Before even a name had been given to this infant – indeed, by some accounts, before he was born – his life was clouded with the presage of disaster; for Apollo’s oracle had nothing but ill to foretell of him: he was destined one day to kill his father, and to become his own mother’s husband. Could any mortal device be proof against the god’s prediction? Could any mortal be so presumptuous as to try to thwart it? Laius and Jocasta would so presume.¹
For the past decade I have travelled once each year around the world from Sydney, where I now live, to New York, where I was born. For good measure I usually throw in a third destination – Paris, Singapore, Santa Fe. This third destination is intended as a form of pleasure, or work in pleasurable form. This year my third destination is Derry in Northern Ireland, a place heavy with ancestral significance. I start this essay where I have ended my journey, at my third destination, in Ireland.
In 1919, at the age of 19, my grandmother left Donegal to go to Brooklyn, New York. She became a servant in private homes, and later a cook in institutions. She now lives, 91 and very fit, in suburban New Jersey, in a building for senior citizens, which she does not like but tolerates because there seems to be no choice. And, after all, like the ancient Oedipus, she is lucky really. She is alive, healthy and independent, unlike so many others.
Shortly after her arrival in Brooklyn my grandmother met and married my grandfather, an immigrant from Cork, who died in 1955. She mothered five children, the oldest of whom, Grace, mothered me. My grandmother was herself one of thirteen, most of whom, except for the oldest male, migrated to the United States. All except my grandmother are dead. Their descendants are a large number indeed, and are scattered throughout the world. I have never met some of my cousins, but any segment of this family is still very large, and so each Christmas I return to a traditional extended family dinner.
Hubris 1: The Skin
Hubris, a noun, is derived from the Greek and in tragedy signifies arrogant pride towards the gods, leading to nemesis.
Christmas dinner crystallizes this journey for me. The return home is not exactly a celebratory event; rather it embodies the tragic folly that makes up our lives. The dinner takes place at my aunt’s house. This house already signifies bitterness, because this aunt has been successful amid the grotesque poverty of Reagan’s America. The house is laden with extravagant Christmas gew gaws, the table groans under the weight of food. Gifts are elaborately wrapped. The least successful buy the most extravagant gifts. One young man who works twelve hours a day for a pitiful wage buys his mother and aunts tickets to Broadway shows; another, more privileged, gives nothing. Miles of ribbon, yards of paper.
This event is like skin, available for and subject to beautification, fixing up, covering over. Like skin, this dinner starts the journey seductive and full of falseness. Whenever I return to New York, I notice the women are laden with cosmetics, but I myself partake of these rituals. To cheer myself up after family encounters I visit Bloomingdales, am fussed over and cosmeticized, and purchase large quantities of make-up. This has always been a consolation. The rites of beauty and cover-up mean that you can do something, when about so much of life you can do nothing at all.
Cosmetics, clothes, that with which we adorn fragile skin, is also consoling memory. Perfumes and laces, satin and pearls, remind me of my once so beautiful, so elusive mother. Opening her cabinets as a child, I would blissfully contemplate silk stockings arranged like roses in satin boxes, a perfume bottle with a broken stopper, tantalizing to the nose but ultimately beyond reach. So like my mysterious mother. Skin and its adornments, false, fragile and tragic, like this Christmas dinner. The glitter highlights the loss, envy, bitterness and insanity in this ruin of a family. Both smell of the pathetic arrogance, the necessary confidence with which we start our journey. This tattered but finally courageous front, so brave, so foolish, so unknowing.
This very attempt to write about the crossing of cultural zones reeks of confidence and privilege, of hubris. Does travel not indicate a degree of material wealth granted to few? Does not the ability to write about it stink of a rarely attained privilege? Even the idea of travelling has taken on a unique intellectual position. From popular novels to the nomadology of Deleuze and Guattari,2 the condition of modern nomadism is doubly privileged, with its special place in the contemporary philosophical tool box. The travel bug is associated with an all-consuming passion for the consumption of everything, associated with a fin de siècle ennui:
When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusory or real, we are threatened with the destruction of our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an ‘other’ among others. All meaning and every goal having disappeared, it becomes possible to wander through civilizations as if through vestiges and ruins.3
Thus in our journeys we are in a quintessential site of hubris, of the arrogance that leads to nemesis.
