Brian Coman

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Loose Canon: Essays on History, Modernity and Tradition

180 pages

ISBN: 9780980293623,


Life, it has been said, is just 'one damned thing after another'. For Brian Coman, though, the experiences have been anything but humdrum. In this collection of essays, he ranges over a vast tapestry of experiences from ferreting rabbits, to the pleasures of reading The Odyssey and listening to church bells. Religion, philosophy, modern music noise, Freddie Ayer's 'amorous dalliances', and Chinese ghost stories - it's all here in this eclectic compilation. Most of these essays have previously appeared in Quadrant magazine but are here gathered together in a single volume. This is an eminently readable collection, combining wit and serious reflection on the human condition. The essays will delight both the serious and the casual reader.

Quadrant Magazine Books July 2007 - Volume LI Number 7-8

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What is to be Done?: I Do Not Know, Says the Great Bell of Bow
Peter Coleman

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

, Brian Coman reassures us, if the big bells are still ringing. The Great Temple Bell of Peking (fifty tonnes) no longer rings and the Tsar Kolokol (160 tonnes) in the Kremlin will not ring again until Judgment Day. But throughout the world, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian bells can still strike awe and reach the furthermost point of our minds. They keep alive some ancestral sense of the sacred.

Can they keep it up? Coman begins this small treasury of essays with a lament for “The Passing Bell”. He ends with a polemic against triumphant rock, punk, rap, especially as rendered by bands with names like “The Loose Sphincter” or “The Filthy Swine” and amplified by car radios. Coman calls it jackboot music. It declares and consolidates a fear of silence. It is a form of evil.

Between these two chapters, Coman reflects on life and death, modernity and tradition, nature and history. His basic idea is that life used to be nasty, brutish and short. Now it is nasty, sophisticated and long. What is to be done?

If wide experience is a help in probing our predicament, Brian Coman has it. He carries two PhDs lightly. He has done his bit as a dogcatcher in Hong Kong and a rabbiter in Victoria. (For beginners, he recommends that classic of the 1890s, Rat Catching for the Use of Schools by H.C. Barkley.) He once lived in a seal colony (and will never forget the stench of their faeces). He served for twenty-three years as a pest biologist in the Victorian public service.

His range animates these essays (almost all of which first appeared in Quadrant). He also has the style of a good essayist—sympathetic, sceptical, inquisitive, stylish, witty and conversational. He is both a hedgehog and a fox. He blends the big idea of the hedgehog with the vagrant curiosity of the fox.

The fox pursues a mix of themes from suburban wildlife (bandicoots, flying foxes, even crocodiles, but especially rabbits) to deserted islands (especially the Blaskets). We will never, he believes, be rid of rabbits. (His father once told an old warrener that they were a doomed species. The warrener corrected him: they would, he said, urinate on his grave.) But we will at least drive them from the farms—without sentimentality. When we kill the last rabbit in our little district, Coman says, we will cook it for dinner. (They will always survive on urban golf courses and cemeteries.)

There is a down side, at least for the bushman. His grandchildren will have lost something:

“They will never know what it is to keep ferrets or to hear the rabbits bolting underground. They will never know what it is to wake up on a Saturday morning to the whine of Ginger and Spot and Stumpy as they anticipate the day ahead. They will never sit around the open fire on winter’s nights knitting up rabbit nets. They will miss those views early on a cold, autumn morning when you peep over the hill to see dozens of rabbits sitting on their burrows. They will not know what it is like to come home from the chiller cashed up after the day’s haul.”

But they will be able to enjoy a walk in the bush—without the devastation of the rabbit’s tooth and nail.

The same elegiac mood draws him to Maurice O’Sullivan’s memoir of growing up on the Gaelic-speaking Blasket Islands, before everyone abandoned them. It was on such bleak, wind-lashed western islands of Scotland and Ireland that monasteries evaded the destruction of the barbarian hordes. They also preserved over the centuries a rich oral poetic tradition, now dead. Originally published in Gaelic in 1933 and almost immediately translated as Twenty Years a-Growing, the story of the decline and fall of Great Blasket brings tears to Coman’s eyes. (Dylan Thomas never finished his film script of the story.)

