WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

In search of elsewhere in literature

Posted in In search of...., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on March 13, 2014

Elsewhere in Literature

On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one.  It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now.  Then, it positively looms.  It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced.  By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing.  On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover.  Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness,  a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.

.

Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)

The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres.  After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow.  Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him.  He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect.  He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.

.

Dali

The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)

Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all.  The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry.  What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.

.

scholars do not believe this image (or any other) is authentic

Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,

Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)

Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.

.

Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852

The exquisite  Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style.  Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.

.

Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)

Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored.  While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away.  His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.

.

ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)

a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon

(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)

my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;

i am a shape that can but eat and turd

ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,

a coward waiting clumsily to cease

whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;

a hand’s impression in an empty glove,

a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.

I have never loved you dear as now i love…

.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927

Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished.  He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.  The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

.

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949

Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is  an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.

.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954

The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.

.

Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973

Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.

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In search of monsters in literature

Posted in Musings..., Rediscovered, Wanderings by Adair Jones on February 6, 2011

In search of monsters in literature

The monsters that appear on this list are significant to Western culture, influencing our childhood nightmares, standing in for social ills and sexual anxieties, representing the wayward creative process, and lending to our understanding of the dark side of human nature.  Through the human process of splitting off what we fear and projecting it onto something in the outside world, we are momentarily relieved.  However, once unleashed, the monster is no longer easily suppressed, takes on a life of its own, becomes uncontrollable and, therefore, all the  more powerful.

 

The Chimera

The Illiad, Homer, 8th century BC

Homer describes the chimera as “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire”.  Over centuries, it has come to mean “any vain, foolish, or incongruous fancy, or creature of the imagination”.

.

 

Medusa

Metamorphoses, Ovid, 1st century

…She was very lovely once, the hope of many
An envoius suitor, and of all her beauties
Her hair was most beautiful–at least I heard so
From one who claimed he had seen her.  One day Neptune
Found her and raped her, in Minerva’s temple,
And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes
Behind her shield, and, punishing the outrage
As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents,
And even now, to frighten evildoers,
She carries on her breastplate metal vipers
To serve as awful warning of her vengeance.
(Rolfe Humphries translation, Book 4, 792-803)

.

 

Seven-headed beast

Book of Revelation of St John the Divine, around 95 AD

1. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. (Revelation 12:3)

2. And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion; and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. (Revelation 13:1, 2)

3. So he carried me away in the spirit unto the Wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. (Revelation 17:3)

What any of this might mean has been subject to centuries of wild speculation and made to serve political, religious and ideological purposes.

.


 

Grendel

Beowulf, author unknown, early 8th century

Grendel spends his time terrorizing the people of Denmark, devouring thirty or more men at a time, until a Swedish hero named Beowulf take it upon himself to test his strength against him.  In the spirit of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, Beowulf defeats the monster through cunning and ability.

All too often, when one monster is conquered, another arises to take its place. Grendel’s more fearsome mother arrives for revenge.  Beowulf fights and, after a protracted battle in a swamp, kills her too.

.

 

Iago

Othello, William Shakespeare, 1603

Iago is no supernatural monster, but one more insidious.  He is perhaps the first literary example of what we’ve come to identify as the ‘socio-path’, in other words, the enemy among us.  Throughout the play, Iago manipulates the emotions, insecurities, and behaviours of the characters to his own purposes, bringing tragedy to all.

.

 

Dr Frankenstein’s creation

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

Inspired by a dream, Mary Shelley’s story has come to represent the dangers of scientific ambition and intellectual hubris.  But it’s impossible to read Shelley’s story without acknowledging her early experience of pregnancy and stillbirth.  In a diary entry for March 19, 1915, the 17-year old Shelley records the loss of her first baby, a little girl: “Dream that my little baby came to life again, that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby.” An experience not far from Victor Frankenstein’s expressed desire: “I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”

.

