Saturday, February 25, 2017

Of the Progress of the Soul

            by John Kinsella

When the government of Western Australia uses its shock troops — the police, of course, but also the Main Roads and their private contractors — against the people and the environment, they are not swayed from their purpose by protest, even where that protest succeeds to some extent. They are working through military solutions to their problems of opposition, and ‘outflank’ those who are concerned with the destruction of natural habitat. If one front is under pressure, open up another.

While a large amount of protest energy has rightfully been focussed on the Beeliar atrocity, the government has been determinedly destroying native vegetation and habitat as well elsewhere. The extreme and gratuitous removal of trees along the York-Quairading Road is one example, but such acts on an even larger scale have been happening along the Great Eastern Highway between Southern Cross and Kalgoorlie for many months.

And recently we've been seeing the wholesale removal of tall marri trees (in wondrous bloom at the moment) from along the Toodyay Road north of Gidgegannup (especially at intersections), and also the removal of vegetation alongside and between the double lanes of the dual carriageway of the Great Eastern Highway in the Eastern Hills between Glen Forrest and Mundaring. The trees are/will be gone for good. While the 'upgrades' are being implemented for 'safety', it's obvious to many that all opportunities are taken to destroy as much vegetation as possible in the process. We see the same with 'fencing' on private land — the fencers often destroy vegetation on the 'long paddock' side of the fence with impunity, and there's a recent case locally of bush from a nature reserve being cleared in the process of fencing private land.

These actions slip ‘under the radar’, which is why we need to entirely rethink the way protest is used to resist these destructions. Global fascism has almost completely absorbed deforestation of the planet into its pattern of abuses. As global politics lurches further to the right, the right concomitantly define their existence through an attack at least twofold.

Not only do they attack people who show compassion towards their natural environment, compassion towards cultural and spiritual difference, compassion towards those who see things in ways different from their own (if this sounds like a paradox, it is!), but they attack especially through ‘developing’ the planet such that all life and all topography are a ‘resource’ that must be put into action to prevent a shift in values away from self-affirming materialism.

It’s as if ‘nature’ is a threat to the consumer-unit of self, family, and chosen social group. Nation itself becomes an extension of this philosophy of confirming that one exists — existence defined through usage, through consuming.

It strikes me that what I term ‘temporariness’ is evidenced in more than one way here. Not only through human verification of place through presence — even if only ‘passing through’ or having a non-permanent interaction with a social geography — but also in the impact that humans have who claim place as their permanent homes (whether they have negotiated those rights with, say, indigenous custodians or not).

They have an impact on natural environment by reversing, or maybe more accurately unbalancing, the equation: the removal of ‘ancient’ trees to make those trees ‘temporary’, and to make those people who control that place (through the police, the Main Roads, the machinery of government, the party etc) the legitimate ‘permanent’ presence.

So, the ancient becomes the temporary, and the state replaces this with itself as the ‘permanent’, validating its presence by creating a sense of precedence (a concept of terra nullius has served Australian governments here). ‘Temporariness’ becomes the natural world that isn’t sanctioned by the post-Enlightenment greed of personal subjectivity expressed in controlled social groups (controlled by force of arms and force of social pressure).

I wish to extend this argument in a number of directions. First, I reference an email discussion I had with an old and very dear friend over the last few days — a fine poet and a man of great moral fibre — who refused to believe that I could completely be the anarchist (pacifist) I am. Here’s my reply:

I won't contribute to a system I see as corrupt, bigoted and oppressive. The ‘majority rules’ is just not fair or just. What's more, an individual cannot represent the concerns of many individuals. It’s deep-seated with me. I haven’t voted for over twenty years and refuse to. They even make voting compulsory — state control. Obviously, I infinitely prefer a ‘Green’ to a ‘One Nation’ (candidate), but I ultimately see the system as wrong and won’t play their game. I make my input in other ways. I feel every person has direct responsibility and it’s because of the state in its various manifestations that we’re seeing the rise of global fascism. I am committed to a fair and just world in which social responsibility is shared and the environment is respected not just as an extension of human values but in its own right. Same with ‘animal rights’. And same with the rights to spiritual belief. I also believe in the rights of cultural difference and cultural co-existence, and oppose all forms of bigotry. But I feel I can better express this as a writer and speaker and in how I live and conduct my life (to the best of my ability), than by participating in the machinery of government, which is largely, if not always, hypocritical. Obviously one intersects and crosses over with government constantly, and one has to ‘work’ with those contexts — it’s what I term ‘umbrella anarchism’ — but in the ways we can (while managing to feed our families), it strikes me that all non-violent resistance is a positive and generative thing/position.

P.S. I should add that I am constantly speaking out and being active against the ‘one nations’ of the world. One doesn’t have to do the party thing to resist the overtly evil (and they are). I do so every day of my life and have done since I was twenty (many a sign of the Australian Nationalists Movement was removed by me from Perth streets in the 80s etc etc etc).

