Breaking into the École Normale Supérieure

photoFor as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the École Normale Supérieure. So many French philosophers I have read about have studied there. Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Hyppolite, Althusser, Beauvoir. In fact, Sartre and Beauvoir first met here in 1929, when both were studying for the agrégation, France’s toughest exam for want-to-be-philosophers. Throughout the twentieth century, this most elite of Paris’s educational institutions has been a breeding ground for new bold new ideas, a hotbed of -isms, including existentialism, humanism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism and more recently, postmodernism.

Naturally, when I was in recently in Paris doing research on the lives of French philosophers for my book Lovers of Philosophy, I wanted to visit the place where so many prominent continental philosophers developed their initial ideas. So, along with my 14-year-old daughter Alex who was travelling with me, I found myself cycling through the Latin Quarter in search of this esteemed institution. It’s usually more fun looking for places that are off the tourist track when travelling, and this journey was no exception. Before long, we found ourselves on the Rue d’Ulm, a narrow tree-lined backstreet with cheap and battered bicycles chained up along the railings of its wide pavements, a clear sign we were close to a place frequented by poor and struggling scholars. Sure enough, we soon saw increasing numbers of young people in that universal student uniform, jeans and T-shirts, walking along singly or in twos and threes, books and bags in hand. Then we came across what we were looking for, an old nondescript sandstone building with a faded sign across the top of its entrance. The sign said École Normale Supé 1

I had travelled 26,000 km, all the way from Brisbane on the other side of the world, to visit the place where Sartre and Beauvoir had met ninety years ago, but now I faced an unexpected obstacle. There was a boom gate and security guard at the university’s entrance, with access only allowed to authorised students and staff. I thought about just trying to discreetly walk in as a student let himself out, but my conscientious, rule-abiding and embarrassment-averse daughter got visibly nervous when I mentioned this idea, and I had to admit I didn’t fancy the prospect of being handed over to French authorities for trespassing in a school of philosophy.

Eventually I decided to just ask the security guard. I explained that I was interested in visiting as I was writing a book on Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers who had studied here. His English was nonexistent, and the little of the French language I knew departed me at this crucial moment. Consequently, I made no headway at all in trying to communicate an idea clearly beyond my limited linguistic capacities. So I resorted to the age-old technique of tourists, especially of the American variety, of repeating myself, getting louder each time. ‘Sartre! Sartre!’ I boomed, gesticulating meaninglessly and unhelpfully at the young and bewildered security guard. Clearly he had never heard of the esteemed philosopher, but he started looking up his computer database to see if he could find a student or staff member by that name. Knowing he was unlikely find the name of a student who hadn’t been there since the 1930s, I shook my head, waved my hands, and tried another tack:

‘Can we just go in for 5 minutes?’

‘Sure’, he nodded, and opened the gate.

Easy as that, after all.

Somewhat exhilarated, we walked through the security gate and up the stone stairs into the institution’s front building. Inside we found several highly intelligent-looking impossibly young philosophers of the future going about their business. ‘Try to look like a student’, I whispered to my daughter, who was thoroughly enjoying our adventure by now. Posters of upcoming philosophical events graced the 4 One poster featuring a large full-length photo of Jacques Derrida looking wistful on a beach announced a talk that day about the recently deceased father of deconstruction.

The foyer then opened up into a beautiful garden, in which students with laptops, papers and books sat here and there on park benches and tables. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a lovely light breeze rustled through the trees and shrubs in the garden as students murmured softly and earnestly to each other. I couldn’t make out whether they were talking about philosophy or their social lives, but I did notice one attractive-looking young female student looking at her paper with a middle-aged man, presumably her professor, sitting very close to her as he pointed at the unwieldy manuscript on the table before them. I instantly recognised what appeared to me to be an example of a notorious and age-old pattern in university teacher-student relations.

photo 5I sat with my daughter on the edge of the garden, in a stone recess in one of the four walls that bordered the garden. Both of us tried our best, with a spectacular lack of success I suspected, to look inconspicuous.

