In Europe, it’s nice to walk into an empty church when, rather than priests, there are only stain glass windows, a small red light like the eye of a cyclop, the worn, watery grey silk of flagstones, and maybe a sparrow or two, circling. In the silent crowd of empty pews, the smell of candles and incense, the cool silence, you can sit and feel strangely safe in a land of time where minutes are no longer made of seconds and each heartbeat is a bite of eternity. Here death feels like window with an animal feeling behind it of, simply, life flowing on – one knows not where. When animals die, they bend into death with that resigned, knowing expression in their eyes.
Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg church door, because pope Leo X was selling passports to heaven for vast quantities of money. Somehow it feels strange that Protestant churches feel so cold when they are the ones who rebelled because the sacred was being desecrated.
Walking into a church in Australia is mostly like walking into a scout hall. But everywhere else you go, seems sacred in some way. You only have to step into the bush or look up at a ghost gum down the street and feel you are in Notre Dame. Any tree seems to gaze back at you if you stare at it long enough. The sky is wider than the Egyptian goddess Nut and every time you tip your head back, its baffling immensity is strangely comforting. Twice I was walking with a friend outside of Melbourne and I stopped as if someone had touched my arm to listen to the quiet – it felt exactly like being in a church. I told my friend and we walked on a few steps and met a sign explaining this was sacred aboriginal territory. Maybe we are mystical animals, rooted in the sacred.
I live in a dead-end – at first it was only a street with the advantage of being near a park. But I soon realised this sweet pocket was a village. All the neighbours know each other. The first thing you hear in the morning is children laughing, mothers calling out ‘careful!’ and ‘Hold my hand!’, the tinkle of bicycles bells or the bark of a dog. Many of my neighbours have become friends and I have grown to love this tiny bit of Australia. Well, a lobby of community gardeners are menacing to pull out the concrete, cut off the bike path, erect high wire fences, build compost bins, sheds and dig 84 plots for their gardeners. In other words annex a beautiful piece of public land.
Norm Gallagher and Mick Lewis went to prison to stop the park from becoming a Kleenex factory. Fred Hardy was the one to get the unions involved and put a black ban on what was to become the Hardy Gallagher Reserve. To them, we owe this beautiful park that the people of Melbourne enjoy. Here is Nature AND Memory. Community Gardens are grand when they beautify but not when they destroy what it already beautiful. Jane Garrett, former Mayor of the City of Yarra; now State member for Brunswick and Stephen Jolly councillor for the City of Yarra showed up at a rally organised by the Friends of Hardy-Gallagher Reserve on Australia Day. I never thought to say that about politicians but the proof of their common sense and humanity was in the pudding, right there, defending parkland for the people – for the 99%.
These gardeners have tried to take over public parkland for their private use for years. They have been pushed to the tail end of Fitzroy and Princess Hill until they butted into the shores of Brunswick last year. They are trying again in 2011 and 2012 after the 2010 public protest which was in all the newspapers.
I have been told that parks are not legally protected. If one can get enough residents to agree, one can make use of parkland in another way than listening to the wind in the trees, speaking to strangers under the wide open sky or picnicking on the grass a book sliding from lazy fingers; one can cut the trees, dig up the grass, put in wire fences and make a concentration camp for vegetables. The will of certain individuals, by playing with council boundaries and different wards, can prevail over the will of the people by making a land grab on public property.
The word community in community garden is misleading. Private plots and fences are not a community activity but a push for more private land. The drive behind the project is quite surprising. From where and what does this passion stem?
Gardens are very precious. They sometimes seem to be our last refuge. A guy called Robert Pogue Harrison wrote a book called Gardens. He speaks of ‘homeless gardens’. He says ‘gardens are to agriculture what poetry is to prose’ and that gardens ‘are not bound up with our our biological survival’. In other words, they are an expression of our soul. Homeless people go missing and let themselves die when their gardens are uprooted. These community gardeners are not homeless. Many of them live in Carlton and have gardens themselves. Another inconsistency: to be eligible for community gardening one must be a low income family and have no garden.
They suddenly reminded me more of farmers slicing up the land in defiance of Aboriginal traditional ownership. The two ways of life in balance then, still seem to be in balance now. One was about progress, property and power, the other was turned within. It is hard to hear Aboriginal philosophy, its whisper is lost in the louder trends of society. It speaks of other voices. It refers to our soul.
Walking in parks is its own reward. Parks are our Aboriginal Cathedrals, they can’t be cut up and sold into plots. They belong to all. The parks of Melbourne are the last remnants of that spirit which, ever so subtly, gives Australia its grandeur. The parks are the big garden of the people.
The first time I went to the opera was in Naples. An old Englishman, sitting behind me, bent forward and whispered in my ear: ‘Wake me up when they start fighting’. I must have been about nine. I liked him on the spot, so when Carmen’s lover got slaughtered I duly shook his knobby knee. Then, to our relief, Carmen finally shut up and died too. I never saw the old Englishman again but something passed from him to me, some unexplainable companionship that stayed like a stone in my pocket. The strange friendships of my childhood were flashlights in the surrounding darkness of school and home life. They led me on, protecting me and guiding me, a bit like dwarfs or witches in fairy tales. Maybe we are all dwarves and witches to each other at certain times of darkness in life’s forests.
