I begin with ugly feelings. I shut my phone. Before shutting my phone, I delete the social media app with the photos and the comments. It is a common place. To retreat from the common place is a common place.
I think of the distinction between jealousy and envy. I react badly to the friend’s acquisition of a thing I in fact already also possess. That I also possess the thing does not seem to bear on my envy. I don’t know what it means to see this thing this way other than to say that I have lost my bearing, or rather than I don’t have what is known as perspective. I understand that I am not jealous, but envious. I have seen the thing, the something, the closed circle between my friend and her thing. St Augustine with his belly full of milk, palely gazing at his mother breastfeed his foster brother. What Lacan said. Invidia.
I am not on fire. I am not pale.
I am on my knees bone-sore. Not using a desk.
I do not run.
I am told: speak in short sentences. Know what you mean to say. What do you want to say?
I begin with ugly feelings. Uneasy, I look at a photocopy with dust on it. It is by a famous writer. Fabulously so. I have more of his books than I have of any other writer from this country. I have everything. I love this writer. Which is why I have delayed this particular form of killing.
First I talk about what his books do or do not do. And then in the middle, I talk about what they do not allow. And then after, I talk about what is left behind, because of the books.
His beautiful Johnno says: ‘You know Dante, when we were at school, I used to think of you as the most exotic creature – so strange and untouchable. Like a foreign prince.’
[My mind had whirled, a whole past turning itself upside down, inside out, to reveal possibilities I could never myself have imagined]
Sixteen years ago. I guess any 16 years is a long time. I don’t doubt it. Sixteen years is a long time. Something really sexual about the word sixteen. The number 16.
Sixteen years ago David Malouf wrote a blockbuster essay for the Quarterly Essay entitled ‘Made in England: Australia’s British Inheritance’. That was 2003. It is now 2019. In 2003 I was working on a little honours thesis about Amiri Baraka and pretty proud of my ignorance of Australian writers, particularly the treasured Australian writers. I say that. I was also not in any way motivated to keep an eye out for the Quarterly. Nevertheless I have a memory of the essay’s impact, just that, that it had an impact. I knew the name Malouf was an important one a long time before I read Malouf’s writing.
All to make the point that before I read ‘Made in England’ (last year, in 2018, not a sexy year), I had a good sense that there were texts that are, or are on their way to being sacred. Not talking about the sacred texts of the major religions, I mean of course the other texts – the culturally sacred. The national treasures. The work for which space is cleared away, that is set apart. The works that have a ring to them.
‘Made in England’ is about Australia, which is for Malouf evidently about Britain, but the essay begins with brilliant perversity in Washington, DC (which the author suggests is ‘unshowy’ and has ‘none of the residual triumphalism of London’). Four stories below ground in the Folger Library, Malouf and two other Australians witness the world’s most complete collection of Shakespeariana. For the librarian who shows these Australians these priceless volumes (allowing looking and touching, and explaining how they would survive above ground apocalypse),
this is the real centre of the city and what it stands for: the power of what is memorialised but also embodied here, the spirit of the language we share… This is what will survive down here should the surround empire, like so many before it, crumble and blow away. (3)
Another reason I have delayed writing this is that it seems very obvious, what I will say. It is difficult to write what is obvious. I find it easier to write what I don’t intend to say. I can say this – looking at my photocopy of ‘Made in England’, I see pencil marks on the margins. I made the pencil marks. I can’t read what I wrote. ‘Your handwriting is brutal’, says Cameron. I see that I made a square bracket near a passage that follows about how Britain, the United States and Australia ‘all share it’, a habit of mind that goes beyond language itself.
Enough about what goes beyond language. What goes behind it? Presumably other speakers of English in, say, West Africa, East Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia don’t surface in the mind-habit Malouf describes. I presume that’s what my square bracket indicated. I made some sort of mark for myself.
I presume I was in a wry habit of mind when I made that mark. It curves near the word ‘power-field’. Habit of mind and power-field. The word power appears liberally in the opening pages of this essay. I presume I went into some sort of rhetorical question spasm reading this: ‘Not so much a coalition of the “willing” as, more exclusively, of those who have an insider’s understanding of one another because they inhabit the same language.’ What about everyone fucking else that speaks this fucking language? Why, according to you, do they remain outside it? I presume I was upset when I drew that square bracket with my pencil.
As well as wry, I am upset so easily and so often. But you’ll generally see me smiling, if you see me. I think about dogs, the way they get that awful grimace when they feel dominated, when they sub-out. I think about what people always tell me when they return from south-east Asia. They always have to tell me, because I remind of them of where they have just been. ‘The people there are always smiling. They are so poor, they have nothing, and they always smile!’
Malouf describes the link between England, the United States and Australia as a family link, the ‘powerful club’: our shared language, and all that goes with it. ‘All this, hovering in the air in those humming vaults on that peaceful afternoon in the midst of what was still an unfinished war, was the beginning of what I am writing here’.
And the war is still unfinished.
I still haven’t summarised ‘Made in England’ and I don’t think I will, because I don’t think I want to. Instead I want to remember those words in Johnno, ‘untouchable… like a foreign prince’. How untouchable Malouf is! How clever of him to weld this final, distorting line into his protagonist’s foil.
Sixteen years ago seems longer than other sixteen years ago. I can’t imagine many publishers today running an essay expressing this kind of vision of the English language – and even if they did, readers are becoming nearly as sensitive as me. I hear from a friend who knows publishing that there is a new labour force of sensitivity readers, whose job is to filter politically inflammatory or insensitive material out of new circulation. I said, no. No, that’s not what should happen. People should put everything on the record, and take their beatings, if necessary, on the record too.
I think two years is a long time, too. It’s getting to be.
I heard Steve Carell say, not so long ago, that The Office could never be made today. The Office!
David Malouf never spoke of himself as a queer writer of colour. My mind had whirled, a whole past turning itself upside down, inside out, to reveal possibilities I could never myself have imagined.