By Naomi Riddle
29 March, 2021
“About an hour ago she surfaced and shook her arms
and peered around and dived again and surfaced
and saw someone and dived again and surfaced.”
Alice Oswald, Nobody (2019)
“Where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence.”
Simone Weil, ‘The Iliad or The Poem of Force’ (1940)
“That is what it amounted to. All acts or facts ended abruptly in the rain.”
Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1956)
Last year I made an unreasonable demand for a type of writing that leaks, and now water is seeping through the cracks in the ceiling, and running down the brick walls, and there is a dampness rising up in between the floorboards.
The cat sits on the towel that I put underneath one of the leaks and waits for the water to splash onto his head.
We make friends with these new dribbling housemates, the cat and I, and wash the towels and hang them up. The towels stay clammy and refuse to dry. The room begins to smell of damp washing detergent and damp cotton, and the drips on the wall turn a stale yellow-brown before new drips arrive and retrace their tracks. I discover mould blooming in my coat pocket. There is a white cloud of spores growing on my laptop case.
Water, like aerosols, has no respect for walls or wardrobes or bridges or roofs or roads. It was when the water began sliding down the cornices that I finally decided to write again.
For three and a half years I persisted with a weekly publishing schedule. The weekly publishing schedule was a river, and I went with the current of the river, and if I attempted to tread water or switch direction, I would soon discover this river was not so acquiescent. I did not have time to think about what the river looked like from above, or if the current would change, because I was swimming inside of it. And the river was always uneasy and prone to flooding; it was always chopping and eddying and floundering outside its banks. Then, at the end of last year, I found I could no longer swim in the river, because if I kept swimming in this particular river then something would sink.
The river might not be the right metaphor, because it makes it sound as if the decision to no longer swim was decided for me, whereas that is not entirely true, and mostly all I wanted to do was simply stop. Part of it was that swimming in the river was becoming impossible to sustain. Part of it was that it no longer seemed a necessity, and that perhaps swimming in a river was not the best strategy when trying to understand what the river was. And last year everyone else was swimming in the river too, and I lost my belief in the river, and whether the river needed so much attention paid to it in the first place.
Shortly before his sudden death in 2020, David Graeber was writing an essay about what life would be like after the Covid19 pandemic. He knew then (as we do now) that at some point the “crisis will be declared over, and we will be able to return to our ‘non-essential’ jobs.” The pandemic, as in other crises, might have shocked us into confronting “the actual reality of human life” (and realising that the money did exist for welfare all along; that money always exists when aligned with political expediency), but once the crisis was over, we would be told to “shut up, stop thinking, and get back to work, or at least start looking for it.”
Graeber implored us to do the opposite: “It is imperative that we not slip back into a reality where all this makes some sort of inexplicable sense, the way senseless things so often do in dreams.”
In some ways, then, refusing to go back to what I was doing before is more to do with power, and thinking about how to rebalance or subvert such power when it is so heavily tipped the other way. It is about thinking in terms of the power I do have (to stay with this reality; to not slip back; to deny the churn of the river; to turn over the page and start again), rather than thinking in terms of what I don’t have (capital, time, stability, capacity, strength).
I know this is not a revelation. I’m telling you this because of its ordinariness, because all of us are putting the towels down and mopping up and tipping out the water in the bucket.
This is and isn’t about money, it is and it isn’t about health and illness, it is and isn’t about this month and the month before and the month before that. It is and isn’t about the phrase “not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets.” And it is and isn’t about knowing that for all the horror at those bullets sailing into the skin of protesters who were “elsewhere” (who did not think their actions would be used on the floor of our parliament as a means for demonstrating this nation’s magnanimity), even the presence of those bullets didn’t move our government to act “not far from here”, save for some quiet grumblings and a withdrawal of the usual diplomatic channels.
(A realist will tell you this is because of the way power works in an anarchic system; a liberal will say we should rely on the power of institutions and the broad cooperation of nations; a neo-conservative might say that power lies in support on the ground; but what none of them will tell you is a clear course of action, other than that the world is a complicated place, and sometimes the best decision is the least-bad choice from a very long list of bad choices.)
We must guard against the severity of Simone Weil, writes Ariana Reines.
But what if I like the severity of Simone Weil.
We must guard against the sorrow of Simone Weil, writes Ariana Reines.
But what if I like the sorrow of Simone Weil.
My brother tells me over the phone: if you don’t know anything about the other person in a negotiation, the only thing you can be certain of is they will act in their own self-interest.
“The house was no longer a house,” writes Patrick White in The Tree of Man (1956), just before the river begins to break its banks. “It had been reduced to a pointed roof on which rain fell…It fell always. It fell in their sleep. It washed through the dreams of sleepers, lifted their fears and resentments, and set them floating on the grey waters of sleep.”1
Not long after Elizabeth Harrower stopped publishing novels—and would give no explanation as to why she had stopped—Patrick White gifted her a painting of a woman drowning.
It reminded me of you, said Patrick.
Later on, he would inscribe a book to her: To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don’t also WRITE.
Perhaps PW was hoping such snark might provoke a rebuke or a short story.
