disembodied voices

In recent years I’ve begun to write more fiction from a male perspective. My earliest attempts scored mixed reviews from women, but enough men were taken in that I opted to continue. Not only does maleness free my narrators to speak and act in new ways; it justifies the absence of female themes that don’t grab me.

When, as a teen, I first read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, a masterpiece of gothic romance, I didn’t know she’d published it under a man’s name (in 1847; her novelist sisters did the same). As for the male narrator whose account frames the story, I just took it for granted that a woman could credibly mimic a man. And once I dared to do likewise (or, in third person, to track male thoughts) it felt more natural than I’d expected. But hey, in our patriarchal culture, women listen to men all day. Men dominate politics, current affairs, philosophy, industry, science etc., and when they write fiction, more women than men tend to read it (and far fewer men read what women write). Which means women spend extended time in men’s heads: we live and work in spaces they’ve designed, learn facts that reflect their left-brain bias, watch films they so often direct (with their masculine aesthetics). No wonder the question ‘What do men want?’ seldom excites speculation. We know what they want because, in general, at least compared to us, they’ve got it.

Meanwhile, men like Mark Zuckerberg own vast social media platforms whose users, through their online activity, enable the refinement of algorithms that train AI to anticipate their desires even as it trains them to want what they’re selectively fed – confusing what’s in our hearts or guts with what’s programmed into our heads until the gap between us and machines collapses.

Reading countless novels by men before I’d learned to think for myself, I innocently internalised all those male perspectives. Never having seen them critiqued, how could I reject them? Most of my reading, unlike other activities, was unsupervised: my parents and the school librarians seemed quite oblivious to the subversive possibilities of the texts lining their shelves. And maybe I could relate to male narrators because by the time I began to ride horses (age nine), I identified with my father rather than my uptight mother. He wasn’t afraid of snakes, spiders, strangers, sunburn, deep water or horseshit. And though I read adventure stories by and about women, the average man enjoyed more freedom (while I spent all my spare time reading).

Not that gender matters. The problem is masculine energy untempered by the feminine, and vice versa, whether it comes with a male or a female identity; because what’s missing creates a vacuum, a need that can’t be satisfied. My male narrators aren’t like that. And yet, having failed to follow the pack, they tend to be alienated.

As a student of Marxism in the early ’80s, author Anthony Macris dwelt on the question of alienation: ‘For a long time it was all I could see, all I could feel, this massive, inexorable shift at all levels of being towards the dominance of capitalist rationality.’ He continues: ‘And moreover, it was something I would be expected to participate in if I was to prosper or flourish as human being in any way.’ Apparently he rose to that expectation, exploring through fiction the effect of the ever-increasing penetration of market forces into everyday life. Yet he acknowledges the ‘conflict, or contradiction, or irony’ of ‘how to make any meaningful statement on reification in a commodified, reified world, which extends to the publishing industry’. And novelist Jarrett Kobek concurs, re the e-book version of his satire I Hate the Internet (2016):

Ah, yes. Ultimately, we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.

Maybe. So, to adapt successfully to prevailing conditions, an author needs to embrace or, at least, tolerate contradiction. Scholar McKenzie Wark writes:

The bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic detail – filler – to make it appear otherwise. It excludes the totality so that bourgeois subjects can keep prattling on about their precious “inner lives”.

The totality according to Wark includes climate change, the omission of which theme negates any claim to ‘realism’. But one look at the tools now running our country, with their brief for a descent into hell, should tell us reality doesn’t sell. And as our collective future grows ever more uncertain, escapist fiction continues to do well.

When reading, I tend to hear an author’s words in my head (one reason why the widespread belief that hearing disembodied voices = schizophrenia seems misguided; all voices come from somewhere). The risk is that too much listening or reading can numb us (like all excess consumption), leading to passivity and failure to feel or think. Say, isn’t this sort of what digital culture supports and, even if not overtly, to a great extent enforces through male-conceived, high-tech online and urban environments that bombard us with images of young women, urge us to buy now and pay later, oblige us to agree to endless Ts & Cs with each transaction, and demand that we generate yet more passwords? Is the ubiquitous use of female robo-voices – to field your call, assist your purchase, navigate while you drive etc. – meant to disguise the identities of the minority of men who profit from our dependence on the ‘convenience’ they offer?

