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The Apocalyptic Imagination of Janet Frame.

Janet Frame's fiction is seeded with catastrophe. Her work makes an ongoing examination of the dramatic and violent breakdowns that occur within individual consciousness, as well as at a social and global level. More than this, Frame's fiction makes an explicit connection between moments of personal apocalypse--death, or the death of the autonomous will--and broader-scale failures or collapses of civilisation. The plot of Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry offers a template for her fascination with the connection between breakdowns on a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale. In this novel, the destruction of Daphne Withers' unique point of view via leucotomy suggests a prevision of a broader collapse of humanity, a return to a state in which life, as Toby Withers states, 'isn't civilised. [...] There are no people'. (1) We see such moments replicated throughout Frame's oeuvre. In Scented Gardens for the Blind, the elimination of Erlene Glace is mirrored by the mass-destruction of the atom bomb that eventually destroys Britain. In The Carpathians, the threat of the Gravity Star--a mysterious extraterrestrial force that causes the complete breakdown of memory, language, and distance--echoes the threat that stalks every individual: that they will be forgotten after death. While Frame's catastrophic overturnings in part represent the fraught and life-threatening struggle to find existential balance--the difficulty of choosing a personal path through unmediated reality--I will argue in this essay that her fascination with the narrative arc of apocalypse also reveals the ongoing influence of Christian thought on her work, and an upbringing shaped by her mother Lottie Frame's Christadelphian belief.

I have argued elsewhere that it is illuminating to approach Frame's work via the lens of existential philosophy. (2) This is not to suggest that Frame espouses a particular, overarching philosophical theory, but that her works, and the embodied states they describe, record an awareness of experience that is existentialist in nature. In other words, her work consistently records a fundamental angst, one which arises from an apprehension of the challenge of navigating between the subjective and objective realms, between the mind and the body, as between a private conception of language and the forces of socially mediated communication. Frame's apocalypses can usefully be read as acts that stage the collapse of what Kierkegaard called 'dialectical pairs'. Typically for Frame, personal, social, and textual apocalyptic evinces a particular kind of narrative irony--one which allows her to retain a powerful idealism while also treating the totalitarian outcomes of such extreme dualism with a distinct ambivalence. Yet, in Frame's work, the sheer prevalence of such events as a means to engineer narrative closure, as well as the language and imagery through which she stages these moments of collapse, warrants further attention through the specific lens of Christian apocalyptic.

In contemporary usage, the terms 'apocalyptic' and 'post-apocalyptic' have become shorthand for novels, particularly those published for young adult readers, that incorporate catastrophic events or conjure dystopian futures. However, it's possible to see that Frame's work accords strongly with the etymological foundation of this word, and its basis in Greek as a term that meant, literally, an 'unveiling' or a 'revelation'. (3) The Apocalypse Group of the SBL genre project accorded the following definition to the genre of apocalyptic: it is, they write 'a revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world'. (4)

This is a definition that allows us to see how consistently Frame's work employs a truly apocalyptic mode, or perhaps more accurately an anti-apocalyptic mode. As discussed above, Frame consistently presents the destruction of individual characters as the destruction of an epoch or worldview. These private apocalypses in turn reveal and unleash much broader and darker social consequences. Such events are often channeled or narrated by prophetic, choric figures who represent a bridge between the human and the otherworldly. Within her novels, revelations occur via dream, via disembodied voices, or in keeping with the imagery of Revelation--through animals or hybridised human figures. Erlene's conversations with Uncle Blackbeetle in Scented Gardens for the Blind and Milly Galbraith's relationship with Sandy Monk (the 'reconstructed man' with 'golden skin' and a 'Brand-X penis') in Intensive Care might stand as examples here, respectively. That these prophetic voices bring with them the promise of transcendence is also clear; however, often such promises result in textual failure. Frame typically foregrounds narrators who struggle toward a space, or a form, in which they might articulate idealised subjective thought. The envisioned shift into this transcendent reality is also, typically, only possible via a form of eschatological shift or temporal breakdown. Distinct spatial movement is also frequently figured. In Faces in the Water, the narrator Istina Mavet represents herself as a voyaging intermediary from a 'land of meaning', who must seek to enter a 'lost kingdom'. Often, as in the case of The Carpathians, Daughter Buffalo, and Scented Gardens for the Blind, apocalyptic events propel the novels into the adjacent temporospatial realm of an alternative textual world.

