Rhapsody on the Upholding One

•June 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment


[Poem I wrote 15 years ago while exploring personal baggage and the early infancy period. The epigram by Spanish poet Jimenez translates as “I am not I”. The photo is of a friend’s baby, Oscar.]

Rhapsody on the Upholding One

Yo no soy yo – Juan Ramon Jimenez

This is the one I am not.
This one behind, beside me.
This one looking on.
This one radiant
to find the soft dark look
in your mother’s eye.

This core, this rock,
this root that grounds
the stem of self
which well-embedded
futures out
into a thousand
shimmering leaves
breathing sun & storm.

This first idea of Good.

The way you held me
there in Wigram Road,
took me to bed for a week,
stroked soul back to body
far fled in terror
from mother lost in white
isolation black with light,
fleshless the tile, metal
cold as psychosis,
overworked nurses
who couldn’t get near me
for the screams.

This quiet upholding
this round cradling,
like lying on your back
perhaps on a lake,
your eye the sky
balanced softly
on breathing water.

Subtle, humble, unseen
& flowing where it must
to minister life, wash
away despair, attending,
unrecognised, always
there. The living grid
& matrix of us all.

Ten Theses on Authoritarian and Anti-authoritarian Socialism

•June 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Kronstadt_attack by Red Army

[An essay asking whether the term ‘socialism’ is still useful in terms of the deep social change needed today. The photo is of the attack on revolutionary anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt by the Red Army and Bolshevik Party volunteers in 1921, the last chapter of the Bolshevik counter-revolution and civil war that cost around 10 million lives.]

Ten Theses on Authoritarian and Anti-authoritarian Socialism

‘Socialism will be free, or it will not be at all’ (Rudolf Rocker)

1. Socialism, as an ideal, has had many deaths, right from its inception. Its probable last death occurred with the collapse of the so-called ‘real existing socialism’ of the Soviet empire in 1991. The latter totalitarian system is what most people came to identify with the word ‘socialism.’ Despite the last remaining versions in North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, it has now to all intents and purposes disappeared from contemporary history. Does this matter?

2. This disappearance is ambivalent. On the one hand, good riddance indeed! Authoritarian (‘real’) socialism and its manifold oppressions certainly deserved to die and anti-authoritarian socialists should have been dancing on the streets at the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet empire. On the other hand, the disappearance of ANY ‘grand narrative’, ANY systemic critique, ANY alternative social ideals to capitalism and its puppets in parliamentary democracy also signifies an even stronger capitalist hegemony, fragmentation, alienation, commodification, meaninglessness.

3. Previous deaths of socialism can be briefly listed: the split within the First International between authoritarian Marxists and anti-authoritarian anarchists in 1872, the collapse of working class solidarity and the socialist Second International in August 1914 and the ensuing fratricidal slaughter of World War One, the Bolshevik coup d’état, Red Terror and counter-revolution, the working class defeats and self-defeats in Germany, Hungary, Italy 1917-1921, the German working class support for or non-resistance to Hitler’s take-over in 1933, the Stalinist terror-‘socialism’ with its totalitarian Gulag slave system and its imperial foreign policies, the Communist undermining, anarchist failures and fascist defeat of the Spanish Revolution in 1937-39, the inability to radically transform the capitalist and imperialist system after World War Two, the triumph of affluent consumerism and its economic neo-colonialism over any remnant socialist ‘ideology’ in the Keynesian warfare-welfare state and then in neoliberal globalization.

4. As anarchists pointed out from the beginning, from Babeuf, Buonarroti and Blanqui to Lassalle, Marx, Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, mainstream socialism (Jacobin, Marxist, Social Democratic, Communist) has for the most part been authoritarian and autocratic from its inception. Even its parliamentary social democratic forms are autocratic parties in which the rank and file are, and always have been, completely subservient to the hierarchical party machines filled with upwardly mobile opportunists and careerists. In this authoritarianism and heteronomy socialism has partaken of the dialectic of its origins, the dialectic of the French Revolution and Enlightenment, of liberal bourgeois thought. Socialist authoritarianism and autocracy are also expressions of its bourgeois roots. Its opposition has also been capitalism’s continuation and strengthening. ‘What better excuse needs the European bourgeoisie for its reactionary methods than the ferocious dictatorship in Russia?’ (Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko c. 1921)

5. Like capitalism itself, liberal thought is both emancipatory and oppressive. Capitalism’s overthrow of feudalism via expropriation, enclosures and the generalisation of wage labour both frees and enslaves working people. Capitalism’s political form, the bourgeois state, declares human rights, the rule of law, political liberties and the sanctity of private property and capital but at the same time emphatically denies democracy and human rights in the economic sphere and always brutally suppresses those who actively seek them. This basic contradiction between legal-political freedom and economic autocracy and dictatorship ultimately defines the bourgeois state’s Janus face, the latent absolutism and dictatorship (culminating under certain crisis conditions in outright fascism) even within the liberal democratic state. In today’s increasing crises, the slide from the liberal to the post-liberal authoritarian state is well under way.

