September 2008


On fragments and dust

By Nicolas Rothwell
On fragments and dust

Temple of Bel, Palmyra. © Michael Nicholson - Corbis.

During the year or so I spent recently as a correspondent in Iraq and the wider Middle East, I found myself often in the vicinity of holy places - temples from the Hellenistic era, early churches, Umayyad mosques and desert sanctuaries, mosaic-floored synagogues. I visited many of those sites, most of them ruins, and almost always they seemed to me not merely damaged, but somehow breached, stripped of their power, devastated - and this was not just because they had suffered from the effects of bombardment and sacrilege, or because they had been decaying for so many years. That pulverised, broken quality was also the result of changes in the human realm: the men and women who had believed in those places had vanished: and faith, much like love, once shattered, cannot be resumed: the aura of a sacred precinct cannot endure man's neglect: its air of holiness remains only as a reproachful, nostalgic afterglow - and against such backdrops the lessons and warnings of religious texts seem to flash into sharp, bitter focus, and to take aim at gods as well as man.

Thoughts of this kind would always come to me after I had driven the narrow, ill-maintained highway through the Syrian Desert, towards the Euphrates Valley, the Iraqi border and Anbar Province beyond: I used to break my journey round sunset, at Tadmor, beside the ruins of Palmyra - Queen Zenobia's capital, home to the loveliest sculptures of the ancient world. Palmyra is most admired today for its mazy underground tombs, although it is presided over by the monumental, intricately decorated Temple of Bel, and its lonely archaeological museum is filled with masterworks of Palmyrene funerary art - busts of the deceased, wearing wistful expressions, and often holding little flasks beside their eyelids to catch the falling tears.

But sometimes I travelled into Iraq on a different road, which passed through the south-eastern provinces of Turkey, and then I could look out along the frontier as I drove, and glimpse, between the watchtowers in no-man's-land, the tumbled battle site of Carcemish, or the mountain city of Mardin, which hides a honeycomb of catacombs and half-known Chaldean churches: and in that same region lies obscure, forgotten Sumatar, an astrological temple complex raised by the Sabaeans, whose religion was said to be the oldest and most cryptic of the entire Levant. There were times, too, when I took the short cut through northern Syria, past Aleppo, and once I even made a side trip to Deir Samaan, the basilica of St Simeon the Stylite: it is a grand, wide-arched structure that looks out across a fertile plain. The remains of the column upon which the saint lived for 37 years are still there, and beside it, amid the permanently blossoming wild flowers, is a Greek inscription, almost a graffito: "You are like the windswept dust," it reads: how not to hear the echo of God's sentence to Adam in the book of Genesis? "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This theme, this interest in dust and ash, in dustiness, is one of the leitmotifs of the Old Testament, and I have found it comes to mind frequently during my present travels through the sandy, dusty realms of northern and Central Australia.

When I left the Middle East, that sense of things in dust and fragments seemed very strong: I went back to my home in Darwin, and started trying to forge my thoughts into a continuous narrative, a smooth stream of words - but soon I fell into composing in fragments; I would write nothing more than stray snatches of story; and it was not just that I was failing in my tasks - for what author is not always distorting and betraying the first image that forms in his mind's eye of his work? No: the fragment, the symbol-laden fragment, rather than the flowing sequence, was the necessary form for what I had to say: what I meant was in fragments, and dust; it was best told in fragments - fragments were all that I could manage, and even they seemed too controlled, too much a bid to reimpose order on a flux of shimmering, glancing, barely causal connecting chains.

There are two quite separate thoughts, or intuitions, that come to me as I turn over these experiences: first, the idea that the religious tradition which shaped the West over the past two millennia is no longer intact: that it is broken, it has fallen from primacy - and if it lingers on, it does so only in a wounded way; its hold is no longer total; a pathos hangs over it, much like the pathos we associate with ruins. And in a similar fashion, I feel the template of narrative that has dominated Western literature so long is not what it was: order and form, which once provided the meridian, which were all in art, have lost their supremacy; they too have been dethroned. Is there a link between these two seeming deaths: the death of the divine, and the demise of narrative?

