Included in this section are a few of the long essays I have published over the years.
LIST OF ESSAYS IN ORDER
1. Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind (first published 1993). An overview of Sacks work.
2. Homer and the Holocaust (first published 2002). How radical art can expose new understandings of extreme events.
3. Autumn in Auschwitz, essay with poems by Dorothy Porter (first published 1999)
4. Home Triptych (first published 2010). On grief.
5. Chain Reaction (first published in 2005). Delves into the work of the early nuclear physicists and relates this to the personal domain. Nuclear fission and personal fractures. Sense and uncertainty.
OLIVER SACKS. ANTHROPOLOGIST OF MIND
First published in Island, Issue 54, Autumn, 1993.
In 1861, the French surgeon Paul Broca isolated an area of the brain responsible for expressive language. This small patch of cortex at the third frontal convolution of the left hemisphere was henceforth known as Broca’s area. A dozen years later, Wernicke located the area for the interpretation of language in the left temporal lobe. These instances were not the first attempts at fusing mind with body, of making mind an organic substance, but they were crucial in hastening a process that has defined neurology ever since.
There were many precursors to the work of Broca and Wernicke. One of the most interesting of the earlier trends was that of the phrenologists in the nineteenth century. Phrenology was the ‘science’ that traced the contours of the skull, and thereby, it was assumed, the underlying cortex, to produce maps of human functioning. The brain, according to the phrenologists, was the organ of mind. There were thirty-five distinct, innate faculties of mind, each having a specific location in the ‘cerebral organ’. The faculties included moral qualities such as patriotism, higher mental functions such as calculation, and features of temperament such as cautiousness, thriftiness and prudence. While we in our scientific sophistication tend to regard the work of the phrenologists as quaint, it is in principle no different from the attempts of contemporary neurologists to locate a wide range of human functions in the brain. As for the more metaphysical qualities of human functioning, these tend to be ignored by neurologists as the rightful concern of philosophers and theologians.
In the years since Broca, and particularly in the past three decades, we have discovered that it is a nonsense to reduce complicated human functions to single bits of brain. However, the desire and indeed the search to confine the human being – this complexity of physical, psychological, spiritual and experiential material – to the white and grey matter of the brain and its web of connections, has persisted, leaving a not altogether satisfactory legacy for the practice of neurology. People become patients, patients become fragment; experts stand around and discuss the damaged part, make their notes and leave. And while the rise of the paramedical disciplines in rehabilitation has in many ways humanised the area of neurology, it still has the feel of cold steel.
Neuropathology is Oliver Sack’s chosen area. A humanist, a poet, a philosopher and a medical man, he is the odd man out in the steely profession. And was from the beginning. His first book, Migraine, reads like no other; it is a collection of narratives about people with migraine rather than a discourse on the symptom complex of migraine. Sacks allows his patients to speak; moreover, he listens to them; he regards the patient-doctor relationship as one of mutual learning. He is a man who asks because he wants to know.
One afternoon during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Oliver Sacks heard peels of laughter from the aphasia ward where the patients were listening to the President give a speech. He was struck by the oddity of the response. People with severe aphasia lose, to varying degrees, the capacity to understand and use language, and yet here was a group of patients taking unusual pleasure in the President’s utterances. Conventional neurology would dismiss the response as aberrant behaviour fuelled by group dynamics and think no more about it; after all, with the severe deficits that characterise aphasia, the patients could not possibly understand the President’s performance.
What then, was happening? Sacks knew that while aphasia deprives people of their ability to use and interpret words, the extraverbal aspects of language usage – gesture, intonation, stress, tone, facial expression – are commonly left intact, and, in some instances, actually heightened. Indeed, so well-developed may become the response to extraverbal cues that the severity of the language disorder can be effectively hidden. Sacks left his room to observe the situation, and there they all were, roaring with laughter while the President displayed his Hollywood training. One exception was Emily D. This patient, with a glioma to the right temporal lobe, had been diagnosed as having tonal agnosia, a very different problem from aphasia. Her ability to interpret extraverbal cues had disappeared entirely; all she heard were words stripped of emotion and colour, much like the synthetic sound of voice-output computers. The aphasics, through their ‘understanding without words’ responded to the President’s speech through an interpretation of his dramatic gestures, his histrionic phrasing, and his sculptured inflection; they saw the man as a joke. Emily with her different problems was no more impressed: ‘He is not cogent,’ she said. ‘”He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”’ Sacks concludes that ‘We normals, aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled … And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, only the brain-damaged remained … undeceived’.
The politically astute patients in the aphasia ward were not, as conventional neurology would have it, evidencing deficits; rather they were employing finely honed skills – and to good effect. This highlights one of the primary characteristics distinguishing Sacks from his colleagues. Conventional neurology thrives on deficits: patients are defined by what they lack – even those with disorders of excess such as many of the patients in Awakenings. The conventional focus on deficit arises directly from the mechanistic nature of most contemporary neurology, so different from the open and naturalistic approach of Sacks. With the body as machine, notions of spirit, of individual essence, of feeling, of the sense of memory and of identity become irrelevant. Yet what emerges from Sacks’s work, in particular from the people described in his collection of essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and the post-encephalitic patients in Awakenings, is a sense not of pathology, of tumour or disease, but of something keenly and marvellously human. The way in which patients cope, the strengths they develop, the skills they acquire, simply do not acquiesce to the purely mechanistic, organic approach so favoured by conventional neurologists.
There are other differences too. The conventional neurologist tests and observes while Sacks emphasises physician-patient interaction; the traditional approach sees neurological damage as fact, Sacks sees it as a narrative that changes as the interaction proceeds; conventional neurology is based on a physical-metaphysical split, Sacks addresses himself to the complex web of human experience; the traditionalists regard the patient as other – as different, as outside, as object – while Sacks recognises in the patient his or her essential humanness.
Stories of the dehumanising effect of conventional neurology are legend. Mrs Jones becomes the feeding problem in Ward 6, Mr Smith is the Korsakov’s on the second floor, young Jane Brown is the parieto-occipital tumour in the Children’s Wing. Patients are reduced to their pathology, their problems, and when that occurs, when all that is perceived is the pathology, then the chances of a humanistic approach to management are negligible. These pathologies and problems are patients and people who suddenly find themselves in strange surroundings, being pushed and prodded by unknown and often disrespectful people, who experience themselves as foreign from how they used to be and are terrified and confused. These are the subjects of conventional neurology and the passionate focus of Oliver Sacks’s life and work.
With each new book, the difference between Sacks’s approach and that of a good many of his colleagues becomes more marked. To take just one example. Neurological examinations commonly occur in hospitals, rehabilitation centres and medical suites. The functions that are being explored differ from client to client, but all of them are essentially human functions, functions that the non-brain-damaged person takes for granted – walking, talking, perceiving, writing, and so on. Trying to gauge the essence of a lost or disturbed behaviour in new and hostile surroundings, where the examiner is an impersonal stranger and the examined is already fearful and confused, would strike most people as absurd. But this is the approach of most neurologists; they work in medical environments, so that is where the patients must be examined. Very few neurologists follow Oliver Sacks’s example of observing and interacting with patients in their own familiar surroundings. And yet it is within the familiar environment that patients will best demonstrate their range of functions: the effect of the loss, the compensations developed, the skills remaining, their sense of what is occurring.
Sacks has on occasions taken his naturalistic approach to extraordinary lengths. One of his most fascinating and poignant cases concerns Greg F, the last hippie, reported in a long essay in the New York Review of Books (March 26, 1992). Greg was a child of the sixties. In 1968, he left his family home for the hippie culture of the East Village where he became immersed in the music, the acid, the ideas and the dynamics of the times. In 1969, he became a convert to the Swami Bhaktivedanta and lived in various temples until 1975, when, through the intervention of his parents, he was brought to a hospital for neurological examination. The slim, intelligent, restive hippie had become fat and hairless; he was without affect, disinterested, ‘hollowed-out’ and totally blind. He lacked all awareness of his problems, including the blindness: he was a blind man who did not know he was blind. What the Krishnas had interpreted as inner light and beatitude turned out to be severe and extensive brain damage. A huge, benign tumour of the pituitary, extending in all directions into adjacent areas of the brain was discovered. The tumour was removed but Greg sustained mammoth neurological damage.
Sacks met Greg in 1977. At this time he was twenty-five, lacked all spontaneity, was emotionally ‘absent’, was bland and placid but would respond with and appropriateness when required. Together with all his other problems – blindness, being confined to a wheelchair – Sacks discovered that Greg had no capacity for short-term memory; as well, there was a retrograde amnesia extending back to 1970. His memory of the sixties, however, his sense of himself at the time, the culture and particularly the music was detailed and vivid. But from 1970 was a blank. In the present, he seemed a man without a self, without continuity, without an inner life. He would meet someone and within a minute of their departure would forget them; everyone was always new, and whatever he had been doing a moment before was forgotten.
It there is no memory, there is no past, and the notion of identity collapses; so it was with Greg. Many approaches were tried to assist him to use his residual skills and thereby increase the dimensions of his life, but all seemed to fail, and, as so often happens, Greg, who had once been the life of the ward and popular among both staff and patients was increasingly left to his own devices. He listened to the music of the sixties in his room, in particular the Grateful Dead, and this gave him pleasure, indeed, he always responded to rhythmic music with a lively and involved attention, But separated from the familiar music and the sixties paraphernalia of his room, he would, if left alone, sit inactive for hours, almost as if he were not there.
In 1991, the Grateful Dead gave a concert at Madison Square Gardens and Sacks, the naturalistic neurologist, took Greg. During the first part of the concert consisting of songs from the sixties – the time of Greg’s vibrant memory – Greg was ecstatic, wildly animated, fully involved, showing no trace of his crippling loss of memory or habitual emotional void. The songs from the seventies were unknown to him but still in a style he recognised and he continued to be excited and involved, but the later songs, he found bewildering. ‘It’s weird stuff,’ he said [to Sacks], ‘I never heard anything like it before.’ And a little while later: ‘Maybe it’s the music of the future.’
Sacks played the Grateful Dead in the car on the way back to the hospital, wanting Greg to hold the experience of the concert as long as possible. But by early next morning, all trace of the concert, this event that had moved Greg in so fundamental a way and had temporarily restored him to completeness, was gone. Later, however, when Sacks obtained a tape of the concert there was some vague recognition when the new ‘weird’ music was played, some sense by Greg that it was not entirely new. This ever-so-slight response has been seized on by Sacks and the music therapist at the hospital in formulating a new program for Greg; their aim is to provide him with a framework to hold his thoughts through the employment of music; if the thoughts can be made less ephemeral, so Greg can begin to replenish the depths which are the source of identity.
This new therapeutic approach emerged from a Grateful Dead concert – not the usual venue for neurologists and their patients. But as Sacks had discovered with other patients, ‘… however great the organic damage … there remains the undiminished possibility of reintegration by art, by communion, by touching the human spirit: and this can be preserved in what seems at first a hopeless state of neurological devastation.’ This is a statement that owes more to philosophy than neurology (all Sacks’s writings are sprinkled with quotes from philosophy and literature), one which mechanistic neurology would dismiss as irrelevant and unscientific. Indeed, from the perspective of traditional neurology, Greg was nothing more than a patient who had incurred a benign tumour of the pituitary of ten centimetres diameter that had destroyed the optic chiasm and tracts and extended bilaterally into the frontal lobes. Posteriorily it had entered the temporal lobes and down into the diencephalon. Functional deficits included blindness, severe interruption to short-term memory, subdued affect, inappropriate social response and inertia. There would be no mention of the loss of self, there would be no mention of what had been retained. There would be no hope.
Traditional neurology approaches patients as ‘other’ – as foreign, as different, as outsider. The notion of ‘other’ dehumanises the person: renders the person as object or instrument. The canon of neurology, unlike most other areas of knowledge, has been built on an investigation of pathology. Long before Broca, neurologists had sought to learn of normal functioning through the study of abnormal brains. This should come as no surprise. Until the past two decades and the development of sophisticated scanning machinery such as computerised axial tomography (CAT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the only way to the brain was through surgery and/or examination of a ‘clean’ head injury. Those with the damage, the pathology, have provided the means to neurological knowledge. This is a mechanistic approach where the patient with brain damage becomes parts and instruments.
One has to look to the late nineteenth century, to neurologists such as Charcot, Freud and Tourette, to find the last of the profession to employ what Sacks describes as ‘a combined vision of body and soul, “It” and “I”, neurology and psychiatry. By the turn of the century, a split had occurred into a soulless neurology and a bodiless psychology.’
Sacks has resurrected and advanced the late nineteenth-century approach; it is one that seeks to understand what a pathology means – not simply to science, not simply in terms of an infarct here and a tumour there, but in terms of the essential humanness of the individual. In his attempts to enter the world of brain-damaged people and understand it from their point of view and within the context of their life, Oliver Sacks can rightly be called an anthropologist of mind.
Sacks emerges from the nineteenth century tradition, but as well, there is an obvious and acknowledged link with the great Russian neurologists of the Second World War period, most particularly, A R Luria. Luria worked with soldiers who had sustained head injuries from gunshot wounds. He wrote about these patients in a new way, a descriptive, analytical and holistic way. His remarkable book, Traumatic Aphasia, first published in the USSR in 1947 and considerably revised for the 1970 English translation, remains one of the most informative and exciting treatises on this complex of disorders. His monographs, The Man with a Shattered Brain and The Mind of the Mnemonist, are compelling narratives of mystery and wonder; they are true ethnographies of mind. As with Sacks, one reads Luria and knows a world different from one’s own, one which, despite the often enormous damage incurred by the patients, is deeply human and surprisingly coherent.
The mechanisation of mind exerts a powerful attraction. We are, in the late twentieth century, very comfortable with cause and effect explanations: this bit of brain for that bit of behaviour, this neurotransmitter for that disease complex. We are repelled by doubt and uncertainty, we are always after a definitive answer and are little interested in exploring the possibilities. We want science not humanism, facts not spirit. Study of the brain is amenable enough to facts, but study of the mind is about shifting understandings, about making connections not seen before; it draws on more than the cells of the human body, it requires imagination and creativity. ‘Our health, diseases, and reactions,’ Sacks writes in Awakenings, ‘cannot be understood in vitro, in themselves; they can only be understood with reference to us, as expressions of our nature, our living, our being-here (da-sein) in the world.’ Rather than a mechanistic approach, physicians must enquire after their patients, seek to know who they are and how they are. ‘The dialogue about how one is can only be couched in human terms, familiar terms, which come easily and naturally to all of us; and it can only be held if there is a direct and human confrontation, an “I-Thou” relation, between the discoursing worlds of physicians and patients.’
