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Tiger’s Eye: A Memoir, by Inga Clendinnen.

August 30, 2012

Tiger’s Eye: A Memoir by Inga Clendinnen. New York : Scribner, 2001.

A brilliant mediation on illness, memory and self, history and fiction.

Inga Clendinnen is a respected Australian historian interested in why people have thought and acted as they did, especially across time and cultural divisions.  I was fascinated by her account of the initial meeting of the British and Australian Aboriginals and eager to read something more personal by her.  I am so glad I did.  I care deeply about how we think about how we conceptualize memory and the differences between history and fiction, and Clendinnen writes about these issues with beauty and insight.

Tiger’s Eye is framed by Clendinnen’s experience of life-threatening disease and liver transplant.  Her book opens with her account of “falling ill,” which she equates with  falling in love or falling down Alice’s rabbit hole, “into a world which might resemble this solid one, but which operates on quite different principles.”  As her body and mind stopped functioning in familiar ways, she tried to understand what was happening.

To lie still as a crusader on his tomb while dreams spin behind closed lids, to surf the tumble of disordered memories as they dolphin away, to feel the mind disintegrate and to fear the disintegration of self, is to suffer an existential crisis, not a medical one. And to try to understand any of this by transforming inchoate, unstable emotions and sensation into marks on paper is to experience the abyss between fugitive thought, and the words to contain it.

In order to deal with a hospital environment which took away all security, Clendinnen turned to a childhood game of seeing through the eyes of animals in the zoo.  The tiger was an old favorite, one she turned to in her illness.

I too was in a cage with feeding times and washing times and bars at the side of my cot, and people coming to stare and prod…Thereafter, whenever I felt the threat of violation of self, I would invoke the vision of the tiger….

In the past, Clendinnen had regularly used “the sustained internal talking which gives rise to words on the page” to figure out her thoughts and emotions.  This was a response that had served her well as an historian. During her illness, engulfed by childhood memories, she wrote about her parents and her childhood.  While she labeled her father as somewhat “peripheral” in her life, her mother was a powerful, if rather unlikable figure.  Yet Clendinnen had doubts about her accounts of her mother and her own “Olympian authority of writing.

“I can map the contours of my mother’s life…Does that mean I understand her? I can think about that life and have certain ideas about what mattered in it, but the episodes I remember seem to illuminate me rather than her.  And remember I have assigned myself a double power.  I am both the sole informant and the sole teller, and I cannot be trusted in either.”

Despite her mother’s death, Clendinnen still believed and feared that her mother lives on in her.  She fears her mother taking hold within her.  “I work my counter-magic because I am afraid of her spell: that I will wake up and find I have become her.”

During her illness, Clendinnen also tried her hand for the first time at writing fiction and finds it exhilarating.

Being able to make a story from nothing instead of concocting it out of elusive memories made me happy.  It also relieved my fear of being trapped ‘inside.’  My labeled body might be lying in my labeled bed, but my mind could be anywhere, keeping whatever company I chose.

Several of her short stories appear in this book, including one that retells the relationship of her mother and aunt which she had also told as it existed in her memory.

After her liver transplant, Clendinnen was plagued with horrible hallucinations.  She realized that they came from somewhere within her, but had she had no control over them.  “I am making these dream-stories.  I do not choose them, they terrify me, I think they might kill me.”  Finally she understands

I did not ‘invent’ the hallucinations. These communiques from my dark interior had long existed, like ancient flints, deep inside me.  Now they had worked their way to the light. Only by playing historian to my nightmares would I be able to negate their power.

Although Clendinnen does track down hallucinatory images, which makes them stop, she does not regain her sense of herself as a stable being.  Instead she sees herself as “a shred, a nothing: a sliver of shattered silk whirling in the wind, without anchor or destiny, surviving only because the wind happened to drop.”  She realizes that

We are fictions, too: not the coherent and continuous objects in a changing sea, but half-illusory creatures made out of the light and shadows cast by that sea, articulated by our own flickering imaginations.  That Other begins not at the skin, as I had thought, but within.”

Such thinking leads Clendinnen to rethink her role as an historian.  First she explains that engagement with professional history imposes rules.  Historians must “represent our chosen people as justly and as completely as we are able.” Imagination is useful here, butis  not the only factor at work.

With history I am bound like Gulliver by a thousand gossamers: epistemological to the deceitful, accidental record, morally to the dead men and women I have chosen to re-present, and to the living men and women I want to read my words and to trust them.

Historians must also accept that “Like life, history is always shadowed by mystery.” “With fiction it is different,” Clendinnen claims.  A fictional writer can and must explain why people act as they do. In doing so, “Fiction pretends that humans are simpler, more stable, more predictable than they are.”  Yet fiction’s truth alone can “redress the existential ambiguities which stalk the real world.”

Eventually, Clendinnen reaffirms that she is an historian, not a writer of fiction.

It is also, by way of illness, its enforced introspections and the analysis of its hallucinatory narratives, that I came to understand the depth of my commitment to doing history: to thinking systematically about why people think and act as they do.

She ends her book with a new sense of “what peculiar creatures we are, you and I, making our marks on paper, puzzling over the past and present doings of our species, pursuing our peculiar passion for talking with strangers.“  That sentence provides a transition to the next book she would write, Dancing with Strangers, and insight into what she attempted there.

Clendinnen’s ideas about memory, fiction, and history are not new, but in her hands they emerge out of her own experience and are not primarily theoretical.  And she writes about them beautifully.

Tiger eye is a must read for those who write—or read—history and fiction.  I recommend it highly to anyone struggling to take in new conceptions of memory and truth.  To anyone dealing with major illness.

Link to my review of her Dancing with Strangers.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 4:28 pm

    Great review… I loved ths book for all the reasons you did but you are making me feel that I must read it again. It was given to me by my historian brother who loved it.

  2. August 31, 2012 8:48 am

    Yes. I think I will want to reread this one soon.

  3. September 12, 2012 8:23 pm

    This was such a profound book, it still resonates many years after I read it. Thanks for refreshing my memory of it:)


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