In what follows, in thinking about fragments, and dust, and fate, I would like to range across a wide landscape, in an episodic way, to explore these twin themes in tandem - to draw together a set of scattered elements - to compose a tale from them.

Let me begin with a book written under straitened circumstances, in a city of multiple faiths, Istanbul, in wartime, between May 1942 and April 1945: Mimesis, the German philologist Erich Auerbach's overview of Western literature, is also a manual for life, a self-portrait and a judgement on our age. As soon as it was published, it was recognised as a work of majesty: it figures on any serious list of the last century's great books; it is constantly praised to the stars: it certainly figured in my scapegrace classical education, which took place also very much at the close of a dying tradition - I remember vividly the sense of ending I used to feel as I watched my teachers pace the classrooms, waving their hands vainly in order to compel our attention to the austere texts beneath our eyes. Mimesis, in those days, as I recall, had a lavish purple cover, and a feathery baroque pattern on it, intended, doubtless, to suggest the highest reaches of refinement; and I know I glanced through it, but, as so often in youth, I paid little heed to what was there. Among other things, Auerbach expressed in his pages with great clarity the links between the narratives of art and life: he spoke of the interpretation and understanding of our existence which arise from life itself, "which grow up in the individuals themselves, which are to be discerned in their thoughts, their consciousness, and in a more concealed form in their words and actions. For there is always going on within us a process of formulation and interpretation whose subject matter is our own self." How much time and pain I would have saved, had I been able then to internalise those words - but one of the great divisions of existence is that between people who absorb the learning that lies in books, and those who take nothing on trust, and have to find out the hard way, through life's lessons, for themselves.

When I had finished my time in the Middle East, I took a flight out, from Tehran to Istanbul, and during my brief stay there, I found a copy of Mimesis, the fiftieth-anniversary edition, as it happens, in a second-hand bookshop in the Galata district, and I fell upon it in my hotel, for it had been more than a year since I had read a book, or even, I suppose, held one in my hands. This version had a large, disquieting Beckmann image on the cover, the central panel of a triptych, a heavy, symbol-laden painting showing a king's departure into exile; the text, though, I soon discovered, to my bewilderment, was a fast-paced ride through literary time, and it paralleled, in uncanny fashion, my own loves and enthusiasms, which had been so hard-won and painstakingly hunted down during my meanders through books and life. Auerbach's fondest, most intoxicating words were reserved for a small, distinctive set of authors - he admired Dante; he adored Racine and Saint-Simon. There were, though, some darker outliers: he paid special attention to Ammianus Marcellinus, the historian of the late Roman era, the canvas for whose history was the Middle Eastern region I had been roaming through over the previous tense 12 months. Ammianus is notorious for his overwrought, excessive style - I suffered in my youth through many of his most purple patches, set by sadistic examiners - but his most striking characteristic is his unremittingly gloomy life view, and it was this, clearly, that spoke to Auerbach.

"Ammianus' world," he writes,

is very often a caricature of the normal human environment in which we live; very often it is like a bad dream. This is not simply because horrible things happen in it - treason, torture, persecution, denunciations: such things are prevalent in almost all times and places, and the periods when life is somewhat more tolerable are not too frequent. What makes Ammianus' world so oppressive is the lack of any sort of counterbalance. For if it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence. Nothing of the sort is to be found in Ammianus. Striking only in the sensory, resigned and as it were paralyzed despite its stubborn rhetorical passion, his manner of writing history nowhere displays anything redeeming, nowhere anything that points to a better future.

