Postcolonial Text / Author

David Malouf: Exploring Imperial Textuality

Saadi Nikro
Notre Dame University, Lebanon

"Through the power of words the land comes to exist as a thing felt on the pulse, imprinted on the inward eye, and therefore fully seen at last, fully experienced and possessed."
David Malouf, The Making of Australian Consciousness (6)


The work of David Malouf has come to form a site of contentious debate and discussion. Lending itself to postcolonial terms of reference and revision, Malouf's work has provoked a renewed interest in the complex relationship between literary language and landscape, as well as the themes of history and identity. This extends to an inquiry into what we could call the epistemological underpinnings of imperial textuality, particularly the romantic assumptions of Nature and Otherness as figures of symbolic value and universal significance. Two of Malouf's novels - An Imaginary Life and Remembering Babylon - simultaneously foreground and are somehow caught up with the romantic investment in a figure of Otherness as a rite of passage to a more authentic sense of self.

Critics have addressed this romantic dimension of Malouf's work. For example, in her essay "Rewriting an Explorer Mythology: The Narration of Space in David Malouf's Work" Amanda Nettelbeck makes the connection between romance and imperialism. Acknowledging the critical import of Malouf's work, she nevertheless finds what she calls "a nostalgic desire for a fullness of identity" that "has long supported Western patriarchy's projects of colonialism." As she goes on to suggest:

An aesthetic of romanticism is often invoked in Malouf's work and functions symbolically, it seems, to put to rest that very colonial history of violence and exclusion; to move beyond a culture of division and to gesture towards tolerance and reconciliation. What that aesthetic obscures, however, is that its apparently apolitical impulse is still bound to the very traditions it wants to review. (103-104)

It seems to me that one could build on this critical insight to take into account how Malouf's work embodies a figure of the margin, or a trope of alterity, that could also be shown to underpin the epistemological assumptions of imperial textuality. In what follows I want to suggest that An Imaginary Life, in a not so dissimilar way to much late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century European romantic literature (Shelley's Frankenstein and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther come immediately to mind), betrays a Rousseauian concept of Nature, in which the human subject may find spiritual solace and redemption. I want also to suggest that despite its attempted writing of a figure of unanticipated otherness that escapes the subjugating, recuperative binary framework of Self/Other, An Imaginary Life stages a conventional notion of the frontier that tends more to assert, rather than challenge, narratives of conquest and exploration informing the language and figurative power of imperial texts.

It seems to me that this requires some consideration, especially as in recent years much critical effort has been invested in the figure of "the margin" - or else "border consciousness," "double perspective" or "double consciousness," "third" or "liminal space," "alterity" and "marginality" - as a more authentic or potentially liberating experience eluding the repressive economy of Self/Other formalisations.[1] This is to suggest that imperial texts are themselves structured by a conceptual assemblage that includes alterity as a defining aspect of their self-understanding. In this respect it is important to consider how imperial texts depend more on a figure of transformation and transition, on the frontier itself, to define the power and authority of their binary frames of reference.

To demonstrate this I will take a short detour through Rousseau's understanding of Nature, as well as the implications of his notion of contract. I will also address two novels that, despite having been published almost two hundred years apart, are informed by romantic assumptions of Nature and the frontier as sites of alterity and transition - Conrad's Lord Jim and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. These two novels, it should be noted, have not only played significant roles in the structuring of imperial texuality, but have become central to postcolonial forms of revision.

To end my essay I want to argue that the later novel, Remembering Babylon, does not share this romantic conception of the frontier, and could be read as a rewriting of An Imaginary Life. Emphasis would be placed on how subjectivity comes to stage itself as the scene of a learning of the cultural landscape.


Like much of David Malouf's work, his novel An Imaginary Life displays an acute attentiveness to the productive relationship between language and landscape, sensitive to the means by which history and subjectivity are defined not only in respect to economies of time - to the productive split between narrative, story, and characterisation - but to the ways in which landscapes are inscribed into spatial forms of self-understanding. Malouf's writing, that is to say, plays on a certain spatial sense of finitude that comes to speak the tenor of an unanticipated otherness that articulates its emergence at the edge of the cultural landscape, "at the limits of the known world" (Malouf, An Imaginary Life 26). At this extreme edge subjectivity undergoes a learning, or perhaps unlearning of itself, coming to experience itself as a site of variable voices speaking a language of excess and indeterminacy. This comes about when the landscape begins to resist its assimilation into more formal or habitual standards of understanding - when at the fringes of a self-awareness that has been inscribed onto rock and soil, rivers and trees, mountains and valleys, the landscape frays, drawing subjectivity into a fugitive terrain where the terms of self-understanding recede into the infinite murmur of an apparent senselessness.

In doing so Malouf's novels tend to challenge an imperial textual practice that fails to reflect on the power of its language to possess and assimilate landscapes into dominating patterns of understanding; into subjugating relationships of authority, judgement, and normalisation. As the more recent critical view of post-colonial criticism has come to appreciate, the imperial text is marked by, or plays out the scene of, a will to possession of the landscape. Very often this is presented in terms of exploration and discovery, of voyage and adventure, of survival in a hostile environment that comes to be both physically and imaginatively divided into that which can be worked on and fashioned, tamed and domesticated, and that which remains beyond the bounds of cultivation - the wilderness, the outback, or the bush.

