6.6.08

B.O.A.T.S

Based on a True Story is the title of a 2005 album recorded by 7 piece dub/reggae band Fat Freddy’s Drop in their own studio in Wellington, New Zealand. The elegant irony of that title is repeated in the CD’s liner notes, where the band members are named alongside their aliases—or should that be the other way round? The 'drop' of the band name is similarly ambivalent. I’ve heard many suggestions, from some kind of psychedelic elixir to those country dunnies still known as long drops. Of course it's probably just homebrew. The art work of that 2005 album is elaborated around a picture of an octopus, most likely the grand mythological beast Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, who lived, and perhaps died at the hands of Kupe, in Cook Strait at the time of the early Polynesian navigators. Although there are some who maintain that the rush of tidal waters through the Strait means Te Wheke lurks there still. So what’s the true story? Who knows? When did movies start using that particular form of enticement on their posters? What’s it got to do with the current, and somehow wearying, debate over the border between fiction and non-fiction? Couple of weeks ago I went to a conference that focused upon the many varieties that now exist of what’s being called, increasingly, Creative Non-Fiction. Though Literary Non-Fiction is preferred in some circles. It was a good weekend, I enjoyed both curricular and extra-curricular activities there in Newcastle. One or two things bothered me—that there is already an academic industry dealing with this ‘new’ genre; that some, not all, academic prose is now repositioning itself as ‘creative’ while exhibiting the old defects of that form along with the more risible aspects of the 'creative'. I can remember, in the vernacular of my youth, that to get a bit creative with the truth used to mean lying; now it can be a serious endeavour with a doctorate at the end of it. Nothing wrong with that, or not in principle. But I wonder … of the five non-fiction books I’ve published, the first two are straight up documentary, at least in my own mind; the second two introduce fictional elements into the narrative, the first, minimally, guiltily, and clandestinely, the other flagrantly or at least it’s meant to be flagrant—one reviewer, an academic from Dubai who’s specialty is Albert Camus, angrily accused me of attempting to write a novel by stealth. The fifth’s a book of essays so I guess the question doesn’t arise there. As everyone who pays attention to these matters knows, the fiction / non-fiction border is patrolled by thought police these days, who periodically haul some malefactor into the light of day and snap them in the pillory so we can all throw our rotten guilts in their faces. That’s become a wearisome process too I think. As with so much else, the primal scene of literary forgery is very old and found among early Greek writings. Herodotus tells it thus: Onomacritus had been expelled from Athens by Pisastratus for inserting in the verses of Musaeus a prophecy that the islands off Lemnos would disappear under water—Lasus of Hermione caught him in the very act of this forgery. Onomacritus is described as a collector of oracles; Musaeus was one of the shadowy poets who can be glimpsed around the equally shadowy form of the Ur-poet, Orpheus. Some say he was Orpheus’ son and most accounts agree that he was a prophet. To re-write the prophecies of a prophet was thus Onomacritus’ crime—but he was himself a writer, as well as a collector, of oracles, and was said during his exile in Susa to have been partly responsible, by selective quotation of oracles, for persuading Xerxes to undertake the invasion of Greece. Onomacritus was also involved, some say, in the writing down of the first 'official' texts of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; perhaps, one writer suggests, although he doubts it in the next breath, he ‘forged’ the Iliad and the Odyssey out of legendary or other material. Later, the tyrant Solon, himself a poet, is said to have inserted a line in the Iliad’s catalogue of ships in order to reinforce Athen’s claim to Salamis. I think it’s clear from these few brief examples, all over two and half thousand years old, that the legitimacy of written texts as a source of truth is always questionable. And that authenticity can always be traded for short-term efficacy. So how are we to know what’s what? How negotiate these murky, octopus-haunted waters? It probably sounds flippant, but I still think you can go by feel, the way musicians do. Here’s something Tom Waits said recently in an interview: Mostly I straddle reality and the imagination. My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane. And then, I guess, he wandered off humming that song he wrote with Keith Richard: Well there's one thing you can't lose / It's that feel / Your pants, your shirt, your shoes / But not that feel ...

6 comments:

artandmylife said...

Often when I want to say something important Tom has already said it

Jack Ross said...

I certainly agree about feeling uneasy about the Academic appropriation of this "genre" (so-called). All the fun of it -- Tom Wolfe's "New Journalism", Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel", "Creative Non-fiction", "Literary non-fiction", whatever label it ends up with -- lay in being outside the corral, so to speak, I thought. And now it's going to become as institutionalised as epic, tragedy, the novel, and all the others ...

"Song, let them take it / For there's more enterprise / In going naked" is about all one can conclude, I guess (In my case, it's generally Yeats or Borges who turn out to have said already the things I'd like to say ...)

artandmylife said...

Ah well thats why I will never be a poet - I can quote Waits not Yeats :-)

Martin Edmond said...

Some of the papers I heard at Newcastle were very good; there was a huge diversity; and very little that was analytical of the 'new' genre ... but, yes, it did make me want to unpick my embroideries.

Jack Ross said...

Actually I meant the comment about Yeats rather than Waits more as self-reproach than self-congratulation. What was I doing as a teenager to be so unfamiliar with Tom Waits - sitting in my room reading, I guess ...

Congratulations on the Montana nomination, by the way, Martin. Fingers crossed, despite any genre confusion it betrays ...

Martin Edmond said...

I can remember sitting in my room reading Yeats as a teenager Jack - didn't find Tom until my 20s - there were records in the Wellington Public Library, of all places - Nighthawks at the Diner and The Heart of Saturday Night. 1974-5.

Yes the Ultramontanes - can't shake that Luca feeling, just making up the numbers.