Sunday, October 28, 2012

shared culture offers camouflage

Speaking of travel writers, their individualities and primal connectednesses, reminds me of Ernestine Hill, the Australian journalist who recorded the stories about the band in Darwin and the desperate cobbler down the gulley with "a ragged little hen, crazed with heat" turning "over and over in vertigo. 'It won't die,' he assured me. 'I wish to God it would'" -- she wrote -- characterising her book with an interest in the grotesque that Stark possesses gently and Matthiessen not at all, since he is in the market for a human race that is primally connected through its rituals, and not one in which an Australian can distinguish himself with non sequiturs and a chicken, this man separating himself from Hill twice, once with his chicken and once with his non sequiturs, which are not part of any ritual, or not a ritual that anyone would want to share with him, for the chicken-man is miserable, and the ritual is only the ritual of an Australian lonely madness, a state of mind that has been described by Henry Lawson in several venues, for example, The Bush Undertaker, and it is only a marker of unity in that people who are Australian and not mad do recognise it, and acknowledge it as a potential past-time in that national resource, the bush, "the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird," writes Lawson, who lived for most of his life in Sydney but obtained insights by travelling between the towns of Hungerford and Bourke in 1892 during a drought.

This chicken-man, if he had appeared in Matthiessen, would surely have been useful in a different way, and the author would have placed his remark against a cosmic thoughtfulness; it would have had some correlation with Zen, or Buddhism; his despair might have been described as a possible prelude to enlightenment, it would have been one item in a large design that might have saved him if he had acknowledged it, and as we left the man we might have been allowed to imagine that he would submit to that realisation in future, or the author might decide that the existence of this vertiginous chicken was a message to himself, or at least he would have tried to set the man's behaviour in a smoother and more detailed context (he would have done this as smoothly and sympathetically as he explains the behaviour of two women at a Himalayan temple who are wary of himself and the other hikers) or at least the presentation would have seemed less stark -- but the journalist Hill is as thrilled as a newspaper; the man is not intimate with her, nor is his chicken, and she is not visited by any Zen enlightenment; she is visited by a sense of theatre, and presents the man like a performance.

Her grotesque scenes would not seem grotesque if Matthiessen had written them. Nothing in The Snow Leopard is grotesque when he describes it, not even the wise porter pretending to be a yeti and shouting, "Kak-kak-kak! KAI-ee!" around the campfire. These people would not seem so irreparably separated from the writer, the chicken man would not have been prized as though he were a star or remote comet, as Hill prizes him, or a natural phenomenon, like an intractable cactus.

If we are all primally connected by our rituals, as in the Matthiessen book, then a thing would have to be outside that historical context to seem grotesque, it would have to seem to have come alienly from elsewhere, but you could make it seem this by perceiving it to be so, you could announce that there is no connection between this alien thing and the rituals of the Nepalese: it is an anomaly, you could say, it is not part of proper humanity I do not see the join there, between ourselves and this thing, the points of reference I expect to identify in these cases are absent, and the join is perverse or wrong; it is a polluted join, says the writer, and this separation between ourselves is unnatural, as it was in a poem by William Matthews I was reading the other day

We speak Demotic
because we're disguised as ordinary
folks. A shared culture offers camouflage
behind which we can tend the covert fires
we feed our shames to ...

(part of The Place on the Corner, a poem from After All (1998))

No comments:

Post a Comment