On filial piety


There’s a story by Dino Buzzatti that moved me deeply as a teenager. It’s called Humility. It’s about a man who goes to confession in a little parish church. The priest hears him out. That man has only the most minor sins on his mind.

Over the years, the man returns to the priest. Once he says ‘when people call me father, I feel a slight sense of pride’. The priest smiles and gives him absolution. Then the man comes again, a few years later ‘when they call me your eminence, I feel a slight sense a pride,’ and again a few years later ‘when they call me your holiness, I feel a slight sense of pride.’ The priest wonders, why would people poke fun at this simple soul?

Finally, towards the end of his life, the parish priest goes on a visit to the Vatican. There he waits in line to receive a blessing from the pope. When his turn comes, he kneels, and hears a familiar voice tell him: ‘I’ve been coming to you for years. I’m glad you finally came to me.’


At my nearby salon, an old man is chatting with the hairdresser. He’s praising ‘Asians’: ‘You’re hardworking, and you never cause a fuss. I’m like that too.’ The hairdresser nods. ‘My sister and I, we started working in high school, and we just didn’t stop. I think it’s just this ethics from Dad.’ The hairdresser nods. ‘Dad was the man of the family from the age of seven. He had to work hard. He taught us work ethics. You can’t be lazy in this world.’

I wonder meanwhile. Is it wise to take your seven-year-old father as a role model? If you work non-stop, from early years, when do you get time to pause and reflect? And if you don’t, how do you know the work you’re doing is right, useful, or healthy? Do this by necessity, yes – but by choice, and proudly? 


My step-mother used to resent me for whatever support I received from my dad. ‘He works so hard to give you a good life’. Other times, she would turn on him. ‘You’re married to your job, it’s the only thing that matters.’ I didn’t fail to note the contradiction: was it all for me, or for the sake of the job itself?


Here’s a paradox I’ve been pondering for a while. Since our systems are broken – I’m talking about our seeming incapacity to prevent general collapse – we cannot trust anyone who is or has been in a position of power. Clearly, they were not able or willing to shift the system enough. Neither can we trust anyone who is not and has never been in power. They were not able, or willing, to reach a position where they could influence the course of things. So, no one is left for us to take as a model or just admire.


A good ancestor no longer needs to be alive. We worship them precisely because they’re willing to disappear. Zombies and vampires, by contrast, make for terrible ancestors. They feed on the living to preserve a semblance of life.


Towards the end of The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow offer a new take on the long story of human innovation. It’s not about the lone hunter making a better spear to help on the mammoth trail. Their praise goes to groups of  anonymous women from the Neolithic, who painstakingly selected the best herbs, fruits and potatoes to make the best soup.


When he decided to write a musical piece about Moses, Arnold Schonberg faced an artistic conundrum. How to depict the voice of God talking from the burning bush? He didn’t use a deep bass, but a choir of women.

Corona thoughts – Der Hölle Rache

I have been experiencing a lot of anger lately, not a feeling I am too familiar with. Anger at incompetent leaders, who waited idly for months while the pandemic rose across the world, then in a last minute knee-jerk decided to strip us of our civil liberties. Anger at the moral police that looks for scapegoats, and blames young people gathering on the beach and in the park for public failure. Anger at the loss of so many joyful things that made up everyday life, for myself and so many others. Anger at the suffering of so many people around the globe, authoritarian responses, and our passive acceptance of those as a necessity. Anger, I know, is a necessary part of all mourning processes. As I went through notes and drafts, I came across a piece I started a few months ago, reflecting on The Magic Flute – a rambling meditation on performative anger. And thought it might somehow echo feelings others are experiencing at this time. 

When I was a child – maybe 6 or 7 years old – my parents had a record of Kiri Te Kanawa singing The Magic Flute. I remember a big orange disk on the cover – maybe representing the setting sun. I was fascinated by this record. It’s holiday time, and I’m staying with my aunt. I’m in the office behind the garage she used to run, and I’m singing the Queen of the Night’s big aria, Der Hölle Rache. I can still remember the feeling of those high notes (oh, tenor regret, no longer to get them out of my throat).

Later, from about 16 till 20, I had a second round of obsession with The Magic Flute. It was the first opera CD that I bought, in a pre-gay phase of becoming an opera fan. I have returned to it lately. I become tired of the Portuguese Fado, smooth Chinese jazz and Brazilian Bossa Nova that make up most of my playlists. And again, the Queen of the Night arrested me.

My partner is obsessed with Haendel. I asked him once, why do you love it so much? ‘It’s all about women standing up alone on the stage, expressing their emotions, and everybody’s listening. I think it’s beautiful, and moving.’ This, I thought, is exactly what happens with the Queen of the Night: she sings in extreme anger, and everybody listens.

I sense a tension in The Magic Flute. The Queen is the villain, embodiment of dark forces, ignorant past, passion without reason, weakness that aspires to rule. Her aria mimics the passé form of the baroque, an artificial outburst of emotion, in sharp contrast with the more authentic, human, even ‘modern’ traits of other parts. And yet, she stands out at the core of the opera. The rest fades in memory, but Hölle Rache remains.

There is a lot to learn for us still from Mozart’s music. Superficially, the piece is about overcoming those passionate outbursts. A richer interpretation, however, would go differently. Anger is a necessary part of any mourning process. And so, as we transition into the new, we should anticipate anger, even accept and celebrate its presence. There is a Queen of the Night in all of us, suspiciously looking at any new development, and shouting out – save my values, my money, my world, from innovation. Kill those dangerous ideas, and come back to me. You must protect what I inherited, restore what I built.

Maybe Mozart, by showing the fascinating beauty of this anger, is inviting us to caution. Anger will come, and seduce you. So when you feel it rising, give room, resist not, but rejoice in its explosive beauty, for it is transformative.

And so, today, I will give room to this anger in me, not repress it, but listen, for it has something to tell me – and only by letting it flow can I hope to start imagining this period as the beginning of something different, and new. 

On pop music

Yesterday, when I got back home after a long walk through Fitzroy and Carlton, the crepe place outside my building was playing an 80s French song. I hummed along as I walked into the elevator: ‘Partenaire particulier recherche partenaire particulière’. I was home.

One of the surprising difficulties of migration is that people in the new place don’t share your mental music library. Bars and cafes never play the songs of your childhood. There is no retro dance night where you can belt out the words of a familiar 1984 hit.

I have a precise memory of intense cultural alienation. It is 6pm on a Friday, and I’m at Papa Goose bar on Flinders Lane with colleagues. I had been living in Australia for two years and a half, and was working for the government, in a strategy team. We’d just finished a big conference, and went out to celebrate.

These moments also serve team bonding. The conversation soon drifted to pop-rock favourites. Titles and band names flew around, creating a sense of joint belonging beyond hierarchical divisions. Except, none of the names rung any bell for me. Some of those might have played on French radio, but I could not identify them.

I felt isolated, a bit stupid, very self-conscious, and angry. Didn’t they realise that the conversation alienated me? Couldn’t they be polite enough to find a more consensual topic – or, failing that, turn the focus on reflecting about pop-rock trends in France and Australia?

It wouldn’t happen. Lots of superficial office banter only serves to reassert pre-existing social connection. For that, people are expected to share the same web of references, pop music, pop cultures, values, models on how the world works. Migrants must catch up, or shut up.

To their credit, it is difficult to conceive that somebody close to you never boogied to the sounds of a favourite songs. Surely, they must know. I can’t really believe my partner never danced to ‘Partenaire Particulier’.