Sunday, November 24, 2013

I am a Melbournian

When I first moved to Melbourne at the beginning of last year, I noticed that Melbournians spend a lot of time talking Melbourne up. At the time, I put this down to an inferiority complex, especially when mention of the fact that I am from Sydney gave rise to the inevitable question, “So, which do you like better, Sydney or Melbourne?” 

It’s not a question that would ever occur to a Sydney-sider. Not because we walk around constantly congratulating ourselves on Sydney’s superiority, but just because we’re not insecure about our city’s attractions. Melbourne poses no threat. I also wondered whether this constant insistence on the marvelousness of Melbourne was a way of denying the obvious suffering imposed by Melbourne’s terrible, inconstant weather.

Now that I’m well into my second year of living in Melbourne, my perspective is a little different. Have I been corrupted, the balance of my mind broken by hayfever, or have I just seen the light? By the light, I refer to that powerful glow that illuminates the city of Melbourne from within, visible and palpable only to those who have joined in worship of this great metropolis.

Living in Melbourne is a bit like living in a cult. Insidiously, day after day, you find yourself involved, first passively, then actively and with an enthusiasm that seems to bubble up from nowhere, in conversations about how great it is to live here. I’d like to think that this is simply an example of how gratitude and appreciation for good things is infectious. It’s part of Melbourne culture to count your blessings, daily and communally. But there is undeniably a less noble aspect to this phenomenon. Even when it is not articulated, it is understood: Melbourne is not just good, not just marvelous, it is better. The long shadow of Sydney is always there, the darkness that defines the light.

I think it wasn’t until I moved to Fitzroy that I fully succumbed to the collective narcissism that characterizes life in Melbourne. It’s a suburb where a quick study break stroll to stock up on Twisties at the supermarket can end up taking a little longer than expected because on the way I allow myself to be distracted by the colourful display in the window of a gallery showing indigenous art. Inside, the attendant, a man of extreme refinement and extensive knowledge, treats me as if I might be a potentially major art investor despite the fact that I say things like, “So, what are those poles with feathers stuck on them? They’re gorgeous,” and “Who’s Christian Thompson?”

Fitzroy is nothing if not arty. The back streets and lanes are full of street art and tasteful graffiti. On Saturday I went for a guided tour of some of the highlights, took the photos you see on this blog-post, and got into an argument with a former city councillor about whether graffiti can still lay claim to being truly subversive when it’s been commissioned by the council (he said yes, I said no). In any case, I’m happy to concede that what Fitzroy street art may lack in street cred, it more than makes up for in style.

But the beauty of Fitzroy is not just skin deep. This morning, while browsing websites of the dozen or so yoga schools in Fitzroy to find a class that might suit me, I discovered that the Dance of Life studio was offering a session described as a Luscious Ovarian Temple, with lavender foot bath. How could I resist? I thought this kind of thing only happened in the Blue Mountains. But the precise reality is that it only happens in Melbourne.

When I emerged from exploring my Ovarian Temple later this afternoon, I felt as if the cavities of my body were sparkling with interior light. As I floated off down Brunswick Street, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. Like an ovarian cyst, my Sydney-bred cynicism had been finally, painlessly excised.

As J.F.K. might have said if he had ever come here:

I am a Melbournian.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A new road

About six years ago, I came into contact with a Buddhist community based at a monastery called Santi, tucked away deep in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Its very existence seemed unlikely. For a while I had a quote from a Hobbit walking song on the whiteboard in my office in the Old Quad at the University of Sydney, reminding me of this other world:

"Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun."

      (J. R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings)

Recently I was invited to write a post for a blog called Awakening Buddhist Women. I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my experiences at Santi and what they taught me about the challenges facing women in Theravada Buddhism. You can read the results here.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Zip It

I made it through World Mental Health Day yesterday without saying a word, except during one allocated hour of “talk time.” This feat of self-control was in aid of a campaign called ZIP IT. I’m raising funds for Orygen, a world-leading youth mental health research centre in Melbourne. As well as giving people a reason to sponsor me, part of the idea of not talking was to show solidarity with those who suffer mental illness, and share in the experience of not being able to easily or fully communicate with others. Initially, I'd thought of this as more of a campaign gimmick than anything else, and expected that my experience of silent meditation retreats would mean that “zipping it” for a day would be nothing new. But keeping quiet in contexts where everyone else is talking turned out to be completely different to maintaining silence in spaces where that is the norm.

In the morning I had a lecture to attend at uni. I decided to arrive just before it started and sit to one side of the lecture theatre, so as to avoid friends who might try to talk to me - I felt self-conscious about having to explain myself to them in writing, and didn’t want to cause offence by being unresponsive. This strategy worked, but instead of feeling pleased, I started to feel ostracized – why didn’t anyone come over to say hello? I did have a note prepared, after all. Did they think I was being snobbish, not understanding that I couldn't speak? It was a relief to meet up with a couple of friends at lunch, when I could talk at last - although only for an hour.

My flat-mates were aware of what I was doing, but it had an unexpected effect on one of them nevertheless. In the morning, he forgot and tried to start a conversation with me. I interrupted by gesturing to remind him I couldn't speak. Later in the day he whispered when he spoke to me, as if he thought I might be hurt or angry if he spoke at normal volume. Behaviour that’s out of the usual can be unsettling, I guess, and make people feel like they can’t just be themselves around you any more.

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano
The dynamic with my flat-mate reminded me of two films that have fascinated me: Jane Campion’s The Piano, and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. The main character in each is a woman who does not speak, and wields a strange power over others as a consequence. It seems to me that these women respond to experiences of powerlessness or loss of identity by masochistically embracing and exaggerating their lack of effective expression. They do so with such determination and commitment that their silence paradoxically gives them the power to profoundly destabilize the people around them. This power is bought at a high price of isolation, however, and becomes a kind of trap from which the women themselves have difficulty escaping. I wonder if some mental health problems follow a similar pattern, starting off as a resourceful response to the constraints of a situation, but then developing into a self-destructive habit that becomes hard to break.

