Tuesday, December 28, 2010

To the lighthouse, darkly

Kiama Lighthouse by Pants

Part 1 - The window
Moments of clarity aren't generally a feature of Pantsworld. The nearest I come is a durable and unerringly reliable flight instinct, which has been well and truly enabled by the proliferation of budget airfares. Timely consolidation is the only explanation I can offer for my relative financial security. If I had to rely on trust, reason and hard work, I'd be living in a cardboard box. Instead I live in a comfortable and roomy house with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of the sea. Instinct is not a bad substitute for insight, if acted upon decisively.

If looking out at the world could provide guidance as to how to live in it, I'd be off fulfilling my destiny right now instead of writing this post. It isn't that simple. When I look out, I see only that there is something to be seen. I do envy people who have a life plan and/or a sense of purpose. It is tempting to believe that we are all wallowing about in a postmodernist fog of indecision but I've read enough books to gather that at least a few people know what they're talking about. My question to myself, as yet another year parks itself in a used diary, is why don't I? I like to think I know enough to at least place myself in the path of enlightenment.

I've tried to keep it simple. Easy on the Heidegger, Kierkegaard Lite, slavish devotion to ABC Radio National's The Philosopher's Zone, that sort of thing. I even read Eckhart Tolle. Books treat the symptoms but they don't cure the disease. Besides, although I'd very much like a few hints on what a well-lived life might look like, the last thing I'd want to do is to try to follow someone else's rules. I have trouble enough keeping up with motoring regulations.

Part 2 - Time Passes
The continuing source of my angst is that I am yet to find a snug fit for myself in this big ole world. It's like being in a shop with every possible jacket, except for the one that actually keeps you warm. I have fallen between two conflicting cultural stools. Having left Australia for Britain in my twenties and returned in my fifties, I find I have missed several tectonic shifts in national perception, resulting in my having no idea what everyone is on about most of the time. The perennial Australian quest appears to be a search for identity and authenticity, which is not what I'm looking for at all. I know well enough who and what I am, I just don't know what it is I'm meant to be doing.

I don't think it's a question of requiring a sense of place or home. It took me a long time to work this out because the pressure to believe in 'belonging' is relentless and moving around has been so much a part of my particular sojourn. Actually, with one or two very short-lived exceptions, I have loved the places I've ended up in. In fact, I've never actually been to a place I didn't like. I'm lukewarm where Florence is concerned but I think that's because, by Italian standards, it's a fairly ordinary place. If Florence were to relocate to, say, north-eastern Victoria, I'd probably go there every other weekend.

I was happy in Hackney, London. I'm happy in Larrikin's End, Victoria. I'm even happy in Noosa, Queensland where I'm currently holidaying, even though the surf has been rubbish and it's rained incorrigibly for the last week. For me, contentment is not related to being part of a tribe, although it would be nice to occasionally find some people to agree with. I don't want for company and I certainly don't require approval.

Neither am I dissatisfied with anything I've done in the past. My only regret is that I could have done more of quite a lot of it without breaking sweat and I sometimes wish I had. But there is no missed sleep because of it, nor feelings of guilt for that matter. The discontent comes from a lack of understanding as to how all these fragments of toil and experience go together to form something I'd like to call a 'life' but feel it's not quite worthy of the name yet. It's rather more like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that remains shrink-wrapped even though the picture on the box is fading with age.

Part 3 - The Lighthouse
This year I have tried to read my way clear of the worst of the confusion, I like to think with some success. Mostly I read philosophy, artists' autobiographies, books about Australian art and novels. And a little bit of poetry and popular science. Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf led me immediately to To the Lighthouse, which I studied at university but had not read since.

The painter, Lily Briscoe, (whose initials I share in my real world existence), makes a decision to separate vision from ambition. Like Woolf herself, she works not for fame and fortune but to solve the dilemma presented by her very existence. If I am here, what am I for? Lily must run the gauntlet of societal expectation and confinement. Taunted by Charles Tansley that women can't write and can't paint, she doggedly pursues 'something clear as the space which the clouds at last uncover - the little space of sky which sleeps beside the moon'. Like Lily Briscoe, I have no compulsion to compete in the market economy or hunt down the artistic holy grail of recognition. That 'little piece of sky which sleeps beside the moon' seems to me a far greater prize.

This year began with a head trip and ends with a road trip. The road trip was occasioned by the need to deliver three paintings to the family members to which they had been promised. These paintings, entitled Something in the City, I, II and III, came about accidentally. They were my response to a typically incoherent art school set task. That bothered me for the longest time but I finally got over it because everyone seems to like them, including me. I have decided to make this my 'oeuvre', at least until I can think of something I'd rather paint. Believe me, given my mental state for most of this year, this qualifies as a huzzah moment.

I hoped the slow road trip around the east coast of Australia might serve to ease the standoff extant between me and the birth-mother country for the last three years. Two weeks before Christmas, I packed up the Pantibago with a week's worth of clothes and energy bars and set off under the threat of torrential rain and flooding. My plan was to drop in on a few people and places that I probably wouldn't get to see unless I drove there and end up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, where all the immediate Pantses reside.

