Whether this is Jerusalem or Babylon we know not: William Blake The Four Zoas.
With this epigraph from William Blake, David Malouf challenges us to consider whether the colonial Australian world that he evokes in this beautiful novel is a place in which harmony might evolve, or in which chaos and lamentation might descend. It is an implicit question, as I see it, about contemporary Australia as much as it is about the fear with which early Australians reacted to this country and its inhabitants. Gemmy Fairley, is both victim and saviour in that he arrives into this colonial outpost from having spent time with the indigenous inhabitants. He creates fear in most who see him, he creates a new vision of the world in those who receive him with open hearts. He is almost like a gateway between the old and the new. For Janet and Jock McIvor their whole way of seeing themselves and the world in which they live is transformed as a result of Gemmy’s presence. For Ned Corcoran he is a provocation to violence!
So where does this extraordinary narrative take the reader? Can he or she begin to taste their own prejudices? Can he or she begin to see a way in which they might become open to the Other, to those who seem to be so totally different to anything known:
“… and now here it is, not two yards away, solid and breathing: a thing beside which all you have ever known of darkness, of visible darkness, seems but the merest shadow…” (Chapter 3)
Blog Topics for Week 10:
*Is there an experience in your own life where you have gained a new way of seeing the world through your openness towards someone who, at first, seemed a threat?
*Describe a moment in your life, where, like Janet or Jock, time has stopped for you and the world takes on a completely new, vivid aspect.
*Present a dossier on the awards that David Malouf has received for his writing and give a brief explanation of the reason for these awards.
*Write a letter in the voice of the older Janet (at the end of the novel) to Gemmy Fairley telling him what he has meant to her.
*Briefly present your thoughts on the implicit question that Malouf poses in his epigraph to the novel. Do you think Australia is a becoming Jerusalem or a becoming Babylon?