Let me begin with a caveat. My argument is based on the evidence of fiction, on a discussion Tim Winton’s most recent novel, Breath. Social scientists may suspect this kind of evidence and see ‘fact’ as more trustworthy than ‘fiction’. But even though it is true that the evidence I will be presenting is not based on people and situations in ‘real life’ — whatever that may be — I would suggest that fiction may take us to the sources of social awareness and action, to the extent that, as Levinas1 suggests that awareness and action may originate in ‘gropings to which one does not even know how to give a verbal form…initial shocks [which] become questions and problems’ and thus takes us into the dimension of ‘the archaic, the oneiric, the nocturnal’2 which (as Levinas goes on to argue) has ‘ontological reference’ because in it we are able to live ‘the true life which is absent’, a life, moreover, which is not necessarily ‘utopian’ though it refuses ‘the normative idealism of what “must be’”.
I want to argue that Tim Winton’s recent novel, Breath,3 provides this kind of understanding and that it is one which may be particularly useful in our reflections on the relationship between family, society and the sacred — at least if we take Levinas’ further point that ‘the social does not reduce to the sum of individual psychologies’ but represents ‘the very order of the spiritual, a new plot in being above the human and the animal’.4 First of all, then, let us look at the society in which the novel is situated, a small mill town not far from the ocean in south Western Australia. For the two adolescents, ‘Pikelet’ and ‘Loonie’, the central characters, it is a place of sheer boredom, what Levinas calls ‘the there is’, an impersonal emptiness which is ‘neither nothingness nor being’5 but may well be the state which Lyotard calls ‘post-modern’, a state of ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’6 in which there is nothing beyond the self which longs for immediate and intense experience. For Pikelet and Loonie, however, this longing leads to an encounter with the sacred, some mysterium tremendum et facinans at the heart of existence, as Rudolph Otto famously defined it.
For the two boys this encounter begins not at the centre but at the edges of social experience, in ‘a rebellion against the monotony of taking breath’(p. 41), a gamble with death in which, diving into the local swimming hole, they stay underwater holding as long as possible and then surfacing to delight in
the alarm they have provoked, the watching them, the tourists from the city especially. As time goes on, the boys’ contempt not only for ordinary folk but also for the town they live in as they come realise ‘how small and static and insignificant [it] really was’(p. 36), a prison from which escape is impossible, a form of fate, inhabited by the kind of people A D Hope described in his poem, ‘Australia’, Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.7
Loonie’s family has fallen apart: his mother has walked out on his father, the local publican, who consoled himself with other women. So he is more or less free to do as he likes. But for Pikelet finds it is more difficult to break out. His parents, affectionate but ineffectual, English migrants and thus outsiders, are different from the rough and ready locals, fearful not only of the surrounding bush but also of the nearby ocean — having seen a fisherman swept off the rocks by a huge wave and smashed against the cliffs, his father