Behind each story that’s told stands another, silenced one. How can we attend to those unheard truths and understand the past and the present? Acclaimed author Kate Grenville considers truth, fiction and the stories that urgently need our attention.
A full transcript of the MWF Digital opening address on 8 August 2020.
Do not believe too quickly. A silent late-night battle is going on in the sedate streets of my suburb. On one side of that battle, someone with a big black Sharpie is writing on the walls of the railway underpass, ‘Vaccine equals SIDS. Vaccine equals scam. Vaccine equals autism’. Then someone’s coming along with another Sharpie. The replies are never as snappy, ‘SIDS equals vaccine: No, SIDS is mostly in babies too young to have had any vaccinations. Vaccine equals scam: No, vaccine equals no kids dying of whooping cough.’ Their last word, ‘Remember smallpox? No, because it’s extinct thanks to vaccines.’ Whoever this person is, they’re so longwinded anyone would think they’re a novelist. The people from the railways kindly kept providing a blank space for the conversation by painting it all over as fast as it appeared. Those parts of the wall have such a thickness of paint now that they’re as smooth and shiny as scar tissue. What I’m going to talk about today isn’t vaxxing or anti-vaxxing, but frankly, I’m cheering on that longwinded responder. But this strange, rather ugly, conversation on a public space opens out into many things that we’re puzzling over right now. And in particular, this question is a wonderfully open-ended word which is the theme of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival: attention.
As Samuel Johnson memorably said, ‘The prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully.’ And so does the picture of yourself flat on your back on a hospital trolley with a tube stuck down your throat. What have we been concentrating our minds on over this strange time? Well, toilet paper, obviously. It stood in for the situation—the privileged life we were afraid we were about to lose. A non-essential we couldn’t think how to live without, and it revealed just what savagery lurks in the most mild-mannered supermarket shopper. There was something virally fascinating about those women wrestling on the floor. And was there a single one of us who hadn’t had some tiny flicker of that greed? Looked at the last two cans of kidney beans on the supermarket shelf and wanted, really wanted to take them both? Who hadn’t stood there struggling with the moral dilemma known as the tragedy of the commons? The thing is, there was enough for everyone. There wasn’t a shortage of supply—what there was a shortage of was willingness to share. So I don’t think I need to label what we all found out about ourselves in those early days when we looked into the unflattering mirror of the coronavirus world. There were positive changes, too, especially a shift in the paradigm of what success looked like.
In the time of COVID, success wasn’t about being powerful or strong; it was about being adaptable.
It was about making the seemingly impossible possible—working from home; putting on operas in which all the singers were on different continents; improvising a meal with what had come that week in the veggie box. In the new paradigm, success was making something good to eat out of a giant bunch of kale. Unprecedented was the word everyone used to who were sick of it, but actually, it was the very opposite. What’s truly unprecedented in our human history is endless supply, endless choice, endless freedom. Living with real shortages, not imagined ones, has always been the reality for everyone except the privileged among humanity. And so was a world of fear. For us privileged ones in a rich country, this new time was going back to the pre-antibiotic, pre-vaccine world. You had eight or ten children, and you’d probably lose four or five—maybe all of them to some infectious disease or other. That time wasn’t all that long ago. I can remember the tail-end of it. I was at school with kids whose brush with measles or polio had left them damaged. But less than a lifetime later, that kind of fear has become new to us. It’s a kind of attention we’ve gotten out the habit of—no wonder we deflected our fear onto toilet paper. Unprecedented. There was always a tone of surprise almost indignation, and that tone points to something important: the unprecedented makes us uncomfortable. We like to have a story that makes sense of the world and unprecedented knocks all our stories flat.
