You see them standing
as you are just standing
adrift from others
Take this one
the biggest and closest.
It has one ear
or an ear that’s inexplicably dropped
a deaf-to-the-call ear.
The one next to it is snarling
the way you did
at your mongrel worst:
when mum was on sherry
drunk and menopausal;
when that alley-cat wife
got into your savings account
on the way to the Family Court;
when the next one blamed you –
anyone but Hitler
for her river of misery
her step-father’s sobs.
And there’s one at the back
lean, with its leg up h
aving a bone-dry piss
with a moronic look
you hope you never
have as you come.
The picture is a lure.
It calls you in to
growl and bark– yelp, really.
Over the phone
you told your wife
made a whimper or two…
The cats sprang
from her sweet lap.
What beasts we keep
in studios of the self.
Talk about our
Whimper, I meant to put whimper in – another dimension of feral, I suppose, like a dog dying without dignity. I don’t know how these dogs got under my skin. Maybe I don’t want to know. But each morning since I’ve been here, even after a good night’s sleep, I just have to drift into Rod’s Moss’s studio and sit with them.
They are camp dogs, they belong to people at the White Gate Camp not so far from Rod’s house, here in Alice Springs. They are like most of the other dogs in Central Australia, as endemic, come to think of it, as the tawny, mangy dogs you see on the streets of Calcutta. Same gene pool, same dusty look, same lack of health, and sleepiness unless stood upon. A half-starved sleep, that’s what it looks like during the daylight in Calcutta. They feed at night, eat the shit in the street, get into the rubbish bins, whereas these camp dogs get scraps thrown to them at the edge of the camp fire. The Antipodean dogs belong, to some extent, to the people sitting by the fire. They have been taken into the fold, have skin names, are carefully buried in the right direction when they die, as befits a decent treatment of a relative. What their particular hurts are, remains their own business, I suppose, part of the round of suffering that comes of living cheek by jowl in a community.
In Calcutta you have to stop from time to time even if you are weeping in the street. You can be stone sober, which is almost always the case in India. The weeping seeps out when you either can’t take in any more suffering that is around you, or when something catches your eye and seems to wound like an arrow. More like a yelp, than a whimper, something heading in need of a howl. The last time I found myself in that state was one summer night a few years back, when the dog owned by the little boy next door had died. He came in with his father and when I gave his dad a drink I asked permission to show the lad the Buddhas around the house and garden. The boy listened, wholly attending, which is one of the beautiful things in the world, a boy preparing to be a man like that. By the time he went home he’d had an introduction to the Buddha, who seemed to interest him, and his father seemed happy with that, especially when I explained I was not seeking converts. We had another drink as the late sun streamed into the kitchen and before long they went home, leaving me lightheaded, happy – that something useful had been shown and said.
It was much later, about three in the morning, my wife tells me, that I was found howling in the front room, on all fours, down on the Chinese mat with the moonlight striking the back of my neck. A howling had risen up. I remember giving it permission to release itself for all it was worth so as to get my wife’s suffering out of my mind. Her incurable chronic suffering and our sorrow for all the times she is bed-ridden ran through me and the rightness of the howling was undeniable. No doubt my surrender was prompted by the vast emptiness that can take hold in solitary drinking, driving one on to oblivion, but apart from the undercurrent of lamentable self-pity, sorrow for her plight was the prime mover. I was, the next day, a little abashed, that the neighbours might have heard me, but a sense of satisfaction, of correctness, stayed with me at the time and has not left me since, which was about eight years ago. There’s no shame in howling your guts out, anymore than there is, I believe, in occasionally becoming legless or four-legged.
These dogs, Rod’s dogs, which he painted quickly – delivering another ‘Aboriginal’ painting to this world in the heart of the heart of this country so unself-consciously that they came out just as they are – are camp dogs through and through. They are what they are, as everyone likes to say these days, when they are having trouble accepting the reality of something. They are like Samosa, the bitch that lives in his house at the moment, a lean, cleaner dog than the lot by the gal iron. She’s better fed, for one thing, a glutton at the bowl, and she is groomed each day by Rod’s teenage daughter. For that she stands still, with a proud look, as if she can see her coat get silkier and her tail relax into straightness, instead of curling under her arse as it so often does. She needs total attention before she can relax. It’s the only time she does not show the whites of her eyes, and it’s the best time to approach her as she’s least likely to snarl.
The thing is she will snarl as soon as she looks at you, even though you have already made friends with her several times over in as many days. She will snarl or bark, especially if you have come in from outside. You might have said hello to her fifteen minutes before and that won’t stop her. She is pitiably nervous, hurt somewhere in the deeper reaches of herself. Mind you, this is not an unusual thing in the Territory. In the old days young pups were tossed into a hessian bag and given a good kicking: in the bag were some well-worn clothes from a blackfella, which guaranteed the pups would know who to attack when they grew up. Samosa seems to sense the world the other way round: she grew out of dust to be needfully suspicious of everyone. Misery without its object.
(I would perhaps sound kinder towards her if I’d known the poor thing would be killed in a hit and run accident in the course of my writing this essay).
Samosa has come in from Yuendumu, where she lived with more dogs than you can throw a stick at, although they have been counted in recent years, as a matter of fact. Rod’s partner, a striking woman called Gloria Morales, of Indian descent from Chile, has brought sweetness and light to every dog in the camp. There are photographs of her with twenty or thirty dogs in her truck, on the tray and in the cabin, because she has rounded them up during the day, feeding them, letting them frolic in the dam, brushing them down if they need it, giving them medical treatment if they need that. It is a daily routine that starts when Gloria has finished her day’s work at the art centre, and it has been her work since arriving a few years back at Yuendumu, when she consulted with the dogs’ owners and worked out a way of healing the sick dogs and compassionately putting a certain number of them down, once the owners understood that nothing else could be done for them. Since then the number of dogs at Yuedumu has stabilised and a happiness among them seems to reign.