The richness of this approach, while apparent through all Sacks’s work, is perhaps best exemplified with the people who are the subject of Awakenings, those survivors of the sleeping-sickness epidemic, encephalitis lethargica, of the 1920s. Sacks first came across them at Mount Carmel Hospital in 1966. Initially there were eighty survivors at the hospital, but these were joined over the next three years by several others. Eventually, Sacks administered L-Dopa to more than two hundred patients. They were oddities from a time past, the essential other, removed from society, true outsiders. They had been cared for, had been clothed and fed, but were of little interest to mainstream neurology. Post-encephalitic illness, most commonly a form of Parkinson’s disease, occurred in the vast majority of these survivors. The second most common post-encephalitic disorders were from the catatonia group. The patients spanned a range of handicap, but even those who were profoundly physically disabled had intellectual functions and awareness intact. From the time of the initial disease in the 1920s until the use of L-Dopa in 1969, many of these patients had been caught in limbo, where the mind was all perceiving and the body dithered between immobility and short frenzied periods of Parkinsonian excess.
Sacks entered this world much as an anthropologist enters a new culture and immersed himself in it. The narratives he wrote documenting the use of L-Dopa owe more to literature than science, and in so doing, show the way to a broader more imaginative science, a science better able to deal with the metaphysical and experiential aspects of being human. Sacks’s narratives are detailed and emotive; he writes as much about the human spirit as the physical body, using terms such as ‘awe’ and ‘miracle’ and ‘unconscious’; his documentation bears little resemblance to the mechanistic accounts of more conventional neurology. (Paradoxically, some of the worst mechanistic accounts can be found in the vast Parkinson’s literature. These are, according to Sacks, ‘the ugliest exemplars of assembly-line medicine: everything human, everything living, pounded, pulverised, atomised, quantised, and otherwise “processed” out of existence.’
Sacks as anthropologist is again evident in Seeing Voices, his narrative about the culture of the deaf and the central defining quality that sign, the visual-gestural communication systems used by deaf people, plays. Over the centuries, deaf people have suffered the same sort of neglect, discrimination and dehumanisation as have others with a chronic disability, but what has strengthened deaf people, forged and maintained their rich culture, has been sign. It is a powerful and expressive form of communication. It is able to cross verbal languages with ease: despite variations in sign languages across the world, an Italian can sign with a Chinese person, an Australian with a Balinese.
The history of the deaf is the history of otherness, of the essential outsider, although in recent decades a curiously paradoxical trend has emerged, spurred on by the paternalism of traditional medicine: this is an attempt to ‘normalise’ otherness by negating illness or difference. In the recent therapeutic management of severe and profound deafness, there has been a focus on teaching all deaf children to communicate orally, i.e. to teach them to lip-read and to speak. The creative and powerful visual-gestural languages used so naturally and efficiently by severely deaf people have been denigrated by the experts and in many cases actually banished from educational programs for hearing-impaired people. In the past ten to fifteen years the oral versus sign debate has become extremely forceful.
The fact remains, however, that many severely deaf people will never develop adequate lip reading skills nor will they speak clearly enough to provide them with a satisfying personal and social life. Without a gestural system these people are condemned to isolation. The fact also remains, as Sacks has so effectively demonstrated, that if one enters the culture of the deaf, one learns that sign has a richness and depth, albeit a different richness and depth from spoken language, that is exquisite, powerful and flexible, and despite its gestural underpinnings, extraordinarily abstract.
The power of sign became apparent to Sacks when he entered the world of the deaf – of the other – and learned about sign and the culture of communication from the point of view of deaf people. He saw so clearly what those experts from the dominant culture would not. Indeed, compared with Sacks’s ethnographic approach, the experts have engaged in cultural imperialism: they want to colonise the deaf community.
Throughout his work, Sacks has conceived of illness as a narrative. He has drawn on poetry, literature, history and philosophy to enrich that narrative. He has always been and he remains an explorer who knows, as did Pasteur, that ‘the terrain is everything’.
HOMER AND THE HOLOCAUST
Published in Australian Book Review. November. 2002
I am reading Robert Fagles’s translation of the Iliad. Achilles is sulking in his ships while the Trojans and Achaeans slaughter each another. Choreographing the moves with astonishing wilfulness are the self-serving, all-powerful gods. The brilliance of the poetry keeps the brutality always in the high beam. Every spear thrust, every disembowelment, every spillage of brains, every spurt of blood is revealed with lyrical clarity. The violence is unrelenting; this poem is almost unbearable.
I’ve read the Iliad before but I don’t recall turning soft halfway through. I grant it was a long time ago and I’ve never had the desire to revisit it as I have the Odyssey. I take down Rieu’s prose translation in the Penguin classic edition. It falls open towards the end of Book XIV; my annotations have stopped a good deal earlier. I suppose one can imagine reading a classic, particularly one so well known, although I confess it is not an explanation that appeals. But, even if it were true, I am curious as to why I feel so overwhelmed now.
And just when I was needing some respite. I finished my latest novel, The Prosperous Thief, a short time ago. Opening in 1910 Berlin, it sprawls across three continents and the twentieth century. Filtering through it is the long shadow of the Holocaust. During the four years it took to write it, I read extensively about the Nazi years and the Holocaust: memoirs, histories, fictions, plays and poetry, some well-written and sparking with insight, others not; but all portraying the hatred and violence that characterised that time. When my novel was finished, I needed a change and I reached for the ancient Greeks — as far from the barbarous twentieth century as possible.
I was not thinking clearly. Fagles’s translation of the Iliad has much the same effect as the most powerful of the Holocaust material. Paul Celan’s poetry, Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., Cynthia Ozick’s short story ‘The Shawl’, Alfred Kantor’s diary of drawings The Book of Alfred Kantor — all these works spill the edges of the known facts of the Holocaust. They are imaginative, highly original, and unpredictable. Like the Iliad, they make for compelling, but abrasive, reading.
We prefer our terror safe; we like our evil tidy. We are happy to experience it in a mainstream history or thriller, or for a couple of hours in a Hollywood film. We don’t mind being toyed with, entertained, thrown onto the prickles of uncertainty for a short period of time. We know these portrayals of terror obey certain conventions: come lights up or cover closed, there’ll be some sort of resolution and we’ll be back on firm ground.
Real terror is not so tame. It is strange, unconventional and anarchic. Its tools are surprise, unpredictability, originality. Real terror operates within an alien consciousness, a foreign Weltanschauung. And real terror is so morally plastic. Simultaneously, it can flaunt ethical opposites. Take Rwanda and the slaughter of the Tutsis (and also many liberal Hutus). What was terror to the Tutsis was an act of righteousness from the perspective of the Hutus. Not even the slaughter of millions, it would seem, gives rise to an absolute, unequivocal evil.[i] The ancient entrenched hatreds that pit Serbians against Croatians, and both of them against the former Yugoslavia’s Muslims, also demonstrate the amazing plasticity of terror’s moral skin. Perpetrators come to act as if on a holy mission. There’s a huge and brutal crowd dining with the gods.
In the Iliad, gods and men are as dangerous and, to my modern sensibility, as inhumane as each other. I find myself wrenched into a world where men are not as I know them and the gods are terrifying. The men don’t know themselves, either: they lack the same sort of self-consciousness we moderns possess. There’s no suggestion that while Achilles sits in his ships and his fellow Achaeans die, he feels any of the remorse, guilt or responsibility that we would. Achilles has been wronged, and the only response for him is to punish the culprit even if it means suffering other losses — though that proviso is even too modern for Achilles. His withdrawal from battle is a matter of honour. When he decides to fight again, it is largely to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus.
It is not only men in the Iliad whose brutality is fuelled by a defence of honour, but also the gods, both male and female. (In the mortal world, honour seems to be a peculiarly male quality. What separates the immortal gods, one from another, is their relative power, not their gender.) In the world of the ancient Greeks, men are the tools of the gods, so perhaps it is not surprising that the mortal men and the immortal gods act in strikingly similar ways with their jealousies, their envies, their spoiled honour, their lies, their secrets, their favourites. The power of the gods might well be spiked with mystery and magic, but the outcomes — whether of men’s actions or the gods’ — are much the same. In the process of brutality, men, like the gods who orchestrate their behaviour, act with absolute right and absolute power. Much the same observation could be made for perpetrators of genocide.
The Iliad, certainly Fagles’s verse translation, is neither tidy nor predictable. The terror does not operate in the same way as, say, Solzhenitsyn’s terror (Solzhenitsyn wrote the book, the book was first published in America, so clearly Solzhenitsyn escaped death in the gulag); or Erich Maria Remarque’s terror in All Quiet on the Western Front, where we know the soldier is doomed, we know that Germany will fall, and we travel with the soldier as he inexorably meets his fate. The Iliad is different. Firstly, the perspective keeps changing. We are always thrown into the bloodiest part of the battle, and, as the perspective shifts, so we have to make a shift too — of sensibility rather than allegiance. Next, gods, Trojans and Achaeans all act with much the same violence. But mostly this terror is not tidy because it is strange, as Kafka’s The Trial is strange, or Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Brecht, with his ‘alienation effect’, deliberately set out to fracture the connection between the audience and the drama being enacted on the stage. Rather than audience identification with the characters and their situations, Brecht sought to bring the audience hard up against a strange and disquieting drama. This is what happens with the Iliad. All expectations are thrown to the winds as the reader is immersed in a destabilising new order where men are pitted against other men and the usual reader cushion of identification with one or other of the characters is denied. It is hard to find an enduring hero in the Iliad. It is hard to find anything that is familiar. Equally strange is the fuel of the fight, those ideas of honour, of obedience to the gods and unquestioned acceptance of oracular predictions. We moderns might be well acquainted with religious wars, but, in our time, God’s law has become inextricably bound up with nationalism, and the age-old hatreds that continue to fuel conflicts such as those in Kashmir or in Israel–Palestine are as obdurate and dismissive of interrogation as any rock of ages.
I have no stake in the Trojan wars. The violence is not tempered by personal allegiance nor any other type of identification. It is stark, and it is horrible. So why didn’t I stop reading? The obvious answer is that, as a self-respecting member of the literati, I needed to acquire the Fagles stripes — although I could have read, say, a third, and bluffed my way through the rest. But there is something else operating here. There is something irresistibly seductive about this material. (In Greek, phtheírein means both ‘to seduce’ and ‘to destroy’.) The Iliad has a surprise, an impact, that is unique. It illuminates the horror of hand-to-hand combat. It concentrates the notion of enemy and distils it in hatred. It shows in minute detail how a man can look into the eye of his enemy and then kill him. No other war epic prepares for the terrible conflict of the Iliad, written by one of the greatest poets and rendered into English by a master poet and translator. In a real sense, the Iliad is as new as when it was first composed. The narrative is terrible, I felt squeamish, but the power of the work propelled me on.
While terror and wrongdoing have long captured the interest of writers, artists and scholars, the moral ice age of the Holocaust has refocused attention. The better the understanding of that terrible event, so the argument goes, the more likely it is that other acts of large-scale human destruction will be prevented in the future. Yet evidence would suggest the attempts have failed. Wars continue to rage, people continue to die from hatred and prejudice, and the Holocaust literature continues to grow.
There are trends and controversies in Holocaust scholarship. One school of opinion holds that the Holocaust was a unique event without yardsticks for comparison, so difficulties in understanding it are to be expected. However, the genocide in Rwanda, so distressingly similar to the Holocaust, undermines the Holocaust-as-unique-event argument. There must be, then, other reasons for the difficulties in understanding the Holocaust, particularly given the amount of data available. What the Holocaust was, what actually happened, who did what, when and where have all been well documented by a plethora of historians, many of whom — Raul Hilberg, Saul Friedlander, Martin Gilbert and the film-maker Claude Lanzmann in particular — have put the Holocaust under a microscope, documenting every nuance of genocide: the planning, the propaganda, the repressive laws, the threats, the day-to-day operations, the assembly-line precision that enabled millions of people to be killed so efficiently across Europe. We know all too well what happened. What is more difficult to grasp is that this travesty was the deliberate and conscious work of human beings against other human beings. And if they can do it, then so might any of us. Perhaps, then, it might be argued that we don’t want to understand. However, this argument collapses under the sheer weight of material produced about the Holocaust. Not all these writers, film-makers, musicians and their audiences can be acting in bad faith.
Nonetheless, sixty years on, there is something lacking in the way we have sought to understand the Holocaust; something in the approach that seems to confirm what we already know rather than to illuminate the new. The most troubling effect of this is what has come to be known as ‘Holocaust fatigue’, a particularly offensive response to the repetitive exposure of certain images of the Nazi terror. I refer here to those familiar pictures of dead skeletal bodies heaped in huge pits, or of naked people lined up in front of a gaping grave moments before their death, or mountains of shoes and spectacles and suitcases and false teeth and shaving brushes taken from people before they were killed in Auschwitz’s gas chambers. Even Auschwitz itself — mention the name, and a collective sigh rises from those who have already heard quite enough about the place. Mass murder, it seems, is too easily reduced to signs, symbols and a few overexposed images. And when this occurs, critical and penetrating analysis is a casualty.
Into this context comes a highly controversial art exhibition, Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, which opened at the Jewish Museum in New York City in March 2002. This exhibition, curated by Norman L. Kleeblatt (a 53-year old American of German-Jewish heritage, whose grandparents and great-grandparents were killed in the camps), features thirteen international artists who use Nazi imagery in their work to explore the nature of evil. Some of these artists are Jewish; many are not. All were born between 1955 and 1970. Months before the exhibition opened, it provoked a furore reminiscent of the Piss Christ controversy, with many people believing the art to be deeply offensive. The exhibition scratched raw nerves of Holocaust memorialising. Issues of who has the right to enter the Holocaust material were raised, as were the acceptable means of traversing that fraught ground. Many people, not all of them Jews, were affronted by the exhibition. It was an insult to survivors, it was an insult to the six million who were murdered.