But Elizabeth kept her silence nevertheless (except to herself), just as she kept the painting of the woman drowning on her wall. She outlived Patrick anyway, who would not get to see that Elizabeth did eventually break her silence—publishing the manuscript she had withdrawn in 1971 in 2014—at the age of 86. She began to appear at festivals. There was a profile in The New Yorker.
Are you surprised at the success, at the level of interest in your work, this late in life? Asked her editor.
No, said Elizabeth. No, I am not.
Are these stories based on your own experience? Asked the audience member
No, said Elizabeth, who could never be drawn on such a question. They are works of fiction.
All of Elizabeth’s novels are about power and manipulation, particularly power between men and women (often husband and wife), and the way power can be deployed in the kitchen or the drawing room or the bedroom or the car. They are about subjugation and psychological violence; how power can blunt or engulf us in such a way that we are no longer able to move or speak or question. In The Watch Tower (1966) the character of Claire is able to escape this fate by the skin of her teeth, but there are many others who Elizabeth leaves behind to drown. “It made me recognise things as they were,” says Claire, at the end of The Watch Tower. “And that—I was supported by a sort of faith. I’m not sure in what. But I thought I saw bits of the true, if not of the good and the beautiful. That made most things bearable…The outside was a place of coloured tissue paper where people went about not knowing about reality.”2
The male staffer had been sacked
The other male staffer had been asked to resign
The Attorney General had taken leave
The Minister for Defence had taken leave
The civil servant said: I am attempting to be as full and frank as I can be to this committee
The Minister for Women chose not to meet the marchers
The Deputy Prime Minister told the reporter he would not be meeting with the marchers because he had other meetings scheduled that day
The Prime Minister said he had not read the letter
The Attorney General said he had not read the letter
The minister(s) said it was inexcusable
The minister(s) said it was shocking
The minister said he would prefer to focus on the pandemic response and the vaccine roll out
The minister said she would prefer to answer questions on industrial relations reform
The Prime Minister said it was a matter for police
The Prime Minister said it was trial by media
The minister said it was not political, but it also was political if it applied to the Leader of the Opposition and/or the Labour Party and/or The Greens and/or Get Up and/or The Unions
The Prime Minister said he had asked the minister in question and he had denied the allegation
The Opposition Leader called for an inquiry
The lawyer called for an inquiry
The family called for an inquiry
The press called for an inquiry
If there was an inquiry, said the Attorney General, I would be asked to defend something that simply did not happen
The Prime Minister said the minister in question had his full support
The journalist on Sky News said the responsibility lay with Malcolm Turnbull
The Prime Minister said he had not read the letter
The Attorney General said he had not read the letter
The Prime Minister said he believed in all the women of Australia [but he did not necessarily believe them].
Women are angry, was Kristina Keneally’s answer to the question, although many of us were already angry (we were angry in June and July and March of last year, and we were angry in 2018 and 2016 and 2008 and 1999 and ad infinitum).
It seems fair to ask whether the much-documented tears of the Prime Minister might have sprung from the knowledge that in this moment now a certain type of woman (or a certain type of voter) was angry, and this is another way power works too: that those who have more power than others are given time to decide what it is they will pay attention to, and when it is the right time to say—in regards to this particular issue—they have had enough.
They can decide when it is they will be interviewed, and in what circumstances such an interview will take place, and in what circumstances such an interview will be refused.
The news channel is showing a shot from a helicopter of the dam at full capacity. The news channel goes straight to the live press conference. There is talk of a reshuffle. There is talk of poll numbers. A backbencher has taken leave. The reporter asks whether we are now seeing “the real Scott Morrison”, and whether there may be more revelations yet to come. The rain falls down. The dam overflows.
The water starts to make its way through the gap underneath the back door and starts pooling underneath the fridge. The cat sits and watches the new lake gathering in the kitchen. It becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between the drips on the tin roof and the drips from the overflowing gutter and the drips on the tiles and the drips in the bucket.
The rain falls down.
down sharp flat hard both rings
clear say what you like dine
on the waste its fine to
start with each drop is a
nail each dash has a track
like a sieve the shoots fall
fall down fall up and on
ward as clear as mud buy
more space or find more depth
in the bland low light all
truth is clear lush drop splash
thwack hit fast quick give
up your need to save or
haunt or fix sit next to
the mould you need to
say more but the stove is
gone the gas is out the
leak is else where heed the
tide what you owe has not
been found yet what you earn
is this poor soil flick it
some where else dig up your
trap why are you so care
ful un do this mess un
do this air feel the smoke
change feel how the vein turns
who smiles at chores file
back fold back fools for the
spoils drop drop drop drop worth
the wait tho worth the weight
the spine the arch of the
back bone and the heel cuff
sleeve lace hang up your airs
swerve shift grip cling run drop
run wait play any port in
a storm wait the perks of
the job might scare you off
might beat down lash the tail
rock down drip drip tip pelt
pour rush drown flood coast steam
swell could not care less would
be home but the wave its brief
shade pluck coil tip and
the dawn is blunt the choir
is a boat stop now
start mine yours
ours drip drip