Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Internet Never Forgets

There was a standoff in the kitchen this morning – the dog inside at the cat door, one of the cats outside, each staring the other out and neither daring to move. I thought to intervene and put a stop to their agony but before I had a chance, the cat in all her majesty dismissed the dog with a brief flash of paw and stalked through the cat door to the inside, bypassing the upright dog.

Upright and uptight, our dog has no hope against the cats, not just because there are more cats, not just because two of the cats are female, but also because the cats take command in a way in which the yappy, friendly dog cannot.

I thought from cartoons I had seen as a child that dogs chased cats, but from my experience recently – since we came in possession of a dog and since talking to others about their pets – dogs are more intimidated by cats and cats can be ferocious.

Instinctively, in my mind I create a gender divide for cats and dogs – cats as female, dogs as male, which is ridiculous as are most generalisations and yet they are easy to make.

In more recent years I have become aware of the pitfalls into which we collapse when we make such basic assumptions and binaries and yet we do it every day. This is where I find the last of the keynote speakers at the autobiography and biography (IABA) conference, Lauren Berlant’s writing both challenging and exhilarating.

Berlant writes about ‘Intimate Publics’. I would tell you here what I think she means by this but I have yet to grasp the concept fully, even as she has tried to tell me about it herself in an email.

Why is it so difficult for me to understand the dense language of theory? I start to read Berlant’s essay on intimate publics and the words on the page are readable. I can understand them, one word after the other, but there is something in the way she has tied these words together that evades me.

I am a creature of my age perhaps, a victim of my limited education as a child when the nun’s taught us to absorb the facts through rote learning. Never mind that we could not understand the facts we had memorised.

I should speak for myself here. I could not understand much of what I learned as a child particularly in science and mathematics. I imagine therefore that I have a block against some theory, as if I am looking at a page of numbers or a list of mathematical equations that I cannot compute.

I once sat an aptitude test for librarianship as a seventeen year old, in the days when we were encouraged to apply for all the respectable jobs a young woman might undertake – nursing, teaching, social work – and I had trouble sorting out the order of a series of red and white, differently shaped flags. The detail evades me, though I believe I must have failed in this basic spatial test.

Berlant said at the conference that she has trouble writing and that her sentences can be too long and convoluted. Her interlocutor, Jay Prosser, disagreed and reeled off a number of beautiful sentences she has crafted.

For me the difficulty lies in the degree to which Berlant deals with abstractions. I cannot accommodate abstract thought. I need a story to hold me to the page. My brain is constantly looking for an image onto which I might latch an idea, but when it comes to the abstract ideas, whatever they are, such concepts as ‘intimate publics’ evade me.

‘Read what other people have to say about her ideas,’ my oldest daughter says, after I explain my difficulties in understanding Berlant’s writing. ‘Read the reviews. That way you’ll begin to understand her ideas and it’ll give you some idea of what she is on about before you tackle her directly.’

I am troubled by language, the way even people who speak the same language have so many different ways to say the same things. Interdisciplinarity and ideas that cross over from one framework to another seem to create new frameworks.

On another but related note, to do with knowledge and understanding, I have read recently about the horrors awaiting us given our growing realisation that the Internet never forgets.

Does this frighten you, too? Everything we post on line will be recorded forever, for posterity and anyone can hold it against us if in ten years time they choose to dredge up some wayward indiscretion on our part, or some hint of deviance from the past.

The Internet needs an inbuilt facility for forgetting some argue, rather like the human mind. If things are remembered with all the accuracy of facts, our memories cannot undergo any of the transformations our brain processes normally put our experience through – some experiences get repressed, some forgotten, some concertinaed, some distorted.

Without an inbuilt delete button we lose our capacity for change. We get stuck in rigid stereotypes and an overload of unchanging and therefore immutable information that renders us constipated and dull.

We need an internal delete button on the Internet to help with the overload, and to allow us to continue the process of change that goes on throughout our lives from the moment we are born. But someone has yet to invent a way of introducing it so we do not fall into the trap of unlimited information and no capacity to forget.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Silence is the greatest crime

Joan Didion argues that writing by its nature is ‘an aggressive, even a hostile act.’ It is, she argues ‘the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.’

In this way writing can be considered an enactment of the desire for revenge, as much as it can be a creative gesture, a gesture of defiance, the speaking out against oppression, that in itself might become another form of oppression.

