Thursday, November 10, 2016

Love as Work

This article was first published on The School Of Life website.

In the class on ‘How To Make Love Last’ that I run at The School Of Life, there is an exercise in which I ask participants to think about love, friendship and sex as three overlapping circles. The aim is to explore which of these elements participants consider to be essential to a viable long-term relationship. Yet almost always when I run this exercise, participants express some confusion about the definition of ‘love’. Friendship and sex are clear enough, but what exactly does that third circle delimit? Romantic feelings? Passionate attachment? Adoration? If the love we feel for a friend doesn’t count, then what exactly does? Usually this leads to me talking about the various words which the Greeks used for love - eros, agape, filia and so forth. Like the Inuit with their (alleged) twenty different words for ‘snow’, surely we require a more nuanced vocabulary to talk about something that is so central to our aspirations, fears and hopes. Once we recognise the promise of perfect, unending romantic/sexual bliss for the mirage it is, what are we left with? What does it really mean to love someone?

The German psychiatrist Erich Fromm offered one answer to this question in his classic book The Art of Loving. According to Fromm, we put the cart before the horse when we worry about the problems of how to find love or be loved, which are the questions that tend to preoccupy us when we are not in a relationship (and often enough when we are in one!). Instead of concerning ourselves with how to make ourselves more popular and appealing, we should focus on our ability to give love. For Fromm, love is very much a verb; the love he is interested in is not the state of infatuation, or even the deeper currents of emotion that we feel for our family and closest friends. It is love as action that concerns him, love as comprised in the work that embodies it: patience, kindness, attention, responsiveness and responsibility. How different and sobering an outlook this is compared to the sugary, nutrient-free version of love that is dished up to us ad nauseam in the popular media. Falling in love is easy, says Fromm. It is standing in love that is hard: continuing to occupy the ground of love even when under great pressure, even when we’re not feeling loving at all. Ultimately love is a commitment to a way of being. One cannot ever reach the goal entirely, but one can keep striving towards the ideal.

Freud spoke about the central importance of love and work in human life, yet for Fromm, love is a kind of work. This is not by any means to reduce love to drudgery - one could in fact argue that drudgery is the definition of work without love - but essential to Fromm’s conception is the idea that loving costs us effort. This notion of a fusion of love and work is captured in the words ‘tending’ and ‘attending’. Its opposite is not just violence and destructiveness, but also neglect: the absence of attention and care. The confusion of the emotion of love with the work of love is at the heart of many relationship failures, not only in marriages but between parents and children. It is not enough to say, after years of absence or indolent laissez faire, ‘but I always loved you!’ There is no great virtue in the emotion of love itself, but all possible virtue in the acts of caring and nurturing that feeling should inspire.

There is a danger here that one might confuse love with mere softness or indulgence. Nurturing and caring, tending and tenderness are vital elements of the art of loving that Fromm espouses, but the truth is that much of the difficulty of loving is knowing what to do. What is the most loving course of action? This is the dilemma that well-intentioned parents repeatedly confront: how to know whether ‘tough’ or ‘tender’ love is called for in a given circumstance. If to love someone is to act in their deepest interests, there is no simple formula that can be applied, because another person is always partly a mystery, even to themselves. They are complex, and the world is complex. Love, then, requires wisdom. The work of love is at this coalface, where one strives to understand a person deeply enough to know how to love them best. And it turns out this is also the place where we learn wisdom.

The situation is exactly the same with self-love. The self-esteem movement of the seventies and eighties attempted to deal with the problem of self-love by applying a simplistic formula. Self-love was reduced to a mantra of self-admiration: I am wonderful, I am special, I can achieve whatever I want. Children were encouraged to chant these and similar affirmations in the hope of warding off the demon of low self-esteem, assumed to be at the heart of all psychological malaise. The result, it is now recognised, was children with bloated, hydroponic egos, narcissistic and impervious to shame. It also set these children up for disappointment and disillusionment when reality bit and the world failed to heed the specialness they had been trained to take for granted. Contrary to the assumptions of the time, it is possible to have too much self-esteem. Self-love, like love of another, does not consist in an evaluation or a feeling. It is all in the work. The simple acts of eating well, exercising, giving oneself enough time for sleep and play constitute aspects of self-love. That one does these things expresses self-love, and the feelings of liking oneself follow, just as feelings of love for another person tend to follow the actions of caring for them.

This is another way we tend to put the cart before the horse: because we think love is a feeling, we often believe that the absence of the feeling indicates the disappearance of love. But if we are responsible for love, if loving feeling can be born out of action, then the absence of the emotion of love at certain times in a relationship might not mean that love, or the other person, has failed us. It might be more that the garden has dried up because we have have failed to water it. Again, we should beware of simplistic formulae. There are bad relationships that should be left, and the prolonged absence of affection can be one of the signs of such a relationship. It is also right to expect some loving back for one’s efforts in a relationship. Nevertheless there is an almost universal tendency in human nature to take the familiar for granted, to assume that having fallen in love, a relationship will look after itself. Yet habit is the death of love. Love is a conscious work in which we make the effort to see the people around us anew each day, to respond to who they are right now, in this instant. Attending and tending.