The artworks in Mirroring Evil are transgressive, original and shocking. They take familiar objects, events and symbolism from the Nazi era and subject them to a radical transformation. Take Giftgas Giftset by Tom Sachs. In this small installation, framed in a white box, there is a neatly packaged set of slightly battered miniature gas cylinders; the one on the left is black and carries the Chanel label, the central one is a lively orange and from Hermes, the third is a delicate aquamarine blue, inscribed with Tiffany & Co. I’ve been to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I’ve stood in the ruins of the gas chambers, but Sachs’s juxtaposition of luxury boudoir items with the poison gas of the camp shower (the ‘camp boudoir’) catapults me into a new cognitive space, which includes both the mind of the victim and that of the perpetrator, as well as the vast commercial infrastructure of the Holocaust. It also aligns the Holocaust within a contemporary context: where so much human energy is dedicated to the pursuit of luxury goods, it is not surprising that efforts to understand are impoverished, and terror in the world proceeds unabated.
A number of the exhibits focus on the widespread fascination with the Nazi era. There’s a frieze of glossy photographs of handsome well-known actors in their film roles as Nazi leaders (The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski). The Polish artist Elke Krystufek has incorporated some of Piotr Uklanski’s photographs in her collages Economical Love, along with pornographic images of herself and a provocative commentary. The voyeurism, our voyeurism, Krystufek’s work suggests, is the same for all the images.[ii] Other exhibits undercut over-exposed images of the Holocaust. Alan Schechner’s website installation Barcode to Concentration Camp Morph depicts three sets of ordinary barcodes in a line and below them what appears to be a mirror image of three sets of pyjama-clad, concentration camp inmates standing together in tight, barcode-like blocks. Is this how the Nazis saw the Jews? As a mass-market commodity no different from tins of soup? Is this how they were able to kill?
What emerges from these exhibits[iii] is an epistemological shift involving new interpretative tools and promoting new understandings, which are often distasteful and accusatory. These understandings carry within them their own spaces. The artworks reveal, but at the same time they imply that there is much more to be known. They suggest that the failure to grasp the nature of evil is understandable, even necessary; after all, as these works demonstrate, there’s ample imaginative space yet to be canvassed.
This exhibition is destabilising, and, as with the Iliad, there’s no respite to be found in identification. In fact, these art objects actually sever identification with the victim: the gaze we are exposed to is either that of the perpetrator, or a fine-tuned distortion of the perpetrator’s view.
Much of the huge Holocaust canon has focused on the victims. Remove the victim from the Holocaust, and the landscape looks unnervingly different. The New York essayist and novelist Cynthia Ozick believes the victims, the Jewish victims, should always occupy the centre of Holocaust art. In her essay ‘The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination’,[iv] she is critical of novels such as The Reader and Sophie’s Choice, which place other victims at their centre. The main victims of the Holocaust were the Jews, she argues. The raison d’être for the Holocaust was elimination of the Jewish people. Where six million people have died, there cannot be a tampering with history even for the sake of art.
Ozick is not against imaginative treatments of the Holocaust. She herself is author of ‘The Shawl’, one of the most powerful short fictions ever written about the Holocaust, a story that shows in an inexorable, almost incantatory way how survival was possible in the camps, and how murder of babies was nothing more than a Nazi game.[v] It is her insistence that the focus remain on the Jewish victims that I question. For an event as unwieldy and intractable as the Holocaust, surely as many means as possible should be used in the ongoing attempts to portray and understand it. I welcomed Schlink’s The Reader. I want to know about the other side. I want to understand how ordinary Germans could have participated in such slaughter.
A primary focus on the victim can straitjacket understanding. Victims invite identification, in a peculiar way they actually colonise identification. So, while the artworks and memoirs with the victim at their centre can provide a microcosmic view of the conflagration, if they connect with the personal experience of the reader/viewer, they tend to block access to the broader canvas, and the full cataclysmic horror, together with the essence of such massive inhumanity, remains elusive.
The Holocaust canon consists mainly of memoirs, personal testimonies and documentary histories, which have been published in the past quarter century. In the twenty years following the end of the war, there was only a trickle of material from the survivors themselves. While there are many explanations for this, including deliberate reticence resulting from a residual fear of anti-Semitism, most of the survivors of the Holocaust had another agenda. They had been spared at the edge of the precipice, and, while they carried horrendous memories, they had the gift of life denied so many others and were not about to waste it. Across the Western world, but particularly in countries far from Europe, such as the USA, Australia and Canada, these survivors forged new and often very successful futures for themselves.
The memoirs of recent decades have focused on the enduring legacy of the Holocaust. Many of these are deeply personal accounts written by the children and grandchildren of the victims, not the surviving victims themselves. This development has accompanied a shift in the modern sensibility toward an inward search for personal identity, with individual therapy, group therapy and focused discussion groups all recruited to the task. In the process, there has been a change in the way victim status is viewed. Traditionally, there have been negative connotations assigned to victim status; after all, the victim, by definition, has been abused and defeated. But with the rise of identity politics, victim status is no longer something to be ashamed of — on the contrary, it is actively sought. Across the First World, people are wanting to reshape and refine their identity through acquiring a little bit of Jew, of indigenous Australian, of native American, of a relative lost in the Holocaust. Modern victims have a presence, a locus, and a defining history in the rowdy crowd of First World societies. Modern victims, far from feeling weakness or shame, display their victimhood as a defining mark of identity.
The shadows of the Holocaust are long. Many children and grandchildren of survivors regard themselves as victims too, and have explored their heritage and its modern-day legacy in personal memoirs.[vi] The shift in the status of victim has meant that many of these personal journeys have found publication.
The memoirs are important, revealing as they do insightful and often painful struggles with an almost intolerable heritage, but the dominance of memoirs has infused and skewed attempts to understand the Holocaust. The process of identification, of making personally meaningful distant and often mind-numbing atrocities, undercuts the complexities of genocide. One personal story is not the whole story, even less so when these memoirs have as much to say, and often more, about present-day children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims and their struggles in the hurly-burly of millennial life, than the actual experience of the victims themselves. When these descendants of survivors go searching for history, commonly they are seeking their history, not that of their parents and grandparents. ‘My book,’ as one memoirist, an adult child of survivors recently said to me, ‘is about me.’
The personal approach can also feed the sentimentalisation that has infiltrated Holocaust material. One needs look no further than the miniseries Holocaust or the film adaption of Sophie’s Choice. Or compare Goreki’s Symphony of Sorrow with Schoenberg’s overwhelming Survivor from Warsaw. Extreme passion is easily reduced to sentiment. The artistic skills that can match the human capacity for experience are rare indeed.
Mirroring Evil opens our eyes — not to the victim, but behind the gaze of the perpetrator. No identification is possible here, no sentimental breathing space. If we become numb to detail, blasé to horror, then something as simple as putting German army helmets on Holocaust victims will quicken the sluggish senses.
We in the First World are very much driven in our interpretative schemas by the notion of self-consciousness (ours is an ‘age of frightful self-consciousness’, wrote Iris Murdoch), and fuelling this self-consciousness is the process of identification. But, surely, what is required to understand extreme and foreign human acts is consciousness in which the perceiving self is actually muted.[vii] While we are driven by self-consciousness, the self tends to be a dominating and distorting influence. The self is hungry for connections: it propels towards the familiar rather than towards the new. In the Iliad, because I did not, could not, identify with the characters and the events, the texture of those foreign characters and times was starkly and painfully illuminated. It was not a comfortable read, but it did make me wiser, as the view from the margins invariably does.
By promoting identification with the victim, as does much Holocaust material, the canvas of the Holocaust is not only vastly reduced (and, similarly, understanding of those horrendous times), but it is also distorted. Imagine viewing only half a painting — impossible to appreciate the whole from only a half; impossible to appreciate a book fully if one stops a few chapters shy of the end. Perhaps the key to understanding the Holocaust is to see it from several perspectives — as uncomfortable as that might be — to loosen the usual strings of identification, to take the data in gulp after awful gulp. The issue here is one of reading to understand as against reading for self-affirmation.
This has many repercussions for understanding the Holocaust. Rather than more memoirs, it suggests that where the material taps most deeply into the unfamiliar margins of the imagination, new understandings are more likely to emerge. What is required are interpretative models that block the intrusion of self, because what needs to be understood is a situation that defies identification, a situation that is outside experience. Homer’s Iliad, like the images in Mirroring Evil, brings extreme acts hard up against one’s normal moral sphere, and they grate. We can ignore the discomforts and return to our tea and crumpets, or we can begin to engage and address them. While we restrict our approach to understanding through identification and personal experience, the extent and complexity of the material will remain elusive. At the same time, while such events remain extreme, unique and outside our interpretative framework, their otherness actually protects them and wisdom recedes even further.
The Mirroring Evil exhibition extends the boundaries of understanding, but then art, including fiction, has long been recognised as an effective means of revealing the previously unknown. But not all art. Art can just as easily shadow, distort, lie and confuse as it can illuminate.
With portrayals of the Holocaust, the iconography of evil and the iconography of victimhood have often coalesced with paralysing effect. This is further exacerbated by the fact that some of the symbols, such as the swastika or tattooed numbers on an outstretched arm, have received such repeated exposure they have tended to replace, even obliterate, what they originally signified. The symbol has become separated from its referent; it no longer portrays meaning, it stifles it.
In the same way that iconography can lose its power, traditional and overused pedagogical approaches to the Holocaust can pollute both attitude (e.g. Holocaust fatigue) and understanding. Approaches which use fresh metaphors and make new connections between the existing data are needed to penetrate both the Holocaust material and our own habitual responses, which is what occurs in the Mirroring Evil exhibition. Such approaches can be horrifying and uncomfortable, but perhaps only radically different triggers are powerful enough to open bored and blasé minds to new ideas.
Plato wasn’t scare-mongering when he wanted to banish the artists: art can be dangerous stuff. Throughout human history, repressive régimes have sought to silence their most creative artists. Hitler was a champion of accessible, often sentimental, ‘beautiful’ art. The official art of the Soviet years bulged with realistic portrayals of happy workers and powerful machines while poets like Akhmatova and Mandelstam were persecuted. Art loosened from pragmatic purposes — creative, boundary-shifting art — clarifies and illuminates. Histories and memoirs are all very fine, but, if there’s a black and bristling unknown to be traversed, the unfettered imagination provides a fertile resource.
Unfortunately, language, like other symbols, can also be subjected to a numbing evisceration of meaning. Language can readily incarcerate a mind, and it can do so with such slick and attractive precision that the abuse can pass unnoticed. This is readily apparent when language is used to reduce people and events to labels, to linguistic ideal types: when desperate people become queue-jumpers and unemployed people become dole-bludgers; when killing Jews becomes the final solution and killing Bosnian Muslims becomes ethnic cleansing; when Israelis become occupiers and Palestinians become terrorists.
Symbols can construct a veneer over the essence of a thing. They supply order where the reality is chaos. When people and events are captured as ideal types, they become isolated from intellectual interrogation and encapsulated as complete and impregnable entities. Of course, in a sense, every word acts as an ideal type, as Magritte so neatly showed in his Ceci n’est pas une pipe paintings; a pipe is not a pipe, neither the visual representation of a pipe nor the word ‘pipe’. All language distorts and dilutes experience. When I say that a particular food is sweet and spicy and delicious, you cannot know whether I am referring to a mince tart, a curry (Indian? Afghan? Thai?), gazpacho, sweet and sour tofu, or any one of hundreds of foods. Language can be deceptively precise.
But, where language is used creatively, where it resists pre-defined categories and clichés, where it sparkles with newness, it has extraordinary power. George Steiner made just this point in The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., in which a group of Nazi-hunters find Hitler, now a very old man, in the Amazon jungle. They are instructed not to let him speak, for in Hitler was created a man ‘whose mouth shall be as a furnace and whose tongue as a sword laying waste. He will know the grammar of hell and teach it to others. He will know the sounds of madness and loathing and make them seem music.’[viii] Language used creatively can be dauntingly powerful. It can bolster dictators and move entire nations. It can also produce mind-altering fiction and poetry.
The imagination has carte blanche in the vortices of silence, and, while it might end up in some black hole, an informed imagination provides the best means of illuminating the hitherto unknown. When it comes to events that have been well-documented, and around which certain symbols have become entrenched, a new imaginative incursion is imperative. Keep using the same symbols, and understanding will not change much. Indeed, representations such as the swastika, the Nazi salute and long black boots have actually assimilated the unassimilable, have, in a sense, normalised horror. Similarly, tidy euphemisms such as ‘final solution’. Imaginative symbolic usage traverses all art forms, and, in the process, it co-opts a variety of tools, including fantasy, humour and irony. Indeed, humour, more than any other quality, subverts the taken-for-granted world, peeling away the civilising and ordering effects of commonly known and shared symbols. This is why humour often lurks at the borders of good taste, and why it can provoke such discomfort.
There has been a particular etiquette in Holocaust education and remembrance that has privileged historical and documentary discourses over imaginative ones. The former are considered to be ‘more effective and morally responsible [my italics] in teaching the historical events … Accordingly, art in general [has been] problematic because it is imaginative not documentary.’[ix] The Holocaust has been gilded with the sacred; any tampering with the seriousness or uniqueness of the event has resulted in outrage and personal hurt.[x] The more imaginative, which is to say less ‘true’ in terms of respect and ownership, the more the Holocaust — or perhaps the Holocaust canon — is seen to have been violated.
When the Holocaust is sacralised, when it can only be approached in one or two prescribed ways, when it is confined to an interpretative Petri dish, there results an inadvertent degradation of the material one seeks to understand. It is an approach that could be regarded as propagandist: as promoting certain arguments over others, certain beliefs, certain perspectives. Exhibitions such as Mirroring Evil supply a new ‘epistemic-artistic thrust’ (van Alphen’s term), wherein remembrance itself enters new epistemological fields. That it is provocative and shocking may cause discomfort, but that does not make it any less truthful. As for etiquette, wherever it prevails, interrogation and understanding are sidelined.
Like Mirroring Evil, fiction, too, can open new corridors to understanding. Fiction dramatises and provides multiple perspectives. Loose-limbed fiction can range over a myriad of places and times and experiences. Fiction can present competing gazes and inculcate conflicting and changing identifications. Good literature selects and directs attention. It presents a huge landscape, which cannot be taken in at a glance, so we attend now to this and now to that. And good literature is above all lucid. An imagination that knows its freedom — in either the writer or reader — can go anywhere. Where an event is very complex, a novel can wend its way through all the contingencies, the doubts, the motivations, and all the diverse and often conflicting perceptions. Cynthia Ozick believes that art should not tamper with the known facts of the Holocaust. But what about the unknown issues? We are still grappling to understand this mind-stretching event, and of all the human tools we have, it is the unfettered imagination that is most likely to yield surprises. History documents while art reveals.
