Craig San Roque, The Long Weekend in Alice Springs, adapted and drawn by Joshua Santospirito (San Kessto Publications 2013)
In 2004, an essay by Alice Springs psychologist Craig San Roque appeared in the formidably titled volume, The Cultural Complex: Contemporary Jungian Perspectives on Psyche and Society, edited by Thomas Singer and Samuel L. Kimbles and published by The Psychology Press in the UK. According to an author’s note, the 16-page essay, ‘A long weekend: Alice Springs, Central Australia‘
suggests that ancient, habitual, mythically reinforced psychic structures may be repeating themselves autonomously from a basic pattern, rather like a DNA system. Such patterns may be encoded into legends or hieratic dramas associated with specific sites and can be detected by analysing mythologised stories embedded in cultural sites, by analysing how a culture developed (and perverted) the use of primal tools and by noting what cultural groups do with human bodies, death, justice and sexual coupling.
Esoteric stuff, you might think, the kind of thing Jungians write for each other but that the uninitiated tend to see as elaborately, solemnly, eruditely fantastical. (I speak as someone who in his mid 20s read quite a bit of Jung’s writing about alchemy.)
A couple of years later a young psych nurse named Josh Santospirito worked with La Roque in ‘remote mental health in Aboriginal communities’. This was demanding, frustrating and confusing work at a place where ‘mainsteam’ Australian culture and Central Australian Aboriginal cultures meet at best uncomfortably. He articulated the central problem he faced in his work like this: ‘How can you begin to address mental health issues when Aboriginal cultural structure is so undermined?’ San Roque gave him his ‘Long Weekend’ essay, and though the essay offers no straightforward solution to that problem, Santospirito found it useful in his attempts to come to terms with his experience.
Among other things, Santospirito happened to be a once and future comics artist. (His web site is here.) As he meditated on the essay, he began drawing, and the drawings led in time to this book, which he published himself, and so made San Roque’s specialised writing both accessible and available to a general readership. Not that the book is an illustrated version of the essay, or a pictorial representation for illiterate readers. It’s an adaptation from one medium, the academic essay, to another, sequential art (aka comic book, or if that sounds juvenile to your ears you could call it a graphic novel, even though this is not a novel). To judge by the little I’ve read of the essay, it’s a very faithful adaptation.
At the heart of the book is a search for something beyond individual aberration to account for so-called mental illnesses such as psychosis, substance abuse, violence and depression among Central Australian Aboriginal people. In crude, non-psychological terms, there’s a plain enough answer: they have largely been dispossessed and are on the receiving end of continuing dispossession – San Roque calls this cannibalism, which leads to one of Santospirito’s most compelling pages (especially the last two frames):
The book is interested in what happens in people’s minds. ‘The tragedy here,’ according to the captions accompanying images of beer bottles,
is not about massive conflicts and brutal bloody invasion. The tragedy is about experiencing self-decomposition through the erosion of access to loving bonds with family, country and integrity of cultural practice.
All of this is lucidly articulated and graphically realised. At one point, San Roque speaks of the need ‘to analyse [his] own culture … to give up trying to understand Indigenous culture.’ ‘It isn’t my business,’ he says. ‘But the area of overlap between my culture and Aboriginal is indeed my affair. I live in it.’
That overlap manifests in a range of encounters over a long weekend: the Warlpiri people who come to town and meet in his yard, a young woman with a psychotic reaction to cannabis, a man who has killed his mother-in-law, mistaking her for his wife (‘What is in alcohol which makes me murder?’ ‘What is in your mind that lets you murder? And in such a manner?’ ‘What is in our brains that allows us to take axes to our sleeping women?’), a hunting expedition with some women and children, and so on.
Then comes the Jungian theorising. First, in looking to his own culture, San Roque goes to the epic of Gilgamesh and the descent into the underworld of the Sumerian goddess Innana. Not where most non-Indigenous Australians would look, I submit. But it’s a great story, and has the advantages of being unfamiliar to most readers (me included) and lending itself to some spectacular images. And there’s the speculation foreshadowed in the author’s note to the essay: that some places somehow contain certain dramas that the people who live there will inevitably play out over and over – the endless struggles in Iraq, for example, or the permanently brewing fights in Alice Springs, whose dreaming story involves a dogfight. It seems to me that having acknowledged that a ‘web of disordering complexes has evolved as a consequence of the psychopathologies of colonialism’, it’s odd to go looking for further explanation in mystical notions like this. Not only odd, but counterpoductive: if young men die in Lebanon because of something the air there, or people are forever scrapping in Alice Springs because they are bound to reenact the Dreaming story of the place, then there’s nothing to be done about it – and I don’t believe either of the authors of this book would agree with that conclusion.
With that misgiving, this is a beautiful, passionate, doubly intelligent book. It has become something of a self-publishing success story, and it deserves all the success it finds.