It was a typical autumn day in October. The air was cold but the sun was shining down on the members of the congregation. They were discussing their lives, spreading gossip and exchanging niceties, the women dressed in their drab pre-winter attire, some more fashionably than others; the men and young boys in their skull caps, with the more respectable gentlemen among them distinguishable by their long black overcoats and tall, broad-brimmed hats that looked disproportionately large for the size of their heads, something between top-hat and bowler. I was on my way to Coolidge Corner to catch the B-line trolley to downtown with the vague aim of rousing my senses from their summer’s end malaise with the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling Saturday morning in the heart of the city. And as I passed by I couldn’t help but keep glancing across the street.
Objectively they were no different from any other group of people gathered in front of their respective house of worship, be they Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or of any other organized religious persuasion that defers to the omnipotence of a central deity. Besides, I should have been used to the sight of them by now for I had lived in Brookline for almost a year, and Brookline after all was the heart of the Jewish community in Boston. Nevertheless, whenever I walked past this particular building which looked so much like a church but wasn’t, because it lacked a steeple or spire pointing up to the heavens with some kind of crucifix on top; and instead had a six-pointed star of David embossed in stone relief on the Grecian-style gable above the entrance, with columns and other esthetic details similarly inspired; I had an instinctive urge to look and discover what was inherently different about those gathered on the steps and forecourt.
There are synagogues in Melbourne, but they were situated in suburbs I rarely had occasion to visit, like Caulfield, or Balaclava. But I do remember one Saturday morning I went looking for a store selling a particular brand of orthopedic shoes on Glenhuntly Road in Elsternwick, and on the way back I happened to drive past a synagogue; well, not the actual temple itself, but the side street on which it was located, judging by the steady stream of congregants turning from it and walking along Glenhuntly Road. But my curiosity didn’t go beyond a half-hearted disapproving eye at their overly grave and somber appearances and their dowdy clothes, and the somewhat disconcertingly long dreadlocks on some of the men and boys who struck me as having unusually pale complexions for Semites, especially in the middle of summer.
In Brookline, however, it was not so much their looks or dress sense that piqued my interest, but a mysterious presence they seemed to exude that demanded attention. In some convoluted way, I suspect this had to do with the fact that in the secular all-embracing Republic of the United States of America, the separation of church and state as enshrined in the Constitution ensures the freedom for any religion to preach its message without encroaching on the identity of its members as American citizens. That’s because there’s a tacit unanimity of belief in the unity of all under one flag, regardless of origin or religion, hence: E Pluribus Unum.
Although they inform their respective national cultures, in America the various religions tend to stand on their own theological foundations. In that respect, they’re like commodities in the market place of ideologies, and rather than implore blind following, they demand scrutiny and invite comparison as to what they have to offer in the realm of spiritual succor and moral instruction, as well as fringe benefits in exchange for one’s faithful following. Thus, it wasn’t so much who they were that compelled me to keep glancing at the congregants in front of the temple on Harvard Avenue, but what they represented and symbolized, as living exemplars of their creed.
But in Australia (why or why do I keep returning to it?), in the absence of a constitutionally defined national mission, and against the mystifying relationship between God, the nation-state and the British monarchy which undermines any notion of true sovereignty, religion assumes a regressive ideological-cum-crypto-political dimension to fill the vacuum. This turns the various churches and temples into de facto shop fronts for a fragmenting and retarding multiculturalism that feeds a simmering intestine hostility between the plethora of displaced nations that make up that heteromorphous mass of cast off humanity. But I digress.
In any case, it’s only natural to be curious about a closely-knit gathering from which one is excluded. It raises the question of purpose, which can either be a source of anxiety and resentment, if one suspects being part of that closed group confers some material advantage, like protection from harm, or certain privileges stemming from shared knowledge and heredity; or alternatively, it can give rise to vicarious pleasure, schadenfreude if you like, if one suspects that the lives and well-being of members of that group are in some kind of imminent danger from which, as an uninvolved bystander, one is safe.
With Jews and their temples, I suspect it’s a case of the former, because one gets the impression they’re inviting outsiders to look in and feel excluded, like they’re missing out on something important, and thereby have their sense of inferiority provoked, given the generally received prejudice that Jews are better off than the average citizen, which in the minds of many inexorably flows from the insular nature of their religion and culture, despite their denials and efforts to pass themselves off as normal and unexceptional. I guess it’s these mixed signals they give out which is why they had trouble endearing themselves to society down the ages.
As for Muslims, I have no interest in their religion. Although they make their differentness clear, I find Islam almost comic in its compulsive obsession with numbers and procedure, and the strict discipline it imposes on its adherents over all aspects of their lives. To me they’re nothing more than imbeciles for acceding to such ridiculous precepts and such a lifestyle, both the men and women. But in saying this I’m forgetting that religion per se is less about substance and more about perpetuating a sense of commonness by enjoining followers to submit to a set of beliefs and behaviors, however irrational, so as to differentiate themselves from the so-called unenlightened, and thereby feel a unique sense of collective power and privilege.
It is said to be a martial religion, condoning war and violence, which goes back to its inception some seven hundred years ago when Mohammed and his cohorts were chased out of Mecca and took refuge in Medina, in the events known as the Hegira, that is, before they turned on their enemies to avenge their hostile treatment. This emphasis on vengeance and retribution contrasts with the humility and forgiveness at the core of Christian teaching, although in the wider realm of human conflict, both strategies can be seen as concerted efforts intended to inflict injury on the enemy, one by physical force violence, the other more by psychological means and manipulation to subvert their conscience and cajole them into submission and self-abnegation.
Given its ridiculous proscriptions and practices, it’s a wonder Islam hasn’t died out in these modern enlightened times where the individual rules and is encouraged to seek fulfillment of their hedonistic urges by all means at their disposal. It suggests that within the fertile landscape of the human psyche there is still a place for the dogmatic, aphoristic metaphysics of Islam as a counterpoint to the pernicious and wanton materialism in modern society, and a bulwark against its unrelenting intrusion into and commandeering of people’s lives in the cause of much vaunted freedom of choice. But I digress.
As for Judaism, my voyeuristic interest emanates from a sense of confused awe. I suspect this derives from a subconscious envy I have of Jews as a group to which I don’t belong, but wish I did, so that I too may experience that strong sense of common purpose and unity they exude, so lacking in my own life, and partake in the benefits membership confers. It’s also related to the fact that Jews have figured so prominently in the history of Western civilization, quite out of all proportion to their overall number, and seem to have a monopoly in all spheres of organized human intellectual endeavor, ‘cornered the market’, as it were, which in many people’s minds is inextricably bound up with their faith. Thus, in my simple way of thinking, I believe that if I were a Jew I too could share in their success and achieve the fame for which I feel I was always destined.
However, it was just my fate to be born into Christianity, which arguably has laid the political, social and economic foundations of Western society as we know it. It did this by seizing people’s ungoverned curiosity about the universe and their place in it, and substituting it with a placatory system of inwardly-directed morality and self-restraint that promised sustenance and happiness in return for disciplined acquiescence to a central power, thereby ensuring social order through the observance of ethical codes focused on humility, selflessness and forgiveness, and on the virtues of parsimony and austerity that a large extent exalted poverty. Jesus, its founder, or rather, the person who is said to have inspired Christianity, was in fact a Jew, but one who belonged to the lower orders and lived on the fringes of Jewish society. His new church renounced the exclusivity of Judaism and opened the door to all comers from the lower orders, preaching forgiveness over vengeance while appealing to people’s imagination and the concept of the hereafter as a means of escaping the tyranny and misery of their present lives, as opposed to seeking redress in the here and now with ‘an eye for an eye’ advocated by his forsaken co-religionists.
But to most Jews, he and his fellow apostates, along with their followers were nothing more than meek fools for falling for the imbecilic premise of heaven and hell where supposedly everyone ends up after death in some incorporeal form, to be either rewarded for their sacrifices, or punished eternally for their earthly sins. And to be honest, I can’t disagree with this view, because for all its positive moral teachings Christianity is fundamentally a confidence job, no less deceptive or manipulative than Islam, or any other publicly organized religion that enjoys tax-free status. Moreover, in contrast to the Christian ideal of humility and forgiveness, history has shown that Christians are no less barbaric and sinister than any other religious group, and are capable of inflicting just as much death and destruction on each other as they are on their enemies.
One thing that distinguishes Christianity from other monotheistic religions, however, is that, because it appeals to people’s supernatural faculties through fantastic myths parading as incontrovertible facts and miracles, it unwittingly encourages its followers to engage in metaphysical contemplation. Although this has the potential to undermine its very authority, especially in those of a questioning mindset, this qualified tolerance of abstraction endows Christianity with a unique intellectual dimension; whereas Judaism, from my superficial understanding, engenders reactionary thinking by relying on intricate parable through story-telling to inculcate a sense of absolute good and evil in the cause of self-preservation and promotion of the collective interest.
Although it instills a form of dialectical reasoning rooted in materialism that can be applied efficaciously to interpret reality, the Judaic system of looking at the world actually inhibits the emergence of revolutionary ideas to challenge the status quo, the type, for example, that gave rise to the Enlightenment and the flourishing of European philosophy and science as we know it. Thus, it’s no coincidence that these historical developments took place in societies founded on principles of social organization and ethics informed by Christianity, if not governed by it, which it must be said, many Jews were influenced by and took advantage of, and to which they made invaluable contributions, like Einstein and others before and after him.
Perhaps, in a paradoxical sense, the supernatural aspects of Christianity, combined with its invocation of absolute truth as inhered in God, spurred the less credulous and the more quietly questioning among enthusiasts to search for objective truth behind the myths with the intellectual rigor instilled by the intricacies of Christian theology. And this in turn stimulated the speculative mind to explore further the nature of the universe from a more rational perspective. And thus modern science was born. I think these contradictory aspects of Christianity, promulgating myths and miracles on the one hand, while unwittingly encouraging the exploration of the ‘true’ nature of reality on the other from a personal perspective, that is, as it pertains to the “self”, is why it became the religion of capitalism par excellence. Thus, through the power of metaphor, Christianity conditioned people to see themselves as independent actors with an individual free will whom Providence acts through and inspires to labor productively and create, rather than remain idle and wither; and to accept as self-evident in the sphere of commerce things like the mystery of the market as the work of God, and the perpetual nature of the corporation as a supra-human entity with a life of its own.
I can’t quite explain it, but I’m driven to the inescapable conclusion that there is a definite albeit abstruse connection, not quite causal, perhaps symbiotic, between capitalism and Christianity. Take the distinction by the latter between the body and soul, for example, where both are said to coexist in a living being. Is there not a parallel between this and the concept of the dual nature of the commodity having both a use-value and an exchange-value, which must be valorized for that commodity-object can be relieved of its alienated character and put to the use for which it was produced, thereby affirming its raison d’être? Otherwise, the commodity in question will be deemed superfluous to people’s needs, and despite the time and effort that went into producing it, it will end up on the scrap pile, stripped of any value. In a sense, this is just like in the case of a living being, whereby at death, at the point of transformation from the living to the non-living state, his or her soul can either rise up to heaven and be saved eternally, or descend to hell and be forever damned. For the commodity in question, judgment takes place in the market, which can be seen as God’s capitalist domain, or should that be, the capitalist God’s domain, where his guiding hand goes to work shrouded in mystery, as articulated by Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations.”.
Then there’s the nature of the Trinity, that is, the mysterious relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, coequal and consubstantial. Is this mystical abstraction not in some way analogous to the mystery of how the production process and the market conspire to determine the price of a commodity and confer value on it? Thus, the amount of labor-time invested in producing it is only a measure of potential value. The actual value of a commodity is determined by the market, and supply and demand, just as for a person to realize their true worth to themselves and society they must open themselves up to the judgment of God and receive His Grace and the acknowledgement of his fellow man. And does not the demand for a given commodity invoke the capacity of the Holy Ghost to inspire people to commune with God and receive His blessing, just as in the market place buyers are actuated not only by a desire to supply a material want, but also by an inner need to connect with their fellow human beings who themselves are trying to sell the commodity-objects produced with their own love’s labors, seeking in the act of exchange their own validation and valorization respectively? No doubt, one can draw up other more arcane and interweaving parallels, between Divine Revelation and the forces governing commodity capitalism, however loose and speculative, all of them open to inquiry and speculation, tantalizing the intellect to search for underlying truth and meaning, at the risk of heresy.
In the polytheistic system of the ancient Greeks it was different. Here, anthropomorphic gods personified universal concepts such as love, hate, beauty, virtue, death, hubris, and other aspects of life, perhaps as a way of memorizing them by assigning them an origin and a cause, allowing transmission and personal interpretation, summoned as required. Here too an all knowing deity ruled, the Demiurge, from which life and the universe sprang. But in this case, this divine entity didn’t directly rule over people in a despotic sense. His purpose was to oversee his vast and ever-expanding coterie of sub-deities who entered people’s lives upon invocation or circumstance to enable them to give expression to their emotions and feelings without prejudice. All were there to be discovered by anyone who wished to explore their inner mind and gain knowledge about oneself and human nature.
The anthropomorphization of abstract concepts laid the path for a rational approach to understanding reality, which it must be said, Christianity largely appropriated and transformed into a strict system of beliefs centered round Divine Revelation and miracles, presented in a more cohesive chronologically plausible narrative, in the tradition of the Old Testament, as opposed to the mutable and desultory nature of Greek myths that often defy a cohesive and strict historical narrative. But unlike the mind-expanding character of Greek mythology, Christianity as it evolved was designed to close the mind and instill docility among the worshippers through a fear of God, and substitute the received determinism of the Greeks with a qualified free will that invoked individual responsibility and accountability for one’s actions through conscious choice between good and evil. Ironically, however, I think it was this dogmatically decreed closing of the mind that spurred rational thinking among adherents, just like locking someone up in a dark room will stimulate their inventive faculties to find a way out.
As for Jews, they’re so conceptually grounded in the present that any appeal to the here-after holds no interest, since it cannot possibly be of any temporal gain. Although there exist ancient mystical strains, it’s this uncompromising focus of mainstream Judaism on the here and now that has enabled Jews to achieve their dominance in so many fields of human endeavor on the back, it must be said, of the placating influence of Christianity on gentiles, to the extent that those with a conspiratorial bent believe Christianity is nothing more than an elaborate Jewish plot to subjugate the gullible masses and make it easier for them to be exploited by Jews who control the economic levers of power in the world. But that’s another story. In any case, I can’t help but secretly envy them, and that’s why I couldn’t stop glancing at them gathered in front of the synagogue on Harvard Avenue that Saturday morning.
The Jews I’ve come to know over the years, I’ve noticed all have a peculiar way of relating to one another which implicitly excludes gentiles. This cabalistic tendency is by no means confined to Jews because I’ve seen it played out by other groups that are similarly wary of outsiders, and even within the same broad ethnicity, as in the case of Cypriots vis á vis Greeks proper whom they look down upon for lacking their entrepreneurial nous, and are therefore considered fair game for exploitation. But with Jews, this exploitative tendency assumes a greater level of significance because the stakes are higher, ultimately the control of society no less, if you believe some people. In an informal setting, this manifests itself in the beginning as subliminal gestures and furtive looks between one another as they seek to establish commonality. Usually these signals are either too subtle to be picked up by outsiders, or are ignored as amusing idiosyncrasies. But by gauging the reactions of those around them, Jews can identify non-Jews in their midst and proceed to isolate and exclude them. And once satisfied they are no longer present, or have been safely disarmed, they can then let down their guard and openly exult in their Jewishness.
