Attic Space

A nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her wrote James Joyce, explaining why his only play was called Exiles; the line is much quoted but most people who do so leave off the next bit: payable on their return. Michael Jackson left his native New Zealand while still a young man, in the first instance for Melbourne, where he worked among the homeless and had his first encounters with Aboriginality. Later he did similar work in London and the Congo and later still went to Sierra Leone, beginning there the fieldwork that has distinguished his vocation as an anthropologist. He has been far more diligent in his repayments than JJ ever was, returning again and again and, each time, illuminating forgotten corners of what he calls the diffuse and dimly lit world of New Zealand’s collective imagination.

In Road Markings, published as a ebook by Rosa Mira Books of Dunedin and subtitled An Anthropologist in the Antipodes, Jackson sets out on a road trip through his natal land that is also an inquiry into the idea of firstness: the place of origin in our consciousness, the meaning of beginnings, the aura of the primary as a way of authenticating both personal experience and historical truth. This might sound daunting as a theme but his exploration of it is not: this is autobiographical writing of the highest order, in which the personal is resolutely explored but never just for its own sake: Jackson’s own history, that of his family and friends, his colleagues, his mentors, his literary heroes, are woven together to make, not so much a tapestry as a finely calibrated, gorgeously textured, many-coloured mahi harakeke.

Early in the narrative Jackson evokes the image of life as a river, whose course might be followed from source to sea; or, after Walter Benjamin, as a kind of tree diagram whose interconnections could be traced and logged; but he soon rejects both these metaphors for another, drawn from the ancient Greek: paraleipómena (paralipomena) means things omitted and used to refer to biblical texts not included in the canon; Jackson, in conversation with one of his interlocutors, glosses it thus: ‘It’s why we write,’ I said, ‘to make a space for the broken things in our lives.’ Making a space for broken or omitted things, then, is what Road Markings does; including the excluded.

The journey begins on a flight over the Tasman, the Southern Alps and the Canterbury Plains to the since shattered city of Christchurch, where Jackson hires a car and sets off north to revisit the childhood home of his first wife, Pauline, who died of cancer many years ago now but has remained a presence in his writing ever since: one of those broken things. And here, for any reader of Michael Jackson, you must confront a peculiarity of his work: no door is ever closed, no wrong way is ever made right, no road less travelled remains untravelled. His stories, and those of people he has known, knows and loves, are told and retold through the years, in different books, in other contexts, never definitively. He is aware of this: ‘We live’, one of his friends, quoting Michael Oondaatje, says ‘permanently in the recurrence of our own stories.’ It is as if a familiar stone were to be picked up and turned over again and again through the years and always, no matter how familiar, disclosed a new shape, a new contour, a new profile.

He continues up the South Island, via Kaikoura to Nelson and thence across Cook Strait to Wellington; and as he travels he enlists ghost companions—Samuel Butler, Henry Lawson, Bill Pearson—to keep him company on the road. They are, in some respects, as real as the actual people he meets and the conversations he has with the dead, beguilingly, are interleaved with those with whom he exchanges live talk. Some, like musicologist Allan Thomas, make the transition from life to death during the course of the book and remain, broken yet restored, within its social space.

From Wellington the road leads north, via the Wairarapa (or was that a side trip?) to the city of Palmerston North in the Manawatu; and thence, via Kimbolton, west to Taranaki where, in the small town of Inglewood, Jackson was born and raised and spent his first fifteen years. His meditations become darker the closer he comes to the source, because he is someone who never felt truly at home in the place he comes from and does not know the reason why. The fractured history of family gives clues but no answers; exemplars like Joe Pawelka (about whom Jackson has written a fine, almost completely unknown, book called The Blind Impress), suggest the condition of the outsider can be a fated one; his inquiry into the bloody circumstances of the conquest of Taranaki in the nineteenth century allows the speculation that atrocities in the past inevitably blight the present of even—or especially—those ignorant of them . . . but conclusions are not forthcoming.

Or perhaps I mean that those answers which do rise up are always provisional. As he goes on past Hamilton to Paeroa and the Coromandel, Jackson’s obsessive interrogation of circumstance begins to yield reflections that illuminate the darkness of spurned origins: With every return home, the expatriate is reborn. It is not simply because you are returned to the landscapes of your early life; it is because the quotidian, momentarily bathed in a new light, appears exotic. And so you marvel that this place you could not live in because of its emptiness and insularity still has the power to remind you of who you really are.