When we are not in a relationship, it is easy to think of finding a partner as a kind of salvation, imagining ourselves as empty vessels waiting to be filled with another’s love. Yet presumably the person we are looking for is hoping to be filled by us in the exactly the same way. Two empty vessels cannot fill one another. To love another person well, we must have something to give, and while it is tempting to imagine that one will pour out one’s love on the right person once we find them, extravagant romantic gestures and outpourings of adoration are the fancy desserts of love, not the daily staples that sustain and nourish a relationship. It is a fantasy to imagine that one can live selfishly, empty of love, and then give abundantly when the right person arrives. Love is a skill that must be cultivated daily.

Even in the absence of others, we can practice the art of loving. The person who spends hours each weekend working on a prized car is expressing a kind of love. Love is wherever we pay attention and apply ourselves with care. Conversely it is absent whenever we pass over something carelessly and without attention. When we neglect some important area of our lives, in a sense we fail to love. Mindfulness is an act of love because it is an attending to that which is around us and within us. We can practice the art of loving even in solitude because we are never without the opportunity to attend and tend to the world around us. This type of love is practiced by artists and poets who bring a kind of loving attention to the world when they practice their art. As Henry Miller writes:

To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees. His is a love, moreover, which is free of possessiveness. What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to. His manner of approaching the world tells us, in effect, that nothing is vile or hideous, nothing is stale, flat and unpalatable unless it be our own power of vision.

Thinking of love of this way - as the acts of attention and care we bring to the world and others around us - it is clear why we will always fall short of the ideal of being perfectly loving. Our reservoirs of attention and energy are limited. Our wisdom is imperfect, our selfishness and laziness can only be ameliorated, never extinguished. Yet the aspiration to love better, the continual holding of the ideal, can only lead to better relationships and a richer, fuller life.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Blog Hop - About My Writing

Thank you to Julie Koh for putting me up to this and forcing me to blow the dust off this cobwebsite. This entry is a response to an invitation from Julie to participate in a blog hop. Julie writes terrific, surreal fiction - her story 'Civility Place' which was published in The Sleepers Almanac No. 9 was recently selected for Best Australian Stories 2014. If you want to read her responses to these same questions, you can find them here on her blog.

What are you working on?

I am working on a novel that has been busting my chops for a  couple of years and which I recently decided to throw to the wolves, only to find that by abandoning it, I started to understand what I needed to do in order to fix it. And so it crawled back out of the grave and started clawing at my ankles again. In the meantime I have another non-fiction project which I don't talk about much because of its rather terrifying scope. I'm waiting until I have something a little more concrete than 40,000 words of research notes before I dare to describe it. 

How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?

What I have published so far has mainly been "literary" short stories, whatever that means. From my perspective it means something like: oriented to character rather than plot, concerned with the subtleties of human experience, and interested in the aesthetics of words as much as their information content. Although I find it hard to characterize my own work beyond those extremely broad parameters, I do recognize certain characteristic preoccupations and emotional tones. Specifically, I think there is an undertone of melancholy and black humour in a lot of my stories, and I have noticed that they frequently seem to revolve around themes of relationship fracture and the intensity, vulnerability and confusion of growing up. I find it interesting to observe this curiously strong psychic fingerprint that seems to emerge no matter how I try to disguise it or override it.  

Why do you write what you write?

Now there's a question. It's been observed that children and young people write about their fantasies - heroic adventure, romance - while older people write about their fears. I think we walk a fine line in fiction between a real world we can't entirely come to terms with, and an idea of a better one that we can't quite believe in. It's an effort at redemption in some way, an attempt to stitch together the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Even when I write very dark stories, I try to write them poetically, and I've come to recognize that poetry as the redemptive element in my work. If I can render something terrible and harsh in a way that is beautiful, then I feel like I've redeemed some tiny part of the world's horror. But of course, that is not really a conscious thing. I've only arrived at that realization by thinking very hard about why I would feel the urge to write such sad things.

That is one answer. There are others. When I was a kid I used to write stories all the time, and fill notepads with animated stick figure battles. I invented space-pigs, a race of plasticine pigs that took over the house and eventually starred in the epic sci-fi adventure film (OK, slideshow) Escape From Planet Sty, cinematography courtesy of my father. As a teen I filled notebook after notebook with Dungeons and Dragons worlds, every city described in near-autistic detail: its politics, trade, customs, dress, history... In short I made worlds; it was my way of being a god. Writing fiction stems from the same impulse. It is endlessly fascinating and delightful to me to see a world of my own creation come to life before me, as if I'd not invented it, but just polished a window onto it.

What's your writing process and how does it work?

I used to sing quite a lot, and write songs, and to me there is a connection between singing and writing. The moment I seek in writing is the one in which it becomes a kind of singing, in which the cadence of the words becomes the expression of an inner song. And it's the sense of having something to sing that is the thing that often drives me to the keyboard. Unfortunately this romantic approach is a poor way to think about the discipline of writing, which ninety-five percent of the time is not at all song-like. The song, if it comes at all, usually only emerges very late in the process.

