On not being able to care

For a couple of days I’ve been immersed in Jacqueline Rose’s volume of essays, On Not Being Able To Sleep, and mostly reading it at night when, as it happens, I haven’t been able to sleep. Jacqueline Rose is a Professor of English at some exalted establishment in the UK, and has written compellingly and with amazing insight on psychoanalysis, feminism and literature. Rose, born into a Jewish family, is well known for calling a few years ago for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Her book States of Fantasy, on the role of the unconscious in the histories of Israel and South Africa, is pretty amazing too.

On Not Being Able To Sleep has an essay on Australia, which Rose was supposed to deliver a decade ago to the Brisbane Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies – a body I studied with for several years to great personal benefit – but was unable to. That essay looks at Howard’s victory in the ‘election of shame’ of 1999 and the weirdness of Pauline Hanson, and the place of Australia and Aboriginal culture in the thought of Freud and Jung, who were also both invited to Australia a hundred years ago, but who both didn’t make it here either.

Rose’s views on the place of Australia in the psychoanalytic unconscious, as illuminating as it is, is not what I’m going to talk about though. A subtext in Rose’s book, if I can identify a subtext in a writer who seems only too aware of both what she is saying, what she is not saying and what she is leaving out, seems to me to be on what it is to be human.

In an essay on the poet Christina Rossetti (author of Goblin Market and other poems) succinctly titled ‘Undone, defiled, defaced: Christina Rossetti’, Rose writes, ‘Love lies in the guessing, in granting your loved one the greatest possible freedom, the wildest imaginative and spiritual reach’. Later in the book, in her essay about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, very dorkily titled ‘Apathy and Accountability: The Challenge of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Intellectual in the Modern World’, Rose writes:

One of the things for which the Truth Commission has become famous for is the concept of ‘ubuntu‘, a traditional Zulu term which is placed by the Commission at the basis of restorative justice: ‘Ubuntu‘, generally translated as ‘humaneness’, expresses itself metaphorically in umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – ‘people are people through other people’.

Or as she later writes, quoting Desmond Tutu, ‘A person is a person because he recognises others as persons’.

For the sake of simplicity, there seem to me to be two things at work here: a spirit of generosity, and a spirit and theory of profound interdependence. Of course, psychoanalysis is founded on various theories of human interdependence: the theory of transgenerational-haunting, the theory that we all speak unconsciously for each other and carry psychic states for each other, and so on. In other words, we are connected whether we like it or not, and this interdependence is at the root of human experience. As the great British child therapist Donald Winnicott famously wrote, ‘There is no such thing as a baby’; a statement that can be read many ways, but most basically that without mothering of some description, a baby is doomed, the human being is doomed, and his or her humanity is often irreparably compromised.

Which brings us back to Australia, the place that neither Rose or Freud or Jung could get to, that became a place that occupied their imaginations but not their memory. For me, Australian life took a radical and catastrophic turn when the first Howard government was elected. The current Rudd government is not so much a reaction to the Howard period but a continuation of it by other means, rather like Blair following Thatcher. In this sense, the policies of both governments – the policy of mandatory detention, the Northern Territory intervention, the failure to take decisive action on climate change, the planned income management for those on Centrelink benefits and so on – are a complete denial that any sort of interdependence is possible between human beings, that we rely on each other because each other is all we have.

What the Rudd and Howard Governments have in common is an inability to be moved by suffering, by the fact that life is about living your life, not about working for thirty years in order to pay a monstrous mortgage, or having to slave until you are 70 in whatever employment you can get. The present and previous governments seem to me to be concerned foremost with the politics of control, not with the politics of care. Kevin Rudd making a speech in which he says, ‘A person is a person because he recognises others as persons’, and then developing a set of social policies based on the ramifications of that statement not only seems eminently sensible, but also in the same moment wildly insane, because to say and believe such a thing he would have to stop being Kevin Rudd.

