LIFE AND FAITH: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The quest for meaning in James McAuley
, January 8, 2005
In an address to the National Civic Council's Christmas function in Melbourne, Peter Westmore spoke of the spiritual emptiness which is at the heart of contemporary secular culture. It is from this talk that the following extracts have been taken.It is often said that Shakespeare speaks to every generation. A recent series on ABC TV, In Search of Shakespeare, emphasised this fact. Shakespeare - who was both an actor and a playwright - put into the mouth of Macbeth these words:Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth is expressing the profoundly modern proposition that life is ultimately meaningless. It is the creed of the 20th-century secular intelligentsia, the world of hopelessness, and of psychiatric illnesses such as depression and despair which are common today, despite the material wealth which surrounds us.
It is interesting that these words are spoken by Macbeth, a Scottish general who murders the king to seize the throne. The play ends in Macbeth's madness and his own death and his wife's suicide.
In contrast, consider a poem written by James McAuley, who was one of Bob Santamaria's closest friends, when I came to know him in the late 1960s. He was also one of Australia's great poets, and was Professor of English at the University of Tasmania, at the time.
This poem is not one of McAuley's best known, but has particular interest because it was written after he been diagnosed with an incurable cancer. It was published in Quadrant
magazine in December 1976.
In his poem, Explicit
, which is also a prayer and a meditation, McAuley wrote:So the word has come at last:
The argument of arms is past.
Fully tested I've been found
Fit to join the underground.
No worse age has ever been -
Murderous, lying, and obscene;
Devils worked while gods connived:
Somehow the human has survived.
Why these horrors must be so
I never could pretend to know:
It isn't I, dear Lord, who can
Justify your ways to man.
Soon I'll understand it all,
Or cease to wonder: So my small
Spark will blaze intensely bright,
Or go out in an endless night.
Welcome now to bread and wine:
Creature comfort, heavenly sign.
Winter will grow dark and cold
Before the wattle turns to gold.
Here, James McAuley touches on the issues of our time. When he says, "The word has come at last", he is speaking of the death sentence conveyed to him by the doctors.
"The argument of arms is past" refers to the fact that he can no longer engage in the ideological struggle against the left, as he had done so effectively since the 1950s as editor of Quadrant
magazine, writer and poet, and as a confidant of Bob Santamaria.
"Fully tested I've been found/ Fit to join the underground" is James McAuley's ironical way of saying that he will soon be dead; he will be underground. He then reaffirms his belief in the causes for which he had worked so long: "No worse age has ever been -/ Murderous, lying, and obscene;/ Devils worked while gods connived:/ Somehow the human has survived."
McAuley then says he doesn't understand why this is, although it is allowed in God's plan.
Then, in two short sentences, he twice contrasts the Christian belief in eternal life against the theme expressed by Macbeth, that death is the end, and life has no ultimate meaning. He said: "Soon I'll understand it all,/ Or cease to wonder: So my small/ Spark will blaze intensely bright,/ Or go out in an endless night."
The alternatives, as projected by McAuley and in a different way by Shakespeare, are of faith against meaninglessness. Indeed, only faith gives meaning to human existence.
James McAuley was a man of unshakeable faith, and he is a model for us today. He referred to this faith in another short poem he gave to Bob Santamaria. He wrote:I know that faith is like a root
That's tough, inert and old;
Yet it can send up its green shoot
And flower against the cold.
I know there is a grace that flows
When all the springs run dry.
It wells up to renew the rose
And lift the cedars high.
This is the theme developed at length in James McAuley's poem, Retreat, given to Bob Santamaria as a Christmas present. It expresses, in verse, a profound understanding of the challenges which Mr Santamaria faced, and an unexpected way to meet those challenges which goes to the heart of the contemporary world's search for purpose in life. James McAuley wrote:Come into yourself a while,
Be deaf to outer cares;
Ask not who wins, who fall, who rages,
Or what each doubtful sign presages,
Or what face treachery wears.
Soon you must return to tasks
That sicken and appall:
The calumnies will never cease,
Look only to the sign of peace,
The cross upon the wall.