I have therefore become more practical about the writing process. For several years I had a day a week that was dedicated to writing, but unfortunately I have been forced to give that up. Nowadays I squeeze in writing where I can between full-time work, part-time parenting, a second job teaching at The School Of Life, and my many other fascinations and obsessions - at the moment I am teaching myself quantum physics, learning Spanish and dabbling in animation.

Let me now hand over to Darby Hudson, a poet and artist whose strange, charming work you really should check out - it is infused with vulnerability, pain, love and above all honesty. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Why I hate the New Age – a tirade seven years too late.

Remember that book and ‘documentary’ ‘The Secret’ from back in 2006? For a while it was all the rage - everyone was busily ‘manifesting their reality’, friends trying to turn me on to the wondrous truth. The message was simple: you create the reality you perceive, and all you need to do to live the life you dream of is to ‘focus your mind on it’. This sets up ‘waves of attraction’ that magically draw the imagined reality into physical being. What’s more, it was claimed, there are no limits on the abundance that can be yours, except those imposed by your self-limiting beliefs.

None of these ideas were new. In fact, as the child of a New Age mother, I’d been fed this type of stuff with mother’s milk. I ‘manifested’ a cactus at age thirteen. (Actually I didn’t – what I’d been trying to manifest in my nightly supervised meditations were the vaguely defined romantic attentions of a certain Melissa H, but when the cactus was given to me, I declared that this had been my heart’s desire, in the hope that this might put an end to the torturous meditation sessions. Sorry Mum.)  What’s interesting though is the timing of The Secret’s success – at the very height of the unsustainable pre-GFC boom, when everyone, from jobless US mortgagees up to Wall Street cowboys, believed that abundance can indeed come from nothing.

As a former psychotherapist, I have witnessed people’s remarkable capacity to unconsciously create realities that recapitulate the conditions of their childhoods, seemingly attracting the same emotional drama again and again. I’ve seen this too in my own life, and marvelled at the apparent magic of it. I’ve also seen how people can transform their lives through conscious efforts, through mindfulness and increased self-knowledge. And there is no doubt ‘reality’ is a mutable and ambiguous thing – even hard science has implicated the mind (they prefer to say ‘the observer’) in the construction of reality.

But the notion that we can ‘attract’ whatever we want by focusing on it and visualizing it, that the universe is a kind of giant wishing well that only serves up nasty stuff because we secretly wanted it that way, is a poisonous idea. There’s a scene in The Secret that epitomizes how shallow and toxic this philosophy can become: a man ‘meditates’ in an armchair while making gear-shifting motions with his hand in order to ‘manifest’ for himself the BMW of his dreams. It’s this wedding of ostensibly spiritual practice with consumerism that is particularly insidous. It is the very inversion of the Buddhist precept of nonattachment. Far from encouraging the mindful observation of one’s ego’s desires and fears, New Age-ism places them at stage centre and suggests we really can ‘have it all’.

Of course, it doesn’t work. Beyond the cactus incident, I did try this stuff, and never achieved anything convincing. I’ve also had seen friends get involved with this type of practice, and watched them beat themselves up over their persistent failure to achieve the desired results. Inevitably these visualizer types tend to be gentle, artistic people with high ideals but less practicality, who naturally welcome the message that their imaginative gifts might provide a road to success that will shortcut the road of hard knocks. This philosophy salves the pain of sensitivity with a false promise that this very sensitivity could become the route to personal vindication and validation, without the need to confront the difficulties and trials of a harsh world.

Part of the poison of the idea is the difficulty of recognizing its failure. The tendency is to blame oneself for ‘doing it wrong’ – for not visualizing clearly enough, for the pitiful wattage of one’s ‘ball of light’, for not doing it long enough, for having doubts… Successes (‘I’m really good at manifesting car parking spaces!’ is a common ‘very mild superpower’) are magnified as proof of the concept, while failures on the big ticket items are explained away as a result of one’s ‘poverty mindset’. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ is inverted to ‘You’ll see it when you believe it!’ but this merely serves to generate more anxiety about one’s inability to evince sufficient faith. All the while it’s surprising no-one’s asking where the great exemplars of the method are – the lottery winners who got there by the sheer vividness with which they pictured that winning ticket.

I’m reminded of the ‘cargo cults’ that sprang up in some Melanesian societies after exposure to the wonders of Western civilization and its technology. If certain rituals were performed, these cults believed, ‘cargo’ in the form of western manufactured goods would magically be delivered to the cult members by the tribal ancestors or gods. Despite the obvious ineffectiveness of these rituals, cargo cults continue to arise in the Pacific from time to time. As in doomsday cults where uneventful Armageddons come and go without dinting the belief of the faithful that the end is indeed nigh, the failure of the predicted cargo delivery does not lead to a dismantling of the belief, but rather to more assiduous efforts to get the rituals correct.

More concerning though than its ineffectiveness are the moral implications of a philosophy that puts itself forward as ‘spiritual’ while promoting the notion that everyone’s lot is of their own making. It is anodyne indeed to imagine that all the plagues and torments of this world are only visited on those who believe in a ‘suffering mentality’ and that such trials can be avoided with a sufficiently hearty belief in ‘abundance’. To ascribe the affluence and opportunity experienced by a member of this western society purely to the personal agency of that individual shows a gross political and historical naiveté.

