It often strikes me anew how many of my favourite artists are men on the fringes of gayness, men who are not heterosexual, but are not quite at home in whatever we might call the ‘gay world’, the however-much-coherent culture it is. These men have followed me through my life, right from the start: Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and finally Robert Dessaix. I’m not sure, not yet sure, if it’s a personal affinity I feel, or if their profound non-belonging, queerness about as fundamental as it can get, has sharpened both their sensibility and their minds, and made them able to accurately perceive the complexity of, and judge with understanding, both the world and themselves.
In any case, Robert Dessaix is perhaps my favourite Australian writer (speaking empirically, I enjoy Dessaix’s writing often and much). Reading Arabesques in parallel with a scholarly history of the Arab world is a great pleasure, because the shortcomings of each book cancel each other out. Whereas one provides clear facts ad dull nauseam, the light and self-centred (and West-centred) musings of the other are the easiest to enjoy when you, as a reader, feel confidently knowledgeable about the places and people he encounters to enjoy your read dialogically.
When I read Dessaix, I often find many quotes to quote, of both kinds: sometimes I feel like Dessaix says things I think and feel, and sometimes I feel Dessaix is being told things I would like many (Australian) people to know and understand better. In particular, I felt great relief when Dessaix was prepared to dissect the Protestant nature of his own culture. It is one of those aspects of Australia I find most infuriatingly, bafflingly, indefensibly horrible, and so much of it comes from its own extremism (if there is one great notion that Protestant Christian culture has no grasp of, it is the concept of balance or moderation, and the best way to understand this is to observe people’s eating habits). They are good quotes for a Saturday afternoon, and I type quickly, so here they are:
1. on happiness
‘You Westerners,’ Yacoub said with his usual elegant weariness, ‘seem fixated on the idea of happiness. You chase after it everywhere, yet you never seem to catch hold of it. I understand pleasure, comfort, beauty, passion, peace, love…’
‘You? Love?’ Zaïda was open-mouther. A drop of violet ice-cream trickled down her chin.
‘…but I don’t understand what you mean by “happiness”.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, trying to head Zaïda off before she made a fool of herself. This was the woman who had once rung her lover to thank him for a bouquet of white roses he’d sent her for her birthday and eaten them, petal by petal, while they exchanged honeyed nothings across the Atlantic.
‘Camus came up with the perfect definition.’
‘Camus!’ Zaïda looked puzzled. ‘But he committed suicide.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? Clamence in The Fall says: “I took pleasure in my own nature, and we all know that that’s what happiness. is.”
‘That’s a rather self-satisfied, self-serving notion of happiness, don’t you think?’ I hadn’t supposed that Miriam would give in without a tussle. ‘What about…’
‘Feeding the hungry? Helping the blind to cross the street? I’m not talking about the morality of it, I’m just saying that that’s what we Westerners, as Yacoub calls us, want in order to be happy: the right to take pleasure in our own nature as we see fit.’
‘Whereas we Orientals only want the right to take pleasure in God’s.’ Yacoub smiled one of his smiles.
‘But you don’t believe in God – you told me so yourself in Blidah.’
‘No, I don’t believe in God, and I’m not an atheist.’
2. on protestantism
…surely there are two kinds of forgetting: one is forever and the other is a momentary frenzy. Well, the frenzy might last a month or even a few years, but it doesn’t blot out memory for good. IT’s just taking your hidden self out for an airing.
‘Even some Buddhist monks,’ I said to Daniel, as we walked back to the car, ‘have days of divine madness. It keeps them sane. They take up with loose women and go on drunken rampages.’
‘Yes, it’s called “Crazy Wisdom”. It’s Tibetan’ How annoying that he should know that. ‘And it’s not about “keeping sane”, it’s about flux. It’s about taming instead of clinging, and then letting go. I have the feeling that your Gide may have been too Protestant to believe in flux. He probably believed in virtue and sin.’ I think he partly meant me. But he had a point: Protestants are particularly given to dualities such as sin and virtue, belief and unbelief, spirit and matter. It’s one thing or the other with us. Catholics, on the other hand, have ways of striking a bargain with God. Flux is something they understand.
(There follows a 10-or-20-page discussion of being a Protestant heathen, of Catholic comfort versus Protestant austerity, of Protestantism leading naturally to atheism, etc – but which I am too lazy to reproduce here.)
3. on travel
‘When the absurdity of my life begins to nauseate me, I don’t commit suicide, you see, as Camus did, I travel.’
‘How could being in Algeria make your life less absurd? If life is nauseatingly absurd anywhere in this world, it’s in Algeria.’
‘It doesn’t make life any less absurd, but for a few days, a week, a month, it can make mine seem worth living. I can take pleasure there in my own nature.’ This sounded less flippant than Gide’s observation about places where he found himself interesting – but it amounted to much the same thing, I suppose. ‘In a way I can’t at home – or at any rate not often.’
‘Like Gide, do you mean? Les petits musiciens?’
‘Yes and no, actually. Travel is an art, it seems to me, just like painting or writing a novel, it crystallises things. It crystallises me. Whenever I feel that I’m on the point of disappearing, dissolving into a thousand selves – and that happens when you don’t feel you have a single source – I make art. I tell myself a story, I tell others a story, and I travel. And tell stories about my travels. I crystallise anew. (…) I make art – and travel – both to remember and to forget. Like a crystal, you see – both solid and translucent at the same time.’
‘To remember and forget what, precisely?’
‘To remember who I’ve been and also who I wanted to be, to write a new script and act it out without shame. To find my source.’
‘That sounds like God again. And does it work?’
‘No, of course not, but that’s no reason to stay at home. But I also travel – and write – to forget, to sink into the river of unmindfulness, to be utterly transparent, crystal-clear, to just be.’
‘And does that work?’
‘For a day or two, if I’m lucky.’
4. on how Australians perceive Europeans
Yacoub spoke with his accustomed world-weariness tinged with mischief and, as usual, he was annoyingly difficult to read.