I had another shot at Carmen at the Opera Garnier in Paris at about twelve and didn’t like it all over again.
Then, in my early thirties, a friend invited me to see Othello in the Arenas of Nîmes. Arenas, whether in Rome, Arles or Nîmes, always feel ominous to me, as if the suffering and fear packed in them so long ago were still hanging around. When I was about four years old, my father took me to the Collosseum. I was violently sick. I remember quite clearly the stench of beasts and bloody limbs. It could have been my father’s narrative skills of course, but surely a place like that would be saturated with its own past. (As I am writing this I made myself a coffee, after I drank it, there was a wolf inside the cup.) However, I did not refuse this third venture to the opera.
As my friend Samir dragged me to this cultural spree, I tried not to think that the gladiators had walked through the same mangy openings in the rock or that the lions and wolves had used that very rock to sharpen their claws on their way to their human snack. I also knew how Othello ends: he kills her. So with that and the wide open jaws of the enormous arena that engulfed us all, I was not planning to enjoy myself. It was a balmy Mediterranean night. The velvet belly of the sky hung low and the crowd of spectators were basking in an educated, whispered quiet before the singers started roaming on stage in Shakespearian angst. I was busy missing my old Englishman.
Yet, towards the end, when Desdemona has no hope in hell of having breakfast the next morning, something made me sit up on the cushion thoughtfully covering the stone step of the arena. The scene was pretty banal. Desdemona was with her lady in waiting gently moving around stage as she sung something quite as ordinary as: could you hang that cloak here, fold those dresses, take that sheet away and please fill the chest with this pile of clothing. Suddenly I knew she was not giving a course in housekeeping. Her song wafted straight into me. I felt with absolute certainty that this was her adieu, not only to her favourite lady in waiting but to life itself. Tears ran down my cheeks. Thanks to my friend Samir, I had understood opera at last. On the wings of music, emotions that are not our own, invade the privacy of our heart and widen our perceptions.
From then on, opera whispered secrets to me in the dark of a crowd about pain and fear and sudden stormy joy.
I was at a recital again the other night. It was about men dying under the sea in a submarine. Not so long ago either. I closed my eyes and let the waves cover me. It’s rather easy to imagine being under the sea in a concert hall for some reason. The lapping of subsiding voices, the metal instruments, the darkness behind your eyelids, the liquid of the composer’s exquisite music which, for me in some crazed way, contained silence, a silence only knowledge of suffering can bring. But then, the words of accompaniment, the choir, broke it all for me. Why couldn’t the music stand alone just as those men had been alone under the sea, waiting for death? What else but a form of silence, a wave of respect can greet so recently bodyless souls? Words seemed brash interruptions and the singing felt heroic and insensitive. The intelligentsia’s loud ovation jarred for me and only the music, so seemingly powerless in view of such a human disaster, stayed as a mysterious consolation.
A week later, when I went to listen to Twelve Streets Till Home playing at the Brunswick Hotel right near were I live, I discovered something else.
Their singer, Lucienne Shenfield’s bitter sweet voice rose above the noisy giggles of her girlfriends, above the rumble of the pub, above my own suddenly silent breathing. Unexpectedly her young sound became very old and wise, welling up like a river. There was nothing more to wrestle with, just hearing it made me understand that separate people at two ends of the city were soothing death, despair, undiluted pain because they sang or played their notes, because music is a sacred act somehow, somewhere, sometimes.
The only song I can sing is Ten Green Bottles on the Wall. I don’t feel cut out to understand high-tech, contemporary music that makes you sometimes jump out of your skin or rattles your teeth as if you had slipped under the wheels of a tram.
I didn’t expect to feel both encompassed and displaced – to such an extent – by Parlour Tricks, David Chisholm’s new work in progress.
I was suddenly ravished, as if the notes took me away to some genius loci I knew but had forgotten from long-ago. Was it the baroque instruments touching the notes with more tired gentleness, more restless passion than modern instruments? The sound slips you into that semi unconscious yet fully aware state that makes you hear more than listen. Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry also takes you down the music, down into Hades’ world of no return – unless it is suddenly Spring – such an exquisite reminder of the stormy fickleness of life’s joys and griefs. And the powerful, gentle Jessica Azsodi, with her sunny smile and desperate vibrato conjugated Spring and Mourning so well.
The story’s resolute lack of narration whispers back its presence – like a stranger in a petrol station, turns around to show the face of a true brother. Parlour Tricks plucks you out of its world to plunge you in your own memory of feeling until the music becomes your life and Persephone’s life writ in a strange baroque language of sound where the mythical past and the present meet as she goes down under.
The soprano Hana Crisp, who sang Sea Song, woke up Ophelia and swam with her to the surface of feminine longing. In every woman a drowned Ophelia has given up, but Sea Song sings her back to consciousness. This music has all stories sown in its hem, in a great swish of sound it brings them forth to our sleeping hearts and awakes us where we were no longer breathing, no longer thinking, no longer feeling.