They interbreed, of course: part-dingo crosses with part-dingo, but from time to time there is a dog that is clearly closer to the pure dingo than most, and at the time of writing, a dingo pup, no, an adolescent, sleeps in Gloria’s bed each night. Down the bottom of the bed, Rod explains, which is where he tries to keep his feet. The dingo is out as the sun comes up, has jumped the fence other dogs can’t jump and headed off. Gloria finds it on the roof of her truck about eleven, waiting for a pat and something to eat. In dignity and prowess the dingo leaves the camp dogs for dead.
The way that story came to me I was led to believe that the dingo pup has not been heard to howl. He goes off to howl. Then he comes back. He keeps the howl in him because he has not come to confuse his domestic sense of himself with anything else. He’s gloriously wild.
I mention this by way of contrast to wild dogs further south from Yuendumu, around Mt Wedge. Different breeds, including the hybrid hunt- ing dogs, have procreated to produce a feral pack so dangerous that no man goes out there without a gun.
The man who told me that also told me something rather kind towards the dingoes out there. In a time of drought, when he was sleeping in a swag, he was woken before daybreak by a dingo licking his face for moisture. All he could spare the creature was a cup of water.
But later that morning the dingo filled itself up with soak water that was pure brine. It ran yelping in agonised circles until it dropped dead.
Who has written
with right love
about this hard light?
It flicks pebbles, sharpens
reeds, makes white eucalypt
amorous for dance.
In Hidden Valley –
atomic clarity of dusk.
They stand around not looking
as we drive up.
Kids with little salt lakes
glinting on their upper lips.
We are there to help.
We will take your rubbish.
as the sun sinks
the bag of rattling cans
that sound like the light.
In Hidden Valley
I got caught in the glare
the amplifying net it cast
each of us with pores open
glances shooting past
the whole camp under daytime stars.
Then, back on the bitumen
the nighttime slump
the light no longer peeling
off you, or them
the conversation about them
starting all over again.
Staying here at Rod’s house is like being in a house of love. In every room there are his light-saturated paintings. He paints the ground of the centre in dancing colours. They are sanctifications of country. They glow in their own right. Ochres, brown and lemon-yellows that we see out there when the glare allows, the same colours that give their stamp to Aboriginal sand paintings, the paintings on paper, their body-paints for the old ceremonies. Rod writes that the country’s colour spectrum is like a digestive system. The other day I called them his Dreamings, and he seemed not to mind that, although his paintings don’t just feature Aboriginal people. They show us him, him and his children, his early and his later wives, his own parents, and other beloved friends who visit Alice or have stayed here whatever love arrangements might have been botched over the years. It is their palette and it is his palette: every-one’s palette, everyone’s country, his paintings are saying.
Loving kindness informs every painting by Rod that I have seen, and to accompany that there is his writing, which is one of the clearest expressions of friendship with Aboriginal people that has been written out of this fraught place. In his two books, The Hard Light of Day and One Thousand Cuts, the paintings do a lot of the talking, just as the text talks back into the paintings. Hard Light of Day asks us to not to get carried away with art business as such. The epigraph is from Ortega y Gasset: ‘Art, all art, is a highly respectable matter, but it is superficial and frivolous, if it is compared with the terrible seriousness of life.’
It’s hard to argue with that, especially since the first photograph shows fourteen healthy young men, football players around 1985, when Rod arrived in town and first met people from the town camp at Hidden Valley, all of whom are now dead, killed by way of the grog. Oh, there are quick narrative deflections from this show-stopper – lesser details, such as the dog of an Aboriginal friend that was gratuitously shot by a passing bikie, and there will be many warm-hearted, amusing incidents in the narrative which pull you up for laughs just when you thought you were falling down. For instance, after reading that after a day helping his Aboriginal friends in the hospital ward, Rod spent a night feeling ‘meaningless and terrified, wishing it to be other- wise, anything else’, a couple of pages later he is telling us that most of the dogs have drolly apt names: ‘A miserable little black and white pup absolutely riddled with fleas, more fleas than fur, was called Flea. One with a stuttering yodel was called Flat Battery. Eric Neill had a grey-flecked thing that seemed to limp on every leg, a doozey of a dog which he called ‘It’ll do’. And there was Betterboy, a hairless brute with a broken baritone.’
Back in the eighties Rod was a new chum to the town, teaching art at the Centralian College while painting in his apartment on the East side of town. He was excited and flattered to be noticed by people who lived nearby at the White Gate camp, another rough settlement near his home. In due course he would try to learn the language and be laughed at, but affectionately. He was ever keen to be helpful, which came easily to him, as he is a man of unusual equanimity and generosity, of gentle spirit. He also had, since a kid growing up on the outskirts of Melbourne, a native attitude to running wild in the bush. But in Alice he slowly learned to set limits: yes, it was ok to let his first new friends, the young man Xavier and his wife Petrina, use the water from his front tap, but he needed them to respect doors when they were shut and night when he was asleep (he had moved to a house in a suburban street by then). Otherwise he would happily drive people to the shops, the prison, the hospital and in and out of town, if they were stuck. But he did not welcome anyone who came around when they were drunk.
Consanguinity is the word I want to paint on the walls here. It was once used in early Australian anthropology. Ironically, in ‘the bad old days’ of colonial history, it had a currency, as if we might not always be strangers to each other. The Hard Light of Day has won hearts in recent years, not to mention the accolades of major literary prizes. From the start ordinary readers have felt that it expresses something extraordinary. A painter/writer, an ordinary Australian with no cross to bear or to convey, has been making pictures and offering words that enact a dimension of reconciliation that most of us might only dream of. If only we had the patience, the time, the tact, the strategic sense of self-effacement – in the company of what Aboriginal people have to offer.
The Hard Light of Day draws us into a fold. Rod is candid about the new feelings he had as friendships evolved. ‘I was embraced with astonishing generosity. It’s hard to describe this viscerality. I was taken in to bodies, passed around – in a word, accommodated.’ He was being sheltered, rather like a stray dog. ‘I had never encountered this kind of physical affection as a natural, unaf- fected transaction. The cohesive energy of the camp was a given, greater than the stresses it endured. And it exercised a peculiar, addictive power over me.’
And so more generally, with the bush trips when everyone piled into the vehicle – women and kids, with dogs and guns and the men who wanted to hunt. You can hear the laughter rising up from the images Rod invokes; you can imagine the first of his daughters, Ronja, singing all the way, having been taken into Aboriginal arms from when she was a newborn. On the hunt, we are not spared the details of the killing, or the cooking the kangaroo, or the ritual eating of the intestines, and the drinking of blood. Ronja, thereafter a vegetarian, later wrote to her mother: ‘We drank blood which made us healthy and wrong’.
The book is a tough and joyful read. It creates a chiarascuro of the mind. Pages of gruesome details are followed or rapidly interspersed with redemptive communalities. You can read, on one page, that women and children in one part of the country, at a particular site in the Dreaming, were ‘bashed to death’; and the bashings seem to be happening on every page, according to no particular code of honour. (Peter Sutton, in his Politics of Suffering, points out that the archaeology shows a high incidence of skulls struck from behind: mongrel acts aeons before grog). Then you can turn over the page where Rod is describing the painting he did of an initiation ceremony: how he rose early for several mornings in a row to get the shadows right, and he felt he had to take in each figure without the aid of the camera, and when he showed the painting to his venerable old friend, Arranye, the knowledgeable man wept with gratitude.
The friendship with Arranye is pivotal: the old man trusted Rod with Dreaming stories and knowledge of sites, and Rod’s writing renders the textures of the country with a kind of double-love.
But no grog, as I say. The text is a dry account. Rod has hardly had a drink since he was a young man. When he was a schoolteacher in the Mallee he had a wake-in-fright experience and gave it up. One needs to say this because so many of the intimate liaisons between white men and Aboriginal people have been via the shared umbilical cord of alcohol. This is not meant to detract from the quality of the relationships, necessarily. But one only has to try and imagine, say, the remarkably fertile liaisons of Geoffrey Bardon in the early days of Papunya, without the currency of grog with ‘his’ painters, and we have a different story. Rod’s is the different story: not a story about grog in Centralia, I hasten to add: his memoir concerns the small population he has come to know because of where he lives. His book strangely blooms precisely because it is so candidly intimate with the seriousness of those lives.
Nor is Eros far away. Xavier and Petrina laugh with Rod about the sounds of their jiga-jig in the scrub near his house. Xavier is painted in a certain light. There’s a painting of him near the door leading to the bathroom, on the way to the studio and the dogs. As usual he’s bare-topped and listing, as he might be portrayed outside, say, the supermarket, or the police-station, or the Alice Springs Court. There is a sheen to his torso. Not that he is oiled up, so much as rendered with the silkiness you get with graphite. I like the way graphite simulates the skin, Rod told me years ago, after many renditions of Xavier and men like him. The soft oils in the graphite did the job the way acrylic did not. Graphite, its refined carbon, has the oils our flesh has.
Xavier’s painting was shown with his permission. It might be an exhibition in Alice, or it could be a show down south: Xavier travelled thanks to Rod’s rendering of his blackness and waywardness, even when the latter had horrors attached to it. The horrors are stark in the book. One night Xavier, as his wife Petrina slept beside him, cut off her finger. She would not give him the dollars he wanted for grog. A minor episode, perhaps. It fitted with the time Rod looked out of his window and saw them each with large stones in their hands as they tried to knock each other out. On another night Petrina turned up at Rod’s place on all fours in the driveway, vomiting and crying. ‘Them mob at Hidden Valley been call me a dog. I not dog’, she wept. It hurts to know that in the one painting in which Petrina features, Raft, Xavier is stretched out half- conscious with his head in her caring lap. Nor does it feel much better to know that the figures are aligned as in Géricault’s great painting The Raft of Medusa (1819). But in what storm, exactly, have these people come adrift? Rod’s noble history paintings can only go so far. Petrina died, alcoholically, before his book came out, as did Xavier, drinking all the way, in and out of prison, and keeping, in the painter’s hands, his body-sheen until the end.
There is one Moss painting where love does not come into it. There are no human figures, and the dogs are not the usual benign companions to the many activities you see in his paintings. You see a pack of them turning in a circle. You are looking down on them, and their fury could be part of a dust-storm, as they chase each other’s tails. No: they chase nothing. They are their own vortex, a force field on the bare ground, their growling palpable to the eye – yes, a blind, wild turning that is beyond nameable relationships – feral through and through.
It’s gone from the house now, that painting. If it had hung here too long it would have put a house of love to ultimate tests.
When Petrina said she was being treated like a dog she was using the figure of speech that is common to our cultures. It’s the slight on dogs that almost any one of us can carelessly slip into. We say it when we feel as low as a dog might seem to be, when we are utterly demoralised as dogs can appear to be. When we are as low as some drinkers can get. When we are a lowly camp dog, as distinct from a frisky and free dingo, for instance, a species that comes from the north Asian wolf.
Being treated like a dog might also mean being treated with less respect than even camp dogs get. Some dogs have been made kin but they are also bad dogs – disobedient, disruptive, ungrateful, feral, even self-destructive in their reckless ways. They seem to beg for the kicks they get. Dogs that deserve their punishment because they flout the rules of sociability. Outcast dogs, dogs who turned on themselves and others. Drunken dogs, you might say, but dogs that are still kin. Dogs that create a hell of a lot of grief all round.
