Christopher Pearson was many things; a commentator for The Australian, a long luncher, an Adelaide Cheshire cat, a committed Maoist, a comeback Catholic. We remember Pearson, who died last weekend.
Last weekend, the deaths of British sci-fi and general fiction writer Iain Banks and of The Australian commentator Christopher Pearson were announced. Yes, gone is a man who created a series of fantasy worlds — and Iain Banks is also no longer with us. But it’s Pearson I want to talk about.
Christopher, the Adelaide Cheshire cat, was an original. In his final decades he abjured the active pursuit of his homos-xuality, out of commitment to his Catholicism.
By the time he went — at 61, young, though it’s about 85 in Adelaide years — he had rather faded from view, his column in The Weekend Australian something that he and everyone knew was a waiting room for Purgatory, in which he had a quasi-literal belief and where he expected to spend a millennium or two.
But prior to that he had been editor of The Adelaide Review, a monthly (not as Chris Mitchell says in The Oz story, a weekly) of high intellectual quality and elegant design that he kept going for nearly two decades. The roll-call of writers in the AR listed Rightwards, as Pearson did, and its pluralism was overstated — its Leftists were often ALP Rightists like Mark Latham and his chief-of-staff Michael Cooney, on whom Pearson had a crush, or libertarians like Frank Moorhouse. Your correspondent was probably the only hard-Leftist to regularly feature in its pages in the last decade.
Pearson, it must be said, took to heart W.H. Auden’s remark in a late Christian poem Nones:
“Few people accept each other and
Most men will never do anything properly”
But he did a pretty good job on the Review until the mid-’90s, when even that began to get away from him. It was kept going, The Oz said coyly, by friends and acquaintances. Good god, if you’re going to remember a man, remember the man in full. The money came from John Bray, Chief Justice of South Australia, and Pearson’s lover.
Bray was a classicist, a poet, a son of that unique Adelaide establishment that rarely strayed beyond the city of their birth for decades on end. Bray was 60 and Pearson in his early 20s when they met and fell in love in Don Dunstan’s swinging ’70s city, so you can see what an inconvenient factoid that would be for Nick Cater, author of The Lucky Culture, hammer of the decadent elites.
“Pearson settled into what could well be regarded as the world’s longest lunch … Yes, he became God’s Maoist.”
Better still, Pearson wasn’t just your average sybarite. Far from it. During those heady years, he was a committed Maoist, part of that bewildering moment in Australian history when the Chinese revolution attracted a diverse group of the politically committed for whom hippiedom and/or Trotskyism did not appeal. Was he a card-carrying member of the Communist party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), the Maoist branch? He would never say, and the CPA (M-L) used party names (i.e. pseudonyms) at the time, but he was no dilettante, attracted merely to its damaged glamour. He was in the swim for years.
What was crucial about Maoism was not only its ultraism, its commitment to an immediate and root transformation of human being — these were the years of the Cultural Revolution — its celebration of violence, but also its willingness to ally itself with nationalism, and the sense of solidarity that came with it.
Maoism’s particular take was that Australia could be seen not as a bourgeois capitalist segment of the world system, but as an oppressed nation, suffering under US imperialism, run by a co-opted local bourgeoisie. Through that position, Maoists could ally themselves with local nationalist strands.
They formed the backbone for the Australian Independence Movement, the only grassroots republican movement Australia has seen this century. Maoism attracted some of the best people on the Left, and some of the worst, and it brought out those two qualities as well. By the ’70s, it had become psychotic enough in China; in Australia its somewhat complex manoeuvres by which a standard working class-middle class industrial society were analysed through categories applied to a peasant society only encouraged its more cultish aspects.
Many people who flowed into the party and the movement at the height of Vietnam War protest — impressed by the militancy of its cadres — do not have a good memory of it, since it had imported all the techniques of denunciation, self-criticism and self-subordination of the cultural revolution. And there are a couple of people who have a less than great memory of Pearson as an enthusiastic exponent of its techniques. It has never been established whether he was at the notorious party that toasted the victory of the Khmer Rouge with Krug champagne — and to be fair, the party itself is apocryphal — but he was willing to defend Brother Number One unto late into the day.