Whether as travel writing or explorer journal, scientific expedition or botanist record, epic or novel, the imperial text invests the terms of its authority and self-understanding in a descriptive language that for(e)gets the power of its conceptual labour to produce the positivity of its truth. In this sense the imperial text does not merely describe or record a newly discovered terrain - a terrain that is assumed to be vacant of any previous, meaningful human experience - but sows the reproductive terms of its cultural horizon onto the landscape, so that the landscape itself comes to speak the transposed values and norms of that cultural horizon.[2]

The landscape comes to speak its significance, its sense and meaning, within a conceptual assemblage of culture and nature, under the sign of Nature - that which is assumed to both prefigure and lay a basis for the social and cultural spheres of human life; as that which may well be returned to, as the site of fulfilment, of an escape from the constraining etiquette and corrupt influences of society. The imperial text shares Jean-Jacques Rousseau's basic fiction of a natural realm free from constraining forms of human understanding, free from the historical inscriptions that render it a sign of cultural investment and social exchange. And yet it is precisely Nature as sign - that can only have sense in terms of a conceptual labour that renders its experience knowable and manageable - that works to produce a binary framework of opposition between culture and nature; a framework in which is invested the terms of an epistemological force legitimating political languages of equality, tolerance, education, sexuality, and ultimately the duty and responsibility of the civilising mission.

Following the work of a more recent critical theory addressing "the rise of the novel,"[3] it would not be too difficult to further argue that the textual terrain of the European Enlightenment - however it may have presented itself as a language of secularisation - refashions a Biblical language of contract and covenant that in effect inscribes not only a sense of voluntary commitment and mutual obligation, but also a hierarchy between perfection and imperfection, spiritual and human realms, nature and culture. In a similar fashion to the earlier political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (not withstanding the important differences between them), Rousseau's text The Social Contract produces the positivity of its truth through an economy of substitution or confusion between descriptive and conceptual registers, construed through a framework of binary oppositions: "the state of nature" and "civil society," "instinct" and "justice," "natural liberty" and "civil liberty," "possession" and "property" (Rousseau 64-65). Beginning with the well-known declaration that "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," the text works to present a nostalgic sense of Nature whose value structures, informs, and potentially recuperates the development of reason and progress.[4]

Nancy Armstrong has made the point that the concept of contract works figuratively to "create an individual who exists independent of social relations" (Armstrong 31), a peculiar fiction that works to enclose a metaphysical understanding of what constitutes a history of evolution and human development. One could add that the concept of contract derives its significance not merely through a language of binary oppositions, but precisely by presenting itself as a frontier, or a borderline, as the ground of transition between one circumstance and another. The concept of contract does not only assume, or inscribe, the figurative force of Nature, individuality, and equality, but stakes out a rupture, a discontinuity, a certain assemblage of transformation by which the opposite pair nature and culture come to bear their figurative power of designating an imaginary sense of the frontier or borderland itself. So that rather than securing the power of its language through the many binary oppositions structuring its writing, The Social Contract invests its claim to truth precisely in terms of a concept of border, or frontier, in between one state and another, in a marginal realm bearing the desire of experiencing change and renewal.

The concept of contract no doubt works for Rousseau as a sort of lever, setting up an imaginative relationship between two fictions: the state of nature and its metamorphosis into civil society, whereby all agree to engage a covenant on the basis of their "naturally" given and potentially redeemable equality. And yet it is based on figurative notions of transition that would later come to define spatial figures not only of difference and transformation, but more significantly the borderline or frontier as in itself a valuable experience of change and development. I want to now consider this in respect to Malouf's earlier novel.


An Imaginary Life takes up the story of Ovid's exile to the Black Sea, where he lives with a small community whose language is altogether alien to him. The story is narrated by Ovid himself, who remarks on the barrenness of the landscape surrounding the village called Tomis, a landscape that does not afford the signs of culture and cultivation: "I have found no tree here that rises amongst the low, grayish brown scrub. No flower. No fruit. We are at the ends of the earth. Even the higher orders of the vegetable kingdom have not yet arrived among us." In the next line the narrative transforms this spatial difference between the centre of empire and its fringes into temporal difference: "We are centuries from the notion of an orchard or a garden made simply to please" (Imaginary Life 15). And yet it is this aesthetic lack or indifference that the narrative obsessively presents and labours to assimilate, as Ovid at first cannot help but position himself as the measure of understanding: "But I am describing a state of mind, no place. I am in exile here" (Imaginary Life 16).

No one in Tomis speaks Latin, and consequently Ovid has only himself to converse with. The landscape itself speaks an alien language that he fails to understand:

At night I discover in sleep what the simple daylight blinds me to: that the dark side of every object here, and even more, the landscape itself when night shadows flow over it, is a vast page whose tongue I am unable to decipher, whose message to me I am unable to interpret. (Imaginary Life 17).