 

Bertha Antoinette Mason

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847

While many see Jane Eyre as a Victorian rags to riches tale, it’s actually something much more psychologically rich. Charlotte Bronte works through her ambivalence about the roles forced on women in mid-nineteenth century England. There is the experience of Bertha Antoinette, the madwoman in the attic, who is officially married to the Byronic hero, Mr Rochester.  She is demonised for her Creole origins, her sensuality, her other-ness.  On the surface of the story, Bertha is the novel’s monster; but when considered more deeply, it is her loss of  name, family, culture, and country that sets the course for her madness.  It is Mr Rochester who has taken this identity away from her—the exact thing he hopes to do to poor, plain, sensible Jane Eyre.  She resists where Bertha has succumbed.

When Rochester rushes into his flaming house to save Bertha, who has set the fire, it is his first act of authentic heroism, something that transforms him from ‘Byronic hero’ to actual hero.  He is injured, partially blinded, made disfigured—the inner monster appearing now on the exterior.  In death, Bertha is freed at last from her role as monster.  And Jane is now free to return to Thornfield in such a way as to retain her identity and independence and to marry Rochester as an equal partner.

.

 

Mr Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886

Mr Hyde is another type of interior monster.  While Mr Rochester is a kind of social construct—the preeminent male, the spoiled son, the Byronic hero as celebrated in novels—Mr Hyde reflects the war between good and evil each of us must wage within our own hearts. Are we to  be just and honorable, possessed of integrity?  Or are we to succumb to baser instincts?

The good Dr Jekyll develops an antidote to protect from his evil side, but it gradually loses its power to quell the monster within.  In one final moment of sanity, the good Dr Jekyll commits suicide.


 

Dracula

Dracula, Bram Stoker, 1897

With all the recent fascination with vampires, much has been made of  the connection with vampires and anxiety about sex. While today’s watered-down representations of vampires focus on resistance, abstinence, and control of animal instincts, not to mention the deep-seated paternalism shown towards females, Stoker’s novel exhibits a more universal anxiety about sex.

The hero Jonathon Harker is simultaneously terrified by and stricken with desire for three vampire women who try to suck his blood and hold him captive.  At the same time, Dracula bites and ritually penetrates Harker’s fiancee’s friend Lucy, turning her from a pure, Vicorian lady into a creature of ‘voluptuous wantonness’.

.

 

Big Brother

1984, George Orwell,  1949

Written in the middle of the most violent century on record and at the onset of the Cold War, 1984 warns of totalitarian governments, invisible systems of control, and the intrusion of technology in everyday life.

.


 

The Beast, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954

A group of  boys are shipwrecked on an island believed to be inhabited by a ‘beast’. They leave this beast a pig’s head as an offering, which soon swarms with flies. Around this time, one of the group finds a dead parachutist hanging from a tree. The pig’s head and the dead parachutist conflate in the minds of the increasingly superstitious boys.  A primal dance leads to the murder of the one boy who recognises that ‘the beast’ is actually their own creation, fear made external.

.

 

Bob McCorkle

My Life as a Fake, Peter Carey, 2003

In a parallel to the Ern Malley affair, the second-rate poet, Christopher Chubb, in frustration at continuous rejections, creates the character of Bob McCorkle, complete with a birth certificate and a portrait cobbled together from other photographs.  He also fabricates a long poem, ‘ The Darkening Ecliptic’, a mosaic of  bits of prose and verse.  He sends it off to David Weiss the editor of a poetry magazine Personae. There is a furore over the poem’s ‘brilliance’, but because of some of the material, Weiss is put on trial for obscenity. As the trial progresses, it’s interrupted by a man claiming to be the real Bob McCorkle. Knowing the character of Bob McCorkle is a fiction, Chubb assumes this man is a lunatic who has assumed the McCorkle persona for some unknown, and probably insane, reason.

This new Bob McCorkle is the equivalent of the Frankenstein monster, wreaking revenge on society once he’s unleashed. He becomes Chubb’s tormentor, seeking to flesh out the remainder of his reality at Chubb’s expense. As his creator, McCorkle feels that Chubb must provide everything necessary for his existence and even steals facets of Chubb’s life from him.

.