I include this here because it’s a statement of permanence and temporariness. I have lived in Western Australia (mainly in rural areas) for much of my life, along with lengthy stints in other countries, and still consider myself ‘temporary’.

I do, however, have an insight of ‘permanence’ due to family association, early childhood experience, and a deep commitment to the land itself. But I claim this only in the context of acknowledging indigenous permanence and ongoing custodianship. Aside from the fact that I recognise no government anywhere, I do recognise totemic relationships with place and knowledges of country that extend across millennia of observing said country and the impact (and sharing) humans have had on that place.

My temporariness, like that of all non-indigenes, can be enriched and cross-referenced with this ‘permanence’, and through this be enriched and expanded without occupying/territorialising (even more) indigenous space. On these grounds alone, I could never lend my (even) tacit approval to government through voting for it (in any manifestation): government claims permanence when it is temporary, and in doing so deletes totemic permanence.

Second: a tangent. All presence in place is measured more accurately or more relevantly, through tangents. I have recently been laying out the groundwork (non-invasive and non-colonising of natural habitat, I hope — every word we use has an implication... what structures am I building here and what do they occlude or delete?) for a collaborative work with a fellow poet, referencing John Donne’s work.

In doing so, I consulted an old Penguin edition we have at Jam Tree Gully (one of four or five Donne collections here), and was surprised and pleased to find it was a copy Tracy had bought as a gift for me back in 1994 when we were ‘on the bones of our arses’.

I was still an alcoholic and addict then, and we were hugely in debt due to the chaos of my life. Tracy had found this copy in a university second-hand bookshop, and it’s a minor miracle we still have it — I tended to sell or hock everything back then to get the next bottle of sherry or whatever. The contradictions with my politics played a major part in my being eventually able to stop, and move on.

Anyway, this edition is annotated in my scrawling hand in patches here and there. I find myself reading marginal comments around the poem ‘The Harbinger to the Progress’ (‘The Second Anniversary') — ‘Of the Progress of the Soul’. Here are the comments: ‘May Yagan colonise the soul — ‘thief, murderer’ [as called by the ‘Settlers’ of the Swan River Colony], [is actually] honourer and representative of HIS PEOPLE. This comment probably connects to ‘(a third)’ which I have encircled in the first line of the Donne poem:

Two souls move here, and mine (a third) must move
Paces of admiration and of love;

On the next page I have written: ‘I never liked Dante’s Paradise — maybe I am a victim of what I assume of others’. This hermeticism is followed by the comment: ‘Oh, the repraise. The dynamics of — of — Natural Born Killers.’ This comment is next to the final couplet of the poem:

Those acts, those songs shall still content them best
Which praise those awful powers that make them blessed.

Which brings me to my theme and the tangential interconnectedness of things. The permanence of the Donne text and the temporariness of my hand-written comments in a volume breaking at the spine, a residue of terrible days (for us), with the pages even stained and bearing a strand of rollie tobacco twenty-three years later (I haven’t smoked for twenty-two years), the linking of a pure afterlife (and getting there, one might add, ‘lightning moves but slow’), ironically to the adulterated (and, of course, ‘passionate’) materiality of the here and now, to highlight the tactile pleasures of living life, of letting death be death, is the engine in many ways behind the very Western subjectivity. A state-sanctioned subjectivity that has led to such materialistic greed, to such a ‘selfie’ socialising of the self — policing of the individual by socially connected individuals (who have long since consigned individuality to digital groupthink).

The ironies of Donne cascade through the centuries to become the greed of a science not of knowledge but of self-gain (often camouflaged in a patriotic/nationalistic false collectivity). The reference to Oliver Stone’s exploitative movie (of violent imagery to stimulate viewers as they witness manifestations of the anti-social, whatever role the corporate state has had in creating the conditions for such an extremely violent ‘response’) Natural Born Killers, which Tracy and I had seen at the cinema at the time, is more than a pop-cultural reference of degradation and (violent) breakdown of modern Western (consumer American) subjectivity; it is a parallel to the prosodic devices being deployed in Donne’s personal conquest of the soul.

This harbinger brings me back to the government and Main Roads and private companies extending their destructions into the realm of the soul, into a model of well-being of progress to tame a world to one end and one end only: praise of a God who gives and takes and who expects us to use ‘his’ world to his ends, which are an extension of their right-wing politics.

The religious right is strongly present in Australia as much as America (even if this is denied) and strongly indicated through racism and bigotry; but more than that, there’s a colonially inherited God-model of nation that, even if Godless for some now, is about forces outside the quotidian directing and determining what is right.

If you doubt this, check the demographics of right-wing parties in Australia, and their connections to and origins in mergings of individual, God and state.

As the NSW school curriculum (HSC) switches back to a world of imperialism by concentrating on texts through which its implementers might hope the crimes of the contemporary are reduced to allegory and tangential metaphorical allusion, we find ‘The Bard’, whose universal meanings (no denying those) are read by conservatives for gesture rather than the complexity of historical/linguistic context (try instead, as a counter-example and for a more nuanced approach, reading John Kerrigan on Shakespeare) — in other words, deeply political texts are sold as vaguely human and universal (they actually were pinpointed)...