I suspect this sense of exclusivity derives from the fact that Judaism has an overt hereditary-cum-racial dimension, in the sense that, to be a Jew one must be born of a Jewish mother. And in instances where gentiles have converted to Judaism, they’re still regarded as outsiders behind their backs, for lacking this essential matrilineal link. This emphasis on hereditary connection engenders a highly developed sense of kinship, but which at the same time can inspire deep enmity. In fact, the two feed off one another because, consciously or otherwise, the hatred Jews invite on themselves serves as a social glue that binds them tightly together, something they themselves acknowledge, albeit not openly.
To some extent Greeks are guilty of similar chauvinism, whereby in their case they like to portray themselves as proud descendants of the glorious ancient Greeks whose legacy they have inherited. Whether or not such a nation ever existed, the present reality is that Greeks as an ethnically identifiable group are as motley as the borders of the modern country of Greece are porous. But at least they have in their favor the fact that they can identify with a physical land on which they can claim a continuous presence, where the ancient Hellenes established their civilization and their shared culture and values, as defined in the concept of ethnos, and know that they have a πατρίδα, unlike the Jews who settled in Palestine after their wandering exodus from the deserts of Lybia and Egypt, displacing and to a lesser degree assimilating with the indigenous populations, although it must be said, the landscape of the land they wandered into is not all that dissimilar from whence they came, and they would have had little trouble acclimatizing.
Also unlike Jews, there’s no ancestral restriction on who can call themselves Greek, so long as they learn to speak and think like one, which really amounts to the same thing. Although the vast majority of Greeks nowadays subscribe to Orthodox Christianity, this is nothing more than a cultural throwback to the ancient Greek ethnos and the pagan religion subscribed to by the Greeks, centered round cults and myths whose concepts and ideas, as mentioned above, Christianity largely appropriated and redefined, at a time when Hellenic culture was in retreat under the ascendant Romans who saw Christianity as a useful means of subjugating the masses throughout the Empire without the use of force, and gave its proselytizers free rein to preach their gospel.
In any case, going back to Jews, the self-mockery by which they humor and flatter gentiles touches on another thing I find annoying. And that’s the surreptitious and insidious way they infiltrate non-Jewish centers of power and influence, both on a small and large scale. They begin firstly by testing how receptive the group or institution they wish to infiltrate is towards them, by self-deprecatingly alluding to their Jewishness while they insinuate themselves into their host’s consciousness through flattery and deception, some more devious than others, including blackmail and violence if necessary. Then when they’ve gained their trust, or have compromised them into silence, and can see an opening, they begin to insert themselves further and further into the inner workings of the organization, advancing firstly with trepidation and circumspection, lest they be found out; and then, when they see the reins of power are within their grasp, they charge forward undaunted and begin neutralizing their critics. This they do by sowing confusion, suspicion and discord by taking advantage of the humanistic principles of equality and non-discrimination of the secular culture, as inspired by Christianity and enshrined in law at which they become experts, and through sophistry and clever argumentation use it to their advantage to take control of the means of mass communication, thereby furthering their cause by silencing dissent, or fomenting it, as needed, having learned from the Greeks that social conflict ‘is the mother of everything,’ including more riches.
In the past I’ve had occasion to experience that mysterious bond that exists between them when I’ve been mistakenly assumed to be a Jew, that is, before being found out and semi-politely ignored or pushed aside. Other times I’ve been approached with curious optimism that I might be a Jew but don’t know it, from a lost tribe forced to renounce their faith on point of death; only to be subsequently shunned because I turn out to be too much of an unknown quantity. Which brings me to the question of whether or not I might actually be descended from Jews myself.
If there is Jewish blood somewhere in my obscure ancestral lineage, I suspect it’s on my mother’s side. I say this because her family seem to possess the traits generally associated with Jews, like shrewdness, a sharpness of mind, disdain if not contempt for those less fortunate, a sense of superiority as one of the chosen few, and above all, a recognition that money is power and there is absolutely no shame in amassing as much of it as possible, by whatever means. But are these attributes really any different from what you’d find in Greeks in general, or people from any other ethnic group wishing to make good for themselves? As far as my father is concerned, however, I can’t imagine him having any Jewish blood in him at all, because throughout his life he eschewed money and abhorred its stink, and anyone who was ruled by it, including, I suspect, my mother’s family who, in exchange for deigning to give him their much sought-after daughter’s hand in marriage, without so much as a dowry, coerved him into going to the end of the earth with his family in tow, the poor bastard, so he and my mother could work and make money to send back. But I digress.
But if I could establish I had Jewish blood, would I really want to come out and proclaim I was a Jew? I mean, you constantly hear and read about famous people who upon discovering their Jewish heritage now want the entire world to know, as if they’ve finally found the reason for the success they felt destined for. But with feigned modesty, in the same breath they then try and deny their Jewishness played any role, and humbly attribute their success and fame to hard work and serendipity. As for me, I am neither successful enough to want to establish any possible Jewish ancestry, nor do I wish to attribute any success that may come my way to any religious, national or racial affiliation.
But is it really possible that simply being Jewish predisposes one to success and prosperity? Well, if one considers that Jews, on the whole, and this applies to those I’ve come to know over the years, derive their wealth by occupying entrepreneurial positions, middle-men if you like, or else draw their income, make money to be plain, by managing the affairs of others, or acting on their behalf, whether it be in the field of commerce, finance, law or many other forms of organized activity involving exchange of money; and probably have been doing so for hundreds of years, firstly in the Middle-East, and then throughout Europe in the wake of the Diaspora; and you couple this with the fact that they subscribe to a fiercely exclusionary religion and culture that values and lauds personal achievement above everything else, and has no room for failure, while exhorting its followers not to forgive or forget misdeeds against them; then there may well be a basis for thinking they possess certain heritable traits that predisposes them to successful entrepreneurialism. But how could this come about?
Well, one can easily imagine that as a result of a long selection process occurring over thousands of years, not quite on an evolutionary time-frame, a people would have emerged with the necessary mental disposition as well as physical features that endowed them with an almost ‘natural’ ability to exploit the middle strata of primitive class-based societies by ingratiating themselves with those in power whose trust they wished to gain, motivated by a desire to emulate them, but lacking the boldness to usurp outright power; and in the process, they developed a language and culture of their own. Over time, with their services having become indispensable to their masters and the society they ruled over, such people would have established comfortable niches for themselves and prospered.
Gradually, a collective awareness of their own uniqueness and differentness would have emerged, and facilitated by a common language, this would have spurred the development of a religious ideology of sorts centered round the theme of ancestral origins, mythic or factual, which celebrated their “giftedness” and coded the means of achieving success in didactic parables and prescriptions that could be passed on and inculcated into future generations. At the same time a system of secret rites and rituals would have developed that strengthened the bonds between them, and fended off outsiders, thereby helping preserve their unique knowledge and privileges, as they appealed to an Unknown higher power for guidance and protection out of fear and anxiety, given the insecurity inhered in occupying the precarious ‘middle’ stratum, and the fact that their religion-cum-ideology proscribed seeking absolute power, and their their privileged existence dependant on the discretion and whim of the ruling elite above them on the one hand, and the continued gullibility and acquiescence of those below, on the other.
Then, through intra-marriage within this extended socio-religious group, these traits and characteristics would have been passed on to their offspring, and further refined with the aid of intensive indoctrination from an early age to sort out the intellectually strong from the weak, culled or otherwise eliminated; so that after many generations of selective in-breeding, these ‘entrepreneurial’ genes, as it were, would have become concentrated and preserved in the DNA of these self-identifying people who possessed the very qualities which their religion sanctified through its coded messages to set them apart in their own eyes from their non-chosen fellow human beings. Was this, I wonder what the Nazis sought to exterminate, subconsciously driven by deep envy and a desire to supplant this ‘super race’ with their own?
As for me I have no qualms about rejecting Christianity. It lost its appeal long ago after my family moved to Australia when I was barely seven years old, and I no longer had my grandmother to take me to church with her every Sunday; and to be honest, at no point in my life have I ever truly felt ‘Christian’ as such. To me, it’s nothing more than another means of controlling people’s minds by taking advantage of their sense of self-pity and fear of the unknown, with the aim of manipulating them into performing tasks that profit the exploitative ruling elite, ultimately reinforcing class divisions and strengthening the grip of the nation-state, all in the service of capitalism. But then again, there is an inherent contradiction in this state of affairs which I feel is driving Christianity towards its negation, just like capitalism is constantly digging an ever deeper grave for itself, as per the Hegelian dialectic. So there’s hope yet.
But as much as I wish I were a Jew, I will forever be an outsider. Even as a Greek I have difficulty identifying with my fellow countrymen and and my heritage, as dubious as it is. In truth, Greeks are a strange schizophrenic lot; they can despise one another viscerally one minute, and be of one mind the next. They take pleasure in seeing someone who looks and acts much like themselves, but who isn’t, suffer, as if willing misfortune on them out of perverted envy, to bring them closer to death, and a chance to escape the tyranny of life. It points to a deep and tragic self-loathing; a hatred of whatever it is that makes them Greek, as if the frustration of not knowing who they really are, when everything around them points to who they should be, drives them to utter contradiction and madness. They are truly a race of bastards, an admixture of all kinds of traits and characteristics drawn from every corner of Europe, Asia, Africa and beyond.
Their ethnicity is merely a convenient label which has little intrinsic meaning beyond signifying a common cultural and linguistic heritage, and a connection to the physical land of Greece and mythical Ελλάς, whatever the etymological derivation. It’s an acknowledgement of being doubtful inheritors of an ancient culture that still haunts them, one that had come to the acme of understanding of the universe from a human perspective, and which however much they try to defy its psychic hold, keeps drawing them back and prevents them from fully embracing modernity. What is it about Greek culture and language, I wonder, that makes Greeks so resistant and wary of progress?
Above all Greeks possess a toxic vanity that ensures they remain divided, but which by sharing it, unites them at the same time, in the gall and misery. They are a walking contradiction. It’s both my curse to be a Greek on the one hand, and a blessing on the other, for it affords me the detachment necessary to judge others for being not like me. But it also means I’m destined to contrarianism and solitude. But I take hubristic solace in the knowledge that «Η Ελλάδα δε πεθαίνει», which is as defiantly chauvinistic a credo as you can have.
I had nothing specifically planned that Saturday. I thought I’d take a ride downtown and walk among the crowds for a few hours, imbibe the atmosphere and perhaps buy something, a shirt, a pullover or a pair of jeans. I had no need for new clothing, but I felt I had to bring into my possession something to reify my connection with society and blur the contradictions, so to speak, through the exchange of money, that is, amassed credit assigned to the legal entity that is me, for a commodity of my choosing. At the back of my mind, I knew that whatever I ended up buying would be consigned to the back of the wardrobe or bottom of the drawer, probably to be worn once or twice and never again, after I realized it offered no lasting transcendence, or solution to my stifling and insufferable alienation.
Whatever it was, I knew that once that commodity object caught my eye I would have difficulty resisting the urge to buy it. If I tried to walk off its hold there was every chance I would turn to cross the street without looking, oblivious of the traffic, and get struck by a passing vehicle; or walk into someone and knock them to the ground and get into a heated verbal exchange about watching where I was going, etc.; all because of that distracting image floating around in my head of that shirt or pullover, and the anticipation of bringing it into my sole and exclusive possession. That’s why, for my own peace of mind and safety, I simply had to consummate that overwhelming urge and buy it, since money was no object.
It would be a spur of the moment decision: to buy or not to buy, that is the question. If I were to buy that shirt, assuming it was a shirt I coveted, I would be performing this task in my capacity as a conscientious consumer with the financial wherewithal to rescue that shirt from its state of limbo as a commodity alienated from both its producer and end-user. And as long as it remained in that state, it had no value in and of itself. It was at the mercy of a benevolent buyer like me to come along and enable it to fulfill the purpose of its existence as an item of clothing to cover my body and protect me from the elements, and indulge my vanity in the process, by exchanging it for an otherwise useless immaterial commodity already in my virtual possession, i.e. money. On the other hand, I could just as easily not buy that shirt and go straight back home, past the now empty synagogue on Harvard Avenue, relieved that I hadn’t fallen into the illusory trap of buying something I didn’t really need, to supply a want that cannot be filled by material possessions alone. But how could I know without actually buying it? “Maybe this time it’ll be different.”
If I went home empty handed, I knew the relief of having resisted the temptation would be short-lived, and pretty soon, I will be consumed anew by the desire now grown stronger to possess that object once and for all. That feeling will persist until I had brought it firmly into my possession, safe within the four walls of my apartment. It was not a question of whether or not I had a use for it; the relevant question was how long I could put off making that critical decision to go out and buy it. All this when I knew that after the orgasmic delight that accompanied the exchange of money at the cash register had dissipated – if one takes shopping as a metaphor, nay, a substitute for sex, in that it involves intercourse between two human beings, usually, the exchange of matter, and the satisfaction of mutual needs – and the warm afterglow of bringing that shirt home had resolved itself into contented lassitude, it would end up in the closet as a regrettable reminder of the cheap evanescent thrill it afforded me in my moment of weakness.
I could already feel the excitement sitting on the trolley on my way to the city. I wondered what I could possibly buy to adorn myself with and affirm my existence and love of self, and make a tangible contribution to the economic well-being of society, thereby affirming my connection. I was not only going to feed the beast, so to speak, and satisfy my sublimated sexual desire; I was doing it for the benefit of the myriad others hanging on my decision, by the power invested in me as a consumer spoilt with choice, however infinitesimally small the impact of my purchase would be on the overall state of the economy.
But alas, I came back empty-handed. I couldn’t be bothered trying on endless pairs of jeans to find one that fit, while trying to figure out if and by how much they’ll stretch to accommodate my waistline which has inexplicably expanded in less than one year from 33 to 36 inches! With alternating feelings of dejection and relief, I spent all of two hours walking around the streets and visiting the tourist traps on the Patriot Trail up as far as the statue of Paul Revere astride his prancing charger in the North End with its homey immigrant Italian ambience permeated by the ghost of Al Capone. On the way back to the station I thought about getting a hair cut when I walked past the salon I went to last time, not my regular place.
My hair was trimmed by a rather corpulent Greek-American woman not more than thirty and single. Her frizzy teased out hair was dyed honey blonde with black roots visible. Moreover, she was a real pain in the ass because after I told her I was from Australia, she went on about how Greeks, wherever they happen to live in the world, could be instantly recognized by their olive complexion and oily skin, as if it was something to cringe about; and she then lamented at her own shortcomings in that regard, pointing to her screwed up face in the mirror, as if despairing of its irremediable ugliness. “What a twat,” I thought. It was that self-hate again. What is it about Greek women that they so desperately want to be someone other than who they are?
Being in no mood to have my Greek looks condemned by a fellow Greek with a self-hate complex, I walked on. Besides, I wasn’t that pleased with her work, because my hair stuck up like the back of a porcupine. Instead I decided to do what I usually do under similar circumstances and sought literary refuge inside a bookstore, one of the larger ones in town, if not the largest. I headed straight for the aisle on Medieval European History and picked out a thick tome in the expectation it would be comprehensive enough to contain more than a passing reference to Vlachs, those mysterious Romanized tribes scattered throughout the Balkans, who a Spanish Jew by the name of Benjamin Tudela travelling through the region in Byzantine times, claimed were a long lost tribe of Israel.

