On ravishing quar­tets

Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THERE’S no deny­ing the at­trac­tive­ness of th­ese lit­tle es­say- length books with their flu­o­res­cent fem­i­nine- hued cov­ers. Nor could any fair- minded per­son ar­gue with the pub­lish­ing bril­liance of hav­ing es­says of this kind, on pul­sat­ingly ab­stract top­ics, by writ­ers of this qual­ity or of this de­gree of fame or in­ter­est.

The es­say by David Malouf, On Ex­pe­ri­ence , is a deeply thought­ful med­i­ta­tion on how we in­di­vid­u­alise our takes on the world, the ways in which we make our lives into sto­ries, and the way our shared ex­pe­ri­ence of our own sub­jec­tiv­ity, and what we imag­ine when we read or lis­ten to mu­sic or lis­ten to things, cre­ates the world that we in­habit. It’s a beau­ti­fully mod­u­lated piece about the mys­tery of how we shape our own and oth­ers’ con­scious­ness and ul­ti­mately a cul­ture of mu­tual recog­ni­tions. It’s full of tact and it shows an in­tense sen­si­tiv­ity to the pri­vacy and enigma of hu­man life.

‘‘ We have no no­tion, amid the events and feel­ings and words, that crowd in upon us, of the ad­vent of our most se­cret un­der­stand­ings, the mo­ments that will one day mean most to us, which im­age glimpsed, or word spo­ken, will oc­ca­sion in us that sweet shock . . .’’

It is, in its muted way, a post- Ro­man­tic vi­sion of life, and the role of the imagination is in­te­gral to it. Malouf also re­jects the con­so­la­tion of any easy con­script­ing of cul­ture to pol­i­tics.

‘‘ In the great whirligig of time, with its un­pre­dictable re­ver­sals and ironies, it is the record left by Akhma­tova and her con­tem­po­raries, Man­del­stam, Pasternak, Tsve­taeva, de­voted as they were to the en­tirely per­sonal, to in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence and the life of the emo­tions, our se­cret in­te­rior life, that has sur­vived, and stands now as the most en­dur­ing his­tory of the post- 1917 Rus­sian world.’’

For Malouf it is, in the end, art that gives us the most sig­nif­i­cant record of the ex­pe­ri­ence of

On Ex­pe­ri­ence By David Malouf On Rage By Ger­maine Greer On Ec­stasy By Barrie Kosky On Long­ing By Blanche d’Alpuget

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his­tory. The ex­am­ples he chooses — Anna Akhma­tova in Stalin’s Rus­sia, Primo Levi on Hitler’s camps — give us the fullest pos­si­ble sense of the com­plex­ity of the is­sues in play with a lu­cid­ity that is never sim­pli­fy­ing.

Af­ter the de­lib­er­ate­ness ( and wis­dom) of Malouf on ex­pe­ri­ence, Ger­maine Greer’s On Rage has a lib­er­at­ing dra­matic in­ten­sity. She de­scribes Bob Kat­ter’s voice, dis­torted with emo­tion, as he de­nounces the leader of the Na­tion­als and talks about when some­thing com­pa­ra­ble hap­pened to her. The bur­den of this im­pas­sioned but painstak­ing es­say is that rage is the form of self- an­ni­hi­la­tion that many Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines have been driven to.

She sees Abo­rig­i­nal rage as lit­er­ally a killer even when it is turned in­ward. ‘‘ The prob­lem we have with the ag­o­nis­ing rage of hunter- gath­er­ers is that we can’t just tell them to get over it. It’s all they have. There will be those who ac­cept rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, who make the best of a bad job, most of them women. Then there are those who would rather die.’’

It is part of Greer’s con­tin­u­ing aria of anger on be­half of in­dige­nous Aus­tralians, and she makes her pri­mary point — anger de­stroys the an­gry — with a char­ac­ter­is­tic lack of com­pro­mise. She’s unim­pressed by Kevin Rudd’s apol­ogy and in deep sym­pa­thy with the Abo­rig­i­nal cause. The only crit­i­cism that could be made of her is, as ever, that when it comes to this sub­ject, Greer can some­times seem obliv­i­ous to how much lib­eral Aus­tralia agrees with her.

