Sunday, 28 December 2014

Words of 2014


2014 has been a good year for the use of certain words or combination of them, or indeed their misuse, when weaseling is so out of control that when the government says one thing it can often mean its opposite. (For how many times has ‘freedom’ been invoked when cuts are made to services, or new restrictions are adopted, or ever more powers are given to police and security organisations?)  Curiously, it was Edward Tylor, the father of anthropology, who discovered in his landmark comparative study of language that in early languages the same word was often used for both one thing and its opposite, so maybe we’re just reverting to form.

It’s been a serious time for Australians.  The certainty of the longest boom in the nation’s history has evaporated, and we’re coming to realise that we missed the boat on capturing revenue from it.  This has been exacerbated by the actions of a seriously cackhanded government so anxious to attain office that while it spruiked axing the carbon tax it hadn’t the guts to axe the benefits that went with it, and its moves to contain a concocted ‘budget deficit’ threaten to further contract the economy.

So not many words for laughs this year.  ‘Shirtfront’ got a guernsey for word of the year from the Australian National Dictionary Centre after Abbott played tough guy with Putin but I don’t even want to go there.  So instead, this list, obviously not exhaustive, or in any significant order, just as the words came to mind.  If you have any comments, or any words to add to it, don't hesitate to let us know.  (Come to think of it, I did leave out those two disgraceful descriptors: 'lifters' and 'leaners'!)

Transparency

There have been many calls for transparency this year, maybe because there’s been so little of it.  Proposed changes to the freedom of information act will do much to weaken it, and government cuts have already left the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the last port of call for appeal under the act, seriously underfunded.  The bill, if it passes the senate, will dispense with the office altogether.  When and if it goes it will cost $861 to appeal a refusal for information to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.  The government as well has been ludicrously secretive over its Orwellian Operation Sovereign Borders, and tight restrictions on the flow of information from the PM’s office have been imposed, not to mention cuts to the ABC.  All this, and moves to limit information pertaining to superannuation, company registers, food safety and in many other areas sits oddly with Abbott’s strident call for transparency in relation to a proposed $50 billion Chinese initiative for an infrastructure bank.
 

Inequality

Thanks in great part to Thomas Picketty, the French economist whose book on the subject came out in English earlier this year, any doubts we’ve been harbouring over the massive con that’s been played on the public in western democracies over the past three decades were resoundingly confirmed.  It’s now almost impossible to argue that whatever’s good for the market is good for the nation, yet a mere two months after the translated Capital in the 21st Century came out, our government brought down a budget largely based on that old discredited ‘trickle-down’ philosophy.  Studies from the Australia Institute, for one, have shown that inequality has increased in Australia since the 1980s and the gap between the rich and poor will grow unless measures are taken now to narrow it.  Instead we’ve got the most punitive budget remembered, which has targeted the increasingly disadvantaged, including our young people.   

Vast majority

The phrase is used so consistently, in commentary, speeches and just about every news bulletin on air, that it may as well be written as one word, or at least a hyphenated one, for there seems to be no other kind of majority these days other than the monumentally vast kind.

Resilience

Taking over from ‘surviving’ as possibly the quality most admired in people, the ability to bounce back does seem more hopeful than the capacity for just grinning, gritting your teeth and bearing it.  We heard the word a lot during the year, particularly in relation to our first woman prime minister, who had it in spades.

Precarity

This is a word that crept into consciousness during the global recession and the tenacious job insecurity that’s come with it.  It’s particularly apt in describing the depressing round of unpaid or poorly paid internships introduced in all kinds of workplaces.  Many young people have had to get by for years on these, seizing the opportunities for augmenting their resumés until they can manage to bag a real job.  But real jobs with decent pay and some degree of permanency have become rare birds indeed.  In 2012, 25 percent of the jobs available in Australia were casual, and casualisation and contract labour are predicted to increase.

Flexibility

Once the favoured word for improving conditions for workers, it’s now code for removing protections for them.  We hear it a lot from employer bodies, conservative think tanks and increasingly and ominously from government.

Forensic

Denoting the evidence gathered for use in a court of law, ‘forensic’ is used widely now to denote any thorough, painstaking investigation, be it in public affairs or in accounting.  (Might this be a reflection of the perennial popularity of crime fiction?)

Unpack

Another way of saying ‘analysis’, which itself means breaking down something into its constituent parts to get a grip on its workings.   Purist English-lovers might approve, however - ‘unpack’ has the flavour and solidity of the language’s Anglo-Saxon origins, even if all the dictionary can tell us is that it’s related to Middle Low German. 

I love that

A constant on social media, where did this peculiar construction originate?  We used to be content with ‘I love the way that’ or ‘I love how’  but somehow this new way of saying it has taken over.  My guess is that it came from teen talk in America.  For me, it’s on a par with the curious ‘between you and I’ that’s cropped up, painfully, everywhere.

Remit

Once a brief, now it’s a remit.   I don’t know why.  Words swerve in and out of fashion.  ‘Remit’ has many meanings, largely to do with money and the law; the same is true of ‘brief’, but first ‘brief’, and now ‘remit’ have settled into primarily indicating any area of authority or responsibility given an individual or group.

