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The Edith Trilogy and rationalism

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 2 March 2012

Frank Moorhouse has recently published the last historical novel in what has become known as the Edith Trilogy. The work of twenty years it began with Grand Day, continued with Dark Palace and now is finished with Cold light. This is more than novelised history, Moorhouse spent immense time researching the characters in his novels, almost every person is drawn from history.

The novels are about Edith Berry, a young Australian women who went to Geneva between the wars to work as an officer in the League of Nations. She stayed until after the war and the collapse of the league and its replacement with the United Nations upon which she returned to Canberra where she contributed to its planning and also did work for the atomic energy commission.

This is a great read and a good way of filling in some history that you did not get at school. But what was compelling to me was not Edith's sexual exploits, although they were interesting enough, not the window into international affairs, it was her rationalism. She was raised a rationalists by rationalist parents who were always off at meetings whose aim was to change the world for the better. She was told by them that each morning one should wake up with the prospect of remaking the world. This idealism led her to cling to the League of Nations even after multiple failures in arms talks and attempts to prevent war. There is a naiveté here that is common to rationalists who believe that the world is transparent to human reason and thus changeable. There is a hopefulness here that refuses to contemplate that the human estate is essentially fallen.


In their refusal of Christian faith in the name of reason they refuse also the witness of their own hearts that tells them that things are not right with them. For example, Edith admires the Bloomsbury set and their idea of open marriage and sets out to practice the same with disastrous consequences. She has three marriages and abandons her real love, the bisexual and cross dresser Ambrose Westwood, because of a torrid one night stand with a Canberra bureaucrat. Her last marriage finally fails and she regrets abandoning Ambrose for the second time. Edith seems to be a woman who has lost contact with human reality and replaced it with rationality. She has not understood that ideas need not refer to a reality in the world. But despite all her set backs, she clings to the rationalist faith that all is possible.

I heard a shadow of this attitude in Julia Gillard's speech after she had seen Kevin Rudd off. She said something about working to make things fairer for all Australians. While this is a motherhood statement and we all want a fairer world, it is also hubris. It is out of this desire to make all things right that we have the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Australian Human Rights Commission and other bodies that are dedicated to making the country a fairer place. Again I am troubled by the idea that people can be made more tolerant, fairer in the workplace etc. by a government agency. It has now become the government's task to make us good.

The idea that this is possible is a rationalist idea, like waking up every morning in the hope of making the world anew. The problem is that it does not take into account the brokenness of human nature. As St Paul wrote "For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do." Our lives are not as simple as the rationalists make out, we are instead divided, troubled and in despair. Our own hearts condemn us, we know what we are like and we know that we act as we should not despite us knowing that it is wrong. Indeed drama relies on the actuality and ubiquity of the troubled soul. Episode after episode of the Sopranos, or Mad Men, especially the latter, tell us that it is common to be lost in our lives. We do not need Augustine and his ideas of original sin to convince us.

Naïve attempts to legislate or promote or educate ourselves into virtue run foul of the human condition. When government gets involved in this it trespasses on ground that it does not know while wasting millions of dollars. I found it interesting that Edith made huge blunders of the heart despite her intellectual engagement in all things. Something is missing here. In the European Enlightenment it was thought that all tradition should be swept away and a new way of living based on reason would usher in an age of wonders. The problem was that the traditions did not by and large exist for the purposes of smothering freedom but for the ordering of life in accordance with long experience. The new freedom that was won became an emptiness into which all the terrors of the ages poured.

The League of Nations was powerless to prevent WW2. Did the United Nations ameliorate the cold war or stop the Stalinist slaughter or the Cambodian killing fields or what happened in Rwanda or the Balkans? We have to realise that when we deal with human beings we often deal with the darkest things and no amount of good intentions or education or propaganda is going to help. Evil is indelible in human nature. The anthropology of modernity is mistakenly optimistic.

The Edith trilogy is a momentous achievement particularly because the major players in the drama were drawn from real life. I wonder if Moorhouse was aware that his novels were an expose of the deficits of rationalism.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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