Not long ago, during a television documentary about the writer Richard Flanagan, no less a literary pundit than Baz Luhrmann proclaimed Flanagan “the Australian Hemingway”. These days, of course, it’s quite permissible to go around passing such judgments without necessarily having read any actual books by either party—and indeed it emerged, as Baz fleshed the comparison out, that what he mainly had in mind was the fact that both guys were quite keen on the outdoors. But he did, I think, throw in a token reference to the excellence of Flanagan’s prose after that.
So how sound is Baz Luhrmann’s literary taste? Here is the prologue to Richard Flanagan’s 2006 novel, The Unknown Terrorist:
The idea that love is not enough is a particularly painful one. In the face of its truth, humanity has for centuries tried to discover in itself evidence that love is the greatest force on earth.
Jesus is an especially sad example of this unequal struggle. The innocent heart of Jesus could never have enough of human love. He demanded it, as Nietzsche observed, with hardness, with madness, and had to invent hell as punishment for those who withheld their love from him. In the end he created a god who was ‘wholly love’ in order to excuse the hopelessness and failure of human love.
Jesus, who wanted love to such an extent, was clearly a madman, and had no choice when confronted with the failure of love but to seek his own death. In his understanding that love was not enough, in his acceptance of the necessity of the sacrifice of his own life to enable the future of those around him, Jesus is history’s first, but not last, example of a suicide bomber.
Nietzsche wrote, ‘I am not a man, I am dynamite’. It was the image of a dreamer. Every day now somebody somewhere is dynamite. They are not an image. They are the walking dead, and so are the people who are standing round them. Reality was never made by realists, but by dreamers like Jesus and Nietzsche.
Nietzsche began to fear that what drove the world forward was all that was destructive and evil about it. In his writings he tried to reconcile himself to such a terrible world.
But one day he saw a cart horse being beaten brutally by its driver. He rushed out and put his arms around the horse’s neck, and would not let go. Promptly diagnosed as mad, he was locked away in an asylum for the rest of his life.
Nietzsche had even less explanation than Jesus for love and its various manifestations: empathy, kindness, hugging a horse’s neck to stop it being beaten. In the end Nietzsche’s philosophy could not even explain Nietzsche, a man who sacrificed his life for a horse.
But then, ideas always miss the point.
Hemingway, you might recall, said that a writer’s key piece of equipment was a built-in bullshit detector. If Flanagan ever had such a device, it surely maxed out and blew at some point during the composition of that third paragraph. About the best you can say for such stuff is that it seems to be aimed at—and was quite possibly written by—the kind of person who believes that the mere mention of figures like Nietzsche and Christ is enough to establish that things are being discussed at a high level. But what is actually being said? It takes a fair bit of readerly sweat to find out. There are a lot of non-sequiturs in there. (“They are the walking dead, and so are the people who are standing round them. Reality was never made by realists, but by dreamers like Jesus and Nietzsche.”)
Maybe you’re not even supposed to make sense of it all. Maybe you’re just meant to feel the tone: highbrow, literary, mystical, profound. Maybe you’re just meant to feel generally assured that this will be the kind of novel in which current events will meet with deep thought. Maybe all you need to know is that the right thing is being said—that the figure of the suicide bomber is being understood, contextualised, rescued from the demonisation he’s suffered at the hands of the George Bushes of the world, who dig on Jesus but probably haven’t even heard of Nietzsche. Maybe you’re just meant to get a whiff of that heady atmosphere and move on.
In any case, I’m about to try something that might be a bit rash. I’m going to propose that we comb these dazzling paragraphs for truth-content. Perhaps we’ll be gravely missing the point by doing that. Perhaps we’ll be interrogating Flanagan’s bold freeform mind-riffs far more closely than he himself did when pulling them out of thin air. But let’s give it a try.
Let’s start with Nietzsche. Reading the above paragraphs, you could run away with the impression that Nietzsche never really went mad. You could run away with the impression that “one day”, for perfectly sane and indeed impeccably eco-friendly reasons, he embraced an oppressed horse. And then: “Promptly diagnosed as mad, he was locked away in an asylum for the rest of his life.” You have to love that sentence. I especially relish that first word: promptly. It tells you exactly what kind of writer Flanagan is. He’s the kind of writer who will say, for effect, things that are flagrantly not true. Nietzsche, without question, did go seriously and permanently mad, possibly as a result of contracting syphilis. He may or may not have embraced a horse during the early stages of his decline. His alarmed friends and family took him to various clinics, but at no point was he “locked away for the rest of his life”. In fact he spent his final ten years in the care of his mother and sister.
But Flanagan wants to believe in the kind of world where sinister and nameless authorities will lock away an entirely healthy man just for hugging a horse. Or anyway he wants us to believe that. He can’t possibly believe it himself—can he? He must know that Nietzsche really did suffer a catastrophic mental breakdown. He can’t not know it. Which means he is deliberately—and a little tastelessly—telling us things he knows to be untrue. Why? You can only assume that he thinks some sort of higher truth can be arrived at by stringing together a succession of quarter-truths and distortions—some sort of lyrical, poetic truth that soars gloriously free of the factual record. I suppose some people fondly imagine that such irrespons-ible violation of the facts is the very stuff of literature. But literature minus truth is no longer literature. It’s pulp. It’s a cartoon.
