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"To stop teaching is a kind of dying": Full text of Robert Dessaix's speech at the Patji-Dawes award ceremony

Date: 26 November 2015

Listen: “Billy Pilgrim,” Kurt Vonnegut writes, (it’s more or less the opening line of Slaughterhouse Five remember?) has come unstuck in time.

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

It’s a line that can be taken to mean many different things … and has been.

Good things and not so good.

Born almost exactly when Billy Pilgrim started time-travelling (wildly), just before the bombing of Dresden, I, too, feel I have come unstuck in time. As most of you have, I suspect, although born much later in the 20th century. Indeed, as have most people in our sort of society.

Unstuck … although not, for the most part, in a good way. But there is at least in your case ... being who you are ... something you can do about it.

Nobody seems to know quite when we in the West began to come unstuck – oh, and they’re starting to come unstuck in Nepal and India, too, now, I’ve just been there, and Tunisia and Morocco as well, and goodness knows where else – Japan, I suppose – but we’ve been doing it for over a century.

Indeed, Alberto Moravia, I noticed recently, goes right back to the beginning of time:

‘In the beginning was boredom,’ he writes in La noia, ‘commonly called chaos. God, bored with boredom, created the sky, the waters, the animals, the plants, Adam and Eve ...’

Born bored, as Moravia said of himself, and infected with Baudelaire’s gangrenous ennui, he declared even God bored. For this the Vatican put his works on its list of prohibited books.  (Always an honour.)

There are lots of words for ‘coming unstuck’: I think it’s at the heart of what the French mean by ennui and what Sartre meant by la nausée ... and Alberto Moravia by la noia ... In English we might think of ‘adrift’ or ‘angst’ or ‘alienation’ or ‘existential dread’ or ‘déraciné’ (so much classier than ‘uprooted’) or just ‘glum indifference’, a queasy-making lack of contact with the objects and people surrounding us. 

Philosophers sometimes blame Dostoyevsky and his Underground Man for this state of affairs, but you might also think of Anton Chekhov’s stories ... or Sartre or Camus or Moravia and, of course, above all, of the French Nobel Prize-winner André Gide, also on the Vatican’s list of prohibited authors (such an influence in my own life from the time I was a teenager and first tried to read him in French – well, I worked in Angus & Robertson every Christmas, you see, right next to the Foreign Language section, in Castlereagh St here in Sydney ... those were the days ... although paradoxically there was no multiculturalism in those days, by God we loved our foreign languages). 

As I say, I don’t know if we can pin the blame for coming unstuck definitively on anybody – although I’d love to think it was André Gide, banned by the Vatican, because his grand-daughter, Sophie, is Australian and a friend of mine, in fact, she’s more Tasmanian than I am, it turns out, having spent half her life on the island I now call home. I’d love to think I had an intimate connection with the man responsible for our condition.

Whoever is to blame, I do know that there’s something we can do about it. 

And you’re doing it.

Oddly enough – and this is complete coincidence – it was André Gide’s grand-daughter Sophie who gave me the word for what we can do. She’s been spending a lot more time lately back in France, not being dramatically younger than I am, and she said what she wanted to do at this point in her life was to re-anchor herself somewhere where everyone spoke French.

Je voudrais me réancrer en France, dans la langue française, she said.

Learning a language, you see, I do believe (having learnt quite a few in my time, some more successfully than others – Japanese was a disaster, and Finnish a farce) learning a language anchors us; in time ­– the flow of time that Billy Pilgrim came adrift in – (language having a geology, after all, it is, like a mountain, the child of time), in a place we start to dream of as our own, in a culture we begin to call in some sense our own.

Learning a language, unlike anything else, fights this modern malaise of rootlessness, equivocation, and indifference (blithe or glum) by actively connecting us to the world – or a world, or worlds – to people and things who need to be named, need to be given verbs and adjectives and connections to other people and things.

It’s not so much the language, it’s the learning, I believe. 

Please teach me.

There are other things we can try - other things I have tried.

‘When one realises that his life is worthless,’ the philosopher Edward Dahlberg once wrote , and I know precisely what he means, ‘he either commits suicide or travels.’

I’ve tried both, thinking my life was worthless, as I’ve documented in my books, and travel is certainly much more fun, and not unrelated to learning a language, after all: at its best it anchors you in a time, in a place and in a culture – it’s like friendship, it’s like falling in love, it’s about a deep knowing, a being-with, a slow disrobing.

