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Gardens of Eden

Transcript from the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in July, featured on ABC Radio National, The Spirit of Things with Rachael Kohn, Sunday 14/09/2003


What does the idea of Eden conjure in the minds of those who have sought to improve the world by legal and political means, technological improvements scientific understanding and literary reflection?

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s941319.htm

 Please follow the URL above to the The Spirit of Things for full transcript.
 You can also Listen to the full program.


Rachael Kohn: Good evening, and welcome to the Gardens of Eden. For those of you who think there’s only one Garden of Eden, the Adelaide Festival has already done its prescribed work of shaking up traditional beliefs. We have a wonderful panel of distinguished guests this evening, who will be exploring what the Garden of Eden means to them. First, Frank Brennan, AO to my left, who’s a Jesuit priest and lawyer who’s been one of Australia’s most respected advocates of human rights, Aboriginal rights, refugee rights and the rights of populations in East Asian countries.

Amy Dean is hailed as one of America’s most innovative figures in Silicon Valley. Leader of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labour Council, representing over 100,000 working families. She’s received many awards for her leadership and revitalising the labour movement there.

Ihab Hassan is a distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, previously of the historic Wesleyan University. But being from Cairo and initially training as an electrical engineer, he’s experienced the value of following a dream, and he’s received many grants and awards for his work.

George Monbiot is both a writer and an activist, known to readers of The Guardian newspaper for his weekly column. He also holds academic posts in Environmental Studies and Politics. But it’s the street protests and the land rights work that undoubtedly clinched him as an obvious choice for the Adelaide Festival.

And our last guest, Redmond O’Hanlon is a Fellow of several Royal Societies of Natural History, of Geography and of Literature. He was the Natural History Editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and has written several books, at least two on Joseph Conrad and others on Africa. So please make them welcome this evening.


Rachael Kohn: Though I can’t be sure just where this forum will take us, since the backgrounds of our guests this evening are so very different, I think we can expect to explore some of the ways in which the Garden of Eden has been an abiding ideal in human consciousness; how it has figured in Western man’s scientific search for his primordial past; how it has come to embody contemporary longings for paradise, or perhaps has come to be a paradigm for how we set about achieving a healthier environment and a more harmonious society. One of the advantages of being a participating Chair, is that I get to speak first.

Now of course the disadvantage is that my guests can take issue with everything I have said, or completely ignore them, which is probably the worst. But here goes.

That tendency to think of the Garden of Eden as an ideal past, which might be recreated in some measure, is perhaps all the more alluring in a world where we do expect to experience all things ideal. In a world in which nothing escapes our ingenuity, our determination, and our desire to acquire.

Landing on the moon is already old hat. Surely we can time warp our way back to Eden. Indeed its elusiveness, its rumoured existence in the first pages of that ancient text, make Eden all the more impossible to get out of our minds. I think the Garden of Eden now revived by eco-spirituality, has come to represent the once hoped-for celestial paradise. Heaven, where it was once imagined that long-lost lovers would reunite in eternal love, is probably impossible to imagine in our world of multiple relationships, several marriages and furtive affairs. Can you imagine the chaos up there?

Besides, a place above the clouds where St Peter at the Gates stands there waiting for us to confess our sins, is not a belief that’s widely held among people who speak at Ideas Festivals. Marx would turn in his grave, God forbid.

On the other hand, perhaps this turning away from the celestial abode and toward an ideal green world has happened because the astronomers and cosmic physicists have already colonised the heavens and shown them to be a place of exploding stars. Nothing peaceful up there.

No, these days we imagine that we can have intimations of Paradise closer to home, you know what I mean, those everyday epiphanies that are suitably brief and can happen between phone calls. Perhaps on the way to work, or if you’re really lucky, once a fortnight at your weekender in the bush. But that’s undoubtedly because people need to find it, or feel it somewhere, and fewer people believe it’s possible to feel it in a church, or they’re just not willing to go there to find out.

The Garden of Eden, I would suggest, is our contemporary world’s version of an after-life, but like everything else about our culture, we want it now, before we die, and if possible it should be fun. Which is why by and large it’s the repository of dreaming idealism, and unrealistic notions of both nature and primal cultures, which we’re both inclined to think about in pastel colours of sacred balance, and primordial harmony, neither of which are accurate or particularly helpful.