So Auerbach - in prose of fervour, for he is describing, of course, his own Europe, the Europe from which he has been exiled. Mimesis goes on to chart its way through the story of the novel, its rise, the changes in its modes of representation, and its eventual triumph, before concluding on a discordant note. Auerbach considers the modern scene: that summit of sophistication - he looks at Proust, and Woolf, and Ulysses: how could he fail to, for he had begun, 500 pages before, with the Odyssey. This is his closing lament, as he surveys the breakdown of the narrative tradition and the rise of an inward-looking literary consciousness: he links this tendency to the crisis of the West, and to the tradition's lack of belief in itself:

There is in all these works a certain atmosphere of universal doom. There is often something confusing, something hazy about them, something hostile to the reality which they represent. We not infrequently find a turning away from the practical will to live, or delight in portraying it under its most brutal forms. There is hatred of culture and civilization, brought out by means of the subtlest stylistic devices which culture and civilization have developed, and often a radical and fanatical urge to destroy.

A dizzying, heart-stopping verdict! And perhaps over the course of the past half-century, which has been a period of return to order and prosperity in the nations of the West, and of a moderate stabilisation in the world of narrative, Auerbach, had he lived, might well have been tempted to modify his views. But the broad, implacable sweep of his judgement remains: Mimesis is the book of the rise and the eclipse of the novel, that ultimate secular, social form of story-writing, and it closes at a point its author sees as that tale's trembling end.

In his analysis, Auerbach was tracing several related threads: themes that he had picked out from the tapestry of time's flow. He was writing about the age of high culture, and its transformation, first in the bourgeois era, and then in the furnace of modernity; he was writing about the apogee of Christian civilisation, and its fiery, phantasmagoric European death; he was writing about mimesis - the representation of the world in words, and the evolution and the fate of that artistic skill.

What do we see, today, if we take up these threads from our point of vantage, half a world distant? The clock has advanced. We live now in an age of mass culture: literature has become a minority taste. Religious faith no longer preserves its former role as the unquestioned underpinning of our experience of life, as the shell of the broad, rich world: belief may endure, and even, in pockets, spread, but the place of religion as part of the consensus of the West has evaporated, and so, to some degree, has the notion of the enlightened West itself. And representation? It survives, in its new modes: the novel, that protean form, even thrives - especially here: Australian readers have clasped the novel, a colonial import, to their hearts: a local tradition of novel-writing, personal, increasingly memoiristic in tone, has taken shape.

 Yet I have a persisting sense that the novel sits uneasily in the Australian context, in the Australian landscape - and here is my next theme. My impression is that the Australian bush has not been successfully transformed into a Western space, fit for established models of writing. It is not a landscape that offers us easy grace, or immediate redemption: it does not have the flavour of settled, European or New World landscapes, against which epics of social progress and personal discovery can be straightforwardly played out. There is always something further in the landscape. It is more a place for tales, for deep-hidden meanings, and symbol-laden fragments - and all this is connected to religion, and the religious centre of gravity of the continent.

How have Australian writers tried to come to terms with this new world we have taken for our own? Early Westerners exploring the colony cast their narratives, naturally enough, in terms of quests: for resources, for hidden goals, for salvation and meaning in their displacements as well. The growth of cities bred a new culture, reflecting the social and artistic patterns of the mother country, but fast developing individual accents: and that helter-skelter transformation continues to this day, edged, always, by the anxiety of influences. Australian writing has found a voice, and tone, and even a field of subjects at breakneck speed: it is only in the past decade, for instance, that the theme of Aboriginality has entered into the literature with such dominating force. But the timing in history of this creation, this birth of a fresh Western society, has had consequences: for one thing, where the Americas took their rise from Hispanic Catholicism and, in the present United States, from North European Christian communities, Australia's religious identity was always more tenuous: the national story here has not been written with quite so naive and persuasive a Christian pen: its DNA was shaped too late for that. The spiritual carrier wave of modern, multicultural Australia, weighted as it is towards the metropolis and the outlying edge cities, may well remain faintly Christian, smeared out between various denominations, both established and new-fangled; but the overriding social flavour is definingly secular: there is no intense, unifying religious ideology; and, if I can put it this way, the landscape has not been successfully evangelised and claimed, made safe for ordered stories: it is not, at the fundamental level, within the novelistic realm. If you consult the map, you will find relatively few Christian placenames: those that have the sound of sanctity tend to be the beneficiaries of an indirect christening: thus, the old mining town of St Arnaud, on the south-eastern fringe of the Mallee, takes its name from a French hero of the Crimean War. The United States, by comparison, is studded with Sacramentos and Corpus Christis and Bethlehems: in nomenclature, it mimics much more closely the religious and emotional topography of Europe. The Australian bush remains, inviolate: it colours everything - especially our narratives.

