What are we here for?

'Bare Ruin'd Choirs Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang'
Bob Ellis

The film shows Boyd, Professor of Music at Sydney University, trying to save a way of life, and a way of teaching music, while the bean-counters try to end it. They cut back the money she has to work with, and she copes with that; then they suddenly halve what's left.

And she changes mightily, from a dour shy keyboard academic to a placard-waving disrupter of traffic and an edgy smiling wooer of corporate money to carry on.

And all in vain. We watch her bring to an end, with a breaking heart, her choir first, then her opera studies, then her advanced counterpoint, Stravinsky studies, Japanese music, orchestration. She cuts the cost of the piano-tuner. She is harried and quarrelsome and always in crisis. And she only gets ten days that year to write Jesus Reassures His Mother, her choir piece on the crucifixion. Her department associate, Winsome Evans (vexed, red-faced, overweight, storming in and out), who has been there thirty years, has a heart attack. Both of them take on extra teaching, unpaid. In a startling scene Boyd in frustration damns the work of a mild young female pupil who then in tears rips up her own composition.

And much good music is never written, and hearts are broken, and careers aborted, and the innocent suffer and grieve, and no good comes of any of it as the numbers are crunched and egos smashed and dreams sent withering into the void.

In the same week as the film came out Jodee Rich of One.Tel, a company he'd helped ruin, tried to tiptoe away with seven million dollars, enough to fund Boyd's deficit a hundred times over. But his achievement, of course, was so much greater. He wooed a few Telstra customers to a rival hook-up that failed. She by contrast only enlarged the feeling heart of humankind and passed on ways of doing it. She must therefore be punished with whips and scorpions and he enriched beyond the dreams of all who dance and revel around the Golden Calf. He is clearly the more deserving. And his, alas, is the doctrine that will prevail.

Facing the Music is among the finest documentaries lately made (surpassed easily the director's previous work, Rats in the Ranks), in part because it asks the fairly important question of what we are here on earth for, and how it can be measured. On the often beautiful faces of the absorbed young pupils, pounding away at keyboards and delicately fingering harp strings and sawing and plunking with swaying heads at violins and cellos, there's no doubt of what the answer is. They are here to channel a kind of divinity, a divinity of sound, through human ears. They are here to show us a kind of final mystery - 'Is it not strange,' as Shakespeare said, 'that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?' And is it not fine, J. B. Priestley said, that great music can show us the lakes and mountains and lakes and valleys of a better world, a world that never existed, a world we have never visited, and can only yearn for, while the music plays.

And the idea, the very idea, that this can be measured in dollars and cents is the principal ingredient of the dark heresy that is now ruling and punishing the world. That the week Mozart took to compose his Requiem can be said with precision to be worth, say, two hundred dollars, though he died of the pain of its composition. Or the month Florey took to come up with penicillin was worth, what, one thousand dollars, not a penny more. Or Logie Baird, television, three thousand dollars, I guess, what the hell, let's be generous. On this reckoning Einstein would have been fired after two years from Princeton for not in that time having completed his Field Theory of the Universe. The faculty's budget is limited, Professor, and you have signally failed to deliver; pray pack up your three stubby pencils and your floppy notebook and be gone. We've no time for dawdlers and shirkers here at Princeton, a great efficient university. Or that time George Gershwin took - seven minutes - to write in the last week of his life 'Our Love is Here To Stay' was worth, let's be lavish, fourteen dollars. 'Don't be silly', George said with a touch of avarice to a young man mortified by the swiftness of his composition. 'It took thirty-seven years.' And he died the same week, and with him a lot of music worth, I suppose, on current reckoning, tens of dollars more.

And the music unplayed, and the songs unsung, and the young faces untransported in their communion with the mighty force they serve, haunt this film as surely as do the radiant faces we see and the angel sounds we hear, and so does the question of what are we here on earth for? And what do we teach the young? And who should decide what is there to be found, and learned, and celebrated?

A university used to be a way of finding these things out. The very word implies a textured study of the universe, its variety and enormity. And to say that this study should be measured and assessed and counted mile by mile (can Jupiter be shrunk to fit our annual budget estimates? can we airbrush, this year, the rings from Saturn?) is entirely absurd, absurd as the unmarked grave where Mozart moulders alongside the urban beggars who ran out of luck like him, and government subsidy, and money to carry on. A university is part of the remedy for all that, a way of restoring justice to the talented, of penetrating the darkness of Time with brief candles, finding what is there.