In an essay ‘On hurting People’s Feelings’ Carolyn Wells Kraus writes about the nature of biography as an act of autobiography. She argues that ‘reducing a person’s story on a page, robs it of complexity’.

Is it really the desire for revenge that sets my blood racing or is it, as Kraus argues, guilt that I too am complicit? Non-fiction ‘sucks the life of a person onto the page’ and distorts that life to the author’s own ends, Kraus writes. Characters are slanted in the direction of the author’s obsessions.

‘The real problem,’ Kraus argues ‘is that you’re borrowing the peoples’ identities to tell your own story.’ Kraus quotes at length from her own writing and others to demonstrate the ways in which a writer’s bias influences the description of other characters. And so in telling the stories of others we inevitably tell our own stories.

‘There is no script,’ Kraus argues, ‘only improvisation. We fill in the outlines from the details. All we know of the world as writers is what we see – images, words, scenes. We supply the meaning, and we alter that meaning with every sleight of hand.’

Two days ago a jury found Robert Farquharson guilty of murder for the second time. He had been ordered a retrial on appeal. The jury found that Farquharson had murdered his three sons, ages ten, seven and two. He had driven his car and his boys into a dam, an accident, he said, the result of an out of control coughing fit. Farquharson survived. He had managed to extricate himself but his sons drowned. It happened on Father’s Day.

Farquharson is said to have killed his sons to avenge himself on his wife, to punish her for leaving him. To me if this is true, his action is an enactment of his desire for revenge, although Farquarson may well not be in touch with any such desire. It seems he cannot believe that he did it the way the courts have argued, deliberately intentionally, purposefully. It is his lack of awareness that makes the crime the more chilling.

If Farquarson knew openly about the hatred he held towards his wife after she had left him, then perhaps he need not have acted upon the impulse.

Feelings that are not recognised are far more likely to be acted upon. Rage denied is worse than rage acknowledged. When the anger is denied it seeps out when we least expect. It slips out like a hidden leak, one that drips between walls and causes untold damage. Think of it, a slow drip between the cavities of two walls, the mould, the stench, the rising damp hidden from view and slowly swamping, inching its way into the body of the house.

In 1997 a father murdered his four daughters in Tasmania. He stabbed them in the throat as they slept. Only the oldest had woken and tried to defend herself. There were scratches on her arms. The others must have been asleep when their lives were taken. The father then went off to the local township to post fifteen letters to relatives in bloodstained envelopes. He did not use stamps. He returned home, took an axe, chopped off his right hand, and then shot himself in the head.

Silence is the greatest crime and yet our lips remain sealed.

‘Sunday morning and I flick through the pages of the Best Australian Essays and find a newspaper cutting I left there months ago. I recognise it instantly. The reporter writes: ‘Doctors will have to wait until the end of the week to determine the success of surgery to reattach a toddler’s left leg, which was severed in an early morning axe attack’. In the next paragraph, the reporter tells us that, in the middle of the night, in a rented house in suburban Melbourne, the seventeen-month-old boy’s mother severed his left leg below the knee. She has a history of mental illness, the reporter adds, as if to make sense of it all.

I first heard the story on the radio, the day it happened, a few abrupt words over the static between the weather and fashions on the field. I was driving home after dropping my youngest daughter at school. By the time I read about it in the newspaper the next day some of its impact had worn off. A twenty-one year old mother, no name supplied. She had recently moved here from the country. There were details about the surgery and its similarity to surgery performed on a Perth boy who had lost both his arms and a foot while slam-dunking through a hoop on his garage wall. There the similarities end.

The reporter interviewed one of the surgeons who reattached the Perth boy’s limbs. The surgeon did not want to be named. He congratulated the team that had performed microsurgery on the toddler on the morning of the attack. The chances of success, he said, depended on the slow regrowth of nerves and the movement of muscles and tendons over a number of years. Young people heal more quickly, the surgeon added: ‘They have youth on their side.’ From my essay 'Fierce Amputations', Island Magazine 106, Spring 2006.

Silence is the greatest crime and yet our lips remain sealed.