To southern readers, this obsessive focus on the land and its effects on us may seem a touch unreal: is landscape so important for literature? Does land shape art? Perhaps these ideas may sound suspiciously like stray thoughts gathered in a small tropical city, encroached on by mangroves, and oppressive screw palms and savannahs, with fringing red mesa systems and desert sand dunes stretching towards an oblivion of emptiness beyond. But even in the gleaming southern capitals, the landscape awaits: in Sydney, it is there, rising like a green tier beyond the western suburbs; it is there, in Melbourne, in the form of bushfire plumes and stray horizon peaks and surrounding river valleys full of tall, ragged eucalypts. Its look, and heat, and rhythms feed into the human domain; they help build up our world, and our words.

Just as the novel's international fortunes over the twentieth century have been mixed, so too the form's development in Australia has followed a blurred, complex path. If the Western novel reached its climax with the modern epics that Auerbach examined in his closing chapter, and found wanting, the Australian variant was then only just in the first phase of its ascent. In the wake of high modernism and its wildernesses of subjectivity - Proust, Joyce, Musil - comes war, and a blaze spreads across the face of Europe. The novel becomes American, filmic, popular, academic; it adapts to its varied circumstances like a magic cloak. Here, the great mid-century works strive for depth, and continental coverage: Xavier Herbert, Patrick White. Always, the form's fluency prevails: its matchless mechanism for penetrating minds and mirroring life's feel and texture seem perfectly judged for the pace of contemporary time. Yet several changes, both at global and local scale, have been sweeping through the novel's kingdom. It is no longer a grand, omnipotent form, with urgent, youthful energy. The avant-garde left it behind long ago; popular taste has migrated to the screen, to new music and other arts. The mimetic charge of the novelistic narrative, as the most immediate and convincing of all artistic vehicles, has died: that death was Auerbach's veiled subject. At the same time, the Western novel, which was always a class phenomenon, has bred its own, self-selected readership: the novel-reading class: progressive, internationalist, possessed of a modicum of leisure, deeply interested in subjective states. This class now has the kind of literature it needs - an intelligent literature, that underpins certain crucial assumptions: for modern fiction tends to support a broadly secular world view; it accepts the tenets of psychology; it assumes people are, even in their inmost essence, knowable; it advances, almost always, towards resolution; there is an air of progress and forward motion in its account of life. More novels are being written today than ever before - and written better, as writing is now so widely studied - but for a more limited readership.

Here, though, in this country, even in our settled, well-subsidised phase of literary expansion, it is hard not to feel that issues of authenticity stalk the novel form, and, increasingly, that they serve as its subject matter. The novel may have colonised Australia, but it remains a foreign style, forged in another environment: forged, in fact, in the thought-world of Europe, and brought here, just as roses and plane trees were brought from far-off shores. One symptom of this transportation may well be the extraordinary prominence of the landscape as a theme in Australian fiction: land looms large for authors as diverse as Winton and Flanagan, as Stow and Murnane. It is as if the land were forcing its way into the novelistic narrative, as a central, shaping presence: as a character. The Australian landscape - whether savannah or desert, mountains or tropics - remains hard to assimilate, to map in Western language. The bush is not soft, or seasonal: it is pagan, repetitive, untamed. It is far from a neutral, straightforward story setting. It has dictates and rhythms of its own.

