Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, by Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2011) 198 pp. $37.95
To be an essay writer is to be an eclectic: one who gathers together curious observations and out-of-the-way facts, and then conjures with them so as to offer another interpretation of some aspect of the world. At least, this is what the series of book-length essays that Martin Edmond has produced over the past two decades seem to do. He’s a memoirist, whose ‘memoirs’ are quest books, rehearsing investigations, making enquiries, retailing anecdotes and philosophical ruminations in pursuit of some invariably elusive subject — as in Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which is a circuitous examination of the visionary painter Colin McCahon — or perhaps ‘Colin McCahon’, because Edmond, as he tells it, only ever ‘met’ McCahon twice, and both times briefly without McCahon really knowing who he was or even exchanging words. So the person Edmond pursues in his book, as if shadowing him even as he elegises him, is partly a creature of his imagination, vivified from second-hand reports, scrutiny of the artistic legacy, and guesswork: the artist bodied forth as a sort of Scotch mist, an atmosphere, whose very presence depends on the darkness of the ‘dark night’.
Edmond’s chief narrational pathway into the McCahon myth is the artist’s famous disappearance in Sydney, when McCahon, over from Auckland with his wife Anne to attend the opening of an exhibition of his paintings, seems to have wandered off in a fugue state one morning while visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens. He became a missing person for nearly 24 hours, before the police identified him as someone they’d picked up as a nameless, homeless vagrant in Sydney’s Centennial park and taken to the near-by Caritas Centre of St Vincent’s Hospital.
Reading about this in the Bloem-and-Browne-edited art exhibition catalogue in 2008, Edmond, who has lived in Sydney since the early 1980s, decides to retrace the route McCahon might have taken: from the Royal Botanic Gardens, through the Domain, past Woolloomooloo, thence through Darlinghurst and Paddington, up Oxford Street to Centennial Park, a distance of 5 or 6 kilometres in perambulating arabesque.
Partway through his book, Edmond quotes from an essay which appeared in Landfall 215 (the ‘Godzone’ issue), co-authored by Australian art historian Rex Butler and New Zealand art historian Laurence Simmons, in which they argue that McCahon’s art ‘says as little as possible in its own voice but understands itself merely as the site of inscription by others’ — which Edmond takes to mean not just the others — assorted poets, Bible verses — that McCahon himself inscribes on his paintings, but also those — like a prophet’s congregation of apostles and disciples — who quote or comment on McCahon. Amongst these exegetes Edmond himself has now emerged as one of the more subtle, or perhaps idiosyncratic, commentators: a self-styled ‘twisted pilgrim’, casting about for all manner of cultural allusions.
The Colin McCahon Edmond depicts is a product of prohibitions and prescriptions; he’s circumscribed by his puritan origins and by his Calvinist cast of mind; he’s one who fetishises melancholy and dread. Edmond quotes James K. Baxter’s estimation that Dunedin-educated McCahon was ‘expressing the sour and struggling piety that lies behind the bland mask of Presbyterianism’. McCahon’s congenital left-handedness, Edmond then surmises, added to his sense of being an outsider (which his early ‘eccentric’ adherence to Modernist art only served to confirm). Later, his alcoholism galloped away on him, as he persisted, Faust-like, in debating between God and the Devil. Misunderstood, McCahon became bitter, if not misanthropic, in the manner of that other railing Modernist, the Australian novelist Patrick White. McCahon ‘kept a black book in which he recorded the names of those who had spoken out against him and his work’.
Edmond also compares McCahon to King Lear and Leopold Bloom, as well as Australia’s most famous graffiti artist, Arthur Stace, legendary for chalking the word Eternity over and over on Sydney pavements for decades after being saved from alcoholism by becoming a Christian. (In an aside — the book is chocker with asides — Edmond subliminally locates the emergence of the latter-day neo-corporate landscaping of inner-city Sydney with the replacement of Stace’s copperplate ‘Eternity’ by the corporate logo on a building re-development spelling INFINITY in large black capitals.)
