Walter Murdoch on the Pleasures of Smoking Pipes

“The essay is to prose what the lyric is to poetry; it is intensely personal. It is not a statement of facts, it is not a cold, abstract argument, it is not an inflammatory harangue; it is a quiet talk, reflecting the personal likes and dislikes of the author. It never pretends to treat a subject exhaustively; it is brief, informal, modest.” So wrote Walter Murdoch, as quoted in an Imre Salusinszky profile published in The Australian that describes Murdoch as “Australia’s first public liberal intellectual”. Uncle to Keith Murdoch and great-uncle to Rupert, Walter Murdoch was a popular academic, journalist and broadcaster in Victoria and later in Western Australia - and a master of the familiar essay, a form that seems to have undergone a resurrection of sorts in the past decade or so.

Image via Murdoch University

Image via Murdoch University

Murdoch was invariably photographed with a pipe in his mouth. “To be without a pipe in your jowl,“ he wrote in the days before psychoanalysis was in vogue, "is to be the prey of a thousand petty distractions. The unsolved problem – of the differential calculus, or the butcher’s bill – is knocking at the door, and will be heard. Religion and patriotism, honour and duty and love, each is blowing its importunate bugle-call to your conscience. You must reform the world; or you must reform your neighbour; or, at the very least, you must dine. And so, poor soul, you are harried hither and thither, and have no rest. But put a pipe between your lips, and lo! At a whiff you pass to where, beyond these voices there is peace.”

The offspring of the medieval commplace book and named after the French noun for ‘attempt’, essays are far more than mere stabs in the dark. At their best, such as in the essays of Annie Dillard, they are an unforgettable fusion of poetry and pure thought. In the preface to his Collected Essays, Aldous Huxley noted three different types of essay: the personal and autobiographical, the objective and factual, and the abstract and universal. Many essays, including Murdoch’s, are combinations of the three.

Since his death in 1970, Walter Murdoch’s writing has been all but completely forgotten, which is curious because he is the Murdoch after whom the Western Australian university is named (and not his more famous nephew and great-nephew). The University of Western Australia has published a collection of Murdoch’s familiar essays, dubbed On Rabbits, Morality, Etc, that may well reverse this cultural amnesia.

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