Here is the link to podcast of Maria Turmarkin’s Launch Speech and our conversation after it.
For a number of reasons 2023 has been a hard and painful year for Yael and me. The most important of those reasons is that our son-in-law, Mark Raphael Baker, died on May 4. A detail of Mark’s photo at the top of this page forms the cover of my new book, Justice and Hope: Essays, Lectures and other Writings, edited by Scott Stephens. Yael, and I mourn Mark and grieve for the loss that his wife, our daughter Michelle Lesh, and their daughter Melila suffer, differently, of course. Strictly speaking, Michelle is my step-daughter, but I never think of her in that way, and only on occasions when strict-speech is required do I describe her as that.
Here is an edited version of the eulogy I gave at the first minyan, and here is a more beautiful one that Michelle gave at Mark’s funeral.
The publication of Justice and Hope in November made the year end a little better than I feared it would. I’m also gratified that The Conversation honoured me in its last editorial of the year by describing me as someone who might help restore social cohesion when it appears to be fracturing, especially since the massacres in Israel on October 7 and their horrific aftermath when Israel unleashed war on Gaza and its residents. I suspect that an essay written by Maria Tumarkin and Juliet Rogers inspired the editors to do this.
Maria Tumarkin launched Justice and Hope at Readings Bookstore in Carlton on November 16. Stan Grant launched it for Gleebooks at Glebe Town Hall on November 24. Until now, December 27, there have been no reviews, though Richard King nominated it in The Australian as one of his best book of the year. Maria gave a fine launch speech and Alex Miller sent me an email that I will treasure, which he permitted me to publish on this page.
I had an interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live.
Here is Maria’s speech
“When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 Feb last year, my world ended. It felt lonely in Australia – for most people, life continued more or less as before. I remember in early March last year coming out at the back of the house we rent in Elsternwick on Boon Wurrung country. I was with an old, dear friend who came to see me, a non-Ukrainian. She is here tonight. We sat on a low bench near the lemon tree facing each other. The sky was grey. I lifted my head, maybe even by accident, and saw a little patch of blue sky. I gasped. The pain of seeing blue sky felt like being physically cut.
By now, with the Referendum and the Middle East on fire (and the climate catastrophe and more more more), so many in this country are walking around in the fog of anguish and despair. I take no pleasure in not feeling quite so alone. But I do think of tonight not as your conventional, ‘perfectly pleasant’ book launch. It’s more like an emergency conversation. In an emergency Rai is precisely the person I want to talk to.
I do want to let you know that we have decided that we will not talk about Israel and Gaza. It will feel like an omission, of course, but we believe it’s disrespectful to have this conversation crammed between other topics and not given enough time and space, bookended by speeches and book signings, and essentially assimilated into business as usual.
We are all familiar with silence as complicity. There is such a thing as speech as complicity too. Speech that comes too early too easily too certain, that is declarative careless fundamentally self-serving, that seeks psychic release of being ‘on the right side of history’. We prefer to be silent tonight. It will always be an imperfect choice.
I’m going to say a few things, then Rai will say a few things, and then we will have a conversation.
Rai and I have known each other for eighteen years. We met in 2005 when Rai was asked to launch my first book Traumascapes. I knew and admired his work. He had no idea who I was.
It was actually terrifying to have Rai of all people launching my first book. Not least because Rai took his job seriously and came wanting to think with me, out loud, in public, about ideas in my book. Whatever happened to legendary philosophers just throwing words at your work and then rushing on to more important engagements, barely registering the fact of your personhood? No, Rai came to talk. And he registered everything alright.
On the day of the launch when we sat down to have a conversation, I saw that in Rai’s copy of my book he underlined some lines and crossed out others. Where I grew up, you couldn’t even fold book’s pages as bookmarks unless you were a book barbarian. Rai’s having his way with my book was pretty outrageous.
Even then at our first meeting, Rai recognised an intensity in me which others took, at best, as yet another first-generation migrant being too much. Even then he wanted it not to be diluted, for me not to be convinced into toning it down.
I, in turn, feel an overwhelming gratitude for an incorruptible INTENSITY in Rai and his work, which, in his terms, might be called ‘moral seriousness’. In Rai’s 2017 essay ‘The Intelligentsia in the Age of Trump’ which you’ll find in the ‘Truth and Judgement’ section of his new book Justice and Hope, he writes,
‘To call someone to seriousness in a conversation is to call them to an individuating responsiveness to what they have made of themselves, to speak out of a life they have lived as their own and no one else’s.’
The accountability Rai is talking about is not merely about being prepared to stand by your words. The fundamental connection between what you say and how you live your life is not an opt-in proposition.
I keep thinking about Helen Garner’s well-known and typically astute comment about how Romulus, My Father ‘changed the quality of the literary air in this country’. For me, it wasn’t just ‘Romulus’. Or ‘After Romulus’, which is my favourite book of Rai’s.
Each essay, book, speech, lecture that has Rai’s name on it – many of which are collected in this new book – has an uncompromising quality of their writer going all the way with their formidable head and their formidable heart at once. All the way in seeing the world as it is, in not turning away. And this allthewayness not only changes the quality of the air but keeps this air we share breathable for so many.