His dreams speak an indeterminate desire to experience this supposed alienness as the potential of his othering, of discovering himself in terms of the play of an unanticipated difference that would not be circumscribed by the cultural and existential baggage he has arrived with: "In dream after dream I venture out beyond the stubbled fields into the desolate plain beyond, into the grasslands beyond the edge of the world" (Imaginary Life 17).

In this way the narrative works to present the frontier, or borderland, in two senses. Firstly, in respect to the village community of Tomis, as the barbarian, uncivilised other to the cultivated, civilised Roman metropolitan. And secondly, in respect to that which lies beyond Tomis, and consequently that which is not inscribed within the binary opposition civilised/uncivilised, that which perhaps cannot be inscribed at all, cannot be thought or said, cannot be domesticated by the power of language and its economy of binary associations. It is this second sense of borderland that the narrative approaches as an experience of self that does not fall into the more determinate, binary opposition structuring relationships of power and subjugation. It is the figurative force of this second borderland that leads Ovid to come to terms with himself as potentially other, whereby he may experience a transformation into that which does not differentiate according to imperial notions of self and other.

And yet this projected metamorphosis is compulsively represented as a form of self-understanding that can somehow be free of any sense or experience of differentiation. As I want to suggest, it is precisely this second, metaphysical sense of borderland that has traditionally underpinned and presupposed, recuperated and given unity to, the more determinate distinction between self and other, in much the same way that the concept of Nature works for Rousseau's distinction between culture and nature. For it seems that within the imaginative realms of this second borderland inscribed by the spatial contours of the writing of An Imaginary Life, otherness, both actual and potential, comes to be exhaustively dissolved into the sense of an undifferentiated self.

In the latter part of section I the narrative directly addresses the figural and physical violence of imperialist thought and language, in a passage that resounds with the overtones of Zarathustra's critique of metaphysics. In an age of enlightenment, after more that a century of war and its patriotic blindness, Ovid's work bears the message for his fellow Roman citizens that "the gods are not quite dead" (ibid, 25), whereby the gods have become amusing figures of fable rather than figures of piety. Against the solemn, official views of the Emperor, Ovid's senses, more specifically his nose, leads him to a different view of the value of knowledge and the understanding of history: "I too have created an age. It is coterminous with his, and has its existence in the lives and loves of his subjects. It is gay, anarchic, ephemeral and it is fun" (Imaginary Life 26). Having "danced on the tightrope over the abyss," Ovid is expelled to the "region of silence", to "the very edge of things, where Nothing begins" (Imaginary Life 27).

But this exile, Ovid comes to realize, beyond "the confines of our Latin tongue" (Imaginary Life 26), leads him to better appreciate how that language works to contain the significance of bodies, events, and landscapes within a system of distinctions and divisions. This realisation is drawn into a sense of how language has a productive relationship to landscape, as the seeming barrenness of the plains around Tomis suggests an "original bleakness" that in other areas of the Empire came to be transformed by the ethic of work and ideals of aesthetic value. The land never speaks or lives for itself, but is fashioned and given spiritual significance by human interest and need. As Ovid muses to himself, again echoing Nietzsche: "If the gods are there, it is because you have discovered them there, drawn them up out of your soul's need for them and dreamed them into the landscape to make it shine." The landscape is informed by the power of language, and embodies the image of the self: "It is our self we are making out there, and when the landscape is complete we shall have become the gods who are intended to fill it" (Imaginary Life 28).

But beyond the Empire, beyond its boundaries represented by the village of Tomis, lies the potential discovery of a language that speaks an apparent senselessness, that speaks the potential of an unanticipated otherness defined only by the indeterminate silence it incessantly speaks, an otherness that somehow requires no sense of division or distinction by which to define itself. Ovid discovers this through contact with a "wild boy," who like Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh lives in the forests and amongst the animals without any apparent human contact. After capturing the boy and trying to teach him language and custom, Ovid later comes to realize that he has more to learn from the boy, and consequently the relationship of teacher and pupil is inverted. Embodying a more primal, innocent language incapable of differentiating between culture and nature, the Wild Boy "has no notion of the otherness of things" (Imaginary Life 96). Ovid is led to discover the strange and potential significance of that which his learned knowledge has effectively worked to keep silent:

When I try to articulate what I know, I stumble suddenly on what, till that moment, I did not know. There are times when it comes strongly upon me that he is the teacher, and that whatever comes new to the occasion is being led slowly, painfully, out of me. (Imaginary Life 95)

It is in this manner that the narrative as a whole attempts to undermine an imperialist assumption of self and knowledge that does not appreciate the necessary contours of their finitude. In this way Malouf manages to foreground how imperialism presupposes a metaphysical foundation for the difference between self and other, a foundation that simultaneously informs and functions to recuperate this difference through a conceptual assemblage of transcendence or unification.