6. This fatal dialectic inherent in bourgeois thought and reality was played out in the bloody development of all bourgeois revolutions from the English to the French and Russian revolutions. Revolutionary attempts, however weak or partial, at economic democracy, egalitarianism and autonomy from below were always soon crushed by the ‘revolutionary’ bourgeois state from above: Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon, Lenin and Trotsky. Every bourgeois revolution is merely political, statist and Jacobin: as militants take over state power and become new ministers, it must have its own counter-revolution, its particular version of the Great Terror and Thermidor.

7. Socialism, as an idea and ideal arises, originally, from the critical insight that bourgeois liberty is also economic, structural, violence for the working people without land or capital, i.e. the ‘liberty’ to be dispossessed of land, to be bossed and exploited or else to starve. In this sense it can be seen as a result of the self-contradiction and failure of revolutionary bourgeois aspirations: it maintains that the liberté promised by the bourgeois revolution cannot be achieved without the concrete, social realisation of the égalité and fraternité also abstractly proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (and later echoed in the post-1945 UN Charter).

8. The split between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian socialism can be located along this basic fault line: the former downplays or even explicitly rejects (as ‘bourgeois’) liberté while stressing some form of ‘equality’ and is willing to use the power, and often terror, of the authoritarian state, to enforce some degree of this from above. It always does this while, necessarily, instituting new inequality and oppression in the form of a new and privileged ruling caste or class to wield this state power. In contrast, anti-authoritarian socialism locates the spread of greater egalitarianism within greater liberty and fraternity/sorority, i.e. within the democratic free association and self-management of the people from below. Authoritarian socialism thus continues the ancient and brutal historical trajectory of the state, autocracy, bureaucracy, oligarchy, heteronomy, while libertarian socialism or anarchism is the revolutionary expression of popular egalitarianism, autonomy and self-management, i.e. the power to make the rules ourselves, free of rulers and bosses. It is the radical extension of liberty and democracy to economic decision-making.

9. Given the consequences of this disastrous history of authoritarian ‘socialism’ (aka ‘state capitalism’ or ‘red fascism’ by various libertarian critics) over the last two centuries, the untold millions of its victims in the slave labour gulags, Red/state terrors, terror famines and mass deportations, the notorious mass murderers like Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung or Pol Pot, given all that, terms like ‘socialism’, ‘communism’, ‒ even, given their co-tainting for various reasons, one could argue, ‘anarchism’ and ‘the left’ ‒ may now all be tainted beyond repair or else simply obsolete in terms of motivating and guiding any systemic social change.

10. Yet names and –isms are not the things themselves, not the inner drives, ideas and ideals. The latter ‒ just as much as the drive for herd-like conformity, obedience, voluntary slavery and heteronomy ‒ are probably as old as humanity itself. The inherent anthropological drive for justice, greater equality, solidarity and self-management can only be eradicated when humans themselves, at least as we have so far known them, are totally ‘re-wired’ or eradicated. The terms, the –isms, may change, the ideals will not.

Bertolt Brecht, Seventeen Poems

•June 20, 2015 • Leave a Comment

brechtJust to say I’ve added translations of seventeen poems by Bertolt Brecht over at my new German translations blog, Passing on the Flame, in case anyone is interested. Passing on the Flame is at http://peterln.worpress.com, or via the Blogroll.  Brecht is a great poet, so bon appetit.

My new blog: Passing on the Flame

•June 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Just a plug for my new blog Passing on the Flame. It is meant as an archive for my translations from the German, both poetry and prose. I hope you might go and have a peak sometime.It’s clickable on the Blogroll and here

So far I have posted three translations: anarcho-syndicalist (and Chomsky influence) Rudolf Rocker’s Absolutist Ideas in Socialism (1950), eleven poems by great late eighteenth/early nineteenth century poet Friedrich Hoelderlin and twenty three Mystic Epigrams by Angelus Silesius (1657).