Efficiency dividend

A euphemism dragged from the world of business and applied to public services, it’s one of the latest examples of how business has become the paradigm for just about everything else in society.  What it’s supposed to mean is that less is more, that cutting creates efficiency.  But efficiency for what, one may ask.  A public service like the ABC, for example, may gain in efficiency but lose a lot of what makes it valued by so many discerning Australians – the quality and variety of its programming and the integrity of its reporting.  An efficiency dividend for universities means – well, how do you measure that when restricted to consulting ‘the bottom line’. 

Sustainability

This has been a popular word for decades but its meaning in past years has been subtly transformed.  It used to apply to ecological concerns, to whether a business or activity operated in accord with protecting the environment.  Now when it’s used – and it’s used almost daily – it refers to whether a business or activity is sustainable in financial or fiscal terms. 

Price signal

Ah, what a lovely weasel this is!  It’s the latest in the ‘user pays’ tradition that got its kickstart back in the 1970s.  The populace has to be forever reminded that nothing under the sun is free, and so a fee is charged for services that once were supported through government revenue.  But after years of tax cuts offered in exchange for votes, and massive concessions to the wealthy,  governments of both persuasions find that there’s practically nothing left in the kitty.  Rather than explain why we need more taxes, or do something about closing the loopholes for the wealthy, the current government is trying to impose a co-payment for seeing the doctor.  What they’re really on about it is doing whatever they can to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state.  And this at a time when we’re going to need it more than ever. (See the entry on inequality.)

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Games Writers Play


From my 1934 Modern Library edition of Ulysses, gift from my stepfather.
Such was Australia’s largely British orientation in 1958 that when I emigrated from the States to Australia in my late teens and enrolled in Sydney University I lost all but two of the credits I’d piled up at UCLA.  I’d been on the semester system but Sydney Uni still operated on the three-term Oxbridge year and that as well other adjustments put me well behind.  I was allowed to progress in English and history on the basis of my UCLA marks in them, but hadn’t the faintest clue about how these subjects were organised here.  There was no continuous assessment then and we were marked for each course solely on the terrifying end-of-year final exam.  Now that Australia’s universities operate on the American system I suspect our many foreign students (those with a good command of English at least) are less likely to experience such radical pedagogic dislocation.
My aim in mentioning this is not to plunge into a discussion of how universities have changed, however vital I believe such discussions are, but to illustrate how the passions of those long-ago days still affect the way we read and write today.   When I came to third-year English, Sydney University’s English department was bitterly divided, although being a part-time student I had no idea there was a schism or the burning issues it entailed.  The catalyst was the appointment of a formidable new professor from Melbourne University.  This was Sam Goldberg, who soon blew the Sydney department apart.  Goldberg, who died in 1991, was a Leavisite, meaning in a nutshell that he emphasised the moral heft of literature and whether any particular work measured up.  Succinctly, this meant interrogating the work’s moral compass above any other consideration.  What it boiled down to in the department was a vigorous championing of D.H. Lawrence over James Joyce.
James Joyce
This was to prove troubling for me, though, as said, I had no idea why.  Blithely unaware of the hidden agenda, I was delighted to be studying Joyce.  The Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man were straightforward if impressive reads for me, but Ulysses was a challenge.  If I accepted that Joyce had written a modern Odyssey, an ambition that itself excited me, many of the classical and Christian references were lost on me, barbarian Angeleno Jew that I was.  And in addition to the Leavisite strictures we were deep into New Criticism then, which firmly dictated that a text be evaluated on the basis of its internal workings only, regardless of the historical, political, or even aesthetic considerations influencing or inspiring its author.  The text was to stand or fall on its own, divorced from any context.  Of course, this was ridiculous, tantamount to trying to understand a person by studiously avoiding any knowledge of her childhood or background.   Though warned against accessing explanatory material when grappling with the novel, I happened upon, buried in the university library, a treasure of a book: Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.  Gobbled up in secret, it was the miraculous Rosetta Stone to my understanding, and, more, to my appreciation of Joyce’s art.
Stuart Gilbert was an English scholar living in France who became friends with Joyce after offering to translate Ulysses into French.  Joyce helped with the translation, providing in detail the intricate substructure of each of the 18  chapters, which he based on episodes in Homer’s epic.  According to Gilbert’s schema, Joyce had assigned to most of these a body part, a colour, a symbol, an art and a ‘technic’, or technique.  There are exceptions. The last chapter, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, has only an organ (flesh), a symbol (earth) and a technic (monologue), and the first three have no body part, and some of the middle chapters are missing a colour, but you get the drift.   Take just one of the chapters – Nausicaa which does tick all the boxes.  This is the one where Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s modern Odysseus, jerks off while spying on the beautiful but lame Gerty MacDowell at the Sandymount shore.  The scene is The Rocks (on which Bloom is resting while watching the unsuspecting Gerty), the time is 8 pm (towards the end of Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, when Joyce took his wife Nora Barnacle on their first date), the designated body parts are the eye and the nose, virgin is the symbol, painting the art, and the technic tumescence/detumescence.
I should stress that none of this is essential to a rewarding reading of Ulysses, a novel that works on many different levels.  Nevertheless, the introduction to its arcana set my mind alight.  More, it set my own writing on its own perhaps opaque path.  Because what Joyce’s method impressed me with (through Gilbert’s crucial mediation) is the idea that a story is more than a story, and that everything in it, from its language and physical elements to its characters and plot points, has an underlying often hidden meaning that’s the actual glue binding together its parts.
Joyce was a modernist, arguably the modernist par excellence, and over the years modernism went out of style.  (I think it’s creeping back again – the 2013 Man Booker prizewinner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, has a schema similar to that of Ulysses.)  It was going out of fashion by the time I published West Block, the novel, my first, based on my experiences as a femocrat.  Yet it was only natural for me, impressed as I’d been, to make use of a Joycean template.  My overarching symbol was the Canberra building that in the capital’s earliest days housed the whole of the public service, with the public service itself representing the nation, Australia.  I did restrict myself, though, to merely giving each of my chapters an art.  The opening one, for example, with its central character the mandarin George Harland, has gardening (the abstract his lesbian daughter puzzles him with is heart-shaped like Canberra); the next chapter, with Henry Beeker foregrounded, uses sculpture; the third has music; the fourth, economics (arguably less a science than an art); and painting marks the fifth.  There are other Joycean touches, like the economist Jonathan Roe’s gold cigarette case, based on Lady Denham’s from which she plucked the name ‘Canberra’ and gave it forever her own pronunciation, which in turn was inspired by the cake of soap Leopold Bloom carries throughout a good deal of Ulysses.  And so forth and so on.
It would be wholly wrong to assert that a writer’s work lives because of these quirks of cohesion.  They’re ways of making our work live for us far more than they do for readers.  They’re games we writers play; at their simplest, the names we saddle our characters with, but it often goes further.  Writing a novel is arduous work and there has to be something apart from our egos that pulls us along.  For me, and many others I think, these symbolic keys open doors to greater resonance.  Apart from anything else, they’re fun.
And fun, I now see, was at the bottom of the rift between the Joyce-lovers and the po-faced Lawrentians in my long-ago English department.  For the Leavisites, Joyce just wasn’t serious enough.  The fact that he gave the last word to a woman and the woman said yes to life, with all its imperfections, rejoicing (yes he loved puns too) in the mess ... well, this was somehow deficient.  We could argue the toss about this endlessly, and should.  But the legacy of this is a readership, with its satchel of tools limited for the most part to narrative arcs, how characters behave and respond, beauty of expression and emotional appeal, that isn't quite as rich as it could be.            

