Desire desires desire.
Mark C. Taylor
‘… life is an inherently disappointing experience for most human beings.’
Amanda Lohrey’s new novel, A Short History of Richard Kline, has been a long time in the making. Readers were first introduced to Richard and his wife Zoe back in 2001, in Lohrey’s lecture-turned-essay ‘The Project of the Self under Late Capitalism’. They reappeared in ‘Ground Zero’, part of Lohrey’s wonderful collection Reading Madame Bovary (2010). Now she offers Richard Kline a much broader canvas and an extended timeline to explain ‘a strange event that intervened in [his] life at the age of forty-two’. Like so much of Lohrey’s work, A Short History of Richard Kline focuses on the lives of urban middle-class professionals and explores questions of meaning, spirituality and desire.
‘The Project of the Self under Late Capitalism’ reveals Lohrey’s interest in a generation of people with ‘unexceptional suburban upbringings and orthodox tertiary training’ whose thinking and expectations seem radically different to her own. She notes how the
Cold War politics and European dreaming that had formed my generation meant almost nothing to them. In other words, they had never been held in thrall to any of the old nineteenth-century models of utopia.
Here was a generation who increasingly ‘looked to the East for inspiration’. Lohrey does not dismiss this shift of focus. Rather, she respects how inner-city Australians ‘absorb Asian influences osmotically’. She wonders how such influences will shape this generation in decades to come. On one level, her continued exploration of characters engaged in Eastern practices is an attempt to track these developments.
In Lohrey’s award-winning novel Camille’s Bread (1995), Stephen endures his life as an accounts clerk in Treasury by practising Shao-lin exercises. Four nights a week he pursues what he terms his ‘spiritual path’, through the practice of Zen Shiatsu massage and the Chinese meditative art of Chi Kung. Stephen ‘know[s] all about anger’. In his search for ‘poise’, he embraces Eastern philosophies because
there is no space for anger, not even a righteous anger as in the Bible; he likes the way the Indian meditation teachers never say anything negative, their belief that any small task, no matter how menial, can be performed in the spirit of prayer and how this can transform the domestic.
Stephen is a well-intentioned and caring, if somewhat obsessive character. His lover Marita – a single, working mother – is exasperated by his refusal to alter his meditation times to suit family life, a rigidity she finds ‘typical [of] New Age selfishness’. Ultimately, there is no room for domesticity and relationships in Stephen’s quest for spiritual satisfaction. He leaves Marita, Camille and Australia for life in a Japanese dojo.
Richard Kline and his pursuit of insight, peace – or perhaps simply meaning – can be read as another version of Stephen. Richard also has serious anger issues. He too discovers the healing power of meditation. He too becomes fanatical in his practice. But, significantly, Richard remains married to Zoe and a father to Luke.
The novel opens with a brief note from Richard explaining that what follows is a ‘memoir’ which traces his gradual awakening to a previously unrecognised truth about himself. From the outset, he announces that ‘for much of my life I suffered from an apprehension of lack, but one that I found difficult to put into words’. He identifies this lack, as a sense that ‘something was always missing’ and asks a series of questions that perhaps all readers might have asked themselves at some point in their lives:
How many of us have been dismayed by that feeling? And ashamed of it at those very moments when we ought to have felt happy? We ask ourselves: what is the flaw in our being that gives rise to this discontent?
Richard asks these questions, but Lohrey never forces him to interrogate thoroughly what generates his sense of loss. Throughout the novel it remains an abstract given. Richard repeatedly feels a sense of longing, of ‘inexpressible homesickness’, ‘of primeval exile and loss’. Yet he cannot grasp the object of his yearning. The feeling of homesickness has been with him since his childhood. In a scene reminiscent of the portrayal of the child in Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (1986), Richard contemplates the night sky and appreciates his ‘own inconsequence’. He curls up in bed and weeps ‘from fear and desolation’. Blanchot’s child looks up at the night sky and the stars disappear, offering a sky of total blackness. Like Richard, Blanchot’s child cries inconsolably, until a moment of realisation comes. In each instance, the child discovers a world beyond the known or nameable. For Blanchot’s child, it is beyond the starry sky; it is, in Stephen Critchley’s words, ‘an atheist transcendence’. For Richard, it is ‘the space between sleeping and waking … another realm of being’, a ‘fleeting apprehension of a lost Eden’, his ‘true home’.
