Neverland and the Plight of Grownups Today
'Neverland and the plight of grownups today' Australian Cultural History 14: 126- 145 (1995)
Armchair philosophy´ is a much criticised practice of abstract thought.
Ideas that spend their lives in that well-upholstered piece of furniture
avoid the implications of their own logic. Yet as a place to begin, it offers
a range of thoughts that lie outside the questions which are familiar to
each discipline. It´s in the armchair where this essay begins, but hopefully
not where it will end.
The thought is that childhood is for us today what heaven was for previous generations. They are both places beyond earthly laws where goodness reigns uncomplicated by politics or social custom. As compensation for limits of existence, they both offer an eternal horizon full of wonder and free of care.
To evolve childhood out of eschatological religion is simple enough. Begin with a community that invents a future life out of fear for the uncertainties of mortal existence. Anxious for evidence of this life, this people tells a story about the coming of the heavenly kingdom on earth. After a couple of millennia, when the anticipated coming fails to arrive, the people refuse to give up hope of a life untouched by violence; instead of seeing this life in the future, they turn to a past that might seem to be shared universally: the magical world of childhood. In order to maintain belief in the innocence of childhood, the people police it rigorously for any sign of unhappiness or corruption by a violence that is now assigned exclusively to adulthood.
The thought of childhood as a new heaven is more an exercise than a serious hypothesis. Its main purpose is to warm up our interest in childhood as a phenomenon today with great sway, particularly in contemporary politics. On the world stage, we need go no further than the war in Bosnia-the subject of such laments for the relative indifference of world powers, except of course when children become involved. The evacuation of a wounded girl, Irma Hadzimuratovic, has been described as the most publicised humanitarian airlift of the cold-war era.´ Despite the horrors of ethnic cleansing and rape camps, it is the plight of a lone little girl which manages to galvanise action from other NATO countries. At the end of last year, the United States instigated a humanitarian action titled Provide Santa´. According to a spokesperson for the operation: The idea is to bring a little sunshine to the children of Bosnia at a time of devastating war. I think the spirit of giving is simply the American way. It hurts to see the children in Bosnia surrounded by war and facing another harsh winter..." The only major detour around the usual trashing of Bosnia as a basketcase of hopeless tribal violence is through the construction of childhood as a common point of concern for peoples around the globe.
One way of grasping the dynamics of childhood as a focus of global concern is to consider those relegated to the margins of this picture: adults. From the armchair, the adult appears as a permanent exile from this Neverland of childhood innocence. While the plight of children catalyses world action, adults appear to lose faith in their responsibilities. In December 1993, John Dawkins resigned from his post as Treasurer. Like many before him, such as Tony Staley, Mick Young and after him Graeme Richardson, Dawkins cited family reasons´ as the dominant factor in his decision. His reason for deserting politics was to spend more time with the children´. It was a surprise to see that someone whose reputation is built on coldness to the emotional appeals of academics should show such a soft side. As usual with these stories, the press featured this news with a photograph of an apparently ecstatic spouse, holding her recent arrival, baby Alice. Leader of the Democrats, Cheryl Kernot, praised Dawkins´ understandable choice to be father and husband ahead of Treasurer´. The Age Editorial proclaimed: We accept his explanation that he did not want to grow old in parliament´.´
Still sitting comfortably in the armchair, it is possible to feel a twinge of panic that those running the nation might suddenly desert the committee room for the kitchen, leaving the world to the rapacious forces of the free market. Reaching to the bookcase, there´s plenty to support this picture. In his recent book, The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard prefaces his usual warnings of the spectre of mass culture with reference to the contemporary potency of childhood:
Whereas adults make children believe that they, the adults, are adults, children for their part let adults believe that they, the children, are children. Of these two strategies the second is the subtler, for while adults believe that they are adults, children do not believe that they are children. They are children, but they do not believe it. The ruse (and the seduction) is total.´
Baudrillard here appears to be calling bluff of a puerocentric culture, whose construction of the child as other to the adult occurs without any direct participation by the children themselves. He goes further, though, and raises his own bid by identifying the child as an evil at work within goodness.