Out of touch with nature, despite or because of how we exploit it, we seek ourselves in the mirror of technology. And yet the science that’s enabled our unprecedented dissociation is increasingly revealing how profoundly nature inhabits us, our bodies hosting vast colonies of microbes that regulate our health and even our psyches, while we indulge fantasies of autonomy through gaming, social networking, mediated news feeds etc. Yet what is our insatiable hunger for more information, and the global cult of narcissistic self-marketing (for those of us with something to sell, which is most of us, even if it’s just a fake persona), but a last-ditch bid to outrun redundancy – a collective explosion of unconscious protest against being superseded by a godlike AI that soon won’t need us? As we empty our memories into corporate digital databases, uploading photos to Facebook etc. to free up more mental space by forgetting, are we exercising the greatest awareness of which we’re humanly capable? Or are we following the path of least resistance that leads to extinction? Yet if we mount an extinction rebellion, a bunch of unethical self-serving men get threatened and start drafting laws geared to hold our giving a damn against us, with the aim of crushing dissent because that’s fascism, regardless of gender.

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formative fiction

Most writers can reel off a handful of titles of books they’d call formative, typically read for the first time during their teens. One of mine is Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë, a classic of incomparable passion despite no explicit sexual content. Another is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). The most engrossing novel prescribed during my four years at high school, it marked gen Xers Donna Tartt and Alex Garland, to judge by their debut novels, The Secret History (1992) and The Beach (1996), respectively: the former transplanting the action – secluded group turning savage – to classics students in the academy; the latter to a South-East Asian island backpacker mecca.

Author Rachel Kushner says the books you read when young ‘sink in deep and are a part of your encoding’. Indeed. But the impact of books read before puberty is harder to gauge, their contents hazier. I know I read Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows and Pookie and the Swallows, or they were read to me, but I can’t recall my response, beyond liking the pictures of anthropomorphised animals enough to want to illustrate books when I grew up. Not until I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, at nineteen, did the transformative power of literature hit me.

Kushner says she read The Catcher in the Rye at thirteen. Deterred by the cryptic title, I gave it a miss at school: defying authority like the protagonist. My English teacher, Mr M, remonstrated with me in vain; I spent too much time alone reading already. The shocking news, years later, that Mr M had shot himself fatally, saddened me (he’d treated us, at 14, like young adults) and I regretted not having been more receptive. Now I wonder how much he’d related to the troubled narrator of JD Salinger’s teen angst classic. When I finally read it to humour a wannabe YA writer, I found it tame compared to The Bell Jar (1963), a female slant on related themes. Though The Catcher in the Rye preceded it (1951), Plath didn’t stop at suicidal ideation, topping herself a month after The Bell Jar was published. (Salinger died of natural causes at 91.)

Before that came scores of horsy books, most of which ended happily – unlike ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Andersen, more disturbing, with its Christian morality, than Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure (1969) or Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974). While those exploit fear of the deep, Andersen conjured worse fears: oblivion or limbo awaits the mermaid when the prince weds someone else.

Last year I sold the family home, but kept a few books found in the process. I wanted to revisit stories I recalled as formative, which might have played a part in shaping my expectations of life or, at least, the fiction I’d written. So I began at random with a novel that looked familiar: Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier. Yet no recognition dawned as I read. It seems I’d only read about it, which may be for the best. Neither the passive narrator nor the manipulative titular character would have set a good example. Apparently Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) had marked du Maurier: poor young narrator falls for rich older man haunted by his psycho ex-wife until his manor house burns down.

As I reached for the next book, a historical romance, I promised myself I’d stop if it didn’t impress me. Apart from Rebecca, the closest I’d come to reading romance in at least two decades was AS Byatt’s Booker-winning, genre-juggling Possession; so I had doubts about rereading Jenny (1957), a bodice ripper by Ada Lewis. (Who?) Embarrassingly, I found it unputdownable. Who’d have thought? Uncommonly immune to my analytical powers, it seemed as familiar as if I’d once learned every line by heart; as if key scenes hadn’t just imprinted my mind but become part of it. How could its trite conventions exert such a potent spell? Was I compelled onwards by the uncanny impression that Jenny’s voice already lived in my head?

No doubt the first line intrigued teenage me, hinting at sex and sin: ‘Today, as I came out of Mr. Currie’s glove shop, I saw a harlot being whipped through the street at the tail of a wagon.’ And on the next page the narrator says: ‘It’s not that I am afraid. But once you have seen the face of disaster, you are marked. Afterwards you do not see things as other people do.’ Though I didn’t know it, these lines foreshadowed my future.

The jacket on my copy shows a sepia portrait of a pretty redhead with a low neckline, her visible arm cropped above the elbow, a gendered lack her other charms supposedly offset. Pert-nosed, quick-witted, born illegitimately, Jenny Archer is the quintessential romantic heroine. Most men she meets desire her and several are hopelessly smitten, including the dark and handsome hero, her fair and impossibly handsome first lover, her violently jealous half-brother and her bull-necked country cousin. My youthful naivety made Jenny educational (a pregnant woman’s nipples change colour?); the narrator at nineteen seemed old to me in my early (or mid? I was sheltered) teens. A shy magnet for misfits, I envied her.

