Beyond the Frame’s Edge, published in May 2013 by 4th Estate, is a complex and confident fiction debut. Its hero Adyn Cole, emerging from New York City in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, returns to Sydney to resolve the estate of a deceased uncle and to try and rebuild his own life. Awaiting and opposing him are avaricious relatives, unsettling memories and a climate in upheaval. Waiting too, however, are new and unexpected friendships – the most important with a beguiling photographer named Camille – that offer Adyn a fresh perspective on nature and a renewed sense of his place in the world. The book offers an intense and often profound meditation on competing sources of meaning in contemporary life, narrated in language at once lyrical and unaffected. Though its author, Berndt Sellheim, is probably best known for the poetry he’s published in, among others, Meanjin, Overland and HEAT, I first met him in 2009 when he was teaching poetics at UTS. The following interview emerged from a series of emails – I was living in Berlin, he was traveling through Europe – that ended in our reunion in a Kreuzberg pub.
Jason Childs:You wrote your doctoral thesis on phenomenology and you’ve published quite a bit of poetry. How did you end up writing a novel?
Berndt Sellheim: Different work has different needs, comes from different places, but in my own practice I don’t see these forms as entirely separable. Not that I don’t set out to write one thing or another; more that, regardless of what I’m working on, my concerns are pretty much the same, and the act of writing is the same act, so the transition from philosophy and poetry into the novel felt natural.
Looking at it more broadly, we might say that all writing arrives in an engagement between language and world, in thinking through the links or just reacting intuitively to them. There’s a tendency for poetry to explore these links more explicitly than the novel, to build a work out of questioning them – as an exploration of language itself, or a formalisation of its material elements – but of course this can happen in the novel as well, and happens in linguistic philosophy, which can take the issue of language as the entire question.
Poetry was the first writing I did for myself, for purely creative ends. When I first fell in love with literature – later, in my twenties – it was to do with this linkage, sound and meaning coming together in the phrase, the sentence. I became obsessed with the tactility of language, the physicality of its rhythms. My heroes at the time were Camus and Sartre and their ilk, writers who wanted to develop an interrelation between philosophy and fiction, a co-dependence.
JC:Your doctoral dissertation focused very seriously on questions about that interrelation – between philosophy and literature. What role did that work play in the novel turning out the way it did?
BS: At the level of ideas, the novel is pretty dependent on my doctoral research. The ‘frame’ in BtFE is representational. In the novel it’s the question that drives Camille, my heroine, in her photography. It’s a literal frame also. She has this idea that she might penetrate metaphysical dimensions with an old film camera, that the camera can reveal what is beyond perception – which it can do, in a very direct sense, capturing events that are too quick for the eye, light spectrums, etcetera, but for her what is revealed might be something fundamental, even transcendental.
In my thesis I explored the use of poetic tropes in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, both of whom are taken up by this question of representational limit, albeit in different ways. For both of them, the question of Being is not one which might be answered with direct analysis: it flees from attempts to penetrate it, but certain forms of indirection – the poem, the visual artwork, a specifically-labelled ‘indirect ontology’, in Merleau-Ponty’s case – might come closer.
The Jena romantics are relevant here too. They become obsessed with the revelation offered in the glimpse: for them, the explicit literary pathway of revelation is the written fragment. The lightning flash that reveals the infinite…and then it’s gone. They talk about the supreme romantic work being a poem, but really what they mean by this is something closer to the novel. And although romanticism has its issues, I think that in some respects they’re right in this, that literature does have a special capacity to open us towards ontological space. Certainly the category of ontology strikes me as less problematic in literature than it has become in philosophy. I’m thinking about poetry in particular here, or maybe the space between poetry and philosophy and the novel…
But the Jena crew never create their masterwork. They get lost in the process of definition, the search for the work’s meaning within the object of the work. They’re really searching out the infinite through literature: they want it to touch God. So there’s the seed of its own failure implanted in the project. You might say the same for Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty: in their own ways they both want ontological foundations, to touch God. I suppose in BtFE I’ve inherited something of that as well, at least inasmuch as I implant it in certain characters.
