The Indivisible Forest

We live in a medial reality. All modern experience is mediated: via technology, the media, language and even thought. Our processed diets and sterile environments promote dissociation from our bodies and from nature. We enter a forest only to find a meta-forest of signs that warn us, identify local flora and fauna, and mark out predictable paths. And the same syndrome afflicts fiction that sells well, films that fill mainstream cinemas: recognisable stories safely signposted. Nowadays we can’t cross town, let alone an ocean, without intervention from satellites; can’t survive a day without updating our Facebook status. And the moving image that began as miraculous entertainment now doubles as an omnipresent tool of surveillance. The more we just want to watch, to be mere passive spectators, the more we find ourselves actively watched, monitored and data-mined, our rhythms reduced to algorithms in the program of capitalism.

A century ago, the surrealists sought to bypass conscious thought. Yet art is a form of mediation too. Originally mediating between matter and spirit, it holds no numinous power now (unless you’re schizoid). It’s a rare piece of work indeed that offers immediacy. Starved for it as a young art student, I dwelt on abstract expressionism, art brut and painters like Francis Bacon who courted chance and accident. Then I discovered dramatist Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) and his essays in The Theatre and its Double (1938). And Artaud’s ideas – or the idea of Artaud – inspired me more than those of pioneers in my own field. It wasn’t just his inner demons in extremis that appealed. I had enough martyrs for art (Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Plath) to revere. It was Artaud’s fierce desire to destroy bourgeois boundaries between art and life.

Words failed Artaud. And, likewise, paint failed me. Within a year, I’d begun to explore the creative force of ritual magic; within two, I’d plunged (like most of my idols) into psychosis. A decade later, I made ritual theatre from personal themes: let my madness unravel into improvised dance narratives – a stage in a journey that eventually led to words.

But Artaud’s words, though failing him, inspired some great trailblazers. Visionary theatre director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999) sought to bridge the divide between performers and audience. And his paratheatrical work (circa ’70s) rates a mention in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), a groundbreaking dinner-length film about seeking and finding meaning in life.

Wally (Wallace Shawn) meets Andre (Andre Gregory) at a restaurant. And as their dialogue (monologue for the film’s first half) unfolds, the plot thickens; not in the rambling story Andre tells, but on a meta-level: are these two old friends playing themselves? Not just actors, they co-wrote the script. How much of it is factual? The ambiguity generates tension.

Aware that insomniac Andre’s been having personal problems, Wally falls into the role of asking questions and listening attentively. In effect, he plays therapist. And, on the wild side of the dialectic, Andre recalls with delight an experiment in which his real-life friend Grotowski involved him (though we never see Andre in a Polish forest with actors who don’t speak his language, just a black-and-white snap he shows Wally, which could have been taken anywhere, his words evoke vivid impressions).

Yet a series of peak experiences has left Andre disenchanted with life. And Wally responds to Andre’s bleak view of humanity like a psychiatrist, his version of sanity making Andre sound mad. In fact, Andre sounds prophetic thirty-six years later. But Wally ridicules his estrangement from the quotidian. Is Wally’s professed contentment with his compartmentalised lifestyle (where theatre, like film, exists just to entertain) an implied critique not only of Andre but also of his mentor, Grotowski? The line between artist and critic is like the line between love and hate: debatable. In an essay on Artaud, ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself’ (1967), Grotowski writes:

When an eminent creator with an achieved style and personality, like Peter Brook, turns to Artaud, it’s not to hide his own weaknesses, or to ape the man. It just happens that at a given point of his development he finds himself in agreement with Artaud, feels the need of a confrontation, tests Artaud, and retains whatever stands up to this test. He remains himself.

Antero Alli’s eighth feature film, The Invisible Forest (2008), a nod to Artaud’s influence on his work in theatre, reminded me of Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967), adapted from Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade (1963), which tests Artaud against Brecht. But Alli’s film also conjured up Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991). Theatre, cinema, literature… All the arts partake in one vast, unending conversation. And, à la Woody Allen, indie auteur Alli stars as an edgy theatre director haunted by the ghost of Artaud. How could a hardcore avant-gardist not be? But in director Alex’s dreams, Artaud is a frenzied French female. No wonder Alex doubts his own sanity.

So, like a Woody Allen hero, Alex seeks professional help, which on the laid-back West Coast is not psychoanalysis, but psychotherapy. The ghost (Clody Cates) is more psychedelic than East Coast intellectual. Her frizzed hair and stylised makeup don’t recall Artaud’s era, but the glam-rock ’70s when I guess Alli first read Artaud – from whose writings choice lines inform the ghost’s sometimes subtitled provocations. But is she taunting Alex or the audience? Is Alli subjecting the film medium (not just the theatre it depicts) to Artaud’s revolutionary edicts?

