Saturday, April 24, 2010

an intellectual model where Right and Truth conquered all

"Is it going to be easy to find books about Christina Stead secondhand in North America," I wondered to myself, and, "No," I said back, looking at myself fairly, "probably not," (because I tempt myself with dread, sometimes, and the prospective ends of things, probably unnecessarily, or possibly not, incorporating them into whatever thoughts I'm having, which seems, perhaps, damaging, or something else), so when I saw that City Basement Books was holding a half-price sale in order to shed as much stock as possible before the landlord ousted them, desiring (as he apparently does) to do something with the building that doesn't admit a secondhand bookshop in the basement, I flew there (wings on ankles) and bought two books I knew they had on their shelves, Christina Stead: a Life of Letters, by Chris Williams, and The Enigmatic Christina Stead: a Provocative Re-Reading, by Teresa Petersen. There were a few other books too, but I mentioned my last Stead book so I thought I'd mention these two as well, for the love of continuity.

Williams' biography came out in 1989, four years before Hazel Rowley's Christina Stead: A Biography. In 1988 the Age mentioned both authors in an article called "The Race To Tell Christina Stead's Story." There was a third prospective biographer too, Kate Llewellyn, whose book was never published. The University of NSW is still storing her notes, as you can see at their website:

Guide to the Papers of Kate Llewellyn

9.3, Christina Stead, 1979-1993

This subseries comprises notes, manuscript and typescript drafts, contract and cuttings relating to critical biographies on Christina Stead written by Llewellyn. Llewellyn was commissioned by Thomas Nelson Australia to write a biography of Stead, which was never published.

Folder 1
Annotated typescript drafts and newspaper cutting of a biographical criticism by Llewellyn entitled 'The woman who loved men', 1993

Folder 2-4
Material regarding 'Christina Stead : a biography', by Kate Llewellyn, 1988-1989

Including contract, correspondence, cuttings, interview notes and articles regarding Stead

"Her three biographers," remarks the article in the Age, "are all very different people, who are expected to produce very different books. Williams is doing "the life"; Melbourne academic Rowley is doing a more critical study of "the work"; while Sydney poet and author Kate Llewellyn appears to be doing a more imaginative study of both life and work." Llewellyn, it says, "has a close association with a member of the family," a line that illuminates this entry on her archive page:

Folder 44
Correspondence from Robert Stead, 1986-1990

My first impression of the Williams book is that this is a more businesslike biography than the later one, less speculative, more shortwinded, fixing itself around statements that can be verified by documents -- it's something like a long, coolheaded article from a magazine. Williams takes quotes from Stead at face value; her language is plain.

David Stead wanted the world to conform to an intellectual model where Right and Truth conquered all. So unbending was David, he was prepared to suffer financially and emotionally rather than yield to the realities of a morally imperfect world.

David Stead told his daughter Christina a lot about himself …

An outline of Williams' credentials on the first page of the book tells us that she trained "as a journalist with ABC News," and went on to work in other television and radio positions afterwards; and it's not hard to imagine this clear, simple, almost-uninflected prose being read aloud while the viewer watches pictures of Stead and her father and her various homes, her husband, her books, etc, rise up on the screen. Here is a reproduction of a page of notes for The Man Who Loved Children; here is part of an illustrated letter she sent to her cousin Gwen; here is the transcript of a passage from a radio interview she gave in 1980. The voice-over is not often excited or unexcited, it's there at your service, it's here to help, to introduce Stead to you as neatly and fully as possible, without too many opinions of its own -- which makes this Christina Stead the farthest thing in the world from a biography like Graham Robb's Victor Hugo, throughout which the author goes into periodic spasms of rage at Hugo's other biographers, and scolds them, and shakes his fist. (Reviewing a volume about Proust for the New York Review of Books, he took time out to name the original English title of Proust's work "weak" and "passive"; this is his opinionated style, and it's stimulating.) Williams comes closest to shaking a fist when she's reporting on the anti-Communist investigation of Stead and Blake during the 1950s, but even there she displaces the opinion onto an outside body. "History," she writes, not I.

History will undoubtedly take the view that the investigation was an expensive international exercise in covert harassment and indirect but effective censorship.