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Memories of Political Things Past


This past week I’ve been besieged by the past – that other country, two of them in my case.  And two events were responsible for this assault – the memorial at Sydney’s Town Hall for Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st Prime Minister and certainly the best I’ve known in the 56 years since I came here; and the midterm US elections that have given those antediluvian Republicans control over both Houses of Congress again.

Let’s begin with America, because that’s where I was born and cut my political teeth, so to speak.  It was way back in the 40s that I began to understand that democracy was an ideal that when put into practice could be appreciably tarnished.  The last well-publicised lynching was in 1946, when I was eight years old.  Apart from the ongoing violence, the South was ruled by Jim Crow laws discriminating against African-Americans (Northern liberals called them Negroes or coloured people, certainly never blacks; the African-American designation wasn’t even coined then).  Discrimination, more subtle in the rest of the States, was nonetheless well entrenched.  And North or South, East or West, it wasn’t restricted to African-Americans, though the treatment they got was undoubtedly worse.

The South began as Democrat, because Lincoln was a Republican, and in the country of my youth the racist Southern Democrat bloc was an impediment to anything remotely progressive.  The task of Democrat presidents, from Roosevelt to Kennedy, was to deal somehow with this conservative behemoth lodged like a tapeworm in the belly of their party.  Yet everyone understood that the Republicans were the party of big business, Wall Street, and the banks.  

After Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II, the politics of another war – the Cold one - began to bite deeply.  At some stage my mother had joined the communists and though she soon left the party, a decade or so on she would be punished by the blacklist.  The repercussions whipped through our family and, on reflection, this was clearly one of the reasons why I was willing to go as far away as Australia when I did.  Although Democrats were culpable (the loyalty oaths began under Truman), Republicans made the Cold War their own.  We had J. Parnell Thomas and Tricky Dick Nixon on the House Un-American Activities Committee, and  Joseph McCarthy, a Senator, created untold mischief until he started in on the Army, which is when another Republican, President Eisenhower, a World War II hero, put a stop to him.

In those Cold War days anything that smacked of socialism was anathema, but once in Australia I was amazed to find a somewhat more relaxed attitude to it, though I sensed that Australia was a more materialistic society, less driven by ideological considerations than America was.  Yes, America.  The almighty dollar ruled then as now, but this was masked to a degree by the deeply Calvinistic Protestantism brought to its shores by the dissenting Pilgrim Fathers.  Australia seemed to me then, well, more bread-and-butter in its approach to politics.  Of course, I was young and knew next to nothing about the place I had come to.  I’d heard of the White Australia policy and something of its convict past, but understood little about the depth of the Protestant-Catholic cleavage, though antisemitism here didn’t seem as strong.  I believed what most Americans believed, that Australia was ‘the new frontier’, or, in another way of looking at it, ‘the workers’ paradise’.

But classless it was not.  Snobbishness, I discovered, was rife.  And with censorship and restrictions on drinking and shopping hours it didn’t seem all that free.  And though we hadn’t the word for it then, the naked sexism was abhorrent.  And in the lily-white northern Sydney I lived in - Cammerigal country - Aborigines were all but invisible, if the racist feelings against them were in full evidence.  Menzies was revered by my publican inlaws, if thought an irrelevant fool by most of my generation.  I found, too, that Yanks were either loved or hated, a consequence of their recent bivouacking here during the Pacific war.  My uncle was one of them, billeted in Brisbane, an 18-year-old kid at the time.