Wherever a politics of care is being developed, if we can find such a thing locally or personally, is where we could think about urgently locating ourselves. To locate ourselves within centres of power because we think that’s where the capacity for change lies, to position ourselves as heirs to that power, is something that could be questioned not only because it is unlikely to serve us well, but also because it provides no service to others either.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thanks. Wonderful post that goes to the heart of the Great Australian Deadness.

    Reminds me too of Kafka somewhere in his diaries, after describing existence as like trying to climb a cliff, where each person is tied to every other person. He ends with, “We must all be very kind to one another”. It’s always stuck in my head. Kindness is a much underrated virtue.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post a lot. I find myself reading and re-reading that last paragraph. I certainly agree that the seat of power is no place to look for radical change (for the good) – that power structures ‘sacrifice their content in order to retain their form’ (I think that’s from ‘The Coming Insurrection’, if I remember right). I wonder, Stephen, what you mean by ‘a politics of care’? I’m reminded in this post somehow of Colin Ward’s ‘Anarchy in Action’…

  3. Yes, I think there has to be a discourse of kindness unearthed somewhere. Kindness has become a kind of granny-virtue, if I can say that and be understood without offending grannies. It isn’t deemed to have any power or weight to it. Trying to unearth a politic of care – of interdependence, of understanding that without care its a fairly meaningless world and that care can only be in relation to others – is a good way to make it through the day.

    1. As ever, Stephen, you’ve written a thought-provoking and thoughtful piece. I’ll be looking out for ‘On Not Being Able to Sleep’. So thanks.

      And on behalf of my feisty energetic grandmother who lived to 97, I must protest your use of ‘granny’ to denote the absence of power and weight. The kindness of my grandmother had a strength and ferocity most grandfathers, fathers, sons and grandsons could only dream of.

      After Germaine Greer’s recent bollocksing by Louis Nowra, who damned and dismissed her by likening her to his grandmother, I think it’s time we thought more about how we regard our elders, especially women. I think one of problems underlying much of what we write about here is that western culture has failed dismally to respect the wisdom of ageing women. We have more time for ageing men: Nelson Mandela, Richard Dawkins, Rupert Murdoch, Cormac McCarthy, Clint Eastwood, Mick Jagger.

      I’ve felt a grandmother’s kindness in all its awesome power and I’ll never forget it. So on the eve of a pre-Christian, northern hemisphere spring festival of death and renewal, here’s to the power and powerful kindness of grandmothers.

      1. Hi Jane. You are of course quite right to pillory me for my use of the term ‘granny’, whose irony didn’t come of at all. Its true that ‘kindness’ as a virtue or as anything at all, is relegated to the realms of fuddy-duddy old people, or something we give to dogs and very small children. Rather than an conceptualising it as something potentially dangerous. If kindness, as practiced by feisty grandmothers and others, were so innocent of political weight as it is deemed to be there would be no point in disregarding or infantilising it.

        1. I’m intrigued you think kindness is relegated to the realms of fuddy-duddy old people or something we give to dogs and very small children. No wonder it never occurs to Rudd to build a politics of kindness/care. I mean, if even the deep thinkers consider kindness a marginalised, impotent virtue in our society. I don’t agree.

          I guess this is what Dostoyevsky struggled with in ‘The Idiot’, his attempt at a portrait of a perfectly good man. ‘Why, Prince, your simplicity and innocence are such as were never heard of in the golden age, and then, all of a sudden, you pierce a fellow through and through, like an arrow, with such profound psychological insight!’. Watch the idiots and their arrows.