I then realised that this was probably the very garden in which Beauvoir had first met Sartre many years ago. I recalled reading an account of her visiting the École Normale Supérieure one day from the nearby Sorbonne University where she was studying, whereupon she saw a student pouring a bucket of water from a second storey window on to his fellow students below, whilst shouting ‘Thus Pissed Zarathustra!’ The twenty-one-year-old Beauvoir was most impressed with this young man’s mischievousness, not to mention his knowledge of the philosophical work Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher whom she was familiar with and greatly admired. The water-pouring prankster was, of course, the future existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Within weeks he and Beauvoir would team up to become the most renowned philosophical couple in history.

photo 2

Nizan’s name is a third-way down the centre column

I wandered out of the garden into an exit on its far side, which led into another foyer. On one of the walls of this large sandstone room I found a large memorial board of the type that sadly one sees frequently throughout Europe. This board listed the names of previous students of the École Normale Supérieure who had perished in the Holocaust. Amongst this list I recognised the name Paul Nizan. I remembered from my reading that Nizan was one of the students whom Sartre had poured water on in that fateful prank in 1929. He was one of Sartre’s closest friends at the École, and became a close friend of Beauvoir’s, too. He, along with Beauvoir, was part of a small group of students that met regularly at Sartre’s place to discuss philosophy. It was at this group’s meetings that Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship blossomed. It came back to me on seeing Nizan’s name on that board, that I had read how he had been detained during World War Two and transported to a concentration camp, never to be seen again.

In her autobiography, Beauvoir would later write of the shock and despair she and many others experienced in the wake of World War Two:

‘It was a ravaged world… No blade of grass in any meadow, however I looked at it, would ever again be what it had been.’

photo 3

The start of a love affair at the ENS in 2014? Sartre and Beauvoir started theirs here in 1929

It was into this ravaged world, in which people had lost faith in institutions such as the church, the state, and even science and technology to guide them, that the existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Beauvoir, based on the idea that each of us must create our own meaning in life, would later flourish and become the philosophy de rigueur on the streets of post-war Paris.

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Sartre and Beauvoir’s Final Resting Place

Sartre and Beauvoir's grave in Montparnasse cemetery

Sartre and Beauvoir’s grave in Montparnasse cemetery

Jean-Paul Sartre and his lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir were both buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, just south of their old stomping ground in St-Germain-des-Prés. When Sartre was buried there in 1980, an incredible 50,000 mourners came out to bid farewell to their favourite intellectual. Soon afterwards, Beauvoir, despite her many illustrious achievements as a writer, philosopher and pioneering feminist thinker, would rate her greatest accomplishment as her relationship with her beloved Jean-Paul. Beauvoir died in 1987, and was laid to rest beside her late partner.

Recently, along with my fourteen-year-old daughter Alex, I visited Paris to retrace the footsteps of this extraordinary couple. On an uncharacteristically warm and beautifully clear sunny day in October, we hired some bicycles and pedalled our way along the wide boulevards of Paris’s Latin Quarter in search of the cemetery where the objects of our pilgrimage were buried. Using our map of Paris to guide us, we eventually came across its entrance, nestled in Montparnasse on a quiet tree-lined residential street.

We secured our bikes, and proceeded into the grounds to be greeted by a little, slightly crumpled Frenchman sitting at the gate.

Je voudrais voir Sartre et Beauvoir’, I explained in my hesitant French.

He produced a well-worn laminated map and pointed out the location of Sartre and Beauvoir’s plots on it, over on the other side of the cemetery.

Merci’, I replied, at which point he suggested in thickly accented English:

‘Would you like to take the map with you – you can return it when you come back.’

I took up his kind offer, and as we set off into the cemetery grounds, I noticed as I read the guide he had given us that there were many other esteemed people buried here, including the French writer Marguerite Duras and the American critic Susan Sontag. There were a few other visitors strolling through the grounds, some like us looking for famous people, others paying their respects to deceased relatives and ancestors.

‘This is actually a really nice cemetery’, my daughter observed with an air of pleasant surprise (she had earlier been quite sceptical of my suggestion that visiting such a place would be a good way to spend the morning). I had to agree with her observation. Sunlight that filtered its way through branches and leaves of old plane trees that graced the cemetery grounds warmed our skin as we wormed our way through scattered headstones, some old and neglected, others well-tended with fresh flowers. Birds twittered serenely in the foliage above us as we traversed through this expectant landscape of cement tombs and inscribed stone.

