Obliquity & Respect

Arthur Miller rarely tried for a theme. It just happened. The playwright would chance upon a story and become enchanted by it. He’d mould its contours and furnish it with characters. Characters he could see and feel. Characters with sweaty palms and strange hopes and libidos. Characters who would write themselves. About two-thirds through the writing, Miller would realise what it was all about. The theme. He’d write it down in just a few words on a piece of card and pin it above his desk. Miller instinctively knew that the surest way to ruin a piece was to shoehorn his story into a dogmatic cast. Compare Tolstoy’s last novel—the morally earnest Resurrection—with Anna Karenina, a novel that surely will be read in another 100 years.

The economist John Hay calls this obliquity—the idea that “certain targets are achieved only as a side-effect of aiming for something else.” The elusive quality of happiness best demonstrates this. On the ABC’s Book Club recently, the British philosopher AC Grayling said: “People have forgotten that happiness is like that little dot in a dark room which disappears when you look at it. But when you look at something else, there it appears at the corner of your eye…. Because happiness is a state that one would achieve epiphenomenally—there’s a great philosophical word—which means sort of off to the side.”

Emily Dickinson once wrote “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”. If Miller’s and Dickinson’s intention was to write something true—something which arrests our breath with a powerful shock of recognition—then they’d have to go about it obliquely. They each had their own means and ways and for each the outcome was very different, but both of them trusted their powerful combination of experience, instincts, principles and sense of craft. These they brought to bear on the messy business of art.

All of which is an oblique way of getting to the Australian Government’s problems of authority and legitimacy. If happiness is achieved by “being absorbed in meaningful activity” respect is achieved when you are absorbed in principled activity. Undoubtedly this is practically difficult in a minority government. But what’s happening in Canberra isn’t just a lesson in the pitfalls of a hung parliament. We’re watching smart adults forget a bedrock lesson: you don’t ask for respect, you earn it. And it is as ridiculous to assume that a political party can poll their way to respect and authority as it is to sit down with the outrageous certainty that you are going to write a Great Novel. Both are happy consequences of other things.

Witness last year’s campaign. Perhaps best remembered for its surreal shallowness, I’ll always remember it for the use of polling. That the Labor Party failed to see that the instrument used to enhance its reputation was the very thing ruining it is grimly hilarious.

It is possible that the Government is now caught in the enormous gravity of a catch-22: to profoundly shift how the party works and the principles by which they govern may be too stark—and suicidal—an admission of rottenness. But to bastardise John Lennon: “Political destruction is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”.

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