The Monthly strikes again

The locals will know, the un-Australians won’t: after a public and very unflatteringly-viewed sacking of their finest editor to date, because she dared work independently of her board, The Monthly, Australia’s only candidate for an art&politics magazine, has just appointed a new editor. He is 23 years old.

The public discussion has gone two ways: the road of restrained scepticism on the one hand, and the anti-ageism way on the other. The latter say: why couldn’t he be a good editor at that age? I was called young when I started (though I was 28/39/45 at the time)…

Ah, the point ain’t that a 23-year-old cannot be a decent editor of the country’s only pretendent at intelligent political magazine. The point is that he will not be the best possible. One needs experience, those 10,000 hours, one needs to fail before one learns. And, considering the circumstances in which Sally Warhaft lost her position, great skills are required of a Monthly editor if s/he is to be great.

On the other hand, it’s fair to assume there is no real desire to make The Monthly great. Guy Rundle has every right to point out that The Monthly has been content to be rather dull and uninspired where it could have been brilliant and influential. The weight of the magazine lies in what it does, not how it does it. It’s business as usual: we know how little we want, and that means we recognise it immediately. Again we are at the point, so common in this young country, where we proclaim the 20-something as a genius. Again that need not to demand the learning process from others – perhaps because then we would need to demand it from ourselves too?

Pavlov’s Cat, commenting on the issue, quotes T. H. White:

There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can’t teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically — she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. … And then … she can go on living — not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She … continues henceforth under the guise of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense … and now she has the seventh one — knowledge of the world.

The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy — this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognised without a cry. We only carry on … riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do. …

I trust 23-year-old boys with very little, on a daily basis. I am 24 years old now: I still don’t know much, but I do know a great deal more than I did a year ago. Those who say that age doesn’t matter perhaps don’t remember what 23 feels like. Or perhaps they’re young themselves, and don’t know how little they know yet. After all, when I was 22, I trusted 23-year-old boys with many things. I am sure Ben Naparstek is among the better 23-year-old boys out there, if not the very best. Still.

On a slightly oblique note: I was on a bit of a mission earlier this year, talking to my older friends about the sort of things they’ve learned with age. I’ve always found that Woody-Allenism, “you don’t learn, you only get older”, troubling and manifestly incorrect. The responses have been interestingly laconic. Some have said you get tougher. Some have said you learn to distinguish types of people. You become less tolerant. Largely, there was a strange quietness at the question, as if they suspected I wouldn’t be able to do much with the information – which was probably right. I see younger people – in my class, or my sister’s teenage friends – and I can see the mistakes they need to make. Like T. H. White points so well, it is an illogical sort of knowledge, an ever-shifting sense of balance. It cannot be taught. What happens, I imagine, is that you learn the world, and you learn yourself.

Roz Hansen, whom I had the great luck to interview in 2008, summarized a woman’s career trajectory this way:

In your twenties you’re treading water, you’re trying things out. In your thirties you know what you’re doing and you’re starting to build your career. In your forties you’re making money. And in your fifties you have the experience, you’re confident, and you do it for love, because it makes you happy.

It’s not a bad thing to have in mind, I suppose.