Grimmish [excerpt] — Michael Winkler

Claremont Asylum was a brooding presence in a suburb of Perth, managed by the Lunacy Department under the stewardship of the Inspector General of the Insane, administering the Lunacy Act of 1903. It was a new facility, with a farm, an orchard and pleasant grounds, but the two-storey building, constructed of red brick and Donnybrook stone, was secure as any gaol.

What did I do for the forty-five days Grim was confined there? I wafted, in and out of the picture. I mooned over my carefully constructed vision of the disappeared Dora. I read, and every new thing I read seemed more pertinent than the last, and I wondered if I would ever develop a thought of my own.

I thought of R. D. Laing’s description of the skull as the Golgotha of the spirit[1], and all the endless unwinnable battles that are waged inside that treacherous garden. I thought of the Spartans whose society functioned with bristling brilliance while at war, but dissolved into mess when peace arrived because they had no capacity to deal with ease and leisure, and I wondered how this might apply to other warriors, such as boxers, such as Joe Grim.

I thought of pain, a lot. I thought of C. S. Lewis calling pain ‘God’s chisel’.[2] I thought of notes my uncle must once have made about Buddhism which suggest that pain is part of life’s curriculum, and that we suffer pain because that is what happens to human bodies in this world. I thought of another note about Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi’s prolonged time with terminal cancer; at night he would scream in agony and say, ‘There is pain, but there is no suffering.’[3] I think of my own fear of pain, which is in truth a fear of not being able to endure.

I thought of incarceration, in whatever brand of institution, and Sade biographer Maurice Lever’s insight[4] that, ‘Inside the prison walls history comes to a halt; time’s mechanism goes awry. The prisoner is suddenly plunged into “uchronia”, into a world where time does not exist.’ I think of my own fear of imprisonment in gaol or asylum; again, it is primarily a fear of not being able to endure pain without limit.

But otherwise I just lingered outside the asylum walls, soaking up the winter sun and letting the westerlies blow me this way and that, and waiting to be invited in to speak with Grim. I was only permitted access when he was in phases of lucidity. Some of the warders muttered darkly about his behaviour when he was less than tractable, less than pleasant, but what were they going to do – hit him?

Evening News, Sydney, 27 August 1909

Joe Grimm, the boxer, who was recently remanded for medical examination, has been removed to the Claremont Lunatic Asylum. He struggled desperately this morning when requested to enter the vehicle to take him to Claremont, and shrieked at the top of his voice that the police were trying to murder him. It was necessary to strap his arms and legs.

I[5] am Joe Grim and I fear no man.

I am Joe Grim and I fear no man.

I am Joe Grim, I am Joe Grim and I fear no man.

I am Joe Grim, I am Joe, Grim, and I fear no man.

I am Joe Grim, I am, Joe, Grim, and I fear no man.

I am Joe I am Joe Grim. I am Joe Grim and I fear no fear no man.

I am Joe. I am Joe Grim. I fear no Joe Grim. I fear. No.

I fear no. I fear. I Joe Grim. I am. I fear.

I am Joe Grim. I am Joe Grim. I am Joe Grim.

I fear no fear Joe fear no man Joe Grim. I am no fear.

I am no fear. I no Joe Grim. I fear no am. I am Joe Grim.

I Grim. I fear. I am. I Grim. I fear. I am. I Grim.

I am Joe Grim I fear no fear.

I am.

I man. I Grim Joe fear. I am no and.

Joe Grim. Joe fear. No Grim. No Grim.

A bell is struck, somewhere.

What does the word Eucharist mean?

I am unsure.

I fear I am my own Eucharist.

Is that all you fear?

All I said was I fear no man.

That leaves plenty of scope, yeah.

They bound me in calico. Leather straps. Metal buckles. White rope. It was the worst experience of my life.

They said they had to. They said you were a danger to staff and a danger to yourself.

That is what they say.

But you’re unshackled now. The attendant told me you’re free to walk in the garden with supervision.

What use is a garden for me? I do not make things grow. Things blossom, things bloom, things fruit or branch or ripen in a garden, but I am only of value for the world of destruction. We take the most beautiful thing, and we destroy it, and we do it for show, and we do it for money. I can’t belong in a garden.

Perhaps this career is coming to an end.[6] There must be more to you than simply an iron chin.

Of course there is. There is the dancing dago, the loco eyetie, the barking tumbling southern European circus dog who makes cruel men laugh. I am a pantomime dame in eight-ounce leather gloves. I do these things, and then I stand in front of the hardest hitting men on the planet, and then the promoter still tries to – do you know this Australianism? – fuck me sideways on fight payments as I make my way home. It is a pitiful racket and I have been in it too long, and I have no other path ahead, and that is that is that.

A bell is struck, somewhere.

I have worries. Can I tell you that I have worries? So many worries. They; in fact, everything; slip through my brain like minnows flitting through shark nets. Do you know the oh-no sensation of something slipping your mind that you were about to say; well, I have that sensation seventy times a minute; each thought enters my brain and is shunted out before I can think it; left here only watching the departing procession of thoughts that remain unrecognised, and then another one, and then another one, and then another one. It is very subtle and very real torture. But some of the worries linger, imposed over the top of the fleeing floating phantasms. I worry that I am outside the scope of nature. I am not just at the edge of my species, but over the margin. I do not belong. I worry that one day my fighting might end, and that without the pain I will have no map to find myself. I worry that men laugh when I am performing a tragedy. I worry sometimes that I am actually Christ.

A bell is struck, somewhere.

I’m glad you said you would sit with me in the garden.

I have told you: I have no use for gardens, nor them me. I told you that, and again you did not want to hear. I lose power in nature! Too much open air drains my power and I am then like any other man. When I am not any other man! I am Joe Grim. I exist beyond the realm of the human possible. I need to be inside! Suck my vitality from where there is no air, no light. Build my majesty. Indomitable creature of wall and hearth. I am Joe Grim, the mighty, and I alone fear no depth of darkness.

A bell is struck, somewhere.

One reason they chose this site for the asylum, apparently, is the artesian water supply, I said, which handily reminds me of a joke. There is a bloke who is way out in the sticks, travelling around, and he stops one day at a pig farm. The farmer says, come on in and have a feed, cobber. We don’t get many visitors out this way. The bloke says, no worries, thank you kindly. They sit down and the farmer says, we’ve got plenty to eat. I can offer you ham, bacon, pork or trotters. What takes ya fancy? The bloke says, it all sounds fine, you beauty, and I wouldn’t mind something to drink. The farmer apologises and says, all we’ve got to drink out here mate is bore water. And the bloke – you’ll like this – the bloke replies, geez, you fellas don’t waste any bit of the pig, do ya.

I understand. The humour hinges on the confusion of bore and boar. Of course, it would not work quite so effectively in Italian. Alesaggio acqua does not correspond well to cinghiale acqua. Although possibly that would make the joke funnier.

A bell is struck, somewhere.

What when I can’t box no more? What when in that then? In that boxing time, I am outside of time. Six rounds, three minutes each, and in that span I belong to that span only. There is no connection to clock time, to earth time. And that is how I live, with and for those ripped out portions where time has no dominion. Six three-minute rounds, five one-minute breaks, twenty-three minutes that are as long as you need them to be, or they can be devoid of time altogether, black holes in a lifetime that expand and contract as needed, both being and nothingness.

I pledged my self to this life of three minutes and one minute and three minutes, always time defined, and if I survive through the six rounds and I always do, the reward is monetary and the reward is also another parcel of time-that-is-not-time, a neat portion of chronological space in which I do not have to submit to the ticking and the tocking. Same for twelve rounds, same for twenty. Same, only longer. I know this has wrought damage, I know I am not as I should could be, but I signed up to this a long time ago and the damage if not its own reward is not the damnation some might think.