Indeed, if we look closely at the story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible, it’s neither of those things. Already there’s a serpent amidst the lush vegetation who’s causing trouble, only because he forces upon humankind the inescapable tyranny of choice. That is our lot. We must choose. And the wisdom of one choice over another is rarely without its unanticipated consequences, which 40 years later might be subject to a Royal Inquiry, only to discover the values we were serving in the past are not the ones we deem respectable or worthy now.

Eve could rightly be accused of knowingly offering her husband a forbidden substance, without getting his informed consent. And infecting him with a lifelong disease, conscience.

With hindsight, we would say it was worth it. What if Eve had avoided the serpent and not taken the apple? We might have ended up living in the Garden forever, like our close relatives, the chimps, naked and simple, and without the benefits of the Tree of Knowledge, certainly without Mozart, Ruebens, Maimonides, Emily Dickinson, Einstein and Shakespeare for starters.

And if we follow the logic of events in Eden, we would also be forced to live without Creation’s greatest gift, that of conscience, that extraordinary self-consciousness mixed with awareness of the other, the knowledge of good and evil, that carries with it the capacity to feel guilt and shame, remorse, as well as courage, valour, and self-sacrifice. This conscience is the one ingredient in human society which we cannot afford to live without. It’s the building block of morality, if nothing else. And conscience does not occur without the necessary input of knowledge, and the ability to think through issues of good and evil, which I note at this Festival, has been renamed Hope, and Fear.

So without further ado, we will hear from all of our distinguished guests this evening, each of them reflecting in turn on what the Garden of Eden means to them. Frank Brennan, as our first speaker, I welcome you to the podium.


Frank Brennan: Thank you, Rachael, and thank you for your welcome. I’m not very used to Festivals of Ideas; I had the sense that I’d been invited as the sort of token, pre-modern, white, male cleric, a role which I’m very happy to fill, I must say. And I’ve been asked, like the other speakers this evening, to look to the past for inspiration, answering the question: What was your Garden of Eden? Why was it good? How to regain it? Or what should we learn from it?

My Garden of Eden is not a place, I don’t think it’s even a mindset, but it’s definitely a set of relationships and a looking back through a tradition and a history which in the end I don’t see as subject to luck or fate, but something which I see as blessed, connected and in relationship. I think I had a very good starting point, not quite as a Garden of Eden but at least as a self-enclosed world, going to an all-male secondary boarding school in a country town in Toowoomba, and I was very blessed, I think, that I was not good at sport, but I was good academically.

My next Garden of Eden I was very privileged to be a First Year University student at the University of Queensland in 1971. I remember Gough Whitlam once saying to me, ‘Why was it that there were so many activists that came out of the University of Queensland in those days?’ I said, ‘Well, we did owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our then Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.’

You might remember that there was a Springbok Rugby tour at the time, and he proclaimed a State of Emergency, which would basically allow the suspension of the Rule of Law, so that the Springboks could play their Rugby game. It was of course the height of the Vietnam War, and there were opportunities for us as young law students first to ditch the cant that was being preached to us by our law lecturers, most of whom didn’t have the courage to get out on the streets and protest, and at that time they were establishing things like the Aboriginal Legal Service, and it was possible to do some practical things.

In terms of a place, I was privileged to come from Queensland, which as you know, is beautiful one day and perfect the next. And so having access to places like the Noosa National Park was always something of an Eden.

Also for myself, coming from a large, typically Irish Catholic family, I was the eldest of seven, like the eldest in all such families, I was highly compassionate, had a great understanding for the younger members of the family, and was never at any time overbearing. One of my sisters does tell the story that I used to line the other six up to distribute the sweets, and say, ‘One for you, one for me, one for you, and one for me’, and that it did take some years for them to appreciate that this wasn’t altogether fair.

But once again, something of an Eden experience: I was remarkably privileged to have first of all a mother who herself had been orphaned at a young age, and then became the first woman medical specialist at Mater Hospital in Brisbane, but gave much of that up in order to raise seven children in the classically Irish Catholic mode of those days.

