Adrian Heathcote from Sydney, Australia, discusses with us about philosophy, art and life. Elegant and kind he is an inspirational interlocutor who has deeply studied a vast variety of subjects and knows impressive details about things that only natives are expected to know on various cultures. He indeed has the theoretical knowledge but also the sensitivity and that little something that brings theory to life. He writes about philosophy, publishes poetry, has taught philosophy for thirty years at Sydney University and during the recent years his early love for painting is revived thus painting has become a daily occupation.
"If Greece had never existed the world of today would
be unrecognizable and all its achievements: art, philosophy
and science would vanish into nothing."
• What inspires you most, what do you write about?
A: Well, I have written a lot of poetry in my life, and I am probably best known for that. But I have also dabbled in writing plays — I’ve written four so far — and I suppose they are all about art and philosophy, in one way or another. The first one may be of particular interest. It was called The Iconoclasts and it was about one of the most important events in history that no one knows about: the first female Emperor of the Byzantine Empire who saved religious art from the destruction of the religious iconoclasts, those who wanted to destroy all representations of the divine.
• How long have you been writing?
A: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I published my first poems in literary journals when I was 18 and I have been publishing steadily ever since.
• Apart from writing you also had a successful academic career, teaching philosophy at the university for 30 years. I suppose this means you have taught quite a few students during this period…
A: Around 800 per year. I won an Award for Excellence in Teaching by Sydney University around 1993. It was the first award of that type that had been given.
• So during the 30 years you had around 30,000 students?
A: I’d say 20,000. I still run into the students in the street and they are always full of fond memories of those courses
• Would you say that art has a deeper purpose?
A: I’ve felt from the youngest age that the purpose of all Art, but certainly all writing, was to understand more. We are given a life that is an enigma, in almost every respect. In the end the enigma of identity is the same as the enigma of just what is this Universe we inhabit. I am quite sceptical of what we are all told the world is like — it is just so much bad, worn-out theory — but the last 100 years has not given us a coherent picture either.
• What was your PHD about?
A: It was on geometric structures in Relativity Theory.
• So would you say that an artist is doing more than just expressing himself?
A: The artist has to be an explorer of the real as well. We tend to forget that in our confrontation with the world the only thing that is raw and pure is experience — not descriptions of experience, not theories about what we are experiencing, but the experience itself. And the writer who goes inside himself to find the new, never-before-said thing about the world is putting himself next to that world very directly, and increasing the sum of our understanding as much as the scientist or the philosopher. And the world needs all of these contributions, because where we now stand no one approach is sufficient.
• Are these thoughts present when you write?
" I think most people want to feel that they live in a world where art is still being created."
A: Of course when I write myself I don’t think in these grandiose terms — who could? — I am just trying to say something meaningful about my life, express where I now am, since I understand nothing until it comes from my fingertips to the page. And I instinctively have a sense when something is true and when it is false — and if I happen to hit on something false then it stops me, and I can’t continue down that way. So I have to find again something true to continue. But of course that doesn’t fully describe it also — nothing could, I think. You can’t reduce it to a method that you could apply whether the powerful need to create was present or not. The push from behind by something you can’t see makes you go forward to what you can see. I can only say that if I haven’t written for a while the need builds up. And somehow I always start from where I left off — that is a strange thing, but it’s true.
• Are you working on a project now?
A: Always I am doing something. I am writing poems at the moment for another collection, which is tentatively called The Second Octave of Blue, which I started four years ago. The title comes from the idea that the colours in the visible spectrum are almost an octave of wavelengths. And at each end the colour violet seems to be joining up, so it is as though the colours are on a helix with a second octave of the colours just beyond our reach and imagination.
• How do people accept art where you live?