Another person who tackles silence but in a different way is Lynn Behrendt. Could I please introduce you to her exceptional and haunting work. She is a stunning poet and artist.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

So ugly as to be pleasing

I found a gargoyle at the door of the old school house in Pirton churchyard near Shillington.  I suspect it’s not an original, more likely a reproduction set in concrete.  Gargoyles put me in mind of the church building over the road from my school where the nuns held art classes.  My older sister, artistically gifted, at least compared to me came home one day with a gargoyle she had drawn in charcoal.  It filled an entire page of her sketchbook. 
            ‘It’s so ugly,’ I said. 
            My sister held her head high.  ‘So ugly as to be pleasing.’  This is not an attitude my sister typically adopted, an appreciation of beauty within the obscene.  For to me the gargoyle was obscene, ugly enough to want to turn my eyes away. 
            I have since heard that gargoyles serve the purpose of protecting the inner sanctum of a church from attack.  These hideous figures with big noses and warty chins, with bulbous lips and flapping ears, which stick out their tongues at passers by, do so to keep trespassers away, and to protect.

Beauty and the beast.  I likened that story to my mother and my father, my mother the beauty, my father the beast.  The story of the monstrous ugly beast who lived alone high in a castle and who despite his appalling visage managed in time to attract the love of a young girl, repelled me from my earliest days, repelled and enthralled me.  Like the gargoyle at the door of the Pirton school house, like the business of travel itself. 

When we drove our car through the Dingle Peninsula in the County of Kerry past the famine houses and stopped to explore the places where so many starving peasants once lived during the potato blight of the 1800s, I refused to let myself be swallowed up by the landscape.  It is a forbidding landscape, bare green hills pockmarked with rocks, bashed by salty gusts from the sea.  Everywhere I looked I saw only green, the white of the waves and the grey blue of the sea.  I could not bear to live in such a place I thought to myself, for even at the height of summer it was cold, a cruel cold that ate through my clothes, thin as they were because I had dressed for summer, even though so many people had advised me, ‘when you go to Ireland, you need warm clothes’. 

Inside the car the English voice on the GPS directed us through the winding narrow roads on the peninsula.  We passed one parked tourist bus after another and were relieved to notice that we travelled in roughly the same direction.  Imagine having to share the narrow roads with such bulky vehicles.  Clearly people do so regularly.  Such an unforgiving landscape and yet in terms of landscape it was the highlight of my trip, perhaps because I could attach it to a story with resonances of a cruel past.

We visited James Joyce’s Tower in a place called Sandy Cove and I tried to sense the ambiance of Ulysses.  We ate a sandwich in a nearby cafe, and I could not feel the spirit of the author, too many layers of life have been superimposed onto his territory. 
We cannot judge the past by present standards I keep telling myself and yet the impulse is there as ever. 

I heard our new prime minister, Julia Gillard, announce on the radio yesterday the date for the next election and with it she offered a short speech that I felt went on too long promoting her party, the Labour part ahead of the rest, primarily the other major party in Australia the Liberal party. 

I’ll keep this simple; suffice to say she emphasized the need to keep Australia moving, an expression that is fast becoming a joke.  The image of an actual physical land mass move comes to mind. Push the country further towards Indonesia or towards the Antarctic, towards new Zealand perhaps, north south east or west.  To make this move, which she clearly intends metaphorically we need determination, resolve, optimism, I cannot remember her exact words, but it struck me that she left out the word ‘doubt’.  There is no room for doubt in a politician’s rhetoric.

I prefer a bit of doubt myself.  In fact I prefer a fair whack of doubt in most things - doubt, uncertainty and yet we must speak with confidence and certainty.  And even when we write our maybe, perhaps, our equivocations on the page, people still tend to read our statements as those of fact.

Forgive me. I’m off onto the track of abstractions and I hate this way of talking, of writing.  Give me an image any day. 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I lost my watch in Brighton

I feel deskilled. My coffee tastes off, not simply because the milk is beyond its use by date - although it smells okay - but because I have not drunk such coffee for over fourteen days and I am not used to it. Nor am I used to sitting at the computer, or the wintry weather.

When we first arrived in England everything seemed so different. We stayed in hotels and bed-sits. We slept in strange beds on lumpy under filled pillows. We travelled in hire cars, on busses and trains, in planes and on foot. We did things we do not do normally here in Australia.

All those other things, the things I had feared, the stuff about getting there, the planes falling from the sky did not come to fruition. Needless to say. Here am I writing this now. In fact often as I sat on the plane listening to the roar of the engines, imagining the ‘footless halls of air’ below me, I surprised myself by my lack of anxiety. Both trips there and back, and the two in between from Heathrow to Shannon in Ireland, and from Dublin back to Heathrow were the best flights I have ever experienced.