(October 1996, Brookline)

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Bee Queensland Spear Lily CropAustralia is a strange place. It’s the least populated country in the world and yet it’s where human in vitro fertilization, or IVF for short, was developed. These two facts are related even if they appear contradictory. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a scientific breakthrough of this nature to take place in China, or India. In these countries there’s no need to artificially conceive human beings, since there are more than enough produced by natural means to meet the demand. In fact, in China couples are restricted to one child, and the practice of infanticide of healthy female babies is widespread in the provinces where girls are deemed a burden on the family. But in Australia it’s another story. It’s as if the very sparseness of the population inspired a scientific discovery that has the potential to supply the deficiency. Thus, couples who would otherwise have gone childless can now contribute to solving the nation’s ‘population or perish’ quandary by producing their very own biological heirs.
An interesting and somewhat paradoxical side fact about IVF is that the technology was actually developed in sheep of which Australia has the highest population of any country in the world, not just per capita. I recall this from my days as a graduate student at Monash University, and one day in particular. That day, my department was abuzz with talk of the upcoming seminar by the scientist credited with a key discovery that made IVF possible, an alumnus of both the university and the department. Therefore you were apt to be looked upon as a heretic if you weren’t suitably seized with anticipation, and not to attend his presentation would be tantamount to treason. Therefore, since I was already on the margins of that artificial community reeking of forced collegiality for failing to be properly overjoyed at Australia’s win in the Americas Cup, and I had at least two more years to spend in their midst before I graduated with my doctorate, I thought it in my best interests to comply with their expectations and go along.
On that momentous occasion the entire Department of Physiology went almost ape-shit, prompted by the declaration of the then Prime Minister on morning television, a Labor man and ‘friend of the workers’, appropriately sloshed and joking with reporters egging him on like a mischievous scallywag that any boss who sacked a worker for failing to turn up to work on time that day “was a bum!” The celebrations began at the front entrance draped in yellow and green crêpe streamers, and inside the two story rectangular building with its wrap-around black mirrored windows there were Australian flags everywhere, in the main office and in the corridors, with people walking around tipsy holding a glass of champagne in one hand and waving a little flag in the other. To say the least, I felt a little uneasy confronted by this spontaneous show of unashamed nationalism first thing in the morning. But not wishing to spoil the mood, I put on a wide grin and happily accepted a glass of champagne from one of the secretaries and joined the raucous din in the common room on the ground floor where they were replaying the finish of the race on television. But my feigned glee couldn’t hide my inner revulsion, not least because I could see no direct connection between the science discipline of physiology and the bourgeois leisure sport of yachting, vulgarized somewhat in this case by the fact that the Australian challenge was bankrolled by a deluded Scottish immigrant from Western Australia, a ship welder by trade turned multi-millionaire property developer and a thorough fraudster with a misplaced Gatsby complex.
But unbeknownst to me the skipper of the victorious Australian yacht was a Monash alumnus and had a past connection with the department as a student. And this apparently was reason enough for everyone to put off work for the morning and, as per the Prime Minister’s decree, celebrate with the departmental chairman’s blessing and his marking the occasion with an impromptu speech about underdogs punching above their weight and winning against expectations on foreign shores, or something like that. Had I known this, it still wouldn’t have altered my attitude, because there was something repugnant about people’s collective exultation that morning. It was like blind volk pride, but one devoid of any mythistorical foundations, except for a crass and confused maudlin nationalism that was perfectly encapsulated by the “Men at Work” song they kept playing and singing over and over in the common room on the ground floor, with its ambiguously boastful refrain, “I come from the land down under, where beer does flow and men chunder.” It captured the larrikinism and irreverence at the heart of the mythical Australian character, while acknowledging its unenlightened inspiration in the form of alcoholic excess and the mindless and the arrogant bravado it engendered, symbolized by the emblem of a boxing kangaroo on the specially commissioned flag on the victorious Australian yacht flying below the national standard. But they took it all to heart, singing along with unbridled gusto, daring anyone to criticize them for beating ‘the Yanks’ in their own back yard, thereby vindicating in their own minds their loyal albeit insolent subservience to the British crown, while mollifying their inner pusillanimity for lacking the gumption of their enviable recalcitrant cousins to rise up and break free from their colonial fetters.
The IVF seminar was held in the main medical building, and when lunch-time came round off I went to hear this now world-famous reproductive biologist who had put Monash on the map, and in the process get one over on its stodgy establishment rival in the city center. I assumed it would be well attended by the medical faculty, but when I got there to my surprise the auditorium was literally packed to the rafters, with people crowding the front entrances in the foyer trying to get a look inside where there was only standing room along the walls. Instead I went round the back and managed to get in via the late entrance up the stairs and found a spot to stand at the very top row from where I had a good view of the podium and could just make out the back and the side of Prof. Alex Tounton. He was sitting alone in the first row and seemed relaxed, unperturbed that he was the center of attention of this large audience who had come from all over the campus and beyond to hear of his groundbreaking discovery first hand.
Although seated he looked on the short side, a bit stocky and swarthy with thickish lips and with an extra chin, and his face seemed a little flushed in the hot and stifling atmosphere of the over-crowded auditorium. He was of definite European extraction, but didn’t strike one as ‘ethnic’. Perhaps it was his Gallic-sounding surname, but there was enough of a rustic aspect about him that he could well have passed for a peasant in a Zola novel I read in my teens when I had aspirations of quitting high school and running off to join the railways. But in his silver-framed glasses and in the enlightened surrounds of academia, it appeared in his present incarnation he had transcended the lowly origins of his forbears. He was somewhere in his late thirties or early forties, young for a professor, and gave one the impression he wanted people to think he had little interest in his personal appearance. Thus, he wore a plain crumpled open-necked shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, as if dragged away from his laboratory where he was up to his arms in work, to give this impromtu presentation, and his mop of curly, grizzled hair which covered his ears was in bad need of a trim, with the odd stray lock falling down over his forehead to meet his silver frame glasses. His maverick mien was completed by a definite shadow around his jaw and sides.
Seeing the time had arrived, the dean sitting a few empty seats away signaled to him and then got up to the podium to introduce the esteemed speaker. As he did so, the noisy din turned to a polite hush and then an attentive silence. As Prof. Tounton listened with studied indifference, the dean began by going through the speaker’s biographical details, explaining that his breakthrough contribution to the IVF revolution was to develop the methodology for a critical step in the process that enabled the safe freezing and thawing of human eggs. He said Prof. Tounton had developed this particular trick in sheep with others in the Department of Physiology in the medical faculty at Monash, and then in collaboration with endocrinologists in Cambridge and in Edinburgh, they were able to tweak it and apply it to human ova which enabled their safe storage after extraction from donors. Adopting a more sober tone, the dean, a medical doctor by training, then went on to say that this invaluable discovery made it possible for infertile couples to experience the joy of parenting their very own children, something undreamt of until now.
As he sat listening with head bowed at this long-winded introduction, Prof. Tounton could not have failed to pick up on the note of condescension in the dean’s praise. As such, he not only resented this pompous ass trying to pass himself off as some kind of latter-day, antipodean Medici; he was also thinking of some unflattering cryptic remark with which to return the compliment and convey his disdain for his host and what he represented, something his fellow scientists in the audience could pick up on and be reassured he hadn’t compromised on his principles and ‘sold out’ to these mockers of their oath.
Perhaps I was reading too much in the self-assured equanimity he projected to channel my own unflattering views of the people in dark suits seated in the front row alongside him. Invariably they were all educated in expensive and proud imitations of English public schools that turned out these staunch defenders of British values and culture to fill the higher levels of administration in educational institutions and government bureaucracies alike, in this colonial outpost. In any case, I sensed a definite antipathy, but being the consummate, dispassionate scientist that he was, as the dean made way for him, Prof. Tounton rose from his seat, flashed a perfunctory smile at his host and distinguished guests and to rising applause he assumed the podium with the affected nonchalance of one who was the master of his domain, albeit a slightly roguish one.
As I stood there listening to the history and development of IVF in Prof. Tounton’s measured and rather monotone delivery that conveyed neither excitement nor apathy, but a fatalistic honesty, I was struck by a sense of futility. It got me thinking about what could have possibly attracted him to study human reproduction and failings thereof. What was there a history of infertility among close friends and relatives that inspired him to want to discover a cure growing up, and once at university this led him to take an interest in IVF research, fascinated by the possibility of making babies in test-tube, once the stuff of science fiction? Or was it a case where, such was the depth of his sexual awakening at university, that he underwent an epiphany of sorts, and being something more tractable than trying to understand the mystery of sexuality itself, he turned his intellectual curiosity to demystifying the fertilization process instead, which led him to the nascent field of IVF? Or did he simply stumble into it while looking for a project for his Honours year, and realizing he had a knack for this type of hands-on research, and being himself among like-minded people, he decided to pursue it as far as it took him, with an eye to forging a career for himself in science?
From my own perspective, however, although I was mildly engaged by the science, deep down I had no real interest in knowing how eggs taken from a woman’s ovary could be frozen for later use, thawed and fertilized in a dish with donor sperm under a microscope, and then inserted back into her own womb, or that of another woman for implantation, gestation and ultimately the birth of the fetus; or in the psychosexual subtext of his talk, that the climactic paroxysms of ecstasy that informed human sexual relations which had evolved over tens of thousands of years so human beings could procreate by following their instinct for periodic sexual gratification, this was now redundant, superfluous to the need.
Nor could I empathize with childless couples now given the opportunity to become biological parents. Their children would still had no say in their creation, and there was no logical reason to expect they would grow up to be any happier than those conceived naturally; unless their ever grateful parents lavished them with so much more love and affection for the ‘miraculous’ nature of their coming into existence, that they developed more advanced emotional and intellectual faculties to enable them to adjust more readily to the vicissitudes of life. and grow up to become model law-abiding citizens; unlike ‘crack’ babies, for example, who are born unwanted to drug addled whores and start life already disadvantaged with severe brain damage, unable to adjust to the world and end up criminals themselves and a burden to society. No, the main reason I was there was because I’d been caught up in the hysteria of wanting to witness this historic event and say that I was there in person when Prof. Tounton gave the Dean’s Lecture on his world-famous co-discovery at his alma mater, and be inspired to build on the Monash legend.
In retrospect, my cynical view of Prof. Tounton’s discovery and the wild excitement it generated in the department reflected not just a disinterest in the nature of his work, since I could see no direct relation with my own field of research, which pertained to the connection between electrical signaling and mechanical activity in gastrointestinal muscle, which probably reflected an inner psychic conflict of my own, which is another story; but a general cynicism and skepticism I had developed about science in general. This set in after the initial excitement of finding myself at university wore off, and the freedom to explore other interests and meet new people didn’t quite pan out as I expected. I mean, from a young age I was always of a questioning mindset, starting at elementary school, through high school especially, where my avid interest to learn about how things worked, whether it was in physics, biology or chemistry, to the annoyance of some of my teachers who had to come up with other ways to explain things to help me and others grasp concepts so that all the connected elements fitted together and everything as a whole made sense. But this all changed when I entered university. Here I realized it wasn’t enough to be wide-eyed and curious, and I had to adopt a more serious approach and regard science with awe rather than fascination, and treat it with somber respect as opposed to homely familiarity. Moreover, unlike my teachers in high school whom I could talk to openly and ask them silly questions, and who had simple titles like Mr or Mrs, Miss, or Ms for the female teachers who preferred not to reference their marital status, my lecturers at university had PhDs or Masters degrees, went by with titles like Doctor or Associate Professor, or Professor, whom you couldn’t address by their first name. It was like they were above ordinary people and exuded an intimidating presence, as if they were sole custodians of truth and knowledge and to them you were nothing more than an annoying ignoramus.
Moreover, their arrogance and unapproachable aspect made them come across as uncaring and uninterested in whether you understood anything. It was like they came to give their daily sermon in the lecture theater, and it was then up to you to figure out what they were trying to say by consulting the prescribed texts. Their aim was not so much to impart knowledge, but to make you feel inferior and dumb, thereby maintaining their intellectual distance and sense of superiority, while propounding the prevailing scientific dogma and giving scant consideration to competing ideas and theories. Thus, their standoffish attitude instilled in me not only a deep antipathy towards self-centered and arrogant academics, but also a stubborn cynicism and a skepticism about science in general, which in my mind became inextricably linked with these nasty, obnoxious people I couldn’t relate to. As a result, my desire to learn suffered, and even the word ‘science’ took on an unpleasant and forbidding tone. Instead of being an invitation to enter the doors of knowledge and explore nature, this innocuous word now engendered hostility and exclusion.
Given that academia is often likened to a church, and academic and scientists to a monastic order, in all its corrupted exaltedness, I wonder whether my antipathy towards them didn’t have something to do with the fact that I was brought up in a largely anti-religious household. Something tells me that had I been instructed in the teachings and morality of Christianity with more rigor, and had greater faith in its supernatural aspects, for my childhood wasn’t entirely bereft of religious influence, seeing my semi-literate grandmother would take me along to church with her when my communist aunt wasn’t around to stop her, I expect my mind would have been conditioned to receive concepts from above with less questioning, and I would’ve had an easier time accepting as received truths the dogmatic principles underlying scientific theories as promulgated by my self-centered university lecturers. But the fallow field that was my adolescent brain, crossing over into the tumult of early adulthood was so overrun by weeds and wild flowers that any cultivated species of thought had to overcome this dense undergrowth of skepticism before it could find a suitable niche and take root.
In retrospect, I could have spent my years at university more profitably had I studied languages or literature. Even though I enjoyed learning about natural phenomena and how living organisms worked, largely through my own efforts, some of the most petty and superfluous excuses for human beings could be found among academics in science departments at Australian universities. With the exception of one or two who had an internationalist outlook and were themselves immigrants, and made no assumptions about the ‘background’ of their students, most lacked the basic capacity to enthuse let alone inspire. And rather than enlighten they were content to mystify even further and thereby maintain their exalted, distancing aura, which in reality was nothing more than a façade for their intellectual insipidness.
As I stood listening at the back of the auditorium on the top row, I didn’t know what was more annoying: the smug arrogance of Prof. Tounton, who despite his anti-establishment airs, was no doubt conscious his discovery could one day secure him a Nobel Prize if he played his cards right and ingratiated himself with the right people; or the university administrators and the clinicians who stood to gain financially in one way or another from the IVF technology and its commercialization. Then there were the scientists in the audience, keen to line up for collaborations with Prof. Tounton and his laboratory, like the cheap little whores they all were, and have some of his glory and success rub off on them. In the end, none gave a fuck about infertile couples. It was all about self-interest they tried to conceal behind a crass nationalism derived from the fact that this was a proud ‘Australian’ discovery. But they also knew that to cringe at such puerile provincialism would mark them as ‘un-Australian’, and so they milked it for all it was worth, and the others followed suit. So much for IVF and Prof. Tounton. The seminar ended and I quietly went back to my desk in the PhD room to pore over some data.
As I mentioned, disabused of my innocent wide-eyed curiosity by my standoffish lecturers whose self-professed authority that didn’t extend beyond the lecture theater and their own heads, my contrariness towards science set in early as an undergraduate. From here, it gradually gained a firmer foothold the higher I progressed through university, culminating in an obsessive cynicism and a deep skepticism about the validity of science in the wider realm by the time I was enrolled in a PhD degree in the Department of Physiology. In fact, such was the depth of my discontent that to counter the pompous arrogance of my supervisors and other academics in the department I developed the habit of instinctively taking up the cause of the underdog, or anyone whose theories or ideas they dismissed as irrelevant or wrong. Invariably, these ‘crackpots’ they derived pleasure from putting down were people from outside their own kind, so to speak, from other cultures and countries where English wasn’t spoken, and whose technical sophistication wasn’t up to par with that of Australia’s and other ‘First World’ countries. But as far as I was concerned, their criticisms smacked of ingrained prejudices based on national stereotypes they’d been fed all their lives, and on broad generalizations pertaining to the veracity of the scientific findings of their targets, with thinly veiled accusations of scientific fraud. Strangely enough, even Americans, fellow members of the world Anglo-Saxon alliance and ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance network, and ‘brothers in arms’ in World Wars and lesser conflicts, were not above suspicion. But Canadians, fellow colonialists, however, were given the benefit of the doubt, I guess because Canada belonged to the British Commonwealth of Nations which automatically lent its educational, scientific and political institutions instant credibility . But America had broken away from this sacred covenant and therefore could no longer be implicitly trusted.
At times, my vigilance against signs of blatant discrimination would become so all-consuming that I would overlook key arguments disproving the validity of the work I was trying to valiantly defend for the sake of distancing myself from my chauvinistic colleagues, who I could sense from their sneering looks regarded me as a stubborn defender of lost causes and a fool. I, however, I drew satisfaction from the fact that my stance riled them, because in my view they all lacked the basic requirement for intellectual enquiry, and this was an open mind. They didn’t seem to understand that before arriving at a final understanding, one needed to explore all alternative possibilities, however ridiculous they may seem at first, by a process of elimination, that is, reductio ad absurdum, which in the end could only go to strengthen one’s theory. Moreover, the role of scientists was to question everything, including their own observations and interpretations; and by failing to do so they were all guilty of tunnel vision and the most heinous form of narrow-mindedness.
Although my contrariness manifested itself as largely an emotive albeit quasi-reasoned antagonism towards academics and my peers, what really lay beneath was something much deeper than mere disagreement over scientific process and objections against national and racial steretotyping. And this was a deep and abiding resentment I felt towards a society and a culture that I felt had transformed me into an object stripped of identity on a deeply personal level, and of all sense of belonging. And as loyal subjects and complict agents of that insidiously soul-destroying society, I saw my senior laboratory colleagues and anyone else I suspected who vaguely shared their values and views as fair targets of my scorn and disdain. That subterranean anger and rage threatened to break through one day in an incident I remember quite vividly, sparked by something which to an outsider would seem not only trivial, but just plain silly. The issue centered round the definition of a simple word which to a normal person held little or no significance outside its express meaning, but which to me was like a red rag to a bull, especially when spoken. That word was ‘migration’, and variants thereof, especially when applied to people.
The occasion where my irrational fixation with this this seemingly innocuous term threatened to explode into full blown outrage was an informal seminar given to our research group by an invited speaker (I had then just started on my doctoral studies and was attached to a laboratory in the department). The subject of his talk was the process by which nerve cells in the intestine of newborn mice spread distally from the vagal crest region after birth, until they covered the entire gut wall, and he was presenting findings from studies in his own laboratory to show how this process progressed. As I sat listening mildly enthused, my attention, however, would be momentarily disrupted whenever he mentioned the word migration to describe this process, or variants thereof, and with each successive utterance I could feel the tension gradually building up inside me. Eventually it got to the point where I could no longer concentrate on what he was saying and I kept shifting in my seat and swallowing to hide my growing discontent. What’s more, I had now taken a personal dislike to the speaker for thinking that, just because he was a general surgeon and a scientist to boot, this gave him the license to bandy about words like this one so flippantly, without regard to their derogatory connotation that people in the audience might take offense to.
