During winter I live in a large room of bicycles and books and spidery imagination. I would love to live this season forever, but life threatens with boiling Christmases, unhealthily tanned beach-goers, loud talking and over-eating, all of which displace meditation, a meditation which slows down the recording mind, allowing reality to thicken and curdle and to form new sites of feeling. One must have ‘a mind of winter’ as Wallace Stevens wrote. It is this reflective process which builds, I believe, a consciousness of caring. A kind of proprioception of the other—inside oneself. It disturbs all the cobwebs which make up the imaginative life and creates a new language out of them. Let me try to explain this in a less abstract fashion.
In winter I have what I call, ‘A Condition’. It is not a Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, though I’m often melancholic; the Condition is about being connected to things—ordinary objects which are taken out of cupboards and then returned without the door being closed on them, which relegates their lonely existence to prolonged darkness. This alternating current between empathy and instrumentality becomes quite intense until the point at which I have to leave cupboards, fridges, windows, doors, drawers, all open for everything to be flooded with light and attention, otherwise they move me to sorrow. This attachment or imprinting onto objects is an interiority that could not be explained away psychologically in babble such as fear of abandonment, punishment anxiety, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, legendary psychasthenia, over-empathy, inability to deal with spaces etc. My theory is that the condition is both caused and continually remedied by a mental script, a tape in the brain which has to be made real by writing, typing, scratching onto paper; a textuality which frees objects from our constant enslavement of them through categorisation or identity thinking, so that they too, have a subjective consciousness, so that they too, have a language, one that can initiate a dialogue of caring for their constriction and for their freedom.
So the Condition is redeemed by meditation and silence, not initially by writing but by gestation—until it breaches the limits of what can be tolerated and then the activity of writing salves the wound in reality, bandaging the cleft between self and other. The poet Elizabeth Bishop knew this very well, calling herself the loneliest woman in the world, which is both aloneness when writing and loneliness when not; because writing, like a thing in a cupboard, in a bottom drawer, is non-instrumental, akin to uselessness, evolving through caring, from a cypher into an object with a language. Several languages if you’re multi-lingual.
My father’s first wife was French. She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-two after playing tennis in the snow in the French Concession in Shanghai. There is an old photo of her in a flapper frock, looking very cool during the opening of the Cercle Sportif in 1926.
Having re-married—my mother was both Chinese and English—my father took to preserving French culture by reading Les trois mousquetaires to me at bedtime. Thank goodness he broke into English in summary of each chapter otherwise I was wondering what three mosquitoes had to do with the story and was waiting for the punch-line which never came. He would also rattle off the titles of books he never read: La condition humaine, which he translated to me as A Storm in Shanghai; Le lotus bleue by Hergé in the Tintin series which I dug out of my school library. My father said that was a spy story and that Shanghai was full of spies.
It was this translating and interpreting back and forth to myself and to my parents which not only made life for me much like a spy’s but more interestingly for a child-observer, one could mistranslate to tailor one’s childhood wishes. One could ignore; one could invent. I also found amusing all the ‘false friends’ in translation: words that were homophonic or homologous in structure, but utterly without connection in meaning, such as advocado, the Portuguese word for ‘lawyer’ but unrelated to the fruit. Or langsam meaning ‘slowly’ in German, which sounds the same as ‘sweater’ in Chinese. Perhaps lawyers ate a lot of avocados, that’s why they wrote on yellow paper. Perhaps wool grew slowly and that explained why my grandmother’s knitting seemed interminable. These things gave rise to imaginary worlds of memory and connection. It also helped me understand that my father’s trade was tied up in business across languages. He was full of language. Sometimes he came home drunk, speaking in Hindi. He was what was known as a compradore in Portuguese, a purchaser or trader between cultures and nations. He also understood how to compromise in order for friends and colleagues to live together.
So I grew up with a love of a language fostered by a multicultural background within a multi-lingual society. Because I was brought up by amahs, my first language could correctly be said to be Cantonese. My grandmother was from Liverpool, so English was my second language and the lingua franca in the family. My father mainly spoke Portuguese with the odd smattering of French, as the two languages are actually not that far apart. Needless to say, there was never any intimacy expressed, and this may have driven me into diaristic writing and into this obsession with the secret lives of objects, finding the bicycle an extension of the skeleton and the book a complement to the hand and eye. Diaries and letters are literary productions as much as any novel, but they possess a secret, not meant for the eye but intended anyway. In any case, the hand, the arm, the whole body functions in writing. I think this was the beginning of my interest in the epistolary and diaristic form, in semi-autobiographical work spiced with fiction, a métissage which resulted in Shanghai Dancing and many of my other novels which contained letters, diaries, photographs and melancholic objects from which I extracted a secret life. These writings are assemblages constructed through all kinds of detours in people’s lives, but this is sustained by an insight which says the same thing: fragments, like objects when placed side by side, begin to form connections. ‘Only connect’, wrote E.M. Forster, but if we de-emphasise his sexual connotation, connectedness between people, things, memories and writings depend upon a certain field of affect and empathy. I think that’s why we read, not for information, but for feeling out language, for experiencing something that has been erased by the cognitive forebrain dedicated to fear, aggression, threat and instant messaging.