          1. No, no. Some wires have got very crossed here. I am arguing for the urgency of kindness and that kindness has aa very real disruptive political dimension that is usually ignored. it is ignored because kindness is relegated to a sort of milquetoast emotion that is only suitable for small children a nd dogs. I don’t ubscribe to that attitude myself, I am sayinfg that this is a general social and political belief.
            There may be serious typos in this as the comemnts
            box is taking my text off screen and I’m typing blind

  4. Hi Joshua
    I suppose the politics of care has to be something to do with a dialogue with others about what care is. I don’t want to presuppose a definition of care, as though we all know what it might be. We clearly don’t on some level. Its true that we wouldn’t be alive if someone hadn’t cared for us, but equally the suffering that seems to be so endemic across the planet seems to me to be a result of an ignorance of what it might mean to care. An admission that we don’t know how to look after each other. A politics of care is, I suppose, implicated by the politics of power, in the sense that the structures of power, in our relationships or on an international or national level clearly preclude certain question about human well-being and what makes that well-being.

  5. So, I suppose Joshua – having pondered a little more about your question and re-reading my own blog – that a politic of care would maybe have to start with some thinking about generosity, and about interdependence. Perhaps about what they both might lok like. And what they look like now, and don’t look like now.

  6. Stephen, I really enjoyed this post too. It was so thoughtful. I was hoping you would get into Rose’s views on the place of Australia in the psychoanalytic unconscious, as that sounds fascinating too! Maybe in another post!

    The idea of transgenerational-haunting is so interesting and so relevant to us. How does a country start a politics of care when that country’s foundation was built on such a grievous crime as wholesale dispossession? But tragically, if we are haunted by the injustices of the past towards our indigenous people, we must be in denial about it because this haunting is certainly not informing our politics.

    The other problem remains that politicians rarely lead. They mostly follow. Opinion polls, particularly those in marginal seats. They need to take the majority with them if they are to survive electorally (Keating didn’t and paid the price). This need to take the majority with them continues to circumscribe humane policy across the board. Perhaps this is because of our evolutionary needs – to be selfish in order to ensure our survival, for instance, must be at our core, as much as interdependence is – perhaps they are both present and in constant battle for supremacy.

    Perhaps we can only ‘afford’ to care when it doesn’t affect our bottom line. Perhaps this is why many of the outspoken people on social justice issues generally continue to be middle to upper class, well fed, well educated and therefore, secure in society. Insecurity is the enemy of caring; it’s the enemy of being able to see others’ needs as important. The goal must therefore surely be to improve peoples’ feeling of security, something that our economic system continues to undermine on a daily basis.

  7. Hi Betty. It’s true that we are not going to get anywhere in having a conversation about care nationally, without addressing indigenous dispossession. Rudd’s ‘Sorry’ speech which he has followed up by planning to expand the NT intervention etc follows the same ambivalent pattern of weird cruelty which successive governments have perpetuated.
    The historian Tony Judt, spoke recently of a lack of courage in politicians, saying that Courage is only demonstrable when you might lose something because of your actions. Which is also why it can be hard, perhaps, to be courageous when you are on Centrelink benefits, have a family etc, or have a family and a job but a mortgage and so forth. In either case there is a lot of strange humiliation one has to bear. Which can also be a kind of courage in itself. The spectre of Abbott and Rudd striving to outdo each other as ‘hard men’ – Abbott by athletics, and Rudd by refugee policy – is a spectre with zilch compassion or courage. Their behaviour is not a sign of strength but a sign of a terrible weakness and of fear, which is masked by a pathetic façade of; “I’m so tough – everyone look at me and see how tough I am.”
    I don’t think that this sort of behaviour has anything to do with evolutionary needs. Quite the opposite. We are social animals; that is, we have survived and prospered, in evolutionary terms because we co-operate and look after those around us and are very good at building up complex co-operative social orders. This suggests to me that the more altruistic and co-operative we are the better off we shall be. We may well have a kind of evolutionary selfishness and a kind of aggression in us, but the aggression is not the aggression of the belligerent but the aggression of the determined. And the selfishness is the selfishness that wants to ensure the survival of those we care about us, whose well-being is dependent on us and on whose well-being we are also dependent.

