Feminists raged at The First Stone. Now Karen Kissane looks at another perspective.
There will always be these moments, I know, when people who think politically and types like me with a metaphysical bent end up staring at each other in helpless silence, with our mouths open.
— Helen Garner, in a speech to the Sydney Institute about critical response to her book The First Stone.
HELEN GARNER did not spring from nature’s loins ready-made as a “type with a metaphysical bent”. She used to be very much a political animal. As a ’70s feminist she went to consciousness- raising groups, wrote women’s lib newsletters, helped desperate women get abortions.
But now she is irritated by her feminist tag. “People kept portraying me in the papers as a well-known feminist,” she says impatiently. “If I was Germaine Greer, it would be understandable, but I’ve never been a professional feminist. I was a feminist over the last 15 years or so only in the sense that any intelligent woman with a sense of justice would call herself a feminist.
At her age, she says, she realises that it is no longer clear where “fault” lies in the problems between individual men and women: “It’s an illusion that it ever was clear.”
Where does all this leave The First Stone? The book has been read mainly as feminist – or anti-feminist – argument.
But Garner now disdains ideological barrows and those who push them; political thinking is crude and simplistic, she says, and ideologues chop great bits out of reality to make it fit their world view. So if she was not writing a political analysis, what was it that she tried to do? A book conceived as investigative journalism ended more as an exploration of the writer’s own sensibility, with Garner planted at the centre of the story. She experiences a sequence of strange events and encounters, rather like a dreamer does, and later wrestles with analysing their deeper meanings for herself and others. It is as if she tries to examine the Ormond affair the way a Jungian would dissect a dream or a legend, delving behind its symbolism to find the patterns beneath.
In her author’s note Garner writes that she had raised the Ormond College story to a level where “its archetypal features have become visible”. Archetype is a term Jung used to describe symbols that form part of the collective unconscious in human minds. Archetypes are the stuff of myth, eternal images and stories that keep surfacing across different times and cultures in dreams, art, religion and literature.
This is just one of the Jungian concepts Garner uses. In the text she talks about “eros” and “anima” and tries at times to work out what was happening in the unconscious of some of the people she interviewed. She talks about how even for old men, judges represent the father; she suggests that the Ormond case tapped into a widespread anxiety, “something dark about fathers and daughters”.
Garner has been interested in Jung for some years and has attended Jungian conferences at La Trobe University. Earlier this year she said that her time with her former therapist, Melbourne Jungian analyst Peter O’Connor, several years ago had helped teach her “the language of the imagination”.
Had she tried to apply Jungian thought to the Ormond incident, and if so, does it work?
We wrote to Garner asking for an interview. She was reluctant to reignite the feminist debate but was pleased.
We made a date for our own interview. But Garner had expected that a Jungian analysis of the book by others was to be brought to her for comment, not that she was to describe her own attempts to conduct one. The more she was pressed, the more she withdrew.
She says: “The word archetype isn’t one that I really feel very confident about using, but it does seem to me that there are a limited number of story shapes in the world, in people’s human experiences; that’s why old people are rarely surprised by things.”
So what did she mean when she wrote that she had made the Ormond story’s archetypal features visible? “I don’t remember.
I just don’t remember. I wrote that author’s note at a time of extreme tension and anxiety, when I didn’t know if all those years of work were going to come to anything.
“I don’t think the story’s archetypal features have become visible, in retrospect. The only way I could have made them visible is if I had written it as a novel . . . There are freedoms in novels that there are not in non-fiction . . . I had to let the facts stand in the way of a good story – such facts as I could discover.”
Others have done archetypal analyses that have been less than flattering. In Arena Magazine John Docker argued that Garner portrayed Alan Gregory, whom she re-named Shepherd, as a Christ-like figure, a meek and gentle carer of his flock, “an outsider to and victim of those with worldly interests, the moneychangers”.