I’ve tried to outline the basic motivation behind the site in the About homepage as follows:

‘As far as I have been able to make out, English translations of such texts are either non-existent, hard to come by or often inadequately translated. In my view all the texts on this blog have something important to say, a certain flame to pass on, a flame, hopefully, to be warmed, burned, inspired, moved by, as I have been.

All I’m trying to do in a small way here is to be just one more minor transmitter or relay point of this flame that has moved through European history, often at the margins of or against the mainstream current of culture and society and often grounded in the subversive conviction that, in the contemporary phrase, ‘another world is possible.’

With the works in this archive I hope to introduce English speakers to some of the richness and depth of this alternative and/or poetic current in German. No wider, richer present and future, no ‘bread and roses for all’, without the work of cultural memory.’

(Took the photo above in Sydney last year)

Two Hotline Poems

•June 14, 2015 • 3 Comments

ron_cobb surveillance state 68

[Two poems I wrote eight years ago after the Australian government had introduced its so-called National Security Hotline. Here’s a taste of the current website: “Small pieces of information can help protect Australia from terrorism. Australia’s national security agencies are working hard but members of the public can help them complete the picture.Some of the best people to spot things that are out of the ordinary in a neighbourhood or workplace are those who are there everyday. As we go about our daily lives, we can keep an eye out for anything that may seem unusual or suspicious. Whether or not something is suspicious can depend on the circumstances. Look at the situation as a whole. If it doesn’t add up, call the 24-hour National Security Hotline.”

Great idea, worthy of the KGB or Stasi. No one protested. The strategy of the ruling elites is fairly simple: maintain a paranoid fear- and siege mentality, then you can almost do what you like in terms of expanding your own executive power. The Nazis and Communists did this well. Probably as old as the state as a warrior protection racket. Bye bye liberal democracy. The graphic is from the great Ron Cobb in 1968. ‘Pacific solution': Australian government’s shameful ‘turn-back-the-boats’ refugee/asylum seeker policy; ‘Milat': notorious Australian serial killer; ‘true blue': Australian expression for ‘authentically Australian'; ‘Ruddock': Liberal PM Howard’s minister of immigration; ‘queue jumper’ derogatory term for refugees/asylum seekers/migrants arriving by boat; ‘Lucas Heights': site of nuclear research reactor near Sydney.]

Two Hotline Poems

1. Hello is that the Hotline?

Hello is that the hotline?
I want to report a case
I hear these voices telling me
my head is nothing but space

they tell me they love me
they tell me no lies
sometimes they wear hijabs
but mostly suits & ties

I hear them talk on talkback
I hear them when I’m in bed
I can hear them right now repeating
everything that I have said

they talk of Pacific Solutions
they talk of little Green men in the moon
they talk of anarchy & sedition
they talk of Moby’s dick-harpoon

one of them calls himself Whitman
the other two Shelley and Blake
I know the first one is for real
but the other two are fake

I can tell by the way they’re telling me
they’re really not seditious
o yeah, well then how come they want me
to go bomb markets in Mauritius?

Mauritius must be Muslim
coz it also starts with M
just like Mohammed, Mundine, Milat
& all the rest of them

bastards who run the government
run the Vatican & the KGB
pull the strings to get those terrorists
on bloody prime time for free

so please come & disappear me
lock up my voices too
can’t wait till I’ve been rendered
& painted my cell true blue

2. Turning Off the Lights

Hello, is that the hotline
I want to report a case
there was a guy in K-Mart the other day
& his tie was quite out of place

his suit was old & tatty
his cuff links were 20 carrot gold
his hair was parted on the left
his eyes looked 200 years old

his pants were creased, his shirt was red
I really was quite appalled,
he wore a brand of sneakers
that I didn’t know at all

he was reading the Communist Manifesto
maybe it was Leaves of Grass
his beard was as white as Ruddock’s face
when he puts his boot up some queue jumper’s arse

he put his basket down on the bench
fixed his one eye on the check-out chick,
cleared his throat of phlegm & smoke
& then politely asked:

‘Fräulein, do you know vot makes zis system tick?’

The check-out chick she looked at me
then gave me a little wink
‘Of course I do darl, it’s money, sex & mortgages
& pushing people like us to the brink

it’s guys & girls in sexy suits pushing dollars
round a screen, it’s jerks like Bush & Rudd
& Howard pretending they call the shots
while the bosses make off with the cream!

now shove over your GM-free tofu
& that carton of organic milk
but what’s this I see darl
right next to that certified pear

Jesus, it’s a block of bloody dark chocolate
that’s neither organic nor fair,
you just wait till I tell
all your bloody wives!’

