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This Mortal Coil: Travel, identity, mortality in the work of Robert Dessaix

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Ouston, A (2014) This Mortal Coil: Travel, identity, mortality in the work of Robert Dessaix. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

“This Mortal Coil: Travel, Identity, Mortality in the Work of
Robert Dessaix”
Robert Dessaix is a prominent figure in Australian literary culture, known initially for hosting ABC Radio’s Books and Writing programme (1985–95) and subsequently for his books, essays and reviews. His major publications include: A Mother’s Disgrace (1994), Night Letters: A Journey through Switzerland and Italy (1996), Corfu: A Novel (2001), Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev (2004) and Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives (2008). In each of these texts, Dessaix interrogates traditional tropes of travel literature in order to articulate a nuanced and revised understanding of concepts such as the self, authenticity and home.
This thesis examines the ways in which identity and homecoming are represented in Dessaix’s travel writing. It shows that these concepts are structured around an inescapable awareness of mortality. Although the journeys of Dessaix’s narrators seem to be made “in the face of death,” or as a resistance to death, it is through an awareness of being subject to death that they find their voices; travel is not in this case a flight from death and the accompanying emotions of anxiety and fear, but a means of affirming life and identity. The central argument of this study is that despite defining his narrators as “placeless,” cosmopolitan travellers, reminders of their mortality interrupt the journeys / writings of these figures and serve to inform a “placed,” bound and human experience of the world.
Of central concern to the project is the way Dessaix’s preoccupation with the mortal condition constitutes a simultaneous crisis / affirmation of identity.Dessaix’s narrators affirm their identities only when contemplating not being; it is only when exploring the silence of the grave, giving voice to the threat of death, that they find their own voices. Hence a constant play between presence and absence throughout his work. In this way, Dessaix’s textual personae manifest themselves via an “aesthetic of absence” that revolves around three main phenomena: the absence of a central, “grand” narrative of the life of Dessaix’s narrators; the absence of “place” in his definition of home; and the absence of the literary figures (and their epochs) in whose footsteps his narrators travel. These absences represent an underlying awareness of mortality and an anxiety toward the finitude of life; together with a rhetoric of unity and wholeness, they work to define a uniform, centred textual persona across Dessaix’s body of work. Although this kind of self-certainty has been disparaged in certain fields—especially postcolonial studies—by defining themselves through absence Dessaix’s narrators comprise a textual identity that is open to difference and is thus one that denotes a positive elaboration of essentialism free of the oppressive binaries that tend to characterise much travel literature.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Dessaix; travel; identity; mortality; literature; Australian; place; home
Additional Information:

Copyright 2014 the Author

Date Deposited: 19 Aug 2014 06:32
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2017 01:06
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