Altitude: an e-journal of emerging humanities work

July 1, 2004

Leaving

Filed under: Volume 1: Subjectivities (2001) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 5:41 am

by Kirsten Heysen, Altitude, Volume 1, Creative 1, 2001.

PDF Version: Leaving

For one week Ruth watches her neighbours. It is a hot week and when she pulls the horizontal plastic blinds apart they bend easily beneath her hands. The blinds, she thinks, could be moulded in this heat and then Jim would know she had been watching. There are things to do and when Ruth pulls her fingers away the blinds spring easily back into shape as if she had not been looking at all. Across the room she lifts a shirt from the washing basket. One of the arms is twisted back inside the body and looking at it makes her feel odd, as if the shirt does not belong to Jim but to some large unknown man sawn off at the shoulder.

There is the life being lived across the road and then there is her own. The life across the road, the one she watches through the blinds, belongs to Eric and Nan. Eric and Nan’s life is fifty years older than Ruth’s own and it is Eric who holds it together. Eric has a pale wooden ladder, which he props up against the trunk of a peach tree. He climbs the ladder to wrap green netting around the fruit. Ruth has watched Eric collect the mail and noticed that he does not look hopefully at the letters as Ruth does when she collects her own mail, but instead glances left at his wrapped up fruit tree. The letters, white, standard, dull, he holds in his large palm and then he disappears inside behind the screen door.

Every afternoon when the peach tree’s limbed shadow falls across the footpath, Eric, who is tall, holds the screen door open. He presses his back against the right-hand side of the doorframe and extends his arm across to hold the screen door open. Nan passes beneath him, like he is one half of Oranges and Lemons. Say the bells of St Clement’s Ruth thinks she hears her hum. Nan wears white bobby socks like a cheerleader and looks at the sky as if she is seeing it for the first time. Eric walks Nan to the end of the street and then back again. She holds her husband’s hand and her walk is frail, but deliberate. With each step she is pinning the sunlight to the footpath. Eric is airing his wife, Ruth thinks. And this thought which is funny and awful at the same time, makes her laugh and will not leave her head. She imagines passing Eric and Nan in the street and Eric saying “Arvo! Just airing the wife.”

Ruth doe snot know the sound of Eric’s voice. They have waved to each other once, on a hot day, when she was unloading the car and Eric was watering his garden and water was hissing across the asphalt into her cement driveway.

There are other lives on the street. Ruth has watched them and then left them alone. Once fence away is a dentist and his wife. Once, on a corner, they were unavoidable. The four of them: the dentist and his wife and Rut hand Jim faced one another and then the dentist said “How do you pass your Sundays?” and walked off leaving the question behind him. His wife remained.

“He is used to people not responding,” she said. But there had been other times, on the street, at the shop, when Ruth noticed the dentist’s wife did the same thing.

And on the other side a wife and her husband who does something or other with computers. These were not the lives Ruth watched. They were familiar. They were television lives; the way the husband straightened his tie as he walked out of the front door and kissed his bride and yelled at the dog to get out of the way and filled the air with the blip of a car alarm. Sometimes the wife would signal for him to wait while she dashed inside to grab the lunch he had forgotten. As the car backed out of the driveway, Ruth wanted to clap at the flawlessness of the performance. “Wave to your studio audience!” she wanted to call out.

That morning the computer husband had seen Ruth bringing in the washing. “Alright?” the husband called to her. “And Jim?” “Jim’s leaving.” The blip of the car alarm cut across her words.

“But you were always laughing,” he said and then looked embarrassed. Ruth was thrown by his words and noticed his soft hands opening the car door and felt mean that she never liked him.

“C’est la vie,” she said to him and then walked inside with the noise of his car behind her. She realises it is not everyone else filling the air with cliches; it is only her who does this.

Across the road Eric opens a door. Ruth puts down the basket she is carrying.

II

Nan sees the edges of things. She grasps at the wholeness of an idea, of a memory, but the details tip and slide away from her. A clock ticks and then chimes heavily; the room is weighted. From outside comes a shuffle and scraping. Nan looks at the clock.

It was a wedding present that came in a large green box with Brunhorst stamped on the lid. Nan remembers surely and firmly the box being handed, not to her, but to Eric. It is him, Eric, outside, and the scraping sound is that of a ladder being shifted.