New Agers often espouse the importance of compassion, but true compassion derives from the understanding that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ It is not enhanced by or expressed in the notion that the terrible blows of fate are caused by the ‘unconsciousness’ of the victim. This attitude is at heart no different from the smug condescension of people born into great wealth, who mistake the good fortune of birth circumstances for God-given superiority. True wisdom involves an awareness of our profound vulnerability in the face of the vastness of life and the world, and a recognition of the limitations of our powers. Perhaps there is some overarching plan or some deeper part of us that is the architect of our fate, but one thing is for certain: it is not the ego that draws up these plans. To imagine otherwise is hubris.

In an age in which the protection of our fragile natural environment has become a matter of critical importance, the naïve notion of the universe’s unlimited abundance is one that also must be called into question. The Secret features a man talking about how he realized one day that he was living in the exact home he’d pictured in his visualizations a number of years earlier. The home he was talking about appeared to be an immense mansion surrounded by acres of land. Clearly such ‘abundance’ is not available to everyone on the planet – there simply aren’t the resources of land, materials and labour. This is not to mention the carbon footprint of such a dwelling, which looked to rival that of a small nation. The idea of unlimited abundance for all is so patently ignorant of economic, physical and environmental realities as to be unworthy of further analysis.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who at one stage in her youth fell for a pyramid scheme known as the ‘aeroplane game’. She sincerely believed the scheme would eventually net her huge wealth, when her name finally rose to the top of the payment tree. She had decided, she told me, not to put any more energy into building up her shiatsu business, because she wanted to focus on manifesting success through this scheme. I pointed out the fallacy – that the game depended on an infinite pool of players if nobody was to get suckered – but she attacked me for my narrow belief in ‘scarcity’ and told me ‘there are some things beyond logic.’  ‘You’re right,’ I agreed, ‘but this isn’t one of them.’

Every culture, I suppose, invents a spiritual belief system that reflects its needs and values. The New Age – at least in the guise of ‘manifest your own reality’ – reflects a culture of shallow materialism, espousing a system of belief that could only be credible to a generation that has known little hardship or privation. The Buddhist doctrine of nonattachment was won out of suffering – it reflects the hard-earned lesson that nothing is forever, that it pays to invest in the soul rather than becoming attached to the fleeting mirages of the material world. Perhaps the New Age is on the decline because of the hardships the west (and especially America) is now facing.  As noted earlier, The Secret was born of the pre-GFC boom era. The Wall Street jocks who invented the complicated Ponzi schemes that drove the world’s financial system off the cliff’s edge probably weren’t believers in the New Age. But their excesses derived from the same cultural wellsprings – a deluded belief in the omnipotence of the will, an unfounded faith in infinite abundance, a refusal to acknowledge the limits of the ecological web in which we are all embedded.

The stupidity of all this is clearer now. Hence my title – this attack comes much too late. I should have written it when The Secret was at its peak. The New Age’s hour has passed, and while remnants of it remain, it seems the young generation who would once have bought crystal wands and books with leaping dolphins on their covers are now a harder, more cynical bunch. Spirituality of all kinds is distinctly out of fashion among the young — although, as I have argued, much of the New Age was itself spiritual in guise only. Its beating heart was materialistic and selfish.  

I remember a house where I used to go to visit a friend, where no less than seven devotees of a particular school of New Age self development lived together in tofu-cooking, Tibetan-bell ringing harmony. I liked those guys, though I hated the way they mixed business with friendship, constantly promoting their endless workshops on this or that massage or yoga technique among their own social circle, so that you never felt sure that an invitation was made purely for the pleasure of your company. They seemed no more or less selfish or fucked up than the average twenty/thirty-something, but they were idealists, people who believed in a better world and wanted something more meaningful than what the mainstream served up for them as ‘reality’.  In other times they’d have been Marxists or LSD-dropping hippies. In this shallow culture, however, their rebellion looked surface only. They wanted the same material success as everyone, and spirituality was just a gloss on the same basic attitudes as the mainstream: it’s all about you and what you want. You deserve it.

Good times rarely provoke spiritual growth. The New Age is the dying flower of the boom era, a form of pseudo-spirituality born from wishful thinking and a time of unsustainable, cancerous economic growth. That most of us are these days are sadder or wiser than to believe the snake oil promises of The Secret and its ilk is only a good thing. What comes after the New Age remains unclear – let’s hope that if there is a new spiritual movement in this culture, it’s one that faces the true human condition with a deal more honesty and courage than The Secret.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Reflections on Lars Von Trier's 'Melancholia'

Spoiler alert: There's almost no suspense in the film Melancholia, but any tiny bit it might have will be ruined by the following review.

