Fractal Myth

Wrestling With The Snake.

[Michelle Chapman ©1999]

"...profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful."
Paul Valéry [1934] (1)

Writing an essay, for me, is like wrestling a snake. A very beautiful snake, peacock patterned, poised to strike. It rivets my gaze, hypnotizing, paralysing me with mingled fascination and fear. Daring me to pit my white woman flesh against its glittering scales. Only, in a 'normal' essay, my flesh would have to be denied, distanced by convention, objectified out of existence.

In a 'normal' essay, one endeavours to leave no fingerprints, to present only the snake and the ties that bind it into its neat little box. One attempts to be (impossibly) ungendered, uncoloured, hardly human at all, for one does not want to be misunderstood, to be judged on a personal level. One is just one more competent essay in the pile, trying to be that little bit more competent than the rest. And so one is never satisfied. I am never satisfied.

What is the cause of my dissatisfaction? Is it the gap between the essay's objective ideal and my subjective reality? The constant struggle to convey meaning in the fewest possible words? The suspicion that whatever I say has already been said many times before? Perhaps there is inherent ambiguity in other writer's words, the quotes I use to tie my snake down, my recycled authorities? There is endless scope for frustration here - ties are always too long, too short, too tangled, too fragile to hold my snake in position once I hand the box to someone else.

Perhaps my dissatisfaction is with myself, a lack of confidence in my ability to argue coherently? Who knows? There are no pre-packaged answers, waiting to be unearthed. If I am to learn and to grow as a writer, I must find space - space for investigation, for interrogation, for exploration, for engagement with the problem.

Dissatisfaction, frustration, confusion. Are not these the feelings which goad me to write, to grapple with new snakes, bigger and stronger, requiring thicker ties to hold them? Ties made by word-smiths who are masters of the art of convolution, and who infinitely increase, rather than resolve, my dissatisfaction, frustration, confusion.

If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse but because the nature of the field - that is, language and a finite language - excludes totalization. This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it : a centre which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions! ... The movement of signification adds something, which results in the fact that there is always more, but this addition is a floating one because it comes to perform a vicarious function, to supplement a lack on the part of the signified.(2)

Under what circumstances could a circuitous quote, like this from Derrida, be considered self-explanatory? Should I attempt to expound upon his carefully chosen words, or simply link the quote into my context with a conventional cue, 'As Jacques Derrida has said ...'? This would allow me to borrow the author's authority, to enlist 'his' (in this case) help in my battle against the snake, though never fully understanding the weapons which he brings to my aid. I will not be wholly satisfied, either way, for I will not be able to trust the tie to hold my snake in place. My "substitution" may weaken the fabric causing it to tear, or I may loop it around a non-existent "centre". The result would be a very unexciting essay box, with loose ties jumbled together, and only a scale or two to show where the snake should be.

Then again, on rare occasions my luck will hold, weaving the tie into a daisy-chain of gold.

Why should I use Derrida as a noose to strangle my snake? That is no fun for anyone! Instead, Derrida is suggesting to me a fresh green field, where I and my snake may have play : "freedom for action, or scope for activity,"(3) to play : "to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation."(4) This does not sound like the 'normal' description of an assessment task at university level, but does it not accurately reflect the literary goals for which I am educating myself? Writing should be play, not labour. I believe this is why Joseph Furphy has Tom Collins begin work on the three hundred and seventy one pages of his chronicles with the exclamation "Unemployed at last!"(5)

But do I have the necessary courage to chase my snake into this new field, which I have painted inside the box? After all, a field missing its centre is liable to be full of holes! Reflecting on Hélène Cixous essay 'The Laugh of the Medusa', however, I have come to the opinion that a field full of holes is holy ground for a woman, freeing "that part of you that leaves a space between yourself and urges you to inscribe in language your woman's style."(6) She, too, provides me with 'play to play', encouraging me to follow wherever my snake may lead. I will borrow my warpaint from her, inspired by the snakes which writhe happily around her head.

Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst - burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I, too, said nothing : I didn't open my mouth. I didn't repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself : You are mad! What's the meaning of these waves, these floods, these outbursts? ... And why don't you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you : your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven't written. ... Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it's reserved for the great ... Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you : not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery ... and not yourself.(7)

We revel in our new-found freedom, the snake and I, but still the box remains, and the snake must be made to stay inside it. I try to reason with the snake, but it laughs at me. It is intangible, ephemeral, a Cheshire snake vanishing inconveniently, leaving only its grin behind. Am I playing with the snake or is it playing with me? It keeps my mind whirling, leading me a merry dance as I desperately try to pin it down. Each time I reach out for it, it slithers away. It refuses my efforts to dominate it. There do not seem to be any fences in this field, and the snake disappears in the long thick grass. I search and search and search and finally find it, curled up in the sun on a postmodern rock. The moment the snake moves, the rock melts into shifting sand.

The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher : the text he writes or the work he creates is not in principle governed by pre-established rules and cannot be judged according to a determinant judgment, by the application of given categories to this text or work. Such rules and categories are what the work or text is investigating. The artist and writer therefore work without rules, and in order to establish the rules for what will have been made.(8)

Does this also hold true for the postmodern student of art or writing? Rules must surely be learnt before they can be broken. Once they have been learnt can they truly be discarded? Is not everything I write consciously or unconsciously influenced by the conventions, the rules, which I have learned? When is an essay no longer an essay, and what does it become? The quote from Lyotard seems to carry the message 'Don't worry, be happy!', but it implies a deep responsibility as well.

Is it possible to formulate this responsibility in words, without sounding unbearably trite and pompous? Maybe I can blame it on the snake - I am only following its lead! Literature is ongoing. It has a past, and it has a future. The past is yesterday, everything that has been written. (But, as always, 'everything' is problematic. Should it be inclusive, claiming all texts as relevant, [including shopping lists and email], or exclusive, rejecting any text out-of-sync with the current dominant ideology?) Today, while I write this, I am the future. Tomorrow, when you read this, you are the future. With everything we write and everything we read, we travel further. Those texts which we culturally choose to preserve for posterity are physically stored in monolithic libraries, constructing our literary past as the home base from which new settlements spring, and between which writers travel. As always, we carry our individual literary past with us on the trail.

The taking up of any position, within a specific discursive form, in a particular historical conjuncture, is then always problematic - the site of both fixity and fantasy. It provides a colonial 'identity' that is played out - like all fantasies of originality and origination - in the face and space of the disruption and threat from the heterogeneity of other positions. As a form of splitting and multiple belief, the 'stereotype' requires, for its successful signification, a continual and repetitive chain of other stereotypes.(9)

Nothing, but nothing, is ever as simple as it seems. How can I hope to maintain a home base in a field without a centre? The image is unsustainable. Already I imagine the monoliths sinking into holes in my field, with thousands of freed snakes fleeing from the doors and windows like stereotypical rats. And yet the libraries physically remain, shelf after shelf of dusty boxes, each with a snake nestled snugly inside. Institutions are more resilient and buoyant than they may appear.

How resilient and buoyant am I? Once I have admitted the "heterogeneity of other positions" I no longer feel justified claiming a privileged position for myself. Why should I, who already has so much, demand that my voice be heard over those less fortunate? Surely their words are more important for society than my attempts to communicate and entertain? My language feels clumsy and my reluctance grows as my belief in my competence deserts me. This happens surprisingly often. However, my snake will not let me escape so easily. I am trapped in its coils and only words will free me. I have a quota to fill. But are my own words good enough? Do they really say exactly what I mean? I must continually supplement them, in order to expand the field of play.

This refusal of closure, this interrogative approach, reinforces the notion of language itself as a network of territories where boundaries keep shifting in accordance with prevailing ideologies. These transgressions query constantly the concept of a 'natural' language in which one gains competence.(10)

If language is territorial, and the boundaries "keep shifting", how do I know when I am trespassing? Who owns this field in which I play? Are there places where I may not follow my snake? Holes down which I may not go? What am I risking? Under what law will I be judged? In whose court will I appear? Do I even, truthfully, care?

Born into the prevailing ideology and educated in its ways, do I not feel somehow that the rules are my birthright, to be broken with impunity? There are those who are not so lucky. Those whose voices are suppressed while others claim to speak for them. Those who experience their field as a voracious black hole, invisible to those in greener pastures. Those who are forced to stay in bare fenced paddocks never allowed to hunt for snakes in the grass. Those whose snakes, no matter how neatly packed in a box, are pushed aside, forgotten, given no chance to slide free. An example close to home lies in the indigenous inhabitants of this lucky country, whose old songs are lost and whose new songs are largely denied a fair hearing.

