Lost capacity to see life in its vivid array

Renowned Australian author and historian Richard Flanagan has published a new book titled: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams.

He joined Richard Fidler on ABC radio and what follows is a selection of extracts from this Conversations interview.

(The) Title comes from a poem by John Clare known as the peasant poet, who noted that ‘there were unenclosed areas of Britain, that is, there was still land that was held in common, and in his life time, they were enclosed which meant they were fenced off and became private property, and what had formerly been communal activities, became the crimes of trespass, theft and poaching.  And these common lands – the people had a relationship with them, not dissimilar to the relationship indigenous people had here with their country. It was deeply felt, it was spiritual, it was clearly seen to be one.  And (even today) Clare’s poems are very much about this world.’   

‘ …. Under this new system, the land was destroyed and something within him (Clare) broke and he went mad.  His poetry about the land, the birds, the trees, love, friends – I think it speaks very powerfully to us today, when we are seeing something similar happen once more.’

‘We are seeing much of what of our lives that hadn’t been the property of profit and loss, becoming monetised — our emotions, our feelings, our moods have become part of the profit and loss ledgers of the great internet companies — we know your nightmares and we will use them.  They are being used against us and they are being used to make money.’

When we see everything in purely material terms, we end up living in a system where everything is measured materially, and unless you could be measured materially, unless what you did had an economic function, then society placed no value on you or the things that you actually value, and so we’ve come to a crisis that is existential where the very world is being destroyed, simply because it makes money for a few people.  And even though people are both terrified and heart sick about this, they can’t oppose it unless they can see a new politic which speaks to larger values than the purely economic and the purely material.

Scientist Pete Davies took Richard Flanagan into the South-West of Tasmania where he wanted to show Richard that the area was dying

So much around me, so many beautiful things that I loved were all vanishing – plants, animals, birds – they were all vanishing.  All these things I loved, I realized my grandchildren would never see.  And I had this scream building within me that I had to respond to.

The fires of last summer have told us that we have gone to some new place.

Later the story of a fellow dying …

‘There was a rich patriarch of a very wealthy family.  He was dying and had been brought into hospital. He was ready to die and the medical wisdom was that there was nothing more that could be done for him, but rather than palliate him, it offended his children somehow that he would die, and so instead of letting him die, they used all their power and influence to negate the medical advice.  And to not so much allow him to live, but to condemn him to a living death, where he didn’t really live but he couldn’t die.  It seemed to be a situation that speaks to us of our age.  Why would people be offended by the idea of their parents dying? Why would you inflict such suffering in the name of a perverted love?  It seemed to me that we no longer know how to die, because we no longer know how to live.  We can no longer accept what is around us, with a sense of grateful wonder.  We are no longer able to see the beauty that is everywhere, in our friends, in the small things of life.  We’ve lost the capacity to see life in its vivid array.  And also the passage of time, that’s also a part of life.

And later …

In a time as absurd and as unrealistic as what we are now living through, the worst way you could seek to describe it is realistically.  You need a story grounded in the absurd to do justice to the times.  Perhaps it’s the job of the novel to allow readers to view their world a slant, to tear the cataracts away from their eyes so they see, they pay attention properly to their world, to see that what they thought it was, it wasn’t.  And really when you look around, so much is vanishing, and we pay it no heed.  Not just some of us, all us pay it no heed.  We return to the minutia of our lives and pretend that there’s not this extraordinary crash in animal population, in bird populations, in insect populations.  If we stop to think about, most of us are aware that things are not as they were 10 or 20 years ago, that something dreadfully is changing, but we pretend that life will go on, but life won’t go on.  That’s the terrible dilemma we face unless we act.

We describe things in ways that are not true and yet despite what is staring us in the face, we choose to see otherwise. 

When we pay attention to things, we find that nothing is as we thought it was, because we just use convenient shorthand.  But sometimes it matters to see things as they are.  It matters to see what is disappearing.  Because if we don’t we to will be condemned to the vanishing.  Even the eminent figure Dr Thouchi, the much maligned doctor, said that coronavirus is just a consequence of the environmental crisis and that there will be more of these pandemics if we keep on despoiling the environment.  So these things are not separate of us.  We have to see the world as it is, and us as a part of it and not separate from it.

And later .. ‘scared of beauty’ …

‘… there’s so much that’s so beautiful, but there’s always this desire to destroy it. I feel it’s not just economic,  I feel there’s something about beauty that is a truth, and in that truth is hope, because you can’t deny something that has an existence which exists beyond the purely material, which does something to help your soul, to help you live in a way that uplifts you.  And beauty is a deeply unfashionable idea, and yet when we see it, and when we are within it, it moves us deeply. And I wonder why the most beautiful places and things are often the first to be destroyed.  And I think it is because it shames the way we live.  Because if we honoured beauty we would have to live differently. We’d have to live better.  We’d have to pay attention a lot more, and so I think honouring beauty is very important.

And later …  ‘City in the flank of mountain’

Gross state product can up but people can be poorer. They seem more miserable.  And the pleasures and joys of the past are vanishing.

… some can’t stand the unique, the different. They want to render everything ubiquitous and mediocre.  But ordinary people place a value beyond dollars and cents on places that they just want to sell off.

And later …

Everything is absurd until it happens.  Once something has happened it is taken for granted as inevitable. We only see it as inevitable that the English came here and invaded and 200 years later we have this English influenced society that displaced the Aboriginals.  Nothing is inevitable.  Later we invent mythologies that claim that it was always going to be and there could be no other way.

Listen to the program at this link:


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