The way to knowledge is haphazard. It makes use of false starts and wrong turnings, of biases and prejudices, of assumptions as well as the more logical and structured approaches to learning. According to Adorno, this is how it should be: ‘For the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar.’[xi] Art provides a vehicle to the previously unknown; profound art stretches the boundaries of reason and opens the way to enlightenment. In the years ahead, as we continue to revisit the horror landscape of the Holocaust, it will be painting, sculpture, installations, film, fiction and poetry that forge a deeper comprehension of that dark and terrible wasteland. As for the Iliad, it will live on as one of the most profound and revelatory documents of the darkness in the depths of the human heart.
[i] Evil is one of the many moral spokes to the terror hub. Evil has an evaluative quality that terrible acts in and of themselves do not have. Some years ago, I would have wanted to align myself with the Platonist ideal of an a priori good. I believed there was not a corresponding a priori evil. This view has been fundamentally challenged by the extent and diversity of evil-emanating acts occurring simultaneously across the planet at the hands of vastly different human beings. The human capacity for evil-doing is staggering, and while this is not the same as saying we are naturally predisposed to it, the capacity being so commonly manifested is at the very least strongly suggestive of a human affinity with evil.
[ii] Evil is so easily fetishised — and thereby trivialised. There has been an eager borrowing of Nazi styles and paraphernalia in pornography. Indeed, one wonders how very different sadomasochistic sex acts must have looked prior to the Nazi era.
[iii] Similarly from Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s extraordinary seven-hour film cycle, Our Hitler: A Film from Germany, a challenging, impressionistic work, which at its US premiere in San Francisco in 1979 saw black-booted neo-Nazis harassing the hundreds of people who had queued up early for tickets. For an analysis of this film, see Susan Sontag’s essay, ‘Syberberg’s Hitler’, in her collection Under the Sign of Saturn, Farrer, Straus, Giroux, 1980.
[iv] Included in Ozick’s most recent collection Quarrel and Quandary, Knopf, 2000.
[v] Cynthia Ozick. The Shawl. Knopf. New York, 1989.
[vi] Norman Finkelstein in his controversial book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, (Verso, 2000), is critical of what he regards as a blow-out in the number of survivors of the Nazi holocaust (distinct from The Holocaust — an ‘ideological representation of the Nazi Holocaust’). The initial stimulus for his book was Peter Novick’s excellent study The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) which tracks Holocaust scholarship and remembrance over a period of fifty years and addresses all the current arguments.
[vii] This is in direct contrast with prevailing orthodoxy in the film and publishing industries. Producers and publishers promote the power of identification as essential to the attractiveness of a product. ‘None of your characters is likable,’ is a common complaint made to novelists by their publishers. Whether the producers and publishers are correct is not the issue here, the crucial point is there is nothing to suggest that identification makes people wiser.
[viii] George Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., Faber & Faber, 1981, p. 33.
[ix] Ernst van Alphen. ‘Playing the Holocaust’ in Norman L. Kleeblatt Mirroring Evil: Catalogue to the Exhibition, 2002, p. 71.
[x] Thus the outcry over Life Is Beautiful, a film, incidentally, I did not like – not because it used humour and fantasy in its approach to the horror of the Holocaust, but because the slapstick type of humour and child-like fantasy had a cleansing rather than revelatory effect.
[xi] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, Verso, 1974, p. 80.
AUTUMN IN AUSCHWITZ. October, 1999
(Published in HEAT 14, 2000.)
Travelling to Auschwitz on a golden autumn day, I gaze through the bus window at the neat farms and modest villages, the chooks and churches, the red apples dangling in the trees, and at the numerous shrines to the Virgin Mary erected to protect those who live forty kilometres from the concentration camp, then thirty, then twenty, then only ten kilometres from the camp, and finally within smelling distance of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz does such a pretty autumn. Dainty-leafed trees, slender dark branches, a glorious array of golds and coppers and bronzes. Was it such an autumn in 1942, the death camp’s first autumn? And in 1943? And what about its last autumn in 1944?
Today, the 25th October, 1999, the sky is remarkably blue. How much smoke does it take to block out the sky? How many burning bodies can kill off autumn?
ODE TO AN SS SWIMMING POOL
It has been a glorious
the trees are heavy
the beech leaves glow
gold in the dappled woods
we swim and sunbathe
quick spritzing laps
in the deep green pool
under the slant eyes
of the green gargoyle.
we’ll be stretched and dirty
to the left to the left
the chimneys snowing
and a dog that never stops
barking in my head
and hot spicy sausage
to dreamily taste
as the shadows grow
in the cooling pool.
Did the gargoyle’s mouth
can see him
the gargoyle’s mouth
only I try
to kiss him
his forked tongue
licks my lips
over our swimming pool
It is a small group travelling to Auschwitz on this English language tour, only a dozen of us including three Germans at the back of the bus. I wonder how different is their Auschwitz from mine. Are they masochists or penitents or just plain curious? And I wonder about their decision to sit at the back of this largely empty bus, whispering together in German.
If I were German, I, too, would take an English-language tour to Auschwitz. I would take a Japanese tour, an Arabic tour, any tour to Auschwitz rather than a German one. And I would stop whispering at the back of the bus in the language that forever transformed Oswiecm into Auschwitz.
What sort of person takes a mobile phone to Auschwitz and uses it? It’s the English woman seated in front of me. We’re on the way to Auschwitz and she’s chatting on her mobile phone. I try to block her out, look through the window at the old houses lining the road, at the old people stacking wood, at others working the fields with hand-held ploughs. The same people would have been working the same fields with the same primitive equipment back in October 1942 and ’43 and ’44, while overhead the sky would have been dark with the ash of dead Jews. I stare through the glass at these houses and people while the woman in front of me natters on. Why on earth is she giving up a day of her life to go to Auschwitz? Why can’t she be quiet? If I could grab her by the scruff and hurl her and her bloody telephone off the bus I would. I’m going to Auschwitz. I’ve got my own concerns. I don’t want to share her telephone conversation. Her husband is sitting quietly next to her. Why can’t she follow his example?
A moment later the man reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out the latest Harry Potter novel. An English man of fifty is reading Harry Potter on the road to Auschwitz while his wife natters away on her mobile phone. Do I make too much of genocide or they too little?
How long does the dust of the dead lie around? Not far from the concentration camp at Auschwitz, an old man with grime-filled wrinkles is picking apples. This fruit comes from trees grown in soil enriched by the dead bodies of Jews. I take a bite of apple, I do not choke. And the grime in the old man’s skin? Grime from the earth fertilised by the bodies of dead Jews. How long does the dust of the dead lie around? I touch his skin and my own skin sizzles.
‘The land around Auschwitz is very fertile,’ Etti, one of the characters in my new novel, says to her daughter.
Laura knows her mother has never been to Auschwitz.
‘And if I had been there,’ Etti says, ‘who then would be left to tell you that the land around Auschwitz is very fertile?’
It is the late twentieth century and Auschwitz 1 is still open for business. The car park is huge. Buses pour in loaded with school children and tourists and patriotic Poles. I have a flash of the carpark at the penguin parade at Phillip Island. Yet surely, outside Hollywood, no one would make Auschwitz into an entertainment.
Firstly, we are shown a film. Not much about Jews in it, but then the majority of the audience look to be Poles who are, by being here, clearly prepared to confront their own difficult history, blooded as it is in anti-semitism. The film finishes and then into the camp, through the gates with the famous insignia, ARBEIT MACHT FREI, to be followed by an orderly visiting of the brick barracks, about half of which have been made into museums.
Our guide is a very young Polish woman. Her English is imprenetrable, but even through the unfamiliar sounds I know she doesn’t mention the Jews. I’ve planned this trip for decades, I’m here for my own very specific purposes. I’ll be better, calmer, if I wander around alone.
D decides to join me. We enter one barracks and then another. Where are the Jews? I wonder, as I look at the displays. Polish school children brush pass me in long passageways lined with photographs. I look closely at the greying pictures, I read the names printed beneath. So many women died at Auschwitz, Maria this and Maria that, but where are the photographs of the Jewish women? I go into other barracks, I read the information, Jews are not often singled out for special mention. So many deaths in this place, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, yet if not for the massive number of Jewish deaths the world would not know of Auschwitz, nor would I, an Australian Jew, be visiting here now.
Auschwitz 1 was originally established in 1940 to house Polish political prisoners. In 1942 it was promoted to a death camp. From 1942 until liberation, Jews greatly outnumbered the Poles in this place. Yet fifty to sixty years later, Auschwitz 1 has been preserved primarily as a monument to Polish heroism. No wonder most of Auschwitz’s tourists are Poles. Even here, I think, there is insufficient good will for Poles and Jews to congregate together in shared memory. Even here where so many Poles and Jews died within speaking distance of one another. And I, a Jewish visitor to Auschwitz follow suit, keeping my distance from the Polish visitors. History packs a long, straight punch at all of us.
I’VE BEEN TO AUSCHWITZ TOO
It was free
but we got our money’s
There were dank
where Polish martyrs
starved or choked
and a pitted wall
lit with candles
where Polish heroes
stood proud and tall
our cameras flashed
on Polish ash
in a hideously caked
Our stomachs seized
our hearts squeezed
for those tragic Poles
they left us brave stories
to cry over
not like those others
waiting like abattoir cattle
who left us nothing
but their empty suitcases
and musty shoes.
Eventually we come to the barracks that focus on the Jews of Auschwitz 1, in particular the block labelled – with, I think, a certain pristine coyness: ‘Material evidence of crimes’. With the grotesque exception of Jewish lives, the Germans didn’t waste a thing, consequently, all Jewish possessions were treated with care, whether shaggy tooth brushes or artificial limbs – a whole room full of wooden arms and legs and other surgical prostheses kept, categorised and cared for while the flesh and blood people to whom they were once attached were destroyed in the gas chambers. So much ‘material evidence’ and so neatly preserved. I stare through the glass at a room containing carefully labelled suit-cases, read the familiar Weisses and Kleins and Bergers and, towards the front, the surprise of a Kafka. There’s a special area for spectacles, and another for plaits of hair – blond, dark, reddish, grey, obscene plaits of human hair, another room contains only shaving brushes and cups. Then the worst: a large, long room piled high with shoes. Shoes of men and women, of adults and children, of rich and poor, of those with slender feet and others with painful bunions. There are summer sandals and winter shoes and fashionable slip-ons and country boots. Such a variety of shoes in the long room at Auschwitz, such a variety of dead Jews.
That night, back at the hotel, I look at my slippers, the shape of my feet clearly imprinted on the sole. I look at the slippers until they are no longer mine, see instead the sharp imprint of a stranger’s foot. More than an imprint, it is a facsimile of presence. How many people are forced to walk to their own death? How many people accompanied by their children, their parents, their sisters and brothers, their aunts and uncles, their friends and neighbours are forced to walk to their death. It is difficult to conceive anything more cruel or more shocking.
Even in the direst of adversity Jewish humour was not entirely obliterated. The area of Auschwitz (at Auschwitz-Birkenau) where the property of murdered Jews was stored was known as ‘Canada’ – the land of plenty. Humour requires imagination, and imagination always presents a challenge to things as they are. But even the imagination cannot live long on air. Not even the imagination can cock its snoot at starvation and cold and filth and rats and the bones of loss forever sharp and hard against your heart.
Two hours later we meet back at the bus and travel the 3 kilometres to the Auschwitz II camp at Birkenau. We are told we only have 30 minutes here. Some of the people don’t even bother to get off the bus. The camp at Birkenau covers 173 hectares. It is huge. We have only 30 minutes. D and I run into one of the few huts that remain standing. It is wooden, the floor is bare earth, here are the multi-layered bunks where several people, some living, some dead, some about to be dead lay together. Here is a place that could not be closer to death than a line of gallows. We run into another hut, it is the same. It demands attention, demands that we stand and take it all in. But there is no time. Only 30 minutes in Birkenau our Polish guide has said. Only 30 minutes to take in this place where millions of Jews were killed. We run down the famous train tracks to the area where the selections occurred. Left you are killed, right you can live a while longer. And further down, the serious, silent International Monument to the Victims of Fascism. We run and run. To the left is crematorium II, to the right is crematorium III, huge jagged piles of ugly concrete and twisted girders. Both were bombed by the Nazis in the closing days of the war in an attempt to erase ‘material evidence’.
The 30 minutes are up. It must be at least 750 metres back to the gate. We are late and out of breath when we return to the bus. I am furious. I have waited years to come here, and all I am given – and by a Pole not a Jew – is 30 minutes. This is the Jewish place, I say to the Polish guide, this is where Jews want to come, here to Birkenau. The guide is faultlessly polite: Ours is not a specialist tour, he says.
The next day D and I return alone to Birkenau. For several hours we wander its vastness. The place is largely deserted – such a contrast with Auschwitz 1 – and heavily silent. There are no ghosts at Birkenau, no one wants to linger here. Or at least no Jewish ghosts. As for the German ones, I am not alert to them. Although Germans must have died here, through natural causes or as a result of accidents. But did any of them die of horror? Did any of them die of shame? Did any of them die in sympathy?
It is a beautiful clear day. I imagine this place in full operation. Into the silent desolation I put the Germans in their immaculate uniforms, the huts with their lice and rats, the drains, the stinking mud, the hissing gas, the smoking crematoria. And into this vast desolate place I put the Jews. For years I have found a home in the imagination, now I want to escape.
I sit at the top of the stairs leading into the long changing room of crematorium II. Nine steps down, nine steps to extinction. Nine used to be my lucky number.
Crematorium II is a mess of concrete and twisted, rusting metal. How unlike ancient ruins are these modern ones, with neither elegance, nor mystery, nor seduction. Here at crematorium II the huge ugly chunks of concrete, pock-marked with a grey sallow lichen, and the twisted metal rods are a study in brutality.
In many places at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but particularly at crematorium II, people have left Yahrzeit candles, the Jewish memorial candles for the dead. It is a delicately courageous thing to use a candle – a moving, vibrant, life-giving object as a memorial, even more so in this huge silent place of mass murder, a place designed so that there would be no Jews left to honour those who died. The candles are oddly sacred, their presence testimony to the fact that the worst case of anti-semitism in all of history, and the most efficiently organised and executed, actually failed.
I am standing near the ash pond of crematorium II when I see four Polish boys, part of a solitary school group to Auschwitz-Birkenau, lingering near the low wall where the changing room enters the gas chamber. Here the Yahrzeit candles are heavily clustered. The rest of the school group moves off towards the International Monument but the boys remain. A couple of furtive glances and then the boys grab some candles and shove them into their backpacks.
