Drusilla Modjeska, Amanda Lohrey, Robert
Pan MacMillan, 1997. 371pp
ISBN: 0 7329 0863 9
last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;"
The secrets in this book, in spite of the Auden lines used in its preface, are not all wicked, gossipy secrets, but they are fascinating just the same.
The three authors range through the definitions of 'secret' from shameful family skeletons to mystical arcane knowledge, and their pieces are entertaining, imaginative and thought-provoking. They are also as different from each other as are the authors themselves.
Amanda Lohrey writes revealingly of her newfound fascination with choral singing. For her, there is a secret in the effect that singing has on the singers; in the way in which it frees them from their normal inhibitions and restraints; and in the deep physical and psychological changes she experiences, and sees others experience, when singing. Lohrey's piece moves backwards and forwards between vivid anecdotal description and serious research into the nature of song. Her curiosity is contagious and the research she quotes is intriguing.
Her exploration takes her from church halls to master-classes; from African choirs in Tasmania to Gregorian chants in a monastery in Southern France; from the work of French physician, Tomatis, to the mystic ideas of Sufi scholars. But this is no dry treatise on singing.
Nor is Robert Dessaix's triptych of imaginative musings anything but beautiful, tantalising, food for thought. Dessaix re-creates the scenes of ancient mysteries with the gently ironic eye of a metaphysical "dilettante", noting, as he does so that "It was less the secrets themselves that engaged my interest than how people very different from ourselves have sought to approach them and make them known".
In Ancient Egypt, Dessaix is with queen Hatshepsut as her mortuary temple is carved from the limestone terraces near Luxor. Confessing his own secret country and language, he shares Hatshepsut's knowledge of the secret Land of Punt from which her ships bring precious myrrh for sacred rituals.
In the industrial sterility of modern Eleusis, he steps back into the Ancient Greek world of the Eleusian Mysteries and walks with the initiates along the Sacred Way. And in the dry heat of Northern Australia he escapes from a tour group to travel back a hundred-thousand years amongst rock painting of ancestor spirits. There he sees the upside-down blue man sung into the rock with the terrible words of purri purri sorcery.
Dessaix searches, he says, for the "penumbral moment": the place between the dark world of enchantment and mysteries and the brightly-lit, rational. world where secrets are mere soap-opera gossip. But he is uncomfortably aware that, today, seekers of the numinous are regarded as being on a "wild-goose-chase" and that "'knowing' has become just a word pointing to other words which point in their turn to words in a futile self-referential cycle".
Of all the three authors, Drusilla Modjeska stays closest to Auden's lines. her novelistic story tells of family relationships permeated with secrets. It has a surface simplicity beneath which lie the many more complex secrets of identity, history, art and culture. Telling this "tale that is ripe to tell", Modjeska weaves fact and fiction together so skilfully that only her end-note reveals what truths she herself has distorted. "If we are to speak of secrets", her narrator comments,
"this question of revelation is at the heart of it.... We tell some people, not others; we tell part of the story, not all of it, letting versions change shape like sea creatures weaving through the rocks and weeds of our lives".
So, what does happen when a secret becomes 'yours'? Can you do what you like with it? Is it betrayal - breaking-faith - to reveal it? Or are secrets just the flip-side of revelation and gossip which is essential, as Dessaix suggests, to avoid being "stuck in complicity with the world of appearances"?
Secrets is a fine antidote to stark and sterile materialism. It offers a little gossip, a little enchantment, a few philosophical puzzles and a satisfying revelation of good, Australian writing.