The Paris review, a literary journal, currently publishes two interviews in each issue. If you look through the list of interviewees, which goes back several decades, you will find many great names of our time: Borges, Sontag, de Beauvoir, Hemingway.
In the most recent edition, you will find, appropriately, an interview with the Australian writer Helen Garner. It’s all interesting – there’s a wonderful moment of stunned realization about a cello – but because the subject was already on my mind, I was particularly struck by his description of the location of the angels in his novel . Cosmo Cosmolino had come.
At a time of great emotional distress “…a strange presence sometimes manifested itself behind me – I felt something in the room, hovering behind my back…I used to call it out to me – the Mighty Force, because I felt it was extremely powerful but also benign. I knew that if I turned around and looked at him, if I recognized him, I would have to kneel and bow to him, and I was too scared to do so, and too proud.
It reminded me of a passage that is sort of its opposite, written by a very different author from Garner, the late Hilary Mantel. When Mantel was seven years old, she smelled something bad in a garden. How, she wasn’t sure. ” There is nothing to see. There is nothing to feel. There is nothing to hear. But his movement, his insolent movement, makes me sick to my stomach… It’s as high as a two-year-old child. Its depth is one foot fifteen inches. The air stirs around her, invisibly. I am cold, and flushed with nausea. I can’t move… I’m begging him, stay away, stay away.
One passage seems to speak of good, the other of evil. Both events are described with forceful language; these are experiences that mark a person, which come back later in other forms. You can try to categorize them – as religious, or supernatural, or as psychological sublimations – but categories are insufficient. What binds them is that they are ultimately irreducible descriptions of events and feelings.
Australians are not good, most of the time, at recognizing the irreducible. I had coffee recently with a man who wrote something interesting about politics and religion, and he asked me what I thought Australians thought about these issues. “Embarrassed,” I said, at least in terms of how we talk about it, which, in turn, is part of a greater reluctance to sound too serious. We took this from the Brits and then (as usual) pushed it further. I suspect it also has something to do with the seedy way we treat the arts: we are hopelessly sheepish when it comes to the ineffable.
And yet it is part of life and cannot be extinguished. So where does the irreducible go in politics? Not in religion, which, when it enters the political discussion, is today almost entirely reduced to a discussion of the rules, in particular who can still discriminate and who can be discriminated against. The most remarkable thing about the Essendon saga, in which Andrew Thorburn served as CEO for a day or two before stepping down after revelations about a church he presided over, was how badly it ultimately felt. There have been attempts to do so on big human rights issues, but as a friend of mine pointed out: what, the human right to be a CEO?
It doesn’t surprise me that the descriptions above are from writers. Many say they don’t know what they’re going to write until they’ve written it. They walk into the darkness, believing not only that they will find their way, but that this is the only way to find it. It is an exercise in faith.