‘No matter how loudly you clamour for magic in your life,’ the ghost tells Alex telepathically, ‘you have been afraid to pursue an existence entirely under its influence and sign.’ Such fears don’t limit Alli, nor the spirited actors with whom he’s spent forty years pioneering his own brand of paratheatre – the practice of which lies behind this film’s surface like an interior world for which the forest might be a metaphor. Did I get that on my first viewing? Not quite. Though Alex sometimes seemed self-conscious to me, I didn’t consider that Alli might be improvising, let alone why. But I likewise wondered what possessed Sally Potter to dare play herself when I first watched The Tango Lesson (1997), one of the most exciting films I saw late last century. And does Alli play himself? Or is that an irrelevant question?

‘I don’t have a fucken self-image,’ Alex assures Dr Phil (Garret Dailey). Which could be a symptom of depression (or pick your own DSM-V label). But Alex qualifies his disclosure: ‘It’s not a problem, I like being nothing.’ Sleep deprivation aside, this implies an expanded mind. To be nothing in the straitjacket of our narrow consensus reality is to suffer intolerable ego deflation (witness the narcissistic excesses of futile mass resistance to the truth). But beyond the corporate-driven matrix blanketing our planet, nothingness equals freedom: a recurring theme in Alli’s work and an attitude he affects; not for him the formal rigours of Brook’s Brecht/Artaud dialectic, nor the five-act structure of Shakespeare, from whose scripts The Invisible Forest’s borrows. And none of the strands in its loose yet layered quest narrative dominates. Like members of an ensemble cast, they make the whole more than the sum of its parts (some of which I may have missed; nor is this list in order):

1. Alex keeping a (black-and-white) video diary while fearing he’s losing his mind during a forest sojourn with his theatre troupe. This comic yet driven persona seems close enough to Alli’s own that, as in My Dinner with Andre, the ambiguity teases the viewer.

2. Alex in therapy (colour) after staying awake for three days in a counterintuitive bid to stop hallucinating.

3. The troupe enacting scenes from two Shakespeare plays in wild locations (the Super 8 grain and filtered hues suggestive of other times or dimensions). Knowing of Alli’s ongoing theatre project (akin to if distinct from Grotowski’s), in which performance doubles as initiatory ritual, I took these dreamlike sequences for pre-existing documentation.

4. The flame-haired ghost haranguing Alex, whose dreams, under hypnosis, unspool with the lurid intensity of Alli’s trademark trippy effects. While such sequences frequently feel authentic and work well, despite (or because of?) overt symbolism, the busyness of Alli’s cinematic vision – a mild version of horror vacui – seems incongruous in someone so hip to transcendent emptiness.

5. An actor, his bald dome starred with hieroglyphs, waxing joyful about the void from a tree (mostly black and white).

The latter two strands draw on Artaud’s texts. And while Alli’s instinctual writing style typically offers relief from the Bob McKee ‘Story Seminar’ logic that’s colonised Hollywood screenplays, he and his cast improvised much of this script. Stories (as process, not content) wield awesome power in a culture as emptied of meaning as ours. Yet story doesn’t appear to be Alli’s raison d’être, serving the purpose of exploration rather than the reverse.

The thing about stories that audiences crave is total emotional engagement, from the first manipulative hook, through rising suspense, to a contrived resolution. And the more a viewer/reader identifies with a hero/heroine, the better. Could I identify with Alex? Sometimes. But maybe that’s not Alli’s intention. Alex’s lack of self-image points to otherness. And what else can take us beyond that which we already know?

In fact, the hypnotist guides Alex beyond what he already knows: facilitating a deeper engagement with forces he’d resisted – a contrast to the dialectic underpinning My Dinner with Andre. While Wally and Andre function as opposites, Alex and Phil face the same direction – just at different stages, from different perspectives. Less straight than he seems, Dr Phil alludes to Australian Aboriginal mysteries (though stalking movements from dreams sounds more like Alli’s style to me); he might even be a 21st-century West Coast answer to RD Laing. Not that a lot of viewers would notice, since maverick Laing’s approach (mediatory vs. repressive) has long been outmoded by corporate-sponsored medical models of madness (oops, ‘mental illness’). So, for any viewers who’ve stayed wide awake, Alex undertakes an antiheroic journey through a subconscious wilderness, challenged – or challenging us – to see the forest for the trees. And the ending, such as it is, feels like we’ve reached a beginning.

So, when making art isn’t just a profession but essential to psycho-spiritual survival, can film maybe not just entertain but mediate, like Dr Phil – offering guidance without the obligatory trappings of morality? Far easier to swallow a Hollywood pill, or even a PC indie prescription, as long as the remedy works – what patient or spectator cares to exert themselves? Just as leisure and pleasure go together, work implies suffering in our culture. Yet creative and/or intellectual effort can be its own reward. Or so I thought when I lived alone in a garret, painting and reading Artaud – compelled, though his ideas electrified me, by his raw passion, his lucid madness.

But, watching The Invisible Forest, I never believed, despite visible signs, that Alex risked losing his mind. Nor could I feel it. And Clody Cates, for all her fiery ferocity, didn’t shock me; her fairytale quirkiness rendered Artaud’s words benign. The Artaud I once imagined I knew, inventor of a Theatre of Cruelty, needed his audience to bleed, burn, gnash its teeth and wail with him. Might he have dug the extremity of Gaspar Noé’s superb Irréversible? Or can film simply never achieve what Artaud dreamed of – is it too medial? Just as a photo can’t elicit the body identification that absorbs me when I stand facing a massive abstract expressionist canvas, the immediacy of avant-garde theatre doesn’t, for me, translate to the screen. But maybe it becomes something else no less potent, albeit less tangible.

