Tag Archives: Bernhard Schlink

Beyond White Guilt at Gleebooks

Last night we cashed in a couple of our Gleeclub vouchers to hear Sarah Maddison in conversation with Jeff McMullen about the former’s new book, Beyond White Guilt. A couple of years ago, Sarah’s Black Politics drew on interviews with 30 Aboriginal leaders to give a kind of map of Aboriginal politics (the link is to my blog entry, which outlines some of salient points on the map). This book could be seen as a sequel, looking at non-Indigenous Australians.

A quick look at Wikipedia’s entry on Jeff McMullen shows him to be an eminently qualified whitefella to converse on this subject. He kicked off the conversation with two lists: on the one hand, invasion, dispossession, genocide, stealing children, and on the other denial, loss of memory and guilt. ‘We struggle in Australia,’ he said at one stage, ‘to have an honest and direct conversation [about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians].’ This conversation was refreshingly free of indirection or quibble. I won’t try to summarise, but can offer a couple of notes.

Asked why she chose to focus on guilt, which is after all often a useless, self-punishing emotion, Sarah Maddison cited Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt About the Past which argues in the German context that every generation that doesn’t make a substantive break with the atrocities of its forebears is standing in solidarity with them. Her book doesn’t advocate that non-Indigenous Australians should wallow in guilt forevermore, but that we should ‘sit with’ our guilt for a time, not run from it either by taking action or by denial. Facing that discomfort is a necessary step to understanding and making thoughtful progress. [I liked this. I know a Native American woman who urges non-Indigenous people to put our minds to answering the question, 'How have I personally benefited from genocide?']

She talked about ‘high-identifiers’ – people for whom it is extremely difficult to acknowledge any negative dimensions to their national identity. Such people tend to think that the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal people must be their fault, specifically must be because there’s something wrong with Aboriginal culture. She talked about the need for adaptive change, the kind of change that requires a change of perspective rather than a technological fix.

The questions were all excellent. Perhaps for the first time in my life I heard a very long question that was neither primarily self-promoting nor bizarrely tangential to the topic in hand. The questioner spoke of the problematic nature of the phrase ‘white guilt’ both because non-Indigenous Australia is very diverse, and ‘white’ covers only part of it, because the ‘we’ who actually experience guilt, as opposed to, say, denial, is very hard to define (is it only liberals?), and because guilt is a pretty dead-end notion anyway. These were interesting issues to raise, and, as Sarah Maddison acknowledged, weren’t going to be resolved in an hour before dinner on a Friday night.

No doubt I’ll blog about this again when I read the book.

Erotica: the morning after

Having done a “before” post, I now feel obliged to do an “after”.

As it turned out we were all white, middle-aged, heterosexual and in long-term relationships. No one had much interest in discussing Anaïs Nin – most hadn’t been interested enough in Delta of Venus to read the whole thing, though one chap had read a second, similar collection of her dollar-a-page pieces, and another had read some of her diaries. Someone went to the trouble of saying he found some of it offensive. We decided she belonged to another era, and moved on. (Is there something of hers that you, dear reader, would recommend?)

It turned out that if I am timidly vanilla in my taste for erotica I was in a room of similarly minded souls. I did read the Kathryn Lomer poem, and people liked it. One of our number had assiduously ransacked his memory, the web (by googling “erotic poetry”) and the bookshelves at an auction down the road, and shared some gems he’s found. He read us a steamy encounter between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy in Pride and Promiscuity : The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen – we agreed that that’s probably a perfect read-aloud book for consenting adults. He played recordings of two marvellous poems, one from ancient Egypt and another incorporating a Native American story about a winged penis. He read, with some apologies, Charles Bukowski’s “Like a Flower in the Rain” (warning, that link includes anatomically correct four-letter words), in which one can only marvel at how one word can transform a poem. Someone mentioned the bath scene in The Reader. We talked a little about the early scenes in Silk.

We kept asking each other what makes something erotic rather than pornographic. Clearly our collective taste veered to the non-pornographic end of erotica. We agreed we like our erotica with a bit of wit, a lack of emphasis on the plumbing (though no aversion to it being named), a context, and a sense of minds being engaged.

Next meeting, Anna Karenina.

We didn’t come to blows …

… but we did have a spirited conversation over pizza after seeing Samson and Delilah last night.

20e7fdb0-7ada-482b-ad9e-cd778fb0bf4d.jpgWe both agreed that it’s a marvellous film, that it’s just beautiful to look at, that the performances are miraculous, that the almost complete silence of the main characters is devastatingly effective. We’re both glad it won that prize at Cannes and we both disagreed point blank with statements (quoted from US trade journals) about how joyful and humorous it is.

Where the conversation got spirited was when my companion, who knows much more than I do about such things, lamented the misrepresentation of life in and near Alice Springs: where were the other sniffers? where were the social services, the Tangenyere Council, the camp in Todd River of people from their mob? where were all the Aboriginal faces in the mall? how come the community at the start had a store and a health clinic but almost no people? why did the women who beat Delilah up not know that she had taken care of her grandmother when in such a small place surely everyone could see that’s how she spent her days?  I assume she’s right about these and other complaints. But I thought maybe she was wanting a kind of documentary verisimilitude that the film wasn’t pretending to. After all, in the community where the film starts, a group of men sit on a verandah and play the same boring fragment of music over and over day in and day out, which works brilliantly to create a mood of deadening boredom, but which is clearly not meant as a literal representation of life on a community.

No, she insisted, she wasn’t wanting a documentary, but the film suffered from its distorting of reality in this way: the young protagonists’ profound isolation was profoundly improbable, and this made it hard to take their suffering seriously – unless you were a Cannes jury and understandably ignorant of the condition of Aboriginal people in the Centre, both their devastation and their resilience. I insisted in turn that a story teller doesn’t have to tell the story. All he (or she, but in this case he) has to do, all he can do, is tell a story, and this film tells its story very powerfully.

I think we were probably both right. The only actual disagreement we had was whether the character Gonzo was Aboriginal (as I thought) or not (as she did). The internet has just told me that I was right – at least, the actor is Aboriginal, director Warwick Thornton’s brother, in fact, playing a character based on himself.

When we got home I went to Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past. He’s talking about representations of the Shoah, but I think it’s relevant:

We don’t want fiction just for the facts being presented to us. We want reality to be presented to us and explained to us and turned into something that, even though it is not our reality, we can imagine ourselves into. We read [and go to the movies – JS] because we want to share the lives of those we read about, we want to empathise with them, fall in love with them, train our hatred on them, and ultimately learn about ourselves from them.

Even though the composition of these fictitious realities with their fictitious plots and situations and characters is something other than a presentation of facts, I experience it as something that has to be true. … I don’t know exactly what I mean and how to define this truth. What I am talking about is the feeling I have when a story that I have thought about, played with, thought about some more, and played with some more is finally ready to be written. … The feeling doesn’t have to do with me putting something autobiographical or something else of which I am particularly certain into the story that I am going to tell. It doesn’t concern having a message I want to convey that I am finally about to convey successfully or with any other agenda. It is a feeling devoid of any agenda except: now I have it, now I can tell it. And it feels like I have found the truth.

I think Warwick Thornton found that kind of truth here, and handed it to us.

(Incidentally, in interview on Cinema Autopsy, the blog I linked to above, referring to his brother Scott, Warwick Thornton says that Gonzo, the parky who shares what little he has with the two lost young people ‘is in a sense the audience’. My own point of identification, which caused some soul-searching, was a woman in the cafe who watches Delilah go off down the street off her head on petrol: the woman’s face shows genuine concern, but it’s clear she’s not about to do anything about it.)