by R.J. Stove (reviewer)News Weekly
Books: The re-education of old Donald: 'Into the Open: Memoirs 1958-1999', by Donald Horne
, May 6, 2000
INTO THE OPEN: MEMOIRS 1958-1999
by Donald Horne
Reviewed by R.J. Stove, who is editor of the online magazine Codex
How did Young Donald become Chairperson Horne? How (more specifically) did a man once effervescing with heterodox, cosmopolitan enthusiasms change into that most parochial among "important people", whose 30-year crusade to separate taxpayers and their cash he could justly sum up with the words: "I've never met a pork-barrel I didn't like"?
These are valid enquiries, but don't approach Into the Open expecting answers. Often the book attains a kind of characterisation-in-reverse, making any individual that it portrays seem less vivid than he or she was before. At times Horne's imagery is reminiscent of Patrick White's prose style. He surrealistically describes Bob Santamaria as glowing in myth, and likens Frank Knopfelmacher to an eternal telephone, robotically grinding. (An eternal telephonist, perhaps, but an eternal telephone?)
Horne's writing cheerfully ignores Dr Johnson's bleak admonition: "We are seldom tedious to ourselves". Readers are, apparently, supposed to take on trust Horne's axiomatic magnitude as a light to lighten the Gentiles.
Other writers, when alluded to at all, are considered primarily for the extra insight they give regarding Horne's own mental processes. Of the Australian Republican Movement's political ramifications, Horne reveals little; of its insufficient deference towards Horne (the republican universe's "unmoved mover"), he reveals much. Quadrant's silver-jubilee hardback anthology is condemned, not for what it included, but for what it omitted: namely, the glorious musings of Horne.
Even Whitlam's dismissal, which did for Horne (to quote Clive James) what Culloden did for the Scots, emerges less as an administrative crisis than a deliberate attempt by Sir John Kerr to spite Horne personally.
When Spike Milligan called a book Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall, he meant it as a joke. Horne, one fears, would be perfectly able to coin such a title in utter seriousness.
Some could argue that Horne shows strange logic both here and amid earlier books in exalting Australia's unique significance, meanwhile hoping that Australia will drown itself in the floodtide of Asian culture; but niceties of coherence no longer trouble Horne overmuch. They seldom troubled him even in his youth, when he (along with many a colleague) paraded his reasoning skills by simultaneously preaching militant atheism and the Immaculate Conception of John Anderson.
Such cognitive dissonance results in a book sadder than Horne possibly realises. Seldom can anyone in the ruck of ideological combat have had a weaker grasp of ideas as ideas. Beside Horne, Kenneth Tynan resembles one of the great metaphysicians of all time.
Horne's gift as arts bureaucrat, as pamphleteer, and as academic administrator for shirking hard, unglamorous issues, displays a kind of brilliance.
When he first howled for increased Australia Council funding on the broad principle of "No free-verse poet will live in poverty by 1990", he had a moral obligation to identify the questions that government arts subsidy raises by its very existence. Why institute it? Who decides how to dispense it? Has it ever amounted, in practice, to more than a totalitarian rort for the greater glory of Goebbels, Zhdanov, and their latter-day equivalents? If so, where and when?
Given its product's primarily microscopic audience, how can it be reconciled with the centuries-old principle of no taxation without representation? Besides, where exactly are the cosmic geniuses it was supposed to germinate? And so forth.
If Horne even considered these problems, one must presume it was only to brush them away with an imperious shout of "Horne has spoken: the case is closed".
At least the silly patronesses who subsidised the composition of Finnegan's Wake contented themselves with wasting their own money. Horne, the Mæcenas of Muswellbrook, is cannier than they: he wastes ours instead. Then he indignantly wonders why a million of his compatriots voted in 1998 for Pauline Hanson!
Horne's ostentatious heartache mystifies. No prophet is more honoured in his own country than he. Few authors anywhere match his record of fulfilling self-imposed didactic tasks. At his fame's height, he probably possessed still more intellectual influence than Manning Clark, and much more power to implement pet theories than any Prime Minister since 1966 has enjoyed.
Everything The Lucky Country and its sequels told Australians to do: bemoan capitalism, excoriate Menzies, desanctify religion, criminalise all forms of racism except Anglophobia, we have done. He begged us to extirpate censorship; this also we did, confident that legal permission to publish obscenities ad infinitum would of itself ensure an Augustan literary age.
He urged us to confer tertiary education on even (or rather especially) those forever incapable of benefiting from it; we did that too, with what effects upon the social contract Blind Freddie can see.
In foreign policy, he exhorted us to let Asia triumph, though the heavens fall; and we obeyed him for a quarter of a century, until East Timorese cries to these same heavens for vengeance became fractionally too clamorous even for Paul Keating to drown out. To Horne, therefore, Sir Christopher Wren's renowned epitaph applies: "If you seek his monument, look around you."
Yet, is Horne grateful for the sheer sycophancy with which Australians have consummated his programme? No, indeed: Into the Open exudes rancorous bafflement. Its narrative's chronological confusion seems to accentuate the author's own throbbing grievance at foes long since dead.
A reader who had somehow spent the past three decades in a coma would assume from Horne's grumbling that the "infamous Menzies", during whose diabolical régime Australia suffered the tortures of full employment and predominantly crime-free suburbia, was still alive. But then he is alive, for Horne at least.
Those of an age to have hobnobbed with Horne in the years when he cultivated the appearance of a genuine radical might want this book. The rest of us can content ourselves with wondering, out loud, whether so disjointed a manuscript would even have found a publisher had its perpetrator been a young unknown.