Baudrillard´s apocalyptic vision of a world spinning without reason towards its own demise casts everything in terms of a melodramatic scenario. His panic-laced observations continue through the dualities of high and mass culture, men and women. While useful in raising questions about democratic politics, Baudrillard observes from a great distance. With Baudrillard as our only guide, we are likely to view the world as a Sodom and Gomorrah-a spectacle of decadence rather than a means of self-reflection.
A more concrete analysis of childhood in contemporary culture may be found in Jerry Herron´s Homer Simpson´s eyes and the culture of late nostalgia´ .7 Herron focuses on the spate of child-adults in popular American TV such as The Bill Cosby Show, the Wonder Years and The Simpsons. Like Baudrillard, Herron reverses liberal politics by identifying the child´s revolt against what he terms paternal, therapeutic speculation´. But Herron is able to relate this reaction to the current disaffection with what is termed political correctness´-the corrupt morality that represses spontaneous thought with institutional power. The adult in this picture is represented by the self-absorbed victim of consumer culture, Homer Simpson. Beyond television, Herron identifies the phenomenon of the inner child´ as a focus for this revolt in popular psychology.
The inner child´ has emerged to claim the kingdom of childhood. The last gesture from the armchair is a brief look at its prophet of the inner child´, John Bradshaw. Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child opens with the statement: Once people have claimed and nurtured their wounded inner child, the creative energy of their wonderful natural child begins to emerge. Once integrated, the inner child becomes a source of regeneration and new vitality." The drama of Bradshaw´s book concerns the confrontation between innocence and experience which occurs when a dysfunctional adult is forced to re-examine trauma suffered in childhood. This internal review uncovers a wounded child, most often the victim of parental abuse, who blocks the individual potential for a full life. Recovery is a matter of finding and nurturing this wounded child so that what is termed the wonder child´ might emerge. The wonder child is a source of creativity and power that can be released only when the child who suffers the injuries of parental abuse has its case recognised. This entails a psychic cleansing of the poisonous residues from what Bradshaw terms toxic´ shame and guilt.
Bradshaw assumes that inside everyone is a vulnerable child who needs protection from the world. One of the causes of toxic shame is the violence of public honour: I twist who you are into what you do and have."´ A means of purifying the self of this shameful residue is to make contact with the wounded inner child by various techniques that include exchanging letters between the adult and child self using right and left hands respectively. Once the pain and insecurity of this abandoned and frightened self is heard, psychic integration becomes possible. Bradshaw recommends a daily regimen which includes twenty minutes set aside for listening to this inner child. Accompanying this reconciliation is the acquisition of new, better mothers and fathers for this inner child.
How the world turns! We began with childhood as a common cause of global affairs and we find the subject of this concern in revolt against the adults who imprison them in this Neverland. Indeed, it seems that the heavenly nature of childhood only arises looking backchildren themselves have little share of this adult utopia, just as the popularity of Picasso´s primitivism has no meaning to the African tribes that inspired it.
Despite reaching what might appear to be a revelation, our inquiry remains comfortably positioned in the armchair, from which the machinations of contemporary culture are available at the touch of a TV remote control or the flick of a magazine. It is difficult to look at a popular psychology, such as Bradshaw´s, without a sense of superiority to the misguided New Age therapeutic class.
The way I have chosen to analyse contemporary constructions of adulthood entails a leap of method. Rather than continue speculations on the inner child in Western culture, our focus turns to more local mattersa scene in which the opposition between child and adult constitutes the world in which we live rather than the spectacle of postmodern decadence.
The method chosen to examine this opposition is not a clinical examination of a living person, but a focus instead on lives that have been invented. While these lives incorporate broader theoretical concerns into the business of living a life, their warp is limited to the narrative produced, providing opportunity for a clearer perspective.
There are two kinds of invented lives examined here. The first have been especially commissioned for this paper from three members of the $5 Theatre Company." The second are more publicly accessible lives found in contemporary Australian cinema.
