A spectre is haunting Australia – the spectre of Western Civilisation. Deceased hospital magnate Paul Ramsay is reaching out from beyond the grave to clasp our universities to his cold, dead bosom. Both the University of Queensland and the University of Wollongong have now struck deals with the Ramsay Centre, a private institute chaired by John Howard and funded by Ramsay’s $3.5 billion-dollar estate, to offer a small number of lucky applicants a well-funded place in a new western-civilisation major. You might be forgiven for wondering why.
Watching the Centre try and fail to give their money to universities desperate for humanities funding has been like watching a creepy old man try and fail to give his candy to a baby he’s deliberately starved – but, the thing is, Shakespeare and Aristotle already get taught. The rationale behind the establishment of the Centre echoes the same old conspiracy theories about cultural-Marxism and a cabal of SJW professors bent on undermining the moral fabric of the West, but nobody who’s spent any time at all in a department of literature can seriously believe that the people who teach Renaissance theatre and Greek philosophy have any kind of deep, ingrained hostility towards their own subject matter. The modern university’s increasing respect for non-European perspectives does not translate to an outburst of wild-eyed political hysteria, and the same old bundle of dead white men still occupy the lion’s share of the curriculum.
Karl Marx was afraid of ghosts. The pages of his books are crawling with spectres, werewolves and vampires – haunting Europe, hungering for surplus value and sucking the proletariat dry. Capital, he writes, is undead labour. The plutocrat’s wealth is the shambling corpse of the plebeian’s work, prolonging its unholy existence by sapping the strength from the bodies of still-living women and men. The greatest crime in Marx’s philosophy is for the desires of the dead to take precedence over the needs of the living. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he writes about the instinct of reactionaries and revolutionaries to legitimise their political projects by dressing them up as a continuation of an idealised European past:
Unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.
Brumaire, like everything else Marx wrote, is full of Gothic imagery: the spirits of the past, the ghost of the old revolution, the iron death mask of Napoleon. The bourgeois order is somehow both a vampire and an alchemist, as well as a conjurer of the Roman dead. Watching the cartoonish figure of Napoleon III, a small-minded, sleepy caricature of his more famous uncle, ascend in a series of blundering coups and dubious elections to the throne of France provoked him famous line about history repeating itself for the second time as farce, and provided him with a case study in the absurdity of reactionary attempts to resurrect a bygone era. Like the original Napoleon, he writes, the past is dead. Ghosts are not actually real. Necromancy doesn’t work. Attempts to bring Caesar back to life, to unwind modernity and return to the mythical glory of ancient Rome, are doomed before they even begin. And capital, too, as a kind of necromancy, cannot maintain its hold on living flesh. The life of the labourer, Marx suggests, will inevitably reassert itself, and the tyranny of the dead will be overthrown.
Marx was also a Shakespeare fanatic. He writes in a very Shakespearean way: mixing his metaphors, fixating on trivial details, obsessing over word choice and intensely scrutinising the power structures that underpin every social relation. Peter Stallybrass observes that the epithet that Hamlet used to mock his ghostly father, ‘old mole’, is appropriated by Marx in Brumaire to describe the process of revolution, which toils thanklessly underground for decades until it can burst, gasping, into the light. If there is indeed such a thing as Western Civilisation, with all its attendant signifiers, then Brumaire is right at the centre of it – pulling everyone from Caesar to Napoleon, Hamlet to Dracula, into its ideological orbit, exposing the hidden parallels of history even as it mercilessly deconstructs the idea that the West has a unified legacy.
To the Ramsay people, of course, Marx barely even registers as European. He has no place in the grand narrative of Christianity, Enlightenment, free speech and free markets, except perhaps as a Gothic villain. He’s a ghost, a name devoid of content, puppeteered around the stage like Hamlet’s father to frighten kids and make adults laugh. Shakespeare, too, is deployed as an empty spectre – a signifier of culture and intelligence, a Great Man of History whose actual work means nothing except insofar as his prestige can bolster somebody’s political agenda. His actual plays – which are surprisingly good – deserve better treatment than this. No amount of political correctness or complaints about Eurocentrism could ever pose as grave a threat to the study of the humanities as the idea of promoting the West – of flattening out all the complications of history and pressing all the big names into the service of a simplified narrative of pseudo-liberal progress. As Marx suggests, this approach will always resolve into a farce.
Paranoid right-wing pseudo-intellectuals are not nearly as important as hand-wringing centre-left columnists looking for demons to slay like to think they are. The real fight for survival is happening in job-starved rural communities and flooding Pacific islands, not the sandstone towers of academia. Most Coalition voters have never heard of the Ramsay Centre and wouldn’t care if they had. But here, as always, the problem is one of inherited wealth and power. Ramsay is long gone, but through the medium of his money he still bends the world to his will, brushing aside the concerns of perennially underpaid and overworked researchers in blind, vindictive pursuit of his foundation’s obsolete agenda, wrapping his rotting hands around the neck of modern thought and trying to drag it down with him into the stinking grave of a past that never was. ‘The tradition of all dead generations,’ writes Marx, ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ Our only consolation is that his goal is impossible. There’s no returning to the conservative fantasy of an idealised past, a utopia that never actually existed in the first place. The West cannot be resurrected. And Paul Ramsay is dead.
Image: Luca della Robbia, ‘Aristotle and Plato discuss dialectics’ (1437-39)