I scream at them. I wave my arms. I start towards them. I am deliberately menacing. I want them gone. This is Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is the place where millions of Jews were murdered simply for being Jews. I hate these boys. Does this make me like the Nazis? Yet surely someone has to give voice for the dead in Auschwitz-Birkenau with its inconsolable silences.
Beyond the boundary of Auschwitz-Birkenau, through the golden trees behind the International Monument, there is a man on a tractor ploughing a field. Where was he when the whole countryside reeked of death? What was he doing when millions were murdered over his back fence?
Nothing human remains alive at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Just the feral cats, a bright green caterpillar, the frogs and a pretty fluttering of birds. Nothing human until we move deeper into the camp. Firstly a young Polish couple holding hands and chattering as they walk through Auschwitz. They wear small backbacks, could be university students. Then an old man with a sack, poking the ground with a stick. As we walk the camp I see him at a distance and from different angles. He appears to be gathering mushrooms, foraging for dinner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Then the bike-riders, two together and one alone, taking a short cut through the death-camp via the western road that stretches from the convent at one end to crematoria IV and V at the other.
Crematoria IV and V are smaller than crematoria II and III so it was not uncommon for bodies to be burned on pyres in the open air. Adjacent to crematoria IV and V are pretty wooded areas providing an unprotected view of the crematoria. Here Jews, mainly women and children, were made to wait their turn to die when the ovens were working to full capacity. These pretty woods, these lethal woods.
Perched at the end of the long roadway on this far side of Auschwitz-Birkenau and just outside the perimeter of the camp is the infamous convent occupying the building that used to house the SS. It is a plain structure with four large, stark crucifixes. As we walk further and further away from crematoria IV and V the convent looms larger and larger, until at the top of the roadway it fills the view. The convent is an abomination, I want to smash its crucifixes to smithereens.
I have been told that fragments of human bone mingle with the gravel at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
We’re walking around
the concrete and rust
carcasses of Birkenau
these bones don’t smell
we’re in the open air
the frogs are croaking
but we’re force-marching
down a silent tunnel.
Hitler didn’t win,
maybe we should chatter.
Novelist Andrea Goldsmith and poet Dorothy Porter visited Auschwitz together in the late Autumn of 1999. Porter wrote the three poems included here and Goldsmith the personal essay. While each writer conceived and wrote her piece independently, after reading each other’s work, they decided to combine them into the one piece.
Published in HOME TRUTHS. Edited by Carmel Bird. 4th Estate 2010
1. INTENSIVE CARE
High on the wall behind your bed is a strip of glass. These windows are the only source of natural light in intensive care. From where you lie, you cannot see the windows, so I bring you stories from the world outside. I put rain in the drought-dry clouds that float across the endless blue sky; I create flocks of rainbow lorikeets darting through the air; I put carolling magpies on the roof of the adjacent building. And a night parrot, I conjure up a night parrot flying past the windows in intensive care.
I enter the ICU each morning around eight. I make my way past the central nurses’ station to your bed. I want you to look more energised than yesterday. I want you to be using the nose-feeding oxygen tubes and not the full face mask. I want to see you rested and alert.
So much longing as I walk the floor of intensive care.
And there you are, propped on your pillows, wondrously familiar despite the oxygen and the tubes, despite the intensive-care bed with its white sheets and hydraulic pipes. It takes a moment before you see me and then you smile as you have a thousand times before, and that funny little wave of your hand.
‘I’m so pleased you’re here.’ Your first words every morning.
You are exhausted, you say, knocked about by the chest X-ray. Every day the same rigmarole to position the plate behind your back, and such a toll it takes on your breathing. I lay my hand on the rapid rise and fall of your chest. I will your breathing to slow.
I have brought you apricot nectar, rationed during normal times because it is so full of sugar, but with your body now melting away you could drink apricot nectar to your heart’s desire and eat buckets of ice-cream as well. If not for the flood of oxygen making you feel as if you will choke on solid food I would lavish you with chips and vanilla slices and blocks of chocolate and all those desserts which come with lashings of whipped cream. Lashings of whipped cream, and we laugh at our private nod to Enid Blyton.
When life is normal I rise early, read for an hour, have my breakfast and a mug of coffee alone. Around eight I make a fresh pot of coffee. You hear me rummaging in the kitchen and by the time I walk upstairs and enter our room you are wide awake and waiting. I perch on the bed and we drink our coffee together and with your ‘What have you been doing?’ we start the talk of the day.
Here in intensive care I pull a chair close to your bed and we begin with the morning medical round. Everyone is very positive, you say. Progress is still slow, but Bill, the chief intensivist, says you are heading in the right direction. The results of today’s X-ray have not yet arrived; I check the time – this is a hard waiting, although I mustn’t let you see my anxiety. You ask me for news and before I have uttered more than a dozen words you have interrupted me. I seize on this familiar and at other times infuriating behaviour as a sign you are feeling better. You tell me you think last night’s nurse was gay. A myopic religious fundamentalist at a hundred paces in poor light would pick that one, I say. You laugh, almost energetically, and then provide a potted history of today’s nurse while she is analysing your 8 a.m. blood sample elsewhere in ICU. You already have your favourite nurses – but then we are both inclined to make favourites. Searching for detail, I say, and what else would you expect of a poet and a novelist? And there’s trust to be had in favourites, and a familiarity too. These nurses have become your friends, a new friend every eight or twelve hours.
You have already eaten some yoghurt and jelly. I pour myself a second cup of coffee from a thermos I’ve brought from home, and settle down to help you eat more breakfast. The nurse returns. She chats as she checks the paraphernalia around your bed and finishes by rearranging your pillows. You tell her she does ‘good pillows’.
It is the small things that matter in intensive care.
The nurse asks about the rock, as always clasped in your left hand. You turn to me with a smile. And I tell of the day long ago, of a wintry walk along a beach of the southern ocean, the cracking wind, the intermittent rain and the two of us wanting to be nowhere else but here. You are striding ahead, I’m strolling the sand searching for shells. And there it is, in a dimple of water, a rock shaped like a heart, and a perfect fit in the palm of a hand. The rock is scored with veins just like a human heart. I slip it into my pocket making sure you don’t see, you who are so strict about beach scavenging. Back home I wash and polish the rock and put it on my desk. Often I find the rock clasped in my hand when I have been away with my thoughts.
In January 2004 when you were diagnosed with cancer I gave you my heart-shaped rock. It has accompanied you to every medical appointment, every hospital visit, every scan and blood test, and in between you keep it on your desk. A few days ago, when the ambulance people came to take you to hospital, you could hardly breathe, you could hardly talk, you couldn’t walk, but you asked for your rock.
Breakfast is cleared away. And with you now relaxed and easy in your pillows it is time for poetry. I take your two amulet books, Bruce Beaver’s Charmed Lives and Judy Beveridge’s Wolf Notes. I choose from the ‘Tiresias sees’ section of Charmed Lives because it is your favourite, and read the mysterious ‘Visitation’ and the ironic ‘Rejection’. You smile as I read the last lines of ‘Rejection’, when the lady poet is asked if she could use the narrator in a poem and her reply is scatological.
‘Bruce could be so naughty,’ you murmur.
From Judy’s book I choose ‘Tigers’, the poem which inspired your own ‘Smelling Tigers’. Your eyes are closed, the lines have disappeared from your face, the cheekbones and curve of your jaw are perfectly aligned. I tell you how beautiful you look, knowing that interruptions, even of poetry, are entirely justified when vanity is involved.
You’re very pleased. ‘But it won’t last. It’s the oxygen. It smoothes out the wrinkles.’
‘So, if ever the words dry up, we could open an oxygen clinic, promise everlasting youth and charge a fortune. Although,’ I add, ‘your words will never dry up.’
‘Never take the Goddess’s gifts for granted,’ you say.
I read you the poetry of your great and good friends; I read you juicy snippets from the newspaper; I ornament an article about the Liberal Party leadership stoushes and you add a few ornaments of your own. I have asked your old friends and family to send me stories of your childhood, and now I read to you about your high jinks at summer camp forty years ago; I read you through long walks in the Blue Mountains. The bells and alarms, the wheeze and sigh of oxygen, the voices of nurses and other patients, all the clamour of intensive care recedes, leaving us in a warm quiet world, just the two of us, with trees swaying in the breeze and parrots perched in the branches and wombats and echidnas meandering about. And as you sleep I keep my hand over yours, reading silently now through the passing time.
On the bed-end, directly in your line of vision, I have stuck pictures of a rainbow lorikeet, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, and a hand-painted galah; there’s a postcard of Akhenaten, the renegade Pharaoh who inspired your first verse novel, and a photo of Wystan asleep on my lap – your blue-eyed Jew and your blue Burmese cat together in the one frame.
‘All my favourite creatures,’ you said when I put up the display.
And now, awake again, you look at the pictures and point to the one of me and Wystan:
‘I like my two blues with me in intensive care.’
You’ll sleep some more later; for the moment you want to hear who has rung, who has not, who has e-mailed and who has not. We talk about your family and my family, we talk about friends, we crack jokes, we acknowledge disappointments. And we gossip as we always do. If people could hear us, we often say, they would be shocked at the banality. But they can’t hear us. This is our talk.
So much to do in intensive care, each day passes quickly. Tubes are checked, blood is taken, temperature recorded, your oxygen saturation measured, the flow of oxygen adjusted. No matter what else is happening I watch the figures on the screen. Every time your oxygen saturation rises and your breathing rate drops I feel a private joy, a private relief. Better breathing and less need for pure oxygen means your lungs are recuperating.
And so much to do to pass the time. I help you with food and drink, I read to you, I give you reassurance, we rake through literary gossip, most of it old, but plenty of pleasure in revisiting familiar entertainments. Some time during the morning I go outside to phone your family in Sydney and mine here in Melbourne to give them the daily update. Around lunch time I go for a walk in the Exhibition Gardens. You’re the Pagan not me, but as I stroll the paths I stop at trees, lay my hands on the bark and offer up my clumsy prayers.
I’m never gone for long but you are always pleased for my return. I relay news from the phone calls, but family and friends feel very distant here in intensive care. It is the present which occupies us: this room, the people in the other beds, their visitors, the doctors and nurses, the paramedics. It’s an island world here, I say, small and self-sufficient.
You nod your agreement and then laugh: ‘More Gilligan’s Island than Lord of the Flies.’
We embark on island one-upmanship – Treasure Island, Ithaca and Calypso’s island from The Odyssey, The Story of San Michele, The Magus – and would have continued if not for the arrival of the physio. She admires the frieze of pictures at the end of your bed.
‘Andy makes good home,’ you say.
Late in the day when Bill makes his evening round, you are lively, you crack jokes, you tell him you’re feeling stronger. You are marvellous. And later still when the night nurse comes on, you’re so happy because he’s one of your favourites. We both feel secure in the night ahead.
While the handover occurs you ask me for a last story before I leave.
‘Take me away,’ you say. ‘Take me somewhere special.’
Sailing south from Ushuaia, it is our first night at sea. It has been light since 4 a.m., although the roll of the ship woke me much earlier. Black-winged gulls swoop and circle about the vessel, their white breasts tinged rose from the narrow sun. Elsewhere is bleak and grey. The ship rises and falls in the treacherous waters of Drake’s Passage. Keeping my hands tight to the deck rail and my gaze streaming to the horizon, I let my body ride the ship’s movement; up and over and from side to side. Rain begins to fall and I pull a hood over my head. When the rain turns to hail, I step back from the torrent, shove my hands into gloves and watch the green decks disappear beneath a thick layer of white ice. A short time later come showers of sleet laced with flakes of snow. The ship tips and tosses, and as I sway with its sway and roll with its roll how very comforting it is. And then – as quickly as it began – the precipitation stops, the air clears and I can see all the way to the horizon.
I am aware of the distant burr of the ship’s engine, the clash of waves, the raging wind, yet as I gaze over the ocean, even with the wind furious on my face, I feel swaddled in this wild chill. Huge petrels and albatrosses now fly with the ship, guiding and protecting us, it seems to me, as they soar through the roiling air. And suddenly I spot a fin whale, and then another, huge smooth creatures close enough to hear them blow, and a rush of excitement bursts through me in unison with their eerie explosions.
I am standing at the ship’s rail when I see the first sea-ice, transparent pats floating with the swell. Soon, white pancake-like ice floes appear, and finally the first icebergs – smallish this far north, the size of a house or a rural bank, many weathered to ice sculptures. In the distance I imagine I see a man steering a white boat and, closer, a dinosaur nose to nose with a giant wombat. A wombat in Antarctica! By 11 p.m. on our second night there are huge floating masses of ice, other-worldly in the dusky light.
And at last, the land mass of Antarctica. The mountains of snow and rock plunging to the water, glaciers filling the spaces between the peaks and sliding into the sea. We are sailing through the sublime, like surfing the notes of a Bach fugue, like sinking into the canvas of a Rothko painting. Just let yourself go, lean into this brashly inhuman, incomprehensibly beautiful place. Ah the seduction of it, pulling you down through layers of consciousness to the bottomless depths of pure imagination. This is no landscape for the ditherer; when you fall for Antarctica you fall hard and heavy. You’d die for its untamed and uncorrupted heart.
Not even in your dreams is there such an absence of human breath. It is not simply the silence or the pure air or the lack of dirt, although these are persistently strange. More eerily poignant are the animals: they are not afraid of us. Fin whales cavort in the waters around the ship, and orcas too, so glamorous in their polished black and white. Birds fly close enough to look you in the eye. And the seals – the lethal leopard seals, the slender crabeaters and the cat-faced weddells lazing on land or sea ice – none of them stir as we pass, nor do the elephant seals humped on the ice like bags of blubber. And the gentoo penguins with their white eyebrow marking, and the little chinstraps, and my favourite, the Adelies, with their white necks and bellies and smooth black backs; when we land on Antarctica itself, penguins waddle around and past us not even bothering to be curious.
When there is too much ice for landing on the continent we putt about in our Zodiac inflatables. Down here at sea level the ice-sculptures glisten wetly; they have intricate peepholes and elegant Barbara Hepworth curves and bulging Henry Moore bodies, and blues and greens so astonishing you think you can taste them. We move through a thin layer of ice; it breaks like toffee.
Other times, the katabatic winds, the wild unpredictable blustering unique to these parts, keep us on board. There are one hundred and thirty of us on this expedition, but sometimes only five or six of us on deck. I pull my hood down low, I am wrapped into myself, a tiny breathing organism, a speck tossed around in the vast breathing organism of Antarctica.
