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Autobiographies

John Docker

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In the last few months I've been doing the final revisings of 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, though its working title for a number of years was Adventures of Identity.

The book addresses the challenging debates that have been raging for over a decade, in many ways inspired by Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), that focus on issues of colonialism, postcolonialism, migration, diaspora, exile, belonging, identity, ethnicity, 'race'. I am interested in these debates for autobiographical as well as intellectual reasons; indeed, I can see no distinction between the autobiographical and the intellectual, ideas and being.

Philosophy, said Walter Benjamin, is the representation of ideas, and so is autobiography. By 'poetics' I mean that we necessarily understand or try to understand identity and belonging, or not belonging, through cultural forms – through representation as in genre, myth, novel, poem, allegory, parable, anecdote, story, sayings, metaphors, riddles. The autobiographical 'I' is never itself in a pure sense because it always represents itself through culture; the autobiographical eye can never perceive directly much less remember directly; further, there are continuous inner journeys that beckon deep within oneself to the scattered islands and mirages; I think of myself as a pathological hermit, yet one can make long voyages in the mind, prompted and pursued by desires entwinedly utopian and dystopian.

1492: The Poetics of Identity
is my utopian quest to reach towards a sense of entitlement to belong to a pre-1492 Judeo-Islamic trading, social and cultural world that stretched from Moorish Spain through the Mediterranean to India and China; a cosmopolitan world with its own poetics of heterogeneity, the convivencia and interaction and imbrication of many communities, Muslim, Christian, Jewish; a multi-ethnic multi-religious multi-cultural world that prized the scholar-merchant and travel as necessary for education, yet also revealed deep attachment to particular cities. My utopian quest, conducted in imagination and fantasy, genealogy and the body, with an intellectual method that seeks a kind of derangement, a cultivation of the art of madness – my quest is inevitably accompanied by farce, delusion, self-parody, self-mocking. Here the autobiographer is a shlemiel,revelling in comic stories of his own incompetence, humiliation, and banality.

In the last few years I have felt an extreme disenchantment with both white Australian society and Western monotheistic history. We talk of Europe as the old world, but I don't register either white Australian history or Western history as old: on the contrary. While writing the chapters for 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora my thinking took a bizarre theological turn; bizarre for the child of an atheistic Communist family, odd too in a Western intellectual environment, including most contemporary cultural theory, that is determinedly secular. I was puzzling over some whimsy of a fictional character I regard as a doppelganger: Leopold Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses, when he says that in his view the Israelites came "out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage". Here Bloom reverses the usual meaning of the story of Exodus.

Bloom's heretical interpretation recalled for me Edward Said's essay on Exodus, where Said points out that the Canaanites were already in the Promised Land. Said's Canaanite reading has stimulated an exciting new strand within recent postcolonial and diaspora theory – in authors like Ella Shohat, Regina Schwartz, Deborah Bird Rose, Ann Curthoys, Roland Boer – examining the impact of the Exodus story as a foundational narrative in the history of Western colonialism, seductive for both colonizers and colonised. I was stimulated to relate Bloom's vagaries and thoughts to some of the Old Testament stories. In Ulysses we don't know for quite a while if Bloom is circumcised or not. I don't know – my mother having died many years ago – if I am circumcised simply because after World War Two circumcision became a routine surgical procedure: a very odd procedure given how much in European Christian history the male Jew was despised and excoriated precisely for that feature.

In my book I wrote a chapter called "Mr Bloom's Penis" where I point out that in the Nausikaa episode, on the edge of the sea, a lonely Bloom masturbates, an activity that comes to reveal as it were that indeed he is not circumcised. In Judaism as I understand it, it is held that Jewishness for men and women is passed down through the mother. A boy born of a Jewish mother is automatically Jewish, whether or not he has been circumcised, and there have been long periods of Jewish history, especially in times of persecution as in Inquisitional Spain and Portugal, where circumcision has been foregone. The rite of circumcision is held to reprise a common ancestry with Abraham, the first Jew to be circumcised by God's command, in an unbroken line: circumcision goes back and forth from Abraham to the present and future.

In Genesis, God declares to Abraham, then in his nineties, that if he circumcises, God will establish a covenant between Abraham and his descendants. "I will give unto thee", God says to Abraham, "and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession" (Genesis 17: 6-12). Indeed, God tells Abraham that the covenant means that Abraham and his seed will with God's assistance be able to possess land "from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates", that is to say the land not only of the Canaanites but of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaims, Amorites, Girgashites, and Jebusites (Genesis 15: 18-21).