A: People everywhere have the same troubled relationship to art, I think. They are no longer sure that it says anything to them that they need to listen to. They are contemptuous of the Conceptual Art of the 1980s and later, and think that it is empty and sterile. The public relations aspect of Art has fallen into a paradoxical relationship with the public it is meant to reach. To gain attention in the Sunday Supplements an artist must be controversial, notorious, breathlessly up-to-the-minute. The journalist will try to sell this as something the public has never seen before, like a prank executed by a space alien. But the public is not interested in anything beyond the fame and notoriety that this artist now has. It does not expect to learn anything new, and does not care what the message was — if indeed there was any. A new name has been added to the roster of the bright and beautiful, but it is as empty, or indeed emptier, than a discarded coffee cup. And the public will simply return to the Art that it finds genuinely interesting, whether that be late-Impressionism, or Renaissance painting, or Warholian Pop-Art.
So what we find is that the famous modern artist has an importance for the fame that he or she has, but not for the Art that they produce that is meant to be the thing that makes them famous. And I think at some level people the world over know that this strange exchange has taken place, while being caught up in it. At some barely conscious level they are saying: “fame is the only Art you have made; I will pretend to accept that you have a significance if you will go on being a name I can use in certain social contexts. Neither of us will call the other’s bluff.” Maybe that is being too cynical, but I don’t think by very much.
But for all that there is still a hunger for art and I think most people want to feel that they live in a world where art is still being created.
• What do you think about the international financial crisis?
A: I think most of us in the Western world feel that we have been working fairly hard in the past thirty years. It has not been pleasant to realise that corporations the world over have the attitude that they exist to make a select group of people very rich and that everyone else is to be used for that purpose and are then dispensable. But countries like Greece are in a unique position to thrive. You have such an extraordinary tradition within the arts and sciences that you have a great, untapped wealth of resources.
• Do you have a special method when you write?
A: No, I just write.
• Do you think it easy for someone to be an artist?
A: It is easy and it is not easy. If you have the idea that you should follow your natural path then the choices are all easy.
• Is the idea of truth important in your writings?
A: I would not be able to write something that I didn’t feel was true, for any purpose whatsoever, whether in poetry or philosophy.
• Which artists do you like?
A: I like artists that follow their own path and have no concern for what is in fashion. In painting, among contemporary artists, I like Ernst Fuchs, for example. A master of technique, and his subjects are entirely his own.
• Do you have a favorite Greek philosopher?
Yes, Plato and also Pythagoras
• Why those?
Early Platonic theory is not influenced by the Pythagoreans but the mature Plato, after the REPUBLIC was deeply influenced by them. The Pythagoreans discovered the irrationality of certain magnitudes, such as the square root of two, and this became the basis for the idea that the Cosmos could transcend and be much more than the mostly pragmatic number theory that was commonly used for measurement. It meant that the Cosmos had transcendental features. They called these things “Unsayable”. Plato married this to the view that reality can only be approximated: the beauty that surrounds us is only an approximation to the Unsayable Form of beauty. An astonishing view that went through all of Greece and became the basis for the Platonic and the Neo-Platonic philosophy — the latter of which became the basis for two thousand years of Western Civilization, that we still shelter under.
• So you think that Greece is the basis of Western philosophy and western Civilization?
A: Oh absolutely.
• Do you think that Western Civilization has any special value now?
A: I think it has extraordinary value now. I think that people do not understand just how rich it is. One of the things that is disappointing to me is that people continue to reach out to eastern religions when there is an equal amount or more in the western tradition — by which I don’t mean the Christian tradition. We owe to western culture a rich heritage of science, mathematics, philosophy, political thought, artistic achievement and spiritual values. It is there, one just has to look.
• What things do you think that the world of today would miss if Greece had never existed?
A: If Greece had never existed the world of today would be unrecognizable and all its achievements: art, philosophy and science would vanish into nothing.
Democracy itself comes from Greece. Enough said.
• Are there any ideas that influence you most?
A: There are two main things that I work on that are connected to one another: quantum mechanics, on the one hand, and Plato’s ideas about reality, on the other.
• Quantum mechanics has indeed brought astonishing things to light. What is the most impressing thing about it for you?
A: I think it’s a great pity but most people do not know that one of the most exciting and astonishing discoveries has come to light only in the last 15 years: entanglement. But the fundamental idea goes back to 1935 and discussions between Einstein and Schrödinger. Essentially the idea is that once two things interact with one another their fates can stay connected even though they separate to the other ends of the Universe. Schrödinger was the first to realise this — though he couldn’t believe that it was real. Nor could Einstein. But experiments done quite recently suggest that it is very real and a pervasive feature of the Universe.