So what happens when humans are faced with something unprecedented? Back in 1974, I worked for a place called Film Australia that made documentary films. A couple of days after Cyclone Tracy ripped through Darwin, I was part of a film crew sent there. I’d never forgotten that drive from the airport through the shattered streets—mile after mile like a rubbish dump. In the car, we were all silent staring at mile after mile of great, grey piles of just inchoate stuff. With a conscious effort, you could pick out an individual thing, ‘Oh, there’s a fridge in a tree!’ but it was somehow laborious. At the Travelodge, the brick wall of the building had a neat car-shaped hole punched in it four or five stories up, and there was a car, the exact shape of the hole on its side in the swimming pool underneath. But none of us said anything—we’d become incapable of amazement. It seemed pointless to try to find words, exhausting to go on seeing things that were impossible. Then my eye was caught by a house that was strangely intact. What a relief, something I could recognise and name—a house. But on a second look, I saw that a pair of long curtains were hanging against the wall, the outside wall, that is. They were coming out of the place where the wall met the roof. It was impossible, and how can I say it, I couldn’t see it. It was like one of those Escher paradoxes where the eye and the brain are fighting each other. Then the cameraman said, ‘The roof must have lifted up, and the curtains got sucked out, and then the roof dropped back down again.’ He was almost whispering, as if in the presence of something huge and dangerous. We all laughed, that overly loud, overly high pitched kind of laughing that people do when they’ve been frightened, and suddenly the fear goes away. It’d given us a way to see what our brains had not been able to process—it put an edge around the chaos, given us a kind of container that we could tip all that scary formlessness into, it made a story about it.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has done some thinking about what stories are so important to us. He believes, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the human urge to make stories is a survival mechanism left over from when our lives depended on making sense of a complicated set of inputs at high speed. He calls that story making impulse, a machine for jumping to conclusions. When you as, a prehistoric hunter-gatherer were in the jungle, and you heard a twig snap behind you, a machine for jumping to conclusions might save your life. Instant story, there’s a tiger coming to get me. Kahneman says we are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world. Good stories provide a simple and coherent account of the information we’re getting.
So inventing and listening to a story is how we understand, how we process the new, how we remember—it’s more or less how we think.
Joan Didion, another thinker about humans, makes even bigger claims about the centrality of story. She says we tell ourselves stories in order to live—that’s how important they are. Why are they that important? Apart from the tiger situation, it might also have something to do with how we evolved in our relationship to knowledge or information. In the past, there wasn’t much of it around; it was learned the hard way from experience, handed on from mouth to mouth, embedded in legends so that it wouldn’t be lost. Just one generation missing that oral transmission and that page of the encyclopedia was gone forever. Even when writing came along, books were precious things, and for most of their history, only a tiny percentage of people had access to them.
As social animals needing to pass on information for our survival, we evolved to crave stories the same way we evolved to crave fat and sugar, and for much the same reason. When homo sapiens evolved, there was never enough of them. Now there’s plenty of fat and sugar, but the hunter-gatherer within us still has those no longer appropriate cravings. And in the same way, we still hunt for information as if it’s precious, even when it’s the intellectual equivalent of a Mars Bar. Our ability to judge its value hasn’t caught up with our skill at creating and spreading it. So when the pandemic started, we obsessively clicked from site to site trying to find a pattern. Our first instinct might have been to buy toilet paper, but the second was to come up with a story.
What were the stories we told ourselves? Well some of them were ‘how to survive’ manuals, how not to get the virus. Our attention was sharpened by fear. Should we wash the fruit and veg with soap? Then we told each other about what lockdown was like. Some people told the victim story, but most told the other one, the story of keeping calm and carrying on. We were proud of how quickly we got good at sourcing things, making Zoom work, sharing patterns for homemade face masks. That was the new story, how good we were at adapting. The phones ran hot as we shared our stories, adding more details. Once we had the container, we could get a bigger one—the same but the next size up.
We shaped our own accounts of what we were experiencing, but we also looked to literature.
We weren’t going to be stopped by the closed libraries and bookshops, the lack of writers’ festivals. And in the absence of libraries, we found a way of making our own. Swapping a box of books with a friend tells you a lot about both of you. You roam along your own shelves paying attention in a particular way. Thinking about what book they’d enjoy tells you how much you know about them or how little. And the box you get from them might be the closest any of us get to truly knowing what others think about us.
It’s too early to know what kind of stories our writers are going to construct about this pandemic, but a lot of us looked to the past pandemic, the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 in case we could learn from the stories that came out of that. I was surprised to find there was only a handful of works of literature in English that directly talk about the Spanish flu. And I was also surprised to find how many of the big writers of the time were directly affected by it. Many of them caught the virus themselves, many suffered ongoing health problems for years afterwards, and many more watched loved ones die. TS Eliot’s great poem The Waste Land was drafted while he was enduring a long, slow recovery from the 1918 flu, along with his wife. For a long time, they’d both suffered the flu’s after-effects, depression and fatigue. The darkness and weirdness and stunnedness [sic] are evident in nearly every line of the poem. ‘I was neither living nor dead and knew nothing. Looking into the heart of light was silence.’ WB Yeats watched his pregnant wife nearly die of the 1918 flu. And it was while she was convalescing from it that he wrote that great cry of confusion and despair, The Second Coming with its famous lines, ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ Virginia Woolf caught the virus, and like a lot of people, she was left with permanent heart damage. She gives to her protagonist, Mrs Dalloway, what must have been her own sense of heavy fatigue and melancholy. There’s that recurring sound in the book, of a great bell tolling, as if for the dead. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. James Joyce saw many friends die of the 1918 flu, and it was during the pandemic that he started to write Ulysses. It’s a story that more or less refuses to be a story—it insists on things staying fragmentary, impressionistic, self-consciously about how we tell stories to ourselves. That pandemic, like ours, was a dark, chaotic blast out of nowhere. Its random violence, particularly coming as it did on the heels of the First World War, brought into question everything that people thought they knew. The mood was dark, sorrowful, powerfully tainted with loss and despair. All the old truths were broken into meaningless, scattered bits. It was no use looking for the old satisfactions of story: war and peace, seeking and finding, right and wrong. There was no point in listening for patterns, story arcs, great statements of meaning or lurid beauty. This thing was about something too small to see, too random to make sense of and much too ugly to wax lyrical about. What can a writer do with that? Only to put the very fact of incoherence at the heart of the work, to make that the subject. The new need was to look beyond the craving for story, to pay our attention to the brokenness, not look for a wholeness that wasn’t there.