The quest for an earthly paradise, in the shape of perfection, drives some of the lesser characters in the novel, particularly Leni. Lohrey had earlier explored the search for paradises lost in her Quarterly Essay, Groundswell: The Rise of the Greens (2002). She went on to reflect on the individual’s obsessive drive for perfection in her story ‘Perfect’, published in Reading Madame Bovary (2010). In A Short History of Richard Kline, such a drive is shown to be futile in the face of death. As an adolescent, Richard is aware of the force of death lurking in the world. He believes death is going to ‘ambush’ him. In fact, it is Richard’s brother Gareth who is ambushed by death. Yet, curiously, this incident fails to carry any real significance in the narrative. Richard is saddened by Gareth’s death, but he seems far more concerned about the fact that he cannot cry.
In his late twenties, Richard is ‘oppressed by the sheer ordinariness of life, its mindless repetition’. In the middle of a team-building abseiling exercise, he discovers that, unlike his colleagues, he is neither excited nor scared, but simply bored. Richard’s boredom is made into a central concern to the developing plot, but it presents an enormous narrative challenge for Lohrey: how to make boredom gripping? Baudelaire successfully established ennui as a central experience in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). So did Flaubert in Madame Bovary (1856). In an Australian context, Randolph Stow, in To the Islands (1958), constructed a kind of tragic hero in Heriot, a man tired of himself and the world. But Richard Kline has none of Heriot’s stature. He is neither hero nor anti-hero, and his persistent self-focus may alienate some readers.
In his essay, ‘Lesions’ (1994), Brian Castro formulates questions that may resonate with Richard Kline’s experience. Mulling over his own melancholic disposition and extolling the virtues of bold narrative experimentation, Castro writes:
But can culture ever be more than itself besides serving those instrumental and economic ends within the routines of daily lives? My hunch is that it can, that the novel form, for example, through its disparity and diversion, through its gaps and multiple perspectives, through its inter-relatedness and breakdowns and impurities, is the manifestation of that lesion in our selfhood formed by the wound of experience, which asks the most profound question: What is that emptiness we have inherited in simply being?
Lohrey asks similar questions to Castro, but in a very different manner. While Castro wrestles linguistically to name what has been lost, and to seek some kind of reparation, Lohrey seems content to leave the questions in a somewhat abstract form. A Short History of Richard Kline nods respectfully to allegory, yet it remains grounded in realism. Like Camille’s Bread, it is a very Sydney-focused novel (though Lohrey manages to slip in glimpses of the Gold Coast, Melbourne and Tasmania’s Bay of Fires). She does, however, experiment quietly with form.
Lohrey structures the narrative through alternating chapters in the first and third person, yet the third person voice sounds very similar to Richard’s voice. At times, they almost merge. This sameness is somewhat perplexing, until we remember how Richard introduced his story: ‘I set down this memoir.’ A little later, he states that he ‘had often heard some other voice in my head, offering a dispassionate commentary on my actions’. As the novel nears its conclusion, he discovers that ‘at his core there was a part of him that was indestructible, some other self, and here it was, quietly observing this lurid fantasy of the brain’.
I was relieved the first time the shift in perspective appeared, hoping for a more objective voice to qualify, or at least comment on, Richard’s viewpoint. It was not to be. If, however, both voices belong to Richard – as the label ‘memoir’ suggests – then Lohrey’s structure may be a deliberate invitation to the reader to consider how an individual self can be constructed. She takes us inside Richard’s head and also places us alongside him as he reflects, with some detachment, on his moods and predicaments. We witness the self as a work-in-progress.
