Story outline[ edit ] It tells the story of the Roman poet Ovid , during his exile in Tomis. The relationship between Ovid and the boy, at first one of protector and protected, becomes an alliance between two people in a foreign land. Ovid comes to Tomis enculturated with a Roman world view and through his attempts at teaching the boy language is able to free himself from the constrictions of Latin and the encompassing perception of reality that is his only barrier against transcendence. Ovid is continually searching for the Child and what he represents to him.

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It is set at the edge of the Roman Empire, in the first century AD. This lack of identifiably Australian components is probably why An Imaginary Life is rarely mentioned as a great Australian book that deserves more attention.

An Imaginary Life is exceptionally well written, rich in poetry and evocative detail. I selected it because its central themes resonate with ongoing debates about what it means to be Australian.

David Malouf, An Imaginary Life. Random House What kind of Australian literature is this? There are no larrikins, no diggers, no Aussie battlers, and no tough yet world-wise women with hearts of gold. To me, though, it reflects a significant aspect of the Australian story — a sense of exile.

An Imaginary Life tells the story of Ovid , the most famous and most irreverent poet of imperial Rome. Exiled to the limit of the known world, Ovid is cut off from his own culture, even from his language.

Slowly, the poet learns to depend on and respect those around him, those he once saw as unsophisticated barbarians because of their inability to speak Latin, their poverty, and their closeness to nature. Ovid sees nature as something somehow frightening, wild, unless it is cultivated, transformed and made productive by human hands. An encounter with a wild boy His worldview is challenged when he encounters an untamed boy who has lived out in the wilderness with wild creatures.

By observing the wild boy, and then following him into the wilderness, Ovid realises Rome is not the whole world, and not even the centre of it. Like the poet, many of us are acquainted with the feeling of being at the edge of things, on the wild borders of regions and empires to which we do not quite belong, or do not belong any more.

For the first century or so after colonisation, Australia was on the periphery of the British Empire. Now we see ourselves as on the edge of the Asian region, but not really part of it.

We seem to always be a part of something and yet apart from it. When non-Indigenous Australians think about the history of their belonging to this place, they inevitably come to a moment of arrival; either recent or generations back, either as free migrants, refugees or exiled convicts. They also come to a moment of departure from somewhere else, the places where their ancestors, or they themselves, once belonged.

Indigenous Australians also know exile. European colonisation dispossessed them of their country. Over the decades that followed, many of them were forcibly moved to missions in places as foreign to them as the Old World. There is in Indigenous communities a deep yearning and mourning for lost places; places locked behind gates and fences, places buried beneath cities and suburbs, roads and farms. Somewhere else The somewhere else in our personal histories — those places we lost or left — plays a big part in how we think about ourselves.

It produces a sense of national belonging that is never quite secure. A common response to that insecurity is a kind of aloofness, a standing apart from the rest of the world. We like to single ourselves out, to brandish our physical and cultural distance from other places, our un-belonging as it were, as a mark of uniqueness, and of national identity that distinguishes us from others. Another common response to this insecurity, that sense of un-belonging, is to turn to nature, to the environment.

That may be why so much Australian writing has a strong sense of place, and why when we think of important Australian novels they are often ones that feature landscape as a character in its own right.

Indigenous Australians have shown other Australians the way in this regard. It is their profound understanding and love of this place that has, over time, transformed the non-Indigenous view of it from something to be feared and tamed, to something to love and protect.

Unfortunately, the landscape is still a contested space: the site of ongoing Indigenous dispossession, the site of mass species extinctions and environmental degradation. When we turn for a sense of belonging to the land, to the country, we are inevitably reminded of our un-belonging, or of our dispossession.

For many, contested though it is, the beauty of the land eases that sense of exile, of not quite belonging, whether their families have been here for just a few years or a few thousand years.

For Ovid, it is the same. Slowly he comes to see the wild world as something to embrace, to cling to even, rather than something to fear. By venturing into an even further place, a greater exile, he becomes free.

The poet in the world An Imaginary Life is, in part, about an individual journey from a state of being cut off and apart from the environment — of wishing to tame and exploit nature, of being totally entangled in language and culture — to a state of being in intimate contact with the untrained, wild things of the world.

It is also about a poet, in thrall of civilisation, realising that there are other ways to live and experience; ways that are beautiful and fulfilling.

Ovid comes to this realisation by following the example of the wild boy, someone for whom the environment is not something outside of himself but an expression of his own nature.

Those themes — of belonging and exile, of how to relate to the environment and to those who are different to us — are core to the debate about what it means to be Australian today.

An Imaginary Life does not provide a workable template for how to navigate the complexity of belonging and un-belonging, nor should it. It does, however, show us it is possible to imagine ways to do things differently, ways to live differently with each other and with nature. And once imagined, those other ways of living seem all the more possible.


An Imaginary Life

Learn More The lack of understanding of cultural diversity excluded the chance that the village community could accept Ovid as he is and the only way out for the exiled poet was to learn a new language and traditions of the new community. The dominating indigenous culture induced the newcomer to take measures for adapting to the new community though Ovid has never been fully absorbed with it. Ovid therefore tries to adapt to his situation and to understand the landscape in which he finds himself. It seems to him that even the whole landscape speaks an unknown language and therefore he has to adjust to it by learning the new language and appreciating the culture of the people. Another post colonial aspect is evident in the people of Tomis who are portrayed as illiterate and uncivilized population that lives like animals. This is shown in their language and their social life, beliefs and practices. Ovid, however, finds himself and establishes relationships with people of Tomis to interact with them, learning their language and their culture for this purpose.


An Imaginary Life Quotes

The obvious themes are exile and the isolation that comes from effectively losing your own language, surrounded by people whose language and culture are vastly different from your own. He finds their customs and speech barbarous. I have …been cast out into what is yet another order of beings, those who have not yet climbed up through a hole in their head and become fully human, who have not yet entered society and become Roman under the law. Language and the nature of existence are also themes of the book. Ovid slowly adapts to life in the village, learns to make nets, accompanies the men on hunting expeditions.


David Malouf



“An Imaginary Life” by David Malouf Essay (Critical Writing)


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