I think I have experienced the best imaginable, but as in the best year of one’s life, there is always better to come. The Lemaire Channel on the north-western side of the Antarctic Peninsula is a body of water about a mile across at its narrowest. The mountains slope down on both sides, the water itself is filled with ice floes and bergy bits. And the atmosphere is misty-magical: even while immersed in it, it is hard to fathom. I remain at the ship’s rail throughout the slow passage through the seven miles of Lemaire. With so much sea-ice the vessel requires a delicate manoeuvring. The air is brutally cold, there’s intermittent sleet and snow, yet I cannot drag myself away. The noise of the ship’s engine no longer impinges, nor do other people, even the cold recedes. And my own edges dissolve; the clamouring self is quiet as I nestle into this place.
We anchor off Petermann Island and take the Zodiacs to shore. At the edge of the steep cliffs, deep crevasses slice through the ice; the deeper the fracture the bluer the aquamarine flush. In time, huge chunks will calve away and become new icebergs. High on the slopes of Petermann Island I look down the Lemaire Channel. I take in the water, the icebergs, the cliffs of ice scored with deep cracks, and I want to wait, days or weeks, to witness the moment when the cliff will calve off and fall into the sea. And the water will rise in a shock wave and the huge city-block-sized mass of ice will right itself and float off down the channel out to the open sea.
The snow is deep and soft on Petermann Island. I sink to my thighs and have to be rescued. Chilled and wet, my face stinging with ice, my feet lumbering with cold, I am shamelessly happy.
There are no human fingerprints here. Away from the tiny pinpoints of the stations, there are no pots or jewellery, neither bones nor ruins, and it occurs to me that archaeology could well be a form of colonisation. Lacking co-ordinates from history and cultural memory I resort to the imagination to embrace this landscape, to take it in. I slough off self-consciousness, I silence my narratives, and I know the world anew among all this ice. And perhaps it is not so remarkable that the vast majority of fiction and poetry that exists about Antarctica has been written by people who have never been here: Dante, Coleridge, Jules Verne, Nabokov, Ursula Le Guin – even the imaginary Ern Malley had a turn with Antarctica. Antarctica as a flight of the mind, the great imagined place. Indeed, there is no more precise metaphor for the imagination than Antarctica, and I find myself wondering if it is possible for the imagination to imagine itself. In the next moment I decide it doesn’t matter, not when I feel so drawn to this vast place. And suddenly, out of nowhere it comes to me: this sensation, this experience of Antarctica is incessant wonder. You cannot remain in the landscape as yourself, with your usual ways of seeing and hearing and moving and smelling and breathing. Everything that you have known yourself to be, and not just your perceptions but your memories and language and the identity they support, all need to be cast aside when this great white land begins.
I stand among ice and icebergs surrounded by icy mountains on all sides; I stand in the cold and shuffling silence. I recognise this place from dreams, from yearnings, from the punch of illusive passions. I feel as if I have come home.
3. BETWEEN COVERS
Your absence is always intolerable.
You are where my home begins and ends.
Bruce Beaver. Charmed Lives. ‘Heart and Home’ p. 76.
The Australian cricket team is playing South Africa and D is not on the couch watching the TV. Not there with her feet up on the coffee table, Wystan on her lap, an array of books around her, a mug of tea in reach. D is not on the couch, she’s not in the house. Wystan and I wander around alone.
From room to room. The kitchen, the lounge, past her grandfather’s bookcase, into her study. Sit on her chair. Stare out her window. Touch her computer, her iPod, her glasses, the scatter of model animals on her desk. Sift through her papers, flip through her notebooks. Back to the kitchen – her mug on the bench, her shortbreads in their jar, her roasted almonds going stale. Outside to the garden, touch the apricot tree as if I might draw her from its leaves, gaze up at the sky as if I might pull her down from the clouds. Never still, nothing works, I’m trapped in a space I hate, a place that demands such effort, a place that could be Hell.
I count the weeks since she died; each Wednesday, the day of her dying, brings a migraine. I wonder when one stops counting the weeks. Or is one tethered forever to a zero of a new era? Don’t know what to do and I always know what to do. I keep thinking there must be something, some strategy to bring her back, I just need to work it out.
Such a thin soup is ‘my future’ when compared with ‘our future’. This month. Next month. Next year. A life without the shared blessings, the celebrations enjoyed, the disappointments cushioned, our political discussions, our family talk, the gossip and laughter, our walks, our meals (I can’t walk, I can’t eat) – and our rituals. The wine at 6 p.m., the thanks for our good fortune, our glasses always raised to her health, the libations at the apricot tree (the apricot tree which died and is now thriving again. Why did it survive and not you?). So many rituals established over the years: the ice-cream at the cinema, holding hands during the film, the dancing in the lounge room. And our morning ritual: me sitting cross-legged on the quilt, you still in bed. I’ve been up an hour, you are not long awake, and here’s your coffee and here’s my second cup of coffee and Wystan snuggles between us as we talk.
So many poets
in the cold faery spaces
between their frost-bitten ears
How lucky I am
to hear you, darling,
coming up the stairs
to smell the coffee
floating ahead of you
like my favourite incense.
I am shoring up our past – the photos, cards, letters, e-mails, text messages – so much paper and so many words to brighten the bleak future. In these early days of her absence, I actually add to her visibility in our house. She is gone so the note in her handwriting to put out the rubbish bins, her place on the couch, her favourite mug, the books she was reading, her fossils, her favourite jumper, the pen next to her bed assume talismanic qualities. I touch her things all the time. Very occasionally it is as if I touch her.
Valium puts me to sleep, but it lasts only a few hours. And there are no dreams. Up at 5.30 and while I try to act as if everything is normal – breakfast, my morning reading – everything is spoiled. Except her work. I decide to start at the beginning, her first book, impose some order – as if that might restore my equilibrium. But there’s no familiarity with Little Hoodlum, no touch. I take from my DP shelf (See, I said to her, years ago, a whole shelf of you.) my various copies of Akhenaten, make myself another coffee and withdraw to the couch with ‘the book that made you look at me twice’ – D’s inscription in the splendid Hyland House reissue.
It was May, 1992, and the Victorian Women’s Writers’ Train, a National Book Council initiative which brought together eight women writers to travel through rural Victoria for a week giving talks, readings and workshops. There was a reading on the first evening and how shocked I was when D stood up and read from Akhenaten. This annoying, noisy, intrusive woman who from the moment of our first meeting earlier in the day had rubbed me up the wrong way, performed like no poet I had ever seen before, and with poetry that was, literally, breathtaking. And it’s working again. Akhenaten is working. I read very slowly, the whole so familiar but many individual poems forgotten. It is such a passionate work: Akhenaten’s vision, his yearning for more and different, the fire and the disappointments, the achievements and the losses. D always said Akhenaten was the most autobiographical of her characters.
I have taken the turquoise scarab from her desk and carry it in my pocket. You can’t separate / a heart / from its brother. Akhenaten says in ‘Scarab’, his prayer over Smenkhkare’s dead body.
I love Akhenaten.
Days of panic, days of attack, the point of a knife poised to plunge, and my own voice haranguing me: what do I need to do to help her, what do I need to do to bring her back? Nothing has prepared me for this. The interminable longing, this interminable missing. I struggle to get through each day only for another impossible day to loom. I flitter from this to that, I can’t stick with any task. But most of all I can’t make sense of her death. Suddenly my whole life has become linear A.
I used to take walks alone to think, to work in my head; I can’t walk. I used to cook – delicious meals we would eat together; I can’t cook. I used to enjoy food, now I feel a boulder in my stomach. When first we met D hardly noticed food, and not simply because she was riding the riffs of a new passion: I soon realised she was not interested in food. About three months after the writers’ train (D could tell me the exact date – for a girl who ‘didn’t get numbers’ she certainly got dates) she managed a stopover in Melbourne on her way from Sydney down to Hobart for a gig. I decided to cook for her – always such a personal gift – tomato and roasted capsicum soup, pasta with my home-made pesto, a rocket and pear salad. D shovelled in the food, she hardly chewed much less savoured, she heaped salad on top of the pasta. Finally – I couldn’t stop myself – I asked whether she was enjoying the food. I might just as well have asked if she liked the décor of the house. She never warmed to décor, but she did to food. So many rituals developed around food that, over time, cooking and shared meals formed part of the connective tissue of home. Cooking was for us, cooking fed our shared narrative.
Now the narrative has been blown up. No slow unravelling here, what has happened is immediate, instantaneous, explosive. I had a life that was infused with D, now it has burst. And I have no desire to rebuild it differently. Grief is like the hard edge of even numbers. 10/12/2008. The date of her death is sharp and steel-plated.
Hours would pass in this house, D downstairs with her books, me up in my study with mine; I can’t read for more than thirty minutes. And music, always my emotional interpreter and comfort, I can’t listen to music and I certainly don’t dare play the piano. I can stroke and cuddle Wystan. I can go to the letter box and collect the day’s condolence cards. I can read the cards. I can look at photos. And I can read her books. Sometimes I think the screech of my own longing actually blocks her out.
After a while photos lose their power: they don’t recall the living person, they recall only themselves. And memories are no help either, their immateriality only reinforces the very real palpable life you have lost. The books are better – D’s books, other books too. I am calm when I read, and time passes without my having to shove it along.
After Akhenaten I start on her 1996 collection Crete. The inscription in my copy is all wind and spark: ‘For my-at-last leopard, music, park-stripped-to-its-bones, beautiful friend, Trojan Horse, honey Daimon.’ I begin at the beginning then cheat and whip across to ‘Why I Love Your Body’.
I put your body
and the terrifying future
of my body
This poem was written only a year or so after we met. It gained in its truth. Night after night these past nearly five years D would wake in the dark and turn to me. And I would put my body between her and the history of horrors, between her and the terrifying future of [her] body. I would keep her well.
I fill up on her books and all the while the house is emptying of her. I’ve finished the honey we used together, the Vegemite is getting low; her peanut butter will go rancid before I throw it out. I never have any fresh milk; there are two unopened boxes of her blueberries in the freezer; wherever there is running water there is a container of antiseptic liquid soap which, like the peanut butter, has remained untouched since D went to hospital; yesterday I threw out her mouldy yoghurt. And this morning I used one of her towels clean from the linen cupboard, and on my skin was a long straight hair and now that too has gone. These things which linger and go bad, the other things we shared but I finish alone, all these things which have out-lasted her.
It’s just our things
dissolving in the end
even the most sticky
of our clutching
I wonder what Dot would do if I had been the one to die. And I find myself smiling: she had such a poor tolerance for misery.
I first read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in 1973. Mine is a slender Faber and Faber edition. The glue of the spine has hardened, a bunch of pages at the beginning has broken free. At my first reading, Lewis’ grapplings with his God were irrelevant, but now I find myself longing for faith.
Be still, is the message of this book, let your mind wander, make space for her – H for Lewis, D for me – to come to you. You cannot summon your beloved on demand simply because you are desperate. You can’t make the dead live again – Lewis doesn’t think even his God can do that. I don’t need C.S. Lewis to tell me that intoning to a photograph is no substitute for conversations with D, but it helps to know there are facets of this state shared by others.
Lewis writes: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’ Not for me: I’m not afraid. And as time passes, I am realising it is not grief that is the issue for me, it’s loss and the chill of homelessness. It’s this alien existence, this hostile future, this aloneness which is fast lurching into loneliness, the people who don’t understand and those who nearly do, the crushing house, the food moulding in the pantry, my life hacked from its moorings. Out in the open and shockingly exposed, I have lost my bearings.
Books, books, I grab anything that might stop the attacks. I read for calm, I read for consolation. I read for familiarity and understanding. I long to feel firm ground beneath my feet. I read Tennyson’s In Memoriam and wonder as I have before at Alfred’s depth of passion for Arthur Hallam – betrothed to Tennyson’s sister but occupying the better part of Tennyson’s own heart. I read Rilke’s Requiem, written for a friend the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker who died following the birth of her only child. Paula married and she wanted to paint, but the times and her milieu made it impossible for her to do both. Only after she was gone did Rilke realise what a great painter she was. With Tennyson I am interested but not moved; the Rilke I find unbearably sad.
David Rieff, in the memoir of his mother’s dying, Swimming in a Sea of Death, is wracked by guilt. I don’t understand it, or at least not from his rather costive and polite account. Susan Sontag was desperate to live; in her last illness she was prepared to suffer terrible treatments offering only a remote chance of success because of her love of life. It was her choice: her son could not have stopped her.
D loved life like no one I have ever known; life was her great and good fortune. And she was terrified of death. But she would never have chosen as Sontag did. I know this with certainty, for as we stood together in a Brooklyn gallery back in January 2007 surrounded by Annie Liebowitz’s horrible theft of Sontag’s dying, D told me so.
I read Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened of, a book exploring the author’s fear of death. (Shocking title, I say aloud, forgetting that D cannot answer me.) I have no fear of my own death, but many of the issues Barnes raises as a non-believer are relevant to me now. I know I can’t summon up faith at will. I have, however, created an afterlife consisting of spirit dimensions – no God required – that are beyond our comprehension and certainly beyond description. I imagine these dimensions to be like the almost unimaginable quantum world. One can’t ascribe thoughts, feelings, sensations to them – such responses are all too human. So I am thinking instead of a wave-like/particle-like X out in the cosmos with which I can connect. And that’s D: happy, without anxiety, without cancer. The thought eases my distress, but it does nothing to fill the terrifying spaces.
And at last to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, recommended by many but deliberately avoided. There’s history attached to this book. Inscribed in the copy I bought for D I have written: ‘To my healthy D, How lucky we are that your experience was a dream run from woe to go – and on’. It is dated 30/10/05 – just over three years before she died. I read the book now in a single sitting. What a disappointment it is. Rather than the raw unflinching grappling with death I expected, Didion tries to skirt around, leap over, even silence thoughts of her recently dead husband, John, and of her seriously ill daughter, Quintana. I do the opposite: with the real Dot gone, I grab on to anything and everything that is associated with her, as if I might build up a proxy Dot. And Didion writes from a distance, as if she is describing a film; even her ‘waves of grief’ are cool. What I feel is not waves but a welling up, as if someone is squeezing me from my feet, and the moisture sweeps up through my body and oozes from my eyes, leaving my body limp like an empty tube of toothpaste. Maybe waves, so smooth and well-shaped, attach to grief, while welling (such messy spilling) is loss. I feel lost and empty, I feel fury and hatred. I feel nothing so civilised as grief.