Is that why The Invisible Forest somehow worked for… or on me? The discordant threads would make less sense without such a spellbinding soundtrack. Most notably, Sylvi Alli’s ravishing music and emotive vocals merge with her husband’s ideas into a coherent experience. So, despite his shoestring budget and the odd lapse of subtlety, Alli gives Malle a run for his money with regard to keeping the viewer awake. My Dinner with Andre took thrilling risks thirty-six years ago. But is breaking new cinematic ground still possible? Less, I’m guessing, in terms of form and content (and I hope I’m wrong) than through process. Like his arboreal actor, Alli may have touched the unknown.

At the end, I asked my partner what he thought Alli’s film was about. ‘Death,’ he said without hesitation. ‘Yeah?’ I said, slightly surprised. But then, in Malle’s film, Andre observes that awareness of death necessarily comes with knowing you’re truly alive.

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Visions from Underground

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Has anyone, lately, glanced up from their smartphones for long enough to notice how fast our planet appears to be going to hell in a handcart? My fringe-dwelling friends are responding in various ways. One chooses to boycott the news, while others research conspiracies (flat earth, reptilian Satanists, the trap of rebirth) or use astrology to modulate incoming signals. Meanwhile, I seek to stay creative, and other artists provide inspiration.

So stories and images from their books and films sometimes haunt me. But with recent trends towards ‘realism’ in fiction and CGI in film (literature lacking magic, sensationalist cinema), only radical departures from the mainstream hold my interest.

Speaking of which, though I’d seen just one of Antero Alli’s indie films (at a screening on the US west coast where he’s based), two decades later I recalled how The Oracle (1993) had transported me in a way reminiscent of dreams and altered states. So I watched four more of his visionary films on DVD: Under a Shipwrecked Moon (2003), The Greater Circulation (2005), The Invisible Forest (2008) and, finally, The Book of Jane (2013), which lingered in my mind, so I’ve watched it again.

After the vertical opening take – blue sky, ghost ravens, coastal skyline, suburban sprawl, university campus – a calm voice accompanies the limp of an ageing female vagrant. Not a typical voiceover telling us where she’s been or is going; Jane (Luna Olcott) dwells in the present, not the past or the future, unlike the first character to cross her path: Alice (Marianne Shine). From that name, we can guess Alice is destined to fall down a rabbit hole.

The film’s title implicates Jane as a writer, yet Alice never suspects as much when they meet by chance on a bench in the grounds of the campus where she lectures. Aptly divided into chapters – Book suggests an alternative gospel (in polemical terms, matriarchal or feminist) – Jane deals with transformation. But its subtext feels mythic, not biblical. Scriptures are prescriptive, proscriptive. Myths incite imagination.

Middle-aged (menopausal?) Alice, a comparative religion professor writing on pre-Hellenic goddess mythologies, lives with her cute younger lover, Colette (Madeline H. D. Brown), a painter of the sacred feminine. And we get some overtly feminist dialogue when these two women (whose bourgeois niceties and hippie-boho ideals coexist without irony) invite Jane (who typically dines on pickings from dumpsters) to dinner.

Yet I doubt anyone could take Alli’s project for social realism. Early scenes showing Jane’s idyllic lifestyle around the campus befit a fable, not a documentary. Unless sleeping rough holds less risk in Berkeley than in Sydney? Though if sane, sober, hyper-educated, Anglo women don’t live under bridges here, maybe we can thank Australia’s superior social safety net?

Or does Alli (despite the side effects of Jane’s pain meds) romanticise homelessness? According to his director’s notes, which touch on his process of finding the story: ‘shocks and traumas can sometimes act as evolutionary triggers that transform our lives for the better, even though by outward appearances it may seem otherwise’.

Indeed. No wonder Jane, which I’ve now watched three times, continues to haunt me. Though I’ve suffered no comparable losses, nor ever stayed homeless (‘nomadic’) for long, I’m no less redundant in the context of a consumer culture, while with growing global rivalry over resources, the spectre of homelessness threatens more and more of us. And due to an unforeseen plot twist, it catches up with Alice. Ergo, Jane’s prediction – ‘I am you in the future’ – comes true.

Which implies Jane was Alice in the past, though I saw no credible evidence. Shown Alice’s work in progress, she merely grabs a red pen and circles the word is wherever it appears… Has agnostic mystic author Robert Anton Wilson hijacked the script? Not that his astute critique of the misuse of ‘is’ was unique; surrealist painter Rene Magritte made a similar point with visual wit in The Treachery of Images (This is not a Pipe) . Yet Alice seems so receptive to Jane’s wisdom that I felt sceptical. Which isn’t to say such quirks in the script can eclipse Jane’s (or the director’s) intelligence.

