In triumph over the spirit lost: revisiting Seven Poor Men of Sydney

CW: depictions of mental illness and suicide

Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) is one of the books that circle through my head whenever I think about dying. I drag myself to a park or library, book in hand, and only leave once I’m starving or bursting for a piss. It’s a strange novel in which pretentious wankers spout paragraphs while those around them nod along meaningfully. You get the feeling that Christina Stead sat through a lot of male intellectuals very slowly explaining their sophistication at her.

Head of the sophisticated wankers club is Michael Baguenault, a man oozing self-important teenage angst well into his thirties. I hate Michael. In an argument with his local priest, he acts out that arrogant inability to consider alternative perspectives so often confused with intelligence by young men:

Spiritual? Look at the Mass, no spiritual elements there: wine, blood, bread, flesh, statue, God the son. Funny all religions turn round eating. In that, I must say, the monks used to be very religious   …

Michael is less the central character of the novel and more its central predicament. The bulk of the book is devoted to his friends’ and family’s efforts to humanise him through their care. Michael’s family is fairly well off, and he receives a good education in secular, non-secular and rational thinking. He first aims for happiness by throwing himself at women and then by throwing himself half-heartedly into war. We next find him unable to function in the contradictions of post-war civilian society. Throughout the novel, he devolves into a melodramatic, preachy arsehole who ruins every picnic he is invited to with his obsession with suffering and disparaging others.

His sheer unpleasantness makes him empathetic to me. I wouldn’t be able to identify with him if I didn’t hate him so thoroughly.

Michael’s suicide comes two-hundred and fifty pages in, at a fictionalised version of the Gap in Watsons Bay. The length of the novel slides against Stead’s style. In masculine modernist narratives, length grounds a text in weighty elemental objectivity, a semi-solid concrete of logical historical descriptions for a reader to wade through. Stead forgoes this density for a weight of feeling. The mechanical rituals of menial work funnel each character through suffocating city streets that become the backdrop of rich sensory experience.

Stead fills Sydney with fluid memories of people and places until the cup is half empty. It’s like found footage of someone else’s family holiday from one-hundred years ago, when there were slums and factories in Woolloomooloo. 

Joseph, Michael’s cousin, drifts off reciting Latin while working his monotonous printing job and ends up thinking about church songs:

The ritual allows its participants to enjoy the exaltation of inspiration, although they had none, as each phrase moved to its oft-rehearsed conclusion and the sacred words were born living on their lips.

The hymns become a meaningless repetition, and reading scripture becomes the practice of value-hungry vultures consuming an exalted spectacle lacking in their own lives. The best I can do at any point is cling to the choral sounds vibrating through the city or the memories constructing and rebuilding each urban space.

Every apparently objective statement the novel makes about the surrounding world is defied by its characters’ behaviour. Early on we are told everyone knows men commit suicide due to career failure, ‘because he couldn’t pay his bills or had no job’. Yet a lucky bet leaves Michael’s wallet thicker in the moments before his suicide than at any other point. On his way to the Gap, Michael gives his new-found wealth to a local boy:

‘Thanks an awful lot; I don’t know whether it’s a mania, or not, but it’s an awful windfall for me,’ he told Michael cheerily and earnestly. ‘You’re shicker, though aren’t you?’ he asked woefully. ‘Not on your tintype,’ said Michael, ‘just eccentric. I’m going to commit suicide.’

‘Oh, don’t do that,’ said the boy. ‘No, you’re not. Fellers with dough don’t commit suicide. Well, I’ll be going. Good-night, and thanks very much.’

He tootled off down the hill whistling.

Michael’s family blames his communist friends and his secular lifestyle. Joseph gives another answer: ‘I think he was bound to commit suicide’. Suicide resists the rational parameters of the modern world. It is a kind of structural violence, a gap in the text. An inability to project oneself into the social framework.

Three-thousand, one-hundred and sixty-six people in Australia took their lives in 2017, an increase of ten percent from the year before. As I wade through these statistics. I finger through each graph and table intently and imagine the individual bound to each number. Males in their early twenties represent eight percent of suicides. What happens when a struggling eight enters his early-thirties and becomes a ten. What happens when I become Michael.

A marginal first date once unwittingly asked me about the year I spent suicidal. Our planned casual meeting spot was closed and so we doubled our awkwardness in a fancy-ish restaurant overlooking the lake in a Central Coast town. One hundred years ago, Catherine and Michael walked along a beach forty minutes north of here, a short walk from where I grew up. Catherine is Michael’s half-sister, and plays as a shadow for him. They experience much the same challenges emotionally, and the structural gap in the novel caused by the violence of WW1 runs parallel to Catherine’s coming of age and the violence inflicted upon young femme bodies in a capitalist patriarchal society. After Michael’s suicide, she checks herself into a mental institution. 