After some time following the directions we had been given, my daughter called out that she had found it. Sure enough, there before us lay a faded sandstone grave bearing the names and years on this earth of our two philosophers. Beauvoir’s headstone was covered with lipstick kisses, lovingly placed there by a previous visitor. Both graves were littered with notes and objects from others from all around the world who had come here before us to pay their respects. I felt compelled, too, to write a note of thanks for the inspiration their works and lives had given me. I folded the handwritten message and left it there amongst the others. My daughter took a few photographs of me standing beside my muses.IMG_3845

In the twenty minutes or so that we lingered at the grave, a few other people came along to pay their respects in the warm silent Paris sunshine. A family speaking a language I didn’t understand arrived, chattered loudly, and pointed at the graves for a while before dispersing, guide book in hand. A young female student came and stood there quietly for a long period in deep reflection. An older lady and then a younger man, both on their own, turned up and stood there in silence. None of them wanted to talk. Each of these solitary pilgrims seemed to want to spend time alone with the thinkers, just as they had when they had read their books. After they all left I too spent some time alone with the writers who had filled my imagination years ago with stories of a bohemian and bustling Paris before, during and after the war.

My daughter and I left the graveside and proceeded to make our way back to the cemetery entrance, whereupon we came across a funeral service, where forty or fifty well-dressed mourners smoked cigarettes, talked and embraced quietly around the grave of their beloved. I found myself imagining the day when Sartre was buried here, when tens of thousands of mourners filled the whole cemetery to capacity. On that day Paris’s citizens had scrambled across headstones and climbed trees in chaotic scenes, trying to get a glimpse of their beloved hero before his casket was lowered into its grave. According to newspaper reports of the service, there was mayhem in the now-quiet cemetery that day as many in the crowd surged to see their philosophical idol before he was laid to rest. And in front of them all, given some space as a sign of respect, had been Simone de Beauvoir dressed in black, kneeling at the graveside and convulsed in grief.

I found myself wondering, as I returned the map to the man at the cemetery gates and cycled off with my daughter into the gloriously sunny day, whether a time would ever come again when thousands would turn up to say good-bye to a man or woman of ideas, or whether those days had passed into history forever.


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Lovers of Philosophy selected for QWC / Hachette Manuscript Development Program

I was delighted recently to receive a call from Stacey Clair at the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC) to inform me that I was one of the ten successful applicants for the QWC / Hachette Manuscript Development Program. Along with the nine others from around Australia, I have been invited to a four-day Manuscript Development Retreat in Brisbane from 31 October to 3 November 2014 at which editors from Hachette Australia, one of Australia’s largest publishers, will provide individual feedback and consultation to help me work on developing my manuscript. I will also get to meet other publishing industry professionals such as literary agents, booksellers and established authors.

At the residential retreat in Brisbane I will have four glorious days to write, mix with other emerging writers, and tap into the expertise of those in the publishing industry. I can’t wait to meet the other writers and making the most of this wonderful opportunity.

After years of researching, writing, editing and polishing my manuscript for Lovers of Philosophy, this is very welcome news, one of those breaks every budding, struggling writer hopes for.

Thank you QWC and Hachette!

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Visiting Sartre’s apartment

Sartre's apartment at 42 Rue Bonaparte

Sartre’s apartment at 42 Rue Bonaparte

It’s a warm early autumn evening in Paris and I’m standing across the street from Jean-Paul Sartre’s old apartment at 42 Rue Bonaparte in St-Germain-des-Pres. The sun is still out, although the shadows cast by the cafes, boutiques and galleries that grace this still-bohemian yet chic inner-city street are starting to lengthen. Scooters, motor bikes and cars bustle up and down the street, competing with local shoppers, promenading lovers, bookshop browsers and families in their Sunday best emerging from a late afternoon tea at the street’s famed specialty macaron patisseries. The footpath here is only two-and-half feet wide, so although it’s not too crowded, pedestrians regularly spill out on to the cobble-stoned street.