Before beginning our journey we must understand the dimensions of this condition of ignorant folly. This is best exemplified by a story told to me by an artist friend, Bonita Ely. As a child, Bonita looked in a store window and saw a doll with leg callipers. (It was the time of the polio epidemic in Australia.) The child Bonita instantly intuited that this was the way in which one obtained a baby. When adults wanted a baby they went to this store and ordered one, which was delivered by means of these callipers. Telling this story, Bonita marvelled at her child’s ability to create this spectacularly fantastical, commonsensical, pragmatic but incorrect explanation. With hindsight she reflected that her ability to create such stories was absolutely necessary to surviving the ignorance about sex with which she was faced. She also recognized, however, that this very imaginative capacity, this particular story, the absences that is reflected and the mistaken ideas that it embodied, had fundamental consequences for her future.
We plan, we map, we chart. The path of certainty beckons, but life is full of mistakes, wrong paths, the unforeseen. We don’t know the destination of our path, we don’t even know if we are on a path. We stumble, the blind leading the blind through the capacity for fantasy, through the imaginary. This, of course, is hubris.
Let me return to the family reunion. There we all are, gathered together in front of the heavily decorated tree, unwrapping gifts in a veritable orgy of giving. Why do I return? Always hoping for a celebration, I end inevitably in lament. This rite signifies absence, the dead and the disappeared. We all know the disasters that beset this family, whose fate has been so varied and so desperate. We all know of the madness: one who survives on doses of lithium, another whose kleptomania signals a desperate cry for parental attention. We are all aware of the staggering toll on this particular family of the alcohol and drug addictions that are never, ever discussed. Are all families as tragic as this one? Are all destinies so absolutely flawed? Are all peoples so beautiful, so misguided and unhappy?
This journey only starts with hubris. The knowledge we obtain in the middle of the journey is a travelogue of folly and deformity, of what we, like the lucky Oedipus, cannot foretell.
Hubris 2 : The Organs
Oedipus uncovered the hideous secret of his unwitting sins. The man whom he had, in an angry moment, slain on the road between Corinth and Thebes was no other than his father Laius; and the wife whom he had married upon his elevation to the throne of Thebes, and who had borne him now two sons and two daughters, was his own mother Jocasta. In his horror at this discovery, and at the self-inflicted death of Jocasta, he destroyed the sight of his own eyes.4
Two years ago, just after I returned to New York, my friend Tom said: ‘If we had known what lay ahead we would never have come this far.’
My travels of the past few years have been about loss. The spirits of the recent dead lie heavily on journeys, but they also become the most trusted of companions as one moves in the company of strangers. This part is about two of those recent deaths.
THE THEATRE OF WONDER AND MARVELS
My friend J died on 1 March 1991, of AIDS. He died in his bed at home in New York City. In the period from the initial diagnosis to his death, over eighteen months later, I was able to spend four months with him. Before he died, at age 43, he was visited by many weird and wonderful organisms, and as many weird and wonderful chemicals. His body became a catalogue of the most modern of deaths, a battlefield of good and evil substances, or so they tell me. But I remember different things about this dying. The strangest thing about the events surrounding J’s death is that they are so etched into memory. It is this quality of clarity that unsettles me. People I lived with in Papua New Guinea believe that the recent dead have restless spirits because they are lonely for the living. Is this clarity of memory his restless spirit?
