|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 10, 2000
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Some of these changes to universities had begun while you were still there. What effect did they have on you as a person working in that environment?
The only real effect on me was that the size of my classes went up, a bit. Now what's interesting about that is that say you've got 45, 50 students in a subject and you teach them in three or four groups, you can in fact keep in touch with every one of those students. You know them. There's a bit of selection goes on because people can drop out of subject a fortnight after it's begun, so the people who couldn't stand me or my style could get out so the people who were left were ready to be committed. Now when you take those numbers add in 15 more you lose not just 15 students in understanding, you know, mental contact, you go down to about 15 to 20 that you really know. It's a very curious thing the way the - what's possible in terms of close relationships, shifts and I was beginning to feel that but because I taught in workshops they were more flexible. I could take in more people but the work burden began to be oppressive instead of a pleasure. Otherwise I was pretty protected because I could always fill my quotas with my exotic subjects and I was extremely recalcitrant about doing anything I didn't want to do. My view that you have to learn to say no very firmly, very early - and you see the people who were in real trouble were people who couldn't fill their quotas and therefore they'd be shipped into another subject to fill in, which is a hard thing to do if you really care about teaching. So I managed to escape and ours was a very compassionate department which lasted longer than most of the others. I don't believe it has endured, I think it has been, you know, its morale has been effectively destroyed although some of the people most active in the department now would absolutely deny that, but the trouble is they've managed to do that by unreasonable self-sacrifice. And it seems to me improper for those in charge of a system to alter it wantonly and wilfully so to make the burdens on devoted individuals close to intolerable.
Since you left the university world, you've moved into writing and communicating by other means than the ones ... are they as satisfying?
They're immediately satisfying and they, they are a solution to my restlessness and I like new things, you know, and I find it hard to say no. If someone says "Why don't you review a book on Nabokov's butterflies?", I say, "Well, yes". And it's crazy because you take weeks and weeks to do something like that, but I think it is a sort of self-indulgence and I must say I'm beginning to miss serious engagement over a long period with a problem that's much too difficult for me, which is what my academic career has been made out of, how to, you know, manage something about this inordinately difficult problem. And I am trying to return to more sustained writing and I think I'm sufficiently well now to do that, even though research is out of the question, which is a problem.
You mean field research?
Yeah, yeah, well even actually, well travelling I find too taxing now and even getting in and out of libraries with very heavy glass doors can take me rather a long time [laughs]. You know, they're not easy to deal with if you don't have a lot of physical strength, but I think that can be managed.
As a writer is there anything other than those things to stop you from doing the sort of really deep research that you used to do as an academic? I mean what would come next for you if you were going to do something like that?
Well, what is coming next is an attempt to put on paper the sorts of issues I once discussed in class. And it's a bit like an extension of the Boyer Lectures I suppose, that for students, people wanting to write history, they get very few examples of how to do it. You tend to get a performance, a polished performance where the ropes and the, the safety net and everything else are made as invisible as possible, whereas I think I want to write something, I've begun to write something, in which I do some things in slow motion, and say this is how you do it, this is how you critically evaluate a document, this is how you read it from different points of view. Now, watch me do it fast, because then it's demystified, this process. Also there are issues about what degree of local detail, of writing skills it's permissible to use in history. There's been a bit of a revolution here. When I began people treated my skill in writing as a defect. It rendered me untrustworthy and then suddenly people thought it was great. You should be able to tell a story, you should be able to make someone's palms go sweaty over some issue or other, but students above all, PhD students for example, get no training whatsoever in any of those strategies or in learning to see what limits there are on your imagination in history, because there are. You're not writing fiction and I'm absolutely devoted to the distinction, unlike nearly everybody else in the world as far as I can see.
What do you think - what do you think has been the reason for the decline in interest in teaching history in the world?
Oh, I think it's straightforwardly vocational. I don't think it's got anything to do with student inclination. I think it's purely to do with decisions taken in this country, for example, that history would be not be regarded as a teaching subject, in that throttling off of the teaching profession, and the attempt to manipulate people into teaching business management or whatever dreary subject they thought it might be good for people in Year 10 to take. So history was simply bureaucratically removed from the list of teaching subjects, so kids at school were faced with an extremely painful decision. They were in love with the notion of doing, say, classical history or renaissance history or Australian history but if they did that, their scores wouldn't be as good, they would not be as well positioned to get into an education department later. So I think it was decisions from people who didn't give a damn about history, never having experienced it and who cut it out in face of student interest and desire to the conscious and expressed regret of the students.