Now, I recognise echoes of the gothic romances of the Brontës, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Then, I hadn’t yet heard of them. Jenny appeared on the sunroom shelf as a singular invention, standing out from the far less seductive books around it. And after Lewis’s deftly crafted page-turner, the requisite happy ending of which, like a slap in the face, restored critical distance, I revisited another anomaly from my parents’ shelves: the notorious bestseller Peyton Place (1956) by Grace Metalious. It reminded the adult me of Middlemarch (1871–2) with all its small-town characters, if not the depth, scope and intelligence of George Eliot’s classic (nor could it even rival Jenny for style, pace, wit and suspense). But I grew up reading for hours each day to escape. An anomaly myself amid kids of suburban white-collar workers, I longed for relatable role models. Drama and tragedy gripped me partly because I craved accounts of individuals pushing the boundaries, giving free rein to wild desires and redefining the terms of acceptable self-expression.

Both coming-of-age novels despite their different genres, Jenny and Peyton Place end well for their heroines, who encounter poverty, sexual scandal, domestic violence, abortion, murder, madness and suicide, yet emerge stronger and wiser. I never expected these themes to dominate my writing. Nor did I aspire to write at all (unlike Allison, the character in Peyton Place based on Metalious). Yet, other novels from my teens, like Stephen King’s Carrie and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, weren’t so memorable (is that why horror and fantasy rarely tempt me?). What could a girl whose emotions wreak havoc without her even needing to speak or dwarfish Middle-earthers with hairy feet possibly teach me about my own latent talents or sexuality?

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The Lie of the Learned: Sydney Writers’ Festival 2019

RACHEL KUSHNER: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE May 2, 6.30–7.30pm University of Sydney Social Sciences Lecture Theatre (‘One of America’s finest writers, Rachel Kushner, joins Professor Annamarie Jagose to discuss her latest novel The Mars Room and a body of work that traverses eras and inner lives.’)

The theme of this event, the first I attended, bore no connection to the festival’s broad theme of ‘Lie to Me’. Nor did Kushner’s examples of true stories used in The Mars Room, about ‘what it means to be poor and female in America’, i.e., incarcerated. As for ‘what it means to be free’, the conversation dwelt instead on characteristics of the US prison system with which Kushner is familiar through her human-rights work inside. From which it follows that freedom means, among other things, privacy – an idea that begs the question of just how free any of us can be as our technologies monitor and regulate our contacts and behaviours with increasing invasiveness.

Kushner opened the session by reading from The Mars Room. And her evident concern with humanising prisoners, many of whom she counts as friends, is commendable. Yet nothing about her writing tempted me to read the rest of her novel. However, she did discuss some content that intrigued me. So, later, I searched through The Mars Room and read the passage that opens Chapter 10, and though I could find no specific acknowledgement, I knew the account of killing and eating a wild porcupine had been lifted from the Unabomber’s diaries (owned by a friend who’d decoded them). But to what end? It can’t have been her intention to upstage her own invention, but having recently read a haunting essay on Kaczynski, I found his words more gripping than hers. It’s easy to imagine him killing people with the same detachment that makes his record of dispatching the porcupine so creepy. But what’s that got to do with the injustices of the prison system?

Embedding readymade diary entries in fiction seems almost like cheating. And it’s not hard to sympathise with a character whose crimes arise from social injustice or disadvantage; while too easy to despise an educated psychopath, to deny them the empathy they couldn’t feel for their victims. Does Kushner need to emphasise her contempt for Kaczynski so her use of his words won’t be construed as politically incorrect? Funnily enough, Kaczynski took a dim view of leftists and his critique is no less relevant today because he’s batshit crazy – though, like Kushner, I’m quoting him out of context:

Leftism is in the long run inconsistent with wild nature, with human freedom and with the elimination of modern technology. Leftism is collectivist; it seeks to bind together the entire world (both nature and the human race) into a unified whole. But this implies management of nature and of human life by organized society, and it requires advanced technology. […] Assuming that industrial society survives, it is likely that technology will eventually acquire something approaching complete control over human behavior.

The thing is, information freed from its original context characterises contemporary culture, affecting elections (shame, Morrison, shame!) and causing widespread, ongoing confusion about global warming, immigration, corporate surveillance and so much more.

Which reminds me that, though I find Kaczynski’s crimes indefensible, Kushner’s appropriation of his diaries unsettled me. But hey, I grew up having my right to privacy denied by parents who cared deeply about theirs.

