Thursday, December 1, 2016

act then existence

"I am now very much looking forward to your review," said Bill from The Australian Legend, so I'll write one. The People with the Dogs is a book about a man, Edward, who has enough money to thrive but feels unsettled. His family owns a large country property, Whitehouse, where everyone is welcomed. Edward often lives with his tenants in one of the two New York City boarding houses he inherited from his parents, but participation in communal living spaces is not enough: the book believes that he requires some sort of sharpening, a new habit of decision followed by action, "for decision is the little magic word that existence respects," said Kierkegaard (tr. Alastair Hannay) when he wrote his own 1846 review of Thomasine Christine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd's Two Ages. Kierkegaard is never mentioned but that sentiment is the conscience of Stead's book. And you remember this from her other work. You recall that the important event at the end of The Man Who Loved Children, 1940, is not the outcome of Louie's decision, whatever that will be, but the decision itself that shakes her loose from her family; and Jules Bertillon in House of All Nations, 1938, seduces everybody and is forgiven by everybody because of his busy willingness to jump after schemes. Bertillon's bad-souled counterpart in A Little Tea, A Little Chat, 1948, talks but is essentially static.

The feeling of Dogs is that life presses against human beings from behind and they are going to rush forward in some way. The push is multifarious rather than singular: it is not attributed to society or biology, specifically, and definitely not to a desire for financial advancement, which has been eliminated by the family's casual bohemianism and mild wealth. Moving forward in the forward movement of time is a phenomenon that you, as a creature, cannot avoid, a strangling vine grows over Whitehouse, and the love of dogs is introduced as a contrast to the love of humans, to marriage: the moment of decision. Love comes in different forms. It is not only marriage. Marriage, however, is the decision-making form that represents progress and therefore a moment of relief. "If … the individual will not act then existence cannot help. To be like that king, Agrippa, on the point of believing or of acting, is the most exhausting state imaginable if one stays in it for too long." Kierkegaard again. Edward's girlfriend Margot has been trapped for eleven years, calling him "cruel," because he cannot move out of that "exhausting state." Alongside him there are people who have tried to stay with past attitudes (the old anarchist, Philip) and people who are trying to push on but failing (Margot). Yet you see that marriage has brought other people to the same kind of life as unmarried ones; the moment of relief is not everlasting. A communal arrangement provides the anarchist's sister with tender care as well as neglect and Edward's married sister also experiences care and neglect. The period of decisiveness is the reward, not the state of marriage. Around everybody there is movement, movement, movement. The "deep peace" of Whitehouse is mentioned several times but the place itself is introduced with a riot of action; and the poverty and troubles of the countryside's farmers are brought up, and the generous family is also selfish and careless when they sneer at the delivery boy who tries to escape from their snapping dogs. As usual in this author, every setting is a situation in flux; multifarious, unstable, contradictory, built to resist singular conclusions and summaries. Much later, in 1979, when the journalist Rodney Wetherell from the ABC asked Stead if she left Australia as a young woman because it was stifling her she said no, it was because she liked the sea; when he asked her if she was a feminist she said no, she did not believe in it; and when he asked if she was a professional writer then she said no, she was not that either. When he pointed out that she had published a "long line of books which make you appear to be a professional writer" she said yes, writing was something one did because one did it, but she was not it.

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