The only possible true story was a non-story, a sort of anti-story. It was a desperate sort of response.
In the face of a pandemic, the divisive story had met its match. A story is a brilliant tool for certain tasks, especially when you need to be able to put a lot of information together quickly and jump to a plausible conclusion. But there are some problems that it’s not the right tool for, and one is a natural disaster such as a pandemic. And that’s because a natural disaster isn’t really a story, it’s a situation. It’s like the weather, it just happens. The only story about it is the response to it. Should I take an umbrella? And that’s not much of a story. Maybe that’s why pandemics seem not to leave much useful memory of themselves. In 2020 we had to reinvent, more or less from first principles, all the same things we did back in 1918—the isolation and quarantine, the being outside rather than being inside, the masks. Those photos from 1918 could almost be from today—the masked faces, the long protective garments, the sense of improvisation in the face of chaos. We have endless stories and memorials about the world war that proceeded that pandemic. The pandemic actually killed more people, but it couldn’t be made into a story, so it pretty much sank from cultural memory. A few epidemiologists tried to remind us that another pandemic wasn’t a matter of if but when, and that it might be a good idea to think about stocking up on face masks, but no one seemed to be listening.
So a story isn’t especially useful in the face of a pandemic, but our instinct is to force events into a satisfying narrative, even when there isn’t one. Take the common narrative about this pandemic, that it’s a war. It’s the wrong kind of story about it and unhelpful. What you do with an enemy in a war is to defy it. The war story is about standing firm, not giving up, facing it heroically. But the virus isn’t at war with us—it doesn’t hate us. Like every living thing, it’s just obeying the impersonal, uncaring laws of nature, doing whatever it takes to survive and reproduce. Forcing the war story onto a natural disaster like a pandemic is not just wrong but dangerous because, with a virus, the best response is the cowardly one—just staying home. There’s another problem about stories and Kahneman names it. He says, the measure of success for a story is the coherence it manages to create. But the amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. So the narrative of any event can only be shaped into something satisfying if you’re prepared to leave a lot of it out—all the contradictions, the gaps, the dangling loose ends.
We foreground some things, push others into the background, cutting and pasting until we can see a pattern or at least think we can.
A conspiracy theory is the ultimate example of a machine for jumping to conclusions. Its shaved away everything that doesn’t fit, and then its hand-carved bespoke pieces that will exactly fill the gaps. It’s the model of a perfect story: coherent, consistent, unbreakable, not unlike the tough little package of the virus. And it’s got all the answers: Why has COVID-19 suddenly taken over the world? Easy, it’s a myth put about by leftists who want to expand the power of government. Why do 99 per cent of scientists agree that we need to take action on climate change? Easy, they’re just after the grant money. What about those scientists and what about the science story? Well, it labours under great handicaps. It’s the opposite of the conspiracy story that funnels everything down to a pinhead. Science opens out infinitely in all directions. It’s a story of questions, not answers—of doubts, not certainties. I’ve never seen the whole pattern, just parts of it. There are too many loose ends, too many known unknowns and unknown unknowns. There are no two-word take-homes. That’s frustrating if you want coherence; if you’re looking for a package of beginning, middle and end. So it’s easy to dismiss it as just so much boff and gobbledygook. The other problem is that the best fuel for running our machines for jumping to conclusions is direct experience. So COVID-19 must be a hoax or an exaggeration because we don’t know anyone who has had it. Climate change must be a money grab by scientists because there was frost on the grass this morning. But the truths of science are often located way beyond the evidence of our senses. Its stories are about viruses too small for us to see, patterns of ocean and air that are too big for us to experience, changes to the climate that are too slow for us to feel in our one lifetime. Scientists are clever folk who if they were chasing the money would have done much better has hedge fund managers, but their long years of learning and thinking have taught them that you can sometimes only get to the truth by going beyond the obvious. They’ve learned how to switch off their machines for jumping to conclusions, and so should we.