In search of elsewhere in literature

Posted in Musings..., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on October 24, 2010

Elsewhere in Literature

On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one.  It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now.  Then, it positively looms.  It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced.  By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing.  On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover.  Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness,  a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.

.

Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)

The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres.  After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow.  Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him.  He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect.  He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.

.

Dali

The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)

Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all.  The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry.  What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.

.

scholars do not believe this image (or any other) is authentic

Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,

Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)

Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.

.

Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852

The exquisite  Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style.  Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.

.

Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)

Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored.  While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away.  His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.

.

 

ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)

 

a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon

(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)

my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;

i am a shape that can but eat and turd

ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,

a coward waiting clumsily to cease

whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;

a hand’s impression in an empty glove,

a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.

I have never loved you dear as now i love…

.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927

Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished.  He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.  The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

.

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949

Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is  an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.

.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954

The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.

.

Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973

Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.

.

Why we need villains

Posted in Musings... by Adair Jones on April 22, 2009
Painting by Archimboldo

Painting by Archimboldo

My son arrives home from school. Immediately, I see in his face that something’s wrong. The moment he sees the concern in mine, his reserve gives way; tears well up, and he breathlessly pours out a story: the schoolyard bully just happened to pick him to ‘noogie’. All day. And my son didn’t fight back. I console him the best I can. Eventually our chat turns from the specific events at school to a more general discussion of right and wrong. “You know,” I say, “We make a choice each day as to whether we will be the hero or the villain in the stories of our lives.” “Yeah,” he brightens, “You can either be the good guy or the bad guy. And R— was definitely the bad guy in the story today.”

The big problem with schoolyard bullies is that they eventually grow up. Without intervention, the habit of bullying becomes even more ingrained in the adult, and the arena is no longer a schoolyard but homes, workplaces, pubs and other spaces, both public and private.

But is it really as simple as choosing to be the hero instead of the villain? I think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. As the school uniforms grow ragged and tattered, so do the boys’ concern for one another. And don’t forget King Lear railing at the stormy sky about the unaccommodated man. Both these examples emphasise that without the veneer of ‘civilisation’, without clothes and shoes and the idea of what is polite, without laws and codes to govern behaviour, men are but animals. Golding suggests that good, honourable behaviour is not so much a choice as a social requirement. Take away the society, drop the laws, and there is no reason to look out for one another. Self-interest is an automatic impulse.

One of the reasons my son was consoled with my words about heroism and villainy is that it’s something we all relate to on quite deep levels. From the fairy tales we are read in our earliest days, we identify with the ‘good’ prince and princess who are set upon by an assortment of powerful witches, ogres, trolls, and wolves. The hero (or heroine) undertakes a journey—sometimes literal, other times spiritual—against these evil forces and, because it’s a fairy tale, eventually triumphs. In the process, he undergoes a major transformation. This could not take place if the antagonist was weak or foolish or bungling. The transformation occurs (and is so satisfying to experience) precisely because the antagonist is evil and cunning and powerful.

So-called villains like those in RoboCop and Die Hard just don’t qualify. Who can even remember them? They are filler characters, thrown in by lazy screenplay writers to keep the plot zipping along with the requisite number of chase scenes. I’m speaking rather of psychologically motivated villains, like Shakespeare’s Iago, Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, and Speilberg’s Amon Goeth (from Schindler’s List).

**

There is public villainy, which tends to be political and involve social groups, cultures, even nations; and there is private villainy, which we meet up with a dozen times a day. This is villainy with an intimate face. Hitchcock understood the power of ordinary people battling ordinary-seeming antagonists. His work is disturbing because his villains are drawn from real life. This kind of villainy offers a way for us to define ourselves and gives us a way to navigate through the world. When we see a villain acting out what we have been able to refrain from, we can feel proud, virtuous, heroic: “I haven’t slept with that woman’s husband”; “I didn’t steal when I had the chance”; “I told the truth when it would have been easier to lie”. We see in villains where we might have gone had we chosen differently.