Outside, across the road, Nan has seen a girl. Only once or twice, only briefly. The girl wears jeans low on her hips. She hunches into herself and moves quickly.

“Straighten your shoulders girl!” That’s what Nan’s mother would have said. Nan used to hunch like that, over the piano. The clock ticks. That girl needs to sop climbing on the roof at night! Nan is angry now. She has seen that girl scamper high; tearing her heart on the guttering, sobbing at the moon. The anger Nan feels is not at the girl. It is an old remembered danger, when her own body was lithe and wild, like the girl’s. With a straight arm, Nan once threw a soup bowl against the wall. She used her teeth like needles to draw blood from the cushion of her sister’s skin.

Amongst the red of her thoughts a door opens. There is a human light and a voice that carries with it the warmth from outside and Nan feels the anger fall away.

“I have something for you!” Eric comes towards her. He is holding out a peach. Nan accepts it; she loves its perfect velvety weight and the way the sun has crept beneath the flesh. She smiles at her husband. In her hands she feels she is holding everything that is between them.

III

Ruth is used to moving. There were eleven houses when she was a child. Eleven houses and six schools. Jim wanted to know more.

“I can’t imagine shifting around like that,” he said.

He had been to Thailand, to some beaches there, but that was before they met.

“The buses are so crowded people hang from the doorways,” he told her. “It’s as if the bus has arms and legs.”

Ruth and Jim left Melbourne once and raced the daylight along the Great Ocean Road as far as Port Fairy. Jim’s shoulders, Ruth remembers, slumped when they turned inland. The house when they returned was airless. They threw the windows open and wished they lived by the ocean. One Saturday morning, she was cool and wrapped in a towel after a shower and he chased her around the house. She tripped and they laughed as he caught her. Jim kicked around an old soccer ball and said he wouldn’t mind travelling somewhere again, like Thailand. He threw a terracotta pot across the lawn. He grinned at the pot’s flight before it shattered against the fence.

Jim said he hated the stillness of the street. Ruth began watching the movement of other.

“I have to get moving,” Jim said. “There are things�”

Jim is in a room, on his knees, taping up a box. He leans over the box and then straightens up and folds his shoulders in and stretches his arms out in front of him. He pulls at a loose piece of rubber on the heel of his sneaker. Ruth watches him from another room. The distance between them makes her generous and she feels for him the same uncomplicated love she felt when first seeing a photo of him as a child.

She turns away from the screech of packing tape and walks to the window. The afternoon is stretched long and bright and Eric and Nan are out there. An icecream truck, faded and out of place, sings along the street. It passes Eric and Nan, and Ruth is pleased by the way its song crowds out the noise of the packing tape. Eric raises his arm and Nan, still clasping his hand, spins once beneath him.

Ruth leaves the window and moves outside. The van carries its song down another street and Eric and Nan keep walking.

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Mars 2, Venus 0: Exploring Self Help Books

Filed under: Volume 1: Subjectivities (2001) — Tags: , — Clifton Evers @ 5:30 am

by Julia Martin, Altitude, Volume 1, Article 3, 2001.

PDF Version: Mars 2, Venus 0: Exploring Self Help Books

The self help book is the most tangible narrative produced by the self improvement movement, and it regularly tops the best seller lists both here in Australia and in the United States. The idea of combining know-how with personal transformation is a potent offshoot of the North American psyche, one which is prone to regular satirical treatment in Australia, but continues to dominate our non fiction market. This article will examine a few of the particularly persistent qualities of the self-help tradition. It will then examine how they are expressed in John Gray’s well-known book, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, which was a New York Times best-seller for 140 weeks, and has sold more than four million copies in 86 languages worldwide since its release in 1992 (Bader 1). Examination of this text will show that Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is another manifestation of the mind cure tradition, a movement that emphasises individual empowerment and simultaneously removes it.

I wish to emphasise from the start that I am not against the entire self-help movement. My own reading of self-help books, and talking with others who read them, leads me to believe that there are a great number of these publications that can assist people. If one is to define self-help books as publications which aim to resolve individual problems or provide knowledge to enhance individual decision making, then the aims of such books are not harmful per se. But within the genre of self-help, the means offered to reach such noble-sounding ends can differ wildly, from books of the ‘know-how’ variety (how to manage money, or deal with a life-threatening illness) to the more radical, sometimes harmful, end of the spectrum.

