OPINION: by Brian J. ComanNews Weekly
David Marr and the white whale
, October 12, 2013
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the great works of literature to come to us from America. The book defies any strict categorisation. It is at the one time a treatise on cetology, an account of the whaling trade in the 19th century and a novel plumbing those dark recesses of the human psyche where hatred, anger and revenge have their very seat.
When I read David Marr’s account of Cardinal George Pell in the latest issue of Quarterly Magazine, Captain Ahab immediately came to mind, for there can be absolutely no doubt that Marr’s hatred of George Pell parallels Ahab’s hatred of the white whale.
But the comparison is apt for another reason. Long after the publication of Moby Dick, Melville published a long poem, Clarel, being chiefly an account of a visit he had made to the Holy Land. At the end of this poem he anticipates a great battle between religion and atheism which finally resolves down to a battle between the new atheism of his own day and the Catholic Church. This vision is all the more remarkable because Melville himself was not a Christian.
There is a baseline in civilised human discourse below which the attempt to communicate information passes into insult, derision or outright hatred. David Marr has always hovered about this line, but in his latest offering all attempts to convey reasoned argument descend into the abyss of unqualified hatred.
His essay, The Prince, is a sustained attack on Cardinal George Pell. The attack is not just on the person of the Cardinal, but also on his religious office and, especially, on the Catholic Church. Marr’s hostility to Christianity is, of course, one of his trademarks as a writer. He combines this with a hatred of conservative politics and, indeed, of anything that might be seen to oppose or even question his left-wing ideology and his championship of homosexuality and pornography.
In a lifetime of reading, I cannot recall any writing which approaches the level of hatred exemplified in Marr’s prose. It drips like venom from nearly every sentence. There is an appropriate coincidence with the verb “to mar”, meaning to despoil or disfigure. This is precisely what he does.
The title of his latest offering is, of course, a direct allusion to Machiavelli’s The Prince, a treatise on acquiring and maintaining political power. The suggestion here is that Cardinal Pell is motivated purely by the love of power and is ruthless in maintaining it. Even his description of the Cardinal at the November 2012 media conference on child abuse in the Church depicts a Borgia or Medici. Marr writes: “Pell wore on his dark suit insignia of both church and state: a cross and the gold pin of a Companion of the Order of Australia. An incongruous kiss-curl fell on his forehead. He was pale and fleshy. On the ring finger of his right hand he wore a heavy sheath of gold.… What had to be done had to be done … it’s called eating a s**t sandwich…”
Marr cannot contain his joy at the sight of a Cardinal of the Catholic Church apologising for what had happened in earlier decades. But, of course, this was not enough for Marr. His loathing of George Pell is such that, for the rest of the long essay, he lays much of the blame for what has happened at the foot of the Cardinal.
But even this does not suffice. In the early part of his essay, he digs up the unsubstantiated claim by a petty criminal that he had been abused as a boy “by a big bastard called George”. Strangely, the claimant did not come to this realisation until decades later when the abuse business hit the headlines. As we all know, there is now an official enquiry into child sexual abuse in Australia. It was set up by the Gillard Government some time ago, and is expected to run for several years. This, one would have thought, is the proper place to conduct an enquiry into all allegations of child sexual abuse in schools and other institutions, possible negligence on the part of Church authorities, and other related matters. But Marr has set up his own court, with his own judge and jury, and delivered his own verdict.
It would be wrong to suppose that David Marr’s target is Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church. The real object of his hatred lies much deeper. It is that philosophy of life, originating first in pre-Christian Greece and Rome, and amplified in the Christian tradition of the West, in which the intellectual life of the human is deemed to sit above and to command the merely organic. Put simply, the Western tradition sets limits to what humans can and should do, and this takes the form of a moral code. This code has, of necessity, a spiritual basis, for otherwise it would be merely subjective in the final analysis. For the greater part of our history, this has been an understanding shared by all.
The project of radical secular humanism is to destroy this view of the human person and to replace it with a view of humans as masters of their own destiny. “Glory to Man in the highest!” said the poet A.C. Swinburne. “For Man is the master of things.” This is the great war of ideas in our age. Religion and conservative politics, because they place an emphasis on what Edmund Burke has called “the wisdom of our ancestors” and upon the objectivity of a shared moral code, are enemies of the new and aggressive secularists. They cry for justice, equality and inclusiveness, all the while imposing huge injustices and inequalities upon those who disagree with them.
I am disappointed that Chris Feik, the editor of Quarterly Essay, saw fit to publish Marr’s private hatreds in this way. It diminishes whatever literary status the journal might have enjoyed. Of course, the whole marketing strategy of Quarterly Essay is to invite well-known authors to write confronting pieces. The journal then invites selected people to respond. By this strategy, they hope to build the circulation of the publication.
There is some merit in the strategy, but only if the arguments are contained within the recognised parameters of civil discourse. Marr’s essay on George Pell does not.
Brian J. Coman, PhD, a former agricultural scientist, is a widely published author and essayist. His book, A Loose Canon: Essays on History, Modernity and Tradition, is available from News Weekly books.