As I look up at the shuttered second-floor balcony of the legendary philosopher’s home, I recall from my reading that Sartre moved in here when he was forty-one years old to live with his mother, following the death of her second husband Joseph Mancy. Sartre had resented Mancy ever since he had inconsiderately displaced Sartre at the age of twelve from his position as sole object of his mother’s attention. As a child, the sensitive and lonely philosopher-to-be had no friends his own age, and had been inseparable from his mother ever since the death of his father when he was an infant.

When the opportunity presented itself for the forty-one-year-old to be reunited with his much-missed mother in her perfectly located apartment overlooking one of the Left Bank’s most charming and cosmopolitan streets, he couldn’t resist. The pair were joined by Eugénie, the mother’s longstanding faithful family maid, who insisted on referring to the now-famous adult Jean-Paul as she always had — by his childhood pet name of ‘Master Poulou’.

There is no sign or plaque today to mark the apartment’s previous esteemed resident. From my vantage position across the street, I scan the philosopher’s old residence, and can just make out what appears to be an art-deco table lamp, its light diffusing through a muslin curtain that flaps at the apartment’s full-length window in the warm evening breeze. I strain to see through the veil of shifting drapes, but other features of the apartment’s interior elude my gaze. At this point my imagination takes over, and I see the thick-spectacled writer, pipe in mouth, at his desk at the window looking out on to the jostling bohemian postwar Paris streetscape below, as he would have done in the 1940s and 50s when he lived here. Black-and-white photos I have seen of Sartre at work in his rue Bonaparte address come flooding back to me, in which he sits surrounded by untidily crammed bookshelves at a desk covered with paper, pencils, and an overflowing ashtray. According to those who knew him back then, the prodigious writer didn’t have the healthiest of lifestyles during these years. He didn’t like fruit or vegetables, maintaining his furious writing schedule on a diet that consisted almost entirely of sausage, cigarettes and up to fifty pills a day of the amphetamine Corydrane.

Like many successful writers, Sartre had a daily ritual, though his was unusual even by the standards of his fellow bohemian intellectuals and artistes. The first thing this Don Juan of philosophy would do every morning was to make it clear to whomever he had seduced the night before that she should now leave so that he could get on with his writing. After a coffee and morning cigarette, he would then set to work at his desk for several hours before breaking for lunch with his beloved companion and fellow-philosopher Simone de Beauvoir at the nearby Café de Flore or the Café Deux Magots. During lunch Sartre would discuss the progress of his morning’s writing with Beauvoir, but he would also invariably relate to her details of his most recent sexual conquest. Sartre had managed to convince the initially reluctant Beauvoir years earlier that, in keeping with the principles of freedom inherent in their existentialist philosophy, they should not only have an open relationship in which each was free to take on other lovers, but that they also had a duty to document their experiment in freedom and to disclose everything about these intimate encounters to each other. Remarkably, the two philosophers stayed faithful to this arrangement for the entire fifty years they were together.

After lunch Sartre would return to his apartment and Beauvoir to her hotel (the couple never lived together at any stage during their long, successful and highly unconventional relationship) and resume working through to the early evening.

It is now about 7pm and I’m not sure how long I’ve been standing here on rue Bonaparte caught up in my imaginings about Sartre’s life, but I notice the sun is starting to set. At this time of day sixty years ago, Sartre would have finished work and begun getting dressed to go out for an evening aperitif at one of his favourite local bars with Beauvoir and a few of their friends. They had an illustrious list of associates at the time, including fellow existentialist writer Albert Camus, avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and even, for a short period, Pablo Picasso.

La Hune Bookstore

La Hune Bookstore

I turn around to take in the surrounding view, and notice that directly across the street from Sartre’s old apartment is a bookstore. A large sign in the store window says Philosophie, underneath which is an impressive list of titles on Europe’s finest thinkers. I find the entrance to the store in a side-street around the corner and go inside, where I am greeted with row after row of works by and about Sartre, Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Levi -Strauss, Deleuze, Derrida, Hegel, Foucault and many others. The bookshop is full of other people browsing, who, as far as I can make out, are all French. I feel heartened to see such an interest in ideas and philosophy in this part of Paris so many years later.