Fast forward to the 70s.  I was in Canberra then and it made all the difference.  If the public service was ludicrously hierarchical, Canberra itself was a forward-looking, civic-conscious town.  I learned more about Australia in the first two years I lived there than I had in all ten of my Sydney years.  For one thing, for the first time I had studied Australian history, in Manning Clark’s department at the ANU.  What a privilege that was.  But more important still was my connecting with a group of remarkable sisters in what we then called Women’s Liberation.  We were riding on a powerful crest of reform that carried the ALP into government, led by Gough Whitlam after 23 seemingly hopeless years.  Just before the election I took out Australian citizenship in order to join the public service, and lost my American one because of it.  But the compensation!  To have been in Canberra at that time.  To have served my short stint in Camelot.  I was changed forever.

Now that Gough Whitlam is gone from us and we’ve been reminded of all that he achieved for this country in the three years he was allowed to govern, I’m reminded as well of littler things.  Like when I was on duty in the pm's department the morning Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, and I was the one to ring him and tell him, addressing him with a tremulous ‘G’day, Prime Minister’ - evidence of my total transformation from Yank to Aussie, if taking him somewhat aback.   And there I was, standing in the outraged crowd the day he emerged from Parliament House after his sacking.  Sacked?  By a governor-general?  The Yank left in me found this quite incredible.  But the forces of opposition lined up against him were formidable, and even after a second, double dissolution election, they cut his prime ministership short, just at the time in the electoral cycle when any government’s standing is at its nadir, so he was certain to lose the coming, coerced election.  As the years went by he dwindled in the public imagination, and Labor in government was cautious ever after but never achieved so much, and it’s taken forty years, and only his death, for him to loom as large he did in those rapturous, tumultuous three years.  As Noel Pearson said in his powerful speech at the memorial, that was the time when ‘reform trumped management’, and Australia was never the same complacent, provincial, racist and sexist backwater though, sadly, traces of that remain.

It was hard to come back to earth after Pearson’s oratory, doubtless a match to Whitlam’s own, and all the other moving speeches that day.  But then something happened that brought the moment even further home.  A son of mine, eleven years old when Gough Whitlam was dismissed, happened to be in Canberra the day after his memorial.  He was walking with a colleague around the parliamentary triangle when they ran into some men who were carrying the portrait of Gough that had been displayed outside Sydney Town Hall.  My son and his colleague asked if they could photograph it on the steps of the Old Parliament House near where the crowd yelled ourselves hoarse and where Whitlam stood when he came out to speak to us.  The portrait was duly placed and photographed with their smart phones.  It was only when that was done that they noticed the inscription on the back.  Signed by Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam’s speechwriter and biographer who also spoke at his memorial, the inscription was addressed to Andrew.  I've yet to ascertain who this Andrew is and would like to give him due credit for his fine painting.  To Freudenberg, it was, simply, a portrait of ‘the greatest man I have ever known’,

There are those who disagree, but they were always the naysayers, and so they will always be.  Small-minded, jingoist or populist, and now, after decades of  neoliberalism, soiled by lamentable greed.   But working for the betterment of a nation’s people – that has never been without its foes.  Just look across the Pacific to where America is now.  

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Some Thoughts on War and Women


