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OUR BOOKS > MINI–MAGS > FREEDOM

Freedom

reflection, 2011
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover design by Vane Lindesay
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Circa 6700 words
Electronic publication 2012

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To read some extracts from this memoir click here:

Freedom and the Inevitable
Freeing Oneself From Fear
Freedom and the Car


To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

Freedom and the Inevitable

I’m often uneasy with popular songs because my respect for words is such that an accompaniment obliterating ‘lyrics’ displeases me. The only way to pick up what the song’s about is to examine the words getting through the sound. One can, by doing this, collect the ideas proliferating in our time. One of them is most certainly freedom; this word can be heard all over the place, but to sing its praises is to cheat a little, because who, these days, will admit to being opposed to freedom? We’re all in favour. Memorials exist in many parts of the world to patriots, soldiers, heroes, who lost their lives in fighting for it, protecting it, et cetera.

But when, where and how frequently is it true to say we’re free? I ask because an idea that can’t be decoupled from freedom is that of inevitability. If a thing is inevitable, then it is the outcome of a process which eliminates the more popular idea of freedom, is it not? Inevitable: let us look at the word to see what it means. The prefix, in, means not; the suffix, able, means what it says; and the middle of the word, evit, comes from the French éviter, to avoid. Not able to be avoided. The word is not exactly an opposite of freedom, but it certainly implies a restriction, a limitation, on what it means to be free. Thinking about these words has set me wondering how free we are, and if we are too often inclined to salute the idea of freedom, thinking we have it when we are more restricted than we care to believe.

I now want to look at some occasions in my life that have caused me to question the idea of freedom and ponder the degree of unavoidability, or inevitability, in the situation being described. I’ll start with the first section of the first book I ever published. It’s called Hail and Farewell! An Evocation of Gippsland, it was published in 1971 and it’s available on my website – trojanpress.com.au – if you want to look at it.

The first section of the book is called ‘The Men From Snowy River’ and it’s about a man whom I call Lochie McLellan. I shaped this first section of the book carefully to show how getting to know Lochie was a liberating, apparently ever-expanding experience by which I was able to immerse myself in the ways and values of an earlier Australia still alive in the region where I was working – Gippsland, the eastern part of Victoria. This was a little over fifty years ago; let’s say 1958. I was so full of my own young manhood that I didn’t realise that masculinity’s limits are along the line, wherever it may be drawn, with femininity. Men can hardly be men without women, and, regrettably for many women, the opposite is also true. The poem whose title I borrowed (see above), by concentrating on the doings of a mountain horseman, ignores the need for the daring young rider, or anyone else, to build his life on a satisfactory connection with women.

‘The Men From Snowy River’. The famous poem already existed, so it was an influence known to the reader as much as one embodied in the people I described. Like most Australians of my generation, I was carrying what the poem represented in my system, a tragic, inbuilt limitation, something like a disposition to a particular illness which will surface one day when the carrier’s vulnerable: our diseases pick their time! The poem carries the idea that a man can be made a man by daring, and the related idea that manhood can be conferred by other men when something admirable’s been done. Hence the story of a wild and daring ride after horses, with not a woman in sight. The poet thinks that men can set their own framework of judgement for conferring manhood on a male; this, to my mind, is a poison in the system of our society ...

... but more of that some other time. The Men from Snowy River: here’s how Lochie died:

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Freeing Oneself From Fear

Some people, in the presence of great danger, feel challenged so far that their only escape is to open the way for what they fear to enter. We see this when bushfires threaten our summers; some people retreat to their homes and organise their defences, while others let the enemy in by lighting a fire. Lighting fires! Surely this is the last thing anyone would do, but no, there are always people whose weakness responds by letting loose flames of their own. Cowering in the face of superior strength, they escape their fear by changing sides. The enemy, the thing they fear, becomes their love, their principle for a moment, and they do something terrible. They set a match to the grass. They gain immeasurably by letting loose a power beyond belief. Their weakness allies itself with strength and their problem, the thing in themselves they fear and can’t understand, has a mighty ally; they gained a feeling of sovereignty when they let in the darkness – the fire.

The sort of people I’m referring to reveal themselves every summer in this country, but are they an aspect of the earlier question I raised, that of fate, freedom, inevitability, et cetera? In changing sides, in allowing fire to damage the people surrounding them, have they asserted a freedom, however destructive, or have they simply given in, and relinquished their freedom to another force they fear? Was it that freedom was too much for them so they passed it to the force that threatened? Every summer, from the top of New South Wales to the bottom, along the Great Dividing Range, people start fires and they’re rarely caught. In forest areas all over the country, people do the same and it’s something we do little to prevent: clearly, there are people who need controlling, but those who know about them, who know the danger contained in them – or do they: it’s something I don’t think we understand – don’t stop them doing what they do. Their destructive impulse isn’t diagnosed, foreseen, they aren’t prevented ... Or am I wrong, are family members checking their loved ones but saying nothing for fear of them being locked away?