Recently I’ve been reading I’ve letters written by a woman who travelled to Australia with her husband in 1790. Elizabeth MacArthur was a farmer’s daughter, not a lady, but she had enough education to write letters home about the new world she found herself in. Back in her time, you paid for postage not by the weight of the letter but the number of sheets of paper you’d used. If you were thrifty, you’d write to the bottom of the page then you’d turn the paper ninety degrees and write in right angles across what you’d already written. At first glance, the effect is of a cobweb. When I first saw one of those pages of cobwebs, I didn’t even try to read it—it looked too hard. But I was driven by a conviction that there was another story behind the well-worn myths about the MacArthurs so I went on trying. And in fact, those cross-written letters aren’t that hard to read. It’s just a matter of shifting your attention from one angle to another. Nothing is hidden; it’s all in plain sight, but you do have to turn the page at right angles and pay attention in a different way, which seems to me a very good metaphor for what stories can offer us if we look beyond their surface. They reveal one kind of thing, but at the same time, they can seal something else. One story of an event hides another. If you want to get to a deeper truth, you have the turn the page sideways.
That flu pandemic of 1918, the one that helped to shape modernism, is the famous precursor to what we’re going through now. When we look for parallels in the Australian experience, that’s where we go. But the 1918 flu is actually not the most serious, permanently damaging, historically significant epidemic in Australian history. That honour would have to go to the smallpox epidemic of 1789. It raged for many weeks, and current estimates are that between 50 and 70 per cent of the people affected died. That compares with COVID-19 that only kills something between one and two per cent. But the biggest difference between those two catastrophes is that the smallpox epidemic of 1789 only killed Indigenous people. Virtually all the colonists were immune to smallpox because, at that time, most Europeans had either already had it or been inoculated against it. But among the Gadigal and other Indigenous Sydney people, the bug ran riot. Mystery hangs over just how the epidemic started. Was it already circulating in the Indigenous population when the British arrived? Perhaps carried down for Indonesian fishermen? Or was it brought by the British who arrived about a year before? The timing was certainly convenient for them—their efforts of colonising were being seriously hampered by conflict with the Sydney people. Thirty years after the epidemic, a colonist talked about the story of it, surviving in the traditionary songs of the people. But as far as I know, disruption of Indigenous cultures over the following 200 years means that those traditionary songs have been silenced. The British story, privileged by being written down, is now the only surviving one.
It hasn’t just erased the actual event, leaving an empty space—it’s replaced it.
It’s like emptying orange juice out of a glass and filling it up with apple juice. Who was ever going to ask, ‘but where did the orange juice go?’. One of those who left an eye-witness account of the smallpox epidemic was Captain Watkin Tench. He describes it as ‘an extraordinary calamity’ and says, ‘How a disease, to which our former observations have led us to suppose them, strangers, could have at once introduced itself and have spread so widely seemed inexplicable.’ In a footnote, he deals with some possible explications of the inexplicable. He more or less dismisses them all saying that he ‘leaves the question for the ingenuity of others to exercise itself upon’. Finally, in a kind of footnote, he writes ‘It is true that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles’ (variolous matter means the scrapings of smallpox sores which were used by doctors to inoculate people against smallpox) ‘but’ he goes on, ‘to infer that the epidemic was produced from this cause were a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration.’ What a very delicate sleight of hand his story performs here. On the one hand, Tench is dismissing any possibility that the epidemic was deliberately introduced. Now if I were to add a footnote to his, it would be to note that he probably knew that this had been done in North America some years before. Deliberately introduced smallpox had been used as a weapon of war against First Nations people there. It had killed up to 90 per cent of those affected. So, yes, he’s dismissing that possibility, but in the very act of dismissing it, he’s drawing it to our attention. In all the many documents recording the doings of the First Fleet, his is the only mention of that variolous matter in bottles. We wouldn’t know those bottles had ever existed if he hadn’t mentioned them. And in bringing up even the possibility that they were the cause of the epidemic, makes us think about it. The more hyperbole the surface story uses to bluster that it’s the truth, a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration, the more it signals for us to take note of it. He might say that the idea is unworthy of consideration, but he has just made sure we’re going to consider it. Whether he intended this or not, the effect is of one story gesturing for attention behind the back of the other. The story contains its opposite within itself. It carries an embedded signal, a cue, a finger pointing from the margin, but a deniable one. Now I’m not trying to make a conspiracy out of this. I’m not claiming that the British really did unleash smallpox deliberately in 1789. Even with Tench’s finger pointing to the heart of the puzzle, we’ll probably never know what really happened. The point I’m making is about paying attention to the story behind the story, the one encoded there, invisible until you look for it. In listening for what’s under the surface, in listening for the silence and not the noise, we can hear a larger truth. We can begin to imagine that other truth by remembering what the 1918 pandemic in the context of a war did to an entire generation of Europeans. The lives and the art of a whole era, a whole culture was permanently stained with grief and brokenness. Its sense of coherence stripped away, its sense of meaning and purpose hollowed out.