It is interesting that Lohrey, known for her piercing intelligence and ironic wit, constructs Richard so gently. His father-in-law Joe becomes, for a very short time, a voice of challenge, but ultimately Richard is neither judged nor mocked. Maybe, as Lohrey said in her earlier essay, she views the move to explore alternatives to Western rationalism not as narcissistic, but more positively, as an individual’s attempt to ‘find a sphere of freedom and agency … in response to experiences of powerlessness and worthlessness under regimes of economic rationalism’.
Richard, however, is neither powerless, nor suffering from a sense of worthlessness. He is angry, arrogant and relentlessly self-focused. His wife Zoe – arguably the more interesting character of the two – tolerates his mood swings and supports his need for meditation. She rarely confronts Richard about his choices, but he knows she sees his ‘newfound conversion’ as ‘escapism in another more self-righteous form’.
Lohrey has chosen to explore a very real concern in the lives of many middle-class, first-world citizens. At a time when they are increasingly affluent and free to determine the direction of their lives, they do not seem to know what it is they desire. The pursuit of individual pleasure, or individual perfection, in a world where extended networks of family, work and religious communities have been largely dismantled, is revealed as inherently unsatisfying. Richard, a successful and somewhat cynical professional, is pushed to a point of existential crisis in order to appreciate the spiritual poverty of his life.
I suspect readers’ opinions about this novel will depend largely on their response to Richard. I was not as harsh as Richard’s mother – ‘Why can’t you just accept things as they are?’ – but I was sometimes exasperated by his view of the world. He is stunned to witness a generosity of spirit extended by a young bottle shop attendant to a shabbily dressed, dithering old woman. Witnessing this act of common decency, moves Richard to a ‘state of grace’. When his son Luke is born, Richard thinks:
he was perfection, he was un-marred, which was just as well, because Rick knew he didn’t have the generosity of spirit to love anything else. Perhaps because his son was the only person he loved more than himself, some of his melancholy boredom fell away.
In ‘The Project of the Self’, Lohrey is not impressed by the way capitalism can commodify valid forms of spiritual exercise or ‘New Age mysticism’. Yet it is such commodification that gets Richard on the path to meditation. After a colleague’s suicide at work, management circulate a ‘glossy brochure extolling “an age-old technology of the self”’. Richard and his colleague Mark are sent by their company to attend a short course on meditation as a form of stress management. And so Richard’s path to transformation begins.
On the cover, A Short History of Richard Kline is identified as a ‘pilgrim’s progress for the here and now’. For Lohrey, the here and now demands an easily accessible realist narrative rather than Bunyan’s choice of allegory. That may be the right call, but realism curtails the freedom that allegory offers readers to bring their own meanings and experiences to the text. Like Bunyan’s Christian, Richard is aided and abetted by an assortment of characters on his journey from his personal ‘City of Destruction’ towards enlightenment, or merely a calmer state of being. No Celestial City here. Richard encounters his own version of the Slough of Despond, numerous times. His emotional state spirals from optimism and geniality to vanity and despair, and back again, depending on his meditative experience.
Richard’s first fellow traveller is the psychotherapist, Sarah Masson, a ‘transient angel’. From there on, he is accompanied by his cousin Julie, an acquaintance named Rebecca, Martin the ever-generous urban monk, and Sri Mata, a ‘saint’ from Tamil Nadu. Sri Mata becomes the single most powerful influence in Richard’s meditative practice, and therefore his life. She is a small woman, always dressed in white. He first encounters her at a meeting in the Chatswood Community Centre, which has been transformed into a ‘temple’ for a day. In her presence, Richard feels a powerful bodily vibration, and for the first time since that early nighttime experience, he is able to cry. He tries to describe what happened to him in her presence:
It was not that the words were not available: the words were simple, as was the feeling. For the first time in my life I felt that I had come home.