This risky slippage – from bad dog to drunk – is invited by the intricate ethnography of Dingo Makes Us Human by Deborah Bird Rose. In her book on Yarralin and the people at Victoria River Downs, Rose takes pains to recount how they have coded their lives according to their myth story of the original Dreaming dingo. This was the dingo that ‘made people human in the first place, who gave us our characteristic human shape, human brain and human culture.’ It is a dog that lives out bush, hunts for its own food, makes its own shelter etc. ‘Raw one, no fire, that’s bush dingo’ as a Yarralin man says. In other words, the dingo is not a camp dog; it is not dependent, it is not like a child hanging around the camp for food, or an adolescent adrift, not to mention a fully-grown man who for whatever reason has no job and pays so little attention to his own country that he is neglecting his birth right and duty to what he is made of.
On ‘the dependent–wild continuum’ this is where the Dreaming dingo lives. And was seen to live in the healthy web of things before the advent of grog.
Thereafter what was wild, and what was dog, in the pejorative sense, took on new meanings.
We are speaking structurally here. Before grog, the Dingo was part of a larger scheme that answered an unasked question: ‘What would human society be like if there were no women?’ Rose says: ‘The answer is that it would not be human. To be human then is to be neither totally dependent nor totally wild. Human culture requires that we engage with each other; the ideal is symmetrical interdependence.’
But as Bird keeps saying, this conception, which she found to be implicit and made to be explicit when the codes were tested in the dynamic web of relationships in the days before the flood of the white man’s fire-water … this conception was, well, to be conceived to be believed. It was before anything else that now dominates our minds.
Fact is, the women are predominantly still ‘there’ – giving birth, cooking, tending children, and so on. This is the case in most Aboriginal communities today. It’s the men who have gone, not because they have gone bush, or any- thing as traditionally restorative as that. Most have strayed because they are enamoured of grog.
But we know all this, and in the large scheme of things, when we come to Alice Springs, we know it acutely. Grief and morbidity hang in the air.
The sentence above hangs in the air also. It misrepresents so much. Yet it is there, and all the words one might take to expound on its truth which is bound up in the melancholia endemic to Centralian history.
Whenever I come back to the Centre the book that I can’t get out of my mind is Revolution By Night. It came out nearly three decades ago, but it feels new, timeless, actually. It registers like a dream.
The author was James Bardon, the brother of Geoffrey of Papunya fame. Readers might know Geoffrey Bardon from his book that celebrated the Aboriginal painting he had much to do with at the time, a social experience that led him to the breakdown he has come to at the end of his book, The Art of the Western Desert, where we find him sitting up in bed, broken in heart and mind, in the Alice Springs hospital. In comes his brother, a solicitor from New South Wales who, in his book, takes up the troubled states that seem to have then inhabited Papunya as those first traditional paintings grew out of the earth into their hard light of day. But the night is the thing with this book. The night encloses the mind, suffocates it, much as it does in Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, or his sequel to it, Death on the Installment Plan, novels that were hell-bent on turning the reader away from any enlightenment tendencies.
Revolution By Night is grog-soaked, and death-ridden. It is written with the notion that ‘words disappear when they are used’, and in the utopian belief that ‘we shall make a Revolution by Night, where the poor and the afflicted can be clean’. Yet you might wake at night, ‘so everything can be seen, including the awful dogs in multitudes in a kick of smoke’ where ‘you enter your thoughts so as to find them by the touch of a word.’
Everything seems to take place all on the ground, with the writer looking at the world through the neck of a flagon. The men nearby are old men, ‘the black faces hunched in little circles’ doing their paintings. You are not meant to tell much difference between what they are making and painting and what is in their minds and hearts because all that has been there since time immemorial. ‘Words die as they speak … you become the person whispering at them …’ Whatever the white men are doing – the arts community fellow, or the man on the horse who belongs to the past and the site of a massacre – they are doing so despite everything else. They sit in a dry wind, with the night all round them, crawling like the ants, like flies when the sun comes up. After a while it’s hard to tell the difference between this being their end or their beginning.
The sound the book left me with is that of the night wind. And maybe the mournful sound of the curlew, which the Aranda regard as the bird of death. But there is murmuring to the paintings as they find their shape, and the sounds that break the night include the howling of dogs, and men, and sometimes children. To say ‘grog-soaked’ is to speak of a musical or painterly accessory, rather than dereliction. Grog-soaked goes with the ground that is being sung and re-presented. Sometime, perhaps soon, the old men might dance as the paintings command. But the reader can’t be sure of that.
Whole passages in Revolution by Night are hard to follow. They belong to the dust storms. Pages become one, as you learn to decipher the drift of its thought and feeling. As a reader I felt I was being taught to trust what is inchoate in acts of creation, re-creation, restoration, restitution. It is too distancing of the book’s achievement to say the book generates life and the world as a swirl, even though that’s true. Better say, more soberly, that it presents a landscape that you want to map internally and externally, a landscape which is inseparable from cosmic ceremony and risk. You get a sense of everything being in it because the whole truth is that everything is related to everything else.
Not surprisingly, the book has disappeared from view. Too difficult, too dark, too mysterious, I suspect, for the dying aspects of a reductive white culture. Considering the horrors that are implicit in the text, I am also inclined to say that Revolution by Night almost sets itself up to be suppressed as well as repressed – too arcane to be re-published and too close to the liquid night of identity.
To say this much is, I realise, to bait lesser books. But for space reasons – and my own life’s reasons – I must leave it there for now. But I want to hold to the proposition that Revolution By Night is the most brilliant single book of the Centre’s daylight-dream-nightmare. We might hold it to our chests, as the White Gate mob do Rod’s books, as we might indeed with another new book, which has the redemptive clarity to be simply called Trouble.
