Dark Night: Walking with McCahon
Auckland University Press, $37.99,
A meander through Sydney in the possible footsteps of artist Colin McCahon, who once spent 28 amnesiac hours lost in the unfamiliar city, seems a flimsy premise for a book. Fortunately, Martin Edmond brings a poet’s sensibility to the task, weaving a fabric in which art history and personal memoir are the warp and weft, but which is also richly patterned with musings on mind-bogglingly diverse topics – from Roman Catholicism to rent boys, architecture to alcoholism, fruit bats to faith.
But this is more than a dizzying collage of snippets. The strange, sad episode of McCahon’s “dark night” in 1984, as he stumbled further into alcoholism-induced dementia, remains the gravitational centre – the black hole – that holds it all together. “He who had painted so many walks, so many stations, so many journeys of faith and doubt, made this one in silence and darkness and perhaps also in fear,” Edmond writes.
Despite the virtuoso stream of stories on every topic under the Sydney sun, Edmond never strays too far from his voiceless companion on this walk, but returns again and again to a sensitive consideration of McCahon’s art and his religion, which were, for him, synonymous.
Edmond’s approach is intensely personal: memories of his childhood reverberate through his responses to both the paintings and the painter. He writes, for instance, of the “extra resonance” that McCahon’s 1978 series Truth from the King Country: Load Bearing Structures, held for him, an Ohakune boy with an eye for local viaducts; and he repeatedly makes explicit associations between McCahon and his own father, Trevor – they shared similar shirts, similar handwriting, the same “haunted look”, and, overwhelmingly, the same fatal addiction to alcohol.
Edmond’s admiration for McCahon is not dewy-eyed: the exasperated, angry love that still permeates the page whenever he mentions his father is evident also in his attitude to McCahon’s martyred and sometimes brutal egotism. Like those warned against in the text from 2 Timothy that he painted on Storm Warning, McCahon could be implacable in his hatreds. Nowadays we are intolerant of Byronic tendencies in our artists: “Heroic isolation, romantic despair, a commitment to art beyond all else … these are unfashionable positions to take these days,” Edmond avers, and his own ambivalence is clear: “If, as seems likely, McCahon drank himself into brain-dead oblivion in the service of his painting, isn’t that pathetic rather than heroic …?”
Nevertheless, there’s no escaping these “unfashionable positions” in McCahon’s case, and Edmond’s uneasiness is outweighed by respect for the artist’s unarguable integrity.
McCahon’s notion of the “load-bearing structure” is powerful. In his Truth from the King Country series, a massive shape that could be a black bridge or the t-shaped tau cross (a likelier contender for Jesus’s execution than the conventional Latin crucifix) dominates a sombre landscape. Edmond, too, needed a load-bearing structure as a foundation for his unruly collection of flâneurisms. His decision to use the 14 Stations of the Cross is both breathtakingly audacious and inspired. Not only does it provide him with a strong structural framework, but by associating his shambling, unromanticised artist with Christ’s Passion, he elevates this scattered narrative to a parable of pilgrimage and redemption. Ecce homo, indeed.
As a form of devotional practice, the Stations of the Cross transcend barriers to faith due to their relentless focus on the humanity of Jesus. Believers and non-believers alike (and McCahon was both of these) can identify with Christ’s suffering body regardless of their views on his parentage or post-mortem activities. Moreover each station has been immortalised in the annals of Western art and is thus embedded in our collective psyche. McCahon himself returned repeatedly to the theme.
But what a challenge for an author, especially a non-religious one writing for a largely secular readership! Can Edmond transform a few strolls through modern Sydney into a ritual pilgrimage without tipping into bathos?