The commissioned lives serve the purpose of identifying a narrative logic that will direct the subsequent inquiry into cinematic lives. Professional actors were chosen for this task because of their dramaturgical skills: they, more than many others, are responsible for creating lives that have a plausible flesh and blood. Given the concern of this paper, I asked the three actors to construct two characters who might be said to have an inner child´.I did not further define the task in the expectation that they would find the suitable dramatic form for such an entity.
The Jan Jagtman story
The first life belongs to a man of Dutch origins, Jan Jagtman. Jan is placed at odds with his father, a real estate agent with an interest in racing cars, due to his interest in more artistic pursuits, such as playing the guitar. His mother seemed to play a weak role in his life until his father died of a heart attack after which he paid her regular visits. Jan´s Dutch background sets him apart from other children at school and when he starts playing in rock bands in Melbourne he fails to keep up with current styles. He finds a job selling sheet music at Brash´s and befriends a sales rep, Brian MackenzieSmith, who lures him out of his safe position into a world of drugs and crime, of which Jan is largely innocent. As Brian´s scene is broken apart by a drug war, Jan is abandoned but soon takes up with a maternal hippy woman. With the possibility of a child on the way, Jan finds a more serious job as an insurance assessor. During this time he has several affairs, which his wife takes in her stride until she herself has one at which point Jan reacts violently. Jan eventually becomes more and more obsessed with driving his company car, specially on country roads on his way to visit his mother in Shepparton. He dies driving into a tree, with allusions to a woman waiting for him in a hotel.
The group spoke of Jan as someone trapped in the past, unable to determine his own future and following other people´s lead.
In the end, Melanie summed up Jan´s life as that of a´dag. Like anyone else Jan makes mistakes, but unlike anyone else, he fails to learn from them. The life invented for Jan´ is thus partly that of a man who failed to grow up, and particularly someone who we are not.
The Alison Carey Nesbittstory
The second life worked out as the story of a woman precisely able to turn her life around. Alison´s story begins as an assistant at George´s who one day decides boldly to buy herself a red coat. She is unable to maintain relationships with men because they fail to live up to her expectations; this attitude is explained by a history of sexual abuse from her father. She maintains a distance from this experience, feeling that such testimony is fashionable and wanting to protect her family. In the company of others she is caustic and witty, often drinking heavily. The red coat evolves as a reminder of a car coat she wore in a childhood before the abuse began. She establishes a stable relationship with Harry, an older man who encourages her to express herself, which she does mainly through writing. They move to the country where she does some work for the local ABC station. While there Harry dies of cancer and she moves back to Melbourne and begins a successful career as a talkback jockey; she proves quite adept in putting other people´s problems straight. One day she suddenly leaves the station and it is later revealed that she has breast cancer of which she dies soon after.
MELANIE: perhaps incorrect but a strong decision to turn it around and to take the bull by the horns and do something else. Whereas Jan I think always waited until somebody else came along and
MELANIE: and made the decision for him or redirected him, but she was absolutely on a track and once she was on a track she stuck to it.
What the work of the $5 theatre company reveals is a moral structure which frames a biography as marked by turning points in which individuals have the capacity to determine life for themselves. While Alison recovers her lost childhood through the red coat, Jan is compelled to repeat the mistakes of his father. Jan is a pathetic figure whose home journey is marked by imaginary satisfactions that are out of step with reality.
But there´s a logic that binds Jan and Alison together. Jan stands as the kind of figure that Alison refused to be: someone who follows the current of life without ever leading the way. Conversely, Alison makes the kind of choice Jan is never up to: to buy the red coat and determine her own destiny. What emerges here is the kind of logic that has been staked out in queer theory, by writers such as Judith Butler. 14 Within a queer logic, what is defined as normality requires an exception to the rule in order to become a matter of choice rather than a predetermined and therefore meaningless path. In queer terms, heterosexuality demands the notion of perversion in order to represent the path it chooses not to pursue. Politically, as we are well aware, queer politics consists partly in the demand for recognition of its part in supporting the straight world.