What do you think is going to be the consequences of that in the longer term?
In the short term and the long term, it's going to make people narrow-minded, ignorant, intolerant, bored and generally a danger to man and beast, I'd have thought because once, once you've really come to understand that other people think differently from you, other individuals think differently, and you learn that from reading biographies, you know, they construct the world differently. Other peoples, other cultures certainly think differently from you and they don't do that because they're wicked or because they haven't been converted to Christianity or because they're primitive, or for any of these old slogan reasons, they have a completely functional, viable vision of the world. It's not yours and it is a marvellous liberation to be able to explore it, that you're enriched by this fact of difference. Now that seems to me the constant offer that history and the study of languages and of other literatures and of anthropology, all these things keep on offer. However unless you're trained to get over your own nervousness at embarking on those sorts of projects, your own sense of inadequacy, because we're all essentially inadequate for it, but we can all get better at it. Unless you're helped through that and your taste for the other and the different is nurtured and your respect for people's right to be different nurtured, what have you got? You've got mass culture, you've got the commodification of the individual. You have the sorry state we seem to be heading into, with beaming politicians and bureaucrats presiding over it.
As a writer you've written a lot of history and a little bit of fiction.
Could you tell me how you see and experience the difference between history and fiction?
Well I think the great fiction writers are gods who create worlds and who can play with morality so we perceive depths and possibilities we'd have to be extraordinarily lucky to find in real life. They have magnificent freedoms and they have the capacity to exercise them. And I'm with the great aestheticians like Nabokov who says what matters is the art, not the morality, the art because there's nothing like it. When you see it in action, there it is, you know, this glorious figure on the high trapeze is doing things you thought no human creature could do and he's doing it with utter grace and authority, and there's nothing more exhilarating. They're the great writers. There are always a great mishmash of lesser writers below them, they're probably are necessary to hold the great ones up, who knows, and there I find all kinds of experiments between fiction and history which I think are preposterous and need to be sorted out. Some people do it who aren't the great high-flyers, do it excellently well like Margaret Atwood in 'Alias Grace', it's impeccable. She does beautiful social history and she tells you when she's going to switch to the world of invention and she switches and she makes things up, and she also tells you when she's, in her little afterword or foreword, when she's going to go in for a blend, it'll be plausible in terms of these people's understandings, general cultural understandings, but her particular personages are invented and that's a marvellous exercise in covert education. People learn a lot about how different it was back then in that place and they learn it painlessly.
Accurately, in so far as the contract she offers you. Other people waffle about and slither about and really don't seem to know the difference between the kind of moral authority that's invoked by saying this really happened, and the aesthetic freedom of saying I'm going to make this up. They seem to me different activities. And I believe it is an extremely useful and desirable human characteristic that people cannot pass by that which they know to be real, whereas they will close a book where what's being described is made up and painful. I thought Australia responded politically very alarmingly, they wanted to invade, but gloriously morally when there was that huge wave of genuine distress over what was happening in East Timor. Outrage. Because they knew it was not only real but it was happening close by and it was happening now. And they burnt to intervene. I think that's a splendid thing.
You use the word 'moral' a lot when you're talking about history, about the writing of history and the uses of history. What do you mean by that?
Having taken decisions about what conduct is appropriate for oneself and what conduct is tolerable in others and what is intolerable, I think it's man-made. I don't think it comes from anywhere else. I think it's a matter of personal decision where you draw those lines and I think it's the most important thing you've got to do through the course of your life. And then you have to learn the courage to act on it and unfortunately, the world being organised in various ways, it's very easy to be moral in some societies and terrifyingly difficult in others, terrifyingly difficult. Nonetheless, if there is a purpose in existence, and I believe such a purpose can only be humanly invented - outsiders like gods needn't apply - it is what one does if one wants to have, to construct a meaningful life.
When I asked you the other day about what, what you thought had made the perpetrators of some of the awful things that have happened in history, like the Holocaust, you described the conditions, the societal conditions that one has to watch for and prevent, but you didn't actually answer the question of why at the end of the day the people who did those awful things did them. And I want you to talk a little bit about the idea of evil, which always gets called into being when those subjects are discussed, and the individual operating in society.