While it's possible to trace specific textual links to Christian thought in Frame's work, the most powerful influence in this area is arguably her mother's own Christadelphian faith. In his essay on Frame in Leaving the Highway, Mark Williams discusses the impact of Lottie Frame's Christadelphianism on her children, and on Frame as a writer. For Lottie, immanence was embedded in the real and concrete. This confidence in the importance of the earthly bleeds into Frame's fictional temperament. (5) We see an echo of it in her continued assertion in the Autobiography that, as a child she was primarily a practical writer, favouring the accurate rather than the allusive word, and seeking 'an imagination that would inhabit a world of fact, descend like a shining light upon the ordinary life of Eden Street'. (6) We see the influence extended in Frame's fictional insistence on embodied physical realities that offset her work's abstract and metaphysical patterning.

Though the Christadelphian denial of the afterlife reestablishes the spiritual importance of material reality, it also confers a formidable focus on the endlessly deferred moment of Resurrection, or the Second Coming. Discussion of the resurrection was--according to Frame's autobiography--a frequent occurrence in the Frame household. It is significant that Frame interprets her mother's version of this narrative in highly practical and materially grounded terms. Thus, Judgment Day takes place in a realm that is at once social, local and tinged with competitive spirit:

Mother explained that when you died, you died, staying in your grave until the Second Coming and the Resurrection and Judgment Day (which I imagined as a heavenly kind of Sports Day with the Oamaru Brass Band playing 'The Invercargill March' and the Pipe Band playing 'The Road to the Isles'). (CA 68-9)

Lottie Frame's focus on end times appears also to shape her predilection for the dramatic excitement of vicarious catastrophe. In the list of poems that she shares with the family, Frame particularly notes those 'of shipwreck, of tidal waves' (CA 15). She is--as Frame tells us--fond of narrating tales of individual disaster, and employing the full-blown and performative 'language of emergency' (CA 22). When one of her husband's fellow railway workers is hit by a train, Lottie uses 'what we learned to call her 'earthquake and tidal-wave voice', announcing with high-pitched urgency, 'It's Tommy Miles, it's Tommy Miles' (CA 22). The 'earthquake and tidal-wave voice' or elsewhere the 'earthquake and lightning voice' becomes shorthand for Lottie Frame's fascination with catastrophic event.

One of the primary appeals of disaster, as Lottie's habits make evident, is its narrative power. This is an authority it shares with eschatology. As the critic Malcolm Woodland has commented: 'apocalyptic discourse [...] offers a certain discursive mastery over history's complexities'. (7) In the autobiography, Frame carefully highlights her mother's performative pleasure in narrating disaster. Whether catastrophe provokes sympathy, excitement, or personal fear, her announcements represent a distinct social currency. To narrate disaster is to titillate and impress an audience. The customary stance that Lottie adopts in such moments--'in the light of our new dining room window, in front of the silver-scrolled, brown-polished Singer sewing machine' (CA 30)--emphasises this inherent performativity. The window with its swag curtains becomes a proscenium arch:

[T]here was the Napier earthquake with the news and the description being given full disaster treatment by Mother's voice as she stood in the light of our new dining room window [...). In moments of family importance, Mother formed the habit of standing by that window, placing her feelings, like trophies, to be revealed and illuminated. (CA 30)

Frame's apprehension of Judgment Day as a form of brightly lit social and sporting event is echoed in her description of Lottie's mastery of the discourse of catastrophe. Her feelings--displayed with complete confidence in their social recognition--have the burnish of prizes. Thus, Frame highlights her awareness, from a young age, of the specifically social power associated with communicating disaster or breakdown. It is also clear that she views the performative tactics and language of such narration with distinct ambivalence. Her autobiography registers a deep suspicion of the convenient and socially facing impact of the 'language of emergency' and the way this might exist at odds with more subtle and subjectively alert experience. This is a conflict similarly at work in Frame's broader initiation--via early story-writing lessons at primary school--into the social expectations of narrative. She explicitly describes the tension between her own internal, subjective, 'noticing' plane of narrative, and one which demands 'physical danger, rescues, being lost and found, triumphing in disaster':

My staple adventure was crossing the bull paddock, where there was not even a bull, only a bunch of steers, and finding my way through the second 'planny' beyond the point of darkness when my heart began to beat fast and the green world was lost in the dark trees [...]; but I felt shy of disclosing that adventure because it was different from that of the others in the class where the insistence was on the escapes, broken limbs, runaway horses ... (CA 33)

It is a tension we will see recurring throughout Frame's oeuvre, in her sense of how apocalypse acts on time, language and consciousness.

