This post is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project commemorating the life and work of Harry Redner
by Alistair Davidson
Harry Redner became my friend. He helped me rediscover a self that had been buried by the sameness and practicality of Australian life, and its deadening academic forms. He taught by example – an exemplary teacher for an insufficiently self-aware « new chum » like me who had arrived from the back blocks of Canberra. I learnt, not from hearing him teach, but from his enthusiastic way of being an intellectual.
With his Beethoven locks; his occasional Nietzschean declamation to the unhearing mockers, he first seemed bizarre in the staid environment of the common room at Monash. However, in the democratic « red brick » centre of the student revolution of the seventies, far from the only congenial place for displaced European intellectuals, Carlton and the « uni », his strength of mind and his « seriousness » , his style in tutes and lectures – were already making him a personality on campus.
We forget how much the Australian academy crushed such European bizarrerie in that decade, even when it was not radical. Harry became the epitome of such targeting of the non-anglo, awakening in me, and in others, a new awareness of what was needed to understand, both intellectually and emotionally.
I learnt over a decade about the suffering in his past life and wondered at his deep attachment to German culture, which had been banished in my family. He was simply more tolerant, more open than many of us, indeed, a kindly man who, far from « those who know », loved to debate even with a benighted Communist like me. His knowledge and reading were vast.
I first registered in exchanges with him how wide a culture was needed: literature, music, art to understand the nitty gritty of my practical concerns; that I had to read what I thought distasteful as well as thought that comforted me. All that « old » neglected stuff as well as the voguish heroes and heroines of the moment. The penny dropped when I first heard him playing piano. Was it Scarlatti? Certainly, something very difficult and out of date, an unspoken statement against the 12 tone music that ruled in Milan when he went to study there. His decision not to pursue a career in music because he felt out of tune with the times led him to philosophy, and fortunately, despite the siren call of Oxbridge, and because he had the intellectual guts and an exceptional intelligence, to turn to political theory in what was considered to be an extravagant European mode. Guts, because it was not a good « career move » to choose against Oxbridge in those days. When all is said and done, this meant a choice to debate with those he disagreed with, not to wither their souls with erudition.
Harry liked life and people. He straddled two cultures: the European of his origins and the Australian by adoption. His life-long partner, Jill, anchored him firmly in an Australian tradition like a rock without which his bark might have gone adrift. I think that his Australia was the country of multiculural « fairness ». He was deeply grateful to the Australia that had given him and his mother refuge after the war; to the public schools that gave him, the boy from Galicia, a chance when there were only three high schools in Melboune; and to a certain Melbourne university that already had a place for « reffos » when the Melbourne Club had not.
His interest in people had little to do with self-interest. He had often found those later of renown when they were unknown. He introduced me to Umberto Eco when his star was as yet faint. Hosts of creative people in all walks of life all over the world will miss him enormously.
Perhaps what most sums him up for me was his response to the benightedness of the new Australian university of the late eighties, which was intent on not giving individuals like him the space to flourish, condemning itself to the meaninglessness of the « rankings » On being asked in some Star Chamber-like interview to state what his « project over the next five years » would be, he replied that he would write his millionth word. Indeed, he left us a treasure of books in which he wrote of our « great and terrible world » and its ever greater problems. He brought his own « original » vision to so many of our current and more long term affairs. I can only hope that the young, who did not have the benefit of knowing him in vivacious exchange, worthy of the Holy Family to which Marx also belonged malgré lui, will read, learn and inwardly digest Harry’s wisdoms. Mayhap, they will then create – with gratitude to someone who shouted into the storm of platitudes.