Ironically, the last time I found a film as uncomfortable to watch as 'Melancholia', Lars Von Trier's latest piece of cinematic iconoclasm, was when I suffered through Todd Solondz's 'Happiness', almost fourteen years ago. The titles might be diametrically opposed, but the films share a determination to go straight for the viewer's psychological jugular. In Happiness, the subject was paedophilia, in Melancholia, it is depression and death. And Von Trier is not pulling his punches. However artful the cinematography and art direction, Von Trier's message about mortality is brutally blunt. We all die, the film reminds us, and only the melancholic, Von Trier seems to be saying, is capable of facing the true facts of existence unflinchingly.

For those who know nothing about the film, it depicts the end of the world as the earth collides with  Melancholia, a planet which has been 'hiding behind the sun'. Simultaneously it tells the story of a clinically depressed young bride, Justine (Kirstin Dunst), an advertising copywriter whose marriage disintegrates before the wedding party is over. Reviewers who have decried the film's scientific implausibility miss the point entirely. Despite the premise, this is no sci fi flick. Those who have described it as a film about mental illness are of course much closer to the mark, for it is indeed a study of depression, and the whole film can be read as a metaphor for the implosion of the depressive's psyche. The world may be larger than any single mind it contains, yet it is never experienced on any grander scale than the mind of the individual, and so the obliteration of one mind is no less a cataclysm, in that subjective frame, than the annihilation of the whole planet. But ultimately, to describe it as a portrait of depression is to miss the ultimate message about mortality. Von Trier hasn't just made a film about depression, he's made a film that argues depression.

In a sense, Melancholia is not so much cinema as anti-cinema. For where the usual function of cinema is anodyne, pandering to soothing fantasies of perfect romance, invincible power, unlimited wealth and so on, Von Trier's aim is the absolute opposite. This is a film driven  by the same iconoclastic impulse that drove the director to declare at Cannes that he "understood Hitler," sparking widespread condemnation. He wishes to tear away everything phony, every saccharine fantasy, every pitiful self-deception, and expose the ugliest truth. That was the ethic at the heart of 'dogma': don't soothe the viewer with the trappings of slick production values, stirring soundtracks, and technical whizz-bangery. The cinematic illusion is harnessed to a contradictory project: the destruction of the viewer's illusions. In that sense, Von Trier has something in common with Brecht, though Brecht exposed the illusions of theatre for political purposes, whereas Von Trier's ultimate motivations seem darker and more emotionally driven. Iconoclasm does not need a constructive agenda.

The deep discomfort that this film engenders stems from the way the film targets the viewer for attack. At the end of the film, Dunst's character Justine comforts her nephew, a boy of seven or eight, by helping him to build a 'magic cave' where he will be safe against the coming catastrophe. The magic cave turns out to be a rough tipi of sharpened sticks under which Justine, her sister Claire, and the boy all sit to await the end of the world. So much for your childish illusions of safety, Von Trier seems to be saying. See how pitiful are your attempts to keep out the reality of death? And I couldn't help feeling there was another layer to this 'magic cave' image: couldn't it be that cinema itself is this magic cave, a place we go to deny death and close our eyes to horrible reality? Von Trier ends the film by hurling Melancholia directly into the audience's face in a climax that is at once haunting, terrifying and strangely empty - there is no 'resolution' here, only annihilation.

Violence is also done to the other possible remedies for death anxiety: love, solidarity, togetherness. Justine's sister Claire shakily and unconvincingly tries to persuade Justine that they should perhaps sit on the porch and drink wine together for the coming of the end. Justine is scathing. More than scathing. "I think your idea is a piece of shit," she spits. At the end, in the magic cave, they do hold hands, and I was reminded for just a moment of that lovely scene in Toy Story 3, where the toys hold hands as they slide down towards the furnace that also clearly stands for death. But in Melancholia, we aren't offered the release of that emotion. The hand holding feels futile and desperate, another form of the magic cave.

No wonder that the first thing that could be heard as the credits rolled was the querulous voice of a movie-goer complaining that her time had been wasted. If you go the cinema for the pleasures of fantasy and self-deception, you just stepped into the wrong theatre. As my friend put it, pity the poor sod who saw a poster with Kirstin Dunst in a wedding dress and expected Toby MacGuire might make a showing too.

Despite this, Melancholia is a beautiful film - the opening sequence contains some of the most extraordinary and surreal images I have seen on the silver screen. The soundtrack is pure melodrama, gothically overblown, but the effect is perfect: it creates a mood of claustrophobia and barely repressed hysteria.  I kept thinking of the German word Beklemmung, an emotion also captured in the work of another famous depressive, Franz Kafka.

There's a moment in the film in which Claire discovers Justine lying naked on the bank of a river staring up at Melancholia looming in the night sky. Having rejected human love, turned away from the world altogether, she basks in the blue light of death, in a voluptuous misery. It is moments of imagistic poetry like this that lend the film a kind of greatness. It is a perfect image of the depressive dynamic. All around her, the people who love Justine have been shut out. Her husband cannot reach her sexually, her sister can barely feed her. Yet inwardly she gives herself completely to Melancholia, the deadly pull of pure negativity. It is a haunting image that will stay with me a long time.