The subtitle of Trouble is On Trial in Central Australia, and its cover is a Mike Gillam photograph of shards of broken glass on earth the colour of dried blood. The image made an instinctive impression on me because inwardly grog can suddenly smash day into night like a broken bottle.
Trouble’s achievement is to dispassionately present the horrors of what can be revealed in a criminal court. Its author Kieran Finnane, who is a founding journalist on the Alice Springs News, established by her husband, editor Erwin Chlanda, has confronted the details of the violent crimes drunken Aboriginal men commit against their kin – their wives, brothers and cousins, loved ones in general. The accused sometimes remember their deeds, more or less. They can speak about them to lawyers and the bench, up to a very limited point. They seem to be ashamed, some of them. Solemnly in the court they appear before their families, witnesses, the general public, and journalists such as Kieran – anyone who might bear witness to their confessions. It’s startling that their defence lawyers seldom plead innocence for their clients for it seems to be a given at these hearings that the social crisis in Alice Springs has dimensions to it that are culturally degenerate in epic and tragic ways. The day- night drinking parties in the scrub outside town can become feral gatherings of wild men and women who drink such quantities of grog that the lawyers can barely believe what they are told. Of course, the legal fraternity are no strangers to drink, any more than the white population of the Territory, which has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the country, about one and a half times the national figure. But the issue to hand is black drinkers, their gatherings, the black party, which can’t seem to stop itself, any more than its revellers can remember the what or the when of events afterwards. It might have been a real party, at one stage, with everybody having a good time. But not for long. ‘Jealousing’, as it is called, ends with heads bashed in and fatally haemorrhaging. Damaged ones are shoved into broken down cars, one after another, and die before help can be reached. No one notices a dead body in the back of a car, or no one is moved to intervene as a man dies at the hands of a pack.
A test for the reader of Trouble is to be able to stomach such details without recoiling as Joseph Conrad meant us to do at ‘the horror, the horror’, which are the last words of his Heart of Darkness. It is then we can only summon the pity and the sorrow at the depth of the tragedy – that this is the reality among people who are not mad or bad in the ways we normally want of those terms. The guilty are not pathological, that is; they are not beyond the pale of the justice system, which is why their cases are being recounted in a book such as this. They are subjected to the justice system, which is what Trouble, so in tune with the transcript of the trials, seeks to show. They are subjected, and simultaneously treated, with the dignity of citizens whose conduct demands the application of the law, a law in some ways analogous to the Customary Law of their lives before the arrival of white culture and its grog, but which has in recent years been set aside by the courts, only to be employed in some sentencing. Trouble is alive to such post-colonial contradictions.
The actual crime scenes attract a compound of criteria we might bring to bear to pass judgment, legal and otherwise. I push them up against each other because as lived experience they are so: the two Laws interpenetrate, as indeed they can be seen to be in the eyes of the court, which is so often con- founded by what the accused, or the guilty, seem to so lack in understanding themselves. But – and here is the important thing – Kieran does not muddle them. She has spent weeks, months, sitting in court, and recounts the mate- rial at her fingertips in a way that is classically composed, judicious, impartial, lucid. Trouble is reporting in the liberal, Western mode at its best. It seeks to be compassionate, full of right love, you might say, but the love is conducted without falling into sentimentality, on the one hand, or into defensive historical polemic, on the other.
Trouble works case by case, individual by individual as they encounter the system of justice. With one exception they are cases where the accused is Aboriginal. The exception is Kwementyaye Ryder’s case, the Aboriginal man who died at the hands of five young white men who came out of the casino drunk in the early hours of the morning. Everyone in town knew those boys, including Kieran’s son, Rainer, who had grown up with one of them; when the morning news came in I saw a fine young man in a state of shock at the breakfast table. The deceased was also much loved, and you can read about him when he was alive and well in Rod’s book. Some cases are closer to the bone than others.
All along Kieran puts us in touch with concrete particulars; her text is painstakingly responsible to the facts. But not coldly so, as if to keep things at a distance. In court, she is attuned to the Aboriginal families she has come to know as a long time resident of Alice Springs. She registers their anguish, signs of emotional movement in the court, their utterances outside the court, when a judgment has seemed racist. Overall, she can take issue with such claims, having followed the judicious reasonings of the Bench.
What comes through is the laborious nature of ‘rationality’, our culture’s Reason, as it manifests itself in the practice of the law. A lesser journalist would have slighted some of the asinine, legal goings-on. She would have taken issue with findings that seemed blind to what the southern press were declaring ‘racist’. She is not in sympathy with generalising accusations of racism, least of all when court business is used to cast a slur on Alice as a racist town. Of course, on that front, there are on-going events that can nourish such claims. But her feeling is that such generalisation misrepresents the town she knows and cares for. At the start of her book she writes, referring to me: ‘A friend of mine says that the town is so racist that when it’s not, it has to be remarked upon. Many agree with him. But….’ And she goes on with her account of some recent acknowledgments of local traditions, its sacred sites, sacred rocks and water places and trees and so on. In fact, many trees are among the more than 600 sacred sites mapped in the town. Such care can be botched by mishaps and ignorance, but the care is still there in official and unofficial circles, just as a host of good things happen in Alice, from all sorts of relationships, including creating families together, through to the countless sporting events to the many exhibitions of paintings by blacks and whites, many of whom Kieran has written about for her paper, creating a body of criticism as fine as her court reporting.