We also need cultural representations of villainy—from the evil Queen of fairy tales to the anti-hero of the Robert Altman film The Player—because they help us deal with injustices that laws can’t or don’t accommodate. Criminal law deals with felony, not villainy. In fact, criminal law is woefully inadequate, unsupportive even, around such issues as infidelity, emotional cruelty, selfishness, ruthlessness, greed, callousness and hypocrisy. Yet this kind of villainy is commonplace. We are liable to meet it in the people we come in contact with everyday, often within our homes and workplaces. And unfortunately, much of it goes unpunished.

On the contrary, one of the very sad realities and something we must face on top of the victimisation by these everyday villains, is that the world tends to reward them. The ruthless businessman often succeeds; the unfaithful husband leaves his loyal family and begins a new life with a younger woman; a greedy colleague may be especially motivated to exploit the ‘system’ where you have resisted it.

Wealth equals power. And with power comes the temptation to take more. Villainy is sometimes hard to resist. Martha Stewart, who has plenty of money already, takes advantage of a bit of inside information. A powerful conductor in the music world, heady with acclaim, can’t resist a flirtation with a married friend, not caring what effect it might have on the friend’s marriage. A successful businessman, who skipped a tertiary education in favour of making millions, can’t resist courting those in a university who might arrange an honorary degree for him (thereby acquiring a title, a doctorate, and the impression of an education in one fell swoop—not bad for an afternoon’s work). Never mind those among us who have to make money, keep relationships going, and earn academic degrees the hard way.

A friend comments, “It’s not necessarily true that the meek shall inherit the earth, but the meek must certainly feel better about themselves as human beings.” I wonder about this. Psychologists note that no one openly admits  he’s wantonly destructive, self-motivated, greedy, hypocritical, or careless of the lives of others. Inevitably, if only for the sake of sanity or co-existing with an acceptable self-image, the villain will justify and rationalise every mundane act. He blames forces outside of himself: like alcohol (“I shouldn’t have had that third drink”), or overwork (“I deserve a little fun”), his partner in crime (“She came on to me”), the rule of law (“It’s perfectly legal”), and the world at large (“Everyone else is doing it”), even his victims (“They should have known better”).

Artistic representations of villainy and narratives that illustrate acceptable social responses to it serve as a compass for our own behaviour. Without such stories to guide us, we’re adrift in turbulent seas—seas filled with sharks, giant squids, and crocodiles. But what is really important here is the catharsis we experience when the villain of a novel or film finally meets her fate—because it helps us to deal a little better with the ‘everyday villains’ who have hurt us and yet go unpunished.

Villainy has another side. An outward, public face. Because of the wave of postmodernism relativism, the currents of which we are swimming through still, anything and everything goes. We don’t have the certainty of being told in absolute terms what is right and wrong; it’s left for each of us to figure out alone. And when we figure it out for ourselves, we refrain from imposing it on anyone else.

“Yeah,” we agree, “it’s not a good thing for X and Y to have an affair, and it’s sort of wrong for us not to say anything about it. But it’s none of our business really.” In order to keep good relations with those around us, we make moral pacts like this every day. We look the other way. We laugh at a joke when we should have said, “Hey that’s just not on.” We collude with friends’ behaviour by succumbing to their rationalisations. All for the sake of keeping the fabric of society smooth. The strain of this shouldn’t be underestimated. It leads to a sub-conscious desire for absolutes, which in turn makes us vulnerable to political leaders who would exploit it.

Think about it. In the post Cold War world, there has been a reconfiguration of the traditional villain. Contemporary public villains are extreme figures, more likely to be paedophiles or terrorists than thieves and adulterers. Because they are extreme, fighting such villains requires methods that are equally extreme. Every day we hear reports about the “war on terrorism”. The Taliban demonises America, and America demonises the Taliban. In doing so, each claims the political justification and the authority to maraud, plunder, invade and terrorise. The danger with this (outside of the long casualty list) is that by rendering the enemy stereotypically villainous, all power eventually seeps from the image. If Osama bin Laden is not seen as a complex man with complicated motivations, but only as a really bad guy, then we stop believing in the complexity of his bad behaviours too. He becomes a villain like the one in RoboCop or The Terminator—bad, evil even, but essentially one dimensional, a creation in this case, not of scriptwriters, but of political advisors.

