Thursday, 23 January 2014

Room with a View

We’re just about to move out of a flat we have occupied for nearly eight years.  One attraction in coming here was that it was approximately twice the size of the Manly flat we’d been living in, but initially we were hesitant.  I do like Manly; I’ve always considered it a place where my soul mysteriously expands, and this was long before the beachside suburb tarted itself up in the gentrifying push of the last fifteen years.  In fact I liked it better when it was seedier, more like Coney Island than Brighton.  Having finally managed to land there, I was reluctant to leave.  But  when we went to look at the flat on offer, we were blown away by the view.  I said to my husband, ‘We would never be able to afford such a view.  This is an amazing opportunity.’   

The flat was on the top of a cliff overlooking North Harbour and the ocean beyond.  The view was certainly spectacular.  We could see the Manly ferry cruising into the wharf and minutes later chugging on the return journey, out towards the Heads and on to Circular Quay.  We could see the boats moored near Forty Baskets and the wooded parkland leading to the Spit.  To the north we could see as far Allambie Heights, to the south further up the hill towards Clontarf. 

All this for nothing, for having once done a favour for a friend. 

Although I hadn’t been back in the country long, and was in Sydney for the first time since the 1960s, I’d quickly picked up the Sydneysider’s infatuation with water views.  Given their beauty that isn’t surprising.  What has been is my response to actually living with one. 

I never stopped delighting in the ferry and often found myself waving to it as it made its way into Manly and took off again to the city.  And at night the lights on all the houses and cars could be exciting.  I could be mesmerised too by the way the colours altered throughout the day, particularly just before dusk when they deepen dramatically before plunging in a last gasp to black.  I would watch the bus coming down Woodland Street and turn into Bungaloe Avenue, and saw the traffic lights change as far away as the Sydney Road intersection.  It was fun too tracking the tiny cars on the hills on White Street, the ones climbing towards Seaforth and others in the opposite direction to Manly.

Below us is a spreading jacaranda tree whose leaves and purple flowers rarely failed to lift my spirits, especially when the distant shoreline was shrouded in fog; and the bird life was comforting – magpies and mynas mostly but the kookaburras took up residence on certain branches to warn us of the rain, and every once in a while an owl would whizz past, so close to the window it seemed it would injure its wing on the glass.  And if I was up early enough, the sunrise was like a curtain lifting on a stage.

But truth be told, it wasn’t long before I began to get bored.  I think the trouble was that there was just too much of it, too great an expanse, and far too much of it was too remote, just too far away.  There was a certain lack of intimacy, and what there was inclined to the obscene.  For one thing there were all those pools, a turquoise chain of them stretching from yard to yard, curiously locking in the landscape.  I never saw anyone swim in them.  On very hot days I sometimes saw my neighbours’ teenagers taking a dip, but other than that they never went in, and they were the only ones I did see.  It was all about real estate and enhancing the capital value of the home.  It was depressing.  Visitors were amazed by our view, all they saw was our view, and congratulated us on it, but I was a tad resentful that it captured so much of their attention there was hardly any room for us.

Gradually, I learned to crop the picture.  I let some of the blinds down in order to frame what was left.  That way I was able to familiarise myself with separate facets of the view and so would come to appreciate the whole of it more.  I observed the man in a house down the cliff a bit peer at the scene through his telescope.  I saw the rare kayaker on North Harbour.  By varying the height of a blind I could even excise the ugly building on top of the hill at Fairlight.  All of this gave me a certain sense of power.  I wasn’t at the mercy of the view but, rather, it was entirely at mine.

Another thing to remark on was the silence.  Apart from the kookaburras and the morning trills of the magpies there wasn’t much sound.  Now and then the ferry would hoot its foghorn.  We once heard a shotgun fire.  And of course there was the constant hum of traffic the few blocks away on Sydney Road.  Yet the silence was at one and the same time comforting yet disturbing – it all had to do with that curious lack of intimacy.  I remember reading once, although I wouldn’t be able to source it, that in Aboriginal culture it isn’t the long view, or the close-up, but the middle distance that’s important.  What can be observed clearly in front of you, though far enough away not to let you intrude.  I think there might be something in that, even for a city person.

I understand that the person moving in here after us is disappointed that there isn’t a balcony.  That’s another thing about Sydneysider flat dwellers – they all prize balconies.  A place to put their barbecues and be whipped silly by the winds, but the value goes up with a balcony.  It’s the economy, stupid, and Sydney’s is so much about real estate.  As for me, I’m pleased to be returning to the Manly flat, where once again I’ll be in the thick of it and be lulled to sleep by the surf.  Vale the view.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Silence and Blogging

Years ago, back in the tumultuous sixties, Susan Sontag published one of her most interesting essays: 'The Aesthetics of Silence'.  Revisiting it recently, I discovered that it was even richer and deeper than I remembered.  In fact what I remembered was the most trivial thing about it, and was, I confess, something I’d read about it, rather from the essay itself.  This was the assertion that Sontag was thinking about entering, or had actually emerged from, a period of silence, at a time when people in the brittle, competitive New York intelligentsia of her acquaintance felt it ever encumbent upon themselves to ‘say’ as much as they could.  The essay, in this sense, purported to be the author’s retreat from New York’s omnipresent babble, rather than the exploration of the essential contradiction in modern art that it is.