At a later meditation session, Richard hears Sanskrit and feels
at home with it, like it was my language. As if I had emigrated alone from some other country as a child, had forgotten my mother tongue and was hearing it again for the first time.
Sri Mata rarely speaks. She transmits a kind of spiritual force through feeling. The privileging of sensation over words, as a means of spiritual apprehension and expression, will be familiar to Lohrey’s readers. In ‘The clear voice suddenly singing’ from Secrets (1997), she cited David Brennan, a baritone with Opera Australia:
being in the present moment is what music is … It is completely evanescent. It’s the ultimate Zen experience.
More explicitly, she observed herself conducting research in a singing lesson, stating:
I’m an observer making notes, but they’re the wrong kind of notes, designed for the eye not the ear, a poor substitute. The voice creates sound waves which penetrate the body in such a way and with such startling and immediate effect that no other sensual experience even approximates it.
Lohrey also interviewed Tony Backhouse, founder and musical director of Café at the Gate of Salvation, and was intrigued by his statement: ‘There has to be a place for non-specific spirituality.’ She wondered what ‘non-specific spirituality’ might be.
Richard Kline suggests one possible answer. He is vexed by the ‘question of God’. Raised as a Catholic, he quickly surrenders any belief in God, until Sri Mata speaks of ‘the divine’ as ‘an ultimate knowledge and source’, suggesting that the very essence of the divine lies within his heart:
She referred to it as the Self, an all-pervading consciousness of which we were part, a union that we were blind to, though occasionally we caught glimpses of it.
Such a description offers Richard what he has been searching for: insight ‘into another dimension of the real’. By meditating in the presence of Sri Mata and debriefing with Martin the monk, Richard begins to have periods of looking outwards from himself, of being aware of a larger universe and apprehending a sense of ‘God, the Mind at Large, cosmic consciousness, call it what you like’.
In interview with Aviva Tuffield in 2004, Lohrey wondered why more Australian authors were not writing about spirituality and the search for meaning. Subsequently, in Intimate Horizons: The Post-Colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (2009), the editors Bill Ashcroft, Lyn McCredden and Frances Devlin-Glass opened with the assertion that ‘Sacredness and Australia are two ideas that do not sit quietly beside each other’. Yet the collection demonstrates that a number of Australian writers have explored similar territory to that which Lohrey is investigating. Indeed, the list is not short. The poets Francis Webb, Vincent Buckley, James McAuley, Rosemary Dobson, Judith Wright, Les Murray, Judith Beveridge and Noel Rowe, to name a few, invoke various forms of the sacred and the spiritual in their quest for meaning. So too the novelists: Patrick White, Tim Winton, Alexis Wright and Helen Garner.
But Lohrey – and Ashcroft, McCredden and Devlin-Glass – are undoubtedly correct in sensing a discomfort within Australian fiction with naming the spiritual too overtly. Consider the troubled responses of some critics to what they regarded as Garner’s sudden foray into the territory of angels, dark columns and absent presences (or present absences) in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992). It is also salutary to remember what Lohrey reported in her Quarterly Essay, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia (2006):
In a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Bible Society of NSW, market researchers found that many people see having anything to do with church as an admission of personal failure. ‘The problem we detected from our research was that a lot of Australians see Christianity as being for losers.’
A Short History of Richard Kline demonstrates how hard it is to investigate successfully, in a realist novel, questions of spirituality and the possibility of a soulful existence. Lohrey circumvented much of that problem in The Philosopher’s Doll (2004) by casting Lindsay Eynon as a philosopher. As part of his lecture preparation about rationalism, Lindsay is permitted to muse about the presence or otherwise of souls in humans and animals. Much of the territory Lohrey has sought to explore for nearly two decades is part of philosophical discourse.
And therein lies a challenge. In A Short History of Richard Kline, Lohrey’s ideas are important, but some of the power of the central concepts, and her contemplation of them, gets lost in translation to the novel form. A large part of the novel’s inquiry is carried by one not very sympathetic character. Because Lohrey constructs Richard without irony, he is not capable of any great insights. Because we are forever inside Richard’s head, we do not experience moments of soaring beauty or joy, or indeed harrowing despair.