In not being circumcised, Bloom can exercise a kind of trickster-freedom from the violent project of colonial conquest that God here enjoins on Abraham and his descendants. Because of such trickster-freedom, Bloom can resist an associated injunction of the covenant, as in the following passage from Deuteronomy (12: 2-3).

     Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree.
    And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break down their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.
Because of his trickster-freedom, Bloom does not support one of the great disasters of European and world history, a disaster strongly urged by God in Deuteronomy and certainly continued in official Christianity and I think in Islam the other world monotheism as well: the attempted total destruction of paganism and its polytheistic religions, of pagan landscapes, and of even the memory that there had been pagans in the land now being occupied.

Bloom is at liberty not to observe God's instruction to the Israelites that in Canaan they "destroy the names out of that place" (Deuteronomy 12:3). In this injunction, the Canaanites are to be destroyed as history, as memory, as heritage. God directs the Israelites to render history into a single new layer (the name of the Canaanites having been destroyed)that has an absolute new existence and authority.

With his trickster-freedom, Bloom wishes to inhabit a history of layered meanings, palimpsestial. His mind dwells in diaspora, a consciousness that roams in time and space, at once here and there, now and then.

With Bloom, my fictional doppelganger, I feel that I belong to histories, not to a place, not to a land. I know that histories are always torn, always bitter. I cannot belong to a Promised Land, because the Promised Land is a colonized land, haunted by the fate of the Canaanites, who could only be displaced by brutality and cruelty. If my circumcised body is supposed to represent the covenant with Abraham and his descendants, then I don't belong to my body. I don't belong to a so-called ethnic community, because the community I could relate to, like many other diasporic communities, is fond of espousing multiculturalism in Australia yet believes in nationalism and ethnic absolutism in its claimed society of origin. I don't like the way ethnic communities European or Asian will not admit to any complicity in the history of colonialism in Australia, the multiple ways they have been advantaged by it; they prefer a victimological narrative. I keep thinking about a Cavafy poem, "Ithaka", that suggests that it is the journey itself that offers riches of knowledge, not arriving home to where one apparently belongs. And remember that when Homer's Odysseus did at last arrive back at Ithaka, he and his son Telemachus slew Penelope's suitors with extraordinary violence, including cutting off their testicles and throwing them to the waiting dogs.

I am forever haunted by lines I studied for my long ago honours thesis, in 1966, on T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, lines I roughly remember as with these fragments I shore up my ruins.I feel I can only journey towards a state of paradoxical negation in Australia in relation to its topological features of so many kinds – its landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes, cityscapes, beachscapes. I can only journey towards a state of neither belonging nor non-belonging.One has to stay haunted and tormented; one's mind has to stay with fragments, ruins, shadows, with ambiguity and contradictoriness. I grew up in Bondi, on the edge of the sea, the edge of the continent, it is where also my grandparents lived whom I would visit every day after school when I was in primary years. I recall that my internationalist Communist father loved to go to Bondi beach and sit reading on the hill at the south end, sheltered from the cold southerly wind; I recall that my English mother would never go from our block of flats in Edward Street to the beach, fearing the sea, and I still feel fear when putting my face in the water while swimming. I still love going back to Bondi to swim and catch waves or walk along its promenade as a flaneur,stroller, voyeur, enjoying gazing at humanity from around the world, the diversity, the bizarre differences, my own bizarreness in their eyes. Yet Bondi too once belonged to its Canaanite peoples.

In Baudelaire's opening poem to The Flowers of Evil, "Au Lecteur",the poet addresses his reader as a hypocrite, then admits that he too is similar, is a hypocrite. I too live in hypocrisy. I reject Australian nationalism and lordly say I cannot understand a society which says its legendary hero is someone who once hit a ball with a piece of wood. Yet I am desperate that Australian sporting teams win and obsessively read and watch the sporting news. I despise Australian society for its anti-academicism and anti-intellectualism, for its despicable public sphere of opinion and commentary; yet overseas, especially in England, I feel a common nostalgia for Australian landscapes and relaxed social style, and in particular for the dazzling beauty of Sydney, an exciting cosmopolitan port city like other great port cities in the world past and present, brazen and corrupt – 'my' city.

I feel and write that the intellectual should be a stranger amongst the nations, a trickster critical of any society, a permanent outsider. Yet I know the trickster, the outsider, the stranger, also has an aching longing to belong.

John Docker presented this paper at the "Belonging Conference", Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, in November 1999.

In Australian Humanities Review,see also by John Docker:

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