by Nicolette Stasko

Writing

A blog (short for weblog)[i] is a discussion or informational site published on the World Wide Web and consisting of discrete entries or ‘posts’. It’s interesting that Blog is also be used as a verb, meaning ‘to maintain or add content to a blog’. ‘The emergence and growth of blogs in the late 1990s coincided with the advent of web publishing tools that facilitated the posting of content by non-technical users’ (Wikipedia). I hope I’m not stating the obvious. I’m not normally a blogger nor a bloggee. (BLOG is such an ugly word!) This is a new experience for me. But then all writing is a risk, a discovery, an adventure. As soon as you put (I was going to type ‘pen to paper’!) fingers to keyboard you are entering unknown territory. I’ve often thought about Barthe’s infamous ‘death of the author’, a claim that has caused much discomfort to some, when to my mind it means exactly that: from the moment you start to write you are no longer yourself (whoever that may be) but a complex of language, experience and texts. The challenge of a new genre—like diving into deep water.

NS 2 1Rave on, John Donne, rave on thy holy fool
Down through the weeks of ages
In the moss borne dark dank pools

Rave on down through the industrial revolution
Empiricism, atomic and nuclear age
Rave on down through time and space down through the corridors
Rave on words on printed page

Rave on, you left us infinity
And well pressed pages torn to fade
Drive on with wild abandon
Up tempo, frenzied heels

Rave on, Walt Whitman, nose down in wet grass
Rave on, fill the senses
On nature’s bright green shady path

Rave on Omar Khayyam, rave on Kahlil Gibran
Oh, what sweet wine we drinkin’
The celebration will be held
We will partake the wine and break the holy bread

Rave on let a man come out of Ireland
And rave on, Mr.Yeats
Rave on down through thy holy Rosy Cross

Rave on down through theosophy and the golden dawn
Rave on through the writing of a vision
Rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on

Rave on, John Donne, rave on thy holy fool
Down through the weeks of ages
In the moss borne dark dank pools

Rave on, down though the industrial revolution
Empiricism and atomic and nuclear age
Rave on, on printed page

—Van Morrison ‘Rave On’ from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
(photo credit: isu.indstate.edu)

I’ve frequently wondered why I write, why anybody writes. I can’t remember having this conservation with any of my friends who are almost all writers; it just seems a given. I wanted to be a writer ever since I could hold a pencil although at the time I didn’t really know what a ‘writer’ was. I don’t believe poets are ‘the legislators of the world’ or have any special communication with the cosmos or even particular wisdom or insight. But there seems to be a kind of super sensitivity and acute power of observation that results in the need to express what is felt or seen. Almost as if nothing’s real if it isn’t written down. People frequently say—even if the most awful or extreme circumstances—‘you should write about that’ or ‘there’s a poem in that’. I’m usually somewhat appalled although I recognise a certain truth. Recently I scribbled in one of the numerous notebooks I have lying around:

Suicides unite!
the Prince of Comedy
has shown the way
no earthly reason to wait if
he can do it so can we
we have the right
stand up and be counted
beheadings beware
we are starting to stare like
the dead
Ebola outbreaks
the world devours itself

I’m not going to bother to explain the circumstances that prompted this (which I’m sure you can imagine) nor pretend that it is a poem although for some reason I wrote it in lines. Earlier, in another notebook, after phrases collected from Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels for an experiment with a ‘collage’ poem, I found a description of the atrocity in the Urkraine and under it a note added later:

‘Fiddle with Maigret?! And yet does one ‘fiddle with Maigret’ because it keeps you from going mad?’

Writers, particularly poets, aren’t generally known for their mental health but seem to suffer all degrees of bi-polar and depression. I remember the possibly apocryphal story Bruce Beaver used to tell—that he had his first breakdown and began writing at the start of WWII. Is that perhaps the reason for art, for writing? Somehow to put out there something beautiful or of value to negate the evil in a world that can sometimes be so awful? And yet it is also so wonder-full and worth celebrating.