I would sometimes say to her, as the manuscript progressed, what keeps you there? How do you inwardly contend with the horror? What’s the pull of the material? For the horrors she had brought me to face, perversely wanted me to say that grog can bring knowledge and delight as well as disaster: so that while drunken parties can degrade human affairs, their freedom and wildness, their departures from order and safe-keeping, might nonetheless embody some worthwhile truths of experience, especially the truths of suffering, whatever they might be. Almost to my horror I have sometimes found myself wondering about those drinking parties out bush, rather as if they are films I might be in. Trouble does not indulge in any such flights of a troubled, romantic imagination. Kieran is in her right mind when she is overridingly conscious of the plight of Aboriginal women in Central Australia. Women are by far the most common victims of Aboriginal violence, most of which is associated with grog. Leave aside the flesh and blood details: the statistics are horrific, and well known. Furthermore, the heavy drinking communities have often brought themselves into some kind of line only when the women there have taken charge. Kieran drinks little, is well-educated, has studied in Paris, can read Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes-Tropiques in French. Sad as she is about the cultural impasse that leads a small minority of Centralian Aboriginal people into the courts, she has not been drawn to enter or speculate about their world, or let its turmoils stir her own imagination.
Elsewhere she has noted, however, the risks of being ‘hysterical’ about it all: it was an Aboriginal political figure who said that in a public forum, which is a nice reminder of the very traditional states of panic and fearfulness which belong to the Territory’s colonial history. And once you admit that to the mind, you realise there has been a whole lot of complicated howling going on for a long time. What I have been saying here and what she has written have to be viewed as part of the same sound system, ultimately a product of our compound states of anxiety, ambivalence, affection and arousal when familiarities are tested.
‘These stories,’ Kieran writes in Trouble, ‘had their own life, their own terrible attraction …’ In addition: as little as they might be understood and ‘struggled with blindly’; and even though the difference between her life and theirs is too great for her ‘empathy to be simply applied’, she sat it out in her ‘box-seat’ in the court. To do anything else would have been to fail her larger sense of responsibility to the town and the region’s reality.
Trouble is a book of great poise, elegant out of professionalism and intellectual honesty. The reporting itself does not seek to make ‘sense’ of the horrors so much as table its components. It does not enter as, say, anthropologists are trained to do, the incommensurables of the Other. Rather, Trouble creates a refined space for others to make their ethnographic entry. She does not over-reach into conjecture about alcoholism – how it is, for instance, that the wild ones seem to be acting out of a desperate bid for love from those they damage the most. This basic truth was laid out in some detail by two Australian anthropologists in the early eighties. These scholars were in turn alive to the earlier work of Gregory Bateson, who gave us the double-bind theory of human action, the object lesson in how we trap ourselves into dangerously futile rounds of behaviour, turning in circles like grievous dogs, no less, a fact that Rose latched onto when she was talking about humans and dingoes and grog. Rose’s dingo book sits well with Trouble, and Trouble is a book that spotlights the feral which has come as far as the court.
This drinking town, its level of suffering, overt and covert, makes us find our place, and we can only do that with varying degrees of comfort, unless we are ourselves hiding away.
Everything here takes place in the ancient totemic landscape, which can be a source of reassuring authority to Aboriginal people, as well as a harbinger of danger if the knowledge pertaining to it is flouted. The country is energising and transporting, a unifying force for life; and it can be the source of mishap, damage, ruin: it has the double edge of grog, you might say.
The living topography of the town includes the generative tales of two sisters, the travelling uninitiated boys, of euros, kangaroos, caterpillars and wild dogs.
The dog story is most evident up on the range, where there are signs of the extended battle between a local dog and an interloper. They fought over a female, as the Dreaming guide to the town will tell you. There was a rape, but the narrative details of this event are still in the realm of the secret-sacred. Her cave is up on the range at the green patch called Alkwerrperetakeme. There are also outcrops formed by the intestines of the outsider, which the local dog wounded. The climax of the battle is marked by a hill just inside Heavitree Gap, where the intruder metamorphosed. But it is a profile of the range itself – the spot called Mt Gillen – which marks the dog most clearly. You can make out a jutting canine protrusion of Rose head, especially with the sun going down behind it. Then, up there in the dark, you can feel the dog among the stars.
The most dramatic image of the dog can be found in a little book by Craig San Roque: it is the last drawing in the harrowing Long Weekend in Alice Springs, a graphic work in the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Ari Folman’s film Waltz with Bashir. In Long Weekend Joshua Santospirito has drawn from a text written by Craig in 2004 for his therapeutic colleagues. The upshot is a narrative as instructive and as hurtful as the books out of the European Holocaust and the Middle East. Difference is, the Australian book is a slow burn, a droll melancholic seering as the narrator – Craig the Jungian therapist – draws us into the longueurs of Australian Gothic which are as much about us as about them.
It starts with the figure of the therapist in his study. He has his doors open to the night and is looking out at a figure in his back yard (which is a short walk away from Rose place). It is a woman huddled near a small fire. She is one of many who come and go from the yard, with Rose permission. Over the years in Alice Springs he has cultivated such a sit-down place, where people can, providing they are not troublesome drinkers, meet and talk and sleep. A safe place.
The woman is Manka Maru, a widow of a ‘good man who won an award and died of heart failure and alcoholism’. She has not spoken about her hus- band, she is enveloped by silence, and sometimes she takes out the photos she has in her plastic handbag. In the firelight she fondles the images of her husband and slips them back into her bag …
In this way we are inducted into the depth of Craig’s broodings about ‘the loss of integrity in indigenous culture life’; the nature of peoples’ ‘peculiar kind of depression’; ‘the web of memory-systems developing too many gaps …’
A mournful, beautiful delicacy is deftly established in Long Weekend. We see one sad figure gently holding a white dog. We come to the wretched figure of a petrol sniffer – wildly violent at first, then taken off in an ambulance, then again with his face in a can, his face blacked out because ‘he has lost the abil- ity to integrate his experience. Finally he is dead – ‘found on a cold morning, sitting up in the driver’s seat of an abandoned vehicle. For many the death of this man is a relief.’