Having ceased listening altogether, I began to formulate a rational objection to his use of that particular term that I could put to him at the end of his talk and set him straight. After running through several versions in my head, I came up with what I thought was a watertight argument as to why the term migration was inappropriate and misleading in the context. This was because what he was describing didn’t actually entail ‘migration’ per se, because once the nerve cells made their way from their source in the vagal crest to more distal regions of the gut, they did not return. Their movement was essentially in one direction, and once they got to their destination, so to speak, there they remained for the rest of their existence. By definition, however, migration implied that the subject was not fixed to one location and is free to go back to where they came from, and exercises this ability in a periodic or seasonal manner, as in the case of birds whereby in winter they migrate to warmer climes, and then with the arrival of spring return to their habitats to nest. By way of conciliation, so as not to come across as an over-sensitive lunatic from too much introspection and lack of human contact outside my immediate surroundings, I was even prepared to offer a few suggestions as alternative descriptors of the process he was describing, like ‘translocation,’ or ‘colonization’, or even ‘invasion,’ despite the unpalatable militaristic tone.
But in the end, I was so stricken by nerves when he finished his talk to our research group, with my heart pounding so loudly inside my chest I could hear every beat reverberating over my entire body, preparing me for fight or flight, and the blood vessels in my head threatening to burst, and my fingers trembling and body shaking, thatI kept my hand well down as I listened to him fielding questions from others in the room, none of which touched upon his misuse of the term migration. In fact, I was still shaking in my legs when the meeting finished and I made my way back to the PhD room, realizing just how close I had come to making a complete fool of myself over such a trivial issue. As I sat quietly at my desk with my back to the others, lamenting my stubborn tendency to always ‘see the red line’, as one of my supervisors accused me of one day, fed up with my petty contrariness, I was on the verge of tears, or some kind of internal meltdown, wondering why I just couldn’t rid myself of my foolish obsession and not read hostile intentions into everything people said. But at the same time, I well knew why. It was because my reaction was a manifestation of a deep-seated emotional conflict which this simple word had stirred up with particular efficacy.
This was because it was pregnant with deprecation and hostility towards people very close to me, as close as they come. They were people who had sacrificed their dignity and identity in order to transplant themselves to a far off country to work as wage-slaves in factories. They were people who believed the shortest route to happiness was to amass lots of money by debasing themselves this way, and when they had made enough, they could return to their own country and like vulgar boors, parade their hard-earned wealth to the envy of their still poor fellow provincials. But most never got the chance, or bothered to, because in the process they turned into imbecilic dullards from the constant grind in their cloistered existence, and left to die alone in a foreign land, surrounded by their petty possessions and no-one ???. Among them were my very own parents, and as such, I couldn’t bear the shame of being a child of people who had forsaken their home and their dignity for the triteness of ‘a better life.’ In short, I hated being reminded that I too was a common migrant, without a true home and unable to feel any loyalty to anyone or anything.
As for the surgeon, he came to work in our laboratory on a short sabbatical and I actually got to like him. In fact, I relented and began using the word migration freely in our conversations in the hope that by repeated use I could inure myself to its negative connotation. I guess the fact that he was a Jew and married to a Korean, herself a doctor, took the edge off its harshness. As one with knowledge of the ‘migrant experience,’ perhaps not first hand, for he seemed to have had a comfortable upbringing and had been educated in expensive schools, he probably understood what it was like to grow up in Australia as an outsider. Therefore I couldn’t imagine him intentionally using the term to spite me; after all, his very own wife was a migrant. Having said that, this didn’t entirely absolve him, because for someone of his standing I assumed he would be more perspicacious and show some sensitivity, and I had in mind to one day explain to him my ‘problem.’ But thankfully I never got round to it, because in retrospect, I’m sure it would have made me look like a paranoid idiot in need of treatment. Nevertheless, by the time he left I think he picked up on the fact that I didn’t like the term from the way I couldn’t help but flinch whenever it struck my ears, and in deference he tried to avoid it.
In some way, my reaction to the word migrant was akin to the reaction of African-Americans to word nigger from someone wishing to humiliate them for their obvious blackness. But migrant is a more nuanced and complex pejorative because it hides behind its literal meaning which gives it acceptable currency and imbues it with a mitigating ambiguity, an acceptable façade, if you like, with a heavy note of derision on the inside. Thus anyone using it with the intention to offend can invoke its literal meaning so as not to come across as an overt racist or chauvinist.
Actually, the word nigger is more akin to the word wog in Australian usage, in the sense that it refers ostensibly to the appearance and outward behavior of a person, whereas migrant has a deeper meaning, alluding to socio-political aspects of one’s identity. But just like nigger which is fairly benign when used among African-Americans to refer to themselves in a jocular manner, and which automatically takes on a seriously racist tone when uttered by a ‘white’ mouth; it is similarly highly insulting for a Greek to be referred to as a wog by an Anglo-Australian, but much less so coming from a fellow Greek, although personally I find the word equally grating under all circumstances. Thus, if a fellow Greek calls me a wog, I feel insulted not because I’m belittled for personifying the negative qualities Anglo-Australians attribute to wogs; but because I’m accused of trying to deny myself those very qualities, which as a wog I should not be ashamed of, because to wogs, a wog who denies his wogness is a sign of a wog of the worst kind. The word ‘migrant’ has similar socio-linguistic implications, but is more universally applicable across wider sections of the population. Its purpose is to label anyone suspect of divided national loyalties as an ‘outsider’ who doesn’t belong to the social formation in question, in this case, Australia. And because they feel no compunction about leaving and going back to their own country when they feel like it, to their accusers they deserve all the wrath and disdain the word is pregnant with.
Another mentally draining aspect of my obsessive cynicism and my reflexive contrarianism around this period in my life was the difficulty I had in accepting the received notion among my peers that science was a noble pursuit which was above politics and religion and at appealed to people’s highest intellectual faculties. But to me, this view smacked too much of anti-religious zealotry, which was a form of religion itself, with the spiritual realm replaced by a staunch rationalism, and God substituted with ‘nature’ and ‘science’ in the abstract. Thus, whenever I heard them refer to anyone as a scientist a little explosion would go off in my head. The title sounded so pompous and pretentious, as if scientists were special people who stood so far above mere mortals and their mundane concerns, that nothing interested them other than the quest for pure truth and knowledge, without any expectation of pecuniary rewards, this when the very notion of truth and knowledge was relative. And from my own observations, scientists were vain and venal hypocrites, eager to sell themselves to the highest bidder, just like Prof. Tounton; and while they affected an outward selflessness and pretended to be uncorrupted by wealth and power, the entire scientific establishment that supported them, from academia to large research institutes, was dependent on the systematic economic exploitation of the mass of people in society who slaved for a living and were regarded with contempt and kept in the dark.
I was now well into my first year of my doctorate and already my obsession with the ‘personal’ aspects of science was beginning to interfere with my ability to focus on my studies. I began to question whether my involvement was as futile as it seemed, and whether it was at all worth my while to continue. But at the same time, I felt I had to stay the course in the hope that the discontent and disconsolateness I felt weighing down on me was a product of my specific circumstances; and that once I had graduated, I would be able to leave Australia and see life from a completely new perspective, free from all the negativity of being a wog and a migrant constantly reverberating in my head. In addition, I couldn’t ignore the fact that, for all my disparaging views and my cynicism over its phony intellectual sanctity, I could see that science could provide me a means of earning a comfortable living in the immediate future, and may well turn out to be a feasible career option in the long term. With this in mind, I resolved to stay the course and finish my degree.
Now that I was committed to seeing it through, to try and put my cynicism and my muddled skepticism into some sort of rational perspective, I was increasingly drawn towards the socio-political aspects of science and the nature of science itself. After all, the degree I was aiming towards stipulated that I was to be a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, a ‘lover of knowledge’, which implied that I should have a broader appreciation of ‘knowledge’ in the wider and pure sense, not just in my own narrow field of study. But outside some basic tenets regarding positing and testing scientific hypotheses, and conducting the appropriate experiments to eliminate those not tenable with the experimental data, I understood very little about the ‘philosophical’ aspects of science, not that it stopped me from engaging in informal discussions on the subject with my fellow doctoral candidates and some of the academics in the department, including my direct supervisors. But since I was unversed on the subject and nowhere near as articulate as I needed to be, I ended up becoming more confused and frustrated at my inability to express my thoughts. And since there was no actual course offered on this subject, since my degree was focused largely on experimental research, I took it upon myself to educate myself on ‘the philosophy of science.’ To this end I read various books by Kuhn, Popper and Feyerabend that I came across in the bookshop, or in the main library; and whilst they made some sense in regard to the process of scientific discovery and ‘paradigm shifts’ there in, and the role of politics and personality in the promotion of certain theories over others, having no-one close with whom to discuss the more abstract aspects of science, it was difficult to assimilate them in a structured manner and understand them. ??
In the course of my extra-curricular readings, I also came across various references to the philosophy of Hegel and Marx in regard to the underlying causes of revolutionary change in nature as well as in people’s thinking as it pertained to society and scientific discovery, and the conflict between competing forces and the contradictions therein, all of which immediately piqued my interest. This was because for many years now, in fact, since my later years in high school, I had been dallying with the ideas of Marx to try and come to grips with the meaning of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ from an economic as well as a political perspective, and thereby give my half-assed leftist views, a legacy from my communist aunt in Greece, a firmer theoretical foundation. To that end I had read various works including “The Communist Manifesto” and other historical texts by Marx, Engels, Trotsky and others. But to be honest, although I understood the basic premise that ‘communism’ was a system of organizing society on the basis of equality and fairness, where workers owned the means of production and ran society cooperatively, according to human need not greed, my understanding of the theoretical foundations was largely confined to the immorality of wealth imbalances inherent in capitalist society. But now that I discovered there was a philosophical convergence between science, politics and economics in the writings of Marx, Lenin and other leftist intellectuals, I was keen to explore this area with renewed enthusiasm, and try and get to the bottom of socialism and communism and how it pertained not only to society, but to the role of science therein.
After my first year in my assigned laboratory, working alongside people I once regarded as distant and unapproachable, but with whom I was now on more equal terms, my opinion of them softened somewhat. In fact, I felt I knew them well enough to express my views openly on various topics without fear of being ridiculed or dismissed. Invariably the topics of conversation in our lunch room touched upon items in the news, and more often than not I found myself taking the opposing view to the conservative line of my laboratory colleagues, that is, when they actually expressed an opinion at all, because on the whole they remained very guarded. This was most evident whenever the subject broached politics, that is, beyond the mundane talk of political parties and elections, which didn’t really interest me, since I wasn’t naturalized Australian citizen, and didn’t hide it, something I could tell which riled them.
As I discovered the more I got to know them, they were extremely reluctant to explore politics from the philosophical angle, as it related to the nature of political conflict between opposing interests, especially in the sphere of economics and social issues. It was as if these topics were off-limits or taboo. But their niggling obduracy only increased my determination to bring them up for discussion, especially after I decided to join a socialist organization on campus with the aim of gaining a more structured understanding of Marxist philosophy. I didn’t hide this from my colleagues, but after they saw me selling the organization’s newspaper in front of the Union building one lunchtime, their stance hardened somewhat, having already labeled me a ‘communist’ for sticking up for the U.S.S.R. and Cuba. I think the trigger for this was the shooting down around this time of a Korean airliner by the Russian air force after it flew into Russian air-space over Sakhalin Island. And while they decried the barbarity of Russians and the ‘communist system’ for killing so many innocent people in cold blood, I raised the possibility that the plane was deliberately flown into Russian airspace on the order of the Americans to test Russia’s air defenses, knowing it could provoke an attack that could be used for propaganda purposes by the Americans toportray the U.S.S.R. as an evil state, and precipitate its downfall. Not that my explanation convinced anyone, because I was accused of being a conspiracy theorist and an apologist for murderers, which immediately put me in their black book.
Although I grew used to their conservative mindset, the vigor of their reaction to my joining this organization and selling the newspaper on campus, and talking to other interested students, and their silent treatment surprised me somewhat, since ‘Marxism’ was a legitimate subject taught in the Politics department in the Arts faculty, and therefore had the full approval of the university administration. Moreover, as academics, or pre-academics in my case, I assumed that the much lauded privilege of ‘academic freedom’ accorded to us the freedom to express of our views without fear of retribution or disfavor. But I could see that in practice that’s not quite how it worked.
As for the socialist group, it wasn’t exactly with boundless enthusiasm that I joined. I had bought some of their literature in the past, and copies of their newspaper from their stall inside the main entrance of the Union building, but from impromptu discussions with some of them, I discovered to my surprise they were strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and its allies in every respect. Moreover, the slogans on their banners and posters had a sophomoric if not moronic ring to them. Nevertheless, putting aside their position on the U.S.S.R. which seemed odd for an avowedly ‘socialist’ organization, I decided to take up and offer from Judy, a women somewhere in her mid-thirties who seemed to enjoy talking to me, and go along to one of their evening meetings in the city and learn more. These were held in a large room on the fourth floor of Curtin House, a mock-Victorian building on Swanston Street, and in case the landlord got cold feet about renting it out to socialists, they told all newcomers to tell anyone who asked that they were a ‘history club.’
At that first evening I got to talk to quite a number of people and discovered that, with the exception of their anomalous position on the U.S.S.R., their views were generally aligned with mine. They seemed friendly and welcoming enough for me to go back the following week, and soon I was a regular weekly attendee, borrowing my father’s Ford Fairmont to drive to the city every Tuesday evening to listen to the various speakers and engage in political discussions with established members and other newcomers like me. After a while, with my increasing involvement and interaction, I discovered that not only was my ability to articulate my views more coherently greatly enhanced, but this enabled me to comprehend more clearly theoretical texts whose meaning had thus far largely eluded me. Moreover, it seemed the more I understood about the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, the more I realized just how relevant it was to explaining my own circumstances, both as regards my life as a child of ‘migrants’, as well as a student of science, and giving my cynicism and skepticism a legitimacy. I realized that my ambivalent and somewhat problematic relationship with science wasn’t simply a product of a demented contrarian mindset; there was a rational basis to my seemingly backward opposition which could be explained by the fact that ‘bourgeois science’ was largely subordinated to the exigencies of capitalist exploitation and the market. Thus, armed with this new way of looking at the world, I felt there was no argument from my laboratory colleagues or fellow doctoral students I couldn’t shoot down dialectically, and in the process subvert their conservative views and at times blatant hypocrisy.
Although the majority of members on campus were students, the meetings in the city were attended by people from other walks of life. A fair few had office jobs, some in government departments. But there were also professionals among them including medical residents, teachers, a metallurgist, and at least one accountant who would turn up in his suit and loosened tie, in contrast to the more casual attire of others. He was always accompanied by his wife who seemed to act as his minder and rarely said a word, standing beside him with a blank expression. He didn’t appear ill with any anything serious, but his breath always reeked of alcohol, and despite being slightly unsteady on his feet, I was struck by his effortless articulateness in his cockney accent, and by his clear insight into various national and international events and conflicts from a Marxist perspective. Thus I was a little surprised to learn that he wasn’t among the higher echelon of the organization, and didn’t even serve on the executive committee. Perhaps his alcoholism had precluded his taking a more active role, because he seemed to have a much wider and deeper knowledge of politics and economics than most of the senior members, many of whom were journalists who had studied at the School of Journalism at the Australian National University in Canberra, oddly enough, and wrote articles for the organization’s newspaper and magazine, were supported financially in part by the monthly dues of regular members.
I continued attending meetings in the city on regular basis in my second year of my doctorate, increasing my knowledge of history and politics as I went along, and learning to interpret the world from a Marxist-Leninist perspective as regards to the role of the workers’ party in the revolutionary movement, and of science and its subordination to capitalism, which nevertheless paved the way for socialism. But although I enjoyed listening to the talks and taking part in discussions, I was hesitant to formally join up. It wasn’t just the fact that I would have to hand over ten percent of my monthly stipend; something still niggled about the organization’s uncompromisingly critical stance towards the U.S.S.R. and its allies which I just couldn’t fully go along with. In addition, I couldn’t countenance having to endorse their imbecilic and somewhat delusional mission, as it were, ‘to change the world.’ In fact, this formed the basis of the first question they put to potential recruits who weren’t sure whether or not to join, as in, “Do you want to change the world?” to which they invariably answered, “Yes,” with a baffled smile and an uncertain shrug of the shoulders, after which they were invited to come along to a meeting in the city and find out more.
But with the pressure mounting to either join or leave, in the end, after months of vacillating and dodging the question, I decided to take the plunge and become a member, but only a provisional one, and handing over ten percent of my monthly stipend. I never enquired why I wasn’t immediately accepted as a full member. But as I discovered, everyone had to serve a probationary period initially to determine whether they complied with the rules of the organization and espoused their brand of socialism, and they weren’t impostors sent to sabotage the workings of the organization. Nevertheless, even though I was contributing financially, this condition of membership introduced an early note of distrust as regards my relationship with the organization, and I felt myself in the spotlight.
I received a very enthusiastic round of applause when my name was read out among the new crop of provisional members, but not everyone was happy about my being there. One such person who seemed to take an instant dislike to me from the very first day was a girl about my own age (I was then in my mid-twenties). She spoke with an annoying halting and quavering nasal voice while affecting the look of a junkie, dressed like a Led Zeppelin groupie in skin-tight jeans and slim-fitting jacket over her thin frame, with hair like Janis Joplin, curly and messy, parted down the middle and falling over her face, and which she constantly brushed aside a little too affectedly for my liking, because there was nothing attractive about her at all. She also had the annoying habit of sneering down her nose at people she was talking to, even if they were taller, and always contradicted whatever I said, however minor and of no importance. She said she worked part-time cleaning mansions in Toorak where she helped herself to the liquor cabinets. But she said this with too much of a boastful air, as if to get across her unqualified disdain of the upper classes, and that I sensed something fishy. I determined she was probably a rebellious spoilt brat from a rich household herself, a Jewess for sure, with some kind of hate-complex, given her toxic aspect and abrasive manner, and her glued-on sour countenance, despising who she was and others who suspected it. And thus I avoided her.
Then there was the former student activist now approaching middle-age who boasted of dropping acid before exams at Monash University in the ‘70s, to protest the fact that testing and examinations were merely a way of selecting faithful servants of capitalism; and how a number of his friends had leapt to their deaths from the top of the ten storey Menzies Building, simply because ‘they thought life was shit.’ There was something fundamentally phony about him as well, and his casual nihilism. I suspect he could tell I didn’t appreciate his forwardness, but he would always come up to me at meetings to ask what I thought about the talk and the organization and its politics. Not that I liked being looked at in the eyes, he also had the annoying habit of avoiding eye contact when he spoke. And when he did look me in the eyes, he did so fixedly, as if trying to stare me down, or work out whether or not I was genuine. I don’t know what his actual preferences were, but he seemed to affect a kind of gender fluidity, coming across as effeminate on some occasions, while projecting a domineering machismo on others, to see which I responded to. It was amusing and irritating at the same time. Then there were others who for no apparent reason would surround me at meetings and start patting me on the back smiling, as if to try and cheer me up when I was feeling just fine, and show how friendly they really were and that I had nothing to fear. It was all a little creepy, to be honest, since as far as I was concerned I was there to learn about Marxism and not necessarily to be loved.