Julia Martin completed her PhD at the School of English at the University of New South Wales. Her thesis is on diaries of the Enlightenment period and the fiction of the unified subject. Other research interests include self-help movements; autobiography; and electronic publishing.

Reading Practice: Certain Hermeneutics and the ‘Problem Text’

Filed under: Volume 1: Subjectivities (2001) — Tags: , — Clifton Evers @ 5:06 am

by Paul Lobban, Altitude, Volume 1, Article 2, 2001.

PDF Version: Reading Practice: Certain Hermeneutics and the ‘Problem Text’

The initial difficulty for me is one I will return to again, that of the conjunction between different texts and modes of thought. In this specific case the conjunction is between the interpretative breadth and variability of Michel de Certeau’s inquiries into the practices of reading and writing, and the descriptively unadorned, relatively unknown personal diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, kept between 1599 and 1605. Immediately the validity of value-judgments about “interest” or appropriateness are themselves called into question, given my prefatory quotes from Certeau and Deleuze, further destabilizing what I hope to present as some form of argument. Such a move is underpinned by a heterological perspective of interpretative practice, heterology briefly defined is ‘the introduction of alterity into familiar spaces’ (Ahearne 67). Certeau’s heterological framework, the contiguous deployment of familiar interpretative, spatial and textual models and their ‘others’, provides for myself, as for Margaret Hoby, spaces of autonomy and self-determination within notionally prescriptive conceptual and physical environments. By deploying Certeau’s self-reflexive interpretative models against an ambivalent historical text it becomes apparent that the unstable perspectivism arising from an individually inflected Certalian hermeneutics reads the diary according to a particular set of interpretative, textual, and historical logics. Of particular interest here is the interaction between Certeau’s subversive reading practices and a text whose authority is at best uncertain – the diary in its incipient phase.

Paul Lobban completed his PhD at the University of Adelaide. His thesis focussed on domestic (diaries, letters) and prophetical writing by English women during the early modern period.

Mapping Lived Spaces and Spaces Between ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ Girls in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Robber Bride’

Filed under: Volume 1: Subjectivities (2001) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 4:50 am

by Shelley Kulperger, Altitude, Volume 1, Article 1, 2001.

PDF Version: Mapping Lived Spaces and Spaces Between ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Girls in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Robber Bride’

Transgression’, ‘cartography’, ‘deterritorialization’ and ‘nomadism’ are just some of the ‘spatial’ metaphors and critical models that have come, recently, to dominate cultural and critical theory. These invocations of spatial poetics and politics give us a reason to consider what the poststructuralist celebration of what functions, metaphorically, as a non-fixed, domestic, outside might mean to feminist concerns over gender, subjectivity and space. Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride provides a ‘map’ for exploring some of these concerns through the protagonists of her text who are crudely characterised and stereotyped as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls and through the particular emphasis on domestic and urban space. In a critical examination of essentialised female subjectivity, much of Atwood’s recent work looks to the historical foundations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ femininity, of ‘Angels-in-the-House’ and femmes fatales, of malicious Medusas and drowning Ophelias. In The Robber Bride, these models of femininity carry their historical references but also emphatically arise out of routine spatial practices and belongings.

Shelley Kulperger completed a PhD in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland

November 1, 2001

Stain

Filed under: Volume 1: Subjectivities (2001) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 5:53 am

by Russell Smith, Altitude, Volume 1, Creative 2, 2001.

PDF Version: Stain

There’s a stain on the ceiling.

I noticed it today, it’s very faint, you’d hardly know it was there. You might stare at the ceiling for days or even months or even years and never notice it. And then one day you see it, or rather, you sense it, and from that moment on it will always be there, indefinite but unmistakable, like those patches of warm water in the sea, or those shivers you get in the sun for no reason.

I call it a stain, it’s more a discoloration. It’s so faint, it’s almost the same colour as the ceiling itself, which is white, I may as well clear that up at the beginning. The ceiling is white, and shades by imperceptible degrees of discoloration into the area of stain, which is, obviously, not white, to put it mildly, but without being any other colour in particular, for all that.

Not that the ceiling is particularly white either, oh no, not that luminous transcendent whiteness of the perfect tennis shirt or the ideal set of teeth, but a sort of déclassé whiteness, what passes for white for the likes of us, what passes for white in this bitch of a world, just as what we call silence is clamour, just as what we call death is pullulation, and so on, enough.