The same logic can be applied to the norm of growing up´. For maturity to have a moral as well as biological dimension, there must exist the case of an individual who fails to clear the hurdle. The idiot follows the path of nature and thus demonstrates by negation the effects of maturity on an individual life. This argument may seem less formulaic when we consider the most notorious queer idiot of modern times: Peter Pan.
Recent interest in Peter Pan-sparked by a curiosity about transvestism reveals the peculiar power which this theatre has exerted for modem Western audiences. The struggle between Peter Pan and Captain Hook is a more direct version of the child/adult dialectic we found in the contrast between Jan and Alison. Except, of course, that the values are reversed: it is the one who never grows up that represents the ideal.
Much recent Australian-particularly Melbourne-cinema operates within a similar duality. In Proof (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1991) the congenitally blind Martin remains trapped within the unresolved pre-Oedipal relationship with his mother who died when he was a child. In Sweetie (dir. Jane Campion, 1989) a girl´s life is frozen on the backyard stage and dependent on her father´s admiration. In Spotswood (dir. Mark Joffie 1992) a suburban community is cocooned in a time warp with backs turned to the economic realities of the global marketplace. And in Stan and George´s New Life (dir. Brian McKenzie, 1992), the main character finds himself celebrating his fortieth birthday while still living at home with his parents. These and many other films suggest a genre of Australian cinema which deals with an adult who is unable to break with home. To explore this duality further, I´ve chosen to concentrate on three examples of this: Man of Flowers (dir. Paul Cox, 1983), Malcolm (dir. Nadia Tass, 1986) and Death in Brunswick (dir. John Ruane, 1991). These popular films share a common reference to Melbourne while representing quite different cultural positions. The scenes we will examine from these films consist of situations when these characters without superego confront contemporary morality.
Man of Flowers
Of the ten films Paul Cox has made since 1979, all but two have been set in Melbourne. Cox´s vision pits a European sensibility of formal beauty against a local greed for material reward. Characters in Cox´s films act for love not money.
The figure in Cox´s team that is most relevant to us is Norman Kaye: the organ-playing aesthete who is shy of the world yet capable of great interior passion. In Man of Flowers, he plays Charles Bremmer, a simpleton whose recent fortune has been acquired from his mother´s estate. Regardless of his mother´s death, Bremmer goes to the mailbox daily to post her news of his life. His quest for beauty is similarly unworldly. Bremmer takes life classes but draws flowers rather than the naked form in front of him. He hires the model to strip for him once a week, but cannot make physical contact with her. This adult pursuit is interlaced with super~8 memories of childhood, revealing a backward boy who acts crudely to his buxom aunt and is mesmerised by the flickering light through the trees. But it´s a corrupt world that Bremmer must live in. A retinue of people emerges to feed on his inheritance: his psychiatrist, a swimming pool merchant, and finally the model´s boyfriend lean on him increasingly for cash.
There are two scenes where Cox exposes his hero to the vulgar world outside. In both instances, he is labelled a pervert. Firstly, Bremmer is shown nude descending into his bath, responding live on air to a very American Christian radio sex show. When Bremmer gives testimony to his love of flowers, he is dismissed as a weirdo-this innocent desire seems obscene in a prurient world. Bremmer´s innocence is defined by its invisibility to the global American media.
Later, Bremmer´s model complains of ill treatment from her boyfriend, who now attempts to extort money from what he sees as a gullible dirty old man. In the scene extracted below, Bremmer visits the studio of her boyfriend David, a failed painter. Played by Chris Heywood, David is a heartless man desperate to retrieve his moribund reputation and feed his drug habit. David expects to sell a few paintings to Bremmer by working on his concern for the threatened Lisa.
CHARLES: What I´d like to do is take a look at what you´ve got and then decide.
DAVID: There´s heaps here mate go for your life. I´m sorry to have to do this to do you, you know, Charles, but we´ve all got to make a crust.
CHARLES: Yes, I understand.
DAVID: Nine years ago I was famous. And in another week´s time I´ll be famous again.
DAVID: Well there if I may say so Charles you show your ignorance of where art is at this present time,I mean this is it.
