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The Other Shore

The Other Shore: Essays on Writers and Writing

Michael Jackson
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 218
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  • Book Info
    The Other Shore
    Book Description:

    In this book, ethnographer and poet Michael Jackson addresses the interplay between modes of writing, modes of understanding, and modes of being in the world. Drawing on literary, anthropological and autobiographical sources, he explores writing as a technics akin to ritual, oral storytelling, magic and meditation, that enables us to reach beyond the limits of everyday life and forge virtual relationships and imagined communities. Although Maurice Blanchot wrote of the impossibility of writing, the passion and paradox of literature lies in its attempt to achieve the impossible--a leap of faith that calls to mind the mystic's dark night of the soul, unrequited love, nostalgic or utopian longing, and the ethnographer's attempt to know the world from the standpoint of others, to put himself or herself in their place. Every writer, whether of ethnography, poetry, or fiction, imagines that his or her own experiences echo the experiences of others, and that despite the need for isolation and silence his or her work consummates a relationship with them.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95482-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ONE The Other Shore
    (pp. 1-4)

    Walter benjamin once observed that our human gift for seeing resemblances “is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion … to become and behave like someone else.”² But our capacity for recognizing what we have in common with others, let alone connecting with them, appears to be as limited as our capacity for putting experience into words. The blank page confronts the writer like the face of a stranger. Though we cling to the belief that we can read one another’s minds or mimic reality in art, the gaps between us, like the gaps between words and the...

  5. TWO The Red Road
    (pp. 5-11)

    I was not the first adolescent poet, nor will I be the last, to adopt Arthur Rimbaud as an alter ego. In Rimbaud’s resolve to be other than he was, I found legitimacy for my own revolt against bourgeois values. Often drunk and confrontational, and possessed by a perverse desire to be different, I cultivated an uncouth and anarchic persona, yet all the while unclear as to what kind of metamorphosis I wished for myself.

    It is not possible, of course, to simply walk out on yourself, discarding your first identity as a snake sloughs off its skin. You do...

  6. THREE Kindred Spirits
    (pp. 12-15)

    Hank kloosterman picked me up at Léopoldville airport when I first arrived in the Congo, and he dropped me off there ten months later. The same hot wind that gently battered me on that first journey into the city still flowed over the grasslands as if nothing under the sun had changed. But I had changed, or been changed, in ways I could not yet fully understand, though an unexpected encounter in the airport departure lounge on the day I left for France gave me a glimmering of what I now know.

    Only a week before, I had been summoned...

  7. FOUR Writing under the Influence
    (pp. 16-19)

    Italo calvino observes that when we read, “we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something … that is … past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead.”¹ This was certainly the case for me in Paris. I plunged into reading Blaise Cendrars as if my life depended on it. Feverishly, I sketched a work of fiction about an imaginary figure that I had glimpsed in the pages of Cendrars’Moravagine,Gide’sVoyage au Congo,and Conrad’sHeart of Darkness. And there were moments, late at night, when I felt as if I was co-authoring Cendrars’ posthumous...

  8. FIVE A Typewriter Collecting Dust
    (pp. 20-25)

    I came back to new zealand from the Congo in the same frame of mind in which my literary heroes returned from their excursions to the ends of the earth—impatient to get away again. My plan was to pay my parents the money I owed them for my fare home then go to Vietnam as a war correspondent. That was before I met Pauline. At first, I was caught between the Scylla of being utterly free and the Charybdis of losing myself in love. Yet I knew from the moment I set eyes on her which imperative would win...

  9. SIX Writing in Limbo
    (pp. 26-34)

    Not long before pauline and i went to Sierra Leone, a story broke in the EnglishSunday Timesabout the fate of an English yachtsman called Donald Crowhurst.¹ His trimaran ketch,Teignmouth Electron, had been found adrift in mid-Atlantic. The life raft was lashed in place, the helm swung freely, and the sails lay folded on the deck ready to be raised. But Crowhurst had vanished.

