Monday, 25 June 2012

Worlds 2012, Memoir, Fiction & Truth (5)

Gail Jones

Wednesday morning: Gail Jones's Provocation

Gail Jones, in her provocation, the next morning, offered us four modest proposals.We understand the irony implicit in the history of modest proposals but I don’t think her proposals were ironic. They were mostly to do with establishing a notion of self that might be capable of constructing a more generous, more complex truth. Her case was partly predicated on childhood as place, in particular the simple improvised cinema back home in her remote village where the adults sat under cover in hierarchies of race and gender but the children were in the open, fully integrated. [I was fascinated by this binary of adult / child since the adults were guilty and comfortable but  their children, presumably by adult permission, were exposed and integrating.]

The four proposals were headed in bold as follows (the essential points are summarised)

1. Contradiction: This involved minority discourses, aborigine and workers’ tales, the rural outsiders. The writer works with contradictions,

2. Sticky fingertips: To write is to let fascination rule language. There is (as Bachelard believes) a poetics of space. Houses possess a mythicality, or fictive glamour, something that moves and disturbs us. Malouf uses the term ‘dense affinities’. The child leaves its sticky fingerprints all hover the place. Is writing like conjuring or building a house?

3. Trespass: The idea of the periphery being the centre. There was an aboriginal boy who sat through class carving on a crate. He was an emblem of the ‘radically local’, the trespasser from the periphery who could become the centre. Outside the Blue Streak missile was being tested on his native ground. Who trespasses on what?

4. The dark covering and the parachute: This involved seeing the body as a form of history. Georges Perec refers to the terror of parachute training. The body being cast out of the plane as a metaphor for writing.

These definitions belonged to the realm of the self, or rather to the idea of self as body and location, that could constitute a form of truth.

The word permission arose at that point and stayed with us as a wakeful companion throughout the morning. There was ‘out there’ - or perhaps ‘in here’ - a fairer, more compassionate truth, where the children in the exposed part of the rough-and-ready auditorium, might trespass onto adult territory, and the aboriginal boy drawing diagrams on his crate might enter the covered space so that we might reorientate ourselves around him. The Blue Streak missile would still be the Blue Streak missile.

[Was it possible then that Nancy’s redemption (in John’s provocation) might come by a darker route under a darker covering, as an aboriginal boy, her / his sticky fingerprints the articulations of parachuting body. Those dense affinities about which I enquired would then be bodily and locational. The space, both inner and outer, would be dense with a new idea of the self as an intimate space.]

We discussed the self as metaphor a while and talked about the way stories might unconsciously enact key childhood memories and about the way mask might be a way of approaching the kind of intimacy outlined in Gail’s presentation. Teju talked about childhood as a body, but that in reading it wasn’t physical presence that was desired but disembodiment: the mind, and writing itself, being perhaps curiously bodiless, We don’t necessarily want the writer bending over us, his or her breath hot on our necks. But it was also pointed out that children don’t expressly want to be children, that they might, on the contrary, prefer to be adults, if only because they perceive adults to be the controllers of both children’s lives and their own lives. And as Gillian noted, the lives of those in puberty are less prone to memory and interpretation.

Robin Hemley made a point about the difference between adulthood and childhood in the next session that is actually pertinent to this. He told the anecdote of the adult intruding on a children’s game of space rockets, asking if he might join in and go to the moon with them, and how the children stared back at him horrified, replying in effect: You do know we are not actually going to the moon?

[I thought that was a complex story interpretable in at least three different ways but it certainly pointed to the existence of two different worlds: the children in the exposed integrated area, the adults at the back.]

Childhood was the last time, suggested Eleanor, when we can wear a stetson and fight with a light-sabre (not her precise analogy but very close) where, in effect, we can enjoy paradox without contradiction.


Gail's provocation was psychologically the most complex of the five - complexity was what she herself said she desired - and seemed to me, in that sense, to deal more with poetry than with the general run of novels. If the novel is about what happens and poetry is, as Auden suggested, about a way of happening; or, to put it another way, novels are about consequences while poems are about presences, her presentation was more concerned with presences and ways of happening.

Essentially, I think, she was talking about writing as a form of social healing through a reorientation of the self. It was particularly the term dense affinities (Malouf's term, I know) that struck me. I was looking to define what the phrase meant but couldn't quite, not without metaphors. But then the cinema, the fingertips so dense with sticky affinities, the carved crate and the parachute, however real and concrete, were being invoked as metaphors. That is the condition of poetry: nothing in poetry is not metaphor.

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