Crickets chirped intermittently from the obscure lawns. Once, a plover raised its faint, frantic cry in some far paddock. 1
Beautiful . . . really wonderful aesthetic of which I can commiserate.
But the immense silence of the plains was scarcely disturbed. 2
Wow! nature is majestic yet modest.
The road to the estate was an off-shoot from a deserted side road whose signposts were sometimes vague and contradictory. 3
Icing on the cake! Meta-fiction forewarning of the authors fallibleness.
My patron’s home, of course, was somewhere on the other side of the gate but not within view. The driveway that lead to it did not even point the way. 4
Okay. Well maybe the driveway was missing an index finger.
As I drove from the road I told myself I was disappearing into some invisible private world whose entrance was at the loneliest point on the plains. 5
Okay . . . let’s see . . . driving, driving, driving . . . down the driveway.
Now what remains for me to do? I am so close to the end of my quest that I can scarcely recall how it began. 6
Wait a minute is this driveway a quest?
‘Uh, yep.’ says an inner voice.
‘No’, I exclaim.
‘Yep. The narrative is a farce, an absurdity.’, continues the voice.
Unable to comprehend the satire I fall off my chair, knock myself unconscious, and – as if mimicking an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ – awake to find myself in Australia. Gerald Murnane stands 20 or 30 ft. from me carrying a copy of ‘The Plains’; A copy adorned with bells and whistles, colorful ribbons, and glitter.
‘Welcome to New Zealand’, he says.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
The Plains© by Gerald Murnane 1 is the monologic narrative of a young – at least at one point young – filmmakers record of an adventure to film Australia in ‘startling ways’, which is to say artistic but also somewhat pretentious ways. The working title of the film is ‘The Interior’ which refers to non-coastal Australia colloquially known among Australians as the plains, hence the title. In addition to the persona, patronage is involved in order to finance the film, surreal absurdity, and probably most important, a philosophic relativism .
Besides the persona are two fictional historic groups each different of outlook. They are the horizonites and the hareman. Both groups are composed of wealthy plainsmen and their associates. As far as I can tell, the groups wealth and divergent apprehensions echoes medieval European heraldry. Both groups have large homesteads – often referred to in the novel as ‘the great houses’. (Similar as England’s House of Stuart or Germany’s House of Hesse, etc.). Pennants and emblems are made by the families or the families hired artists. Each house also has a wealth of servants, libraries – yes, plural libraries – and they, as patrons, can afford to subsidize clients. These heraldic paradigms are less depicting of wealth and its dynamics than they are depicting of mindsets or outlooks. It is difficult to ascribe these alternative philosophies – as they become manifest – to a specific one of the two groups, yet the philosophies permeate the narrative. The appellate of horizonite or hareman is generally speaking not necessary. The necessary aspect is a recognition of the alternative philosophies not the ascribing of these philosophies to the correct group.
One of the two outlooks emphasizes a romantic or naturalistic sense less fettered to a past:
Members of the group were challenged ,of course, to explain themselves. They replied by talking of the blue-green haze as though it was itself a land – a plain of the future, perhaps, where One might live a life that existed only in potentiality on the plains where poets and painters could do no more than write or paint. 7
The other is an outlook of pragmatic, materialist concerns which are not necessarily secure and thus need attending. The attending seems to account with the past.
He saw the countless objects in his home as a few visible points on some invisible graph of stupendous complexity. If his impression was unusually powerful he peered at the repeated motifs in a tapestry as though to read the story of a certain succession of days or years long before his time . . . 8
His group utterly rejected the supposed appeal of misty distances. 9
Philosophical relativism – not intentfully mentioned within the book – suffuses these opposing philosophies. Here is a defining of cognitive relativism:
(1) The truth-value of any statement is always relative to some particular standpoint;
(2) No standpoint is metaphysically privileged over all others. 10
Here are a couple of examples of this relativism:
[Of a polo match] Central Plains always wore a certain shade of yellow when they rode out against the men representing the Outer Plains. In the official program the outer plains uniform was described as sea-green but the sea was 500 miles away. 11
For our narrator the truth value of the ‘sea’ of sea – green is suspect. This suspicion, however, is relative. You or I would probably recognize this duality of playing polo on ‘the plains’ yet wearing ‘sea-green’ colors as a simple characteristic of uniform design or coincidence or both. The narrator’s standpoint is important as to the statement’s truth value.
Another example is the ‘bar and stretcher scene’. 12
Our narrator is called to a meeting in a bar of a hotel. Upon entering the bar the narrator’s ‘only shock’ came upon seeing, in a corner of the bar, a man laid out upon some canvas stretcher. The man was not ill or otherwise incapacitated.
The others sat erect on stools at the bar. 13
I can’t read this as humorously surreal without admitting a relevance apropos of the state of being passed out and drunk. One who might be passed out drunk might certainly be stretched out upon a bar floor. Here, though, we have a related position of a person stretched out upon a stretcher upon a bar floor, yet, the person so positioned is not in any way incapacitated. Although it’s a funny scene a serious import arises by virtue of relativism.