Let us return to the sense of lack that drives Richard’s narrative. What does he learn? How does he change? Can there be any resolution for him?
Richard does make incremental discoveries about himself and the world. He learns that gratitude is not simply a ‘euphemism for conformity and resignation’. He surrenders fragments of his empirical stance to expose a certain vulnerability that admits to the possibility of otherness or a cosmic consciousness. He recognises that his dreams of a swaddled infant – a recurrent trope in Lohrey’s oeuvre – suggest a sense of connection between him and other beings. Ultimately, however, Richard remains caught in his pendulum existence.
In Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (1984), Mark C. Taylor shines a philosophical lens on the question of lack and its relationship to death. He explains that death is
regarded as a hostile invader, one that carries the threat of a mortal wound … Activities as diverse as the search for selfhood, the formation of history, and the writing of books have the denial of death as one of their goals.
We can hear echoes of Richard’s and Lohrey’s endeavours here. Taylor continues: ‘To affirm that death is primordial and inescapable is to accept “primal lack”.’ Crucially, Taylor stresses that to understand the significance of this acknowledgement, it is necessary to appreciate the distinction between need and desire:
For the needy self, lack is not primal; rather, it is secondary to a more original plenitude. Lack, therefore, represents a deficiency that one must strive to overcome. The subject in need always seeks fulfillment or satisfaction. The achievement of satisfaction, it is believed, will put an end to deficiency by restoring plenitude.
Richard is seeking something, but it may not be satisfaction. From his earliest days, he has known only lack, never plenitude. At a deep level, perhaps a level beyond words, he knows that total satisfaction is never attainable. For Taylor, such knowledge marks the transition from need to desire. He supports his argument by citing Jacques Derrida: ‘desire carries in itself the destiny of its own non-satisfaction’. Or in Taylor’s words: ‘Desire desires desire’.
I wanted this novel to celebrate that awareness as a positive goal; I am not convinced that it does. I expect that reading group discussions sparked by this novel will be intense. They may divide along gender lines. As Richard writes up his notes about his conversation with Martin, he lingers over the phrase ‘burden of personality’, and he ponders his own melancholy: ‘Maybe this was a male thing. Did women feel it?’ I too wonder how male and female readers might answer that question. Lohrey has certainly tapped into the zeitgeist in contemporary urban Australian culture. The theme of the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival is ‘How to Live?’, and the festival advertising asks: ‘Where do we find a sense of purpose and how should we best live our lives?’ In tackling this important but difficult issue of existential malaise, Lohrey may stimulate some readers not only to appreciate, but also to embrace, the knowledge that a sense of lack can be a powerful creative force.
Bill Ashcroft, Lyn McCredden and Frances Devlin-Glass (editors), Intimate Horizons: The Post-Colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (ATF Press, 2009).
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
Brian Castro, ‘Lesions,’ Looking for Estrellita (University of Queensland Press, 1999).
Stephen Critchley, ‘Beckett is My Hero: It’s Alright,’ Contretemps: An Online Journal of Philosophy, no.1 (September 2000).
Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino (McPhee Gribble, 1992).
Amanda Lohrey, Camille’s Bread (Angus & Robertson, 1995).
⎯ ‘The clear voice suddenly singing,’ Secrets (Macmillan, 1997).
⎯ ‘The Project of the Self under Late Capitalism,’ The Best Australian Essays 2001 (Black Inc., 2001).
⎯ The Philosopher’s Doll (Viking, 2004).
⎯ Reading Madame Bovary (Black Inc., 2010).
⎯ Groundswell: The Rise of the Greens, Quarterly Essay (Black Inc., 2002).
⎯ Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, Quarterly Essay 22 (Black Inc., 2006).
Randolph Stow, To the Islands (Penguin, 1958).
Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (University of Chicago Press, 1984)