In 1976 I went to Paris on the back of a scholarship as an assistant en langues at Aulnay-Sous-Bois, in the industrial north of Paris. While I was teaching there, I attended a public lecture by someone called Roland Barthes at the Collège de France. They were heady times. People still remembered the ‘68 revolution. Barthes spoke about affect and semiology and I detected something of a hidden autobiographical nature in his use of language, in his seemingly dispassionate regard sémiologique. The confessional was never too far away and I instantly warmed to him. I also read Foucault and was thrilled to discover in his preface to The Order of Things these remarks:
This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions between the Same and the Other.
In the north of Paris, the tough edge of language without theory reigned. My nineteenth-century French, learned in the old way of explications de texte and intensive literary reading, seemed out of place, though I re-fashioned it with the local argot. I was quaintly respected by the students, as though some resonance of Balzac roamed the vicinity, striving for a richer vocabulary. I toyed with the idea of wearing a dressing gown and a cravat to my classes in honour of Honoré. Despite this, I can now say quite comfortably that I am a realist, though realism as a literary form has never excluded the virtual.
One night, on a trip to Amsterdam and probably under the influence of hashish, I had a dream in which Raymond Queneau came to me and spoke in the same way he spoke in reality to Marguerite Duras. He said: ‘Do nothing but write.’ And so, I did. I did nothing for the next three years except write. I lived precariously, but there is nothing truer than when you have nothing left to lose, you begin to write and you begin to talk to objects, not as things, but as friends.
When I returned to Australia it had become an alien place, or more disappointingly, no one knew what I had written. One journalist referred to my first novel [Birds of Passage] as Birds of Paradise. After that, it was often found in the Wildlife category. I enjoyed this literal connection with nature. At least it guaranteed some attention. I published other books but I was always destined, I believe, to be better known posthumously. Even though I kept returning to Paris, both physically and imaginatively, it was always going to be an unattainable goal to live there. Besides, there were too many literary fathers to kill.
My latest book, Blindness & Rage, a Phantasmagoria in 34 Cantos, was a kind of eulogy for my love affair with France. There had been too much written, both theoretically and creatively, about the monumental intellectual and literary influence of the French and I wanted to tell a story about someone fleeing from it. As Hans Gumbrecht has indicated, since the beginning of the 1990s, no new theory of literature has posed a real intellectual or institutional challenge. He proposes a closer attention to rhythms, to prosody, to the somatic reception of language. Furthermore he asserts that the literary work possesses a dingcharakter —it is a thing recalled as presence—it is in the world, mediating different phenomena and requires a bodily engagement; I might say a lingual engagement. To feel the mind of language is to know layers of consciousnesses.
Take the case of Kafka, who was a Jew living in Prague where German was the official language. While he spoke German and Czech and began to learn Hebrew, he did a remarkable thing. He once spoke publicly in Yiddish. He said Yiddish frightened. As Deleuze and Guattari wrote:
[…] it is a language that is lacking a grammar and that is filled with vocables that are fleeting, mobilized, emigrating, and turned into nomads that interiorize ‘relations of force.’ It is a language that is grafted onto Middle-High German and that so reworks the German language from within that one cannot translate it into German without destroying it.
There are ample examples of this phenomenon of language-as-subversion in Australian migrant writing. It is in the category of migrant writing where one will find felt experiments with language, resistances to national myths and deterritorialisations of English. The provocative poetry of Ania Walwicz, the Rabelaisian unreason of the late Rosa Cappiello, the fractures and schisms of the writings of Ouyang Yu, the dislocations and willed dyslexia of Antigone Kefala (and by this term I mean her non-linear employment of syntax constructed almost like scriptio continua so that we have to create our own emotional spaces), all attest to the plangency of the migrant condition as well as to its challenges.
The works of these authors are the negatives of essence. They rumble with a presentiment of discontent and critique, which is the very substance of literature, a literature which disturbs and is the very opposite of the smug, the complete and the whole, which national aesthetics conceives of as high art in the national project. This disjunction, this disruption of the whole, of the canon, is a willed failure which is interrupted by the Other, a disfiguring voice which Levinas says is ‘prior to understanding’ a somatic knowledge received before reason. I began to write fiction in part because of this subconscious essayistic intent to fragment the master-narratives of English literary colonisation. As Rosalind Krauss said, ‘criticism finds itself caught in a dramatic web of many voices, citations, asides, divigations. And what is created … is a kind of paraliterature.’ Jéronimo Arellano calls this ‘decollection’ ‘…a narrative that not only “recollects” but also “decollects” by producing assemblages of fictitious objects that unsettle modes of experiencing feeling and ordering thought.’
