The Urge to Write and the Urge to Kill:
Creativity, Violence and the Manipulation of Madness in the work of Peter Kocan
With the recent completion of his latest autobiographical novel, The Fable Of All Our Lives, Australian author Peter Kocan has written another chapter of his life story. Thus we can examine his protagonist in three separate stages of development – the youth of Fresh Fields, a mentally unstable, ambitious loner: Len Tarbutt, the criminally insane prisoner of The Treatment & The Cure: and Tait, the emancipated artist of The Fable Of All Our Lives. Kocan has illuminated the often confusing connection between creativity, violence and madness – documenting the experience of a psychologically confused, failed assassin until the point where he regains his equilibrium and becomes a working writer.
Significantly, in all three versions of the self, the protagonist is seen to be his own healer. The youth of Fresh Fields is led on his violent quest by his imaginary Nazi familiar, Diestl; redemption for the protagonist can only come through the gun. Following his criminal conviction, in The Treatment & The Cure, the mental hospital is portrayed as a POW camp, and Len Tarbutt survives by adopting a fantasy relationship with a mythical British WWI soldier. In The Fable Of All Our Lives, Tait manipulates his own madness again – this time by declaring himself a Jacobite and adopting the cause of rebellion in an overtly opinionated work which rejects political correctness, psychiatry and post modernism.
Kocan’s autobiographical prose reveals a strong link between mental illness and creativity, where the former is seen to corrupt the latter – and the latter, in turn, feeds the former. His characters cannot survive without isolating themselves entirely, which is the very thing that brings them closest to mental collapse. Manipulating their own madness by seeing themselves in the context of an ongoing, unwinnable war is the only way for the characters to function; and achieving this fragile balance comes at a great personal cost.
Key Words: Loner, creativity, spirituality, paranoia, war, mental health, manipulation, political correctness, honour, Australian literature.
With the completion of his latest work The Fable Of All Our Lives, the autobiographical fiction of Australian author Peter Kocan can now be divided into three clear categories: the institutional, the pre-institutional and the post-institutional.
The incident at the heart of Kocan’s fiction, an event not covered in the fiction itself,1 occurred on the night of June 21, 1966, when the 19 year old Kocan shot and wounded then Australian Federal Opposition Leader, Arthur Calwell, with a sawn-off shot gun outside the Mosman Town Hall. After being presented to the court as a ‘borderline schizophrenic’, Kocan was sentenced to life imprisonment and subsequently released in 1976.2
While becoming a recognised poet during the years of his incarceration, Kocan did not start documenting his life in prose until after his release.
The first two instalments of this omnibus came in the form of two novellas (later released together as one novel) titled The Treatment and The Cure. These works are both heavily informed by Kocan’s life inside Morisset Mental Hospital and they narrate the story of a nineteen year old ‘Len Tarbutt’, from his arrival at the Maximum Security Criminal Ward of a psychiatric hospital – where he is to serve his life sentence – to a point just before his release.
The second category, the pre-institutional fiction, contains the prequel to these works, titled Fresh Fields. It is in this work that the life of the loner is explained from the point of view of an uneducated and mentally unstable youth, prior to his diagnosis. Again, this work draws heavily on Kocan’s early life – dealing with poverty, homelessness, and the hired hand’s bleak existence.
The third category, the post-institutional, is made up of the aforementioned The Fable Of All Our Lives. In this work Kocan’s protagonist, a writer named Tait, has just been released from a psychiatric hospital, following the completion of his life sentence.
While these three characters are each named differently, they all act out a part of the same linear story. And they all share a strange ability to be at once able to recognise their difference – the mental illness that they each fight against – and at the same time to deny it.
The main idea that links each protagonist together is the traditional one of the mad, as advanced by Foucault – the ‘taking oneself for king.’ 3 But it does not occur through delusions of grandeur, or through any misconstrued idea of the characters’ own personal power; it comes about through each believing that they are wretched, unlovable and alone – and from accepting that this is how fate has decided it. Each protagonist thinks he is in a Manichaean conflict that has left him standing unaided, with the whole system against him.
The protagonist knows that he is not in control, but by judging himself to be in a conflict with the rest of society he has made himself king by imposing his world view on his surrounds.
What is this act? An act of faith, an act of affirmation and of negation – a discourse which sustains and at the same time erodes the image, undermines it, distends it in the course of a reasoning, and organises it around a segment of language. The man who imagines he is made of glass is not mad, for any sleeper can have this image in a dream; but he is mad if, believing he is made of glass, he thereby concludes that he is fragile, that he is in danger of breaking, that he must touch no object which might be too resistant, that he must in fact remain motionless, and so on. 4
Thus there is a clear siege mentality adopted by the protagonist at all times, while Kocan uses imagery of war to explain both the protagonist and the wider world.
This is the conundrum for the characters. They are alone. For example, the youth, in Fresh Fields, is homeless, fatherless and unemployable. So verifiably, when he looks at his life, he is wretched, penniless and without a friend. But it has nothing to do with him as a person, it is merely bad luck. His father died when he was a baby, and his mother remarried a violent drunk. His homelessness has come about through a dysfunctional family set-up and poor parenting, not because he is the prince dispossessed of his kingdom – doomed to wander the earth without ever regaining the throne.