Ageing, anonymous, solitary and shorn like a monk, Jane appears to find all she needs (apart from opiates for her pain) in the trash that others (like Alice) reject and the subtle realms they can’t sense. Yet I could also relate to the challenge facing Alice (though ‘higher’ education has always left me disenchanted). Immersed in theories about the practice of goddess worship, she enacts a key contradiction of our age: gesturing towards soulful/spiritual knowing in a culture based on disembodied/displaced information (the transmission of which earns her a living). Though Alli’s notes don’t refer to this theme, it emerges as key when the two comparatively sheltered women must contend with a sudden death, and find the rituals of the law inimical to their instincts.

Yet all of Alli’s films that I’ve seen, while exploring archetypal depths, and despite the relevance of their themes to contemporary society, seem – at least on the surface – to exist in a time warp. The ones I’ve missed may well engage with definitively modern problems and document a world increasingly subject to technology – but that would take money. To what extent is Alli’s aesthetic subject to his budget? And yet what can seem like constraints on, for one, special effects don’t extend to the stylistic range of the at times sublime soundtrack. It’s as if Alli doesn’t want to commit to a genre. Why not?

In the vision statement on his website, he says: ‘I don’t call myself an artist. Best to let others, the world, decide what to call you.’ But isn’t film an art form? It can also impart propaganda; these roles aren’t mutually exclusive. And isn’t art in some sense always a messenger (of change, doom, love, renewal etc.)? Artists need to remain responsive to the demands of their art form, while trusting the alchemy of the work. Activists too must learn to surrender, albeit to external realities. Yet, unlike even the most pressing message, art – i.e. as it manifested not just for centuries but millennia, before pomo theorists moved (or removed?) the goalposts – had a shot at relative immortality. It may be no accident, nor just due to historical distance, that great art strikes most of us, even critics, as enigmatic. Take any random sample of Alli’s influences: e.g. Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Lynch, von Trier… auteurs whose art transcends their personal beliefs. If the medium is just a means to an end, art suffers (instead of the artist?).

Does The Book of Jane ever suffer artistically? Here and there (where Alli wears his ideology on his sleeve), I cringed at its seeming naivety. And today’s viewers, sated on state-of-the-art high-tech sophistication (and programmed by subliminal cues) expect seamless illusions. Yet the mostly stellar performances Alli elicits from his leads, the wildly talented Olcott and the luminous Shine, are as compelling as any star turns I’ve seen on film in a while. Between them, he’s assembled enough divine feminine energy that the succession of women, and/or their images, with wings sometimes struck me as too much of a good thing.

Towards the end, Alice’s circumstances change for the worse – from the stance of her ego – due to a landlady we never see. So the lack of Asian actors in the film (an anachronism?) begs the question: why make this landlady Asian? Well, if nothing else, it points to her otherness. If the Goddess has a hand in the twist of Alice’s fate, this may be as close as She needs to come to showing Her face.

As a cineaste engaged by the questions Alli raises, I may be alone in finding his symbolism overstated. That it appears to cater to a cult following of fellow mystics, Jungians, pagans, new agers etc. might explain why his aesthetic (unlike his state) hasn’t much altered in decades. Alli offers the world an alternative vision, not a mirror. Though maybe his fans recognise their own reflection in it – what member of a minority can’t use acknowledgement of their existence?

So The Book of Jane ends on a liberating high – unless the prospect of seeing spirits and dancing to inner rhythms frightens you? I love participating in ritual theatre, where symbols, physical actions etc. serve to focus and ground ideas. But for me the experience doesn’t wholly translate to film – just as I can’t smell pipe tobacco if I sniff a print of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. Still, the image might stimulate my brain to recall the aroma – and for those so inclined, the taste of pipe smoke. Words on a page, too, can evoke that. Yet each viewer or reader is unique. And so, isn’t a crucial part of any artist’s struggle gauging how much to leave to the imagination?

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Prose & cons of outsider status as a writer

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The art world has a name for work produced outside the mainstream by untrained creators who conform to marginal norms (e.g. eccentric recluses, criminals, schizophrenics and visionaries). And, like most else under capitalism, Outsider Art has become an industry. You know the kind of thing: introverted, obsessive, repetitive, decorative yet subtly unsettling; cryptic words embedded in intricate images…

Writes Colin Rhodes, in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (2000): ‘The artist outsiders are, by definition, fundamentally different to their audience, often thought of as being dysfunctional in respect of the parameters for normality set by the dominant culture.’ Just how tricky it is, in some cases, to judge that goes without saying.

In today’s all-inclusive art world, work by ‘outsiders’ has become institutionalised (if not in the same way as were many of its initial producers), so it’s started to assume its, ahem, rightful place among major art movements, while not yet claiming comparable space (if any) in large public galleries. Yet now that Outsider Art is in, what sets it and its creators apart from other collectible brand names is no more than style (+ an apt bio). Because once you emerge from seclusion, prison, the asylum or anonymity, and take your wares to market, you’re arguably not so marginal. Besides, the ubiquity of digital culture is changing the meaning of marginal and continuing what postmodernism started by broadening definitions of artist. Is a rural-dwelling recluse whose DIY conspiracy videos on YouTube go viral an outsider or an insider?

