Essay on Review of Locating the Self: Re-Reading Autobiography as Theory and Practice

Submitted By Candice-Matthews
Words: 1260
Pages: 6

I am also interested in the recurrent images of animal world in the novel and I find Alan Mulgan’s picture of pastoralism apposite here. For Alan Mulgan, meat exports make the country rich. Yet at heart of the hospital system in this novel is the slaughter house (38/17; 240/249) as a dark secret meaning that shows what the whole system of social organisation is based on. Humans are reduced to animals in a country that reduces animals to things. Some of the few images of warmth are to do with animals. Istina becomes an animal when she wets herself (104/98). But animal excreting is not shameful like the human kind (174/174). The abused girl Brenda indicates her abjection by displaying her faeces. Isitina feels aloof from this kind of ‘mad’ behaviour; she sees herself as above the animal-like behaviour of the patients (107/97). But the treatment of animals in a proudly modern settler society mirrors that of the treatment of all its ‘mad’ patients, even those who see themselves as among the mad rather than actually mad. Moreover, Brenda may be a kind of counter-image of Istina herself (150/147; 190/193). She also is an artist, and she has the leucotomy Istina avoids.

I’m not saying that Frame is an animal rights person; it is the pattern of imagery that interests me, and the large question it asks: what is it that constitutes the human? Certainly, the novel presents a terrible vision of dehumanisation of the psychiatric patients and the indifference of the staff to the human dignity of patients. Yet human status is not a mark of superior difference to the lives of animals in terms of behaviour within the world of the institution where hierarchy, indifference and cruelty are routinised. If there is a mark of difference it is a both a tragic and an elevating one: it is a function of the perception and interpretation, of being able to suppose, in Sargeson’s term, that allows Istina to record her sufferings but also increases them (49/30, 241/251)

hierarchies within the mad world replicate those without from god-like doctors down to catatonic patients in isolation ward. To come out is to learn again to feel above those below one in the pecking order. Istina has a vision of the lowest depths on a Sunday walk: p. 65/50. She sees veneer of bright polish over dread and disaster, but her observation of the suffering of others is not humanising. It suggests an extreme distance between the ordinary unenlightened people and those few who are true seers. To see too clearly behind the veneer of normality is to fall into an abyss.
What she does gain is sense of the duplicity and possibility of language— duplicity in the way the names of the institutions disguise their reality and the careful use of language to persuade victims that what they receive is in their interests. Yet her situation in the psychiatric system also allows access to a rich store of language and perception as a writer.
It’s not that the hospital staff are evil, but the system designed by a supposedly benevolent medical system and the state produces the reduction of humans to animals

Istina does not idealise her own alienation. Staying with sister and family in Auckland, she describes the sadness of her situation (79). Nor is she a romantic victim of authority, as when she sprays a dying woman with DDT (127). The novel shows a loss of faith in the basic dignity and goodness of humans in the aftermath of the revelations of the Nazi camps. Here is also a sense that progress, especially technological progress, does not inevitably bring enlightenment with it.
Frame presents the mental institutions that Istina is trapped in in the novel as Gothic places of threat and menace. She recounts how

… I made myself a nuisance by asking, asking, asking of they were planning to give me E.C.T. or do anything terrible to me, to bury me alive in a tunnel in the earth so that no matter how long I called for help no one would hear me, to remove part of my brain and turn me into a strange…