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Freedom and the Car

Freedom is a mobile, unstable thing, ever so attractive in its early, primitive forms, but leading to places, results, that nobody ever thought about. Take the modern motor car. Take it where, you may ask. It will end up in the tip, or perhaps a pile of crushed metal, ready for recycling, perhaps a crushed and battered wreck, photographed against a tree after the bodies have been removed. These images of accidents reverberate against the glossy, ever so glamorous ads in our magazines, persuading us to buy the latest, most exciting products on offer from our car companies. They’re lovely to sit in, or to drive at speed, but so frustrating when there are thousands of them, grid-locked on city roads, or sitting bumper to bumper, practically stalled, on our highways when holidays have ended and everyone’s trying to get home.

The allure of the car, the glamour it brought to our lives, in the days when the earliest vehicles were tended by loving amateurs, was partly in the new-ness of the machinery and therefore of the concepts it created in our minds, and partly in the freedom it offered mankind from what had been its limits. We were no longer stuck wherever it was we found ourselves. We could get away. Remember the thrill of going on holiday? Mum, dad and kids, a picnic hamper packed? Sydney and Melbourne within reach, thundering down the highway? Trucks roaring through the night, bringing anything from anywhere? The outback open at last to people in their four-wheel drives?

Freedom, hey?

Freedom ... We’ve only to look around to make us wonder where it went. It isn’t there any more.

You don’t know what I mean? Yes, you do, you haven’t been driving around with your eyes shut. The freedom machines of a century ago have developed into pests, things our society would be better off without, but who will suggest bringing them to a halt? Societies depend on cars, nowadays, not only for movement, but for providing jobs. Economies rest on the production, maintenance, repair and insurance of cars. No cars, no motels. The oil industry, over which nations go to war, depends on cars. They liberated us and now they keep us as their slaves. Men photograph their women leaning on their cars (naked on their bonnets, occasionally). Youngsters aspire to get their own car because it’s the entry to adulthood. The car can be a sexual place for those still living at home, restrained by parents. In this sense it’s still a liberating machine, but notice that when it’s used as a bedroom it’s not moving; the freedom it gives is of a different type. The car, driven noisily or assertively, is a statement that its driver has arrived at maturity when the very making of such a statement proves the opposite. Freedom? It’s hardly more than a claim, the making of which proves that the freedom that’s been desired, and claimed, is never going to happen.

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The writing of this memoir:

This piece of writing has a variety of sources, or perhaps I might say points of origin. The first is my disquiet at the way freedom is spoken of as an obvious ‘good’: I’m automatically suspicious of anything accepted with so little examination. This disquiet led me to ponder whether or not freedom has an opposite, that being, perhaps, the notion of inevitability. If something’s inevitable then it’s unavoidable and if this is the case then who, of those involved, had any freedom? I decided to apply this idea, such as it is, to a variety of examples.

The first was something I’d written many years ago about the death, accidental suicide, perhaps, of my friend Lochie McLellan. In writing about the shooting I’d used the word ‘fate’ and had had doubts about the word ever since. This needed to be looked at.

My next example was a recent one, although its antecedents took me back to a meeting in China, thirteen years before. I took a Chinese visitor to see the paddocks of my New South Wales childhood, which I’d written about in a book that she had read, not long before she first met me. There we were, the two of us, looking at the very paddock I’d ‘mapped’ (the book was called Mapping The Paddocks) seventy years before. Watching my friend take a photo of the place she’d read about in my book, I had a complex and rather puzzling feeling that both she and I were part of some process and I was quite unsure as to who, if anybody, was in charge of this process, or indeed what exactly this process was.

My third example, of people deliberately lighting fires, took me back to 1964, when bushfires were seething in Gippsland, where I was then living, and when I experienced a sensation, a temptation, which had taken me unawares and which I’d never quite been able to put out of mind. I was lying in my house in western Bairnsdale, aware that fires were rageing just across the Mitchell River, threatening the town, and aware also, that my house, surrounded by large areas of unmown grass, was in a dangerous position. As I lay there, I found entering my mind the incredible idea that I might go out into thse dry grass and set it on fire. Needless to say, I did nothing of the sort. I’d already removed some paintings, very dear to my heart, to a friend’s house the night before just in case the fire should come to where I was sleeping, though very much on guard. Of course I didn’t light the grass ... but the temptation, such a sneaky devil, had slipped into my mind. I don’t remember telling anyone about this momentary temptation, but its effect was to make me curious about people who did light fires; there are enough of them, every year, and it’s only recently that public policy has admitted that the danger of fire is in the mind, the intention of mankind, every bit as much as dangers emanating from lightning strikes, carelessness with cigarettes and so on, and more recently, the admission that faulty power lines may also bring about devastation. A danger from within the mind: this needed to be thought about.

And finally I decided to look into the ironies of my altered perception of the motor car, long regarded as the freedom machine par excellence, but now becoming something pretty close to a public nuisance. Might we not have been better off if we’d never accepted them as the preferred means of movement in our cities? What about China, which could, perhaps, have banned them but is now accepting them almost as freely as we in the west have done?

My four examples, I have to admit, are a scrappy collection, but each of them has made me think, and I offer them to readers for whatever interest or applicability they may have. I think it’s good to review the concepts of our society from time to time. We work them so hard that they can lose, or change, meaning without us noticing..

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