Anne Deveson
So we’re at war again.  Sort of.  Tony’s got his gun.  In 1965 it was Vietnam, 2001 Afghanistan, 2003 Iraq, now, effectively, the whole of the Middle East.  The American president was reluctant, our Australian prime minister unseemingly avid.  What better way to ginger up flagging post-budget support in the electorate than to bang the kettle drum?  War is as old as history.  As human as falling in love and cohabiting, fornicating or caring for our children.  And, much to our shame, time and again, our penchant for killing our enemies has overshadowed all of these, as it is doing now.
Our enemy now is an idea, a dangerous one, it’s true.  A band of fanatical guerrillas is fighting to turn the whole of the Arab world into a caliphate.  Once the caliphate was a remarkably tolerant interlude in human history, where Muslims ruled but made peace with the many minorities in their midst, Jews and Kurds and Christians among them.  Like ancient Rome, a prototype of multicultural (if imperfect) societies.  But then a band of fanatics came to bring enlightenment, gleaming on the edge of their swords.  This was the Christian crusade.  The caliphate collapsed with Ferdinand and Isabella, who took over from the Moors and exiled the Jews from Spain.  This was the beginning of the Inquisition.  And so the history goes. 
When the Ottomans took over the Arab world, once again different tribal loyalties were held in a kind of balance, the same kind of live-and-let-live equilibrium that Habsburg rule effected in Europe.  The rise of the nation-state, the project of two bloody centuries, put paid to that, so much so that by the end of the Second World War ethnic nationalism was triumphant.  There is a fateful tension operating here, and has done down through the centuries, the tension between the drive for nationalistic self-determination and the need for human societies to cooperate and then coalesce into ever larger polities.  A tension, it seems, that can never be entirely resolved.
Hard to explain this to people who have been made fearful from reading the tabloids and relying on sensationalist commercial news exclusively, when our government and an acquiescent, ad-funded, Murdoch-owned media lead them to believe that Muslim Australians are the enemy, that Islam is a particularly bloodthirsty religion and an oppressive sharia law will be imposed on us if the thugs that calls themselves the Islamic State are allowed to prevail in Iraq and Syria.  Hard to explain that in other times, other circumstances, the caliphate wasn’t such a bad idea.  Or that Saudi Arabia beheads people willy-nilly, mostly for what we would consider petty crimes, and this is a regime we support.  Or that the guerrilla fanatics who post videos of beheadings of Westerners may be doing so in order to provoke us into fighting, a combat they feel confident of winning, or at least will win them more recruits.  Or why, when Western armies have never triumphed in such interventions, we’re so keen rush in again.  Or to ask the deeper question, if killing civilians by airstrikes is any better, any more ‘civilised’, if our squeamishness has overcome our sense of proportion.  But the bigger question, the biggest of big questions, is why we humans kill each other at all, and why the institution of war which permits us to do so with impunity has lasted so long.
In 2013 Anne Deveson published her memoir Waging Peace, in which she was brave enough to grapple with that very question.  Born in Malaya when it was an English colony, she was living in England when the Germans bomb fell and returned to Malaya in time for the fall of Singapore.  These childhood experiences, superimposed by later ones witnessing wars as a journalist, were the wellspring of her investigation.  To boil down her arguments is to serve them unjustly, but it’s worth a try.  Deveson charts the slow but appreciable ascent from barbarity that we humans have achieved through the widespread rejection of capital punishment and public executions, and through our greater awareness of the cost of war, both in human lives and the massive, intractable indebtedness they incur.  A group of women scholars, guests on ABC RN’s Big Ideas, also make a very good case for our progress.  Certain forms of war – land mines and chemical weapons, for instance – have become ‘delegitimised’.  And they argue persuasively that, rather than our being innately bellicose, it takes a lot of time and coercion to make ordinary humans willing to kill.
Still, war persists.  Arms are manufactured, and sold promiscuously.  Governments routinely ignore huge anti-war protests.  While in Western democracies armies are no longer conscripted, there’s an increasingly disproportionate toll on civilians in invaded countries – the so-called collateral damage.  In terms of cost alone, militarism and its consequences make no sense whatsoever, unless we persist in calculating gross domestic product by including things like rebuilding bombed cities and broken bodies. 
In terms of human suffering, the impact is incalculable, and is even more irrational.  This is where the arguments about human nature or psychology come in.   In her 1997 study Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich traces our embrace of war to our early hunter-gatherer ancestors’ fear of animal predators, and the need to act collectively for protection against them.  Others, like the Jungian analyst James Hillman, maintain that because we are animals, our propensity towards violence as a species will always be with us.  Yet inherent in this view is quite a low opinion of animals.
A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a Festival of Peace celebrating 90 years of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  The topic was ‘Building a Culture of Peace’.  Somehow, I bridled at this.  Hmm, women and peace.  It was all too simple,  the easiest proposition: that if only women ruled the world, violence would cease, wars would be no more.  Nor did I believe it, for women can be violent, and warriors as well.  In any case what little we know about the very few true matriarchies that have existed is that they varied as much in this as they did in other things.  I tried to think of some possible explanation for the persistence of such irrational and calamitous behaviour.  Marxist ideas about competition for limited resources fed into my cerebration, but they too seemed sadly reductive.  Then I hit on an idea, one that was fed by all the reading I’d done to prepare for my speech, but took a giant leap towards the planet.
My gestalt was that human bellicosity is driven by ecological as well as economic concerns, or perhaps it even goes deeper than that, and the ecological considerations actually take precedence over all the others.  If planet Earth is one interconnected ecological system – Gaia, as James Woodlock has it – then we are inevitably part of it, members of the primate order, a small number of mammals in the vast panoply of living things, plant and animal, that make up the intricate biosphere of our planet.  As Woodlock has proposed, and other biologists, Darwin included, appear to be in agreement, the multitudinous parts of this biosphere are held in a delicate balance and thus it can be envisaged as a highly complex organism itself, analogous to the human body or any other complex living organism.  And if this is so, then anything that disturbs that balance is a danger to the planet as a whole.
It was the Leakeys, Richard and Mary, who proposed, after studying the remains of ancient hominoids in the Oldavai Gorge in what is now Tanzania, as well as the social organisation of the Kalahari bushmen, that violence as we know it never occurred among these people as long as their groups didn’t exceed some optimal number.  The Leakeys put that number at 30.  As we, the paradoxically named homo sapiens sapiens, grew in number and came to dominate all other species, the size of human societies increased as well, until now, in the 21st century, large urban settlements are rapidly becoming the norm, giving rise to all the social ills we have become accustomed to, including homicide and other forms of violence.  And on the macrocosmic plane the rapidly increasing numbers of our species (7 billion today and an estimated 9 billion by the middle of the century) may be the trigger for the widespread, cataclysmic violence we know as war.
That war may have an ecological purpose, beyond human reckoning and will, scandalised the women I suggested it to that night.  And because it was such a big idea (in the sense of its implications, not because I was the one putting it forward), I failed to emphasis the remedy, or indeed that there were remedies.  If war is one important means by which the planet itself attempts to redress an imbalance, this being the increasing populations of humans which threaten other species and indeed the viability of our ecosphere, the obvious remedy is to do what we can to limit our numbers, rather than have the irrational within us do it for us.  For in Jungian terms that irrationality, the capacity for horrific violence towards our fellow humans, is analogous to the ‘shadow’ that lies within each and everyone of us and can wreak untold damage to ourselves and others if left unacknowledged.  So it may be that only once we accept that this brutal capacity is innate in our species (or in any comparable species that threatens the equilibrium in the biosphere) can we begin to do something about it.
So this is where women come in, and my abiding belief that women’s reproductive freedom is not only a basic human right for individual women, but an absolute necessity for human survival.  How this flies in the face of so much of current doctrine is obvious, yet so many of our institutions stubbornly persist with policies at total odds with this necessity.  Not only those like the Catholic Church or other religious sects that would limit women’s right to contraception or abortion, but the religion of exponential growth that informs the prevailing economic thinking, and leads governments to encourage women to have children.  Moreover, studies have repeatedly shown that whenever women are educated they limit the number of their offspring, so equal educational opportunity must be a paramount goal.   And again, wherever basic social services are lacking, most particularly those that address the needs of the aged, women are compelled to produce large families, and so the cycle continues.  And as long as our economic policies create inequality, both within societies and between them, this seemingly ineluctable cycle of war and peace will be supported.
For years we women have endured the patriarchal assumption that our struggles for equal rights and participation was a side issue, not the main game.  But my bet is that, on the contrary, they lie at the very centre of any hope of peace, or the health of our precious planet.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Singing to the Music of Time


Who are our dream people?  Where do they go when they go into hiding? 
When I was growing up I sang all the time.  At the sink, in the yard, in the car, on the footpaths (sidewalks as we called them).  It was all I could do to keep myself from singing out loud in class.  My mother was an actor but she had such a difficult time of it that I was never moved to step into her shoes.  But singing!  I had no desire, what’s more, to play a musical instrument.  My voicebox was my instrument, and I was not a little proud of it.  I couldn’t read a note but I had perfect pitch.  My key was E flat, but I still don’t know quite what that means.
My musical education began with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”.  I heard it first when I was three years old.  It amazes me that every afternoon I was put out on the landing of our Chicago apartment fire escape for what was supposed to my nap, and shudder to think what I could have got up to, and then go on to wonder what benevolent power it was that kept me from falling to my death.  For nothing could succeed in making me fall asleep as I was meant to.  With a stack of crates full of empty green glass coke bottles by my side, and music pouring forth from the radios in all the open windows around me, my senses were charged.  One by one I pulled out the coke bottles from the crates, upended each over my outstretched tongue and, like the Magic Pudding of Norman Lindsay lore, the drops in the bottom always seemed to replenish themselves, quenching my thirst, just as “Stardust” never failed to answer some longing in my heart.  I could hardly understand the lyrics then, but Carmichael’s poignant melody is with me to this day. 
A couple of weeks ago I went to a concert organised for Sydney’s senior high school jazz bands.  My grandson Tom was playing the alto sax in one of them, and since I hadn’t done my grandmotherly thing for a while, I went along, but with low expectations.  What happened when I got there warmed me tremendously.   Not only did it expose me to the excellent talent being nurtured among our young, and all the good work their teachers have done, but it catapulted me back into a long lost past. 
The reason was the songs.  The three bands I heard varied from passable to outstanding, but what shook me were the songs.   Each band had a singer or singers, and though they didn’t sing “Stardust” the ones they did came from the same era.  The solos from the first singer were Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” and Gordon and Warren’s “At Last” - two songs I hadn’t heard for maybe half a century.  From nervousness I thought, the singer had some trouble with the first song, with its tricky if lovely key change and sudden high notes, but after regaining her confidence she acquitted herself well with the second. 
The extraordinary thing was my remembering the lyrics to these pieces.  And those to the next ones sung as well - Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and, appropriately enough, the quirky “I Could Write a Book” from Rodgers and Hart.  Where  inside me had these gorgeous words come from?  Where had they been all this time?  I gave up singing over fifty years ago, before I came to Australia, when I got married and couldn’t afford the fees.  Remember, this was the fifties, when few of us thoroughly wedded women allowed our own private dreams to materialise.
Until that fateful union I was driving every Thursday afternoon to the formidable Mrs Goodman’s, up in the Hollywood Hills.  Coach to the stars, Goodman was an impressively bulky woman, with soft light brown hair piled up on her head.  She sat at the grand piano, her beringed fingers sailing through the octaves, coaxing my voice ever higher.  While outside the sprinklers clicked and whirred,  spraying the french windows and occasionally her lawn, my vocal cords stretched to the utmost around Alone, alone, on the wide, wide sea/Alone, alone on the wide, wide sea, hoisting my voice upward through the keys.  She said I had genius but not enough strength in my lungs and singing Coleridge was designed to give me power.  I was about to cut my first record when I gave it away and plunged into wedlock and motherhood instead.  The truth was I lost heart.  My favourite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, but Mrs Goodman was modelling me on Teresa Brewer.  Teresa Brewer? you say.  Well, Brewer was a popular singer in her day, probably underrated, but she wasn’t Ella, and the disappointment I felt played no small part in my decision, a decision that landed me in Australia and another life altogether.
Some of my friends are closet singers but I’m not going to out them here.  Two I know are good at remembering lyrics as well.  We were the women of the 60s and 70s, and many of us threw off those marital shackles.  One became a cabinet minister, three ended up as professors, two in history, the other in media.  That last one joined a choir, and now and then I’ve thought about joining one myself, but where, I tell myself, would I ever find the time?
Instead, I think about Ella.  In the days when I went to see her at the Hollywood Bowl or in places like the Crescendo on Sunset, I hadn’t the slightest doubt that she was the happiest person in the world.  Because she could sing like she did, and no one else could.  When people asked who I would change places with if I couldn’t be me, I had no problem with the answer.  Ella Fitzgerald, I would say.  Except to Mrs Goodman.
Then I heard a sweet-sad story.  A friend of my husband’s was working in a club one night, waiting on tables, washing the dishes - that sort of thing.  It was in the wee small hours, the place was closing, he was clearing away the glasses and ashtrays, and who should come in but Ella.  She had broken up with her man and she was crying.  She sat down at the piano and told him about it.  Him and him alone.  She played as she cried and spoke to him, and then she started to sing.  All through the night she sang her heart out to him, for that is what singing is for.
After my grandson’s concert had ended, I saw my ex-husband, the guy who brought me to Australia all those years ago, the one with whom I share my grandchildren.  When I told him how excited I was to hear those old songs, he confessed he was disappointed.  ‘That woman who sang the Gershwin - she murdered it.’   ‘She was a professional,’ I said.  (All the bands had one professional musician play with them, the best in their fields.)  He shook his head.  ‘She isn’t Ella.’  I thought he was being unfair, but he was right.  There was only the one, and will never be another.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Archetype Cat Banishes Fear


I’ve been drawing and painting cougars a fair bit these past years but admit that I’ve never actually seen one.  When I was living in British Columbia I was terrified of seeing one but hardly anyone who wasn’t being attacked by one actually had.  That was the gist of it - cougars are shy animals and for the most part they leave us humans alone.  Yet as more of us enter their habitat, establishing our gardens and golf courses and attracting the local species of deer, mostly mule deer and white-tailed deer, it's become harder for the cougars to distinguish between deer and other fortuitous types of prey.  Especially if they're hungry.  A few days after I arrived on Vancouver Island, where the British Columbian capital of Victoria is situated, a cougar sprang from a rock ledge and gobbled up two corgis belonging to a woman who was taking them for their morning stroll along the Brentwood Bay beach.

Like most predators, cougars will go for the smallest and weakest, which was hardly reassuring to a shorty like me.  They are also liable to attack in the early morning hours or late in the afternoon, which is when I usually go walking after a day at the desk.  I was determined at the time, however, not to let my fear of them deprive me of this salutary recreation.  I walked and I watched.  But all the while with my heart doing cartwheels in my chest.

Long ago, when asked what I was like as a child, my mother paused and then provided one word.  Fearless, is what she said.  Of course, overhearing this, I was tremendously pleased.  Particularly as it wasn’t at all true.  Maybe I was good at hiding it, but I was fearful of a host of things.  A horde, you could say.  To begin with, I was afraid of fish (don’t ask why, that’s another story); of a boy who lived in our apartment building; of the red-haired chow dogs that prowled the street where my grandparents lived; of the murderers I read about; also painted-face clowns.  The sinister tones of the radio mysteries I listened to (because my mother acted in them) sent shock waves through me.  When I was seventeen, no less, I begged my parents not to go out and leave me alone with my two younger brothers after reading William March’s The Bad Seed.  (Believe me, as a means of sending terror ripping through you, the movie based on it doesn’t begin to compare.) 

Yet, it’s also true that I was capable then of feats of derring-do I couldn’t contemplate in my dotage.  I was sanguine driving, and I’m certainly not today.  I climbed tall trees without qualm and took off like a bird from high-diving boards – head first, with barely a ripple in the warmly receiving water.  I was totally, and foolishly, fearless in affairs of the heart.

But as I grew older I changed.  Motherhood, it has to be said, made me frightened in a way I never had been before.  All the things that could happen to a child overwhelmed me, so much so that I often found myself afraid to show my very deep love, lest something might happen to take a child away from me.  This, I imagine, is something akin to what parents felt in earlier times, when children’s mortality was the rule rather than the exception.  Perhaps it’s what makes them seem so harsh in our eyes today.  I became more anxious as well about what was happening in the world.  Inward- or outward-looking, I could scarcely control emotions so alarmingly intense.  We were deep in the midst of the Cold War when my first child arrived, and the sound of a low-flying airplane had me hugging him so hard it would surely startle him if I were to do so now, fifty odd years down the track.  Fifty years down the track I still worry about him, his siblings, and their children, and their children and children yet to be.  The older I get the crueller the world seems, and humans the cruellest creatures in it.

Age has set off its own battery of alarms.  I now have a fear of falling.  I fear I won’t manage when my partner dies or he won’t manage if I go before him.  I’m frightened by the prospect of not managing anything, and foisting the care of me onto overburdened others.  I see before me a bleak horizon of ever-increasing helplessness, unavoidable loneliness, and of course the end of it, the ineluctable fate of all of us, humans and animals alike.  Yet strangely and happily, the more I have to fear the less I do.  There are numerous reasons for this, but I'll narrow them down to three - love, laughs, and cougars.

We know about the importance of love, particularly in its agape mode, and no one would argue about the curative power of laughter.  But cougars?  That is something else.  I was confronted once, as said, with the fact of them without ever, mercifully, having been forced to face one.  But we all have to face our fears.  The big cats that haunt so many of my pictures, whose presence seems always to be with me, just below the scrambling surface of my quotidian consciousness, are a gift in that sense.  Cougar, puma, mountain lion, panther, jaguar, leopard, cheetah – whatever their names or habitats – have coalesced into a kind of archetype.  Bleached of their various distinguishing features, stripped of their distinctive markings, they offer themselves up as scapegoats, tabula rasas, blank screens – say what you will - onto which I’ve projected my anxieties.  Like a witch's familiar, the cats escort me.  And if they are big cats, that could be because they’re commensurate with my fears.  Big enough to carry the weight of them, and let me walk free.  