Like many of that movement, Pearson began to depart the Left when the Left began to depart from a “Promethean” vision — that communism would be achieved by the total domination of external nature, and the total freedom of humanity — and became a Left of limits: environmental, social, cultural. By the late ’70s, it was all over bar a hard slog, less the God That Failed than the God That Lost. Pearson settled into what could well be regarded as the world’s longest lunch. After John Bray’s death in the ’90s, he moved gradually towards the light and was received by Mother Church in 1999. Inevitably, he went to the ultramontane Tridentine, Latin mass end of things. Yes, he became God’s Maoist.Not that there was that far to travel. Maoism, in its late phase, had very little to do with anything resembling Marxism, and a material analysis of socio-historical forces. It was a spiritual eschatological humanism, and only the last bit had to be dropped to sign up for the God Squad. To what degree this was conscious, and to what a genuine movement of the spirit of a very, very intelligent man who was also neurotic as a bag of cats, was difficult to know. Probably both.
But by thus moving, the great sweep of history could be preserved, as a way of giving meaning to a solitary life. Maoism had been OK with the disappearance of whole categories of people in the name of progress; Pearson adopted the Catholic belief that the coming of Europeans to pre-South America was not a vast human disaster, but the hand of Providence bringing Christianity to a place that had come to be dominated by death-cult societies (the thesis of Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto, in case you haven’t noticed; it’s a companion piece to Passion of the Christ).
The enthusiast for Mao Zedong thought had returned to the original home of propaganda. And he took to it enthusiastically, throwing himself into a war on the propagation of pagan ideals, such as Aboriginal “sacred sites”, and the idea of separate development. He took to climate change denialism with a few rubbed-together pseudo-facts. Did he really believe what he was saying, I asked him, in one of the last phone conversations I had with him. I could hear him grinning down the line, and the rest was silence. Nothing more needed to be said. The particular truth or otherwise was irrelevant to service to the higher Truth. While writing his regular column for the Weekend Australian he also wrote a couple of speeches for Alexander Downer, arguing that John Curtin had been an appeaser, and that the true defenders of Australia had been the hitherto despised pig-iron Right. Classic position warfare, and Pearson was proud of the speech — so proud indeed that he quoted it approvingly in his column, without mentioning that he had written it, and taking it as evidence of Alexander Downer’s (extremely well-) hidden gravitas. He neglected to mention it to his editors, either.
The truth is Pearson was a gleeful liar in a manner that had political motives — first Left then Right — but mostly out of sheer nature, as a trickster and shapeshifter. Had he lived his life in a smaller place — smaller even than Adelaide — he would have been the mendacious director of the local am dram group, playing prospective Blanche DesBoises off against each other.
Much is made of course of his one-year tenure as a speechwriter to former PM John Howard, an engagement that began as an adventure and ended quickly in mutual bewilderment. The talents of Barry Humphries or Patrick White are not required to imagine John, Janette and Christopher sitting down to cress soup together; it’s funny when you run it in your head.
It’s said that Janette called time on the engagement. If true, I don’t blame her. By that time, Pearson looked like a reflection of Howard in a carny fun-house mirror, impossibly fattened. Hyacinth might well have taken one look at both of them and felt like she was in a Peter Greenaway movie.
After that he was given gigs on the National Museum Board and SBS, and there once again the materialist Left/cultural Right sympathy re-asserted itself, for one couldn’t help but give one cheer as he went up against the postmodern multimedia guiltorium proponents in the former, and pop culture nihilists in the latter, along with whatever other horrors he was no doubt ushering in.
Through those and after a brief tenure at The Age — he was sacked after a few weeks for using his column as a Red Base to sledge Labor relentlessly and tediously — he ended up at The Oz, where his job description was to sledge Labor relentlessly and tediously. Ideas-wise he was always more interesting than most of the beaten-down dun-coloured hacks on the paper, even, or especially, when he was doing a six-part series on liturgical changes and the latest Vatican statement on quantum mechanics.