Nevertheless, with each passing week, and my becoming more familiar with the group, these niggling issues became less of a concern and I settled into being a provisional member of the International Socialists. I figured that once I served my probationary period, however long that was, since it was at the discretion of the executive committee, I would be invited to become a full member and feel more comfortable. In the meantime, for my part, seeing I was among fellow socialists and largely agreed with their politics, I felt I had nothing to hide and openly talked about my family’s history and how we got to Australia, and my early political influences and views. Deep down, however, I still thought their slogans were hyperbolic and somewhat absurd which only an imbecile would actually believe in. But there I was uttering the same trite phrases when called upon to approach the unenlightened punters at rallies in the Bourke Street mall on Friday evenings, or convince confused and naive undergraduates at the bookstall in the Union building at university to come along to a meeting in the city. Empowered by my newly gained ability to articulate the tenets of Marxism with confidence, it felt like I was stepping into a different character, another me who fully believed in all the prophecies about the imminent fall of capitalism and the need to prepare for the revolutionary moment by building a worker’s party right NOW!, before the world descended into barbarism.
I even indulged myself in the delusion of progressing up through the ranks of the organization and becoming a fully-fledged revolutionary socialist serving on the executive committee; one who could front a large crowd of workers outside the factory gates, or a general strike, and expound at length with persuasive oratory on the inherent contradictions of capitalism, and exhort the masses to prepare to rise up and seize power by building a true workers’ party independent of the trade unions. But when I got back home, in the solitude of my own thoughts, my suspicions about the group would resurface, reminding me that there was still a lot I didn’t know about them and needed to be cautious. For one thing, who in their right mind could be stupid enough to believe that this small organization made up of students and former student activists and sundry sympathizers, and some pensioners and unemployed people, actually had the ability ‘to change the world’? It sounded more like a cathartic dare, akin to the evangelical entreaties of street preachers for sinners to give themselves over to Jesus and thus be saved from eternal damnation in the afterlife. Moreover from the passionate exhortations and bombast of some of the more dramatically trained members, calling on others to ‘smash the State’ and ‘eat the rich’, like bad case of over-acting, the firmness of their convictions couldn’t hide a palpable underlying disingenuousness. One evening the ridiculousness of the seriousness with which they took themselves was made plain by an unlikely source, and I couldn’t help but stand back and be amused.
That particular evening, a shop steward from South Africa who was involved in the leftist movement back home was attending the meeting as a guest of a senior member who was also a shop steward. With the main talk over, the topic of which I can’t recall, during the break the invited guest was having a discussion with some of the senior cadres, sharing his views on the state of the labor movement in South Africa and the involvement of the Left, and comparing it to the situation in Australia, and I happened to be standing nearby with a bunch of new members and listening with keen interest. The guest seemed in a jovial mood, sipping on his beer, but to the chagrin of the senior members, he had the habit of referring to our organization as a ‘tendency’ with a polite and slightly condescending chuckle. As I continued listening in, I couldn’t help but crack a knowing smile myself, because his views more or less echoed my own private thoughts. And if this visitor who sounded much more knowledgeable than anyone in the group about Marxism and grass roots leftist movements, thought it was nothing more than a ‘tendency’, then that’s all it was. Moreover, he wasn’t someone who spent his time around shitty students plastering posters on campus buildings or city laneways to publicize lectures on the Kornilov coup in pre-Revolutionary Russia, or the role of the Leninist party during an economic downturn. He was a ‘real’ practicing socialist who dealt with actual workers and knew what it was like to face the full force of the state’s repressive apparatus and be jailed for laying his political beliefs on the line. But after a while, seeing that some of us new members were listening in with a little too much interest, he was politely led away to the other side of the room, lest our faith in the organization be further undermined.
That was another aspect about the group I had trouble accepting; and that was the rigid hierarchy and the separation of the executive committee from the regular members who were subdivided into ranks known only to the senior cadres. I had always equated socialism with egalitarianism and transparency, but from what I could see there was very little direct communication between the established members and newcomers. They must have been aware of this because periodically they would justify the apparent secrecy of the executive committee by saying this was needed to maintain focus and clarity of purpose, and would then remind everyone that a degree of separation was unavoidable given the uneven level of political consciousness in the organization in this building period. It didn’t fully placate my concerns, but since I wasn’t yet fully acquainted with the concept of ‘democratic centralism’ in the context of a Leninist party, and all which that entailed at the organizational level, I grudgingly deferred to their authority. But still, I had to contend with an inner moral dilemma because on the one hand, although I felt indebted to them for allowing me into their midst to learn about Marxism in a much more structured manner than I would ever have achieved on my own, I couldn’t overlook this proto-totalitarian aspect at the core of the organization. Moreover, deep down, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that my involvement smacked of ‘bad faith’, theirs as well as mine.
My suspicions about the nature of the organization were also fed by the fact that those higher up invariably came from wealthy middle-class families, largely of Anglo stock, and liked to boast of their privileged bourgeois upbringing, and that their parents were managers or company directors, and how they were disowned by them when they found out they joined a socialist organization. One such person was Martin, a few years my junior. He was studying history or sociology at university and had been a member for several years, having joined fresh out of high school. I guess because he was of Dutch heritage and his parents had immigrated to Australia in the ‘60s, he didn’t quite conform to the strict Anglo middle-class pedigree of his rebellious comrades, even though he was born in Australia, and betrayed a noticeable hint of humility in their presence, if not deference. Nevertheless he too was keen to hold up his capitalist landlord father as his own personal reason for becoming a socialist, telling people how he owned two dozen rental properties all over Melbourne and kept a mistress in every second one. Such was the depth of capitalist depravity in his family, he would have you believe, that he had no choice than to cut his ties and become a revolutionary socialist. At times it seemed these conscientious spurners of privilege were competing to see who had lost the most, as proof of their unequivocal commitment to the organization and its mission of radical social change. There was even a daughter of a Governor-General who was a member, although she seemed rather shy and kept in the background.
After almost a year with the group, regularly attending meetings and participating in various activities, but still a provisional member, it got to the point where I could barely tolerate their imbecilic rhetoric and amateurish urban activism, and I was looking for an excuse to get out. As far as Marxism was concerned, I felt I had nothing more to learn from them, since they eschewed any discussion of Marxist economic theory to which I was increasingly drawn, and generally steered interested newcomers away from such airy distractions. From here on in, to prove my commitment, I knew that my involvement would require me to undertake more propagandist duties, to which I wasn’t all that agreeable. Then there was their crypto-Australian nationalism I just couldn’t put up with either. As much as I tried to ignore it, it seemed to creep into all political discussion, and being already sensitized to the more chauvinistic aspects of Australian popular culture and sport, I found it particularly grating. Secretly, I had grown to dislike almost everyone in the group and rued the day I ever got involved, recalling how I stupidly consented to want to ‘change the world’, like a lame-brained idiot loner, eager to join and belong. At times it felt like I was trapped among a bunch of angry adolescents playing a game of grown-up in which I was obliged to play my assigned role for fear of being ostracized and beaten up, just like at school.
Other times I felt embarrassed at myself for failing to heed my father’s admonitions when I came home from that first meeting, all charged up, glowingly explaining to him and my mother how as workers they were at the forefront of the class struggle and the only true agents of change. In fact, I recalled being shocked at my own zealousness and how easily the rhetoric flowed from my mouth as I told them of the need to build workers’ committees in their respective factories, independent of the trade unions which were in collusion with their bosses and did not have their true interests at heart. That way they could develop the necessary class consciousness to seize control of the means of production and overthrow capitalism when the time came.
So fired up was I that I couldn’t see the seething anger under my father’s taciturn, thin-lipped countenance as I explained to him that as workers, he and my mother were the source of all profits, because their employers failed to pay them the equivalent of what they produced, and they profited on the difference. When I declared how grateful I was to the socialist organization for opening my eyes to the exploitative workings of capitalism and the need to overthrow it and build socialism as a prerequisite for a truly communist society, that was the cue for him to rise up from his armchair and burst out accusing me of being a complete fool for getting sucked in by the empty words of those pampered idiots who were using me for their own ends. He said they would one day betray me and think nothing of spitting me out, and I would be left alone with no-one to turn to. I retorted with my own angry outburst, accusing him of never talking to me about anything and now trying to sabotage my political education because he was envious I’d found like-minded people with whom I could exchange informed views on the world based on a Marxist analysis, which he didn’t really understand, because if he did, he’d know I was right, and he didn’t want to acknowledge it. As I stormed out of the house, his comments reverberating in my head, little did I know they would come back to haunt me.
It would be many years later that I would learn of the reason for my father’s stern rebuke that evening. The explanation of sorts came from my mother. She said my ‘communist’ rant had rekindled bitter memories of his own involvement with the Communists in the Civil War in Greece, specifically the actions of the intellectual cadres who recruited under-educated, discontented provincials like him into the guerrilla movement. And as I discovered from my own reading, in the end, the political wing betrayed the movement by capitulating to the Americans and the British and laying down their arms, just as the Communists were on the brink of seizing power in the north. Subsequently, many of the guerrillas were executed or imprisoned, or they fled to the Eastern bloc to work in factories until they could return to Greece after the fall of the junta when a general amnesty was declared. My mother said my father had seen the writing on the wall and quit the guerrillas before they sold him out, and in disgust he joined the National Army of Greece and went off to fight the ‘Communists’ in Korea as part of the U.N. Expeditionary Forces. Coming from my mother, this account of my father’s brush with the Left and disillusionment sounded a little confusing. My father new what really happened, but he took it with him to his grave, not that there was any guarantee he would have told me anyway, having avoided the subject the few times I broached it with him, before I gave up altogether.
But just like he warned me that evening, I could now see that my so-called comrades weren’t the altruistic idealists I initially took them for. In fact, they had ulterior motives in opening their doors to someone like me. I was to be their ‘poster member’, as it were, who could gain the organization badly needed credibility within the wider ‘multicultural’ society of Australia. It was all too obvious, when I thought about it; and since I wasn’t prepared to be their ethnic puppet, I had to get the fuck out of there, and fast. Whatever gratitude I felt towards them for enlightening me on the teachings of Marx and Lenin and other revolutionary luminaries, this had now all but vanished, and I had nothing to thank them for; it was the guilt trip they’d laid on me that made me believe I did. All of which got me seriously thinking about just who they actually were as an organization, and where they got the money to pay for all their running costs. At most they sold only a few dozen copies of the newspaper each week, and most members, being students or unemployed, weren’t in a financial position to pay dues, with my own paltry contribution coming out of my meager scholarship.
With each passing week, the rhetoric at meetings and rallies began to sound more and more absurd and desperate, and I became increasingly self-conscious that my querulous attitude had aroused suspicion, especially after I declined to go away with them on a group-bonding camp, citing a prior family commitment I purely invented. It was about this time that a faction within the group suddenly began to make clamors. It was led by a handful of disaffected senior members who were threatening to split off over differences in strategy and political orientation, and form their own organization, one that was independent of the ‘mother party’ in Britain, to which they would no longer be required to ‘automatically genuflect’, as one of the more articulate splitters put it. But I sensed there was something else behind their actions. The splitters had an air of superiority about them, and it was then that I realized they were mostly of Anglo-Protestant stock, with David, their nominal leader, sounding like a radical Methodist minister agitating for revolt against the King’s rule in Cromwellian England, whereas the majority of members were brought up Catholic and seemed content to receive instructions and precepts from the executive. It all culminated one evening in a heated debate, very orchestrated and highly theatrical, and evocative, or perhaps imitative, of a pre-revolutionary meeting of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks about how to seize power. The stakes here, however, were nowhere near as high, but you could have been mistaken they were, with speakers channeling Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, and lesser known revolutionaries whose personalities they had assumed from too close a reading of their biographies.
As I sat there taking it in, somewhat amused and unsure which side to support, if either, I wondered whether others in the audience shared my misgivings; or were they so stupid as to lap up the rousing rhetoric of the ‘splitters’ and their fanciful vision of a new ‘independent’ revolutionary socialist organization that could better represent the interests of Australian workers and act of its own accord? Or were they forcing themselves to swallow the salving assurances of the majority ‘lumpers’ and keep the faith in order to maintain needed unity, fearing losing the tenuous connection they had forged and the sense of belonging they drew from it, lest they find themselves adrift with nothing to hold on to. There was something tragic-comic about the proceedings and the delusional airs of the speakers who truly believed power was within their grasp, but for the correct strategy and tactics. The splitters eventually did branch off and formed their own organization, but in the meantime a truce was declared and an uneasy coexistence ensued.
At times it felt like I was part of a religious sect that exercised a binding group psychology over its proselytes to instill guilt and mutual suspicion so as to keep everyone in line and stop them questioning the dictates of the leadership. The denouement as far as my own involvement was concerned came when I was asked to give a 15-minute talk on socialism in the Eastern bloc countries, this being the late-1980s when the Soviet bloc was in the process of disintegrating under the weight of its own contradictions. They must have thought I’d been a provisional member long enough to have absorbed the core concepts of their particular brand of socialism, with its emphasis on the state-capitalist nature of the bureaucracies in the Eastern bloc economies, and the unfeasibility of ‘socialism in one country’; and through my presentation they could review my progress and see whether I was ready for admission to full membership of the International Socialists. Moreover, I suspected the subject I was asked to present on was chosen to assess my residual ‘Stalinism’, since I hadn’t openly condemned the Soviet Union to their satisfaction at meetings, and I got the impression they still considered me a ‘doubter.’
Nevertheless, I took up the challenge and went and researched the history of East Germany and how it was established as a “People’s Democracy” after the Second World War along collectivist economic principles. The organization had their own sources they expected members to use as reference material. But I found these texts blatantly propagandist and too simplistic for my liking. Instead I went to the main university library and picked out a book on the subject written by an American academic which laid out the circumstances and the events that led to the establishment of the German Democratic Republic and the economic and political influence of the Soviet Union, and I took it home and promptly read it from first page to the last.
Immediately I could see it was something the executive committee would not approve of. It presented the topic from a realpolitik perspective and too ‘academic’ for their liking, juxtaposing the geopolitical and economic interests of the West versus those of the U.S.S.R. and its allies, but without taking sides. Nevertheless, I dutifully summarized the relevant points and events, citing the protagonists involved and their motivations in a chronological order and logical manner, and then practiced my talk at home so that it didn’t run over fifteen minutes. Generally, I was pleased with my effort, concluding that both the Americans and West Germany on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany on the other, were responsible for the political stalemate that came to be known as the Cold War, and how the respective ‘ruling classes,’ the capitalists in the West and the bureaucratic elites in the East, benefited from the situation economically and politically.
A few days before my presentation, a member about my own age and had been in the group for a number of years called me to ask if he could look over my talk. Since I had no objections I gave him a copy the next day I saw him on campus and the following day he returned it and said it was fine. But he didn’t sound very enthusiastic and suggested some changes to improve it. I agreed to incorporate some of his suggestions, to reinforce the notion that the Soviet bloc countries were not truly ‘socialist,’ but I said that was as far as I was prepared to go because the other changes were too pedantic and would alter the tone of my presentation too much and it wouldn’t reflect my own thoughts. He agreed, although he looked somewhat disappointed.
On the evening of my presentation, or my audition more like it, I was a quite nervous to say the least, having drunk several cups of coffee beforehand at home and one there to rouse my confidence, so that when my turn came after the main talk, I spoke so fast that I finished well under fifteen minutes. During my talk, as I scanned the audience, I couldn’t help but notice that while most people seemed engaged, some of the senior members appeared disinterested, looking up at the ceiling or down at their notes, and I sensed hostility on their faces. I knew I wasn’t the most exciting orator, but fifteen minutes wasn’t long enough for anyone to start spacing out. Nevertheless, I was pleased and relieved when at the end I received mild applause. Richard, who reviewed my talk, and Michael, the ‘leader’ of the executive committee, came up to congratulate me. But I knew from the tone of what little they had to say they didn’t like it at all. They said it could have been more ‘polemical’ to emphasize the ‘state capitalist’ nature of the Soviet bloc economies because as it was, my presentation was too ‘dry.’ I humbly nodded in acknowledgement of their critique, but inside I was fuming that I should be so stupid as to do what they were suggesting.
When I got home that night, I was still angry that my talk wasn’t good enough for them, because it wasn’t sufficiently scathing of the Soviet Union. That’s why the applause was muted; no one wanted to be seen endorsing my dissenting view, which was more in line with that of the Spartacists, their arch enemies, who held that the Soviet Union was a degenerated worker’s state that could be salvaged politically into a revolutionary force and be a beacon of for revolutionary movements around the world; whereas to the International Socialists there was nothing redeeming about the Soviet Union which offered nothing other than false hope to workers around the world, being a thoroughly corrupted model of socialism, and its imminent collapse couldn’t come soon enough. As I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, it finally dawned on me that I was never going to fit into this organization; I simply wasn’t prepared to be told how I should think. I drew some comfort from the fact that it was only a ‘tendency’ anyway, not even a proper party, with little or no credibility among the proletariat whom it purported to represent. Thus, I resolved I simply had to leave this ‘cartoon show.’ But something told me it wasn’t going to be as easy as walking away.
In the meanwhile I continued attending meetings and rallies, still as a provisional member, plastering posters on the sides of buildings and selling newspapers to the one’s and two’s on campus and in the Bourke Street mall in the city, while carefully being steered away from new recruits at meeting, in case I infected them with my doubts and suspicions, and less than whole-hearted support of the organization. These increasingly turned towards the main personalities to try and figure out just who they were and what the organization actually represented; like Michael, the leader and chairman of the executive committee. He was a man in his late thirties or early forties, unmarried as far as I could tell, on the short side and quite thin, perhaps anorexic, which probably explained his lethargic aspect and blithe aloofness, although he was very knowledgeable about history and Marxist politics and economics, and quite sharp of mind. He seemed to have most people’s respect, except perhaps among the ‘splitters.’ But there was something deceptive about the way he too avoided eye contact, as if afraid of revealing too much about himself. Then there was Marcus, the acid-dropping drop-out from Monash whose impassioned visions of world revolution and the end of capitalism were as uninspiring as they were plainly imbecilic. He said he worked as a supervisor in a government unemployment office by day, which first struck me as a little odd. But as I learned, there were several other senior members who were public servants and held managerial positions within the government bureaucracy. They always came to meetings prepared and made well-rehearsed contributions after the main talk, each running into several minutes, about the need to build a workers’ party with a clear political position and vision. They effused the nonchalance of people who enjoyed secure employment and had no real faith in their convictions, which nevertheless had to be stated because proper party procedure demanded it.
