Noun (Sociology) (esp in Marxist theory) the amorphous urban social group below the proletariat, consisting of criminals, tramps, etc. [German, literally: ragged proletariat]
By the time I moved from the outer northern suburbs to inner-city Adelaide, my understanding of literature was partially formed. I was a member of the lumpenproletariat who’d stumbled across three-dollar Penguin Classics as a teenager in the mid 1990s. From there I developed a curious passion for the modernists: Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner—the ones you could buy from used bookshops on the cheap. But I’d never read a book review; my understanding of academic literary criticism was non-existent; and I was yet to encounter a literary magazine. I had ideas about books but they seemed very private, and I had a high regard for literature, but its authors seemed otherworldly.
The first streets I lived in were populated by a miscellany of criminal types, from the opportunistic to the desperate. There were the usual drug dealers and prostitutes; burglary (in which I dabbled before I was seven) was fashionable; sexual assaults were commonplace; and every so often Very Dangerous Men would visit our house, and I’d be sent to my room.
My parents were unemployed petty criminals. That would have been fine, but the violence and neglect made things complicated. They separated just after my second birthday, and I shifted around from place to place, from mother to father to foster care, and from one dire situation to another, before striking out on my own at 15, and leaving school soon after. Since there were no known high school graduates in my bloodline, it didn’t raise an eyebrow. My ‘career counsellor’ had my measure, anyway: when I told him that I hoped to study law or become a literary scholar, he said I should try to be more realistic.
I stayed at a friend’s place for a while, in an effort to keep studying, but that couldn’t last. I had no interest in sleeping on the streets; I’d tried it twice (for a few days and then a few weeks) and both times it was terrifying. The easiest solution was to take a full-time job at the local recycling centre. It paid six dollars per hour, and if I worked more than 40 hours each week I could cover food and rent for my flat—just. Since gas and electricity were a pipe dream, I kept to the dark and ate from cans and takeaway boxes. Before long I drifted into a profound, and ashamed, solitude.
There was little focus on literacy at the dozen or so schools that I attended. You either got the gist of it or you didn’t. From grade three on, those of us who possessed some untaught, natural ability to understand and write complex sentences, and to spell passably well, were given a stack of exercise books and told to entertain ourselves in a vacant classroom down the hallway. There we whiled away the time throwing balls of scrunched-up paper around the room, teasing and flirting and relishing the freedoms that negligence offers.
The prevailing educational principle in high school (when one could be glimpsed) was accessibility: my teachers wanted us all to read and write to their notion of a basic standard, which meant that we were all given the same simple-minded texts for disenfranchised children. Most of them were teenage fiction titles by Australian authors, which left me loathing our national literature for a long time. Things became so dire that when my year ten teacher placed a famous novel by a beloved Australian writer in my hands, saying ‘You could be like him one day’, I took it as a bad omen.
A year earlier, seemingly at random—or possibly to spite us, since he was incompetent and we tortured him accordingly—our drama teacher introduced us to Shakespeare. It’s hard to describe exactly what happened to me that day without drifting into cliché. As I watched scenes from Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, and then as we took turns reading passages aloud, I experienced an electric thrill.
It began deep down, somewhere near the sternum, then gradually spread outwards, so that all of my senses were heightened. I have a physical memory of being wide-eyed, as though I’d woken suddenly from a long, dreary dream.
I borrowed the collected works from the library that night, took it home, and read it after school every day for two weeks: play after play, sonnet after sonnet. Soon after, I found a couple of ancient, hardcover anthologies of metaphysical and romantic poetry, and devoured those without chewing. Then I discovered used bookshops, and my dreams of becoming the next Michael Jordan fell into oblivion.
When I arrived at university in my early twenties, I learnt that the body of fiction and poetry I had managed to connect with (the so-called ‘canon of Western literature’) was the subject of academic scorn, for a variety of very good and problematic reasons. Deep down I suspected—and I still suspect—that the decline of the canon, or the diminishing prestige and meaningfulness that can be attached to it, is directly linked to its increased accessibility. The fact that a lumpen teenager can build and carry around with him a library of cheap classics, and that a factory worker can come home to his cramped bedsit on summer nights, deflated and parched by heavy, repetitive manual labour, and pick up his own copy of a Dostoyevsky or Brontë or Hardy and read until midnight; or that a boy of 15 who lives alone in a one-bedroom flat with no electricity or furniture can take a second-hand Camus to the window and read by the light of a nearby train station until his eyelids droop and he is tired enough, at last, to gather his blankets into a makeshift mattress and fall asleep—all of this condemns the canon to oblivion. Once it became as easy to get your hands on Wuthering Heights as it was to own a Holy Bible, the whole enterprise was damned. Scarcity produces value, and expensive, mostly contemporary literatures—all of them impossible for a kid with no money and no fixed address to hear about, let alone access—were the new, unstated canon. If I wanted to get along at the university, I had to master that as well.
Here is a confession: when I heard one of my undergraduate English literature classmates read a passage aloud from a set text with a polished, upper-Adelaide, quasi-English accent, recalling BBC productions of Jane Austen novels (I loved the novels, loathed the productions), I would experience a murderous impulse. A similar feeling came over me when I was required to work with Young Liberals for group assignments as I pursued a law degree: my skin crawled, but I persevered.
