Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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This idea of the inviolate self is one that would have felt quite familiar to you, I imagine, because from when you were a small child you had had this solitary centre. Has that capacity to live and think so apart, so inwardly, ever cut you off from connections with other humans that you would have liked to have made?

I don't think it's a desire to live apart. I think it's a desire to recognise one's own autonomy, which is a very different thing, and of course autonomy would be a very wearisome thing if there were no other people in the world. I don't believe it's operated to separate me from people at all really. It might be that I place too high demands on social interaction and I expect it to be intimate and interesting, but I have close and dear friends. I love my children in a very uninhibited, joyful way and my grandchildren. I would think - going back to this problematical thing of how other people would describe you - I'm confident people wouldn't describe me as cold. I don't think I'm cold. So it seems to me much more a recognition, you are on your own, you are the only person who can influence your own destiny. You have to take responsibility at least for yourself and I've never seen any charm in submitting my will to outside authorities. And if you're in that situation, clearly you develop your own morality, your own sense of priorities and I'm very mistrustful of people who cheerfully accept imposed structures without evaluating them.

You've thought a lot about the self because you undertook an investigation of the self in 'Tiger's Eye', an historical investigation of yourself. What do you think about your self? Have there been many selves? What do you think about the continuity of who you've been through your life?

It's a difficult question for me because I - essentially my life has been a flow of intellectual activities overlaying a social world that changed from being single to being married to being without children to being with children living with me to the children leaving and so on. There is that sort of basic structure of life and domestic conditions, if you like, coupled with the whole business of ageing. But my life was otherwise mapped in terms of intellectual enthusiasms and that in a sense constituted my self. My self was in action. It wasn't something I contemplated as an entity. It was really only with 'Tiger's Eye' which had got, where writing had got generated as a matter of pleasure, of locating myself socially in threatening circumstances and as a matter of survival, that when it came to the issue of why should I publish this, I looked at it and I thought, well, it's all evidence. These are the sorts of external, externalised texts that people use when they're writing biographies. Now, God knows, I didn't want to write my own biography. I'd sort of been there but in a distracted kind of way, but I think one reason I agreed to publish it was that I felt, as an historian, the text had a sort of general utility beyond my private purposes. This is what happens, this is what this batch of hallucinations looked like, because to my surprise I found that there was very little close account of hallucinations, for example. So it was really part of my sense that documents should be allowed to stand regardless of how they might be interpreted by others. I didn't feel self-protective about them because the process of writing had externalised them.

Now obviously for our purposes we wished you hadn't been self-protective in the destruction of photographs through the course of your life. Could you tell me why did you destroy so many of the photographs of yourself?

I suppose vanity had a lot to do with it early. I hated the way I looked in photographs. But I think it's also that photographs, in my view, challenge and corrupt memory. That one remembers individuals, for example, through time as a sort of moving collection of lights or a melody, I've tried to think of how you can describe people who've mattered to you, and it's never in terms of a static photograph. They will be an action. It will be a glance, it will be a sensation you get when you see them, a particular happiness. It's a bit like a distinctive melody that surrounds them. And photographs have always seemed to me to cannibalise that complicated moving memory, you know, sequence of memories and fix them in a form, because I didn't like the photographs of my children either. I would say, "I hate that photograph. He's not like that". And he wouldn't be. So I see them as a violation of the actuality I want to cherish in my memory, and I know quite well we lose things, and memories fade and now with what we've been doing with these photographs, you know, I love looking at the photographs of my father in the First World War. I'm very happy to have a photograph of my sister which catches something of her brilliance. So I guess I like other people's photographs but even - and I love my grandchildren's photographs - but even with my own children, I felt they never caught them in the way they were.

As an historian though you've used photographs.

Indeed and been grateful for them. Yeah, all methods of recording past actualities are imperfect, every one of them. Human memory, written texts, photographs. All of them.

One interpretation of your destruction of the photographs might well be, some people might suggest, that it demonstrated an uneasy relationship with yourself.

I think we get on fairly well. I don't feel derided. Other people talk about feeling like this. I don't. I don't feel separated from my landscape, I don't. I sometimes feel very jubilantly myself, when I'm swimming for example. No, I just didn't much like the way I looked and I didn't much like the falsification of experience that I thought was entailed in photographs. But I might be wrong.

Inga, the beach has played a big role in your life, hasn't it?

It has.

What does the beach mean to you?

A huge amount of things. For as long as I can remember it's been the place I've loved. I could never live inland. You know, I'm uneasy if I'm too far from saltwater and a whole lot of it. It locates me as insignificant with the slightly patterned but complex movement of the waters, the shifting beauty, the complexity of the life it sustains, the pleasures of being underneath the water or on top of the water, whichever, and the freedom that's conferred on anybody who heads down over a sand dune, across level sand and sees the sea. It seems to me that that is both a great consolation for living and a necessary, gentle and tender reminder of one's own personal insignificance. The beaches, I remember, are heavily populated by family and friends, but they're also solitary places because everyone goes for solitary walks on the beach which might be the most important experiences of their lives. I sometimes think that. One of my few conscious fears is that someone I love should drown in waters I love. I think it would be very difficult to keep on seeing the sea purely when it signalled a personal desolation.

What does being Australian mean to you?

Being lucky, very lucky. I don't - people sometimes write about their sense of alienation from the landscape or their sense that they don't have a right to be here, an uneasiness, an existential uneasiness. I have never felt that, partly because of the beach being such an important part of my life from the beginning. And the beach is an extraordinary experience of physical well-being that's often - and freedom that comes, you know, it's a package deal, there it all is. And Australia's beaches are incomparable and they're various and there's miles and miles of them, so you never come to the end of them, that sense of expansion. I have a sense of space, freedom, newness and also of the autonomy of the individual here and that obviously has not been true for the Aboriginal part of society, on the contrary. So that is a large necessary truth that I have to had to get into my mind and then to keep in my mind, but I think for most peoples coming in afterwards, something like that experience of freedom and openness has really happened. Yet another of the obscure pleasures of going to the Austin Hospital quite a lot is that it's a magnificent mixing bowl of different peoples. You know, you really do see Australian society in co-operative action and it's a very pretty sight. Now, whether we can retain all that, with the brutalisation effected by the changes in the economy, and the ruthless and outrageous immoralism of people saying "My only duty is towards", you know, "my shareholders" - when they're lying even when they say that - whether those, that sense of space, freedom, possibility, autonomy, will endure, I don't know. I'm shocked at the number of people who think those peculiar attributes we have can be best maintained by an increasingly close and severe grip on people. It isn't the way to do it. But I think I'm inordinately fortunate to be born in this country when I was born. I struck it lucky.

[end of interview]