I notice all the titles are in French. I ask the bookstore attendant, a rather gaunt but handsome young man with slicked-back dark hair, ‘avez-vous libres en anglais?’ He replies ‘non, seulement français’. They have nothing in English, only French. I purchase a slim volume about Kant as a souvenir, and as I leave the store, determine to myself that I will make a concerted effort to learn more French so I can read this and other books published in a country that clearly values ideas and literature much more than my own.



As I come out of the bookstore on to the side street, I encounter the beautiful St-Germain church, into which are streaming hundreds of worshippers for the evening mass. I follow them inside to be assailed by the sweet pungent scent of incense, and a church packed full of locals singing a hymn in full voice. To my right are candles lit to the memory of the departed. At the front of the church, beyond the jostling crowd of the faithful, are a flurry of priests in white performing the mass’s rituals. As I gaze around, intoxicated by the soaring voices, I take in the exquisitely beautiful stained glass windows and gothic statuettes leaning from the church’s interior walls and marble pillars.

After another hymn I leave and enter a small garden on the church’s grounds. A couple of people, each on their own, sit on bench seats absorbed in books they are reading. In the centre of the garden is a bust of the aforementioned poet Apollinaire. It is only later, on consulting my guidebook back in my hotel room, I read that this sculpture was done by his friend Picasso, and originally erected a block away in the Café di Flore, the favourite haunt of not only Apollinaire, but also his close friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I am also reminded that in St-Germain, Paris’s oldest church, lie the remains of the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes.

The sun has now almost completely set as I sit on one of the park benches in this beautiful garden with my fourteen-year-old daughter Alexandra, who is accompanying me on this pilgrimage of the French philosophers. And although this is only the first day of her first ever visit to Paris, I can already tell from the look in her eye it won’t be the last.

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How is the mind different to the brain?



I will always remember the first time I held a human brain in my hand.


I was a medical student and it was our first neuroanatomy prac. There we stood, hapless medical students in our white coats. Each group of six students stood around a bench, on the centre of which sat a Tupperware container with a brain floating in it in some nondescript fluid. The fact each cerebrum was floating in such a banal-looking Tupperware container, the sort my Mum used in the kitchen, made the spectacle even more surreal and disturbing.


The professor taking the class took some time to explain to us where all the twelve cranial nerves were, before encouraging us to spend the rest of the tutorial trying to locate them on the specimens before us. At this point everyone went silent for several painfully slow seconds until I put my hand up to ask the question that might have been in others’ minds (not brains) too: ‘How do we get the brain out of the container?’ He looked at me as if I was some sort of imbecile: ‘You take it out with your hands’. The look that followed left us in no doubt how incredulous he was that I could ask such a dumb question.


And so I squeamishly – with a straight arm as if to protect my body from contamination – picked up the two pounds of nondescript firm grey stuff that was a human brain and put it on the bench. After tentatively and dutifully looking for all twelve cranial nerves (they all looked so insignificant) my colleagues and I looked for other bits – the cauliflower cerebellum, the cortex, the pons, the medulla. It didn’t take long before we became totally desensitized, just like in my high school biology class two years earlier when we had to dissect a rat, and we rapidly descended from apprehensive dissection to using the rat’s head in macabre pranks on each other when the teacher wasn’t looking. Now, as medical students with only slightly more maturity, we again found ourselves behaving like the lads in Lord of the Flies, as we pinched, pulled, cut and crumpled the piece of insignificant dead formaldehyde-stained flesh before us until there was nothing left but a grey indecipherable mush. Bored and spent, we then listlessly waited for the clock in the classroom to indicate that time was up.


After the prac was over, I felt disturbed. I had cut apart a brain and found nothing of what I felt it was to be human. I felt empty, cheated. Like so many have before and since, I said to myself: there has got to me more to us than this.


And so began my quest to understand – to grasp – the human soul, the spirit, the mind. That which makes us human, unique, and inconceivably complex and precious.


As I went on to complete my medical studies, and afterwards my psychiatry training, I got to know more about the brain, which I found (and still find) fascinating. But it didn’t teach me about the mind. Because for me, the mind is different to the brain. They are not one and the same, although I acknowledge there is a big overlap between the two.