I also had a father who was a lawyer, who was very committed on things of justice, and was not in the least interested in materialism. I remember during the Springbok Rugby tour, he had the temerity to write to The Australian newspaper questioning Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s policies. One of his fellow lawyers observed to him that he would then never be appointed to the Bench in Queensland by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He seemed to get by, and was later appointed Chief Justice of Australia. But with that sort of independence and some would see it as luck, but maybe there was also something of blessing, but being true to conscience and being brought up in that sort of environment, I think was something of a Garden of Eden.

Then for myself also, I know the churches come in for a bad time in these Festivals of Ideas, but I still count myself blessed to be part of the Roman Catholic church with its traditions and institutions, not so much some of the things that the Bishops say and get up to, but rather where there is that dichotomy and that tension between the faith that does justice. As a Jesuit I was very impressed by Pedro Arupe, a man who’d been a young doctor, was then posted there at Hiroshima when the bomb went off and as a result of that experience, then wrote his book Planet to Heal and then travelled the globe preaching a message of social justice.

One of my great Gardens of Eden of course has been the Aboriginal world, a great blessing to be here last night and to hear the graciousness of Lowitja O’Donoghue. I was very privileged to come know Lowitja during those heady days in 1993. It seems so long ago now, given the political changes there have been in the country, that it almost is a Garden of Eden experience, when you think of Paul Keating as Prime Minister, Lowitja O'Donoghue as Head of ATSIC, and the developments that did go with the negotiation of the Mabo package. Why was it significant? Because for the first time ever, Aboriginal people were at the table, they were there in their own right, and they actually had some trump cards that they were able to negotiate. It was a whole new experience for us as a nation, and to be there to be able to form relationships with people through that, I think was very significant.

I remember it was about that time I had a very pivotal experience of a Garden of Eden up by the river at Mantaka up in Far North Queensland near Kuranda. We were trying to negotiate land rights for a local Aboriginal group who’d been long dispossessed, and at the end of the meeting we came out and an Aboriginal woman pointed across the river, and said, ‘See that weekender over there? That’s Mr Armitage’s weekender.’ She said it cost three-quarters of a million dollars. She said, ‘They don’t come very often, but when they come, they come in their helicopter.’ She said, ‘You can see they have a helipad there on the roof.’

I used to tell this story in schools all around Australia and this would give rise to many questions. ‘Well what are the Aborigines complaining about, they want to build houses, why don’t they do it themselves’. ‘What’s wrong with Mr Armitage having a weekender?’ and things of that sort.

I tried for many years to answer those questions, realised I never could to the satisfaction at least of Year 7 students. They got very angry, as did I. Till one day I simply asked the simple question, ‘Which side of the river are you standing on as you ask the question?’ and I think in terms of a Garden of Eden, I think a place where one has the capacity to move either side of the river, and perhaps even to be something of a bridge of that river, is truly something of an Eden experience.

And hearing Rachael recounting the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, I was reminded of Aden Ridgeway when he’d first been appointed a Democrat Senator, and he turned up at a very flash meeting in Geneva which was probably full of all sorts of post-modernists, and there he was, and he told a story. He said, ‘Well, we’ve always known of course that Adam and Eve were not Aboriginal.’ They said, ‘Oh yes, is that so?’ ‘Yes, because if they were then they would have eaten the snake.’ So we got definitive.

A lot of my experience has been drawn from overseas, particularly in work with refugees. When we talk about hope and fear, I can still remember the most defining moment for myself about issues of hope. I’d spent many years thinking Well, at least a well-educated, middle-class, happy-go-lucky sort of fellow like myself should be able to bring hope to others, something as if it were some commodity or a gift.

Until one day I was working in the Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, I think there were about 150,000 refugees in that camp, and they were all locked in, being Cambodians, Khmers. And I walked in one day and said to a man, ‘Well how are you? It’s not a bad sort of day, the sun’s shining, cheer up.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘It’s all very well for you, but I am a Khmer.’ That said everything. I was there voluntarily, I was there doing good deeds, I was getting a buzz out of it, and I’d be leaving in a couple of months time. He being a Khmer had no choice where he’d be, and basically he was wasting away. And I thought to myself, Well what the hell, what is the point of being here?

And I realised that of course there was a need for someone who was other to be there, in that it’s very necessary that if hope is to survive, it has to be expressed. And it has to be expressed to one who is other, and if the one who is other is not there, then hope which is unexpressed is hope which dies. And I think that’s one of the great lessons for us as we try to rejoin ourselves to this sort of Garden of Eden.