Full Moon

A full moon post is bound to be a bit erratic.

GODFREY MILLER Nude and the Moon 1954-1958 oil, 61.6x104.2 cm (collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales)

Miller's Full Moon (detail from larger series)

The moon sits solid and round in a pitch black sky. Here, at Montsalvat, it is framed by two large trees not identifiable in the dark. The trees are tall enough to have been part of the entire history of this artist’s colony. What is it they have witnessed? What stories would they tell of the men and women that struggled with the weight of blue stone (and other types of stone and brick) to build the cottages, great hall, long gallery towers and chapel of Montsalvat. What did these trees make of it all?

I’m attempting to be Miller’s tree and become a kind of witness to his life. In the general thinking and reading I have been doing about biography I am most partial to how John Armstrong, in ‘Love, Life, Goethe’, describes Goethe’s thinking on biography:

“He (Goethe) is not saying: please don’t write my life. What it comes to is something more interesting: obviously you can’t understand my life and that is just how it is; but please do as I would do: try to make something of me, … Don’t ‘subscribe’, but try to hold on to the effect I make on you, if it is an attractive one. He (Goethe) is throwing out a question: can I come to live productively in your life.”

I hope to bring Miller’s life productively into the present but what form I shall bring to the writing of his life currently eludes me. Like the two little ducks sitting on the pond today, I am floating on the surface and have not the courage to dive into a form which will be true and just to Miller. In the National Biography Award lecture, November 2009, Raimond Gaita speaks to the topic ‘Truth as applied to Biography & Autobiography’. Even he does not have definitive words on what biographical truth is and relates that he wrote the first draft of the book ‘Romulus, My Father’ in an astonishing 3 weeks. He focused only on dialogue he could actually remember, he avoided sentimentality, psychological theories and was always paring back in an effort to see things as they truly were. He relied on his listening to Bach every night to keep him truthful, and he imagined his chosen biographical form as a tragic poem. It is the form of Miller’s biography that has me floating like the ducks on the surface and in part this may be due to the importance of form to Miller.

Fortuitously the July-August edition of Australian Book Review (ABR) has a wonderful commentary, ‘Bouncing on the trampoline of fact Biography and the historical imagination‘, by Jim Davidson. In some ways he is stating the obvious but when you are facing a plethora of files on your subject and you have no idea where to start, what narrative genre to choose, and more importantly you are intimidated by the notion of form – like me; you need a strong and clear mind to take your hand and get you asking the questions in a Socratic style. Below, partly paraphrased and partly quoted  I list the tips I drew out from Jim Davidson’s commentary:

  • Look for underlying questions: What light do these lives shed on the incompleteness [cultural] of Australia?
  • An important component is place – it can be used to set tone
  • Each chapter brings forward a new set of characters and a new set of problems especially with regard to place and the context of place in forming character and a character’s reactions
  • Biographies: the first chapter is often problematic this can be for a variety of reasons but often because of a dearth of early life material on the central subject
  • There are always gaps in any excavation of a life and the gaps must be handled with respect and balance
  • A biography should be like a life, and reflect its rhythms
  • Chapters will naturally contract and expand, allow them movement until sure of the whole
  • Life is full of recurrence and a biographer can use this constructively
  • Telling the story of characters other than your subject: the stories of peripheral characters can also be built up over the course of the writing gradually, as in life
  • A biographer must be a discriminating processor of factual material, drawing from a wide variety of sources and levels in order to make a subject live.

Davidson finishes with “…:what one hopes for is an accurate yet imaginative portrait of the subject. It must never be a still life.” I like this end to his commentary; and of course it resonates for me writing about an artist who had great respect for the philosophical concepts that are embodied in a still life! So for tomorrow: I will be working between Gaita’s notions of truth and Davidson’s respect for life’s rhythms.

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