And if Outsider Art had a literary equivalent – let’s say ‘Outsider Writing’ – what would it look or sound like? Where could it be found? How to identify it? Might bizarre grammar, punctuation and spelling repel the intelligentsia? According to anarchist poet Hakim Bey, in ‘Raw Vision’:

All art can be positioned or labelled in relation to [capitalist] “discourse.” And it is precisely & only in relation to this “metaphysical” commodity-spectacle that “outsider” art can be seen as marginal. […] It does not pass thru the paramedium of the spectacle. It is meant only for the artist & the artist’s ‘immediate entourage” (friends, family, neighbours, tribe); & it participates only in a “gift” economy of positive reciprocity.

For a writer to find a readership that extends beyond family, friends and acquaintances used to depend on major publication, which in Oz meant growing a CV from the baby steps favoured by publishers/agents: minor publication, prizes, grants, mentorships, writing degrees… but new options for exposure have appeared in recent years. Self-published authors have overcome stigma (and hack work) with entrepreneurship; new literary forms – like the humble blog – have taken our culture by storm.

In art-world discourse, outsider is synonymous with untrained or self-taught: true of two of my writer friends (in the UK and the US respectively), each of whom is, to quote Rhodes, ‘fundamentally different to [his] audience’, if not as ‘dysfunctional’ re the dominant culture’s norms as each might contend. The eccentric can work when forced to while the visionary earns a regular wage. In some ways I’m more dysfunctional than both these friends and yet, since wasting money and time on a creative writing MA, can’t pretend I’m untrained. Yet at heart I remain an outsider. And there’s the rub…

Like publishers, funding bodies for ‘emerging’ writers favour those whose work has appeared enough times in elite literary journals (they need to agree on some sort of benchmark). And your typical lit journal editor is a left-leaning, PC academic; political correctness implying awareness of and respect for unfairly disadvantaged (human) others – relative outsiders – so it’s cool to write on their behalf (PC-ness has yet to admit powerlessness over its addiction: ‘Hi, my name is P and I’m a co-dependent…’).

The thing is, PC-ness is a culture of guilt. Why else, during its heyday, could Christian Lander’s blog, Stuff White People Like, take the piss and yet be so popular? An insider teasing his own privileged kind about their fixations, like Grammar, Writers Workshops and Facebook, he’s eminently PC himself, and so presumably aware that people who feel guilty are easy to manipulate (as preachers, professional beggars/swindlers and partners of adulterers know). Guilt is an itch that needs scratching, a scab that seals in riskier feelings. Guilt will settle for pay-offs. Guilt resists change… a subject for a thesis?

In short, too much formal education, social mediation or both can narrow instead of expand understanding. So outsiders make insiders feel embarrassed, so we need gatekeepers. Speaking of which, the last time I submitted work to a certain journal, I noticed new questions on their cover sheet. What was the first issue I’d read? What was the most recent? And what pieces had I most enjoyed? Do the editors use this mini survey for market research (assuming would-be contributors comprise their customer base)… or to assist a preliminary cull (don’t expect us to read you unless you’ve read us)?

Market research makes sense, as the field grows ever more competitive: innovative lit journals springing up like mushrooms and publishers slashing their long-fiction lists – as if the decay of one form is fertilising the rise of another. But I digress. Several journals that publish short fiction also require contributors to disclose whether or not they’re subscribers. Work by some of the authors they publish appears in diverse journals (in the Oz small publishing scene, ‘diverse’ is relative). But wouldn’t subscribing to all of those journals cost authors more than they’d earn from them?

And while some brilliant, diligent writers with something pressing to say can lack the social skill it takes to break into the locally published club, similar laws govern success in the blogosphere, on Facebook etc. To be PC is not enough; you must also show others you’re someone with whom it’s safe to be seen associating; ergo, the more ‘followers’ or ‘friends’, the better. So bloggers solicit followers by following etc. OK, it’s time-consuming and fake. But hey, that’s the dark side of equality.

So I don’t read all the trendy PC Oz journals from front to back, every quarter; don’t aspire to write like their regulars, some of whom I respect and even admire. If I lost the outsider edge that gives me my perspective, I might become more palatable to insider editors and subscribers. But then I’d be domesticated rather than feral, mediated instead of rare, too processed and not raw enough… Yawn

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Challenging sacred cows

ice-cream cone

Humane is a confusingly versatile word. Lately, it’s featured in the Oz media, and beyond, with public outcries for humane treatment of refugees and our livestock exports. Re the former, just for starters, ‘humane’ would mean not incarcerating those who’ve chosen to throw themselves on our mercy, as if they were criminals (rather than victims) until proven innocent. But in the case of innocent creatures that are at our mercy to begin with, ‘humane’ means a bolt shot into the brain, a slit throat, and bleeding out, heart still pumping, so consumers can eat unspoiled meat.

How can we use one word for such different circumstances? The Macquarie Dictionary (2009) offers two definitions: 1. characterised by tenderness and compassion for the suffering or distressed: humane feelings. 2. (of branches of learning or literature): humane studies.

