Being known

The 2021 CSSA paper presented several confusing questions to Advanced and Standard candidates. Yes, it was the same Module C question for both Standard and Advanced, which seemed a bit cheap to me.

Module C was a little better than Module A (which was nightmarishly meaningless), and had two parts. Part A looked like this:

Nanu, my mother told me, had been a poet too.

I’ve always been of the belief that you can’t truly know anyone, but never had I neen introduced to someone so deeply only after their death.

*Nanu – Bengali name for grandfather.

Compose a piece of imaginative or discursive writing that begins with the words: I’ve always been of the belief that you can’t truly know anyone.

What does the bit about Nanu have to do with the task? Who knows! This is English, not common sense! And remember, exam questions aren’t there to help you show your knowledge. No, no – they exist to demonstrate the erudition and wide reading of the examiners. In fact, the marking guidelines show that you simply had to deal with the instruction about composing a piece that began with the indicated words. Nanu and his belabouring grandson were just there for your edification.

**

I’ve always been of the belief that you can’t truly know anyone. And this means that you, too, will never truly be known. I don’t just mean that you won’t ‘know thyself’ (though why would you really want to? None of us are so interesting that the fetish for psychoanalysis is justified, or that it will lead to any fundamental difference). I mean that your cosy ideas about your partner really ‘getting you’ or that your workplace makes you ‘feel understood’ are provisional at best, and illusory much of the time.

Ironically, it’s the process of reading which suggests this fundamental ignorance of each other. Look at the way we represent ourselves in stories. The word ‘character’ comes from the Greek χαρακτήρ, and is not only a dramatic part played by an actor, but the impression of something, like a seal matrix or letter, stamped in clay. ‘Persona’ too, means a mask, like the tragic and comic ones that actors wore in Greek drama. The point is that in texts, what we take to be human is just an assemblage of signs, impressions, masks, floating in the instability of other terms. It’s like Venice at Carnival time. Beautiful – until you try to get hold of it.

We – other people as they seem to us, and frequently us as we seem to ourselves – are characters, personae. I don’t simply mean in texts, but in real life. The person you meet in the street, or sleep beside at night, the family you have breakfast with – they’re all the illusions of known things. We are actually just representations of people to each other, inhabiting the narrative of daily life written by two warring authors, Routine and Chance. In order to bear the sheer danger of it all – the possibility, I mean, that at any moment the cloth will be yanked away and you’ll see that you actually know nothing about anyone around you, and that they know nothing about you – we construct safe little billabongs of story for ourselves, which we call our life. We people them with characters that we think we know, whose stock nature mostly suits us. We can kid ourselves that we’re the only rounded characters in that story, but deep down we know that we’re just someone else’s stock character.

Why is this? Why don’t we really know anyone?

Perhaps, once again, it’s down to language. The minute we speak, write, or think of a person we throw a separating cordon around them, bracketing them off from the rest of the world. They are a representation as accurate and as detailed as our (usually limited) capacity can make.

The idea, therefore, that we read to know that we’re not alone is faintly ludicrous. In reading, you spend time with the representations of unreal characters, devised in the mind of a real person who would be a character the minute you met them. It’s no wonder readers feel occupied when they read – our brains are working overtime to deal with our own delusions. We’re going around the bend and meeting ourselves coming back round the other side. It’s not a surprise that we cannot truly know anyone; the only surprising thing is that we ever thought we could.

***

Part B was worth 10 more marks, and asked you to Write a reflection on the piece you composed for Part A explaining how one of the texts you have studied for the Modules A, B or C influenced your ideas and stylistic choices.

For Module C, I studied Zadie Smith’s ‘That Crafty Feeling’ and Judith Wright’s ‘The Surfer’, and find that, really, neither of them influenced me greatly in style for this piece, although Smith did influence my ideas in a negative way.

First, the ideas. Zadie Smith’s speech on her own approach to the craft seemed very much a piece of self-promotion, and a subtle campaign of psychological warfare against the hapless students who would soon be her competitors in an already crowded literary marketplace. So, in a negative sense, her speech influenced me in the sense that I did not want to obtrude myself in my writing as much as she does. (Mind you, since I haven’t published three novels in twelve years, as she reminds us, most people would probably say that I haven’t got anything to obtrude). Instead, I wanted the quality of my images and figurative language to suggest what I’m like, and leave the reader in peace and quiet to consider the ideas apart from The Wonder of Me. I wanted those ideas to be the natural and ultimate conclusion of the statement provided. We should be unafraid to carry our reasoning to its ultimate power, regardless of how unpopular the conclusion makes us. I felt, from the tone and historical references in her speech, that Smith’s career had been built largely on certain political and cultural moments, and this makes her claims both personal and transient. She spoke personally – this was the substance of the first fifteen minutes of her speech – but was relying on her auctoritas for her ideas to be taken generally. I wanted to say something that was, in a logical sense, true, rather than personal or piggy-backing on hype. So, the main idea of my piece was to show the natural conclusion to the idea that if we can’t know anyone, then the feeling of intimate knowledge on which reading is based must also be an illusion.

In terms of stylistic features I – like Smith, Wright, Shakespeare, and Atwood – didn’t sit on my hard examination chair, sucking my pen, and wondering how to squeeze in an instance of prolepsis, or alliteration, or cataplasm. I couldn’t tell you what stylistic features are in my piece without reading it again as a critic – and thus not the person I was when I occupied the position of the writer. I suppose I tried for a certain tone, just as Smith says she does when she begins a novel. But since I didn’t have six months to write the first twenty pages, but rather twenty minutes to write about 500 words, the voice I produced had to be just my own. It’s less of a fuss just to be yourself and let your ideas stand or fall regardless of your own personality (although I accept this doesn’t work for everyone. Hitler, for example, or perhaps Ayn Rand). After accepting the sound of my own voice it was quite easy to strike the right tone, choose mid-level diction for the intelligent lay-reader register which is the default setting for ‘pop-lit-crit’ now (there – that’s the longest way possible of saying ‘I wanted to sound middle-everything’). My imagery wasn’t shocking or intimate and it smacked sufficiently of high culture to flatter the reader. I had twenty minutes, and you get what you pay for – as Zadie Smith’s agent would say.

Want more help with HSC English? Visit https://divingbelleducation.com/ for sample answers and teaching resources.

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