And universities haven't done this too badly over the years. In the last millennium, on less money than humans have spent in toto on Coca-Cola, they gave us the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Darwinian hypothesis, agnosticism, existentialism, the quark, linguistics, quantum physics, the structure of DNA, Dolly the sheep, Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Marlowe, Milton, Newton, Voltaire, Byron, Tennyson, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Russell, Wilde, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Principia Mathematica, The Lord of the Rings, the polio vaccine, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkein, Richard Burton, Isaiah Berlin, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mick Jagger, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, Woody Allen and, on one university campus in one-half decade, Robert Hughes, Clive James, Les Murray, Michael Kirby, Mary Gaudron, Germaine Greer, John Bell, John Gaden, Bruce Beresford, Geoffrey Robertson, Arthur Dignam, Richard Wherrett, Richard Walsh, Richard Butler, Richard Brennan, Richard Bradshaw, Mungo Macallum, Laurie Oakes, Henri Szeps, Hall Greenland and me. The campus was Sydney and the half-decade 1959-64 and if its budget than had been cut in the way it has lately been cut we'd be most of us driving buses now or dead or drunk or teaching English in Yokohama or running a whorehouse in Bolivia, or worse.

And uncertain what we're here on earth for - to be ourselves, to do our thing, to awake the unplayed symphonies within us, the unsung songs of joy, or merely to scutter like soldier crabs by moonlight in disciplined multiple silent panic towards the engulfing sea. Economic rationalism has made such fugitive crabs of us all, and all our comings and goings a jostling rush towards death, and now all the young who are scared of what is to come in a world where golden parachutes for fools who stuff up a company merger can be fourteen million dollar (its interest earning from thirteen thousand dollars a week) and Winsome Evans, teaching the lush clear language of angels, can die for want of the five thousand dollars it costs for a part-time tutor fifty hours a year in a university whose track record of talent fostered and genius realised rivals Oxford at its best.

It's rational, we're told, to cut money to such a place, and so choke the next Stravinsky, or excise the study of music from the university altogether, bare ruin'd choirs, where late the birds sang, and merge it with the Conservatorium, where everyone learns how but never why. It's rational to torture Boyd, a musical genius, with the consequences of her generous heart and her joyous desire to teach, to increase the civilisation of humankind, the pleasure there to be had in the night at its darkest when the music plays and we know we are part of an enormity that can be told in no other language but this, the language of the feeling heart in touch with the universe, the totality we share.

For the want of seventy thousand dollars certain lunatics would end all this, while paying seven hundred thousand a year to Gavin Brown, the Vice-Chancellor, for his part in the ending.

And everywhere this is happening, in faculties around the nation, the world, in history, social ecology, English, the ancient languages. Slowly, quickly, decisively, in panic, in revenge, with reluctance, with pleasure, they are choking, smothering, ending all memory of the world. Facing the Music is only a parable, a miniature, of what is happening everywhere, to the human spirit and human soul.

Prove that I lie.

Bob Ellis is the author of fifteen books, including the bestselling Goodbye Jerusalem. This is an extract from the sequel, Goodbye Babylon: Further journeys in time and politics, recently published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, and is reproduced with kind permission. The publisher describes Goodbye Babylon as a brilliant, acerbic, warm-hearted and wickedly hilarious book that covers an astonishing range of subjects - including the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Tampa crisis, the slaughter in East Timor, the 2001 federal election and all recent state elections, travelling in Israel, the deaths of Richard Wherrett, Don Dunstan, Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Phar Lap, conservation campaigns in Tasmania, and the controversial election of President George W. Bush - and it is rich with unflinching close-ups of the well-beloved and hated figures who have helped make the world we are now in. Few write as well as Bob Ellis on Australian politics and society. Full of his characteristic irony, sweetness, hilarity, sadness and honourable nostalgia, Goodbye Babylon is for everyone keen to know what actually happened, and why.

See also:

Suggested citation
Ellis, Bob, 'What are we here for?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 8, December 2002.<https://evatt.org.au/papers/what-are-we-here.html>