Anyway, what ‘free’ meant to me in the context of this event was not having to pay for a front row seat a few metres from two engaging speakers, an increasingly rare treat with each new Sydney Writers’ Festival, which seems ever more geared to humouring well-heeled baby boomers and less inclusive of struggling students and pensioners who might read and write. (Which sounds like our government’s style of funding…)

CAN YOU SPOT A LIAR? May 3, 1.30–2.30pm Carriageworks, Bay 20 (‘Crime reporter Matthew Condon, investigative journalist Kate McClymont and forensic psychiatrist Dr Calum Smith talk with Chris Taylor about whether it’s possible to spot a liar.)

It’s often the case that festival panels not only lack the charged interaction of live TV panel shows (e.g., Q&A) but disappoint like short story anthologies of uneven quality. And the price is comparable. So I went to this event only because a friend shouted me. The shrink was the sole panelist with more to offer than anecdotes (yawn!) but Taylor didn’t give him a chance. Nor did he leave enough time for questions from the audience. Relieved when this undisguised exercise in marketing ended, my friend and I talked for hours about the liars in our lives.

IAN PARKER: THE TALENTED DAN MALLORY May 4, 10–11am Carriageworks, Bay 24 (‘Malcolm Knox speaks with New Yorker writer Ian Parker about his viral investigation into the lies and deceptions trailing bestselling thriller writer Dan Mallory.’)

In this session Parker and Knox, a top local investigative journo, discussed an author who’s just as unreliable as the narrator of his debut thriller and instant #1 New York Times bestseller, The Woman in the Window, after which audience members asked Parker lots of questions, including whether he thought his story would ‘change anything’. Parker, who presents as self-effacing, yet who’d need to be phenomenally tenacious, didn’t think so, but the question struck me as vague. And what did this woman think needed changing?

Funnily enough, Mallory’s history of lying in public about dramatic medical conditions, whether his own or those of others (e.g., his battle with cancer, the disease that supposedly killed his mother), reminded me of someone my friend had discussed the previous day, who, since they’d been dating, had suffered an impressive array of serious if invisible mental and physical afflictions, then raged and threatened to end their two-and-a-half-year-old relationship whenever my friend dared refer to not yet having met anyone who knows them nor even once been to their home.

For those of us faced with people whose stories don’t add up, whether on the personal or political front, surely it’s useful to read about real-life cases of deceit, if only because the knowledge that such pathologies exist could help us to see manipulation for what it is and to resist it.

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Dementia is relative

The last time I visited my mother she expressed great surprise. And not because she hadn’t been warned in advance: I stopped doing that around the time she forgot that phones were an option. She isn’t surprised when ‘waiters’ bring meals and meds or put her to bed, so she did seem to know who I was… until she asked me about the weather ‘where you come from’.

Maybe because memory failed her, she sidestepped questions about her own life by politely inquiring after mine. How did I feel about ‘changing countries’? What did I do ‘in England’? I explained I’d spent only two weeks there more than 25 years ago. So then she just stared at the mute TV, confused as to why she couldn’t hear it, while a report on a TV in the next room attributed the decline of Earth’s oceans to humans.

At one point my mother said she hadn’t seen any magazines, though four lay within easy reach. The copy of Hello! open in front of her gave me a clue: lacking recall of me, she’d taken cues from a glossy British weekly.

This is what dementia looks like. And yet not even her doctors can say exactly when my mother’s ignorance of me began to signify brain changes rather than mere disdain. When did chronic depression tip over into ‘dementia’? Apparently, professionals use the label loosely (also true of the word ‘hysteria’ during the Victorian era; labels tend to shift the focus off the context and onto their subject). And for the purposes of these musings, I’ll use the word loosely too.

So if dementia can look like, e.g., someone reduced to viewing others exclusively through the lens of whatever media they’ve been consuming, the condition could be said to afflict our whole society, the severity of its symptoms in each of us just a matter of degree.

Since my mother’s move into residential aged care, I’ve watched the progress of her dementia speed up. Carers are quick to locate the cause somewhere in her brain – but what about the system? Surrounded by residents with vacant expressions who don’t interact, free only to refuse social contact (such as it is), and denied any privacy, who wouldn’t slide towards mindless oblivion? And maybe my mother, who’s never read widely, let alone travelled far, while warding off challenges to her values, had a head start?

In our society it’s not just the aged who face deepening isolation, with more and more activities that used to involve direct human contact – banking, shopping, studying, chatting etc. – migrating online. Touch, smell, and visual and aural complexity are fading from the field of daily social interaction, especially for those who live alone (an increasingly common phenomenon).

Once upon a time, our species had respect (palely echoed today by green activism) for the vast web of terrestrial life. But as our brains grew in size we began to move up the food chain. And now, having enjoyed a brief interlude on top, we’ve been displaced by technology. In the vast artificial web that newly connects us, people are disposable, places are negotiable, and things are the new religion. Things – machines – make life more convenient, so who’s complaining? But today, many bank staff can’t add a few figures manually, never mind manage long division. Social media is training our brains to respond to ‘likes’, infantile emojis and throwaway comments the way a lab rat’s brain responds to a hit of cocaine. And as social media moguls like Mark Zuckerberg know, reward for next to no effort promotes compliance and docility.

