Essay: David Carlinon the impasse

Lyrebirds in the Impasse

Not too long ago, I spent a week at Varuna Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, working on a book. One of the many treats Varuna offers writers is access to the nearby bushland. Before dinner one night, I took myself off for a long walk down into the forest near the house. The land in the Blue Mountains drops away from a huge plateau into deep dramatic valleys. Hundred-year-old paths with steps and railings descend into the depths. I couldn’t help feeling, as I followed one, that I was entering quite suddenly another realm of being, a quieter, older place or else the inside of a cut-open brain. A few steps beyond the redbrick cottage kiosk, the bitumen of the tourist road, the cricket field, the picnic tables, the new curved metal safety railings that sweep around the corner, I was into a shady netherworld, trickling here or there with water, like me, drawn irresistibly down, wanting to fall but be caught, splinter but reassemble in pools of glass, faraway, where the land bottoms out.

A lyrebird surprised me. He was almost within reach, on a raised ledge to one side of the path. I stopped to watch him. He had no interest in me, or fear. Humans who walk these paths must pose no threat to lyrebirds, or so it seemed to believe. He was busy scratching at the soft thick bed of forest leaves, digging beneath for the sweet and succulent worms to be found there, stooping his head every now and then to gobble one. His long tail feathers swung in the darkening air behind him.

The lyrebird went about his victuals with an observable grace and dignity. He was both sovereign and subject. He knew things I would never know. He lived a life I could not imagine. But it was as if, just by his presence, he was holding me to account. For how many centuries, or thousands of years, have the ancestors of that lyrebird enjoyed this valley as their domain, as a place to stroll along the ridges to scratch at the leaves for lunch and dinner, a place to dance, mate, shake their tail feathers; generally, for better or worse, to live the life a lyrebird gets to live? In how many short years of scudding clouds met by an increasingly impatient sun will this valley no longer accommodate lyrebirds, because of some subtle amendment of the food chain or unsubtle black earth annihilation: a fire storm racing up from below as if from a fissure in the Earth’s crust? Incineration, plague, starvation — ?

Carlin Lyrebirds 1
Photo: David Carlin

Thus, the impasse. The impasse is a dead end, a cul de sac: a space to induce anxiety, even panic. The book I was writing had reached a kind of impasse. There is nothing uncommon or special about this, it happens to writers all the time; but my body didn’t understand that. Shortly afterwards my body failed me, and I was stopped in my tracks by the (misplaced) fear of life-threatening illness.  At that point, forced to stop, admit weakness, confront failure, adjust to loss – to squirm within the impasse – I started to feel vertiginous shifts in perspective. My attachment to ordinary life, my job, my family, suddenly felt very fragile. Whatever had been solid, defining and sure became liquid.

I am an academic. We sometimes have the privilege to say:

My job is to think but there’s no time to think.

My job is to read but there’s no time to read.

My job is to write but there’s no time to write.

Depression is perhaps the quintessential engine for feeling stuck, unable to move – in other words, in an impasse. In her 2012 book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich seeks to move discussion of depression away from the conventional focus on individual psychology and medicalised, pharmaceutical interventions, towards an understanding of it as a public feeling. By this she wants to suggest that depression flows among and through individuals not simply because they – we – stray from the baseline of happy normality, but because of the cruelty, violence and associated stupidity of the way normality itself comes to be defined. For her, the personal is the public, and vice versa. As an academic, the thick substance of her own depression is threaded with the pressures of academic success and career-progression. As a scholar, she responds by writing and by thinking, using her usual critical tools. But in facing her own impasse, she finds herself writing chunks of memoir alongside the critical essay form with which she is more accustomed. As she says, ‘I turned to memoir in order to track what it’s like to move through the day’. In order to move again.

