The drive was twenty hours. Long straight stretches of bitumen and heat-hazed horizons, interspersed with the occasional dirt road and the odd truck stop. At the end I’d begin my fieldwork. Partly to stay awake, and partly to stave off my sense of dread (what the hell does ethnography even mean? What do I do when I stuff up? What if I’m not emotionally tough enough? What if I end up hating my research participants? Is it too late to bail? Why didn’t I study something like the effects of beach towel symbols on the taste of mojitos instead?), I started to listen to an audiobook a friend had recommended.
It was a twisted gum, hollowed out by bushfire, home to tiny flickering animals and support to slow-growing saplings. I’d go there to feel at home. I’d run bare foot along the old cattle tracks that passed by the horse yards and into the scrub. I knew that track so well I could follow it on a new moon, went there so often the horses would only flicker their ears as I brushed past. Once there, I’d sit with my back against the trunk. Just sit. And listen.
Like that, as a scraggly kid with no spiritual upbringing and little moral guidance, on a farm in the heartland of conservative Australia, I somehow, without having ever heard words like ‘yoga’ and ‘meditation’, began to learn about the journey of yoga and meditation.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about stories within stories.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while– as an art model, I occasionally sees photos of myself looking at a painting of myself (a painting done while I look at the painter and the painter looks at me). It’s bound to come up.
But the real reason I’ve been thinking about nested narrative (mise en abyme, or “placed in the abyss”, if you will) is Ryan Gossling. And Macauley Culkin. (What’s sacred and what’s profound in this theory/movie star confluence is up to you….).
Of all the advice I’ve been given, there is only one I find easy to follow:
Surround yourself with people smarter than you are.
It’s inevitable really; I know some damn smart people, and besides, the way I see it, my knowledge is pretty limited so everyone is smarter than me in some area. And I’m always keen to raid their specific type of knowledge and pilfer their smarts. I see it kind of like an intellectual Robin Hood thing (rob from the rich–them–give to the poor–yours truly–).
But recently, I’ve had some particularly plunderous adventures, and reaped a pretty bounty of learning.
The books we read, the stories we tell, the narratives we allow to furnish our inner theatre, can—I believe—form the cosmology of our innermost self. We are a network of stories without beginning or end. We are a mass of tangled, interwoven texts. But there must be some foundation for this creationist tale of ‘I’. There must be, at the beginning, the stories of our childhood: stories that give meaning to all stories that follow.
Often, as Western speakers, we say ‘I see’, when what we really mean is, “I understand”. It’s just another of the many dead metaphors we kick around. When I was child, I had a friend who would take such a pronouncement of “I see” as an opportunity to interject with “…said the blind man who could not talk”.
While my childhood friend intended this a nonsense quip, her joke highlights an important question: how is it that an individual might ‘see’—that is, understand—their environment and cultural world through different faculties of sense, particularly if those senses are not, as Western thought would have it, primarily linked to sight or sound?
Children run barefoot through the late afternoon light. Their shadows stretch before them like stilt-walkers at the circus. Chalk trails in pastel arcs down the bitumen behind them, circling the well-worn couches and chairs arranged on the roadside.
“What, just end?”
“Just like that?”
“The Mayans predicted it.” The man was all very matter of fact. He didn’t seem too concerned about having just handed you a set of major philosophical questions and an eschatological crisis along with your chai tea.
“It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”
Perhaps it is the changing times.
Perhaps in the 1960s, when Joan Didion penned those words, it really was easy to see the beginnings.
And perhaps it was then, as Didion herself said, that they were just beginning to find that the center to which they had clung was not holding, that the beginnings were spinning out control.
“Dou venons nous? (where have we come from?)
Que sommes nous? (what are we?)
Ou allons nous? (where are we going?”)
…These were the words scrawled in the corner of Gauguin’s Dou venons nous?
It was it to be his last work: upon finishing it he swallowed a bottle of arsenic.
But he survived…and painted many more.
In this age of gadgetry where computers reign supreme, software is hip. But what happens when computers take a stab at style? Literary style, that is.