Ambiguous agnes: hannah kent’s burial rites

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

A novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentA novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Kent’s novel has immediate appeal. Beyond the ghoulish fascination of beheadings, it taps into the prevailing hunger for historical fiction. Based on a true story, its cast of characters would seem implausible, were they not based on real people: Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1795–1830), a housekeeper who struggles, like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, against harsh and indifferent fates; Natan Ketilsson (1792–1828), a Rasputin-like herbalist and farmer who is Agnes’s employer and sometime lover; and Rósa Gudmundsdóttir (1795–1855), another of Natan’s lovers, who also happens to be one of Iceland’s most famous poets of the early nineteenth century.

Behind Agnes’s execution lies a double murder and a complex love triangle. This much is known: on a spring night in 1828, Agnes woke a neighbouring household to tell them that the Illugastaðir farmhouse was on fire. Natan and his friend Pétur Jónsson, she said, were trapped inside. Unfortunately for Agnes, the fire was quickly doused and it became clear that the two men had been stabbed before the blaze. Agnes was arrested, along with an avaricious farmhand named Fridrik and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Siggi, who was later sent to a Copenhagen textile prison. Agnes and Fridrik were beheaded by Natan’s brother on a small hillock in Húnavatnssýsla on 12 January 1830.

Kent has built her narrative around a small trove of historical documents associated with the murders: a public notice announcing an auction of Natan’s valuables (variously a cow, a few horses, sheep, a saddle, a bridle, some plates), a list of Agnes’s assets (among odds and ends, ‘an old blue skirt with a blue bodice of plain-woven wool, with a red collar and eight silver buttons’), extracts from the Supreme Court trials of 1829, and various contemporaneous eyewitness and character testimonies.

There is also an Icelandic Burial Hymn and an extract from the Laxdæla Saga, whose protagonist, Guðrún, laments: ‘I was worst to the one I loved best.’ Especially powerful is the exchange between Agnes and Skáld-Rósa. Although married and living with another man at the time, Rósa loved Natan passionately and reportedly bore him two children. In June 1828, following the murders, Rósa aired her heartbreak in a vindictive poem addressed to Agnes:

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming
he who gave my life meaning
and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

Agnes, who was herself educated and literate, responded in verse:

This is my only wish to you,
bound in anger and grief:
Do not scratch my bleeding wounds,
I’m full of disbelief.

Agnes’s shock is palpable, yet the precise source of her disbelief is unclear: is it triggered by her grief at the death of the man she too loved, by an accusation of a crime she didn’t commit, or by fear at her impending death? It is the task of the novelist to decide.

Agnes and Fridrik were not permitted Christian burial rites: their heads were exhibited on sticks as warnings, and their bodies buried on site without markers. Nearly two hundred years later, Agnes now shares a modest grave with Fridrik in the churchyard at Tjörn. During the relocation of their remains, fragments from Agnes’s dress – she had dressed in her finest for her final moments – were found among her bones. They are exhibited in Iceland’s national museum, along with the axe that was sent to Iceland especially for the executions. It was used only twice.

Kent’s instinct for story is on bright display in Burial Rites. Over the years the murder case has been the source of much discussion in Iceland. Several books have appeared on the subject, and in 1995 a film entitled Agnes appeared by director Egill Eðvarðsson. Not that this would preclude yet another Holly-wood remake of a Scandinavian film.

Kent’s skill in driving the twin narratives of the murders and the executions to their ghastly inevitabilities demonstrates that she is a writer of great promise. Burial Rites is not a particularly challenging read, and it leans heavily on devices associated with genre fiction. But it does challenge the idea that Agnes is, as one source described her, ‘an inhuman witch, stirring up murder’. In the author’s note, Kent states that she wrote her novel ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’. But Burial Rites is more than thisit is a love song to a woman who lived and loved with the odds stacked against her.

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Originally published in Australian Book Review (May 2013).

Carrie tiffany wins a stella prize of her own

The Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English. It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000.

stella-logo-largeThe Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (£30,000/AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English.

It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000. Which is exactly what Carrie Tiffany – who last night was awarded the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel, Mateship with Birds – looks set to do.

Of course Tiffany can’t win the Dobbie because Mateship with Birds is her second novel. But that shouldn’t worry her greatly, as she already won it in 2007 for her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

In addition to last night’s win, Mateship with Birds is currently longlisted for the Kibble and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it might even pick up The Barbara Jefferis Award – a $35,000 prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society” – which is yet to release a shortlist.

It does’t end there. Mateship with Birds is also longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin, which fueled the gender debate when it served up all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, this year’s longlist sees the largest number of female authors selected since the longlist was first introduced in 2005.

Of winning the Stella Prize, Tiffany said: “It is astonishing and lovely to be the first recipient of this new prize. The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women.

When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.

At the award night, Tiffany announced that she wanted to donate $10,000 of the Stella prize money back to be split equally among the other five shortlistees:

  • The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

 

XX chromosomes returned to the Miles Franklin

439628-anna-funderJust because it’s the debate we had to have, didn’t mean it wasn’t going to hurt.

The fracas began in 2011 when the Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, unveiled its all-male shortlist.

The gender imbalance might have gone unnoticed, if it hadn’t coincided with the latest VIDA research that revealed an alarming under-representation of female authors and critics in international literary pages.

Back in Australia, female authors were horrified to find VIDA’s inequities replicated in Australian publications. In sharp response, Sophie Cunningham and a handful of writers, publishers and commentators decided to do something about the lack of profile accorded female authors.

The result is a $50,000 literary prize for a book in any genre by a female Australian author: The Stella Prize. The eponymous award retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin believed she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer.

Forwarding a year, Professor Gillian Whitlock announced, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney today, a very different Miles Franklin shortlist for 2012:

Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, Whitlock framed the shortlist in terms experience rather than gender: “The breadth of the shortlist includes well-known and loved Australian authors, as well as featuring two wonderful first-time novelists.”

She also highlighted the power of historical fiction (Funder and Moore) and an observable turn to trauma narratives and childhood (Birch, Mears and Parrett).

Debates on gender – along with the concurrent debate on the invisibility of Australian literature – are useful and will lead to greater understanding of our literary milieu. But it would be a travesty if these conversations were to throw doubt over the merits of the female authors shortlisted amid the uproar.

Frank Moorhouse is the heavy hitter on the list, but from what I hear the contest is still very much alive. The winner will be announced in a ceremony at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane on 20 June.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Love against max hardcore

Review of Love: A History by Simon May; and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines.

Madame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”. Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.

staelMadame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”.

Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.

In the meantime, Simon May in his monograph Love: A History argues that desire is really only one of many expressions of love, all of which share the same basic structure: a yearning for what he calls “ontological rootedness”. Love, he says daring a definition, “is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life”. We will love only those people or things or ideas, he says, that can deepen the sensation of our being through the promise of a permanent “home” in the world.

May’s History tells the story of how love has been interpreted over the centuries in the particular collection of cultures we call “Western”. He traces our modern conception of love to the marriage of ideas between Hebrew scripture and Greek philosophy: Plato argued the idea of love as the path to wholeness, while Christianity asserted love as the path to the divine.

Since then love has undergone several seismic transformations. Having discovered an unprecedented power to love and achieve friendship with God, humans soon found themselves worthy of the sort of love formerly reserved for God. As the role of religion declined over the centuries, men and women came to expect their secular love to take over where God’s love left off. In their folly – indeed their hubris, says May – humans now believe that true love is unconditional, eternal, and selfless. In this sense, May’s history of love is a cautionary tale. Love has become overloaded, he argues, and our relationships are lumbering under these dangerous illusions.

May proffers his final conjecture with a trembling hand: even the idea that we love our children unconditionally is delusive. His reasoning is light on evidence – though perhaps a list of the derelictions of paternal duties on the parts of a good many of the philosophers whose works May discusses – yes, they’re all men – might have made his point more fully. Rousseau, to name but one, personally abandoned every one of his five children to a French foundling hospital because, he explained, they interfered with his work.

“It’s always nice to know”, Neal Pollack once sallied, “that no matter how badly you’ve screwed up your love life, someone else has done far, far worse”. Indeed the biographies of these philosophers of love corroborate that a lover of wisdom and a wise lover are two different people. All May’s philosophers, as far as I’m aware, failed at love themselves. And most had no time for women: Aristotle thought they were “monstrosities” of nature and little more than tamed animals. “Women are meretricious schemers who lay snares”, Lucretius wrote. And in Schopenhauer’s masterpiece of misogyny, On Women, he opined: “The most eminent heads of the entire [female] sex have proved incapable of a single truly great, genuine and original achievement in art, or indeed of creating anything at all of lasting value”.

To redress the lack of a single female voice in May’s history of love, I raise the specter of Andrea Dworkin: “Romantic love, in pornography as in life, is the mythic celebration of female negation. The proof of love is that she is willing to be destroyed by the one whom she loves, for his sake. For the woman, love is always self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of identity, will, and bodily integrity, in order to fulfill and redeem the masculinity of her lover.” Love may be universal but its burdens, if we are to take her point, are not equally distributed.

Dworkin also serves as a transition to Gail Dine’s new book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College, has been agitating against porn for twenty years but Pornland makes explicit that her current beef is with “gonzo porn”. The word gonzo is said to be Irish-American slang for the last man standing in a drinking contest. But Hunter S. Thompson brought it to prominence in the 1970s when he used it to describe the manic and gritty style of journalism he pioneered, inserting himself into the story with, he said, “total commitment, total concentration and a mad sort of panache”.

In the 1990s gonzo was applied to an emerging style of “reality porn” that not only acknowledged the presence of the camera in a scene but its operator was often made an active participant in the sex. Gonzo porn dispensed with the corny narratives of bygone porn and headed straight to the orifice action – preferably but not exclusively anal – which it cynically exalts in extreme close-ups and endless montages.

Over time, gonzo porn has come to connote extreme content in porn rather than camera technique. Dines offers a pithy definition: “gonzo porn is hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased”.

This new style of porn was the subject of the 2001 documentary, Hardcore, that follows a 25-year-old, British single-mother, “Felicity”, to Los Angeles (porn capital of the world) where she wants to make it as a porn actress. First up her agent takes her to visit Max Hardcore who specializes in getting actresses to dress up as little girls and allow him to spit and urinate in their mouths, choke and gag them with his penis or fist, and insert gynecological instruments into their rectums in order to enlarge them to the utmost degree. “We have a saying around here”, he tells Felicity as he anally rapes her, “we’re not happy until you’re not happy”.

Felicity laughs but later flees the set in tears after a brutal off-camera session in which Max nearly suffocates her in a bout of oral sex. Nevertheless she soldiers on in her mission – I confess sometimes the behaviour of women confounds me – and takes part in a film directed by another gonzo impresario who boasts his movies “make Belsen look like a picnic”.

Gonzo porn is not vile because Dines says it is. It’s vile because Max Hardcore says it is. That’s how he – and his fans – like it. “By the time I’m done with them”, he says of his actresses, “they’re dead inside”. Depravity is Max Hardcore’s guiding aesthetic, or at least it would be were he not currently in jail on pseudo-child-porn (PCP) charges.

Given the clarity with which Dines maps gonzo territory in Pornland, you might be forgiven for thinking feminists would be among her most ardent supporters. But you’d be wrong. Dines conducts feminist ire like water conducts electricity.

I suspect (indeed hope) Dines’s feminist detractors are not acquainted with the gonzo genre. I suspect they’re fans of female-friendly “boutique” porn (to borrow the euphemism for worthy but unbankable literature) directed by female auteurs who are in no danger of drawing attention to themselves by making Forbes’s Richest People list. I suspect they find their porn-of-choice by googling “erotica for women” or “artful nude photography” and other such feeble yielders. Because feminists defending gonzo porn is like Occupational Health and Safety giving Jackass the thumbs up, or the Heart Foundation putting its tick on a bucket of lard.

On a talk show that aired on the ABC last month, an Australian–based ethicist (whom I’ll leave unnamed due mostly to my embarrassment on her behalf) challenged Dines’s attack on gonzo porn by unveiling a truism that most people don’t buy porn these days: “They’re watching things that other people produce and some of it is really quite sweet and quite hilarious. You know, I’ve seen stuff where, you know, there is like a little nightie hanging on the back of a door. It’s quite sweet”.

Was the Valley-Girl cum ethicist trying to outdo Dines with anti-porn imagery? Or did she accidently click on an outtake from Little Whore House on the Prairie?

But gonzo porn, so the apologist argument goes, is fringe. Max Hardcore, Ben Dover (don’t think about it), Seymour Butts and countless other sadistic clowns are extreme in anybody’s reckoning. But the file-sharing porn site Redtube.com isn’t fringe. In fact in 2009 it was ranked in the top 100 websites world-wide.

At the time of writing, the Redtube homepage is streaming, beneath thumbnails of predominantly anal sex videos, images of a man shoving a woman’s head into a toilet with one hand while giving the camera a thumbs up with the other; a prepubescent-looking girl in a headband sitting on a bed and holding a stuffed monkey to her flat and naked chest (I don’t dare click on it for fear of Task Force Argos banging on my door); and the double-anal penetration of a young woman whose contorted face is pinned to the floor by her penetrator’s foot.

Perhaps gonzo is more mainstream than anybody would care to think. Despite apologist claims otherwise, large sections of the porn industry now make no pretence of representing “healthy sexuality” and other such clichés: there’s simply no money in it. The degradation of women is its stock in trade. Porn star Nina Hartley – who in 2010 quipped, “I work with women who are younger than my breast implants” – admits: “You’re seeing more of these videos of women getting dragged on their faces and spat on, and having their heads dunked in the toilet”.

In How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale – which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2004 (if you need extra incentive to read it, each chapter is headed with a line from a Shakespearean sonnet) –porn-star extraordinaire Jenna Jameson explains: “Most girls get their first experience in gonzo films – in which they’re taken to a crappy studio apartment in Mission Hills [LA] and penetrated in every hole possible by some abusive asshole who thinks her name is Bitch”. If the girls are doing gonzo for the money, Jameson predicts their disappointment: “she’ll work for two weeks until she’s only getting paid seven hundred dollars a scene and then, finally, no one wants to use her anymore. So she’ll agree to do double penetration or drink the sperm of twelve guys just to stay working”.

“Say what you want about love but don’t say a word against porn”, a friend warned when I told her the books I was reviewing for ALR, “or you’ll be brandished a wowser”.

But there are worse things than that, I decided as I disconnected the Internet, hung my nightie on the back of the door, and exiled myself to bed, alone, perchance to dream of a good ontological root.

Bronwyn Lea’s review of Love: A History by Simon May and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines. First published under the title ‘Love Against Max Hardcore’ in Australian Literary Review (July 2011): 19.

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Men behaving badly: mel gibson and the beaver

Review of The Beaver directed by Jodi Foster and a profile of lead actor Mel Gibson

Everybody’s heard that Lord Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know. But perhaps it’s not so well advertised that Caravaggio killed his opponent after a game of tennis by stabbing him through the femoral artery in a bungled castration attempt. Or that Bernini, on suspecting his mistress was having an affair with his brother, dispatched a bravo to slash her face to ribbons, then pulped his brother himself. Or that Naked Lunch author William Burroughs aimed his handgun at a water tumbler balanced on his wife’s head in a drugged-up game of William Tell and shot her in the face.

Mel GibsonEverybody’s heard that Lord Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know. But perhaps it’s not so well advertised that Caravaggio killed his opponent after a game of tennis by stabbing him through the femoral artery in a bungled castration attempt. Or that Bernini, on suspecting his mistress was having an affair with his brother, dispatched a bravo to slash her face to ribbons, then pulped his brother himself. Or that Naked Lunch author William Burroughs aimed his handgun at a water tumbler balanced on his wife’s head in a drugged-up game of William Tell and shot her in the face. Or that Picasso beat his mistress Dora Maar into unconsciousness and ground his lit cigarette into the cheek of his other mistress — Paloma’s mother, Francoise Gilot — when she refused to shack up with him.

Ok, so most people know Picasso was a monster. But the diabolical behaviour of countless celebrated artists is enough to make the recent escapades of Lindsay Lohan look like a comedy of manners. And Mel Gibson’s improprieties, by comparison, have him looking less like Cerberus and more like your garden-variety jerk. But while Caravaggio et al rest peacefully in the grave, their oeuvre elegantly segregated from their wicked lives, Gibson and co are being marched out of Hollywood. Perhaps LA is not a den of immorality after all.