But learning a language (I do believe) does it better.

I’m biased, of course – as you probably are. I started learning French when I was a very petit enfant indeed – my father insisted on it and took me to gatherings of French-speakers at an early age at the Alliance française, of course, but not only there, and subscribed to a French newspaper to be read in the sun on the back verandah. And at school (as I say: those were the days) I learnt Latin and German as well as French – an ordinary state school, nothing fancy – having taken myself off at the age of ... what? ... well, it was before I went to high-school,  eleven perhaps – to the Workers’ Education Association once a week to learn Russian.

And I kept learning it and ended up teaching it. And at different times I’ve poked my nose into Italian, Spanish, Polish and one or two other tongues, depending on where I was headed.

To learn well, you must be hungry and full of joy.  Don’t you agree? Isn’t that what ‘passion’ is?  Hunger shot through with joy. Hunger and joy. (I know I’m making it sound like “Poh’s Kitchen”, but you know what I mean.)

There’s no way around the subjunctive (if you’re learning a Romance language), or all those case-endings (if it’s Slavic), or tenses and collocations and genders. Perhaps nowadays you have clever ways of inculcating them that we knew nothing about. But over and above these formalities, the adoption of these basic politenesses, there must be hunger and there must be joy.

I’m not sure (looking back) that my German teacher at school, for instance, spoke terribly good German, but he made me hungry (for Austria, oddly enough, rather than Germany) and he filled me (by rooting me in a time, in a place and in a culture)with a kind of joy.  He connected me to people and things.

Russian filled me with an even greater joy, I must be frank:

I love every syllable, every phoneme in the overflowing treasure-house that is the Russian language (I wrote in a recent book). I love its tumult and its order, its play with infinite disguises, the theatre of it, the whip-cracking three-ringed-circusness of it, its balletic perfection and peacock elegance alongside its earthiness, its sibilance, its oos and aws and cascades of syllables.  How sad I feel when I admit to myself (as I must, if Im honest) that I will never know it as Id like to, Ill never know it, for all my love of it, as intimately as even some ten-year-old street kid in Vladivostok knows it.  Yet its woven into my soul, its the weft to the warp I was born with.  (Since were talking about Russian, Ill permit myself  soul.)

Other wonderful things happen when you learn a language, obviously. Since each of us is a voice – that being what the self is, surely: a voice – a well of speaking memories. Learning a language multiplies our selves.  Once one, we become many.

‘But you are a different person in English!’ a Russian friend of mine exclaimed when she first heard me speak English.

Well, of course I’m different in English. As teachers, you are creating a multitude of selves – and who would not find that exciting?

But there’s something else I’d like to mention before I call the winner up to receive the inaugural Patji-Dawes prize: it’s a slightly awkward word, which I suspect many in the institutions where you work do not quite believe in, or are at least wary of: humanity.

‘Why,’ I asked a friend of mine who has taken up Italian at an advanced age (mine) with a passion ... won’t go out on Tuesday nights lest she miss a class, won’t take holidays during the months the course is being offered, has stopped visiting her family in Cornwall and will only spend what little she has on going to Italy, eats Italian, reads Italian, dreams only of Italy ...

‘why on earth,’ I asked her, ‘are you learning Italian?

I mean ... well, um ... you’re never going to ... well, can I be brutally frank?

You’re never going to speak it like a native now, are you ...’

‘I’m learning it,’ she said, ‘because it makes me feel more deeply human. For you it might be Russian, for someone else Chinese, but for me it’s Italian. The Renaissance, you know – I’m in love with the Renaissance. But it’s not just that, it’s that when I’m in the class, when I’m there, when I’m learning, I’m more human.  I’m more civilised.  My sort of human. My sort of civilisation. Not yours or anybody else’s – mine.’

And she is.

And so please teach and learn.  Never stop.  To stop is a kind of dying.

We all need to feel in some sense stuck back in time.

Only you can do it.

And now it gives me great pleasure to call on someone who does it in Canberra, the winner of this year’s inaugural Patji-Dawes award for outstanding achievements in language teaching to come forward to receive the recognition you so richly deserve.

Sarah Payne: congratulations!

This is a transcript of the speech given by Robert Dessaix at the inaugural Patji-Dawes award conferral ceremony at Macquarie University on 25 November 2015. View photos here


  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University