After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

October 2011, no. 335

After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

October 2011, no. 335

The business of growing up starts with distancing ourselves from our parents. It ends (as far as it ever ends) with drawing them close again. Rather than disappointing giants, we recognise them at last as fallible, unique human beings. We recognise them in ourselves, and so they become real to us.

The tumultuous early life of Raimond Gaita and his parents is well-known from Romulus, My Father (1998) and the subsequent film version (2007). In 1950, four-year-old Gaita arrived with his family from Europe. They settled in the granite beauty of central Victoria. His mother, Christine, was impractical, wayward, and promiscuous, which distressed her family on its own account, but also for her sake. This behaviour was partly innate, Gaita considers, but also bound up with her bipolar disorder (then known, more evocatively, as manic depression). The illness involves profound, inexplicable extremes of emotion, from wild exuberance to paralysing depression. The condition is often described as being on an out-of-control emotional roller coaster. Christine eventually left Romulus for his friend Mitru, with whom she had two more children. Her way of life did not change. When Mitru committed suicide, Gaita’s half-sisters went into care. A few years later, Christine, too, took her own life. All of this was borne by Gaita’s father with dignity and humanity. He even paid Christine and Mitru’s rent when they fell into difficulty, maintaining his moral certainty while brooking no moralising judgement of his wife. Romulus, too, succumbed to mental illness, developing a psychosis from which he slowly recovered before marrying again. The story sounds gruelling in outline, but is inspiring in the reading.

After Romulus is not a sequel to the memoir, but a collection of essays tackling the ‘unfinished business’ that Gaita found on his mind after the success of the book and movie. These relate to the film and to the nature of truthfulness in narrative; to his father and his friend Hora, and the notion of character and its limits; and finally to the question of his unassuageable longing for his mother. The book is – as Roger Scruton described Gaita’s The Philosopher’s Dog (2002) – an ‘experiment in narrative philosophy’. Deeply moving as well as thought-provoking, it rewards slow, considered reading.

Gaita declined many offers to sell the screen rights to Romulus, My Father, fearing that it would become a melodrama rather than a ‘witness to goodness’. Wasn’t Plato’s Cave the original cinema? he joked to Richard Roxburgh when the actor asked if he could make a film version. In the end, Roxburgh’s movie was a triumph, winning four AFI awards, including Best Actor for Eric Bana’s affecting performance as Romulus. ‘From Book to Film’ discusses this process and how a filmed version can be ‘true’ while not being a mimetic rendering of the memoir, let alone the actual events. ‘In fact there is not one scene that depicts things as they actually happened’, Gaita writes, yet ‘were someone to ask me, “Is that how it was?” I could truthfully reply, “Yes, that is essentially how it was.”’ Among the many changes in the film version, there are only two that caused him anguish, though he acknowledges that they were artistically correct. The conflation of events into three years instead of seven (so that one actor could play the young Rai) meant that it was not possible to include Christine’s youngest daughter, Barbara, in the story. This hurt the real Barbara, who understandably felt ‘written out of history’. Gaita tried to explain the difference between documentary and a work of art to her, but one feels the emotional inadequacy of this argument at the same time as recognising its artistic logic.

Gaita was also troubled by the cutting of a scene in which his mother is shown hearing voices and is clearly mentally unwell. While Christine is portrayed sympathetically in the film, the lack of an overt reason for her behaviour left the door open for some critics to find her morally culpable. ‘Why they ask, does the film show sympathy for a character whose destructive behaviour causes one man to kill himself, another to go mad, and suffering to her son of a kind and degree that prompts almost everyone who sees the film to ask how he survived it?’ Roxburgh, as director, felt strongly that the inclusion of the scene would have been egregiously melodramatic. Gaita accepts that this editing decision may have been the right one, yet it still pained him to have his mother exposed to such criticism, however wrong-headed. In the end, he agrees with Roxburgh’s judgement that what matters is Christine’s sorrow rather than the various causes of it; that the story is a ‘tragedy’ in the precise dramatic sense.

Writing of Romulus and Hora in ‘A Summer-Coloured Humanism’ and ‘Character and Its Limits’, Gaita observes that ‘Biographies often continue after the person whose life is narrated has died.’ We never love someone so desperately as after they have died: whether a parent or someone else, this relationship endures and evolves with us as we grow older, continuing to have an influence. ‘I have spent much of my life thinking about what I learned from my father and Hora,’ writes Gaita. ‘Much of my philosophical writing owes its inspiration to them.’ Romulus is a noble name, from the mythical founder of Rome, but what do we make of Romulus Gaita away from his son’s filial gaze? Couldn’t it be said he was just a hopelessly unselfish, kind-hearted man? A soft touch? A sentimental bloke? Gaita would not, perhaps, dismiss that last description out of hand – but in the eighteenth-century sense of ‘sentimental’: of having an innate moral sense grounded in experience and emotional reaction, as Hume and Adam Smith might have understood it. Gaita analyses the meanings of the word finely, distinguishing between ‘sentimental’ as an excessive, careless emotionalism, and another sense which he recognises in his father’s intuitive moral rectitude, founded in a recognition of common humanity and the respect due to each person’s inalienable dignity:

Like the perception of vulnerability that is expressed in the saying, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, my father’s sense that human life was defined by the possibility that at any moment we can lose everything that gives meaning to our lives made it impossible for his profound moral seriousness to be corrupted by moralism.

As Gaita points out, the title After Romulus has many resonances, of which this lifelong moral example is but one.

The final essay, ‘An Unassuageable Longing’, on Gaita’s mother is, he confesses, ‘the most personal I have ever written and am likely to write’. It is ‘unassuageable’ not least because she died when he was only twelve years old. Unlike his father, he cannot imagine holding a conversation with her. Ironically, the book and film threatened to make her even more remote, by displacing memory with reconstruction and the powerful evocation of her on screen by actor, Franka Potente. Gaita could only strain for scraps of memory, therefore, in the attempt to bring her nearer. Christine, he recalls, was ‘sensual, anarchic, vivacious and highly intelligent ... but in her case, I am certain that manic depression gave each a distinct coloration’. Her sexuality was inseparable from her restlessness, he adds. She was most at home when literally ‘nowhere’, as on the ship to Australia, where she had a number of liaisons. Despite their love for each other, did Romulus and Christine understand one another? ‘No,’ he states, and records his own frustration at fully imagining her too.

It was a letter from a friend, Anne Manne, which helped him to connect with his mother in the end. She reminded him of a photograph of Christine and the young Rai at the beach, casually and lovingly holding each others’ arms. That is not the picture of a cold or heartless mother, his friend observed; follow the feelings of that boy and you will see her ‘revealed to the eye of pity, the eye of love’. In describing this exchange, Gaita recalls the words of Iris Murdoch, that love is ‘the difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real’. That photograph is reproduced on the cover of this moving and rewarding collection of essays.

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