The Song of Prayer is about yellow dressed women (such a reminder of the yellow star) forced into prostitution, then forced straight into convents – both prisons. It visits their lost pain, treads back into their unseen suffering. It awakens a community of feeling with what has been done to others. Touching the past reels in the present in a new way. These women are not alone, we are gathering the flounces of their woe; we no longer drag them in the dust of our forgetting, but lift them into our experience and hearts. Medieval chimes have us step lightly, as we are drawn, deep within, to understand. Yet the harpsichord, the viola da gamba and baroque violin, joined by a clarinet tripling bass and contrabass clarinets, stitch our present into their mourning, into their yearning as David Chisholm’s music swells with compassion.
I was brought up to laugh indulgently at men’s misdemeanours. When I was a child, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, one of de Gaulle’s ministers, had so many mistresses, he was like the old woman who lived in a shoe; he didn’t know what to d0. Yet the more mistresses he had, more the French were proud of him. I think French women seem to expect men to be cynical and predatory. A sentimental man is an unsexy fool. Romantics of any gender are objects of contempt and need to keep a low profile.
My father explained it to me quite clearly when I was a child: ‘Men cannot be faithful, it is not in their nature’. My father adored women. He was courteous and gentle, but he was a woman hunter. You could feel it as soon he walked into a room. The air lifted; women touched their hair and cleared their throats. I remember a girl in my class was always asking me if my father would be at home when she came over to see me. My father was fifty-six years older than I. I accepted there was a Dr Daddy and a Mr Papa. I could sense his ruthless streak even in the stories he told me. His admiration for plundering Roman generals was a give away. It would be an understatement to say that my father was not a Puritan. ‘Look!’ he’d whisper to me, ‘there’s a crowd on the balcony!’ And there she was, sailing down towards us on the street, a woman with enormous double-barrelled bosoms.
Yet, in spite of all his complexity, he was a Romantic. For him, loving a woman was an epiphany that was not all about sex. When he was not hunting them down mercilessly, he had a deep respect for women. That’s one of the reasons he never quite fitted in the Parisian world.
Nothing made my father laugh more than Anglo-Saxon rectitude. He would quote Blaise Pascal: ‘True morality laughs at morality’. In that he was traditionally French. Those who sin with flair always seemed to have the Parisian world on their side. Wives and cuckolds were easily ridiculed. Yet, appearances counted too. Men walked on a tight rope and got away with murder, but there seemed to be a way to do things, a sort of code. There must be a temperature in the predatory nature of French men. I would say my father had a strong fever, but, ex-Socialist candidate and IMF’s ex-President, Dominique Strauss-Khan broke the thermometer.
Julie Szego found DSK’s behaviour ‘exquisitely gallic’ and saw America as ‘the maid in her fall from noble victimhood’. She cast each culture in a role. It made me wonder if all French men were like Dominique Strauss-Khan and all American men like Clinton in his hounded, humbled little boy role? DSK’s sexual behaviour seems to be about all men whether they be French or American or Jewish, English or Palestinian. All men can plunder.
In his political behaviour however, he seemed as ready to jump into any imperialist adventure as Tony Blair. Something about him got under my skin. Instinctively, I believed the two women who were filing cases against him. I started reading everything I could about the subject. The IMF, another of those mysterious, polymorphous acronyms, is one of those enormous insubmersible international floating concerns that increase poverty in poor countries to benefit rich ones, with interest rates profiting banks rather than people. DSK, with a private fortune of his own, belongs to the Caviar Leftists or Truffle Leftists, (Gauche Caviar, Gauche Truffe). A closet Liberal with a sprinkling of concern for social issues. Socialist DSK and Sarkosy were considered by the French to be as thick as thieves. While Lionel Jospin, the conscience of French Socialism, has refused to speak to DSK in years, the playboy of French philosophy, Bernard Henri Levy, rushed to his defense. Then I noticed that Elizabeth Badinter, the famous feminist, was also his champion. She saw the DSK affair as attacking men rather than being in defence of women. The intellectual who freed women from their ‘maternal instinct’, was also freeing a man from his sexual responsibility towards them. Like Athena, father values seem to dominate for Elizabeth Badinter. Even her husband, Robert Badinter, who ended the death penalty in France rallied to his defense. Half of the French population, like them, believed in a witch hunt. When asked if he had a chance of becoming president of France, DSK said there were three issues that could stop him: his money, women and the fact he was Jewish. It is an understandable position to believe that antisemitism is instigating the legal attack against him, but it does not apply to this case. Jeremy Mercer, translator of Robert Badinter’s book Abolition quotes Gisèle Halimi, a famous French Feminist lawyer: ‘respect for women must come before friendship and political clans’. Just like DSK, Bernard Henri Levy, Robert Badinter and Elizabeth Badinter, Gisèle Halimi is Jewish. Like Antony Loewenstein in Australia, she obviously believes some moral issues are beyond belonging to a people who suffered a terrible crime in history, they are about the way we all continue to treat each other as human beings.
Jeremy Mercer says ‘the American Justice system has dealt with DSK ‘not as a famous man but as an ordinary man suspected of rape.’ When you read the police statements, the facts are unescapable: the semen on the walls, on the Sofitel chambermaid’s collar, her bruises, her bleeding. Yet, a deeply honest and dedicated man like Robert Badinter defends a public figure’s impunity. A man who was in fear of his life when also defending the abolition of the death penalty. Surely this kind of man would pass muster in the Stanley Milgram test. (Stanley Milgram was also Jewish.) Yet a man like this, let the fact he was part of the same elite, the same intelligentsia, the same culture influence him about a moral issue.
I saw the film Little White Lies by Guillaume Canet the other day. An unfeeling gang of friends play and wrestle with their emotions; yet stay quite oblivious to their hearts. Their cynical jokes are so French that I chuckled culturally. I felt a muscular reaction in my jaw like a dog kicking out when you scratch a nerve in his spine. I saw how easy it was to slip back into finding funny and free what is really a way of controlling emotion of any kind. An Australian friend, sitting near me with his wife, confided that he would happily have shortened the whole experience by two and a half hours. I saw how I had laughed in my youth at stupid, insensitive jokes. How strong, funny, charismatic men had made whole tables laugh under the shadows of wisteria laden pergolas while summer burnt Provence to a cinder.
In feudal times, le Droit de Cuissage, or literally the Right of the Thigh, meant a Seigneur could walk into a village of serfs and take any girl that suited his fancy. Some French men may still believe this in their subconscious and French women are trained to find it amusing. For the non-French, the French are grumpy, condescending and sexually predatory. However power is a known aphrodisiac and those who wield it seem to suffer from that syndrome more than other men. The Seigneur and serf village seems a good simile for Pascal de Sutter’s description of the politician as alpha male. Sutter explains that sex relaxes male politicians. Their sycophantic entourage, the cartloads of available beautiful women and the obedient press have relaxed them to the point of thinking that Droit de Cuissage towards any woman they meet is their due. This is a fact, but is it an excuse? French women seem to have taken a stand. They no longer find amusing what makes Athena smile and caresses male ego.
Strauss-Khan was brought up in sunny Agadir in Morocco in a freethinking family where ideas where tossed to and fro across the table. He had a mother who was a journalist and governesses who never stayed more than two years. But what sparked my attention was DSK’s father’s very strange story.
It contained an element of incestiousness. Dominique’s grandmother had an affair with a cousin called Marius Khan who was accepted by her husband, Gaston Strauss. After her understanding husband’s death, Marius Khan married her and adopted both the firstborn son and his own daughter. This first born was Dominique’s father, who from then on was called Gilbert Strauss-Khan.
Dominique thus inherited his two family names from his philandering grandmother. Do the French media call him Dr Strauss and Mr Kahn because of this or because it suits him so well?
Could his boundaries be so hopelessly blurred that he introduces a pattern from his past into his present? Is his unconscious re-enacting an old story? If Dominique Strauss-Khan were a woman he would be called a nymphomaniac. As a man, the French press unanimously consider him as highly sexed or predatory. There are more excuses for DSK’s behaviour in this story than in the fact he is Jewish.
Many years after his ‘brutal’ sexual encounter with Anne Mansouret, her daughter Tristane Banon sues him for attempted rape. He is quoted to have said that being alone with T.B. made him ‘blow a fuse’. T.B was his second wife’s goddaughter and a childhood friend of his own daughter Camille – in other words T.B was home ground. Did it make him safe to poach there? Did he think he could commit a kind of social incest in his ‘village’ where waves could easily be smothered?
For me, the strangest coincidence in DSK’s actions was rushing out to have lunch with his daughter Camille immediately after his encounter with her childhood friend Tristane and immediately after seeing the chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo. I asked my friend: ‘Wouldn’t a normal father wish to keep his child as far as possible from his fornicating moods?’ My friend wondered how I could be so damning. I didn’t say it out loud, but it reminded me of a cat dropping a dead bird on the home carpet. I tried to explain my intuitive conviction after hearing the radio and reading the French newspapers, but her clear Australian brow stayed perplexed and open minded. Then, I thought, he comes back to his wife Anne Sinclair – a journalist – just like his mother. Maybe this man need psychiatric help rather than a Presidential seat.
My Australian friend still cannot understand why I am so convinced of his guilt. Listening to French journalists talk in French about DSK was like seeing an uncontainable truth bubble up in every one of their comments. His behaviour had been going on for years; these two last events were but the tip of the iceberg. The fait accompli that everyone accepted had burst at the seams – because one man’s impunity had just gone too far. The international media panders to people in power. Inexorably, instead of being windows of freethinking, they appear to have become the corporate kings’ jesters. In what seems like a cultural shift, the French press have started talking about the elephant in the room at last.
Both Tristane Banon and the New York maid, Nafissatou Diallo waited before reporting anything. One stayed silent for eight years, the other just the time to clean two hotel bedrooms but it invalidated both their testimonials. Diallo was afraid to lose the job she loved, Banon was afraid of losing her mother’s job. Both were afraid of power.