On the whole Flanagan drags in Nietzsche not because of what he wrote when he was sane, but because of something he did when he wasn’t. This is an odd tribute for one writer to pay another. But there is some reference to Nietzsche’s actual writings, from which Flanagan has derived the big idea that Nietzsche was a “dreamer”: “Nietzsche wrote, ‘I am not a man, I am dynamite’. It was the image of a dreamer.”
Why? Why is that the image of a dreamer? Surely it’s the self-image of a man—the philosopher with a hammer, as he also called himself—who saw it as his mission to blow away large quantities of untruth. If Flanagan really must engage in the fatuous high-school exercise of dividing humanity into realists and dreamers, can’t he at least see that Nietzsche belongs firmly with the realists? Nietzsche was all rigour: a far fiercer enemy of bullshit than Hemingway. Plus he was a philologist by training: a grounded student of word origins, a fiery pinner-down of exact meaning. To say that “Nietzsche’s philosophy couldn’t even explain Nietzsche, a man who sacrificed his life for a horse” is to base an inane non-point on a total untruth, and Flanagan must know it. Nietzsche went tragically insane: it’s a medical fact, and Nietzsche’s philosophy was and is under no obligation to “explain” it. And the claim that he “sacrificed his life for a horse” is just trivial and false, and any argument that uses it as a buttress is built on nothing but bad faith.
So what about the Christ-as-suicide-bomber motif? I won’t say that this offends me as a Christian, because I’m not one. But it does kind of miff me as a respecter of truth. To start with the basics: doesn’t suicide bombing have something to do with violence? A suicide bomber doesn’t just sacrifice himself. If that was all he did, I doubt he’d be such a controversial fellow. But really he sacrifices himself only incidentally, as the best means of killing and maiming as many of the people around him as possible. The more, the merrier. Women, children? Bring them on!
To suggest that Christ the man had anything remotely to do with that is to lose all touch with intellectual decency. A lot of Christ’s later adherents have practised terror, without doubt; but not the man himself. Indeed he went around saying a lot of things about turning the other cheek and not casting the first stone. So if you’re going to proclaim him history’s first suicide bomber—on the face of it an obscenely false proposition—you’d better have some pretty impressive reasons. Flanagan advances two incredibly feeble ones. He, Christ, saw that “love was not enough” (enough for what?); and he accepted “the necessity of the sacrifice of his own life to enable the future of those around him”.
These two things might well have motivated Christ. But what on earth makes Flanagan think that they define the suicide bomber? Was Mohamed Atta a man for whom love was not enough? Next time you get a chance, take a look at Atta’s contorted mugshot. Does it look like the face of a man for whom love was not enough? It looks more like the face of a man for whom hate was not enough. (Again Flanagan’s knack for hitting on the polar opposite of the truth shines through.) And did Atta sacrifice himself to “enable”—whatever that means—the future of those around him? No: he sacrificed himself because it was the simplest way of killing an incredible amount of other people. Exactly why he wanted to kill them all is a question I don’t really have the stomach for at the moment. No doubt he had his own fevered notions about what an ideal world would be like, but those are dreams that no thinking person—least of all a writer who enjoys having the freedom to speak subversively—would want to see “enabled”.
A scrupulous writer who honestly did detect deep connections between people like that and Jesus Christ would owe it to his readers to state his reasoning plainly. After all, it’s quite an insight. Nobody’s ever had it before. So why not clearly explain why you think it’s true? Flanagan declines to. He takes cover behind clouds of loose prose and flaccid illogic, and winds up conveying the impression that not even he quite understands what he’s trying to say.
Is Australia running out of people who can even tell what good writing is, let alone deliver it? The Australian publishing industry has become a mill for cretinous ephemera: wicketkeeping chronicles; survival stories by mountaineers whose icy deaths would have been their own fault anyway, and would have spared the world one more wretched book about the perils of frostbite; brick-thick memoirs by politicians whose musings you wouldn’t want to read 2000 words of for free.
The lowbrow stuff is getting worse: you get no prizes for spotting that. But there’s a subtler kind of dumbing-down occurring at the literary end of the spectrum. One symptom is that a lot of our most celebrated writers are simply not very good. Another is that there are a lot of critics around who can’t spot that, or else lack the integrity to clear their throats and say it out loud.
There’s something brittle and amateurish about our literary culture. It’s too ready to mistake the intention for the deed. Would an intelligentsia that was actually intelligent fail to blow the whistle on a thinker who goes around saying, apparently in all seriousness, that “ideas always miss the point”? Do ideas really always do that? They do when people like Flanagan are sloppily tossing them round, certainly. But they don’t have to. They only do when they’re wrong.
David Free is the author of a novel, A Dancing Bear. This article first appeared on the Ember website (theember.com.au).