This trip has broken the back of my fear. I thought often of what I had written in my blog before I left for England and realised that so much of what I had feared was the fear itself.

Our time away has flown as I expected it might. It rushed past me in a haze of memories. We went to Shillington, first to find my husband’s ancestor’s graves but many of them were no longer visible. The lettering in stone had been worn off by wind and erosion. The plaques in the church were more visible but one had been overlaid by a new altar. The vicar offered to help us in our search for graves but only briefly. The Sunday service was about to start at 9.30 am.
‘Stay for the service or come back later in the afternoon,’ he said. ‘We have afternoon tea.’

We did not stay nor get back. We had so little time. The conference at Sussex University began the next day. So we made our way to Brighton where we stayed at the Granville Hotel in the West Pier room. The hotel overlooked the gravel filled beach and stood next door to the Hilton Hotel Metropole, which in its turn stood next door the Grand Hotel where Margaret Thatcher had stayed several years ago in the early mid eighties. A bomb devastated the front of the hotel during her stay but Thatcher was unharmed. The security guards had put her in a room towards the back.

There was a sign on the door to our room in the Granville, ‘Children are not permitted in this room’. I imagined this was on account of the wall to floor windows that opened out two floors up and looked across the street below to the sea.
Not so strange then that on so many nights during our time in this hotel room I dreamed of babies. Many in danger.

Later that first day we walked along the Brighton pier among crowds of visitors. It was hot by English standards and the pier was shocking in its gaudiness, a dome in the middle housed multiple poker machines and gambling opportunities.

I lost my watch in Brighton, or so I thought until it showed up at the end of the day in the bottom of my backpack. I thought at first it was an omen. In the gambling hall on the pier, my husband held his camera low. 'No photos allowed', the sign said. He held his camera low and snapped it from time to time, his middle camera eye unseen directed towards the glaring lights of pinball machines, and half dressed women, sun worshipers of all nationalities, men in tattoos, mothers with prams.

He held his camera in line with one old woman at a poker machine, her back rigid, her eyes fixed at the line of fruit on the screen, seemingly entranced by the clatter and clang of the money as it dropped into her tray. Bright lights the occasional jackpot, and then she gave it all back again.

I thought of my children and for an instant I worried they might be dead. Time had slipped from my wrist. My children across the water, across the sea lost in time lost to me forever, I imagined. I feared I had been careless. I had not kept a close enough watch on time, on them. I had left them behind for the faded grandeur of Brighton and a thousand conference words that would never bring them back.

They were fine of course, except in my imagination for that brief moment, which blended in with the heat and stink of urine behind the Brighton kitchens where we walked after dinner that first night, and stared at the endless queues.

I came to think of England as the land of the queue. But there were compensations, especially in the green of the landscape. Everywhere throughout the countryside I noticed clusters of red poppies, sometimes in small bunches, elsewhere whole fields and every time I saw them I thought of the war poem, In Flanders Field.

'In Flanders Field the poppies grow among the crosses row on row that mark our place. We are the dead…’

Flanders is in France but it could just as well be in England. Along the Sussex roads the traffic islands are filled with clusters of flowers, red, pink, white and purple. They shimmered on warm mornings as I took the bus to the conference, but the nights again were cold.

Now at last I know what people mean by hedgerows. Now I can use the word in my writing as I have done at times since I was a small child and now I can see a hedgerow in my mind’s eye. Until now the word bore no real meaning other than as a word I had read in poems as a child in British books, the first met in primary school. Now I also know about the green of England and the sight of those Irish cliffs I have seen so often in movies.

At the conference dinner my husband and I sat at a table with none other than Michael Holroyd who had been one of the keynote speakers. He came to the dinner with his young interviewee, Sarah O’Reilly. Together the two had presented a beautiful example of the work Sarah is undertaking for the British Dictionary of Biography, a chronicle of the lives of a number of significant British writers including Michael Holroyd. It was a delight to sit with the man and to chat over wine and food. And again that sense of the brittleness of relationships that spring up in conferences. We will never meet again ever.

The private intimate conversations in which you share so much only to close the door behind you forever. On the last day of the conference I felt the weight of a certain kind of sadness – all over so soon, sad and yet glad. There were too many people, too many events, too many words and my feelings rose up and down continuously like being on the end of a yoyo.

Gradually more memories will come back to me, but for now I must settle for the prosaic and obvious, the weather and the food. It's good to be home.