Barrie Kosky’s es­say, On Ec­stasy , ( the only one of the four by some­one who is not pri­mar­ily a writer) has the most ex­cit­ing beginning of any of them. Kosky in­ducts us into his ec­stasy over his grand­mother’s chicken soup, and then over Madame But­ter­fly , which she makes him lis­ten to be­fore tak­ing him to the opera.

He is fresh and en­gag­ing when he talks about his en­thu­si­asm, at the age of seven, for Jack Wild, in his tight wet black jeans in HR Pufn­stuf, and his dif­fer­ent em­pathic de­light in the much more lik­able Witchiepoo.

He re­mains riv­et­ing when he cel­e­brates the bazaar of odours ( not voyeuris­tic glimpses) in the Mel­bourne Gram­mar chang­ing rooms, and in homage to the op­er­atic sound­scape of Mahler, and the ex­traor­di­nary sight of Leonard Bern­stein bathed in sweat as he at­tempts to ex­press it.

But when he comes to his own stage pro­duc­tions his ec­stasies are a touch more pri­vate. When he pours forth his soul about the way in which he re­con­fig­ures Wagner’s op­eras, The Fly­ing Dutch­man or Lo­hen­grin, in his mind’s eye, he gets a bit lost in the mists of solip­sism. The­atre ideas, how­ever vi­able a rai­son d’etre for the di­rec­tor, are of­ten bad ideas when stated in cold print.

On a good day, Kosky is a wizard of the the­atre, but some of the lat­ter parts of this es­say are luvvy­ish and over- rich, as if he were jock­ey­ing for a cre­ativ­ity that could ri­val the works he in­ter­prets. The up­shot sounds gush­ing and a bit ‘‘ young’’ on the page, even if it might work bril­liantly ( and, as it were, tac­itly) on stage.

When Kosky is sniff­ing out the socks and sweats of the chang­ing room or the un­earthly sad­ness that Puc­cini can have for a child, he touches, in his un­canny way, on things that are ap­pre­hen­si­ble to any­one. When he gazes into the glory of his di­rec­to­rial vi­sion he sim­ply seems ex­cited about him­self. Still, this es­say re­mains vivid through ev­ery pur­ple patch or damp spot.

So too does Blanche D’Alpuget’s On Long­ing . It’s an es­say that is, in the end, more about re­li­gious mys­ti­cism than it is about erotic yearn­ings, though D’Alpuget, who puts her money on the qui­etism of the Quak­ers, also gives a skele­tally vivid ac­count of the ups and downs of the woo­ing game with Bob Hawke as well as her own temp­ta­tions to sui­cide early on.

It’s a pe­cu­liar ex­er­cise in the roller­coaster of con­fes­sion­al­ism and the whole nar­ra­tive is given an ex­oti­cism by the way she calls Hawke sim­ply M. for much of the length of her story. It is also fas­ci­nat­ing that the au­thor is so com­mit­ted to spir­i­tu­al­ity and re­li­gious hope.

On Long­ing is in some ways the most sur­pris­ing of th­ese es­says. D’Alpuget plays on the dual con­no­ta­tions of Cleopa­tra’s ‘‘ im­mor­tal long­ings’’, but what we get are great gusts and whirl­winds of eros and agape done with sel­f­re­veal­ing aban­don.

You can say what you like about th­ese es­says. Some­times they wob­ble and teeter around the mid­way point. Some­times they look a lit­tle bit scratched to­gether like an af­ter- din­ner speech. Some­times the writ­ers seem afraid of giv­ing in­for­ma­tion, even when they can’t con­trol mood in the man­ner of a short- story writer. But th­ese are quib­bles. This is a ravishing quar­tet of es­says, grander and more var­ie­gated than we have seen any­one bring to­gether in ages. Peter Craven was the found­ing ed­i­tor of Quar­terly Es­says.

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