JC: So far as that's the case, it seems there's a real melancholy at the heart of the book. A number of its characters are driven toward transcendence – through sex or drugs or power or religion. Yet it seems that what drives them are strong feelings of alienation, loneliness, a lack of control. So there’s an ever-present risk that, instead of escaping their isolation, instead of ‘touching God’, they might just be anaesthetising themselves; in their obsessive pursuit of freedom, some of the characters end up simply running away. And then, too, there’s a moment when Adyn and Camille watch the end of Easy Rider – the film in which ’60s counterculture, so much concerned with transcendence, acknowledges having blown it. The prevailing sentiment is nostalgia: we’re told the image is ‘grainy, faded’, that it’s ‘Super 8, not super real’. What kinds of transcendence do you think remain to us now? Are there, in clear conscience, any at all?
BS: Sex and drugs can offer vastly different things at different times and to different people. The physical connectedness of sex can be a profound experience; or it can be meaningless fondling in a nightclub toilet. The same might be said of drugs. They can offer anaesthetic and escape, or something more connective. The idea that psychotropics provide a doorway on transcendental experience is an old one: we find it in many traditional cultures, and certainly it’s front and centre of the ’60s dream. Huxley wrote wonderful stuff on it. Castaneda too. More recently, Jeremy Narby writes very interestingly on the Amazonian shamanic use of ayahuasca.
Personally, I’m not too sure how I feel about it all…I do believe that we are connected to the world, and to each other, in ways that we do not entirely understand. My body is built from atoms of other human beings, from trees and earth and water. And at a subatomic level, we can essentially be thought of as patterns and collections of energy, a virtually infinite comingling – and so, maybe after a bit of fondling in a nightclub toilet, it all comes together, forming this miraculous self-aware being. Flesh and blood, but with this brain inside.
In this way, scientific knowledge allows us to talk about transcendence, albeit of a certain sort. Rather than some notion of divine being, it’s more to do with energy and interconnection: not God, in the sky, with a beard and toga, not transcendence as something that is beyond our world; instead it’s an opening on what is beyond perception, beyond complete scientific analysis, yet nonetheless potentially located by the frameworks of knowledge and truth as we construct and understand them.
What such ‘facts’ of science mean at the level of consciousness, though, and what all this means when we’re talking about the possibilities of transcendental experience, of somehow linking conscious experience to these expansive pathways of formation and existence, is something else. I guess my feeling on it is a little Shakespearean: that there is more in heaven and earth…
JC: Do we tend, maybe, to think about transcendence – I mean of the experiential kind – in ways that are, to borrow a romantic term, too absolute? Is it a mistake to expect too much from such experiences? It occurs to me that, albeit in different ways, both Heidegger and some of the Jena writers might stand as cautionary tales in this regard. One way of construing their attempts to transfigure the mundane would be as expressions of a deep desire to be done with it, once and for all.
BS: Merleau-Ponty is relevant here too, isn’t he? The manner in which The Visible and the Invisible suddenly breaks off, the text interrupted by his sudden death, is very striking. There’s a way in which it might be constructed in mystical terms: the philosopher at his desk, delving deeper and deeper into the origin of ‘truth’, searching out that name of ‘God’ and suddenly dropping dead. The caution that you’re referring to, I think, is to do with the seductiveness of the transcendental. That to devote oneself to it entirely is to leave the world behind. At the same time, it’s arguable that we rely on transcendental ideas in a day-to-day sense, that our ethical positions are largely transcendental in origin and, as a consequence, some of our laws remain bound to ideas of right and wrong that are essentially transcendent, that it’s a vital part of our social fabric.
JC:You mentioned that Sartre and Camus had been important to you. You also said that “at the level of ideas” BtFE is dependent on your doctoral research. But do you think of yourself as having ‘novelised’ your ideas in the same way that these writers did?
BS: No. I didn’t set out to ‘novelise’ philosophy, as you put it. In my case, the story was boss, but the concrete aspects of my character’s lives meet up with the ontological and transcendental. I discovered rock-climbing at the same time I discovered literature, so these things are linked for me, and my characters climb. Climbing is a ponderous, philosophical sport, very Merleau-Pontian. So in the writing, the links come from lived experience into philosophy: the question of what existence opens us towards. By and large, I didn’t construct scenes in order to illustrate philosophical principles; meditation emerges from the scenes.
