Sunday, 24 February 2008

Stefan Klein looks remarkably like Martin Luther, the Renaissance spokesman for the oppressed who, drawing on the early mission statement of John Wycliff and the political implosion of Jan Huss and the utraquists, helped to rearrange the social fabric in Europe.

A science graduate who also studied philosophy Klein, profiled yesterday in the Review supplement to The Weekend Australian, is also a latter-day Coleridge.

Coleridge's own implosion -- into laudanum addiction -- was caused by his inability to escape from the dominant narrative of his era. While he was alive, most British subjects considered themselves Christians and the religion was woven tightly into the social fabric. Dissent was tolerated but atheism was not.

When Wordsworth and Coleridge argued, they both lost an important support. Reviewers' disdain for Lyrical Ballads and everything Coleridge produced in its wake, was a series of heavy blows to his frail psyche.

Contemporaries often noted Coleridge's ability to philosophise extempore. He was, said one, "inspired by heaven" (this could be wrong) and he "sang" rather than just talked. Continued repulse determined his fate, and he stopped writing poetry.

Klein would say that he stopped existing as a social being because of this. The silence imposed on him was the silence the ignorant themselves experienced when faced with the realities of life. It was the silence the intolerant demand of those who do not concur with their every utterance. It was the silence of totalitarianism.

The dominant narrative of the day was the sermon, which proscribes and threatens. Coleridge could not but subscribe to it and the anger of the reviewers was, to him, as a sign from god: stop.

Today, when the dominant narrative is built around the structure of the novel, the possibility for empathy is greater. In fact, often the mere fact of weakness will attract support, regardless of how correct or false the position the individual - the one who is being oppressed - is.

We may, in other words, have gone too far the other way. Perhaps the Nabokovian Apollonian stick is required. I suspect it is, though the struggle for dominance between, say, Nabokov and his Dionysian predecessor (Dostoyevski) is ongoing.

"Humans are creatures with brains built for processing stories rather than facts," says Klein, who appears this weekend at the Perth Writers Festival.

I feel like suing this Austrian interloper, who brings such wisdom to our dry expanses (I hesitate to call them plains; that word belongs to the American midwest).

Some time ago I was at a party and I introduced my quaternal maxim of 'progress' to a neighbour.

Here it is:

  1. Language is an innate instinct in humans; we must talk and will regardless of the company, and
  2. Humans are social animals, therefore
  3. We live by narratives, furthermore
  4. The history of progress is the history of the competition between strong narratives.

I wonder if Klein sometimes feels, like me, that he is surrounded by aliens. Possibly he feels that he has been selected by the gods for some higher purpose. In fact, going back to Luther, it seems as though the only kind of narrative that can prevail in society is one that satisfies a deeper urge: to fight.

The Sun-Herald's Sunday Life supplement today suggests this is true. In an article starting on page 20 Paige Kilponen cavasses experts to identify the benefit of a good stoush. Passive-aggressive behaviour is, she suggests, not good for the soul.

Barring resort to physical violence (I assume, though she doesn't actually touch on this terrible fact), she quotes Michael Burge, who says that

the absence of conflict can be an indication of a much more dysfunctional relationship. "If everything is stiff upper lip, there is suppression of identity. An absence of fighting suggests avoidance and can mean neither party cares about the relationship."

Australian Institute of Family Studies researcher Robyn Parker says

The benefits of a good fight ... include "fostering an open and honest communication, establishing boundaries and learning to choose our battles."

Burge again:

"It's unavoidable. If we don't fight, we become suppressed. We try to assert our ideas to maintain our identity."

Which suggests that those with strong identities and correct opinions are often shunned by the less capable, who fear they will drown in the ocean of another's will.

This could also answer the question of why alcohol is so popular. If the only way to honestly and forcefully express an opinion is under the influence we may have a biological cause for drunkenness. The by-products of this state of being are, however, often to be regretted.

The solution is resort to an alternative locus of transgression: culture. Even in third-world Asia, this is possible. See Orhan Pamuk's heroic attempt to reconcile Nabokov and Dostoyevski in his recent book of journalism and occasional pieces, Other Colours.

For many, however, this is difficult. Racism continues to be dominant. And long-held narratives (north v south, for example; or Protestant v Catholic) continue to hold sway. As we should know:

Culture is a locus of transgression,
And as the road is a crowded zone,
Control's the manifestation of joy.

Absent joy, energies are easily dissipated in the kind of deft and delicate qualifiers we prize in fiction, but which, in the world of non-fiction, are, as Calvino said, like "the flapping bat wings of the devil".

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