So, one could say, the stain is to the ceiling as the ceiling to that other whiteness, never to be known, very pretty.

I’ve always loved doing nothing, I could happily do nothing all day long, if I didn’t tend to fall asleep from time to time. Asleep all is confusion, turmoil, panic and vain effort, it’s a relief to wake up again, I can tell you, back to the old nothings, the old blankness, peace and quiet at last.

When I’m awake I like to stare at the ceiling. No, like is too strong a word. When I’m awake I stare at the ceiling without bothering to ask myself whether I like it or not, you can call that liking, it’s as close as you’ll ever get. I call it doing nothing, it’s not really nothing, it’s something, there’s no denying it, it’s nothing much but it’s not nothing.

I used to smoke too, to pass the time, it’s important to have an occupation, but I couldn’t keep it up, I don’t know why, my heart wasn’t in it. Doing nothing is a lot better when you smoke, you can really get something out of it. Without the cigarettes even staring at the ceiling has lost the sense of purpose it once had. I don’t know why I stopped, lack of willpower, perhaps, I lack tenacity, or so I’m told. Personally I have no opinion. Lucky, in a way, that this stain came along, or I might have got bored, in the long run.

At first I didn’t notice the stain, and then there it was. I saw it, or rather, sensed it, all at once, in a flash, like an idea, or a revelation. Impossible to describe it, the stain I mean, it seems to be literally without qualities. It has no parts, no edges, no centre, no colour, no shape, no dimensions, nothing of which you could say, it is like this, or it is like that, nothing but itself, in itself, in its being.

For instance, I could say, the stain is so big that it hangs over you like a net, but that may be a trick of perspective, it may, in reality, be no bigger than a handkerchief, in reality. Or again, I could say, it is shaped like a duck, for example, or a fireman’s hat, or the letter M, but it would be truer to say that it is shaped like a duck, for example, that has been atomized and sprayed onto the ceiling with a soda siphon.

In fact, when you start to think about it, it’s difficult to decide how you know that the stain is there at all. Its edges are so indistinct, it fades so gradually into the ceiling, that you can’t perceive its outline. But if you take the opposite tack, if you try to locate the middle of it, and say, here is the stain at its worst, at its most flagrant and unmistakable, it still looks just like the rest of the ceiling, and you realise that it’s only by its edges that you know it’s there at all.

Out of the corner of your eye you perceive it with great clarity, like those stars you have to look away from in order to see, but when you look at it directly, it becomes indistinct, it recedes, and if you don’t look away in time, disappears altogether.

I’m not afraid of it dripping. It seems to be a seeping stain, rather than a dripping stain, if it is either of these. Personally, I think it’s a dry stain, a dry seeping stain, if such a thing is possible. I like to think of it as a sort of oozing crystalline muck, slow, imperceptible, mildly toxic, eventually crushing us all.

Some days I don’t even notice it, and other days it seems to have got worse. Yes, and some days I’ll be thinking about how much worse it has got, and whether I should do something about it, assuming for a moment that anything could be done, and assuming too that if anything could be done I would be capable of doing it, and if, occupied with these thoughts, I look out of the window for a moment, to calm myself, distract myself, stupefy myself or gain time, by the time I look back the stain is gone, as if I were dreaming.

But at other times the stain, when you look at it, disappears, and returns when you look away. No, that’s not right, start again. When you look at the stain, the stain’s not there, and when you look away, out of the corner of your eye you see it disappear. It comes into being in the periphery of your vision, only to disappear in the same instant. It exists as a disappearance, appears as its own vanishing.

It occurred to me one day that in reality the stain may not be a discoloration at all, but a shadow. That wouldn’t surprise me, on the contrary, it would be more surprising if things turned out to be what they seem, even after the most probing investigation. The deceptiveness of appearances is the rule rather than the exception, if I’m not mistaken. So one counts on being wrong at least a reasonable percentage of the time, but not enough to be able to count on being right by a simple process of reversing one’s judgements. To be wrong all the time, what knowledge that would be, in the right hands. In the end you learn to be wary, to reserve judgement.