CHARLES: I´m not sure that a man who can´t paint flowers can paint at all. Van Goch painted flowers, flowers are very good.
DAVID: Let´s just cut the crap here. Let´s not talk about standards of art because I get very sensitive.
CHARLES: I´m sorry I didn´t know you were sensitive.
DAVID: But what you´ve got going on these walls here is a world revolution in art and you happen to be fortunate from some unfortunate sexual coincidence to be at the forefront of that revolution. It´s at a very nominal cost. You don´t know what´s going on in my head. You don´t know about art, so let´s not talk about either of those. just give me the money and let´s keep it all civil, eh?
CHARLES: I think the first thing a work of art should be is memorable. You have to be able to imagine it afterwards. Close your eyes and see it, like a perfect bowl of roses.
DAVID: Yeah, some people have the ability to remember things better than others. You take an elephant for example, that can remember every bloody thing couldn´t it, except it wouldn´t know a Van Gogh if it was treading on it. Let´s cut the crap, just $2000 you mentioned, just give me that and we can sit down and have a cup of tea and talk about something if you like.
CHARLES: And the first thing a piece of sculpture should be is something you like to touch. To run your hands like a blind man over it.
DAVID: Look I don´t have to listen to all this rubbish, if you want to avoid a major scandal and the attention of the Victorian Vice Squad, just give me the cash and piss off.
CHARLES: You mean you can´t paint flowers.
DAVID: Not can´t pal, I won´t. Look not everyone in this world wants to get into that sort of thing in this day and age.
CHARLES: Then I´m afraid there´s nothing I can do to help you. Good afternoon.
DAVID: Pervert! You watch out mate, you´ll get a chisel right in the back of your head one dark night.
David provides a spectacle of greed leering behind the mask of fashion: world revolution in art´ is empty hype for work that has no intrinsic value other than a rumour of fleeting good taste. The character of David is constructed so that his statements about art are undermined by the bitterness we expect from a person cut off from the fickle art market, His cynicism grants a nobility to Bremmer´s otherworldly hankering for the beauty of nature - a taste that would seem quite vapid without its antithesis. So when Bremmer questions David´s inability to paint flowers, he replies: Look not everyone in this world wants to get into that sort of thing in this day and age.´
David´s final retort is an ironic reference to his fate at the end of the film. Bremmer enacts his revenge on David by not only refusing to buy his work, but also murdering him and casting his dead body in bronze to stand as a work of art for all time.
While Malcolm is set on the other side of the river to Man of Flowers, the characters of Malcolm and Charles Bremmer have much in common. Both live in houses provided by their dead mother and neither engages in sexual contact with other women. Both have dreams that are shown to be out of touch with economic realities, though Malcolm lacks Bremmer´s disgust at this situation. Indeed, where Malcolm is interesting for our survey is the opportunity of examining a character who has failed to come of age without any potentially elitist notions of artistic taste. Failure to grow up is less obviously a judgment on the world´s lack of sensitivity than it is a device for comic action.
The film begins with Malcolm´s joy ride through Melbourne in his do-it-yourself tram. just as the character himself lacks a surname, his tram is shown changing its destination title to suit his whim. As a result, Malcolm is sacked from work and forced by his mother´s friend, Mrs T., to advertise for a border.
Frank, a professional small-time crim, answers the ad. At first Frank is panicked by Malcolm´s strange character-the tram set that runs through the house and his coy nervous manner. Malcolm tries to do the right thing by his new boarder. He is like a puppy inventing ways of pleasing his new master. Knowing Frank enjoys robbing banks, Malcolm constructs a remote-controlled toy car equipped with camera, microphone, speaker and gun. Frank surprises Malcolm while he is trying out the model robber in his bedroom. Malcolm´s failure to intimidate the guards is an opportunity for Frank to make his own contribution as the tough guy. The comedy that ensues oversteps the boundary between private and public, turning violent crime into a bedroom amusement. In the scene that follows, Frank´s girlfriend Judith delineates the roles that will make up the team, including her own common sense.