    Three blue-bound logbooks on the chart table revealed what had befallen him.

    On October 31, 1968, Crowhurst had set sail from Teignmouth, Devon, in a bid to win the Golden Globe single-handed round-the-world race....

  10. SEVEN The Magical Power of Words
    (pp. 35-42)

    For several weeks before going to sierra leone, Pauline and I had camped in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, awaiting word of a cargo sailing from Le Havre to Freetown. It was an Indian summer, and I should have been grateful for this period of idleness. But our delayed departure only intensified the anxiety that oppressed me whenever I contemplated returning to Africa as an anthropologist. I had glimpsed this future for myself in the Congo, five years before, and it had been in Paris, penurious and disoriented, that I had begun to see that ethnography might be my...

  11. EIGHT Flights of Fancy
    (pp. 43-49)

    When i took a job teaching anthropology at a provincial New Zealand University, some of my Cambridge friends warned that I would starve for want of intellectual stimulation and slowly go to seed. I didn’t need to be reminded; I knew that my future depended on publishing abroad and reaching an audience beyond my native shores.

    At the University, I generally avoided the faculty club, preferring to buy a sandwich in the student cafeteria, find a quiet spot on the campus, and eat alone. It was a pattern I’d slipped into during my school days, though now it wasn’t shyness...

  12. NINE Writing Fellowship
    (pp. 50-57)

    Despite modest successes in publishing ethnography and poetry,¹ I nursed an ambition to write fiction, and after winning a Writing Fellowship in 1982 I went to the South of France, accompanied by Pauline and our twelve-year old daughter, Heidi, intending to rework the novel I had written eighteen years before in the Congo.

    I had never found it easy to reconcile creative and academic work, much as I told myself that scholarship required imagination, and fiction achieved its greatest force when faithful to lived realities. For me, anthropology and poetry involved very different dispositions, and the transition from one to...

  13. TEN There Go I
    (pp. 58-64)

    My novel ended as abruptly as my sojourn in France, and for a long time I wanted to go back to Menton and bring to a close what I felt I’d left unfinished.

    On the last page of my novel I describe a local clochard.¹ Our paths crossed every day. We never exchanged a word, but I regarded him as a familiar and got to know his habits and beat by heart.

    His hair and beard were grizzled and unkempt, his skin grimy and weather-beaten. Winter and summer he wore the same buttonless, stained overcoat, frayed trousers and plastic sandals....

  14. ELEVEN Love Letters
    (pp. 65-71)

    I used to feel quite ambivalent about composers like Dvorak, Chopin, Kodály, Bartók, Vaughan Williams, Canteloube, and Janáček, who used folk music as the basis for their own compositions, often without specific acknowledgment of their sources. Undoubtedly, these misgivings reflected my experience as an ethnographer, recording oral traditions, interrogating informants, and collecting the stories of strangers. Even when given carte blanche by those who allowed me to live among them and know their secrets, I was not able to rid my mind of the thought that I was profiting from things that did not, strictly speaking, belong to me. To...

  15. TWELVE Writing for Bare Life
    (pp. 72-75)

    I am haunted by a contrary thought—that while writing may forge connections with others, it can just as readily cut one off from the world. Although writing is an all-consuming fire, it may also reduce one’s life to ashes. It is as if nothing can be brought into this world without something else departing from it—a conjecture that underpins the widespread belief that death is not a state of nonbeing but another mode of being, and that we are perpetually passing into and out of this world in a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.

    It was the...

  16. THIRTEEN Writing So As Not to Die
    (pp. 76-79)

    In an interview with christopher hitchens in July 2010, not long after the British-born writer and iconoclast had been diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer, George Easton asked Hitchens, “What would you have done had you not become a writer?” Hitchens replied that he never wanted to do anything else but write. “It’s what I am, rather than what I do.”¹

    Most serious writers would agree. Although few succeed in making a living as writers, writing is their raison d’être; for them it is as inconceivable not to write as not to breathe. Writing and living are synonymous. This is why...