These ideas were with me when I came back from the Middle East to the tranquil Northern Territory, which I had pictured in my mind's eye in the most intense, Elysian colours all through the time I had spent away: and so it seemed quite natural to head out at once on a set of journeys across the country, in a bid to reacquaint myself with the landscape, to tune my instincts to its music and its pulse: I had the thought, too, that this might lay the groundwork for some new kind of writing, and throw up some kind of bridging structure between the inner and the outer worlds. To that end, I made forays into the Western Desert and the far Kimberley, into Arnhem Land and the deep Pilbara, which has always been for me the most elusive and subtly structured region of the north, with its ranges that run straight for hundreds of kilometres, and its purple rock and pale-yellow spinifex - and my imaginings, as always, were outstared by what I saw: campsites by Lake Dora full of mating death adders; pale-mauve sunsets from a back verandah in Wyndham, beneath the shadow of the Bastion lookout, where I could listen for the hypersaline mosquitoes, drifting inwards, borne ever closer by the humid breeze above the tide. And it may well be these months of movement yielded nothing - but in all my exchanges, and the time I spent with myself, I half suspect, now, as I look back, that I was seeking not just for clues to some connected narrative, but also for the scattered, dispersed fragments of a presence in the landscape. How deep that instinct lurks! When I was a child, I spent long periods in the Swiss Alps, and it was in that mountain setting, more than anywhere, that I felt some resonance in nature: I would be swept away by the gleam of the snow on the high peaks, by the speed and silent coiling of the clouds. Lightning would strike, thunder would roll through the valleys - and the fear and wonder I felt then was the same fear and joy I could sense inside me, half a lifetime later, driving in the wet season through continuous light storms in the Carr Boyd Range near Turkey Creek. It was the same fear and delight I saw in the eyes of old Pintupi men, as they drove their troop carriers on, through harsh, burnt sand-dune country, between red mesa systems, toward sites in the Gibson Desert, sites unseen for 20 years: they were singing; there were tears in their eyes: tears of love.

Such things came to me during those travels: they stayed with me - and I heard, also, stories from friends of mine who had been living in the tropics or the Centre for many years. Often, these were members of the '60s generation, who had gone out into the Aboriginal domain to dedicate themselves to the struggle for Indigenous rights, and who had made their home there, and found there a way of living as well as a cause - and now these individuals, almost always men or women of the greatest idealism and sophistication, were beginning to reflect on the course of their life, what they had achieved, and where their dreams had failed. Early this year, in Darwin, I fell into discussion with one of the most dedicated of them, Glendle Schrader, who had just given up his position at the helm of a group of Indigenous-owned Central Australian companies, and we began talking about his first days in the desert, long ago, when he was an adviser to the small community of Pipalyatjara. It lies in the Pitjantjatjara lands, close to Surveyor General's Corner, on the southern flank of the Tomkinson Range, in a stretch of desert country unparalleled for its grandeur and its romantic appeal: the explorer Ernest Giles called the valley where the Pipalyatjara airstrip now lies the Champ de Mars, and bestowed similarly classicising names on several other features of the surrounding landscape. While Glendle was living in the community, which was small, and peaceful, he made it his habit to take long hikes alone through the spinifex - journeys that might last all day: on one occasion he decided to climb the high peak that rose nearby, and spend the night on its summit, and watch the sun come up.

"It was complete silence then, in the bush," he said, leaning nearer to me:

Much quieter than today. No vehicles to speak of; no lights; many fewer camels about. I remember that night vividly - and even the memory makes me melt into oblivion. I saw the dawn's gleam beginning hours before it came: pure, shining light - and when the sun was over the horizon in the east, all the desert was lit up, and glowing, the shadows of the trees and grasses were stretching out towards me - and to the west, beyond the range, everything was pitch-black: everything; the stars were still bright in the black sky - then, slowly, the light began to spread across the land, things took shape - and it was hard not to think of the sun bringing form to earth, bringing that world to life.