  8. This lack of kindness seems to me to be linked to a lack of imagination and empathy . For eg. when politicians, and others, talk about ‘queue jumping’ they seem oblivious to the situation many people are facing. If, for example, you and your children were being herded into camps, and being shot at, you are hardly going to be thinking about what is, or isn’t, good form (if standing in a queue counts as good form). You need to survive. The same with various discussions about looting after the Haiti earthquake. Are people supposed to sit around and die waiting for the supermarkets to open again?

  9. Hi Sophie. I think there is a definite link between kindness as a political act and imagination. To be kind, in the sense that I am thinking of, there has to be an ability to be able to imagine oneself in the place of the other, to be able to want to take the other’s situation as one’s own. dealing with Haiti or any other disaster, whether created by human beings or not, the definition of kindness and empathy is always limited by our ability to imagine, and those limits are often politically placed: for example, easier to empathise with an earthquake in Europe than one in Haiti.

  10. I agree that empathy is at the core of caring. I can’t help but think of philosopher John Rawls’ participants wearing the ‘veil of ignorance’, and the kind of social relations they would choose to live by if they didn’t know what (if any) skills and abilities they or their children would have. Suddenly, it would make sense to fear the worst, and create a world supportive of our weakest. The relegation of the old and infirm, the abysmal resourcing of care for the disabled: the theme at the core of all of this neglect is a use value perception of humans – how useful are they to the economic machine? If they’re not, it is seemingly ok to relegate their needs and visibility. This position is built on a complete lack of empathy.

    Stephen, I liked your response comments on Tony Judt and just what courage is. That makes a lot of sense. If there isn’t something to lose, it’s not courage. And I take your points about the ‘evolutionary needs’ debate, and I would caution myself on sort of refraining from trying to give an explanation (which at times sounds like a justification) of capitalism’s core tenet of alienation of each from each. It’s almost an automatic response though, to look for an explanation for our co-option by a system that basically doesn’t serve anyone’s needs!

  11. Without wanting to be too cliched, it’s difficult not to think of Auden’s conclusion to ‘September 1, 1939’:

    There is no such thing as the State
    And no one exists alone;
    Hunger allows no choice
    To the citizen or the police;
    We must love one another or die.

    (Incidentally, it’s impossible to read that poem in the same way in the light of 9/11. For instance, was there a better description of September 11 than:

    I sit in one of the dives
    On Fifty-second Street
    Uncertain and afraid
    As the clever hopes expire
    Of a low dishonest decade:
    Waves of anger and fear
    Circulate over the bright
    And darkened lands of the earth,
    Obsessing our private lives;
    The unmentionable odour of death
    Offends the September night


    The only other thing I would say is that if Australians lacks empathy, they also,at the moment, lack a certain righteous anger, and a politics of caring shouldn’t be counterposed to a politics of accountability. It’s precisely because one can empathise with the wretched of the earth,so casually destroyed by drone strikes or carpet bombings, that one is not prepared to forgive the masters of the universe or their spokespeople. Anger, in that sense, is a virtue; indifference, a vice.

    1. Heavens. I thought no-one read Auden anymore except me. The politics of anger is an interesting topic, that I’d like to blog on another time, as it is particularly fraught. I agree that anger can be an indispensable virtue and in the politics of care is essential. But its an anger shorn of hatred I think. Forgiveness can be a weird thing to negotiate, as while I am not prepared to let myself be consumed with hatred against those who justify those wretched drones or think that locking up refugees in prisons that rapidly become mental asylums is good policy, I’m not prepared to forget it either. And indifference is if anything a kind of voluntary lapse of memory, a hole in memory that occurs because there was no empathy there in the first place to sustain it, because others are not really considered to be people, and when they are they are, they are certainly not people as important and significant as me.
      My gravatar is Jansson’s Snufkin, I have no idea how that happened. I thought it was an example of a twisted Overland joke.