Petersen's book is the opposite, all theory, all opinion, I suggest and I contend. She believes that Stead was a repressed lesbian. This theory is supported by a "close reading" -- she repeats the phrase "close reading" in every chapter, I think, contrasting it with "naive reading" until it ends up seeming boastful; and she falls in love with other phrases as well: "homosexual signifier" and "heteronormative paradigm," and so on. Eventually she comes up with "rhizomatic writing" and adds that to the pile. Repetitive jargon is one of her problems,* and the other is this: you can see her picking her way through Stead's work and life and throwing aside anything that doesn't agree with her predetermined ideas. The People with the Dogs is dismissed almost entirely, because, she says, it is "a fairytale", yet the ghost story from The Puzzleheaded Girl is magically admissible, and so is Beauties and Furies' Marpurgo, whose "grotesque appearance is congruent with the gothic genre" -- he is an outsize fairytale figure, a mean genie. So let me perform a "close reading" Petersen-style upon Petersen's protestation. I contend that her excuse is flimsy, fluffy, false. I suggest that the fairytale aspect of Dogs doesn't bother her a scrap. If it did, she would ignore Marpurgo and the ghost story for the same reason. In fact she wouldn't be reading Stead at all. Stead is steeped in folk tales and Arabian Nights. No. She wants to rid herself of Dogs because Dogs, if she took it seriously, would damage her theory. Dogs ends with a happy wedding, and elsewhere she argues that all male-female pairings in Stead's work are calamitous. Dogs is her Other, and she Others it out of her way so that she can get on with the more important job of assuming that parts of For Love Alone are echoing The Well of Loneliness. Petersen would be more convincing if she didn't fight so hard to sound watertight. No speculation on the hidden sexual imaginings of a dead women is ever going to be watertight. The Enigmatic Christina Stead is an imaginative work, not a factual one. This should have been accepted, not fought.

As a work of the imagination, The Enigmatic Christina Stead deserved to have been brightened by all of its best qualities, fecundity and honesty and play.

* The largest problem. John Livingston Lowes in The Road to Xanadu leaps to conclusions as well, but that book is a compendium of rapt love, fabulous devotion, written by an author who is excited by English -- an author who would never write "paradigm" ten times, or "signifier" on every third page, or repeat "rhizomatic writing" over and over, until this idea, which seemed so marvellous when Petersen introduced it, turns stale. No one, academic or otherwise, should feel compelled to do this. We are human beings, not daleks. Xanadu is the kind of book Enigmatic Christina Stead could have been: in fact the lesbian theory would have been a magnificent starting point for a galaxy of references, a dazzling star-system, with this glowing point of imagination at the core. At the start of chapter one we would have been scoffing; by the end we would be laughing, amused, thrilled by this alternative Stead, this figure standing next to the figure we know. "See!" we would have shouted, "how much thought and wonder has gone into the concoction of her! O brave new world, that has such people in it!" Instead I'm stuck here nitpicking about the word fairytale.

Petersen borrowed the idea of rhizomatic writing from Diana Brydon, who brought it into her discussion of the prolific and engulfing vine that surrounds the Massine house in Dogs. Just by chance I've come across it again, in this interview with the poet Pierre Joris, which was drawn to my attention by ReadySteadyBook.

Joris says:

From the beginning on it was important to me to keep the form open, and after the first rather traditional lyrics of self-discovery, I started exploring poem-sequences, mixed genres (prose / journal / poetry) and open-field poetries. In my work the logic of articulation is no longer that of a Poundian or a French Surrealist collage aesthetics. Both are beholden to classic European ideas of light vs. dark, and all that entails in terms of hierarchy. The non-hierarchical, free-moving and at times randomly articulated language units (that could be found in the street or in a philosophical text, overheard on the subway or well up from one’s psychic chora) could or should not be subjected to some single overriding aesthetic or even ethical pre-determined aim. Each one needed to be able to articulate itself with any other one, and create a vast proliferation, open on all sides for ever further egalitarian dérives. As The Beatles had it: Strawberry Fields Forever. And strawberries are of course rhizomes.

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