'We Are All Philosophers; We Cannot Help Being': Credos, Life-Choices and Philosophy in Murray Bail's the Pages

By Ackland, Michael | Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

'We Are All Philosophers; We Cannot Help Being': Credos, Life-Choices and Philosophy in Murray Bail's the Pages


Ackland, Michael, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL


According to one famous postulate, 'an unexamined life is not worth living'. The words, originally attributed to Socrates, gained notoriety at Sydney University, where they were appropriated as a polemical exhortation to successive generations of eager students by Professor John Anderson. More recently their spirit has been dramatised by the autodidact Wesley Antill, in Murray Bail's fourth novel The Pages (2008), in response to the insistence of a lecturer from the same department that the would-be philosopher must 'become a singular person' (65).1 How Antill transforms this adage into deeds, and his legacy to posterity, in the form of piles of manuscript pages, is Bail's ostensible subject. Yet answers to such important questions as what precisely his life amounts to, or the purpose of his miscellaneous jottings that constitute the book's concluding section, have proven tantalisingly elusive. 'These fragments are presented as the sum total of the philosopher's disjointed lifetime of thinking. Or maybe they are a tracing of the land itself speaking hesitantly. Equally they may be simply the outcome of Sophie's erratic coffee-spill. Who knows? The novel ends by remaining a work in progress' (Krauth 11).2 Certainly the narrative avoids unambiguous closure, and achieves that 'resistance' to facile readings that Bail has long admired in other works of art.3 Nevertheless, as I hope to show, the careful orchestration of its diverse scenes and five main characters provides important clues to this final section and the work's overall import, while through the fate of Wesley Bail is able to highlight the issue of philosophy's potential contemporary role, as well as to probe abiding existential dilemmas.

Seen in the wider context of the Australian's oeuvre, The Pages reads like a summation of many of his preoccupations. Rather than representing a 'turn' towards philosophy, its prominence here reflects a long-standing, serious engagement with the discipline.4 Epistemological and ontological issues have been a mainstay of Bail's fiction, as well as a subject for protracted study and a cause of domestic acrimony: 'You think you're so smart, reading all that philosophy ... You think you know everything. And reading out from that book of Hinduism, saying how good it is. Phoney! You don't believe anything beautiful, you're so harsh' (N17).5 This tirade is lent credence by being jotted down for further reflection in his notebooks, where Bail also acknowledged, after more than two decades as a full-time writer: 'Psychology and philosophy: too much of one, not enough of the other' (N304)-referring presumably to his attachment to the novel of ideas, rather than psychological probing, which was already signalled in Homesickness (1980).6 Its plot consists largely of a series of unpredictable visits to overseas museums, real and imagined, by an eclectic group of Australian tourists. Yet an attentive reading of these apparently random events reveals an authorial concern with mutability, self-knowledge and Australian identity (Attridge, Ommundsen, Wilson). His tourists describe their antipodean homeland as a place of 'nothing really yet' (H393), its people as given to quipping to hide unease at their own emptiness (H297), while their shared predicament is arguably represented by Violet Hopper wandering confused in a London maze, whose hedges are cut to spell out 'Nosce te', or know yourself (H111): according to antiquity the irreducible basis of all knowledge. Though his tourists fail repeatedly to achieve a sovereign vantage-point from which they can make sense of their experience, the quest for one emerges as a leitmotif in Bail's later novels, nowhere more starkly than in The Pages.7

Also The Pages is arguably the product, at least in part, of an authorial wish to make a final, creative reckoning with existence. In published extracts from recent notebooks, time's winged chariot is audibly nearer. 'You're here briefly-work, give shape' (N260) reads one clipped entry, with its distillation suggesting that not a moment was to be lost, and the concluding extract sums up this more sombre mood: 'No use saying: If only we could live longer, there is not enough time etc. …

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