The 2018 Jewish Book Week in Melbourne opened with a gala choreographed by Galit Klas along with Evelyn Krape. 6 writers were asked to write a short piece shaped around the phrase: The World According to… While others chose a specific person (e.g. a 16th century mathematician, Batman, a Batmitzvah girl) I took a different tack. The readings were accompanied by music and large screen visuals. The evening was tied together with some fabulous singing from Galit. The piece I performed is written below.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO….
Pamela Simon was an excellent wife, an excellent mother, and an excellent grandmother. Indeed she had been imbued with excellence from childhood when, as Pammy Silverstein, she had excelled at her studies, played flute in the youth orchestra, and lead the school debating team to the state finals.
She had married the very excellent David Simon straight after university, and while she had planned to continue her studies with an MA and then a PhD in the border frontier of philosophy and literature, she knew she could return to university later. In the meantime she kept a note book in which she transcribed interesting and punchy quotes from poets and novelists, philosophers and other thinkers.
Ambitions change – or perhaps are supplanted when babies come: first Jonathan then Melanie. And by the time Melanie started kindergarten, rather than a return to university, with David’s printing firm thriving, Pamela joined him in the business.
The years passed, the children flourished, the business went from strength to strength. Every now and then Pamela would pick up her quote-book and read through the inspiring lines; very occasionally she added a new quote drawn from her current reading
The years turned into decades. With David now in his mid-sixties, Melanie was taking over more of the day-to-day running of the business. Retirement was on the horizon, and Pamela was eager for the next stage.
Then her excellent life exploded.
David was indeed retiring from the business, but not to be with her, not to do the things they had long planned together, but to live with Kylie from accounts who was expecting his child. If it were not her own life, her own tragedy, Pam would think she had stumbled into a political soapie.
David moved out of the house and in with Kylie. With the bedroom of the past forty years now full-strength toxic, Pam withdrew to her sewing-come-hideaway room. Jonathan and Melanie, both appalled at their father’s behaviour, tried to coax her out. But she did not want to be coaxed. Her life was over.
‘I would prefer not,’ she said when Melanie on the other side of the closed door invited her mother for lunch, for dinner, for outings with the grandchildren.
‘I would prefer not,’ Pam says, recognising it as a quote from someone. She rummages through her book cases, and there it is: ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, a short story by Herman Melville. ‘I prefer not,’ Bartleby says, when assigned various work tasks that do not appeal.
Hard to argue against that.
The voices begin soon afterwards.
The 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer is first: ‘Life is a miserable thing’, he says. ‘I have decided to spend my life thinking about it.’
Pamela is smiling, the first time in weeks, and then actually laughing when she recalls that the world according to Schopenhauer was not known for its laughs. It’s a pleasant respite in her life of woe. But before long she’s back in the stifling blackness, back in the gluey swamp of grief, loss, anger, misery.
‘The emotions are not skilled workers.’
Another voice, again faintly familiar, cuts through the silence. Pamela, perched on the day bed, reaches for her old quote book. She wipes the dust from the cover, and leafs through the pages of faded ink. So many wise words in this book of hers, all written out in her hand. And there, she’s found it, and another smile. The words are Ern Malley’s, the non-existent poet created by James McAuley and Harold Stewart in what became Australia’s greatest literary hoax. In the world according to Ern Malley:The emotions are not skilled workers.
‘You’re probably right,’ she says aloud. ‘But emotions are so damned insistent. So intrusive. So domineering. Reason doesn’t stand a chance.’
Outside the sewing room, Melanie and Jonathan are eavesdropping on their poor mother. She needs help, they decide, professional help. But how to help someone who refuses to be helped.
Inside her room Pamela is pacing. ‘I liked my life as it was.’
The world according to modern historian Tony Judt intrudes with its usual perspicacity. ‘Nostalgia makes a very satisfactory second home.’
Pam is quick to respond. ‘At least nostalgia dulls the pain. The loneliness, too.’
On the other side of the door Jonathan and Melanie decide on an emergency home visit from the doctor. They hasten from the house their mobile phones clamped to their ears.
Inside the sewing room the conversation continues.
‘Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.’
Pamela riffles through her quote book. Yes, there it is, the world according to the American poet, Marianne Moore. Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.
And hasn’t she longed for solitude day after day, year after year, through the clutter and noise of her busy life?
The world according to the artist and poet Jean Arp joins in.
‘[Human beings] ha[ve] turned [their] back on silence,’ he says. ‘Day after day [they] invent(..) machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.’
Jean Arp wrote this more than seventy years ago. What on earth would he think of the constant talking, typing, texting, beeping, buzzing, connecting of today’s world, Pamela wonders.
So much activity and so much noise. No time to think, to contemplate, to loiter in the imagination. And if we don’t think and we don’t imagine, how are we live? And how will we live with people who are different from ourselves?
Pamela searches through her quote book. Whose thoughts are these? Whose world? She can’t find the source, quickly grabs a pen and writes the thought down on a fresh page in her quote book.
People often praised her for what they called her intuitive understanding of others – even when the person was very different from herself. But it was simple really: she would IMAGINE what it was like to be in their position, to be them. Being an avid reader of fiction had honed this ability. She would read about people so different from herself, people who lived in different countries, different eras, different cultures, different circumstances, and by entering the world of these characters so her imagination was fed. Perhaps fiction readers make better citizens, wiser and more welcoming citizens, and she quickly jots that down too. Whatever the reason, she did seem to understand others, and not just Mrs Nextdoor, or the pharmacist, or family and friends. She understood what it was like to be so desperate you’d risk your life to take a leaky boat to a distant shore where you know no one where you don’t speak the language, where you are exiled from all that is familiar. She can imagine what it’s like to flee persecution in your own country only to be imprisoned by another, a country that you thought would be safe, would be kind. What she can’t imagine is what on earth goes on in the minds of those who demonise these desperate people.
She turns to the world according Thomas Hardy in her quote book.
We are getting to the end of visioning
The impossible within this universe,
Such as that better whiles may follow worse,
And that our race may mend by reasoning.
To reason and imagine in the way Hardy suggests requires uninterrupted time. She has plenty of time. The imagination requires solitude. She has plenty of solitude. The imagination does not like boundaries and schedules. With her life blasted to pieces, she lacks boundaries and schedules.
You must change your life.
You must change your life.
The world according to the German poet Rilke sets up a chant.
You must change your life. You must change your life.
The words come rhythmically, they take her over like music. She rises from the bed, collects her hand bag, checks her makeup, leaves the room, walks down the passageway, opens the door and leaves the house.
As she enters the street, the voice in her head shifts to a different register. It is the world according to Emma Goldman and it puts bounce in her step:
If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.