Wise words from Shirley Hazzard

Speaking to our condition

Dipping into Shirley Hazard’s Boyer Lectures, written in 1984, some useful thoughts about the voice debate turned up.

From the chapter Australia and the Menace of Eternal Youth

As Australia emerged from the first hard decades we had the experience, the inventions, and the institutions of many centuries to draw upon…as a bounty of knowledge, of tested benefits and ideals. Here in Australia we inherited a vocabulary …for reasoning and reflecting for every known form of civilised activity.  

We have a key to understanding ourselves and our responsibilities…The entire apparatus of the world culture…is at the disposal of Australia, inviting her to enrich it with her own discoveries. Historically, nations had to evolve respectable standards only with the suffering and toil…of  how many centuries arriving at some agreement of order through terrible chronicles of wrong. Australia was spared that immemorial burden.

We were lucky too in the English language in its flexibility and hospitality, its magnificent inexhaustible literature, and incomparable access it provides as lingua franca throughout the world.  For all this some nod of appreciation must be due to fate. It is never advisable to ignore or undervalue the gifts of the gods. [dead white males?!]

Australians who have repudiated expressions such as Abo or Jap may one day find the courage to renounce the term Pom which embodies surely the same unthinking hostility and xenophobia channelled into currently approved expression:  the inability to live without an enemy. Observing Australia on that particular theme can sometimes be a disturbing affair. At such moments one even feel that hatred is being gratuitously kindled here for the gratification of dubious emotions, and at times with relish: that reason and self-awareness are set aside in order to indulge a resentment which fears to look inward to know itself and be healed.

From chapter 4 to live without an enemy

Poets and philosophers throughout the centuries have urged us to mistrust whatever too easily fires our sense of our own righteousness. To question the source of our promptest emotions lest they should derive from self flattery. In these days we are deluged with incitements to vicarious heroics by reports and depictions of terrible wrongs which wring our sentiments but cost us no sacrifice. We surface from these immersions as if from a play or a film that has moved us, imagining that by our indignation and emotion we have actually performed some moral action but if our moral outrage is to have meaning, to amount to something more than self-dramatisation, then the conduct of our daily lives will reflect it. If we are in earnest about all of this, will we not hesitate before adding our own private particle to the mockery and hatred in the world. After all it is fairly easy to look at the past with insight and virtue, we all know what should have been done. The difficulty is to bring that large clear-eyed view, that generous humanity and that humility to bear on the present moment and the future where it might truly serve us.

History suggests to us the terrible possibility the humankind cannot live without an enemy: that deprived of one antagonist we will soon settle for on another and that our individual lives set the scene for this tragedy with the little private wars we are forever declaring among ourselves. If we are not to except that fated view of our past and our future we must learn to develop our faculties – to open our eyes and ears and minds.  We need to listen and to inquire. To have thoughts in which we have no enemies. To equip ourselves for living to the full in Australia and world.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Wally Dalí
Wally Dalí
September 25, 2023 8:09 am

Magnificent. Great find, Rafe.
reports and depictions of terrible wrongs which wring our sentiments but cost us no sacrifice
Indeed the devils invoked, and the deliverance promised, by Voice reminds me daily of Dickens’ Mrs Jellyby.

September 25, 2023 8:34 am

Much appreciated

September 25, 2023 9:29 am

Very interesting.

Thanks Rafe.

September 25, 2023 10:15 am

Brilliant piece Rafe.
Thanks very much for posting it.

September 25, 2023 4:29 pm

IIRC, Shirley Hazzard grew up in South Africa, and saw at first hand how dangerous race based politics can be.

October 19, 2023 8:40 pm

So how is Israel to live without an enemy? Is living with out an enemy and western world concept?

October 19, 2023 8:40 pm

oops, a liberal and western world concept?

  1. On the other hand, last year OzPost issued two designs of Remembrance Day stamps – one with a red poppy…

  2. I get the impression that instead of “swearing an oath” you need to plead Democrat or Republican to decide guilty…

  3. Who’da thunk it ..! A gummint business that understands economics .. LOL! In 2012 the ROYAL AUSTRALIAN MINT issued its…

  4. Demons of Munich massacre put Israel on edge for OlympicsSecurity in Paris is focused on keeping the terrorists out. But…

Oh, you think that, do you? Care to put it on record?x