Let me first take up your 'at the end of the day'. At the end of the day it is too late, you have to learn to pick the dawn of certain phenomena in the world. Evil, I think it's a completely useless term in human affairs. It's a metaphysical term, it belongs to a conversation out there between the gods possibly, and it illuminates nothing in human affairs. I think you have to look close and hard at the people who perform actions which are devastatingly destructive on their fellows, causing them mental or physical anguish or death, and you will nearly always find idealism is motivating them. And that's now - you know, men and women can be idealists, God save us all. When I look at Diego de Landa torturing the Indians, he is driven by an obsessed view that his preposterous vision of how the world operates as a sort of slow, unreeling of God's will, in which he has played a major role in converting these Indians, the proper order of things has been violated. So suddenly these screaming naked people being flogged and having burning oil splashed on their skin, are vile creatures who must be punished to the last inch of their lives. It's a transformation of his vision and it's brought about by ideas he's carrying around in his head, and which are powerfully reinforced by the small cluster of men with similar ideas around him. And of course they are also coerced by a desire not to lose political advantage, you know, to sustain quite unnatural supremacy in this colonial society. So you need to analyse their precise situation, to see the number of forces operating on them. Of course there's also the question of temperament, individual temperament. Landa is a charismatic man, there is no doubt about it. He is a man of passion and clear-mindedness, narrow-mindedness. He is a certain kind of fanatical temperament and I do believe he is one of those rare creatures, a useful man to assassinate, because I think with Landa the only way to stop him is to kill him. He has that kind of tenacity and deafness and blindness to what he's doing. And I think there were quite a few of those scattered through the Nazi movement. To see Hitler as a buffoon or a monster is of no help whatsoever. He was a passionate idealist with a terrifying vision of how the world really worked, and again he was not a man who could hear other accounts of the world, and he had no ordinary compassion for the way ordinary people are, and their small domestic pleasures. Landa did, which is one of the terrible paradoxes, and he writes about those domestic scenes, you know, he can feel something about the way ordinary people feel and live and enjoy, and yet he will pluck out this extraordinarily simplified vision of the world and attempt to hammer it into living flesh.
Blood has played a huge part in your life. When you talk about your life personally, when you look at what you've studied and thought about, there's been a lot of blood in it.
That's misleading. There's a lot of blood in life, it's just that we mop it up very quickly. I was astounded to find that there is blood when babies were born. I didn't know that. Women bleed. A great deal of illnesses are associated with bleeding. With the Aztecs it was, something you find right through Mesoamerica, a deep conviction that human blood is sacred and potent. It's not because it belongs to the individual but it's because it is that which best feeds the agricultural gods. That's a common belief right through. We get a little limp version of it with wine having been blood, you know, in the Christian sacrament. Blood was not dominant for the Aztecs. It was a different vision, but it was sustained by the regular shedding of one's own blood and the massive shedding of the blood of human victims as part payment against your own existence. Because the gods, their gods - when one of the things that liberates you from religion is to look at the extraordinary range of attributes which have been associated with gods in different cultures. Their gods are great voracious beasts, creatures, female usually, wolfing human bodies and blood. It's, you know, it's a Kali vision of consumption and destruction if there's to be any creation. A very common view.
And violence and bloodshed associated with violence is something that many people believe is absolutely intrinsic to the human condition. You as a pacifist...
I'm not a pacifist.
You were once. Okay, let me ask that...
I belonged to a society which was a peace society, which was an extremely good idea at the time. I don't think I've ever been a pacifist.
Let me ask that then as an open question. Do you - what is your view of that belief that many people do hold that violence and bloodshed is something inevitable and...?
