Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

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You've described a great many different sorts of experiences that your extraordinary illness brought you. I wonder if you could sum up now, with the benefit of a few years hindsight, what really was the legacy of that illness for you? How did it change you? What did you take from it that was, as it were, permanent in its effect on you?

A sense of freedom, liberation, pleasure. A sense that my life had settled onto tracks in the way lives tend to do when you get to be sixtyish and you have a career and there they are laid out in front of you and you have a rather dreary vision of the freedom, of the future and then when someone blows the tracks up, and there's green countryside all around you, and almost anything could happen. It had that sort of sense, it was essentially a liberation. It was an escape from the pleasant constrictions of academe and of a life spent in educational establishments. I now have no desire to go back anywhere near them. It shot me out into what is called the real world, whatever that might be, and into a promiscuous clutter of people doing all sorts of other things. In hospital I got to know farmers, I got to know teachers in provincial schools, I got to know a range of people who otherwise I would never even have met probably. And because I had a room that had a little annexe for an extra bed - so I'd get odd people who turned up and had to get out the major ward for a night or two - you know, we'd have whole nights of conversation, and it was quite extraordinary. I enjoyed that. And I retain a sense, a more powerful sense, that people are extraordinarily benevolent. One of the dilemmas for historians when, especially historians who explore rather horrific subjects, is that people say, "Ah well, that's just what people are like. They do that kind of thing". In reality, that seems to me profoundly false. What most people I've encountered through my life have been, is remarkably kind, remarkably unready to leave you in a fix, despite those kids down in Kew who did ignore me - but they were shy I think as much as anything. What puzzles me is that typically people respond with kindness and goodwill and yet can be turned to other conduct. So the inquiry for me is always how come that people who are basically good - it's the old great division between whether people are basically good or basically bad. The whole experience of the liver transplant and the, being tossed into the world in a, in a weakened state is that, yes, people are indeed basically good, so what has to be explained is when they perform evil actions.

At a personal level, did you feel, as it were, born again? Did you feel a new person?

To a degree, most especially after that first illness when I was at Freemasons, and it was spring and I would be taken out from the confines of a hospital. And one thing I have developed is a sort of claustrophobia now, I hate being inside, you know, closed in rooms. I find that very alarming. And to go out into the gardens there with blossoms and trees and bright green leaves and all the usual paraphernalia was profoundly thrilling. I mean I - it really was a conscious rebirth and I've retained that I think. I haven't got used to the beauty of nature. The beauty of little kids. Just haven't got used to them again. They keep on seeming to me absolutely remarkable. That was a rebirth. I think I'm different, I'm tougher. Much less afraid of anything. Reckless. I could scarcely swim. I could stay afloat forever but I wasn't a good swimmer until after the transplant and now I swim out deep and find it exhilarating. I don't think a white pointer will eat me and if it does, so what? You know, there's a liberation from anxious fears, I suppose.

Anxious fears of what?

Well, of danger, of attack, any number of things, just that vague penumbra of anxiety which I don't whether the change is that, you know, I looked death in the eye and didn't blink, or whether it was simply that I had to move much more in public buildings, I had to depend on the kindness of strangers, and I found kindness. So the notion of being alarmed at being on an empty railway station or walking down an empty street and someone comes walking towards you, you no longer feel that.

The Aztec warrior inside you told you how you should behave. Did you find it difficult to do that?

No. I think I've never been afraid of - I haven't been afraid of people who were dying and I certainly haven't been afraid of dead people. And accidentally I had a little experience of both, from young, you know, as a kid. The boy who shared my desk in preliminary infants, died of peritonitis. I was - a car I was in was right up behind a bad accident on the Geelong Melbourne road and I stayed with the little man who'd come flying out of the door as it slewed open and landed with a conclusive thump on the verge. And I knew he was dead, but I covered him with a blanket and held his hand, because I was a bit lonely, and I just - I was about seven or eight then - and I just didn't fear people who were dead or dying which was why I found it puzzling when my family were so alarmed. I don't feel that at all. And in hospital it can happen that you're suddenly in close proximity with someone who's dying and it never seemed to me baffling or puzzling to know what you did.

And did it seem to you to be completely logical that after that experience you should turn to an examination of the Holocaust?

Logical. I'm not sure what connection you're suggesting there.

I'm not suggesting any connection, I'm asking you whether you saw any connection. I mean, after it was over you said that your new lease of life, you wanted to use...

I wanted to use it...

And you told us the trigger and how you were thinking. I'm asking whether or not you see any other connection that might be emotional or whatever that...

No, I don't think so, except, I mean, one connection was a sort of paradox. Anything I had gone through was effected by people who were concerned for my well-being, absolutely. I was surrounded by tender loving care. If people had to hurt me, they did that unwillingly. What it would be like to be surrounded by malice seemed to me a very terrible and terrifying thing. So it was not in any sense seeing the Holocaust as any kind of extension of my situation but as an absolute transformation of it, where the experience of helplessness, which I had, would go along with an experience of implacable malice. And that made it more important to try to grasp not so much the condition of the victims but to understand the perpetrators. How they did it? How they continued to do it?

And what did you conclude?

It's not something I can sum up quickly, but the lessons seemed, looked meagre but I think they'd probably be adequate. The individual conscience is the only guide and guard, you have to practise saying no. You have to be extremely aware - wary of all the secondary virtues like doing a good day's work, being loyal to the boss, being loyal to your mates, not dobbing anyone in. All those sturdy virtues I would view with great mistrust. Take care with what you do, great care, because you'll get used to doing it. If you feel a wince of the conscience, desist. It seems to me it's in those kinds of areas that the lessons like - keep language pure because one of the most insidious and effective and essential preliminary moves of the Nazis was to introduce forms of language, softened forms of language, often with a metaphor of hygiene, to separate citizens who happened to be Jewish from other citizens who were not Jewish and then to condemn the Jewish citizens to death. It seemed to me that a corruption, the corruption of language was an essential preliminary move in that, so guard the language. Use it as clearly and simply and transparently as you can. The old George Orwell point. And as I say, practise disobedience, because you need to practise it. Take on authority, see what happens.

How did you come to write 'Tiger's Eye'?

I wrote it because I had to write something. I needed to write something to hold body and soul together and...

Could you explain that a little bit? You've said that a few times, "But of course I had to write it. When I started thinking about it, I had to write it"...

When I was experiencing what I was experiencing at each stage of my illness, because it was an acutely lonely sensation, because Sylvia Plath has it exactly right, any form of illness, not just mental illness, claps a bell-jar down over you. The first thing that happens is social isolation and it keeps on happening. So you're going to introspect and you also have to try to make sense, or I found I had to try to make sense, render intelligible, get a grip on, that which was happening to me, both physically and socially in the first stages. So when I was clapped into hospital and began to feel beleaguered and shredded and got at, it seemed to me very important to analyse what was being done to me and why I was getting those responses. Why did I feel like a four year old again? What was going on? I would tame it by putting it into words and then I could examine it. You know, experience was turned into an examinable form. The same thing with the physical changes. You can just be left in a inchoate state of mortified vanity but once you start really trying to describe what this weird phenomenon in the mirror is, it, it's much more manageable, it's even quite funny. The memories were rather different, because there's chunks of memoir in 'Tiger's Eye'. They were about my own sense that I was going to die, I was fairly sure I was, didn't seem likely as if I was going to clamber out of this. And I had an urge to memorialise my parents, to try to clarify my relationship with my mother particularly, and at least to memorialise my father and the way it used to be. And I found I could hardly do that without memorialising my childhood because we were in that parent child relationship and I knew nothing of them, really, beyond that limited interaction, that peculiar squint of a relationship of a parent and a child. And then I began to take pleasure in memory and I began to be diverted by what an untrusty worthy thing it is. Historians know memory is untrustworthy, that's not news to us, but just how devious, deceitful, what a chronic liar it is I hadn't really worked out in detail by working on my own memories. And I enjoyed doing that and that filled in the spaces when I would otherwise have been very lonely, when I was feeling better in other words and less beleaguered, so there was time. And then, a variety of accidents, like once thinking I was going to absolutely run out of things to read, which always terrifies me and I knew I would, so I thought I'd better write something as the only way to make the one little book I had left last. And I began to write short stories, and I was amazed at how absorbing they could be in a different mood, and also at a different level of health. And then as I say, when the inflamed brain sickness was at its worst, I would just be chasing individual words which let me map just how fast I was losing language. You know, and how quickly memory, my cantankerous friend, was abandoning me, and I did get worried. So there were a whole series of, to me, new experiences and dilemmas, I suppose, existential dilemmas coming out of being ill and the vagaries of being ill. It's a very peculiar, shifting state and my way of handling those and giving me, whoever that is, some sense of continuity, was to keep a written record. The real question about 'Tiger's Eye' is not why I wrote it. I wrote it to stay alive, but why I published it. That is a mystery to me in a way.

You don't have the answer yet?

I don't think I do.