It got me thinking just how serious a threat they were in their desire to ‘smash the state’ and ‘overthrow capitalism’, with violence if necessary, that the government which served the interests of capitalism would tolerate them in their midst, as managers, no less. Perhaps it knew their ideas were so ‘loony’ and far-fetched that they presented no real threat. Or perhaps their purpose was more sinister, to gain the confidence of die-hard committed leftists and weed them out by betraying them, before they could sabotage the system from within, But as far as Marcus was concerned, judging from the unbridled manner by which he exhorted members to run amok at demonstrations with his megaphone from atop the wrought iron gate of the Melbourne Club in the city, as if he enjoyed immunity from prosecution and had nothing to fear, there was a strong reek of the agent provocateur about him. Then there were the overly passionate and literary types inspired by “Ten Days that Shook the World” to follow in the footsteps of John Reed and write their own bestselling account of a worker’s socialist uprising from behind the barricades. In the meantime they had to be content with building a worker’s party led by superannuated students and their followers in far-off Melbourne, in the Commonwealth of Australia. Like a bad case of hives, they were all equally irritating.
But there were also those who actually ‘believed’ in socialism. To them the group was their ‘church,’ affording a much needed sense of belonging. They had long ago accepted that they may never get to participate in the actual revolution, or witness the coming of socialism in their own lifetime, and were content to put their faith in the organization to lead the coming generations to victory. In the meantime, just like the Christians in ancient times in their fight against Roman rule, ‘the struggle’ for socialism at present gave their own lives meaning. And like those persecuted Enthusiasts before them, their struggle too was ordained from up high, not by God, but by their steadfast belief that eternal virtue and justice will one day come through the advent of socialism, and then communism, the pinnacle of human existence on earth, all of which required an organization to receive and spread ‘the word’ among the masses in preparation. Thus, it was no coincidence that many of these members had been raised Catholic, including Michael, and one couldn’t help but think that the guilt and unquestioning belief in a central authority that had been instilled into them by their religious upbringing had stood them in good stead in their new godless eschatology. In many respects, these self-pitying victims were just as obnoxious as their dissembling and conniving comrades.
One evening my shit detector began to ring especially loud. Michael, the ‘leader’, was giving a talk on the role of the workers’ party in instilling the necessary class consciousness in the working masses.In the middle of it, he broke off to remind everyone that during a period of economic downturn, as was then the case, when morale and self-belief among workers is low, and membership of the organization declines, it was necessary for the sake of survival to throw open its doors. His words naturally tripped my paranoia, and I couldn’t help but think that he was referring to people like me who might otherwise not have measured up, but because of the downturn were admitted to help prop up the organization. He then lamented that unavoidably, among those allowed in there were bound to be spies and informers whose aim was to bring down the organization by sowing discord and doubt. He said the best way to combat these destructive elements was simply to ignore them, because when they saw they couldn’t make any headway, they quickly became discouraged and left of their own accord. Instead, he said, members should focus on the task at hand which was to develop a clear, uncompromising strategy and build up the party so it would be ready to lead when the economic upturn arrived and workers went on the offensive and naturally flocked to it wanting to learn more about socialism.
But as I sat listening, I couldn’t quite understand the logic behind his argument. If spies and police informers had indeed infiltrated the organization, posing as willing converts and sympathizers, and they eventually dropped out on their own, why raise the issue at all? Or was he attempting to divert suspicion away from himself and the organization, and its exact role and purpose, by pointing the finger at certain unnamed individuals present who weren’t whole-heartedly behind its strategy and politics? He was inviting members to take action against such ‘traitors’ in their midst, by ignoring them so that they’d leave and not spread their misgiving to others. It was all starting to get very weird, fueling my burgeoning paranoia no end, and I needed to seriously find an exit and get out.
As strange as it sounds, in deciding to quit I had to overcome my own deep feelings of disappointment and inadequacy for lacking the necessary self-delusion to believe that a just and egalitarian society was actually possible and worth fighting for, led by this ‘loony left’ organization. This was countered, however, by an anger I felt towards the group as whole for their deceit and subterfuge, and at certain members in particular, for having strung me along for their own purposes. In the end, I took solace in the fact that my shit-detector had come to my rescue once again and I got out before they drove me completely insane with their imbecilic politics and immature rhetoric and guilt trips. Had I stayed I’m sure I would have been rewarded with further favors from the likes of Lucy and Judith. It was their way of showing commitment to the group. Judith, for one, had no idea what she was really doing there, judging from her nonsensical answers when I asked her in the midst of feeling her up in the front seat of my father’s Fairmont one evening; or else she did a good job of concealing it in her tumescent wetness.
As for Leslie, I don’t really know what it was about her. It was something akin to the distant attraction you felt for that girl in high school you passed in the corridor so many times, and whom you one day suddenly see in a brand new light and become deeply infatuated with. She was older than me and had been a student at Monash in the mid 1970s. But it was hard to tell her exact age because she had a deep, mellifluous voice, yet she was quite youthful in appearance with a short Pixie-style cut and keen, dark, round eyes. What attracted me to her initially was her ability to articulate her views at meetings so clearly and succinctly, free of the usual ridiculous hyperbole others resorted to. But the more I saw of her, the more I could also detect an endearing vulnerability beneath her self-confident exterior. It was as if she was conscious of the falseness of the façade she projected and was trying to suppress her own uncertainty about what she was really doing there, even though she was one of the founding members.
That self-doubt was evident one Christmas. We were gathered at the club room in the city one Saturday afternoon after a rally in the mall and discussing our plans for the holidays, to see who would be in town to help out with the house-keeping chores. Since I was going to spend Christmas at home with my parents, I volunteered to come in. This prompted Leslie to add that she too was going to spend Christmas at her parents’ place. But since they lived interstate, she wouldn’t be able to lend a hand. She seemed a little embarrassed by her admission and quickly explained that it was the only time of the year they ever got together as a family, adding by way of clarification that it had nothing to do with observing Christmas as a religious event, because they were all atheists.
Some of the others then began talking about their own families whom they were also obliged to visit over Christmas out of tradition, and then all concurred that after the revolution, the first thing to be decreed will be to revoke Christmas and replace it with a holiday that celebrated the ‘smashing of the state.’ A more general discussion ensued which verged on the boringly nostalgic as they recalled their childhoods and the places they used to go for their Christmas holidays, to which I listened with feigned interest. Anyhow, Leslie, who was half-Dutch, half-Indonesian, being the only senior member present, then shared with us how she became interested in Marxist politics at university, in the manner of a wise elder dispensing inspiring parables with her acolytes, as we all listened with interest.
She said it wall started in the 1970s during the student protest movement against government funding cuts to education, and the push to abolish exams which are nothing more than a way of selecting students most suited to the requirements of capitalism, and a bunch of them including Michael and Marcus got together and formed the nucleus of the group, which later joined forces with others in Sydney and Brisbane and they affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, becoming the International Socialists. She said her parents didn’t get in the way; they thought she was merely going through a rebellious phase, and once she graduated and got a job, she’d get married and have a family and leave politics behind. But how wrong they were, she said with a slight air of reverse paternalism and sympathy for her parents’ understandable misexpectation, because twelve years out of university she was as committed to Marxism as ever, “which just proves that it’s not a fad, because the Marxist way of looking at the world is the only way to realistically analyze it.” Despite her candor, her confession sounded rehearsed and slightly contrived. It was as if she was trying to shore up our morale during the inactive holiday season, in case we began to waver in our commitment; while at the same time exorcising her own niggling doubts over her continued involvement. I got the impression she was too self-conscious to make as effective a cheer-leader as Marcus, the acid-dropping drop-out, and that despite her unwavering devotion to Marxism, this was nothing more than an intellectual accoutrement to her persona, and the organization itself was merely a poor substitute for family.
My suspicions about her cosmetic commitment to Marxism were confirmed one Friday evening after a rally in the Burke Street mall when I spotted her in the cosmetics section of Myer’s department store through which I was taking a short cut to the central train station on my way home. From the angle she was seated high up on a swivel chair at one of the glass counters, I don’t think she saw me thoroughly transfixed by the alluring sight of an unattached female indulging her feminine vanity under the bright lights, admiring herself in the mirrors while applying different shades of lipstick to her mouth, pouting her lips and smacking them together, as the white-cloaked assistant looked on approvingly. In and of itself, it didn’t contradict the received precepts of Marxism; but there was something fetishistic and decadent in what she was doing, and I couldn’t help but feel a deep though strangely illicit desire to know her on an intimate level.
It was then that I realized how much she physically resembled my communist aunt in Thessaloniki, being about the same height with a similar physique, although I suspected Leslie’s temperament wasn’t quite as volatile, or her addiction to cigarettes nowhere near as strong. And just like her, Leslie also taught high school during the day. I remembered my aunt also used to wear her hair short, Pixie-style, as was the vouge in the mid ‘60s. She was the first woman I ever saw naked when I peeked through the half-open door one day as she was trying on a dress, slipping it over her naked body and admiring herself in the full-length mirror while my grandmother pinned up the hem and adjusted the sides, before taking it off again. I must have been about five or six at the time and so thoroughly transfixed by the sight of the unclothed body of a fully grown woman that I couldn’t take my eyes off her, mesmerized by the captivating patch of hair down between her thighs, until my grandmother told me to scram and slammed the door shut.
As I discreetly stole more glances of Leslie from afar slowly making my way across the floor, past the displays of sunglasses while breathing in the heady aromas of perfumes and lotions seeping into my brain, I felt the same guilty pleasure. In fact, all the way home on the train all I could think of was caressing her waif-like figure and gazing into her dark brown-black eyes and glossy red lips, and what it would be like to taste and feel her naked body next to mine. I imagined escaping with her to a remote island to live out the rest of our lives together, away from all the shit and the assholes. But alas, she was in too deep and I wasn’t prepared to stay, no matter how many times she called to convince me, raising questions in my supervisor’s mind just who this mysterious woman was with a sultry voice that kept ringing and asking for me.
I was now approaching the end of my degree and my scholarship had only months to run. I was in the process of putting the finishing touches to my thesis before submitting it for examination, but I had already accepted an offer to go work in the U.S. which I was keen to take up as soon as possible. My imminent move overseas dovetailed nicely with my decision to formally quit the International Socialists which I no longer saw as a political organization of relevance, but more as a weird cult that wielded mysterious power over its members in the form of a guilt-infusing Marxist-inspired morality, and benefited financially from them in the form of monthly dues. I expected they would simply accept my written resignation and the reasons for my leaving, stating that I had accepted a job offer overseas to further pursue my career. And seeing I still harbored Stalinist sympathies, I thought they would be only too glad to see the back of me. But in the weeks leading up to my departure in March of 1987, after I had nervously stood up at a meeting and formally announced my resignation in front of everyone, they began calling me up at home and at my supervisor’s office at university, one after the other, including Leslie, to discuss the reasons for my resigning, apparently unconvinced I was heading overseas.
They were desperately trying to persuade me to change my mind and stay in Australia. They said the place I was going to, in Reno, Nevada, had no leftist organizations, and the only labor union of note was the one representing casino workers and others like them in the hospitality trade, who were too removed from the production process to lead. They warned me that in this vacuum I would drift to the right and eventually lose all interest in Marxism and socialism, and turn into a right-wing reactionary. I knew what they were doing. They were playing their last cards, laying the ultimate guilt trip on me, hoping to make me crack under the emotional strain and confess the real reasons for my quitting. But all they achieved in doing was to incense me even further and increase my determination to remove these duplicitous, manipulative bastards from my consciousness, except for Leslie, who I was convinced I could turn and get to come away with me, if only she would drop her guard.
The final straw came when Richard called me up one evening at home, the guy who reviewed my talk on the Germany Democratic Republic. I guess they thought he had my confidence and gave him the task to try and dissuade me from quitting. He began by consoling me, saying it was normal for new members to feel disillusioned after their first year, and that he thought I had acted too rashly in resigning. He wanted to know whether my leaving had anything to do with the politics of the organization, and whether I had any fundamental disagreements with their strategy for winning over ‘the one’s and two’s’. As he was telling me this, I realized it was the first time I’d actually been asked my thoughts on the issue and felt something click inside my head. I thought, “What a strange question to be asking me at this stage, when I have already left the group?” I realized immediately what he was actually getting at. He was trying to get me to tell him what made me see through their act. I paused for a moment before answering that there was absolutely nothing wrong with their politics, and that I was fully behind their strategy and tactics in this period of economic downturn.
He didn’t immediately respond, waiting for me to keep talking in the hope I would say something revealing. Then in my most contrite tone, I confessed that, “I just don’t have what it takes to be a reliable member of a Leninist party,” and that “if it wasn’t already obvious, you asshole,” I thought to myself, “I’m a fucking Stalinist. And if it was up to me I’d have all of you two-faced bastards, with the exception of Leslie, lined up against the wall and shot, and your bodies cut into pieces and fed to geese.” What I actually said, however, was that I had no truck with anyone in the group or their politics, and I would do my best to remain a loyal sympathizer while I was away, and that when I returned to Melbourne in a few years’ time I would like to rejoin. Before I hung up, in my meekest voice I apologized that I couldn’t be of any real use to them after all they had done for me, and further humbled myself by saying how little I understood about Marxism before I joined, and that if it weren’t for them I would still be walking around in the dark confused and ignorant about Marxism and the role of the workers’ party in the fight for socialism. I felt relieved to be rid of them at long last after I hung up, and I could now put the whole thing behind me. Or so I thought.
In the weeks leading up to my departure for the States, I occasionally bumped into them on campus. But they seemed to have forgotten about me already and more or less ignored me, which suited me just fine. But I could tell they were pissed off for having failed in their attempts to recruit a literate, university educated son of migrants they could use to attract people from this neglected demographic into their ranks, and gain some badly needed credibility outside their narrow middle-class Anglo audience. And for these same reasons I despised them. But just like dog shit that sticks to one’s sole, it was difficult to get rid of their lingering stink and I had to contend with recurring nightmares of meeting these horrible people under strange and frightening circumstances, accusing me of treachery and crimes against socialism in show trials with members looking on accusingly, and my father staring down at me angrily from above with tight lips and his admonishing words ringing in my head.
Thankfully it all stopped when I finally left and settled down in Reno. It seemed I had come full circle, having gone from being a skeptical idiotic contrarian, to a semi-subscribed Fourth Internationalist revolutionary socialist, and then back to an angry, somewhat disillusioned realist contrarian who still idolized Stalin for the way he put his own spin on Marxism and made the U.S.S.R. into a superpower by implementing the most ambitious program for the primitive accumulation of capital in modern history in an industrially backward country, sacrificing the lives of millions of people in the process.
In Reno I maintained an interest in the various intellectual currents within Marxism, having discovered a wide cross-section of Marxist literature in the university library. I even managed to contact a branch of the American counterpart of the International Socialists in San Francisco. But when I saw that their politics were just as sophomoric as those of the organization in Australia, and they both received their instructions from the ‘mother party’ in Britain, I decided it wasn’t worth my while driving all that way every few weeks to hear those familiar refrains so as to stop me drifting to the right, and get to know Laura better, the young and vivacious leader of the cell, who I was certain I had met in an earlier life. Nevertheless, I still considered myself a Marxist, because, just like Leslie said, the Marxist analysis of history and capitalist society cannot be faulted, because it’s based on a scientific understanding of the nature of money and value, and doesn’t invoke such inanities as Adam Smith’s ‘hand of God.’ The only problem with Marxism as I see it, is that, while it may lay bare the workings of capitalism, the power relations inherent in money and the brutality and injustices that lie beneath ‘the market,’ that’s about as far as one can take it. Its value lies more in the diagnostic realm than in the prescriptive or curative. In the end, when faced with life and death decisions for survival, human beings will resort to their base instincts regardless of how much they understand about Marxism.
“But,” I hear them countering, “real socialism can only be achieved when the means of production are sufficiently developed in all the countries of the world to ensure there is plenty for all, so that there are no material disparities between peoples, and so there’s no need for conflict over resources. We are very close to achieving that level of development. That’s why we must start to organize or else society will descend into barbarism when capitalism finally collapses under the weight of its own contradictions!”
“Whatever you say! Yes, yes, I know all about the premise that the creation of a new society free from hunger and war is predicated on there being sufficient material wealth, and will be organized on socialist principles at first, whereby the state serves purely a transitional organizational role before communism establishes itself, and money and property become things of the past, and everything will be planned and nothing go to waste.” Who said that? “But the question is: what exactly are people’s needs? Can you tell me?” “Well, that we cannot know until socialism is established and people’s fetishism for commodities comes to an end, when cooperation replaces competition. No-one can predict what ‘real’ socialism will look like, because it’s never existed on the basis of material plenty. The so-called socialism of the former Eastern bloc was based on material scarcity, and that’s why it collapsed.” “No, I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Socialism is what you make of it.”
When I returned to Melbourne in the early 1990s my bitter hatred for the International Socialists would immediately resurface whenever I came across a flyer advertising a meeting or a rally in the city, aiming to draw in the ‘one’s and two’s’. Such was the strange hold they still wielded over me that I would feel this tightening in my gut and the nightmares would return and continue for several nights thereafter. I could recognize a few, now somewhat older, but Leslie was nowhere to be seen among them. It made me wonder whatever happened to those who had joined the organization with me. I suspected some got disillusioned and left of their own accord; others turned to liquor and drugs when they couldn’t face the fact they’d been duped and hung out to dry, and lost all trust in people, especially those without a family safety net to cushion their fall. The more connected ones with a propensity for deceit and treachery rose up through the ranks, internalized the rhetoric so it became second nature, and learned to regurgitate it without so much as a hint of self-doubt to new recruits, hypnotizing them into doing their bidding. Others took their ‘people skills’ elsewhere and now enjoyed comfortable positions in upper-management in advertising companies or employment agencies, or in government departments; or they got cushy tenured posts in academia, having transcended the ‘Marxism for masses’ of their student days, which offered too simplistic an analysis of capitalism and its countervailing tendencies. The question, however, still remained. Just who were they, this ostensibly Marxist ‘tendency’ which predominantly targeted students and was given such free rein over university campuses to spread their message, when other ‘radical’ leftist groups were more or less banned?
Officially they belonged to the Fourth International which distinguished itself from other leftist movements by their steadfast denial of the possibility of any form of ‘socialism in one country’, and that so-called socialism in the U.S.S.R. and China was merely a form of state-capitalism where the profit motive still ruled, but where profits were reaped by the bureaucratic elite, as opposed to the bourgeoisie in openly capitalist Western countries. While their clarity of vision and action was admirable for avoiding the slippery slope of compromise and corruption which had tainted so much of the Left in the past, their petty obsession with strategic correctness smacked of ‘academic analism’, and in the end their political Puritanism served only to alienate them from those whose interests they purported to represent, and further divide the workers’ movement, assuming they could manage to establish a meaningful foothold. Perhaps that was their raison d’etre all along: to sow confusion and disunity, and that’s why they were tolerated by the state and its institutions. And I blew my chance at becoming a respected member of the bureaucracy. I’ll leave it at that.

