I am thinking of a small boy in the early 1960s, living in an outer suburb of Melbourne. The boy belongs to a large Catholic family that fills their house almost to bursting. There are nine children and two parents in the house. The boy shares a bedroom with three of his brothers. The four boys have a bed in each corner of the bedroom. Sometimes they leap from bed to bed, and once one of the beds broke under this boy’s determined and joyful leaping.
In this bedroom he learned to read by torchlight under his blanket at night. Sometimes he found comics or passages of writing that showed there was a world wholly different beyond his suburb. At night his five sisters went to their bedroom, the boys to theirs, and his parents would close the door on everyone in their own bedroom. They were sorted, as though they were kinds of things, fruit, or vegetables.
He went to school in the city. Sometimes he went by train and sometimes his father drove him in. Later he would remember how much he loved and hated his father, as we all must, even if the hate is an abstract hate or the love a buried thing. When his father drove him to school there would be a car full of them, the girls going across the road from the boys’ school. Always his father would be running late. If the boy was late for school without an excuse or a note he would be kept back in detention and would have to catch the late train home.
Later he would remember the day his father glanced down at him sitting in the front seat of the car, reading a book as the car swerved dangerously through morning traffic, hopelessly late. His father saw the boy’s shoes were not polished. He turned the car around and drove all the way back home, where the boy polished his scuffed shoes and listened to his father say that he might know how to read, and he might know how to write and he might know how to pass exams, but he didn’t know how to do something as simple as brush his shoes.
Somehow this lesson defined him. He would not forget it. But his father and his siblings have forgotten. They looked at him blankly when he recounted what he remembered. It might not have happened. It might just be that something like this could have happened or should have happened: that imagining something like this was required in the circumstances of his family life to show him what he was and what he might become.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written how, in an article on tantrums:
… There is something intrinsically and unavoidably humiliating about being a child. Every child has felt humiliated by his dependence on his parents – by his relative powerlessness in relation to the people he needs – and everyone has been left feeling vengeful by this ineluctable diminishment.
When the boy read these sentences later in his life, he thought he understood what Mr Phillips was writing about.
There was the time when his father drove him to Sunbury, a long journey, to play a game of school football, and when they arrived the boy discovered he had left his football boots behind. And again, when he was older, his parents trusted him to go into the city by train with a pocketful of money to buy a new pair of Clarks school shoes.
He bought the shoes and placed the new box, with the new shoes inside the box, beside him on the train journey home. He became absorbed in his book and forgot entirely about the shoes until he arrived home and his mother asked him where they were. The shoes were never found, and now he marvels at the power of a child to exact obscure revenge.
The boy fell in love with the swooning poetry John Keats wrote on his way to death at thirty-one. The boy was subject to the aching pleasures of imagination and its usual fits of melancholy. Keats wrote in his ‘Ode on Melancholy’:
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from the heaven like a weeping cloud,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-waves,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
The hypnotic pattern threatening to fall apart, then asserting itself again, the rhymes intricate and delicate, then the woman’s mysterious anger and the poet’s inability to do more than gaze into her eyes. From these poems the boy thought he had learned the almost-secret neural music of speech, the connection that sound has to the chemical self. He wanted to make poetry like that.
One of his English teachers gave the class the task of writing something creative each weekend. The boy would be full of tension and fright until the Sunday evening when he would sit and write whatever came into his heart. One week the teacher announced that he wanted to read aloud to the class the piece of writing the boy had submitted. Just as the teacher began reading another boy in the class groaned. The teacher stopped, put the story away, and refused to go back to it. The story would never be read aloud. It would never be read by anyone but the teacher. The boy thought he had learned something about writing.
Writing brings with it a puzzle the boy will never be able to resolve. On the one hand there is the small self, writing something the writer hopes will be vividly particular and true to one’s existence. On the other hand, there is no point to the ambition of this exercise if the words do not find their way into a book that is a public object: exposed to inevitable and understandable impatience, misunderstanding, ridicule, satire, acutely insightful contempt or simply to groans.
The writer lives with this ambition for the writing and this fear of it being read. For all its beauty, cleverness and poise, Keats’ ‘Ode on Melancholy’ rises from a shameful fear of death, an inability to do much more than be a spectator to his life.
It takes equal measures of courage and foolishness, vanity and selflessness, to write. Probably it would be a better choice to keep your shoes polished, be at work on time and not give away too much about your personal life, even in the abstract about your knowledge of how defeated and uncertain personal lives can be.
In one his last short stories, ‘The Tale’, Joseph Conrad has his storyteller speak of a war that was being “carried on over the land, over the water, under the water, up in the air, and even under the ground”:
And many young men in it, mostly in wardrooms and messrooms, used to say to each other – pardon the unparliamentary word – they used to say, ‘It’s a damned bad war, but it’s better than no war at all’.
This might be the writer’s best slogan: knowing we are already defeated, but relishing the fact that while defeat is part of our world, we are in the war.
At the beginning of a poem in his first book, Paul Zweig (1935-1984) wrote: “Afraid that I am not a poet”. This fear of the work and of the self in front of the work will always be with the writer. Zweig went on in the next lines to say: “Yet willing to write / Even about that”. And yet the writer takes flight.
As I write this, school children are walking home from school past my window. They don’t walk down the street like adults do. They play down the street, they shout to each other and spin round each other, pushing, spreading out into the road, calling out sounds that don’t sound like any language. It is strange to me. It is as if they are in flight, being blown home by breezes in fits and starts, leaping from moment to moment, forgetful of the real and sober purpose of streets.
The story would never be read aloud. It would never be read by anyone but the teacher. The boy thought he had learned something about writing.
William James (1842-1910) wrote of the stream of consciousness, and noted that really a stream is an inadequate image for what goes on in our heads. He suggested: “Our mental life is like a bird’s life … an alternation of flights and perchings”. As soon as we are dislodged from a particular thought we are suspended until we can find purchase on something else, something substantive.
A thought, James wrote, is like a sentence. It is in flight until it reaches that full stop. And each sentence is like a child moving down my street in the afternoon, particular to itself, expressive in every gesture it makes, and making no sense until the whole pathway down the street has been negotiated with the traffic, other children, the fences, mailboxes and trees.
So if you want to truly describe a thought, you would have to put a hyphen between every word in its sentence, and say that this is the description of this thought. “Nothing short of this can possibly name its delicate idiosyncrasy. And if we wish to feel that idiosyncrasy we must reproduce the thought as it was uttered, with every word fringed and the whole sentence bathed in that original halo of obscure relations, which, like an horizon, then spread about its meaning.”
This is exactly why it would be misleading to say the school children were walking home along the street. Forgetful of themselves, they were in flight as a thought might be briefly. It is this flight that the ambitious and fearful writer must find a way to follow. Don’t be scared to be scared is not bad advice. When a story or a poem begins to work, it takes flight, and this flight will reveal its particular shape only at the end.
The small boy, now a man, would understand late in his life that it was his father who had brought him to understand how connected writing is to fear, to failure and to revenge: his father who could never get to work on time, or truly ever tidy away his nine children with shoes shined, hair brushed and souls pure; whose talk might have been cruel, but was always strangely urgent.
Let the boy rave and feed deep, deep upon the changing lessons the flight of memory will bring.
Kevin Brophy co-founded Going Down Swinging in 1980 with Myron Lysenko.