I said that the film argues depression. By that I mean it tries to convince us that depression is rational, the only sane response to our meaningless existential condition - at least that is how I read Von Trier's intent. There is a competition at Justine's wedding to try to guess the number of beans in a jar. None guess correctly, but Justine does. Perhaps Lars has read the psychological studies that show that people with depression have more accurate reality checking than non depressed people. Having used the bean guess to prove she 'knows things', Justine then tells us that there is no life anywhere else in the universe, that we are alone, that life is evil anyway, and deserves the annihilation soon coming to it. One has the feeling Von Trier is presenting this as a sort of argument, even though, as a piece of logic, it's as flimsy as Justine's 'magic cave'.

The depressive may have superior reality checking, but this does not mean the depressive is a good philosopher, even less a wise man. To seek truth means facing the reality of death and having the courage to face one's illusions. But depression is not the final waystop on that journey. Many artists pass this way and many have fallen into their own private doomsday, flying too close to the planet Melancholia. Yet those who do not suicide find something on the other side of this crisis - compare the Leonard Cohen of today, a man exuding wisdom and gentleness, with the near-deranged singer you can sometimes see in old films. Peace and acceptance are possible and sane responses to the reality of mortality, even for those who have rejected the comforts of religion.

Nihilism is bad philosophy, and Melancholia is deeply nihilistic. Nevertheless, it's one hell of a piece of filmmaking.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mixing Politics and Fiction

Last year there was a series of blogosphere broadsides exchanged between Emmett Stinson (author, editor, academic) and Overland magazine on the subject of 'political' fiction. In the one corner, Overland fiction editors past and present argued for the 'moral and aesthetic imperative' of political engagement (Jacinda Woodhead originating the controversial phrase), while in the other Stinson stood up for authorial freedom. What exactly an imperative is, whether absolute or conditional, is a moot point in the debate. Stinson argues that any imperative is proscriptive (it implicitly forbids non-political fiction) and absolute (all fiction must be political), whereas Jane Gleeson-White, Overland's current fiction editor, considers the word to imply a somewhat weaker injunction. The key exchanges can be read on Emmett's blog and on the Overland blog here and here.

The insistence on the political in fiction is something of a personal bête noire, so I am weighing into the debate, albeit a year too late. Let's not forget we read fiction for enjoyment, and that, as literary writers at least, we write from the passionate centre of our creativity, wherever that is found. To me, an 'aesthetic imperative' is an oxymoron, at least in so far as it refers to something imposed externally (such as a political ideology). The only aesthetic imperatives I know of are those that emerge from within the creative process itself - the inner imperative that tells me, for instance, that a certain metaphor must go, or that a particular sentence should be arranged in this particular manner. An aesthetic imperative imposed as a result of politics sounds like the death of art, like 'art' sponsored by the Soviet state. (I suspect, however, that the phrase 'aesthetic and moral imperative' was one that rolled nicely off the keyboard, and I am sure Woodhead was not advocating anything so totalitarian.) The point remains, nonetheless, that writers write from an inner imperative that may or may not be overtly political, and will always do so, regardless of what obligations certain literary editors feel them to be under.

As for the moral imperative, I do believe that we writers have responsibilities. Stinson rhetorically asks if shoemakers should also make political shoes. One need only look at Nike's well-known practices to answer that question in the affirmative. Indeed, if Nike is the example, the politics of shoemaking in the developing world is probably of much greater significance than the politics of fiction among certain well educated types here in Australia. After all, Stinson's point is well made that the equation: politically engaged fiction = social change has yet to be established. That said, if moral imperatives exist at all (and they do), they bind all of us, writer, tailor, candlestick maker. Just as there is moral weight to my purchasing decisions, there is political and moral significance to my choices as a writer. What do I put out into the world when I write? Even as apolitical a text as Harry Potter has its 'karma', its downstream effects on a generation of young readers, good or ill.

But does this mean all writers must be like mini-activists, agitating from their offices? I don't think so, and indeed what does "must" mean when it so patently will never occur? That we must frown upon or perhaps not publish the work of writers whose primary preoccupations are interpersonal or intrapersonal? I certainly hope not. We need literature to engage the whole spectrum of human experience, to enrich our vision of the world and make life more tolerable through the quality of its illumination, whether its subject is the plight of indigenous peoples, the complexities of marriage, or the private struggle for identity. After all, however politically aware and active we may be, we still spend much of our time preoccupied with the dramas of the private domain.

Stinson's argument against the politicization of fiction relies on a more academic point however. He questions whether fiction can be 'about' anything at all. Fiction is, for him, so complex that it is naive, indeed anti-intellectual, to see any connection between words and their referents (that would be realism, the mimetic theory of art). While I agree that any mimetic theory of representation in art is unsustainable, I am sympathetic to the Overland editors' impatience with this line of reasoning. It is not anti-intellectual to disagree with a philosophy of literary criticism, even if it is the academic fashion of the day. Stinson would transfer the entire weight of meaning over to the 'reading' side of the ledger, voiding the text of any capacity to hold significance in its own right. This is taking it too far. Ulysses may not be 'about' a man wondering around Dublin one day (Stinson's example, a straw man if ever there was one), but it's probably fair to say it's more 'about' that than it is 'about' cheese manufacture in the Baltic states. I think it is disingenuous of Stinson to claim that he doesn't know that 'politically engaged' fiction is or could be. Yeah, it exists, and yeah, Emmett knows it when he sees it, even if its boundaries are unclear, even if it needs a reader and a reading to re-hydrate it into meaningfulness.

