Tonight I have been with Francine Prose.
She’s been taking me through her introduction to reading in a certain way that will enhance my writing. Sentences, once carefully polished, can be appealing on their own, or so she tells me. I am assured they can take on their own aesthetic appeal, much like an individual work of art.
I am taking a break from Francine for a while. She’s now sprawled out on my bed by the side of the laptop. Paying her a glance an erogenous shape catches my eye. It’s a space between her straight spine and her colourful jacket. And from where I am I can also see a tattoo on her bottom. It reads ‘Cairns Library.’
I am looking at the book: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them
You see, I picked up Francine in the library today. She was one of four I brought back to my lodgings on the Cairns Esplanade. Francine was different though, somehow I held her more lightly and read her more gently. And the more I read of her, the more receptive I became to her ways. I saw her quality.
Before long, Francine’s company became a little too claustrophic and I part ways. As I rolled over I realised that I had been joined by an expansive crowd. They had been gathering in my room over the last few weeks, well since both my bike and I had been off the road.
Yesterday I had Chomsky rock up with a few other notable iconclasts; Joseph Conrad, Shen Fu & his wife Yun, Skidmore the big thinker on ideologies, the indominatable Thomas Friedman (again), Brooklyn’s Paul Auster came with news of his recent follies, Rodney Hall with some borish tales of his Australian trip from way back in the 80s, Green with air of literary authority over mourned writers from Australia’s 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.
Green actually bumped into Stuart MacIntyre earlier in the day, and had been conversing about the Reds during the same period. Somehow I think they will strike up other conversations in the days and weeks ahead.
Over on his own Peter Singer appeared to be attracting the ethical crowd. He was talking about inhumane animal treatment. He was interupted by Karen Farington at one point when he was talking about the condition of pigs spending their entire lives indoors in pens. She pointed out that humans (prisoners) in America were now being locked up in high security Supermax prisons and were explaining this as ‘notouch torcher’. The prisoners, Farington stressed, were also undergoing 24 hour a day video surveillance in their cells too. This then brought on an unnerving response from John Parker. He brought to their attention the fact that you don’t need to be “locked up” to be mistreated, or to be put under total surveillance. It’s happening now. State security agencies are employing all means available, particularly over the internet, to keep an eye on certain people.
Pulling away from that increasingly paranoid crowd around Parker were James Lovelock, Jostein Gaarder and Winifred Gallagher. They wanted to discuss looking at bigger picture issues, each however in their own way. Lovelock loved the macro-organism that is the earth, or Gaia as he called it. Some say he did so more than humanity itself. To him though humans were one of many life forms on this planet deserving our attention and concern, and he was forecasting doom for many of them if we humans didn’t lock up environmentally bad human activities and throw away the key.
Spiritually inclined Gallagher could see his point, but insisted that hope for change was more likely to come from a focus on enlightened people, or spiritual geniuses, who were already amongst us and in tune with more sustainable ways of living. Her insistence was largely motivated by years of spent familiarizing herself with all things scientific before more recently turning towards developing spiritual awareness. Hers was a very compassionate plea to the rest of the group.
Clever Jostein Gaarder acknowledged both Lovelock and Gallagher, but said that the urgency was such that we needed to get the message out to a younger crowd; to the next generation. And Gaarder had already started by focusing on young adults and one in particular, a girl named Sophie. Working with them Gaarder exercised their minds and appreciation of ideals encapsulated in philosophy, before then encouraging them to apply this empowered thinking to real life situations.
I was quite fascinated by all the conversations going on in the room, and noticed my attention indiscriminately shifting from one crowd to the next. I did notice though that a beareded Umberto Eco was silently listening to Lovelock, Gaarder and Gallagher. He seemed to be nodding to Chomsky to come over and listen. His whole expression became more whimsical though when he heard Skidmore launch into a short speal about the ideology behind Right Elitists. Eco seemed to know where the conversation was going to swing from one moment to the next. It was eerie.