In writing BtFE, I didn’t want the theory to fatten the narrative too much, to make it didactic or dull. Or too angry, for that matter. It’s a story, it’s got to be engaging at the level of character and event. But I wanted it to be meaningful. To have significance, weight. Everyone is going to have a different sense of what constitutes success as far as this balance goes, and it’s largely dependent on the engagement of the reader, their level of patience, their previous reading. For me, Camus is the master, because his novels are elegant and utterly gripping at the level of narrative, yet they unfold ideas to a very deep level.
JC: Does having been strongly influenced by various strands of European thought throw up any challenges in writing about contemporary Australia? About, for example, the experience of nature here, which is something you spend quite a lot of time on in the book?
BS: I feel quite conscious of the way that the book is, and is not, distinctly Australian. At a cultural level, and an aesthetic one, the influences are global. In my eyes, it’s very much at the level of nature that it’s notably Australian. When I’m at home, I spend a lot of time in the bush. My family and I live in the mountains, bordering national park, and, even before my wife and I moved there, I was climbing and camping in the area. So I write about the experience of being in that landscape.
I certainly don’t feel like reading European philosophy makes it harder to translate that experience onto the page. Ideas might begin locally, but once they’re out in the world they’re global, and then we take them inside ourselves and they become local again. So okay, yes, in BtFE I’m writing about an experience of Australia, but that notion, ‘Australia’, is really a point of intersection, something permeable – tied to country, to our indigenous heritage and its destruction, but also to Britain and Europe and America, and increasingly to Asia. How we understand nature is partly determined by this cocktail and how it brews up in us, as well as the qualities of the environment we inhabit.
JC: One of the most striking things about BtFE is certainly the way it suggests connections between the global and the local, between system and subject: economic breakdowns, for example, go hand-in-hand with nervous ones.Is turning up these links something you think the novel – I mean, as a form – can do particularly well?
BS: In BtFE I wanted to get inside the present, find a line through it: and some of that is global, because a great deal of experience in developed nations now is global. My lifeworld is a global one: I was born in Australia; I have mixed Australian and European parentage; you and I are both Australian, and yet this interview is being conducted in Madrid and Berlin. Leaving aside what might be called these ‘privileged’ subject positions, the great issues of our time are to do with global phenomena. This is another facet – the way that global phenomena meet global experience. Climate change and financial instability-slash-collapse, for instance, are to do with certain habits of global activity. The nature of consumer capitalism in Australia and Britain and elsewhere leads to a factory with substandard construction and health and safety practices to collapse in Bangladesh. We are connected globally, and there are millions of stories at the many nodes of these connections.
Sketching out some of these links is one of the great strengths of the novel, because these are narrative links. My story connects to your story, your story to others. Of course you can extrapolate it in an essay, unpack it, but what the novel offers is closer to an experiential engagement, and there is a power in this to cut through.
JC:Your protagonist, Adyn, loses his job trading “futures” after the global financial crash. He finds himself returning to Australia, broke and alone, to try and repair his life. Am I right in suspecting that Adyn’s task is, in a sense, one you see as incumbent on us all at this point in history?
BS: Inasmuch as what he wants is to re-establish meaning in his life, and I would argue that an absence of cultural meaning is one of the dominant issues facing us within this current phase of failing yet exhaustive capitalism we’re inhabiting.
JC:At least in the first half of the book, a possible recovery of meaning seems to involve turning away from that abstract, even illusory, reality of global capitalism, and toward the concreteness of embodied experience – “the connective moment”, as it’s called at one point. This seems to be tied up with an overarching return to nature: the novel is divided into four main parts – Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring – and the bulk of its action takes place in the Blue Mountains, in bushland, a long way from Wall Street. At points it seems like nature has a monopoly on the power to redeem. But then again, it’s not as if nature ends up solving your characters’ problems, at least not lastingly. And Adyn is reluctant to chalk too much up to economics: “Nothing so obvious,” he replies when asked if it’s capitalism that has produced his unhappiness. It’s hard not to read these contradictions as a diagnosis of our times. Do you think we’re stuck at a kind of impasse? Or are we misrecognising the obstacles we face?