  12. I dunno. The right-wing populist wave in the US is an interesting example. Yes, the Tea Baggers are incoherent and often racist but precisely because of their unabashed anger (an anger fueled, it should be said, by genuine grievances) there’s a vitality to their movement that’s lacking from the very civilised and almost entirely irrelevant US Left.
    I’m not arguing that we need crazed Kool-aid drinking mobs here, just that a bit more passion — including a more overt hostility to our enemies — would not go astray.
    As the early Women’s Lib movement sang, ‘Don’t be too polite!’

    1. Or as The Clash put it, “Let fury have the hour/Anger can be power/Do you know that you can use it”
      The current state of the US right wing is probably fueled by an underlying racism too. Its very difficult to separate their passion out from their incoherent hatred and mad rantings. The US left has no passion because it has become severely compromised for the most part. Ever since September 11 and the ensuing Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts their moral credibility has gone thru the floor. There is no passion because fundamentally they have shown they don’t care, seem to be be bereft of any sense of what it means to care and have zero understanding about what it is to suffer beneath brutal and undiscriminating power and consider ‘morality’ to be self-righteousness. You’re right, passion is what we need. it’s the flipside of indifference. But its possible to be passionate about rank cruelty and injustice without us turning into crazed left-wing versions of Tea Party-ers, I think.
      I’d quote from Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror’ at this point but the quote’s too long and I have another blog question to answer before lunch. Maybe later.

  13. Stephen, in thinking about your blog post’s last paragraph, and some of the comments: how do you think we should relate to power centres? It seems you think we should not join them, but do you actively try to dismantle or protest them, or just hang out with those who wish to care somewhere else?

    [funny: my anti-spam words just above to ‘submit comment’ say “addition denied”]

  14. All of a sudden I have to come up with a lot of answers. Power centres, as I am thinking of them, are characterised by isolation, paranoia, fear, and a sense of inner fragility, as well as their own longing for eternal concreteness and so on. Its not that they don’t care. They are not able to care. In response all I have is my daily life. Each day I can possibly come in contact with various aspects of these power-sensibilities, exemplified in many different interactions, institutions and so forth. They can be fought and need to be fought. But they need to be fought wherever we are now. Sure we may need to get out on the streets and man the barricades sometimes. But those opportunities are few. Strategies of disruption can be many and various. Humour as a daily guerilla tactic is always good. But I think fundamentally you have to understand the enemy before you can fight the enemy. Sometimes the enemy has to be run away from because they are too weird and mad, like getting out of a room with a crazed axe-wielding psychotic in it. Our understanding of understanding of power then drives what we might do, and based on the idea that we don’t want to embody power-centres ourselves, we have to come up with a radical politics of care and see what structures we might build on that politic. Otherwise any struggle is besides the point.

  15. Yes, I thought you were arguing for the urgency of kindness, Stephen. And yes, I guess you are right to say that the ‘very real disruptive political dimension’ of kindness is usually ignored. And that this is a general social and political belief. I wasn’t attributing this belief to you, I was actually wondering if there were not many many people who don’t relegate kindness to fuddy-duddy virtue-dom. Because it seems to me that many many people do live by acts of kindness in their daily lives and find meaning through them much as you describe above, outside of and in spite of what’s going on in the centres of power. Eccentric. And do so without theorising it. I see care and kindness all around. Just not coming out of our parliaments, much.

    And I’m not a Christian, but what you’re saying above is ‘all’ Jesus was trying to say. And was misunderstood. And crucified.

  16. OK, thanks for that Jane. I think you are right, that many people exist via acts of kindness. We wouldn’t actually be alive otherwise. I’m arguing for it to be returned to a political dimension, because I think that kindness has not just become harder to practice, but also harder to think about and therefore to remember.Its harder to practice because it matters. Octavio Paz wrote that love was once dangerous but now its revolutionary.
    I think if our various parliaments had a mandatory kindness day, in which they all had to be kind to each other (and to us) for 24 hours or face a week in Villawood, we would fins ourselves with a whole new level of sitcom, because it would be hilarious watching them try and implement what they think ‘kindness’ is.
    Er, thanks for equating me with JC. I don’t know much about christianity though. Except of course for what comes out of the mouths of Jensen or Fisher at Easter. Which is apparently the actual word of the supreme being.