And yet this alternative appreciation of difference - whereby in the very texture of dialogical exchange one listens to the other and hence begins to experience the very otherness of their self - is itself suddenly converted into a notion of transcendence, recuperated by the levelling figure of reconciliation. For Ovid it is not enough to acknowledge sky, stars, and rain as an experience, rather than figures of knowledge; he must imaginatively become rain, stars, and sky - become one with the "natural" world surrounding him. In this way he strives to regain that undifferentiating, "universal" language he imagines he once possessed, or embodied, in childhood:[5]

When I think of the tongue that has been taken away from me, it is some earlier and more universal language than our Latin, subtle as it undoubtedly is. Latin is a language for distinctions, every ending defines and divides. The language I am speaking now, that I am almost speaking, is a language whose every syllable is a gesture of reconciliation. We knew that language once. I spoke it in my childhood. We must discover it again. (Imaginary Life 98)

Taken to its extreme, this silent, undifferentiating language becomes solipsistic, as the landscape can no longer be thought or recorded as other; as the self no longer requires a sense of otherness by which to maintain a sense of self. In this silent language embodying reconciliation, "it is like talking to oneself" (Imaginary Life 145). Even more, any potential experience of strangeness or surprise is denuded of its capacity to question the self's assumption of itself: "Like one side of the head passing thoughts across to the other, and knowing in a kind of foreglow, before the thought arrives, what it will be" (Imaginary Life 145).

This gesture of reconciliation, in its recuperation of otherness, does not allow for the possibility that the wild boy himself may indeed have some sense "of the otherness of things," and that both he and the landscape experience Ovid as an other, which may potentially lead Ovid to experience the fugitive impulses of his emerging otherness, an always becoming otherness that could not be transcended by the force of metaphysics. Enfolded within the language of An Imaginary Life is the assumption that once we reject the paradigm of assimilation, whereby otherness is brought into a reproductive economy of the same, we may enter into and be transformed by this marginal realm of innocent reconciliation.

How does the character of Ovid have access to this silent language of communion with "nature"? Furthermore, how is the writing of An Imaginary Life able to communicate this language (somehow beyond language and thought) to us, the text's readers and hence partners in the production of sense and value? No doubt it is a language embodying a sensuous experience that somehow resists the logic of language as an assemblage built upon distinction and identification. And yet as a gesture of reconciliation this serves more to relieve language of its complexes and conflicts, relieves language from having to face itself as a constructive experience of dialogue and cultural exchange. This is to say that An Imaginary Life tends to evoke a basic essentialism to rescue Ovid from facing the torment of his exile, rather than maintain an appreciation of the irredeemable complexity of language as a body of dialogue and cross-cultural negotiation. Why, one could ask, can Ovid not realise his emergent otherness by listening more to the people of Tomis, by becoming further acquainted with their view of Rome, with their spatial and historical sense of the significance of border or frontier? Why does not Ovid become more acquainted with how the Wild Boy maps out forms and strategies of diffference?

But the novel relieves Ovid from further realising his emergent otherness in respect to his potential ongoing dialogue with both the inhabitants of Tomis and the Wild Boy. So that having critically foregrounded the imperialist textual practice of defining difference according to an assumption of self, the writing of An Imaginary Life cannot help but restage a recuperation of difference according to a metaphysical notion of transcendence that somehow takes place beyond the tremors of history.


Again and again the narrative evokes a sense of "the unknown" - a central, structural figure of association for many imperial texts that assume the gaze of the self as the measure of knowledge. Not only does the structure of such texts fail to appreciate how the notion "the unknown" works as a conceptual figure of knowledge, implicating an assumption of authority, but very rarely entertain the possibility that the apparently "unknown" may well be known otherwise, may well be narrated otherwise, and that this varying view may well challenge the imperial understanding of self, may well draw the self back into the realms of historical and linguistic finitude. For Ovid "the unknown" represents a more authentic experience of self, seemingly free of the spatial framework inscribed by Rome and Tomis: "I am going out now into the unknown, the real unknown, compared with which Tomis was but a degenerate outpost of Rome" (Imaginary Life 135). This "unknown" defines Ovid's desire to journey beyond certain limits that impose stasis, conventionally defined limits informed by an ontologically secured sense of being, of essence, of isness; of the apparently innocent question that slyly presupposes the form of its answer, as in Plato's query "What is justice"? Against this quest for the being of self and things - this neurotic quest to maintain an absolute, formal distinction between sense/value and desire/necessity - Ovid desires to experience himself as a perpetual movement of unanticipated otherness:

What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become. (Imaginary Life 135)

This desire to experience the self as a transformative site of change and renewal structures a particular textual terrain that stages the figure of frontier for a European audience, and that came to have a powerful influence on how a European sense of self and place invested the terms of its authority and reproductive narrative technology. This textual terrain stretches almost two centuries from Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) to Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1900), both novels employing adventure narratives informed by imperialist notions of difference played out against a background of geographical orientation and displacement. The difference between these novels is of course immense, especially when we consider how Conrad's novel lacks the puritanical theme of moral regeneration threading its way through Robinson Crusoe, or else the latter's very practical association of the landscape as that which can be worked on and fashioned according to the needs of shelter, food, and self-preservation. In Lord Jim, as in other novels by Conrad, the landscape forms a grotesque backdrop to the crisis of European subjectivity, which from the beginning of the twentieth century, if not before, came to accept itself as irredeemably fragmented and discontinuous with its former rationalist/spiritualist self-understanding. Whereas, that is to say, subjectivity is narrated in Robinson Crusoe in terms of a will to rational self-understanding, secured practically through the domestication of nature, in Lord Jim subjectivity, more conscious of itself as an effect of narrative, becomes a field of conflictual impulses that remain beyond any form of rational or spiritual explanation.