BS: More than anything my sense of the current climate is of an increasing failure to interrogate our times, a failure, in part, of journalism, or more importantly perhaps, the hijacking of a lot of mainstream journalism by corporate interests, so that analytical discussion has become marginalised. The value of that which falls outside a corporate worldview, outside the market, is increasingly dismissed or ridiculed. It seems incontrovertible that the capacity of laissez faire economics to produce positive outcomes for a broad range of people is bunkum, yet the rhetoric continues.
If properly managed, however, to my mind a form of socially engaged capitalism has great capacity for wealth generation, the positive of which is the creation of infrastructure that enables better education, better health outcomes and so on. The world’s various experiments in communism certainly prove that capitalism has no monopoly on the ability to corrupt, but something has happened to our willingness to question the system, to shape it. And that something is largely the power of those interests controlling that system to control the conversation. Look at how timid our politicians are: in Australia, the US and Britain, even using the word ‘capitalism’ is a risk, makes one appear suspect, anti-business. As though it’s impossible to conceive of significant changes to economic practices and institutions, even when they’re failing; as though it’s just not up for discussion. And for many of these interests, no doubt it isn’t – they’ve profited from the system being as it is. But for the rest of us, there are certain questions that should be asked. They should underlie every piece of journalism that’s written, every conversation of government. What kind of world do we want to live in? What’s working? What isn’t? How can it be better?
I do see nature as pointing us towards an antidote to some of the global problems we face, specifically because, as you put it, it directs us away from the abstract. Our connection to the world is real: we need its oxygen, its water, its soil. Of course there are environmental implications here, ecological, but it’s more than that: when we consciously engage these links, I feel like we are brought closer to all beings, including other people. By which I mean that the suffering of others is not an abstract thing: hunger and pain are real. An engagement with nature is an engagement with concrete existence in a way that might bring us closer to the concrete existence of others.
This isn’t to say there’s some magic salve opened by nature, because humans are cultured beings – we are manufactured by culture. By its institutions and attitudes. And many of our cultural institutions function to estrange us from the natural world. In a sense that’s an obvious thing to say, considering that the two things are most often considered in opposition, but of course there are some cultural movements and positions that are specifically to do with recognising our bonds with the natural world. In general, it’s probably true to say that capitalism functions to distance us from the natural, but of course the cultural movements I’m describing can equally be co-opted by capitalism, as all successful ideas are – even those which are consciously anti-capitalistic. So it’s complicated. We’re complicated.
JC:It's interesting to hear you say that a socially-engaged capitalism could still be viable. Whatever the historical failures of other forms of economic life, the recent crises of capitalism, the destructiveness of which you evoke so forcefully in the book, have left a lot of people thinking otherwise. You don't see the ‘futures’ in which Adyn traded as having been entirely devalued? I’m reminded of a moment later on in the novel when he confronts a radically-minded café owner with the fact that, even if it were possible to overthrow global capitalism tomorrow, it would be virtually impossible not to lose a lot of babies along with the bathwater. Is this close to your own view?BS: As far as I’m concerned, much of what passes for business as usual on international financial markets should be illegal. Not necessarily because it’s ethically dubious, although this is also true, but because it destabilises the system. There are huge problems with creating wealth from ‘playing’ with money – like Adyn’s futures trading – rather than building things, supplying services, being constructive. The instability caused by current extremes of economic inequality should make them as concerning for the economic rationalist as they are for the ethicist. The current model is unsustainable. End of story. And there is a cruelty within the opportunistic heart of capitalism: my failure, my bankruptcy, as an opening for someone else. Profit is about the localisation of wealth. I take from those around me and, increasingly, keep the maximum amount for myself.
But what is the system that works? Communist states seem prone to collapse into autocratic capitalism, and we need to organise trade somehow, find a way for some of us to be writers and some bakers without the need to exchange a poem for a loaf of bread. Various Twentieth Century experiments in social ‘utopia’ have led to some pretty terrible political affiliations, not the least of which were from Sartre and Heidegger: Sartre, whose commitment to Soviet communism continued, despite the political repression and gulags, until the mid-’50s; and Heidegger, whose early embracing of Nazism overshadows an important body of work. And it’s Heidegger’s thirst for utopia, for the transcendental, his locating of Germany in the great axis of metaphysics running from Ancient Greece, that makes him susceptible to Hitler’s fascist dream.