According to psychiatrist and brain researcher Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary (2009), our whole society demonstrates a left-hemisphere emphasis, evident in its focus on detail to the detriment of the big picture. Yet long before I began to read his paradigm-busting tome, even I could see that our reality is atomised. For the sake of analogy, take the plastic polluting our air, earth and oceans, its degrading microparticles hidden in the countless creatures (marketed as seafood) that eat and breathe them, so that humans keep consuming what they’ve tried to get rid of.

Like plastic waste, dementia can’t be neatly corralled. And yet our society lumps sufferers of the latter together (in facilities that bury them like landfill) as if their slippage were their identity. A common response when I volunteer facts about my mother to nursing home staff is the single, simple word ‘Dementia’ – an institutionally sanctioned excuse for not paying too much attention.

Of course my take is generalised and simplistic. But so is the standard medical narrative, which sometimes seems designed above all to disguise its own ignorance. And to what extent does ageism stop society at large from inquiring more closely? Like most, if not all, mental health diagnoses, dementia carries a stigma, which predisposes those not yet affected to dissociate – as if we weren’t dissociated already.

‘Dementia’ as an explanation is like an injunction not to think. And given similarly simplistic accounts in other areas of life, too many tend to take them at face value. Not that our education system equips us to challenge official versions of reality. Rewarded in the short term for conforming, the majority adopt prescribed roles, a compromise that seldom pays off if or when they get old.

Maintaining optimal cognitive function means bypassing well-worn paths through the brain to engage with the external world in multiple, improvised ways – such as if, due to injury, you were to use your left hand instead of the right, or toes or teeth instead of fingers. According to psychiatrist Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself (2010):

Anything that requires highly focused attention will help [the control system for plasticity]—learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material (p. 87).

Does solving challenging puzzles include grappling with new kinds of literature? Of course any suggestion that dependency on social media, the popular press and/or formulaic fiction etc. is stunting our neural potential can be criticised as elitist. And it seems unlikely that lovers of difficult reading (Ulysses? Infinite Jest?) run less risk of developing dementia. Reading texts that bend and stretch the mind is no kind of substitute for reading the world and deeply comprehending it. Nonetheless, a diet of The Australian Women’s Weekly, Reader’s Digest and Hello! doesn’t come recommended.

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Everything is connected

One of the oft-discussed features of the mental disorder called schizophrenia is an extreme preoccupation with meaning. In a society increasingly suffering from the malaise of meaninglessness – a sense that something is missing exploited by a vast range of purveyors of books, DVDs, workshops, courses, retreats, spiritual tourism and more – the pathologising of failure to monetise a sense of meaning may itself be symptomatic of a collective disorder.

A sense of meaning tends to emerge when we see connections between things. Symbols and signs hold meaning only to the extent that they point to or represent something else. Some meanings, such as those represented by $$, remain constant compared to, say, the underrated significance of mass extinction.

With the rise of science, or rationalism, many old systems of meaning (e.g., astrology) have lost their former status. What once was plain to see (e.g., planetary line-ups, eclipses etc.) has been displaced by increasingly mediated, specialised, theoretical research. And with the explosion of data attending each new discovery, today’s info overload alongside heated debate about how to tackle global warming, and other such threats to life as we know it, has fostered an atmosphere of fragmentation.

It’s a case of TMI, whether from too many sources or from only one but strategically distorted, and often presented in simplistic terms or disconnected from context. Bombarded by input 24/7, we often struggle to discriminate between real and fake news, truth and spin. We’ve never had access to more facts and on such a massive scale, yet much of what we learn leads to confusion. We overdose on factoids then seek yet more distraction. In a consumerist age where such notions as an all-seeing God and an orderly cosmos are outmoded, we’re shoppers trying on a range of options for restoring meaning. Imagine the appeal of a package that promises to simplify and demystify how our universe works. What if Einstein got it all wrong?

But in a world where packaging counts for more than content, basic psychology might trump a PhD in physics if you want to sell an alternative cosmology. The meteoric development of science and high tech in recent decades has caused many to fear – or experience – redundancy. No wonder some turn to YouTube, where both experts and cranks can share their views and news, subject to their Google ranking. Online, for instance, flat-earthers and those compelled to convince them that Earth is round can engage in a virtual shouting match on a level playing field. Like democratic votes, hits decide whose theory rules.

