Better Homes and Gardens and the role of impropriety

by Maria Takolander

The older I get the more I realise that I don’t know anything, and yet I know that I am supposed to pretend that I know a lot. My role as an academic, and as a writer, requires of me that I generate knowledge and insights. This new role as a blogger for Southerly probably requires likewise.

I have to confess, though, that I find meeting such expectations difficult, as I seem to have inherited from my father something of a puerile—and, of course, unladylike—attitude towards authority and propriety. In response to viewing a pristine white-sheeted bed on the TV show Better Homes and Gardens, my father once memorably said, ‘that bed makes me want to shit on it.’ My father is a typically taciturn Finnish man, and it was one of the rare occasions that he deigned to speak. Finns are also notorious for their blunt elocutions. This anecdote might make my childhood sound like something from a Scandinavian Woody Allen movie, as might my Finnish mother’s notorious penchant for malapropisms—some memorable examples of which include ‘Danish pelican’, a dessert she served us once, and ‘Michael Bolton and the Dance of the Lords’, a stage show she attended. It was even the case that we lived, if not next door to a roller coaster (as per Alvy Singer’s childhood home in Annie Hall), on a main highway. Our living room windows rattled as semi-trailers thundered past.

7618446594_3784dcbb99_oThere were also less comic elements to my childhood. Nevertheless, as Allen’s comic films often show, our parents are defining role models; we emerge into ourselves in an intersubjective environment in which their personalities dominate, whether we like it or not. This might be even more intensely the case in the hothouse environments endured by the children of isolated migrant families. Whether that last bit is true or not, I find myself embarrassingly prone to error when it comes to Australian colloquialisms and aphorisms. (‘When crunch comes to crunch’ is my husband’s all-time favourite.) More to the point, over time I have come to the unfortunate realisation that my father’s puerile urge to defecate on a pristine bed is suggestive of my creative praxis.

A demonstration of this might very well be evident in my decision—after enjoying months of appropriate, engaging, authoritative discussion on the Southerly blog—to begin my first post with an anecdote involving scatological humour. It might also be apparent in my impolite poems about childbirth, which comprise the first part of my new book of poetry, The End of the World, to be published by Giramondo at the end of the year. I must admit, for instance, harbouring disreputable feelings towards Judith Wright’s ladylike ‘Woman to man’ when I wrote ‘Unborn’.

Takolander blog post 1--image 2My churlishness might also be evident in my book of short stories, The Double, which will be released by Text Publishing in September. The stories in the first part of the book offer ‘doubles’ of famous literary texts. ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, my response to Sigmund Freud’s literary classic, features a teenage boy masturbating to his fear-filled fantasies of women. ‘Mad Love’, my reply to André Breton’s experimental peon to romantic love, explores a wife’s intense hatred for her new complacent husband. She drags him around Africa (a place fetishised by the Surrealists), trying to make him suffer via the spectacle of a suffering world. The stories in the second part of the book, following on from ‘A Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry’, satirise the poetry world. The targets include self-important academic poets and breathless poems celebrating birdlife.

Of course, I don’t believe that I am being only puerile when I resist authority and propriety. I must, after all, be permitted to offer some kind of self-defence. I am fortunate that I have such famous precursors as the Dadaists and Surrealists—who were, incidentally, big fans of scatological humour—to fall back on, as well as a very healthy feminist tradition of revisionary writing. (Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque and DW Winnicott’s conceptualisation of creative play as antithetical to compliance provide useful additional theoretical justifications of my creative practice.) Freud might have memorably described the Surrealists ‘as 100 percent fools (or let’s rather say, as with alcohol, 95 percent)’, but I like to think that he was speaking mostly of Breton (who worshipped Freud and who, for a Surrealist, could be strangely lacking in a sense of humour and provisionality). In any case, Freud was in my view a man pathologically and destructively committed to his own authority and to conventional views of gender that irreparably flawed his grasp of reality.

fountainIn fact, what Freud shows us is that belief in one’s authority and the observance of convention can function as obstacles to new knowledge and insight, those things that I am supposed to be, as a writer and academic, boldly and baldly seeking. And so—arriving now at the grounds of my self-justification—I believe that my childish problem with authority and propriety, my retreat to a juvenile position of scatological rebelliousness, might very well be instrumental to my creativity. (I can picture Freud sagely nodding his head.) I hope that, like other impolite writers and artists before me, if you’ll once again excuse my father’s French (or Finnish), I shit on the hallowed sheets of literature in the name of truth and art. In fact, it is my strong belief that if we don’t shit on things from time to time, literary culture will become as middle-class, polite, self-important, performative, product-driven and inane as Better Homes and Gardens. (Piero Manzoni’s notorious can of artist’s shit, of course, expressed this point much more expeditiously than I have.)

I would like to close this post with a disclaimer. What I have said here is actually unrepresentative of my character—and probably of my writing. I am not an anarchist or even a bohemian. Indeed, I greatly value order and politeness. You would not find even so much as an unmade bed in my house.

3 thoughts on “Better Homes and Gardens and the role of impropriety

  1. Your disclaimer aside, it might interest you to know Mozart shared a similarly scatological sense of humour to your father, as evidenced by the letters he wrote home, while touring around Europe, as a young journeyman composer/genius.

    As to your disreputable feelings towards Judith Wright’s poem, all I can say – having stayed at said poet’s Mongarlowe home, as a child – my only memory of her was that she was quite deaf and cooked us cauliflower cheese for dinner. Not quite the feast one might see prepared on an episode of Better Homes and Gardens. But a good, down-to-earth meal. Probably symbolic somehow of the woman herself. I don’t think she would have been offended by a bit of poo, here and there. Certainly, the kangaroos and wallabies in the scrub surrounding her property left their fair share of the blessed stuff lying around, I’m sure.

    That said, great first post, and I’m looking forward to reading a great many more! Cheers

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