My weeks and months of loss is everyone else’s getting on with their lives. Of course they know D is no longer in the world, but they are not bludgeoned with her absence over the second cup of coffee, cleaning up the kitchen, changing Wystan’s litter tray, receiving advance copies of my new novel without a shared celebration, sitting alone in the middle of the couch, the silent drink at 6 p.m., her empty bathroom, the solitary bed. And mostly they don’t want to know about it.
People fall short – and how can they do otherwise? What I want they can’t give me, no matter how understanding they are. You have to do this suffering alone. But the house has become a cage, a cell, a barbed-wire enclosure. Far from the sanctuary of the past, this place is now endless solitary confinement. I rage and rage within these walls. I am furious at Kübler-Ross with her smug, orderly stages of grief. I’m furious at those distant friends and acquaintances now showering me with sympathy and embraces, who not only dismissed D in life but actually did not like her. I rage at the heat, at the drought, at the empty house, at the food rotting in the fridge. I rage at Telstra and AXA and Westpac. I rage at the cancer itself. And so much anger over those articles written by people who ignored her and her work in life, yet now have leaped on the death-wagon for their own self-serving purposes.
So much effort and yielding so very little. I explode at the Telstra guy who deserves it, I explode at close friends and family who don’t. I explode at the sky, the stars, the dishes in the sink, the dead grass, the dusty earth. I’m an addict to e-mail, to anger, to anxiety, to human contact. Stop, I tell myself, you’re making it worse, you’re driving yourself mad. And then quietly quietly I read her e-mails to me and mine to her, I read our cards and letters. Our voices so close and clear.
We were indeed imperishably marvellous.
Some days drag. Others gallop along. I see many people, I read, I think, I fill the days in activity and silence – all in service to the fact she is not here. And I look for omens. A single rose suddenly blooming in the garden in this hot dry summer, surely a sign of her spirit, and a white-faced heron down at the Yarra another sign. I latch on to falling photos and sulphur-crested cockatoos; I never stop searching. And it’s exhausting because it is not faith or omens I am wanting, but D. I look for her in trees and birds and the shapes of clouds; I look for her in the inexplicable happenstance of everyday life.
I play with Wystan, I do the dishes, I shop for food, I talk to the neighbours. I do these things consciously, as if I could trick myself into forgetting that life as I know it and want it has gone up in smoke. Poof! But death will trample the fresh grass whether I understand it or not, death will house the nettles whether I see them or not. Death is the sting.
Another Wednesday, another migraine. A real shocker this week. Is death always so punitive? And suddenly out of the pit of the morning my computer slips into the photo library screen-saver and there before me is a photo of D taken from behind as she marches in her sturdy, healthy way down the street towards the park.
I plunge into my photo library, find the photo, print it and perch it on the coffee table, this oh-so-familiar figure. D would complain she does not look sufficiently sylph-like. But it’s her, dressed in her purple fleece, her ’best’ black, now-very-faded Versace jeans, white runners, arms bent at the elbows, the broad back, the strong stocky legs. I send the photo to close friends and family. They agree: it could not be anyone but Dot.
It is August, 2009; eight months have passed. There are periods now when I am not thinking of her, not struggling to hold her close, not struggling at all. I berate myself: I don’t want her to slip away. But the fact remains, there are moments of normality, unrehearsed normality. Even the incomprehension – she can’t have gone forever – can become normalised, and hard on the heels of that: I am here without her – no howling, nor even resignation, as if her death is a fact like my being small or Jewish or living in Melbourne. Just an ordinary fact. I would prefer the pain and the howling, I would prefer the loss and longing. I hate that I would ever calmly accept her absence, hate that I would calmly accept being alone.
But you have to make a life alone. It is almost as if you have to push the absent beloved aside in order to go on living – even when you don’t want to push them aside. I feel the world tugging at me. The rhythm of conversation, the play of music, a spattering of rain on parched skin, the hot hungry skin itself. Dot died and with her my collaborator in this wonderful wild world. But the world remains and it does beckon. The two things – keeping her with me and having a future – are so unfairly opposed.
This house, our house, is filled with books. Thousands of them, Dot’s and mine, and surprisingly little overlap. I wander the shelves of my library. Now and then I take down a book and recall the circumstances of its reading. Other books I have forgotten completely. Plenty of pleasures to be had here, I say to myself. My entire life’s journey travelled with books, in words, in what is portable and invisible, what can be carried with me when life slips off the rails. And fiction most of all: I have always found a natural home in the mutable texture of narrative. And it is a home in uncertainty. You pick up a book and you don’t know where it will take you, but you trust it to take you somewhere. Throughout my life, in calm times or tumultuous, home is where the books are, raucous and uncomfortable, vibrant and enduring.
I read for hours now, and no longer just death books. I read Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces and his excellent Engleby, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, David Malouf’s Ransom, Steve Carroll’s A Lost Life, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. And biographies, too: Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch, and new studies of Anna Akhmatova, Thomas Mann and Robert Oppenheimer. And old favourites: Henry James and Edith Wharton, Milosz and Whitman, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. While I am reading the storms recede and time passes without leaving scars.
Henry James wrote: ‘It is art that makes life.’
I am reading and writing again. There are times when I am living again. As I read, my mind wanders off just like it used to do, and I find myself in the rough and tumble of the imagination. What a relief to find I still can go there. And the familiar process brings such consolation. How I love the surprises to be found, the wonder of a mind released from all restraints. I feel properly alive again, and it doesn’t matter that it won’t last: it is enough to know the lolloping mind hasn’t deserted me forever.
Each night I go outside and stand in the chill night. I no longer search in the dark for a face, a voice, an embrace – I look up into vast space and wonder what is out there, feel the temptation and danger of unknown and uncertain possibilities. Back inside I sit at the end of the couch and reach for my books. I am reading Barenboim’s A Life in Music; his passion, and he’s such a passionate man, becomes my passion. And Philip Fisher’s Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences to understand better the texture of being alive. And Thomas Mann’s magisterial Buddenbrooks. I hover over the books and then select the novel. I am two thirds of the way through: how it pulls me along, how it pulls me away from myself. I settle into the couch and read my way home.
All poetry by Dorothy Porter. Taken from Crete (1996) and The Bee Hut, Black Inc, 2009.
Published in HOME TRUTHS. Edited by Carmel Bird. 4th Estate 2010
It is a mystery the way in which the right book presents itself exactly when it is needed. It falls into your hands. It demands to be read. At the time you may not understand its relevance, may wonder why you are reading about Einstein, for example, when you should be reading your way into your next novel. Yet you feel an imperative to read this particular book at this particular time.
I’ve known this power of books ever since Enid Blyton provided such an effective escape from the crowded world of the family. Rilke materialised when I was struggling with my first serious, self-destructive love affair. Henry James, Patrick White and Virginia Woolf have all at various times pulled me to my senses when paralysed by Yeats’ choice of the perfection of the life or art – a false dichotomy, incidentally, but in the furious stagnation of self-doubt, whether true or false seems not to matter. My life’s illuminations have been marked out by books. I have come to believe that in the far reaches of the imagination there is a knowingness so powerful that when it flexes its muscles conscious life is transformed.
This year I have been reading about physics and physicists. Never before have I had a particular interest in science, and while there is a scientist in my new novel, she plays only a minor role and she is not a physicist but a microbiologist. I began my reading with Einstein, then moved on to the nuclear physicists of the first half of the twentieth century. I’ve read accounts of the unravelling of the intricacies of the atom, and biographies of most of the major players. There have been collections of letters, and odd gems like C.P. Snow’s intimate Snowish accounts, Variety of Men and The Physicists. One book points the way to several others, and I have searched them all out with the same desperation I feel when struck with a migraine far from home and without my pills. I must possess these books: library copies will not do. I’ve trawled through secondhand bookshops, I’ve bunkered down in Readings Books, I’ve spent hours in Amazon’s loaded stacks. And every now and then, in what has been the most difficult year of my life, I wonder at my choice of reading, for it makes no immediate sense.
My usual way would see me going with the current, knowing that sense will eventually emerge. I have learned to be wary of questions asked too soon. They can corral understanding, even shunt it in the wrong direction. At the beginning of any new interest, one is simply too ignorant to know what questions to ask. And besides, there is something intriguingly anarchic about understanding in the making. But this year with this reading I wanted explanations and I wanted them immediately. Powerless in the circumstances in which I found myself, understanding would, I believed, bring certainty and control.
It may be part of the rich fabric of life that beloved parents are felled by dementia, and partners are struck with life-threatening illnesses, and new novels refuse to be written, but for these events to happen simultaneously as they have this year, seems a little too rich. Between consulting rooms and medical specialists, between dead time at my desk and desultory chores, I rein in a reckless imagination and barricade myself against gale force fears. I long for predictability and certainty, I long to have my old life back.
In the confusion of my days, I read about the men who spear-headed the field of nuclear physics. There is a quality about these brilliant men – and with the exceptions of Lise Meitner and the Curie mother and daughter they are all men – something in their quest for truth, for things solid and immutable and finite, that I find utterly compelling. It reminds me how non-believers so often turn to God in extremis. That’s what I must be doing, I, a confirmed relativist, tell myself.
I hail from the desire-for-certainty-is-self-delusion school. I do not believe the world changed on September 11th, 2001, that in the space of a few minutes life on this planet was suddenly rendered less certain. Terror may have achieved new heights on 9/11, but hatred, greed, dogmatic belief, insatiable power and a lack of respect for human life are scored into human history. Whether neighbourhood, city, nation, continent or world, terrorism in all its shock and brutality has long been an appalling reality. From a secular perspective, the broad flow of human existence has always been characterised by uncertainty – and in the intimate sphere of family, friends and lovers as well. Biographies, collections of letters, even one’s own life supply ample evidence.
That notwithstanding, at the beginning of a year for which I had no precedent, I was desperate to make sense of it. Wisdom in hindsight is always wisdom arriving too late and I was floundering. The sense I was wanting was of a very particular type: it would bring me certainty and control, it would restore the familiarity of the life I had known. Indeed so desperate was I for certainty, I was prepared to construct it where none in fact existed.
In 1905 Albert Einstein published five papers in the Annalen der Physik, three of which fundamentally altered understanding of light, matter, space and time. He was 26 years old and working in the Swiss Patent Office. In a single year the world, indeed the universe, became at once less mysterious and more awe-inspiring. Suddenly the nature of space and matter and energy was in intellectual reach. It made for a wonderful sense of certainty.
The certainty was short-lived. From the 1920s onwards, largely as a result of Einstein’s own work, a number of scientists, including the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg of the uncertainty principle, concluded that the only way of describing the world was through probabilities. According to Bohr’s principle of complementarity, matter can either be regarded as waves or particles but never both at once. As to what it is at any particular time depends on the method of observation and measurement.
The quantum world should have appealed to the relativist in me. It didn’t. And neither did it appeal to Einstein: God does not play at dice, he was often heard to remark. For the last half of his life, Einstein devoted himself to the development of a unified field theory which would make sense of the main physical forces of the world. He died at the age of 76 having failed to find his theory. But for nearly 40 years he did not waver from the search. The greatest mind of the twentieth century hungered for certainty. I know exactly how he felt.
I move on to Rutherford, a man from an impoverished rural New Zealand background who became one of the greatest experimental physicists of all time. It was Rutherford who first revealed the basic structure of the atom; ‘my atom’ he used to call it. He was a big bear of a man who discovered the smallest matter then known to exist. Such a lovely weird balance. From Rutherford I move to his protégé and assistant, James Chadwick, the man who discovered the neutron. And with the main structures now in place, the heavy nucleus of protons and neutrons, and the lighter orbiting electrons, it is just a matter of time before Cockcroft at the Cavendish constructs the first particle accelerator, and Ernest Lawrence over in Berkeley builds his ever-larger cyclotrons which will eventually be used in the collection of enriched uranium.
Newtonian physics had stood unchallenged for hundreds of years; indeed, at the beginning of the twentieth century some thinkers believed that with Newton’s discoveries the main work in physics was finished. Then Einstein appeared, quickly followed by the nuclear physicists. This was Rutherford’s ‘heroic age of physics’, a period characterised by an unparalleled sense of wonder of what was being discovered. The world was, quite literally, being revealed anew.
Over the past sixty years the discoveries of those times have been camouflaged by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and spiralling weapons development. But the scientists’ mission was entirely different: they were revealing the mysteries of matter, not creating nuclear weapons. Indeed, as late as 1933, in an address to the British Association, Rutherford emphasised the pure science of their work in a statement surprising for its lack of prescience. ‘These transformations of the atom are of extraordinary interest to scientists,’ he said, ‘but we cannot control atomic energy to an extent which would be of any value commercially, and I believe we are not likely ever to be able to do so.’
As I read, I find myself immersed in their work as it happens, and my own doubts and fears are quiet. It is as if I have taken leave of myself and my life. In this work of the great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century my mind is beautifully exercised – on their terrain, not mine.
I buy more books, and not just science, but also those time capsule books which summarise the events of a year in a couple of hundred pages of print and pictures. I have never before been drawn to these types of books, but they’ll be useful, I tell myself, when my new novel, which opens in the 1970s, starts to move again. I stack the year books on a shelf cleared for the purpose. The shelf fills very quickly. Months pass before it occurs to me, with some amusement I must confess, that if books bought in service to an emerging novel could actually write the thing, then my new novel would already be in the bookshops and a sequel on the way.
While the year books sit untouched on their shelf, the science books accompany me to assorted clinics, hospitals and specialist treatment centres. My daily anxieties, together with the deeper worries about an uncertain future, are hushed by the amazing discoveries of the physicists and the more ordinary vagaries of their lives. I read about Oppenheimer, the wunderkind of theoretical physics, who headed up the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos but never produced the fundamental and original work expected of him. He seems a deeply moral man of broad wisdoms and peculiar innocence, a man who, like so many politically committed people, was also politically naive. Like Bertrand Russell, Oppenheimer worked as if propelled by certainty – different certainties at different times – even though one suspects neither Oppenheimer nor Russell would want to defend the view. I feel strangely drawn to Oppie. He commanded huge loyalty from students and colleagues, and yet tripped himself up – out of pride, or thoughtlessness, or an eagerness to do the right thing. I don’t know and I’m not sure he did either.
I read Bertrand Russell’s three volume autobiography in conjunction with Caroline Moorehead’s 1992 biography and Ray Monk’s two-volume account. As his life advanced, Russell was increasingly immured in an idea of self as immutable as the mathematical proofs which absorbed him as a much younger man. He came to act as if he were his own idea of perfection, and how he stumbled with the burden of that heavy carapace.
