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The Pagan Sermons of John Forbes

(Status : Public)
Coordinated by Duncan Hose
  • The Pagan Sermons of John Forbes

    One way we recognise the dead is that they don’t come to dinner. They don’t pick up the phone, don’t come to your parties.  Yet ever since I became aware of John Forbes, I keep bumping into him.

    I’ve only ever known John Forbes as a ghost, or the John Forbes that lives in the archive. Not a person, but something that to me has the presence and persistent aura of a person. About fifteen years ago, after I mentioned I had been writing poems, Alison Lydiard handed me the John Forbes Collected, saying “Rose Lang gave this to me when my dad died - she said it would help. I can’t do anything with it, maybe you can.” I kept the book next to my bed for the next five years, thinking that these were difficult poems, but that they had a weird glamour: something about their style of address, their wit, but also the poems themselves had a kind of stealth to them, a European machinery that had grown a marsupial fur. I had never heard colonial Australia spoken about like this, as though everything that was going on was of vital concern. I had the feeling I was being inveigled into something great. I also started to get the feeling I was being nagged by these poems, this poet.

    Why has John Forbes remained such a charismatic figure in Australian poetry? We have a thesis. Forbes was going to become a priest: was within the sights of the Jesuits as being an exceptional candidate, as having the calling. Something happened to him in the plum of his youth, a morphing of desire, where he was overtaken by poetry as a more desirable material practice and metaphysical application.[1] Forbes’s practice of poetry retains some of the essential drives of his Catholic faith: absolute devotion, ritual, self-sacrifice, doubt, a faith in sacraments and the commitment to the devotional community, transmitting something of the sacred, only this new application I will describe as having turned from a Catholic to a Pagan metaphysics, and the poems he produces as Pagan Sermons which demand some sort of follow through for those that come after.

    To complement Marx’s ideas of historical materialism and sociological determinism, Max Weber worked to describe the metaphysics of what he called the “Spirit of Capitalism” as an effort to account for the genealogy of capitalist culture. Forbes’s pagan sermons take this “spirit of capitalism” as their nemesis, working against a fresh neoliberal plague to promote not the financialisation but the poeticisation of life, advancing poetry itself as a superior physical/ metaphysical practice of dealing with our animal being, checking  the operation of glamour and our insistence on fetishizing things, and displacing an idolising of money in favour of pursuing sensual experience: sex, dancing, feasting - the bacchanalia - and turning these experiences into art.

    In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber writes:

    summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.  (53)

    In an age devoted to money, where what remains is the glamour of the pyramid without the god within, our stake in the theatrics of matter has shifted. The grace that money brings is converted into displays of “animal glamour” and aesthetic economies of prestige that are materially practised through habitat, carriage, dress and comportment, and the exercise of power; of commanding, of disciplining, of apportioning reward and punishment. Where Weber pursues the “Spirit of Capitalism” and the disenchantment of the world as a morphing of religiosity, Jean-Francois Lyotard confronts Capitalism as a kind of bad pagan reformation of the old order and a warping of the will to power. In the process of articulating “a loss of faith in metanarratives” as a symptom of what would be called “the postmodern condition,” Lyotard wrote “Lessons in Paganism,” proposing, and demonstrating in the form of a dramatic dialogue, a “pagan” faith in storytelling as a highly localised social practice to overcome or displace the master narratives which capital prefers. Naming it as the target of a pagan putsch, Lyotard suggests capitalism is:

    …a godless power, and its narrative is about everything and nothing. I’m not saying that capital is pagan; it has its one god (money), its mass (discharging debts), its grace ordinary and extraordinary (profits and superprofits), its elect and its damned. So it is obviously not a pagus. But it is godless. (140)

    What was a material practice of faith for Weber’s Protestants has become a devouring obsession for their descendants who have seen off the idea of divine authority. Lyotard sketches a spectral remainder of sacred practice in the dealings of capitalism: a partage of grace, a capricious distribution of favour and the sense that its offices are available to those who have the calling. Capitalism is no joke: its powerful allure is appealing to the appetite of the will: to territorialise, to acquire, to conquer, to organise the world in its own image: to make little gods of human beings in lusty competition with each other or in the communal spirit of the parasite. The Spirit of the Spirit of Capitalism imitates the surfeit of being, so hotly desired by its potential host, which then hijacks its desiring machines as a means to reproduce itself (virally) (without end). 