The next morning I tacked across the streets, sideways, as it were, towards the neighbouring village of Leura. A shrub like a giant toffee apple beamed burnt orange in the first light of the sun through the trees. Sulphur-crested cockatoos sailed in the air, wings translucent. If not for their screeching, they might have been angels. This was the better part of town. Long quiet avenues, lawns walled with hedges of chopped camellias, their squareness studded with pink and white flowers like a prize fruitcake at the Katoomba Show. I stumbled upon the road I was looking for, the one that hemmed the tidiness of the town above the fraying cliffs. I jogged past a house, its roof covered in solar panels, and I resolved not for the first time to go home and cover our own roof with solar panels. Before I knew it, I had come upon a view of almost unimaginable beauty. The land in front of me was doing its dropping-away-to-nothing thing. The valley below was occupied with clouds, a flat blanket of them half touched by the sun. Across the other side floated a promontory nested with windows and patios. An older man was disappearing down a path in front of me, down towards the mist. It was all I could do to stop myself from following him. I wanted to be down there in those clouds but I knew that they would burn off as the sun grew higher and I would be inconsolably sad because every mist is temporary. Coming from Western Australia, a place of flat blue skies, I am drawn to landscapes that are both vertical and indistinct. Forests, glades: exotic, storied places.

Meanwhile, at Echo Point the new promenade curved and bulged like a bicep proudly flexed above the endlessly recyclable vista. From this point in 1954, Queen Elizabeth looked upon the Jamison Valley, said a plaque buried in the concrete. The young queen looked upon it. To have a view so outrageously scenic that even the Queen of England was compelled to look upon it was clearly a matter of civic pride. What is to be done with views like this? I felt the lack of a camera in my pocket. To not be photographing felt like to risk none of this existing. And if I say that the valleys stretching away to the horizon were wreathed in mist, the language feels as paltry and manufactured as the postcards lined up eagerly at the windows of the visitors centre. The place called upon me to stop.

Not only were the clouds, in the valley below, blue and sometimes golden where the sun already struck them, as I’d sometimes seen, from aeroplanes, clouds lit, another bank of mist was forming a kind of soft casing above the ridgeline of the plateau to the west. That was a whole other type of mist. Some of it was tumbling in slow motion like a waterfall over the edge of the plateau and down into the valley. I wanted the waterfall to grow stronger and stronger and I wanted the mist rolling off the top of the plateau to flow all the way down the green slopes of the forest and merge with the rest of the mist. In fact I wanted very much for the valley to fill with mist like a bubble bath! But the mist was fighting a losing battle against the warm rays of the rising sun, and I knew I would have to turn my back and flee because I didn’t want to be there looking when all the mist had gone. The workday had started, for some at least, and a roadside beautification team prowled the wide footpaths with a two-stroke leaf blower, a whippersnipper and a wide mouthed mulcher on a trailer, making petrol noises.

Carlin Lyrebirds 3
Photo: David Carlin

What if the impasse is something useful? What if there was a theory about impasses? What if an impasse could be defined along the following lines, as Lauren Berlant has done: Impasse: ‘a formal term for encountering the duration of the present, and a specific term for tracking the circulation of precariousness through diverse locales and bodies.’ Got that? (I added the italics.) Berlant continues: ‘The concept of the present as impasse opens up different ways that the interruption of norms of the reproduction of life can be adapted to, felt out and lived. The impasse is a space of time lived without a narrative genre.’ A space of time lived without a narrative genre. A writer-friend said to me about the book I was stuck on: it feels as if you are spinning the wheels. The story wasn’t going anywhere. But looked at like this, an impasse, perversely, can be viewed as an opening of creative potential. It is a blockage in the ongoing, breathless flow of life in which we are otherwise consumed and consuming. It is a forced interruption to normal life within which, otherwise, we occupy ourselves by attaching to objects that won’t in the end lead to the emotional satisfaction we seek. (Objects, Berlant says, like: ‘…a scouring love, obsessive appetites, working for a living, patriotism…’ – she calls this process of attachment ‘cruel optimism’.)

In the impasse we encounter the duration of the present. We track what it is like to move through the day.

