On ravishing quartets
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
MUP, $ 19.95 each, $ 60 the set
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.