I have just finished reading Kate Grenville's novel The Idea of Perfection. It is the story of two people, Harley and Douglas, who find themselves on opposite sides of a political struggle in a small New South Wales town called Karakarook. I had no idea when I started reading that the story would centre on Harley's experience after the suicide of her husband Philip, which happened sometime before. Grenville introduces the fact slowly, indeed it is 130 pages before we are told that Philip died this way. This gives space for Grenville to sketch the emotional life of a woman who has secretly condemned herself.
There are clues throughout the book to suggest that Harley is a person who tends to feel guilty, long before Philip's death. From her youngest years all adults in her world had a template for the sort of life she ought to pursue: she would be an artist in the tradition of her family. Her sister follows this plan but Harley lacks aptitude. She falls short and is a disappointment.
Somehow she was always in trouble at home, for breaking things with her clumsiness, being rude without having meant it, or not being very good at anything. Why can't you be more like your sister? her father had shouted once in exasperation.
Throughout the novel both Harley and her new friend Douglas question their every interaction with others. Grenville conjures such painful self-consciousness in these characters that at times I squirmed. In Douglas this anxious self-awareness has the form of feeling himself to be pathetic. In Harley the driving perception is of herself as dangerous. She believes and worries that she will hurt anybody who gets close to her. She puts on a severe mask, making herself “too abrupt for comfort” so to push people away.
Harley spends 350 pages of the novel not admitting to herself that her closed way of being is a way of protecting others from herself. She experienced Philip's death as a fundamental condemnation of her, revealing her to be both morally bad and emotionally dangerous. And yet she spends all these pages – all this time - pushing such things out of her mind. In consequence she becomes driven by guilt and fear which she cannot understand. It pursues and hounds her even while she tries to run ahead, her eyes shut close, avoiding a sense of terrible truths about herself:
Not remembering was harder than you would think. It took up a great deal of energy, and even then, memories sliced through the not-remembering, as sharp as ever.
The height of the novel comes when Harley is beginning to drown at the Karakarook waterhole. She is alone, and is choosing to give in to the exhaustion and sink, to let go and end her life without admitting that this is what she is doing. Despite her growing feelings for Douglas Harley has cut him off, and only an hour prior she ignored his offer of a lift on the hot, dusty road to the river. He would be the last person to see her. Suddenly Harley thinks of him. “She knew what that meant, to be the one left looking at a space where somebody had recently been.” She knew the burden of turning over and over in your mind what you might have done to prevent this.
If they thought she had taken her own life, Douglas Cheeseman would live the rest of his life the way she had lived hers for so long, with a hole in his life where the dark knowledge lived: that he was guilty. He was already a man of apologies. It would never let him go. He would reproach himself for making all that dust, for meekly accepting that she did not want a lift, for not finding words that would have made her change her mind. He would go over and over the words, would toss and turn at night with the what if of it.
In the end, the reproach would simply boil down to being the person he was, and not some other, better person.
This recognition of what it would do to Douglas motivates Harley to fight for her life. In recognising what she would have done to Douglas, Harley suddenly gains a different perspective on Philip's suicide:
She had only seen the cruelty Philip had done to himself, and taken it as proof of how bad she must be.
She had taken it, the savagery of what he had chosen, as the final proof of her own guilt. No clearer statement could be given to her of what a terrible person she must be. She had judged herself, and put herself away in the cage marked dangerous.
Thinking of Douglas Cheeseman suffering the same guilt, she saw it differently. His crimes did not deserve such a punishment. Perhaps hers had not either.
Previously Harley assumed that either she must condemn Philip or she must condemn herself. She chose the latter. Stepping back from the situation, by putting Douglas in her shoes, as somebody who unlike Phillip has experienced the force of such grief, she is able to move beyond her previous either/or assumption, to find compassion not only for Phillip but for herself too.
What had they been, those crimes of hers? A fear of revealing herself that could look like indifference, a coldness in the face of declarations, a malicious turn of phrase, and all the usual ones: dishonesty, selfishness, envy and greed. None of it was anything special. She was not a monster, so dangerous that she had to hide herself away for fear of the damage she might inflict. She was only that most ordinary of criminals, a human being.
The insight that helps Harley is not merely some false consolation designed to make herself feel better. Nor is she creating some false justification for herself. After suicide people often feel an unfair kind of guilt; guilt over things which were out of their hands. It can take time to work through this. People can also feel remorse which is a different matter. Guilt is often irrational, blind to the facts, whereas remorse is a lucid recognition of the reality of what one has done. What do we do with such remorse? I am not suggesting a proper answer here, but in Harley’s case she realises that the fate of all human beings is to wrong the people we love, to hurt them, sometimes in ignorance and sometimes not. That is the human condition. So in hindsight we experience remorse over the wrong things that we inevitably did, and the good things we failed to do. When a relationship ends, or the person dies - especially by suicide - it is can be very hard to accept those things. It can be hard not to condemn ourselves as Harley did. But by the end of the novel her realisation that we are all flawed, that we all fall short, and sometimes hurt and wrong the people whom we love, invites forgiveness for this is the human condition. For Harley this insight enables forgiveness of others and forgiveness of herself.
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.