Heavy going in rough terrain

The Life of the Land
October 25, 1996

This unusual and eclectic book is structured around three obliquely associated narratives consisting of the work of the Australian anthropologist, T. G. H. Strehlow, a study of the Venetian painter Giorgione and the history of William Light as first surveyor general of Adelaide. "Divagations" might be a better word than "narratives" since Paul Carter very consciously deserts the rectilinear path of conventional history for a digressiveness, a stylistic wandering that is supposed to resemble the "folded" contours of "the lie of the land". This does not make for "Light reading" (to use the punning title of the section on William Light) and there are moments when one sympathises with the individual to whom the book is dedicated - "Winston who would have had it simpler". Some of the difficulties are due to the book's ambition of adumbrating a new and environmentally based understanding of the postcolonial condition, of providing a means by which remote cultures might communicate. Others arise from the introduction of extremely recondite terminology together with a teasing postponement of explanation.

L-text = /Carter suggests that "the lie of the land" can be a "critical tool in reconceptualising the history of colonisation." He contrasts the painters of the Florentine school with those of the Venetian arguing that the former view the land panoptically, as a scenic view with a fixed linear perspective, whereas the Venetians (whom he exemplifies in a highly perceptive study of Giorgione's "La Tempesta") view their surroundings peripatetically. This results in a curvilinear or reversed perspective which the artist builds up through a system of "blotches" or macchie. In this Carter finds echoes of the dot paintings of the Aranda aboriginals whose art and poetry were so painstakingly studied by Strehlow. He even links the Venetian art of macchiare to an elaborate taxonomy of cloud formation, speculating that the meteorological obsessions of Light's last diary were intended to map in aerial configuration a mirror of the activity of consumption within the lungs of Adelaide's town planner (the lie of the land again). What is the relevance of these dense meshes of localised knowledge, of connections whose appearance of coherence so sharply diminishes when related in a more prosaic fashion? For Carter, the rectilinear gaze is that which "penetrates and transfixes" and, by extension, colonises. Curvilinear perspective dwells on and is implicated in the lie of the land. Its poetic is not the mimeticism of Homer or Dante, but is formed out of echoes, puns, oscillations and purposeful coincidences. The author attempts to use these strategies stylistically to enact the mode of cognition he proposes.

The strength of this book lies not so much in its contribution to understanding the elusive notion of postcoloniality, but in the poetic numen that hovers in the interstices of its narrations.

Carter has fabricated (perhaps even the "lie" of the title puns) a work of intellectual adventure that curiously resembles Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy with its compacted erudition, associationist logic, ramifying metaphor and psychological speculation. Out of such elements Carter constructs a subversive counter-knowledge, one that intends to accommodate ecumenically vastly different cognitive systems. But it is at this point that one is assailed by doubts. What may work at the level of metaphor and analogy, "a means of making unlike things bend towards each other and intersect" as Carter puts it, is scarcely susceptible to empirical demonstration. This may be the author's whole point, but even the resultant "epistemological anarchism" remains obstinately embedded in a western, academic mode of perception. It does not, I think, quite add up to the paradigm shift in intercultural understanding that the author intends. What we are offered instead are the highly imaginative ruminations of a first-rate mind crafting with baroque sinuosity a verbal capriccio and a rewardingly difficult read.

Ronald Warwick teaches postcolonial literature at Brunel University College

The Life of the Land

Author - Paul Carter
ISBN - 0 571 14101 3
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 421

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