Nafissatou Diallo’s story in Newsweek didn’t make her a squeaky clean victim. Yes, she probably had problems with Immigration and Justice. She was accused of being a dishonest immigrant who tried to take advantage of her situation. I wonder what my immunity to lying would be when trying to escape a dictatorship like the one in Guinea. She is also accused of lying in her testimony. A conversation with her boyfriend in Fusali, her native tongue, is under suspicion, but the translation is faulty.
Why would this women suddenly consent to have sex with a client of the hotel? In which case, if it was consensual intercourse, why are bruises photographed on her vagina by the doctors?
Even if she were the great whore of Babylon, the intimacy of every woman is a precious thing. Two comments in her account of the scene struck me. One was poignant : “I loved the job. I liked the people. All different countries, American, African, and Chinese. But we were the same here (at the Sofitel).” The other bursts out with the spontaneous truth : “A naked man with white hair suddenly appeared”.
The inconsistencies in her account, her silence before reporting the facts, reek of an immigrant’s fear of authority. Nafissatou Diallo’s reaction is different to other women’s. This made the American police doubt. Contrarily to victims taking refuge in silence and shame, Nafissatou Diallo used the offended organ to speak. She made a ‘coming out’, a bit like homosexuals going public. This has inspired another victim to break her silence.
The American press, like an inverted ‘J’accuse!’, turned away from the imperfect victim. If she had been killed like Iphigenia, she would have been a heroine. I am happy Nafissatou Diallo is imperfect and alive. ‘I want him to know’, she said, ‘that there are some places where you can’t use your power, where you can’t use your money.’
The psychologist Pascal de Sutter feels that it was folly for DSK’s entourage to leave him alone in a hotel bedroom. Why? Is he a wild animal?
Is it the theory of the hundredth monkey, Malcold Gladwell was talking about? When the hundredth monkey has learned how to break a coconut with a fallen branch on one island, a monkey on the next island starts doing it out of the blue. Has the hundredth French woman been harassed once too much?
DSK’s alpha male brutality suddenly seems to have stopped amusing French women. It has changed the way they look at men.
Everyone wonders what made Tristane Banon speak out after such a long time. Suddenly people wake up, speak up, instead of accepting a status quo Men are predators. Men create wars and rape women. Are these becoming less than acceptable things to do? Things women no longer admire? With a rapidly diminishing public could cave man ethics be receding at last?
She was so far, yet, sometimes, she was so near. Intimacy can be like a river. We are all rivers running past each other, until we find ourselves – suddenly, unexpectedly – in the same waters. She was one of my oldest, dearest friend’s sister. But my friend is burying her now in far away France. Her name meant ‘light’ and her death has indeed quenched a true light.
After reading my friend’s email saying things were worse, I emailed back my concern and love. The very next day I was hearing her message on my answering machine: everything was over. I phoned straight away and heard the rough velvet of her voice husky with hurt. ‘It doens’t suit her to die!’ she cried. Her sister led an organised, composed life of luxury and quiet elegance.
Her political bent was to the right (how immediately one accepts to use the past tense!), while my friend’s is to the left. My friend’s passionate love for her sister had catches in its breath. But they were linked like some sisters are by something I have always dreamed of – an inner, yet nearly physical belonging. Words, opinions, rich husbands versus artist/architect partners, enormous houses in the country versus small flats didn’t matter. What mattered was what wasn’t said. And that is what I hope my friend will retrieve in a stronger, deeper way.
I never thought it would affect me so much. I, the by-stander who only saw her friend’s sister on off chances, off the cufff so to speak and always because of her sister. Yet, I also had a strange, distant inner connection to this woman. Her eyes would sometimes settle on me and I knew we were understanding the same thing. Once we liked a film in common called White Hunter, Black Heart. It is supposed to be a clumsy film, but we both got it, it moved us, hit the same nerve in us both. I remember her once wiping her perfect kitchen bench top and smiling at me. Her smile said ‘Hello, I know you.’ Gazes, a film, a few visits to her house in the country, a visit to my apartment in Paris, a dinner in a restaurant that her husband paid through the nose for us all, snatches through the years – hardly anything at all really. Yet, when I knew for sure that she had died, that she was dead, yes, really, truly dead, hours later, before going to bed, I needed to call a friend here in Australia to tell her and I sobbed at her. I felt embarrassed with myself. Who was I to claim grief?
Yet, passing ships in the night and human souls have stranger connections than meet the eye. Suddenly all those inner, fleeting, and, yes, spiritual, because wordless, conversations, came back to me. Human souls can’t always say it here, in this world, with these habits, these strange behaviours we seem to adopt for this earth, but they can feel a kinship anyway. At least I did, even though we had no interests or values in common.
Even though she was a valuable person, someone too precious to lose, who has gone. Until we go too.
Can a woman be friends with a man? Really friends? What if he’s married or in a relationship? What if she’s married or in a relationship? Friendships can be passionate. Our friends touch our identity like lovers touch our naked body. We are intimate with a true friend.
Does the phantom of desire, the fantasy of feeling attractive or not attractive pervert friendship with men? I find myself running to the looking-glass before meeting the most platonic male friend. I probably do that with women too because I am vain and French, but, still, I do it more with men.