Stead presents us with two social images of mental illness that remain the dominant paths of the modern mental health system. Diagnosis tells one story about my year suicidal, and my stints there since. Instead, on that date in a fancy-ish restaurant, I use Michael’s words:

I can just be a little eccentric sometimes. 

On 24 November 2018, I am reaching the last chapter of Stead’s novel again. I plan to read the final few pages at Watson’s Bay, by the Gap. I have just finished a morning crossword and coffee with a friend and he asks me what I have planned for the rest of the day. I consider telling him that I’m visiting a friend at Watson’s Bay. This is close to how I feel, but only Michael would say something that pretentious. I am immensely privileged to find myself in a world with a growing vocabulary for mental illness and the free time to walk here.

A character in one of my favourite books killed himself on a Monday out by the Gap. I’m going there today to see him and finish the last few pages.

Are you going to commit suicide out there?

I don’t think so. I packed lunch. I think if I was going to kill myself then I’d spend this week’s rent on fish and chips and a beer.

The approach to the Gap is covered with signs for Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Headspace, and The Black Dog Institute. I am scared. I am bound to Michael and everyone else here. A spirit was deposited in each of them with a diagnosis, and I find that same spirit in me. I’m not confident about what I’m here to do. I figure I’ll find Michael’s place and sit down to read with lunch, but everything looks the same. At the first padlock I start sobbing; there are prayers cable tied to the fence next to it with notes from parents. I read them in my mother’s voice.

A note from someone’s wife has come loose from its ties. I tie a stick in its place, and curl up into a wet ball. At some point I start taking photos to satisfy the need to do something and because I don’t want to forget these people and I don’t want to leave them here alone. I stray into the bushes looking for locks and ribbons. Don Richie is credited with saving 160 people out at the Gap.  His words are engraved along the walkway:

Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.

Thank you, Don Richie.

There were minimal barriers when Michael walked along this path. Now CCTV cameras overlook a towering metal chain link fence a meter or so from the edge. The cameras were installed by the Turnbull government. I have no clue if anyone is watching or what this is meant to achieve. Maybe it’s just meant to look like something’s being done. I feel watched although not looked after. It is much easier to cut ribbons at the unveiling of some new CCTV cameras than at the release of ABS statistics on suicide. Michael’s is something like a perverse return to nature in the novel. He is no longer human but ‘part of the night’ when pine trees crowd him to the edge and an idea strikes him: ‘What if I should fall upon a rock?’

It’s the fall that kills him:

his brains flow out among the hungry sea-anemones and mussels. It is done; all through the early morning the strings of the giant mast cry out a melody, in triumph over the spirit lost.

The text ends a third of the way down the page,  rupturing the dense modernist prose: suicide is uncontainable. My eyes fall with him to the bottom of the page, where they hit  a dog-eared corner, a note from my former self.

It’s ironic that this act of violence bears so much weight in a novel that elides the war, gendered violence, and the Gadigal people.

Stead’s depiction of Michael’s suicide runs contrary to the modern rules prescribed by the Australian Press Council and similar organisations. It’s likely that this novel has contributed to the suicidal ideations of vulnerable people. I hate it in so many ways. I don’t know why I come back here. What is ‘in triumph over the spirit lost’?

Sailboats were the trade arteries of modern mercantile capitalist empires. The sounds of their rigging fighting the wind fills Sydney harbour after Michael is absorbed by the rocks. ‘In triumph over the spirit lost’ is awkward phrase for a lyrical writer like Stead; it’s as uneasy on the tongue as the mind.

Stead left Sydney in 1928, and had lived in Europe for almost six years when Seven Poor men of Sydney was published. The novel’s vision of the antipodes is as much a view of interwar Europe as of Australia; it  finds in Sydney’s errors the greater failings of the unstable phenomenon of ‘Western civilisation’ which tears the bodies of earth, water, and flesh that constitute it. Through that century and into this.


Image: John Olsen, ‘Morning, Watson’s Bay’ (1964-1967), detail

Liam Diviney

Liam (he/him) is a Sydney-based dungeon master, teacher, and recovering retail employee raised on Darkinyung land. His work appears in Overland, terrafirma magazine, and VerveZine.

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