One of the paradoxes I discovered while doing research for my first post on the Reef was that at the beginning of the battle, not surprisingly, many of the conservationists were considered ‘cranks’, ‘hotheads’ and ‘ant-progressive visionaries’. Judith Wright explains that ‘most of us in the society at that time were people who were concerned and troubled at the destructiveness of much that was happening, but had no professional qualifications in biology’. At first many scientists were unwilling to join the fight: ‘biologists whose interests were not specifically in the young and struggling science of ecology tended to read them [certain reef studies] with some suspicion, which scarcely helped us’[ii]. ‘[T]he controversy promised to be highly political, and scientists are generally not anxious to enter such arguments’[iii] And yet Wright’s respected literary reputation enabled her to attract attention and support for the cause.

Ironically Brigid Rooney argues that ‘[a]nxiety produced by the decline thesis, the idea that the prestige of the literary is fading, has exacerbated the focus on the public role of writers…Contemporary Australian writers have been blamed for shying away from political engagement, from big national issues of the day’, David Marr stating ‘the idea that writers are society’s conscience is far from universal wisdom.’[iv] On the other hand, again according to Marr, things are very different now: ‘today artists and writers have become political liabilities, not assets, and politicians are quick to distance themselves from the taint of arts elitism’[v]. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Who said the life of a writer was meant to be easy? (We wish.) All we can do is continue to ‘rave on’.

Reading

Recently I finished a major project, feeling immensely relieved and gratified when I finally sent it off. In need of a break and battery recharge, while looking for books for my first post, I picked up the new novel The Young Lion by Blanche D’Alpuget off the shelving cart. Wow, what a ‘bodice-ripper’! Lots of rape, pillaging, beheading, arms and legs chopped off etc etc. I used to be a very keen historical fiction devotee when I was young but rarely have the time or inclination now. What’s been revelatory about reading this novel is the picture of the eleventh century (I assume it is reasonably accurate), a society driven by lust, power, and violence under the banner of Christianity. At the moment it doesn’t seem like Western civilization has advance very far in spite of our posturing.

NS 2 2In tandem I am also reading Bleak House, considered to be one of the first detective novels or at least a progenitor of[vi]. Charles Dickens serialised the novel in twenty monthly instalments from March 1852 to September 1853. The society that Dickens describes could not have been more different from d’Alpuget’s depiction of the era of Henry II and the reconquering of England. Bleak House is a very slow, quiet, detailed ‘wordy’ novel, the kind of reading we are not used to any more, meant to be read in bite-sized chunks. (I have to admit I also needed a break from it around page 657!) Even if you’ve not read it you will be familiar with its stuffy hypocritical ‘Victorian’ way of life, in which the genteel worried a great deal about their reputations (compared to the eleventh century when they cared about honour and glory—much the same thing I guess). The very wealthy ran the show and people appeared to spend their time visiting country houses for weeks on end. They seemed to have very little to do except to write letters. That is of course except for the rising middle classes who were very busy supplying the wants and needs of their betters and also worrying about their reputations. The lower classes just tried to survive any way they could. (photo credit: cover for the first serial, NY Library Berg Collection)

Victorian society was in its own way as violent, ruthless and uncaring as that of Henry II. But few of these unsavoury characteristics were acknowledged and most were condoned through belief in the rights of the aristocracy, class rigidity and what Darwin would later term ‘the survival of the fittest’. At least in the eleventh century, the feudal system based on loyalty of vassals to their liege lords, tended to show concern for those within it. But I’m raving. To get back to Bleak House—what a world of characters—grotesque and colourful although the sentimentality (Esther’s especially) makes some of the nasty ones more entertaining reading.

 NS 2 3The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory
Scanned image and text by George P. Landow

I mentioned before that Bleak House is considered a forerunner of our modern detective fiction as was a novel by Wilkie Collins, a friend of Dickens, published around the same time. Strangely I can’t recall reading Dickens in high school but we studied The Moonstone. The similarities between the books is remarkable but Dickens comes out far ahead, if for nothing else but the strength of his characterisation. You just have to love someone like Krouk, known as the ‘Lord Chancellor’ who owns a rag and bone shop and eventually, famously, spontaneously combusts. I haven’t finished the novel so I don’t know how it ends but the mystery appears to have something to do with a lost will and the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce litigation, based on an actual case which Dickens was personally familiar with during his time as a reporter in the Lord Chancellor’s court.

I suppose it’s clear by now that I am a crime thriller, detective fiction aficionado. In the beginning I read these as a relief from the theory, non-fiction and contemporary novels I was reading for academic and review/essay purposes, although now I have an interest in them that has become far more professional. So besides trying to work out ‘who done it’ I’m also trying to understand how the writer has structured the book, how the complicated narrative is constructed from early works like those by Agatha Christie which seem to naively rely on people in hardly believable incognito, through the sophisticated plots of PD James with her poet detective to Georges Simenon’s very French Inspector Maigret. Simenon (1903-1989), a Belgian (writing mainly in the 30’s and 40’s) is known for his roman noir and his extraordinary psychological insight into crime, which by its very nature is irrational. As Simenon remarked:

My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points… ‘understand and judge not’.[vii]

And Maigret, for all his mental prowess and understanding of the motives of human beings, isn’t always so logical. I was particularly delighted when he jumps off a train in the middle of the night after a man just because he is wearing an odd combination of handknitted grey wool socks and patent leather boots![viii] Perhaps contemporary detective novels rely too heavily on verifiable facts and technological innovation. Have we lost our ability to suspend disbelief? You even hear children at the movies complaining ‘that was soooo fake!’

Reading and Writing

Recently another book has been added to the pile on my table: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. I’d noticed it when it was first published in 1996 but it wasn’t until a friend with similar tastes read a passage to me after dinner at the Castle and I knew this book had to be part of my relatively limited library (I live in a very small terrace!). So I’m going to end this post with a quote from Manguel:

‘To completely analyse what we do when we read’, the American researcher E.B. Huey admitted at the turn of the century, ‘would almost be the acme of psychologist’s achievements, for it would be to describe very many of the intricate workings of the human mind’. We are still very far from an answer. Mysteriously we continue to read without a satisfactory definition of what we are doing. We know that reading is not a process that can be explained through a mechanical model; we know that it takes place in certain defined areas of the brain but we also know that these areas are not the only ones to participate; we know that the process of reading, like that of thinking, depends on our ability to decipher and make use of language, the stuff of words which makes up text and thought. The fear that researchers seem to express is that their conclusion will question the very language in which they express it: that language may itself be an arbitrary absurdity, that it may communicate nothing except its stuttering essence, that it may depend almost entirely not on its enunciators but on its interpreters for its existence, that the role of readers is to render visible—in al-Haytham’s fine phrase—‘that which writing suggests in hints and shadows’[ix]

NS 2 final

Endnotes

[i] Blood, Rebecca (September 7, 2000). “Weblogs: A History And Perspective”

[ii] Judith Wright, The Coral Battleground, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1996, p.20.

[iii] Wright, p.22.

[iv] Brigid Rooney, Literary Activists: Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009, p. xix.

[v] David Marr, ‘The Role of the Writer in John Howard’s Australia’, ABC Radio National, http//www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/bwriting/stories/s823973.htm, in Rooney p.x.

[vi] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.

[vii] Georges Simenon, Night at the Crossroads (1931), London: Penguin Books, 2014, author note.

[viii] Georges Simenon, The Madman of Bergerac (1932), London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

[ix] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, p39.

E.B. Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, New York: 1908, quoted in Kolers, ‘Reading’. Quoted in David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from al-Kindi to Kepler, Oxford: 1976.

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: