The Theme of Man and the Environment in An Imaginary Life

The Theme of Man and the Environment in An Imaginary Life
In David Malouf?s novel An Imaginary Life, one of the most prevalent influences on the characters? lives is the particular environment in which they are placed. Malouf explores the issues of the interrelationship between man and his natural environment, and the impact that changes in environment have on human personality. Through the characterisation of Ovid and the Boy, the effects of setting and physical surroundings are fully explored, and consequently issues such as isolation, conformity to society and the development of culture, including education and language, are discussed.
The main character, Ovid, is a vivid example of how lives can be periodically changed according to alterations in the surrounding environment. At the start of the book Ovid is a stranger to his setting, stranded in a culture that deprives him of his language, his customs, and his pride. This shows that identity is primarily constructed according to the society in which people are placed, and much social learning and norms are derived from conformity to the conditions of a particular environment. In An Imaginary Life, Ovid completes a journey of self discovery, learning how to create and cultivate an existence based on interrelationship with the natural world, entering a into partly idealistic and imaginary existence, hence the title.

There are consistent parallels created through descriptions of Ovid?s political status. Due to his ostracism, he is separated both from outside elements of society and ideals that exist in his own mind. In the opening paragraphs, Ovid describes his natural surroundings and the characteristics of the landscape, and ends with the statement:

But I am describing a state of mind, no place.

I am in exile here.

This emphasises the relationship and influence between natural environment and human patterns of thinking, and how often perspectives on life are very dependent upon the state of the environment. This is again reflected in one of his later descriptions, which states:

It [the landscape] is a place of utter desolation, the beginning. I know it

like the inside of my head.

This bleak, pessimistic description is then contrasted to a joyful, beautiful description of a new life: a scarlet poppy. This contrast provides insight into the importance of changes in the natural environment, as the poet is changed from being troubled by the desolate emptiness of the earth, to being ?drunk with joy? at the new creation of colour, life and vitality. While in this ecstatic state of mind, Ovid questions what his friends back in the modern Roman society would think of his frivolous behavior, showing that being in unity with the natural landscape lessens the bond between man and the constraints of society. Ovid?s identity is constructed by the environment he is in, as while hunting with the head horseman, he adapts and conforms to the patterns of the rural men. This is portrayed as a positive thing, as the landscape is seen as a mentally healing agent, as Ovid described:

It was as it some fear went out of my breath and left my spirit clear

Following this description is a flashback to Ovid?s childhood, where he is finally able to become reconciled with his past and become aware of problems within the family unit. Changes and challenges within the environment therefore act as a catalyst for reconciliation and healing. Ovid recognises that

?the landscape we have made reveals to us the creatures we long for

and must become.

This shows the link between the way human activity has affected and influenced the natural environment, and the way nature has the ability to educate man about many aspects of human existence. The environment is contrasted many times with the use of language. As the poet learns more and more about the new culture and speech, he compares it to the elements of the environment, stating that

This language is equally expressive, but what it presents is the raw life and

unity of things.

Ovid refers to a language that is united with its natural setting, where people are interlinked with cycles of nature and work with, not against it. As Ovid changes, he becomes more a part of the landscape, ?[feeling himself] loosen and flow again, reflecting the world.? As the novel progresses, Ovid discovers the true meaning of transformation, learning priceless lessons of life through relationship with the environment. Discovery of one?s true identity is likened to features of the landscape, as Ovid believes:

Our further selves are contained within us, as the leaves and blossoms are in

the tree.

One of the central issues explored within this book is conformity to society, and the search for a fulfilling existence. Ovid?s philosophy springs from the title, An Imaginary Life, as he aspires to transcend laws and restraints of his freedom, through ?breaking out of these laws without doing violence to our essential being.? He recognises the reality of human constraints, but also honours the power of the mind and imagination to become at one with the more natural and harmonious elements of the earth. This gradual change is reflected in the cultivation of Ovid?s garden, a recreational pursuit in which he takes much pleasure. The contemptuous and somewhat bewildered attitudes displayed by the townspeople towards Ovid?s pursuit portrayed the difference between societal attitudes and the freedom of the natural environment.

Towards the end of the novel, Ovid completes his learning cycle, becoming part of the Boy?s world, through totally rejecting living in society and embracing a life completely interdependent with the natural environment. Ovid undertook a life changing spiritual and physical journey, as the landscape called him to cross

?the border beyond which you must go to find your true life, your true death

at last.

