Reading Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water again, reminded me of how elemental she is to NZ writing. For she was just a writer, whose sole task is to find the words to describe people and environment. Her madness, which is unexplained except as a nervousness, an anxiety about the world, gave her the content. It forced her into contact with society as madness, made up of the patients and the staff of the looney bin; the asylum as microcosm. She is not interested in politics except as a sort of class system among the mad, which led to patient distribution to this ward or that. The patients and their peculiarities, the staff and their’s, the natural world – that’s it. The writer’s task is to write. There is no explanation, no Freud or Jung here, the madness just is. ECT is administered to enable forgetting. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, best to forget it. ECT will help the process. If that doesn’t work, a leucotomy.
We know the story of her being saved from that by a story, by publication, the doctor realising she was a writer and therefore it was a mistake to fry her brain permanently.
Writing, once she was out of the bin, was a restoration of memory through writing. She lived reclusively, for the shyness, the anxiety presumably remained. But as pure writer, as writing as a singular vocation, she has no peers. The genius in the attic, or in this case, the provincial town suburb is a correct paradigm.
There is one description that remains with me: of her getting on the wrong side of one of the staff through perceiving an empathy for the patients lurking behind the brisk nurse’s mask. She is caught watching, caught understanding, becomes a caught-out consciousness, possessing the power which consciousness brings. Thereafter the staff member hates her and punishes her, for she has been exposed. It remains the writer’s dilemma: to shut oneself away and just write or to reveal her knowledge in the public arena and become threatening or foolish.
I can have that dilemma in the village in which I live. Consciousness is threatening, a negating of daily routine, of daily mask. To know can be an act of unkindness, even arrogance. Bill Pearson made no friends locally when he wrote Coal Flat.
There have been a lot of diggers operating in the area lately, so let me finish this post with a poem.
The mechanical arm
The compressed power
Of hydraulic fluid
The bucket scraping and lifting
The man in the cab
A strange animal
A beast of prey
Devouring the earth.
Time stands still –
Green leaf, insect life,
Stone and rock
Flat and tidy the result
Ready for concrete or asphalt
Those lifeless materials
Of modern man