I listened to him: he spoke with the urgency of a man recounting a pivotal event: there he was, poised between worlds; there he was, looking back on himself: as we both were, trying to find form in life, and pattern - and I felt I was on the edge of things that were inexpressible: they hovered close by: I thought how we import patterns into our subjects; how beauty, form and order come; how we find salvation in fragments, structure in nothing, in sand, and silence: what has been ground down, almost to its essence, and been remade. At times, it seems to me that something very like this was the fate of the West, and its belief world, during the course of the dark century just passed, which hangs behind us like a receding, devastating thundercloud, and which we strive still to put out of our thoughts, with varying degrees of success.

This was the backdrop to Auerbach's Mimesis - his study of order and pattern in narrative was composed even as the civilisation that nurtured him was being torn apart. From his redoubt in Istanbul, on the fringes of a Europe in flames, he could not tell how the story would end: it was natural for him to see the world in fragments, pulverised, and to dream that it might be recast, and its traditions gathered up again. There was at least a scintilla of light and hope on that far frontier, and though Auerbach was largely deprived of the research material he required for his vast endeavour, he found crucial books stored up in remote corners: as he recounts, in a footnote to his appendix, he came upon a dusty set of the patristic texts in an attic-level library room of the Dominican monastery of San Pietro di Galata. The library was private, but the apostolic delegate was kind enough to grant Auerbach the use of it: that delegate, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, went on to become the papal nuncio in Paris, a cardinal, and eventually a pope, and, as John XXIII, presided over the liberalising Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965. Under such circumstances, exiled, almost starved of substance, Auerbach wrote his anatomy of literary form only too well aware that, had he been able to sink himself in the relevant sources, he would not have had the sweep of view or clarity of mind to push through and complete his work. And so, from the pale scatter of volumes he could track down, the dust of the ages, he built his memorial, and set the capstone on it with these words: "I hope that my study will reach its readers - both my friends of former years, if they are still alive, as well as all the others for whom it was intended. And may it contribute to bringing together again those whose love for our Western history has serenely persevered." Auerbach, of course, despite his impeccably Goethean surname, was of a certain religious background - the Old Testament tradition, of dust, and ash, with which we began, and so he could not linger, during the era of National Socialism, at the university post he held in Marburg, home of the Elisabethkirche, the loveliest early Gothic church in all the German lands. No: it was the wilderness for him, to wander, to seek form in fragments, to sift the rubble of the world for memories of gold, and gilded words, and dream that such words might one day be artificed again. He comes to my thoughts often, with his taxonomies of art, and his tales of narrative. In the deserts and the rangelands, when I think of stories, and the scale of the continent, and how life's force sweeps us up, I consider him.

For some weeks, after that evening talk with Glendle Schrader, I travelled widely in the north-west: to Wyndham, to Fitzroy Crossing, to Lombadina and to Beagle Bay - and while I was on that journey I was reading, and I often had the sense the country was imparting its tales and episodes to me: sad stories; sweet ones - and the books I had taken with me for company, I realised, were all Australian books, of a particular, redemptive kind: books written to a loose, appealing structure, with connecting principles that were ragged and elusive, rather than clear and precise. I had with me The Red Centre, by HH Finlayson, a natural scientist who made collecting trips all through the Centre in the 1930s, and was able to catch the rhythm of the desert ranges to perfection in his prose. I had the newly published, austerely titled Ochre and Rust, by the South Australian Museum's senior curator of anthropology, Philip Jones - a book spun round investigations of a set of collected objects. And I had Healers of Arnhem Land, an account of adventures on Milingimbi Island and in other coastal communities, by the psychiatrist John Cawte. Each of these books had its fragmented charm; each communicated its mood and tone as much by its mazy form as by its treatment of its subjects: Philip Jones conveyed his airy mental elegance by the unfolding of his words as much as by the rigour of his choice of themes; Cawte expressed his world view by the unbroken warmth of his moral sunshine; Finlayson was all self-concealment and disclosure through the patterns of his simile construction and the constant modulations of his thought - and I felt these masters and companions were always present at my side, as I was reading, or as I drove my way through the Kimberley Ranges, into the evening and the night.