The first definition involves subjectivity; the second, objectivity – so #1 would apply to widespread sentiment re our government’s harsh stance towards refugees (both prior to and after arrival, if they survive their trial by sea). But what does ‘tenderness’ have to do with killing – unless it refers to the flesh consumed by carnivores harbouring qualms (whether of ethics or personal health or due to flashes of true compassion)?

In his profoundly provocative book about what we eat, The World Peace Diet (2004), Will Tuttle sets the bar for definition #1 far higher. And though I’d been warned before reading, I still find the title misleading. Tuttle offers scant guidance to anyone needing advice on balanced meat-freedom. Did he hope for a slice of the vast diet books market?

Tuttle firmly believes we can achieve world peace by going vegan; our animal-based diet is unnatural, a hangover from 8–10 millennia ago when a wrong turn in human culture gave rise to capitalism. But you don’t need to credit his uneven research, let alone agree world peace is possible, to see from the stats, now way out of date, that to eat meat, dairy products and eggs on a regular basis isn’t just cruel but self-defeating.

A heretic on a heroic mission, Tuttle exhorts us all to adopt a plant-based diet for ethical reasons. Yet he tells us that to do so first requires a ‘genuine spiritual breakthrough’. It did for him, as he recounts in the engaging penultimate chapter, but elsewhere, I found the loose language of his mysticism problematic. The word ‘sacred’ recurs in the text so often, it lost meaning for me, variously referring to life, feasts, the feminine, the masculine and work. The World Peace Diet doubles as religious treatise and scholarly thesis, mixing new-age rhetoric and hardcore vegan dogma with notable quotes, statistics, ethics, history, anthropology etc. I’m not saying Tuttle should have narrowed his focus. Readers quick to grasp his thesis may find some points repeated ad nauseam. Yet other points could have been explored in greater depth. The more simplistic his logic gets, the less Tuttle convinces. For instance, ‘to stop viewing animals as commodities,’ he says, ‘means we would have to stop viewing them as food.’ Then why, some readers may wonder, when some animals eat others, shouldn’t we, if we’re animals too? Because, Tuttle argues, we’re herbivores:

Could anyone, or would anyone chase down, say, a deer, cow, pig, sheep, goat, or rabbit in the wild and then, somehow catching her (highly unlikely) fall on her neck with our small, flat human mouth, tear through the fur and skin into the living flesh with our small human teeth, and fill our mouth with the fresh, hot blood of the unfortunate creature? This scenario shows the complete absurdity of what we humans are doing when we eat animal flesh (p. 68).

Does Tuttle likewise see the absurdity of driving (with his wife Madeleine, like a modern-day Jesus spreading the gospel) around the US in a solar-powered mobile home? Besides lacking long, sharp canines, we weren’t born on wheels. And how many herbivores work in auto plants (or Apple factories)? Presumably Tuttle doesn’t eat lentils or soybeans raw either. He makes a stronger case re the insane unsustainability of our uniquely human sense of entitlement:

A conservative estimate is that the amount of land, grain, water, petroleum, and pollution required to feed one of us the Standard American Diet could feed fifteen of us eating a plant-based diet (p. 185).

That alone should give any leftist pause if they aren’t yet vegan. And if it doesn’t: ‘[…] we have become agents of ugliness and death, serving the interests of enormous industrial conglomerates and corporations that exist primarily to maximize their own self-centered profits and power (p. 146).’ Or, for those who need it spelled out:

[…] to work for social justice and environmental protection while continuing to purchase the flesh, milk, and eggs of horribly abused animals exposes a disconnect that is so fundamental that it renders our efforts absurd, hypocritical, and doomed to certain failure (p. 133).

Tuttle also gently points out the hypocrisy of would-be Buddhists who regularly eat sentient beings, exercising especial tact with regard to the Dalai Lama (who’d cited his doctors’ advice as an excuse). And did I mention Tuttle’s feminist?

‘Like science, the religious establishment has tended to reinforce the domination of animals, women, and nature, and to further the interests of the ruling elite. Like science, it tends toward being hierarchical, patriarchal, and exclusivist…(p. 160)’.

Spiritual breakthrough or not, maybe what’s needed is some research and to stop distracting oneself long enough to let in some sobering facts. For instance, more than 70 billion land animals are killed for food each year: more than nine animals for each human on the planet? (Even if some folk are eating more than their share, there must be some gross waste somewhere. Oh yeah – more than a third of all food produced each year for human consumption?)

And ever wonder why politicians (and the media) fixate on the issue of CO2 emissions, forgetting the far more potent methane cattle emit? Tuttle’s metaphor, ‘eating animal foods is the elephant in our living room’, is apt. But even if so much crazy injustice remains ‘taboo to confront or discuss’, at the rate our species is breeding, soon we may all be forced towards veganism. To instead approach it voluntarily may be one of the few consequential choices left to most humans as corporate-ruled, increasingly dispensable consumers.