I don't believe it and I've spent a lot of time reading about warrior societies and how we hold modern armies together and how we've held mass armies together since Agincourt. I find it an extremely important question and it seems to me that the thinking now seems to be that there are certain individuals who can kill without compunction. About two out of ten of the people taken into the American Army, we've got statistics on it now and they're pretty good statistics, because they came out of a terrible discovery in the Second World War. Out of their armed men, only something like two or three out of ten discharged their weapons in encounters. They didn't even shoot them which is a scary thing, you know, if you're a General, you think what the hell is going on [laughs] with these characters and they discovered that men have an extreme inhibition against shooting other people. They have to be trained to it but there are, you'll be happy to know, ways of training them. And it does overcome the inhibitions, and the other thing you do is - in the American Army, the British Army handles this differently - you have small groups of men with an easy killer, one among them, and in support of him, to back him up and to imitate him, the others will shoot to kill. Now the - in Vietnam the firing rate had gone up a lot, it was something like six or seven out of ten, they were doing much better and it was a different war. The contexts matter fantastically. You will get atrocities in war, you'll get atrocities down at the local football club when people get drunk. You know young men can be brought to violence and that can lead to blood and rape and pillage and all manner of undesirable things but they'll typically have to be brought to it. And one of the more disquieting findings of a man called Dave Grossman, who's done a lot of work on this, one of the phenomena which has most disturbed the United States is when school kids take guns to their schools and proceed to pick off their fellow students. And one child of only about nine or ten, did particularly well. He took a gun, he'd only got hold of the day before, and he kept steady and swivelled his gun in just the approved way and he was able to get head shots of ten people. Superb marksmanship. How had he done it? By using arcade games. He'd overcome inhibitions, he'd learnt to go for the head shot, he'd been trained as a killer, a sniper in the army, would have been trained. Now what that means about the commodification of violence is not hard to see, and the proliferation of those kinds of games, and the whole assumption that killing violence doesn't kill. And yet think of the way people shun the sight of actual blood, actual injury, actual damage. Think of those rotters in the Kew High Street who wouldn't come near me because I was bleeding over everything, apart from anything else. You know I, I think all the societies I've looked at, young men have to be trained, baited, coaxed, rewarded to go into battle and even then many of them are destroyed by it, quite destroyed, and some are destroyed in the different direction of becoming cold, compulsive killers.
Changing the subject completely, I'd like to ask you about, in the course of your life, in your career, what changes have you seen take place for women and how have you experienced those?
It's something I only realised as a massive change moderately recently, but when I compare my mother's life, body-servant and house-servant to five people, husband and four children, in a small, cold weather-board house, where she was the porter in of most of the food, and the maker of most of the clothing. And where she worked from close to, from dawn to two o'clock and then she had two hours off and then would have worked again until about nine o'clock, all the days of her life. It got much easier when the children had left home and she got more modcons. But her life was a life of physical labour with small remissions awarded her by her literacy. She'd read for those two hours off. And that was her life. That was it. I conscientiously shunned the possibility of that kind of life. You can see the difference in our hands. My mother had the hands of a working woman, I don't. I went into, I was very fortunate because I went in, at the university, I went into a job with equal pay which was not the case in most jobs. Equal pay and equal terms, except in terms of career opportunities, which didn't worry me because I could run a job which maintained my social and my intellectual world while earning enough to pay a sort of surrogate aunty to look after the kids for the times I wasn't at home. So I didn't have the experience of the typical working mother at all. I had a featherbedded existence because I'd got into academe. I've travelled - because in the good old days, no more, universities sustained their permanent members to go on study leave. So purposeful, you know, travel - not the terrible wearisomeness of tourism - but purposeful travel was offered me from an early time. My mother went on a few Pioneer trips, you know, in old age. My life has not changed in its texture since my illness/retirement because you don't have to stop thinking. You're allowed to go right on thinking and writing. You might get to the point where no one will publish you, but you can still write, and you can subscribe to journals you want to read. My mother would have been told by all the society about her that she'd stopped being useful when the last child left home, and I don't know how she managed tolerating that.
What about your granddaughter? What sort of a world for a woman is she in now and how - are you happy about it?
I'm very happy about her and I think she's been equipped by nature and nurture to deal valiantly with any problems she'll encounter, but I do believe she will encounter serious problems. I mean, you know, you can't have global warming at this kind of rate, you can't have the kind of casually accepted ecological catastrophes like ships going aground on Sudbury Reef. You know, one of the joys of my middle life was discovering snorkelling, and you know it has been a radiant pleasure, a very important experience to me. Will Anastasia have that? Quite probably not but she's equipped with intelligence and confidence in a way I certainly wasn't at her age, because my equipment was essentially a private equipping to resist the world, I think. And to sneak through or to - in a way I was delivered out of it by scholarships and so on. It didn't take my volition. Anastasia is supremely confident. I keep telling her perhaps too confident, in her belief that she can control the world. So when I think of the distance she's come from my mother, who was terrified by the world outside the front gate, the transformation is massive. You know Anastasia will go in for - she'll address public meetings, she'll - with ease, with none of the self-consciousness that would have bedevilled me if I'd ever dared to do it.
[end of tape]