And so I hold this world of dust before my eyes, and in my hands, and spread it out before you. I have explored these ideas as so many fragments not just because they are related across distance, or by allusion, or because they refer to each other in reflecting ways, and radiate towards each other. I do so because it is the broken quality of the world that I am aiming to describe, and its capacity for a ghost of grace as well: and now is the time, in an image, in a last meander, rather than through the final flourish of a connected narrative, to seek to draw these thoughts and intuitions closer together, and to bind them to the landscape, with its air of waiting, of posing questions.

For years I have felt that, as long as we are meant to live, books will give us the balm and care for all the pain and perplexity we feel: they are given to us - we are always given, at the right time, the books we need. By chance, around the time that I was making those forays westwards, I also made a trip to Townsville, and up into its sparse, distinctive hinterland - and while there I bought a copy of one of the strangest, most majestic volumes ever produced in Australia. I say "volume" with some hesitation: is Angor to Zillmanton really a book, rather than a piece of art, or an incunabulum of some kind? It is large, and almost unreadably floppy; it is a thick paperback, printed on shiny paper, much wider than it is tall. It was written by Colin Hooper, a philosophically inclined amateur historian with a strong enthusiasm for deserted mining towns - and ‘A to Z', as it is inevitably known by its aficionados, builds into an essay-glutted gazetteer of 520 such places in the North Queensland Gulf Country and Cape York. The book's components form a balance: the photography, the maps and anecdotes distil whole sagas and traditions. I had a copy years ago, and followed its lead down many scrubby bush tracks, up creek lines, in search of old deserted camps - but it parted company with me somewhere along the way, and all I was left with was my recollection of the author's preface, in which Hooper describes his journeys with a dog and battered Land Rover as companions: "The book itself," he advised, "is the real journey, completed only when it leads back to oneself." I fell to reading the new edition, which had been expanded vastly by a further decade of Hooperesque research: and how to resist the story of Williams "the Rager" and his dangerously pretty wife, or the story of ‘The Indigestible Meal', or the day the Devil laughed? But my eye was drawn eventually to the chapter on Argentine, formerly Thermopylae and Silver City: an exceedingly poor field, as it transpired, but not without its myths and legends - and I would surely have found it congenial, in its glory days in the 1880s, since most of the miners were destitute and in debt: so much so that on their straggle back to the coast they felt obliged to avoid the surrounding bush hotels, and to open up a new road, between the mountains, into a region that soon became known as Insolvency Valley. One tale stood out: this was the story of a drunken miner who, at the shanty, filled his billy with bar wastage and "staggered out into the night to become hopelessly lost". A search was conducted, over the following days, and the missing man was found at last, now quite sober, clutching his billy, which was filled with gold nuggets he had come upon while drunk - but sadly he had no recollection of where he had uncovered them, or how, and he was wandering the bush, disoriented, much, in fact, as I picture us all in the drift of life, seeking what he had at once found and lost.

Nicolas Rothwell
Nicolas Rothwell is an author and a journalist for the Australian. His books include The Red Highway and Journeys to the Interior, and his coverage of Indigenous affairs has earned him a Walkley Award.

From the front page

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

An indigenous game

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A tale of two sittings

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Operation tom yum

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Saving yourself

More in The Monthly Essays

Image of red-paint hands on Yuendumu Police Station

The death of Kumanjayi Walker

On the shooting in Yuendumu and the trial of Northern Territory policeman Zachary Rolfe

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2021

Morrison’s power without purpose

As prime minister, Scott Morrison has offered neither competence nor vision

Portrait of Zoe Daniel

Independents and the balance of power

The federal election may hinge on a new crossbench of professional women in wealthy inner-city seats and a rural revolt against the Nationals

Photo of Marind community members sharing dreams of being eaten by oil palm

The psychic terror wrought by palm-oil production

How oil-palm plantations have uprooted the lives and dreams of a Papuan community

Online exclusives

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?

Image of Daniel Johns. Image © Luke Eblen

Present indicative: Daniel Johns’ ‘FutureNever’

The former Silverchair frontman’s second solo album lacks cohesion, but affords him space to excavate his past