Was it your idea to publish it?

No, not originally. Helen Daniel never believed in wasting writing. If you had writing you published it. And I'd written something else for her as I was improving, when I was coming back to ordinary life, my vehicle for doing that was writing a piece called 'Reading Mr Robinson', which was my first sally into Australian history. You see once you've been sick, you're not scared to invade any territory. They can just try to keep you out. So I wrote about Mr Robinson... [INTERRUPTION]

Who was he?

Well, he'd been Protector of the Aborigines in Tasmania and had managed to round up the remnants of the tribes after the herding of the Aborigines right across Tasmania in what was called the Friendly Mission. He collected them and then, perforce, betrayed them by dumping them down on an island instead of letting them remain in their homeland. And then he came to Victoria and became Protector of the Aborigines here. He was a travelling man. His assistant protectors would have much preferred him just to stay home but he'd clamour on his horse and off he'd go on surveys of his new territories. And he happened to keep journals of his journeys and one of his journeys covered the winter months of 1841, I think, and, as he went from Melbourne down to Portland and back with a dog leg swing into the Grampians on the way home. And of course that's territory I knew but territory I knew as an empty landscape. And there he was riding through it and he was also an absolutely marvellous writer. There are people who leap off the page and he was one of them and I wanted to - I read it almost by mistake and then I wanted to sort of celebrate him as a person, as a phenomenon, only within the space of that journal, pretending he hadn't existed beforehand, because in a way we're always renewing ourselves and changing. I wanted the Mr Robinson of that journey and what he told us about the nature of relations between Aborigines and white Australians during that period. And I was extremely startled at what I learnt. It was a crucial period in the effective extinction of the Victorian Aborigines and the herding of the survivors into a few reservations. And I enjoyed doing it very much. And it brought me back to history because I wasn't ready for the full rigours of going back into my own period - and I've forgotten so much of that, you know, it's hard, it's going to be hard - but this was simply a strange little discreet topic and a vivid individual and so I wrote about him, and Helen published that. And she got me to publish reviews and so on, so she gathered up the writings I'd done, because I said, "Look, you know, they're just self-indulgent jottings there. I like some of my little stories but I'll bung them in the odd short story competition" because I'd managed to win the very first short story writing competition I went in for which is a very corrupting thing to happen to someone. And then a thousand word story won the Books and Writing short story competition, so I was very pleased about that, because all these things were happening after the transplant. You know, it was fun to do something different and to get these little awards. But she gathered them up and took them off to Michael Heyward at Text Publishing and he proceeded to make a book out of them or to tell me what I had, extra bits I had to do to make a book out of them. But it's been a difficult book to explain to people because they keep saying, "Oh I like the memoirs. Why did you have this stuff about the sickness?" Or "I liked the sickness, why did you have this stuff about childhood?" Well, they usually say they like both of those, what they didn't like were the short stories, which is like telling me my children are plain or something. However, I obviously hadn't explained properly in the body of the book which I'd tried to do, what I should have called this was not a memoir, but raw material towards a biography of the self, you know, not an autobiography, but these were the writings I'd generated in conditions of hardship, so they were documentation of what was going on within me that I wasn't really aware of at all. And so perhaps I should call it raw materials towards a history of the self, see how many that will sell.

The interesting thing is that when you use documentation in your historical writing, in your writing of history, you always, you have this method which, you see through all your work, where you supply the document fully and give us the evidence you've got and then you do an interpretation of it. In this book about the self you supply the documentation, but with not a great deal of the kind of discussion that you use in exploring other histories and not the history of you. Why do you think that is?

I do a little bit, mainly with disclaiming the reliability of the texts I've offered you. You know, I have a daughter's eye view of my mother, why should you rely on that? You know, I've raised the critical issues about the status of these documents. No I don't try to interpret them, I think because I don't think that's my job, I don't - I generated them, I do some elucidation. I see some of the connections obviously in the hallucination material back to my father's war, back to my concern with warfare. I mean there's ways in which I now would write a different account of my career, a more internalised account, that it wasn't as external career choice, rational, but coming out of earlier experiences. I notice in the short stories something that nobody else seems to notice, many of them are puzzles about how far autonomy can be pressed, and how lethal autonomy can become if it's pressed too far, because clearly I'm interested in being autonomous but I'm also aware of the perils of it. So I, I thought I was sort of elucidating that by plonking the stories down one after the other, but no one's noticed that. I - I don't think - I have a nice time doing something I think is wicked by writing a prequel to Chekhov's 'Lady with a Little Dog' ['Lady with the Dog'], which let me play around with his letters and work out of his letters, which I enjoyed doing very much because the one thing I thought was wrong with that marvellous story was that the girl comes across on a second meeting with Gurov and it's too quick. She's a well brought up, young wife, provincial wife and she has brought with her on holidays an icon and she's shy and aloof and I couldn't believe the second meeting would see it happen. However, she has a little dog, Chekhov has a little dog and if she had seen him, been attracted to him and almost encountered him several times and then realised he was spoken for, it would be possible for her to accidentally trip and fall with the next man who turns out to be the love of her life, but that's the kind of thing that can happen.