Our current society’s way of seeing the mind is influenced greatly by the dominant scientific opinion of it as an illusory phenomenon arising out of brain neurons firing, While not totally disagreeing with this, I would venture that minds, as opposed to brains, are worth exploring in their own right. We can look at phenomena at different levels: from cell right through to society. We don’t gain anything, and lose a lot, by trying to reduce everything to atoms (or neurons for that matter).


Anyhow, back to my quest to better understand the human mind (as opposed to the brain which I learnt more about in biology classes), I have found myself reading in many diverse fields of human enquiry, including psychology, philosophy, religion, literature, linguistics and the arts. I have looked to the law, to politics, to the cinema, to cultural studies. To history, to feminist studies, to Marx, and to Freud. I haven’t arrived at many answers but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey. And throughout all this I have been concerned with mind , not brain.


Our everyday language regularly reflects the difference between the two, much to the chagrin of some scientists of a reductionistic bent who can be quite dogmatic and evangelical in their certainty that the brain exists but the mind does not.


Brain equates to the matter inside our skulls. It has a certain colour, weight and texture. It is composed of neurons – of cells. The mind on the other hand, refers to consciousness, self-awareness (animals have brains but it is not clear they all have minds). The mind contains not neurons, but thoughts, feelings, hopes, wishes, fears, fantasies and dreams. The mind is not locatable and describable in space like the brain is.


One argument often used against the existence of a mind separate to the brain, is that when the brain dies the mind dies too. However this is not strictly true. Through the magic of the written word we can still access the minds of those whose brains have died, whether it be Einstein’s theory of relativity, the ideas of Freud, or the imagination of Tolstoy or Mark Twain. Through literature, we still have a window into their minds (but not their brain).


When I talk about ‘mindfulness’ techniques with my patients I am asking them to observe their mind’s constant narrative, not their brain’s neuronal firing. When I ask a patient in therapy to imagine how they would like their life to be in twenty years, or what they would like said about their life at their funeral, I am inviting them to harness their free will to imagine something in their mind’s eye. They are using their brain to do it, but a purely mechanistic, deterministic brain-based scientific explanation seems to fall short of explaining how he or she can use their free will to imagine themselves transported across time and place. Just how does a brain produce Tolstoy’s War and Peace? And why would it want to? For that matter, can a brain want? Or is it only a mind that wants?


Which brings me to culture. The mind is inextricably linked up with culture and society. The now somewhat unfashionable philosopher G.W.F. Hegel appreciated this when he wrote his highly influential and acclaimed work Phenomenologie des Geistes in the early 1800s. In trying to capture the German notion of the Geist this work has been variously translated as The Phenomenology of Mind or The Phenomenology of Spirit – but never as The Phenomenology of Brain for good reason. Hegel contended in this work that Geist, or what we might today refer to as consciousness, is the primary reality and that matter came later as a secondary phenomenon. Hegel argued that the history of the world is a history of consciousness – or the mind – gradually evolving to the point where it has become aware of itself through the arrival of self-conscious human beings, a development that Hegel saw as inevitable. Hegel saw the evolution of increasingly sophisticated political systems in Western civilisation throughout history as further evidence of consciousness evolving. As has been mentioned, his perspective would not be a fashionable one nowadays, but it does provide an alternative narrative to science, that perhaps better accounts for the phenomenon we refer to as our evolving society and culture – a collective mind that we all experience.


One of the most dramatic developments in philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in Europe in the so-called continental tradition, has been what has been referred to as the ‘linguistic turn’, whereby thinkers have realized the importance and centrality of language in constructing our realities. Philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida, and to a lesser extent Wittgenstein, have suggested that words (arguably products of the mind) are in many ways a more primary reality than matter.


I would argue that this very essay is a product of the mind rather than the brain, drawing as it does on the thoughts – the minds – of other thinkers whose brains are long gone but their minds are still with us. Furthermore this essay is produced by my mind for the hopeful benefit and interest of other minds, who will still be able to grasp my thoughts even if a sudden misfortune were to befall me, the writer, and result in my (and my brain’s) demise immediately after writing and sending this.


Food for thought.


Which is, of course, a metaphor, another product of the mind rather than the brain. Or so I would argue. But I am mindful (not brainful) that other minds (or brains) may beg to differ.