I was running late this morning, literally. I woke up fizzy, full of ideas in the middle of the night. I read Paul Theroux who was on a train trip to a leper colony in Malawi. His language calmed me down enough to doze off. By the time I woke the sun had beaten me. I scrambled off in the same direction as yesterday, with a vague idea that I would like to step into that mist. The streets had people walking dogs and backing cars out of driveways and knocking on doors like they were extras in The Truman Show. I found the place on Cliff Drive where I had determined in advance to turn left instead of right, but after that, for a long time, things became confusing. I wanted to take a path down the Leura side of the Peninsula, a little way down into the forest. The sun was too high; today’s mist had receded already into the valleys as if somewhere around the corner a plug had been let out. The paths either didn’t have signs or had signs to places I didn’t know the whereabouts of so I didn’t know if they were places I wanted to be going. I wanted to go down but not too far down. It would take too long. I didn’t have time. I needed to get back at a reasonable hour to start work.

I sank into the shade of the valley. At first the path was drier than my local path, down by Witches Leap and Ferber Steps. It was more like normal, not so special Australian bush. But soon enough, zigzagging down, the sound of water grew louder, water dripping and falling onto rocks and rushing out under dark overhangs. I began to feel that I was going to run or at least clamber quickly right down to the valley floor in the place called Leura Forest, from where I knew there was a path that skated the bottom of the cliffs all the way around to where the so-called Giant Steps led back to the surface at tourist central, Echo Point.

I weighed up the pros and cons of this slightly extravagant idea. A sign said that such a trip would take two and a half hours but I knew that I could hurry. I was already feeling thirsty, with all of this running water to torment me. I was in a quasi-pristine rainforest but I knew quite well that all of this jungly aquatic exuberance had travelled, just like me, and probably this very morning too, from the none too pristine streets above. Could I make it all the way to Echo Point without a drink? Surely, on a cool morning like this in autumn, that wasn’t stretching things too far? Perhaps I could have a little sip from one of the choice range of delectably sweet looking water features presenting themselves on all sides? The grand Cascades, where a monumental head of rock was showering, naked; or here, a lacy wall of fern-dripped modesty; or here, a long looping white fire hose gushing down a cleft; or here, a balanced set of gracious falls and pools such as you might see crafted at Versailles. Just as I was crossing a particularly natural and attractive creek, on a sturdy metal bridge, and thinking that the risk of gastroenteritis later in the day was, perhaps, after all, quite negligible, and that, having washed down the hill this far, whatever toxins there were might have had the chance to leach away, and I could see myself cupping a hand into the stream and, oh my God, finally! drinking, I spotted a small white coloured pool in an eddy between rocks. I looked closer, hoping for a moment that it might be a wedge of melting ice. Was that too far from possible? But no, it was a little conglomerate of scum, come to warn me off drinking.

By this time the thought of retreating, of retracing my already arduous route, was too bleak and desolate to contemplate. I hate retracing steps. I like loops and circuits. Doesn’t everyone? I resigned myself to short-term thirst and medium-term anxiety about how long the whole enterprise was going to take, knowing that in the long term I would never regret having persevered into the Leura Forest and up the Giant Steps.

That was about the time the lyrebird appeared. There was no way, realistically, it could be the same lyrebird as before, on this other side of the mountain. No matter. There he was, scratching by the path for breakfast, his long claws like rakes stroking at the leaves. He had struck a rich vein of worms, evidently, in a space between two rocks. I waited only a few metres away while he alternately scratched, sank his head and gobbled. About him flitted a blither of small round birds like bouncing punctuation. I don’t know what to call them except small round birds. They were the lyrebird’s familiars. After he had scratched open a seam of wet mulch, eaten what he could find and stepped ahead, these little birds would hop into the opportunities unearthed in his wake. It was as if the lyrebird was a giant industrial scale excavator and these birds were gypsies, gleaners operating in the margins. I waited for the lyrebird to walk away or walk closer or take some sort of decisive action — I amused myself by wondering if he might approach me and rub himself against my calves like a domestic pussycat. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Eventually I concluded that I was going to have to leave the scene first, since my own breakfast was waiting at the house, and my day of writing too. The lyrebird was seriously ignoring me. I took a few steps, and came close enough to be able to admire his sleek plump body and bunched-up fan of quills. The feathers on his breast and back gleamed olive with good health. I took my leave and as I walked away found myself thinking: the lyrebird has finished teaching me. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

Only a few steps on around a corner, I once again heard that unmistakable scratching sound. Another lyrebird! And what’s that on the other side of the path? Another one! And over there, another! Three of them, almost surrounding me. The two on the downward side of the path were on the edge of what looked like a small volcano made among the leaves, digging in unison as if part of a stately pageant or some kind of surreal ritual. This was too much. This was lyrebird performance art. I was in a gallery in a forest, an installation conceived and choreographed by lyrebirds. Things were pretty advanced, on this side of the mountain! The other lyrebirds needed to step things up.