JUDITH: Crap Frank, you´re a bloody liar, I heard you, both of you, talking all through the shopping centre, calling each other by name. You´re bloody hopeless.
FRANK: I come in the middle of it. He worked the whole thing out himself.
JUDITH: Frank, not for a moment did I think you had anything to do with it. But he sure as hell didn´t arrive there by himself.
JUDITH: Try telling the cops that.
This is the point at which innocence turns to crime. Not essentially through greed, but by virtue of Judith´s maternal responsibility for Malcolm-to protect him from getting caught. Her concern provides a shield against the moral implications of their actions.
The major point of tension in the trio is Frank´s short-lived jealousy when he discovered Judith teaching Malcolm about sex. But he needn´t worry: Malcolm shows little inclination. Malcolm´s obvious mate is Jenny, the girl next door for a boy at home. But she disappears from the film and the trio continue their ways until they reach Lisbon where they enjoy the fruits of their crime.
From our perspective, Malcolm is remarkable for its decision to leave the innocence of its main character quite uncomplicated by overtly moral questions. He is granted the same kind of license to act beyond the law as Peter Pan. Indeed, like Peter Pan he is capable of flight, albeit with the assistance of gadgets rather than fairy dust. Unlike Peter Pan, however, he lacks an enemy whom he is destined to kill."
Death in Brunswick
While Death in Brunswick occurs on the same side of the river to Malcolm, its narrative sympathies are reversed. Carl´s immaturity has neither the nobility of Bremmer nor the innocence of Malcolm. With Death in Brunswick, we have the sinister side to the Peter Pan story: a man who refuses to accept the reality of his age and a murder that involves real people.
Carl works as a cook in a corrupt nightclub on Sydney Road, the seedy cosmopolitan gateway´ to the city. Out of apparent concern for his welfare, Carl´s mother has come to stay. Carl´s feeling for his mother is partly filial but mostly fiscal. He anticipates that with her sensitive heart condition she will soon die-the sooner he can inherit her money. Denying both his age and previous marriage, he courts a Creek girl who works at the night club. In the scene extracted below, she phones him at home.
Carl´s mother has already made her maternal authority evident by ordering him out of his own house to discuss her will with Uncle John. When she answers the phone she makes no secret of her disapproval of this match, she´s exceedingly common´. In the context of his mother´s snobbery, the character of Carl might just get away as a champion of innocent love. But the film complicates this possibility by showing Carl´s ridiculous response: shadow-boxing down the hallway and then using his mother´s makeup to mask his wrinkles. While the mother may just qualify as a voice that is insensitive to the reality of Melbourne, Carl is shown as still dependent on her, not just for money, but as a mask to hide his own ageing.
CARL: You´re supposed to be giving those up.
MOTHER: Ashtray dear.I have very few treasures left. Cigarettes and my wonderful Mr. Mahler. The least you can do is put up with him for a while. What you going to do today dear?
MOTHER: [Answers phone] Hello, yes, yes he lives here. This is Mrs. Fitzgerald his mother speaking. Just a minute, I´ll see if he´s in. [Covers phone] She sounds foreign.
MOTHER: Cookie´. Really Carl, what you see in them. You´re a terrible disappointment to me you know. She´s exceedingly common I can imagine.
Any potentially adult romantic passions are undermined in the following scene in a children´s moviehouse, where Carl and Sophie´s attempts at necking are ridiculed by the kids around them.
The main action ensues when Carl accidentally kills his assistant Moustapha, who has attacked Carl mistaking him as an informant on his drug activities. His mate, Dave, assists by disposing of the body in an open grave. Despite his apparent bad conscience. Carl later attempts to poison his mother by slipping pills into her tea. He is saved from this crime only by his mother´s heart attack before she can drink the lethal brew. Now his mother is confined to a remote-control wheelchair, Carl is free to marry Sophie and the film ends with their wedding, hyper-Greek style. On this point, the film diverges sharply from the original novel, which ends with Carl, like a praying mantis´ on the verge of matricide.