After so many B-grade films, we are experienced consumers of these images, and most of us won’t be fooled for long. So governments and the political leadership must continually raise the stakes, further demonising the enemy and the threats they pose. In turn, these demonised antagonists require equally potent actions to make us feel safe. So governments pass anti-terror laws and spread hysteria, stripping the nation of civil rights. It’s a vicious, spiralling, no-win cycle. Either we see through it and are consumed with cynicism, or we believe it and are lulled into a false sense of security.

A note to writers: keep on with those depictions of villainy. It’s what we need—narratives with complex, psychologically motivated, clearly defined antagonists. Because when we see it in film and in literature, we know where we stand and what we stand for. The really hard work for artists is not to succumb to the creation of unworthy villains—that’s too easy—but to create worthy antagonists who actually wrestle thought from an audience. Who demand feeling. Who provoke an active response. Who insist on being remembered.

**

From a window, I watch my son jump on his trampoline. He flips forward, lands on his knees, goes airborne, flips backward. His day is behind him. He jumps and flips, leaps and twists. He’s happy.

All my thoughts about villainy come back to this: Choice. We’re going to meet up with villainy over and over in our lives. Sometimes in the actions of our governments, sometimes in those of our friends and colleagues. And there’s a good chance that now and then, our own impulses will get the best of our judgment and good intentions. Occasionally, we’ll find we too have chosen to behave in a way that is less than heroic. But the really good news is that, unlike in a film or a novel, where the action is fixed, we also have the choice of changing the way the story ends. An altered heart, self-reflection, some compunction, an attack of conscience, and the anti-hero turns hero. It’s because we have thought about right and wrong; and because we have distinguished those actions and motivations that are good from those that aren’t, that this can happen. And it’s because of the clearly defined villain over there that we know it has.

***

First published in Arts Hub in 2006.


Books in our Lives

Posted in Musings..., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on April 8, 2009

colorful_bookshelves

I meet a person who claims never to have read a book.

“Even in school, I just faked it,” she says matter-of-factly. “You can guess that I didn’t do very well in English class. And I don’t read to my kids either, although they are good readers on their own. We do other stuff. Rides bikes. Go swimming. That kind of thing.”

She’s pretty and soft-spoken, warm—really nice. The kind of woman I could easily become friends with. In the brief span of our conversation, she reveals insights that show a keen understanding of life. And she’s unashamedly never read a book.

I ponder this. I try to calculate the number of hours I’ve spent reading, at least one or two nearly everyday since I learned how. Days and days of reading. It’s true that I wasn’t reading much during the extended three-day labour with my first child, and occasionally I have been too busy with work, but surely those times are balanced out by the many long afternoons I’ve spent curled around a great novel, or the late nights, awakened by one of my children and unable to fall back asleep, when I’ve crept to the sofa and fallen instead into the book of the moment, reading until dawn. It’s a lot of time I’ve spent reading, thousands and thousands of hours, I estimate.

At home, my son pulls a book out from the book shelf, waves it in the air and asks with a cheeky grin, “I wonder what I’ll find in this one?”

He’s referring to an old habit I have of sticking things into the book I happen to be reading. All the tiny flotsam of life—movie stubs, bus tickets, phone numbers written on scraps of paper, work messages—are hidden among the pages of my library. We find treasures too—postcards, photos, even old love letters. My husband jokes that one day when our memories are bad, we’ll simply call in a team of archaeologists to dig through the book shelf in order to reconstruct my life.

My son flips the pages. I catch a glimpse of the cover: Virginia Woolf’s Letters, from the early years it looks like. Out falls a postcard of Frida Kahlo leaning against a column with a big shawl covering her shoulders. From my sister, I recall, who had once travelled through Mexico.I’m loving it here, she wrote, the women are so passionate about life and so comfortable with who they are. The men, not so greatOh, well. The years fall away. I hear her voice strong and clear, I’m loving it here. And somehow Frida Kahlo, my sister, Virginia Woolf and I are all jumbled up.

