6 Homeland, Nostalgia, the Uncanny: The Work of Anna Couani
The prevailing motif of nostalgia is the closure of the gap between nature and culture, and hence a return to the utopia of biology and symbol united within the walled city of the maternal. (Stewart, 1984:23)
Somehow the fact that the mother is not phallic means that the mother as mother is lost forever, that the mother as womb, homeland, source and grounding for the subject is irretrievably past. The subject is hence in a foreign land, alienated. (Gallop, 1985:148)
Where does nostalgia begin? And is it not also, precisely, a desire for beginnings, for lost origins? Where then does a subjectivity which refuses the unity of origins situate, or invent, its first moments in memory?
It has been said of ethnic minority writing that it is organised primarily around nostalgia This is illustrated, for example, in Con Castan's (1986) analysis of Australian Greek writing, which he links with the colonial period and settler writing in Australian literature. Anyone working in this area in Australia will undoubtedly have experienced the repeated and often dismissive response that ethnic minority writing 'simply' deals with nostalgia, and that its mode is elegiac. This usually translates into accusations of a ghetto mentality, or else justifications for the quaint preservation of anachronistic social rituals, ranging from embroidery to marriage customs. The logic appears to be that this writing deals with a landscape of the mind, of memory, which being apparently of minimal relevance to the here and now is therefore something to be outgrown. The US critic Werner Sollors (1986:7---8), in a different context, analyses American ethnic literature in terms of rites of passage, thus reminding all Americans of their codes of initiation and entry. Similarly, the category of ethnic minority writing in this country may be seen, paradoxically, as ultimately feeding the nostalgia of those 'older' white Australians who are reassured that such verifiable codes of cultural difference do indeed exist here. Ethnic minority writing thus returns earlier generations to the scene of their own origins, namely colonial nostalgia.
Within this conceptual framework, the function of nostalgia is to return the unified subject. As explored in Chapter 3, in such a context these writings are relegated to the domain of oral history: the story of a life, the paradigmatic narrative of coherence and closure. Another familiar method of analysing the return of the unified subject through the discourses of nostalgia is to note their supplements, for example the photograph and the souvenir. In his essay on photography, Roland Barthes circles around nostalgia when he writes of the distinction between identity (a matter of legal status) and what he calls the supplement of identity, thus implying the possibility of discovering a core or 'real' self (Barthes, 1984:102). Searching for his dead mother, he discards the many likenesses, and discovers her 'truth', her 'air' (a linking of body and soul), in a childhood photograph which pre-dates his direct memory of her, their shared history (ibid.:107---10). As well as illustrating the unified self, photographs may also signify the return of the dead, the uncanny, the monstrous return of something familiar. And we too will return to the photographic process in relation to Susan Stewart's and Anna Couani's work.
Nostalgia is manifested in its crudest form in the school playground. There the fairy-tales about origins begin--the goose-girl who is really a princess. 'It may appear that I inhabit quite naturally this working-class area on the edge of the city dotted now with more recent migrant tribal outposts but really, at home, my family had, my family were . . . '. The details vary, but the impulse remains the same (Gunew, 1989, 1991). This version comes out of growing up in the 1950s in Melbourne, but it is echoed elsewhere. For example:
I would not have been capable of writing my poem 'Kaddish' in Australia ten years ago, so uncertain was I of my identification with the Jewish faith and the legitimacy of its existence in a bland Anglo-Saxon context. Nor would I have dared to insert segments of phoneticised Aramaic for fear of revealing that exotic, interloping status of which I was ashamed and afraid . . . Living and growing up in this country has been an exercise in repression. (Zwicky, 1986:91---2)
This represents one particular and poignant tussle with contradictory legitimising narratives. Another émigrée par excellence, Julia Kristeva, reminds us of the 'impossibility of existing without repeated legitimation (without books . . . family)' (Kristeva, 1986:174).
For those who are positioned as individuals in minority groups, these stories indeed offer a kind of legitimation. But what are they for the others, the collective ear, in so far as it exists? There is always a double audience for these stories (Sollors, 1986:7---8). We can speculate, rather crudely, that the impulse to transmit such legitimising narratives arises from a suppression in the public sphere, amounting to the suppression of a particular negotiation of the symbolic order which is often linked with another and prior language.