In the context of the other two films we have examined, the innocence of both Bremmer and Malcolm appears possible because of the death of their mothers. Death in Brunswick recasts this arrangement from a matter of circumstance to a sinister plan. Carl is the unnatural Peter Pan. In this sense, Death in Brunswick eschews cinematic fantasy of the eternal boy and confronts Peter Pan with the portrait of Dorian Gray.
THE CITY OF LOST INNOCENCE
What is it about Melbourne that lends itself to the Peter Pan theme? There are many ways of responding to this question. Other peculiarities of Melbourne might be mentioned, such as the preponderance of boyish figures in popular culture (Bert Newton, John Farnham, Mollie Meldrum, John Cain, Barry Dickens, etc.) The suburban character of life in Melbourne may favour retreat from the world into one´s own backyard.
But in order to make something of this theme, it is not necessary to explain it. It is enough to recognise its significance as a problematic that helps define issues of local significance. The case of the Grand Prix proposed for Albert Park shows the political power of idiocy´ in Melbourne. Here the sentiment to preserve the world is threatened by the powerful rhetoric of economic progress. How can Melbourne refuse to host a prestigious international event which raises the city´s world profile and draws in hordes of tourists with their hard currencies?
It is this opposition between private sentiment and public good that has put Man of Flowers back on stage. Norman Kaye and Paul Cox are presented as the main focus of opposition to urban change. The Age coverage of the issue (30 April 1994) featured a photograph of Norman Kaye and Paul Cox over coffee. Titled, Fighting to save Melbourne´s soul´, the article begins, Norman Kaye is visibly shy, sensitive. Even when among peers he tends to stand alone ... For many, Kaye embodies the cultural spirit of Melbourne´. Another article by Anna King Murdoch (The race to ruin a city´s poor old soul´) "features a cartoon by Spooner of a young girl riding a bike quite alone along the lake. In arguing the lake´s importance, she writes: This is the place that has inspired some of film-maker Paul Cox´s most mysterious imaginings. As he is one of the great interpreters of Melbourne´s romantic spirit, we are lucky that he caught forever the relationship of birds, poplars, cloud and light over Albert Park Lake.´ Despite the angry crowds gathered in protest, it is the lonely dreamer who provides the focus of social dissent.
Of course, it would be overreaching the mark to identify this phenomenon as unique to Melbourne. In a world faced with irresistible modernisation, it is left to the village idiot to carry the burden of local identity. His blindness to the symbolic order provides sanctuary from the logic of late capitalism, whose economic trends find little resistance in traditional ways. Better an idiot than a demagogue to carry the focus of popular discontent with the inhuman machinery of progress.
We should also resist an uncritical celebration of the idiot as a local hero set against the anonymous forces of international capital. As demonstrated in Death in Brunswick, it´s possible to reverse this opposition and see the lost boys as frozen in an imaginary world out of fear of making contact with others. For them, the emotional demands of others are conveniently implicated with the big bad world outside. Resistance to the ways of the world is a failure of nerve, not the active opposition to what is perceived as wrong. They are examples of Hegel´s beautiful soul´ which lives in dread of besmirching the splendour of its inner being by action and an existence´." Rather than a figure to be indulged, the idiot may be seen as a victim of a postmodern world that lacks a hard reality to break the egg of childish egocentricity. Melbourne´s Peter Pans may be judged as romantic idealists, but they could just as easily be seen as creatures of a suburban backyard culture-the do-it-yourself ethos that eschews the political yet meekly submits to the dominant order. If anything, what these figures perform is an ideological screen for the endemic plight of the disenfranchised class of the unemployed.
Finding oneself on one or other side of the argument is not the point here. The point is that the one who never grows up provides a locus for a broader argument about the place of local issues in a global theatre. The initial apocalyptic picture of childhood as part of an inexorable decline of public culture is thus tempered with a particular narrative context. The inner child becomes more than a retreat from public culture, it acts as a figure through which local politics is possible. In an opposition that is familiar to the inner child, it distinguishes the little piggies that go to market, and the little piggies that stay home.
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray