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October 29, 2008

The Pages — by Murray Bail


"At dawn — what a word: the beginning of the world all over again — the two women set out from Sydney in a small car, as other people were slowly going about their tasks, or at least beginning to stir, producing a series of overlapping movements and stoppages, awakenings and false dawns, framed by the glass of the car."

Above, the opening paragraph of the Australian novelist's new book, which most certainly predisposed me, at least, to continue with my reading.


    How anyone can believe that Sydney could produce in its own backyard a philosopher of world significance or even minor significance shows how little understanding there is of the conditions required for philosophical thought.

    Sydney of course is one of the nicest places under the sun. The location, location. A young settlement, brightly lit. It has come late to just about everything, and has enjoyed both the advantages and disadvantages of that.... For the first fifty years there was only a handful of books in the entire country. By the time Sydney passed through and built upon its original settlement and began standing on its own two feet, philosophers, if there were any, found hardly any problems left for them to tackle. The important philosophical questions had more or less been settled. The remaining questions were paltry; they could all fit onto a pinhead. People in Sydney still interested in philosophy were reduced to commenting on the work of others....

    At the very word "philosophy" people in Sydney run away in droves, reach for the revolver; they look down at their shoes, they smile indulgently; they go blank.

    It is different in other places; Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna come to mind. There, philosophy is not in the awkward, remote background, but in the foreground of everyday life. These are places where the philosopher has his rightful position, that is, on a pedastal. It is common in those old cities to find a philosopher's image cast in bronze and his most difficult propositions being discussed over breakfast, and certainly every other evening on the radio.

    Meanwhile, Sydney never bothered itself with philosophical questions; as a consequence, philosophers are nowhere to be seen.

    Such an absence would normally leave a hollow center, an entire group of people living without the benefit of long sentences — foundation sentences; yet we can now see how the lack of interest in one field encouraged a rushing across into an adjacent field, the way passengers crowd to one side of a shop when a harbor comes into view.

    Psychology, and its vine-like offshoot, psychoanalysis.

    In Sydney it's hard to bump into anyone who isn't in analysis, or has been, or is about to be.

    From being the most unphilosophical city in the world, Sydney has become the most psychological city in the world.

    Rows of terrace houses in the inner suburbs, and rooms in small office blocks close to medical centers, have been fitted out with the heavy curtains and the chair and the couch in duplication of the cave-like atmosphere first tried and found to yield interesting results in Vienna, on the other side of the world. In the long summer months on the footpaths, when the windows of these rooms are raised like so many open mouths, a murmuring hum can be heard, blending into one, each and every word and sentence circling around the self, nothing else. In early evening, women doing well in big business, earning heaps, hurry away from it all for the regular appointment. And they enjoy it — the endless sentence. Who knows what sacrifices they have endured and confusions vaguely felt — all for their work? Others — perhaps soldered to their father's hip, or baffled by the broken marriage — drop everything at three or four to make it there. An excavation through words. It can be hard work. And these patients are the articulate ones. Emerging after fifty minutes on the dot they can be seen hurrying along the footpath in a return to ordinary life, the everyday in all its complexities, its apparent breadth, its incompletions, some wearing an exalted expression, while fumbling for the keys to the car.

    What is going on here? The skies are blue, forever cloudless — is that it? A great emptiness sending people back to themselves. Now that the city is up and running, no longer a country town, there's been a transference from the landscape and its old hardships to the self? Various repressions are said to be hidden away, "frozen anger" is one of the terms used. They say it is a matter of gradually lifting the layers, to find the original self, where there might be recognition, when then allows a suggestion of hope.

    And who is doing this talk? Not ill, at least not seriously, the self-obsessed personalities have a concentrated, almost technical interest in the self, as if they wer specimens. Interest in others tends to be perfunctory, impatient, showy.

    Years spent murmuring the endless circling sentence, while the analyst remains almost, though not quite, hidden.

    A philosopher would not allow this; but when needed there were none.