Close by Francine Prose was nodding frequently. She was listening to Paul Auster. At one point I was concerned Paul would move off, as she would often ask him to repeat what he had just said. With each repeat I could see her breaking into a broad grin, as if she was swooning. She made no attempt to hide her infatuation.
Later on I noticed the whole atmosphere changed agai as a group of intellectual giants walked in. They were all Thinkers escorted by a unknown group who only went by the name the Pengiun Group. None of the intellectual heavy weights they escorted were permitted a great deal to say, but what they did say left many in the room momentary silent. Their utterances were profound literary soundbites. Towards the end I could help but notice that Seneca and Thomas a Kempis made everyone feel self-conscious about how they were spending their time and with whom. All of a sudden the gathering felt trivial, nacissicistic, even superfulous.
Frankly it wasn’t until Joyce walked in that this air of self-doubt lifted. Joyce pranced around and did as he pleased, said as he pleased. Something changed. Seeing Joyce carry on as he liked, appeared to ease people up a little, whilst confusing and muddling a few at the same time too.
The next attempt to silence the room came with a show of wealth and power, rather than reason. It came from a woman named Lisa Endlich. She was all talk about money, big business and financial dominance. In here world the super rich trumped all else. Well that was the implication. From start to finish she hammered on about Goldman Sachs, as if they were the kings of capitalism and the new rulers of the world. Her relatively rosy account of this wealthy firm stirred the ire of Emile Zola, who immediately launched into a counter-narrative account of a wandering mechanic in search of work in 1880s France.
Zola wanted the few who were still listening to know that capitalism has been harsh in the past, and therefore in all likelihood still had the capacity to be harsh again. To Zola’s credit though, he acknowledged that the workers were not all angels under capitalism, just as the big employers were not always out to blindly exploit the lives of their workers.
On hearing Zola’s story Michael Parenti spoke up and said how refreshing it was to hear a balanced account of history. He said that in modern times our television programs and flims were largely biased in favour of only a handful of ideologies, many of the same ideologies Skidmore had raised earlier. Parenti said the likes of Goldman Sach’s very own corporate clients weilded enormous direct and indirect influence over hollywood in particular.
Stuart MacIntyre spoke up and agreed with Parenti, saying the HUAC trials in the 1950s had stiffled not only pro-communist media productions, but had also seen opposite effect, criticism of pro-capitalist propaganda nad gone relatively unchallenged. Ranulph Fiennes said it was nonsense. He argued we needed our movies about Anglo-American heroes and went on to give a few interested parties a long account of the glories of Captain Scott the british explorer.
Listening to Fiennes in the crowd Gaarder grumbled quietly that Norway’s explorer deserved to be venerated more than Scott. Parenti took up Gaarder’s point and said he rested his case, “Fiennes’s work was exactly the type of status quo self-serving propaganda about the superiority of the West, and particularly the British Empire, that continued to this day in various guises.” Parenti said the fact 40 Scott biographies existed, meant that 40 other great individual stories were going unnoticed. “That’s a form of cultural hegemony!” cried out Chomsky unselfconciously, “Call it by its name. It has a name you know.”
At that point I had to duck off to the toilet. My delicious Kim Chi and roasted squid lunch was starting to react to my drinking of double expresso milk and a small amount of chocolate icecream. Not a good combination. The clash of easten and western foods was literally giving me the shits. I didn’t dare joke about this observation with anyone in the room, for fear it might get back to Samuel Huntington in a derogatory way. Worse still he might use it as supporting evidence in a revised edition of his bestseller.
Earlier in the evening I did something prosaic. I counted how many of these lettered people where present in the room with me. The number came to around 120. It was an unrulely gathering, and I knew too well that some would not get on, so I made sure they were kept in check by the weight of history in the form of the National Geographic group who were behind the publication of an Illustrated World History.