In the early ’90s I read a book called Worlds in Collision (1950) by a Freudian shrink, Immanuel Velikovsky, whose highly creative synthesis of analytic theory and ancient myth put a new spin on the history of our solar system. Supposedly, catastrophic events described in the Old Testament and the myths of ancient cultures, Eastern and Western, had been repressed at the collective level. So the human race needed to face the truth – overcome our species’ amnesia – to avert nuclear doom and realise world peace. His ideas had such an impact on the ’60s and ’70s counterculture that some of his acolytes never outgrew them, but continued the work of their guru, disseminating their findings online, soliciting crowdfunding for research… So his vision lives on in The Thunderbolts Project, whose founders are senior citizens now. And what most struck me about a YouTube presentation by one, electric universe theorist, Wal Thornhill, was his pre-emptive introduction:

Before I tell the epic story, a warning. Our education systems train students to memorise a litany of facts which produces global groupthink. Students are not given the time or encouragement to critically examine the history of ideas. A leading researcher into the learning functions of the divided brain, Dr Iain McGilchrist, has shown such blinkered left-hemisphere training renders students functionally blind to alternative ways of looking at a problem. ‘The left hemisphere simply blocks out everything that doesn’t fit with its take. It doesn’t see it, actually, at all.’ So scientists with their narrow specialised training may look at but cannot see what to a non-expert may seem obvious. They will be the last to see a paradigm shift in the making.

McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, sure looks more thoroughly researched than Thornhill’s ‘epic story’, though what follows Thornhill’s induction (forgive the electrical pun) went over my head. I can’t actually prove that Earth never orbited Saturn – but his loose logic arouses suspicion. (Take this random example of ‘what to a non-expert may seem obvious’: ‘In reality… the horizon will always be at eye level no matter how high you go! No curvature will be seen.’ Obvious until surveying instruments confuse the issue.) Nor could I make sense of Thornhill’s concluding warning:

Along with the genius Carl Jung, [Velikovsky] warned that mankind is his own worst enemy. So the cultural change offered by Electric Universe cosmology is essential for our survival. By offering a real understanding of the universe and our history, it offers hope and inspiration where presently there is none. There is far more to life in the electric universe than is dreamt of presently. We are all intimately connected with each other and the Earth.

Do such platitudes encourage one ‘to critically examine’ Thornhill’s ideas? And as Jung’s genius didn’t extend to physics, what does his warning, or Velikovsky’s, have to do with the price of fish? For all their brilliance, Thornhill’s heroes (shrinks, including McGilchrist) aren’t scientists – and Thornhill’s conclusion has nothing to do with the physical universe. He promises something less tangible than knowledge – salvation from fear, despair, aloneness and emptiness. In a society characterised by left-hemisphere dominance, such feelings are epidemic. But mightn’t the opposite blind us to category mistakes?

The height of Velikovsky’s fame came late. A celebrity in his 70s, he inspired students and outsiders all over America with his heresies. Accused by others of delusions of grandeur, he lacked the humility essential to the work of a historian – variations in translation, selective revisions over millennia and the subjectivity of memory, among other issues, render all historical accounts provisional. His faith in biblical history, though, led Velikovsky, trained as a shrink, to radically rethink other disciplines (e.g., physics and astronomy, a far cry from theories of the unconscious). And yet, unsatisfied with cult status as an anti-establishment hero, he never ceased chasing mainstream acceptance for his ideas.

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The Hoarder’s Daughter

Has anyone else noticed a growing trend towards novels titled The Something-or-other’s Daughter? Apparently they have. Lists abound. Mine, a short one, includes The Astrologer’s Daughter (2014), The Botanist’s Daughter (2018) and The Clockmaker’s Daughter (2018).

According to Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, publishers may be behind these unoriginal titles. She asks a favourite bookseller who says readers buy what’s familiar. And indeed, these titles typically feature traditional jobs – no AI engineers or data scientists. The only one I’ve read is The Ringmaster’s Daughter (2001) by Jostein Gaarder, a twisted tale of unwitting incest from a male perspective. (Yawn.)

Personally, I’m tired of patriarchal narratives: these titles perpetuate the anonymity of women. And historically, ‘daughter’ carries baggage to do with being someone’s property, a chattel to be married for political and/or financial advantage.

Preferring to be identified by my profession, like the fictional parents of all these fictional females, I’ve rarely thought of myself as a daughter. A word that implies relatedness in the sense of belonging to anyone, irrespective of gender, feels loaded to me. Styled by my mother as a smaller version of herself, I sought my own identity through rebellion. By age three, I’d become ‘a real handful’ and she panicked. Diagnosed as agoraphobic, medicated on Librium, she took her doctor’s advice to find a hobby. And for the next few decades she sewed countless items of clothing, curtains, cushion covers, dachshund doorstops etc., hiding humble objects like toilet seats and boxes of tissues inside pastel padded quilting and frills.