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Subverting the Linear Order


What, in the goddess's name, is this mysterious thing called style?
digitalised detail, mixed media 'bird hiding'
The wonder of it is that, at the tail of a writing career, I should be asking myself this question at all. But looking back over thirty years of writing and, latterly, painting, there’s the imprint of a picture that keeps recurring: Paul Cezanne’s ‘Route Tournante’ that I saw when works from London's Courtauld collection came to the Australian National Gallery many years ago.  

 Colm Toibin has spoken about this painting and of the importance of omission in Cezanne’s work.  There are things left unsaid on this canvas.  As for me, I was and continue to be spellbound not only by the gaps but by the lines between the spaces, the ones that if allowed to proceed would connect, but stop before doing so.  In response to this, one pesky word keeps popping up.  The word is ‘fragmentation’.
In trying to intellectualise all this, I’m obliged to pay homage to the writer John Berger, who in his many essays equated modernity with mass migration, its impact on ways of perception and how we translate those into art.  For Berger has contended that the twentieth century was ‘the century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.’ Here he also asserts that migrants are people who have lost the centre of their worlds and flounder in a world of fragments. (This is a paraphrase: I’ve lost the direct quote.)  These thoughts have stayed with me, a migrant myself from a family of migrants, ever since I first came across them.  They are still apposite today, arguably even more so, when increasing numbers of people are crossing national borders, either propelled by force or beckoned by wider opportunities.

There was another influence working on me and the two are indisputably connected, as they were in Berger’s mind.  Mass migration had its impact on mass media, the movies in particular.  America’s ‘melting pot’, so called, was in no small part stirred by the twentieth century’s dominant art form, when images overtook words because words had not yet been fully assimilated.  Too few migrants to America spoke English, but the movies helped them interpret, and then go on to fashion, their brand new world.  And while my immigrant family, largely self-educated, worshipped the word, they were also immersed in that boundless world of pictures.  Pictures that they put together in order to form a narrative.

The linear narrative has had a place in the human psyche that, for all the countervailing pressures, can’t be easily shifted. When we watch a well-made movie, it’s difficult to realise that the narrative is made up of frames, and next, of scenes, and that the transitions between the scenes are very often visual rather than strictly linear. This ‘way of seeing’ has wormed its way into our consciousness to such a degree that we can relinquish awareness of it; what we do instead is impose a sequential pattern on it, one that conforms to our expectations of how narratives should behave.  This, more often than not, is how we ‘read’ the movies.  But how has this affected the way that we happen to read?

In the early 1970s Frank Moorhouse adopted what he called the ‘discontinuous narrative’, a hybrid form that combines the short story with the novel.  Others have described it as ‘a novel in short stories’, and for a time nervous publishers were content with ‘linked stories’.  It’s a demanding form, in that the stories have to work on their own and at the same time work together as an overarching narrative.  But for that very reason it has its appeal, despite its detractors, who seem to be uneasy with the ambiguity.

I’ve been thinking about all this because while hunting for something altogether different, I’ve come across a clipping from a 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Review that I obviously kept with these inchoate thoughts in mind.  It’s a review of a book of interviews with 26 filmmakers by the multi-media artist Doug Aitken.  Called Broken Screen, its subtitle – Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative – alludes to the fact that we're taking the whole process further, when filmmakers themselves come celebrate the method of their madness.  As the critic Peter Lunenfeld writes in his review: 

‘Together the voices here explore new ways of telling stories that have emerged in the wake of avant-garde moving image experimentation and the relentless innovations in information technologies.’

The gist of the book is that, after over a century’s exposure to nonlinear narratives in the visual media, ‘linear story telling has become at once over-familiar and insufficient,’ and the more attuned we are to narrative fragmentation, the easier it is to put the bits together.  Robert Altman refers to the intercut, intertwined, ‘meshed’ stories he put to use in Nashville, while French artist Pierre Huyghe tells how he ‘carves up’ his video installations to open them up to what he calls the ‘exponential present’ – in other words, the dizzying range of WiFi, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the other feeds and platforms that a mere eight years down the track we’re heir to.  

But the message, though fractured, is nonetheless clear, and leads me to greater understanding of my own compulsion to chop up my narratives into component parts, and then reassemble them in a way that accords with my own altered consciousness and, more, my lived experience.  Though it’s taken me years to recognise, there’s hardly a book or a story or a painting of mine that hasn’t been so assembled.  And longer still to comprehend fully why.  Though, as said, I did have my inklings.

Let’s go back to Cezanne, his ‘Route Tournante’ and its ‘omissions’ - the gaps left unpainted between the broken planes of colour - that play such an integral part in the painting’s structure. The depth of the picture comes from extending the lines, or from filling in those spaces, or simply letting your eye follow either, in order to gain a sense of the artist’s perspective.  Reading, and seeing.  Seeing, and reading.   Always an interaction, always a conversation, always a challenge - if you’re game enough to take it. 

(P.S. I apologise for not having the techno-savvy to supply either the image of or the link to  'Route Tournante' or Colm Toibin's talk on it, but invite you to google them both.)