  17. Yes, we’re in agreement then. Especially about the revolutionary nature of love. I also think that’s what Dostoyevsky is saying. And most great thinkers. Including Jesus. I don’t know much about ‘Christianity’ but I’ve thought a lot about Jesus and what he says, mostly courtesy of a Christian who pretty much raised me in my pre-teens, and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

    And your idea of a kindness day and the comedy that would ensue is gold. I can especially imagine all those ‘Christians’ who hang out in Canberra struggling to interpret its mysteries in action.

  18. Yes, there’s that great scene in Bros Karamazov (can’t find it at the moment) where someone is telling a story about Christ’s return to earth and his capture by the Inquisition. For reasons I’m still not quite clear on, that story always makes me think of me of two of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, ‘Stalker’ and ‘Solaris’. And vice versa.
    Personally, I always read JC’s story as not being crucified for being misunderstood, bur being done in because he was understood very well.
    My reCaptcha passwords for this comment are ‘for’ and ‘hosanna’. (!)

  19. Andrei Tarkovsky! Now you’re talking. I can imagine why you’d think of ‘Stalker’ especially.

    As for JC being crucified for being misunderstood vs understood – I wasn’t so much implying that he’d been crucified for being misunderstood. Just that he was misunderstood, is misunderstood. (Great scene in ‘Life of Brian’ where Brian’s trying to tell the crowd to think for themselves – yes master.)

    Bulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita’ puts the understood vs misunderstood conundrum very well.

    (amazing your recaptcha phrase too. My last one was ‘visitors welcome’ which I thought was apt but not as apt as yours.)

  20. Stalker is such an incredible film. If I were stuck on a desert island with Stalker and Jacques Tati’s ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday’ (and a DVD player and power spurce) I’d be perfectly happy. I saw a doco recently called ‘Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky’, which was very illuminating and went behind the scenes of his last film ‘The Sacrifice’ which I have finally got a copy of but haven’t watched yet. It always seems to me that Tarkovsky is trying to speak of the unspeakable, or perhaps the indescribable would be a better way of putting it, a completely foreign way of thinking to the dreary impoverished language of spin, and how when we do ‘speak’ we often say what we didn’t expect to say. It relates to what I was trying to get at in my post on writing under climate change, if we could be somehow ethically obligated to the extent that we felt compelled to speak or write, of the unsayable, if such a situation could ever occur, what would happen? Would the act of speech (or writing) be fundamentally transformed? Climate change, like dying I would think, changes everything we do and think and feel. Or could.
    Stalker made me look at the whole physical world differently too. The first image of The Zone is mindblowing.

  21. Sorry, that last post was mildly incoherent. Even more so if you don’t know Stalker I would think.

  22. Um, Douglas Adams put it well I think, in Vol 1 of the Hitchhikers books. Something about, one man being nailed to a tree for saying we could be nice to each other for a change.

  23. Interesting what you say about Tarkovsky and speaking the unspeakable and linking it to your climate change post. I think ‘The Sacrifice’ is eloquent on both climate change and articulating the unspeakable. (I agree that climate change changes everything we do and think and feel. Or could.) ‘The Sacrifice’ is an extraordinary film – I saw it when it first came out and it becomes more visionary each year. Or, Tarkovsky’s vision in that film comes into sharper focus as time goes by. His book ‘Sculpting in Time’ is also amazing. My favourite Tarkovsky film is ‘Andrei Rublev’, which could take us back to JC.

    Great question Luke. That stopped me in my glib tracks. I think Jesus was supremely misunderstood but I also think the priests understood the threat his words held for the established church. So chose to release Barrabas and not Jesus. And when I ask myself why I think that, where I got that idea from – have to confess it’s probably as much from Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita as from ancient history and probably not at all from the new testament.

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