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Characters who identify with their authors

character

A writer friend who’d offered to read my second draft of a short novel recently gave me the following marginal feedback: ‘I’m having a little trouble sifting fiction from reality. I assume that won’t be a problem for most of your readers.’ And: ‘I suppose that’s one way to relieve a little stress over [X’s] behaviour – slightly mind bending trying to separate your emails from your story!’

The emails to which my friend refers were written more than a year before the comparable bit in my story, so the source of stress had long since been addressed. Though I’d hoped for more constructive comments, wouldn’t it be good if his confusion were due to my having achieved a seamless interweaving of what I’ve observed or experienced with what I could only imagine? But if he cared to read any contemporary literary fiction – or, like many writers pushed for time, a range of current reviews – he’d soon discover lots of writers borrow freely from their biographies. As Helen Elliott tells us, in her review of the novel Fever of Animals, ‘Portrait of the writer as an artist in search of himself’ (Spectrum SMH, 5 Sept 2015):

When Rachel Cusk, best-known for her unadorned autobiographical fiction, was interviewed last year about her new book she explained that making up characters was “fake and embarrassing”. She went on: “I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

In an age of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, her words ring with truth. And this truth, about not making up things that are fake or embarrassing, is what gives authority to the voice of Miles Allinson. His central character is also called Miles and he shares a lot with the actual author.

Elliott could as well have said, ‘In an age of selfies…’ But Allinson is, as she indicates, following a trend, acclaimed examples of which include The Spare Room (2008) by Helen Garner, Summertime (2009) by J.M. Coetzee, and 10:04 (2014) by Ben Lerner. And my writer friend’s innocence of this trend adds to the irony that his own history, home environment, personal traits and significant relationships provide backstory, setting, style of narration and main characters in his latest thriller.

So, did I likewise have ‘trouble sifting fiction from reality’ when he asked me for feedback on multiple drafts? I don’t think so. It took no effort to tell or guess the difference. But that’s not what makes fiction – or nonfiction – interesting. After all, every story entails fabrication, because memory progressively rewrites history over time (with the help of an editing function Freudians call repression).

Obviously, some novels include more ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ than do others, while much nonfiction contains invented dialogue; and obviously, suppression of certain, often intriguing, facts is standard practice: to lower the risk of legal action. But the artificial distinction serves, above all, the purpose of marketing, so critics and even authors continue to think in terms of compartments. For, what is a compartment but a means of separating one type of person, place or thing from another (ally from antagonist; emails from a story; memoir from fantasy) for the sake of expedience, privacy or sanity?

Novelist Siri Hustvedt has astutely observed that sexism often underlies assumptions that her fiction is based on her life. (In contrast, her husband has had to deal with assumptions that even his memoirs are made up.) ‘The man is so clever everything is a kind of Derridean deconstruction and everything a woman writes is confessional?’ Hustvedt once said. And women, not just men, make that mistake; it’s natural enough. But other friends haven’t found my use of (modified) real-life facts distracting – unless they’ve recognised, rightly or wrongly, a character based on themselves. One friend – informed in advance that she’d inspired a (benevolent) character – complained that my portrayal of facts was inaccurate. Maybe her own desire to write a memoir had warped her perspective?

Would that friend, who took her own life before she managed to write about it, have felt encouraged if she’d known just how much the nonfiction market would grow? I doubt it – she’d made no concessions to trends as a brilliant, original artist. Be warned: attempting to write an authentic memoir is not for the faint-hearted. Meanwhile, as the line dividing autobiography from fiction gets blurrier (paralleling the line between the real and the virtual?), the boundary between novelistic and essay forms – strictest in genre fiction – is breaking down. According to Anna Hedigan, in her essay on true crime, ‘The Mechanics of Justice’ (Australian Author, Dec 2015): ‘The novel’s had a bit of a crisis lately. It’s arguably been displaced by non-fiction as the most prestigious form of writing.’ (Prestige, I’m guessing she means, as demonstrated by sales figures?)

The destabilising shock that 9/11 dealt the West has been cited as a major factor in nonfiction’s rapid rise. But of course it’s far more complex than that. There’ve never been so many humans inhabiting this planet, all of whom must increasingly compete for dwindling resources, while digital corporate surveillance reduces each individual to a statistic, his or her psychology to a formula. Meanwhile, more and more poor misguided souls want to be authors. Why wouldn’t these hordes seek to deny or resist the signs of their waning significance by re-imagining their unfulfilled lives as a hero’s (or heroine’s) journey? And for those loath to retreat into cosy egocentric fantasy, maybe our culture’s growing insulation from wild nature, extreme weather, poverty, ageing, death etc., incites us to engage with what feels real and immediate, however unromantic?

According to novelist Brian Castro, in his essay ‘Forgetting Paris’ (Australian Author, Aug 2003), ‘the French fortunately don’t have those false and infantilised categories of fiction and non-fiction’. The context is Castro’s account of being in ‘a place where ideas seemed to matter’ (a reference to French culture, not just the whole floor of books in an emporium where he’d sought warmth). Later in the essay, he writes:

Indeed, the novel sets itself apart by its uselessness. […] It is hopelessly irrelevant. If it is complex, it is unlikely to be noticed. But the novel may well provide a circularity to the moronic linearity of life.

