The Novel is described through the work of Russian figure Mikhail Bakhtin as “meta-language of the highest order” and therefore “merits special attention” (Gardiner 1992 p40). Meta-language is the means by which the language of the novel re-presents all the languages of a particular context, be it social, historical, political, or otherwise. In the case of An Imaginary Life each chronotopic construct can be seen as articulated on three levels: character, place and ideology. Each combination represents a voice within the narrative. Applying this method in combination with post-colonial and post-modern discourses reveals much of the narrative intent of An Imaginary Life.
The central voice of the novel is the narrator, a fictional reconstruction of the Roman poet Ovid. There has been debate concerning the historical accuracy of Malouf’s character, however according to Morton “the novel does follow Ovid’s years at Tomis insofar as chronology” (Morton, 2000 p2), if not in overall fact. As chronotope we can understand Ovid as articulating place (Rome) and ideology (exile). Apart from the memory sequences of Ovid’s former life as a Roman patrician and the leaving of Tomis for the steppes north of the Danube, the entire text places the character in the “desolate”, “frozen”, “simple”, “muddy”, “terrible beyond description”, “nothing”, and “relatively savage” (to list but a few descriptions) context which is Tomis and its immediate surroundings. This is the second voice of the narrative and can be seen as personified in the character Ryzak and with the ideology as colonialism. The dialogue between the exiled Ovid and various features of his place of exile (characters, practices, languages, the body etc.) is a dialogue between ‘self’ and ‘other’. The third voice I have identified is The Child whose place is the forest (nature) and ideology can be interpreted as the (Lacanian) Real, in that “the real is all fullness and completeness, where there’s no need that can’t be satisfied. And because there is no absence or loss or lack, there is no language in the Real” (Klages, 2001 p2). The fourth voice is that represented by the characters of the Old Woman and the Shaman whose space is the graves and sacred groves and with ideology resting mid point between all others, as a transcendent principle. The final chronotopic voice is the non-defined space of the steppes, which Ovid and The Child move into as if in a dream. There are no characters representative of this chronotope as there is also no speech actually articulated (instead a “conversation which needs no tongue” Malouf 1990, p145) when Ovid and The Child move into it. The ideology is of absolute ‘other’, beyond the known and the lingual. Morton describes the movement into this space without time or language as “a mystical absorption into nature” (Morton, 2000 p1) which is consistent with a post-colonial reading of the text (displacement, struggle, surrender). This could also be applied to the attainment of the Lacanian Real, which would clarify the final sentence of the text: “I am there.” (Malouf, 1990 p 152). As Ovid leaves culture behind he regains “the state of ‘nature’ which has to be broken for culture to be formed” (Klages, 2001 p2).
It is clear that the character Ovid is undergoing mystical experience, challenging concepts of self and with language as central to the process. The Child in the Lacanian Pre-Mirror Stage, has not distinguished between seen, see, and seeing (“I am raining, I am thundering” Malouf, 1990 p96) but however does not accept the language which is offered to him. This is an element of the struggle between the five voices of the text, which follows the centripetal and centrifugal tendencies of languages as identified by Bakhtin. The ideologies of Exile, Colonialism, Real, Transcendence, and Absolute Other struggle with and against one another over meaning as articulated in the on-going dialogue between ‘self’, ‘reality’, and ‘other’. According to Bakhtin this should not be thought of a development with a beginning, middle and end but rather an infinite process existing on all levels of reality.
An Imaginary Life is a text written by a first generation Australian in the late 1970’s. This real-life chronotope of “a stranger in a strange land” coupled with the ideologies described above compels consideration of post-colonial imperialist language and power relations. “One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language…..Language becomes the medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is perpetuated, and the medium through which conceptions of 'truth', 'order', and 'reality' become established.” (Ashcroft et al, 1989 P2). In An Imaginary Life the exiled imperial poet Ovid is overcome by the centrifugal forces acting upon his concept of Roman self. Instead of the natives being civilised, the pinnacle of civilisation becomes the student of a wolf boy(“he leads me into his consciousness” Malouf, 1990 P94). The hierarchical structure is not only disturbed it is totally inverted, with those witnessing the inversion being unaware of it. The Shaman and the Old Woman maintain the power hierarchy in Tomis and Ovid dissolves in the gap between ‘the other’ and ‘the self’. He finds that “the ideological becoming of a human being….is the process of selectively assimilating the words of others…One can return to one’s own ideological horizon and situate oneself socially, temporally, and spatially in relation to other subjects in the social world. The other, therefor exists in a dialectical relation to one’s own consciousness as both subject and object, and is therefore an inseparable component of our being in the world.” (Gardiner, 1992, p39). With Ovid entering the consciousness of The Child, ‘the other’ ceases to exist, and as a result so does his own ‘self’.
Hope it is all good for all..........Om Gaia dudes!
Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London and New York: Routledge, 1989)
Michael Gardiner The Dialogics of Critique (London and New York: Routledge, 1992)
Dr Mary Klages Jacques Lacan at
David Malouf An Imaginary Life (London: Picador, 1990)
Peter Morton Evasive Precision: Problems of Historicity in David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life at