I hurried on towards the Giant Steps, visualising a bubbler at Echo Point, and thinking I almost couldn’t bear to come across any further lyrebirds. Luckily all I saw was one or two bright red and green parrots skimming above the historic tree ferns, looking, more than anything, CGIed.

Carlin Lyrebirds 3
Photo: David Carlin

Maggie Nelson speaks not of a division between memoir and critical essay but instead of ‘auto criticism’, or, as she quotes from Wayne Koestenbaum: a ‘philosophically inclined subset of body-smeared literature.’ The place from which she writes is where we all write from, whether we think of it like that or not: the ‘body in time’. The hand that holds the pen or strikes the keys is warm. There is urgency to the writing borne of the knowledge that time is limited for each and every living body.

Turn sideways in the impasse. Learn from what has been called by Judith Halberstam ‘the queer art of failure’. Here, we might tentatively embrace the word ‘creativity’, shaking it clear of its usual baggage. Cvetkovich writes: ‘creativity can be thought of as a form of movement, movement that maneuvers the mind inside or around an impasse, even if that movement sometimes seems backward or like a form of retreat’. Here, too, we might discover, in the words of American anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, ‘ways of attending to the charged atmospheres of everyday life. How they accrue, endure, fade or snap. How they build as a refrain, literally scoring over the labor of living out whatever’s happening. How they constitute a compositional present, pushing circulating forces into form, texture and density so that they can be felt, imagined, brought to bear or just born.’

The lyrebirds and I encountered each other by accident. They imposed themselves through their poise and quiet beauty but as far as symbolic valence goes they were off-duty. They neither sang virtuosically nor danced. Lyrebirds are famous for their expert mimicry of other birds. Those that grow up captive to humans have been observed to mimic human noises such as power drills and saws. In Northern New South Wales a web of stories has grown around a lyrebird, which may or may not have been kept for some time as a pet by a local family, where it learnt to copy the music of a human flautist. This lyrebird passed on the distinctive flute-like melodies and tones it had learnt to generations of lyrebirds in the district. Or maybe people heard the lyrebirds’ uncanny flute-like music then put together the stories they felt were needed to explain it. In any case this wasn’t what happened between the lyrebirds and me that week at Varuna. The lyrebirds and I composed our scenes together, those moments we stopped each other in our tracks, and whatever we were repeating, were also changing, turning sideways.

Late afternoon. Sunlit clouds brought a brief gust of raindrops, like a foreshadowing. The clouds were coming in. A dramatic winter storm was forecast to last days, which sounded good: there might be snow. I went out and harvested some kindling for the evening fire, making provision.

A few snowflakes blew past in the air, about as many as you could count on both hands. They could have been insects. It was as if the sky wanted to snow but had forgotten how, or perhaps snow was now severely rationed. The sun was out as well; everything was meteorologically confused. I had given up on wanting or expecting snow. These insect flurries were like a consolation being offered in recognition of my having achieved a higher plane of acceptance.

Small things. Collecting flowers at the edge of a void. Doors opening and closing in the distance. The sound of an aircraft, like a lawnmower in the sky. The house, creaking. Unseen birds carouse.

Works Cited

Lauren Berlant,  Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press,  2010.

Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling, Duke University Press, 2012.

Sasha Frere-Jones, ‘Sasha Frere-Jones and Maggie Nelson discuss writing and form’, Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2016.

Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Duke University Press,  2011.

Vicki Powys, Hollis Taylor and Carol Probets, ‘A Little Flute Music: Mimicry, Memory, and Narrativity’, Environmental Humanities, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2013, pp. 43-70.

Kathleen Stewart, ‘Atmospheric Attunements’, Rubric Issue 1, 2010.