But the central identification in Edmond’s identity parade is of McCahon as a suffering, redemptive Christ figure. In 1965, McCahon undertook what was to be his largest commission: artworks for a Catholic convent in Remuera, designed by the Group architect James Hackshaw. Here, he painted his first Stations of the Cross, which thereafter became a dominant motif in his paintings. Beginning in September 2008 and tracing the journey several times, Edmond takes this as a kind of permission, or indulgence, to enact his walk in the footsteps of McCahon as a form of following the Stations of the Cross, with McCahon being the condemned Christ on his way to be crucified at Golgotha, for which Centennial Park is standing in. This poetic conceit, stated baldly, sounds quixotic, even whimsical, if not silly, but Edmond manages to make it work, after a fashion, by transforming the streets of Sydney, through the power of his belletrist skills, into a phantasmagoria — a place of portents, of ruin and loss.
Pontificating in his own Vatican City of the mind, and making sure to walk mainly at night so that he can employ a kind of tunnel vision, zooming in on the area’s many churches and institutions for the sick and the destitute, Edmond communes as a solitary walker, perhaps only semi-visible, locked in reverie with departed shades. Night-time allows him to make perceptions fitful and fragmentary. In the brick and sandstone labyrinth of inner East Sydney, pubs and public toilets blasphemously become sacred sites, while McCahon’s walkabout follows a palimpsest of old songlines as if choreographed. Edmond the flâneur turns faux-antiquarian, extolling the ‘Italianate’ and the ‘Egyptian’ and the façade of an art gallery ‘mausoleum’, and then invoking the town’s convict origins, murkily populated with Gothic revenants.
Within such a nocturnal ambience the dead might walk, and so amongst the phantoms invoked along this antipodean Via Dolorosa are that of Australia’s richest man, gargantuan Kerry Packer, that of the flamed-out Australian prodigal art-maker Brett Whiteley, and that of 1980s gangster’s moll the nervy Sally-Anne Huckstepp, murdered in Centennial Park.
This is not the tinsel-town metropolis of the tourist brochures, all beaches and fine dining, but the gritty, pungent reality of pavement-trudging through a curiously empty and derelict-seeming chambered citadel — reminiscent in his prose description of the en abyme illustrations of M.C. Escher and G.B. Piranesi, and awaiting either gentrification or demolition. Into the lowering witches’ sabbath of the night funnel swarms of fruitbats, while assorted fringe-dwellers stage impromptu cabaret turns: specifically, New Zealand drag queen Carmen is imagined as symbolically reaching towards the head of Colin McCahon with her handkerchief to perform Veronica’s wiping of the brow of Christ, while any rent boys standing along the Wall of the old Darlinghurst goal in the half-dark might represent in pantomime ‘the women of Jerusalem’.
Teasing out such wisps of images and associations (in the Mont Clair apartment building where, he tells us, he worked on the script for a ‘cannibal zombie movie’, never made, he remembers that the air ‘smelled strange, like embalming fluid’) Edmond’s account of the maladies of the night finds a kind of droll redemption, or crepuscular redolence at least.
After postponements, our guide keeps a graveyard shift vigil in Centennial Park, alert with coffee and cigars at midnight as Scorpio rises over Bondi Junction — though at first no ghosts walk. The beauty of the writing, though, performs the feat of resurrection. In the small hours, in the dark night of the soul, the author’s breathing ‘synchronised with the breathing of the trees’, time slows, and he exits, exhilarated at dawn, with the feeling of having cracked open the sphinx of Sydney and communed with its spirits: ‘Like McCahon when he was lost in here, I had surrendered my identity.’
Next stop, a return to Ohakune in the centre of the North Island, a childhood haunt where he might ponder the influence of Maori millennial prophecy on certain paintings of the Pakeha seer McCahon, as well as embroider further on his perennial themes of the search for lost time and the celebration of doubles and doppelgangers; and where he might also listen to the river flow and go over the careful memories of his parents, who were of McCahon’s generation, and maybe even generate more strange, lateral speculations on ‘the great Chain of Being’ — on the mystic interconnectedness of all things.
DAVID EGGLETON is the Editor of Landfall Review Online.