And yet despite these differences both novels depend on and are informed by a trope of transformation locating itself at the figurative frontier of culture and nature, in between the historical assumption of self and that which is presented as being beyond history. Both novels structure a sense of self-understanding in respect to this experience of transformation whereby the European self sheds its assumed social and cultural affiliations only to experience their subsequent re-emergence and affirm the value of their significance. This is to say that characterisation, or the field of subjectivity, is not achieved simply through the imposition of a European self, but of the self journeying through an experience of its emergent otherness, always in excess of its understanding of itself, though always finding its way back to the recuperative force of identity and self-affirmation. It is precisely this transitional figure of emergent otherness or alterity that defines the power and authority of the imperial text, not simply the binary framework of its presentation.

The Puffin Classics edition I have of Robinson Crusoe has a cover illustration depicting the character of Crusoe himself, crouching on a sandy shore to investigate a pair of human footprints - the sea, horizon and sky in the background. Crusoe is effectively placed on the shifting sand of the margins, between land and sea. He wears the hide or fur of some animal he has no doubt encountered on his "island of despair", his shoes of a similar material, which seems also to constitute the bag slung from his shoulder. With a flowing beard and long flowing hair, his skin the colour of bronze, Crusoe crouches next to what seems like the end of the footprints. Holding a makeshift wooden staff in his left hand, with his right arm hanging limply between his legs, his knuckles resting ape-like on the sand, the image plays on the figure of rugged masculinity alone facing the elements.

The image suggests the theme of evolution, a Darwinian portrait of Man descended from the apes, not yet able to stand firmly on its feet. But I wonder if the image - in respect to how it works as an assemblage of desire to travel through an imagined unbounded terrain of alterity - could also have been of Friday, whose skin is also of a tawny colour, whose hair is also long and smooth, and who despite being a cannibal can be taught to wear clothes and speak English language. Let me relate the terms in which Friday is described:

He was a comely handsome fellow, perfectly well made; with straight, strong limbs, not too large; tall and well shaped, and, as I reckon, about twenty-six years of age. He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect; his hair was long and black, not curled like wool; his forehead very high and large, and a great vivacity and sparkling sharpness in his eyes. The colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny; his face was round and plump; his nose small, not flat like the negroes. (Defoe 155)

Both the narrative structure of the novel (particularly its use of a journal to organise part of the story) and the cover illustration tell an allegorical story of the value of time, of the human capacity to define itself according to the structure and order of time. This allegorical story effectively plays-out the seemingly inexorable march towards civilisation, the European self defining the outlines and destiny of this progressive movement. And yet it is also a fantasy invested in a conceptualisation of geography, in which the civilised self ventures beyond the confines of polite society into "the unknown," experiences itself as a transformative site of conflict between culture and nature, and eventually reaffirms a sense of self not simply by domesticating "nature," but through a peculiar narrative, geographical structure that relates history as a natural development of reason and progress. As one writer observes: "the geography of Robinson Crusoe...mapped - naturalised and normalised - conservative constructions of identity and geography" (Phillips 27). One could also suggest, as I've been arguing, that this construction is only valid once it rehearses the self as a site of alterity and transformation, recuperated by the imperial notion of reconciliation.[6]

The figure of Robinson Crusoe embodies what would later come to be configured by the ever-productive masculinist notion of "the frontiersman," of later characters (to take North America as an example) such as Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, recognisable by the animal skins they wear for clothes and the borderland territories they inhabit and inform. Such figures work to represent a certain wilderness caught up in the transformative project of rendering it habitable and hospitable for imperial settlement, reinscribing the landscape within the subjugating framework of imperial language and its economy of geographical differentiation/recuperation. These figures, in a similar way to Robinson Crusoe, embody a projected desire to experience the landscape as a site of alterity, transforming geographical difference into the recuperative codes of History, staging the self as an existential site for this transformation. In effect Crusoe "represses" Friday, in a manner by which Friday is drawn into a productive, normative code that both structures difference and recuperates its wavering impulses; a normative code not so dissimilar to the figural force of Rousseau's romantic concept of Nature.

With Conrad's novel Lord Jim the narrative structure, acutely self-conscious of itself as structure,[7] is much more complex, as it has to contain the fracturing force that lies between the figures of Jim and Marlow. After the Patna incident Jim strives to experience alterity beyond the restricting, romantically inspired normative impulses of Marlow's imperially informed narrative, which works to draw Jim back into a more recognisable economy of self-centred crisis. Much of the later story takes place in Patusan, a small village that somehow lies beyond the geographical network of empire, in "the very heart of untouched wilderness" (Conrad, 244), described as a "lost corner of the earth" (Conrad 184). Marlow's recuperative gesture stages itself under the figure of "the unknown," as Jim is incessantly forced back into recognition, into being "one of us," into the structure of Being itself. Jim's experiences on Patusan are rendered in monumental terms, drawing both him and the landscape into romantic codes of association:

I think it is the lonely, without a fireside or an affection they may call their own, those who return not to a dwelling but to the land itself, to meet its disembodied, eternal, and unchangeable spirit... (Conrad 166).