And who you really are, he decides, looking up through a skylight at a star-filled night sky, is best expressed as a constellation: Gazing into deep space, I realized how unproductive it was to see life lineally—as cause and effect, or as sequences and series—before and after, beginning, middle and end. Just as some stars are visible at certain times of the year and invisible at others, or some constellations are momentarily hidden behind cloud while others swim clearly into view, so different aspects of our lives emerge or disappear in relation to the changing environments of which we are a part . . . No human being is ever in a position to identify the source of his or her fate; all we can do is tell our story obliquely through the lives of others, and the projects that inexplicably compel our interest.

After this ecstatic interlude in the Coromandel the road trip continues on to Auckland—evoked as a garden and a couple of beaches, rather than a metropolis—thence to Sydney and then on to that other great Pacific city, San Francisco, where the by now insolvent author—he has exhausted his credit and inadvertently locked his only food, a bunch of bananas, in an inaccessible refrigerator—is attending an anthropological conference; and ends on a plane to Boston with the recounting of a dream which Jackson doesn’t interpret so much as wonder at: Curling my arm protectively around the fragile new life, I gazed on it with overwhelming love.

A summary of its trajectory cannot give an accurate picture of the richness of this book: the breadth of its frames of reference, primarily in literature and the visual arts; the depth of its inquiry into the thought of the last hundred years or so; the mental travelling that circumnavigates the globe. Nor is it really possible to do more than sample the primary vehicle of its unfolding; that is, the voice of its author. Jackson writes lyrically, exactly, of landscape; landscapes that are always symbolic but whose meaning is invariably arrived at through particulars. He also has a way of re-constructing conversations as if they were fragments of philosophical dialogues preserved by some unknown antipodean Plato; yet possesses such an accurate ear for language, dialect, idiolect, that the artifice of these reconstructions never threatens their integrity.

He is unsparing in his self-questioning and alert to arcane information, producing startling sentences like this: In fact, so strong was the sense that I had become a stranger to myself that I compared my experience to the Capgras Delusion, often associated with schizophrenia, in which one becomes convinced that a loved one has been taken over by an alien being. Not much further along, his temerity in using the windscreen washing bucket and squeegee in a servo to clean the whole of his travel stained rental car leads to this perception: I had learned that one’s sense of belonging had a shadow side, namely a sense that certain others did not really belong and that you could, if you wished, ride roughshod over them.

But what of firstness? Where does that leave us? Towards the end of the book Jackson revives a distinction articulated by Paul Ricoeur: while beginnings can be determined, origins cannot. There is always something anterior to whatever we think of as originary; in the way that any child today, having the preposterous theory of the Big Bang explained to them, will inevitably ask: what happened before that? More interesting, perhaps, is this view: Memory is a misnomer. It is synonymous with the imagination. And the imagination ceaselessly reworks the impressions and images that come to mind, either from within or without, as it strives to render coherent and comprehensible a world that remains, however, beyond our grasp. If the past is anything it is an attic space, crammed with discarded or forgotten objects that may yet be raided by the imagination in its search for raw materials with which to make our present circumstances intelligible and liveable.

That’s, I suppose, a clear statement of a faith with which many of us would find ourselves in agreement; Jackson’s conclusion to his personal search, insofar as he allows himself one, is this: I grew up feeling not so much betwixt and between two cultural worlds, as cultureless. As a result, I wavered between a ‘feminised’ and poetic sensibility, anchored in the landscape, and a ‘masculinised’ ethos whose ritual foci were body contact sports such as rugby and athletics. But the authentic social belonging that finds its consummation in culture and community always lay elsewhere. The affection and familiarity I feel toward my homeland is always commingled with a sense of disaffection and unfamiliarity, the origins of which are beyond my power to understand.

It’s curious how his homeland is, it seems, as ambivalent towards Jackson as he towards it: part of the penance exacted by the nation he dared to leave apparently includes a kind of wilful ignoring of his rich—anthropological, fictional, poetic, philosophical—literary output. You are, he was told by one local publisher, rejecting the manuscript of his luminously beautiful Pieces of Music (1994), effectively dead. This is not only false, it’s dumb; surely, now, in 2012, Michael Jackson can be read as intelligently as he deserves to be by the New Zealand audience he addresses. They could then, and paradoxically, join the Australian and the international in their appreciation.

Like all major writers, his work is a constellation best seen whole and includes classic texts like 1995’s At Home in the World, about his time among the Warlpiri; and, from 2006, the memoir of his professional life, The Accidental Anthropologist. There has in recent years been a convergence of modes in his writing so that the anthropological, the autobiographical and the poetic are braided together to make a unique form, of which Road Markings may be the first fully fledged example. Whether or not this audacious intuition can be sustained will depend on what he gives us next; but this book is certainly the place to begin a re-consideration of one of our most astute, humane, idiosyncratic, neglected and perdurable writers.

image : Melanie Fraser : Thistle Hall Community

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