A slightly cranky Arnold Arnold understood my ploy and said history alone wouldn’t necessarily see to it that all would proceed smoothly amongst all present. He went on to say the interpretation of history is the issue. Who uses history to justify one course of action over another is and eternal problem that goes to the heart of the academe and who leads it. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto concurred, as did Blackburn the philosopher; the later who had been breaking things down for some time into understandable philosophical concepts in order to stimulate greater interest in philosophy among not so much the crowd gathered in my room, but the self-educated general public.
Edmund Burke said that he had “seen all this before” and warned the group that they were playing with fire. History and its interpretation was best left in the hands of those who had for centuries been groomed to appreciate it and act as sole caretaker for future generations to come. This greatly offended Susan George. She said history had not been leading towards inexorable progress and the caretakers needed to account for the horror of war in the 20th century, and that it could be repeated in the 21st century if history and the powerful were not changed. What was needed she said, were certain forms of activism, education and purposeful cooperation if another world was to be possible. John Haggai cried “Lead On!”
In response Bob Ellis, weary from a few late nights sighed and began a (monologue) reflection on the post September 11 world. Before long though David Sanger stepped forward and took over from where Ellis left off. Sanger stressed that future leaders needed to know critical issues about the state of the world and about foreign affairs before they could even consider ” inheriting power”. Everyone in the room sensed he was drawing lessons from the recent past.
Melissa Rossi laughed out loud, then said that it wasn’t just a matter of an appreciation of foreign policy, America being the powerful country that it is, should also be understood in terms of who is wielding the power domestically. Fareed Zakaria said that Rossi was being too simplistic. What was really needed was an appreciation of a new balance between democracy and liberty. This line then got Thomas Paine all twitchy.
Ayn Rand asked Zakaria to define ‘special interests’ in American politics and why it was necessarily a bad thing? John Cavanaugh and Jerry Mander interrupted and said to Rand. “‘Special interests’ where blind to their impact not only on America, but to there true impact on the entire world and it was time a range of alternatives to economic globalization be considered.” This got Elaine Katzenberger and a few of her Zapatista groups clapping loudly. And before long Michael Woodin and Caroline Lucas joined in, but stated loud and clearly that, “those alternatives needed to be Green!” To which Rex Weyler whistled loudly. “And peaceful” he cried.
As the environmental groups came together, Janet Ramage looked nervous. She understood that the matter of the environment of the earth largely concerned issues associated with energy production and use, particularly how it would come to evolve over the coming years around the planet. She moved over towards Lovelock and asked, “What are our chances of getting things right?” Lovelock pointed to Mann who had just finished chatting to Bruce Chatwin about the ideas behind The Good Alternative Travel Guide. Locklock was attempting to indicate to Ramage that people’s awareness was stirring, and their behaviour and aspirations where changing, but it was all painfully slow.
Peter Sutton overheard Lovelock and Ramage talking green politics and said that any future plans had better not discount Indigenous development opportunities. It soon became apparent to all that Sutton had been talking to Noel Pearson, who had since left the room and returned to the library, presumably to prepare for the launch of his policy Think Tank with the Cape York Institute.
Ever attuned to different groups, Kottak listened intently to Sutton. In particular he wanted to pick up on any new anthropoligical insights or methodologies that Sutton might bring to his field of social anthropology. Frank Brennan and Eve Mumewa Fesl also moved closer to hear Sutton. Fesl was wary, she knew that many people had been conned in the past about Indigenous matters, and it occured mostly when white men were found to be representing Indigenous people. They need only open their mouth to distort accounts of Indigenous life and belief.
George Orwell who had been walking around the room leaned forward and said to Fesl, “We can be conned by anyone in power, no matter their background. Its their words we need to watch.” David Detmer agreed with Orwell, but took it one step further. From Sartre we learn that it is not only their words, but the development of an appreciation of the ‘authenticity’ of the whole political process. Fundamentally misunderstood leader’s were liable to be living in ‘bad faith’. And in such cases they often knew that the power they were wielding was not democratic. Machiavelli cleared his throat standing with the Pengiun group. Nietzsche gave him a knowing wink.