And there, in another story, in the back seat of a car, is the body of a dog wrapped in a blanket. It’s been there for three days. Instantly, we can smell the death of a dog. The drawing of it is ample and simple, an emphatic dead weight. But over the next few pages the dog is shown to have been listening to the man’s demise. ‘The animal, who is almost human, and is quietly dead in the back seat. It has lost its own sense of time … or time stands still as it remembers … ‘Sumeria’! Of all things, of all places! But yes …’
No need to go on anymore. Suffice to say that Craig, like any well-trained Jungian, knows the Ur mythologies all too well. He eats of them and dances with them. I would say that they are his Dreamings, except that when it comes to his presentation of self in the company of Aboriginal matters, the myths he reaches for are to be found in the classic texts of the ancient world. Archaic crimes are employed as universals that might engage the imagination across cultures, both as conceptual structures and layers of atavistic feeling. And so in Long Weekend one track leads us to the legendary Sumerian hero, King Gilgamesh and his part-animal companion Enkidu, a suggestive trope as the Iraq/Syria war raged in its reality.
Far fetched? Well, it’s a leap on Craig’s part, no doubt about that. Craig a fecund, adventurous writer. There are dog stories in myths all over the world in many cultures and more recently, outside the frame of his graphic tale, which lands us in Iraq/Iran, Craig has been employing ancient Greek myths, staging them up on the MacDonnell Range just outside Alice Springs, putting Homeric tales and hymns to use with performances such as Persephone’s Dog, an adaptation, admittedly, as the dog in his version of the story is entirely benign, an instructive and protective travelling companion of Persephone who will end up happily married in Hades – an ambiguous tale played out on the range behind the one where Alice’s rapacious dog looks down on all.
So our deep and real backdrop – dragging ‘real’ into the hard light of our days as well as theirs – can be seen in the tragic crimes that were dramatised by the likes of Aeschylus in the Oresteia, a generational family tale of matricide, parricide, revenge and vengeance, where parents are duped into eating their children, brothers kill brothers, and daughters are sacrificed to war … There is no end to death because the Furies, the ancient goddesses of revenge, are at large. They are only to be glimpsed, these destructive forces; they live beneath the earth, but you can hear them moan and whine, they sometimes bark like dogs, and their breath is foul, smelling of half-digested blood, and their own vomit, where they have eaten their prey for a second time. Upon this earth crimes continued without prospect of justice until Athena came into play – with the law, its courts, its deliberations that do not banish the Furies, but keep them at bay beneath the earth where they are transformed into the Kindly Ones, women rather than beasts.
It’s important to add here that Craig is supra-conscious of his own psychic mix, or hybridity, you might say, the extent to which he is as mongrel as most Australians, inter-racially speaking. That is to say he has come to be at home with the experiences of displacement and dispossession. More precisely, while born in Australia his mind and emotional character was honed by psychotherapeutic training in London: he is the product of extreme Eurocentric innerness. After fourteen years of facing himself in these terms of self, he returned to his home place of Sydney, only to find himself practicing in Central Australia among our First People. More particularly, as he turned to work with them, he was once more made aware that his uncle Barrie Dexter was once Director of Aboriginal Affairs in the Holt-Gorton Government, and his father-in-law, W.C. Wentworth, was Dexter’s Minister. Craig feels this as a kind of psychic ancestry, making him complicit in the genesis of the traumas he has had to deal with. For as much as those white men in office cared for the welfare of Aboriginal people, they were among the architects of the ongoing tragedy in Central Australia.
(A proper complicated dog story that one).
Craig’s other writing – the conventional papers for conferences, his contributions to professional journals or to colleagues in the front-line of the health services – are worthy of scrutiny because of the weight they give to ignorance. Our collective ignorance of each other’s instinctive hurts and vicissitudes, members of a common humanity though we are, and equals in the eyes of the Law (as that story goes). Indeed he has gone so far as to suggest that what we now need on these tragic grounds of cultural encounter, where the ‘discipline of altruism’ is contending with such riddled state on ‘both sides, is ‘an ethnography of failure’ by which we might ‘diagnose our joint condition’. He proposes this as a strategy for hope.
The image that arises out of one of Craig’s most seductive papers is seminal.
It is of two men, one from each culture, sitting on the ground with each other. They meet because of their mutual interests as men of healing. Each knows something of the suffering in the country, the sickness and madness and addictions. How might their thoughts connect? Only time and trust can tell … Meanwhile, they are just two forms of consciousness in the same space. Side by side, each knowing the laws and myths that nourish the law. There is no rush to speak, to get anything done. There is time. The meet- ing runs on into other meetings. Patience comes naturally, out of tact and wisdom … There is more listening than talking. Mutually so. Within the limits of that knowledge/ignorance there is wry knowledge of each of the other. Friendship finds its shape. Talking takes place, along with drawing, sharing of dreams, ideas of painting …
From this grandly human and humane picture, Craig enables the reader to feel that there is common ground because we are sitting together on the same ground.
The general point is that it betokens the crisis in Central Australia for one side to be listening equally to the other. A few years ago Craig suggested an idea for a painting Rod might do. The result was Rod’s Interpretation of Dreams, which shows the great doctor Freud prone on his own couch talking to the Aboriginal elder who sits behind him with the notebook. Nice joke. Who is to say, the painting asks, whose knowledge is most worth writing down or knowing about? The black man looks gleefully receptive. Freud is less so. I found myself looking at his jaw and wondering about its state of decay from the painful cancer that was to be the end of him. He knew his death must be close when his dog refused to come near him, such was the smell of his rotting mouth.