So then I knew the guy was a Muslim
a Greenie & latte pinko too
might’ve been Karl bloody Marx for all I know
so I’ll leave the rest up to you…

(really appreciate you Gestapo boys
& that I don’t have to give you my name
so convenient & secret & Boys’ Own stuff
though I wouldn’t mind my five minutes of fame)

anyway her name is Tracey & his is Fred
& I’m sure you will agree
they’re both suspicious as bloody hell
so I’ll give you their numbers for free

I’m sure you’ll find fertilizer in his freezer
bloody poetry books everywhere
chardonnay in his mailbox & a map
of Lucas Heights pinned to his stairs

just don’t believe him when he whinges
& refers to his human rights
just do your great jobs & don’t ever forget
what all these pinko-green Muslim

bloody terrorists really want
is to turn off our bloody lights.

Books as Spiritual Elders: the First Breakthrough in Adolescence

•June 5, 2015 • 1 Comment


[Second essay about the beginnings of reading books, now in adolescence. Sources of quotations within the text have been left out. The photo of the milkman is from bombed-out London in WW 2, one of my all time favourite photographs].

Books as Spiritual Elders: the Breakthrough to Mind and Politicisation

The companionship of books (…) frees me from the weight of a tedious idleness, and releases me at any moment from disagreeable company. It dulls the pangs of any grief that is not intense and overmastering. To distract myself from tiresome thoughts, I have only to resort to books; they easily draw my mind to themselves and away from other things. And yet they show no resentment when they see that I only turn to them through lack of those other more real, lively, and natural satisfactions; they always receive me with the same welcome.
– Michel de Montaigne, On Three Kinds of Relationships (1580)

Books too can be mentors, even providing a moment of initiation. R.D.Laing, writer, philosopher, and revolutionary psychiatrist, tells of this discovery in a small public library, while he was still an adolescent in the 1940s. He came upon Kierkegaard (…). This moment of initiation is also like a ritual of adoption. Kierkegaard – along with Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche – became one of Laing’s spiritual parents, a member of the family tree that nourished his acorn and fed his intellectual fantasy. You expect less from your natural parents, and they become easier to bear once you have discovered the other family tree on which the life of your soul depends.
– James Hillman 1996, The Soul’s Code , pp.164-165

In the early sixties, our TV-free, ultra-nuclear family regularly pays an evening visit to the local municipal library in still working-class Petersham. While father (no bookish person and exhausted from commuting and his store clerk work at Coca Cola bottlers in Crows Nest) prefers his Sydney Morning Herald, mother and son load up with books.

Unlike the pre-literate experience of being read to in childhood, adolescent reading has now of course become an individual, private, solitary pastime and experience. It is a form of growing independence from my parents. In this my small individual trajectory mirrors the larger historical one of the European mind and ego after the invention of the printing press: silent reading and solitary reflection help emancipate the individual by freeing him/her “from traditional ways of thinking, and from collective control of thinking, with individual readers now having private access to a multiplicity of other perspectives and forms of experience.” Silent private reading, the development of the novel genre, these are the prime forms of the development of western interiority and psychological differentiation. In the state of “absorbed isolation” that is reading, in the intimacy of the writer-reader relationship, we internalise another voice, another perspective on the world, another world, and thus become other ourselves.

Your earlier favoured illustrated boys’ books of Biggles and the William series have begun the imagination’s gradual extension out of the mental aridity of domesticity and fifties/sixties Australian suburbia into the cosy feel and ‘smell’ of a constructed twenties/thirties suburban middle class Britain. William’s controlled scruffiness and boyishly limited naughtiness (a British fusion of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, a kind of pre-pubescent suburban anarchism perhaps) annoying or avoiding pipe-smoking gardeners pushing wooden wheelbarrows and guarding fruit trees against marauding boys. The oh so English clipped box hedges and bay windows, the stiff-upper-lip whisky drinking gentlemen in wood-panelled studies and the corresponding safe absence (as in the more blatantly imperial Biggles series) of real women characters…

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories soon add another layer of absorbing Englishness. (Some of all this at least perhaps percolating down to your later pipe-and-tweeds English intellectual ideal: the safe eccentric, the passively aggressive and/or tousle-haired, witty English academic in a cosy book-lined, oak-panelled study… A Sherlock puzzling over texts…).

