaningful expression then to their personal love.

 

15:36 Nick: So, before we jumped into this interview, we sort of spoke about Plato's Symposium as the first or I guess the seminal work that tried to distil or unpack or define/understand this idea of human love. So, do you want to sort of speak about that?

 

15:49 Paul: Well, you know, it certainly wasn't the first attempt of course to do that. Human poets, long before Plato, had been attempting to give expression lyrically and reflectively to their experience of love and the possibilities of love and not just in the Greek world.

 

16:03 … but what's interesting about Plato's Symposium is that it consists of a dialogue among a number of educated Greeks at the height of the glory of Athens, the 5th century B.C. In fact, in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, the dialogue can be dated to 416 B.C., and several famous historic figures are present. Socrates is there. Aristophanes, who is the great comic playwright, is there. Agathon who is a tragic dramatist is there and he's won the prize at the Dionysian festival for his tragic drama. Alcibiades, the statesman, is there who is a young protégé of Socrates and they've had a kind of erotic involvement which Alcibiades reflects on.

 

16:48 … but the subject of their drinking party, their symposium, is this question, what is love? And Plato of course wrote it and it's a consummate work of dramatic art because he begins with love or Eros being described in fundamentally biological terms just as we have done. And Aristophanes who is a comic playwright has this hilarious scenario in which he says, you know, originally human beings didn't have four limbs, they had eight because they had two sets of genitalia and they were joined in such a way that they could copulate whenever they wanted, and they rolled around, tumbling around on their eight limbs.

 

17:29 Nick: Prokaryotically.

 

17:30 Paul: Well, not so much prokaryotically but certainly erotically, and Aristophanes says but the God's eventually became disgusted because there was this constant sexual congress and so they decided to crack down a little and they bisected all of these eight limbed human beings, the way he says you split an egg in half with a hair.

 

17:59 And as a consequence, he said human beings have ever since been running around looking for their other half and we feel very happy if we find our original half and we feel a great sense of unity and completeness but it's very hard to find our authentic other half. And it's complicated by the fact that some of us were originally two male bodies or two female bodies, not just one male and one female, and so we're attracted to our own sex.

 

18:22 This is quite an ingenious piece of writing and it's completely unashamed from the point of view of later puritanical morality and Agathon then speaks and he says in a very highbrow way that Eros is about all the highest ideals and the greatest fulfilments and happiness. And Socrates then says well, you know, that sounds find, but is it really true? And he reflects in a more analytical way on what's really going on, what love really is and perhaps what it's not.

 

18:50 And he ends up suggesting that there is something that's available here that the others had either failed to noticed or skimmed over and that is that yes, there's the biological and yes, human beings run around and they need to find another half as we even say now but he says there comes a point where you can realise that there is the beauty of another human being to which you're attracted but that rather than just feeling this compulsive attraction to an individuals, you notice that there is beauty in one, there is beauty in another, there is beauty in a third. In short, there is beauty as such and that it's beauty that really draws and that it's incidental in a sense which individual draws you or is idiosyncratic.

 

19:46 Once you realise that sororates, you can start to reflect that beauty in its own right and the creation and regeneration of the beautiful is what draws you. Well, he says, that can bring you to a whole new level of freedom and dignity as a human being and a commitment to creation and preservation of what is beautiful to treating the other as beautiful rather than simply desirable.

 

20:10 This makes the dialogue profound and then Alcibiades bursts in and he's drunk, and he's come late, and he hasn't overheard what's been said but he makes clear that, you know, Socrates is a rather strange individual, but he's had personal experience with Socrates. He says, you know take it from me, I tried to seduce Socrates and he wouldn't be seduced. He was trying to instruct me the whole time and I eventually realised that this was authentic, and this was a most unusual human being. I haven't been able to rise to the standards that he sets. I'm much more worldly but I think Socrates is extraordinary.

 

20:49 Now, that's a bold summary of the symposium but I mention it because of two things. One is that the view of sexuality is very candid. It's not puritanical and yet at the same time, we're being offered the possibility of a transcendence of let's call it animal sexuality. Not because one is condemning sexual desire but because one is seeing through and beyond it to human possibilities.

 

21:19 Later, in our culture Christianity and on the borderlands of Christianity but coming from the same biblical route, Islam, were much more inclined to be puritanical and condemnatory of sexual desire, much more haunted by it and ill at ease with it than you find in the symposium.

 

21:32 So, if we a refreshing and free approach to sexuality and love in our time, we could do a lot worse than begin with the symposium.

 

21:39 Nick: That's a fascinating summary of the philosophical nature of love, Paul, and made more astonishing by the fact that it was written 2400 years ago but supposing you were Alcibiades 2400 years ago, bursting in on the symposium, and you want to sort of outline what love means for you in terms of human possibilities as you references, what would you say? What has it meant for you?

 

21:59 Paul: Look, I would say that in a sense, every one of us who picks up the symposium now to read it is Alcibiades. We're bursting in on the drinking party which is already taking place and we come in with that kind of ingenuous and worldly question.

 

22:17 Socrates is offering a rarefied vision here. How do we rise to that standard? What does it mean for us? In my person case, of course I read the symposium a long time ago and I've always regarded it as a classic.

 

22:37 And to me, when I was younger and first read it, what it indicated was that sexual desire is an impulse that can lead us either to physiological entanglement and/or to a kind of sublimation of that desire, to an appreciation of the beauty of another person and a beauty of such which opens up being human in a whole other way.

 

23:11 And I wanted that for myself, but I wasn't sure as a young man, of course, how do you do that, and it took a long time. You know, I was a romantic from way back. I mean, I’ll never forget for example more than 30 years ago when I had an encounter with a woman who I went on later to write poems for and it was a case - a classic case - of being smitten. That I was standing in my dorm room at a university and she walked past my open door. I was talking to a male friend and she looked at me and smiled and, I tell you, I was smitten on the spot, just I thought wow and it was beauty that struck me. I didn't know the girl. I got to know her somewhat better later, but I was smitten by beauty and I had to wrestle from that point for several years with that smitten and the question of beauty and the other person and sexuality, and I tell you, it was a painful lesson and I wrote my first half decent poems in wrestling with that.

 

24:13 And that wasn't the first time I'd fallen in love and it certainly wasn't the last time, but it was an indelible moment and all those questions that were raised in The Symposium were being raised right there.

 

24:24 Nick: There's a really interesting distinction you've made just now through appreciating the beauty of another being just by virtue of themselves and appreciation of another being is almost like a vessel towards a form or an ideal realm of the beautiful which Plato refers to in The Symposium. Can you kind of - not necessarily with reference to that person in the example you just gave - but comment on that distinction and whether maybe Plato's - I don't know, it doesn't seem right to me in many ways, to think about other human beings as vessels to the beautiful, where we're actually in love with the form of beauty and the human particular is almost incidental.

 

24:59 Paul: I think there is a danger of that of course and if that is what happens, you can end up with a rather cold idea of beauty. So, we have to hold a certain tension between the transcendent vision and as you rightly say, the particular human being.

 

25:17 Nick: … which is the physical manifestation of that reality.

 

25:20 Paul: It's a mortal being with their own concerns and needs and an organic being. We're living beings. We're not abstract entities...

 

25:30 Nick: Yeah, who lives an individual life as unique as your own.

 

25:34 Paul: … and it's full of vulnerabilities and uncertainties and so a personal love is a way of the exploration and it's almost an infinite journey and potential into understanding and caring for and appreciating the complexity of another person. And the wonder of it is when that's reciprocated, when you find that the other person is...

 

25:56 Nick: Totally and completely.

 

25:56 Paul: … exploring you but if you can do that...

 

25:59 Nick: … and appreciating you and accepting you.

 

26:01 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, it's a fraught journey. We know this is not all, as we say, wine and roses but if we are operating at more or less this philosophical level as urged by Socrates, then I would say - and I would say this this as a matter of personal experience - while we love that individual, we can see the nature of love and the attempts we're making at loving in a transcendent context.

 

26:31 All the religions claim of course to do this in their own ways. The philosophy here is separate from and I would say free from any idea of punishment of hell or heaven, of angels or rituals. It's about real experience and how it can rise to a level of vision and appreciation and awe that otherwise is largely subconscious and strongly driven by biological impulses.

