You would expect literature to meet this theme in braver and more complex ways. But in the case of authors such as W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano and Cormac McCarthy — whose books The Rings of Saturn, 2666 and The Road have towered over the past decade — the connections between creating a novel, the feeling of being in a dream and an atmosphere of death are overwhelming. These men write like titans at the end, rather than beginning, of something, focusing on subject matter that suggests the respective cultural histories of Europe, South America and the US are traumatised, decayed and passing away.
Stunning debuts such as David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and late Philip Roth works Exit Ghost and Nemesis only add to the outpouring of terminal narratives today. As does Patti Smith’s US National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, a eulogy to her former lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe: “I was asleep when he died.”
As our rock stars age, modern masters Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Lou Reed are all delivering their own existential blues, too. Dylan gave the end some resigned bar-band fatalism on one of his most recent songs, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’: “Beyond here lies nothing, but the mountains of the past.” Young, meanwhile, sounded as if he were haunting himself on his latest album, Le Noise, a recording that played like an electrified ghost raging against the dying of the light. As for Cohen and Reed, they continue to offer their own somnambulant observations in song as if they are ferrying us to the other side personally.
It’s a stretch, but one could even argue the Twilight phenomenon and the darkening shades of the Harry Potter saga are part of this movement. Recent Australian television programs such as Laid (a comic twist on the black widow story) and Spirited (Claudia Karvan’s update on The Ghost and Mrs Muir) indicate death is so commonplace to the zeitgeist there’s enough material for two new series, if Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under were not black-humoured evidence enough.
IT’S hard to pinpoint why this deathly current has intensified. While the symbolic reverberations of September 11, 2001, and the continuing tremors of the global economic crisis appear to signal everything from the end of US imperial hegemony to that of the Enlightenment era itself, there are more intimate cultural pressures, too. A bottomless obsession with youth culture and the corresponding industry in anti-ageing technology is part of that, as well as the irony of an ageing population in the West and ethical debates over euthanasia.
There is also the decline in formal religious practice, along with the pressures of constructing our identity publicly in an aggressively commercialised and digitalised world. Michael Jackson emerges as an off-kilter Jesus in this mediated ether, having introduced an entire generation of our children to the dark fairytale of death and continuing presence as everything about his miserable end and his re-canonisation at the top of the charts puts him at the centre of family entertainment again.
It’s my suspicion all these elements may be sparking a retreat to an internal frontier, an intuited notion of the soul as “the person within person” where we can feel something sacred or mysterious at work that has little to do with how we appear out there. Certainly we are learning that fame is cheap, and often crass. Privacy, by contrast, is taking on a magic aura, a profound and elusive value. To upend Andy Warhol’s tired dictum, we may yen soon for a world where everyone can be private, rather than famous, for 15 minutes.
There is, of course, a difference between privacy and being alone, between spiritual integrity and feeling atomised. In a secular culture, art provides a key to the door between those worlds, if not the kingdom once promised us in the Bible (let alone by Facebook). It also can pre-empt the dangers of premature withering, of being dead inside long before we are buried or burned.
In reminding us of our internal universe, of that person within the person, art marks us with mystic residues and consolations and a degree of consciousness that dilates our being with what might be described as a renewing vividness. As Bolano so wisely observes in his novella The Skating Rink: “We all have to die a bit every now and then and it’s usually so gradual that we end up more alive than ever. Infinitely old and infinitely alive.”
WHETHER or not you believe in an afterlife it’s true to say most of us end up speaking to the dead. The depth of those conversations may differ and fade, though time itself is no barrier as those long forgotten return to us with unexpected aliveness. One can feel haunted without seeing ghosts. A place, a song, a sea breeze, almost anything can open up a dimension through which a presence is felt and corresponded with, if only internally, nostalgically. It’s as if this communication is native to us as human beings.
It seemed important to speak to some artists who traversed this space between the living and the dead in their work, and to ask them what that communication might mean.
“I lost my father and my mother, and more recently my brother,” 75-year-old poet and author Antigone Kefala says. “And each time this happens, there is no getting used to it. Every time, it is a new event, a terrible happening. I don’t think you can ever become that familiar with it. And yet we are predisposed to speak with the dead.”
Kefala’s poem Absence concerns itself specifically with this: it is a dialogue with her mother, whom she found herself talking to again “while doing the dishes just the other day”. At that she laughs and says brightly, “This is normal, it is nothing to apologise for. You feel that you are talking to friends,” she explains. “Not that they have become something else in death. You feel that you have some connective thing with them, not that they have gone. Of course people do not want to hear negative things. But it is a double issue — yes, the end of life is a negative thing, but then people who have been in our life, that attachment does not just disappear. So it would be a negative thing not to communicate with them still, if this is how we feel.”