You took these fragments really of your life, the memories that came up to you as you pointed out in the book, almost by chance what you remembered, and the hallucinations that presented themselves to you almost thrown up like an earthquake throws up artefacts. But there is such a chance in this, isn't there? And this is something that, you know, in that parallel between the history of the self and the histories that you've written of other periods, there is a certain chance factor in what survives.

Oh yes, absolutely.

Is there a danger of putting too much weight on the things that happen?

On the things we happen to know about, of course, but that is a problem that historians have to live with and there's always a possibility of - actually in practice it never feels as bad as that because you begin to get a glimmering of a possibility, a possible interpretation, and you will begin to pick up reverberations of that interpretation in all sorts of unlikely places. You know, of course this can feel risky, but when you're, you think you're beginning to get a fix on the moral processes, the hidden moral processes through which a warrior goes ideally as he goes through the stages of the ritual combat and either is victorious or defeated and what conduct is expected from him, how he can best behave to the moment of death. And you think you've worked something out from a close analysis of the ritual action, it's something that's plausible, and then you get verification from the movement of some of the warrior chants and from the metaphors used in the poetry, they reinforce it, and in the advice given to virtuous conduct to a young girl. You know, you spot some of the same notions, and so there's a way in which the verifications, that's putting it too strongly but there, it's supporting evidence, comes in from a wide range of disparate sources. Now when that happens, you get happier and happier. It fits, and obscure things fit, things you haven't understood, suddenly reshape themselves and you think, "Yes, it's about that".

And so in doing 'Tiger's Eye' and presenting us with documentations of the self, you were giving us the opportunity to do just that kind of cross-reference?

If you wanted to, yeah, absolutely, and I think I felt that given my job was generating the documents which in a sense had come to me, I didn't invite the hallucinations, heaven knows, and in a way the randomness of the memories intrigued me. Why was I selecting them that way? Why were they those memories in that sort of sequence which intruded? Why were the stories, which seemed completely gratuitous, the shape they were? Why did they have the obsessions they had, because they really just did seem like little freak stories that came into my head. Why did I remember some people from my childhood and not others? Why had they compelled my imagination? It seemed to me that my job was, as it were, to inscribe those things honestly, including these communiqués from my dark interior that I hadn't known about, were new to me, it would have seemed to me very odd, I hadn't thought of this, but it would have seemed to me very odd for me to try to interpret them. I think I'm...

That's..

Too implicated.

That's the reader's job.

Yeah. Job or pastime or if they want to. And I think that's important too, you flummoxed me earlier by asking me what my friends thought of me and what the people at school had thought of me, and I said "I didn't know", and that's true, I don't know. It seems to me that what other people make of us is one of those imperishable liberties you can't take away from people. It's up to them.

How did you come to do the Boyer Lectures?

Ah, I got a letter in the post and I thought it was a hoax because it pretended it was asking me to do the Boyer Lectures and it was signed by someone improbable called Donald McDonald, and I thought which of my lunatic friends would consider this amusing. And my second thought was, and this did amaze me, if it's not a hoax, I'll do them because my inclination previously is always to decline things. No, I won't, I don't want to, no, thank you. And it really is because I was too unself-confident and too anxious to undertake exposure. People would find that a bit surprising seeing that once I've undertaken it, I do it without blinking, but I was very surprised when my response was, if it's not a hoax, ttch, because I had nothing to do it on. I couldn't tell the Radio National audience all about Aztecs very well. It was a standing start for me, whatever I did - and of course I was told very graciously I could do it about anything I wanted to.

You said you were surprised you said yes, without even knowing what you were going to talk about, and yet you did say yes.

I did.

So what had changed about you to surprise yourself so much?

Reckless, nothing to lose. Why not? That sort of talk. That's why and I suppose I was helped by the fact that I knew I could talk reasonably clearly and communicate quite well and I wanted people to be able listen to an academic with the sense that they could follow them, easily.

[end of tape]

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