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?
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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
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
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
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
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
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.