Well, yes, he can. Employing the light touch of a sometimes playful poetic licence, Edmond gives himself room to manoeuvre, room to dance with McCahon through and around each station, giving each its due consideration in an extended meditation on the artist’s life and work and very much else besides. Thus for instance the fourth station, where Jesus encounters his mother Mary, provides an opportunity for a close examination of an early family photograph showing a teenaged McCahon with his family. The sixth, where Veronica wipes the sweat from Christ’s face, gives rise to a discussion of the iconic drag queen Carmen. (There is method in Edmond’s madness – Carmen, like Edmond himself, was an expatriate New Zealander resident in Sydney from the early 1980s; it is not impossible that their paths could have crossed. Not that Edmond does anything so clumsy as to fictionalise such an encounter; rather he offers it in passing, gently, as a fleeting poetic vision, no more.)
And all the while the road to Golgotha bustles with characters evoked by Edmond’s cavalcade of vignettes. The Venerable Matthew Talbot and the well-named Governor Parkes, the Wandering Jew and Mary Baker Eddy, Van Gogh and the mystic John of the Cross, John Calvin and Whisky Bill, the Greytown vicar, appear along the way, amidst the drunks and the homeless, the courting couples and well-heeled churchgoers, the convicts, architects and prostitutes of Sydney’s past and present.
Sydney itself is a vital presence: Edmond, a taxi-driver, is eloquent on the half-remembered ghosts of former buildings that haunt the perpetual demolition and rebuilding sites of the ever-changing cityscape. He’s attuned to the vagrants and derelicts he encounters on his walks, despite admitting his disquiet around them, and sensitive to how invisible and forgotten people are nevertheless inscribed in and on the walls of a city – literally in the case of the names scrawled near a hostel for the homeless, or in the 200-year-old convict marks, “arcane as hieroglyphs”, carved into the dressed stones of Darlinghurst jail.
But this, like much of Edmond’s work, is also memoir. The act of inscribing the authorial “I” is, as we know, fraught with hazard, and Edmond has considered elsewhere the problematic nature of this “Ghost Who Writes”. What sort of load-bearing structure is the written word “I” – indeed, can it bear any load at all?
McCahon, no stranger to painting that mark, countered its grandiosity with the denial Edmond uses as his epigraph: “I am nothing”. But in the case of McCahon’s magnificent I Am paintings, the artist speaks not for himself but for God, in that act of sublime ventriloquism which is perhaps the root of all religion. It is, as Edmond points out, “a strange oscillation of man and divinity”, and a paradox at the heart of McCahon’s art. Thus, somewhere on the slippery slope between God and Nothing, the authorial “I” teeters. The need to somehow hit a true note, despite the precariousness of the position, surely captures the difficulty of literary memoir: the reader must have faith in the integrity of that “I” in a way that is not required of fiction or even poetry.
Again, Edmond pulls it off: I warmed to Edmond’s voice, was convinced by it: he shares his misgivings about the whole exercise, his false starts and procrastinations, his mistakes and surprising mis-rememberings. We are privy to his choice of clothing and the contents of his thermos flask and backpack as he sets off to spend the night on a park bench, and to his trepidation at the prospect. Plus he’s knowledgeable, unpretentious and fun: an amiable companion for a long walk.
One strength of the book is also its drawback – it’s a motley bag, unashamedly a thing of shreds and patches. Some parts read like a tourist information leaflet while others achieve a poetic intensity; but – reader, beware – the rapid topic changes and tonal variations can induce vertigo. And while the collage effect is part of its charm, sometimes one feels that Edmond is like an over-enthusiastic puppy compulsively chasing after every stick thrown up on his walks, intent on retrieving odd scraps of non-sequitur information: a poster for a 1967 adventure film “shrieks, so I have to find out what I can about it”. No, Martin, honestly, you don’t.
More successful were the longer passages – on the theology of Christian Science, for instance, or the fascinating history behind the doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption. Enter these pages solely fixated on McCahon and you may find yourself alternately engrossed and bemused. But overall this is a bold, energetic and refreshing demonstration of the genre-defying flexibility of literary non-fiction.
Stella Ramage is a Wellington reviewer.