Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reader Response -- Remembering Babylon

Remembering Babylon

I loved the writing I found here, with the below quotes especially. Malouf seemed to be emphasizing the pressure that the world inside our heads exerts on the physical world we perceive. Sherry Turkle said, in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet :
I have argued that Internet experiences help us to develop models of psychological well-being that are in a meaningful sense postmodern: They admit multiplicity and flexibility. They acknowledge the constructed nature of reality, self, and other. The Internet is not alone in encouraging such models.
Gemmy seems to be a complex combination of simpleton and shrewdness. The difference between him and both of the cultures he finds himself half-in is that he does not know how to unlock himself. The point of being a bridge is to create a road between two societies, right? You must show each society the advantages that can be had from alliance, then make it possible. The easiest way to do that is to demonstrate one's own usefulness. The town didn't recognize a need for Gemmy, and he contented himself with only showing his skills to those who were not influential, the night-wandering, people-shy minister, and a kid in the community. His work for Jock was unskilled labor, anyone could do it. This added to the willingness of the community to keep him outcast, both communities actually. The aborigines saw him as a drain on resources, somewhat.

The point is, Gemmy was more ghost than person. More spirit than man. His affect on others was as subtle as any vision. Indeed, once Jock took him in, he was suddenly sensitive to many other things in his life. As a character to whom things are done, instead of one who does things, Jock got to see the true natures of his fellow civilized men. When a person has thrown himself down at your feet, it takes enormous strength of character not to walk all over them. The fact that Gemmy does not speak beyond a few quotes adds to his ghost-like status. He thus is more like a defining birthmark to his adoptive family instead of a separate entity. So the novel is not so much about an isolated man and his affect on the community as it is about a fork in the way of a civilization. While the aborigines were largely unchanged by Gemmy's presence, the European settlement would have been vastly different without him, wouldn't they?

A question haunts me. What does it mean that the Europeans allowed Gemmy's presence to change them all somewhat, whereas the aborigines seemed able to isolate and neutralize his affect on them? Janet became a nun who studied bees, and Lachlan became a politician. They seemed suited for these things even without Gemmy's influence. But there was a...settling that came into every member of the McIvor family due to the things done to Gemmy. Janet received a sort of inner peace with herself during the evening when Gemmy was taken and abused, because of the moment she shared with her mother that Lachlan did not. Lachlan was then affected because he realized that there was something he wasn't included in. Every character was faced with a new part of themselves that they had to come to grips with, and lay to rest. The fact that they DO it leaves me wondering if they would have felt as complete without Gemmy's intrusion on their lives.

Although Gemmy's influence matures the other characters in the novel, he himself remains unchanged and a bit incomplete. The Gemmy at the beginning of the novel and at the end are not appreciably different. He does not create or grow himself in the way that the other characters do. He doesn't portray himself purposefully, as people do on the internet. We draw optimal pictures of ourselves constantly to each other, but Gemmy never did. He let others draw him any way they wished, and what they ended up drawing was a creature of their worst fears. They drew him as scapegoat, in a very Christian mentality, whereas the aborigines seemed to just live around him, as if he were a pet.

lady madonna

Key Quotes

Gemmy is first shown at the fence between the European settlement, and the aborigine lands, about to fall onto the white side while three European children watched.

"The creature or spirit in him had spoken up, having all along had the words in there that would betray him and which, when they came hooting out of his mouth, so astonished him: Do not shoot. I am a B-b-british object."(p.33)

Gemmy contemplating Janet:

"She was a puzzle to him. He could never be sure what she was thinking. He knew the boy's thoughts because he wanted them known. His power lay in your recognizing that he possessed it. It was a power that belonged to him because he was a boy; because one day, the authority he had claimed in raising the stick to his shoulder would be real. The girl's power was entirely her own. She needed no witness to it."(p. 36)

"He was a parody of a white man."(p.39)

The settlers:

"For at any moment--and this was the fact of the matter--they might be overwhelmed."(p.42)

"What you fix your gaze on is the little hard-backed flies that are crawling about in the corner of its bloodshot eyes and hopping down at intervals to drink the sweat of its lip. And the horror it carries to you is not just the smell, in your own sweat, of a half-forgotten swamp-world going back deep in both of you, but that for him, as you meet here face to face in the sun, you and all you stand for have not yet appeared over the horizon of the world, so that after a moment all the wealth of it goes dim in you, then is canceled altogether, and you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you so far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is that you may never go back. It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly and the encounter was an embrace."(p.43)

Gemmy's influence on the McIvor spouses.

Was he changed? He saw now that he must be, since they were as they had always been and he could not agree with them. When had it begun? When they agreed to take Gemmy in. That was the simple answer, since it was from that moment that some area of difference, of suspicion, had opened between them. But tht emore he thought of it, the clearer it seemed that the difference must have always existed, since he too was as he had always been; only he had been blind to it, or had put it out of his mind from an old wish to be accepted - and why not? - or a fear of standing alone. He had never been a thinker, and he did not now become one, but he began to have strange thoughts. Some of them were bitter. They had to do with what he saw, now that he looked, was in the hearts of men - quite ordinary folks like himself; he wondered that he had not seen it before. What the other and stranger thoughts had to do with he did not know. It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable self, wrapped always ina communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone. Wading through waist-high grass, he was surprised to see all the tips beaded with green, as if some new growth had come into the world that till now he had never seen or heard of. When he looked closer it was hundreds of wee bright insects, each the size of his little fingernail, metallic, iridescent, and the discovery of them, the new light they brough to the scene, was a lightness in him - that was what surprised him - like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. It was unnameable, which disturbed him, but was also exhilarating; for a moment he was entirely happy. But he wondered at himself. A grown man of forty with work to do, standing dreamily stilled, extending his hand, palm downwards, over the backs of insects, all suspended in their tiny lives in a jewel-like glittering. Another time, by the creek, he looked up, casually he thought, and saw a bird. It was balanced on a rounded stone dipping its beak into the lightly running water, its grey squat body as undistinguished and dusty looking as a sparrow's (but there were no sparrows here), its head grey, with a few untidy feathers. He was sitting, himself, on a larger stone, also rounded, eating the last of a sandwich, his boots in mud. But what his stilled blood saw was the bird's beak drawing long silver threads out of the heart of the water, which was all a tangle of threads, bunched or running; and his boots had no weight, neither did his hand with the half-bitten lump of bread in it, nor his heart, and he was filled with the most intense and easy pleasure: in the way the air stirred the leaves overhead and each leaf had attached itself to a twig, and whirled yet kept hold; and in the layered feathers that made up the grey of the bird's head; and at how long the threads of water must be to run so easily from where they had come from to wherever it was, imaginably out of sight, that they were going - tangling, untangling, running free. And this time too the intense pleasure he felt had a disturbing side. The things he had begun to be aware of, however fresh and innocent, lay outside what was common, or so he thought; certainly, since he could have found no form in which to communicate them, outside words. (p.108-109)

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