Can we imagine how something of the same kind might have happened to the First Sydney people? The 1918 flu was a calamity, but it didn’t kill 70 per cent of the population. Proportionately, the smallpox epidemic was a much greater catastrophe. If the conflict around Sydney in 1789 was a war between the colonists and the Indigenous people, the arrival of smallpox must have been like Hiroshima. In one story, the event is a footnote. In another, it must have been a foundational event that shaped everything that came after it. Words have to fall silent in front of such a catastrophe. But the event should be given the respect of being acknowledged and paid attention to. Its meaning ought to be foregrounded and given the central place in our shared history that it should have. Our pandemic raises exactly the questions stirred up by a cross-reading of a tenacious footnote of why we pay attention to one set of things rather than another, why we listen to some stories and not others. The story we’re paying attention to now, more than most of us ever before, is, of course, the science story. We’ve become fluent in at least a few words of science speak: asymptomatic, epidemiological, hydroxychloroquine. We’re starting to understand how science works; not as an air-tight static narrative, but as a serious of provisional positions. We begin to see the way that in science, a position is only as good as the most recent evidence, and the whole point of science is to keep refining those positions. Experiments in the 1940s had shown one kind of thing about how far a sneeze could travel, but more nuanced ones in 2020 showed something different, and so the story about face masks changed. As with Tench’s account of the smallpox, the first story isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can be opened out into richer, more complicated truths if we invite it to do so. In the pandemic, we’ve had to put aside our faith in making a story on the basis of what we can see and understand. We’ve had the believe what the scientists have told us about the virus. Most of us only understood the shallow levels of the science, and what the scientists were advising went against all our economic and social instincts. Just the same, we did follow their advice, most of us. We locked ourselves up, we washed our hands obsessively, we kept an unnatural, awkward distance from each other, and that served us well. If the pandemic has a silver lining, it might be this: it’s shown us that it’s sometimes important to put aside our instinctive, trusted, natural ways of thinking, to put aside our machines for jumping to conclusions.
Making a simple, coherent story about the world based on what we can see and hear and understand is what we want to do, but there are times when we have to resist those deductive simplicities.
The pandemic has shown us that there are times when we have the turn the page of our experience at right angles and cross read the difficult cross writing that the world presents us with. Living with difficult, counterintuitive stories, doing different counterintuitive things is something the pandemic is teaching us how to do, and that’s good because it’s what we’re going to need as we move into the new catastrophe alongside which this pandemic will pale into insignificance. Yes, of course, I’m talking about climate change. That challenge demands that we look beyond the surface, beyond our own small lives and the kinds of stories that might have served us ok in the past. This is the time to do it differently, to step back and put a different bigger frame in about what we think we know. In a way, the pandemic has been a kind of practice run for doing that, a bit of preparation for the unimaginable challenges ahead. What we’ve learned isn’t something you can sum up in two words on a wall, its more subtle, more complicated and more authentic than that. That’s a shame because we love a slogan. Still, the new difficult wisdoms are the ones we need to pay attention to.
The conversation in the underpass continued all through lockdown. It was still going on last night. The anti-vaxxer continues to stick to his impenetrable little package of story, unconvinced by his longwinded opponent. I’m always a bit disappointed when the graffiti and the response have been painted over. I’d love to see the conversation continuing, Sharpies of every colour and persuasion joining in. A hundred voices on the wall, all cracking open the simple equivalences and simple oppositions—stepping beyond assertion and counter-assertion. And last week I was delighted to see the beginning of that. There was ‘SIDS equals scam’ as usual but below it done in neat writing with a different Sharpie ‘Earth equals flat’. I think of all the passers-by like me going along on their walk laughing and thinking about conspiracy theories and the denial of science and the limitations of narrow thinking. And perhaps from there, going on to consider the earth and its roundness and what stories might make sure it has a future. This precious planet, with its load of hopeful passengers, forever inventing new ways to tell the stories we need to survive.