In The Pursuit of the Millenium, Norman Cohn argues that one of the chief appeals of millenarian thought--the specific eschatology of those who focus on Christ's return in the Second Coming and the establishment of the messianic kingdom on earth--is its ability to offset material oppression and difficulty with the comforting sense of idealism and election. This makes it uniquely attractive to those who see themselves as suffering from present social or economic affliction. As he writes, 'in situations of mass disorientation and anxiety, traditional beliefs about a future golden age or messianic kingdom came to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities'. (8) While Cohn here discusses mass social movements, the impulse behind such compensatory thought holds true at an individual level. It is an argument that further illuminates Lotue's fascination with end times, as presented by Frame in her autobiography. Against a backdrop of economic privation, social struggle, the specific afflictions of a son's epilepsy and the tragic death of two daughters, we might further understand the comfort Lottie takes in the knowledge that 'the riches of the kingdom' will be inherited--as she counsels her children--by 'the beggars and swaggers' (CA 28). For Lottie, the deferred and comforting promise of the 'Latter Days and the Second Coming' is associated with incorporation, affirmation and rest, as well as the return of missed and mourned-for family members. It is, in Frame's evocation, also connected with the contemplation of longed-for, socially recognised material rewards such as the cake 'icing set with which she would some day write [...] words and phrases on the Christmas and New Year cakes' (CA 77) and, later, her fantasy of gifting each of her daughters 'a white fox fur on [their] twenty-first birthday' (CA 181).

While Frame often characterises her mother's religion as simple-minded and saccharine, it's yet possible to see that Lottie's focus on apocalyptic discourse had a significant impact on Frame's lived experience, as well as her fiction. The pattern of comfort and compensation, in particular as a potential recompense for social slights or difficulties, is strikingly present in Frame's account of her own entry into adolescence. Frame records her growing sense of social and physical awkwardness during this period. The autobiography registers her discomfort with a too-tight uniform, bulky menstrual pads, extreme social anxiety, and her own identity as a social outsider. Frame's millenium is, however, translated into aesthetic, and specifically literary terms, aided no doubt by a diet of Romantic poetry that was also often fervently millenarian in its vision. The reward for affliction comes via the compensatory gift of 'imagination', and her desired yet deferred status as 'a poet'. Though Frame records a determination that the world of the imagination must not be separate from her own practical, physical reality, the vision of her own identity as a writer is nevertheless apprehended as a private and idealised future state. As she writes, the world of the imagination 'became my goal, a kind of religion. [...] I held it in my secret poetic life' (CA 163). And as she confesses to her diary before entrance to the final year of high school: 'They think I'm going to be a schoolteacher, but I'm going to be a poet' (CA 132).

When Frame leaves home for Dunedin Training College, her social and physical realities become more difficult to reconcile with this vision. Socially anxious, and with the cold comfort of her deferred vision of a 'secret poetic life', the thought of moving fluently within the world of the students of the Dunedin Training College becomes another dreamed-for and yet impossible state. Her imagined bliss at the thought of taking part in the 'second years' song' explicitly echoes her mother's talk of 'Latter Days'. 'It seemed to me', she writes, 'like a promise of heaven' (CA 154). The fraught yet seductive narrative of personal election also evolves. An outburst of tears with the Training College warden is characterised in hindsight as evidence of Frame's own 'poetic role' ('a fitting source for a poet ... what a tragic life ...' [CA 173]). Entering a college poetry competition is motivated by the prospect of showing the warden and others 'that I was really a poet' (CA 174). Yet, in spite of her own increasing claim on this identity, including the publication of two poems in the college magazine, Frame's hold on this mythical deferred status, and her entrance into an 'ideal poetic world', remain elusive.

A crucial lesson of apocalyptic of course is that the transition from the lapsed world to a millenarian kingdom requires violence. It is of significance that the pattern of first and last that Frame has seized on is mirrored in the real-world events taking place at the time. As she writes:

At the beginning of the month when I was to celebrate my twenty-first birthday, my coming of age, the war was suddenly over, having pursued me through all the years of my official adolescence [...]. My coming of age was lit by the mushroom fire that made shadows of all those caught in its brightness; a spectacular illumination of the ceremonies of death, 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust'. (CA 187)

In personal terms, the autobiography records Frame's growing awareness that desire itself was not sufficient to break down the increasingly rigid division between her lived reality and her dreamed existence. This realisation in effect governs Frame's famous traversal from 'this' world of prosaic reality to 'that' world of the imagination--the moment she walks out of her school classroom during an inspection. When this act is not sufficient to access the 'world of poetry'--Frame attempts suicide. This moment of violence is mirrored--following Frame's commitment to Seacliff and ongoing institutionalisation--in the proposed, but not ultimately fulfilled, threat of lobotomy. As inevitable endpoints of Frame's inherited sense of Christian and romantic dualism, and as desperately inadequate mechanisms for achieving salvation, they set the pattern for Frame's future fictional representations of apocalypse.

