Donald Horne

The American novelist Richard Yates once remarked to an interviewer that he had the misfortune of having written his best book first. He might have found an ally in Donald Horne, whose first book ...

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London 1999. I’m in a draughty slum in Hackney, the poor part of the East End, shared with a mini-UN of students, squatters, drifters and a junior investment banker. Feeding five-pound notes into the gas meter, keeping an eye out the window for the television licence detector van, we’re doing what everyone who comes to cool Britannia does most evenings – watching the BBC ‘cos we can’t afford to go to the pub. Suddenly, the screen seems to widen and there’s Sydney Harbour in all its luminescent glory, with an expert panel of worthies – Bob Hawke, Bill Hayden, Geoffrey Robertson – arrayed before it.

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Donald Horne: critics and negotiators

The general idea of ‘public intellectual life’ is more useful than the particular idea of’ the public intellectual’. ‘Public intellectual life’ is a public manifestation of what I called in The Public Culture ‘the critics’ culture’ of a liberal-democratic state. (It is made possible by the belief in a questioning approach to exist­ence as a central force in society.) However only parts of this critical activity emerge into the public culture; it is these parts that might be thought of as its ‘public intellectual life’. They provide a kind of public acclimatisation society for new ideas. All kinds of people may play a part in working up these ideas down there in the subterranean passages of the critics’ culture and others may take over the business of negotiating them into the public sphere. Many of these ‘negotiators’ are paid public performers in the news and entertainment industries. However some of the ‘critics’ also have a capacity to barge in directly – but only if they have a desire to appeal to people’s imaginations, and the talent to do so. These are the ‘public intellectuals’. Some of them may be one-offs. Some become regulars. They become influential if they articulate ideas that are already in the minds of some of ‘the public’ anyway, if in a more diffuse state. They get nowhere if they don’t. Two of my books, The Lucky Country and Death of the Lucky Country, were prime examples of appealing to interests of which readers were already becoming aware.

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The way we organise our deaths offers insight into the meanings and significances we attribute to life. The sidelining of organised religion has allowed Australians to voice our own ideas about the muddles of existence through the choice of music for funerals. The regularity with which ‘I did it my way’ is heard at wakes is a reminder of how much more pertinent that song is for individuality than are newspaper columns by Bettina Arndt or Hugh Mackay, still less from Andrea Dworkin or the late Christopher Lasch.

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‘There are not many Australian academics whose conversation shows awareness of the main intellectual dilemmas of the age. (These are nobody’s specialty.)’ So wrote Donald Horne in The Lucky Country, yet Horne, variously academic, editor, journalist, writer, administrator, and Chair of the Australia Council, in his writing himself might be seen as a happy exception to his rule. His latest book, The Public Culture: The triumph of industrialism, continues in the tradition he established previously not only of demonstrating an awareness of intellectual and political dilemmas, but of making these the chief focus of his scholarship.

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The autobiographer faces a real problem: the self. ‘Which self?’ may also be the reader’s question and it may also be the question of the autobiographer. Should one write about the known self, the self vaunted or scorned by others, the public one, parts of which can be found in archives, on record, in the books and conversations of friends and enemies? Or should it be the private self, the self-protected and defended by jokes, chiack and taciturnity, hinted at here or there, but never accepted as real when defined by others?

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