Am I a writer who dreamed of being a character or a character dreaming that I’m a writer? The answer might depend on whether I write to escape or embrace real life.

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Google-gaga: the changing language of spiritual experience

machineflesh

At a recent poetry gig, I raved to an ageing poet about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an example of prose that’s more poetic than much current poetry. ‘Reading it is a spiritual experience,’ I said without irony – probably naïve of me in an academic environment. Yet I had no conscious desire to provoke her.

‘I have a problem with the word “spiritual”,’ she said.

My eyebrows rose in polite enquiry. She objected to the word’s ‘new-age’ connotations. Imagination means the same thing, she said. Not necessarily, I said, then clarified that I’d meant transcendent rather than religious.

Trans just means across,’ she said with obvious impatience.

Trans also means above,’ said the poet sitting between us.

Indeed. For me, McCarthy lends an exalted perspective to post-apocalyptic darkness – his biblical diction, stark imagery and mesmerising rhythms inducing a meditative state in which I can read undistracted in noisy, crowded places.

In a hearteningly radical work, What is Madness? (2011), psychoanalyst Darian Leader compares psychosis with neurosis: ‘The absence of doubt is the single clearest indicator of the presence of psychosis (p. 116).’ So someone with total – psychotic – conviction regarding some truly bizarre beliefs might still have the sense to keep them secret for fear of sounding crazy. As Leader explains:

Neurotic people, prone to doubt, are often impressed when they meet someone who seems sure of him or herself, convinced of their beliefs. This is why sects, cults and religious movements so often form around charismatic individuals who seem certain of their purpose in life (p. 118).

This kind of certainty is synonymous with faith. And Leader’s not the first theorist to note that questions of meaning feature in schizophrenia. As science or, more precisely, modern medicine has taken over the role religion once played in moderating society’s anxiety re mortality, the signs of a spiritual calling (visions, voices, speaking in tongues) have been pathologised – demonised, in a way. What once passed for angelic or demonic visitation has been localised, narrowed down to wonky brain chemistry. Divine inspiration, for the would-be ‘creative’ (creator), can be replicated through modelling of geniuses’ behaviours. No longer created or programmed by ‘God’, we’ve become our own makers, agents and sellers. Not content to depend, either, on artificial (external) intelligence, we can’t wait to incorporate its technology into our bodies – to negate the inner space that once enabled mystical states.

Reporting on biohacking, Gillian Terzis, who works in ‘an industry characterised by diminishing horizons – journalism’, reports that

Grinders make themselves the subject of scientific enquiry, hoping to elevate the human condition, override the limitations of their physiology, or augment their sensory perception through technology. An array of mild superpowers awaits the aspirational cyborg: people are already implanting magnets into their fingers to feel the push and pull of forcefields.

Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow, rising star of the biohacking firmament and co-founder of Oz’s first grassroots DIY science lab, tells Terzis he’s considering offering Sydney’s BioFoundry members lab access via a chip embedded in their hand ‘because it’s fucking cool’:

It’s good to be an early adopter and say, ‘I’m putting my body on the line and doing something cool and challenging.’ Even though it’s no more impressive than wearing a bracelet, it shows where things might go.

The mind boggles at such logic. Let’s hope Terzis has taken his quote out of context. Still, isn’t the merging of machine with flesh just a clumsily literal bid for transcendence?

A reporter on cutting-edge technology for decades, journalist and author John Markoff says the next global computing platform to come after the smartphone will be some form of ‘augmented reality’, with companies racing to develop

technology that causes the mouse to disappear, the keyboard to disappear, the smart phone disappear. You will interact with the computing resources that are all around you in the Cloud and wherever else by just speaking and looking through your glasses.

That should leave less room for doubt – and independent thought. We’re headed for a virtual womb. How fucking cool is that? According to Hegel (1770–1831), we can think and understand only in language: ‘It is in names that we think’. (Not unlike computers?) And now, more and more, we think in brand names: e.g., ‘google’ is a verb, a ‘doing word’ that’s used with increasing frequency (and sounds disturbingly like the nonsense words adults burble at babies). But what’s a verb for ‘spirituality’?

To paint might fit – in the case of what’s looking like an endangered breed of artist. In the ravishing monograph Roy Jackson: Hands On (2015), art critic Terence Maloon writes of the late great painter, ‘For Jackson, as for Tuckson, commitment to art was an all-consuming spiritual discipline (p. 23).’ It’s good to know that not all artists and critics have lost sight of where mark-making came from; haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Re discipline, Maloon quotes Simon Leys (The Hall of Uselessness, p. 298):

Through the ages, in the East as in the West, the great mystics who achieved complete obliteration of the self were also the most forceful and original personalities. In the art of calligraphy, as in spiritual life itself, when self-denial is complete, self-expression reaches its plenitude.

How much scope remains for such an approach to art (or poetry) today? If I might take the liberty of messing with Leys’s equation: In the virtual world, as in reality itself, when self-obsession is complete, self-expression reaches its nadir.

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