And there I was with him, high in the sunshine on the top of that historic hill of his. He dominated the forest, the secular gloom, the old mankind. He was like a figure set up on a pedestal, to represent in his persistent youth the power, and perhaps the virtues, of races that never grow old, that have emerged from the gloom. I don't know why he should always have appeared to me symbolic. (Conrad 197).

Despite the many events occurring in Patusan - the political intrigue and power struggles between prominent figures and Jim, the growing romance between Jim and Jewel, the violent intrusion of Captain Brown and his crew - the place is represented in static terms, in contradistinction to "the world where events move, men change, light flickers, life flows in a clear stream" (Conrad 244). Patusan, "with its life arrested, in an unchanging light," is visualised by Marlow in terms of a "picture created by fancy on a canvas," the pictorial metaphor serving to further enforce a sense of its static characterisation. What precisely is it that Marlow is afraid of, feeling himself responsible to save Jim from "the darkness" (Conrad 136), "the unknown," the "wilderness," the land without a past and seemingly with no future, where time seems to have no consequence for an understanding of both events and the self? Is it perhaps that Jim comes to experience "the unknown" as a site of emergent otherness located by dialogical interchange, begins to experience a sense of self-understanding beyond the romantic framework of Marlow's imperially structured narrative, which is pathologically driven to contain Jim within a strictly modernist assemblage of subject-centred crisis and fragmentation?

But to return to An Imaginary Life, as I have suggested the figure of "the unknown" performs a powerful trope of romantic recuperation, invested as an experience of transformation at the frontier. The river Ister marks the boundary, and speaks Ovid's desire: "I am the border beyond which you must go if you are to find your true life, your true death at last" (Imaginary Life 136). The Ister represents the "final boundary," beyond which Ovid can apparently escape the very language, the figural force, of limits and boundaries; beyond which Ovid can finally realise, in existential terms, what his poetry has always embodied. And yet, as I've been arguing, it is precisely here that the imperial implications of Ovid's investment in transformation beyond the frontier sustains a writing practice that has always imagined and invested its authority in a conceptual assemblage that includes alterity as a reproductive aspect of its self-understanding, in respect to an otherness it desires to attain, but which it actually contains through a recuperative gesture of metaphysical association.

Not unlike more imperialist texts, then, An Imaginary Life invests a certain desire in crossing the frontier, in going beyond the very idea of border. Beyond the conventions and constraints of society - conventions and constraints structured by class, status, ethnicity, and gender - the mostly masculine hero invests this desire not simply in terms of becoming "native," conquering the forces of "nature," but in terms of an escape from a sense of stasis and the moral authority this implies.

Underestimating the imperial implications of this desire to venture beyond conventional boundaries into "the unknown," one close reader argues that the novel poses a "radical challenge to boundary", suggesting that its writing of an experience beyond binary oppositions inscribes "a lyric comprehensiveness," a condition "in which boundaries can neither be thought nor experienced" (Taylor 5). While this may account for the way in which Malouf's work generally draws attention to a narrative tradition that for(e)gets the power of language to domesticate landscapes into specific fields of vision, it tends to leave unexamined the metaphysical assumption of reconciliation found in An Imaginary Life.

While this sense of "lyric comprehensiveness" provides some understanding of the scope and ambition of Malouf's work, it seems to me that one should also remark on how the writing of An Imaginary Life structures a contradiction between the desire to experience oneself as a transformative site of alterity with the romantic desire for unity and harmony. More significantly, I want to emphasise how this contradiction actually functions as a basic narrative strategy implanting the reproductive, recuperative terms of imperial language and cultural hegemony. Indeed, it is precisely this paradoxical contradiction between a desire to experience oneself in terms of a movement through difference and to maintain a privileged sense of identity that structures the narrative terrain of colonial and imperial forms of writing.


In my opening remarks I suggested that Malouf's later novel, Remembering Babylon, stages a rewriting of An Imaginary Life,[8] and I'd like now to consider how the writing of this later work eludes the imperial narrative terrain I have discussed above. Like the earlier novel, Remembering Babylon is informed by an attentiveness to the complex relationship between language, landscape and identity, in respect to the cultural contours of space. And yet it explores the structural significance of boundaries through a marginal figure of excess that does not merely elude the productive economy of binary oppositions, but that comes to bear the growing realisation that this recuperative economy of normative difference is highly arbitrary, conventional, and tenuous in the extreme.

Gemmy, the "wild boy" in this novel, does not represent a primordial state of being, and thus figure of reconciliation, beyond the complexities of articulating and negotiating difference through social and cultural exchange, but embodies a transitional site of potential otherness whose identity remains an ongoing process of dialogue and self-understanding. The borderland territory mapped out by the figure of Gemmy is, to be sure, invested with a desire to experience alterity, a desire to escape the constraining, subjugating logic of binary forms of differentiation. And yet the strength of the novel lies in its refusal to render this sense of otherness or alterity in metaphysical terms. This borderland territory does not represent a site of innocence beyond the imperative of learning to articulate difference through contact with otherness. The figure of Gemmy works in the novel to develop a sense of alterity that remains within the bounds of language and its productive relationship to landscape, drawing the settlers into the realisation that conceptual forms of self- and other-understanding inscribe certain limits that can well be revised and reviewed.