Lohan is easy to dismiss, and if I knew more about her I would. But Gibson is a powerbroker. Despite his haggard appearance of late he’s an A-list actor, a two-time Academy Award winning director, a successful screenwriter, and president of Icon productions. Disposal would never be simple. But there was another problem. Before he was to be dishonorably discharged, Gibson and Jodie Foster (as director and co-star) made a little movie with what a reviewer in the Guardian thoughtfully described as a “giggly” title: The Beaver.

It must be said that Foster is terribly likeable and, it would seem, almost unanimously respected, but the films she has directed to date – Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995) – are a little bit twee. And that said, The Beaver’s premise– a man suffering from depression starts communicating to his family and work colleagues exclusively through a beaver hand-puppet – doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. So why are so many critics agreeing with the puppet when it says to Gibson: “I’m here to save your goddamn life”?

It’s a difficult question to answer because the final (here’s hoping) installment in Gibson’s charade as a train wreck has necessitated The Beaver remain in “a holding pattern” since filming wrapped in 2009. But in March 2011, the SXSW festival in Austin held an advanced screening with Jodie Foster and award-winning screenwriter Kyle Killen in attendance. Gibson took a hall pass due to a prior engagement at the LA Airport Court, where he pled no contest to misdemeanour battery of his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. (Incidentally Lohan appeared at the same Court the day before for her alleged jewelry-theft hearing.)

But the early Beaver reviews are glowing. “The moments between Walter and the beaver are genuine, heartfelt and contain some of the best acting Gibson has ever done,” as one critic enthused. But there’s something strange about the buzz surrounding The Beaver. Everyone’s running the same headline: “Can The Beaver Redeem Mel Gibson?” In fact Google returns over 26,000 hits for the question in direct quotes. To redeem is the American dream, but can a movie about a puppet really make you feel fuzzy about someone who’s just knocked in your front teeth? Or perhaps it’s just marketing elves at Summit clocking overtime.

Gibson’s fall from grace goes back to July 2006 when he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol (he blew in at 0.12%) after being stopped for speeding in Malibu. Initially he was cooperative but became belligerent when handcuffed: “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” he told the arresting officer; at the police station he reportedly asked a female officer, “What are you looking at, sugar-tits?” Within hours, a four-page police report was leaked to the entertainment website TMZ.com. It quickly went viral. Gibson issued a general apology for his dangerous behaviour and a second apology addressed to the Jewish community for his “vitriolic and harmful words … blurted out in a moment of insanity.” He’s not an anti-Semite, he insisted. In a 2009 interview, however, Gibson denied using the term “sugar-tits” (he attributed it to the arresting officer) but wished he had coined it because it is funny.

In the end Gibson pled no contest for misdemeanour drunken driving. He was fined, had his license restricted, and was to attend an alcohol-abuse program and AA meetings for a year. While his friends loaned their public support — Patrick Swayze, Jodie Foster, and Robert Downy Jr among them — the head of Sony called for an industry boycott of Gibson, which was supported with hawkish denouncements from Endeavor, MCA and other heavy hitters.

But Gibson wasn’t finished. In May 2009 he divulged onthe Tonight Show with Jay Leno that he’d done “a hatchet job” on his 30-year marriage to Robyn Gibson and that Grigorieva, whom he’d met on the set of Edge of Darkness (2010), was pregnant with his eighth child. Gibson was clearly besotted with the Russian musician cum model. “My dark eyed beautiful little communist,” he dubbed her in text messages she would later submit to the family court to substantiate his unstable personality. “You conquered the monster in me with your love emanating from your truly beautiful heart and soul,” he slavered. Gibson extended the Cold War metaphor by calling himself her “capitalist pig”, presciently, perhaps, because the iron curtain was about to fall on their relationship.

According to Grigorieva, on 6 January 2011 Gibson punched her, choked her, and waved a gun at her while she was holding their two-month-old baby. The accusation, which came six months after the blowout, followed the leaking of seven expletive-laced audiotapes to RadarOnline.com. Among other things, Gibson threatens to burn down the house and bury Grigorieva in the rose garden. He calls her a bitch, cunt, whore, slut, gold digger, and berates her for falling asleep before “blowing him”. Radar also posted photographs of her with broken veneers. Gibson admitted that he slapped Grigorieva to stop her shaking Lucia, but he didn’t punch her. And he didn’t wave a gun, he said.

This time Hollywood was not swift to act. It wasn’t until Gibson got racial — “You look like a fucking bitch in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault” — that he was dumped by the William Morris Agency. Apparently race trumps gender in Hollywood.