Gerald Durrel’s lively reminiscences of his budding naturalist childhood on a Grecian isle are infectious: skinks on warm garden walls, butterflies over brown grass shimmering in the heat, adventures with goats…such early expansions of the imagination beyond the barrenness of our quarter acre block in Haberfield Road (close to the roaring highway that is Parramatta Road) may help lay the seeds of a late interest in ecology and gardening.

These boyish beginnings you now extend into the adult narrative of popular adventure, Gothic mystery, historical fiction: Alistair McLean’s The Guns of Navarrone, Daphne du Maurier or Alexis Tolstoy’s Peter the Great, the latter opening up an eighteenth century Russia, country of your paternal forefathers, your elders, the grandparents you never met. Can Tolstoy become a grandparent-of-the-book instead? (‘In this huge old occidental culture, our teaching elders are books. For many of us, books are our grandparents!’).

Indeed, given your father’s apparent lack of interest in passing on any of his own Russian heritage (the odd visit to the beautiful nocturnal Russian Orthodox Easter service in western Sydney, the uncomprehending listening in on his infrequent Russian conversations with some old Russian friends, listening for the two or three words I know – da, nyet, nichivo, harasho, sto…- fascinated by the language’s music and dark L sounds – these are the only slight exceptions), ‘imagining Russia’ becomes a strong interest. One of the first books you buy with your pocket money (at Angus & Robertson’s in Castlereagh Street: you can still see the exact shelf you originally found it on) is the pocket-size blue hardback Everyman edition of Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. You still have it today.

Although I am not aware of it at the time, in this work, presented as an autobiography, Tolstoy completely fictionalises the memory of his mother who died before he was three. His wishes constructing reality, another reality of eye contact, warmth and nurturing that overlays, perhaps, a painful reality of loss sitting in little Leo like a splinter of sadness and creativity.

And am I not like Leo in some ways? Is this what I am doing? What we all do? What truth in memory? (Does not her general expression escape me?). Shylock Self-Detective. Is there any way around this? How to sandwich truth and reality? As a forensic collage of Tolstoy with a literary critic (italics) perhaps:

But Her General Expression Escapes Me. A Forensic Collage

When I try to recall my mother as she was at that time
The discerning reader with any knowledge of Tolstoy’s feelings and opinions
I …can only picture her brown eyes
And will, however, detect the fact that Nikolenka in the story is
Always expressing the same kindness and love,
to a large extent Tolstoy’s mouthpiece,
the mole on her neck just below the place where the short curls grew
though the occurrences in the story do not all resemble the events
her embroidered white collar and the delicate dry hand
of his own life
which so often caressed me.

He could not, for instance, remember his mother
Who died before he was three,

And I so often kissed
(and his own father in no way resembled the father who appears
in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth)
but her general expression escapes me.

Later you immerse yourself in the darkness and cold of the bleak tenements of a nineteenth century St Petersburg and Raskolnikov’s (so ‘Russian’?) somewhat masochistic soul wrenchings in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (You simply read this as another, albeit somehow ‘darker’, more anguished, murder mystery; the possible psychoanalytic dimension of a moody loner and misfit with an unconscious oedipal wish to be punished killing a ‘bad’ old mother figure may be lying dormant in your consciousness as you read…).

For your fourth year high school German prize you choose Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned (you cover over the large hammer and sickle on the cover for Presentation Night: who knows how that nasty commie symbol could be taken in the middle of the Cold War…). You buy the Penguin Russian Course, puzzle out the Cyrillic alphabet and never get past chapter two. You are fifteen when you bury yourself in the devastation of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich: you cannot stop reading, you devour all 190 pages in one sitting, you emerge dazed and sombre from the Siberian gulag back into a somehow temporarily less real sunny Sydney suburb, and a confirmed anti-Stalinist for life…

You emerge a similarly dazed and sombre, confirmed anti-fascist from the experienced world of the concentration camp in Erich Maria Remarque’s remarkably little known novel Der Funke Leben (‘The Spark of Life’), one of the very few books you surprisingly find on your parents’ shelf and one of the first books you ever read in the original German. Soon after the both lyrical and (so ‘German’?) ‘darkly expressionist’ pain of Wolfgang Borchert’s Draussen vor der Tür (‘Before the Door’) and his, in contrast, almost haiku-like short stories of the material and psychological devastation that is the Stunde Null (‘Zero Hour’) of immediate post-war Germany in ruins leave deep impressions of your parents’ depressing realities around the time of your conception.