Hearing this last point made by Detmer, Don Dunstan pulled up his socks, straightened his shorts and walked forward. “We always need to strive for more socially inclusive government. We also need new ideas, cultural diversity, fee expression, and an active arts community. From this the type of renaissance community, both political and public will flourish. People will have no reason to be cynical and harbour ‘bad faith’, particularly once they can see their own leaders living the lives their policies are attempting to support.”
JB Priestley looked around and asked Robert Dessaix, if Dunstan was an “Image Man?” Dessaix indicated that Dunstan was onto something. Anita Brookner overheard this question too and said, “Judging by his contribution to the art community and society at large, Dunstan appears to be a potent mix of romantic idealist and political realist.” Bob Ellis reminded everyone that Dunstan was conversant in law, and had made a capable Premier as a result.
CS Lewis shook his head. “Dunstan – now there’s a junior devil if there ever was one.” He made the sign of the cross, looked down in distain and continued with his devilish letter writing.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett moved forward, and admitted to not knowing much about either Dunstan, or South Australian politics, but indicated that if any state, whether it be in Australia or overseas, was heading towards be a polarised state, with the formation of an elite wealthy minority and a large poor majority, then the overall prospects were not going to be good.
Bob Ellis couldn’t help himself, “Adelaide! That outpost started as an elitist state from day one, and there is still a class divide.” On hearing this Wilkinson and Pickett shook their heads and spoke with their secretaries about contacting Rann about becoming Thinkers in Residence in 2011.
Margaret Atwood said that fans had written to her about a new underclass that was forming in South Australia, and that aspects of Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics where manifesting in South Australia. New forms of slavery and abuse were emerging associated with underworld prostitution and drug cartels. She said her fans had painted a dystopian picture of a state collapsing at the fringes. John Parker piped up and said, “According to my sources, you’re on the money there.”
“The political left in places like Adelaide,” said Richard Wolin “is being seduced by posmodernism. Just look at all those freaks at the Fringe Festival in Adelaide. Why aren’t they standing up for the emerging underclass?”
Joseph Sestito and Jane Gleeson-White said that much of Australia was waiting for new voices or new writers to emerge that would put a face to the suffering that still existed despite the time of economic plenty. Zola nodded and offered his encouragement if anyone was to step forward, as did Natalie Goldberg, who was always looking for “Wild Minds” to boldly express new social realities.
Jill Jepson stepped forward and said people needed to connect with their spirituality first. Matthew Ricketson disagreed, “they need to connect with a media company first, and before that they need to know how to write! No use just presenting yourself without any talent, experience and know how.” Kerry Gleeson agreed saying, “People also need to take individual responsibility for their own self-development. Its an ever increasingly efficient world out there. The business world waits for no one. People need to develop their own efficiency programs, not wait for the nanny state to give them a leg up.”
Martin Amis laughed, took a deep draw on his cigarette and said to Gleeson, “That’s enough information. I’ve got someone in mind for you Gleeson. His name is Tull, Richard Tull. His a miserable basket case with oodles of talent, but he needs a periodic kick up the arse, the occasional viagra tablet and an efficiency program for writing and life in general. I’ll send him around Monday at 10am. You won’t miss him. He’ll be unshaven and undersexed.”
Alby Mangels laughed, “That’s me!” he said vainly recognising himself in what Amis’s Tull. To which Charley Boorman muttered to himself, “You poor old has-been. Never miss the chance do you Mangles.”
Orhan Pamuk then turned to me and saw I was getting tired. “Craig,” he said “I know you love books, but if you are to be a writer, your progress will depend to a large degree on having read good books. But to read well is to not to pass one’s eyes and one’s mind slowly and carefully over a text: it is to immerse oneself utterly in its soul.” (109)
Well put Orhan, well put.
Allen Andrews then asked if he could quote Pamuk with that one. “Of course,” replied Orhan, “but under which heading?”
“Sublime sentences,” Francine Prose offered.
Prose made for the door and turned out the lights.