 

27:00 What we need to be able to do ideally is dance with the two and our most creative endeavours, our greatest achievements in music and poetry, in ballet, in dance, do exactly that.

 

27:11 Nick: So, I'm fascinated by the poetic, literary, musical, artistic expression of love which to me seems to be like another step on from - I think you articulated this earlier - but from the biological to the human nature of love which we've just touched on in the philosophical nature of love, but then there's this sort of like almost expressive transcendent kind of articulation of that human experience which I think not everyone can access but everyone can relate to. You know, we all love, you know, beautiful love songs or like we started the whole interview with Angie by Rolling Stones, right? So, there's something in that which kind of like distils in its purest form what it means to be human and someone who seeks to love and be beloved on this earth.

 

27:53 Paul: … and, you know, we asked before about whether there are differences between human beings and other creatures in this regard and I said well, at a very generic level, no. We just do in our own way what they all do in terms of courtship and mate selection and reproduction and the cycle of life, but we are a distinct species.

 

28:17 Now, two of the things that set us apart are language and music and they are key to our possibilities in the area that we're talking about in terms of love and vision and creativity because language is not as most of the sonic systems - birdsong or whale song - language is not limited in the ways those are to certain kinds of signal or expression.

 

28:49 Nick: … or expression or whatever, yep.

 

28:51 Paul: Language is generative of all sorts of subtleties and modes of reference to past, to future, to possibility and through it if we use it - and a poet uses it pre-eminently - we create meaning. We articular our experience. We have it shape than other people who are less perhaps linguistically gifted find that they want to inhabit. As you said, you know, you listen to a song, you know...

 

29:14 Nick: I suppose feeling these emotions I think are quite similar or...

 

29:17 Paul: Exactly and the music enhances that, and the musicologists and our theorists of music have been establishing in recent decades in terms of neuroscience and everything else that music seems to be even more deeply rooted in our being than language.

 

29:31 And one of the most fascinating ways this emerges is that people can have Alzheimer’s or dementia and they can seem far gone. They don't speak anymore. You start playing music and they'll tap their feet. Sometimes they'll even burst into song. You think they can't speak and they'll sing. This is extraordinary. This is music and music is distinctively in that sense human and we're only beginning to, as it were, do an archaeology of how did this come about?

 

29:54 That’s a profound area and when you see a concert and you see thousands of people responding to an elite musical performance and they're just profoundly physically moved by this - they dance, they chant, they're full of emotion.

 

30:15 Nick: It's rhythmic, it's primal.

 

30:17 Paul: Absolutely so and it's worth reflecting on that. You know, we talked about Plato and the sense of beauty. If you go to a concert, you can get carried away with the music. If you're also philosophical, you realise this is a profound experience and you get a kind of binocular vision of this, the immediate experience and the meaning of that experience. And if in addition you are a creative human being, you take it another level again, you contribute to that.

 

30:43 Nick: Before we move onto poetry and your experience of it, is it not also true that, you know, animals do experience love as well?

 

30:51 Paul: Yes, there's a continuum in life. You know, if I might put it this way, I briefly refer to my poem Eukaryotes and I asked will I still be erotic if we were prokaryotes instead of eukaryotes? And the answer in the poem is well, no, not really. But from that point where eukaryotic cells start to exchange information, there's this very long slope - we would say upwards slope - to creatures becoming more and more elaborate and experiencing life more and more fully, more and more emotionally.

 

31:35 And clearly that varies over a broad spectrum of lifeforms, but we know - every person who has paid the slightest attention knows that the animals we associate with - dogs famously, horses - we know in the wild elephants...

 

31:57 Nick: Whales, pigs, monkeys...

 

31:58 Paul: Whales, pigs, monkeys, etc., there's a lot of feeling there. There's a lot of sentience, a lot of awareness.

 

32:01 Nick: Capacity for suffering but also of love.

 

32:03 Paul: Clearly. I mean, dogs can be enormously affectionate and loyal. Elephants have long memory and we observe animals...

 

32:07 Nick: … grieving.

 

32:07 Paul: … in various kinds - grieving, mourning, mating, flirting. You know, monkeys famously and of course, they're very close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. So, the short answer to your question is absolutely and we've done a disservice to ourselves in the modern world where we've tended to see animals in a Cartesian sense as just unfeeling machines. That's simply not the case.

 

32:30 Now in the 21st century, some of us at least are edging back in another direction saying animals have rights, you know? They're sentient beings like us and we need to pay attention and give them more love and that industrial farming for example is simple criminal because of the pain and distortion it inflicts on animal lives.

 

32:47 And you can link that back to our central concern with human love by saying that if we treat another human being - any human being - simply as an object of physical exploitation.

 

33:01 Nick: Gratification.

 

33:02 Paul: Gratification, right. We are in a way doing to them what our industrial farmers do to chickens and pigs and so on. We're treating them as an unfeeling, pointless thing and that's the very opposite of love and physical abuse of another person should in no way be confused with love.

 

33:31 Nick: You said earlier when you were a young man, you felt these great set of impulses or a compulsion to write poetry, to give expression to the sort of rich feelings or this rich interior life that you had with regard to, you know, emotion and love and attraction to other women and so on.

 

33:46 Paul: Not other women because I'm a male, ha ha. You can leave that in, that will be funny.

 

33:53 Nick: I'll leave that in as well, but how did you get there? How did you sort of overcome the fact that when you first starting writing poetry or analytical writing about the nature of love - it was difficult and fumbling and maybe not altogether expressive and lucid as it clearly is today - so what was your sort of transformative slope, as it were?

 

34:15 Paul: Well, the simplest way to put it would be trial and error, you know? And I have to say that a thought that's occurred to me in recent years is if I had in fact succeeded in the ordinary romantic sense in any of my early loves and married in a conventional way and had children, etc., I wouldn't have become a poet. Almost certainly. I wouldn't have had the time. I wouldn't have learned enough. I wouldn't have had the leisure to practice. I wouldn't have had the, you know, varied experience that I've had with different woman, different loves, different kinds of failure and above all, I wouldn't have met the woman who finally has become my muse and who more than any other has inspired me to write good poetry and with whom I have a very authentic loving relationship.

 

35:16 It's in many ways deeply satisfying to be able to look back on that and see how much I've learned, often very painfully let it be said, but I do remember saying to a younger male friend about 20 years ago when he had lost a girlfriend who had left him, and he was desolate as one tends to be. I said my advice is exploit this for all it's worth by listening to the best soulful music and song which has been composed by people giving expression to what you're going through. Find the better poetry and take it to heart because you're discovering how real it is.

 

35:39 Nick: You can mine it and excavate it.

 

35:40 Paul: Absolutely, you can, and you build your own interior world. And I did do that and, you know, one early step along the way was almost fortuitous. I was staying at a university college 35 years ago and the English tutor in the college decided to run a sonnet competition and the girl I was seeing at the time said, "Are you going to write a sonnet?"

 

36:08 My initial response was no, I don't write poetry. You know, I'm a political scientist and historian and she said, "You're very good with words. I think you should have a go."

 

36:21 Nick: Amazing.

 

36:23 Paul: And I did. I wrote a sonnet and how did I get to write a sonnet? Well, first of all, one is supposed to write a sonnet. That was the competition but secondly, to teach myself I read Shakespeare’s sonnets. There's 154 of them. I read the lot.

 

36:39 By the time I had read all these sonnets I thought well I get the hang on this, this is what a sonnet is. Then I simply had a crack at writing one and it turned out to be a good one. From that point, over the years when I fell in love which I did many times, I would write sonnets.

 

36:51 It took me a long time before I became free enough emotionally and in terms of self-confidence to have a crack at other kinds of poems and it didn't really happen until I met my current partner and muse and she really lit up the landscape for me. So, I've written better and much more varied poetry with a whole variety of rhyme and metrical forms and themes and moods for her than for anyone else.

 

37:16 Nick: If you had to pick one to read now, what would you choose and let's have a read of it, I think.

 

37:22 Paul: Well, to kick it off with, I...

 

37:23 Nick: Here's one you prepared earlier.