I’m not saying we should accept the status quo. There is this myth floating through political and economic discourse, that the system we have is in some respects ‘natural’, that we have to accept certain elements as inherent. The current extreme levels of social and economic inequality for instance. This myth serves certain interests, and we need to work against that naturalisation, and sometimes we need to fight, to get on the streets, protest, get angry, be difficult about things. Something that, in Australia, we’re not very good at.
The failures of capitalism are failures of human nature which are enabled, encouraged, by its systems. So it’s a question of regulation. Of reforming that system. Of not allowing the public conversation to be dictated by corporate interests. Of constantly working against corruption, working to embed an ethics of compassion into the system. Some would argue that the contemporary relationship between politics and commerce shows that capitalism is untenable. They may be right. But although capitalism is in a mess, now more than ever, so far it seems like one of the better bad ideas we’ve had.
JC: In the world of BtFE, the extent of the mess is evident in the way that, coming home, far from finding respite with his family, Adyn is confronted with the same kinds of self-interest that arguably motivated the economic collapse – his family is held together by little more than greed and ambition; in a way, there’s not really a home to come back to. Do you think of Adyn’s family as an extreme case? Or as somehow representative of what has become of family, of our traditional ways of living and loving?
BS: The bonds that would otherwise hold Adyn’s family together have been damaged by fundamentalism and intolerance, and although in his case that damage is extreme, there are plenty of families broken in just the same way. Likewise the greed you mention, which seems to rise up so frequently when there’s a lot of money at stake: the blood connection of family offers no guarantee that people will treat each other honourably, especially once they start sniffing a well-stuffed bank account. Many of us have seen people behave abominably towards each other as a result of death and the potential distribution of the deceased’s property.
All the same, I think we would have to view Adyn’s family as an extreme case, if for no other reason than it’s something of a perfect storm: there’s a lot of money at stake, and many of the various family members are already at loggerheads, so there develops a kind of corporate view: how can I profit, what’s the angle? But I don’t think our model of ‘family’ is at fault, except insofar as all elements of our lives join with cultural manifestations that may be compassionate or may be selfish, insofar as the corporatised TV-land which makes up parts of our world is poor in meaning, and insofar our model of family is tied to these elements, partly formed by them, and in BtFE the worst of these traits appear. At a personal level, though, my family is pretty functional, as are the families of most of my friends, so from this angle I don’t see these characters as generally representative.
JC:The story features a number of ‘flashbacks’ to Adyn’s youth, a period seemingly before these family conflicts really got going. I found it curious that, whereas the novel’s ‘present’ action is narrated in past tense, these ‘past’ sections are rendered in present tense. On the one hand, this seemed to be about vividness, about creating a sense of immediacy. On the other, it seemed it could be taken as part of the book’s argument about the nature of crisis itself. I found myself thinking sometimes, maybe against the grain, of these ‘past’ sections as the real present of the narrative, and of the novel’s ‘present’ action as therefore already somehow contained, unknowably, in the texture of antecedent events. Were you thinking about anything like this when you were writing? It seems, not only from BtFE but from your philosophical work and your poetry, that investigating the character of time is something you care about.
BS: Time is one of those phenomena, isn’t it – all perfectly normal until you really start to think about it. The paradox of lived experience, poised on a sliver of the present, and stretching in front and behind, the infinite stretches of future and past. Humans are time-bound. The hand of mortality’s clock, ticking around slowly. It gets transformed into religious obsession, the creations of monuments, and of course writing books. Time is what we have, and certainly mortality is a central theme in BtFE.