(Sunday in spring, on the eve of my thirty-sixth birthday, in Boston, 1997)

Some photographs of a walk through Ancient Thera in Santorini.

courtesy of Wake In Fright (dir. T. Kotcheff)

Having left the field a while ago, for reasons that I won’t go into, suffice it to say I no longer have access to the relevant literature, I’ve been drawn quite by accident to consider the recent proposal that the inhibitory junction potential (IJP) recorded in the gastrointestinal smooth muscle has its origin in cells that are not smooth muscle in nature. This challenges the accepted wisdom that IJPs, or more specifically, “fast” IJPs, result from an increase in potassium conductance in smooth muscle cells bearing receptors for ATP released at en passant synapses with enteric inhibitory motor nerves coursing through the muscle layer, and that the attendant hyperpolarization of the membrane potential of the affected smooth muscle cells spreads electrotonically to other coupled smooth muscle cells in the bundle, opposing any concomitant depolarizing inputs and force generation. The new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. posits that non-smooth cells (PDGFα positive) in fact are the transducers of the ATP induced hyperpolarization which is transmitted electrotonically to coupled smooth muscle cells via gap junctions.

The attractiveness of this proposal is that it compartmentalizes the response and obviates the apparent paradox that an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces muscle relaxation by stimulating the release of stored calcium inside smooth muscle cells to activate a potassium conductance, does so without simultaneously activating contractile proteins. Although this mechanism can be accommodated within the existing framework involving only smooth muscle cells and enteric inhibitory neurons by invoking localized calcium domains affecting membrane channels and not contractile proteins, and different calcium release mechanisms and coupling to calcium entry, the compartmentalization of the electrical component of the inhibitory response effectively insulates the smooth muscle cells from any possible contrary effects of calcium spill over onto the contractile apparatus.

One caveat that comes to mind, however, that may argue against an intermediary cell relay between the inhibitory nerves and smooth muscle cells is the fact that in many types of cells, notably cardiac cells that are also coupled electrically via gap junctions, the increase in intracellular calcium that precedes contraction has the effect of drastically reducing the conductance of gap junction channels (connexins). Therefore, if in the new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. the transducing element for the IJP is the PDGFa positive cell which is electrically coupled to smooth muscle cells, then any increase in intracellular calcium in the former upon activation of P2 purinoreceptors by nerve-released ATP or related molecules, to induce a robust hyperpolarization by activating SK channels; this raises the question of what fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells is transmitted to the smooth muscle if the conductance of gap junction channels is blocked or substantially diminished by the rise in intracellular calcium?

In the defence of this new proposal, however, the gap junctional conductance between the PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle may not be entirely blocked during the rise in intracellular calcium, and although the intercellular resistance may be increased, it may still be sufficiently low for a significant fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells to spread to the smooth muscle and hyperpolarize it. In this regard, it has been shown by me that in electrically coupled supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium that when neighboring cells are stimulated with ATP to activate BK channels via intracellular release of calcium, a transjunctional current can be still be recorded from the patch-clamped supporting cell, although the latter needs to be dialyzed internally with an unnaturally high concentration of calcium buffer to prevent a rise in calcium, and has multiple inputs as far as electrotonically conducted events are concerned from the many surrounding supporting cells to which it’s coupled. Thus it remains to be seen whether in the case of PDGFα positive cells coupled to smooth muscle cells, to what extent a rise in intracellular calcium in the former decreases trans-junctional resistance at a time when current flow needs to be uncompromised for the hyperpolarization to spread with minimal decrement to the smooth muscle cells.

So much for electrical coupling between PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle cells and the role of the former as the effector cell for the IJP response recorded in the smooth muscle. But another issue raised by this new proposal is the role of purinoceptors and SK channels in smooth muscle cells themselves, and the extent of their contribution to the generation of the IJP. Both P2 purinoceptors and apamin-sensitive SK channels are found in smooth muscle cells of the circular muscle layer in a smooth muscle tissue known to generate IJPs, that is, the mouse ileum. But the question is, are they expressed in sufficient abundance, if not to generate the IJP, then to contribute to it? If they were expressed at a sufficient density in smooth muscle cells to generate the IJP then it would seem that the hyperpolarization generated by PDGFα positive cells may not be necessary and could simply be an epiphenomenon that occurs at the same time and has a similar timecourse to the IJP following nerve stimulation, and subserves and entirely different function. This could be to mediate in the release of other substances, given that SK channels are expressed at high densities in many types of secretory cell. Could it be that the large sustained hyperpolarization induced by ATP in PDGFα positive cells underlies capacitative calcium entry to support slow vesicular release of whatever substance(s) these cells secrete?

In circular smooth muscle cells isolated from the mouse ileum, if one extrapolates the magnitude of the ATP-evoked apamin-sensitive current recorded from cell-attached patches to its size over the entire cell membrane, based on rough estimates of patch area and cell surface area from cell capacitance, then there are grounds to believe that a current of sufficient magnitude can indeed be generated to hyperpolarize smooth muscle cells without invoking the mediation of other cells types. But the question is, is the concentration of ATP used experimentally to induce this current a fair mimic of that released from nerves in the IJP response, and is the timecourse of activation of the SK potassium conductance on the timescale of the IJP? Without knowing the answer to these questions, it would be reasonable to conclude that smooth muscle cells, or at least a fraction of circular smooth muscle cells of the mouse ileum that survive enzymatic treatment during the cell isolation, are capable of hyperpolarizing in response to ATP through the opening of SK channels. If these cells do not contribute directly or significantly to the generation of the IJP itself, then they may participate in the overall inhibitory response in a “volume transmission” manner as a result of spill-over of ATP released from enteric inhibitory nerves diffusing to circular smooth muscle cells in the vicinity. This scenario invokes the concept of junctional and extrajunctional receptors as in vascular smooth muscle and elsewhere. In this regard, it was noted in my experiments that a prominent effect of stimulation of the circular smooth muscle cells by exogenous ATP was to enhance the transient outward current component that was activated by calcium current-dependent calcium entry/release and which was sensitive to apamin. Enhancement of this current by extrajunctional ATP alone would suppress the excitability of the circular smooth muscle cells by increasing the interval between bursts of action potentials and contractions in situ. Moreover, the sustained rise in intracellular calcium occasioned by release of stored calcium by extrajunctional ATP would be expected to inactivate voltage-gated calcium channels in smooth muscle cells, thereby adding to a refractoriness of the muscle to further excitation and contraction.

In any case, here’s something to remind us of the physiological relevance of the IJP and its role in gastrointestinal motility broadly speaking.

Fivos Vogalis PhD

Slide 1

 

Pi2

 

 

 Pi3

Tsootsoo lay dozing by the orange glow of the electric fan heater, the one my mother says brings sleep (φέρνει ύπνο), soaking up its warming rays through her big fat pink belly. From the angle of the sun piercing through the curtains onto my eyes, I figured it had to be well after four. My wristwatch said quarter to five, which meant I had slept for close to two solid hours. It was a deep, incapacitating kind of sleep, free of dreams, what my mother calls φυσικό φάρμακο, and now I felt thoroughly rejuvenated. 
    It was also that time in the afternoon when Tsootsoo usually had her dinner, and in case I forgot, she had twisted her head up off the floor and was looking directly at me with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. In anticipation of my getting up, or perhaps to prompt me into action, she propped herself up onto her backside, but sensing I was in no hurry to get up off the couch, she forlornly slumped back down onto the carpet with an audible thump, letting out a deep sigh, before rolling back on her side, while I continued to bask under the blanket in the sweet languorous after-glow of nature’s best medicine.

    With my sister out of the house and not likely to be back for another hour, I knew at some point I would have to get up and make her dinner, because to deny her at her accustomed hour would be sheer cruelty. Why couldn’t she open the refrigerator, I wondered, dice up a portion of dog loaf into her bowl, mix in some dry pellets, and feed herself? Then again, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t eat the entire loaf at once and make herself thoroughly sick. Dogs are like that; they will eat whatever is placed in front of them, to maximize their chances of survival in case of sudden scarcity. And Tsootsoo is no different. She has such a voracious appetite, she eats everything she’s given, to the point of regurgitating what her stomach cannot accommodate.

    She wasn’t always like that, but after she was neutered following the birth of her first and only litter of seven pups, sired by a beady-eyed red heeler-cross from the gas station across the highway in Five Ways where my parents used to have a small farm growing flowers, her gluttonous tendency gradually took hold, and in the ensuing years she gained so much weight that she now has to be lifted onto the couch and the back seat of the car whenever she goes for a ride. But she didn’t attain that portly state all on her own, and some of the blame must lie with my father. With her big, brown, beckoning eyes, she had little trouble seducing him into surrendering to her every nuanced demand, and with a simple bat of her eyes at dinner, he would shove half his plate into her bowl and slip it to her under the table, to the chagrin of my mother who had to watch her fine cooking on which she’d slaved hours in the kitchen preparing, being fed to a dog. But now that he’s gone, she’s turned her beguiling ways to the next available sucker who happens to be me.

    In fact, it was he who came up with the name Tsootsoo. I think it came from a female character in one of those black-and-white film comedies set in Athens in the 1960s, a “κορίτσι του εξήντα,” as they say. That was before the military junta seized power and brought the frivolity and exuberance of the times to an abrupt end. And within a year, my father and mother had immigrated to a strange new country on the other side of the world, and dragged me and my sister off with them. But that’s another story.

    It must be said my father had a particular knack for assigning apt nick-names not only to pets and people, but also to cars and various other inanimate objects. These included our utility bills for electricity and gas, which he named “Βασίλη”, as in “μικρός Βασίλης” and “μεγάλος Βασίλης” depending which was larger, a cross-lingual play on words for the name Bill in Greek, and the English word for the payment owing. But I always thought his choice of name for Tsootsoo was particularly fitting, because it had that coquettish ring to it which perfectly captured her flirtatious disposition, from her dreamy, Greta Garbo eyes, down to her overgrown toenails, and the way she liked to toy with his emotions.

    With her hunger mounting, Tsootso lifted her head up off the floor again, and stared directly into my eyes, this time with added purpose. In that primal mode of communication mutually comprehensible to higher mammals, she was telling me her hunger was becoming insufferable, and she would not stop staring into my eyes until I was so stricken with guilt, I would have no choice than to get up and make her dinner, or else risk falling ill. Now there’s a thought: can guilt actually make one physically sick? What about the pernicious curse of “the evil eye”? There must some truth in it, seeing it’s so deeply embedded in the folklore of so many cultures.

    I guess it’s possible, by suppressing the immune system through the hypophyseal-adrenal axis which mediates the body’s responses to stress, both physical as well as psychological. In fact, there’s quite a large body of literature on the subject, which comes under the general head of “psychosomatic illness”, although serious-minded scientists are still loath to acknowledge its legitimacy. Apparently, a particularly debilitating form of psychological stress whose effects have been well documented in mammals is “subjugation stress.” This results in the suppression of the subservient animal’s immunity, causing it to fall victim to various opportunistic infections, as well as driving it to self-harm. And in terms of psychological impact, it would fair to assume that stress occasioned by guilt and shame would not be all that dissimilar in it’s sequelae, depending, of course, on the degree to which the subject actually “feels” guilt or shame, or any other deeply conscience-troubling emotion. Therefore, in response to Tsootsoo’s imploring, guilt-inducing stare, my own immunological defenses could well be knocked out, and I too fall victim to some opportunistic disease. That’s on top of the neurophysiological effects on my brain to make me more pliant and submissive to her demands in the future, and avoid sickening guilt.

    I guess from an evolutionary perspective, guilt-induced stress may have arisen among social animals to ensure the group’s survival as a self-perpetuating unit. It may do this by acting as a disciplinary mechanism to enforce docility and cooperation among compliant members so they don’t stray from their assigned rôles in the division of labor, thus helping maintain the group’s functional cohesiveness. The present case, however, involved not an extended kin group, but two individuals from different species, albeit sharing a common ancestor in their distant past; that is, a neutered female canine using her wiles to induce an unattached and somewhat weak-willed human male in her eyes, into acting in her favor. This relationship was more akin to parasitism, or perhaps some kind of symbiotic codependence, than anything directed towards hierarchy enforcement, and alludes to advanced cognitive functions in dogs. Or does it?

    Maybe their brains are just wired to respond to sensory cues from humans with behaviors that appear perceptive, but which are nothing more than an elaboration of their in-born instincts for self-preservation within their social group. And conversely, our own brains are wired to recognize behavioral cues in them, as surrogates for human companions in our lives, and to respond accordingly, without any high level cognitive exchange. Nevertheless, perhaps my getting up to feed Tsootsoo had some hidden benefit(s) for me as well, apart from warding off any potential guilt-induced suppression of my immune system, although in her present physical condition, with her refractory obesity and signs of senility setting in, her ability to keep watch on the house and alert me of unwelcome visitors, is not what it once was.

    As I lay there pondering over the behavioral strategies of dogs vis á vis humans, suddenly, something a fellow student once said in my zoology class, came to mind, back when I was an undergraduate at Monash. We were having an informal discussion on the ethics of using animals in scientific research, when girl, I think her name was Cath, declaimed with the unshakeable confidence of a confirmed scientist-in-the-making, that the only reason people felt any empathy towards animals, especially mammals, was simply because they were “anthropomorphic.” She followed this by saying that no-one ever cried over a snake or toad left for dead on the road, and that was because they weren’t soft and cuddly like cats and dogs or guinea-pigs, and then smugly sat back for the rest of us to digest her succinct summary of the central delusion at the core of the animal liberation movement, which was starting to make waves on campus.

    Like the others present, I thought her argument made perfectly logical sense, not least because I couldn’t stand animal liberationists either, with their holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness, and their persecuted herd mentality. Moreover, we were rational scientists, or on the way to becoming ones, and we couldn’t allow such puerile sentimentality to get in the way of our search for knowledge and enlightenment. It was our duty to study nature objectively and dispassionately for what it was, a vast interplay of forces, actions and reactions, governed by immanent laws and relationships which it was our task to identify in the biological context. Purely subjective factors like emotions and feelings for animals had no place in our noble quest, because in the end, as human beings, we were distinguished from them by being uniquely conscious of our own consciousness, whereas they were incapable of reflection, let alone higher concepts like morality and ethics.

    I can’t remember whether I mentioned this to the class, as my contribution to the discussion, but I recall the issue had brought to mind my uncle in Greece, whom I had just visited the previous year, and how he put down tens of cows each day at the abattoirs with a single shot of his stun gun between their eyes, and yet he was the most even-tempered person in the world who would never intentionally harm another human being, or animal for that matter. But there he was slaughtering tens of cows each day, because to him they were just another source food that had to be harvested and processed to supply the people’s needs. Therefore, it was ludicrous to think that scientists who sacrificed animals in the course of their experiments were inherently evil, because it was all done for the greater good of humanity.

    On reflection, however, as I lay there in my cozy post-nap inertia, savoring the attendant clarity of mind, I now wasn’t so sure about this girl’s reasoned defense of animal experimentation. It wasn’t because I had since forsaken meat, with the exception of some fish and poultry, not for any ethical reasons, but simply because I developed a distaste for meat in general. I remembered there was something about her comment that had piqued my sensibilities that day, but because I was so taken by her apparent maturity and her succinct eloquence, like everyone else, I put my reservations aside and voiced my agreement. But some ten years later, I now recognized why I felt that twinge of resentment. It was because her argument was too glib. It was something a naive undergraduate would say, having heard it from others, without fully understanding its philosophical subtleties. It betrayed a firmness of mind in one who had yet to experience the vicissitudes of life’s fortunes, and in the absence of any vitiating self-doubt, she was fully convinced of its surface logic, and content to espouse it for her own self-aggrandizement.

