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OUR BOOKS > THE CENTRE AND OTHER ESSAYS

The Centre & other essays
Essays
Written by Chester Eagle
Designed by Vane Lindesay
DTP by Chris Giacomi.
First published 2002 by Trojan Press
Circa 28,000 words
First edition 200 copies
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

These essays roam far and wide, but have two centres - the middle of the Australian continent and curiosity about what the future holds. Globalisation is forcing eyes outwards, and sometimes, too, it creates a wish to defend the local against powers beyond our control. For countries where the political tradition is of chaos, despotism or corruption, the coming world may seem like more of the same, but for countries such as our own, with a tradition of holding governments accountable, unsettling problems loom. Mobility, too, is shaping the world, making the experience of being looked upon by tourists a part of daily life. We observe, and we are observed observing. The validity of the gaze, the experience of being subject and object, are changing, while the problems of power are what they always were: restless humanity, causing endless change, can’t change itself.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
The centre
The shape of an economy
No redemption; go forward, or stay as we are?
Getting what you want or wanting what you get?
Ideals for the globe (all species included)
Inclusion/exclusion; is a dynamic kinship society possible?
Borders between global and local; a price to go through?
Aboriginal as local; the role of tourism
What’s to be done about power?

To read about the writing of this book click here.

The centre

The centre has always been different. Early settlers, noting the flow of rivers, deduced that there should be an inland sea. They went looking, but couldn’t find it. Captain Sturt’s party took a large whaleboat, finally abandoned west of the Darling, in country beyond what’s now called Broken Hill. The keel of this boat hung for many years on the verandah of a cattle station and for all I know may be there still.

The search for an inland sea was long regarded as a foolish one, but those who decided to drill for artesian water, and did it successfully, could have congratulated themselves on finding what Sturt did not. The sea was underground.

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The shape of an economy

In the days when Robert Menzies was prime minister, Australia was remarkably prosperous, or so it seemed when the basis for comparison was provided by memories of the 1930s depression and the war that followed. The days of Menzies were better than almost anyone could remember. The Prime Minister was wont, when anything appeared to ripple the surface, to point to something - anything - on the horizon and predict better times ahead, when, he would say, the approaching prosperity would trickle down to all members of the community. Trickle down. Today, we would say flow on; the difference is instructive. Trickling down implies a vertical society, with fairly clear distinctions of class: a British model, in short. Flowing on implies an endlessly moving economy, a sort of increasing and diminishing stream, with smart people building where the waters are widest, and the poor not consciously excluded but forced to camp where the flow is scarcely more than seepage. This representation accords with the thinking of the empire which has replaced British domination of the world.

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No redemption; go forward, or stay as we are?

Redemption is an idea which recurs endlessly, often in unexpected places. The operas of Richard Wagner are mostly concluded by acts of redemption. Love redeems, and Isolde is redeemed in death. Destruction can also redeem, as we see when Valhalla burns and the Rhine’s magic gold is restored. The Christian church has long preached the redemptive power of Christ, linking the means of this redemption to the ineradicable sinfulness of humans, so bad that only the intervention of the Almighty (sacrificing his son) could give humanity the redemption which it obviously - so says the church - needs. Countless others have accepted that humanity is incapable of its necessary improvement, and have fallen back on a redemptive power to solve the insoluble problem.

This essay deals with some of the questions raised by that problem: is humanity ineradicably flawed; if so, is redemption what we should look, or hope, for; where should we turn for the redemption needed (if it is); and is there any alternative to the nagging sense of fallibility burdening the human race, any better way of looking at ourselves which will relieve us of the problem? These are not easy questions and I fear my treatment of them will be sketchy, but let us make the attempt.

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Getting what you want or wanting what you get?

It is conventional to describe our society as affluent, which my dictionary tells me means ‘flowing freely or abundantly (1816); plenteous, wealthy’. I want to say that the wealth we have created is to some extent very considerable; to some extent illusory, or a matter of definition which won’t bear close examination; and to some extent the cause of a new form of slavery. Whole industries exist, in our society, to ensure that the two - what we want and what we get - never drift far apart. Citizens - a noble word, I have always thought, although the rights it implies, and their political expression, had to be snatched from a class of people who called themselves, in many parts of Europe, the nobility, and enjoyed their privileges by repressing lesser folk - citizens are steadily, daily and continuously being turned into consumers, a word restricting people to the economic plane of society, which means that they have to be inveigled, coerced, or encouraged to consume, an odd idea to be as central in modern thinking as it is. ‘Consume’ is a euphemism, and a crude one, for ‘spend’. Empty the pockets. Pass money over the counter. Buy. Commit yourself to repayments for months or years ahead. Why do people accept debt which will govern their capacities and freedoms for perhaps the rest of their lives?.

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Ideals for the globe (all species included)

The title of this essay implies goals we are unlikely to reach, if for no other reason than that we are too inexperienced at thinking about what other species might want, apart from being unmolested by us! We may decide, after struggling for a time, that it is enough to have opened up some matters for better minds to pursue. So, nervously enough, let us begin with some preliminary questions. Does the human race know where it’s going? Second: has its movement over, say, the last thousand (or two, three, even twenty-five thousand, if you wish) years been progressive, that is, from an inferior to a superior position? Third question (three will be enough, I think): who, if anybody, has been in charge of change? To bring that last question up to date, is anybody directing or managing the movement of human affairs, and if not, should we as a race try to influence what we make happen to ourselves? Or are we content to live with the results of letting individuals or groups who are not elected, managed or forced to give account of themselves take hold of the levers of social life and push and pull as they think fit?

If you consider those questions for a moment you will see that I’ve cheated, and there are many more than three problems raised. Nonetheless I will try, to begin with, to confine myself to the three areas nominated.

Does the human race know where it’s going?

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Inclusion/exclusion; is a dynamic kinship society possible?

It’s hard to ignore someone when you see them every day, harder when you know their blood relationship to those around you, or to yourself. Once you acknowledge someone’s existence they make you feel at least a little responsibility for them. If they fall from grace, so do you; if they’re hungry or sick, you must act on their behalf, or lose some of your humanity in turning your back. I use the term kinship society to mean a society structured on some definition of family relationships between individuals and groups, be they clans, totems, or whatever. In modern capitalist countries such as Australia, family bonds are still important, but so many of our interactions are based on economic, educational, legal, political or scientific grounds that it is no longer easy for us to imagine what life in a kinship society would be like. We are likely to look down on such a society, as we do when we hear that the civil servants of a country may take days to do the simplest tasks because they have no concept of managing the functions of a nation state; they are merely attending one of several workplaces to accumulate the currency needed for survival, and they acquire their positions in these workplaces through family influence. Thus the nation’s daily work is likely to remain undone because nobody sees any need for it to be done while family members are fed and content. The nation exists, insofar as any reason needs to be found for it, to ensure that all members of my family - I may not be concerned with yours - are looked after.

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Borders between global and local; a price to go through?

Globalisation is happening all around us, sometimes visibly, sometimes out of sight. We sense it as a force barely understood, under nobody’s control, and likely to be active for generations to come. Some want to resist it, but can’t, some to exploit it for all it’s worth, and others to manage it for one reason or another. I belong to the third group, and I am writing in an effort to understand what I should be doing, though I am aware that globalisation, a mass movement sweeping humanity along, is never likely to be predictable. What will the world be like in another two hundred years? Who knows? Almost the only thing we can be sure of is that certain polarities will continue to exist - uniformity and diversity, freedom and restriction, the acceptable and the unacceptable (you may overlap those two with right and wrong, and see what you make of the exercise), and many more. The first of these pairs - uniformity and diversity - is the starting point for this essay, and it roughly equates with the words global and local in my title: global organisations will of necessity possess considerable uniformity, with diversity to be found in the many forms of local custom - the Arab burnous, the Inuits’ suits of fur, the near-nakedness of tropical or island people, the suits and jumpers in cool to moderate climes.

Global and local: there is surely no more important polarisation for the centuries before us. One would think that only a descent into chaos or some subsuming of the many locals into an overwhelming global would bring to an end the period I am trying to look into. Where to begin? This is hard, even though I have no doubt that when people, centuries hence, write the history of their time they will say that its origins were clearly visible in this time we inhabit, blindly perhaps.

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Aboriginal as local; the role of tourism

Many years ago people tore pages from library books to prevent readers having access to lists of convicts transported to this country from Great Britain. They did this from shame, fearing a loss of respectability if their past was uncovered. Convictism was a stain when to be spotless was a virtue.

