Sandy Anderson: A Personal Memoir

by Peter Harris

[A memoir published in Heraclitus, No. 43, September 1995.]

That it should come to this. I was standing outside the chapel after the funeral service for Sandy when another mourner pointed to a stream of white smoke rising busily into the air from the chimney of the chapel. Sandy, or what remained of him, was undergoing his most complete and thought-provoking transformation, but most of us were unaware. We were talking about the circumstances of Sandys death, the details of his estate, swapping stories of his habits and exploits and finding out how to get to the wake. On that warm, bright winters afternoon there could not have been a neater juxtaposition of life and death. Sandy was leaving us in a much tidier way than he would have liked or we could have expected. Although the smoke was going straight up I could not help recalling a sentence from Joyce's Ulysses: “And let our crooked smokes ascend to heaven”. I was pretty sure Sandy would not reach heaven but at this rate he was certain to make the wide blue yonder.

We who had gathered at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium did not perhaps expect he would be dispatched so promptly. No doubt, however, the dead are many and cannot be left to their own devices. All the same I wish he had been allowed to rest in peace a while longer. The final consummation followed too hard upon the brief tribute of the funeral service. It all seemed too inconsequential.

I hope Sandy's ashes are buried or scattered at the Anderson house - his only home - in Turramurra. I would not want them to endure the precarious existence that seemed the lot of his father's ashes. These were in Sandy's care at least until early 1969, as I found out at a party given by Sandy in Bingle Street, Newcastle. The evening had begun with a ritual of kava drinking (Sandy had just returned from a Fijian holiday) and had progressed merrily enough on other, more familiar lubricants to a point at which Sandy felt obliged to announce that he indeed was in possession of John's ashes - in confirmation of which he dashed into his bedroom and emerged with a small, covered urn. It was duly placed on the mantelpiece. What the point of Sandy's revelation was I cannot recall. Maybe in that intoxicated discussion there wasn't much point. At any rate before long Sandy made one rhetorical flourish too many and brushed the sacred urn with hand or arm. His father's ashes fell on to the floor. Sandy was dismayed. We were all dismayed. There was an eternal, frozen moment of stillness, silence and sobriety. And then Sandy moved, quicker than I ever saw him move. A hand broom and a dustpan materialised miraculously. With an archaeologist's meticulous care the Great Father's ashes were regathered and restored to their urn and to Sandy's bedroom. I doubt that John's ashes ever appeared in public again, at least not at a party. And quite likely Sandy's sense of filial piety was never the same again. The party that night broke up, I think, soon after the crisis. I wonder whether the incident ever became a topic of discussion between Sandy and his “sickhiatrist” (Sandy's neologism). Was it really an accident, a mere consequence of intoxicated exuberance, or was it the intention of long-repressed, oedipal motives. We party-goers were not about to raise that question.

Sandy lived only two doors away from me at this stage of my time as a student at Newcastle University. We lived on The Hill, near King Edward Park, but we did not see much of each other. Still, it was his most forthcoming period in the five years I knew him. He had returned from sabbatical leave in Europe in 1968 with a French woman whom I was told was his wife. She was a psychiatrist. Unfortunately for Sandy the relationship lasted only a few months but in that time Sandy showed a stronger interest in things outside himself. He came to Philosophy Club meetings and even gave a paper. He took more interest in students and their concerns. He was generally more presentable and more energetic.

I attended Newcastle University from 1964 to 1969 and initially was oblivious to the philosophy department's status as the “last outpost of Andersonianism”. Before long I learned that four members of the department - Alec Ritchie, Bill Doniela, David Dockrill and Sandy Anderson - had studied under John Anderson and that one in fact was the great philosopher's son. Ritchie and Dockrill were not Andersonians but they were substantially fair and accurate in their discussion of his theories. As it turned out all my philosophy courses were conducted by one or other of this quartet. I owe a tremendous intellectual debt to all of them. As my study of philosophy advanced I became glad and proud to be a student in a department that was considered by many to be a backwater.

Sandy lectured to me in First Year on Scientific Method, which was an adjunct to Bill Doniela's course on Traditional Logic, and again in Third Year on Ethics. He was famous among the most interested philosophy students for these courses and for his course on the Pre-Socratics. The various copies of these lectures took on an exalted, almost sacred, status. They were never quite identical from year to year and we would peruse them searching for the varied formulation or the special elaboration that might provide further enlightenment or stimulate new ideas. Like his father, Sandy would walk back and forth across the podium dictating his thoughts, pausing occasionally for questions and comments from the class. Some days the ideas would flow smoothly from him; on other days he would falter and stumble, and it was hard work all round.

In association with his lectures on ethics Sandy conducted voluntary seminars on Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Here, of course, there was greater student involvement, the seminars offering a more flexible framework for discussion and enquiry. Sandy's courses created genuine excitement in students. He offered a systematic, coherent theory and there was a sense of intellectual adventure and discovery. While this derived largely from the content of the lectures it was also a product of Sandy's own qualities as a philosopher. He was a rigorous thinker, a good listener and a searching questioner. In discussion he was penetrating and uncompromising in exposing sophistry or illogicality. At a party he mildly rebuked me once for some inconsistency: You should never be illogical even when you are drunk. He meant it although I doubt that even he could be so virtuous. Sandy was a gentle, modest, tolerant person with a rather sly, satirical sense of humour. He loved to deflate cant and humbug. He could enjoy himself and entertain others at parties. However, in my period at university he was mostly diffident and withdrawn. He was quite self-absorbed and could be overly-suspicious of others' motives. His egocentricity was bound up with, for all his psychotherapy, his unresolved problems as a person. He never recovered, I believe, from being the son of a great man. To be the son of John Anderson was a source of glory but it was also a crucifixion. John Anderson was Sandy's God. He once told me that John's philosophy was his father's neurosis, in the Freudian sense of a life-preserving force. I think that John and his achievements were Sandy's neurosis.

He drew great strength from his father (and, no doubt, his mother) but it was never enough to overcome the burden of being the son and heir of that father. The weight of duty and expectation would make a Hamlet of anyone. He felt students and colleagues looked to him for a leadership he was unsuited to provide. He felt, I believe, an underlying shame and guilt at his failure and a resentment that an uncongenial course of action was expected of him. Hence the introspection and inaction, the forma finalis, in which his life was cast. Professional life was one long Gethsemene for Sandy.

In 1969 I eventually prevailed on him to be interviewed on student rebellion for the student newspaper, Opus. We did the interview in two long sessions. At the first Sandy looked very much the worse for wear. He confessed that he had been up throughout the night with diarrhoea brought on by apprehension at giving the interview and going public. Perhaps he should have changed his name (as John Bradman did) or have taken up another vocation: he would have made a good engineer. But he did not or could not. And so he endured a kind of half-life of psychoanalysis and psychosomatic illness. He lived in the shadow of his father and he could no more shake it off than he could his own.

I do not mean this unkindly. I and other students too felt the enormity of his predicament. We liked and respected him. We wanted him to do well, to be his own man, to be the philosopher he might have been. But, in my view, it never came about, The important contribution that Sandy might have made in philosophy, especially in ethics, was never made. We have been left with merely the makings of innovative and insightful theories. But despite that, many of us owe Sandy a great deal. He did leave us a personal and intellectual legacy. He remains a vivid part of my memory and life. I wish for his own sake he had done more. I wish I had been more of a friend thirty years ago. I regret that I have not publicly developed any of his ideas.

Perhaps he should have died hereafter. In the end he went so quickly from us. Like his father and mother he too is now ash. Even on that clear, bright afternoon he was not entitled to slip away so unobtrusively in that stream of white smoke.