The Foundations Of Culture In Australia:
An Essay Towards National Self-Respect. Part Two.


P.R. Stephensen




Second Instalment


§ 21

ALL IS IN FLUX

The task now, or interesting duty, which falls upon the minority of Australians who know that growth of mind, or intellectual culture, is even more significant than growth of sheeps’ wool—is to seek, find, and develop the basis of that intellectual culture in the Commonwealth: to explore now and pioneer the Vast Open Spaces of the Australian mind.

The first essential in any such exploration is to make a survey of ourselves in historical perspective. Without a strong sense of our own history we cannot expect to arrive at national self-consciousness. Broadly speaking, it may be said that our history, prior to 1850, was a branch or sector of English history. After that date, or when transportation of English convicts had ceased, our history tended more and more to become our own property, of interest peculiarly to ourselves as being formative of our own national character. It was a dramatic moment in our national story (our "Boston Tea Party") when a band of free colonists, armed with muskets, went down to Circular Quay and bawled out to the skipper of The Hashemy, just in, that any attempt to land his convicts would be resisted by force. That ship hauled up her anchor and put to sea again, headed for Moreton Bay. The first big Australian gesture was made that day; the beginning of the movement for Australian independence.

Our national Australian history is comparatively brief. Its rhythms are calculable in decades, and not yet in centuries; but, for us, each decade of our history is packed with lore and legend and significant national experience. A decade of our own history is more important to us than a century of history from elsewhere.

Our history has been, and is, a gigantic pageant played on a vast stage. The least important of each of the seven millions of us is still playing a part in that drama. There are enough of us to make a nation; not enough to make a vast amorphous mass (such as the Chinese Republic) in which the individual practically ceases to exist. Individuality, in Australia, still matters.

Every ten-years’ period in our history—particularly from 1850 onwards—has had its own character and quality and national meaning. We are not a crystallised, set, people: there is much movement of both body and spirit in the progressive formation of Australia’s national mind.

The scenes and actors in our giant pageant have changed swiftly and colourfully. No decade has resembled the previous decade even in externals of social, political, and economic life. Nothing has settled into a form of apparent permanence—as yet; though the outlines are at last beginning to be defined.

Our history has had its own glamour.

Wave after wave of adventurous exploration has swept across Australia’s vast stage-setting. In one decade the gold-prospectors went fossicking, thousands of miles "from anywhere," in the lonely hills and gullies, not of a mere region, but of an entire empty continent. In another decade the patriarchal Shepherd Kings went moving slowly, moving always, on and on, "further outback," with their flocks and herds, pack-horses and bullock-waggons, into the enormous lyrical wilderness. In another decade came the "settlers," knocking down trees with axes; putting up fences and houses, building townships and towns.

In one decade it is bullock-waggons for transport; in the next it is Cobb & Co.’s coaches; in the next decade ten thousands miles of gleaming rails are suddenly laid down, and locomotives begin to scream like iron parrots through the bush: then, hey presto!—a wave of history’s wand, and, in one decade more, motor-cars are going across our plains and hills on roads of concrete and macadam . . . and yet, already, look up, Kingsford Smith flies from Australia right around the world and back home here—mails and passengers zoom across the continent to a simple and matter-of-fact timetable; it is only four days by ’plane to England. . . .

Bullock-waggons—horses—locomotives—automobiles—aeroplanes—one after the other in five decades: all in a lifetime! Children of these days are born into a different environment from that of their parents. Old ideas, old fixed concepts, are necessarily open to challenge by those who belong to each new generation: to each new decade. It is the old who now must learn. The young can teach. There was never before a human epoch like this.

All is in flux, our Australian nation is emerging, finding itself, in a welter of accelerated human change which is occurring all over the globe. Profound historical changes, which by all precedents should have taken centuries or aeons of evolution to be effectuated, have been packed, as it happens, into the few foundation decades of our Australian national story.

Ought not we Australians now to pause, even if only for a few moments, to review our position, take a sight of the stars and of the sun at noon, and set a course?

 

§ 22

NO DEARTH OF GENIUS

An act of intellectual self-consciousness, an act of thought performed now, by those equipped to do the thinking for this nation, is necessary if we are to preserve and develop our Australian fibre, our individuality, our national self respect. Dispensers of mental bromides to the public may feel in their smugness that Australia is doing quite well without any thought, and that thinkers and critics are dangerous stirrers-up of trouble, who ought to be in every way discouraged; but the bromide-merchants have had their own way so long, and are now so stultified themselves by the prescriptions they dispense, that the power to dull the edge of a new idea is not what it used to be. No one who can think at all is satisfied with Australia’s intellectual status and the achievements of culture in Australia to-day.

Within the limits of this present Essay an attempt is being made, mistakenly no doubt in parts but never insincerely, to understand why it is that Australian culture has become so stultified, smug, and puerile; to ask why and how the exultant outburst of Australian creativeness of the ’nineties (in politics as well as in literature) had a damper put upon it so that the Australian national fire, for thirty years or more, has merely smouldered when it ought to have blazed.

The diagnosis and treatment of Australian provincial smugness—of the frame of mind quite satisfied with cultural conditions here—is a matter of sustained clinical, surgical, and alienist work which I could no more than begin. Smugness is seldom or never aware of itself as being smug, and it is a thankless task to administer a realistic jolt to sufferers from this complaint.