Having somehow escaped a harsh life in England, washed up on the shore of the Australian coast and gradually accepted by an Aboriginal community with which he spends sixteen years, the "black white man" (Malouf, Remembering Babylon 10) stumbles on a small white settlement and is adopted by the family of Jock and Ellen McIvor. Described further as "a parody of a white man" (Remembering Babylon 39), Gemmy threatens the normalising terms by which the settlers define their patch of earth, the very boundaries that enclose it with self-understanding. This figure of alterity does not fit into their preconceived assumptions of difference, precisely because his wayward and unsettled figure has the potential to disrupt such stereo-typical forms of understanding. Gemmy himself is harmless, a waif of a figure that is all to ready to obey and concede. Rather, "it was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them" (Remembering Babylon 43). This sense of undecidability

brought you slap up against a terror you thought you had learned, years back, to treat as childish: the Bogey, the Coal Man, Absolute Night. 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... (Remembering Babylon 42)

Suddenly the Other throws a shadow, is given the opportunity to express its non-identity with itself, as the terms of self- and other understanding are brought back to the realms of finitude, not dissolved by a metaphysically informed reproductive economy of the same.

From the beginning the settlers attempt to normalise Gemmy's threatening strangeness by recording his story in written form, but in a highly fanciful and constraining fashion that can only approximate the fitful, stammering, and incoherent languages Gemmy speaks through his repertoire of abrupt sounds and gestures. The local parish minister and self-styled botanist Mr Frazer elicits Gemmy's history as the school-teacher George Abbot writes down the story, though in a largely inventive manner influenced "from tales they already knew, since he was by no means the first white black man to have turned up like this after a spell among the blacks" (Remembering Babylon 16).

Abbot records what is described as "the minister's Colonial fairytale," one that compulsively strives to draw Gemmy into an established code informing the significance of not only the binary difference between black and white, but also the liminal figure of cross-cultural experience - a triadic structure that works to contain both difference and its transgression within an assimilating framework of history and geography. In other words, I want to stress, the structure of the novel foregrounds and demonstrates what I earlier called the figure of the "frontiersman" as an integral aspect of how static differences between self and other are maintained. Unlike An Imaginary Life, where liminality is presented through a metaphysical notion of somehow moving beyond the frontier, beyond the labour of historical and geographical understanding, here it is given a significance of necessity, which works to transform the romantic symbol of reconciliation into a critical appreciation of its figural force.

Gemmy, as I have suggested, eludes this triadic structure, precisely because he is unable to project or communicate a semblance of identity, both to himself and others. And yet this inability is not portrayed by a romantic (spiritual) or modernist (psychological) economy of lack (that would find a compensatory fulfilment in either Nature or the Aesthetic), but rather as a movement within the complex, interactive relationship between language, landscape, and identity.

This wavering, indeterminate movement is embodied by the figure of Gemmy, and is transmitted to the settlers, which makes them feel very uneasy:

But where could you start with an odd, unsettled fellow who, beyond what the boy Lachlan had heard him shout, had not a word you could make sense of in the English tongue; a pathetic, muddy-eyed, misshapen fellow, all fidgets, who seemed amazed by them - as if they were the curiosities here - and kept laughing and blinking. (Remembering Babylon 7)

In this way the settlers are confronted with a heightened sense of the arbitrariness of the boundaries they have surrounded themselves with, within the limits of which they go about transforming the landscape so that it comes to be "just a bit like home" (Remembering Babylon 10).

Suddenly, with the appearance of Gemmy, the settlers develop an increased fear of what lies outside the boundaries, and this is related to a growing fear of what lies within the boundaries as well - the growing realisation that not all of them think alike. The "unknown" is drawn into this uneasiness, an "unknown" that does not merely inscribe the other side of the fence, but also the inside. In this fashion the narrative-work provides an interesting view of self-understanding in respect to the physical and figurative force of geographical boundaries - how boundaries and geographical locations are themselves never static and immutable, but are always on the move: "It was disturbing, that: to have unknown country behind you as well as in front" (Remembering Babylon 8). And as I have noted, the inside also:

Most unnerving of all was the knowledge that, just three years back, the very patch of earth you were standing on had itself been on the other side of things, part of the unknown, and might still, for all your coming and going over it, and the sweat you had poured into its acre or two of ploughed earth, have the last of mystery upon it, in jungle brakes between paddocks and ferny places out of the sun. (Remembering Babylon 9-10).

The "unknown" becomes aware of itself as a figure of knowledge and understanding, and begins to deconstruct the silent assumptions and presuppositions informing the spatial texture of its conceptual associations. In other words, self-understanding is drawn into the spatial contours of its for(e)getfulness, into that which exceeds the symbols of assimilation. Just as Gemmy's identity eludes the ordering force of symbolic associations, eludes the assimilating force of Mr Frazer's inventive story about Gemmy, the settlers are drawn into the spatial contours of their finitude. Remembering Babylon, then, develops a constructive sense of how the term "nature," or "the unknown," cannot simply be presupposed as an untouched terrain lying outside the figurative force of language, but gains its significance within a complex experience of networks of signification, as well as the physical activity that renders landscapes habitable.