He had a fate of his own in which dreams of a lovely life did not figure. He did not yet know what the fate was, except that it was somehow related to the image of Diestl limping down that lonely road towards a chosen end in the ruined world.5
He has every opportunity to leave this idea behind as becomes an adult, yet this is how the protagonist sees himself in each instalment of Kocan’s story – until, finally, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Following the development of the protagonist in a linear fashion, I will first examine the partnership between the character of ‘the youth’, in Fresh Fields, and his exemplar and friend the German soldier.
It was a gun shop. There were racks of rifles in the window and on the wall behind were medals and flags and badges and some Nazi armbands and a German steel helmet. The youth looked at the helmet and began to feel calmer, for it had reminded him of Diestl…6
This is the first occasion that Diestl is mentioned, and it comes right after a time of intense anxiety and mental activity for the protagonist. The youth has just fled, along with his battered mother and brother, from the house of the violent Vladimir, the youth’s stepfather.
The psychological pattern is repeated through the novel. Left to his own devices, the youth tries to think his way out of all the quandaries that he is in – only to find that he flounders and does not possess the temperament to cope in the real world. It is then that he retreats to a quiet place and summons up what he calls, the ‘Diestl mood.’ 7
The film that Diestl has come from is set towards the end of the war. The young German is a lone gunman – the sole survivor of his unit – who knows that he is on the losing side, and everything he holds dear has been destroyed. In the mind of the youth, ‘Diestl has had every feeling burnt out of him except for a sort of grim pride that will make him determined and dangerous until the moment he goes down.’ 8
He reads a book about the rise and fall of the Nazis, and ignores the stuff in the middle – only paying attention to the ‘first few chapters and the last few.’ 9
It was the Nazis as underdogs that appealed to his imagination, Nazis relying on their own hardness and will, battling first to win the streets from the Reds and come to power, and then battling at the end as the overwhelming might of the world bears down on them.10
So the youth tries to imitate the way that Diestl, the underdog, reacts to any threat – with impassivity, ruthlessness and the determination to strike a blow before he is defeated.
What the youth has not yet understood at this point, by creating Diestl as an ally, is that he is drawing upon himself the same enemies as the German. Thus we have the aforementioned Russian stepfather, ‘Vladimir’, an adversary recalled with much fear and loathing, as well as the Jewish landlord and hotel manager ‘Mr Stavros’. While Diestl is no more objective help than any other imaginary friend, the enemies the youth makes are all too real.
As an undiagnosed schizophrenic, unaware of the significance of the choice that he has made in following the Nazi Diestl, the youth must rely on his ‘enemies’ to notice the evil that possesses him; he himself is incapable of drawing the conclusion.
There is a telling incident early in the book, when a resident of the hotel in which the youth’s mother works accidentally sets herself on fire while in bed. With the smell of burnt human flesh in his nostrils, the youth stands by and watches the spectacle of the stretcher being brought out by the paramedics, with a smile on his face.
He is unconsciously excited by the burning, until he sees Mr Stavros – a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps – looking at him with undisguised contempt. Realising that he has been caught out, and that the appropriate reaction was concern, the youth tries to cover his mouth, still stretched tight in a grin.
Soon after this episode the youth is again caught by Mr Stavros, this time using his little brother’s crayons to draw a large picture of a Swastika. The landlord tells the youth’s mother that the boy is no longer welcome, and he is sent out by himself to work in the country – only fifteen years old, and quite alone.
The irony of a Jewish landlord evicting him, and sending the youth to something like a labour camp, is lost on the boy. He knows little of history, and has no insight into the darkness within him. The youth knows that he is different, but he does not understand why. Self-knowledge comes much later, during his time in hospital. All he has to get him through at the start is Diestl:
He knew he was not like other people. When the time came to board his train he put himself into the Diestl mood. He limped along the platform, imagining the Schmeisser against his shoulder, then got into the compartment by himself and sat staring blankly ahead until the train began to move. Then he let the mood slip off because he knew he would need it later and didn’t want to use it all up.11
It could be said that the youth puts on the Diestl mood because he is uncomfortable with his own company, without realising it. He never retreats to the Diestl mood in company, even when afraid. Instead he waits until he is alone to re-imagine what might have happened and to recover a callous insouciance. But in the real world, without Diestl, he cares deeply. Diestl is the youth’s reaction to not feeling in control, and not having a significant relationship with anyone else. His isolation is exacerbated by retreating into the Diestl mood, because Diestl demands that no one be let in, and warns that the only way to survive is to keep one’s own counsel.
The figure of Diestl is a good one to look at in terms of how the process of creativity can be corrupted by mental illness. As Suri points out, citing Jenkins and Barrett, talking to God is one thing, but if he answers back there is a problem. 12 For the youth, his spiritual director does answer back directly and the protagonist eventually acts as a host for Diestl’s personality – to the point of walking like him and pretending to carry a machine gun over his shoulder.
This is far removed from the boy’s own adventure of playing cops and robbers in the backyard. This is looking at the world, seeing connections between everything, and then visualising a way of defeating the ‘enemy’ with extreme violence. It is not a fantasy, but a process of dream realisation; the youth first pictures himself in a number of situations and then, after a careful preparation, makes them a reality. He has a deep ambition to leave his mark. It is the same sort of ambition that we expect of a young artist who is keen to gain some acclaim – diligently working at his craft, perhaps visualising a relationship with a valued mentor, picturing the night of triumph; but instead of winning an award for a well-penned novel, the youth is after the victory of death and the reputation and imagined respect that goes with it.
Driven by a massive sense of alienation, and filled with a craving to be ‘somebody’, I had attempted to assassinate the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Mr Arthur Calwell…Now, at Mosman Town Hall, with the goal almost within reach, I could not bear the thought of giving up and returning to the misery which would be increased tenfold by the knowledge of having failed in the only endeavour which could provide me with my moment of ‘glory’ and oblivion.13
There are parallels here between the character of the youth in Fresh Fields and Cho Seung-Hui, the young man behind the Virginia Tech massacre. In the wake of that event – and after it was discovered that Cho Seung-Hui had been an earnest but mediocre student of creative writing – Stephen King, in his capacity as a writer of horror fiction, former creative writing teacher, and current contributing editor to Entertainment Weekly, was asked about his opinion on the links between the creative process and violence.
As a teacher, I had one student – I will call him George – who raised red flags galore in my own mind: stories about flaying women alive, dismemberment, and, the capper, ‘getting back at THEM.’ George was very quiet, and verbally inarticulate…For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do. 14
This idea of getting back at them, and having a ‘they’ that the character is in a war against, is a common theme throughout all of Kocan’s autobiographical fiction. And because he has no real human relationships to speak of, he must have an ally in his mind that approves of all his views and encourages him in his moments of self doubt.
In Fresh Fields the youth sees and hears Diestl, first in his imagination, then in his actual life. These hallucinations progress to a sort of physical possession, in which the youth takes on the characteristics of Diestl, and hears his voice inside his head, unprompted. Only following orders, he can then disclaim responsibility for the evil.
Diestl had merged into step with him. The youth felt the weight of the Schmeisser, the roughness of the torn tunic, the rhythm of the limping walk. How familiar and comforting it was.
‘Where have you been?’ the youth asked in his mind.
‘I’ve been with you all the way.’
‘I didn’t realise.’
‘Your mind wanders.’
‘Yes, I know. But I’ve been thinking about interesting things. About The Battle of Honour and about The Great Reciprocation.’
‘They were good ideas. They’ll help you do what you need to do.’
‘Of course. That’s why those ideas came to you. Did you think it was all unconnected?’
‘I wasn’t sure.’
‘But now the situation’s laid out.’
‘Like it was for the lone Viking, and for Harry Dale, and for the Bushranger?’
‘Is it very close now?’
‘You know the answer to that. You know the instrument is at hand.’15
The ‘instrument’ at hand is the gun that the youth has sighted in a pawn shop and will soon buy. Here is clear evidence that the creative ideas the youth has been having – like The Great Reciprocation, The Battle of Honour and The Principle of the Beautiful Knife – are being corrupted by Diestl: that is, the mental illness and the death wish that is overtaking him; the creative personality, the side of the protagonist that appreciates beauty, literature and music, is thus made to serve the mental illness, and the evil agenda that it has laid out.
The relationship here between the urge to write and the urge to kill is obvious: they are both the children of ambition. Just as a young man with no ability dreams of one day playing cricket for Australia – knowing honestly that he will never do so – many also innocently fantasise about beating up their boss, winning the Booker Prize, or hoping that the train derails so they don’t have to turn up for work at nine. But the young artist or sportsperson with ability, with drive, and with the capacity for hard work, will dream about the desired result as a way to inspire and to reinforce their skill and ambition.
That same process, instead of being used for the purpose of becoming a writer, is taken up here by the youth in his desire to become a man of action. His exemplar is a soldier, and his other heroes also have to be physically brave and be prepared to do what is required, so he feels he needs to test himself by this criterion; the desire to write doesn’t occur to him until later, when he is presented that option by his next exemplar – again, as a way of getting back at them (not, as it were, for the glory of art).
These other heroes the youth mentions all feed back into his main obsession, of being the lone wolf ready to strike. He cries about the story of Harry Dale – a tragic figure in a Henry Lawson poem – and about King Harold in 1066: ‘They were the knights and warriors and horsemen who bear the brunt and face the odds. It was always the same story.’ 16
Foucault cited Sauvages in relation to this phenomenon of being controlled by the one idea and its relation to the origin of madness:
…a certain impression of fear is linked to congestion or the pressure of a certain medullary fiber; this fear is limited to an object, as this congestion is strictly localized. In proportion this fear persists, the soul grants it more attention, increasingly isolating and detaching it from all else. But such isolation reinforces the fear, and the soul, having accorded it too special a condition, gradually tends to attach to it a whole series of more or less remote ideas. It joins to this simple idea all those which are likely to nourish and augment it…And from being thus burdened with all these new elements, involving them in its course, the idea assumes a kind of additional power which ultimately renders it irresistible even to the most concerted efforts of the will.17
Kocan himself doesn’t see this ‘preoccupation with certain historical figures and events’ as alarming, but merely a quest for solidarity. 18
One could suggest the protagonist of Fresh Fields clings to the idea of that solidarity, and reveres its representative figures, precisely because he endures the effects of its absence in his own life. 19
The problem with this search for solidarity is that it only involves dead – often mythical – figures, and therefore cannot help the protagonist in terms of his lived experience. Indeed, it makes it entirely possible for Diestl to take over the youth’s mind because Diestl’s rivals for the affection of the youth do not exist in the real world; they dwell alongside him in the youth’s imagination.
No matter the circumstances of these historical characters, the youth clings to the common denominators that link them to him, and to Diestl; they are alone and doomed to failure. This one idea of ‘the loner’ who must make the best of a rigged fight is amplified out of all proportion, and everything the youth, and later Tarbutt and Tait, experiences has some relation to it, his mind forcing all information through the one paranoid filter.
Kocan’s use of the Nazi character to describe the condition of the youth works on different levels. It allows him to focus in on the glamour of the violence, the sadomasochistic pleasure that the youth derives from it, while also providing a justification and an outlet for the paranoia that the youth feels.
And the evil of Diestl is all consuming, ruining even the innocent fantasies of the youth – when, for instance, he imagines having Grace Kelly as his ‘Sweetheart’. 20
The relationships that Diestl seeks to destroy are ‘hopeful’ imaginary ones that the youth retreats to in moments of exhaustion and weakness. His relationships in the physical world, with his mother, his work colleagues and various landlords, never have a chance of developing.
His relationship problems also have to do with his age; the youth is a borderline schizophrenic male teenager. Socially awkward, he has personalised the conflict he experiences, witnesses and reads about to an unreal extent and he has no one in his life that can help correct these deficiencies. 21 His only comrade and confidant is Diestl.
With the Nazi as his spiritual director, the youth prepares to set fire to the town and blow up the bridges on his way out. He moves towards the final act of destruction that he believes is his destiny.
He wondered what Diestl would advise, but knew the answer already. Do anything, as long as you fundamentally don’t care. If you start caring, you start wanting to survive for the wrong reason – you start wanting to savour life, and then the world has you where it wants you. You have surrendered then. The only good reason to survive a bit longer is to get closer to the point of striking one good blow, of hitting the enemy hardest as you go down. But now the youth was toying with hopefulness.22
The battle being fought by the youth at this point is strictly an internal one. While this Manichaean conflict might seem a simplification of objective political and ethical problems, when the battle is internal, like the psychomachia that the youth endures, it is much harder to distinguish between right and wrong.
It is even more difficult because of the presence of the simple fantasies that the youth has, like the fixation on Grace Kelly. This fantasy is reasonably explained by Kocan, citing Storr, as a ‘compensatory striving towards normality.’ 23 But this is much harder to advance in the case of Diestl, who has ‘deathly ideas and impulses’. 24 Yet Kocan does try to clarify this reliance on Diestl, again, as ‘compensatory striving…towards the qualities of persistence, self reliance and courage.’ 25
That seems a stretch, as Diestl clearly advocates violent murder, avoiding normal human relationships – which are seen as weakness – and the very idea of hope. Kocan confesses to not being in a position where he can call himself an ‘objective judge’ of his protagonist, and states that the only important question, when judging him, is whether or not the character can be ‘credited with a moral victory if not a worldly one.’ 26
He also advances that ‘it is the old problem of asking whether the water tank is half empty or half full.’ 27 By that he means, instead of looking at the premeditated shooting of an unarmed man – a man who had done the protagonist no wrong whatsoever, and did not even know him – as being cowardly, and, in the context of wanting to be ‘somebody’, extremely selfish, we are supposed to look at the positive sides of the attempted murder: the youth’s determination, his independence and bravery. But even with the parameters set by Kocan for judging the youth, this deed cannot be looked upon as a moral victory, and certainly not a worldly one; it requires looking at the youth as a victim, and completely exonerating him for his premeditated actions; though it is clear from Kocan’s later writing, as well as his ambivalent attitude towards violence and his nostalgic view of the youth, that he feels differently about the matter.
There is a point to be made here about the relationship between crime and mental illness. The character of the youth, by this stage, had displayed several signs that were alarming. He is fixated with the idea of behaving like Diestl, and of being dangerous and going down in flames. He talks to himself endlessly, shies away from contact with others and has a significant internalised rage. But this desire to keep himself alone has also protected him from the mental health system; no one could get close enough to secure a diagnosis. If just one of the tentative relationships in his life had been fulfilled – with his mother, various workmates, would-be girlfriends or the members of the clergy who try to help him – he might have been talked into seeing a doctor long before he ended up in custody; a psychiatrist would have been able to bring his mental illness out into the open. 28
As it is he needs to commit a crime to be listened to – and to manifest his madness as reality.
For over three years my fantasy and anguish had been building towards this terrible ‘solution’. I had never once considered what would happen to me afterwards. I was blinded by the potent vision of my life ending in a welter of violence, with the shocked eyes of the entire nation riveted for a brief moment on me.29
Fortunately for Kocan, history shows that this ‘failure’ became the catalyst for his future success. A consideration to keep in mind is that he did not do this by changing his modus operandi, or by trying to fundamentally alter his identity. As I’ll now show, he did it by swapping exemplars and adopting a new allegiance.
Continuing this quest to investigate the mental life of the youth, and its strong connection with war, I will now focus on the protagonist in his young adult form, as Len Tarbutt, in The Treatment and The Cure.
In the opening of The Treatment Len Tarbutt is about to enter the psychiatric hospital, just months after his trial and incarceration. He has not yet started to understand the enormity of his decisions as ‘the youth’, and the evil that gripped him in the form of Diestl.
Interestingly, there is still a residue of this character with him when he is checked into the hospital. When asked to give the colour of his hair, along with his name and height, he says that his hair is blond, and that he is five foot ten. 30
In his mind, he has pictured himself as the Nazi Diestl, the blond death bringer and perfect Aryan specimen. 31 The young Tarbutt has to be corrected and told that his hair is actually brown. And here is the first turning point and great irony for the character. The mentally ill Tarbutt, now officially labelled and transferred to the psychiatric hospital, would have been deemed to be genetically unacceptable to his former Nazi cohort. As a schizophrenic, Tarbutt would have been cleansed in the very first stages of the ‘final solution.’
The striking fact is that Fresh Fields is a prequel to The Treatment and The Cure, and was written over twenty-five years later. Yet, as I’ve shown, the image of Diestl found its way into the opening of The Treatment, as if the Kocan had the full vision for his future work in mind, as a young novelist.
This is not an accident, and quite explainable. The young Kocan only charted out the mature destiny of his protagonist and did not, as a novelist or poet, attempt to glorify or explain his youthful criminal past; for the most part he focused on the life of the adult psychiatric patient, the workings of mental hospital, and the subject of survival; in his view the criminal story had already been sensationalised and tainted by vulgar, stupid journalism. 32
But, as in a war, it’s the winner who gets to write the history. The youth of Fresh Fields, at the time of imprisonment, was robbed of his autonomy and had his story written for him, whereas Len Tarbutt, as the recovering writer of The Treatment and The Cure, could take on the job of documenting his own existence.
It was only as a senior writer and teacher, with his literary position secure, and his dignity restored, that Kocan felt he could return to the story of the youth, and his fascination with a violent end – in retrospect providing for the ‘lost adolescent’ a compassionate defence for his actions. 33
In The Treatment and The Cure it makes sense that Tarbutt’s new comrade, the British infantryman David Allison, is from the opposing side to Diestl – the comrade of the youth. The point to remember, however, is that the protagonist is still in a war and the same psychomachia is taking place inside him. But where Diestl is a friend who tries to help the youth become someone that he is not, a man of action, David Allison helps Tarbutt by showing him a way of coping as a thinking man, as himself.
Kocan stated this in plain terms:
You’re always like this. That’s partly how you know you aren’t the same as most people. Most people just see one meaning and go ahead and it turns out okay. The only other person you know of who thinks and thinks and worries and worries like you is David Allison in The Survivor. That’s why you often feel that David Allison is your only friend, almost the only real person that you know. 34
Where Diestl only offered a violent end as the solution, his polar opposite, David Allison, instead offers hope and a means of survival. Indeed, Diestl was opposed to the very idea of hope and survival, whereas the new allegiance with the Englishman demands it.
That is the shift in thinking that determines whether or not the character is sane or insane, right or wrong, in the work of Kocan. The recovering Tarbutt recognises that the situation is hopeless, and – with the help of David Allison – still tries to maintain his honour, in the process regaining his mind and his power. In the same way, the insane youth of Fresh Fields judged the situation to be desperate but – at the instigation of his Nazi exemplar – fought violently to keep it that way, and in doing so gave up his liberty.
To illustrate how similar the relationships with these two different spiritual directors are, consider two quotations. When the youth of Fresh Fields starts to picture a life without pain, ‘“I thought you were one of my kind,” Diestl would say. “But it seems not. You want Strudel instead of steel.”’ 35 When Len Tarbutt dreams about parole, and being moved to an open ward, he fantasises:
If you had parole you could hang about at the canteen and drink milkshakes and stuff. You suppose you must be getting soft. What would David Allison think of you? Milkshakes?36
The two figures are not just admired for their way of dealing with crises, or for seeing out a bloody war. They are idolised by the youth, and Len Tarbutt, to the point where they influence every major decision of the protagonist.
The political morality of the figures that each protagonist hero-worships is all important to the life of the youth and Tarbutt. That the protagonist is in crisis does not change; what changes is the role model – the voice from whom he takes direction.
The decisions are no easy matter; Diestl and then David Allison, in turn, come to inhabit their protégé:
This novel had become part of your life, or maybe part of your life had entered the novel – it was hard to say which. Finding it was like an act of fate…He (another poet) told you that you simply must read The Survivor…It was about a person called David Allison who has an unhappy childhood, then goes to the trenches in Flanders, and afterwards tries to become a writer so as to tell the truth of the war for the sake of the dead men.37
War as a metaphor for a patient stuck in a mental institution is apt, in that in the mental hospital there are no real winners; and it is a highly traumatic environment both psychologically and physically. The patients and the staff are all seen to be in the same boat, with little to differentiate them other than the choice they have made in terms of their ‘side’. A World War is a particularly appropriate analogy, as the losses are so catastrophic for all participants that even the character of David Allison, a soldier from the Allied Forces, can be looked on as a victim.
In The Treatment and The Cure the new enemy for Len Tarbutt is a female German doctor, assisted ably by a male nurse who has Nazi sympathies. The asylum thus doubles as a POW concentration camp, and the nurses are demonised as guards determined to degrade the patients: ‘If I was in control I’d have all you faaarkin blokes put down…Hitler had the right idea. Crims, pervs, poofters all into the faaarkin oven.’ 38
Kocan’s protagonist is the same before and after the criminally insane act. The thought processes and the way of coping, the fantasy relationship with a soldier, and the unchanging depiction of the self as a lone warrior, whose only community is with those lost in action, is identical whether the protagonist is declared sane or insane, right or wrong. The protagonist in The Treatment and The Cure, Len Tarbutt, differs from the youth of Fresh Fields only in the regard that he did not choose violence. For his purposes in the psychiatric hospital, aggression was of little use.
Readers of The Treatment and The Cure are often surprised by how balanced and sane the protagonist seems, despite his fixation with being like the fictional David Allison. This is to do with the terms of engagement, and the setting. Naturally, Tarbutt singles out the hospital hierarchy as being the enemy. Their methods of punishment – what they would call ‘treatment’ – involve either heavy doses of anti-psychotic medication, or a course of shock therapy with the doctor the patients refer to as ‘Electric Ned’. 39 Thus one way for Tarbutt to beat the system is for him to keep control of his mind and avoid these treatments. His chances of achieving this are greatly enhanced by the fact that he has other patients around him – comrades who automatically are on his side – to share the experience with. In this situation, the hospital was the best place for the youth obsessed by the idea of an ‘us against them’ conflict; he finally had some friends, and enemies, who could role-play with him and act out his Manichaean drama for real. It also meant that he had to learn to get along with people in everyday human terms, and could never entirely shut himself away – as the youth had done before him.
Tarbutt’s other way of being able to ‘strike a blow’ and get back at them, is to write the truth of what he saw inside the hospital. Although he has skill when it comes to writing, one is left with the impression that if his abilities had been in the area of military tactics, and armed combat, he would have led a violent revolution instead.
This is again the case in The Fable Of All Our Lives, where the character of Tait, though released from hospital and now able to dwell in the community with minimal supervision, sees himself as one of the elect few who have to make a stand for honour. The siege mentality is again internalised and the protagonist falls back on the old image of war to get him through:
The inward imaginative state was that of war. Mike had been right. He was always right about things that mattered. You had to see the whole situation as war, and the key was to understand that the vast chaos is only one aspect. Within the apparent chaos something else is at work. You can call it Fate if you want to, or by other names. It is conveyed in phrases like ‘the fortunes of war’ or ‘the god of battles.’ At the individual level it is the power that decides whether a bullet has your name on it or not. It meant that things happen in their due course and according to a logic that we can never fathom but must try to believe in.40
The major change for the protagonist, Tait, is one that sees him seeking an ally-familiar who actually exists. The dependence on a make-believe friend disappears, and in his place is Mike Kieslowski – alluded to in the above quote – who is a fellow conservative, right-wing poet. But Tait doesn’t actually meet his ally-familiar, Mike, until the very end of the novel. In the many years before meeting they only communicate with each other via letter, and the relationship works in the same way as the previous ones with the soldiers Diestl and David Allison; it takes place in the protagonist’s mind.
This relationship is important, as are the previous ones with the soldiers, because Mike Kieslowski shares all the same views as Tait. Thus his belief system is endorsed within the subculture he inhabits with Mike – the far right. And the main tenets of what they believe are repetitively reinforced by each other, and by the conservative journal that they publish in. In The Fable Of All Our Lives this magazine is called ‘Compact’ and is clearly the fictional version of what in real life is Quadrant. ‘They were the same age and they both published in Compact, a broadly conservative journal that favoured rhyme and metre.’ 41
There are two ways of looking at this development. On the one hand, it is a positive move for Tait to have made this connection. Mike is a good source of encouragement and can give Tait feedback on his reading, his writing and his philosophical and political views. But he also can be seen as the new version of the friend that exists in the mind of the protagonist. With the other people in Tait’s circle – the members of his community theatre group, such as the camp Kelvin: his former psych-nurse from hospital, Jimmy: or Narelle and Francesca, who are at different times both girlfriends of Tait – there is always a sense of them being human. That is, Tait often has disagreements with these people and avoids them or spends time with them depending on how things stand in their association at that particular time. The relationships fluctuate in the normal human way – with numerous ups and downs.
But the pen-pal relationship with Mike veers into the unhealthy because it so resembles the previous fantasy relationships of the protagonist. Mike Kieslowski, by not existing for Tait as a physical presence, is almost portrayed as being perfect. He only ever affirms the views of Tait, and he praises his work and his ideas without fail.
Mike validates Tait. He is also on hand to castigate him if he drifts off course and stops being vigilant, just as Diestl and David Allison did before him. When Tait, amazed, writes to Mike and notes that a feminist academic he’d met seemed normal and actually spoke like a ‘sensible person’, 45 his ally-familiar responds with strong language.
‘Of course she’d seem normal,’ he wrote back in a long letter. ‘Did you expect her to have fangs and gnaw at the woodwork? The Enemy is normal, that’s the dreadfulness of it. Those whom Solzhenitsyn calls “the enemies of the human race” happen to belong to the human race.’ 46
There are clear parallels here between Mike Kieslowski and the protagonist’s previous ally-familiars. The ally-familiar serves a number of purposes. They are at different times a source of inspiration, as a teacher, friend, and older brother, but they are also there as a disciplinarian to scare the protagonist back into being a watchful foot soldier in the battle against them. So there is something for the loner at each stage of his journey.
At this point it is obvious that in many ways the relationship with Mike Kieslowski is the dream one for Tait. The protagonist in each of Kocan’s autobiographical narratives can never sustain real human contact and always sabotages his relationships somehow. This is true especially for Tait, who ruins two chances at happiness with the aforementioned Narelle and Francesca, both women who wanted to share their life with him. It’s because of his belief that he is doomed, and somehow beyond redemption.
There’s a future waiting for Narelle. There are people waiting and yearning for her to walk into their lives. But no-one’s waiting for me. I’m not anybody’s future dream come true. Narelle will move on to better things and I’m the one who’ll be left on my own.47
This self fulfilling prophecy brings us back to the one stubborn idea that the protagonist filters all his beliefs through. In essence it is the idea the youth had when he first started taking notice of the world – that he is doomed like those others before him, King Harold, Harry Dale the drover, and so on – only now it has about twenty years of other evidence and reading behind it. Even though Tait, the older version of the protagonist, has a much more articulate and learned approach to his explanation of how he sees the world, it has not in the least changed from the intuitive, warped view of the mentally ill youth. He still believes that all things are connected and that honour – and the lack of it in the ongoing culture war – is what matters. It is at this stage that the older protagonist starts to think that what he achieved as the youth was more or less right, and that at least he’d made a point.
Consider this passage, towards the end of the novel, where Tait has become a supporter of the ‘Beth Hendon’ movement (a thinly disguised version of Pauline Hanson’s much vilified One Nation Party) and is being driven to distraction by his neighbours’ noisy dog – and their complete lack of understanding.
Tait knew he should long ago have made the kelpie’s owners rue that they ever allowed that animal to breathe, let alone bark. He might now be in gaol for it, but the point would have been made, and the making of such points is what determines the fate of the world. That’s what Solzhenitsyn was talking about. That’s what everything is always about. It was like the Spartans at Thermopylae, or like the Seven Samurai, or like Shane on the individual level. At a certain stage of events they unleash terrifying blood and slaughter, but the carnage isn’t important in itself, only insofar as it goes to the making of the point.48
Coming from a character who has pulled the trigger before, this quote is a good example of the alarming regression the protagonist makes in The Fable Of All Our Lives. The actions of the youth certainly made a point, and it is exactly this sort of violent gesture that Tait still seems to respect. He finds himself longing for the way he used to react to these sorts of circumstances when he was the youth.
Diestl would never have allowed the youth to form actual romantic bonds with real women, as Tait manages, and he would not have put up with the other friends that Tait makes, like his old friend the psych-nurse, Jimmy, or the homosexual Kelvin; Diestl would have seen them as enemy combatants and distractions from the task at hand.
Tait seems to recognise this, and his failings, but cannot overcome his upbringing.
Coupledom was good for people. It was good for the human race. It didn’t do to have too many loners. Half the woes of the world stemmed from having too many loners, he thought, from having too many people who lacked the shelter of each other – or felt that they lacked it, which came to the same thing. That had been his own downfall, and that was what he was still trying to recover from.49
But although he starts down the road towards ‘coupledom’, and some form of normalcy, Tait would have made his old ally Diestl very proud. For, in the end, Tait ensures that he will stay alone – through his self-loathing and poor self-esteem – and shuns the idea of conformity.
The psychomachia that the protagonist now endures revolves around whether to succumb to the advances of happiness, or to stand firm and not give an inch to modernity – the personal and the ideological becoming one; he feels that if he gives up his bachelor life he will give up the fight.
He brooded on Equus. It seemed to him that it had made a profound point about the disenchantment of the world, and about how the harm of that comes to each person in their own way. One way was shown in Alan Strang, the isolated youth driven to invent his own dangerous delirium of the sacred. Another was shown in the rational psychiatrist Dysart, stripped of the sacred by modern intellectualism. The shrink is bound by his job to render Alan Strang as bereft as he is himself, and he can see the cruel dilemma. For his own good the youth has to be ‘cured,’ has to be made puerile, has to be turned into that empty modern thing, a stakeholder in wellness. Aware that he must carry out a kind of maiming, the doctor asks in anguish: ‘Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?’50
To him, giving in and marrying either one of his girlfriends means to forgo his dream of becoming the lone wolf – the last man standing – and involves sacrificing his ‘worship’. Marriage means partnership, and a partnership is no good when you want to stand and fight alone. The reader at this point is frustrated beyond belief at the prospect of Tait not growing up and taking the contentment that is presented in the form of the relationships offered first by Francesca and then by the younger Narelle.
You can only draw the conclusion that he does not want to be happy. Tait resembles a battered wife, making excuses for her husband, in the way he unerringly goes back to his life alone – a life of pain, anguish, and illness. There is a striking resemblance to the abused mother he derides for the very same behaviour in his violent childhood, and it’s a likeness that completely passes him by. The idea that it is learnt behaviour, rather than being ‘fate’, never crosses his mind. In light of this hypothesis, the protagonist’s yearning to be a man of action – that is, a man in control, who longs to resort to violence – can only be looked on as a classic case of the victim becoming an abuser. Instead in this instance, rather than taking out his frustration and anger on family, he is attempting to beat up the world.
This could again be seen as the corruption of the protagonist’s creative and critical faculties by the mental illness he experiences. As Perring notes, there has been an increasing movement to celebrate ‘madness’, especially from the perspective of those with bipolar disorder. 51 But celebrating madness and celebrating creativity should be two quite different things. Often, when celebrating madness – specifically the psychotic high – individuals are celebrating (and subsequently mourning, in their depression) a ‘feeling of creativity’; this should be distinguished from the business of actually working creatively, which for the writer is a long, arduous process and not at all conducive to psychotic highs, depressive lows, or extended periods of time spent in hospital – something I’ve covered extensively in a previous paper. 52
This outcome is also clearly demonstrated in the case of Kocan. Mental illness, for Kocan’s protagonist (at all stages of his journey) does not provide some form of mystical insight, or enhance his creative faculty in any way; rather, it has the opposite effect and severely undermines his creative and personal life; for Tait, the first sign that he is not well is that he cannot concentrate enough to read or write, and as soon as he feels agitated he withdraws both from his art and from all human contact.
Indeed, such a state overtakes the protagonist at the climax of the novel – after he has ensured that he will remain alone – as a lump starts to develop in his throat. Tait, true to character, leaves it until the last possible moment before going to the doctor to have it examined. He does so in the vain hope that he might have cancer, and his impending death will at least cure him of his suffering. But on being examined by the doctor the protagonist is given a diagnosis of Globus hystericus – the sensation of having a lump in the throat when there is nothing there. 53 Of course, Tait is disillusioned upon receiving the news.
He began to feel kind of relieved, but it wasn’t a shout-for-joy feeling or the sense of a new lease of life. He was mostly just conscious of the mundane worries clumping back to surround him again. The specialist had given him a brochure about the condition he’d had. It was a type of fantasy-illness known as Globus. You get it from being depressed and lonely and anxious. It makes you feel a lump in your throat, and the longer it goes on the more real it seems and the more pain and anguish it gives you.54
This diagnosis, with its emphasis on ‘a psychological conflict or need’, does not give Tait pause for thought. He dismisses it – and the prospect that his whole worldview had been part of the fantasy – and promptly carries on as before, making his way to a Beth Hendon rally in Castleton. 55
Tait’s support of the Beth Hendon figure brings the protagonist’s journey full circle and it does so with delicious irony. Pauline Hanson, the historical figure who serves as the model for Beth Hendon, was vociferously accused of racism from the moment of her election to the seat of Oxley in 1996. This started with her maiden speech to parliament, in which she quoted the very man that Kocan attempted to assassinate back in 1966, Mr Arthur Calwell:
Arthur Calwell was a great Australian and Labor leader, and it is a pity that there are not men of his stature sitting on the opposition benches today. Arthur Calwell said: ‘Japan, India, Burma, Ceylon and every new African nation are fiercely anti-white and anti one another. Do we want or need any of these people here?’…I have no hesitation in echoing the words of Arthur Calwell.56
Tait gives no indication about realising this quirk of fate, and, to be fair, the political life of the man he tried to assassinate as the youth is never discussed. But what it means for the protagonist, in choosing Hendon, is that he is now embracing what he once wanted to kill. He becomes the prodigal son, running back to seek the forgiveness of his family. And in doing so he is choosing to return and be with his old comrade, Diestl, the Nazi. True to form, he has not changed his modus operandi; he has just swapped his allegiance. And in the context of the culture war, and the political situation prevailing at that time, he is once again choosing the losing side – just like he did as the youth.
There to meet him at the rally is his last ally-familiar, the speech writer and aide to Beth Hendon, Mike Kieslowski; the man who for years (thanks to their correspondence) has merely existed on the page, and in Tait’s mind. The only thing left now for the protagonist is to choose his method of resistance: between the armed response of the youth or the silent struggle of the writer.
It is fitting to finish with a quote from The Fable Of All Our Lives, which reveals the protagonist’s ultimate choice:
Tait realized he was wildly happy, that he was surging with exhilaration. Here was the Enemy in full array and here was the battle. This wasn’t the Blakean ‘mental fight’ that you wage in an endless solitude, that you wage by the corrosion of your own spirit alone in a room with a cold sheet of paper. It wasn’t that old war of inner attrition that leaves you a hollowed shell. He’d had his fill of that kind of fight, had had years and years of it and it had nearly destroyed him. He wanted the other kind now, wanted it with all his heart…The people on the other side of the fence howled abuse as they kicked and pounded the gate and the wire mesh. “NAZI! NAZI!” they screamed.57
This book chapter first featured in Configuring Madness edited by Dr Kimberley White, Rodopi, Oxford: 2009 (ISBN 978 1 904710 96 7).
1 While Kocan didn’t document the actual moment of the crime in his fiction, he did try to do so in his initial aborted attempt at writing The Treatment & The Cure. This non-fiction work was titled The Wire and The Wall, the first few chapters of which appeared in the 1977 August Edition of Quadrant under the title After I Shot Arthur Calwell.
28 If the youth of Fresh Fields had been put through the process that ‘Jeremy’ was in Montross’s ‘Your Drugs Take Away the Love’, there is no doubt he would have been deemed at risk both to himself and society – as Kocan himself was after his trial. But the danger for the loner is that, while in their paranoid state, no one is considered safe enough to talk to. In the case of the youth, his imaginary exemplar, Diestl, counselled him against talking to anyone or any ideas that would lead him away from violence. So until the crime was committed the madness was not made manifest, or ‘real’. Jeremy had a family who could help this process along, whereas the often homeless youth received no such help.
38 ibid. p. 24: This sort of politically incorrect language is used throughout Kocan’s oeuvre, particularly in relation to his descriptions of the mentally unwell, or the ‘mad’. With regard to Perring’s work on Mad Pride, Kocan has no problem with writing that he has spent time in the ‘madhouse’ and his fellow patients in The Treatment & The Cure are summarily referred to as ‘Retards’, ‘Dills’, ‘Mongols’, ‘Monkeys’, ‘Purple-Faced Epileptics’ and ‘Drug Addicts’; he has thus faithfully recorded the language of the seventies and eighties in regional Australia – a time when the vernacular was not known for its restraint or compassion – as he has heard it from inside the setting of hospital; needless to say, he does this with the idea that he himself is not ‘mad’ so the language itself does not seem to offend him.
Globus hystericus is a symptom of some physical disorders such as reflux laryngitis as well as a classic sign of hysterical neurosis, a psychosomatic disorder characterized by a change or loss of physical function that suggests a physical disorder but instead is an expression of a psychological conflict or need.
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