May 13, 2014 · 6:11 pm

Free Love


Sartre and de Beauvoir’s relationship lasted continuously for over fifty years from soon after they met in 1929 until Sartre’s death in 1980. But their relationship was a most unusual one. From the very beginning of the relationship, they agreed, at Sartre’s suggestion, that each would be free to take on other sexual partners as they pleased. But to avoid jealousy or the deceit characteristic of many bourgeois marriages, they would be totally honest with each other at all times about their other liaisons. As it turns out, they both took on many lovers and shared honestly with each other about their experiences. Sartre, in particular, seemed addicted to seduction, spending long periods pursuing his quarry, and keeping de Beauvoir informed of his progress. But de Beauvoir, too, had many lovers, a considerable number of them female.

Their lovers were often students, young actresses or courtesans, all plentiful in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

Both philosophers, by choosing this lifestyle, were being true to the existentialist philosophy they developed, which was based on exercising one’s personal freedom to create a life worth living. They also fulfilled what they believed was their duty to document this existentialist experiment, in the many novels, letters and memoirs they left behind.

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Sartre, Freedom, Being and Nothingness


What is freedom? According to Sartre, it is the most fundamental aspect of being human. The actions we take in our lives can be explained in many different ways: by neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis, and various social and cultural theories such as feminism and Marxism. But all of these are turned on their head by something that Sartre believed explains our actions more than anything — freedom. Freedom of choice. Freedom to change the present circumstances. Freedom to re-invent ourselves, to change direction, to say ‘No!’ According to Sartre, this ability — indeed this relentless tendency — to say ‘No’ to the present, and strive towards a future that looks different, this drive to change even our very personalities, is the defining characteristic of consciousness. Because of consciousness’s unquenchable need to negate the actual ‘somethingness’ of the world as it is at any given moment, Sartre equated consciousness with what he called ‘nothingness’. As a philosopher concerned with metaphysics (the branch of philosophy concerned with what exists), Sartre was committed to including consciousness as a primary aspect of existence, even though it was clearly different from the material world, which he called Being. Thus the title of his major philosophical work published in 1943 — Being and Nothingness — in which he tried to explain the nature of existence in a way that encompassed both the material world and our ineffable experiences of consciousness and free will.

Cartoon Credit: Mark Doeffinger

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How I got shortlisted for the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship

Hi fellow writers

Hope your writing is going well.

It’s hard to believe it has been six months since I last posted. In my last post ‘Pitching to the Market’ I mentioned a few tips for helping you to get your book published. Today I wanted to report on how I got a little closer to that goal myself by, of all things, following my own advice (not something I often do!).

In  ‘Pitching to the Market’ I mentioned an excellent workshop I attended given by Meg Vann, CEO of  the Queensland Writers Centre. Meg talked about how important it is to develop an author’s platform, including building an online presence. Reluctantly I followed her advice and opened a Twitter account (to me it all seemed like superficial time-wasting. I just wanted to get on and write.). Anyhow I started following on Twitter people who interested me – other writers, authors, publishers, anyone tweeting about my passions of writing (and reading).

Then one day, a tweet popped up from one of my new twitter-aquaintances – a literary agent in Victoria, Australia, called Virginia Lloyd. In this tweet she mentioned the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship. As it turned out, the late Ms Rowley’s work had been a key resource for my writing project. My book is about the love lives of philosophers, and she had written an amazingly well-researched and gripping book called Tête-à-Tête about the love lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship had been set up to further the legacy of this great author by providing up to AUD$10,000 for emerging or established writers writing biography. I thought I might as well have a go.

So I submitted my manuscript to this Fellowship, and just found out two days ago Lovers of Philosophy had been shortlisted, as recently announced on the Writers Victoria website.

I hope my story inspires you to reach out and share or submit your work to one or more of the large number of fellowships and competitions out there. I’ve submitted my work to other comps and fellowships and had mixed success. The key is getting your work as good as you can get it (including by running it by beta-readers for feedback-more on that in a future post), and persevering.  Joining your local writers’ organisation is a great way to hear about the many opportunities that are available.

I’d love to hear your experiences of whether tweeting, blogging and what I still consider as other necessary evils that distract me from my writing (if I’m honest I’d always rather be writing!) has helped you to further your writing aspirations in any way.