When Ovid enters the ?other world? he finds ultimate satisfaction and freedom, the vast openness and immensity of the land which once scared him became his source of food and drink. Though his progression and development of his relationship with the world he finally becomes satisfied in body, soul and mind. In Ovid?s last few days, he describes the earth as being ?so close at last?. He realises that ?we are continuous with the earth in all the particles of our being.? The natural environment influences the poet to the extent that age and elements of the human mind are no longer so important, the existence of life is everlasting, and Ovid is able to express the somewhat contradictory statement: ?I am three years old. I am sixty.? The final statement sums up the true benefits of belonging to the environment and not conforming to human pattern and processes. ?I am there? is designed to describe the ultimate utopia of belonging and fulfillment.

The Boy is another character in the novel An Imaginary Life whose personality is changed and influenced through variations in his environment. The Boy stands as a symbol of how societal restraints can damage layers of identity, and how non-conformity can produce outside resistance, but inner satisfaction. In the beginning, the Boy is seen as a mystical, confusing character who is barely even human, and certainly not a member of any society. The Boy is seen through the eyes of Ovid, who is amazed at the Boy?s existence and at times obsessed about introducing him to modern society. As Ovid built his relationship with the Boy, the two extremities of surviving in a certain environment become apparent, and each character considers existence in the ?other? world to be inconceivable. The Boy is a significant example of how humans and the landscape are interlinked, and grow to be almost one. Ovid describes the Boy, saying:

His self is outside of him, its energy distributed among the beasts and birds whose life he shares? whose existence he can be at home, because they hold? a particle of his spirit.

Ovid strives to master these elements of relationship with the land, and frequently he is seen as the student of the Boy, as he firmly states:

I must drive out my own self and let the universe in

Ovid strives for a sense of belonging and unity with all the elements, and though at first he attempts to tame the Child, he always seems more fascinated than disturbed by the Boy?s unique ability to contort and reflect numerous characteristics of the natural world. The Boy is admired for his personality, as ?all the world is alive for him?, and he has mastered a society created by the gods, as opposed to those created by volatile men. Like Ovid, the Boy is influenced by changes in environment. When first captured, the Boy reacts violently and is tied up with cloths. This is symbolic as it recognises both the physical restraints caused by conformity and the mental and psychological bonding which many members of the ?civilised? society? almost unconsciously endure. Further on in the winter months, the Boy?s sickness reflects both the physical sickness caused by captivity and the lack of freedom that men endure in order to work against, not with, the elements. Conversely, when the Boy is finally released into his natural habitat, he is described as being in ?his world at last?

Ovid and the Boy instantly share a bond, as when he first sees the Boy, he notes:

I see the Child, and stranger still, recognise him

The bond that the Boy and Ovid share is representative of the way humans are interconnected, and how they influence each other in their attitude towards their surroundings. When Ovid is teaching Boy basic social behaviour, the concept of conforming to societal requirements is dominant, as Ovid states that

[these] discoveries?will lead him, after so many years of exile, into his

inheritance, into the society of his own kind.

The attitudes and prejudices that Ovid holds toward preferable social behavior and the security of man-made environments gradually change throughout the novel, as he continually admires both the Boy?s teaching and learning qualities, and attitudes towards the natural environment. He admires his open spirit, saying:

All the world is alive for him

Towards the end, he acknowledges the personal satisfaction and fulfillment of being unified with the natural world:

He is full of?some suppressed passion for the furthest reaches of what he can

see?he seems closer now than I ever thought possible.

Through the characters of Ovid and the Boy, Malouf implies that through close relationship with the elements of the natural world, people will consequently grow closer to each other. The child is an integral part of Ovid?s existence. The Boy connected him to both elements of his past and to his social destiny. When the Boy is wrestling with the demon, Ovid is filled with fear for his safety, saying

[I] realise what he means to me this child, and what it might mean to lose him

Though his relationship with the Boy, Ovid realises that to become eternally linked to the Boy he must come into closer relationship with the natural environment, utilizing the ageless and continuous attributes of the natural environment. This ideal is fulfilled in the last section of the novel, where both Ovid and the Boy are repeatedly described as being ?there?, showing the ability of the natural environment to provide unity and irrelevance of human constraints.

The novel An Imaginary Life is a poignant profile of the relationship between man and his environment. Malouf?s main interest in self is in its capacity for transformation, and the process which the change involves, ?the beings we are in process of becoming.? Through the characterisation of Ovid and the Boy, various issues and themes associated with both the social and natural environments are explored, as each of them undertakes a journey of transformation which ultimately draws them closer to the natural elements of the earth.

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