Now that I've managed to disagree with everybody,  let me say how I also actually agree with everybody (and it is heart-warming to see Gleeson-White and Stinson did eventually bury their hatchets  - somewhere other than in each others' faces). The arguments put by the Overland editors are nuanced, and it is easy to poke holes in a caricature of their position, less so once their position is understood properly. Overland, of course, has a right to whatever editorial policy it chooses. To say 'we prefer politically engaged fiction' (however philosophically problematic to a post-structuralist) is a reasonable enough statement of editorial intent, and hardly surprising coming from Overland. Let's hope though that above and beyond their worthy desire for fiction that tackles the issues of our times, they still have time for a plain old good story.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Excerpt: Croc

The following excerpt is from a new story 'Croc', currently unpublished.

She remembered the night she ran away, the moment it became clear that she could do this, that she was serious, and they couldn’t stop her. Nobody could stop her. It was as if a sort of film broke and all of a sudden she could see the world clearly. Running her hand along a wet metal rail, sweeping the water under her palm, she felt naked to the touch of things, like she could really feel for the first time. It was cold, she walked along the Nepean Highway and the lights of the cars shone off the wet, the tyres hissed and made tracks through the neon and she walked and walked, and slept under a bridge, woke up to her beating heart and stared up at the dull stars and thought, Who am I? She felt swollen with her lostness and her anger and her bravery. She would survive — like this, like a wild animal if she had to.

But now here she was, on her knees in the bathtub, scrubbing Ajax into the gleaming enamel for the fourth time today because she had to do something with the restlessness. The house stank of bleach and everything was scoured back and spotless and she was so lonely she almost wished Croc would come home just for someone to talk to. He’d said to her, no TV. How would he know if she did watch, but she was scared he had some way, a hidden camera somewhere or something. She’d found cameras before. Scrub, scrub. Or he’d come home and catch her before she had a chance to flick the remote.

Her hands were a mess. She bit a loose point of skin beside her nail, stripped it back with her teeth and winced at the pain. A bobby-pin of blood welled. She’d have liked to sit on the couch again and watch Home and Away with her sister and argue about who was hotter, Aden or Ric. Christ, she’d even have liked to see her Mum and Dad right now. She tore another corner of skin down, nibbled at the root. Fuck it, don’t cry. Don’t fucking cry. Scrub, scrub. But it came, she couldn’t stop it. Shoulders shaking in the bathtub, she watched her tears run down the sparkling enamel.

She stood in the living room, no energy now, just a shell. Gazing at the street through the cheap lacy curtains which let her look out, but hid her from view. Number fifteen across the way: What goes on in there? she wondered. What secrets does it hide? Do you see me, number fifteen? Do you see that shadow through the curtains?

If only she could sleep. Day, night meant nothing. She’d lost the sense of them, slept sometimes randomly during the day, spent the night wide awake. A permanent jet lag when she wasn’t speeding. Outside it was windy, the prunus trees on the nature strip agitated. The whole world was scoured down, abraded back to its bones. And her mind was the same, empty like that street, but endlessly moved by a wind that tossed and spun and blew nowhere.


She mustn’t lose her mind. She went to visit Ange the other day to get her meth, and wondered if Ange was losing it. She looked bad, with nasty sores on her face and hands, white and skinny as hell. Sorry love, she said, her hand hovering near the bloody crater on her cheek, I been pickin’ again.  Ange had an ex who used to hit her, did stuff to her much worse than Croc had ever done to Kelly. Croc had bruised her forehead pretty badly one day when he threw an ashtray at her, he’d burnt and hit her, but he never broke a bone or put her in the hospital or anything like what Brian had done to Ange. She got away from him, but she reckoned he’d found her again, that he was hiding around the house at night. The worst thing was he’d gotten into the roof. She’d heard him up there moving around at night. So Ange had gone up herself and scattered broken glass everywhere. She’d got the bastard, too. See? she said, holding up a sliver of glass stained rusty with blood. Her mouth twitched into a smile, fell back to a quivering line.

Fucker. We might not be able to get away from ’em, but we can mess with them too, right?

Rhona, Kelly’s youth worker, once said you got like that on meth: hearing things in the walls, worms under your skin, shit like that, but then Rhona hadn’t seen the blood on the glass.

They did some ice and then went outside into the sunny front garden. On the nature strip next door there was a whole lot of junk waiting for the hard garbage, including an old photocopier, and suddenly they both had the idea they’d like to take it apart and see how it worked, so that’s what they did for the next hour or so, pulling apart that photocopier and every little bit inside it until they’d reduced it to a pile of scrap. And still they had that meth-driven urge to do, so they pulled apart a TV and a computer as well. It was funny. They had a good time, sitting on the nature strip in the sun and laughing as they picked metal and plastic apart with their fingers.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Do you remember your first musical love? The other day I had my iPhone plugged into the stereo, set to play random songs out of my collection (always an interesting exercise - I honestly have no idea where half this stuff comes from), and the first warmly melancholic bars of The Church's "Disappear?"  rang out, sending me back twenty-odd years to the confused, unhappy, intensely lived summers of my youth. Steve Kilbey's lyrics seemed to summon up the exact mood:

Like a womb the night was all around
Someone somewhere must have talked some sense
I could feel it moving underground
So many things I still don't understand...