When J was first sick I visited in the early evening, as the sun was setting. I would sit next to him on his big bed with the blue blanket in the darkened bedroom that had become his sick room, and we would watch TV. I remember my surprise at still being able to take comfort and assurance from his large, graceful form, strong as it had always seemed to me, despite the many illnesses that were already finding a comfortable home there. I remember crawling across this same blue blanket the last time I saw him, winding my way among the tubes and bottles that kept him alive so that I could say goodbye.
The scenario surrounding my dying friend was bizarre and hilarious, providing some amusement in those last months. J, lucky J, after an adulthood of marginal living in New York, died in luxury, for he temporarily inherited a duplex apartment, fully equipped with fabulous furnishings, from the businessman who had owned it. J had previously been the caretaker of this building, living in a small studio apartment on the upper floors. The American dream with a twist, he went from rags to riches on his deathbed. But he hated those elegant surroundings, for he knew they would become his mausoleum. You might say that we inhabited the ruins of the New York gay sex scene, for this businessman, our benefactor, was a kind of king of gay life and love in the fastlane seventies. He owned one of the roughest trade gay men’s bars, a sex toy shop and, as we found out, other businesses. His beneficence was the result of AIDS, from which he had died the year before. In fact, every person who had lived in this five-apartment building had died, or was dying, from AIDS. Apartments and even whole buildings in this once popular neighbourhood were empty for the first time in years. J, who had spent much of his adulthood in this culture, witnessed its extinction in a decade.
When J moved into this fancy duplex, he dismantled his inheritance. The front room of the ground floor was set up like a sex playroom, equipped with leather harness suspended on hooks from the ceiling, vials of butyl and amyl nitrate, and a jacuzzi in black marble. The vials were thrown away, the harness dismantled, the jacuzzi never used. J brought in his braided rug, his American oak desk, and the room was transformed from the gay playboy’s romper room to an all-American study. J had inherited other things that became constant companions during his illness. The most useful was a mail-order business for a select clientele, of about 2000 customers worldwide, for enema tubing. Big, complex enemas are the main source of sexual pleasure for some people. In a back room, behind the bed in which J died, were shelves with neatly stacked boxes of yards and yards of different kinds of tubing, varied according to thickness, diameter and length. Unable to work and needing cash, J kept the business going until he died. The hilarities of this business added a light touch to the scene. In my wildest dreams I never thought assholes would be so important. This asshole fate is a kind of insult to American culture, which, after all, has been a forerunner in plumbing and hygiene of intimate body parts. Why didn’t we realize how important the asshole was, that it needed to be cared for and cherished? Always the gentleman, J never revealed the identity of his customers, although I certainly got hints about the sexual peccadillos of the high and mighty. I wondered if the wealthy and powerful have a special taste for kinks. That is the stuff of comedy, but apparently dominatrix and enema freaks rule the land. Anus mundi. But this, of course, is hubris.
We also learnt to live with the apartment’s Victoriana, an obsession of the former owner. J sold much of it, but some was still left. Many nights, as J slept downstairs, I would sit in the beautiful upstairs parlour, listening to the ticking of the clock and staring absently at what purported to be a framed handkerchief once belonging to Queen Victoria. Does it all sound decadent and macabre? Perhaps it was, but J, and life, were very simple during that dying time, only trying to get by, to survive, a few more months, days, hours. Towards the end the time he had was counted in minutes. The sex toys and Victoriana were now only minor players, forgotten trinkets. We gave no thought to them, except as little jokes in this hard time. The last time I saw J, curled in a foetal position amid his bottles and tubes, I assured him that I thought of him always. Can you keep a person alive by thinking of them often? This, of course, is hubris. But I do not, in the midst of the journey, at this very point, have hubris, because I know this hope to be a false one. Hope, I have discovered, is the source of mistaken confidence and folly, of hubris. Is there a kernel of wisdom at this, the height of tragedy?
