I have to give you some of the details of the book, because I am a book nerd and can't stop myself.
Courage (Maria Tumarkin, MUP, $32.95 pb, Released September 2007)
This LOOKS like it could be either pretty dry or dripping with sucrose. But it’s actually completely fascinating – and liberally laced with gratifyingly spiky charm:
People care desperately about courage. For once, I am one of the people. Do you want to know what it means to care desperately? It means that I am prepared to give up dignity, talent and generosity for the attribute of courage. When I fantasise about what people will say after my death, I know what I want them to recall-whatever her flaws (too numerous to mention), she certainly had guts. Yet the courage I conjure up in my fantasies exists outside of the extremes of violence, endurance and fear. It is not primarily a virtuous ideal or an idea, but rather an expression of the human spirit-messy, explosive and morally ambivalent.
I loved Maria Tumarkin’s first book, Traumascapes, which was about the meaning of sites where great human traumas have been suffered: New York, Bali, Berlin, Port Arthur. It looked at the meaning of the sites themselves – encompassing the bizarre trade in disaster tourism as well as the meaning of the sites for those connected with the tragedy (survivors, relatives of victims).
Yes, the subject was morbidly fascinating, but the writing is what really drew me.
Tumarkin has the gift of drawing the reader into her thought processes and allowing them to join her on the intellectual journey. She writes as she thinks – in an almost conversational manner, drawing on her personal experience and observations where relevant, but supporting that with research. I read a book review of hers in The Monthly soon after I read the book and was similarly attracted to it. (It was a review of Anne Manne’s Motherhood, which also talked about Tumarkin’s own thoughts on the subject and her relationship with her daughter, who sounded like a right gutsy and intelligent little thing.)
Her new book, Courage, follows the same can’t-pin-it-down blend of genres, combining cultural studies, sociology, current affairs and memoir. With rather more of the memoir bit – which is a very good thing indeed.
She writes that the book is dedicated ‘to courage rather than heroism in all its guises ... for I see heroism primarily as a chimera we have to fight our way past in order to reach courage’.
What does this mean? Well, courage is about drawing on our inner reserves, and about being tested. It’s about doing things DESPITE obstacles. Heroism is about extraordinary actions in extraordinary circumstances – the kinds of things that many of us will never even have the chance to do, and is often done on instinct, without thinking. This strikes a chord with me.
She also writes about Steve Irwin in the context of courage – and concludes that he was neither courageous nor heroic. Which also strikes a big fat chord. She observes that in discussion boards and blogs everywhere, people said he was a hero because he ‘died doing what he loved’. Her rejoinder:
The same might be said, for instance, about an ageing businessman dying of a heart attack while fornicating in a hotel room.
As far as I can ascertain he did nothing heroic or truly courageous either, for that matter. If we are prepared to classify his interaction with animals as heroic we are, I am convinced, in a great deal of trouble.
Sure, he risked his life by wrestling crocodiles, etc. – but it wasn’t in order to save anyone or achieve anything beyond wrestling with animals. His work on behalf of the environment and promoting conservation of wildlife was admirable, but not heroic or courageous for the same reasons – what was he actually risking to do that?
Tumarkin is, as the first quote above demonstrates, darkly and dryly humorous. On Melbourne Uni (which she didn’t much enjoy):
It is not Cambridge and it is not Columbia, but graduating from it has never hurt anyone yet.
On (some of) her fellow students:
These rich private school students spit and sneeze privilege.
Wonderful imagery! I love that sentence.
And on the university’s lack of real debate, outside the sanctioned ‘isms’:
The opinionated students I come across are usually recruits to an existing school of thought. It is not really their opinions that they breathlessly insist on ... but those of their church.
Having never really been in that environment for long, I can’t comment in relation to Melbourne (or any other) Uni, but I do think that sometimes the most progressive and left-wing and well-intentioned people could do with examining their own thoughts on various matters more, rather than automatically adopting the branded view of the ‘people like us’. (And I include myself in that.) I do think that sometimes it can require real courage to openly disagree with your tribe.
There’s a lot in this book, and here I’ve just grazed on a few of the things I liked and had noted as I read. Tumarkin (who is Russian) tells stories of taking in a Russian stripper to live with her in her one-bedroom flat – and reflects now on whether she was as accepting and respectful of her choices then as she thought she was. She writes about deciding to go ahead with an unplanned pregancy and become a single mother – just because she knew it was what she had to do for herself (which I identify with!) and resulting issues to do with courage and motherhood. She writes about being a teenage migrant, of struggling with English and feeling stupid while knowing she wasn’t, of her relationship with a wild extended Aboriginal family who lived next door to her in Townsville (and charging next door to take in the women and children one noisy night – courage indeed). And there is, of course, philosophy and observations on filmmakers and artists and writers.
The anecdotes and slivers of memoir in this book are entertaining and interesting. But the arguments here, and the depth of thinking about her subject, exercise the mind, in an accessible and engaging way.
The book has recently inspired me to do something I was planning to turn down (public speaking engagements) because I am terrified of doing it. It's a reminder that courage is, at essence, doing unpleasant or daunting or risky things in order to achieve something. And that sometimes you fail - but that's the risk you take, and that's the way that life is meant to be lived.