For eight hours I drove through thankfully light but nonetheless dreary drizzle. An entirely unseasonal and positively unAustralian fog chased me into Kiama on the New South Wales south coast. As I arrived, it enveloped the town, transforming it into Wuthering Heights. To the Lighthouse opens with a planned trip to a lighthouse being cancelled because of deteriorating weather. Brushing aside any threat of a bad omen, I made my pilgrimage to Kiama lighthouse where I was promptly drenched by the most spectacular thunderstorm. It was so intensely electric, it crossed my mind that I could be struck by lightning. It wasn't quite the artistic awakening I had had in mind. After giving me nothing more than a sound waterboarding, the tempest rolled triumphantly out to sea, leaving behind a brilliant sunset and a glimmer of belief in a particular piece of sky.

More on the road trip later...

Saturday, December 04, 2010

A drop in the notion

Drops, Kodakotype by Pants

In 1953, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered a serious stroke and was taken to his country home to recover. Under these circumstances, you would expect the PM's deputy to take over. Unfortunately, Anthony Eden was also quite sick. What to do?

The solution was to keep the job in the family and the British public in the dark. Churchill's closest aide, Christopher Soames, who also happened to be his son-in-law, sat in an outer Whitehall office gleefully making executive decisions which he then legitimised by forging the prime-ministerial signature for the four months of Churchill's recuperation.

Brushing the impropriety aside decades later, Churchill's daughter, the Baroness (Mary) Soames, ruefully quipped that people knew how to keep confidences in those days.

Fast-forward to the year 2010 and the WikiLeaks melodrama now stalking the world's stage like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. In other words, a highly anticipated statement of the bleedin' obvious with crass song'n'dance routines but the kind of train-wreck allure that compels you to line up for hours in order to throw good money at it, despite the certain knowledge that the only thing 'hot' about it will be the air it exudes.

The whole 'who knewness' of the dripfed titbits is a cheap sideshow. US embassies acting as a spying network? Get outta town! Karzai corrupt? Bombshell! Russia controlled by Mafia? Zdra-stvu-eetee! Berlusconi vain, feckless and anybody's? Mamma Mia! Gordon Brown rubbish? Here's a feather - go your hardest! I know this stuff. Next door's cat knows this stuff. The Hermit of Mink Hollow knows this stuff.

The main event here is not the information itself, but the wholesale capture and dissemination of it, and what that means for the kind of opaque, fork-tongued 'diplomacy' that is the status quo. We are all John le Carré now.

The lust for the head of Julian Assange is also a sideshow. It's a case of training your WMDs on the messenger. Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Atlantic says,

The "culprit" is the Internet, and how it facilitates asymmetrical power and transparency and removes any individual's responsibility for that transparency and asymmetry. No single editor or newspaper editor had to take the hit for this. No one could stop it. Even if every MSM outlet refused to publish these, the blogosphere would soon swarm over downloads which could be shifted from server to server.

The only way to stop this is to ensure that no one in the entire government has access to non-top-secret info (impossible) or that government itself return to the days of carrier pigeons. This is our new reality. The character or crimes of Julian Assange are a red herring.

Culprit? Now that is a word that implies agency, even if you hang quotes around it. Blaming the internet for this is a bit like blaming the washing machine for turning your underwear pink or the oven for burning your cake. And, as Sullivan points out, that particular genie is out and proud.

So, let's return to the Churchillian AWOL from high office. The proprietorial assumptions Mary Soames deploys to dismiss what is clearly a very wrong thing to have done are outrageously risible but the only thing that has really changed in the last sixty years is the potential for damage flowing from the badly kept official secret.

Officials still do very wrong things and expect to get away with them. We are all Spencer-Churchills now. The most junior public servant, not to mention your average fourteen-year-old with a laptop and the price of a Big Mac, is capable of the cyber equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

That world leaders and their diplomatic representatives behave like petulant children and worse is no big revelation. We all knew that. It is palpable. The real leak here is the poison that is leaching into every aspect of global society by the march down the ranks of such arrogant venality. When it was confined to the aristocracy, the bad behaviour was containable and didn't appear to corrupt everything. No one ever looked to the Lords for moral guidance.

But now every developed-world municipality has a frontline of robotic little Hitlers poised to pounce on the slightest civic infringement while their bosses bounce from conference to conference in the name of 'networking'. Ostensibly, they're claiming to be sharing around their 'best practice' but since no better ways of doing anything at all ever result, we can only assume these beanos are actually dedicated to shag surfing and job hunting. Accountability - don't make me laugh. The quest for personal power at the expense of decency is universally lauded, and it's learned much lower down the management ladder these days.

If there is now no such thing as an unguarded moment in diplomatic circles, then surely this is a timely opportunity for a review of personal motivation and behaviour on the part of those we entrust with maintaining global civility. What it should not be is an excuse to hunt down a man who sets up a website to serve the public interest on what appear to be trumped-up rape charges. Given that most rapes are cynically dismissed and the victims vilified rather than supported, it is shameful to be exploiting rape as an excuse for a show trial in this context.

There's an old saying, 'it's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world'. My message to all the reprobates whose tongues got caught in the WikiLeaks mincing machine would be, if you don't want your ships sunk, keep your lips together and your fat fingers away from the keyboard, especially after you've had a few. And if you don't want to come across as an arsehole, don't act like one. Much more efficient to change the culture than to go back to using carrier pigeons. Less messy too...