Whatever happened to the Catholic intelligentsia, asks Barry Oakley
IOWE a great debt to R. G. Menzies, the benevolent dictator who ruled over my youthful life. In 1950, thanks to him, the Victorian Education Department was able to offer tertiary scholarships, and I was granted one. The University of Melbourne, that pinnacled Carlton enclave where no previous Oakley had ever set foot, was opened to me.
Now I could leave suburbia, where motor mowers turned grass into lawn, and enter a place of roll-neck sweaters and duffle coats, where you went to lectures when you liked, wearing what you liked, then proceeded to the Caf to talk Kafka and stir the world around in your coffee cup.
If you were Catholic, this scruffy and seductive place opened on to another. Here, at Newman College, an exotic Mexican-Byzantine building designed by Walter Burley Griffin, a quiet revolution was taking place.
Smoky rooms were crowded with earnest people who were putting together two words that had rarely been conjoined, at least in Australia: Catholic intellectual. Who was this newly discovered personage and what should they be doing? To someone educated at a Christian Brothers college that combined sanctity with the strap, the mix of avant-garde theology, freedom and girls in tight sweaters was intoxicating.
The crucial link between the secular and the supernatural was Vincent Buckley. Journey Without Arrival , John McLaren’s biography of Buckley, has just appeared from Australian Scholarly Publishing.
Great teachers stay with you for life. Like his older English department colleagues A. D. Hope and Ian Maxwell ( who would weep on cue every year while reciting Paradise Lost ), literature had touched Buckley deeply, and he passed that depth on to his students. He was very short, very serious, and spoke with youthful authority about what still carried the shock of the new: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
McLaren’s title gets it wrong. Despite his later decline, in the 1950s Buckley had arrived. As a teacher, poet and driving force behind the Newman Society, he was already home.
As McLaren describes it in his excellent opening chapters, Buckley was a Catholic from a rural Irish family, which gave the Oxbridgeans of the English department three reasons to look down on him. He was an outsider, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was a belief he maintained even when he wasn’t.
We undergraduates were in awe of a man of such triple talent. We heard him lecture, we read his poetry in Farrago , the university newspaper, and watched from the sidelines of the Newman Society as he laid out his vision of a Christian humanism, quoting French theologians we’d never heard of.
Then this particular student went to a party in