There’s a moment in Patrick White’s Voss when Tom Radclyffe remarks that he would be ‘curious to read little Laura’s thoughts’. Little Laura responds, mischievously, if not maliciously, that she has been thinking ‘of nothing in particular. Which is another way of saying: almost everything.’ This is almost certainly the recognisable condition of those currently in possession of an internet password and the hardware to put it to work. We are mushroom people now, our mycelium constantly interacting with countless threads that have been sent out by others to find, lose, or avoid us. We are novelists now, too, digging out beautiful caves, as Woolf had it, for ourselves and our myriad interlocutors, spelunking ourselves to frenzy in the frequently better looking, more luxuriously decked out caves of others. The internet is our collective unconscious, our objective correlative. Networks of signs, readable and otherwise, keep us connected.
Though The Vivisector is one of my favourite novels, I’ve never made much headway with Voss. It took a randomly sighted photograph of a painting of a boab tree to spill my concentration across the tablecloth of Australian history and decide to give it another try. Jonathan Franzen shouldn’t worry so much about the devaluation of research for the novel. One of the writer’s key tasks now is to siphon, to sort, to find a path. Which is perhaps how I came to be reading Rachel Cusk’s Kudos alongside Voss. Test tubes of literary methodology to accompany White’s ‘brittlest baskets of caramel, great gobbets of meringue.’
Though I raced through Transit and Outline, Kudos has been hard going. I manage a page at a time and sometimes don’t come back to it for weeks. Maybe it’s a matter of the right attention at the right time. A paragraph read at night and dismissed, seems, a day later, to function as a kind of Geneva drive, dividing and multiplying ideas with convex verve whilst maintaining the cut-glass austerity of, say, Emily Dickinson. Looking up ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ starts me wondering if Dickinson had read Madame Bovary (‘the carriage held but just ourselves and immortality’) or if Flaubert had read Dickinson. The thought is still with me as I return to Voss.
Laura and the German explorer are lost in the dark, camellia-lit haze of her uncle’s colonial garden on the foreshore of Point Piper. Voss wants to know if Laura is atheistisch. She snaps and tears at a handful of camellias, ‘like blotting-paper’, White writes, a catty paw-swipe, I think, at Flaubert’s famous letter torn and thrown by Bovary from her carriage. Laura’s febrile hand-work signals the letter-writing frenzy to come whilst also insinuating that the symbol of Bovary’s unrequited passion amounts to not much more, from White’s perspective, than a mop to sop up the excess of the hallucinatory, telepathic love that will develop between Voss and Laura. The scene is stagey, now that I think about it, Garden of Eden, etc., but in the context of a life’s work, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine that White is, here, inventing aspects of a theatrical and cinematic future from the vast, concatenating dioramas of the Australian landscape and the spindly interventions of colonialist mythologists against its original inhabitants.
Kudos also dwells on the relation of spirituality to literature and of the pact writing makes with the parasitical host culture that at once demands and repudiates it. Cusk makes a subject of the industrial mechanics of literary dissemination. Her festival organisers, reviewers, publicists, and publishers hold forth in the manner of Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, Arendt. As one of the narrator’s reviewer-poet subjects remarks, ‘If I agreed that literature was a form that took its life-blood from social and material constructs, the writer could do no more than stay within those constructs, buried in bourgeois life—as he had recently read it described somewhere—like a tick in an animal’s fur.’
I’m also reading various works by the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, in support of an essay I’m writing on the nineteenth-century French symbolist poets, Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud. Badiou always differentiates rigorously between poetry and philosophy so, whilst he remains enamoured of the ‘evental singularity’ of Rimbaud’s use of language, to the extent that ‘he went further in his inventions than is possible with Mallarméan labour,’ he concludes that, despite Rimbaud’s intention of ‘interrupting the west’, he participated in, rather than interrupted its excesses. The work ‘betokens the same mimetic temptation—which acts as if because truth was supposedly missing, it is spread out a little all over—that Plato, from the beginning, rebelled against.’
Part of Mallarmé’s appeal, for Badiou, lies in a mathematical precision which is evident also in Cusk. Whilst White’s writing is frequently charged with a voluptuous déshabillé that seems to annoy certain critics, I think its sensuous entanglements comprise a world not so different to that conveyed by the rigorous Cusk or Mallarmé, the glittering abolishionist. On the subject of Laura’s spiritual deliberations, Voss supposes that atheists are ‘so lacking in magnificence they cannot conceive the idea of a Divine Power.’ Spirit might be at once disbelieving and fervent, impoverished and resourceful. Like all great writers, White gives the reader the tools to imagine they just might be up to the task of thinking the impossible.
I seem to have been reading Giorgio Agamben’s essay ‘The End of the Poem’ since 2009 and I feel like I’m only just beginning to understand it. One of Agamben’s key points is that the possibility of enjambment is ‘the only criterion for distinguishing poetry and prose.’ This is perhaps easy enough to grasp but becomes complicated when he starts talking about metrical and syntactical limits and Paul Valery’s definition of the poem as ‘a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.’ By the time the essay asserts that the end of the poem poses a crisis of identity brought on by the withdrawal of the possibility of enjambment, I’m veering off into the scrub. Perhaps each and every poem can be said to gather its identity through the ways in which it encounters and responds to this crisis.
As Agamben signals, the opposition between sound and sense poses a disjunction that we can think of as structurally constitutive. He even goes so far as to wonder whether, at the end of the poem, ‘the mystical marriage of sound and sense could, then, take place’, or if ‘on the contrary, are sound and sense now forever separated without any possible contact, each eternally on its own side, like the two sexes’.
A recently sighted Instagram photo of an owl alerted me to the necessity of reading every story I could find about barns. So far I’ve got Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’ and ‘the most photographed barn in America’ from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ came by happy accident when friends invited me to see Lee Chang-Dong’s film adaptation, Burning. I loved the slightly terrifying film but I think it avoids in some ways the mysterious desolation of Murakami’s story by shoehorning the writer’s encounter with his other into the well-worn trope of male aggressiveness and repressed desire.
Finally, a young friend who is in Year 11 is studying poems by Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Sam Wagan Watson and writing on Noonuccal’s ‘Last of his Tribe’. In researching the poem, we discovered a poem by Henry Kendall called ‘The Last of His Tribe’, first published in 1864. It was moving and distressing to compare the two poems and to note the significant occlusions and admissions, as well as the events surrounding the dates of publication. Noonuccal’s most significant inclusion is the advent of a name for the subject of the poem. Given that ‘Last of his Tribe’ is published in the wake of the 1967 referendum, which sought to include Indigenous Australians in the census, Noonuccal’s inclusion seems at once to rectify Kendall’s omission and to reinstall the question of naming rights as a matter for Indigenous writers rather than governmental scribes. The question of how we might sustain two conflicting ideas without resorting to a fusional, oppressive synthesis is one of the questions of our times. For this reason, Tony Birch’s new novel, The White Girl and Alexis Wright’s recent essay, ‘The Ancient Library and a Self-Governing Literature’ will be my next port of call.
Fiona Hile lives and works on unceded Wurundjeri land. She has published two collections of poetry, Novelties and Subtraction.