What could be more attractive than breaking our heart laughing about some ridiculous situation that doesn’t seem so scary because our friend understands? Why does the common humanity factor often stop working in a relationship like a marriage or a de-facto partnership? Sometimes we are something to somebody and they are something to us, but we are not ourselves to each other. Why do we stop confiding in them after a while to turn to our ‘best friend’? Why does a woman fear her husband or partner having a very close woman friend? Why does a man fear his wife or partner swanning off to have heart to heart chat with her own male best friend? I have recently discovered Love my Way, that brilliant series on Australian life. It explores these questions thoroughly. When Frankie and Tom try to continue their friendship, Lewis, Frankie’s husband needs all his humour to cope. Katie, Tom’s girlfriend, has an abortion to take revenge on his deep connection with another woman. Yet the friendship, in fits and starts, in sudden bursts of light, in rantings and epiphanies lives on.
You can see how hard it is, but they do manage it. Friendship seems to be the goal. The inner connection is the elusive pearl that, as Kerouac says, is sometimes handed to us. We never know when, we never know how or who will do it. But we have to accept the gift, however hard the claiming of it is. The Tao says ‘we have a duty to those with whom we have an inner connection.’ This can happen with a dog, a woman, a tree, a particular sky, a child, an old lady and, yes, even a man.
My mother used to say: ‘Man! The hereditary enemy!’ She was part-Spanish, part-Russian, part-French. Man, for her, was part-beast, part-dragon, part-husband and always potential lover. ‘Men’ were described with a different vocabulary that seemed honed just for ‘Them’. She would sometimes say to prove her point: ‘Even a man could understand that!’
I have been living in Australia for 9 years now. Australians treat me like a human being which is the best thing that ever happened to me. And, to my surprise, they treat men like that too.
Men are not treated as wild beasts. They are not seen as tigers on the prowl, burglars on the loose or dangerous maniacs. My mother would not approve. She had gallows humour and was the most un-politically correct person I ever met. Her rules seemed to come straight out of a fairy tale. They pop up unexpectedly in my mind. ‘Never wear a watch after five o’clock! ‘ she would say like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Or ‘Never shake the hand of a woman over seventy-five, always kiss it!’ Or ‘Remember! A husband is no longer a man!’ and her oldest friend Pilar told me ‘Love, is like the shroud, it falls from heaven.’ Spanish people mix death with everything. Even the French call orgasm ‘the little death’. My mother called a sneeze ‘a tiny death’. ‘Oh, the sneeze, it suspends all our faculties!’, she would exclaim sensually before adding: ‘It startles us out of the world!’ But she didn’t need a sneeze to accomplish that. She was in another world on a nine to five basis. As if it were her business to be single mindedly beyond the pale.
Yet my mother’s best friends were men. One was an alcoholic Jesuit translator of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus, another was a gay film director, another an inexhaustibly cultured hunchback antique dealer, another a very old White Russian guitar player called Mr Shadinov and the last I can remember was an Irish man who could read signatures in a clairvoyant way.
Women don’t seem to have that many men friends in Australia. Men, here, are treated with less suspicion but more separateness than in France or Spain. I wondered why. Is it because they refuse to believe Plotinus who wrote that “Man-kind (The hyphen is mine) is poised midway between the gods and the beasts.”
Is it an error to take Men for human beings instead of another kind of animal altogether? Are women sitting ducks or bowing Kiwi birds (two extinct species) in their company? If women become aware of this, as my mother was, could they have a chance at real communication with the other half of the population on earth?
After writing a radio play in 2008 for France Culture on Carson McCullers (Conversation at Nyack), I decided to continue my research on her life. Something still niggled me. The subject seemed ‘half open’ just like the twin stone slabs that covered her grave and her mother’s in Nyack cemetery. One of her biographers noticed that they had moved a little. He assumed it was to be closer to each other. I felt it more like a mute plea or interrupted speech.
So, I started a new play, Dead or Alive, for the theatre this time. To me Carson’s voice beyond the tomb was still brimming with life. Death had never been her problem. It had always seemed to be of more use to her than to others. Much more than death, Carson’s true fear was the absence of love.
In her novels, it’s often thanks to death that people find the answer they are searching for.
When reading writer’s lives two recurring tendencies are often to be found. Writers are often haunted by their childhood and/or have a close bond with a grandparent. Their intimate and profound connection with the two extremes of life illuminates their prose. Here are but a few notable examples: Marcel Proust, Kawabata, Gérard de Nerval, E.M Forster, Mishima, Carson McCullers…
They bring back visions and convictions from their childhood much like cosmonauts bring back impressions from their voyage to the moon. Childhood thoughts and the promises that children make to themselves are very clear in their adult minds. If the every day use of one’s imagination brings us to suppose that life is a continuum and therefore does not necessarily stop with our last breath, that life is and always will be, the child in us is the one who whispers this to us.