    Forbes’s close friend and occasional collaborator Mark O’Connor quipped that his poems are “constructed like sermons,” and I want to pursue and pervert the logic of this insight to describe the figure of this poet and the poems as pagan “constitutional acts,” as a way to isolate & describe the spell-like effects or charming action of some of Forbes' poetry.

    I want to hunt John Forbes as “an escapee of the Jesuits” (Oakley qtd in Anderson) who applies to his life and his practice as a poet the strategies of a radical Catholic in a new discourse of structuring selves that are greater than themselves: that are careful, communitarian, reflective, taking seriously the things and events of the world beyond the tendency to reify the self as a compact deity. His Catholic bent never leaves him but he converts something of the charge of Christ’s ethos and ideas of grace as the distribution of divine gifts through vocation into a pagan practice of poetics, marked by materialist, sensual and hedonistic belief in poems as charms.

    I have come to think of the effect on the living of John Forbes the poet as something like the daemonic. To the ancient Greeks, the daemon was an attendant spirit that guides a person though their life, or “generally, [a] spiritual or semi-divine being inferior to the gods,” acting as a go-between for mortals and immortals (Liddell & Scott 366). Heraclitus’ “fragment 119” proposes a metaphysical hypothesis for human being:

    ethos anthropos daemon.

    Ethos has been translated as “character” or the “outward bearing” of a person in which we can read behavioural codes through the repetition and difference of affective qualities over time (Liddell & Scott 766). The phrase presents an equation of the physical showing (ethos) of the human being (anthropos) and the forces, drives, appetites or intuitions which animate them (daemon). The phrase ethos anthropos daemon is operationally devious: when you read someone’s ethos, through animal behaviour, you are also reading their daemon. Heraclitus’ phrase unites and divides the point of fascination between the spiritual (metaphysical) and the carnal (physical). It is a diabolical trope that wriggles on ahead of you and can’t be caught.

    It seems to me part of the condition of modernity is that now we must choose our daemons, having been removed through the diasporic effects of colonialism and globalisation from our more anciently accumulated ancestral links. We used to be allotted a daemon, as part of the allotment of our fate. Poets have always chosen their daemons from writers who have come before them, and these “influxes” are mixed with their native genius, which make a compound of metaphysical forces. I want to present you with my problem: how to approach reading John Forbes’s ethos in order to take on the daemon that inheres in it, and pay attention to what it is demanding of us.

    To do this we need to maintain a critical ambivalence: I choose to invoke John Forbes as a daemon, an ally whose energetic signature is to be read in the ethos, the ethical and aesthetic tracks of charismatic animal being. There is no such “thing” as the daemon, yet the daemon might usefully exist for us as a figure of ancestral continuity and remind us of uncertain forces within and without the human that drive our fates. Like Dark Matter, the daemon and its operation is of no interest to Capitalism, since it is beyond commodification and unbiddable.

    This becomes a study of phantoms and virtual territories: the intolerability or absence of one we have never met, and a more protracted cultural longing for the re-introduction of bogles and bogeys. In our efforts to secure ourselves against terrifying nature and the primitive, through the gentle sciences of the bourgeoisie, we have managed to clean up the spirits or daemons, yet like bacteria there are helpful and harmful species. In our world of passwords and digital platforms of professional and electronically mediated social being, this older technic of the imagination carries a promise of human ancestral continuity.


    [1] Forbes in interview with Hazel de Berg: “I began writing poems when I was about 16, I was living in Miranda with my parents. I had to write a poem for English class, and, uh, I got very interested in doing it. I was mainly influenced by concepts of beauty or imagism, at the time, and wanted to write a poem that would be like a really    beautiful     very early        well you know, something like ha’past six on a summer’s morning, um, there was a bit of a gully near where we lived and there were a lot of gumtrees and they looked …  I used to have a room at the back of the house and I could see this, and it was something like the same … I wanted to get into poetry the same feeling … an equivalent of that experience or that    sight.”

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