Some might think, some might think. I had some, a person or persons or perhaps it was just me, trying to say that the glory of pain is that it teaches you things. And I say as one who might know, if there is enough of it then pain is just pain. Yes it abstracts and swirls into shapes, oil on water, but a lot of pain is a lot of pain and it is not a friend and not a teacher and not a guide and not a redemption. It is just pain. Six rounds, twelve rounds, twenty rounds: three minutes each, pain, eye-blinding pain, outside of time, a parcel a portion a package of non-ness of not-ness, liberation through negation, six times three plus five times one, or twelve times three plus eleven times one, or twenty times three and nineteen times one, and Grim still standing declared the winner of his own uniquely defined contest, pay up now please as I hurtle back into the time-world.

A bell is struck, somewhere.

Do you know depression, I said. The main characteristic of depression is that you are stuck. You are without agency, without motive force, you cannot move to a state of optimism or rouse to take any action – no matter how trivial – that may improve your lot because depression is a mire and you are stuck neck deep. But madness is madness. It is a train leaving the rails far behind and ploughing through wheatfields through harbourfront houses through birthday parties through religious ceremonies through swimming pools through lovers through fathers through any sense of sense through last shreds of rationality through good decisions through bad decisions through any decisions through the colour blue and the colour red, through symphonies and through snarls and through all the bends that can be found in light that are invisible to any other eye. Madness is just madness and should make no greater claim.[7] But the opposite of madness is not what you think, not sanity; the opposite of madness is responsibility, and madness is a respite from that fierce overlord. You need to be brave and come back to the world.

I am thinking of a chunk of bread, and poor grade boot leather said Grim. A chunk of bread, poor grade boot leather. That is what I thinking. I thinking bread, a chunk, and boot leather: poor grade. Poor grade boot leather and a chunk of bread. That is what I thinking, now.

A bell is struck, somewhere.

I am Joe Grim and I fear no man.

I fear no man I am Joe Grim

I am Joe Grim, and I fear no man. I am Joe Grim.

I am Joe Grim, I am Joe, Grim, and I fear no man.

I am Joe Grim, I no fear, I Joe Grim, I am and I am.

I am Joe I am Joe Grim. I am Joe Grim and I fear no fear no man.

I am Joe. I am Joe Grim. I fear no Joe Grim. I fear. No.

I fear no. I fear. I Joe Grim. I fear, I Grim.

I fear no fear Joe fear no man. Joe Grim, I am no fear.

I am no fear. I no Joe Grim. I fear no am. I am Joe Grim.

I Grim. I fear. I am. I Grim. I fear. I am. I Grim.

I am Joe Grim! I fear no fear!

I am.

A chunk of bread, and poor grade boot leather.

No, no you can’t do that.

Chunk bread. Poor grade boot. Leather.

Joe Grim. Joe fear. No Grim. No Joe. No fear no Joe no Grim.

[1] Wisdom, Madness and Folly

[2] The Problem of Pain

[3] B.V. Narashima Swami, Self Realization: Life and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

[4] Sade: A Biography

[5] There is a sound poem by the great Jas H. Duke, easy to find online, called No, no you can’t do that. While I wrote this I played it on a loop for hours: ‘No, no you can’t do that. Nonoyoucan’tdothat. No, no, no, no, you can’t do that. NO, NO, you can’t do that. NO-NO-YOU-CAN’T-DO-THAT. No, no, no, no, no, no, NO you can’t do that. No, no you can’t do that. No, no you can’t do THAT. No, no…’ and etcetera.

[6] ‘“I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”’ Franz Kafka, ‘The Hunger Artist’

[7] ‘I could have been mad of course, but there’s no point in explaining madness.’ Brian Castro, The Bath Fugues

Grimmish is now available from Coach House Books in the US and Peninsula Press in the UK.

You can read an interview with Michael here.

Michael Winkler is a writer from Melbourne, Australia, living on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. He is the author, co-author and editor of numerous books. He won the Calibre Essay Prize for ‘The Great Red Whale’, and his novel Grimmish, was shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Award. Twitter: @micwink