Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bill and Jonah

I'll be turning up to the Going West literary festival today, to take part in a session devoted to the musician and writer Bill Direen. After spending most of the last decade commuting between the strangely complementary cities of Paris and Dunedin, Bill has taken up residence in the Michael King Centre on Auckland's North Shore for a few months; he'll be using his appearance to talk about the scribbling he has done in the little cottage on the southern slope of Mount Victoria, and to promote an album he recorded last year in Paris and has just released through the Powertool Records label.

Skyler is away this weekend at a trade union conference, and I was planning to capitalise on her absence by staying in bed until three o'clock to read John Updike, and then rising to eat pizzas on the couch, watch the Woody Allen movies and seventies sci fi classics I am too often denied, and sift through the hundreds of old photos and manuscripts which are still candidates for inclusion in the Smithyman book I am publishing in November.

I won't be too upset to be dragged out of my pyjamas and out of the house today, though, because I have been a confirmed Direen fan ever since I heard Max Quitz, his elegant, sometimes quirky, sometimes sinister collection of low-fi portraits of a strange and yet strangely familiar New Zealand, on a sputtering stereo in a student flat back in 1996. The archives of this blog should provide evidence enough of my enthusiasm for Bill. You can find me reporting rather breathlessly on a rough mix of his 2008 album Chrysantheum Storm here, discussing his sci fi dystopian novel Song of the Brakeman here, and puzzling over the 'reverse-telescope' poems in his pocket-sized 2006 volume New Sea Land here.

Last night I exchanged Updike and Woody for Enclosures, the small but intricate collection of prose pieces which Bill published with Titus Books in 2008. The book ranges widely in form and in space - it contains pieces of autobiography, mock archaeological reports, and fables, and it moves from Otago peninsula to Wellington to Iraq to Paris - but it is unified by Bill's obsession with Jonah, a character whose peculiar experience has supplied material for the myths of many peoples.

Bill had a Catholic upbringing, and has many relatives who have entered religious orders, and so his interest in a key story in the Old Testament is hardly surprising. I tend to think, though, that the ability of Jonah to insert himself into so many cultures' myths - Bill's book finds versions of him in Pharaonic Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, as well as in modern France and in New Zealand - suggests that there is something unusually compelling about his fate. I was never inculcated with religion as a child, and have never been able to read the Bible, except for the Book of Ecclesiastes, with any pleasure, but the image of Jonah inside the whale has always fascinated me.

Instead of giving me religious materials to read, my parents were humane enough to supply me with fat volumes of comics with titles like BATTLE PICTURE WEEKLY ANNUAL , HOW WE WON THE WAR and ACTION MAN STRIKES AGAIN. One of my annuals contained the story of a brave and resourceful British sailor whose frigate was bombed by a Japanese Zero in the middle of the Pacific and promptly sunk into the drink. The sailor was sucked down with his ship, lost consciousness, and was swallowed by a passing whale. When he came to, in a pocket of air deep in the belly of the beast, he decided that he had been washed up on an island. After finding some soggy fragments of driftwood and somehow managing to make a fire with them, he discovered that smooth cliffs rose behind the dark seashore where he stood. At first light he would find a way around them, and head inland.

While he waited for the dawn to break, the sailor was troubled by earthquakes which tilted the surface of his island, as well as by strange tides which rushed first one way and then the other. As time passed, and the sky above him failed to lighten, the unfortunate man decided that he had found refuge on an island which, on account of some unexplained peculiarity of the tropics, enjoyed exceptionally long nights. The comic's last frame left the sailor in the belly of the whale, still heroically oblivious to his situation.

Roger Shattuck has suggested that some of the most famous literary images - Heraclitus' stream into which one can step only once, for example, or Proust's fountain which can be sliced at any point yet not disturbed - combine, and perhaps balance, features of flux and of stasis. They are at once symbols of eternity and symbols of transience. Shattuck apparently believes that most important images have a similar doubleness.

Is it possible that the image of Jonah, or some avatar of Jonah, being swallowed by a whale fascinates us because it possesses a certain doubleness, and a certain precarious balance? Is the devouring whale not, after all, a metaphor for both birth and death? The whale is dark and wet and safe, like a womb, but it is also, potentially at least, a tomb. In the Old Testament Jonah escapes from his whale, but in other versions of the myth, like the version I found in my comic, he is not so lucky.

Here's a piece which I wrote a year or so ago: the title compares Jonah to Phlebas the Phoenician, whose fate is described in the shortest and eeriest section of TS Eliot's great poem The Waste Land.

Jonah or Phlebas

The underworld
is a whale.
I descended
easily, blowing fragile
silver worlds,
grasping a thread
of drowned sunlight
like a mountaineer's rope.

The underworld belched,
opened its mouth,
swallowed me like kelp.
The soft roar inside
reminds me of that cave
on Ponga Hill,
when a good rain
sent a creek down
through the vines
and epiphytes
that hid the opening
from adults and
the older kids.

Now I close my eyes,
go deeper
into the dark.
The water rushes to meet me,
holds me tightly
like a long-absent friend.


Anonymous faithful christian said...

Yes! Now listen to these words written by Ellen White: "Few give thought to the suffering that sin has caused our Creator. All heaven suffered in Christ's agony; but that suffering did not begin or end with His manifestation in humanity. The cross is a revelation to our dull senses of the pain that, from its very inception, sin has brought to the heart of God. Every departure from the right, every deed of cruelty, every failure of humanity to reach His ideal, brings grief to Him. When there came upon Israel the calamities that were the sure result of separation from God---subjugation by their enemies, cruelty, and death---it is said that 'His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel.' 'In all their affliction He was afflicted; . . . and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old.' Judges 10:16; Isaiah 63:9."

"His Spirit 'makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.' As the 'whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together' (Rom 8:26,22), the heart of the infinite Father is pained in sympathy. Our world is a vast lazar house, a scene of misery that we dare not allow even our thoughts to dwell upon. Did we realize it as it is, the burden would be too terrible. Yet God feels it all. In order to destroy sin and its results He gave His best Beloved, and He has put it in our power, through cooperation with Him, to bring this scene of misery to an end." Education 263, 264.

This is the message in the sign of Jonas, who said, "I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm." This is the spirit of Jesus, who came to seek and save that which is lost. "For the Son of man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." Luke 9:56. And this is the message of love which Christ hoped would lead the "wicked and adulterous generation" to repent. In Jonas' episode the Ninevites were impressed with God's determination to warn them of their peril. It was God's goodness that led them to repentance. So they shall indeed rise in judgment with this generation if we are not impressed with the much greater spectacle of the crucified Christ.

3:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What piss you Christians talk.

12:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Report on the Direen hour here:

4:19 pm  
Blogger Bill Direen said...

... dripping caves in New Zealand can be like cool (sometimes risky) bellies ... down Catlins way (south of Dunedin near where Hone Tuwhare spent his last years, for you Aucklanders) there are waterfalls end down in ravines that are pretty underworldlike too if you follow the paths to the misty depths... About the myth-tale : I was very interested in the story's appearance in different forms ... the few traces we have of mariners' stories from the ancient past ... quite a few stories of shipwrecked mariners mistaking a whale's back for an island ... which led to some magical adventure ... I found the Egyption version in a thin booklet in the Louvre when the bookshop there used to stock tiny editions ... thank you for your post, Scott, it is generous (I did not say Christian) of you!

7:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Direen an atheist, an agnostic, or a believer?

Answer please.

11:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Answer is here:

7:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOrd has it this actually Bill in disguise (he loves them disguises)

7:11 pm  

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