Monday, April 5, 2010

as far as I know

I strain and fail to see it only in abstract terms. I don't want to keep going 'like, like, like'. But I can't stop myself.

If we take abstract here to mean that the thing is contained, unassailable, removed, so complete that it can't be described with "like" because it is like nothing but itself, then I wonder if Helen Garner's sensibility could be investigated in the light of the clash she is describing, which lies between that which is self-contained, on one hand, and the complications of human habit and human sprawl, which can't be kept out, on the other. Her books begin with ideas that can be stated quite neatly. You are a good woman. Your friend is dying. What do you do? You help her and keep her comfortable. Or. A man has died, apparently murdered. What should happen? The law should discover the person who did it. And then? Punish them. Or. A female student says that a male professor, sexually suggestive, has frightened her. What should happen? We should find out if she is telling the truth or not and judge both parties accordingly. And so on.

But once these ideas come off the page and enter the world, what happens to them? This is her question. In her non-fiction books she inserts herself in the situation to find out. (In The Children's Bach, a photograph of a nuclear family won't stay stuck to the wall.) She reports on it; she reports that is, on the world as she finds it -- and she is careful, with regular use of I think and I feel, to point out that these things are happening to her alone, in other words, they are experiences confined to herself, they are not universal. She writes about the gap between intention and action. I want to be a good friend. Very nice. How? I don't know. Let me see. She is an anecdotal journalist; anecdotes for her are a way of perpetually putting the idea of human fallibility in front of us. The narrator of these essays is the most fallible one of all. She undercuts herself. Humblest of writerly voices, at times she is too easily impressed. Her colleague is not the literary essayist but the video documentarian with her hand-held camera.

Here's an example, not untypical. In "Das Bettelein", one of the essays in The Feel of Steel, she remembers a holiday she took in 1980 with a group of gay male friends. Garner recalls her opinion of them, and the recollection is unflattering -- unflattering to herself, not to the young men: she is making herself look severe, unfriendly, and two-faced.

Privately I disapproved of their obsession with fun, with youthful beauty and clothes and sex … in my heart I thought of them as moral lightweights.

An anecdote follows. She commits a small social cruelty, and they, shocked, tell her to set things right. Then the kicker, the sentence that bounces back against the word lightweights.

Twenty years later, as far as I know, only two of them are still alive.

The fact that they told her to set things right does not cancel out her earlier judgment -- it's not as if moral lightweights don't judge people too -- and nor does the fact that two of the men are dead, but it places them all closer together, she is not above them, they are all on a similar moral plane, able to judge and be judged; they are all human, and humans, as she has reminded us, are never perfect. It's not the judgment she is calling into question -- the thing that pretends to be abstract -- but the high ground she thought she was standing on when she made it. If they, with their character flaws, really were moral lightweights then what was she? There is no answer. She ends the essay reminding herself to study a piece of music; obliquely the lesson is: life is always more complicated than we think; there is always more to learn. But, oh, oblique. Rarely does she end a piece of writing with a firm conclusion. She's more likely to propose a number of scenes and let the larger matter pause there, unresolved, suggestive, "because," she seems to silently say, "resolution is impossible, but -- suggestive -- everything is suggestive: the world is suggestive." The tangle is too great, and things go on and on, infinitely complicated, one thing leading to another, all connected by unpredictable circumstance as unaccountably as with like, like, like.

Weeks after I'd made this post I came across a review of a memoir written by a doctor who'd worked in various Aboriginal communities around Australia -- Garner helped him. The reviewer wrote:

I was puzzled by the staunchly episodic feel of the book, the continental meandering that brought [Howard] Goldenberg no closer to a resolution--a moral, if you will--that he could construct out of these many experiences. As I relaxed my expectations a bit, I began to appreciate the matter-of-factness of his retelling of these lives he has encountered in the course of his work. If this is not exactly a vehicle for Aboriginal people to tell their own stories, Raft at least provides something very like an objective portrait of the people he encounters. I began to respect the author for the simplicity of his reporting and to be grateful to him for his refusal to embellish.

In the acknowledgments that close the book, Goldenberg offers the briefest of explanations for this tone, noting that among his advisors in style was Helen Garner, who urged him "strenuously to publish the pieces she liked and to incinerate those sections -- 'posturing and rhetorical' -- that she did not. It is precisely that lack of an attempt at fiery moralizing that distinguishes Raft from many otherwise similar memoirs of encounters with remote Australia.

It sounds like the kind of advice she probably gives herself when she writes. Avoid posturing. Beware fiery moralizing. Do not embellish.

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