 

37:25 Paul: Yes. Yeah, well we talked about biology as the foundation and about evolution and beauty and so on and there is a poem that I wrote a few years ago called Fire in the Wheel which is about exactly that. The central conceit of it is a poem is that the same couple - let it be said in this time of all sorts of gender variations that it's about a heterosexual couple, not a gay couple. I'm heterosexual, you know. People with different experiences and identities will write poetry about that. I'm uncomplicated in being heterosexual. This about a male and female who live through the whole human evolution over millions of years and it's addressed by the male partner to his beloved partner, looking over the many many millennial, the millions of years in which they have been reincarnated as it were again and again.

 

38:23 And so, it brings together the biological theme that I mentioned with this specifically human and then being upon, it instantiates a third, so it gives you the whole pyramid.

 

38:34 Nick: A very nice end way to sum up.

 

38:35 Paul: It reads as follows. I've loved you from the beginning with the simplest of gestures, with inarticulate cries, with unselfconscious mimicry. I've loved you since the first fire wielding when we yelled together at encircling beasts, feasted on fire roasted insects and nuts, huddled around the flames in awe. 

 

38:56 Was that Eden, that long-ago eon? As the hand formed, and the inner eye, the larynx and broker's brain, before ever we sang to one another. Or was Eden a time of hand-axes, as all this came together in our hearts and hunting, from old Andalucía to the Chinese rivers? 

 

39:13 What years those were of wide exploring. Eurasia was ours with new spheres, exulting in our uncanny craft, we wondered at what we were. Our long days fell like forest leaves. They endured like evergreens. Our fire circles lit the long nights, changing our dreams. 

 

39:32 Were those shimmering years, those many hundred millennia before our love made music, truly our golden age? Did you feel loved then, as the wide seas rose and fell, as the ice advanced and retreated, as the giant forests shifted again and again? Or was it only later that sentiment came and crooning, coaxed by oxytocin out of the flicker of long light under the waxing moon? Was I a caricature to your mind of all that was possible? Possible for a singing hominid under the sun. Was I stone in need of shaping? 

 

40:07 Ah, we buried each other many times, again and again with grief and ochre, over ages under the ageless stars, from [unclear] to [unclear]. Remember the times sheltered from the harsh climate shift in the north when we relished our little piece of Africa in Andalucía, those idyllic coasts and caves. 

 

40:27 But your love transformed me. Your call for songs and stories. You’re playing to me on bone flutes. Your vivid art of changing forms. We shook the shackles of the ancient trees, hailed the sky-god with high hands. We took to the open horizon, pitched bold camp on the stark step. 

 

40:46 There at last, you carved me into shape. Your love cut antler into a figurine and I, deer hunter, roamed forth graviton, making long lasting legends on the plains. You wove me a coat of wool, dyed in wondrous new colours, finer than any cured skin and I revelled in your homespun beauty. Even that was a long age of ardour under the high wheeling stars, rich with rumour of far mountains, with mammoth hunts and possibilities. 

 

41:15 Then the revolution came at last. The wheel. The mastering and mustery of horses, the making of wanes and war chariots, the being of bright, burnished bronze. Ah, sky-gods, the wheel and the horse brought an end to our long cycles. Ah, my lover with golden hair, the wheel set us rolling, riding, racing in the chariot of the sun, did it not? 

 

41:36 Since then, everything has gone in a flash. A riotous blur of songs and innovations, a nightmare of blood and terror. I've loved you from the beginning. Let's not now go under the wheel. All our myths are confused. I long only for your beauty.

 

41:57 Nick: That's a really, really stunning poem and I think - you know, not that I've read it recently - but it seems to me to be remarkable because it encapsulates the expansive feeling of love in the way that you've sort of straddled it or extended it, kneaded it, across space and time and matched it to the entire history of human evolution and development on the planet through the story of one love which is reincarnated and almost eternal and infinite which I think at its deepest expression, all love should be thought of in a metaphysical, eternal sense which transcends the brief time you have together on earth.

 

42:58 Paul: The immediate, and the banal.

 

42:59 Nick: The immediate, exactly. Well, not necessarily the banal, but the immediate and the confined, necessarily mortal nature of love. One thing that struck me as I was listening to that was the fact that, you know, the idea of being ground under the wheel - the wheel of life - was the fact that how many, you know, billions of stories - individual human stories and individual human loves - have there been on this planet since homo-sapiens or this animal - this human animal - sort of evolved consciousness and the ability to think in this manner. You know, and they’re all essentially ground into the dirt and then just sort of lost for all time. It's striking. If you think about it. One likes to think that one’s love transcends and it immortal and is eternal.

 

43:29 Paul: Well it's a conceit of course because it isn't but in cultural forms, whether a poem or a treatise like The Symposium or a great song, things can endure and be passed on long after the author is gone. You know, we could read a poem - for example, Shakespeare famously wrote a poem saying that his poem would immortalise the life of his beloved. We read the poem and we get his sentiment, but we haven't any idea who the beloved was.

 

44:03 Nick: No, exactly. But I suppose for Shakespeare in writing in, in any writing, perhaps it feels - perhaps it is a conceit, like a literary conceit, but you know, I do still feel as though for the author, when you set down and you express in writing - maybe in music or in art - that feeling and that relationship that you have with that particular person who hopefully if it was love, felt the same way about you, authentically. You know, one likes to think that it will endure in some way.

 

44:45 Paul: Well, think of it - here's another way to think about it. If we make up a melody in enthusiasm and if we're able to do that but we don't have any means to record it - we don't have notation, we don't have a recording device - it can disappear. We might even personally forget it. We whistle it to ourselves on a morning walk and then we can't set it down and we can't remember it after a little while, and we certainly can't share it readily with others. But if we had notation, we can write down the rudiments of it. Somebody else can then take that notation and say, "That's not bad but if you did this and this, you could enhance it," and then you get a musical ensemble and they start to perform it. And they said, "What if we added this instrument and that variation and this?" and it just becomes something bigger, right?

 

45:33 Nick: But in your example with Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty, it was almost metaphysical in a sense that the story behind your writing of that was you might explain yourself but your love that inspired that particular set of poems said that whatever comes with this, at least this will be like a lasting testament to our love. It doesn't matter if - no one reads this stuff. It was there, and you set it down in writing and it's almost enough for you...

 

46:00 Paul: Yes, that's of course - within literary human cultures, that's an ancient aspiration, you might say, or conceit. Specifically, what happened, and I did share this story with you was that - I must have written about 40 sonnets for this particular young woman a long time ago now and I was madly in love with her and she loved the poems. She loved the fact that I wrote them for her. She said to me things like, "Other men have written poems for me but never like these."

 

46:25 And then one particular night, she held up one of them on the piece of paper I'd written it on and waved it in the air and she said, "You must get these published then in years to come, whatever happens between you and me, I'll be able to hold up your book and say I inspired this."

 

46:38 That's a lovely thing to share and I did get them published eventually. Not the 40 but 12 of the best arranged in a sequence and illustrated and with commentary and it makes a lovely book.

 

46:54 We had long since gone our separate ways by the time that happened and I've no idea - I've lost track of her completely - I've no idea whether she ever got hold of the book but it's there. It does exist and for me at least, quite apart from whether she ever gets to hold it up and say that it inspired her - and I hope she does so, I hope that it consoles her, whatever the condition of her life now is - but for me it made something beautiful out of an ephemeral love affair that fell apart and left me heartbroken.

 

47:33 Nick: Yeah, so what do you say to those people who kind of are cynical and sceptical and say we don't really need love and it's all...

 

47:41 Paul: I would lay good money that they are being disingenuous but it's a defiant way - like in the old Simon and Garfunkel songs saying, you know, I'm a rock, I'm an island, I don't need love. They're fooling themselves. Either they actually do want it and they're defiantly pretending they don't or they're so shut down emotionally that they don't realise what they're missing and then one feels a little sad for them.

 

47:58 I would rather have the pain of unfulfilled passion or loss than not love and I've tried to express that in my poetry. If I may, if we have time, I'd like to add a second poem. This is one that I also wrote in recent years. It's called Dance me on down from Toledo and it attempts to capture this idea that once you've formed an intimate partnership and just to the extent that there really is love and it is working, it becomes a kind of dance.

 

48:28 Dance requires cooperation, you know? Even in most classical forms of dance, a man may lead but if a woman is not there with him and not moving with him, it doesn't work. So, it is with love.

 

48:46 So - pardon me - this one goes: “Come and dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Dance me speechless to high snow-capped mountains from which orchards and pastures are fed, and the cypresses, arches and fountains of Alhambra, the Isle of the Dead. There the rich Andalusian musers sing softly to all who can hear, though a pallid blue past still confuses the mind and the heart and the ear, for vengeful and dark Catholic violence five centuries since overthrew and condemned to the grave or to silence the voice of the Moor and the Jew. 

 

49:31 But dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Though golden Al-Andalus perished, suppressed by the cepted and crossed, the ballads and songs gypsies cherished plucked song lines from ruinous loss.

 

49:47 The spirit of Arabi lingers in the genius of Spanish guitar, in flamencos for feet and for fingers, in [unclear] and in [unclear]. Those flamencos and song lines in flower, the soul of Granada reborn so offended the fascists in power that they murdered poor [unclear] at dawn.

 

50:04 Still dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. From there, let's dance on out of reason with our hearts full of [unclear]’s deep song and to beauty has come into season and we know that that's where we belong.

 

50:23 While we dance, let's sustain that illusion with whatever good faith we can find. May our steps take us wide of confusion. May our love keep us blissfully blind. For to sing and to dance in our yearning, to share our deep song face to face, to glide into each twist and turning is to live with both freedom and grace.

 

50:49 And so dance me on down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. 

 

51:01 Nick: Stunning. 

 

51:04 I would think that there is another note which we might perhaps finish on that is to do with communicating and just intimacy. So, that last poem was about in a sense the movement of life, dealing with the twists and turns and challenges of life. But there's a very important sense in human love though not as we hinted earlier, altogether absent in the lives - emotional lives - of other animals with the dogs or whales, etc.

 

51:30 But that is that you want to be understood by the other person and you want to think that they want to be understood by you. There is very subtle elements to that and I've written a short poem which is actually a variation on a poem by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, and it's called So that you will hear me.

 

51:48 It goes like this: “So that you will hear me my words like lithe chameleons are changing shape and tone. Before you touched them, my words will murmured darkness and cold stone, but you soothed my psyche, persistently making murmurings light, lamps over the muttered. Now I want my words to say what I want to say to you so that I will hear you say that you want to hear me say them. I want my words to form a necklace of pearls for your hidden self, for your heart's throat.”

 

52:17 Nick: Stunning. Well, thank you very much for your time, Paul. As always, it's been a great pleasure.

4: On Living an Authentic Religious Life

Poet.jpg

Paul Monk on Living an Authentic Religious Life

 

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Eudaimonia, a podcast about people. My name is Nick and by hosting these conversations, I hope to engage with women and men who have led interesting and good lives and broadcast their stories to a wider audience for inspiration and interest.
The show takes its name from the Greek word meaning human flourishing and it is this theme which rests at the heart of the podcast.

 

00:20 My guest today is Dr Paul Monk, poet and polymath who has been a long-time friend and mentor of mine, who has just written his latest book which is called The Secret Gospel according to Mark: the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist. Welcome, Paul, to the podcast Eudaimonia. It's great to have you here and I was hoping you might be able to open up and firstly tell us a bit about yourself and also about the book which you've just written.

 

00:45 Paul: Thanks, Nick. It's good to be on Eudaimonia. This is the technology of our time and I think it's giving us a very flexible means through which to reach a wider audience. Briefly about myself, I set out many years ago after leaving school to get myself what you might call a liberal arts education. I wanted to understand western civilisation rather than just go into a profession. Meaning, truth and value were high on my agenda.

 

01:14 I did an arts degree in European history. I then did a doctorate at the Australian National University in international relations which was about US counter insurgency strategies throughout the Cold War. At that point, I thought I really better a job and I worked in the intelligence services for a number of years after that and they assigned me to work on east Asia.

 

01:31 After six years in the bureaucracy, I lost interest in being a bureaucrat, intelligence work or otherwise. Since then, over more than 20 years, I've worked as a consultant, I've taught in universities and I've written a string of books.

 

01:45 This latest book however takes me all the way back to before I launched into that liberal arts degree and in many ways, it tells the story of the person whose influence on me prompted me to want to do that. That man was a fellow called Mark O’Lachlan who taught me briefly for one semester in year twelve and made an indelible impression. I would never have anticipated 44 years ago that I'd end up writing his biography and indeed, all those years ago he hadn't done most of what I've described in the biography, but he became, after being my teacher, a mentor, a friend, a role model in a lot of ways and an inspiration. In this latest book, I've told the story of how he was all those things to me and as it turns out, to a great many other people as well.

 

02:34 Nick: It's an extraordinary summary and I guess a fascinating insight into how, you know, life can have sliding door moments where you incidentally meet someone. I met you at a pub in 2012 and, you know, we've since struck up an incredible friendship and relationship which has informed many aspects of my life. So, perhaps I'll be writing your biography one day.

 

02:54 Anyway, so could you maybe using that as a jumping off point about Mark, tell us a little bit about how and why he first made that big impact on you. Was it through the teaching of religion or science? I mean, what kind of was that moment in which you knew this was a special person?

 

03:10 Paul: Well, it's probably worth observing though I didn't know it at the time that he met me at Aquinas College in Ringwood in 1974 because he had in a sense been sent to Coventry. He was in a religious order and they sent him out to Aquinas by way in a sense of disciplining him because they thought that he was off the reservation a bit, he was too progressive in his thinking.

 

03:35 Nick: Heretical...

 

03:36 Paul: Heretical in a way, and they wanted to corral him. He says these days that they thought they were punishing him but in fact, it was providential sending him to Ringwood because he met me and my family, but that's all looking back.

 

03:54 At the time, he was sent out there in a teaching role. He was a science teacher, an excellent science teacher but I didn't study sciences. I met him in religion class and for only one semester in year twelve, but what he did in that class was transformative and it really lit a fuse. I might read just a paragraph from the book...

 

04:16 Nick: Wonderful.

 

04:16 Paul: ... where I'm making precisely this point. "I first encountered Mark when for a single semester he taught my year twelve humanities class, religious education, 43 years ago. I found him to be a teacher different from any other that I had had. He was tall, strongly built, spoke in a clear and authoritative voice and seemed to brim with vigorous ideas. At a defining moment, he stood before us with a book called African Genesis by Robert Ardrey and read to us its opening lines. Not in innocence and not in Asia was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the lakes of the Nile. Here we came about slowly, ever so slowly, on a sky swept savannah glowing with menace. Man is a fraction of the animal world. Our history is an afterthought no more tacked to an infinite calendar. We are not so unique as we should like to believe and if man in a time of need seeks deeper knowledge concerning himself, then he must explore those animal horizons from which we have made our quick little march.

 

05:17 He read these lines not as some mere academic book learning but as something fundamental to what we needed to understand as human beings. It was the winter of 1974 and this was revolutionary. No lay teacher, never mind any member of a religious order had ever brought evolutionary biology or the science of human origins into a religion class in my earlier schooling. Mark placed these profound matters front and centre and invited us to reflect upon them."

 

05:44 That in me ignited a passion to get to the bottom of the relationship between human evolution, religion and the history of our species that I have lived by to this day. That's why I undertook the studies that I did and it's what enabled me in the end to write Mark's story so many years later.

 

06:04 Nick: That's an extraordinary passage which has these incredible sorts of Shakespearian and Hamlet resonances as well in it but, yeah, certainly it's very moving to hear from you what a profound impact that that passage and Mark's role as an educator, pastor and teacher actually had on you as a young man.

 

06:22 Paul: Well, I should add that there was of course more than that. That was simply a signature moment which I've always remembered but he also brought into religion class an unusual sense of the real human meaning of various passages from the bible. No other religion teacher had brought the bible alive to me in the way that he did, not as a fundamentalist, not as a preacher, not as a dogmatist; as a human being.