What psychic function can literature have for a young forming mind? Can they ‘inoculate’, for example? Have Solzhenitsyn, Remarque and Borchert (the Russian and the German perhaps speaking to your adolescence in its two genetic halves) subliminally politicised and humanistically immunised you against any form of totalitarianism, probably much more effectively than any overtly political or theoretical texts could ever have done?

The extremes of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ will yet much concern you. Historically these terms were, for most, fatally polarised in their ‘communist’ and ‘fascist’ extremes as the Russian and the German twin totalitarianisms essentially defining both the ‘short’ (1914-1991) 20th century as the ‘Age of Extremes’ and your parents’ (and thus your) personal history. The two twentieth century wars between Russia and Germany and the Holocaust devastated European civilisation and facilitated the perhaps more rapid dominance of the present US Empire. The marriage of my parents, as of many others between citizens of historical national enemies, can be seen as unconscious expressions of humanity’s gradual movement towards the supersession of tribalisms as the necessary foundation for lasting world peace. I am privileged to be their offspring, to be deeply influenced by these two cultures (as well as English-Australian culture), but at the same time to feel neither really ‘Russian’ nor ‘German’ (nor ‘Australian’). Perhaps I am privileged to be able to internally integrate such old tribal shadows without great effort in an age of globalisation and emerging world culture in which this is happening on ever larger scales.

To have first ‘seen’ and vicariously felt these bleak twentieth century realities through literary experience, through the victims’ eyes of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, Remarque’s prisoner 509, or Borchert’s Beckmann, to have had the privilege of suffering-with, of com-passion, with them by the crafted grace of literary art – that kind of ‘moral inoculation’ against the ‘totalitarian temptation’ yet stand you in good stead. In your later politicisation within the German student movement, the ‘totalitarian temptation’ (Revel), the self-styled ‘avant-gardist’ elitism, is sometimes ‒ as, probably, in much historical radicalism ‒ an ‘occupational hazard’ as it were. But that is six or seven years away. For now the very first politicisation begins with the threat of a world’s ending.

And there one spring day you stand suddenly on the top floor at Fort Street Boys’ High on Taverner’s Hill looking out west over the rooftops of suburbia beyond your Haberfield home the din and smog arising from Parramatta Road and the horizon is filled with storm clouds and it is the Cuban Missile Crisis and for the first time you feel a vague fear occasioned by something larger than your private life and find yourself trying to imagine all that right there ending suddenly right there right there the end of all you are thirteen and the world has suddenly entered as potential catastrophe, as the fear of nuclear apocalypse…another waiting…another subliminal politicisation as the usually invisible public realm suddenly thrusts its shark teeth into the placid waters of your daily life…

But it is not all the imagined life ‘over there’ in Britain, Russia, Germany, that ‘other place’, that projection screen called ‘Europe’ that may still today, although to a much lesser extent, dominate the hearts and minds of so many budding young artists and intellectuals in Australia. This place, Australia, can also be projected upon, especially when the main character is another Prussian German and an existential seeker to boot. A herpes lip virus lays you low and you spend a whole day in bed in your cool dark room in Haberfield Road, leaving your throbbing pussy lip to its suffering as your mind traverses the hot and bleak inner Australian landscape with an intensely ‘existential’ 19th century German explorer hero (modelled on Ludwig Leichhardt) in Patrick White’s Voss.

Already the novel’s opening floors you, the, for you, ‘radical’ four beat ellipsis of the second sentence coming after the conventional direct speech of the first: “There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle,” said Rose. And stood breathing.

It is almost as if the elliptic syntax of those last three simple words and their layered possibilities of anxiety, heat stress, a certain frozen monumentality… open a door to all of literary modernism…Just starting a sentence with a conjunction and omitting a personal pronoun… how simple, how effective, yet how new it was to you, a new way of seeing…

You discover that such hour-long immersions in new imaginative worlds tend to leave their mental traces for a while when you re-enter your domestic reality. There is a subtle sense of shift in perspective on that reality, a translucent over-layering, an increased ability to ‘read’ that reality on different, now somehow ‘heightened’ or deepened, levels. Somebody in real life could, for example, perhaps just ‘stand there breathing’ where you would not have perceived it in that way before reading Voss. You now become aware of a rich new world of subtleties of speech, body language, relationship, the moods of rooms and the forms of physical objects. Entering imaginative literary worlds seems to open new rooms, new spaces inside the soul. It is as if you were responding to the things the authors of the books you have read would have responded to had he or she been there with you; as if your mind, newly sensitised, were now “like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” so that, for example, “attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about”.