Rai said once at a writer’s festival that the idea that good writing and good thinking are usually aligned is not really true. It was a pretty controversial statement, particularly at a writer’s festival. I enjoyed it very much. Rai makes controversial statements more often than you think.
Rai says he is not a writer. He revises for clarity only. He doesn’t take pleasure in a well-constructed sentence. He said as much this Monday when we met to talk about tonight. I told him I thought he was a writer as opposed to just a philosopher who writes things down out of necessity, because the printing press has been invented and you have to do what you have to do.
I’m frequently brought to tears when reading Rai’s work. I get goosebumps not because he makes heavens tremble with his lush sentences, but because he does this precious work of making space in language for the conversations I need most in life – I need them most and somehow they are the hardest to have. I often understand his most complex arguments with my heart, not with my cognitive apparatus’, or, more precisely, with my being because of what he is able to do on the page.
Rai has such an innate feeling of how far language can go, when it needs to stop, when it needs to drop to a whisper, when it can’t afford any ornamentation. Rai doesn’t push language like a trolley ahead of himself, doesn’t ride it like a bullet train to get him to destinations of choice, doesn’t use it as bricks to build structures out of.
This might be, at least partially, due to Rai’s life-long attention to what he calls human vulnerability to sentimentality and pathos and, more broadly, to the counterfeit manifestations of what matters or should matter most to us. There is no thinking without distinctions, he says, and the ability to distinguish between jingoism and patriotism, love and infatuation, loyalty and servility, grief for others and grieving for ourselves is fundamental to our moral and political lives. Rai has a nose – maybe even a mother of all noses – for what is not truthful in our thought and speech. But his project is not to expose the counterfeit, but to free our thinking from being entangled in it and corrupted by it.
In his 2006 essay on torture, which you can find in the ‘War, terror and Ethical Tragedy’ section of the book, Rai writes,
“That we are under an imperative to try to see things as they are about matters of meaning in our lives— about the great matters of the human condition, in fact—is a humanity defining task whose call and discipline we reject or avoid at the cost of forsaking our humanity.”
When we chatted on Monday, Rai mentioned Simone Weil’s point that moral life is not a muscular effort of the will. If it’s not that kind of all-stretching-and-straining commitment to the good, what is it in secular terms?
In the introduction to his new book, Rai talks about Plato’s remark: We become what we love. And then he says,
To Plato’s question, what is worthy of our love, I offer two from a number of possible answers… [he is not talking about people and non-human others]. Justice is worthy of our love. So is the world, irrespective of what happens in it.
We can hold pessimistic views about human nature, can be bitterly disillusioned in the possibilities of political action, might feel failed by institutions, might get an instant heartburn whenever we think about any kind of plausible future, but it shouldn’t matter to the way we carry our commitment to justice, to the place of this commitment in our lives. It certainly doesn’t matter to him.
What Rai calls ‘an unconditional love of the world’ is at the centre of his thought.
Justice and Hope is not merely a meeting place for Rai’s work of thinking in public over the last twenty-plus years, it is a powerful book in its own right.
It has a unifying sense of purpose and lucidity. It’s electrifying to observe Rai develop his ideas over time as the world changes around us.
Eighteen years after meeting each other, Rai and I are friends. We love each other. He launched my first book when I was ‘fresh-off-the-boat’ as they say and now I have a privilege to launch his. Life moves in mysterious ways. Mystery is one of Rai’s subjects which is another reason I love his writing (whatever he says about it) and can’t live without his thinking.”
Here is Alex’s email.
“We have both dedicated our latest books to our grandchildren! I’ve been reading random essays and talks in your massive work since you gave a copy to me and Steph with that beautiful dedication of friendship. Reading you, often for a second time, I remembered at the end of one of your Wednesday lectures you stood at the microphone and described with the shaping of your hands the big book of philosophy you hoped to write one day. For a long time I have thought you would not get to write that book, mainly due to health and the simple limitations of time and energy. Reading you now over he past weeks I have realised that Justice and Hope is that big book of philosophy which you described so eloquently that evening, making the shape of your dream for us with your hands. I know from long experience that the books we hope to write and the books we actually do write, are never quite as we expected. They transform in their making and become something new, they surprise us and in doing so transform us and our ideas of what they are.
Justice and Hope is the deep and true reflection of its author and his life’s work in a way no planned book of philosophy ever could be. Reading it I hear you and see you, and my memory is flooded by a sense of your presence in my life and the riches I’ve received from you in friendship. Justice and Hope is a beautiful work of art in which the voice of the poet in your heart is often present to us. At times I feel it like a great symphony, rising and falling, always searching for the true that lies beneath the rhythms of its thought. You are a modern-day equivalent of the great trecento poet and moral philosopher, Petrarch. He might have written word for word as you do on page 506 of that beautiful essay on The Monk and the Philosopher, “the hope that at the highest ethical level, all good things can be reconciled.” The reconciliation of the human impulse towards the active live in conflict with an impulse towards the contemplative life; how to reconcile the two, and how, in the active life to avoid participating in evil oneself? It was Petrarch’s central problem, and of course remained for him unreconciled.
I will keep it by me and shall go on reading from your great work so long as I can read. It is a precious book, one of the great books of my life. And it is as beautiful as you imagined it might become that night after your lecture, the shaping of your hands dreaming its mysterious form for this reader who remembers you then. Our grandchildren will read it.”