Also covered up, I’ve since learned, was her conception out of wedlock (her parents had married just four months before her birth) and her brother’s illegitimate daughter when he was nineteen. His fiancée sued him for breach of promise and his mother, who paid the price, kept the receipt. When I discovered it I knew what it pertained to because my formerly secret cousin had told me. I’d learned about her after answering a letter from a second cousin, which I’d found among reams of overlooked mail my mother had hoarded for decades.

Anyway, culling my mother’s possessions has led me to reflect on why so much female creativity should be devoted to decorating – covering up – manmade inventions, something I never used to question. My mother encouraged me from an early age to master knitting. Then came crochet, macramé, copper enamelling, origami… But each of these hobbies soon bored me; riding a horse or even a skateboard would have been far more rewarding.

On leaving school, I explored more exciting ways to kill time than making Afghan rugs, cloche hats and toe socks while watching TV. Handicrafts existed to keep restless girls like me out of trouble, out of touch with real-world issues, safely out of sight – too sheltered to develop courage, strength or an intellect. Patience? To the extent that repetition is trance inducing, these pastimes may be a form of meditation. But the fruit of any truly spiritual practice isn’t as tangible as a beaded belt or a woollen tank top. Besides, why bother when technology was churning out blouses, trousers and knitwear much faster and more cheaply than my mother could make them by hand?

The thing was, these pursuits not only quietened her anxiety; they connected her to a local social sewing circle of women who eventually became her friends for life. One of these friends even met my illegitimate cousin’s father during a holiday in Bali – providing photos of him and his family that fill a chronological gap.

But what my mother didn’t consider, as she steered me towards domesticity, was that my peers had other interests. So I knitted, knotted and crocheted in solitude until art school offered escape. I moved out of home at the first opportunity, which on a student allowance meant a tiny room in a huge share house. Suddenly my social life and world view expanded. And the more I craved travel, the less I wanted to own things that wouldn’t fit in a backpack. What mattered were skills like improvising meals at short notice for hordes of people – resourcefulness and flexibility, not dependence on patterns. Loath to be seen in a hand-knitted scarf or beanie, I bought boho clothes from op shops, while my mother stored my cast-offs in plastic bags with mothballs.

Last month a bric-a-brac dealer came to pick through family heirlooms and rubbish (now my widowed mother’s confined to a small shared room with only one cupboard – the sort of place you can land when you abandon normal hygiene standards and neglect to answer your phone and front door). And the first dealer gave my number to a second – who turned out to be a woman I’d lived with in that huge share house. Hunting through the mess in search of retro treasures, my former housemate stumbled on a stash of child-sized crocheted clothes. As she started to laugh, I cringed with shame. But, ‘I like these!’ she said, and added them to her haul. I never let on who’d made them.

One early sign of my mother’s decline was her loss of interest in such activities. Sewing got sidelined while she nursed her dying husband, to be resumed after his death – but without conviction. And as time passed, and her depression didn’t, unfinished garments stuck full of pins piled up. She couldn’t imagine herself as other than a wife (and a mother): defined by her relationship – of necessity – to loved ones. Meanwhile her sewing circle dispersed, to aged care and beyond, leaving her alone. And finally I was left to dispose of the hundreds of out-of-date handmade tops, pants, skirts, frocks, jackets and jumpers she’d refused to sell or donate during the 14 years that much of it lay untouched in musty cupboards.

On my parents’ vintage cane bookshelf I found Catherine Gaskin’s Daughter of the House (1952) and A Daughter of the Land (1918) by Gene Stratton-Porter – ‘daughter’ has featured in book titles for a long time. But even now, where are the titles referring to men as belonging to women? (The Lap Dancer’s Son; The Checkout Chick’s Husband; The Romance Novelist’s Uncle…?) Apparently they exist. Yet one comprehensive commentary notes that males are less likely to be defined by their relationships.

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The illusion of realism

There was a time when painting from photos was radical, or denounced as cheating. Now it’s taken for granted, while styles like expressionism are out of fashion. It’s as if the ubiquity of the photographic image, fuelled by digital media, promotes blandly sterile art geared to impress superficially rather than evoke deep feeling – which negates at least one good reason for working in a tactile medium.

What a paradox that, despite its fidelity and speed, modern technology can’t beat painting straight from life for immediacy. The artist must submit to the limits imposed by using a sitter who tires, twitches and shifts unpredictably. And during the process, an atmosphere, a mood, develops in the studio, whether or not artist and model chat and/or hold eye contact – an unavoidable intimacy that makes the stakes higher (as with plein-air painting, through exposure to weather, insects etc.).

