For years I have been writing a book of essays in my head. I used to keep a written list of their titles on my desk, but otherwise made no other notes: The Happiness of Bees, The Name of the Machine Is Money, Why Socks Lie, Sentences Spoken By Grass, Dead Matches On A Stove and so on.
Somewhere in there, hidden in the chaotic uncatalogued library of my mind, are also essays on books and on music, with titles such as You Got The Tambourine Wrong And Now My Whole Life Is A Misery, Joe Strummer’s Geographies, Why Writers Eat People, A Biography of Tintin’s Parents and so forth.
There are essays on the weird books I used to read as a child when I had nothing else to read; on the character of the sentry Francisco in Hamlet who speaks the second line of the play, speaks five more times, and is gone by line 18 never to be seen again; on my Blundstone boots that took me seven years and my two favourite workplaces to wear out; on a forgotten unused condom I found in my top drawer; on the first and last entries in Roget’s Thesaurus (‘Existence’ and ‘Temple’) and so on.
In my head I can write and write without fear of censoring myself, without worrying about commas or colons and other troublesome forms of punctuation, even though Fernando Pessoa says somewhere in The Book of Disquiet, that even touching the feet of Christ does not excuse us from punctuation.
Another essay I had once planned to write was on opening sentences of books, and where I had been when I had first read them, and what had they come to mean to me. I remember going into a fly-by-night bookshop in an arcade in Brisbane’s CBD, a bookshop that sold only crates of remaindered books, and picking up Adam Phillips’ Equals, turning to the first page and reading, ‘If the best thing we do is look after each other, then the worst thing we do is pretend to look after each other when in fact we are doing something else’, and feeling that something had fallen into the pit of my stomach and was jumping around there. All my imaginary essays were attempts to be enamoured of the particular instead of the timeless, the mundane instead of the transcendent, to trace the memory of random experience and wrought circumstance.
If there were a PhD in Looking for Books At Flea Markets, I’d probably get an instant credit. It’s one thing to order something at Amazon, and quite another to spend an hour trudging through a weekend market grubbing through cardboard boxes that look like they’ve been sitting at the back of a particularly seedy garage for three decades. It’s a mistake to glance at a box full of discarded Dan Browns and Tom Clancys and not go through it. Amazing treasures will be hidden there. Count on it.
Histories of the finding of the texts of the ancient (Western) world reminds us that what has come down to us, from the millions of volumes of the past, are derived not from the great centres of power, but from marginal locations, from garbage dumps, forgotten caves and so on. The centre of power always ceases to exist because it is untenable, and what remains is traceless and fragmentary. A centre of power is that which does not acknowledge that ‘lives burst apart’, to use Paul Auster’s phrase, and that it is their nature to do so. The margin is a narrow wandering and also a wide open space. Margins can be places where surveillance can seem to be tight, where things are cramped and difficult but where ruptures take place, and all of a sudden the centre of power, which seeks to govern all discourse, doesn’t look quite so inherently monolithic anymore.
I once taught a four-year-old boy whose baby brother was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Two days after the child died, a year later, lying in bed at home between his parents and his brother, I was asked to give a lecture to a group of students in early childhood education at a university in Brisbane. I called the lecture ‘Three Things I Learned from Finn’. I listed them as: lives burst apart, everyone dies, happiness is possible.
‘Power politics’, the only kind of politics that seems to exist these days, appears to me to be a flat denial of these three things – and much else besides. The disjunction between our daily lives with their immediate and profound concerns of love, mortality, grief, solitude, struggle and friendship, and the politics of spin, is so vast in terms of what it says about differing ideas of humanity that you’d have to seriously worry about the mental health of almost everyone in Australian political life, if we weren’t too busy trying to deal with the fallout of their bizarre decisions.
But there are cracks in everything, where some kind of generative thought can be played out. The politics of marginal space is all that is left to us, all there has ever been really, and fortunately, in a way, that’s the space where most of us are given the chance to live.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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