The stylistic choice you’re talking about, though, rendering of the ‘deeper’ past in present tense, is largely to do with the immediacy that it brings to the reading, the different textures of fictive experience and immersion. I wanted some of them to feel explicitly like dream sequences, others something colder, more historical. And it’s one of those curious things, that dreams can have an intensity, a sense of presence, equally strong to that of conscious experience, at times even stronger. Our dreams occur very fast, so we live time differently in the sleeping mind. Time is elongated in some way, but also there’s a sense of simultaneity. As though a series of moments is stacked one over the other. So dreams are very present tense, aren’t they? When we dream, we’re not thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow afternoon, or yesterday. We’re absolutely inside that moment.
JC. Yet people have always been tempted to see dreams as prophetic. And then, there's an ambiguity about the remembered past: it can seem a little dreamlike. Stepping for a moment, as it were, beyond the frame's edge, that is, taking these dream-histories that affect Adyn non-representationally, as instead something he’s doing, an activity he is, at whatever level of consciousness, engaged in, his resulting sense of that ‘past’ plays a major role in shaping his attitude toward the present. And not in a wholly positive way: insofar as it’s a dream of lost origins, a longing for wholeness, it seems to leave him feeling extremely embattled on that sliver of waking life. So his dreams about the past are, to some extent, prophetic: they play a role in determining what he does and thereby his future. Something you said earlier about Heidegger’s work and Jena romanticism – about the seed of its own failure implanted in the project – therefore seems true of some of Adyn’s attempts to find meaning in his life.
BS: Time is largely linear in BtFE, but in these pieces it’s random, so there is a way that, quite literally, these fragments are a past that tells the future. I hadn’t really thought through this quality of longing, but you’re right. Because in the dream it’s life made whole, isn’t it? Experience pulled back to the inside of the mind, the inside of the inside, to a moment that has a quality of the absolute about it. Maybe there’s a form of perfection we can find in dreams that we can’t find in the waking mind – like romantic fragments.
Normal waking life has a tendency to be a bit messy, doesn’t it? We’re doing the washing and thinking of something to do with work and maybe you’re talking to your spouse at the same time and there’s a child and a dog wanting food and on and on…So our minds bounce around in consciousness. There’s a reason why we need to sleep.
JC: Not something I imagine you doing too often – in addition to travelling, you’re busy now putting together a book of poetry and you have another novel in the works. Can you say anything about those projects? Are you working on them side by side?
BS: I’ve been working on the poems forever, on and off, and I’m trying to get this collection of poems, over a decade’s worth, to work as an ensemble. And it’s pretty much there, but I’ve realised recently that it needs a new title, and a new title will impose something new on it as a book, and that title hasn’t presented itself yet...so on it goes. I tend to be working on one thing or another from one week to the next, I don’t swap back and forth with any ease, and I haven’t been working much on poetry while the novel work has been in motion, so progress is slow. As to the next novel, it’s taking shape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a very different book from the one I imagined a year or two ago.
JC: Just briefly, before we finish, who are some of the poets who have mattered to you?
BS: Well, Martin Harrison would have to be the most important, not only because he mentored me when I was first taking writing seriously, but he also melds genres and styles, shifting from formal structures into something essayistic, prose poems that break into fragments. He is also concerned with the relationship between ‘mind’ and the immanence-transcendence question, which fascinates me. My father recited Banjo Patterson to me when I was young. Later, Cummings was very influential, Rimbaud, Robert Hass, Ashbury more recently. Also Australian poets like Robert Adamson, Michael Farrell, Jill Jones and Stuart Cooke. Lots more.
JC: And can you see yourself writing in a more straight-up discursive mode again any time soon? Essays, for example, or criticism?
BS: I’m working on a photo essay on bullfighting at the moment, which is bound to annoy some people. It’s nearly finished – we’ll see if anyone wants to publish it.
JC:Another extreme sport – and one not without its own devotees literary history...
BS: Indeed! There is something ancient about it. Savage. It left me depressed for a week. And I don’t know, perhaps it should be banned. It’s amazing how mad people become when you talk about seeing it. Which I get, mostly, as it is cruel. But from the animal’s point of view, an industrial abattoir strikes me as more terrifying than a bullring. Of course we should try to be less cruel. But there’s another side, about cruelty being out of mind and sight, that we can tolerate far more of it if it’s hidden, and about the absence of rituals that force us to recognise the origin and ethical cost of what we consume. So there’s an importance in facing the death we deal with a bit more honesty.