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Robert Dessaix at the Brisbane Writers Festival

September 17, 2012
Philip Larkin, Poet

Philip Larkin (Creative Commons Licence)

What are days for? Robert Dessaix based his thought-provoking lecture at the Brisbane Writers Festival on this question from Philip Larkin’s poem Days. His answer was the same as Larkin’s. Days are where we live – not in lifetimes, years or moments, but in days.

We can embrace days as we grow older, valuing the passing time for its layering and detail, relishing the complexion of a day. Sure, there is death but, said Dessaix, “while the whole of my life is hopeless, a well-shaped day is not.” A benefit of age is that we can dispense with must-dos and bucket lists, and not be hog-tied to what we must read or see. Dessaix was gleeful about being unfettered. “I’m missing out on the whole universe, minus a grain of sand,” he said, “and it doesn’t worry me.”

Our strictly limited season is not enough, but it has to be. “And while it lasts,” he declared, ‘it can be the time of our lives.”

In another session with Sarah Kanowski, Dessaix discussed his latest book of essays, As I Was Saying. He likes real conversations, and worries about the “I’m right, you’re wrong” adversarial culture that is encouraged by media and prevalent in politics and sport. Dessaix clarified my own unease around the word “mate”. He doesn’t have mates, he said. He has friends. A mate is an ally, which implies coming together against someone else, part of adversarial culture. A friend is someone with whom you can share your vulnerability – you don’t have to perform.

Friendship, conversation and connoisseurship help make our days good places to live, but the greatest virtue is kindness. Kindness, said Dessaix, is more important than love. Do you agree?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2012 1:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. I have loved Dessaix’s thoughtful, erudite writing since I first read Night Letters.

    • Bryce permalink*
      September 17, 2012 1:55 pm

      “Erudite” is the right word. I enjoy listening to Dessaix almost more than I love reading him, because of his voice and the enunciation of his erudite thoughts.

  2. Beverley Bloxham permalink
    September 17, 2012 1:17 pm

    “Kindness is more important than love”: what a provocative statement. Not sure that I agree totally with that: I see genuine kindness (not the stuff people do when it looks like the right thing to do, or they think they should out of a sense of duty or guilt) as a subset of genuine or universal love. By definition then, kindness cannot be more important than love. And by extension, true kindness cannot exist in the absence of love. I see love as the overarching quality that begets all that is good. Just as fear is the progenitor for all negativity.

    • Bryce permalink*
      September 17, 2012 2:04 pm

      Yes, it is provocative – I was startled by it, and it made me think. Does such a general statement have any meaning when there are so many varieties of love and kindness? Perhaps someone who finds it hard to love can still be genuinely kind, and is it then possible, through the practice of kindness, to become loving? I wonder if Dessaix was trying to redress the balance – love gets all the attention, isn’t it about time we elevated kindness as a virtue?

  3. Beverley Bloxham permalink
    September 17, 2012 1:23 pm

    Robert Dessaix: Love his train of thought and resonate with most of it. “Days are where we live – not in lifetimes, years or moments, but in days.” I find this subdivision a tad arbitrary. Sometimes a day is a long time, and some moments can be life changing and memorable. Noticing moments is how we add value to a day.

    • Bryce permalink*
      September 17, 2012 2:17 pm

      Agreed. And I haven’t done justice to Dessaix’s 50 minute lecture – he did speak about the details of the day, valuing the passing time, the layers of what is happening. This is similar to noticing moments. Being aware of layers within the day increases the layers within oneself.

  4. September 17, 2012 11:52 pm

    Oh, I’ll join the “I love Dessaix” chorus. I used to love hearing him on Lingua Franca as I drove around on a Friday afternoon.

    “The greatest virtue is kindness”. I’m thinking, really, that I agree. Is “love” a virtue? Somehow I sense that love is something different, that it’s a feeling that does something for the self as much as for other. Kindness feels more focused on the “other”. In a way, you “feel” love (and act upon it) but you “do” kindness, pretty much regardless of what you feel. In that sense I think it is the greatest virtue. And I wish there were more of it in the world. But it’s all in the definition isn’t it?

    • Bryce permalink*
      September 18, 2012 9:13 am

      Thanks, Sue, your comment has clarified my thinking. It is in the definitions, but kindness and love are really in different categories and so cannot be ranked. Perhaps Dessaix was making a provocative comment to stress the importance of kindness, and to make us think, and in this he has succeeded.

      • September 18, 2012 9:46 am

        He has, it’s been an interesting discussion. I’m glad you shared it … and, if my grey cells can retain it … I’m going to use it for some dinner conversations in the coming weeks.


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