I am tempted to explain my simultaneous reading of three versions of Russell’s life as a relativist’s attempt to subvert notions of truth and certainty and a single water-tight interpretation. While this explanation is ideologically appealing, the fact is I’m attracted to Russell’s flaws, his flaws and ambiguities – as I was to Oppie’s – all of which are highlighted by the simultaneous reading of the three accounts.
At the same time I’ve been carefully avoiding the ambiguities in my own life. And yet my readings of Russell show that where there is no ambiguity there is little impetus for reflection. Cut off from reason and locked in a world of obdurate desires and singular passions, might I be thwarting attempts to make sense of my own circumstances? The thought is fleeting, I can’t hold onto it. But months later, it will come back to me.
I return to the physicists, to Edward Teller and his overriding passion for the Super, the bomb which would make the A-bomb seem like a penny bunger. After the war, when Oppenheimer warned against the dangers of the H-bomb and recommended that discussions take place with the Soviets over the development and control of nuclear weapons, Teller took it as a personal attack on himself and his work. Teller’s singular intellectual passion contributed to his betrayal of Oppenheimer at the 1954 hearings which resulted in Oppie’s security clearance being withdrawn and his personal integrity impugned. In the world in which Teller contrived to live, he had no doubt he was right. Teller was a theorist, yet his purview was strangely small, and in the singularity of his focus he was unable see beyond his own consuming desire.
Of all I have read about Teller, I am particularly struck by the fact that when he played Mozart on the piano he would always play fortissimo. This demands quite an astonishing insensitivity. As a child I used to resolve my confusions and sense of powerlessness at the piano. While I drew on several composers, it was Mozart’s subtle intricacies which invariably brought clarity and stamina. I haven’t played the piano, not once this year. The instrument remains closed, I give it wide berth. And every time I select a C.D. I have been aware of not choosing Bach whose music has always brought illuminations in difficult times. And neither have I taken my usual long walks, during which my mind let off its leash will invariably find a way through the day’s tangle. (Most of the physicists were great walkers incidentally. They would leave the laboratory with a problem unresolved, and ten or more kilometres later they would return, if not with a solution, then an idea to follow up.) It is as if I can’t afford to risk the wild, lolloping imaginative leaps that Bach and piano playing and long purposeless walks can bring. Not now, not when I’d sell my soul for certainty.
As I read about the nuclear physicists, concepts I used to condemn to the strong-room of intellectual fundamentalism – truth, certainty, absolutes, facts – exert their pull on me. Indeed, after a life-long antipathy to any contrived and arbitrary certainties, I feel the force of a whole vanguard of unreason. I’m on an anarchic trajectory, nothing is familiar – either in the circumstances of my life or in the way I am making sense of them.
While I still cannot explain the lure of the physicists, it is with relief and eagerness I return to them. One of the most compelling is Leo Szilard, the brilliant Hungarian who first theorised the chain reaction in nuclear fission while crossing Southampton Row, the man who anticipated the ethical and social responsibilities associated with the new nuclear discoveries and struggled over many years to alert the authorities.
I am captured by that detail ’while crossing Southampton Row’. I may just as well have noted that Szilard had lived in Berlin since 1919, that he was a newly arrived immigrant to England – he arrived in April 1933, one of the first to respond to Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws – but there is something comfortingly solid about the Southampton Row aside which manages to inject the ordinary into what is so extraordinary, that moment of discovery when sense is revealed and a theory comes together. I’ve stood on that exact same spot on Southampton Row near Russell Square. It is as if the pleasure and certainty of Szilard’s discovery is my own. I detect a fluttering across my field of vision – and then it is gone.
While my life is being wrenched from its moorings, worse is happening further afield. Iraq is hurtling towards civil war, the hatreds inflaming the Israel-Palestine conflagration strengthen, war and rape are rife in several African countries, the people starve in Sudan. Amid rampant uncertainty, absolute hate is having a field day. Obdurate hate. Hate which colonises all of consciousness and renders reason irrelevant.
I find myself wondering about other passions when fully inflated – love, resentment, grief, fear, anger – whether they too, defy reason. And my own circumstances: hard to know whether I am caught within absolute fear, or whether I am struggling to keep it at bay. Whichever way, I am swamped. Reason waves fleetingly from the horizon, but before I can grab it, I am pulled under again.
I yearn for bedrock where the fundamental elements of my life are safe. Reality will not comply, so instead I contrive moments of respite by trespassing on possible futures. At night, outside under the stars I indulge in a type of safe theorising in which I find myself free of the uncertainties of the present time.
I do not fool myself. These nocturnal imaginings are contrived and restricted, having little in common with, for example, the free-flying imaginings of the early stages of a novel. They are perfect in construction and their end-point is predetermined: I’m in control and I achieve the solid ground and perfect outcomes of my desiring. But the vision is strangely small, the sort of thing one might trap in a butterfly net.
Contrived perfection: the concept seems very odd. I wonder whether all perfections might be so limiting. All absolutes. And I know I should re-read Plato, and because Proust reveals everything, I should consult him too; but instead I return to the scientists and to perfection via the back door. At the age of eleven, when Bertrand Russell first began Euclid, he described it as ‘one of the great events of [his] life, as dazzling as first love.’ And John Dee, Elizabethan magus, mathematician and astronomer described mathematics as the mind of God. Theoretical physics, like mathematics, reveals an a priori belief in truth, and imbedded in the truth are certainty and perfection. Yet while this belief contributes to the fuel of scientific work, it is assumed that today’s theory will become tomorrow’s outdated thinking, and the semblance of permanence is no more than that.
It is perhaps in a similar way that for the secular amongst us, ideas of perfection provide yardsticks, goals to shape behaviour. No harm in that. But I sense something more sinister here: that with ideas of perfection, or indeed with any absolutes, reason is a casualty. After all, absolutes are absolutes, there are no shadings or gradings, no flaws or ambiguities. It is as if ideas of perfection co-opt the imagination into service and then make it work with both hands tied behind its back.
If reason is one casualty, I begin to suspect that engagement with reality is another. I put aside my physicists to re-read Cynthia Ozick’s The Cannibal Galaxy. In this novel, Joseph Brill, a teacher devoted to his calling, has waited his whole life for the steady stream of mediocre students to be interrupted by just one prodigy. Through several threadbare decades he has imagined what it will be like, what he will do, the wonder of it. But when the prodigy finally appears, Brill does not recognise her, for she is not as he imagined. His idea of perfection – or is it his singular passion? – has sabotaged reality.
While I am reading Ozick, my friend Kate rings to tell me she has fallen in love again. Every eighteen months or so Kate falls in love. Once he was a man she tripped over at the opening of the Melbourne Film Festival; another time she met him at a crowded cocktail party; the most recent fellow happened to be staying with some friends who had invited her for brunch. For several months each of these men becomes an all-consuming object of desire. Kate imagines every nuance of their getting to know each other; she imagines the ensuing life they will share.
After the initial contact, weeks will pass before she arranges to see him again, and several more before the meeting after that. And how wonderful is this time, how full of passion, how lively with desire. Kate is bursting with life. As she sits alone on the tram, in her flat, on her balcony, in a favourite café, she interprets and reinterprets every moment of their past meetings, and creates and recreates all their future possibilities. Her imaginings of the absent but ever-present beloved are fanned by telephone calls, email and SMS, but the vast panorama of their love is entirely of her creation.
After a few dates the relationship always fades out. For how could it compare? No real man could ever measure up – and neither, for that matter could Kate. Her imagined loves are complete, flawless and certain in their outcomes. With entry into the real world they self-destruct.
Like my nightly imaginings of perfect, post-crisis, happily-ever-after futures, Kate’s imaginings are untouched by the unpredictabilities which accompany real engagement. There is no intrusion of the other for Kate, as there are no unhappy endings for me. And how brilliantly are one’s desires satisfied. As for the imagination itself, it has been confined to a cul-de-sac: pretty enough, tidy, safe, but drained of all reason and possibility.
Is perfection always so self-serving? Is Kate’s perfect love really a synonym for unconditional love? Are her imaginings wholly in service to a raging narcissism? Does perfect love take into consideration anyone other than oneself? And might this be the case with all extreme passions? After all, whether absolute love or fear or jealousy or envy, the passion takes you over. You become the passion, it becomes you. Such intense and singular passions cut you off from memory, from reason, from other people. They isolate you both from the world and the rest of self. The cul-de-sac is really an echo-chamber resounding with a single captive passion.
Commonsense has it that where there is great passion there is great imagination. It seems odd then that an intense but singular passion of fear or love or hate might actually shrink the imagination and undermine its power. But overriding passion can have this bullish effect. Whether Teller’s for the Super, or my desire for bedrock, or Kate’s for perfect love, these have the effect of closing off vast parts of the imagination, of confining it to a domain large enough to contain the passion but little else.
Browsing through a recent New Scientist, I learn of research which suggests that a few billion years ago light travelled slightly faster than it does today. If constants of the natural world are no longer certain, then I expect there’s little hope for me. And a couple of weeks later I read another report: the 80-year-old certain uncertainties of quantum physics, most particularly Bohr’s principle of complementarity, have been challenged by the Iranian-American physicist Shahriar Afshar. In a beautiful yet surprisingly simple experiment Afshar has shown both the waves and particles of matter simultaneously. Such a sense of wonder as I work out what he has done. And suddenly it occurs to me that an imagination pinned down by absolutes, an imagination without reason, is really no imagination at all.
Much of my pleasure in the physicists lies in the fact that the greatest amongst them work from outside the frame. Every new scientific discovery, like all great art, is original, radical, and breaking with tradition. And that moment of discovery, when sense suddenly dawns, nothing can compare. Take Ernest Lawrence’s epiphanic moment at Berkeley in 1929. It is late at night, the laboratory is empty save for Lawrence. He is leafing though old German journals, not looking for anything in particular, but wanting to be jolted. He turns the pages, article after article, volume after volume, turning and turning. Then suddenly he stops. An obscure article, it seizes him, he trips over his halting German, his imagination soars, and for the first time he sees his ‘proton merry-go-round’, the first cyclotron, a machine for particle acceleration, for bombarding the nucleus.
And the sad, extraordinary story of the physicist Lise Meitner. It is Christmas, 1938, Sweden, and Meitner, an Austrian-born Jew has been forced into exile following the Anschluss, leaving her long-time collaborator Otto Hahn in Berlin to work on the isotopes of uranium without her. By mail, Hahn recounts some very puzzling results observed in his recent experiments. When Otto Frisch, a physicist also in exile and Meitner’s nephew, joins his aunt for a few days, she proposes they take a walk to ponder Hahn’s results. They set off through the snow in the west of Sweden – actually Frisch was on his new cross-country skis and Meitner, although sixty years old at the time managed to keep pace – and as they walk they talk. Suddenly it dawns on Meitner that what Hahn has described is the splitting of the uranium atom. In exile, tramping through the snow, stopping to sit on an icy log while she draws diagrams on a scrap of paper, Lise Meitner realises what Hahn has done before he does.
These are extraordinary moments, Meitner’s, Lawrence’s, and Szilard’s at Southampton Row too. Immersed in these accounts, I experience by proxy the imagination at its most creative. No limitations here. This imagination leaps and flies and turns back on itself, diving in and out of memory and sparking new connections. It is an imagination which is always spiked with reason, a creative imagination which recognises its own illuminations. This is not the tidy imagination of Kate’s musings or my safe contrivances under the night skies, this imagination is an explosive and powerful wellspring of meaning. It is also unpredictable, always threatening to reveal more than is bargained for.
It is no wonder that people try to confine it, whether Kate with her perfect lovers, or me in my attempts to hold my ground this year. But how self-defeating to limit that essentially free and boundless quality of mind. And self-deluding too: to make perfect where there is no perfection, to make certain where there is only uncertainty, to provide an illusion of control where only powerlessness reigns. This is a type of suicide, one in which you buy a coil of rope, you learn the best knots, you tie, you sling the rope over a rafter, you write your note, and all is effected with a smile and a nice sense of well-being.
Melbourne has produced its first serious winter in years. I love the cold days, the murky skies, the bitter winds. I put my physicists aside and stride through the chill streets. So good to be walking again. And almost immediately a flowing of thought: a holiday on the Great Barrier Reef, the possibility of meaning without language, a character for my new novel who embraces Pater’s well-known maxim ‘to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life’. And other thoughts: of my mother, my partner, Wagner’s Ring, nothing particularly hard-edged but not entirely intangible either – like balancing on a raft in moderate seas. And it is in this state that late one afternoon it hits me, an utterly unexpected blast of reason: all the work of the theoretical physicists is directed towards making sense, but it is sense without certainty.
Sense without certainty.
Szilard first theorised the chain reaction in nuclear fission in 1933. It was not until December 1942 that the first controlled nuclear chain reaction was demonstrated experimentally – by the exiled Italian physicist Fermi and his team in Chicago. The sense came in 1933, the certainty not until nine years later. Sense without certainty. For theorists like Szilard, uncertainty, far from being a burden, is the infinite freedom of not needing definite answers, yielding as it does the largest possible ground for their theoretical musings.
In a conversation with C.P. Snow about the conditions for a creative existence, Einstein said ‘…to understand the world one must not be worrying about oneself.’ Only now do I know what he meant. The meaning of a partner’s life-threatening illness, a mother’s dementia, a reluctant novel, is not to be found by an obsessive clawing at the events themselves, nor in the strong singular passions they engender. And while such crises want to commandeer all attention, and fear and desperation want to colonise all of heart and mind, to capitulate is to end up in an echo-chamber, locked in with what is already known, and irritated by the drone of your own voice.
The great theoretical physicists, in courting the not-yet-imaginable, plunge into the unknown. Theirs is a leap of faith; sometimes they find their feet, other times they do not. But in the process of making sense in all its wonder, they plunder the infinite possibilities of mind.
This morning I sat down at the piano. I began with Czerny to clear the rust from my fingers, then followed with a Mozart sonata and some Mendelssohn. I played Schubert’s Moments Musicaux No. 6 because my mother has always liked it, and I finished with Bach’s Prelude in E where reason and passion fuse into restrained and wonderful sense. Afterwards I returned to my study, gathered up my volumes of physics and physicists and put them away in the book-shelves. Tonight with my partner I will celebrate her return to good health, and tomorrow, with energetic uncertainty – my novel.