Unfortunately, Kefala believes “death is not a subject people like writing about in Australia. Everyone here is trying to escape the issue.” She describes this disdainfully as “an English thing”, and speculates that “we Greeks, and the more ‘primitive’ races of Europe in the south, in Italy and Spain, we have more rituals and are closer to the phenomenon than the northerners. The same is true of North and South America. Look at Mexico and its Day of the Dead.”
For Kefala this relates to an absence in Australian literature. “There is a lack of intensity here. People are not fully engaged with what they are writing. A lot of it is journalistic, I feel. But serious writing must have passion, must have a tenseness to it.
And we must not be ashamed of passion,” she says. “I write about death — and many other things — oh, they must see me coming and think: ‘Eh, her again! Oh no! What about some jolly business this time, please Antigone!’ “
Kefala roars laughing this time, but she laments the way we continue to deal with death “through a certain type of fantasy, running away from or around a more immediate involvement. So these ‘ghosts’ people like to read about, they are not immediately involved with your life, it’s something less real and light and approachable. But if we are to write seriously, we have to also write about what is not easily approachable, and there is something about poetic language that deals more fundamentally with such issues than a journalistic, surface language.”
She goes further and implies we shy away from these depths in our literature because of something in our history. “You feel it when you go out bush, these forces that unnerve you in certain landscapes. It is a very powerful landscape, a magnificent landscape, a country full of light and colour, as well as a place full of terrible things that no one wants to confess to. The two things go together. Whether we can come to grips with that and produce something magnificent.”
Her thoughts trail off as if that task might be beyond her. But Kefala begins talking again in a way that seems tinged with her own migrant odyssey into this antipodean world she has long called home. “In a discussion of spirits I know I am always moved when Aboriginal people look into a landscape and ask permission to come in,” she says. “Deeply moved.”
IT is hard to imagine a more Australian-sounding record within the rock ‘n’ roll idiom than Gareth Liddiard’s Strange Tourist. Best known for his work with the Drones, Liddiard imbues his debut solo album with a Spartan intensity — voice and guitar only — that suggests he is the missing link between Paul Kelly and Nick Cave.
As a picture of contemporary Australia its vernacular feel for character is startling, as good as any short story collection we have. But the album tends to leave a listener lost in space. There is that final feeling of sitting with a storyteller around an open fire as it ebbs into darkness. A line from the record’s most beautiful song, High Plains Mailman, leaps out like a lonely spark: “He knows you don’t have to die to reach the netherworld.”
Liddiard thinks critics who have tried to come to grips with Strange Tourist by alluding to painters Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan are reaching towards “something about the outback that is primordial, real and unforgiving. And that’s there in the music maybe.” He admits: “The way you see a landscape depends on your state of mind. A rainforest can be a very lovely thing to experience. Unless you’re Joseph Conrad, then it becomes hell. But there’s a real truth in depression when you experience it,” he adds. “You get what a dingo would go through. A world that is tough, brutal, where you can feel what it might be like to starve.”
Combined with a garage-rock-meets-folk sound that has brutish colonial overtones intensified by the singer’s broad Australian accent, Strange Tourist comes off as a supremely existential record rooted in this tormenting world. It becomes clear that Liddiard’s ghosts are living among us, be it the amphetamine dealer of the title track or the David Hicks figure who inspired an eight-minute piece of biographical song voodoo entitled The Radicalisation of D: “D finds a one-room flat that overlooks an underpass . . .”
Reared by atheist parents, Liddiard thinks we have a tendency to hide from the fact “the universe does not give a shit”. He believes civilisation allows us to mask the processes behind the way we live, from how we get the meat we eat and the petrol we use. “Everything you do is brutal and cold, but we are built to deny all that, to keep the universe at bay.
“The place I tend to go is where all that [civilised] resilience and denial is rubbed away. I’m not doing it to be downer,” he emphasises. “And even though I’m not spiritual at all I am not saying I am impoverished. There’s this ritual thing in rock ‘n’ roll, something in it from a long time ago. It’s like a guy banging bones in a cave. That’s not so different to seeing [Iggy Pop and] the Stooges play.
“All the real stuff has that ritual. There’s some need for it in our head, so in that sense it’s not spiritual but it is deep. You just need somebody to transport you. Jim Morrison was good at it. Warren Ellis [from the Dirty Three] is, too. Whatever you do, you have to take them away. Hendrix did it, Coltrane, Samuel Beckett. Beethoven was maybe the greatest. It’s transcendental.”
Liddiard smiles to himself. “It’s why people travel. It’s to do with an internal wanderlust. And that part of our brain seems connected to the part that needs to be spiritual. An artist just takes the vagueness out of it and makes it into an experience.”
AT 43, Melbourne novelist Chris Womersley admits, “I haven’t had that much actual experience of death.” Then he checks himself and mentions “an ex-girlfriend of mine who died two years ago from a heroin overdose. We had not been in touch for 20 years but for some reason she has come into my mind again lately.”