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

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Pitching to the market


books (Photo credit: brody4)

In my last post I reported on a blogging workshop I went to at the Reality Bites Writers Festival in Cooroy. I also attended another great workshop called Pitching to the Market. This was delivered by Meg Vann, CEO of the Queensland Writers Centre. Meg had lots of great advice about how to get your manuscript published. The publishing industry is going through an interesting and difficult period right now, with fewer and fewer people reading books, and more and more people writing them. Many publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. I’ve certainly been disappointed to find, on visiting my favourite publisher’s website for information about submitting my manuscript, words to the effect of: ‘such-and-such a publisher no longer accepts manuscripts.’ What is the poor budding writer to do?

Well, some of the major publishers have pitching days every week or month when they do accept manuscripts. Examples include Penguin’s Monthly Catch, Pan Macmillan‘s Manuscript Monday and Allen and Unwin‘s Friday Pitch. As Meg highlighted in her workshop, a good pitch should include not only a pithy and enticing few lines capturing what your book is about, but where it would sit in the market, and a little bit about yourself as a writer/author.

Remember, publishers need to make money by selling your book, and along with the book they need to sell you as an author. So building an author platform, including an on-line presence, is important to help your prospective publisher place you in the market. More about building an author platform in a future post.

But in terms of your pitch, it’s important you create opportunities for yourself to meet publishers, agents and other people in the ‘book industry’. You can do this by attending writers’ festivals, conferences and events. I’ve certainly found this to be a useful way to meet publishers and editors whose submission link on their websites may be closed but whose minds may open up a little bit if you present them with a sellable publishing opportunity. That’s where the so-called ‘elevator pitch‘ is needed when a publisher or agent you meet at one of these events asks you ‘So what is your book about?’. This is where it’s best if you don’t stammer or turn pink but say something clear and engaging about your book. It’s important you don’t bore the potential publisher with the whole story of your novel. You just need to whet their appetite and engage their interest, and help them to see there might be a market for your ‘product’.

If you want to learn more about pitching to publishers, I highly recommend you consider doing what I did and join your local writers’ centre, where you can get a wealth of support, advice and opportunities to publish your masterpiece. If any of you have any experiences with pitching to publishers, both good and bad, that you’d like to share, please leave a comment. I — and I’m sure other new writers who read this blog — would love to hear from you.

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Reality bites in Cooroy

reality bites festival header


It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m sipping on a latte in a cafe in Cooroy after spending the last four days attending the Reality Bites nonfiction writers festival. For those of you who don’t know Cooroy, it’s an unspoiled hidden gem of a town in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Wind back four days to Thursday morning as I drive into this sleepy rural town, and I am welcomed by the sight of organic grocers, massage therapist signs, op shops and very relaxed and happy-looking people walking around very slowly in the crumpled and colorful clothes you often see on tree-changers and middle-aged hippies. I pull up and walk into the newsagent where the lady behind the counter seems genuinely pleased to see me, and as I leave, wishes me a good day in a way that indicates she really means it, not something I’m used to in the throbbing cosmopolis of Briz Vegas (Brisbane) where I come from.

The first workshop I went to at the Reality Bites festival was on blogging, delivered by Rhonda Hetzel who has a very popular award-winning blog, Down to Earth, about her daily experiences of trying to live a simpler life, where she makes everything herself from soap to butter and ice-cream. Her blog eventually resulted in a book deal with Penguin. Rhonda pointed out, as have many others, that blogging is an almost obligatory requirement for writers who want to ‘build a platform’. To be honest, industry phrases such as ‘author platform’ leave me a bit flat. As a writer I prefer just to write. But of course as writers we all want to connect with our readers and blogging is a way of doing that.The key suggestions I took away from Rhonda’s talk were:

  • develop a disciplined routine to posting on your blog
  • include photos in your posts
  • be generous in your blog in what you give to your readers
  • end each post with a question to encourage readers to interact with you

So on that note my questions for you at the end of this post are:

What would you like to see on this blog? More about the continental philosophers? More about these philosophers’ relationships and love lives? Or perhaps you’d like to hear more about writing resources and processes that I and others have found helpful? I’d love to hear your comments…

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