  17. FOURTEEN Chinese Boxes
    (pp. 80-84)

    Stories are not only embedded in life—in the biography of a storyteller and the epoch in which he or she lives; stories are often embedded in stories.One Thousand and One Nightsexemplifies this tradition of frame stories, examples of which can be found in ancient Persian, Arab, and Indian folklore.The Manuscript Found in Saragossa—written by a Polish aristocrat, Count Jan Potocki in the first decade of the nineteenth century—is a modern masterpiece of this genre.

    Potocki (1761–1815) was an adventurer, political activist, polymath, and pioneering ethnologist. Brought up in the Ukraine and in Switzerland,...

  18. FIFTEEN The Writing on the Wall
    (pp. 85-92)

    In his nobel lecture of 2006, Orhan Pamuk says that experiences that initially seem unique to oneself come to be shared with others, and it is on a writer’s ability to reveal this common ground that his or her writing stands or falls. “My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble one another, that others carry wounds like mine—and that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that we resemble one another.”¹

    I recalled these words as I read Pamuk’sThe Museum of Innocence,for it seemed to me that...

  19. SIXTEEN Writing out of the Blue
    (pp. 93-97)

    Writing never ceases to astound me. Not for what can be conjured or conveyed with words, but for how language allows us to go beyond ourselves, to become other than what we are or have ever been. To imagine that a voice out of the blue, without a face, is addressing us and holds clues as to our true destiny. To contemplate another life, and think “there but for grace of God go I.” To see a stranger in a waiting train and imagine for a fleeting moment that you two belong together.¹ To feel the presence of God after...

  20. SEVENTEEN A Storyteller’s Story
    (pp. 98-103)

    A writer may give the impression of leading an insular life, lost in the hinterlands of subjective thought or fantasy. But despite appearances, the writer may not be absorbed in himself or herself but in other times, other places, other lives. The same paradox holds true of a tribal raconteur. Often in the company of others, with little time to call his own, he is no less absent-minded than the writer in his “long-tongued room,” toiling “towards the ambush of his wounds.”¹ Like his literate counterpart, the oral storyteller inhabits an invisible life of reverie and dream, his mind wandering,...

  21. EIGHTEEN Writing in the Dark
    (pp. 104-112)

    Prefacing hisessays,Michel de Montaigne says that he writes not for the world at large, in prose decked out to secure public favor, but for a select audience of close friends and kinsmen, so that when he dies they will find in his writings some traits of his character and of his humors. “They will thus keep their knowledge of me more full, more alive.”¹ As it turned out, Montaigne’s writing outlived his friends and family and found favor in quarters to which he claimed to be indifferent. There are many like myself who are beneficiaries of his unintended...

  22. NINETEEN Writing in the Zone
    (pp. 113-120)

    In andrey tarkovsky’s unforgettable film,Stalker,a scientist, a writer, and a tormented individual known simply at Stalker, move through a mysterious landscape that resembles a devastated industrial zone. Somewhere in this forbidden and nightmarish place there is a room where one’s wishes may be granted and happiness found. Though Stalker himself appears indifferent to this room, accepting who he is and desiring nothing more, the scientist hopes that in explaining the mystery of the zone he may be awarded a Nobel Prize. When the scientist berates the writer, calling him a blabbermouth, good for little more than painting walls...

  23. TWENTY Writing, Naturally
    (pp. 121-127)

    Without a readership, a writer’s work remains unconsummated. This is nowhere more evident than in a haiku, whose brevity, ambiguity, and syntactical compression require someone other than the author to fully realize its potential. The same principal holds true of a folktale. Its minimalism fools many into thinking that it is a childlike form of storytelling, lacking depth of character, and bereft of the descriptive detail that supposedly makes the novel more psychologically sophisticated and satisfying. Yet it is by stripping a story of the author’s presence and preoccupations that it becomes available to others. There is, accordingly, a close...