A drunk passed out on a barroom floor being the referent is contrasted by the details of this coherent person stretched out supine, relaxing upon a stretcher. Without the relativism the scene might very well have not been imaginable. Also, stare decisis – a legal concept of precedential fact and present actions – seems applied to this socio-cultural situation. The precedent – if you will – of passed out drunk invokes the supine, resting stretcher as being a germane present relational to the precedent.
The driveway/quest quoted above, is another, though different example of this relativism. Here is the quote without my interference:
As I drove in from the road I told myself I was disappearing into some invisible private world whose entrance was at the loneliest point on the plains.
Now what remains for me to do? I am so close to the end of my quest that I can scarcely recall how it began. 14
The driveway and the quest are juxtaposed with one another. As for the narrator the juxtaposition seems to escape him, for the author the juxtaposition is essential, for the reader . . . well . . . the truth value will vary with the reader. None of these standpoints whether the narrator’s, the author’s, or any reader’s is ‘privileged over all others’. Any one of these explanations – standpoints – of the trip, or any other explanation, is no more or less privileged than any other rationale. Relativism.
I mentioned the concept of stare decisis. It is relevant in understanding an otherwise absurd condition. Take for example near the end of the novella. 15
Various families or community or groups – again an appellation is not really necessary and may detract from an inchoate quality – invites the narrator along as they take one of ‘elaborate day long expeditions of families to nameless sites in far corners of their lands.’ They travel in multiple vehicles, set out tents, drink – or are already drunk as they arrive – and generally do seemingly nothing. ( Okay, they chat, form groups of which to take photographs, maybe some other stuff, I don’t know; Murnane can be very comfortable with the inchoate narrative.) The seemingly purposeless folly hearkens to both relativism and a socio-cultural stare decisis. We can’t be sure of the standpoint.
They – either the horizonites or hareman – might be getting back to nature. But the drinking and photographing, not of nature but of group members and their activities, belies a supposed getting back to nature. Maybe the photographing is an artistic attempt despite it not being of nature or the plains. Maybe, they preferred to do this field trip instead of going to a bar. Relativism.
As to socio-cultural stare decisis, I construe an apparent present day pragmatic relation with an ancestral pioneering. The trip recalls earlier pioneers unknown but likely dynamics of leaving outer Australia before settling the communities from which the present group left upon making this excursion. The present group enacts a dissimilar provisional compared with the original pioneers. The original provisional no doubt necessitated serious concerns of food and shelter, etc. – the provisional. The current group in their significantly less burdened state enacts a provisional of drinking to excess. As well, a pioneering interpersonal would have been more serious-minded, again because of being more burdened. The present day group does much of nothing but chat along with the drinking. An interpersonal which is necessarily common to both the pioneers of these plains and the excursion group is made similar but not exact – in keeping with socio-cultural stare decisis of similar to precedent.
Thus, today’s descendants of these pioneers – whether biologic descendants or communal descendants – proceed similarly though differently. Both groups irrupt onto the plains in slightly different ways; Nature is kind of disregarded. The socio-cultural, generational concern adhering of the importance of man-made constructions and an attendant continuity is analogous with stare decisis. This group trip in all its presentness, preserves an inter-generational group relation.
Nonetheless, this particular mindset is only one of two. A concern for nature and the individual – as the narrator seems to have – is the other philosophy, even if it is not part of this particular excursion.
So, a seemingly purposeless folly of this excursion seems purposeless only related to the standpoint.
The narrator is both genuflectively profound:
One of the chief attractions of these remarkable conjectures is that no one is able to use them to alter his understanding of his own life. 16
and possessed of a self-deceiving folly:
I am preparing a work of art to show what I and no other could have seen. 17
The Plains© was first published in 1982. The viewpoint can seem overwhelmingly occidental and male in this era of contemporary cultural studies.
A lot of novels can seem amorphous, unsynthesized. They seem to mistake vagueness for eclecticism or open-mindedness. Although The Plains© may be synthesized difficultly – that is requiring multiple readings – its focused, novella form seems receptive to a singularness of which other works are not so welcome. Even still, it seems wonderfully multifaceted.
I really enjoyed The Plains©. It is an arcane, post-modernist waltz. It seems more like a scintillate diamond than a paper and ink production.
I too have admired the tortuous arguments and detailed elaborations, the pointing -up of tenuous links and faint reverberations, and the final triumphant demonstrations that something of a motif has persisted through an immense body of digressive and even imprecise prose. 18
1 The Plains, Gerald Murnane, ©2003, New Issues Poetry and Prose, Kalamazoo, MI., USA in association with Text Publishing Co., Melbourne, Australia, pg. 62
2 Ibid, pg. 62
7 Ibid, pg. 27
8 Ibid pg. 23
9 Ibid, pg. 29
11. The Plains, Gerald Murnane, ©2003, New Issues Poetry and Prose, Kalamazoo, MI., USA in association with Text Publishing Co., Melbourne , Australia, pg. 31
12 Ibid, pg.43- 44
13 Ibid pg. 44
14 Ibid, pg. 62
15 Ibid, pg. 98- 105
16 Ibid, pg. 74
17 Ibid, pg. 74
18 Ibid, pg. 73
Other Consulted Material