There are a few albums that epitomize those days: Suzanne Vega's first album; the last, self-destructing works of the Roger Waters-driven Pink Floyd; and The Church - anything and everything by The Church.  Those were records I must have spun literally thousands of times (my parents were remarkably stoic - I remember my father working at the dining table in industrial ear muffs, but he never said a word). I'd sit in the living room absorbed in every note, studying the lyrics like some sacred Vedic mantra.

"Disappear?" is from the The Church's strange failure of an album, Seance, which came out in 1983. The album cover shows an androgynous figure in lipstick and a white hood, holding some kind of metal flower. It's an image both stark and surreal, a perfect fit for the mood of the album. "Dark and cryptic" is the way Wikipedia describes the consensus opinion of the record. And yet if I was only allowed to hang onto ten albums to listen to for the rest of my life, I'd have to give serious consideration to including Seance among them.

Of course it's hard to separate the nostalgia of association from the merits of the music itself. The second track 'One Day', an anthem of hope clothed in a heavy downbeat, always makes me want to sing along at the top of my voice, and yet when I do, I realise that it has almost no melody - most of the song is sung on a single note. And yet it aches. Could  it just be the memory of my own ache, that bittersweet experience of being young and not knowing who you are yet, full of confusion and longing and the mystery of your future? Somehow I think not entirely, for most of the other music from that time has become unlistenable to me. Another record I thrashed to death - Pink Floyd's The Final Cut - now seems so full of anguish and self-pity that listening to it is like having my teeth drilled.

Sadly, Steve Kilbey himself came to disavow Seance as a flop. A friend of mine drunkenly questioned him about that one day after a gig, and Kilbey cut him dead with the arrogance he's well known for. You're a fan, you don't question Steve Kilbey. For all Kilbey's gifts, he's always given the impression of being one of those troubled people who is unable to escape the involuted torments of narcissism. The Church were often accused of pretentiousness, and there was always an edge of affectation that threatened to creep into their songs. To my mind the worst offender was guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper, who always seemed compelled to sing with an annoying Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Alice-Cooper accent. David Bowie did something similar and pulled it off as an act of theatre, but Wilson-Piper is no Bowie.

Affectation is of course the refuge of insecure creatives who seek to cover over their lack of real inspiration with a stylistic gimmick that is always guaranteed to fool a certain number of punters. It can also be an unfortunate habit of gifted artists like Kilbey who seek to compensate for a fundamental self-rejection by constructing for themselves a narcissistic image of their own genius. Affectation is an expression of the way they stand apart from themselves, fascinated by a performance in which they desperately hope to glimpse the image of someone other than themselves. Think Michael Jackson's creepy voice and reconstructed face, affectation as psychopathology.

There was nevertheless always a seed of real creativity underlying The Church's pretentions. Listen to the early single "Too Fast for You". It's a strange, psychedelic song with a truly different edge, even while one can discern distinct echoes of bands like The Cure. You can hear in it the original, exciting voice that would give birth to amazing songs like "Almost With You" - and that would sometimes devolve into a sort of tic, a style expressed in foppish mannerisms, lyrical obscurity and a precious and superior attitude.

It's when Kilbey drops the put-on self and just sings from an honest place that he shines, like in the lovely "Into My Hands" from the Remote Luxury EP, in which he sings joyfully, sadly and without artifice about love: "Some seek sleek and slithering charms/ Out of reach their grasping arms/ Our skin like milk, our breath of words/ Like happy, awful and absurd." And the last verse: "You know it's always out here in my head/ And stupid bloody things get said/ Then drifting on a summer pond/ I notice that my love has gone."

In my story 'Suburban Mystery' published in Meanjin a couple of years ago, I have the main character discovering The Church the way I did:

That summer I bought my first record, The Blurred Crusade by The Church. As I slipped it out of its sleeve onto the turntable for the first time, the light caught a line of handwriting—some impenetrable in-joke—inscribed in the smooth black vinyl inside the last song. That opaque, mystic scribble fascinated me: Steve Kilbey’s last elliptical utterance before the stylus spiralled into the black hole at the centre of the record. ‘Almost with You’ was my anthem. Its lush, anguished paisley-poetry made my soul bleed. When Steve Kilbey asked Can you taste their lonely arrogance? I wanted to shout: ‘Yes! Yes! I can!’ I understood nothing he said, but I could almost not bear the sorrow and longing when he sang, I’m almost with you, I can sense it wait for me. I’m almost with you. Is this the taste of victory?

I know I'll never experience that kind of enchantment by a record again, however much I may fall in love with a new artist I've discovered. Like first love, it's an experience that can't be repeated. For all his flaws, his "lonely arrogance", I owe Kilbey a huge debt of gratitude for that gift.