It is thus not only the content of these works that affects, it is even more the new way of seeing and feeling that often takes over as you read for longer periods and lingers on afterwards. Even your own speech and thought patterns sometimes seem temporarily affected as you unconsciously take over the rhythms, cadences, way-of-seeing of your literary masters, your new ethereal mentors that take the place of those missing from your real life.

As you absorbed and internalised the voices of your mother and father from the womb onwards, weaving your nascent identity on the loom of their sounds and meanings, so now, in reading. To give oneself over whole-heartedly to a book is to make another’s, an author’s, voice one’s own, to see the world from his or her perspective, to develop a new identity for the moment, and this has the entrancing, magic character of being under some wonderful kind of spell.

You are absorbing a new language, new patterns of thought and feeling that are beginning to take you away from those of your childhood. Your feet, your heart pick up the feint vibrations of some new kind of music, and slowly, awkwardly, falteringly, a new dance begins. Without at first noticing it, you are beginning to break away from home. Your little ship is starting to nudge against the walls of the cosy green bottle it is mounted inside. Imperceptibly at first, an old encasing is starting to crack.

Beginning Books

•June 1, 2015 • Leave a Comment


[Autobiographical text on beginning reading, the first books. Complements the previously published poem ‘The Good Oil of Reading.’ Photo I took in Melbourne five years ago: imagination and reality.]

Beginning Books

Where precisely can we locate the beginnings of the importance of books, stories, the creative imagination of the reading mind that, for some like myself, becomes such a central life-long pleasure? Surely with the first texts we hear or read in childhood and youth.

My earliest memories of books are of German ones: an alphabet book, Struwelpeter and Grimms Märchen. Still illiterate, reading is not yet a solitary activity. It begins within the primal matrix, within the relationship to mother, with mother reading to me.

Of the first book, the alphabet book, I remember nothing but one letter and one word, the German letter ö (‘O-umlaut’), an open vowel or diphthong. It is the first letter of the word ‘Öl’ (oil), a sound that can only be made by stretching out the lips (do I orally long, do I seek succour?) and yet somehow seems to simultaneously evoke a sense of pouting, even of outright disgust and rejection.

(Is that what happened, thinks the psychodynamic detective of Self? Seeking and rejection, longing and disgust? An unrequited, and thus ambivalent, oral longing? The unconscious origins of all your eating, processing, seeking patterns? And/or, thinks the Jungian, does my unknown memory selector choose ‘Öl’ because of some deep, unconscious, pre-petroleum knowledge of ‘oil’ as a symbol of soothing, consecration, purity, salvation? Can one sound – a kind of Primal Word, an ‘Urwort’ – perhaps dialectically incorporate or ‘constellate’ both oral alienation AND reconciliation…? )

Of Struwelpeter, I remember the pedagogically sadist images powerfully utilising Oedipal fears of punishment and castration: the bloody cutting off, with huge oversized scissors, of the thumb of the little boy who sucked his thumb (I nibbled my nails); the burning alive of the little girl who played with matches (as a dare I once set a paddock alight playing with matches); the pulling down of the richly laden table cloth by the restive boy called ‘Zappelphilip’, Philip the Fidget (and perhaps that is what that shy little boy I was at the time really wanted to do, namely create havoc at the dinner table at which he was so often force-fed?)

Of Grimms Märchen (1937 edition, Drömerscher Verlagsanstalt), sent from Germany by my mother’s cousin Tante Kätchen and which I still have on my shelves, I mainly remember the colour illustrations by Ruth Koser-Michaels. The strange thing is that I can hardly at all remember my mother or grandmother actually reading the tales to me, as they must have done. I can, however, well remember the sense of entering the world of these stories, the way the colourful, cosy pictures evoked those foreign yet familiar worlds of forests, fields and castles, all the characters, human and some of the animals, in eighteenth century costume, green flying monsters and swarthy devils, robust and round peasant folk, rich burghers, children dressed in the same clothes as adults, kings and queens, princes and princesses, lots of officers and soldiers, witches and stepmothers…The book was sent for my birthday. For me it for long became perhaps my main inner sense and imaginative feel of that other wholly constructed place over there called ‘Deutschland’….

