Interview with Dan O'Neill

[Questions were drafted by William Holbrook and Damian Maher, who interviewed Dan at the University of Queensland on 31 March 2017. The interview was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland. The text has been edited for concision.]


Dan O'Neill was a leader in Brisbane's New Left during the '60s and '70s and taught English for decades at the University of Queensland.


William Holbrook is from Brisbane. He co-edits sugarcane.


Damian Maher, a former co-editor of sugarcane, graduated from UQ in 2017. He is currently reading for a DPhil in English at Oxford.


Dan O'Neill under arrest in 1978. Karl Paipaea-Munnease photo, Mark Plunkett papers, Fryer Library.

W & D: When did you start teaching at UQ?

Dan: Well, I finished my English Literature Honours here in 1959. I was supposedly an Arts/Law student and I would have had two full years of Law to go. But I was in a Land Law lecture, trying to take notes, but I was also reading The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. At a certain point, I went on reading the book and stopped taking notes. Then, I think it must have been a couple of days after, I went around to see the Professor and said, "I've decided not to go ahead with law". I won a scholarship to Oxford where I was originally taking an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. I got over there, but I wound up having a very long depression and eventually had to be hospitalised for ten months at the Warneford Hospital in Oxford, which meant I couldn't continue to do the weekly one-on-one tutorials that you do in an undergraduate degree there. And so, the question was, "Should I stay there or come back, or what?" I decided I'd stay and do a degree called a B.Litt on a theme in the prose works of Matthew Arnold. I was interested in the convergence of Arnold’s theories of religion and his theories of poetry. In a way, what he was doing was trying to naturalise all the supernatural elements in the Judao-Christian tradition. Part of his argument, and a very important part of his argument, was that the Judaic religion was really a prolonged meditation on Hebrew literature. Anyway, in the course of that I read and reread all of Arnold's prose works and got really absorbed in them. In a way it was a return to literature as the main focus of my intellectual interests. In late 1964, I still didn't have much idea what I wanted to do as a career. I wasn't even thinking of that in a way — I was just going on studying. You know, study seemed to be the point of life. But then a friend sent me an advertisement for a job as a lecturer here in the English Department. I applied for it and got it and came back in 1965.

So who were the teachers who were most important to you as a student and then as a teacher yourself?

I remember two teachers in particular: Andy Thompson and Cecil Hadgraft. Andy Thompson was, in a major way, a teacher rather than a scholar. His whole personality somehow invested Yeats and whoever else he taught with a certain glamour that they wouldn't otherwise have had. Later on, I got to teach with Cecil. But in general, though, I'd say that I wasn't influenced by any individual here to the extent that I was later influenced by F. R. Leavis and then Raymond Williams. There wasn't a reigning rationale of English studies here in the way that there was at a place like Cambridge or, to some extent, and later on, in Melbourne. The lazy underlying assumption here was that the study of English was part of literary history. Now I don't want to undervalue that. Because when I look at the way English has gone over the years since then, well, at least back then if you did English 1, 2 and 3, not even as an Honours student, you would've learned about everything from Beowulf right through to the present. You would've read a hefty number of really significant poems, plays, novels, and songs. You would have had a genuine education, I think, in the reading of English. I just don't have the impression that that happens anymore. So I suppose that insofar as I began to have a theoretical basis to what I was doing, it was in the influence of the debates around Leavis and the notion that there's a distinctive training that you got, or could get, in the study of English, which was conjoining intelligence and sensibility in a disciplined attention to the words on the page in the context of the traditions in which the works had been written.

So why did you move from Leavis to Williams?

