Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 25, 2009

On Experience (2008), by David Malouf (Little Books on Big Ideas)

On Experience (Little Books on Big Themes)David Malouf is one of our best-loved authors, and this pocket-sized book  (part of the Melbourne University Press series, Little Books on Big Themes) is a treasure.  In a mere 86 pages, the author has shared so many insights, and in such exquisite language, it almost feels like a transgression to try to discuss it.  On Experience is really an extended essay and takes such a short time to read, that anyone reading this post would be far better off to stop now and read Malouf’s book instead. I hope that if you do keep reading, it tempts you to source the book and read it for yourself…

In Part 1, Malouf suggests that experience is more than those events that happen to us, but are also ‘glimpses of reality’ that come to us through intuition, insight and imagination.  The texts we read and the films we see help to build up ‘experience’ so that how we understand our world becomes not just our own direct experiences, but also experiences divined and made into our own knowledge by some ‘secret machinery’.  Quoting Henry James, Malouf tells us that writers have a special skill in sharing real and imagined experiences so that they become ours as well, because writers are acutely observant: they eavesdrop, and they have an ‘immense sensibility’.  Good film-makers do this too.

(I have, for instance, just watched the very fine film Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, about two university students who try to arrange an illegal abortion in Communist Romania in 1987. This film – its issues, its setting, and the impacts on friendship it explores – now becomes part of what I know about not just a place, political system and situation I have never experienced, but also part of what I know about secrets, friendship, trust and loyalty).

Malouf reminds me what a wonderful job I have, bringing story to children.  Each week they troop into the library and share in one of our most ancient pleasures, to give themselves up to ‘entranced, excited listening’  (p17), to be there in the library and yet not there but lost in the book instead.  I could see this yesterday as I read them Audrey in the Outback and they began to discover, to experience the life of a little girl who lived in the bush in the midst of the Great Depression, and rose above poverty to have exciting adventures and a happy family life.

Entering a story – a fairytale, folktale or fable: being taken out of ourselves into the skin of another; having adventures that are both our own and not our own – is an experience of a particular kind.  Release from the constrictions, whatever they might be, of our own life and body into a dimension where reality is not limited to dailiness and the laws of nature, and all sorts of occasions, richer and more fantastic, more exciting, more harrowing, can be imaged forth – imagined – and made real. There is a regenerative and healing quality here that makes of such experience something more than entertainment or simply a way of passing the time; though the passing of time is also essential to it.

Time in a story passes more quickly than in real life: ‘the next day’, we say, all in a breath, or ‘some years later’.  But it may also pass more slowly, or stop altogether, giving the narrator, and the listener, the luxury of looking around and absorbing things that in real life are gone too quickly to be taken in , or to consider and ask questions that real life allows no space for. (p19-20)

(James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I am reading with Team Ulysses at Dove Grey Reader is a classic example of a book which manipulates time like this, giving the reader an opportunity to ‘absorb things which in real life are gone too quickly’).

As I sit up in bed blogging this on my little netbook, it is humbling to be reminded by Malouf’s words that the preliterate world co-exists with the literate world that I inhabit, and that some of humanity’s most important inventions – fire, animal husbandry, and agriculture – were made not by trained scientists but by ordinary people using trial-and-error and flashes of imagination. Perhaps we should mourn, a little, the discontinuity between our place in the world of nature and our modern role as consumers.  Most people don’t experience growing and harvesting plants in season or the reality of butchery any more, and (although chez Tim and Lisa we have a vegie patch and our marmalade is home made) most of us don’t care too much about this discontinuity at all.

That’s a shame, Malouf suggests, but he thinks that families are pretty much the same as they’ve always been, and children gain their experience of life as they always have, picking up information and ideas here and there and fitting it together somehow to make sense of it.  I would like to believe this but I myself am not so sure that it’s true, because I see so many young parents plugged into iPods and mobile phones at the expense of listening to and talking with their small children.  Even in the car, these days, the kids are plugged into a DVD player in the back seat, talking neither with each other nor their parents.  No wonder emerging research is showing a worrying trend towards language deprivation even in the most privileged of children….

In Part II, Malouf writes more soberly about how in the modern world experience must also somehow accommodate awareness of atrocity: we learn, and it becomes part of our own experience, that as we grow up in safety and security, others have been living history in places like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Cambodia’s Killing Fields.  He calls this contradiction ‘a psychological split between two forms of experience’ (p46) – that of our everyday lives and our secondary consciousness of a history which darkens the primary experience with an awareness that we might as easily have been either victim or perpetrator – because all of us are a  ‘mixture of the nobly altruistic and the cowardly and mean’. (p48)  It was Montaigne who first tried to imagine a ‘noble savage’ – an unfallen innocent who could create Utopia, but history shows that man is otherwise – from the French Revolution’s attempt to change a corrupt society and restore it to innocence, to the 20th century which showed us the awful struggle between murderous systems and the individuals who resisted them.

Primo Levi, says Malouf, knew at first hand that ‘men are neither good nor evil, but open, according to circumstances or their own individual spirit, to both’ (p48) but there is a clear distinction between the Germans and their victims.

In the real world the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and the unarmed build the road for them; therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissable to be unarmed.’ (p63)

Malouf says that we cannot divorce ourselves from awareness about what is happening in our own time, and I thought of this yesterday morning when listening to Radio National.  There was an interview with an activist trying to get something done about the gulags in North Korea.  People are sent there for all kinds of spurious reasons, and worked to death in unspeakable conditions.  Just like the German slave labour camps, and Stalin’s.  Blogging about it here is part of what I decided to do, to try to help.  The international community acts, albeit cumbersomely, when people in democracies make a fuss.  It just takes lots of us, so do your bit, send a quick email to your PM – ask him what he’s done to raise the issue in international forums and with the North Koreans and tell him it should be a high priority issue.

Malouf says that Primo Levi took his life, some 40 years after liberation from the German Death Camps, because he could no longer bear his experience of degradation imposed by the Nazis.  He had been reduced to being a thing less than human.  He could not bear that he had once waited for a neighbour to die so that he might have his bread. (p63) A scientist, Levi never expected to become a writer, but like Eli Wiesel, his experiences have become part of our collective consciousness and shame.

Even though Malouf pays due respect to oral tradtions, he says that the importance of writing as a way of sharing experience cannot be over-emphasised, not least because history shows us the gap.  The Ancients wrote, articulating their consciousness: we can read Horace, Catullus, Ovid, and three centuries later, St Augustine.  But then there is nothing till Plutarch in the 14th century, and then the ‘life of the mind’ begins again with him, flourishing eventually into the novel in the 19th century, a new way of examining life through character. Today it is the writing of life stories that is common, as people try and make sense of their experiences and share them with generations to come.

In a world where the only thing that unites us, says Malouf, is the

 ‘bond of feeling, of understanding and affectionate concern that makes neighbours of us’ (p85) these stories witness personal experience…  ‘That private thing, daily, lifelong experience, cumulatively repeated a million times over, is what also holds us together; as members of a society that , however loosely constituted it may be , and however modest in its rhetoric, actually works. (p86)

Thanks, Jenny, this is a lovely book!

Author: David Malouf
Title: On Experience
Series: Little Books on Big Themes
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2008
ISBN: 9780522855364

Fishpond On Experience (Little Books on Big Themes)


  1. Enjoyed reading your thoughts and to discover this little book had such an impact on you!


  2. […] some theme or motifs which reveal the author’s preoccupations.  I read like this to share experiences in the novel in the way that David Malouf describes it; it’s a way of getting inside the lives and minds of other people.  I’m not stuffy […]


  3. […] Such Knowledge, by Eva Hoffman David Malouf, writing in On Experience reminds us that there are some events in world history that change the way we think about things […]


  4. […] without the knowledge that these passionate young people did not have: as David Malouf  says in On Experience, all of us now know about the Holocaust.  We know what was coming; they did not.  This knowledge […]


  5. […] cannot prevent the war coming home to Thirroul; and as David Malouf wrote so powerfully in his book On Experience awareness of atrocity cannot be un-known.  Hay’s characters must somehow accommodate a new […]


  6. […] to their Little Books on Big Themes (of which I have reviewed two: David Malouf’s On Experience and Susan Johnson’s On […]


  7. […] finish up with this striking excerpt, reminding me of something David Malouf wrote about in On Experience. We cannot ever un-know things once we know them, and these things colour our experiences and ideas […]


  8. […] On Experience, by David Malouf. […]


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