The term 'symbolic' refers to that Lacanian schema in which the human subject comes into being not so much by acquiring language as through insertion into an already existing order of language and the law: the symbolic order. Such a formulation resists the social dimensions of a specific language, but this does not preclude the consideration entirely (MacCannell, 1986:121---76). Or rather, one needs to ask of the Lacanian scheme exactly why such questions about the particularities of a social order (time, place, language) are precluded. The question raised by this study is that if one sees the symbolic order as constitutive of subjectivity (the possibility of saying 'I' and 'you'), then what occurs to the subject-in-process when it passes from one language system to another? If you like, what it passes through is notthe mirror-stage but a mirror-stage and, what is more, a succession of mirror-stages. Here 'language' means not simply a linguistic system but the varieties of sign systems which constitute a particular cultural domain: behaviour, food, dress, and so on. What kind of subjectivity is created (and what form of suppression takes place) when the subject is forced to enter a new symbolic order? Is it merely suppression or actual repression (the forgetting of what one has forgotten)? What happens to the other and prior language attached to a specific cultural order (Kristeva, 1980:159---209)? Is the first language subsequently rendered alien, shameful, transgressive, particularly if it does not belong to the acceptable repertoire of 'foreign languages'?
In the new order which ethnic minorities enter here in Australia, to what status is their subjectivity (acquired in another order, or, if second-generation, in the context of a particular kind of cultural hybridity) relegated, especially when the father's proper name is forcibly repudiated as illegitimate? This takes place not only in the classic formulations of Lacanian psychoanalysis, where the symbolic order is governed by the name of the father, but also in a cruder thematics, where the loss of the family patronymic (too hard, too foreign) is registered over and over in ethnic minority narratives, often in conjunction with a suppression of the whole language. As Mary Jacobus states in her study of the uncanny in relation to hysteria, 'the death of the father fractures representation and renders living forms unrecognizable' (1986:262). Hence my enquiry into what happens when the subjectivity acquired in one symbolic order is lost in another: are we left with an empty space and a vacated subjectivity? Is it of no significance that the subject enters the symbolic order through a particular language? It would appear that this first subjectivity, by necessity, is suppressed--but where then is its locus? Surely not in the pre-symbolic order which Kristeva, for example, characterises as the domain of the semiotic and the maternal? Does the disowned father become the mother? In the Lacanian scheme it does not make sense to refer to a 'first' symbolic order, but why is this so? Is it possible to speculate, for example, that the subjectivity created in one language is subsequently relocated in the Lacanian Imaginary, where the subject experiences an illusory totality with a phallic mother?
What can be identifed is a process of suppression and the irruption of this suppressed in unpredictable ways--a rhythmic babble, perhaps, for those who inhabit the new cultural order (Kristeva, 1984). Is this how the other languages are heard within Australia? Is the delegitimised name and law of the father reattached to the maternal, the female custodians of these multi-cultures: customs, cooking, costumes and the old tongues, elements in a benignly conceived nostalgia? Derrida, writing of Nietzsche, characterises the mother as that which lives on when the father's name is dead (Derrida, 1985b:16). Indeed, but with what status?
Since my contention here is that the machinery of nostalgia is not simply benign but releases the uncanny, we must again scrutinise the processes of memory and its legitimations. Susan Stewart (1984:145) refers to memory as the mediating link between objects (photographs, souvenirs) and their referents, noting that ' in this gap between resemblance and identity . . . nostalgic desire arises'. Presumably this is a nostalgia for access to direct and unmediated experience, outside a representation which is always either partial or a misrepresentation, and which for the purposes of this chapter will be termed an utopian impulse. Stewart (ibid.:142) traces the process of memory in relation to antiquities, which are seen as public manifestations of the attempt to unfold the origin of a nation and thus to legitimate it as purposeful and unified. Old roots, culture almost merging with nature: isn't it often the way with these quests to imagine or invent a nation? The photograph, that mechanical repetition of identity, may paradoxically serve to undo the concept of the unique and unitary self. Because of this implicit contradiction, Stewart finally locates the authenticity of memory, of a personal history, in the scrapbook which, in its mixed media textures, supposedly defies mechanical reproduction. Composed as it is of multiple fragments, it also incorporates materially the wear and tear of history; and in its collage effects it comprises what we would now term a postmodern artefact. It signifies largely in the private sphere; or, if in the public, as a manifestation and proof of the private. In other words, most people's scrapbooks--testaments to a private life--are meaningless to others except as arcane inscriptions of the private.
The word 'nostalgia' derives from the Greek: it signifies both 'a return home' and 'pain', a prolonged absence from home, and home-sickness. In Freud the closest term to nostalgia is Heimweh, a pregnant term containing the home, the mother, sickness for but also sickness of the home. The term also relates to heimlich, secrecy, and unheimlich, the uncanny, whose etymology we will trace in Freud's essay on that theme as a cluster of terms variously defining a mechanism of repression.
It must be emphasised at this point that psychoanalytic criticism is not being invoked here as an explanatory device for reading either the text or (worse) the author as a cluster of symptoms. More useful is Peter Brooks's contention that literature, like psychoanalysis, illuminates the structuration or 'dynamic organisation of the psyche'. Brooks traces the interaction of text and reader in terms of a transferential model which involves 'a real investment of desire from both sides . . . The transference actualizes the past in symbolic form so that it can be repeated, replayed . . . to a revised version of our stories' (1987:13). For those whose position vis-à-vis these stories is marginal or invisible, the need to revise them and, above all, the terms in which they are exchanged, is patently crucial (Chambers, 1985).
The final part of this chapter will attend to the writings of Anna Couani. Why this choice? Because her work represents one of those borderline cases which confounds the traditional commonsense opposition between Australian and migrant or multicultural writing (neither designation includes British- or Irish- derived Australians). A further contention throughout this study is that the term 'migrant' camouflages a hidden distinction separating Anglo-Celtic and non-Anglo-Celtic writing. Because Couani is a third-generation Australian writer she can hardly be classified as 'migrant' in the usual way. But partly because of her name and the enunciative positions (narrators, implied readers) in her work, she is often bracketed with the so-called migrant writers. She is also perceived, and rightly, as an experimental writer. This poses a problem (as does, for example, the work of Rosa Cappiello and Ania Walwicz) for those who cordon off migrant writing as invariably realist on the grounds that the subject simply speaks her/his story, that is, does not write. Such attitudes serve to sustain the fantasy--an imperialist illusion--of what Gayatri Spivak calls the 'native informant': the term indicates an imperialist discursive economy which persists in constructing the colonised subject as unproblematic (Spivak, 1990:59---66). Because of such glaring contradictions and blind spots, in this study (and for reasons discussed in chapter 1) I use the term 'ethnic minority writing' in preference to earlier alternatives such as migrant writing.
Couani does not simply reproduce those discourses of nostalgia which generally align Europe with civilisation and Anglo-Celtic Australia with the barbarians, and which Ania Walwicz parodies in her poem 'Australia' (in Gunew, 1987a:130). Instead, she contrasts and dislocates the various forms of memory, desire and intimacy at play within them. In Couani's texts, familiar themes in Australian writing function as the terrain of the other (and not of the Lacanian Other) reread, as we shall see, from positions outside. The effect is to liberate the uncanny, and to return the repressed, that secret which lies within the familiar as both a homesickness and sickness of the home. These discourses, juxtaposed in uneasy tension with each other, are grounded by Couani in gender and cultural difference, and a consciously delineated anti-assimilationism. Whether we term this method 'dialogical' (after Bakhtin) or a postmodernist collage which resists closure (Ulmer, 1983), the result is profoundly unsettling for those who subscribe to non-contradictory narratives of nationalism ('the real story'). But, for the present, let us retrace the uncanny in its classic Freudian formulation.
For our purposes the most significant features of Freud's 'The Uncanny' can be found in his statement that it 'is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression' (Freud, 1976:634). Early in his essay, Freud traces the etymology of the word in various languages beyond the limited equation 'uncanny' = 'unfamiliar'; indeed, his analysis eventually links the home, the family and the secret within both--for secrecy and the uncanny (heimlich and unheimlich) both contain the word 'home' (Heim). The erasure of this distinction embraces many others, such as that between inside and outside, in respect of which Freud cites illustrations of death-in-life, life-in-death. Since the framework of his analysis is Hoffmann's story 'The Sandman', automata (that nineteenth-century obsession) are used to exemplify something dead which appears to live and, conversely, those living who imitate the dead when they indulge in mechanistic behaviour. Here sight becomes the privileged sense and, when threatened, signifies castration. The figure of the double is insurance against death, but also a harbinger of it. Finally, there is the important insight that the main symptom of the uncanny is repetition--the compulsion itself, rather than its content (ibid.:631---2). This is linked in turn to animism and the omnipotence and logic of thought which, like the compulsion to repeat, testifies to the need to control: 'animism, magic and sorcery, the omnipotence of thoughts, man's attitude to death, involuntary repetition and the castration complex comprise practically all the factors which turn something frightening into something uncanny' (ibid.:632). Subsequent readings of Freud's essay have fallen into the temptation of locating, within the essay itself, an encounter with the uncanny. Freud describes the 'female genital organs' as an 'unheimlich place . . . the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings. ' 'Whenever a man dreams of a place or a country', he adds, 'we may interpret the place as being his mother's genitals or her body' (ibid.:637).
The general thesis presented here is that everything we currently term Australian literature (a particular manifestation of the dominant culture) may be reread productively by means of nostalgia (defined as the liberation of the uncanny) from positions currently outside that literature, as constructed in non-Anglo-Celtic Australian writings. What is then rendered uncanny are precisely the traditional renditions of the home/mother/land for which the referent is arguably an 'Australia' always mediated by somewhere else--the shadow of England, Ireland, and so on. In the writings of these who adopt the cultural positions of Anglo-Celts, 'Australia' is situated paternally, as the father or third term which disrupts the mother---child dyad. 'Australia' is never located in the pre-symbolic, and this is in contrast with a tradition of criticism which has always attempted, as rapidly as possible, to construct an organic link between writing and the land (Gunew, 1990a). 'Australia' is always refracted by particular cultural prisms from elsewhere. In itself this is hardly challenging or new: how could any writing be otherwise than mediated or exist anywhere but in the symbolic order? But what has not been analysed in any detail is the nature of these mediations in relation to a 'home' culture and land. One could argue that the architecture of a collective memory is always bound to a particular place. My suggestion is that the fictions, or meanings, of the allegories we have attached to the old landscape and the old language, as figured in a tradition of writing, have been transposed or transported to this place. Thus 'Australia' exists for us only via these allegories. That the referent for home/mother/land need not inevitably be England or Ireland is the working assumption of this study.
A further question is, what might 'Australia' look like when these other motherlands and languages are acknowledged as constitutive repositories for these allegories? Without these sustaining allegories, these textual legitimations, 'Australia' is the mother who is not the mother, the uncanny place that will never give birth: the stillborn. For non-Aboriginal Australians the country is the dead centre, the mother who ingests life (once again we are reminded of Kristevan abjection as discussed in Chapter 3). Life, consequently, is more comfortably located in the cities, on the edge where the land is covered over, pressed under, and where the subject is lost, in the automatic (automaniac) maze: life-in-death, death-in-life. The maternal is always elsewhere, though repressed, in other cultures and languages though disavowed.
Within 'Australia' the other motherlands irrupt, as described, for example, in Kefala's poem 'The Alien' (1973:20), even when not directly experienced. Certainly, those motherlands are constructed through multiple narrative traditions, notably the various versions of 'England'. Couani's work consistently depicts narrators and implied readers who question and disrupt unexamined assumptions about ordinary 'Australian' life. In her writings there is always the threat of a nameless element which will reposition and rename both the traditional narrative conventions and the subject positions which go with them. In her first collection the shadow of such places is named somewhat arbitrarily 'Italy'--a collection of writings which explore domestic and private alienation. Here the routine and the predictable are in constant danger of being shattered; images abound of sudden accidents to people and to objects. The feeling evoked is that some effort of thought, or prescience, might have averted them; and yet in a way they also seem inevitable, as if such worlds exist to be disrupted. For example, in 'The View' (Couani, 1977:20), the urban landscape is contrasted with the familiar small-town memories of an Australian childhood, exemplified by 'Yesterday and Today' in the same volume:
What is chronology? It was all the one time in that town . . . Saturday afternoon tennis for the adults, the children roaming bored on the oval. Boredom till it chokes, boredom on the oval, in the car, in the bedroom, in the street and outside the post-office. Sunday boredom in the loungeroom, catching flies in the bay window. (ibid.:15)
Embedded in this recognisable literary territory are slightly disjunctive elements for traditionally positioned 'Anglo/Celtic' readers: for instance, 'Grandpa sang the Internationale, standing, hand on heart' (ibid.:17). And in the last section of this prose poem, where an 'English gent' accosts the adolescent girl narrator, the incident is repeated as though to exorcise it (ibid.:19). There are numerous examples in this volume of typical Anglo-Australian narratives of origins, but here they are situated as other.
In the second collection, The Train, 'Xmas in the Bush' is another example of the attempt to atomise and to control, for the latter half of the piece appears to be simply a listing of conversational topics (Couani, 1983:59---61). The form of this listing--as a parodic litany--renders uncanny these otherwise unexceptional topics. The title prose poem in the collection depicts a dreamlike relationship between a man, his family and the other woman/narrator as played out in and around a train 'which is always the past' (ibid.:75---6). The narrator attempts to disentangle the nature of the tragedy haunting the man (is his child blind? his wife?) before setting fire to the train/the past. In the same volume 'The Detective' depicts a narrator again trying to amass evidence, to understand, but from behind a camera instead of via the distancing surrealism of the previous poem (Couani, 1983:56). The text concludes that 'the evidence is endless', but it leaves hanging the question of the object of this evidence.
Certainly, the impulse to record fragments of scenes and conversations is a dominant organising principle in Couani's work. It evokes the overpowering need to make sense of the ostensibly mundane, and to totally comprehend random experience (as in the persona of the detective); but it also testifies to the impossibility of such an enterprise. The registering of 'evidence' is accompanied by an acute awareness that language itself constitutes a barrier to meaning, particularly in its figurative dimension: 'the fact that a meaning is vague or amorphous, a bit intangible, is not a reason to fabricate a metaphor' (ibid.:49---50). Juxtaposed with these enigmatic attempts to seize and catalogue the mundane, to force it to yield up the secrets belied by its familiar surface, are occasional and often humorous forays into the utopian, as in 'On the Job': 'What would happen if there was a sudden coincidence of social relations with good social relations . . . [?]' (ibid.:55). This quest for the utopian, an alternative model for social organisation, gathers momentum in Couani's later work. In these first two collections this element serves to qualify the narrator both as objective sleuth in the public world and as cynical commentator on intimate relationships in the private domain. With the utopian register, something else enters the fabric of these prose poems.
This imagined perfection warrants further investigation of the trajectory leading from nostalgia to the uncanny. In an interesting attempt to reconnect the Lacanian structure to the social order, Juliet MacCannell describes the unconscious in the following terms:
For Lacan, then, there are two possible versions of the unconscious. The one unconscious, the one of which Freud dreams, is one that we, as speaking, cultured beings have never (yet) experienced. It is the scene of a fictional and retrospective nostalgia for a time and place outside metaphoric enclosures, for language as a neutral 'third term' or common ground that would allow the possibility of the mutual co-recognition of desire between two selves. That which could have been between human beings . . . is always prevented . . . by the cultural drive: the drive to organise, to regularise . . . in short, the basis of civilisation. (MacCannell, 1984:156---7)
This opposition between anarchic symbiosis and repressive civilisation is a familiar fantasy. On the one hand is a desire for total communication in which language is perceived as transparent; and on the other hand, the cultural order which produces a subjectivity founded on repression. In more general terms, it also echoes Susan Stewart's observation that 'the prevailing motif of nostalgia is the closure of the gap between nature and culture, and hence a return to the utopia of biology and symbol united within the walled city of the maternal' (1984:23). Paradise, as the illusion of a language devoid of the figurative, the nostalgia for utopia, is an element increasingly present in Couani's work, and as we shall see, always encompasses the uncanny.
The sequence of prose poems called Were All Women Sex-Mad? indicates a new tendency in her work. Much of it is organised in dialogue form, and the interlocutors are sometimes differentiated along gender lines. Whereas in Italy and The Train the immediate and familiar spaces of the self and domain of the private are framed and analysed by an often objective viewer mimicking a reportage or documentary style (Couani, 1977:33---5), whereas in this sequence of prose poems it is Australia which is depicted as a particular kind of culture, and which is subjected to various interpretations from external (that is, other cultural) vantage points. The private domain (home and family) of the previous volumes is both rejected and nostalgically desired--a sickness for and sickness of the home:
My family comes from 2 different countries and lives in a third country. We gave away the idea of 'home'. No, we laugh at it but we feel the absence of it. We depend on other people, maybe another person, maybe a building, something we own, to give us our sense of home. (Couani, 1982:23)
Chapter 4 ('Remember to Forget') examines in particular the construct 'Australia' from somewhere else. Echoing Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, or even Eliot's The Waste Land, this chapter begins with an evocation of the fresh salt wind, and the approach to land of two voices in dialogue. Depicted here are the new couple, returning to contemplate the well-known landmass but through a new prism, as a result of incorporating experiences from the old world and of having had to reconstruct 'Australia' there. They project not so much the high romanticism of the doomed couple as a world-weary reappraisal of personal relationships and public spaces:
--Don't go to Australia
--There's no love there
--There is love. It's love which binds us together. But in Australia it's been stretched like a very thin high-tension wire . . . In Australia you can't want to love. (Couani, 1982:33)
Australian life, as depicted in two hundred years of officially sanctioned Australian Literature, is here reread and represented 'otherwise'. 'Australia' is a place for a holiday but not to live in, and it is peopled by cynics whose preferred state is silence. It is possible to classify the voices conducting these dialogues as familiar echoes from expatriate narrators and those emanating from the so-called migrant or ethnic ghettoes. The clichés erupt in a dialogic sprawl as fragments of conversational analysis which parody the current spate of earnest attempts to fix the national character and ethos. It is not a question of creating a multifarious reality, for 'When you remember something as a visitor it's always typical' (ibid.:31). The voices record the stereotypic and the chapter culminates in a sardonic pillow-talk:
--After you've felt you weren't loved. When you get used to the idea of not being loved. These secret things take years to understand. I think maybe some people don't ever understand. But now it's changing a bit at last. They're starting to come in from the cold like the old stockman returning to the bright lights of the station after 2 weeks riding the fences in the cold and the dust. While he's away he has to remember the warmth and light of his home but when he comes back he can forget it.
--He says, And then I get home and wouldn't you know--the wife started her period today. Forget it.
--I thing you're starting to understand. (ibid.:33)
Here we encounter in the figure of the stockman the paradigmatic Australian hero-battler, reread from another position than the one informed by nostalgia for the male-dominated nationalist literature of the 1890s.
Running alongside these fragmented conversational collages, like the thread or clue in a detective story, is an apparently unifying device in the shape of a plot concerning an Italian woman who leaves her home in the Australian bush and follows her lover overseas. The family collapses; but whereas the woman is (possibly) raped and then suicides, the former husband finds another woman to replace her. Not only the homeland but, again, the concept of the home (as refuge) is scrutinised:
--She doesn't think that home is something you make, it's something you find . . . she's looking for something she can't quite describe which she'll recognize when she sees . . . It's a migrant problem. (ibid.:36---37)
In brief, the home contains its own conditions for disorder and violence, including the violence of language and particularly the language of love. Both home (through the narrative of the foreign family's demise) and the homeland are undone by something at their core. This sequence of prose poems begins and ends with a country road and a broken home. In the final section presumably the daughter of the dead woman also leaves and escapes to that other arena of desire and possibilities--the city.
Here again we encounter the element of repetition, an overt feature of Couani's work, alongside the impulse to catalogue and classify ('the evidence is endless'). Indeed, the two elements may well be related, as is suggested in Susan Stewart's statement that 'the temporality of everyday life is marked by an irony . . . for this temporality is held to be ongoing and nonreversible and, at the same time, characterized by repetition and predictability' (1984:14).
The gathering of the evidence from everyday life (the unique detail) is incorporated into the contradictory process of repetition and the already known. We are given the minutiae of experience, a moment seized, described in detail, and then re-played, as in 'Untitled', the first prose poem in Italy:
a woman walking down a concrete path towards you and very close, takes off her hat in one sweeping movement of her hand, and takes off her hat in one sweeping movement of her hand, again and again. (Couani, 1977:7)
This repetition, taken from modernist writing and from the cinema, may signify an irruption of the mechanical inside what appears to be life: immediate experience. The seemingly authentic and familiar realism is transmuted into an icon of death-in-life. Moreover, the compulsion to repeat suggests an obsessive desire to read and re-read the mundane, to search for clues, in a manner recalling Barthes' pursuit of the truth about his mother. Nothing is revealed, certainly not an authentic observing subject. Images and language collapse: 'And the orange background becomes the blackening arctic sky as the sentence collapses' (ibid.:7). In 'The Never-Dead' the narrator imagines repeated betrayals by her lover; those who have disappeared return over and over again to construct the scene of the uncanny, and to disrupt the traditional unificatory narratives of love.
Whereas the home is the theatre which constantly replays the fragmentation of the subject, the city is occasionally privileged in Couani's work as providing an escape from the constraints of the home, the family, the domestic. The modern city, with its spatial organisation around monuments and centres, has been described by Marc Guillaume (1986:438---9) as an attempt to compensate for the loss of the master narratives of logocentrism (a condition described by Lyotard, 1984). As such master narratives collapse, contemporary city-dwellers seek their own micro-significations, and thus private signs within the public sphere. The city becomes animated and anthropomorphised by this process (Eisenman, 1986:440---1), in which the natural is regularly mourned or nostalgically pursued within the visibly cultural.
Couani's most recent volume, The Harbour Breathes (1989), concentrates on the city as a network of private worlds where the 'evidence' pursued in the earlier volumes has converged with what is now designated a 'secret knowledge.' The volume begins in the following way:
The bridge on the outer quai. The beautiful Sydney has been robbed of its culture as though to pay for beautiful geography. My body's been stripped and wounded and closed up again with plastic parts and metal plates. My heart's gone and the respirator works too hard to oxygenate the atmosphere and the sea spray contains so much detergent that it breaks down my protective layers. I've been torn into and inspected in all my pores and my bowels. Like robot-operated surgery. I wonder why I don't get more angry. Is my city your city, and the city your body like it's my body. Do you feel the lapping of our surf against your side, stroking and soothing your kidneys as the stinking black air pours down your throat, the Pacific for thousands of miles drawing off your wastage. The desert rising like a huge flat mountain beyond the Great Divide and like the natural consequence, the only possible result and closer to what I'm becoming than my love in my city in my body where the cosiness of the buildings bang up against each other and the warm dirty asphalt spreads like a blanket under my feet much more so than grass could. (Couani and Lyssiotis, 1989:1---2)
In the classic structuralist formulation, nature and culture are in an opposite relation to each other; and in the classic move of ideological processes, the cultural artefact (the city) poses as the natural. If the city now incorporates a false culture, what might its opposite be? Within this schema of land and (contained) sea, different subjects project/inhabit different cities. Which is which? Is the self metonymic of the city, or vice-versa? In this first section, both harbour and city are anthropomorphised (remember that Freud relates animism to the imagined omnipotence of thought in the theatre of the uncanny). From the outset, the traditional opposition between nature and culture becomes blurred as 'the warmer dirty asphalt' is more a blanket than grass itself. Here the question of a false culture is raised and recurs throughout the sequence. The body, that implicit seat of the natural, has been refashioned into a cultural artefact and linked with the city's own false culture: it has metamorphosed into Freud's uncanny automaton, the robot, death-in-life. Like the narrator in Eliot's infernal city, the narrator here is suspended ('I'm swinging from a noose') over a pavement which conceals a stream threatening to erupt. This is the archetypal landscape of the uncanny.
In another section of the book, 'Science-Fiction City', the world of the dispossessed, encountered in former works, surfaces once again:
And I wanted to stay but I had to go. I didn't have a choice. They were leaving and I had to go with them. It all befell me. I wasn't preparing myself for the change. It was a fait accompli. We were going. They already had all their reasons worked out. It was arbitrary and meaningless to me, you know, children. (ibid.:35)
Represented here is yet another succinct evocation of the 'migrant problem', namely the movement from one symbolic order to another, and the concomitant unravelling of identity in cultural dislocation--the fall off the map. Why walk one way rather than another? And when will we return to 'normal'?
This particular work in the sequence begins with the narratorial persona (familiar from other texts) adopting an objective stance and reading, or attempting to read and give meaning to, a character encountered at random. It ends with the disruption of this prosaic activity by death and the uncanny:
This city loves me. Its changes reflect my moods. The sunset sweeps across the glass walls as I lower my eyes and turn inside for the evening.
He looks up at me before he sleeps. He places a coin on each of his eyes and on the centre of his forehead. He's closed his eyes. (ibid.:37)
Though unremarkable and obvious in the first instance, the phrase 'turn inside for the evening' may be interpreted to include the metamorphosis of the familiar into the monstrously uncanny. The entry into the home can also signify the change inside out, and the final image of self-conscious death (the rituals of death enacted by one who is living) appears to support this reading.
'Parramatta Sestina' deals explicitly with memory and nostalgia:
My memories are my grandma's memories of the city and my mother's talks looking at the mountains, talking about The Ancient, about the beginning of the world like the 2001 movie track but more serious. And Dad feeling alien anywhere west of Parramatta or Broadway even. I felt his sense of relief on the days we came down to the city and he showed me what his Sydney was like.
Where we saw salami and olives in shops I now realize were just like ones in Greece and definitely unlike the big Franklins in the city which sold DEVON (a word my parents pronounced like POISON). There were different city days with Mum, more anglo . . . Just as Mum knew the mountain tracks, Dad knew the city tracks. Not just the steps and pathways around the Cross for example, but he had a mental picture like a map. The shortcuts all the way from the coast to Parramatta. Which makes me think of Sydney as like a middle eastern city, multi-layered and only really knowable by people with that ancient knowledge which is still applicable in the cleaned-up version of Sydney these days. (ibid.:15---16)
The mother is aligned here with the mountains, perhaps with the natural world. The city becomes a palimpsest of micro-narratives--the secret, old and valued knowledge (an echo of the endless quest for evidence in the earlier work). Elsewhere in the sequence, however, the city is described as being filled with the clichés of the already written, as when the narrator states: 'I thought I was there to remember, to notice. But to remember what? The things which occur to me now. Or which occurred to me then' (ibid.:7). This statement economically encompasses the problem of time and space in relation to subjectivity. What kind of subject is created when, and where and how does memory affect the process?
The various images of the city as wasteland (already enumerated) are juxtaposed with--and thus function to qualify--the utopian, conceived of nostalgically as the pre-Oedipal symbiosis, or the Lacanian Imaginary. This is celebrated most directly in 'The Fold', which does not represent the mother so much as the phallic maternal space:
the fold in the fabric
the crease on the page
the lines of your palm
. . . our history shapes
in the fold . . . (ibid.: 27)
The fold is the Other conceived as a place of forgotten languages, and as a force which reconciles the apparent split between city and harbour:
The city is different
it folds us in
opens up a space to rest
the harbour breathes us in
we exhale into the glow of the city lights . . . (ibid.:29)
The mood evoked by this section is contrasted with the fear of separateness and alienation described elsewhere (ibid.:68). In 'The Fold' the narrator's eye and hand create life. Rather than signifying castration, as in Freud's essay contends, the eye becomes the condition for life.
It is possible to read the final two prose poems in The Harbour Breathes as a further celebration of the utopian as both a good place and no place at all. The potential for other social relations (that other version of the unconscious referred to earlier) is imagined in 'Boundary', where the concerns of much of the earlier work are succinctly conveyed:
Marking a boundary to define a space. A space to live in; Space for an idea. Marking the boundaries of it. Creating the space, making it empty so something can appear.
Squares of blue sky framed by the window. An object moves across it. A clear shape in the blue.
Clearing a space, marking out a territory. Defining a city. (ibid.:51)
In 'The Pillar of Rooms', the penultimate piece, we are presented with a movement from the dead city to the private world of the couple, a scrap-book of images of a future time converted into a space. The final poem, 'Boundary', takes us from the room of the couple to an empty space which is filled with possibilities rather than evoking the terrors of a totally fragmented identity. The space here is not uncanny because it is indeed unfamiliar, without representing a return of the monstrously familiar. While not necessarily linked to the mother who in earlier collections had been depicted as a 'Polish princess', shades of the goose-princess are evoked at the beginning of this essay. Space, however, is tenuously connected with the home ('A space to live in') and even with the city, and thus with lived social relations. The pillar of rooms (a temple to change, perhaps) encloses the couple and is transformed into a space where anything might happen. In this case we encounter not cinematic repetitions but cinematic dissolves, the unknown future of the subject:
Clearing a space, marking out a territory
Defining a city. . . Throwing time away as though it meant nothing.
In Couani's work the montage derives from a well-known literary terrain, but the voices and scenes are constantly rendered alien and monstrous through being reordered, or viewed from positions somewhere outside, or contrasted with an other and possibly utopian state. Implicit in all her writings are a series of questions. Whose version of Australia is it? What cultural baggage is included in this category? And from whence does it come?
In The Oxford History of Australian Literature Leonie Kramer offers the following magisterial pronouncement: 'The diversification of personal histories that one would expect to result from the influx of migrants from many countries of the world has not yet become a marked feature of Australian writing' (Kramer, 1981:8). It would appear that such a colonial machine could indeed be transformed by the explicit inclusion of personal and collective histories from so-called migrants or ethnic minorities. These have existed throughout the last two hundred years and have contributed to the founding narratives of migration as well as offering other constructions of 'Australia'. If they incorporate the element of nostalgia this does not in itself mark them off as a primitive stage in an evolutionary model of a national literature. After all, nostalgia gestures towards the future as well as the past. It may even operate, in culturally specific ways, as a factor in the writings of all those who call themselves Australians, in the forms of sickness for and of an uncanny, monstrously familiar place. Neither race nor place (Stephensen, 1969) ever springs organically from that which in our conscious lives we call home.