And, later, in a perhaps ‘truer’ sense, the imagined ‘Deutschland’ was oral and aural, an imagined condensation of overheard stories. It was our visitors, the Uniewskis, Tante Rhode, speaking German, sharing memories, stories, gossip, opinions. They talk of the past at our table ritually laden with mother’s Kaffee und Kuchen. The bombing raids on Berlin, the phosphorous fire bomb ditched by hand from the burning attic, the British by night, the Americans by day, the fear, the cellars, the high pitched sound of a bomb falling towards you, the judging of distances by the sound force of the explosions, the entry of Russian soldiers into Berlin, the fear, the mass rapes, the black market, the anxious escape by train to Hanover on false passports…

I am perhaps five or six or seven and can still sit under the table, listening to their stories, imagining, seeing…and seeing at the same time Tante Rhode’s fine stockinged legs that I feel strangely excited about, that I once even dare to gently touch and stroke…

(Thus still excited by smooth long female legs, the excitement of secrecy and the illicit, the famous German ‘Verboten’, the forbidden fruit, is this all just early Pavlovian conditioning? Is there also an element of warding off the fear of death in these war stories by sexualising the anxiety into excitement? Did this also perhaps sometimes happen in the bomb shelter cellars of Berlin? Manic sexual activity as the bombs fell all around and the bodies piled up in the streets? But why psychoanalyse? Would not such promiscuous activity be eminently ‘rational’, i.e. purposeful, from the survivalist perspective of biological evolution? How many throughout history may have perhaps been conceived in the trembling spasms of fear and despair while the world collapsed around them? And could today’s ubiquitous sexualisation of culture also be defensively linked to the simultaneous epidemics of depression and anxiety in a decomposing late capitalism, in a world of increasing ecocide?)

Thus as a child I am sometimes already intensely lost in stories, the imagined world sometimes already becoming stronger than the real.

For example, there is a strong memory of a moment of shock at around seven: suddenly looking up from my comic book (Tarzan? Superman?) I discover myself on the western side of Naremburn’s busy main street Willoughby Road, my last memory however is of having just been on the eastern side, with no memory whatsoever of having crossed that road, my eyes glued to the comic, mother off shopping somewhere. Happily self-abstracted from reality, I could easily have been hit by a car and died with my mind in a comic book. Living in the imagination, preferring the imagination to the boring real world of cars, shiny wares and shopping…in another, richer world with Tarzan, Superman, the Phantom, the brothers Grimm…

All this seems like the small trickling beginnings of a lifelong Lesewut, a ‘rage to read’, a hunger to read and/or a rage and hunger perhaps also displaced into reading, into the mind? ‒ Be that as it may, waiting to grow up, wanting, I compare the real with the imaginative and find the real world wanting, less interesting, less dense, less stimulating.

That trickling stream later swells into a torrent, and then becomes a wider, deeper, more meandering river of mental pleasure taking in all kinds of increasingly varied landscapes, leaving behind all these real places or countries I seem to have been born into, going to a country of my own choice, the ethereal Land of the Book, to find other beings, other souls and sensitivities, other elders, other readers and imaginers and thinkers across time and space with whom I so often resonate as with seldom anyone or anything in everyday life.

However, there is not only the Land of the Book. There is also Disneyland. When I am seven years old television comes to Australia. We don’t have a set, but one evening in that first fateful year of television, 1956 or 57, I go across the road to my little friend Marion’s family to watch a children’s program on the new gadget. It is called Disneyland.

In the lounge room we all stare into the phosphorescent tube that has irrevocably entered modern everyday life with such enormous future repercussions. I remember the animated sequence of fairy Tinker Bell’s star-dazzling sweeping wand introducing the various Worlds at Disneyland. Of these I only remember the faux neo-gothic castle (based on the faux neo-gothic late 19th century Neuschwanstein of Bavaria’s mad King Leopold) of Fantasialand. I remember the beginning of the promising introductory song accompanying this:

‘When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are…’

Thus does Disneyland propagate the double promise of the culture industry: escape and egalitarianism. The overt promise of escape to a better, more interesting world, a fantasy world in the stars, populated with manufactured celebrity ‘stars’ to identify with, apparently open to everyone of any class, colour or country with the money to buy a TV set. There they are, the Mousketeers, all wearing their plastic Mickey Mouse ears, all singing the letters ‘M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E’, all gloriously transporting the American Dream right into the middle of our infantile hearts. Consumerism had arrived, and we were transfixed.

My parents, to their infinite credit, never bought a TV set till I was eighteen, and thus I remained: a reader.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 188 other followers