But Coman is a hedgehog as well as a fox. Our fundamental problem, the root cause of our laments, is not technological or organisational but spiritual. We have killed God but we cannot live without Him. This is easily said, and someone is banging on about it every day. Coman leaves it as an underlying idea and looks at its consequences.

Take death. Not so long ago people still died of old age. They simply shuffled off their mortal coils. Today we think death is caused by a malady or organ failure. The idea is that, with the right treatment, it is preventable. Soon the average life expectancy will be 100 years or more. Can death be postponed indefinitely?

He is not, I think, attacking medicine. His complaint is that we still burn and rave at close of day. Do not dismiss as cranks those immortalist technicians at the Cryonics Institute of Missouri who will preserve you in liquid nitrogen pending new methods of revivification. A few years ago the idea of raising human embryos for spare parts was ridiculed. Now our parliaments encourage it.

“I can see those poor survivors from the Cryonics Institute [writes Coman], fitted out with their bionic hands and plastic pudenda, forever roaming “at the quiet limit of the world”—tired of living but scared of dying. To them alone will heaven be denied as an option. Indeed, they will make their hell on earth. And none of Dante’s wildest visions could approach its horror.”

IF WE REJECT the Missouri icemen, where do we turn? Philosophy is no help. It may clear away some metaphysical debris. It may help science. But it no longer teaches us how we should live or die.

Coman particularly censures A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell—for their conduct rather than their philosophy. (He permits himself the question: Would you let either of them alone in a park with your teenage daughter?)

“In their time, these two men strode the world stage and influenced innumerable young lives. It is difficult to suppose that they influenced them for the better. Leaving aside the example they gave by the conduct of their own lives, the gelded philosophy they preached had the effect of destroying all natural inclination towards a right moral life which is an interior principle present in every human.”

In the case of Australia, he takes up Jim Franklin’s theme that the moral influence of the Realist philosopher John Anderson was baleful and corrupting. The only twentieth-century philosopher he approves is Ludwig Wittgenstein: he at least did not dismiss religious utterances as meaningless.

If philosophers are no help, Coman asks, what about nature and ecology? He is a scholar of classical and medieval attitudes to nature. But he is sceptical, or fearful, of ecological correctness. According to this new religion of nature, mankind is an aberrant species, a blight on nature, a pest. The earth will be better off without us.

Is there any compromise possible with ecological theology? Paul Collins, the former ABC seer, thinks there is. Christianity must give up being “redemption-centred” and become “creation-centred”. We must reinterpret Scripture and Tradition to remove the offensive bits. For example, that “unfortunate text” (Collins’ words) in Genesis which gives humans dominion over the rest of the created order should be only understood as reflecting the ancient Hebrews’ antagonism to the desert.

Coman will have none of this. It leaves no room for Christ or free will. It rewrites St John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was wrong.” We are not dinosaurs, plodding towards extinction. We are not entirely part of nature.

Yet the ecological religion of despair may be the wave of the future. “I predict,” Coman wrote in Quadrant in December 2004, “that the first half of this new century will see the rise of ecological correctness.” He was too optimistic. It only took a couple of years.

SO WHAT IS to be done? The best we can do is look after our cabbage patch and wait for better days. Coman also suggests one or two anti-terrorist devices. When the barbarians of rap or punk or junk or whatever first confronted him in their high-speed noise boxes (that is, cars), he thought about installing a set of hundred-megaton speakers in the back of his old ute. He would then track the barbarians to their lairs and direct the Bach Chaconne for unaccompanied violin, hugely amplified, into their pads.

But this would mean resorting to the electronic gadgetry that has made the barbarians such a threat. He settled for a more traditionalist device. He plans to mount a full-sized church organ horizontally under the chassis of the ute. A sixteen-foot Trompete and Prestant pipes could be complemented by the smaller Cromhorne and Nazurd with pedals and miniaturised keyboard on the passenger side. When a barbarian draws level in his noise box, he would overwhelm the jungle beat with a mighty surge of valiant sound—perhaps Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This will send the shell-shocked driver and passengers limping away to the nearest therapist. (The same tactic could be used against the operators of leaf-suckers.) It’s only a dream. A tawdry cheapness, the poet said, shall outlast our days.

Yet there is still hope, as long as we can hear those bells …


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