 

06:47 There was passages from Isaiah, from Micah, from the gospel, from the actual apostles which he brought into religion class and discussed with us which have remained with me ever since. It was clear to me the better that I got to know him, that this wasn't just doctrine he was teaching, this was the way he lived.

 

07:04 Nick: Yet, this is all extraordinary because you were head altar boy and dux of the school and obviously Mark had that profound influence on you as a Christian teacher but you - I mean, this is just a tangential aside, but you did leave the Catholic church and are an avowed sort of atheist.

 

07:20 Paul: That's correct and this of course goes to the heart of the project because I found myself thinking Mark comes across as completely real and authentic as a human being, the values that he's espousing seem profound, but I cannot make a connection between those values and the dogmas that I'm supposed to recite and profess to believe and I can't make sense of this idea of god. So, I'm not going to keep going to church and saying I believe in god, the father almighty, when in fact I'm not even sure what all this means. In so far as I think I'm clear, I don't think I do believe that but I do believe in justice, in integrity, in compassion, you know, and Mark brought into religion class in addition to the bible and human evolution the novels of Albert Camus and the thinking of John Paul Sartre, these existentialist thinkers who had made an impression on him only a few years before and whom I'd really never heard of before then.

 

08:19 When I left school, as soon as I left school not only did I buy Ardrey's books and read them for myself, I bought the books of Camus and Sartre and I started to put, you know, get my hands on anything I could about what was the church, how did it come about in the first place.

 

08:33 When I went back to university, I studied classics, I studied philosophy, I did reformation history, I did modern revolutions because I wanted to understand quite literally what on earth is going on.

 

08:45 Nick: Extraordinary. So, just moving along in the interview, I mean, what are some of the things that seem to you to make his life extraordinary or worth writing a 700 word biography on which I think is really, you know, a testament to like this great gesture you've made for this incredible man obviously, telling a story about I suppose an unremarkable man in many ways because he's, you know, not a celebrity. He's not famous, he didn't accrue great wealth or fame or power, you know, and yet you say in the subtitle of the book Secret Gospel according to Mark, the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist. Why is he extraordinary?

 

09:25 Paul: I would say two levels and let me say, it's not a 700-word biography but a 700 page one.

 

09:31 Nick: Sorry, did I say word? Yeah, I can't edit that out unfortunately. Yeah, first time nerves.

 

09:35 Paul: That was a moment of humour.

 

09:38 Nick: It would be a very short biography, wouldn't it?

 

09:41 Paul: I think the thing that struck me about Mark from very early on was the breadth of his interests and the strength of his character. The combination of these two made a profound impression on me. Subsequent to that, he kept developing. He didn't remain static and he wasn't a figure in my past. We remained in touch and what I realised is that in addition to teaching science and teaching religion at school and doing that exceptionally well, he was an outstanding sports coach. He had been an outstanding athlete as a young man and then he became a scientist of world stature in his own right in marine biology. He became a great mentor of young Catholics in a youth movement called The Stranger Movement and many of them wrote letters to him which I got to read, you know, in recent years in which they testified to his unique impact on them as a person, for his intelligence, his care, his imagination, his freedom.

 

10:47 He also founded ecumenical communities so that he extended the reach of his Christian vision or his biblical vision if you like beyond the Catholic community in which he'd grown up and certainly beyond the male monastic order in which he'd been formed from a young age. He brought women as well as men into these communities. He brought non-Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Chinese, Thai, Korean, East Timorese into this community and he made that community work. Again, there are letters from numerous individuals from these different backgrounds testifying to what a remarkable father figure he was, what a great community leader, what a great mentor he was, what a splendid human being he was in terms of his humour, his compassion, his intelligence.

 

11:38 So, when you combine mentoring youth, family and communities, being a great teacher, being a great scientist, being a great sports coach and then you add yet another dimension, he became a pastoral counsellor for the psychiatrically afflicted and he did extraordinary things in that field. Once again, I have letters that people wrote to him or interviews that I did with them where they testify to his unique impact because of his capacity to reach out to such people as people, not as patients, not in terms of their illness but in terms of their humanity.

 

12:16 So, you can see from that spectrum of activities that he really has lived an extraordinary life in terms of range, doing more than most people do, but what's really extraordinary is that in every one of those fields, he has delivered with extraordinary integrity and effect in terms of other people, his impact on other people.

 

12:35 Nick:   He's a wonderful model I suppose for the types of lives we'd all like to live, you know, lives committed to ideals, great causes, other human beings, rather than I suppose the, you know, hum drum, you know, I guess tasks that sort of confront us day-to-day and week-to-week and month-and-month which we sort of just get through, right?

 

12:54 Paul:   I think that's true. We live in a culture that is very addicted to celebrity. So, a lot of people read glossy magazines. They're always reading about movie stars. They're reading about wealthy people. They're reading about famous people. What we know from these glossy magazines is first of all that a lot of that stuff is puffering, right? It's not even accurate or honest a lot of the time. Many of these celebrities actually live dysfunctional and unhappy lives. Their impact on others is as often destructive as it is creative or nourishing.

 

13:29 What's remarkable in Mark's case is that he has never been a celebrity. He's never sought celebrity. He has never sought high office even within his religious order, though he's had leadership positions. He has simply sought at every point to do what he felt was called to be done in terms of the biblical background from which he came, you know.

 

13:51 I can't emphasise this too strongly because most of us need models that are real, that are doable, that aren't fantasy land, right; that if we dream only of being an elite athlete or a Hollywood celebrity, we're in many respects off with the fairies. First of all, because it's out of the reach of most people and secondly, because it's often not what it's cooked up to be.

 

14:12 If on the other hand it's possible to live a life which has great impact and is intrinsically rewarding without any song and dance routine or puffery, then that's far more within our reach in principle and that's what Mark has done.

 

14:29 I want to share with you another aspect however of his life and this becomes crucial to understanding the richness of his life as he experienced it because not only was he so compassionate and such a great mentor to so many people, he had a great interest and has a great interest - he's now 83 - in the arts. He loves good cinema, good classical music, ballet, great art and this goes all the way back to when I first met him. It's always struck me that this range of interests on top of everything else contributes to how extraordinary a human being he is.

 

15:09 I'd like to read a brief passage which just - one of many which in the book illustrates this aspect of his life. This is the first time he travelled abroad. He went on what was called a tertiary trip, a study tour, with his order to Rome and got to see a bit of Europe. The passage I'm going to read is his first free day in Rome. It will give you some idea of the kind of mind we're talking about.

 

15:37 "On his first free day in the eternal city, the traveller visited the Pincio, the great hill that had been outside the old city walls during the early history of Rome but was the site of the fabled gardens of Lucullus from the first century BCE and was brought within the enlarged walls of the imperial city in the late third century CE.

 

15:56 What had been the gardens of Lucullus, including a fabulous villa and library coveted by others and eventually taken over by the empire, was by the last 20th century the Borghese Gardens which surrounded the Villa Borghese and the Borghese Gallery. All three would later become favourite haunts of the Christian brother on his returns to Rome.

 

16:14 His first visit was a reconnaissance. He moved quickly onto the Tiber, crossing it at the Ponte Cavour, then visited the Palace of Justice, the Castle of St Angelo, originally the Mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian built in the early 2nd century CE and then Vatican City.

 

16:30 Several days later, he travelled outside the city limits up into the Alban Hills and visited Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence away from the seasonal heat. There in a large courtyard, he heard an address by Pope Paul the Sixth to several thousand people from around Europe in Italian but simultaneously translated into German, English and Spanish.

 

16:51 He was stepping here into a quite extraordinary historical setting. Castel Gandolfo is a town that has grown up on the ruins of what long ago was an immense summer residence of the first century CE emperor Domtian which had occupied a staggering 14 square kilometres. Even earlier than that, it had been the site of ancient Alba Longa, dating back before the foundation of Rome itself.

 

17:14 Castel Gandolfo was built in the 12th century but acquired by the papacy when it ruled much of central Italy in the late 16th century. It was handed over to the Italian state as a museum in 2016 by Pope Francis.

 

17:27 Mark took daytrips south to Pompei and north to Assisi but within Rome, his attention was riveted by the endless architectural and art treasures of the ancient secular and perennial religious capital of the western world.