As we trace the connection between the brushes Frame experienced with personal disaster and her subsequent fictional treatment of apocalypse, perhaps the first thing to note is her mastery of one of Lottie Frame's central lessons. Frame is acutely attuned to the narrative power that apocalyptic events wield. Initial evidence for this might be found in the distinct, and distincdy performative, social use to which Frame puts the narrative of her own suicide attempt. In the condensed autobiography submitted for the psychology course in which she was then enrolled, Frame recounts the events with some relish:

I had now recovered; in a way I was now rather proud for I could not understand how I had been so daring. I wrote at the end of my autobiography, 'Perhaps I should mention a recent attempt at suicide ...', describing what I had done but, to make the attempt more impressive, using the chemical term for asprin--acetylsalicylic acid'. (CA 189)

Further evidence of this lesson's impact might be seen in the repetition of the apocalyptic mode as a somewhat pragmatic narrative mechanism in her later fiction. As a writer more clearly attuned to the representation of lyrical subjectivity and symbolic patterning than the exigencies of plot, catastrophe gives distinct shape and form to Frame's highly textured fiction. From Daphne Withers' leucotomy in Owls Do Cry through to Zoe Bryce's suicide in The Edge of the Alphabet and the textual elimination of Mattina Brecon in The Carpathians, Frame cannily demonstrates apocalypse as a tool for powerful narrative closure and mastery.

However, the ambivalence with which Frame represents these turning points in her fiction ultimately reflects the irony and skepticism with which she treats her mother's trust in the apocalyptic mode, as well as its limits in her own personal experience. If Frame's attempted suicide and the threat of her lobotomy are both the result of her overweening desire, and failure, to access 'the world of poetry, openly, unashamedly, without having to hide it in secrecy within myself (CA 191), both also reflect the flaw in figuring this world as a simple realm of static, achieved salvation. What Frame's time in institutions reveals instead is, as she famously records:

a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession; I think it must be the best view in the world, equal in its rapture and chilling exposure, there in the neighbourhood of the ancient gods and goddesses. (CA 214)

Far from a fixed achievement, this perspective is continuous and evolving:

The very act of returning to the world [...] tends to remove that view to the storeroom of the mind described by Thomas Beecham as 'the room two inches behind the eyes'. One remembers the treasure and the Midas effect of it upon each moment, and sometimes one can see the glitter among the ordinary waste of each day. (CA 214)

Frame's inheritance is, in other words, an experience that complicates any easy dualism. It is both 'a nightmare' and 'a treasure'. It partakes in the timeless and transcendent ('the neighbourhood of gods and goddesses'), as well as being both temporally and physically bounded (a 'lifelong possession' that occupies 'the room two inches behind the eyes'). Moreover, it requires the active participation of imagination and memory rather than its treatment as a fixed and deferred ideal.

Frame's fictional commitment to representing false or anti-apocalyptic events can be seen as a way of continually rehearsing this realisation. Her plots explore and reject the apocalyptic mode as a tactic for both courting and taming the violence of idealism. The most common model of transcendent reality in Frame's work is--in keeping with her own stated hunger--that for a perfect language. In Scented Gardens for the Blind, the parents of the aphasic Erlene Glace long for her to speak, convinced that when she does so this speech will be perfectly expressive of a higher 'truth'. As Vera states, she must utter
   not mere animal cries, demands for food, warmth, love,
   nor human pleas for forgiveness, salvation, peace of mind,
   but the speech which arranges the dance and pattern of
   the most complicated ideas and feelings of man in relation
   to truth; truth; it, the centre [...] the feeding-time of the
   spirit [...]. (9)

The fact that this language raises subjective ideas and feelings to the level of a fixed transcendent state is what guarantees it as a mode of salvation, yet also what ensures its force of eschatological destruction. Its utterance will enact apocalypse. The temporal shift it initiates is into 'tomorrow [...] the time of the flash in the sky, the deep burn of words which destroy all power to create, the time of a first-degree language so articulate that the vision of it results in physical blindness and those who have spoken it are struck dumb and forbidden ever to speak again'. (10) Erlene's language does not just initiate the end-time, it also freezes speech and time permanently.