Craig’s essays are long-form prose designed to have us travelling towards the other culture as honestly as we are able. They establish a unique atmosphere of communing cross-cultural consciousness which we might perhaps enter. Or broach, as courageously as we dare. They are beautifully done, as you might expect of a novelist, or, say, an intrepid dreamer-reporter like Nicolas Rothwell, who told me once, when he had read the proof pages of Broken Song: ‘It’s all here, it’s all here.’ He meant: All that we dream and think and feel, the great poem of our being on this earth, can be found/glimpsed/experienced if we are open to all that Central Australia offers and has long had. He was making the appeal to the raw and the cooked imagination of which Craig’s Jungian practice is constituted, and which Craig seeks to put to use, not in order to make art, although he can write most artfully, but the better to help people who are in trouble with their consciousness. His premise seems to be that most of us need all the help we can get, especially when we are dealing intimately with the lives of others.
I leave a space here.
It is for the reader to imagine their own troubles of mind.
This before they try to imagine the troubles possessed by others.
‘Trouble is’, a senior Warlpiri man, the late Andrew Spencer Japaljarri, said to Craig one day when they were sitting on the ground at Yuendumu, ‘We have no Dreaming for grog.’ There was a dreaming for the nectar that came from the sweet sap of the corkwood tree, and other sweet flora. But there was no Dreaming for the sugar/alcohol the white healers of addiction were on about? ‘And you’, Andrew went on, ‘the white people, have lost your Dreaming. Do you have a Dreaming for sugar?’
Craig withdrew to think about this. His response to Japaljarri’s remark was to return to the Greek myths; namely, all that had been thought and said about the god of the grape, Dionysus. Much of the destructive aspect of this story is told in The Bacchae, the play by Euripides.
Furthermore, Craig realised, whatever a project’s good intentions for the treatment for Aboriginal people, it was as much about settler Australians of European descent: ‘Dionysus’s tale is a revelation of the geological strata of our ambivalent national character – both the drunken and predatory ruthlessness, and also the compassionately restorative nature of the people of Europe.
After some years Craig’s Sugar Man became a reality. In 1995 it was performed by a troupe of people mustered from Yuendumu, Hermannsburg and Alice Springs, black and white. The blacks included people from that eternally resurrected congregation, the Hermannsburg choir, and the whites included what some locals called the ‘ferals’ who lived in the bush – mainly young women. They played the Maenads in the Dionysian revels.
As theatre, Sugar Man was I believe something of a success. Of course it was an audacity on the part of the white therapist – not destined to please the safer thinkers in town. Yet it was collaborative, an act of cross-cultural transmission and trust. And the intellectual and imaginative work Craig had put into Sugar Man was instructive: in his Tjukurrpa paper he had in effect revisited Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, that definitive essay on the life-affirming tensions between Apollo, the god of order and beauty, and Dionysus, the agent of intoxication, disorder and sexual transgression. This was new dark writing in several senses of that term – it enacted the primal sources of ruin, and while doing so affirmed subterranean impulses, embracing the risks of a loose consciousness, the kind of risks I was alluding to when I referred to troubled Romanticism. Better say, in this context, my wish to go beyond the Protestant or Jewish ‘consciousness prone to repress or to misunderstand the Dionysiac side of life’. It pointed beyond language. It was meant to activate the ethical constraints on human desire, just as it celebrated the vital forces of the daemonic. It made a universal claim to everyone’s attention – us and them as lovers of all that the Centre might hold.
It did not however, finally, offer itself as a healing myth for the addicted and the damaged. Craig heard that the Aboriginal audience were most impressed by what they had seen, not because the Sugar Man answered to their needs for a Dreaming story about grog. No. They were impressed with Sugar Man because of what it revealed to them about white men and women’s range of feeling. They had not credited us with such a gamut of feeling, or indeed, it seemed, with much feeling at all!
After a while I believe that words devoted to all these matters start to run into the sand. They seem to suffer a drought of thought because the rains won’t come into our lives …
Most recently Craig has been sharpening his focus on the later dramas of the Oresteia. He has been prompted in part by Trouble, a text that compelled him to re-focus on the crimes and traumas as they encounter the law … that we might better know our own deep structure of feeling, perhaps, the better to bring justice into play, and to live in the presence of the Kindly Ones …
Rod is still painting, incessantly. How else to survive in Alice, if not by creative work to help keep a self together? Not painting according to any program, but he seems to create in pendulum swings between images of swooning hope – children, black and white, holding stones that could be eggs, which he called ‘Notes Towards a New Poetics’, and images of heart-breaking thwartedness. A recent work shows a black man, his trousers slipping, trying to push a very big rock uphill – towards Heavitree Gap, actually. It’s just him and the boulder, no dog in sight: ‘Sisyphus’…
Kieran is back at the coal-face of the Alice Springs News. She is paying her clear respects to events, while musing on words for the art that sees the light of day in Alice Springs …
I might have made some progress on the word front. The last time I tried I fell toxically ill, I failed to deliver the essay I’d been commissioned to write. It felt like I’d gone under to the grievous, tragic field – like Levi- Strauss, like T.G.H. Strehlow, like Geoffrey Bardon, like Peter Sutton in their times and places. I ended up feeling like Craig when he wrote: ‘I confess that I have been almost overtaken by the fluency of the grief, almost dismantled by the careless actions of European folly and the mindlessness of drunken- ness. I wish that we could meet in a thoughtful water hole, like that in the Tjukurrpa, that would bind us together and lift us out of this pit’.
Now there is that dead dog wrapped in the blanket, the one found in the back of the car. I can’t get it out of my mind. Without quite knowing what to think about the dog. It’s a weight in my consciousness, needing to be carried around.
Look at me now
I say to the loved one.
Coming towards you
I carry myself in my arms.
O praise me
as I praise you.
This is an extract from Barry Hill’s Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, Encounters, Reviews 1980–2017, published by Monash University Press. Details here.