I began writing in this way in 1980. The world has, in the meantime, changed. Layers of consciousness have been diminished. Reception of these subversive layers have been diminished. Stefan Zweig may have illuminated this absence in his memoir before taking his own life in 1942. Linguistic subversion, he said,
alleviated the dreadful isolation and despair in which a man with genuinely humane feelings in the twentieth century found himself, and now, twenty-five years later, finds himself again—just as powerless, if not more so, against all-powerful opposition.
We believe there is social and cultural progress, but things keep going round and round. We have to fight the same battles again and again because new generations hear them, but cannot experience them.
I think that what refusal and subversion demonstrate is that art and literature do have a concrete function. They interrogate as well as produce a collective awareness and are not simply pandering to aesthetic curiosity for passive consumption. To take a cue from Kafka, who exhorted us to read ‘books that affect us like a disaster’ and which ‘must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’, literature is not an equal contest between points of view or fifty shades of irony. It is not impartial. It weighs into the emotions, is discomfiting and disturbingly residuous. It is a metaphor which bears arms against custom and learned behaviour. To borrow a line from William Gass, ‘[i]t is the tongue for speaking of tongues.’
In an appearance on YouTube before he died, Benedict Anderson spoke about British nationalism, making the remark that ‘Nationalism is grammar; it is syntax; it’s what you talk out of.’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNJuL-Ewp-A) Multi-lingual practices can interrogate this linguistic tribalism. The multi-lingual consciousness says: ‘I can hear your song; I can hear your language and even though immediate meaning may not be there, there is understanding and reception nevertheless’ and it suddenly wants to open the doors and drawers in order to join in, babbling mimetically, and to enter curiously those liminal and foreign spaces which a writer like Antigone Kefala makes available for us. There’s always a narrative consequence in her writing, whether in poetry or prose, which is beyond mere observation as it drives inward to a murmuring meditation received underwater; between life and death; a curiosity of melancholy; a pain always about to be felt; a memory which is familiar but unhoused. It is something that can never be named. Like the objects in my opened cupboard and drawers: free but unhoused. I think the reason this can occur is because her language is a paratext of its own translation into other worlds and other cultures. It is a liminal, but human world.
In my book Blindness and Rage I named my protagonist Lucien Gracq after Julien Gracq, whose real name was Louis Poirier and who took his pseudonym from Stendhal’s hero and the Roman Gracchi. When he died, no-one knew who he was and then they found out he had refused the Prix Goncourt when it was offered to him—yes, there is no mistaking this writer whom I greatly admired for his devastatingly frank assessment of literary prizes and cheap journalism and the so-called ‘reading’ that people claim they do when the new and passing parade of literary ingénues are processed every year. Indeed, Gracq’s La Littérature à l’Estomac—the literature of the stomach—can be read in two ways: firstly, the consumption of culture is fundamentally crude and transient—like the tea-trolley going past laden with cakes; and secondly, do people have the stomach for real literature anymore, for form and prosody and ‘atmosphere’ or what the Germans call Stimmung? In other words, are we cutting off our tongues to spite our language and our emotions in the brush with transient fame, Twitter accounts and larger contracts? Has literature disappeared and will it return in a form that we used to know? Thus, my protagonist gives up his job, rents a flat in Paris next door to the now deceased Georges Perec and conjures up the dead in order not only to exorcise them, but to balance the ledger. Which is indeed what I did, renting a flat two doors down from Georges Perec’s former apartment on the rue Linné near the Jardin des Plantes in order to weigh up the concretion of geography and the somatics of language. It was important to feel the ‘thing’.
This is an edited excerpt from the 2019 ASAL Patron’s Lecture, Detours and Divagations: Consciousness, Otherness and Hospitality, delivered on 14 March 2019 at the Io Myers Studio, University of New South Wales.
 Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, Dana Polan (trans.), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, p 25.
 October, Vol. 13 (Summer, 1980), p 37.
 Hispanic Review, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 372.
 Zweig, Stefan. The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European (Kindle Locations 3515-3517). Pushkin Press. Kindle Edition.
 ‘Letter to Oskar Pollak, 27 January 1904’, in Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, https://likeandmention.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/franz-kafka-from-a-letter-to-oskar-pollak-dated-january-27-1904/
 Life Sentences, Knopf, NY, 2012, p 267.