There's probably one book that I'd mention that shifted me, and that was Williams's book Culture and Society. That was a real revelation to me of how you could look at what had happened since the French Revolution and the period of the great English Romantics, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the continuity of new themes from then through to the present. If Leavis was, in one sense, mourning the collapse of the organic society as a continuing decline, Williams was saying, "We nevertheless live in that period and we need to understand it". But the full story of why I shifted my allegiance isn't just about reading: it's also about what happened here in the late '60s. It kicked off with The Big March, as we used to call it, which happened in September 1967. That was a march from the University to Roma Street where the cops stopped us and so on. 4000 people marched and a hell of a lot of people who didn't march walked all the way into town along the footpath. You had a real confrontation in Roma Street involving the University, as an institution worried about civil liberties, and the State. The march began with a big banner in front of it saying, "We are not marching with a permit". (They had given us a permit at the last minute, and we tore up the permit to show that we thought you shouldn't need a permit.) Protests against conscription were attended by a very small number of people, but this Big March was saying, "Why are the police discriminating against this minority who are protesting about the Vietnam War?" What happened, I think as a result, was that in the matrix of the civil liberties issue and the American response to it, a new kind of discussion occurred on this campus between people from all sorts of backgrounds and a movement gradually emerged; a radical movement, which instigated a new intellectual liveliness on this campus. If you compare the student movement here with the student movements in Monash, and in Sydney, and Melbourne and other universities, I think this one was much the most significant. There was a thing called The Forum in those days, which would start about lunch time and people would get up and talk about some issue. Then other people would get up and the discussion would go on, sometimes until about four o'clock in the afternoon, and there was a big refec and discussions would continue in the refec. I think my involvement in all that also interacted dialectically with my ongoing weekly teaching. The kind of issues that were coming up in those protracted discussions around political issues, somehow or other fed into my preoccupations as a teacher. If the circumstances had been right you can very well imagine Williams speaking in The Forum, but you couldn't imagine Leavis speaking in The Forum. Williams was, if you like, a fully-accredited literary-critical mind, training that mind on the interaction of literary and political and cultural and other values. And I think that seemed to me to be a highly attractive way to understand the world.

Part of that new intellectual liveliness was your revival of Galmahra. How did that come about?

Well, somehow or other I formed the notion that there was a kind of continuity of intellectual life at this university that went right back to the days of people like Jack Lindsey and P. R. Stephensen. The romance of that got to me.


Stephensen in particular is an interesting figure for you because following his involvement in the Communist Party in the UK, he radically swings towards the far right. Did his politics bother you?

I think when I look back, it must be something like this: I thought what's wrong in Brisbane is that, here we are at the end of a period of about twenty-three years of the dominance of Robert Gordon Menzies and, particularly in Brisbane, this exaggerated provincial sleepiness. The University, you could regard as in the tradition of the conflicts between the town and the gown that go way back to the origins of the medieval university. I remember writing an editorial in Semper about how the University ought to stand for something that was in contradiction to the general spirit of the place. I suppose the way I would have looked on people like Lindsay and Stephensen wouldn’t have been in terms of their precise political alignments, but in terms of their having a liveliness and intellectual rigor and vigour that countervailed the attitudes of a fairly sleepy, apathetic town. That's always been part of my attitude to the University. I often think I'm a '50s man who greeted the late '60s as an awakening. It always reminds me of what Wordsworth wrote in the 1805 Prelude. He was born in 1770 and in 1789 he's 19, and there's a bit where he says, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" I've always applied that since I read it to the feeling on this campus from 1967 to 1972. There was this young generation of people who were biologically supplied with all the impulses of youth interacting with a shift in history that took us suddenly — not only here but everywhere else — from a bipolar world, where there was the Soviet Union on the one side and the United States as the "leader of the free world" on the other side, into a new world, in which you could sympathize with national liberation movements all around the world. That meant that your major alliances were with new and vigorous forces trying to throw off either the imperialism emanating from the United States or the degenerated, bureaucratised deformation of the socialist project that had begun in 1917. It was a very stimulating period. Sadly, when I think about the present period, the line that comes into my head is Mathew Arnold’s, where he talks about, "An iron time / Of doubts, disputes, distraction, fears." I think if you're born as a young person into one bit of history that's essentially stimulating and an ascending spiral you have a different attitude to yourself and to your fellows than you would if you had been born into a period of concentration and reaction.

Around the same time you published Up the Right Channels. How did that fit into the student movement?