 

17:38 He visited the Capitoline Hill, gazing upon the imposing equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, then wandered through the Capitoline Museum and the Capitoline Picture Gallery, laying eyes for the first time on such classical works and sculpture as the Dying Gaul and Eros and Psyche. He was attended Verdi's La Traviata at the Teatro Eldesayo on 20th September, a production of the same composers Rigoletto on the 26th, a second performance of La Traviata on 3 October and a dance fiesta in the Alban Hills that evening.

 

18:10 In between, we find him at the National Museum of Villa Giulia, the National Modern Art Gallery, the Borghese Museum and Gallery and the Catacomb of St Priscilla. His interest in the arts was inexhaustible."

 

18:21 Nick:   That's extraordinary. The second sort of component to the sub-title which I wanted to come back to was this notion of him being a Catholic existentialist. Can you sort of reconcile those two terms for us here briefly?

 

18:34 Paul:   Yes, it's important to understand that Christian theology, Catholic theology in its foundational centuries was greatly shaped by Greek philosophy. In its earliest centuries, that was principally the philosophy of Plateau and Plutinis, the Neoplatonist. In the medi-evil period on the other hand, the writings of Aristotle were rediscovered and it started to become clear that Aristotle was a very different thinker to Plateau, much more of what we would call a secular thinker. There were people who feared that Aristotle's philosophy would pull the rug from under Christian belief. So, people called the scholastics set about trying to demonstrate that Aristotle's philosophy was perfectly consistent with Christian belief and used it to articulate it on a new basis.

 

19:23 Nick:   Aquinas and so forth.

 

19:24 Paul:   Thomas Aquinas is the most famous of the school men, the so-called scholastics. For centuries after that, most notably in the wake of the reformation with the counsel of Trent in the 16th century, scholasticism was the philosophy that defined Catholic belief and to a significant extent also, Protestant belief: Lutheranism and Calvinism.

 

19:42 However, in the 20th century, scholasticism had come under very substantial criticism in terms of epistemology, in terms of how we define what is truth. A number of philosophical schools grew up, the proponents of which one might say were not particularly religious and the same kind of challenge occurred for the church as it occurred in the med-evil period. How would you articulate Christian belief in terms of these philosophies to make them acceptable to or comprehensible to 20th century people?

 

20:15 One of the most notable such philosophies was existentialism. The difficulty with existentialism, unlike the other philosophy of Aristotle, is that it was somewhat vaguer, what exactly is existentialism? The simplest way to define it - and this was crucial to Mark's life - is that scholasticism basically says god is a thing out there, an existent entity in which one believes. The resurrection actually happened. The eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. The existentialist turn in theology is all of these things have to do with the human imagination. God is a projection of the human psyche as a conscious being in the world, the horizon of being; not a thing or an entity, external to a conversation among human beings.

 

21:01 The eucharist is a symbolic ritual about community, about being members of a body of Christ; that is to say, a redemptive community which we call the church. The resurrection is an event within the human mind in terms of our transcendence of the mundane and of the concern with mortality or of the carnal appetites rising above that despite for example the execution of Jesus, his presence animates the redemptive community called the church. That's an existentialist way of looking at it.

 

21:35 Karl Rahner was a distinguished Catholic existentialist theologian. Mark picked this up in the early 1970s because he started to ask himself I've taught these documents in scholastic terms, I've said I believe them but now that I ask myself what exactly do I believe, I find that I can't make sense of them in scholastic terms, because he was a modern man, because he was a scientist, because he was a highly intelligent and thoughtful person but perhaps existentially he could because if you could understand them in those terms, you could continue to live by the great values which he believed you were called to in that tradition and which he did live by.

 

22:15 So, from that point he tried to live out and find the existential meaning of the Catholic tradition, the biblical texts, the scriptures as they've been called. The argument I suppose I would say of my biography is that he did that with exceptional quality and integrity and that's what made his life a Catholic existentialist one as well as a humanly extraordinary one.

 

22:39 Nick:   This notion of living up to the example or stature of Christ. Is that right?

 

22:45 Paul:   Well, this is an idea that was put to him by the Wesleyan minister, Drew Le Lean, who was his supervisor when in 1991 already aged 55, he undertook clinical pastoral education to become a pastoral counsellor to the psychiatrically afflicted.

 

23:04 Drew said, you know, our call as pastoral ministers are to rise to the full stature of Christ. Now, if we took that in a scholastic sense, it would be a little difficult to understand what exactly it would mean and it might even seem a little blasphemous, Christ being the lord and god. You can't, in the nature of the case, rise to that stature.

 

23:27 If on the other hand we're talking about existential meaning, then Christ is the great myth that grew out of the exemplary life of Jesus of Nazareth and one endeavours to rise to the stature that that myth calls one to which is of compassion, of forgiveness, of healing the sick, of visiting the prisoner, of caring for the orphan and the widow, and it traditionally goes back before Jesus to Isaiah and Micah.

 

23:55 Mark undertook that and what we find in his ministry there is really quite extraordinary. Again, and again, he encountered people deeply afflicted; suicidal, depressed, schizophrenic, psychotic, and he was able to touch them as human beings in such a way that he won their love, their gratitude and their respect uniquely in that environment. I interviewed a number of these people who had actually been drawn back from the brink by his care to living more normal and even completely normal lives.

 

24:33 Nick:   Is this through his work as a pastoral counsellor for psychiatric patients?

 

24:36 Paul:   Indeed, it is. I'd like to share with you just as an illustration of a profound impact he had on some of these people, a letter that was written to him by a 20-year-old girl to whom he had been a counsellor. This is at Larundel Psychiatric Hospital as it then was. She was suicidal. She'd been sexually abused when very young and her life had become a psychological mess but he was able to find her and reach out to her in such a way that she saw him as unique. The tragic thing is that she took her own life unable to go on, but what I'm about to read is a letter that she wrote to him an arrange that he would get only after she had taken her life and these are a few words this brief letter, I think, conveys quite profoundly the impact that he was having on her as on others in aspiring to rise to the centre of Christ as Drew Le Lean had suggested.

 

25:42 The letter reads, "Dear Mark, I know you're probably angry and upset with me but it's because you couldn't possibly understand what it’s like to be me. I decided once and for all to end the nightmare and set myself free. Please forgive me. I want you to know that to me, you were the father I never had but always wanted. You made me feel so special and so happy. Whenever I was with you, the sun shone brightly and I felt safe and secure but you couldn't be around me all the time and I couldn't go on feeling the way I do.

 

26:14 I deliberately stayed away from you in the past weeks in the hope that the longer you didn't see me, the less upset you would be. I hope it worked. Thank you. Thank you, Mark, for all the wonderful times you shared with me and all the things you did for me. Apollo Bay was one of my all-time fondest memories when I said to you what I did in the kitchen that day, that I now felt able to give my life a go. I was really telling you the truth but, in the end, the urge to escape forever was too great. I love you, Mark. Your eternal friend, Kelly."

 

26:46 Nick:   That's very deeply moving.

 

26:48 Paul:   It's quite stunning, isn't it, because you think how could somebody write such a sweet letter, such a lucid letter written I should add in impeccable handwriting without errors or corrections...

 

27:01 Nick:   Recognising the significance of this man and his redemptive power in many ways.

 

27:04 Paul:   ... and then go and hang herself. It's...

 

27:06 Nick:   It's baffling.

 

27:08 Paul:   It's, you know, powerful.

 

27:09 Nick:   You mention in the epilogue that Mark maintains to this day - he's 83, I believe - this incredibly human warmth and, you know, supporting, reassuring educative sort of human qualities identified by Kelly in her letter all those years ago. Yet, despite all that he has seen in, you know, clinical, pastoral work in psychiatric hospitals and a whole range of other facets of his life as a Christian Brother in his order, he has become more melancholic in his later years. It's that sort of just I guess the accumulated weight of all that he's seen in terms of human suffering, that idea from Romans 8:18 and, you know, the world is groaning and we groan with it sort of thing or is it - is his melancholic, I don't know, disposition (not that he is a melancholic person, he's lovely) but, yeah, can you speak to that sense of sadness that he has?

