Philosophy professor's cavalier interventions

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Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 'Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie' coverIt was January 1968. In those summer days before the start of my first term as a university lecturer, I'd arrive early in the morning, go into my room and more or less skulk there. I didn't even go to morning tea. I knew two people in the whole School of Language and Literature at Flinders University and they were both on leave.

After about two weeks of my reclusive behaviour, I was startled one morning when there was what sounded like not a knock but a kick on my door, which then burst open before I could speak, and in walked Brian Medlin, inaugural professor of philosophy.

'Look, mate,' he said, 'if you've taken a vow of silence for some reason, then of course I'll respect it. As a matter of fact, there are a few people round here I wish would emulate you. But if that's not the case, why don't you come and have a cup of tea and meet some of your colleagues, for what that might turn out to be worth.'

So I did, of course, and my life at Flinders changed radically for the better under what became a stern, no bullshit but straightforwardly affectionate mentorship.

Though in general, like most of us, Brian loathed meetings and committees, the committee room was one of the many stages on which he gave some of his more memorable performances. I would often sit with him at the meetings and so had a privileged view of the theatre that frequently followed his entry into a debate.

At one meeting, while Brian was speaking I could see that on the opposite side of the table a self-proclaimed Medlin antagonist was becoming quietly enraged and the moment he had an opportunity he launched into an extraordinary tirade. When the chairman offered Medlin the right of reply, he said, 'Mr Chairman, I did not say what I said with the express intention of driving our colleague opposite into an apoplectic fit. That this has in fact happened I can only regard as a bonus.'

At another characteristically tumultuous meeting, the head of the discipline of fine arts handed round a printed page headed 'Propositions'. There were 11 propositions but as it turned out not enough of the sheets to go round. When one of them reached me I put it between us and we both read it. Brian, having studied it intently for a few minutes, passed the page on for those who still might not have seen it.

When the item came up for discussion there was a quarter hour of the usual swapping of opinion, outrage, assent and objection. Then Medlin entered the fray. Still without a copy in front of him, he said something like this: 'If proposition 4 is true then propositions 8 and 10 can't be; if propositions 8 and 10 are in doubt then proposition 6 becomes redundant, if we scrap Proposition 6 then Proposition 1 becomes ...' and so on.

It was an extraordinary performance and the question of whether or not there was any flaw in his analysis — though no one pointed any out at the time — became secondary to the sheer cavalier daring of his intervention.

Medlin expected such daring of others. In May 1988, having heard that I was going to Sydney, Brian asked me why and I told him it was because I'd won the NSW Premier's Literary Award. He was genuinely delighted to hear this and asked me if I would have to give a speech. I told him I would but had no idea what to say.

'The Elder Cato', Brian said, 'ended every speech to the Roman Senate with the words, "And furthermore Carthage must be destroyed — Carthargo delenda est." You should end like that,' he said as if nothing could be more obvious.

Well, with difficulty and severe contortions of sequence and logic, but with the ameliorating help of a judicious amount of alcohol, I actually did contrive to end my short acceptance speech with Carthago delenda est.

During the drinks afterwards I met Ed Campion, an old friend, Jesuit educated, a fine writer and a priest.

'What did you think of my Latin conclusion?' I said incautiously.

'Delenda est Carthago would have been more elegant,' he said.

I reported to Brian on my return and quoted Campion's amendment.

'Fucking Jesuits,' he said.

Brian Medlin, on his own admission, left the publication of his life's work to his last few years, but the passions, gifts and lyricism of this poet, essayist, philosopher, naturalist and storyteller were set free in an extraordinary correspondence he conducted with British novelist Iris Murdoch.

Now published as Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie, edited by Graham Nerlich and Gillian Dooley, their letters cover more than two decades and, with love, wit, subtlety, argument and insight, address an inspiring range of subjects until, with both writers terminally ill, Murdoch's last letter tapers off tragically, movingly:

'How much time has passed ... Much love dearest Brian, do write —

Iris.

Also; love, mortality and the meaning of life.'

 


 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Brian Medlin, Flinders University


 

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Existing comments

Good chuckle early in the morning
JAG | 20 June 2014


Beautiful memories from one Flinders firebrand of another. The letters of Brian Medlin and Iris Murdoch, "Never Mind About The Bourgeoisie" is THE Australian book of the year.
Peter Goers | 20 June 2014


Thank you for reminding me of my days in Philosophy 101 at Flinders. Brian was an eminence one usually passed in the ambience of corridors more bourgeois than Marxist. Yet he essentially set the context for Philosophy at Flinders and for this he continues to have my deep respect and thanks
john Cranmer | 23 June 2014


There should be more of these. How important for ensuring that divides don't exist, or for bridging them if they do.
Cathy Chua | 05 July 2017


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