    Travelers and strangers to all parts of Australia, especially away from the coast, can expect wonderful hospitality. The country has its faults, as any country does, but lack of hospitality is certainly not one of them. Only when hospitality is little more than an excessive informality, when an entire nation breaks into premature smiling and all-teeth, small-talk mode — which betrays an absence of philosophical foundations — does it appear as nothing more than an awkward type of lightness.

    The more isolated and hostile the terrain, the more authentic the hospitality. In their falsity the travellers are made to feel at home. Desert people are renowned for sharing with strangers their last handful of dates and puddle of used coffee, often without saying a word. There is a courtesy here — without naivety. The world is inhospitable; the cold earth. Assist another person if encountered on its surface. The instinct is a basic one.

    At first glance you would think that the psychoanalytical person would understand hospitality, and be hospitable, while the philosophical person would remain distant to the point of turning away. The opposite happens to be the case. The psychoanalytical person plumps up the pillows and leaves it at that. To extend hospitality to another person subdivides aspects of their distant, hidden self. And any suggestions of a food offering acting as language is brushed aside: for it could only reduce the amount of language available to describe their attention-requiring state of mind.

    But then it could hardly be said the philosophers have set a cracking pace in generosity to strangers either. Almost to a man they practice in their daily lives a specific remoteness, a behaviour verging on abstraction. Et cetera, et cetera. Oh, yes.

    Out here — more than in the city — she could see how everything already existed without description. As well, she was never comfortable with the way words were attached to a given subject — such as a tree, or the heat, let alone feelings.

    Hot barren countries — alive with natural hazards — discourage the formation of long sentences, and encourage instead the laconic manner. The heat and the distances between objects seem to drain the will to add words to what is already there. What exactly can be added? "Seeds falling on barren ground" — where do you think that well-polished saying came from?

    It is the green smaller countries in the northern parts of the world, cold, dark, complex places, local places, with settled populations, where thoughts and sentences (where the printing press was invented!) have the hidden urge to continue, to make an addition, a correction, to take an active part in the layering. And not only producing fertile ground for philosophical thought; it was of course a hysterical landlocked country, of just that description, where psychoanalysis was born.

    A mismatch of opinion or the way of expressing it triggered in her a sharper observation of a person's defects, which suddenly protruded the way rocks appeared in a paddock.

    The greatest of the great philosophers followed the solitary life, a life of relative simplicity, living alone, in that sense a hard life, just the candle on the table, whereas the founder of psychoanalysis and his disciples and rivals enjoyed married lives, children and gardens which provided the warmth and intimacy of the softer life. The philosopher is interested in silence. The psychoanalyst is drawn to the other person, to words strung out; they're prepared to encourage the horizontal halting sentences, faint noise of traffic outside, someone on the street shouting. Spare a thought for these conduits in comfortable clothing; after listening at regular set intervals to a procession of people one by one thinking aloud about themselves, they return home in the evening to encounter more words, more cries for attention, where they are expected to apply not ordinary everyday understanding, but unusual additional understanding.

    More and more Sydney has come to resemble a word-factory the way it produces extra, spoken words.

    Psychoanalysts have not seen the need to set up rooms away from the city (Sydney). An overlay of voices and other distractions has separated city dwellers from their natural selves, in turn aggravating all manner of obstructions, confusions, the specifically named phobias, which cry out for treatment. It is the philosophers who have shown a penchant for pastoral areas, often up in the mountains. There's been quite a history of it; many distinguished names hiding themselves away. And then what happened? The remoteness of the places the philosophers chose as their "work worlds" drew curiosity and respect from the city dwellers who couldn't help embroidering the distant uncomfortable huts, towers, the forests and lakes, until they became further isolated and frozen in the aura of myth.

    The "comings and goings" of the seasons, the firm statement of geology, above all the absence of voices, can provide a feeling of closeness to the original nature of things, the beginning from where an explanation can begin to be constructed. There — in the mountains especially — philosophy can be seen as a natural force.


£10.49 at Amazon UK.

Or wait till next year when it's published in the U.S.

October 29, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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