So, perhaps the stain is a shadow. If the ceiling is not perfectly white, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s not perfectly flat as well, it stands to reason. Perfection is not of this world, I’ve often noticed it. And so what appears to be a permanent discoloration of the ceiling would in reality be the effect of the shadows cast by the ceiling’s imperceptible convexities over its imperceptible concavities, that would explain a lot. The fineness of the variations in the flatness of the ceiling would account for the diffuseness of the stain’s edges, and the changes in the angle and the intensity of the light would account for the apparent changes in the size, shape and intensity of the stain. An ingenious hypothesis, setting all my questions to rest at a single blow, simple and elegant into the bargain, I must see if I can refute it. But, why bother? I don’t believe the hypothesis, why should I believe its refutation?

It’s easy enough to say to yourself that existence is absurd, life is meaningless, there’s no point in going on. You can even find comfort in it, in a funny way. But it really only remains a frigid and artificial construction of the understanding until you start to feel, sooner or later, that in fact it is only your life that is absurd, meaningless and futile. And not just your life like the lives of others, your life like life in general, but your life only, your life as the exception to the rule, not a universal futility, but a singular one. When the conviction gradually takes hold that, amidst such bounty and promise, while all around you others thrived and prospered, you managed, totally against the odds, to make of your life one enormous concatenated fuckup, that’s when you really start to crack your teeth on the existential toffee apple. To go on living in such circumstances, to go on laughing at the same old joke long after it has ceased to be funny, can only be taken as an insult, without it being exactly clear who is insulting whom, whether you the others, or the others you, or you life, or life you, or life itself and to hell with the personalities.

Sometimes, when I look at the ceiling the stain is still there, and sometimes when I look again the stain is gone, and sometimes when it’s still there I’m relieved, and sometimes when it’s still there I’m anxious, and sometimes when it’s gone I am happy, and sometimes when it’s gone I am fretful and afraid, so that sometimes I close my eyes and think about the stain, and about how faint it is and how unmistakable, and how it isn’t really anything at all, and how it persists.

October 1, 2001

Not To Be Trusted: Communism, Feminism and Creativity

Filed under: Volume 1: Subjectivities (2001) — Tags: , , , — Clifton Evers @ 5:37 am

by Zora Simic, Altitude, Volume 1, Article 4, 2001.

PDF Version: Not To Be Trusted: Communism, Feminism and Creativity

After Dorothy Hewett joins the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), she does not write fiction for a decade. When Jean Devanny is in the middle of a book, she abandons the project to help out with a strike effort. Both women are called before the Communist hierarchy to account for their sexual behaviour. When Hewett writes a successful book in the Party sanctioned socialist realist style, Bobbin’ Up, some male Communists maintain that it is written by her lover�even though it is based on her own experience of working in a textile factory (Wild Card 257). Devanny eventually resigns from the Party, after two dubious expulsions and over controversy surrounding her novel Cindie. Initially, the CPA refuses to review it in the Party publication, and when they finally do, the review is littered with personal insults and inaccurate quotations. The Party objects to her depiction of Kanakas, which are based on her own experiences of the sugar industry in Northern Queensland, and, looking back, Devanny reflects that ‘the book is rejected because it featured historical truth; what they wanted is a spurious Uncle Tom’s Cabin�’ (Point of Departure 306).

The autobiographies of Jean Devanny (Point of Departure 1986) and Dorothy Hewett (Wild Card 1991) offer invaluable insights into the specific experience of being a creative woman in the increasingly rigid CPA, suggesting that it is an experience fraught with issues of sex, class, creativity and trust. Together, Devanny and Hewett represent over thirty years of the female Communist experience, starting out from the earlier optimism of the late 1920s (when Devanny joins the Party), ranging through the Stalinist years, finishing off with the breakdown in the Party after Stalin’s death in the mid 1950s and then the series of Eastern European invasions by Soviet Russia (when Hewett leaves the Party). More specifically, Devanny and Hewett can be used to illustrate the shifting position of women in the Party, and in particular that of the creative and sexually confident woman who is not easily accommodated into the idealist paradigm of the working class family current in the high Stalinist period. Both Devanny and Hewett present some of their experiences as typical of Communist women, while others are clearly unique to their particular set of circumstances. It is this specificity that I seek to highlight in this consideration of Devanny and Hewett’s respective autobiographies. How is it that the specific experiences of Devanny and Hewett effect the possibilities of subjectivity in the creation of their autobiographical selves? How to compare and contrast the autobiographies according to time, space and discourse?

Dr Zora Simic is a lecturer in Australian History at the University of Melbourne.

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