We also find Jane Austen. Her privilege was backgrounded by slavery (despite her implicit objections to slavery in Mansfield Park and Emma, her family’s wealth and social privilege were deeply implicated in the profits from slavery — see ‘Austen and Antigua’ for a rudimentary, somewhat unwittingly empire-centric and wishful outline of the issues: it is important to note that many existing slaves in the British West Indies weren’t emancipated till 1834!). She created texts that critique women’s economic dependence on social and economic structures that thrive through enslaving women within the society and an empire that grew through slavery elsewhere (that strand of tobacco? sugar plantations...). This is a Jane Austen who nonetheless uses irony in doses absorbable by a (very) slowly changing middle (and upper) class, creating entertainments that again universalise messages about the oppression of women and also the sass, wit and genius of individual women... entertainments that can be now used to reflect themes that are political-lite, but not offensive to the conservatives of now... 

And finally, Dickens, whose undoings of British oppressions of the poor are far enough removed from the now to allow analogy that is toothless (the poor of other social orbits are distanced more and more... the corrections that a Dickens brings to British oppressions serves the purveyors of progress with a white neo-liberal royalist Westminsterism) in terms of the horrors of now.

Among these champions of British letters (sold as ‘English’ literature): very little of colonialism as evil, very little of environmental destruction, very little of the rights of different spiritual approaches to life (in essence), and very little about governments’ ability to destroy all life on the planet. Which brings us back to the trees lost on Great Eastern Highway and the stretched resources of protest and the military metaphor of many fronts at once.

Going back to the Donne — Penguin English Poets edition (ed. A. J. Smith) — I find a quote in Tracy’s hand on the half-title. Her gift to me. These lines from 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning':

Ours two souls therefore, which are one
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

And I remember now, through the haze: it was a gift when I was taking myself away to Cocos, away from the scene I was feeding myself to, that was eating me... away to find another way through, and a way back to Tracy (which is obviously what happened in the end!).

Donne’s metaphors of the tactile (of exploration and science and guild craft), so apt for the modern, also incorporate (I use this word carefully) the failure of the modern. Knowledge misused, knowledge extending the many empires of human ingenuity, their oppressions.

Even poetry written in (in some ways) radical exception to a crushing status quo (religious in Donne’s case — state oppression of Catholics), ends up feeding the apparatus of the state once it manages to meet the ‘needs’ of the consumer through creating a verisimilitude of paradise on earth. A treeless paradise populated with humans and electronic devices.

And even then, only the right devices, and most frighteningly in the age of the Far Right as centre, the right humans. Around the time of giving me this book, Tracy was continuing to write her novel Vamp, a reversioning of the gothic in the now of the early 90s, a gothic in Fremantle, Western Australia... and those lines from Donne (‘like gold to aery thinnesse beat’) title Vamp’s first chapter, and take us into a world of a feminism constrained by a machine that still only paid lip service, and still does.

Tracy’s novel proffers a violent reaction, yet shows it is no solution. The gothic is constantly reinvented and can easily became a tool of cautionary entertainment that in the end lapses entirely into entertainment — I shudder to think how the ironies and parodies of Austen’s Northanger Abbey will be zombified (oh, the money to be made from genre-jamming — mash-ups — to feed the zeitgeist of the zombie era!) for a generation of new Australian voters under the NSW HSC reading regime! (Teachers, resist! use it in conjunction with contemporary texts that challenge the problems of how and why we read! It’s only useful if shown as having parallels to texts that parody the literary conventions of the now — and the neo-liberals are churning out films and novels that do just this... Nicole Kidman, with her placation of right-wing America while selling herself as a ‘serious’ actor, is one of its figureheads).

Tracy’s Vamp, I think, is all about how and why we read genre text, and the ends to which their ironies can serve the state, no matter how risqué they seem. When it came out, Vamp messed with all these conventions and was genuinely radical. It never aimed to please nor to make its criticism polite or popular.

So, as Tracy, Tim and I travel the roads of the wheatbelt or head down to Perth, our (old now) mode of transport contributing to the problem, we observe the militarism of elected governments, the corruption that comes through their being sanctioned by an electorate that signs off on responsibility. All of us: stop driving now, get out, confront the workers who have been duped into this damage, and try and discuss it with them. Offer alternative ways of making a living, work together to provide it. Step outside centralised government and the system that makes you think you have a choice (or that your vote will prevent the more evil ‘representatives’ getting into power), and work together for other modes of living, sharing, and supporting the biosphere.

It’s possible, if enough of us click, if enough of us try. Small groups. Then those small groups interacting with other small groups. Living networks of communication to increase tolerance and understanding and to make the local relevant. Know your locality, gain knowledge of neighbouring and distant localities. Let temporariness and permanence peacefully commune.


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