Friday, December 15, 2017

Desire corresponds to the condition of water

I finished Maureen O'Shaughnessy's The Truth about A faster than I thought I would, reading through her bright red-bound collection of poems as I would a novel. It took me little more than a day. But all this is only to admit that what -- to anyone else -- would be nothing to boast about at all (the reading through of a book from beginning to end in a single sitting, or even in several sittings), is becoming increasingly rare for me. The more I gain from what I am reading (as it seems), the more I become fearful of losing it -- and this is enough to precipitate a sudden reluctance to finish the reading. Which turns the book into yet another salted pillar that I stack in precarious piles on my side of the bed. Robert Walser might have been describing something like this when he writes about what "little children do with their delicacies, which in their desire to eat they are unable to eat" -- yes, Walser, of that long, institutionalised, writing-less end.

The small euphoria, then, of getting to the last pages of The Truth about A and still, somehow, in possession of something.

(And yet, see the way that my mind intervenes on it all the same: being prompted here to write about how the A of O'Shaughnessy's title -- the Antigone of myth -- had obsessed me for a time when I was a teenager. I still don't know why I had decided to spend days -- week -- months -- preparing a series of drawings at school for a staging (possibly) of the Sophocles play which, of course, never saw any kind of fruition, except that I know that it was intended to be in fulfilment of an assessment task, and that there had even been an obscure but intensely felt meaning in my choice of Antigone for this project -- a meaning that I associate, for some reason, with the shadowy end of the long ceramic room in my high school, and particularly, the section with a huddling of kilns in it and a set of open-backed shelves of crude orange pots that had been dunked in pastel glazes, ready for the fire. Perhaps it was only that I was ambitious for these drawings. I think I was wanting to suggest an immense but unfamiliar world with them -- and one that would swallow me whole. But of course, I also remember how I had soon grown bored and annoyed with what I was doing, because instead of being able to summon something large and strange with the drawings, I had become caught in the supposedly necessary task of shading in the folds of each of the characters' floor length robes with a 2B pencil I was holding, carefully, on its side.)

And so, to celebrate the way that O'Shaughnessy keeps so expertly to the single, gleaming thread she casts into the dark of the paradoxically "over-lit" rooms of Palis in Oyster Bay, Sydney: first pulling Antigone into view, and then taking us through the fluorescent memories of trips to an unlovely office in the city, to the chilled haven of shopping arcades during the fierce heat of summer, when Oedipus, charmed to silliness in the company of his daughter, smiles and smiles at her, "forgetting to hide his teeth". Then the cataclysm of Teresias's text on the evening of the Spring Carnival in 2015, and the brothers' brutal "usurping" in a basement, with a blinded cctv camera failing to record the blood. In a subsequent session with her analyst, we are faced with what might have been the supreme disappointment of a contemporary Antigone: a rich young woman who parries questions about happiness -- whose most bitter complaint against her father is that her life is a "Letdown". And yet, like the plethora of "pets" that surround her in Palis -- the finches, the cats, the dogs -- when "the brightness, the balmy air, gave them an extraordinary summer-afternoon weightiness" -- the strength at the core of Antigone's indolence soon uncoils, "a hole of negativity so vast it becomes a positive space,/ spreading;/it expanded in her body, like smoke unrolling across a bushfire sky".