Certain books have been the backdrop to events in my life. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is forever linked to my first trip to New York as a teenager. I read the novel the week before my flight, wishing I wasn’t going as a tourist, daydreaming that, like the heroine of Plath’s novel, I had won a writing contest and was going to New York to be the guest editor of a magazine. Because of The Bell Jar, I was also prompted to visit the UN on that trip, where I would later work for many years. Funny when that happens.

Once, on a trip to the Caribbean prompted by my first real broken heart, I lugged Anna Karenina along from New York and turned the pages all alone under a palm tree. While the sun shone hot and bright, I sat in a bathing suit on a placid beach, turning page after page. The real me was far away, experiencing Russian blizzards and poor Anna’s journey from the heights of love to the her tragic last moments. I occasionally swam and once took a walk, otherwise I read and read and read. On my final day, turning the pages of the last sad chapter, I hadn’t noticed that the sun had nearly set.

A hotel attendant interrupted, “Senorita, excuse me, is everything alright?” I looked up, startled. I nearly answered, Da.

“Yes, everything’s fine.” He smiled tentatively and left.

I closed the book and watched the last whispers of light fade. If everything wasn’t yet fine, I knew it would be.

Another year when my finances and work commitments prevented me from having a holiday of any sort, I visited the South Pacific in The Lord of the Flies, Europe in The Good Soldier; and the Andes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I read The Sheltering Sky on the bus to and from work. It must have been late autumn or winter, because I remember it was crisp and dark outside while the Moroccan sun blazed from the pages of Bowles’ wonderful story. The book itself felt warm in my hands.

On the first date with the man who was to later become my husband, another book figured. We met as prearranged at the Peacock Café on Greenwich Street in the West Village. I arrived first. He stumbled in a few minutes later, smiling and breathless, with a small parcel in his hand.

“I wanted to give you something. A bookstore was next to the flower shop, and I stood in front of them both wondering if I should get you flowers or a book. I decided to get you a book, and then I had to decide which one.”

I unwrapped it. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

We ordered coffee and while we chatted, I kept thinking, “Hmmn. He gave me a book. He must understand.”

Years later, awaiting the birth of our third child, a girl, we thumbed through the book together looking for an exotic middle name. Zaira, Anastasia, Zenobia, Chloe, Esmeralda…. In the end, we chose none of these, but it made for an enjoyable afternoon. We were reminded too of our early time together, before Australia, before children, before we knew the other quite so well.

“Remember when…” one of us would start, bringing up another memory. Invisible Cities is a door to this earlier time. Opening the book takes us back there.

I collect the mail. Along with the usual bills, I have a new book to review. Something by the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michael Dirda, calledBook by Book. On the inside jacket cover the book is described as a “meditation on the intersection between life and books”. I laugh out loud. How appropriate!

Book by Book is a slim volume, old-fashioned-looking and lovely to hold. Dirda’s premise is that we read not only for pleasure but also “to learn how to live.” He organises the material thematically around various aspects of our lives—youth, education, love, work, leisure, sprit—and gives a touchingly personal, idiosyncratic list of his favourites for each.

I read a couple of chapters at random. Dotted with quotations, recommendations, advice and philosophical insight, Dirda has looked over a long career as a book reviewer, a critic and, most importantly, as a reader and produced a delightful book that provokes and inspires. Some of the works he mentions, I’ve never read. I promise myself I will. Some of his choices, I disagree with; some of my favourites are omitted. And then I see what he’s aiming for: each of us could write a book like this and for each it would be completely different. Personal, individual. Because books intersect with our lives in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. It’s not the same for any one of us.

I put Book by Book on the top of the towering stack at the edge of my desk. Deadlines loom. There’s research to do. I have a lot of reading and writing to get through this week.

“Please, please,” my young daughter begs. “Can’t we do something?”

I’ll be back, I say to myself, but for now I’m taking my kids for a bike ride.

First published in Arts Hub in 2007.