  24. TWENTY-ONE Writing Workshop
    (pp. 128-136)

    When invited to give a brief talk on ethnography at a writing workshop in the Scottish Highlands, I decided to share some anecdotes about the importance of what Jane Bennett calls “the wonder of minor experiences.”¹ I wanted to demonstrate that detail determines good writing, not bright ideas. Ideas will come to light, but only if one first yields to the ethnographic particulars. And so I began by citing Arundhati Roy, author ofThe God of Small Things. “Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.”


  25. TWENTY-TWO The Books in My Life
    (pp. 137-141)

    When he was fifty-nine and living at big sur, Henry Miller wroteThe Books in my Life.¹ It was an oblique memoir. The books that had inspired the American writer also marked turning points in his life. “They were alive and spoke to me,”² Miller says, and concludes his homage to these “kindred spirits” with a list of the hundred books that influenced him most, including works by Blaise Cendrars, Élie Faure, Knut Hamsun, Sherwood Anderson, and Hermann Keyserling—all of which I would read on Miller’s recommendation, so that they became books inmylife.

    Sometimes the books that...

  26. TWENTY-THREE Writing Utopia
    (pp. 142-149)

    Whenever i visit london I am returned to the winter of 1963–64, when I worked among the homeless and like a latter-day Jack London wrote about “the people of the abyss.”¹ Perhaps this is why, even now, I tend to notice only the dark side of the city and fear I might become trapped in some somnambulant routine, like the derelicts and drifters I used to know, unable to return to the place from whence they had been cast out and equally unable to find a place in which they could take refuge. And so, like Elias Canetti who...

  27. TWENTY-FOUR Writing in Search of Lost Time
    (pp. 150-154)

    The cemetery was under snow. Only the main path, leading slightly uphill from the main gate, had been cleared. After examining a notice board that showed the layout of the cemetery and identified the numbers of some of the more famous graves, I followed a well-trampled path between serried gravestones, amazed to see how many footprints there were, though not a soul was in sight. Joyce’s grave was the first I found. His statue was encrusted with snow—the gangly, self-absorbed figure with cigarette and cane almost a mockery of the heroic individual I had conjured when I read his...

  28. TWENTY-FIVE Writing about Writers
    (pp. 155-161)

    The moment i entered mcclean—the immaculate and shrine-like men’s room below the main concourse of the Zürich railway station—I thought of Mary Douglas. In its evocation of hygiene, purity, and sanctity, this public urinal, to which you gain access by inserting 1.5 Swiss francs in a turnstile, exemplifies Mary Douglas’s thesis that cleanliness is to dirt as order is to disorder. The room was semicircular, with glass partitions separating the streamlined and undespoiled porcelain urinals. As you piss, soft pastel-colored lights rise and fall behind frosted glass, and when you are done you wash your hands at a...

  29. TWENTY-SIX Writing in Ruins
    (pp. 162-169)

    This train of thought continued in rome, where I followed dutiful tourists around the ruins of the Forum and the Coliseum, casting my cold eye on the pitiful evidence of a once-triumphant, heroic, and hierarchical regime of sacred power. But it was the victims of this regime who were on my mind, the prisoners in bas relief on the monumental arches, and the men and women who died for their faith, in particular Vibia Perpetua, a young married woman from a high-ranking, wealthy Roman family who converted to Christianity and was executed in Carthage on March 7, 203. It is...

  30. TWENTY-SEVEN Writing as a Way of Life
    (pp. 170-184)

    I have always been intrigued by how devious we are in getting around dilemmas we do not know how to address directly. Perhaps all art is an expression of this evasiveness, this cowardly tactic of contriving to have others resolve issues we cannot deal with, or blaming anyone but ourselves for the difficulties we get into. George Johnston grew up in Melbourne, Australia, between the wars.¹ His earliest memories were of walking sticks, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and crutches cluttering up the hallway of his parent’s house, and of “a formless shadow of disaster that [he] wanted to shout against or...

  31. NOTES
    (pp. 185-204)
    (pp. 205-205)