A painter friend of mine sometimes used to pay me to model for him. I appreciated the cash in hand, but a typical pose would mean standing, perhaps with an arm raised or most of my weight on one leg for hours, the time between breaks diminishing as blood drained from my limbs, one side of me covered in gooseflesh, the other seared by the kerosene heater. My friend – I’ll call him R – was dedicated to realism, seeking verisimilitude in the smallest details.

And yet, an elusive strangeness distinguished his paintings. The ambiguous relationship of the figures to the settings – some looked displaced, others like actors in an obscure ritual – partly explained the surreal effect. And inevitably, some unfortunate distortion – of a hand or a mouth or a leg’s foreshortening – would shoot any illusion of realism in the foot.

I never knew whether R couldn’t afford the time (or the money) to fix these flaws, whether he couldn’t actually see them, or whether he just didn’t care. But no dealer would represent him. In all the years of our friendship I never saw his work hung in a gallery, only on or stacked against the walls of his front room-cum-studio. The odds of success were stacked against R.

Originality rarely commands gallery space, except in retrospect. It alienates investors shopping for a sure bet. But contacts count. And R, the defiant cuss, would get drunk and shoot his mouth off at openings. His mentor, an art-world darling (and a more docile drunk), did his best. Yet R made wealthy middle-class art collectors uncomfortable.

So what? I loved R’s paintings. Even those that didn’t work emanated mystery, not least by defamiliarising recognisable places. Carting a stretched canvas, R would bike to local sites like the stairs below Sydney Harbour Bridge, where he’d set up and paint, despite stares and questions from passers-by. His enigmatic compositions of places and figures couldn’t be called landscapes or portraits, though some would fit the ‘genre’ definition: scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people at work or play, depicted in a generally realistic way. And a fair few, flaws and all, deserved to be Sulman Prize finalists, the criteria for eligibility being confusingly broad. In fact, one did get hung, once (before I knew R, so I never saw it).

Does genre mean something different in the context of fiction? Its typically formulaic plots have little to do with the quotidian. Which leaves literary fiction to do the heavy lifting of depicting everyday life (even if ordinary folk watch TV more than they read) – much like the work of realist painters who, however highly skilled, lack the mystical vision that gripped R between stints at his day job as builder. According to novelist Amitav Ghosh: ‘the very gestures with which [the “realist” novel] conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. And media theorist McKenzie Wark more or less agrees: ‘The bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic details – filler – to make it appear otherwise.’

As for the visual arts equivalent, viewers of last year’s leading local portrait exhibitions could be forgiven for thinking that most painters today are realists, seeking verisimilitude in the smallest details. Yet nothing strange distinguishes their paintings. Attempts to duplicate the 2D photographic image, with or without false sentiment, the best being hard to distinguish from an enlarged colour print, all tend to look somewhat similar, even if hyperrealist. Flaunting every blemish, hair, pore, vein and wrinkle, the latter are smeared with naturalistic details, to quote Wark again. Filler.

Yet most portrait subjects today, whether public figures, family or friends, lack the time and/or the will to sit still for hours on end, so photos assist the painter to achieve a recognisable likeness and, often, a slicker product than if the subject were present. Realist painting became redundant, though, with the invention of the camera. Freed from the task of recording, painters followed their visions inwards or out to the further reaches of abstraction; defied the conventions of representation. Art, as the Nazis recognised, hence their violent suppression of it, once had the power to shape culture. But is that true now? That so many contemporary artists aspire only to mimic what technology already does better points to a kind of mindlessness, a loss of imagination.

One of the 20th century’s most original artists, Francis Bacon, leaned heavily on photographic sources, yet transformed them. In contrast, the artists favoured by most art prize judges today trade in cliché: the illustrated idea of their subject rather than a direct experience. These artists, whose skill is often outshone by that of top magazine illustrators, could more aptly be termed craftspeople. Demonstrating technical control, if not mastery, they might even achieve a striking likeness. Yet Bacon understood that for a work to be truly good, he had to risk some loss of control. Writes Gilles Deleuze in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, ‘Narration is the correlate of illustration.’ Bacon resisted both. Narration, illustration – both serve the purpose of mediation. Narration leads, distracts, diverts, hypnotises, manipulates, shepherding the reader’s/viewer’s/listener’s attention. Illustrations interpret. They instruct. They entertain. In children’s books, they direct (and contain) the young reader’s imagination. Most advertising relies on narration and illustration.

Bacon sought a more direct expression. He lived dangerously. But an artist like Bacon couldn’t exist, or at least couldn’t succeed, today. Our fetishisation of technology (and attendant dissociation from nature, both inner and outer) has increasingly inclined us to seek virtual thrills and actual safety. Meanwhile, technology dwarfs our capacity for memory, the faculty we humans use to produce what we call reality. And it’s as if, in the process, we’ve forgotten what makes us truly human – messy emotion, immediacy, vulnerability, openness to the unknown…

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