I remember borrowing a two-volume biography of Robespierre from the university library around this time, and nodding along dangerously. Before finishing the second volume I’d come to realise that politics—and, by extension, my law degree—was a perilous pursuit for someone with my temperament. The bloodlust was too strong. So I gave up on law as a precautionary measure, and by the time I became a tutor in literature I’d learned to gulp down my distaste and concentrate on the words, the intelligence and the industriousness of my students. The best of them were almost always children of judges or academics or architects or classically trained musicians, private schooled and tutored, and I found myself adrift in their world, smiling benevolently, all the while wondering what it all meant, and how in the hell I had gotten myself into this fix. But I loved them anyway—for loving what I loved—and that was enough until I realised, finally, that I had made a terrible mistake.
Someone who happened to land at a ‘Group of Eight’ university, as if teleporting from Pluto, bewildered by everything except the texts presented before them, will rarely come to feel at home in his new habitat. No matter how acute their understanding of this or that subject, they won’t properly blend in, since understanding the subject is secondary to the instinctive understanding a person develops about the world they have occupied their whole life: how to breathe soundlessly; how to eat and make small talk without causing discomfort or offence; how to avoid taboo topics and to seem benign. The outsider will always be out of synch and, despite their best intentions, may even seem hostile or aggressive. When I realised all of this I packed in my academic career and slid into a deep depression.
The question I’m pondering now is: how did I come to be here, on the threshold of literary criticism, of being or becoming a critic? Surely there are even fewer lumpen literary critics than there are lumpen academics?
The shift away from academia is easy enough to explain: university never really suited me. I found its censorious relationship with literature tedious, and the ethos was unflaggingly middle class, even (or especially) when it took on the practices of cultural studies. Literature, for me—although it embarrasses me to write this, since it marks me out as lumpen—represents the transcendence of grim material circumstances. It also speaks of an impossible intimacy between discrete entities: author and reader, separated by vast physical and cultural distances, yet somehow mentally attuned.
When things got really dire in my late teens, and I was out of school and out of work and out of contact with all of humankind, I turned to the modernists. It began with ‘The Waste Land’. I found a collection of Eliot in the local library and settled on that big, demented poem, with its useless footnotes, and just kept reading. I had no idea what it all meant but for some reason it moved me. I read it again and again, for a couple of weeks, and by the time I returned it to the library I was still none the wiser. I had absorbed it though, word for word, and it had a lasting impact on how I engage with the world.
I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with more comprehension, but Ulysses was a different story. If I came to Eliot in despair, I arrived at Joyce energised and curious. It was summer. I was at the factory again, but couldn’t afford public transport, so I’d walk into the centre of Port Adelaide and back six days a week: an hour and a half each way, every morning and late afternoon. There must have been a better, smarter option, but I was impractical and dopey about basic things, so I never came across it. After a cold evening shower (still no gas) I would eat some slop and turn to Ulysses. It was a one-dollar second-hand copy, without annotations, and inside its plain, cardboard cover I discovered a whole new way of representing the world, of reordering and reinvigorating and reclaiming experience. It was the book that I wanted to keep reading forever, the one that would give me more each time, an ever-replenishing source of richness and sustenance—a poor kid’s genie in a bottle. If there’s an object I can point to and say that it created me, that’s it.
While I pursued a PhD in literature at the University of Adelaide, a good friend and colleague nicknamed me Golden Balls. To her I was the anointed male: that guy who commands the attention and interest of the professors largely because of his gender. This friend, who knew little about my background (I was reticent about it for many years), had an academic for a father and grew up on a university campus; she’d attended excellent schools and lived in London for some years and travelled far and wide. I’d never been out of Australia and inner Adelaide, for me, was as foreign China. Nevertheless, I saw her point and suspected that she was right. Maybe I did have an unfair advantage.
I now realise that, as far as cosmic practical jokes go, this had a wonderful formal elegance: the institution that had offered me my first sense of accomplishment (academic prizes; a scholarship; publications) also barred me from feeling that I deserved it. My friend was brave or callous enough to voice the common view, and she did me a great favour in the process. There is nothing more valuable than knowing where you stand.
That anxiety persists, even beyond the university. It’s not just the designation of ‘privileged white male’ that troubles me; it’s that, over time, I’ve internalised someone else’s version of me, and in the process lost my true identity. I can ‘pass’ on the surface, and avoid bleeding on the page, but the wound still pulses and stings. It is my particular slant on literature, the thing that snaps my attention into place: the mark of a lumpen critic.
It’s only now, wedged as I am in the middle class, with a middle-class wife and son, and a vast cohort of valued middle-class friends and colleagues, that I am able to look Norwood or Hawthorn supporters in the eye and see their human side. There’s no red terror inside me now; instead, it’s a feeling of unease, and the cumulative effect of distance: of being slightly removed from everything inside my orbit, and branded somehow; of being a new addition to the educated, white, privileged, heterosexual male brigade (even if I don’t feel like one of them); and of being impoverished by it while benefiting from it too. The paradox is emphatic and disorienting, but I hope it isn’t terminal.
Follow us for more: