Tuesday, 22 April 2014

"Between You And Gravity": Madness as Critique in New Zealand Literature by Sarah Reese


The theme of madness is often used in literature to comment on mainstream society and its definition of normal. In Frank Sargeson’s short stories, madness and deviance are constructed both as an inversion of the norm (“The Hole that Jack Dug”) and the result of excessive conformity to it (“A Good Boy”), but in each case are premised on the existence of a clearly defined ‘otherness’ which stands in opposition to the status quo. By contrast, in The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox, madness and deviance are more consistently understood as a symptom of society’s failure to properly understand or nurture difference. The resulting critique is thus both connected to and distinct from that put forward in Sargeson’s work.

            The key to understanding the role of “madness” in Frank Sargeson’s writing lies in his distinction between mainstream society and its outsiders. In both “The Hole That Jack Dug” and “A Good Boy,” Sargeson depicts two opposing sets of values. On the one hand, there are characters such as Mrs. Parker and the ‘good boy’s’ parents, who are depicted as bastions of philistinism, materialism, restraint and propriety. Mrs. Parker, for example, is a former governess and a woman of “brains and refinement” (Sargeson 1945, 116). She is an avid reader of Hugh Walpole (Sargeson 1945, 116) - considered inferior literature by Sargeson (Ricketts 1999, 44) - and dedicated to the pursuit of material and social success: “[she] is always coming to light with some big ideas. Not to mention a car, one thing she’s always on about is a refrigerator...” (Sargeson 1945, 117). Similarly, the narrator’s parents in “A Good Boy” are conservative and hard-working people: the father reads mainly newspapers, and the mother spends most of her time doing household chores (Sargeson 1964, 38). They are highly conscious of others’ opinions and function as a constant monitoring presence in the life of their son, encouraging him to get a respectable job as an accountant (Sargeson 1964, 39) and forbidding him from going to Paddy’s billiards saloon (Sargeson 1964, 39-40). They, along with Mrs. Parker, are ‘impure’ puritans, the sort of people who value the appearance of goodness without regard for its substance, and in both stories are challenged by ‘outsider’ figures whose conduct is the complete inverse of their own. Unlike his wife, Jack Parker can appreciate and recite poetry (Sargeson 1945, 118). He has little interest in material goods, rejecting her attempts to purchase a refrigerator (Sargeson 1945, 117), and prefers to remain working at the quarries instead of taking a more respectable job elsewhere (Sargeson 1945, 117). In the same way, the billiard saloon owners - the Evans’ - are presented as “good sorts” who have a strong sense of fun (Sargeson 1964, 39) and live lives of happy indulgence, to the point where Mrs. Evans is so fat she is forced to sew special gussets into her shoes (Sargeson 1964, 39).

            The effect of this interplay is to draw a clear line between the attributes of the mainstream, and those which Sargeson encodes as “deviant” - the latter of which appear, at least on the surface, to be closely linked to “madness.” In “The Hole That Jack Dug,” Jack is described as ‘crazy’ in part because he is putting a great deal of time and effort into an endeavour that appears both futile and self-defeating: digging a hole beneath his washhouse wall (Sargeson 1945, 118). We are told that “[his eyes] always have a bit of a crazy look about them” (Sargeson 1945, 115) and that his wife thinks “some day he’ll end up in the lunatic asylum” (Sargeson 1945, 121), suggesting that from her perspective (and, by association, that of society in general), his actions are the product of insanity. Yet it is also clear from the text that we are not meant to view Jack in this way. The story is told by a sympathetic narrator - Jack’s friend Tom, who holds him in high esteem (Sargeson 1945, 117-118) - and it is explicitly stated that his actions are “more important...[or, at any rate] just as important” as those of the fighter pilots defending the country (Sargeson 1945, 121). If we consider that Jack’s digging is literally ‘undermining’ the status quo, here represented by Mrs. Parker’s domestic sphere, then it becomes clear that what seems to be madness is in fact social critique (Daalder 1986, 75). Sargeson thus draws a further distinction between real and apparent insanity. Although the Jack’s actions appear ‘crazy,’ his critique is in fact necessary for society to flourish; otherwise we risk descent into the true madness of blind conformity. In “A Good Boy,” for example, when the narrator’s father finds out his son has been going to Paddy’s billiards room, he reacts with righteous fury: “Father had his knife into Paddy properly. He stuck him up in the street and roused him up hill and down dale...” (Sargeson 1964, 40). Likewise, when the narrator finds out his girlfriend has been cheating on him, he “[goes] all righteous just like father and mother used to go” and murders her (Sargeson 1964, 40). What is telling is that he regards this as “doing the right thing” (Sargeson 1964, 41), despite the fact that even those charged with enforcing the social norms think he’s “off [his] block” (Sargeson 1964, 41). The logical outcome of extreme conformity, Sargeson seems to imply, is a ruthless, even violent policing of others’ behaviour, and it is for this reason that the balancing critique offered by ‘deviance’ is so vital.

            Elizabeth Knox also uses the concept of “madness” to make a point about the value of difference in The Vintner’s Luck, albeit in a slightly different way. Like Sargeson, Knox plays with the idea of “madness” as a category used by the majority to distinguish between norm and deviance. However, while Sargeson makes a clear distinction between mainstream society and the ‘outsider’ figure in terms of specific attributes and values, Knox takes a more flexible approach, defining madness as "not only disordered understanding, but a disturbance of the feelings, the passions" (Knox 1999, 197). The character of Céleste Jodeau is perhaps the most obvious example of this. At the very beginning of the novel we are told that her father used to "[bark] like a dog" (Knox 1999, 2), and that there is a risk she will pass on her 'tainted' blood to her children (Knox 1999, 5). Yet, significantly, when Sobran is discussing his pursuit of her with Xas, the angel asks whether the old man barked "at the moon, or at people he didn't like" (Knox 1999, 5), suggesting that it may in fact have been his temperament rather than his sanity which was at issue. Throughout the novel, the exact nature and extent of Céleste's "madness" is not specified, but it predominantly manifests as an extreme jealousy or possessiveness. She suspects her husband of having an affair with Aline Lizet, and later kills the girl, believing that she intended to seduce Céleste’s own lover, Léon (Knox 1999, 235). Céleste also hangs Sobran's dog Josie for failing to warn him about Xas (Knox 1999, 92), and part of her strange behaviour to Aurora is caused by her belief that she is in love with Sobran (Knox 1999, 73). As Aurora concludes, "there is more calculation than frailty" in her actions (Knox 1999, 145), and the very fact that her nature is disputed hints that "madness" in this context is a constructed category - in other words, it is not something which is inherent, as Sargeson might have it, but something which is imposed (Knox 1999, 197). Céleste is "shameless and strange" (Knox 1999, 81), "bad in company" (Knox 1999, 198) or "like a dangerous animal" (Knox 1999, 54), yet her actions are not altogether irrational: she is mad primarily because she fails to display “the kind of pretence that sound[s] like everyone else’s ‘reason’” (Knox 1999, 198-199).

            For Knox, then, as for Sargeson, to deviate from the norm is to appear mad to those who are part of the mainstream. However, Knox chooses to focus on the effects of this suppression on the ‘outsider’ rather than the extremes to which the mainstream will go to enforce normality. Sobran’s brother Léon, for example, bears striking resemblance to the characters of Sargeson’s “A Good Boy.” Like the narrator’s parents, Léon is a devoted puritan, who will often forgo pleasures as a test of self-denial (Knox 1999, 11) and who frequently upbraids his brother for his sexual indulgences (Knox 1999, 2). Yet Léon’s apparent “goodness” similarly conceals an undercurrent of violence. Léon's own predilection for erotic asphyxiation is a guilty secret which drives him to murder first his lover and then another young woman who discovers what he has done (Knox 1999, 127). While he is not explicitly considered “crazy” within the text, his eventual suicide places him firmly on the same footing as Céleste in the eyes of his family; at one point his niece threatens to become a nun because “her uncle is a suicide and her mother is mad” (Knox 1999, 134). Crucially, however, Léon isn’t driven to kill out of fanatical desire to ‘do the right thing,’ but rather by shame at his inability to do so: “those poor women discovered what he liked and he hated them for it,” Xas says (Knox 1999, 142). Without this guilt, the outcome may have been different. “I’m sure that if ideas about carnal sin were out of the way, new schools of thought would flourish,” Xas tells Sobran; “something to do with violence and desire - how dangerously close they can be...” (Knox 1999, 142). In a sense, then, it is not the individual’s “disordered understanding” which is truly mad, but that of society. As Sobran makes clear, it is through the mainstream’s distrust of difference that individuals are taught to fear and punish themselves. Initially, Sobran serves as a foil to Léon, shameless where he is prudish; indulgent where he is restrained (Knox 1999, 11-12). When Sobran learns that Xas is in fact a fallen angel, however, the shock causes him to become colour-blind (Knox 1999, 74), and his entire personality changes: "He wore black and white, a cross buttoned in his shirt. Like a Protestant patriarch he read the Bible to his household in the evenings. He hated the hours of darkness..." (Knox 1999, 74). Most significantly, when he recalls his previously unabashed attraction to Xas, he is ashamed, and “crushed his testicles in one fist till tears ran down his face” (Knox 1999, 75). Despite the fact that none of these behaviours is altogether ‘deviant’ according to the values of the time, Sobran’s visceral rejection of his former self is regarded as madness by his family and the local priest precisely because it is so out of character (Knox 1999, 74). Just as God’s distillation of humanity deprives us of our “particularity” (Knox 1999, 240) in the novel’s underlying theology, then, mainstream hostility to deviance suppresses difference and is for Knox something to be resisted, not celebrated (Joseph 2008, 111-112).

Both Frank Sargeson and Elizabeth Knox use the concept of madness to critique mainstream society in different ways. For Sargeson, deviance constitutes a specific set of values which opposes and critiques the mainstream in both “The Hole That Jack Dug” and “A Good Boy.” True madness comes about when we become so invested in upholding the status quo that we lose all sense of perspective and compassion. Alternatively, in The Vintner’s Luck, madness is a constructed category which allows the mainstream to deny the humanity of deviance, driving people to despair when they fail to conform. In both cases, madness and deviance are closely connected, and together serve to highlight the dangers of taking the status quo for granted.



Reference List

Daalder, Joost. 1986. “Three Readings of Sargeson’s ‘The Hole That Jack Dug.’” Span, 22:73-92.
Joseph, Laura. 2008. “Gardening in Hell: Abject Presence and Sublime Present in Dead Europe and         The Vintner’s Luck.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2008:105-113.
Knox, Elizabeth. 1999. The Vintner’s Luck. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Ricketts, Harry. 1999. “A Note on Sargeson’s ‘The Hole That Jack Dug.’” Kōtare 2, 2:44-45.     Accessed 8 September, 2013. http://ojs.victoria.ac.nz/kotare/article/view/611
Sargeson, Frank. 1945. “The Hole That Jack Dug.” In Speaking for Ourselves: Fifteen Stories,    edited by Frank Sargeson, 115-21. Christchurch: The Caxton Press.

––––––––. 1964. “A Good Boy.” In Collected Stories 1935-1963. 38-41. Auckland: Blackwood &           Janet Paul.


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