Time passed and the unmentionable became a source of pride. People boasted of convict ancestry, if they could find it. I have no doubt that a similar reversal will take place in the fortunes of our aborigines and those many people who have what was once sneeringly called ‘a touch of the tar-brush’. People will go looking for an aboriginal connection and speak of it with pride. This will be a reversal of somewhat greater importance than the acceptance of convicts in the family past. The very difference between the aboriginal way of life, their minds and values, and the European, the American, and the emerging global way of living, the difference which today makes it so hard for us to reconcile the culture that invaded and the culture that resisted, that difference, that stubborn resistance to the globally inventive and innovative, will be a lode of quality beyond almost all other values.

A strange claim? I think not. I’d better get one point made straight away, because everything that follows will depend on it. The Australia that has been built up since white settlement has been as much an international - or global, as we say today - creation as it has been a local one. That is to say, in the dichotomy running through these essays, we are only modestly differentiated from what’s been known as global at any time in our history.

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What’s to be done about power?

Power is humanity’s hot potato. It’s not good for anybody to hold it for long. It must be shared. Checks and balances should oppose its misuse. Controls should exist for its every application. Humanity has seen the abuse of power too often not to have learned. Popular sayings (Power corrupts ... ) are correct, and yet, dangerous as power is, we cannot be rid of it. There is good, or necessary, political action as well as bad, and the good, the necessary, cannot be done without power to enforce. All law, all attempt to manage human activity - and we cannot do without regulation - entails the ability to enforce. Enforcement involves power. Power is paradoxical. It involves considerable danger of being vicious even when used in virtuous action. It is an unavoidable, ongoing test of the morality, the virtue, of every single action. Abuse is therefore unavoidable, but must be minimised by all involved or affected.

I speak in woolly generalities, but what else is there to do? We know all there is to be known about power. Its temptations and deceits are established in us all. The question ‘What’s to be done about power?’ can be rewritten as ‘What can we do to make ourselves behave well?’.

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The writing of this book:

Like many people, I read the paper while I’m having breakfast. This means that the newspaper people set the agenda for my thinking, even though I break away from their settings all the time. Many of us do, though the effect they have is still there. In the latter half of 2001 I began to ask myself what were my concerns; it wasn’t that I was troubled by any particular issues, rather that I felt a need to listen for inner voices and questionings instead of having my thinking topics provided for me. The catalyst for doing so was that in the middle of 2001 I’d had two trips to the Northern Territory, and the effect of Kakadu, Uluru et cetera had been profound. Once again, a part of my country unknown to me before had entered my thinking. It had happened to me as a young man aged 22 when I’d been sent to Gippsland on a teaching appointment, and here it was, happening again. When I’d gone to Gippsland, a young man from the inland plains, and later the city of Melbourne, had encountered the eastern mountains; this time, a man from the coastal fringe was encountering, at last, the centre he’d been hearing about all his life.

It was a revelation. I thought central Australia was truly wondrous: harsh, beautiful, a place dictating a way to live that was almost the reverse of what was best in the places where I came from. I could feel my thoughts about my country changing yet again. The ideas that had been in my mind for a long time had begun to look tired. I should do some new thinking.

And I would write down my thoughts, but this wasn’t as easy as I had expected. I’ve already referred (see my notes to go with Hail and Farewell! An Evocation of Gippsland) to a struggle I had when I began to write the ‘Landscape and people’ section of that first book. Would I narrow my focus, and concentrate, or would I let my mind wander, picking things up and putting them down, in order to make connections across a wide region? I did the latter. When I started to write essays for the first time since I’d been a student, I encountered a similar problem. Essays are normally written in an argumentative or expository style, but I found that I was most interested when I was least certain; in other words, the things I was most interested in were likely to cause me to speculate, and question, rather than to assert. The essays would be structured, then, not by a sequence of ideas I wished to define and then defend, but by a sequence of queries that came to me as I did my thinking. It seems to me that to close one’s mind on any matter is a bit like setting up camp at the end of a day’s travel. The tent will be all right for a night or two, but will have to be pulled down when you move on; pulled down in order to be erected somewhere else and possibly in a different way. I think structures of thought are rather like this. Hence the way I’ve written these essays in The Centre. They don’t really aim for any finality, they’re just a record of a mind’s movement over, under and around the topics that seemed important at the time. I hope this is acceptable to the reader. It’s how most of us think, most of the time.

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