Updated: Jun 25
George Santayana (1905)
A personal essay response:
There is a building in Surry Hills that caught my attention after many years of walking past it. I admit to what might seem to some to be an unnatural curiosity and fascination for old buildings and was not indifferent to the attraction of this one.
The façade of this still impressive and yet intimidating three-storey building showed stone blocks at its base, giving it a timeless feeling. The former Women's Maternity Hospital, situated on the corner of Crown and Albion Streets, had a known purpose for a hundred years or more with the birth of thousands of babies within it.
I had sensed that the building had secrets that whispered to me as I passed by, but initially I would not stop to listen. Yet I often wondered at what untold stories might yet need to be told.
So one day for no particular reason, I stopped in front of the building and although I had never stepped foot inside, I recalled that many friends had told me that they had been born there. And more than one had been born to an unwed mother and tragically separated from her by the authorities, at what should have been a moment of joy. They were either fostered out or eventually adopted.
Later I discovered that the NSW Parliament had changed the adoption laws to make it easier to facilitate the removal of babies from their mothers. I wondered what drove this heartlessness?
The root cause could be found in the societal consensus that single mothers were feckless and morally unfit to raise a baby. I discovered that it was estimated that during the life of that hospital 40,000 - 50,000 babies had been adopted. I found this figure truly shocking.
These days as I frequently stop to peer through the partly frosted glass of the main door of the building, which is undergoing renovation, I wonder whether today we have truly learnt the error of our ways and will pay tribute to those brave mothers and now adult children who were robbed of happiness and security.
A short fiction response:
Jim opened the door and gazed around the room, relishing the familiarity of it all and happy to be home. His two sisters had been in, he noticed, and had cleaned the place and tidied up.
I’m sure they cleaned out the cupboards too, he noted wryly to himself.
Jim walked through to the back garden, and on opening the door, a furry ball leapt at him, mewing happily.
‘Hallo puss, I’ve missed you too. A pity they didn’t do the weeding,’ he remarked to the cat, glancing at the young dandelions and daisies peeking up amongst the flowerbeds.
Cradling the cat, he ventured inside again and opened the fridge door, glad to see some milk, a carton of eggs and some rashers sitting on a shelf.
‘We have the makings of a good greasy fry, Puss,’ he said, and filled the kettle to make tea.
‘Those nuns had me starved in that rehab place with their healthy diet. All that lettuce would rot your insides, Puss.’
Jim tried to remember how long he’d been away drying out, but it seemed a good while and his memory before wimpled faces and ardent chats was all a blur. He hesitated, then turned the kettle off and walked into his bedroom. The early morning sun shone on the freshly made bed and he was a bit taken aback by the tidiness of it all.
He strode to the chest of drawers and rifled in the second drawer down, reaching behind the socks and underwear.
‘Hah,’ he said as he clutched the bottle of whiskey in his hand, with just the very slightest of tremors.
A short essay response:
Everyone has a past. For most of us, it dominates how we behave today, even if we deny it or simply don’t think about it. I think what he really meant to say was: ‘Those who cannot examine the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Well, it’s arrogant of me to correct Santayana, so maybe he had a greater insight, which was that in the act of remembering every one of us makes an adjustment.
And yet, without examination, remembrance can lead to repetition as much as to change. That’s what education used to be built on, and it is what most training still relies on. Most frightening of all, it is what cults are built on.
I prefer the dictum ascribed to Socrates, speaking when had been sentenced to death for being such a troublemaker. He said, in ancient Greek: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ You see, Socrates asked questions, all the time. ‘Why do you believe that?’ ‘If you think this is so, then surely you must think that is so’. He claimed that he was the most ignorant man in Athens. Yet, by asking his questions, he exposed the ignorance of others.
This is why the subject taught in schools called history is so contentious. History explains our culture to us and helps to promulgate our culture. Philosophers of history know well that the hand that holds the pen determines the narrative that the history books will tell. Even teachers of comparative history are toe-ing a line. Only the professional historians really question and examine the past. Children at school are simply taught the 'party line'.
So yes, remember the past, but not uncritically.
Personal essay: reference to article by Bevan Shield, 'A nation's shame: "it was the most horrific thing I've ever seen"' SMH, 28 February 2012.
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