We live in a society where death isn’t PC. Alluding to death, Hades, Tartarus, the Other Side, is good for greasy haired palm readers. Yet death is free of charge. Death is for everyone – for our friends, our lovers, our parents, even our children… When we lose someone, we have a more ‘open’ perception of life’s threshold as if we had reopened the fontanel – that fragile and mysterious area on the baby’s skull that only completely closes up a year and a half after the child’s birth. For some of us, a potential other world is nothing more than the clay to which we return or the uterus from which we are dragged out screaming… Even if for others, consciousness doesn’t end when you kick the bucket… Whatever our intuitions of death, mourning someone we love stops us from immediately consigning the dead to their convenient graves. We converse with the dead for a time and this conversation connects us more deeply to our inner selves.
The characters in Dead or Alive use a conversation of this kind to address issues they always avoided when they were alive. Death is the active force that helps them find a favourable outcome to an ancient family dilemma. In the cemetery, Carson gets the elbowroom and the opportunity to deal with her taboos and borrows the courage of her novels’ characters to solve her own problems – a courage she didn’t possess in her lifetime. Stuck in Nyack cemetery with her unresolved problems, she is compelled to tackle the truth and to reveal it to us in the process.
Her autobiography Illuminations and Night Glare is a testament to the truth she avoided. As I read, her tone seemed shallow compared to her fiction. Glimpses of sincerity slip through here and there like transparencies but the voice doesn’t ‘speak’ with the authority of her novels. Although her mother was already dead, one had the sense of her reading over her daughter’s shoulder. In this autobiography, their unspoken pact can’t be dissolved as if the omnipresence of Carson’s mother does not give her access to her own psyche. She can only reach the authentic voice in her books through the medium of her imagination. But in the cemetery in Dead or Alive, the two women no longer need to lie to each other to survive. Their lies, their betrayals and their secrets have lost their power once the two women come to accept that they are truly dead.
Comparing the voice in her books with the inconsistencies of her autobiography felt like superimposing two unmatching transparencies to get a more complete picture. This is turn helped me to ask more precise questions which I could find no answer to in her biographies or on the web. Then, quite by chance, I unearthed an event, so carefully hidden by her family that it was only recently revealed after the publication of all her biographies on an academic site.
Yet, this event completely changes the reading of her life.
Everything ineluctably converged on Carson’s mother, Marguerite Smith, nicknamed Bebe by her family: the devoted mother who nursed her genius daughter all her life. A daughter with rheumatic fevers, a daughter who drank with her husband Reeves McCullers, a daughter who suffered sudden unexplained seizures… ‘An admirable mother, full of patience, courage and love…’ In Illuminations and Night Glare, Carson glosses over (except to vent her hate of psychiatrists) her time in a psychiatric hospital, an abortion, her father’s death and her relationship to Reeves, the man she married twice.
She doesn’t face up to anything or take any responsibility. Was her husband’s suicide a weight on her conscience? The problem seemed to stem from something beyond her marriage. As if she was incapable of reacting like an adult woman in certain circumstances because the foundations that supported her life were not solid enough. Everything seemed to go back to Carson’s mother and her mysterious grandmother.
Carson McCullers three major biographers seem to hover around a mystery the authors cannot quite fathom. Even if Jacques Tournier’s, instinctively poetic, intuits Carson’s true voice almost clairvoyantly. Josyane Savigneau who resurrects Carson with vigour and genius is the only one to comment on a secret, of which Mary Mercer, Carson’s therapist and friend, seems to hold the key. (Virginia Carr’s enormous pile stuffed with anecdotes is curiously bereft of any echo of Carson as if she had just walked out of the room on the first page.) Yet, no one seem to question the omnipresent mother, no one has any insights about the family’s sudden departure to Nyack near New York – a disquieting undertaking for a family of deep Southerners.
But the sacred, untouchable mother, like Mecca’s Black Stone, rises in the background of all Carson’s mysteries. Carson’s complaints about her husband Reeves are a smoke screen that hides abortion, hospital confinement and the death she hardly speaks about. Reeves himself is also close to Marguerite Smith. He was part of the parties she gave to discuss avant-garde ideas and politics. It was even suspected in Columbus, their hometown, that Marguerite had written her daughter’s books. Marguerite is the magnetic centre of a vortex.
I have built my play around three dead characters who have urgent business to settle with each other. A secret they conspired to keep hidden poisoned their lives. Dead or Alive brings out in the open, so they can deal with it and reach out to each other at last.
I have faithfully followed the elements of Carson’s life to structure the play. The imaginary ending allows Carson to be set free and get’s her out of the cemetery of denial so she can resume her life where she left it – of course -more alive than dead…
Paul Eluard, the French poet, said that the world was blue like an orange. When I read that phrase for the first time it made so much sense to me. In France, the expression ‘finding the other half of the orange’ means soul mate, partner, unexpected train station Dr Zhivago, snow flake speckled love affair for the duration of a life time with no bad timing, misunderstandings or betrayals of the Anna Karenina type. In other terms, the half of an orange is a fairy tale image. One is not only brought up on rules and principles, but on images. Irrational images that clamp themselves deep into us, we believe we own them. They possess us like the colours of stain-glass windows possess the light flowing through them. We may think we own them, but our thoughts are really owned by our first images. In my childhood, my parents carried on about the half of an orange as often as other people did about health or a good education. Finding the other half of one’s orange was a canon of my childhood, referred to with reverence.
