On violence and neighbourliness

I just finished a quite extraordinary and very frank essay by Kevin Brophy in the latest issue of the Australian Book Review. In it, Brophy uses the arguments of philosopher Zizek (apologies for the lack of diacritics but WordPress just won’t let it happen) about the nature of violence under capitalism, to frame a personal account of living next door to neighbours who begin a campaign of harassment and abuse. There is, in this piece, so much honesty it is almost painful to read. Brophy’s essay made me think again about the personal essay and what a complex and difficult form it is. The reason Brophy’s essay convinces is the way in which he is necessarily as unkind, and as dispassionate, about his own motivations and reactions as he is about the people who throw bricks through his window. It is a meditation that sees all of the events reccounted tangled in the workings of power, where culpability is suspect and Brophy’s own avowed distaste for physical violence is interrogated in the context of the invisible violence that capitalism relies on to survive. It seems to me the personal essay is a very hard thing to do well.

I have been thinking about memoir and self-revelation more generally. With the rise of a certain genre of memoir, forms of confession and exposure are commonplace – especially those that, like Frey’s now debunked revelation, promise to offer a journey of ‘triumph of adversity’ in liberal capitalism from the darkest depths to recovery and success, doffing its hat to the ideology of individualism along the way.

There was a wonderful tongue-in-cheek review on celebrity memoir published a few years ago in the London Review of Books, titled ‘Still Reeling from my Loss’. It begins, “If you want to be somebody nowadays, you’d better start getting in touch with your inner nobody, because nobody likes a somebody who can’t prove their nobody all along.’

It gave me a chuckle.

There are a handful of personal essays that have stayed with me for years. One, ‘I gave the names’, published in Granta magazine, saw the author declare his capacity to give up his friends in the resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa once captured by police, without a moment of genuine hesitation. The other, by Kathryn Chetkovich, charts the essayist’s rising jealousy of her new partner Jonathon Franzen’s mounting success.

I am not sure if others have read the Brophy piece but I would highly recommend it. It takes small incidents, linked acts, as a premise that speaks of how much we forget (and need to forget?)about the violence of our world now.

Kalinda Ashton

Kalinda Ashton is the author of The Danger Game (Sleepers, 2009).

More by Kalinda Ashton ›

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  1. I haven’t read the Brophy piece. I do think, though, that in Australia and the US, the personal essay tends to be a privileged mode, so that you don’t get the kind of polemical essay that prospers in the UK. Which is a shame.
    Do agree that personal essays are hard to do, though.

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