Northrop Frye is not a name one hears much anymore. He is not fashionable or popular, his works (and they’re huge) are dense and worrying and, as might be suspected in these enlightened days, not often useful. But I happened upon an extended quote in a history of the Hudson’s Bay Company I have been reading recently:
“the garrison mentality produces small, isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological frontiers…communities that provide all their members have in the way of distinctly human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting…A garrison is a closely knit and beleaguered society, and its moral and social values are unquestionable. In a perilous exercise one does not discuss causes or motives: one is either a fighter or a deserter.”
This is a rather too accurate description of my childhood circumstances. Our family moved from small town to small town in the west of NSW, taking our boxes of shit from one frontier post to another, and always completely dependent on the other family members for human contact. Each town was another fortification of our band. And like all fortifications each place was also a prison, because forts not only keep the nasties out but also ensure there is no escape because, as Frye says, either you wrestle or run. And if you run you weren’t really one of us anyway.
As a grown up I chose to run and not to fight for the fortifications of my garrison family, but I couldn’t be a deserter: I always pretended to be a fighter still. I didn’t want to feel like a deserter, and I still don’t. That frame, fighter or deserter, still manages my responses to the beleaguered family culture.
Christmas is a ritual that seems perfectly designed to enshrine the garrison mentality in a family culture. Each year it is harder to pretend that I have not deserted, harder to pretend that I am still fighting on the side of the garrison. This is especially so with the death of my father, an event which meant that the unthinking menace of our family culture is gone, that particular frontier has closed.