Now I should stress that no one at the moment can explain just how this can be so — all we know is that it is so. But many people believe — and I am one of them — that a key to understanding this is the geometry of the Universe, which may not be much like how we have conceived it in the past. Being open to new ideas in geometry is at the heart of some exciting research ideas at the moment.
• And how does the Platonic theory fit in?
A: The second thing I am interested in is the current state of understanding of Plato and Platonism. After 1920 the understanding of Plato seemed to fall to a woeful state — and in my view he is now hardly understood at all. But I think that the main idea in Plato is that he saw geometry as the key to understanding the truly mysterious nature of the Universe — and he modeled everything on that mystery, all his ideas of God, beauty and goodness. ‘Let no one who does not understand Geometry enter here’, was apparently written over the doorway of Plato’s Academy.
• Why do you write poetry?
A: It’s the only way you can understand you own soul.
• Please read us one verse of yours that you really love.
A: It’s in the first poem in the new book of mine yet to be published and finished
titled The Second Octave of Blue
(Title of the poem Five Nocturnes)
The moon insists on its title `Lord'
plays at Spheres all night long
along the great wall of stars,
is pulled through the airplane hanger
of the colour red, then violet, then grey
is wounded by the thorns and the fires,…
• Do you think that modern philosophy has anything to offer now, or is it just history of philosophy and that indeed is all there is, since, as they say, everything has already been said?
A: I do not agree that everything has already been said (he smiles enigmatically).
• When did you start being involved in painting also?
A: Around twenty. But when I got into writing my PhD I could not do anything visual. There was a gap of about five years. But after finishing I found I had become so tired of words that I started using my camera and painting again. Abstract paintings. I rediscovered painting through abstract photographs. It’s like a daily habit now for me.
• What do you think about love?
A: Love is great in the abstract and impossible in the real world. More Platonism (he smiles).
• What is the meaning of abstract?
A: That is a difficult question. To me it is a kind of hidden Gnostic tradition.
• Is there something that unites all you do?
A: The thing than unites everything I do, I think, is identity. I see this problem in everything.
• How do you deal with time passing by?
A: Well it passes. (He laughs)
The older you get the more you understand. I think I would not like to go back to being 20. I knew so little then.
• What are the main ideas you want to express through your writing and art?
I don’t think I see it quite that way. I am not setting out to express an idea or to convince anyone of anything. I am the very opposite of a propagandist, no matter what the cause might be. I set out to do nothing but to write and paint and I pursue the thing that obsesses me and that has always obsessed me.
Bio details Adrian Heathcote
I was born in London, England but with my parents moved to Australia when I was 10. I attended university in Adelaide and then went to Melbourne to do a PhD — on space-time structures. After I’d finished the PhD I got a job in philosophy at the Australian National University and then a tenured position at The University of Sydney. I am currently taking a break from teaching and concentrating on writing and research — including more poetry, a novel, a book on the theory of knowledge, research papers, and more. In the past I’ve written for the Art magazine Black + White: on film, music, photography, graphic art, and even fashion. I have a practicing interest in typography and book design — and have written a little on the subject.
I’ve published three books of poetry: The Cloud Chamber (2007), Ÿseult’s Dream (2010), and The Eternities (2010) — all from Dyer’s Hand Press. Poems have also appeared in Southern Review, Meanjin, Words and Visions, Poetry Australia, Hermes, Literature and Aesthetics, Overland Express, The Australian, Mannequin Envy, Evergreen Review, among other places.
I have written 4 plays:
The Iconoclasts, performed at the Steki Taverna, October 2000, and at the Australian National University, 2004, and published in Literature and Aesthetics, 2001. The Horse Sacrifice. The Transfiguration of Fra Angelico (also translated into Italian). Grothendieck's Dream of the Rising Sea.
I was graphics editor for the short-lived Philosopher Magazine, and contributed many individual images, and had additional graphics published in the magazine Mannequin Envy, as an accompaniment to some poems.