September 2012

Arts & Letters

At the Table by the Window

By Raimond Gaita
Peter Steele (1939–2012)

In November 1972, when I was about to go to England for the first time, Peter Steele and I were sitting in my battered old black Citroën outside the Jesuit Theological College in Royal Parade, Melbourne, where he lived and taught. I asked him how people had responded to his published essays and poetry. He laughed and said it was like listening for the echo of a feather dropped in the Grand Canyon. Our conversation turned to teaching and friendship, prompting him to quote these lines from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons:

 

Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Thomas More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that. 

 

By the time he died in June this year, Steele had published 11 books of literary criticism, essays and poetry. His friends included the noted poets Peter Porter, Seamus Heaney and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, a public that would have made even Richard Rich see value in a teacher’s life. Rich also might have been brought up short by the gratitude of Steele’s students. The writer Ailsa Piper told me recently that she still keeps aside her desk an essay marked by Steele in 1996, for the inspiration his comments continue to give her.

Steele would have been a fine teacher whatever route had taken him there, but he became the teacher he was because of twin vocations to the priesthood and to university teaching, each informing the other. Both, he said, called him to celebrate the world. His task, he thought, was to enable students to see the world as their gift – a world he believed was both created by God, who had become human to live among us, and rendered to Steele by the writers he loved, many of whom were not religious.

“I believe in teaching,” Steele told me that same spring evening in 1972. Having been taught and inspired by Vincent Buckley, the University of Melbourne’s one-time Professor of English, Steele abhorred the spreading notion that teachers merely put into the heads of students what, in principle, they could have got from elsewhere – that teachers are simply facilitators of learning, doing for their students what autodidacts do for themselves. This concept is now ubiquitous, which is why we hear so much about Learning (capital intended) but so little about teaching. I once heard a bright young man say at the end of his schooling, “Teachers are losers.” He would not have disparaged Learning: he needed it to qualify for a place in a prestigious law or medical school.

When Steele declared “I believe in teaching” the emphasis fell as much on “believe” as it did on “teaching”. He professed his faith that a good teacher’s love of her subject and her joy in teaching it could nourish students with an entirely new understanding of the subject, and a deepened sense of intrinsic worth. Often we come to see something as precious only in the light of someone’s love for it. This includes teaching, but for that to occur, the person who reveals the value of what she loves, as much as the one to whom it is revealed, must not fear to disclose their vulnerabilities. Such courage is a gift, and it requires faith to receive and make something of it.

Steele was awarded a Personal Chair in English Literature at the University of Melbourne in 1993. He noted the honour with gratitude, irony and grief, as he felt that much of what mattered most deeply to him in the teaching of literature had been denigrated. “We live in a time,” he wrote, “when ‘God’ lost its capital letter and ‘Theory’ acquired one.” It was a caustic remark but it was not, as someone who did not know him might think, a cheap shot in the culture wars. Steele was not a polemicist, let alone a cultural warrior. He meant, I think, that although there is an obvious reason why God should take a capital ‘G’ in monotheistic faiths, only hubris could make someone claim capital letters for the name of an intellectual endeavour, as happened when science yielded to scientism and teachers (among many others) applied scientific method to unsuitable subject matter. This did not diminish his passion for teaching because he knew that it would be ever thus, as it had been in his early days in the then Department of English when literary criticism became New Criticism. Even so, it tested faith to be a celebrant when debunking was fashionable and nothing so admired as a sceptical, cool urbanity.

In the introduction to his last book, Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry, Steele wrote that he was essentially an essayist. This surprised many people who believed he was essentially a poet. And it may well seem that I have written as though he was essentially a priest and teacher. I suspect, though, that all existed inseparably in Steele the celebrant. In an interview with Radio National in October 2011, he said:

 

… [Seamus] Heaney is, as he said when he came to Australia years ago, a yes man, not in the sense of course of truckling to what other people want him to do – he is very bad at doing that – but he’s saying yes to the world, he is saying yes to existence and saying yes to language. He is somebody whose business as a poet is to celebrate life, and for me these two fuse together in the ordinary conduct of an ordinary day. 

 

Less than two weeks before Peter died, I curated a conference for the Wheeler Centre titled ‘Faith and Culture: The Politics of Belief’. At the conference his close friend Morag Fraser told me that he was barely conscious and might die any day. At lunchtime I rushed to see him at the University of Melbourne’s Newman College. As Bill Uren, the rector, took me to Peter’s room, he told me Peter was more alert than he had been for days, probably because he had been taken off a particular medication. To my astonishment, Peter was sitting in his study, a bottle of wine on the coffee table. Margaret Manion, who cared devotedly for him, brought us lunch and cut up his meat. We talked of the conference and other things, and drank what I feared would be our last glass of wine together. I was humbled by his dignity, and his determination to honour his life and his dying by trying always to be lucid about their meanings. I returned to the conference just in time to hear the first lecture for the afternoon, and hear someone remark from the floor that religious people must lack intelligence and courage. I thought I might strangle him.

Peter believed in the resurrection. I do not know quite what this means, in part because I do not know what it is to believe in God. The person who said religious people lacked courage thought he did know. He thought that such people sought to diminish the fear of death, by believing that after death they go to another place, a good place, and he thought they believed this much as one believes that going north in winter brings relief, only that it is much better – infinitely better, he might say. Perhaps some religious people believe this, but I’m sure Peter didn’t. You would have to think of death as a strange form of travel – you can fly or drive to the north, but you have to die to get to heaven.

In his last days, close friends and his brother came to sit with Peter. It became evident how much we all needed him. I reflected on my own deep need of him when I had asked him to bury my father. Again, when my father’s closest friend and a second father to me, Hora, died, I turned to Peter to bury him. I realised that I’d hoped he would bury me, and I am disoriented by the knowledge that he will not.

Now when I am at the University of Melbourne, or walk through Carlton, I realise how much my sense of the life of the mind and spirit had been deepened by the way Peter revealed, at our many lunches upstairs at the University Café, at the table by the window, his humane, ironic love of the world and appreciation of how many sorts of us it takes to make all sorts. I have not known anyone like him.

Peter Steele died bravely. Everyone who saw him in those last days remarked on it, and was moved by it. The need for courage was not, I am certain, a function of a wavering belief in the afterlife. “At times like this, one loses one’s urbanity,” he said to a friend two days before he died.

Characteristically, the line has many layers of meaning, but it means at least that this was a time for sobriety and passion if his courage was to be true and truthful.

Raimond Gaita
Raimond Gaita is a philosopher and writer. He is the author of Good and Evil and Romulus, My Father.

Peter Steele. © Jim McDermott
Cover: September 2012

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