When Antigone takes Haemon to see the snakes -- those "shadows looping in the dark" -- after the mutual homicides of Polyneices and Eteokles, he is struck by one, called Sylvester Stallone
holding a mouse carcass in its throat,
and the slick blond-brownish twists of its body, and a spook of a
mouth hinged with teeth like a picket fence along its jaw.
Haemon might well have been disturbed by this image of familial menace reduced to the domesticity of a "picket fence", since he tries to goad Antigone into admitting to her complicity in the bloodshed. Her response by now, however, is sharp: "Listen, you're hardly the RSPCA". After Creon arrives "[s]crewing coloured cables into white wall mountings with deadly speed" -- and after Jocasta "falls forward over the ledge into the white window of air" -- Antigone orders her father to pack, and then takes him out onto the wide, open ocean in the family yacht, managing the entirety of their precarious, bitter survival herself. Hence it is that, by the end of the book, even the vulnerability of her "foal-like body" that her father still sees in her is entirely adequate to hauling him -- the most burdensome of the remnants of her family -- as the "hours disappear over the hills and the ocean" -- into something like safety. Because, it is the determination of Antigone that we are left with: her determination to resist anyone else's take on her -- even and especially that of her mother, who preferred Antigone to sing on X-factor, no matter than her own face grew "rigid" whenever she saw the younger woman "getting attention".

Although we had learned earlier from Teresias that Antigone "wants to play every part on her stage in order to find the part that is truly her", in that same poem we are also reminded that "[d]esire corresponds to the condition of water". It flows, as we might say, downwards only. And yet it is here, at the bottoming out of her ironbarked and "duney" forested world at the edge of the ocean, with her father "like a crackpot", her head "full of bleak thoughts", that we discover that Antigone is also inscribing, "in the margins of her postcards to her analyst", how she is now "writing songs". And that "the songs are alive".

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The cowardly temptation of rereading

As it has been well over a year since I last posted here, it's probably not surprising that I feel the weight of it immediately at my neck as I dare, now, to write in this place again. And yet it's not as if I haven't been typing onto my computer screen the whole time -- typing material that fails to end up here. But let's break the imagery into bits: I'm not exactly typing onto this tilted white slab even now, because in the same moment that rigid little banners of words are shifting themselves into parallel rows as I drum on the plastic squares below them, I can also sort-of believe that somebody else, really, is stitching them into place... how easy it is to trick the self out of its fears through this sense that somebody else is furtling around in the glazed box of the internet instead.

Meanwhile, outside that box, I have succumbed to the comfort and (I should admit) cowardly temptation of rereading -- and so have come across what I might have been looking for all along: the section in which the narrator, in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, describes the exact same "torpor" of the mind I have been fighting with -- a torpor that the narrator's acquaintance (can we ever call them friends?) had fallen into when, after years of following minutely obsessive paths, his inner and then outer voice sank into an airlessness and then stopped being able to stir. I've often thought of Sebald as the champion of such voiceless voices: of the kinds of voices that disintegrate into the brown-edged pages of the books that survive him -- and (further) into the grains of the images he sets among the overly spaced out lines of his prose and which look, especially now, so entirely appropriate to my no-longer-so-crisp, early millennial editions of his works that have dust furring their upper edges (which is an only apparently sad predicament for them since, as the character Max Ferber tells the narrator of The Emigrants, a soft enveloping in dust is something utterly desirable for inner things -- and how I would love to believe him!).

And yet what of Sebald himself? What of the writer-narrator, who wraps the outer casing of the telescope -- or, for him, the more furtive periscope -- of his writing around the infinitely receding periscoping of multiple voicings? James R. Martin has reminded us of the other Sebald-writer-narrator -- the one who, in his early academic work on the fatal connection between the bourgeois framing of the assimilation of the Jews during the Enlightenment and the genocide of the Holocaust, used to be criticised for his crudely combative polemic. All of which makes me want to ask: is it this irascible figure's exhausted and, usually, pain-ridden ghost whose cuffs I've been trying to catch onto each time it slides out of the rooms of the later prose works? The narrative persists in pulling us away from this figure (no -- not there -- over here it keeps saying), and yet, in the course of my rereading, I've found myself all the more fascinated by the mostly unnarrated chasm that seems to be propelling this figure around and in past the edges of its subjects. In fact, I have been wondering whether it is just the bakelite-era translucence of the narrator-voice -- its readiness to receive and imprint onwards whatever shadow it receives -- that succeeds in turning the dense not-to-be-spoken-about nothingness of its individual pain into that characteristic but deceptive glow of empathic distraction.