Give Reality a Chance

I had my two babies as a public patient in Katoomba, Australia. The birthing unit was run by midwives, with several doctors on-call to intervene if the need arose. The birthing room was cleverly lit to give the appearance of soft candlelight, with spotlights to allow the professionals to see what they were doing. There was a large bath filled with warm water. I was encouraged to bring my favourite ambient music. My children’s father was supported and given the option to participate at his discretion. After the birth I was given round-the-clock support by lactation consultants during my stay. Back home, these well-trained, compassionate, bossy, experienced women were available to come to my home whenever needed. All on the public bill.

After my babies were born, a theme arose in the social commentary surrounding the care of newborns. Many people told me of a time in history when we lived as a village, when mothers were supported by extended family, when raising children was as much a part of life as harvesting crops and celebrating the change of seasons. This utopian period stood in contrast to the present day, when the mechanistic medical model of the west had co-opted the wonders of natural childbirth and turned it into a production line of mothers churning out babies, factory-style.

I hear about this utopian village so often, in many different fields, such as home-birthing, complementary medicine, environmentalism, feminism. It seems a little daily comfort is  needed to foster the luxury of idealism. I have come to think of it as a kind of medieval Avalon, or Brigadoon. In other words, located entirely in cultural mythology. It seems to serve the purpose of allowing us to feel that we may, someday, stumble upon the magic formula that will allow the mists to part, at which time all will be well.

It is possible that the supportive village may have existed sometime or place, for a nanosecond in human history. The reality of childbirth and parenting in our cultural history, and nearly all others past and present, is so completely different it’s almost impossible for the modern human mind to comprehend. It is understandable that we could have created the utopian myth to protect ourselves from the psychological impact of reality.

In fact humans are pretty much unique among primates in our practice of infanticide within our own species (Broude, 1995). Abandonment, slavery, sexual abuse and battery are far more common parenting practices within our species than care and nurturing, a relatively modern development. A feature of life in Europe until the rise of foundling homes in the 17th century (the first established by St Vincent de Paul in France) was stepping over babies abandoned in the street, frothing at the mouth as they died of malnutrition. This would have been as frequent, and acceptable, as the sight of homeless male adults present today in the streets of most cities.

A history of child-abuse is not unique to developed countries. There is little evidence for humans treating children with the care and love we now take for granted, from anywhere around the world or through the ages. Note: Read Robin Grille’s book “Parenting for a Peaceful World” for some mind-blowing research into the history of parenting. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but his research is fantastic.

Somewhere in the last 200 years we have invented the idea that children are precious. To treat them with love and care is a fundamental principle going to the heart of our humanity. We have integrated these ideas to the point where we take them for granted and imagine they must be part of our ‘nature’. We have developed systems of child protection which, though fallable, would have seemed foreign in a history where most children were disposable.

We have changed the very basis of our human consciousness in a very short period of time. During the same period of evolution we have polluted and out-fished our water systems, over-exploited our soil reserves, over-populated, changed the climate of our planet.

If we insist on identifying ourselves with myths about who we really are as a species, we run the risk of needing to learn these lessons again, god forbid. As we hurtle towards an industrial environmental calamity, let’s take an honest inventory of who we really are and where we’ve been.

Humanitas Back to the Street

I wish to share with you an excerpt from a reading I was given during my second year studying visual art:

Can we ever regard the Icon seriously again? In every aspect iconicity appears a preposterous anachronism within the urbane disbelief of a vision now arrayed as “the culture of the image”. For the image has fashioned its own discipline and doctrine that are, strictly speaking, aesthetically iconoclastic. Adherence to the Image is founded on a renunciation of both the originality and the finality that consecrate a pictorial instance as an Icon. The Image is resolutely secular and practical; it invites reading not absorption; it does not elicit veneration but activates scrutiny. Ironically, this is because the Image insists on its superficiality and promiscuity to deface the propriety of the Icon, to undo its priorities, its articles of faith.

This was written by Edward Colless in 1985 and was given to me in 1996.

I think the author is saying that religious images are less worthy than secular images in the context of a modern urbane environment in which people see a lot of images every day. He believes that artworks need to be de-mystified after being mis-used as a source of religious meditation.

In the 90s in universities we were bombarded with this kind of pretentious academic writing. I don’t think things have changed much. After a while, students stopped asking questions and fell into passive trance states. The people we had entrusted with the shaping of our ideas regularly delivered this kind of material, free of context or background.

To be properly educated is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world. We need access to the ideas that have developed our civilisation, and therefore ourselves. The modern psychology developed alongside the modern world. In order to understand our psychology, we need to understand the world we are part of. We need to be able to locate ourselves in time and space, not just as an intellectual exercise, but to find harmony within our own beings.

Currently universities are vocational institutions where we are taught all we need to know to function in a workplace. Achieving cultural literacy has become the provenance of the elite. The remaining 99% of us have become content with the stingy offerings of the media to quench our thirst for meaning. We “get on with the jobs” we are trained for and leave the juicy stuff to the smarter types.

Culture belongs to all people, not only (and perhaps least of all) the minority that currently dominate these areas. One of the problems in reclaiming our heritage is the intimidating idea that anyone with the guts to put their head above the parapet and initiate a dialogue in this area needs to be 100% perfect in their understanding of the material. Therefore, if you can be found ignorant of one time period, or event, a date or an important artwork, you have no business discussing the arts at all.

It is my intention to create a venue where we can discuss what we need to discuss to become re-connected with our ancestral legacy using whatever language is most comfortable for us. We can expose ourselves by asking seemingly ignorant questions for the sake of curiosity. We can play with the ideas of philosophy and reinvigorate them by bringing them back to the street, out of the institutions where they are gathering dust.