Sunday, September 19, 2010

Murray Bail's The Pages

In Murray Bail's The Pages (NYT review here), two women, one a philosopher and the other a psychoanalyst, drive into the Australian hinterland so that the former may appraise the unknown work of a reclusive self-styled philosopher who has died, leaving his work in disarray in the austere corrugated steel shed where he labored for years.

So far the story itself sounds austere, but Bail's short novel is told briefly and impressionistically. Within the framework of the mystery of Wesley Antill, of his life and his life's work, philosophy and psychology as competing ways of being and knowing are set in relief.

That Bail, previously unknown to me but clearly an assured and sophisticated writer, trots out certain well-worn stereotypes makes me wonder if he didn't do so knowingly, as if defying the stigma of stereotyping or implying that there is more truth in such than we would care to admit. For we meet the flaky psychoanalyst, who has affairs with married men (and at least once in the past, with a client) and who manages to come across as both curious and self-absorbed. Her ambivalent friend is the detached, vaguely awkward, Aspergers-ish philosopher. Both of these are juxtaposed with the tough, taciturn ways of the sheep farmers (Antill's brother and sister) whom they meet on their errand.

Of course, philosophy and psychology do not exist in simple contrast or parallel. Philosophy is seen to have crucial emotional and biographical functions, whereas psychology makes truth claims, all too often unexamined. But Bail is obviously not interested here in academic arguments, but in philosophy and psychology as differing ways of being in the world, which Bail strikingly links to the physical environment:

Hot barren countries--alive with natural hazards--discourage the formation of long sentences, and encourage instead the laconic manner. The heat and the distances between objects seem to drain the will to add words to what is already there. What exactly can be added? "Seeds falling on barren ground"--where do you think that well-polished saying came from?

It is the green smaller countries in the northern parts of the world, cold, dark complex places, local places, with settled populations, where thoughts and sentences (where the printing press was invented!) hae the hidden urge to continue, to make an addition, a correction, to take an active part in the layering. And not only producing a fertile ground for philosophical thought; it was of course an hysterical landlocked country, of just that description, where psychoanalysis itself was born and spread.

It would appear that a cold climate assists in the process. The cold sharp air and the path alongside the rushing river.

In Bail's telling, here and elsewhere, philosophy (even if it is thoroughly naturalistic) has an otherworldly aspect; that is, it can only deal with deeply human problems, yet it seeks to distance itself from its human roots, becoming suspicious of language itself and attempting to break into some situation of truth above or beyond. It thrives in barren (mental and physical) landscapes, whether everything extraneous is put aside. It is unclear whether the enterprise is heroic or pathological. Elsewhere he writes:

"Too much light is fatal for philosophical thought." But some light is necessary.

That is, philosophy is about clarity, but total illumination lays bare the questionable motives of philosophy itself. Philosophy can only seek its own justification as a cat chases its tail. Yet one comes away from the book with the impression that psychoanalysis, while stemming from an honorable impulse to know oneself, is forever losing its way in acts of self-indulgent navel-gazing in cluttered, verbose interactions. Like I said, stereotypes--there it is, that idea again.

This is an intriguing fly-by view of philosophy--see its towering peaks and desert expanses--and psychology--see the buildings crowded into the hillsides, with people busily moving to and fro. Overarching it all is a book like this, the work of the imagination.

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