 

28:07 Paul:   Yes, there are several strands to it. I should preface it by saying that over a long period, since he took the existentialist turn in the early 70s, he started to develop his science as an outlet for his passionate imagination as well as these other things. By the time he is becoming melancholic which I think is an accurate description of his mood in the last 10 years or so, he has published 65 scientific papers. He's given papers around the world…

 

28:44 Nick:   A world renowned scientist...

 

28:44 Paul:   He's done five stints of research at the Smithsonian, he's been on an expedition to the Antarctic, you know, he's very highly regarded. So, his life had expanded, his circle of friends had expanded, the gratitude coming back to him from all sorts of people was abundant and you would have thought that perhaps in those circumstances why would he be melancholy?

 

29:04 Well, the answer is twofold. One is that he had striven throughout those years to get his order to also rise to the full stature of Christ, to renew itself, to become more imaginative, to reach out more...

 

29:15 Nick:   The Christian brothers...

 

29:16 Paul:   The Christian brothers, to be less enclosed, less cloistered, less conservative. He'd had only moderate success and that weighed on him, that wore him down a bit so that by about 2008, he's in Washington doing research at the Smithsonian and he's writing back to his community saying that he can't do that anymore. It's almost become traumatic for him. He thinks that they don't want to hear what he has to say; they're not going to change and he's just got to put that aside. So, there's that strand to it.

 

29:47 The other strand is that he became more and more concerned that the world of mankind at large was not moving in a very promising direction, that ecologically we were devastating the planet in terms of going back to another species, in terms of the sustainability in the natural environment of our materials use and our appetites, in terms of I think what he perceived as our culture becoming more and more consumerist, not only in terms of materials but in terms of human relations.

 

30:22 Nick:   Yes, and he has this incredible grasp of quite literally like earth history because he does work in deep time given his scientific work with echinoderms and so on. You know, he's going back, you know, many, many millennia to different periods in, you know, the earth's biosphere and so on. So, he has this incredibly sense I guess of I guess of perspective for humanity, that idea in - that initial reading, was it Ardrey you read about our whole history is just like the last page turn in the book of the earth's history really.

 

30:52 Paul:   I think this is important. I don't think it's led to melancholy, I think that aspect of his life opened up horizons to him that are largely unguessed by those of a narrower outlook, but I haven't talked about the specific fact that you've just touched on which is his marine biological work and his reputation are linked to work on echinoderms, what many people would think of as sea stars though sea stars are only one kind of echinoderm.

 

31:23 The crucial thing here to pick up your hint is that echinoderms are an extremely ancient life form, that all the fila of echinoderms that are in existence today appeared what's known as the Cambrian explosion 545 million years ago.

 

31:41 Nick:   So, I was off when I said millennia....

 

31:42 Paul:   Indeed.

 

31:43 Nick:   Millions of years...

 

31:44 Paul:   Yes, it's hundreds of thousands of millennia, right. Echinoderms are very unusual creatures but among invertebrates - and this will really sound strange to our listeners - as Richard Dawkins points out in his book The Ancestor's Tale about evolution in general, echinoderms are among our closest relatives in the invertebrate kingdom.

 

32:14 Nick:   Is that right?

 

32:15 Paul:   This is one of the many counter intuitive aspects of what we've learned about genetics in by and large Mark's lifetime. So, he's been positioned a, in deep time; b, with exotic and very ancient creatures in deep time; c, those creatures have been sea creatures and the sea became more and more of a metaphor for him in terms of his dreams, in terms of meaning, in terms of ecology. He was at the cutting edge by the last 10 or 15 years of research on echinoderms and a significance of research for our understanding of life on earth, of conversation, of speciation, of environmentalism. So, he was getting his source of transcendence and depth of meaning and his sense of concern and melancholy at the same time.

 

33:11 Nick:   That's quite an extraordinary reflection. I really can't add much more to that. I mean, that's incredible. If I can sort of make a bizarre shift I suppose but all of what you just mentioned in many different buckets of conversation have sort of - you know, they sort of bespeak an incredible energy, a vitality, a - you know, an unerring sense of endeavour, all the while as a Christian brother which we've gently alluded to towards the end of the interview. Of course, that order prescribes that its members must be chaste, so without any sexual relations at all. Can you speak to that notion of chastity and I guess abstinence in the 21st century which is entirely unappealing and just not workable for many people? It's an outdated sort of concept and yet it seems to have underpinned, you know, his ability to be such a wonderful person without any kind of overlay of sexual relations at all. It's almost enabled him to be a more fuller human being but that's an uncomfortable thought, isn't it, because so much of our relations as human beings are tied up in sexual relations basically.

 

34:27 Paul:   Yes, they are. It's been a very notable phenomenon of western civilisation of let's say the last 100 years or so, that our culture has you would have to become more and more sexualised so that we're essentially told at one at the same time that sexual gratification is indispensable to the sanity and wellbeing or happiness of a human being and that what's generally called sexual repression, that is to say non-gratification, is simply unhealthy.

 

35:01 On the other hand, we now know with the 'we too' movement and all this other stuff, that there are all sorts of anxiety about sexual abuse, sexual licence, sleaze, etc. How do we strike the right balance?

 

35:18 Well, I know that when I first met Mark, you know, I was idealistic and I contemplated religious vocation but the central thought in my mind in the 70s was ‘but I'm not going to give you my sexuality.’ You know, I've always been a romantic and I thought, you know, why would I give up women? They seem to be the most extraordinary phenomenon in the world, you know?

 

35:42 So, I, you know, apart from the epistemological questions about theological belief, I thought no, I'm not going to go there.

 

35:47 Nick:   A bridge too far...

 

35:48 Paul:   Yeah, a bridge too far. However, I remained as I said in touch with Mark and he seemed to me to be different to any other religious figure I knew. I knew others - priests, brothers, nuns - who had taken vows. They didn't impress me as having the same qualities of personality so I wouldn't say that Mark was an exceptional person because he was religious or because he was chaste, he was an exceptional person who was religious and chaste but the way in which he lived out his vow chastity has been exemplary and it shows that this can be done. That's the point I would make.

 

36:27 I used to ask him all the way back in the late 70s why are you a Christian brother? Why did you do this? Why would you accept these vows? Why would you limit your life? His response then - and I would say this has remained the case - was ‘I'm not a Christian brother now for the reasons that I was when I took vows many years ago...’

 

36:44 Nick:   When he was 15...

 

36:45 Paul:   When he joined the order as a novice when he was 15 which was very, very young, but he said, you know, he was formed by men of character and intelligence and high ideals. We should make this clear, you know, at a time when there's this sense that too many religious figures seem to have infringed against canons of proprietary or even engaged in really criminal activity, that even according to the Royal Commission is still the distinct minority of religious figures. So, most of them - a great majority - have not been accused of any such thing. Mark stands further apart because not only is he not accused of such things, he has lived quite an exceptional life, a really virtuous life, right?

 

37:34 Let's come back to centre frame, alright? I know many people and particularly women, right, who testify to Mark's integrity, his virtue and also of course his virility. So, he hadn't withdrawn from sexuality out of incapacity or distaste, he was a great athlete and a virile man interested in human sexual relations and in culture more generally. So, he wasn't shut off, he wasn't blind to reality. He was looking it right in the eye and choosing freely to live this way in order to give to others and not succumb to basic appetites. That's exceptional at any time and not least in our time.

 

38:19 Nick:   It is.

 

38:20 Paul:   It's one of the reasons why telling his story was well worth doing.

 

38:24 Nick:   Just conscious of time, Paul. I want to sort of come back to the title of the book again which has sort of underpinned a lot of my questions today. You know, you call the book The Secret Gospel according to Mark. A couple of questions here which I hope you might be able to remember. I know you will, but firstly what do you mean by the gospel, like are you suggesting that there is some sort of message in his life which I actually think that answers itself, having just done this interview? In this book that you have written which is almost the gospel to - which has recorded the life of this sort of Christ-like figure frankly, what would that message be and what makes it a secret?

 

39:03 Paul:   Well, I got the idea for the title from Frank Commode’s book The Genesis of Secrecy where he says that in the 20th century, a guy called Morton Smith found in a monastery in Israel a letter or a copy of a letter - it was an 18th century copy of a letter - apparently written in Greek in the 2nd century by Clement of Alexandria, one of the great church fathers as we call them.

