A Historian Against the Current by Don Longo

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

‘… all history is contemporary historyall serious study of the past is informed by the problems of the historian’s own time.’ Benedetto Croce

On reading the prologue in Don Longo’s biography of Austin Gough, it occurred that Longo was being dramatic in an effort to incite readers’ curiosity.  Apparently Gough was a man of many paradoxes; Longo attempts a list.  Surely that many inconsistencies could not reside in one person, let alone a much lauded academic.  To paraphrase William S, if Austin Gough were a player upon a stage I could condemn him as an improbable fiction. As such, this is a most interesting biography.

From the beginning, it is clear that Longo, who had been a student of Gough in 1970s (University of Adelaide), held his Professor in great regard.  Whereas Gough was fierce in his opposition to radicalism, Longo presents him as a kind human being, a good friend, and an inspirational caring teacher. Longo was not alone in his admiration, quoting Gough’s contemporaries (p. 89): ‘sheer intellectual calibre’, ‘excellence’ of his lectures and his ‘remarkable’ qualities as a scholar.  And, Hugh Stretton: ‘perhaps the best university teacher I have ever known’, ‘able to elicit students’ interest in a way that no-one else could have done’. (p.117) There are similar acclamations from Gough’s time at Oxford.

Longo takes pains to describe Gough’s early years in careful detail, perhaps digging for the roots of all those paradoxes.  And he certainly uncovered some in Gough’s fractured relationship with his parents, and the family’s position and experience within the Catholic Church. He details family origins and history, Gough’s early years from birth 1926-1958.  As reported, George and Ida Gough took more interest in competition golf than parenting; his mother was particularly cruel and spiteful towards him in his late teenage years, which, despite his immense capability, must have eroded his confidence.  Regardless of his fractured relationship with his parents, he wrote many letters to keep them abreast of his progress, perhaps still seeking their approval. However, Gough did have a wonderful relationship with his maternal grandfather, George Roper, an educator and talented musician working within the Catholic Church.  It was George Roper who introduced Gough to literature, music and much more besides on their long rambles together.  Gough describes him in the most glowing and loving terms.  It was through George Roper and listening to family debates that Gough came to understand the theological and political conflicts between the English and Irish divisions of the Catholic Church.  George made it abundantly clear which side of the divide the Ropers and Gough stood – demonstrably on the English side!  Sadly for the Ropers, the Irish branch gradually took precedence, so suppressing George Roper’s economic life.  These divisions, plus aspects of his family life, says Longo, positioned Gough as an outsider, a stance that dogged much of his life. Spiritually, Gough slipped from the Church’s grasp becoming an atheist in his teens, but, ironically, the politics and theological conflicts within the Church remained a life-long passion and the main focus of his research.  During his honours year, Gough decided that he would be a historian of France focusing on the relations between church and state.

Readers, not familiar with Australian Catholic Church history, will find the above interesting, although lacking is a brief explanation from Longo concerning the Syllabus of Errors, how the Manicheans fitted into the scheme of things, and the significance of Montanism, as represented in Gough’s Paris and Rome: The Gallican Church and the Ultramontane Campaign, 1848-1853 (1986).  This was his only major work. Gough was a wonderful literary stylist but, added to his many other inconsistencies, his output was not prolific.

Longo covers 1955-1970, Gough’s time at Oxford, and briefly at the University of Warwick. Gough returned to Australia and the University of Melbourne before being offered the position of Professor of History at the University of Adelaide in 1970.  This seemingly wonderful progression was marred by disillusion. Longo outlines how Gough expected to have control of his department and the subjects offered.  However, the university was caving in to radical student movements demanding a more democratic approach to university administration and a broader curriculum – all of which Gough vehemently opposed as unworkable and academically unsound. He was forever in opposition and forever fighting against a surge of reforms.  Although pertinent, Longo does not discuss the broader context, a youth movement attempting a more democratic less classist society and the anti-Vietnam War marches.  Or how Whitlam as Prime Minister changed Australia, many would say for the better.  All through this, Gough remained the most conservative of conservative, and in heated opposition.  One might wonder why a historian’s analyses did not produce a more nuanced view of the 1970s social climate.  Longo provides some clarity (p.138) and it comes wrapped in Gough’s insights regarding the nature of historical change.  He viewed all history as a conflict between two groups of thinkers. Fundamentalists needing the illusion of moral certainty, and, moderate, rational individuals, skeptical about sweeping solutions and dogmas to all of human endeavour.  Longo reports that Gough saw himself as a historian of ideologies, presenting the Church as competing visions of collective utopias and how this was expressed in political and social contexts.

In ‘the superb intellectual comedy of 19th century Catholicism’, Gough the atheist historian saw resemblances and correspondences with ideologies and events of the 1960s and 1970s. Gough’s Church is both institution and cipher; his histories dissect struggles analogous to those of his own time, denounce similar zealotry and explore identical anxieties. (p.139)

So, it seems, Gough viewed the radical left of politics as the fundamentalists needing certainty, and the right-wingers as moderate and rational.  Clearly I’m missing a chunk of Gough’s brilliant analytical thinking here, because to my mind the reverse makes more sense.  I might be mulling over this biography for sometime!

Longo gives a good account of Gough’s active retirement taken up by journalism.  I would have appreciated at least a small collection of reprints of a newspaper articles written by Gough in his retirement to be included. This would have the duel purpose of appreciating his famed literary style while understanding how he promoted his ideas. Oddly, Longo provides a photocopy of two articles, so reduced that even with the aid of a magnifying glass remained illegible.  Given that Gough was considered to be something this country is desperately short of – a highly intelligent, conservative journalist – perhaps, at some stage Australia will be given the gift of a compilation of Gough’s articles.

In this carefully researched work, Longo refers to many sources personal and professional: family papers/letters and photographs, Gough’s own notebooks from his teenage/young adult years, radio interviews, and articles written by Gough.  All of which are well referenced, although the Index comes up short. Gough was a firm believer in legitimate power but I didn’t come across an explanation of how Gough believed power is legitimatized exactly.  To the cynical, the sword and coercive control form the genesis of power and it takes a bit of effort to move it toward any semblance of egalitarian principles.  Nevertheless, the Epilogue sums up brilliantly.  Don Longo has presented a balanced picture of a brilliant man of good character on the conservative side of things. His life and work also carry an important legacy.  Like Rousseau before him, he cannot be accused of willful prejudices and amongst all his contradictions and paradoxes there remain important lessons in personal fortitude and public audacity.

 To many readers Austin Gough will be an enigma – a historian, seemingly, on the wrong side of history.   Others might think his passionate opposition only provoked an equally passionate response acting to further deepening the divide between left and right. Whereas a more nuanced commentary might produce calmer debates and better outcomes.   And other readers will understand that Gough was motivated by a deep anxiety regarding an increasingly radical post-modernism, disparaging the ideals of Enlightenment rationality, and his commentaries were a prescient warning of the cancel culture, and other excesses, that followed.

Recommended!

A Historian Against the Current: The Life and Work of Austin Gough

By Don Longo

(2021)

Wakefield Press

Paperback

ISBN 978 17430 5826 8

$34.95; 282pp

 

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