Indeed, there was a sense in which his column functioned as a commissar’s directive. He was good at picking the angle of attack, especially in the brief period after 2007 when Labor was politically competent and popular. Though he was a celibate, gay, ex-Maoist ultramontane Tridentine Catholic sensualist, lived with five thousand books and artefacts, a bespoke-blue-suited Miss Havisham with a table at Horst’s, he cheerfully, consciencelessly ran the standard line against “elites” living on subsidised culture and running the country.
He became fair game for personal attack at that point, since he had depended not merely on the kindness of strangers but of taxpayers. The Adelaide Review, gained an Australia Council grant for years, dedicated as are all such grants, largely to the payment of contributors. That would be held up occasionally, but eventually came through.
Eventually there was no payment for four, five issues, and more. Person made various excuses, but the vintners kept delivering and the lunches stayed long. It was clear that budgeting had gone, erm, awry. Eventually several of us warned him that we would have to say something to the Oz Council. Within a couple of months payment had been made, after he sold the masthead to a Spanish media company. In TheAustralian’s report Les Murray suggested that Pearson was “squeezed out”. Paid out, more like. The taxpayer had gifted Pearson a title he could sell on. Since Murray lives off our teat, too, he has the luxury of being poetic with the truth of the matter.
Why go on at such length about someone whose role turned out to be more minor and partial than once might have been expected? Well, in the last years I think his role was more pernicious than positive, but the man was so damn interesting, a confluence of forces that managed a degree of self-shaping, that he deserves a more visceral memorial than the pissweak mewlings in The Oz.
Like Bob Santamaria before him, Pearson regarded many of his new found allies on the Right as little more than useful idiots. He saw in Howard a solid cadre, and a supremely talented politician; some of the others he regarded as one-dimensional marketophiles, who had no understanding of the real war being waged. His preferred places to be would have been Shanghai in 1967, Athens in 320 BC or Rome in 1150 AD. Denied these, he practised the old Marxist art of “this-sidedness” — turning whatever small battle you can into a wider one — and the Maoist one of politics-led philosophy. Read his relentless attacks on Labor and Gillard closely and you’ll see another agenda entirely being waged.
That he lived to see Tony Abbott survive as party leader long enough to be a dead cert as the next prime minister was to Pearson’s great good luck — what better time to go than with your ideal government on the edge of success, with no risk of failure? Pearson’s conservative obituarists wondered aloud as to what the basis of the friendship between the somewhat tortured, mildly self-loathing, acidic gourmand, and the chiseled, regnant, extroverted, aggressive, virile, sexually religiously tormented Opposition Leader was. At its base was a shared conservatism that went well beyond the dun-suburban conservative liberalism of Howard and Costello, and saw politics on earth as a mere reflection of a greater battle on a higher plane.
That was the man, or one aspect of him. But you wouldn’t know it from the obituaries by his “friends” on the Right. Clive James once did a review of the official Soviet biography of Brezhnev, and noted that not only did it not mention Stalin, it failed to mention Khrushchev as well. The Australian’s report was in that spirit. Working through lawyers’ queries last week for an upcoming book, I saw the single funniest question ever in such context: “Is Christopher Pearson gay? Did he once have Leftist sympathies?” Having seen Nick Cater’s report in which a man who was contradictory if he was anything, was reduced to a soda-water Father Brown caricature. But then quite possibly Cater didn’t know that much about Pearson’s full complexity. Is it seriously proposed that this man will now be the interpreter to us of who we are? Can no one see that his caricatures of our history and life are the ultimate exercises of British condescension? Maybe, in the last analysis, Pearson would appreciate The Oz’s steely determination to enrol him in its war against the elites, as the ultimate tribute to the noble lie?
Well, if he was right about the nature of the universe he will be puffing up Mt Purgatory by now. Most of us will pass him.
You can’t understand Christopher Pearson without understanding the 20th century, or Australia, or South Australia, and to a degree vice versa. He had a taste for antiquaria; he was himself a palimpsest, and to read no more than the topmost writing would be to understand nothing about the place, the era, or the man.