In a culture that ignores or undervalues almost everything the herd does not endorse and that harbours a distrust of ideas, originality and inspiration, it seems only natural to avoid confrontation, to accept what the so-called authorities tell us, despite those inner urgings that quietly challenge one to look beyond what is fashionable. This is particularly so with Aboriginal writing, where, instead of criticism, there is more often than not merely a patronising acceptance - engagement avoided in favour of a pat on the head.(11)

So that is what my dichotomy comes down to? Patronising acceptance versus personal engagement! As every child knows, it is always easier for a parent to say 'That's nice dear, now take it outside where it belongs' instead of wrestling with the grass snake offered by a grubby hand. I want to be the child and not the parent, exclaiming 'Here! Look what I've found! Isn't it fun?'. Why would I want to enthrone myself stiffly on a pedestal? Rebelling against the patriarchy, can I allow the patriarch in myself to survive? It's so much nicer, more natural, to squat in the dust and swap snakes.

The difference is that for me it is a game, because my people's stories are secure, stored in those large libraries all over the world, duplicate, triplicate, thousands of copies, and more are being written every day. Aboriginal snakes, however, must be passed carefully from hand to designated hand. They are a fragile inheritance, jealously guarded. If the chain of hands is broken, that traditional snake is forever gone. Moreover, as the quote from Billy Marshall-Stoneking suggests, it is wholly unsatisfying to create new snakes if all hands are closed and refuse to play.

My snake, sparkling in colours of hope, gives me a sense of playful power. There is mastery involved in fitting it to its box, and keeping it comfortably inside. This is one source of my enjoyment when the box is opened, and the snake springs free into the reader's mind. It may find a home there, or it may be rejected, shut back in the box and ignored on a shelf. Either way, it is out of my hands. And this, too, is liberating. In creating snakes I feel I can recreate myself, and more than myself, I can recreate the world around me. In flights of lyric fantasy I escape all boundaries, and when I read, I know that I am not flying alone.

When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors and spectators. ... His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. It transforms the bewitching world by which one was 'possessed' into a text that lies before one's eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive : the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.(12)

I am used to soaring through strange cities on the winged words of others, searching from on high for the tracks of my snake. But my own feathers feel flimsy in this rarified atmosphere. I don't aspire to be "like a god". My lust is for something purer than the heady fumes of a city. When I think of all the essays I have written, I see them lined up on a dusty shelf, some boxes more neatly packaged than others, each containing a bored and lonely snake. This is what results from my being "a viewpoint and nothing more". To go on, into the future, I must be more real, true to myself as well as the texts that inspire me. But how can I tell if I am producing a genuine artifact, or just another dusty box? My answer is, by creating for creation's sake, nomadically, in the fresh air of fields without centres.

She thought for a moment, and answered, 'They scatter the ashes of their fires. No. Your archeologist would not find those. But the women do weave little chaplets from grass stems, and hang them from the branch of their shade tree. (13)

Here my snake and I may relax, meditate upon the significance of the tree's decoration, lie back in the shade and watch the ornaments hypnotically swaying in the breeze. One of the Macquarie Dictionary's definitions for a chaplet is "a wreath or garland for the head."(14) I could not leave this place without offering a grass garland of my own. It is easy now to imagine the literary canon(s) as a grove of massive trees, stretching out huge branches to cover the sky. Readers and writers wander nomadically in their shade, resting by this trunk or that. Where they stop, they leave their mark - 'I was here' - by weaving a garland of their thoughts and hanging it from the tree for other nomads to read.

But perhaps I am being too idyllic, too childish, too naive. Ancient forests these days are more likely to be felled for timber, and what will the nomads do when there are no more shade trees? Move into a house or a city, at the sacrifice of their independence and unique outlook on life? My snake tries to turn and squirm the other way. It does not like looking into that abyss. But I must force its gaze. We cannot simply follow our own inclinations without considering the consequences of our actions.

Industries of extraction are very fragile, so ephemeral, always on the point of disappearing. ... The production of a new technology always carries with it a whole detritus of waste, error or side effects, and the engineers try not to think about this as part of the invention.(15)

When I dispense with the rules, am I not requiring my own redundancy? Exploiting my resources beyond what they can bear? Or am I the new organic, sustainable industry, sifting the sands I have inherited for gems, constructing an environment my snake wants to inhabit instead of forcibly tethering it to a plain cardboard box?

When one is distanced, objective, surveying one's texts from a pedestal, then one is an industry of extraction, wringing the words for what they are worth. Should that one disappear? When I wander through the fields, hanging garlands from the trees, following my snake down interesting looking holes, I feel happy, comfortable, free, empowered. But what am I discarding that ought to be retained? Am I prepared for the responsibility of the potential side effects? My snake is playing in the meadow, biting its tail. Am I improving or reinventing the wheel? Luckily, others have followed similar tracks before me and left maps hanging from the trees, encouraging me to travel further.

When it may be that a revivification of one of the oldest conceptions of essay - that which sees in it a walking around one's subject, a dispersed and not necessarily integrated meditation - might help to free up the territory, and when instead of essay or thesis we might be considering more open forms, such as the projective (that which launches itself, follows a trace, not necessarily knowing where it is going or intending to go) or what we might simply call tract : that which provides a passage and / or example of engagement.(16)

I may feel as though I am finally walking on my own two feet. But my feelings would normally have no place in an essay. Or would they? Is not a 'normal' essay a one-sided discourse in which I, wearing the ill-fitting 'impartial'-hat of a university student, report on how I feel about a text, (as modified by how I feel about other texts [which report on how their authors felt about the original text, {as modified by other texts and other authors}]) in an explosion of material that can never be wholly covered? Such an experience is more like grappling with Hydra than playing with a snake.

There are a lot of unanswered questions in this essay. But is this not appropriate, after all? If one does not ask questions, one will never learn, and if one never learns, one will never grow. I started out by discovering a field where my snake and I could play. In our game we searched for a new fluid beauty, an essay-form more satisfying than the static past. By approaching my task with a child-like heart, I leave play for my knowledge and understanding to grow. Games and play are interwoven with the domain of the child, a heuristic world of questions, many of which are asked but never answered. In the adult world, rhetorical questions where no answer is expected, are used for dramatic effect. Drama is, of course, an adult form of play, another medium for communication and entertainment. Have I communicated? Have I entertained? Have I learned how to grow? Of all the questions in this essay, maybe the real question for the reader should be, when you close the box and put it away on the shelf, does your mind continue to play with the snake?


1. quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, p.211
2. Jacques Derrida, Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, p.289
3. The Budget Macquarie Dictionary, p.513
4. idem.
5. Joseph Furphy, Such Is Life, p.1
6. Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, p.322
7. ibid., p.317
8. Jean-François Lyotard, Answer to the question : What is the Postmodern?, p.24
9. Homi Bhabha, Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism, p.204
10. Sneja Gunew, Migrant Women Writers : Who's on whose margins?, p.23
11. Billy Marshall-Stoneking, quoted in Mudrooroo, The Indigenous Literature of Australia - Milli Milli Wangka, p.136
12. Michel de Certeau, Walking in the City, p.92-3
13. Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, p.185
14. The Budget Macquarie Dictionary, p.112
15. Stephen Muecke, No Road, p.60
16. David Brooks, Essay/essay, p.77


Many of the texts quoted in this essay cannot be properly referenced, having been accessed as photocopied excerpts. Accordingly, I have acknowledged the section of course notes from which the excerpt was taken. At least one quote has been chosen from each of the areas of literary theory covered by the second semester of this course.

Walter Benjamin
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Homi K. Bhabha
Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism

David Brooks
hermes p.71-77 (University of Sydney Union 1994)

Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines
(Vintage 1998)

Hélène Cixous
The Laugh of the Medusa

Michel de Certeau
Walking in the City,
The Practise of Everyday Life

Jacques Derrida
Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences

Joseph Furphy
Such Is Life
(Angus and Robertson 1945)

Sneja Gunew
Migrant Women Writers - Who's on whose margins?
Meanjin 1/1983 (42.1)

Jean-François Lyotard
Answer to the question - what is the Postmodern?

The Indigenous Literature of Australia - Milli Milli Wangka
(Hyland House 1997)

Stephen Muecke
No Road
(Freemantle Arts Centre Press 1997

The Budget Macquarie Dictionary
(Macquarie Library 1982)

Marker's comments.

80% - ... Sometimes; or a little bit more with this essay than a good many others. Which is not to say that it doesn't present some problems as the flip-sides of its freedoms. The quality of a mind, it's true enough, can be told by the quality of its questions - but the adage (if that's what it is) works in part because it implies that that mind will seek to answer those questions, and that your rather sinuous progress doesn't really allow you to do so. I would have liked to see you stop, here and there, to explain something about the catchment areas of the tributaries of this essay: the Cixous and the Stoneking and the Chatwin are perhaps clear enough to go unexplained, but the Derrida and the de Certeau, unpacked, might have given your marker(s) more to go on.

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