    As for the logic of her argument, that purely emotive factors were at play in people’s objection to animal experimentation, and one could dismiss them as peevish, and their reasoning as false; well, I now questioned that as well, because the term anthropomorphism merely described the condition by which animals and humans shared recognizable physical similarities, and it was wrong and presumptuous to conclude that those similarities were to blame for the distorted views of animal liberationists and their like, simply because they could read in those anthropomorphic features signals that had the power to move. Her dogmatic belief in the truth of her own convictions had prevented her from contemplating the possibility that those signals may be a harbinger or warning of imminent calamity for society on its present course, even if the nature of the threat was not immediately clear. In other words, she had no appreciation of the absurd.

    As to why I might have recalled her comments that afternoon, while musing over my relationship with Tsootsoo, and the extent to which I was her slave, and she mine; I suspect it had to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier, I was looking for the telephone number of someone in the Department of Zoology at Melbourne University to discuss something they’d published, and I came across her name on the list of faculty, not knowing she worked there. And when I saw it, the first thing that came into my head were her comments in our zoology class, which were still floating around in my head just below the surface, on the off-chance they might inform some relevant thought.

    In any case, it appeared she’d found a comfortable niche for herself among fellow mockers of the psychic connectedness between humans and anthropomorphic animals. I say this in all facetiousness, because I’ve always regarded zoologists as these strong-willed, staunchly atheistic dogmatists who eschew mystical contemplation like it was the plague. And like the over-zealous, godless crusaders for nature they like to play, never having outgrown their penchant for cutting up dead animals and pulling the wings off flies and the legs off insects, they seem perpetually obsessed with classifying them down to their minutest details, to discover where they came from, and why they are what they are, and why they live where they live. And something told me she was not different and her views hadn’t changed in the intervening years, not that I knew her that well.

     What I did know, because she had told everyone, as is the wont of proud products of middle-classes everywhere, who draw self-affirming inspiration from their parents’ achievements, and those of their parents’ parents, including heroic exploits in World Wars, was that her father was a retired commercial airline pilot and her mother a teacher of some sort, and that she grew up on a large rural property, surrounded by farm animals and those native to the surrounding bush. Given that background, I assumed she had had a good, thorough education which had instilled in her at an early age a deep fascination for the natural sciences, so that the mere mention of the words “science” and “nature” conjured up a warm and welcoming place, in contrast to the cold “other worldliness” these same words evoked in my own mind.

    And true to her academic calling, and the implicit desideratum in its disciples for ideological constancy and resolute defense of one’s convictions, personal and professional, in all likelihood she still firmly believed that humans and animals could never have true intellectual intercourse. Ergo, like any other natural resource, they were at man’s disposal to be studied and exploited for the greater good of society, regardless of what some bleeding heart animal liberationists believed.

     With my memory jogged, something else she said on another occasion now came to mind, reinforcing my suspicion that her views had fundamentally not changed, given that people’s views in general rarely change, especially if there’s no reason.

    Anyhow, a few years later, we were reunited as graduate students in the Department of Physiology. And one morning she burst into the common room we all shared looking very excited and full of energy, and began to relate with manic glee how on the way back from a field trip with her colleagues to the koala sanctuary on Phillip Island the night before, they struck and killed a particularly plumb rabbit in their Landrover. She said they stopped and picked up the dead animal, still in one piece, put it in a box, and when they got home, they skinned and cleaned it, and cooked it for dinner, and it was the best free meal they’d ever had. Her story, however, left me annoyed, because I sensed she was using it to assert her superiority by implying that her research was much more important than ours and had wider significance, because it entailed going on extended field trips and studying animals in their natural habitat, whereas the rest of us were largely confined to our laboratories, slaving away on esoteric topics that no-one care about. Moreover I found her vain machismo somewhat repellent in someone who was ostensibly female. It was as if she was still out to prove her imperviousness to puerile anthropomorphic sentimentality, and debunk the perceived mental softness and emotional lability in her gender.

    By now, the animal liberation movement had become more vocal on campus, holding rallies and demonstrations, demanding an end to the use of animals in scientific experiments, especially primates. And as was her wont, Kath didn’t hide her visceral dislike of them, deriding their tactics and threats to sabotage laboratories with plans of her own to derail their efforts; whereas for me, I had grown indifferent to the whole issue. In fact, secretly I wished they would succeed in shutting down all the animal facilities, because I had begun to lose faith in science, and was struggling to maintain an interest in my own research project which entailed recording electrical signals from tissue samples dissected from the intestines of rodents, humanely sacrificed, of course, in accordance with the guidelines set out by the University Animal Ethics Committee. Moreover, with my increasing politicization in regard to the rôle of science in society, and exactly where I fitted in as a product of the immigrant working class, seeking to transcend my station, I figured there were bigger issues on the intellectual horizon to concern myself with, and the ethics of using animals in scientific research didn’t figure prominently.

    In retrospect, perhaps she was just trying to express in the only way she knew, the fact that the anthropomorphic lagomorph they had accidently struck and killed on the highway that night belonged to an introduced species that had done enormous damage to the environment, and had displaced many native animals in the process. Therefore, she or anyone else for that matter need not feel guilty about killing such an animal, when it would likely have been killed by foxes anyway. But as I thought over her story again, I remembered that what had annoyed me more than her dogmatic stance against the animal liberationists and her machismic bravado was what I perceived as her hypocrisy in regard to her views on anthropomorphism and the sentimentality it inspired.

    This had to do with the fact that her research project was concerned with finding a cure for a chlamydia-like infection that was rendering female koalas infertile. As such, it threatened to wipe out the colony on Phillip Island which was a popular tourist attraction, especially among big-spending Japanese tourists who flocked there to see these lovable, furry creatures unique to Australia. Thus, while she could belittle others and arrogantly accuse them of being irrational in their opposition to the exploitation of animals in scientific research, and in whatever other legitimate use sanctioned by society, duped by their anthropomorphic features, she herself, through her research project, had a vested interest in their continued anthropomorphic appeal to gullible tourists.

    I suppose in her mind curing koalas of a devastating disease was fully consistent with her views, because in doing so she wasn’t motivated by any particular anthropomorphic sentimentality inspired by these furry creatures, although she wouldn’t have objected if it came across that way. Her actions were fully in line with her beliefs that animals existed for man to exploit for his own benefit, humanly of course, even in the wild, and in the end, her work was intended for greater economic good of Australia, by ensuring the commercial viability of a key tourist attraction, which benefited everyone, including herself, through the research funds her laboratory received from the government through the taxes it collected from tourists and associated business activity they stimulated.

    Although, seen from this angle there was no contradiction between her beliefs and her actions, I wondered whether in working to save those koalas from dying off didn’t unwittingly betray her own anthropomorphic feelings towards them, given that the diseased animals were females, and as a woman and a future mother, one thinks, her faculty for empathy had driven her to reify that psychic connection between humans and animals, as loath as she would be to admit. Still it bugged me that I never once heard her express any skepticism or doubt about what she was doing, nor did she evince any interest in topics outside the realm of science, like politics, except in a strictly polemic sense, as it pertained to her own field, as per her views on anthropomorphic sentimentality and animal liberationists.

    It was if she was incapable of or didn’t allow herself any degree of deep thought outside her narrow field, lest it might undermine her beliefs and shatter her view of the world, and where she fitted into it. Moreover, since to me she represented the dominant class that underpinned the power structure in Australian society, her seeming arrogance had succeeded in provoking my burgeoning antipathy towards the wider social formation in which I found myself, concerning its historical foundations and the sociopolitical forces that had shaped it. Thus, it followed that I should project onto her my increasing rejection of that society.

    In her I could see glimpses of the conquerious mindset of those who had come before her to take possession of this ungoverned land inhabited by backward savages, and proceed to “improve” it unhindered, and install on it a society created in their own exalted image, based on strict property relations and the pursuit of profit. In her, that plundering spirit of her forebears had been transformed and refined into a desire to take possession of its heart and soul by extracting from it as much knowledge as she and others like her could, about all the resident life-forms, its flora and fauna, its geographical features, and everything else on which the sun shone within its shores, in the name of scientific progress, and thereby make the conquest complete. As such, she and her kind were anathema, and I saw in her proud exaltation of nature and science a sign of the inherited psychopathology and intellectual shallowness of a people too afraid to contemplate their own insignificance.

    If I had to say, in the end, I didn’t much like Cath. Not because she was completely bereft of any endearing qualities, because there was a certain tom-boyish charm about her, and at times she displayed a raw honesty, free of pretension, that was refreshing. But she seemed devoid of any engaging metaphysical bent, which I guess had served her well in her chosen academic field, helping her conform to the accepted archetype of a zoologist. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical, because Rosa Luxenburg was also a materialist and a devoted student of nature, and it didn’t affect her commitment to the revolutionary struggle. But she was a naturalist, as opposed to a zoologist. Her view of nature was informed by the material interconnectedness of everything in the physical realm, humans, animals, plants, and everything else, where countries and national boundaries had no place; whereas zoologists, to my mind, are hyper-vigilant narrow-minded philistines who, fearing loss of their fragile identity, under the threat of shame and ostracism by their peers, dare not question or transgress the defining principles of their discipline, whatever they are. Moreover, as academics, they are beholden to the whims and dictates of the state educational apparatus, and their views are necessarily informed by crass nationalism that stifles intellectual exploration and revolutionary thinking.

    On a more personal level, perhaps my dislike of Cath betrays my envy of her success, having secured for herself a tenured academic position, whereas I’m a mere research scientist on a soft-money, back at Monash, I’m embarrassed to admit. Moreover, if I were to be honest, I would also have to admit that at the root of my dislike was my jealousy of her outgoing, self-confident, and apparent freedom from self-doubt, while I was, and still am, constantly tormented by deep skepticism, and crippled by the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing, trapped among people I couldn’t relate to.

    It was different, however, when I first entered university. I was so relieved to be finally rid of the hellish trauma of high school, and took to my classes with enthusiasm to learn as much as I could. Despite not knowing anyone, except for one or two students from high school with whom I was never really friends, I felt I was now part of a privileged group of like-minded young adults who would one day assume the reins of power in society and guide it according to our own collective vision. In retrospect, my optimism was driven by a mixture of naive, post-adolescent pride in my modest scholastic achievements, and oddly enough, in Australia itself, the nation and the society, to which I felt a sense of belonging like never before.

    But after a few months, even though I had made a couple of new friends, I was beset by debilitating alienation and I began to question what I was doing here, not just at university, but in Australia itself. I sensed there was something fundamentally false about my eagerness to assume for myself an identity to which I believed I had a just claim, when the undeniable fact was that I really didn’t belong among these people, and had only fooled myself into believing I did. And once that idea firmly established itself in my mind I became increasingly preoccupied with finding a way of extricating myself from that horribly stifling environment.

    I ended up deferring the year and went to work in a refrigerator factory. I did that for about six months during which time I earned enough money to buy a 35mm SLR camera with wide-angle and zoom lenses, and pay for a trip back to Greece with the aim of discovering my true identity to fill the gaping void. There I stayed for about two months, hosted by my relatives, before returning to Australia, thoroughly dejected and disillusioned by the experience, and the following year I re-enrolled at university to continue my studies. To overcome the conflicting emotions and confused cultural loyalties, I threw myself into my work, determined to finish my degree, and not think about such intractable questions like where I belonged, until I had graduated.

    It paid off because I quickly settled into the routine of university life and started doing fairly well academically. And so long as I continued to mimic my fellow students and conformed to what was expected of me, it was easy to believe that I was expanding my intellectual horizons by participating in such discussions as the ethics of using anthropomorphic animals in scientific experiments, and that everything would turn out well, and I would do my parents proud. But that niggling feeling of being an outsider was always there, lurking below the surface.

    It was starting to get a little nippy and Tsootsoo needed to be fed. A hot cup of coffee would wake me up and warm my insides quite nicely. Pulling the cover aside, I put on my slippers and made my way to the kitchen, with Tsootsoo following, tapping out a pitter patter rhythm on the kitchen floor with her overgrown toenails. As she watched me preparing to grind some coffee, she slumped against the sliding door. Temporarily distracted by a flea on her hind leg, she began grunting and gnawing at it with her front teeth, but stopped and moved when I prodded her so she wouldn’t break the glass panel with the jerky movements of her fat rump. Turning to her, I reassured her in my dog pidgin, a mixture of Greek and English, spoken in a childish tone, in deference to her less advanced intellect, that as soon as I had set up the coffee maker, I would start on her dinner. She seemed to understand and lay down to wait patiently.

    While the coffee brewed, I diced up some dog loaf into her bowl, as Tsootsoo gave out a few plaintive yelps for me to hurry up. To remind her just who was boss, I teased her by lowering the bowl just above her nose and then pretended to take it away, at which she became agitated and let out a low disapproving growl. Then, as if scared into submission, I immediately put down the bowl and she leapt at it, covering it with her head and shoulders, in case I changed my mind. I filled her water bowl and then poured myself a hot cup of black coffee.

    It had to be regular dark roasted “Columbo Supreme.” I liked it straight black, drunk from my white porcelain mug, stained brown, because I rarely washed it, except to rinse out the grounds, since soap residue, even trace amounts, affected the flavor, not to mention my brain. I emphasize regular because of a rather nasty experience I had one time in Reno, where I went to work after I got my doctorate in 1987.

     Unbeknownst to me, I had bought a bag of hazelnut flavored coffee beans. The packaging on the regular and the hazelnut flavored varieties was almost identical, except for the flavor printed at the bottom, which I never bothered to read, having assumed from the label on the shelf that all the bags in that particular row were of the regular, unflavored variety. But when I got home and unpacked the groceries, I could smell a weird but vaguely familiar aroma coming from the coffee beans which I recognized as hazelnut. I assumed the bag must have been stored next to hazelnut flavored coffee somewhere along the way, and the packaging had absorbed some of that aroma.

    As I prepared to make coffee, I noticed the smell of hazelnut got stronger when I snipped open the bag. Ignoring it, I scooped some beans into the grinder and ground them up. But after taking off the lid, realizing the source of that abominable smell was the coffee itself and not the packaging, my heart sank in my chest. And picking up the bag, sure enough, right there at the bottom, the label confirmed its contents: two pounds of hazelnut flavored dark-roasted coffee beans.

    It appeared that someone at the supermarket had deliberately placed it among bags of the regular, unflavored coffee beans so that unsuspecting customers would buy it, since the stock wasn’t moving and they had to sell it somehow; it was the only explanation. I tried to calm down by telling myself that hazelnut flavored coffee wasn’t all that different from regular coffee, and my senses would soon become desensitized to it, and after a few days I won’t be able to tell the difference. So I went ahead and brewed some coffee and reluctantly drank it down.

    Next morning I ground up some more beans and brewed up a fresh pot, and sat down to have breakfast. However, with each sip, that nauseous aroma of sweaty socks was becoming increasingly intolerable. It was nothing like the invigorating coprous stink of regular dark-roasted Colombian coffee beans I was accustomed to. But I persisted, in the expectation that my senses would soon get used to it in the coming days, and in the meantime I just had to endure this minor irritation. But after I had drunk about half the cup, I promptly got up, went straight to the kitchen and poured the remainder down the sink and then emptied the entire pot after it, before thoroughly rinsing out both under hot running water to get rid of that ghastly aroma. In fact, I could only relax after I had taken the bag from the pantry cupboard, sealed it up, and disposed of it in the dumpster outside, so that no hint of that dastardly smell would remain in my apartment, forfeiting the $10 refund had I returned it to the supermarket. I took some solace in the fact that at least it wasn’t vanilla flavored, an even worse abomination I once drank out of curiosity at an airport and spat out all over myself.

    I’m sure there are others like me who abhor flavored coffee. Perhaps with the increasing penetration of chemical additives and flavorings in our food to trick us into eating more than necessary, and help the big food manufacturers increase their profits, we will eventually become extinct, there being nothing for us to eat. Or perhaps, under the mysterious guidance of an evolutionarily stable strategy encoded in our genes, we will organize ourselves into small sequestered communities up in the hills, growing our own food, eschewing all unnatural and chemically modified food products, and breeding among ourselves to preserve our recessive taste and smell alleles, so that when everyone else is dead from all the nice tasting artificial poisons accumulated in their bodies, which they happily consumed thinking they were harmless, we can re-populate the earth with a new breed of human beings, living in harmony with nature, and thus, the meek will finally reap their just rewards.

    I took a few aniseed biscuits from the cupboard and went back to the living room with my coffee. Tsootsoo, having cleaned her bowl had come and planted herself between me and the heater, oblivious of her fat backside sizzling away, as she stared at me imploringly with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. To tease her again would be too patronizing and lead her to question my fidelity and reassess her loyalty. So I promptly broke off half a biscuit finger, dipped it into the coffee, checked it wasn’t scalding and presented it to her supplicating eyes. Delicately, she picked it out of my outstretched fingertips with her front teeth, and in one quick gulp made it disappear.

    After I finished my coffee, it would be time for her constitutional, pausing at her leisure at every tree and telegraph pole on the way to the park to sniff for scent left by others. Somewhere along the way, she would drop her load which I would be obliged to collect into a black plastic bag, in case anyone was watching and reported me to the municipal authorities if I failed to do so. There would be no forgetting it, because she would sit by the door and stare at me until I was so racked with guilt, I had no choice than to get up, fetch her collar and allow her majesty to lead the way.

    Drawing the curtain aside, I could see the shadows getting longer in the low sun. In less than an hour it would be dark. I thought how easy it would be to leave if it weren’t for Tsootsoo. To take her with me at her age would be much too cruel.         

(Melbourne, 1992.  I had just returned from my father’s funeral in Thessaloniki. I was staying at my sister’s house in Chadstone, while my mother remained in Greece. Tsootsoo was now nine years old. But within a few months she’d be dead, from complications of surgery to remove a tumorous growth in her pancreas)