But one of the complainants she calls Elizabeth Rosen was painted as a Jewish princess with Medusa-like power, “that familiar figure, the Jew as other, foreign, alien . . . destroying, heartless, lurking”. Docker concluded: “What interests (Garner) is that she also, avowedly patient and gentle, a spurned mater dolorosa, is crucified, along with Dr Shepherd. By book’s end they are both martyrs, Christian victims of the Jew. What an odd view of the last 2000 years of European history.”
Garner is appalled into speechlessness by this interpretation, and denies the accusation by author Cassandra Pybus that her description of Rosen conjures up that vengeful man-hating figure, the “vagina dentata”.
But there is no question that Garner portrays Rosen as another archetype: the beautiful goddess whose lures the mortal cannot withstand. She writes: “It is impossible not to be moved by her daring beauty. She is a woman in the full glory of her youth, as joyful as a goddess, elated by her own careless authority and power.”
Later Garner suggests that Rosen has not “taken the responsibility of learning to handle the effects, on men, of her beauty and her erotic style of self-representation”. She asks: “Has a girl like Elizabeth Rosen even the faintest idea what a powerful anima figure she is to the men she encounters in her life? She told the court that Dr Shepherd had got down on his knees before her. Which of them does the word humiliated apply to, here?”
Garner sees little point in trying to explain her use of anima. It is a term that Jung used to describe the “feminine”, intuitive, feeling parts of a man’s psyche. She says it is a useful concept but – “when you talk about it briefly it comes out sounding too pat and glib”.
IN HIS 1985 book Understanding Jung, O’Connor writes that a man who is out of touch with his anima may experience it forcefully in mid-life when he “projects” it on to women.
The erotic fantasies or extra-marital affairs that result are really signs of the man’s longing to connect with his own feminine side, O’Connor argues. Consciously or unconsciously, then, Garner has Rosen summoning forth this aspect of Shepherd.
The Rosen-as-anima passages are central to feminist bile about the book because they suggest that a beautiful girl in a sexy dress should expect to trigger in some men the reaction of a kid in a candy shop: an uncontrollable urge to plunder. It’s not far from this to “She asked for it.”
In fact, what Garner believes is that young women should take responsibility for their desire to provoke desire, should understand that it can have unforeseen results, and should be able to deal with minor uninvited skirmishes directly and with grace.
She is right that a feminist gender analysis – like those done on the basis of class or race – will never be the last word on the Ormond affair, or any other phenomenon. Life is too complicated for anything to be viewed fully through a single filter. But if we did not look at class and race and gender, we would not understand how cruelly they can limit people.
And, while her critics need to recognise that Garner was in many ways writing more as a novelist than an essayist, the fact that she tried to write on one level does not mean she cannot be examined on another. Jungianism and feminist politics have their crossroads.
Jana Salonen, a tutor at the University of Melbourne who is writing her doctorate on feminism and psychoanalysis, says: “Garner’s brand of Jungianism appeals to women’s patience and understanding of errant male projections on to women.
In practical terms, this amounts to little more than the politics of tolerance and good sportism. It leaves social justice and ideological change dependent on men’s psychic `evolution’.
The book’s value, she says, is that it has taken the sexual debate outside the stockade of ideological jargon and into the language of ordinary experience. Fair enough.
The danger is that Garner’s version of the Ormond story will become a new archetype, that of the sexual harassment case in which a pitiful man is wronged by vengeful harpies about a trivial matter.
Two years ago The Age reported on a shop assistant at a cheesecake factory who was persecuted by male workmates who, among other things, pinned a note to her bike that said “Tina sux dog’s balls all day long”. To try to avoid comments about her body Tina dressed in kaftan-like clothes that left only her face and hands uncovered. When she fled the job she changed her name because it had been linked with so much abuse that it was poisoned for her.
No one wrote a book about Tina. But then, a cheesecake factory is not Ormond College, and a shopgirl forced out of her job cannot be compared with a master who loses his career. Can she?
First published in The Age.