J’s death was not the only one of 1991, not by a long shot. Another I call Madame Bovary. An acquaintance in Sydney committed suicide by jumping from a cliff, dying on the rocks hundreds of feet below. She left instructions that there was to be no funeral service of any kind, and I only found out about her death two weeks after she died. Her story is familiar. She hit fifty, was having menopausal symptoms. The man she had lived with for the greater part of a decade was ten years younger and very successful. On the other hand her own career was not going well. The man left her for a woman of twenty-three. Her closest female friend had just moved to Paris. There was no family to speak of. Perhaps these losses triggered memories of earlier abandonments, for her father had deserted her. Who knows? To the friends with whom I spoke, this death struck like ice in the heart. We all realized how easily it could happen to any of us. The foible of a middle-aged man, the folly of the marketplace, and that life is gone. This death leaves a bitter taste far beyond the sadness of J’s. What haunts is that she left this life with no loving words to send her on her journey. This exit was so quiet, almost unnoticed.
If any of a small circle of people had known, could we have prevented her suicide? Did her early abandonment put her doubly at risk? Why didn’t I know of her depression? Doesn’t it reflect terribly on our lives, on all of those who knew her, and yet knew so little of her? Could I have done anything? If she had been able to stagger through the deformity of her depression, would she be alive? How responsible was her cruel lover? Why should he be famous and successful and, most bitter of all, beloved? Is this the price of femininity? of fifty? of menopause? Is this the price of living with a successful, and therefore quite likely predatory, male? Is this the price of the twentieth century?
J too brings up questions of destiny. J’s younger brother died from AIDS two years before J did. In the week after his brother’s death, J’s father had a heart attack and died. J was diagnosed with AIDS two weeks later. Was J destined to come to New York? Could anyone have predicted the consequences of this gay culture, which flourished for so brief a time? When we were young, J and I might have predicted many things for our futures – revolution, counterrevolution, madness and drugs – but somehow never this. We came of age with a medical profession full of confidence that its control of life and death was in the ascendant. Such certainties, voiced so arrogantly, ring hollow as we face the plagues of body and spirit that afflict us.
Here we are at the heart of the matter, the guts of the thing. We are in the middle of the journey, at the site of the organs, usually unseen, absolutely crucial, protected by muscle and skin, supported by bone, the subterranean depths of this body, this life. J stopped breathing when his lungs were eaten away by Karposi’s sarcoma, a formerly rare skin cancer that now invades other organs. In her great leap, most of Madame Bovary’s organs were protected by muscle and skin and bone except (perhaps fittingly, she would have thought) for the delicately modelled brain case, which spilled its contents over the rocks upon which she landed. Millions, women and men, children and adults, black and white, hetero, bi and gay, of every nation, are now dead because of the permeability of a membrane. No discrimination for this organism. It knows the art of colonization. All my thoughts turn out to be far less telling than this simple basic fact. I never realized how mundane, commonplace, even trivial, destiny would be. This is hubris again. Against all inclination, I have become undertaker to these restless spirits of the dead.
despite the political significance of the times when so many public heroes and villains live to be remembered, these mortuary notes record, almost by accident, the mortality of people regarded by history as inconsequential and these records single out for our curious perusal a few hundred of the tens of thousands who died in the these same years. And not only were these mortuary notes recorded but also . . . they have survived. Is it all that unlikely that our mortality as individuals, in two hundred years time, and well out of living memory, could be in any such way recalled?5
The knowledge that we have on starting a journey is of hope and confidence, precisely because we do not know what lies ahead. Here, midway upon our journey, we realize that we are completely in the hands of the gods, and our hubris turns into a contemplation of tragic destiny. At this point on his journey the worst had occurred, but Oedipus was lucky, was he not? He survived to tell the tale.
Hubris 3 : The Bone
whether upon a revulsion of feeling among his fellow-citizens or by the express command of the god, the order for his banishment was at last pronounced, and Oedipus, now growing old, went forth into perpetual exile . . . Antigone accompanying him in his wanderings . . . [T]he blind wanderer and his faithful daughter came in their journeyings to the hamlet of Colonus, within a mile of the city of Athens, over which King Theseus ruled. But even here his peace was yet to be troubled by the scheming devices of his city and family. For, having banished him, they now found, through the agency of the oracle, that his patronage while alive, and after his death the custody of his remains, were necessary to the accomplishment of their selfish purposes.6
This year my third destination is Northern Ireland, where I go to work with Adrian Hall, who now also lives in Sydney, and is installing a show at the Orchard Gallery in Derry. I escape the claustrophobia of New York’s tragedies to return to the place of my grandmother’s birth. Adrian meets me at Belfast International Airport and we drive to Derry. It is a beautiful, soft day and I see in the distance a pretty old walled city on a hill, by a river, with a high church steeple rising from the crown of the hill.
The prettiness, the small scale and the gentility of the town are a shock. Somehow the events of the last twenty years create a mind’s picture of a ferocious, ugly, industrialized place, not this. The conflict takes on a new dimension as I realize that the continuing war must split this town in a way that is impossible in a large city. These are one’s neighbours one is fighting, and hating, year in and year out. Such a war, easily thinkable in a brutal big city like New York, is almost inconceivable here.
But this, the first impression, is belied everywhere. The day I arrive three bombs explode in the quaint town square. Two days later a train I am supposed to be on is derailed by a bomb. The police station looks like a science-fiction fort, and my heart pounds every time I have to pass that place. I freeze as I look out a window and see the very young soldiers standing atop their armoured vehicles in full battle dress, aiming their machine guns at pedestrians. Everyday events, they tell me. The everyday violence is ever-present, and ever-denied, as people try to go about their business and live their lives.
As I talk about my fear (for I am a nervous pedestrian in this town) Adrian, gently remonstrative, tells me not to worry, no use to worry, it’s too unpredictable. And is New York so different, after all? Do I not step over and around dying, homeless people every day, doing nothing? After a while, barely noticing, do I not register every young black man and note every available exit on the subways? Each city wraps its own Orphic, underworld spell on its denizens, each different, each perverse, each entangled in the unforeseen. Each contemplates only occasionally its own tragic destiny. No blind prophet Tiresias for us. The century that began with my grandmother’s birth has grown old, as has she. She has buried twelve siblings and two sons, not to mention countless others whom her life has touched. At the Christmas party, maintained largely through the strength of her mere presence, I reflect how sad we are in our desperate attempt to keep alive this outmoded, dysfunctional web of belonging, this Irish family.
Thinking this blasphemy, I hear the whisper at this, the end of a long, long century: but what else is there? Where else will we go? To what will we belong if not to this old dinosaur, this imperfect being? Perhaps in the future there will be some other form of association, some other kind of belonging, some different kind of coming together that we in our blind stumbling have not yet chanced upon? But this I know is hubris, this hope.
I go to Donegal, to the place where my grandmother was born. It is beautiful, as they said it would be, and it is a country of war, as we all know. I realize I walk on the bones of my dead ancestors. I can hear their soft crunching under my feet, the murmurs of these western isles. Can I decipher these murmurings? Will they yield any secrets? Will they give consolation? We do not know where we are going, and we are to be congratulated for our courage in the face of our ignorance. If we have hubris, if we thrive on fantasy, if we believe in folly, who could blame us? Oedipus, lucky Oedipus.
1 Translator’s introduction to King Oedipus, in Sophocles (tr. E. F. Watling), The Theban Plays (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1947), p. 23.
2 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (tr. Brian Massumi), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1980).
3 Paul Ricoeur, ‘Civilization and National Culture’, in Charles A. Kebley (tr.), History and Truth (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1965), p. 27.
4 Translator’s introduction to Oedipus at Colonus, Theban Plays, p. 69.
5 Peter Greenaway, ‘Death in the Seine’, in The Interrupted Life ( New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1991).
6 Translator’s introduction to Oedipus at Colonus, pp. 69-70.