My mother’s share in my sexual education was all about oranges. Everyone was one half of an orange, all you needed was to find the other half, she exuded more than explained. Gregorio Marañón had written all about it in a book. Yet his book was not in her house – I searched for it in vain. Her information came from another source. Gregorio Marañón was a famous Spanish doctor and writer who thought that every man had his ideal woman enshrined in his psyche. Men would love closer and closer until they reached the one person whose peculiar cocktail of qualities fitted their own perfectly. Women were exactly the same, except that their task (according to the Spanish doctor) was more in waiting mode. Socrates had spoken of it before Marañón, but Marañón seemed to have convinced my mother more deeply than Plato’s volumes in the Pleiades, the venerable French classic publisher, sitting primly in her bookshelf.
I still own them. I have just looked at them. They are worn down, tired out. My mother read like a boa constrictor: She would ingurgitate ideas in flesh and blood, until they became part of her everyday life. I have never liked Socrates and his beard and smart ass opinion on everything. I discovered later on that he was exciting Athenian youths agains democracy at a time when Sparta’s dictatorship was menacing the Republic. That’s why they asked him to drink the hemlock after his trial. Like Socrates, my mother was attracted to strong methods. My parents ideas were right wing, but like many French people, their heart was on the Left. My father sent his eldest son to Germany to learn German just before the war, but he joined the Resistance as soon as they set foot in Paris. This dichotomy expressed itself in their reading. My parents read certain authors by duty, then devoured others with opposite opinions. Marañón was one of those. Yet, my mother had quite other reasons to speak of him with a reverence.
Pilar, her oldest friend, had loved Gregorio Marañón’s son.
After school a girl told me that my theories about the half of an orange were bullshit. It was just an Indian fairy tale, she said. A prince and a princess are each given a half of the same orange and sent off on a voyage to find each other. But the prince gets too hungry and eats his half. The story didn’t say what happened to the princess.
Believing in the half of an orange has led me into unimaginable trouble. Believing in the half of an orange is why I find myself living in Australia.
Just like the magic factory in Chernobyl that made energy out of nothing, my parents clothed reality with enchanted colours. I have a flawed eyesight and a dangerously euphoric outlook. I believe in the half of an orange. I believe the world is blue like an orange.
When you are a child you are told to say Hello, Please and Thank You. Yes, it can be wearisome and conventional for us when we are four, but later on this oil in the wheels of human interaction proves to be fundamentally necessary. How would we fare if we breezed in without a sunny ‘G’day’ and all those soft ‘No Worries’ that welcomed me on my first days in Melbourne? I was so used to French brusqueness and patronising impoliteness, that I felt like saying ‘Really? No worries?’ That was my welcome to country.
I am now an Australian citizen but people keep asking me how could you possibly leave Paris? All that culture, they breathe… If only they knew how easy it was. Stone and mortar are not the only culture. The trees, the hills, the deserts of Australia are its cathedrals, its halls of fame. Awe for the spiritual nature of a place, whose presence precedes us all, is very different from patriotism that can degenerate into perverse ownership of the land. One shudders at people swathed in US flags hugging each other to celebrate someone’s death.
The Aboriginal’s know the inner language of this country. Respecting, learning, including their rites as much as possible in urban, western ceremonies can only knit this nation together in a way that can’t be explained but that every Australian (even very new ones) understands in his or her gut – even if they don’t agree with it like Ted Baillieu.
When Jeff Kennett congratulated Ted Baillieu‘s courageous decision on resisting Political Correctness, I felt sad and ashamed.
Of course, a Welcome to Country can be stilted, especially if the person making the speech does not believe in what he or she is saying. Like the child rebelling against the shackles of courtesy at an age where he wants to grab and plunder in the same way he grabbed his mother’s nipple such a short time before, we need to accept the Welcome to Country as a thank you, an acknowledgement of the spiritual identity of this country. Nearly every time I hear an Aboriginal Elder say the Welcome to Country, I feel the sting of tears in my eyes, but I also have been moved every time a non-Aboriginal speaker means what he or she says.
Maybe everyone does not mean it with the same intensity, but the courtesy to the motherland that we grabbed and stole from its original inhabitants is necessary even if short term, short-sighted corporate-minded politicians find it wearisome and conventional. Maybe they think it cramps their style. One thinks of Stephen Jay Gould’s ideas on ontogeny and phylogeny. By extension the rate at which a culture and a generation grow up is not always in sync. This land is ageless. We are a thin layer on the outer crust of its story. The wealth of Aboriginal spiritual knowledge and appropriate behaviour is what has kept this place unlike any other country on the planet, a country that people swarm to because they are beckoned by something inexplicable.
The land of Australia is so old. For a European, just sifting the silky earth through your fingers, touching a Paperbark, looking up to the gigantic sky, walking through the tormented bush or gazing into the arrogant eyes of a kangaroo, is enough to sense the wise and ancient presence of this continent.
We have to grow up too.