Why Grigorieva waited six months to file charges is unclear. Gibson’s legal team says it was because she was busy trying to extort their client for $15 million. She claims she was trying to work out their differences. In an interview on Larry King Live in November 2010 Grigorieva elaborates: “I stayed for a little bit too long,” she says. “I gave him [a] last chance. He asked me for the last chance. He begged. He cried. He cried on his knees. What am I supposed to do?”

What indeed. Grigorieva was up against an actor. Not any old actor, but one of the all-time great warrior actors. Mad Max, Fletcher Christian, Sgt Riggs, Porter, and William Wallace all rolled into one. Gibson owns these roles because he understands these men. He is one of them. His first instinct, he explains in a documentary on the making of Hamlet (1990), is to “scream and roar and yell”. He’s not good at compromising when people don’t see things his way: “I’ll let it brew, let it brew,” he says, “and try and figure out a way around it. And then when it doesn’t I just go up and choke them”. It’s a fault, he concedes.

Gibson is a master of unhinged aggression. Forever spoiling for a fight, he’s spent more screen time in the arms of men than women. He may not be sensitive but he is surprisingly emotional.

In fact, he’s a real crier. Gibson came of age as an actor in the 1980s when masculinity was under review. Men were being told they should cry, and Gibson showed them how to do it … and still be a badass. He turns on the tears in Lethal Weapon (1987), Hamlet (1990), Braveheart (1995), Ransom (1996), The Patriot (2000), We Were Soldiers (2002), and Signs (2002) and both men and women come unstuck.

Grigorieva’s mistake was to fall, like Gibson’s audiences do, for his tears. But it wasn’t her only mistake. In the audiotapes she commits the ultimate crime for a woman: she fails to cry. Worse, in the photographs documenting her broken veneers, she’s smiling. Grigorieva is unruffled in the face of Gibson’s fury, and his fans don’t like it. While Gibson was publicly flogged for his racist remarks, on the ‘woman issue’ the masses are aggressively backing Team Mel.

Besides sexism, fans might side with Gibson because he’s always getting bashed. Bruises and lacerations are central to his image, and pain buys him admiration, sympathy, and sex appeal. The more masochistic, the more manly. Pain is the whole point of Payback (1999) in which Gibson’s Porter is shot in the back, run over by a car, and beaten up by the mob, a Chinese gang, and the police. At Gibson’s suggestion Porter’s toes were smashed with a sledgehammer. Compared to Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, and Johnny Depp who are always kicking the bucket, Gibson rarely dies on film (only four times in more than 40 movies). He does, however, hold the record for number of tortures.

Gibson’s characters are not only in danger from others, they’re a danger to themselves. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs sticks a gun in his mouth and contemplates pulling the trigger. “Riggs was suicidal,” director Richard Donner says, “Mel just fit the mode perfectly.” Donner wasn’t alone in thinking so. Franco Zeffirelli saw it and knew he’d found his Hamlet. Gibson’s simpatico with his suicidal characters is born of experience. In a 2004 interview Gibson confessed he’d recently “got to a very desperate place. Very desperate. Kind of jump-out-of-a-window kind of desperate. And I didn’t want to hang around here,” he said. “And I just hit my knees.”

And so this is where we find Walter Black at the opening of The Beaver: floating in a pool, arms outstretched, numb with self-loathing, his life feeling like it’s ended. Originally Steve Carrel, then Jim Carrey was slated to play the lead, but Walter is a Gibson role. Despite its quirky premise The Beaver is not a comedy, Foster insists. Turn by turn the story gets darker and more violent until Gibson renders Walter’s complete emotional collapse in a performance that is leaving critics stunned.

Caravaggio’s bad behaviour is a footnote to his work; for Gibson it’s the headline. How an artist can come back from disgrace in a society almost entirely restructured by technology is anybody’s guess. Words are no longer ephemeral, but orchestral: replayed on 24-hour news, transcribed, extracted, analysed, and satirised in video mash-ups and comic skits. The question is not whether we will forgive Gibson the things he’s said and done, but whether we – or he for that matter – will ever be allowed to forget.

First published under the title “Jury Still Out for Mad Mel” in Australian Literary Review (May 2011): 23.