In the afternoon, a friend sent a text inviting me to dinner. I wrote back declining the invitation and explaining that I wouldn’t have been able to join in the conversation. She then offered to buy me a talk pass so I could speak for an extra hour, but I didn’t feel right about accepting this – I didn’t think she should have to pay to get me to come to dinner! But nor did I want to buy my own way out of my promise to the people who’d sponsored me. I heard recently that perfectionism is one of the main causes of mental health problems in our society. I wondered if I was perversely trapping myself in an overly rigid interpretation of my pledge, or just showing healthy strength of mind in sticking to it…

Then my mother called. I let the phone ring out, and emailed to explain why I hadn’t taken the call. She wrote back describing a small lasagne-making incident and saying that a friend of ours was having an operation. Should I have made an exception to talk to her? But then I reflected that people suffering mental illness don’t get to “make exceptions” and just decide to be fully functional as soon as they or someone else wants them to. And I was only committed to a single day of silence.

So I fulfilled my pledge and gained a new perspective on Nietzsche's remark, "It is difficult to live amongst men, because silence is so difficult — especially for a blogger." (He may have said babbler rather than blogger, but I think you'll agree it amounts to the same thing.) Keeping in mind another Nietzschean principle, that some are born posthumously, if you'd like to sponsor me retrospectively, this may still be possible...

As I write, the ZIP IT campaign is still open. To support the cause of helping kids who have mental health problems (and to find out who is in the photo below), please visit my fundraising page here.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Radiant Narcissism of The Maids

Blanchett and Huppert in The Maids

John Macallum described the recent Sydney Theatre Company production of Genet's dark play, The Maids, as “radiant” and found nothing to fault in it. Did he not notice that Isabelle Huppert’s delivery of her lines was frequently so hard to follow that you just had to let it wash over you, giving up the attempt to understand the words? Did he not feel that perhaps the actress had abandoned the attempt to communicate the text? But maybe this came later in the run. On the night I saw it,  there seemed almost to be a note of defiance in the way Huppert tossed off her speeches, as if getting through them as quickly as possible, looking forward to the end of this production (only days away at that point).

For much of the play we watched two sisters, the maids of the title, engaging in role-play in which one (Cate Blanchett) mimicked their wealthy mistress, while the other (Huppert) took the part of the other maid. In the process, they acted out the nasty power dynamics, the admiration mixed with envy, humiliation and murderous desire for revenge that characterized their relationship with their beautiful young employer.

At the same time, they demonstrated how this dynamic had also infected their love-hate relationship with each other, and by implication, even their internal senses of self. Genet's psychological hall of mirrors (or mise en abĂ®me) is a neat depiction of how oppressive power relations have a tendency to multiply, transforming relationships between people who might have been united in solidarity, invading even their individual senses of identity, so that the struggle against oppression is won or lost as much within as without.

In keeping with the themes of the play, I began to wonder whether Huppert's apparently impatient attitude might even have been a somewhat perverse response to Blanchett's "radiant" domination of the stage. It is likely that in choosing the adjective "radiant," Macallum also had Elizabeth Debricki's youthful beauty and vivacity in mind. Blanchett's influence was strongly evident in her talented, younger colleague mannerisms, however; at moments Dubricki's mistress seemed to have copied Blanchett's maid, rather than the other way around.

Debricki and Blanchett

The "radiance" of this production of Genet's dark play also extended to the set, designed by Alice Babidge, full of light and glass and mirrors and space (“a flamboyant nod to aspirational Sydney,” as Alison Croggan suggested). Video cameras gave us close-ups of the beautiful women on stage and their perfect stomachs (and other body parts), blown-up and projected onto a large screen above the stage. 

Even when the cameras followed the actresses into the small bathroom at the back of the set, they did not evoke any strong sense of claustrophobia or interiority invaded. On the contrary, we sensed that these women craved visibility as much as the audience wished to see their every move, and the perfectly clean “smallest room” appeared almost spacious when projected onto the large screen.

The rapid-fire delivery of much of the text and the equally frenetic movement of the actresses did build to create an impression of winged insects flinging themselves senselessly against the glass walls – or the invisible fourth wall (breached once by spittle) - of their airy cage. However, in some tension with Genet's text, here this seemed less a response to exclusion and oppression, than a sheer product of competitive narcissism.

Jean Genet
Perhaps this was director Benedict Andrews’ point: under conditions of contemporary capitalism, the explicit class oppression that divides the women of Genet’s text between and within themselves is less relevant than a form of self-inflicted oppression that is harder to see, but no less damaging. It is narcissism that tears women apart, leading us to pursue a social conception of the female self as a perfectible sexual commodity, competitively traded on the viciously “free” market. 

I say, “perhaps” this was Anderson's point; it wasn’t clear because the production provided no obvious vantage point outside this perspective from which to recognize it. Rather, the narcissism of the characters was hard to distinguish from the professional narcissism of the actresses, which was hard to distinguish from the narcissism and star-struck consumerism of the audience. 

This insidious “radiance” enveloped us all – except perhaps Huppert, whose strong French accent and intonation, and unexpectedly difficult, irritating performance threatened the general air of self-satisfaction and let us feel the presence of Genet’s shit-stirring ghost even as his words were blurred in translation.

On the evening I saw The Maids, at the end Blanchett softened visibly with pleasure while taking her bow, and Debricki beamed. Between them, a more restrained Huppert gave the enthusiastic audience a smile that seemed mildly ironic, as if to say, well, look at you.