 

39:31 Clement in this letter had said that when St Mark wrote what we regard as the canonical gospel, he wrote it in Rome based on the reminiscences of St Peter, but when Peter was executed under Nero, Mark fled from Rome, went to Alexandria and there says Clement he wrote a second and secret gospel which is only made available for those being initiated into the deep mysteries.

 

39:56 Now, I thought to myself how tantalising is this? Given that the Mark of my story first of all is called Mark but secondly had been christened Peter, right? So, if you just look at his life, there's the...

 

40:09 Nick:   Peter Desmond O’Lachlan...

 

40:11 Paul:   Peter Desmond O’Lachlan is his name. His family to this day calls him Des, right, but he took the religious name, Mark. As Peter Desmond O’Lachlan, he was taken into the religious order and trained in scholastic theology in the old monastic, conservative tradition but over time, he rethought this and he thought to himself no, I think what the gospel surely really means, what this whole idea of Jesus as a salvific figure of the last supper and all the meanings we attach to it, they have an existential meaning. He tried to live that meaning out, not turn it into a doctrine that he sort of self-righteously preached to anybody which he never did. That's in a sense the secret gospel according to our Mark.

 

40:58 What I do towards the end of the book, having told the story of his life in its many dimension, is try to distil out so what are really talking about here? The answer is that Karl Rahner, the existentialist theologian, said if we retreat from the idea of god or deity and the sacred, we run the risk of regressing to just being clever animals with tools and weapons and appetites. We would lose our self of the transcendent.

 

41:26 So, I ask well maybe Rahner was onto something but let's look at Mark's life because what he did is he retreated more and more from that theological language. He was more and more immersed in human community, in human art, in human science and in the truths that science has made plain, did he regress? Demonstrably, in fact, he did not. Did he become merely a clever animal? No, he didn't. Did he lose his sense of transcendence? No, he didn't. This ought to be reassuring.

 

41:55 What Rahner had said is if you also disconnect from the idea of a personal god and god intervening in history as in a biblical tradition, then at best you will be left with natural religion where it is this world and its possibilities in which you seek your transcendence and your meaning.

 

42:16 Well, Mark did do that and one could say that by the 2010's, his religion was in a sense a natural religion but one nevertheless anchored in the greatest calls for justice, the greatest poetics, the greatest methodology if you will of the biblical tradition, but attached now to being a person informed by the scientific sense of deep time and actual ecology and the nature of the world. That seems to me distils the secret gospel so it is a hermeneutical one. It brings down to us in our time the values, the best insights that we can still find if we read what we've so often called the holy scripture but without the dogmas, without the mystagoguery, without the able authority, without the scholastic mystifications; you know the idea of transubstantiation, it's a stumbling block for non-Catholics.

 

43:13 Nick:   Literally eating the body of Christ and the blood of Christ...

 

43:14 Paul:   Body and blood of Christ, what can this possibly mean? It sounds like cannibalism, it sounds weird but if on the other hand - and there are hints of this even in the epistles of St Paul - what one means is that when we partake of last supper consuming bread and wine, we are members of the body of Christ; the mystical body which is the church, which is living differently. Well, that has some meaning.

 

43:38 Nick:   What I think also has meaning, Paul - and this is my final sort of point of today's interview - is that I think that the power of narrative - and you refer to this in the biography. The power of narrative for understanding and engagement is so much more compelling than rigorous, you know, schema of doctrine or ideology or dogma or whatever it might be and particularly those who sort of, you know, blandly just regurgitate what is sort of laid down to them. I think that, you know, stories like Mark's need to be told because it is frankly, I guess psychologically - or I don’t know in terms of engagement - how people relate. I think you'll actually find a lot more people who have lost, you know, touch with the Catholic church, with their faith, whatever it might be - Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and so on - really being inspired by this lived example of I just think a good human being which we should all aspire to be. So, that's what I - as a final reflection, do you have anything to add onto that?

 

44:46 Paul:   Yeah, I would say that is surely the case. You know, there's an old quip, you know, which points to hypocrisy when you accuse - when you say a certain individual who purports to be an authority is in effect saying do what I say, not what I do; in other words, don't look at my example, just follow my words.

 

45:07 With Mark, it's completely the other way around, right? He has never in all the years I've known him be someone to say this is the truth, take it from me.

 

45:15 Nick:   ... with deeds, not words.

 

45:17 Paul:   Absolutely right and even when he does as he has done exemplary things, he doesn't say you see, I'm the guy whose got it right. He just says well I think this is what I'm supposed to be doing; this is, you know, I'm seeking transcendence, I'm trying to form community. He doesn’t have tickets on himself.

 

45:35 Nick:   Earnest, authentic, genuine, hardworking, humble...

 

45:38 Paul:   Yeah, and you know, he's not seeking the limelight. What he hoped when he asked would I perhaps write his biography was that I could at least help to get the record clear and show what if anything had been the meaning of all the things he'd been trying to do.

 

45:58 Nick:   What does it add up to?

 

46:00 Paul:   Yeah, and I should - perhaps this is a good note in which to finish. So, the bottom line is well you can try things out, whether cynically or idealistically, whether dogmatically or open-mindedly but at the end of the day you have to ask does it work? Well, he founded these ecumenical communities which were clearly experimental. They weren't hippy communes; they weren't social utopias and they weren't monastic communities and they certainly weren't Celtic. They were communities in which people - men and women, old and young, Christian and non-Christian - could come together and what he was able to generate was a community. Always only a dozen or so people, the number of whom - well, not the number but the, you know, specific members of whom changed over time - they would come and go but the community worked.

 

46:51 In preparing the biography, I interviewed numerous people who had been members of his community at different stages. What they said is the community was a wonderful family like place to live, to be mentored, to feel safe; that Mark was like a father figure or a big brother; he was so caring, so competent, so full of humour and interest in his stories. This surely is a model worth looking at.

 

47:17 Then, I would say to some of these people so is it a model that can be replicated? Is this a way for more people in our society where so many people feel alone or uprooted, to be brought into communities that might give them a sense of belonging and identity and warmth and security?

 

47:34 The answer tended to be well it's a good idea in theory but without Mark, I'm not sure whether it would work, right? That's challenging, isn't it? So, can we as it were to use a contemporary term - can we clone Mark? If people look at his life, might they be inspired to say I'm not Mark but this kind of thing is worth doing?

 

47:58 Nick:   Living up to the stature of Mark.

 

48:00 Paul:   Yes, exactly, so that's what the biography perhaps is asking people.

 

48:06 Nick:   Yeah, well it's an extraordinary gift and an incredible gesture. I think it's deeply humbling for him to have someone write about his life in such detail with such depth of understanding, feeling and an incredible understanding of the great sort of seismic forces that are at any stage of human history operating on and influencing the individual. We tend to, you know, labour this idea of, you know, man is, you know, the maker of his own fortune, the artisan of his own fortune but, you know, yes we have faculty within us to do certain things but ultimately we are subject to forces which are incomprehensible and far greater than, you know, the sum total of the actions of our own individual endeavours.

 

48:55 I think you've taken both those things into consideration. You know, Mark as the man and the individual but also, it's this incredible sweep of philosophy, theology, economics, social changes, academic shifts and other social - I think I've already mentioned that - upheaval. So, it's a unique work I think, Paul, and I do thank you very much for being here today to explain it. I hope that we can help Mark's legacy live on through not only the gospel, The Secret Gospel According to Mark, which you've published and is available online but also through this podcast which might broaden the sort of set of listeners a little bit wider.

 

49:36 Paul:   Yeah, and we should point out to your listeners of course that they won't find the book if they go into their favourite bookshop but they will find it online. It's available on a print on demand basis through all the major online retailers - Amazon, Book Depository, Angus and Robertson, Barnes and Noble. For those who are a little finicky about cost, it's a big lavishly illustrated and expensive book but this winter, we hope to produce both a paperback and a kindle version. They won't have all the photographs, they won't have the maps, they won't have the appendices but you'll get the main text, so you can choose.

 

50:13 Nick:   Perfect. Alright, thank you very much, Paul.

 - Ends