Malfred Signal's desire to achieve a 'New Vision' in A State of Siege presents a parallel vision of transcendent reality. Just as Erlene's language suggests a cosmic end, Malfred's desire to see objects form 'a burning wholeness of shape that is deprived of shade' (11) also suggests an impulse to stop the movement of the sun, and thus time. In the novel, this attempted extraction of absolute meaning in turn causes the combustion of language: 'There's a smell of burning. The letters on the named dreams are surely on fire'. (12)

In Owls Do Cry, we contemplate, with Daphne in the dead room, another, though minor moment of projected apocalyptic. Daphne looks at a picture on her wall--an image of Arrowtown where the light is 'frozen pale gold upon a street of poplars whose leaves are pale gold, for ever, ready to fall, yet never falling'. The picture appears to hold a release from her painfully experienced dualism. Yet, the cost of moving into this fixed, peaceful world, is--as with all apocalypse--violence: in order to get there you must 'break the glass and climb through bleeding, a crazed myopic figure'. (13)

In each of these examples, Frame draws together a critique of idealism's totalising force, and Revelation's promise of a future end. These moments all ultimately point to Frame's frustration with the apocalyptic vision--a place in which dualities are permanently and simply resolved and reconciled. That this critique is both aesthetic and philosophical is clear. Describing Lottie's taste in poetry, Frame writes that it is 'fuse[d] with her preoccupation with the "latter days" creating opposite images of total darkness and loss with total light and revelation' (CA 75). This mode of thought is also specifically criticised by Malfred Signal in State of Siege: 'She had learned to beware of the telescopic, fashionable, so-called poetic thinking that calls the beginning the end and the end the beginning, that marries opposites in order to unite them and decrease the effort of trying to understand their separate natures'. (14)

What Frame's plots ultimately propose, then, is that opposing dualisms cannot be easily or simply reconciled. This is why her fictions so often feature the coda that features what Colin Monk in Intensive Care calls 'a strange sense of overturning, reverse'. (15) As Frame's characters enact that final freezing of time, the push through into the millenarian or Utopian state, the narrative structure of the novel typically inverts. Each point of collapse reveals the triumph of the physicality of the objective world. The possibility of an abstract and absolute language is replaced with the animalistic speech 'out of ice and stone' of Scented Gardens for the Blind, (16) or is reduced to physical excreta, an alphabet made of 'smears of dung animal and human' in The Carpathians. (17) Intensive Care ends with the reassertion of the bond between human and animal, and in the final breakthrough of the stone that marks Malfred Signal's death in State of Siege, the object world has its ultimate revenge.

In each of these moments Frame stages apocalypses that both echo and critique the absolutism of millenarian or apocalyptic thought, ultimately gesturing beyond it to a place where, to quote The Carpathians, 'the anguished opposites were reverted to their partner in peace yet did not vanish: one united with the other; each two [...] lost and found'. (18)


(1) Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry (Melbourne: Text Classics, 2014), p. 257.

(2) See Anna Smaill, 'Beyond Analogy: Janet Frame and Existential Thought', in Frameworks: Contemporary Criticism on Janet Frame, ed. by Ian Cronin and Simone Drichel (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), pp. 6788.

(3) As Northrop Frye has it, the word conveys the sense of 'uncovering' or 'taking a lid off. See Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), p. 155.

(4) John J. Collins, 'Introduction: Toward the Morphology of a Genre', in 'Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre', Semeia 14 (1979), p. 9.

(5) See Mark Williams, Leaving the Highway: Six Contemporary New Zealand Novelists (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1990), pp. 123-39.

(6) Janet Frame, The Complete Autobiography (London: The Women's Press, 1990), p. 101. All further references to this text will be abbreviated CA and appear parenthetically in the text.

(7) Malcolm Woodland, Wallace Stevens and the Apocalyptic Mode (Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2009), p. 4.

(8) Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 17.

(9) Janet Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind (London: The Women's Press, 1983), p. 119.

(10) Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind, p. 92.

(11) Janet Frame, A State of Siege (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1982), p. 176.

(12) Frame, A State of Siege, p. 176.

(13) Frame, Owls Do Cry, p. 205.

(14) Frame, A State of Siege, p. 161.

(15) Janet Frame, Intensive Care (London: W.H. Allen, 1971), p. 334.

(16) Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind, p. 252

(17) Janet Frame, The Carpathians (Auckland: Vintage, 2005), p. 183.

(18) Frame, The Carpathians, p. 168. Italics mine.
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Author:Smaill, Anna
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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