It makes him consider whether an element of remembering the dead is connected “to longing them back into existence. And a nostalgia that maybe casts them in a better light than they deserve, I don’t know. It’s more pertinent with someone who is young. That sense of waste. People who die in their 70s and 80s, it’s a shame, but you think they had a good run.”
Womersley sighs. “It’s hard being human. It’s hard getting by and doing the right thing and living. Art and literature are vehicles that can help us understand the metaphysical, that can show how we deal with death and loss and sex, how one ages gracefully, how you make a transition.”
His first book, The Low Road, opens with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding: “And what the dead had no speech for, when living / They can tell you being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued by fire beyond the language of the living.”
The author says he conceived of that novel “as an underworld journey”, whereby it operated as a noir thriller and something more spiritual that occurs in “a mythical space. I’ve always been interested in myths and fairytales. It’s a subconscious thing, and it’s profoundly a part of our being for some reason,” he says. “Look at Dante or the tale of Orpheus, there’s something primal there. It just seems impossible to believe you die and that’s that.”
Yet despite a somewhat obsessive interest in death and the supernatural, Womersley firmly describes himself as an atheist. “I guess I’m just interested in the immersive experience of literature,” he explains. “I like my reading to take me to a whole other realm. That’s an aesthetic thing. I’m not interested in the domestic but something striving towards the ineffable.”
Accordingly he set his second novel, Bereft, in the immediate the aftermath of World War I during a time of plague in Australia when entire towns were quarantined as Spanish influenza spread across the country. At a seance a young soldier is passed a note by a psychic that sparks his return home to deal with a family murder he was accused of committing as a boy. “It’s a semi-ghost story,” Womersley says, “but it’s all about love really, about someone who is gone and is no longer with you.”
Womersley explains the historical context for the ideas he developed in Bereft: “The Victorians were not so much obsessed with death as with mourning. They had mourning costumes and mourning jewellery, it was an elaborate process. With the discovery of radio waves and photography, things of a spiritual dimension got tangled with the scientific. So you have this onset of a secular century where belief in the great faiths are waning and it’s being replaced by the quasi mystical. Then you have World War I and a million dead, and where did they go? Where did they go? That scale of mourning was unprecedented. I read one story of a mother who lost all four of her sons. You can’t deal with that scale of grief rationally.”
As if to reach for a parallel between that era and the present, Womersley tells me an anecdote. “There was this co-worker of mine who died tragically, both her and her baby,” he says. “I suddenly saw her pop up as one of my friends on Facebook recently, and I was a bit surprised, and bothered by it. I would feel unethical somehow to delete her. So I feel I can’t do anything about it. But it struck me there must be many cases like this now where people continue to exist in this weird digital life we now have.”
IT seems to me the communications revolution we’re experiencing may be prompting some neo-Victorian surge in our fascination with death and mourning again. And that there are indeed parallels between that previous era — which was exhilarated and traumatised by the industrial revolution and a countervailing passion for gothic and romantic sensibilities — and the great time of technological change we exist in today.
There’s an intimacy and connectedness available to us across time and space that is somehow bodiless and eerie. It may be that our digital life is taking on the vaporous qualities of our ghostly superstitions; that the texture of the communications alone is awakening something in us. It’s certainly an odd coincidence that, like Damon’s character in Hereafter, Bardem’s dying criminal in Biutiful is also a figure of psychic abilities. This ability intensifies a need to prepare for where he is headed, as a fellow medium indicates when she warns, “You and I know the dead suffer when they leave debts behind.”
In dealing with death, the guides we most seek for wisdom or consolation are indeed the dead themselves — along with the way art can bring us closer to them and ourselves if we’re lucky: Womersley’s acts of mythical transition; Liddiard’s primitive transcendence; Kefala’s intense conversations.
It takes me a while to realise these three people I have interviewed match the three friends of mine who killed themselves: a male journalist of great literary ability; a brilliant male guitarist; a fine female painter who adored poetry. So who was I really talking to here?
I find myself listening to Give up the Ghost on the new Radiohead album, The King of Limbs. The way Thom Yorke sings a final haunting refrain of “I’ve been told to give up the ghost into your arms”. Yorke could be talking about the end of a relationship, or the problem of addiction, or personifying death itself, along with evoking a ritual in song that suggests Yorke himself is fading to end, and trying to come to terms with this mortal inevitability. In a voice double-tracked and smudged against his own it’s hard to make out what he is saying in counterpoint to the main lyrics. Either “don’t haunt me” or “don’t hurt me” or “don’t worry” or more likely all those things.
Listening to it is rather like being involved in a strange prayer where I feel as if I periodically appear to, and disappear into, myself in some kind of dream of life. Don’t haunt me. Don’t hurt me. Don’t worry.
- Mark Mordue
* First published in The Weekend Australian Review on April 9th, 2011