Although she couldn’t have predicted it, Sontag’s essay preceded but also anticipated the cybernetic noise of our time.  God knows how many bloggers there are on the internet, and social media like Facebook and Twitter are absolutely reliant on our very human need to express ourselves.  Although she made the distinction early in her essay between expression and art, she went on to explain that some of the best proponents of silence in art (by which she meant reduction or minimalism), were inclined like Stein or Beckett to produce what appears to be mere repetitive babble, language so distilled that it can be freed of its meaning even as it attaches itself most firmly to exterior objects (‘A rose is a rose is a rose’).  So it’s possible that Sontag was inspired by what she perceived as the absence of silence , in all its contradictory permutations, to pen her remarkable essay. 

If few of us contributing to the cloud of cyberspace will make any claims to art, certainly the babble has seduced us.  Though no one has figured out a satisfactory way to be paid for it yet, we want to be out there.  There’s a challenge and a freedom in blog writing.  There are no gatekeepers or censors.  There are dangers involved - opening oneself to crazies and snoops, and for lack of independent proofreaders, having to wear more than a few typos.  But for writers like me who’ve been submitted to a measure of silencing, it’s a discipline, a way of keeping one’s hand in. 

Charlotte has been going for a couple of years now but before I created a blog for her I was in charge of the Independent Australian Jewish Voices opinion page.  This was because early in 2009 the Sydney Morning Herald ran an op-ed piece of mine condemning Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.   The response to it was surprisingly appreciative among Jews and non-Jews alike and it was circulated worldwide.  The IAJV were hopeful that in the light of this reception an honest conversation about Israel could be conducted on its website.  We solicited comment but once we winnowed out the trolls and the one letter writer who wrote on anything to anyone who’d print her, no one else bothered to engage with us.  Jews here in Oz are sadly, irredeemably polarised.  The people who read the Jewish News or J-Wire, claiming to represent mainstream Jewish opinion, hate whatever I say on the subject, and like-minded groups such as Jews for a Democratic Society, or Jews against the Occupation, tend to go unheard, are ignored by our governments and satirised by writers like Howard Jacobsen.  It’s a dismal situation and a potent form of censorship, but since Jews are still, in numeric terms, an insignificant minority, it’s been extremely hard to change.  I ended up with a page with only my opinions on it, and eventually let it lapse, though my interest in the subject has never waned.  The IAJV newsletter is still going strong and support for what it stands for appears to be growing but how long it will take to convince the most obdurate apologists here for Israel’s policies is another question.  The boycott, disinvestment and sanction or BDS campaign, to raise just one issue, is as contentious as ever.  That the same nonviolent tactic worked in isolating apartheid South Africa and dismantling its racist regime is conveniently overlooked, even among those most eager to heap praise on Nelson Mandela after his death.

But back to Charlotte.  An alter ego adopted for a book I'd edited in Canada, she became a blog when I started to fiddle with the idea of self-publishing.  A manuscript I’d been working on for years was getting nowhere, rejected again and again, redrafted over and over, and the thought of turning it into an e-book was put forward as a possibility.  I also wanted to do something with my art work.  It was only when I set up my own website and Charlotte was moved to it that the disparate aspects of my being began to coalesce.  Covering literary and political concerns and illustrated by my pictures, the blog began to gather a readership.  But I’d written nothing about Palestine, an issue that’s consumed me ever since I began researching its history nearly a quarter century ago, and I’ve often wondered if the novel I’d written about it will ever see the light of day.

The situation in the Middle East is as explosive as ever, yet the trail between what happened to the Palestinian majority when Israel was established as a state in 1948 has never been properly acknowledged by the West until now perhaps, when it's arguably too late.  Bolstered by its ability to neuter US power, Israel goes its own way.  The settlements continue to grow on the occupied territories; our own government questions whether they are illegal.  As the encroachment proceeds any hope of a viable Palestinian state diminishes, at the very same time that the acceptance of one is cynically put forward as a means of establishing peace.  What we need to understand, as writers like Miko Peled and many others have pointed out, is that Israel-Palestine is now effectively one state, and it’s an apartheid one.  There are different laws for Israeli Jews and Palestinians, whether Israeli citizens or not.   There are different towns, even different roads they can drive on.  The presence of a Jewish-dominated state has encouraged the worst kind of racism, among illegal West Bank settlers and Jews within Israel proper, breathtaking in its arrogance and ahistoricity.   

It’s a very real possibility that the civil war in Syria and the unrest in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, will spill over Israel’s borders.  What then?  Israel is a militaristic state, the only one in the region with a nuclear capability.  What might be the consequence of this?  Here in Australia we can be lulled into thinking that all this is remote from us, but the story of Ben Zygier, the young Australian who signed up for Mossad and goofed things up for them out of his need to prove his loyalty,  demonstrates just how close the ties between Australia and Israel are, and how misguided they can be.  The issue of Palestine is not a remote one for us at all.

The drawing accompanying this current post is of Yehudi Ha-Kohen, a character in my novel.  A kabbalist adept, he appears like a ghost now and then in what has been evidently taken as a uniformly realist work of fiction, but is there to remind of us of one of the most important precepts of this line of Jewish mysticism.  Long ago, long before Israel was conceived of as a modern state, the kabbalists wrote that the troubles of the world came from too much head and not enough heart.  Too much male and not enough female, they said.  But that we could pay attention now.  My guess is Susan Sontag would.