In 1970, the radical movement at this university had got well into the process of trying to make the university more democratic. The vanguard of the student movement actually produced a manifesto about the university and we wanted what we called Student/Staff Control. We wanted a comprehensive overhaul of all the governing bodies, so that the place would be run by the people who did the teaching and the learning. It wasn't just based on abstract democratic theory. We said, "Look, there's certain institutional consequences that should flow from the ideal of the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of criticism". As far as I am concerned, my thinking about universities was influenced by people like Newman. That mid-nineteenth century view that the university should value knowledge for its own sake, and should facilitate interactions between staff and students that would lead in that way. Intellectuals should be equal regardless of their actual full institutional status. Up the Right Channels was actually written by about a hundred people (I was one of the editors). It originated in a leaflet that I had written at the end of '69, calling for a meeting of anyone interested in continuing the critique of the university. A lot of people responded, and it led to a series of weekly meetings all over the summer, at 22 Schonell Drive, where a whole lot of student radicals had lived over time. I remember meetings of the English Department where there were about a hundred people in the committee, about fifty students and an almost equal number of staff. You cannot imagine that now. It looks to me as though even the staff have capitulated to the managerial people. Now, the project that we had then would be absolutely side-lined, but there was a period there where it looked as though we might even succeed. It just seems to me that if you go back, there was a stage where, even to a fault, the university was almost like an ivory tower, counter-posed to the economy and to the society in general. And particularly since the emergence of the mass university and going from five or six universities to — what it is now? Thirty something? — there's been this inevitable saturation of the university by the reigning values in the organized industrial capitalist society; as if there was nothing else for the university to do except supply that with people-power. Now, if you take that point of view, and that's your theoretical baseline, then you're inevitably going to deluge the values of the tradition that came down from the Middle Ages with these values that emerge with the growth of capitalism from the mid-eighteenth century up to the present time. But in the late '60s, when that subsequently famous student Mario Savio, at Berkeley, stood up and said, "We don’t want to be processed anymore. We want to actually be real individual human beings", that drew an enormous response, but maybe the reason it could draw such a response is what I referred to earlier, that there happened to be an ascending spiral of history that was progressive and counter-reactionary, and that enabled students to say, "You're telling us that it can’t be otherwise. We're saying it's got to be otherwise". I'm perpetually astonished that nothing like that ever happens anymore.

So how, then, in a moment like the present, when the values of industrial capitalism, as you say, have saturated the university, can reading literature attentively make any difference?

One feeling I have at the moment is a really pessimistic feeling that the civilization of industrial capitalism worldwide is in a decline. There doesn’t seem to be a widespread recognition that there is an immense crisis based on the fact that nature has turned against us, because we won’t recognize what we're doing to nature. If I take that into view, then I ask myself, "How does a hopeful study of the disciplines associated with History view the present time?" If you see human beings as basically historical beings, then it could be we're going nowhere. But of course we're not just historical beings, we're biological entities who are increasingly subject as we develop to aging, to sickness, and, ultimately, to death. And I don't think that a lot of sociology, political economy, social theory, historiography et cetera, necessarily wants to take that with ultimate seriousness. I think, in a way, it's like we have this unadmitted premise that what's important is humanity as a collective social phenomenon, rather than each of us individually as someone who eventually is going to die. Now, literature has always taken that seriously. So if you set up two vast spheres and one is the sphere of Nature and our involvement in Nature, and the other, the sphere of History, then I think Literature has always straddled those two areas, or looked at the huge void between Nature and History, and that's why the reading of literature is endlessly gripping. That's one reason to go on reading literature. Now, politics, of course, becomes a part of literature inevitably and there are implicit political attitudes that differ from writer to writer. But you get people nowadays, under the influence, I think, of a certain kind of supposedly "correct" thinking who, when they go to a poet like Keats, think, "he must have politics somewhere here, so let's find it and let's emphasize it". But Keats, for instance, if you read his letters in particular, is incredibly interesting independently of that question foisted upon him. Now I'm not denying that he's got a politics (I suppose you'd have to call him a liberal in the Cockney style of Leigh Hunt and the group he moved with). But literature more fully engages you and makes you attend to the manifold ways in which you are human, in a way that merely isolating politics as the crucial thing won't do. This doesn't mean that I wouldn’t continue to struggle for socialism and support people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and be delighted that young people are responding to them. But what if it is the case that there's no justified optimism about where we're going historically? Well, then, in that case, it’s still important to read literature.Editors: What book, then, would you have all university students read today and why?Dan: That reminds me of the question that was asked of G. K. Chesterton once: "What single book would you take if you had to go to a desert island?" He said a book on shipbuilding. My answer would be Newman’s On the Scope and Nature of University Education — it introduces you to that question of "what could a good university be like?" To end, I'd just like to read a bit of it (from Discourse Six):


“If I had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away ... if I were asked which of these two methods was the better discipline of the intellect — mind, I do not say which is morally the better, for it is plain that compulsory study must be a good and idleness an intolerable mischief — but if I must determine which of the two courses was the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity, I have no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun. ... [For] when a multitude of young men ... come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day. ... For the pupils or students come from very different places, and with widely different notions, and there is much to generalize, much to adjust, much to eliminate, there are inter-relations to be defined, and conventional rules to be established, in the process, by which the whole assemblage is moulded together, and gains one tone and one character. ... That youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow.”

sugarcane 2020. ISSN 2208-3952.