In an interview with Nikos Papastergiadis, Malouf has said that Gemmy "stands as an emblematic figure" (85), and it seems to me that he does so in a number of interrelated ways. In the first place he corrupts the neat triadic assemblage that relates binary differences according to a third figure of alterity and transformation invested with imaginary desire. Secondly, he works to demonstrate both the irredeemable finitude and conventional limits of self-understanding. As Malouf comments on Gemmy and the settlers: "he is a figure that they know as white but they can't smell him as white and they can't even feel him as white, and that element of undecidability throws up to them the dubious quality of their own whiteness" (Remembering Babylon 79). Thirdly, the narrative structure concerns itself more with the mobile contours of space, and not simply that of time, as it translates symbolic assumptions of language into an appreciation of their figural force. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the narrative structure is not oriented by an economy of lack, which presupposes a metaphysical notion of potential redemption, but is rather oriented by an economy of indeterminate plenitude, one that defines and informs the landscape and its subjectifying processes of experience and understanding. This is demonstrated not only in respect to the figure of Gemmy, but also to the characters of Janet, Jock, Lachlan, Mrs Hutchence, and Mr Frazer's growing respect for the indigenous characteristics of the landscape.

Malouf's novels An Imaginary Life and Remembering Babylon are embedded in and at the same time articulate the concerns of an Australian political culture as it reviews not only its history, but the way in which it assumes that history can be recorded and rendered digestible. Part of this involves a critical view of the relationship between language and landscape, in terms of how Malouf's writing foregrounds the reproductive capacity of this assemblage, questioning any form of identity symbolically relieved from the fracturing force of contact with indeterminate otherness. The earlier novel addresses this, but remains caught-up with a mimetic tradition which for(e)gets the power of language as an emblem or symbol of self-explanatory truth. Remembering Babylon, as I have said, draws the reproductive assemblage of language, landscape, and identity back to the realms of finitude, so that there can be no escape from having to face, to negotiate, the potentially fracturing force of self- and other-understanding. Reconciliation cannot be assumed symbolically or recuperated by a metaphysical economy of self-centred understanding of difference, as An Imaginary Life assumes, but must be worked towards as a practical exercise in learning, in coming to terms with difference as an ever-emerging articulation of self and otherness.



This problematic is addressed by Leela Gandhi in her Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia U P, 1998), especially the last three chapters. Gandhi describes this valorisation as a "professionalisation of the margin," p128.


On this theme, see Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).


Besides Armstrong's book cited above, see John Richetti, Popular Fiction Before Richardson (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1992); Firdous Azim, The Colonial Rise of the Novel (London: Routledge, 1993), among others.


For a discussion of the gendered and gendering implications of Rousseau's work, see Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: ‘Male' and ‘Female' in Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1993), 57-64.


An essay by Paul Kavanagh - "Elegies of Presence: Malouf, Heidegger and Language." In Amanda Nettelbeck, ed, Provisional Maps: Critical Essays On David Malouf (Perth: U of Western Australia, 1994) - canvasses this theme in not only Malouf's An Imaginary Life but also his poetry. And concerning the theme of "childhood," let us not forget its redemptive significance for the Romantics.


Phillips mentions (p25) how Rousseau greatly appreciated Defoe's novel.


Much could be said about the acute self-consciousness of the novel's peculiar narrative structure, which presents a series of abrupt beginnings and endings, pathologically circling about itself and resisting any form of direct reference to events. Indeed, it could be said that the narrative structures a story about the possibility of narrative, suggested by the following: "My information was fragmentary, but I've fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture" (253). Moreover, such consideration of the narrative's self reference would have to remark on how the narrative voice always remains the privilege of Europeans, non-Europeans excluded from such authority. Hereafter, page numbers cited within the text.


Peter Pierce makes a connection between the two novels in his essay "Problematic History, Problems of Form: David Malouf's Remembering Babylon." In Nettelbeck, cited above.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford U P, 1989.

Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. New York: Signet,1981.

Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. London: Puffin, 1986.

Malouf, David. An Imaginary Life. Sydney: Picador, 1992.

  - . The Boyer Lectures: Lecture 2, A Complex Fate. ABC, Australia  <>

  - . Remembering Babylon. London: Vintage, 1994.

Nettlebeck, Amanda. "Rewriting an Explorer Mythology: The Narration of Space in David Malouf's Work." A Nettelbeck, ed. Provisional Maps: Critical Essays On David Malouf. Perth: U of Western Australia, 1994.

Papatergiadis, Nikos. "Languages for Landscape: A conversation with David Malouf." Nikos Papastergiadis. Dialogues in the Diasporas: Essays and Conversations on Cultural Identity. London: Rivers Oram P, 1988.

Phillips, Richard. Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure. London: Routledge, 1997.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. London: Penguin, 1986.

Taylor, Andrew. "The Bread of Time to Come: Body and Landscape in David Malouf's Fiction." World Literature
(Autumn 2000).