In England, the smug, attempting to live by Queen Victoria’s formulae, have received constant jolts from critics such as Shaw, Wells, and Chesterton, who, under the great liberal traditions of free thought and free expression handed down from Milton, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, have not hesitated to state a new truth when they perceived it sincerely. In America, more recently, writers such as Mencken, Nathan, and Sinclair Lewis have remembered that their national ancestors, Ingersoll and Tom Paine, established the right of a thinker to think—aloud when necessary and damn the consequences—and because this right has been thus re-established and re-affirmed, modern America is once again a home of thought instead of a prison, as it threatened to become twenty or thirty years ago, in the heyday of Comstock, Pinkerton, and the Prohibitionists.

But in Australia we have had no fearless social critics and thinkers even remotely comparable with Shaw, Wells, Chesterton, Mencken, Nathan, and Lewis; the smugness here has been quite undisturbed and has settled down into lethargic self-contentment. The purveyors of bromides, from press, pulpit, and university, have administered their sedatives without meeting with any perceptible resistance from their patients.

Bland and smug, the second-rate minds have made Australia safe—for themselves. Seated firmly in editorial and professorial chairs, in economic security obtained only too frequently by adeptship at crawling, these second-raters have been able to put humiliation and sickness of spirit upon the major geniuses of our country. Victor Daley, we are told, wept actual tears at his own helplessness in the face of an affront offered to him by the editor of a weekly newspaper who paid for a rondel at ordinary "lineage" space-rates. Henry Lawson, we know, begged for money in the streets of Sydney. Chris Brennan was saved from starvation only by the tactful charity of friends. A. G. Stephens never could be sure of his next shilling. The two Lindsay brothers, Jack and Philip, could never earn a living in Sydney, and thus were impelled to depart to London, where their great intelligence and literary ability in due course met with a fair reward. I could name more than a dozen men and women of real literary genius, in Sydney to-day, who earn less from their writings, per week, than the lowest paid manual labourer—and cannot, like the labourer, draw a government dole when unemployed.

In no other country in the civilised world is literary genius so badly treated, so humiliated and crushed and despised and ignored, as in Australia. Let us recognise this and drop all the blab about our progressiveness, all the familiar cant about our Vast Open Spaces, superb cricketers and tennis-players, and marvellous Merino sheep.

Australia, the country that produces genius—for export—and kills them slowly but surely if they stay here; such is our reputation. Australia, the land where the second-rate are on top. . . .

There is no dearth of genius here—merely a dearth of opportunity and encouragement for genius. Until the social and economic position of the thinker; the artist, the creative intellectual worker in Australia is made at least as secure as it is in the more civilised countries, we are not a nation, we remain colonials, hewers of wood and drawers of water, exporters of primary products; yokels, peasants, clods; soaking up "culture" or anything else that is handed to us, including propaganda of all kinds from Overseas.

To those who know Australia and the Australians, this mental inertness, this smugness, is a complete anomaly. Physically—man for man and woman for woman—the Australian is more than on a par with the world’s best. Mentally, the Australian is not actually a sluggard—on the contrary the Australian is particularly energetic as an individual. The deplored inertia and smugness would seem to have resulted, not from any inherent intellectual incapacity in the Australian, but rather from some remediable condition, some external phase of life, some wrong turning which has been taken nationally.

By an act of intellectual self-consciousness, an awakening of the self-critical faculty, a determined essay in self-definition, now, we ought to arrive nationally with considerable speed at a more civilised and enfranchised intellectual atmosphere. Sophistication, it may be, is just around the corner.

That act of Australian self-knowledge and self-definition and awareness of our own history and destiny would seem to be all the more necessary and urgent now, when the systems of the Old World, which have culturally supported us hitherto, appear to be on the edge of collapse.

 

§ 23

ISOLATED FROM EUROPE

This act of cultural self-definition, in Australia at the present time, may mean a great deal more than emancipation from the Dictatorship of the Smug, important though such an emancipation would be. It may mean more than a restoration of our national vim of the ’nineties, which has apparently been undermined by the bewilderments of the ensuing machine-and-war epoch. It may do more than prevent us from becoming mere automata of the Machine Age and puppets of Elsewhere; though all these enfranchisements are necessary.

The significance, to all thinking people, of a movement for real cultural autonomy in Australia at the present time resides in the fact that such an autonomy may yet be able to save a relic of civilisation in Australia, should civilisation happen to go smash in Europe’s apparently inevitable "next war."

If Europe is determined to go smash in an unprecedentedly insane machine-and-poison war, if all Europe is to become a charnel-house and devastated Waste Land and No Man’s Land—what then? Might Australia not just happen to escape the holocaust, might Australia in that event not even become the sole repository of what were once European culture, ideals of decency, and civilisation? Might not this torch also be handed to us before the end of the twentieth century, as well as the torch of European physique?

We should hope for the best, but, quite realistically, prepare for the worst to happen in Europe. We must be prepared to accept the status and responsibilities which our brief but significant history has thrust upon us—of being the only whiteman’s continent, the only isolated continent; and incidentally the only continent peopled entirely in the modern age, unhampered and undivided by old local and traditional feuds, differences, languages, and hates.

There is storm to-day over Asia, over Africa, over Europe, and over America. Yes, even America may not escape the smash; for civil war, race war, class war, mutters there as angrily and constantly as imperialist war mutters in Europe. It will take centuries for America to become homogeneous by fusion of her racial hotch-potch in her vast crucible of miscegenation. America is not a nation, but consists of many nations, as does Europe; and with added Negro, Asiatic, and Red Aboriginal elements, which Europe lacks. America can never become a guardian of white culture in any pure sense of that term. America is heterogeneous, in ideas and culture as well as in race; and must remain so for at least another two or three centuries.

In Australia we have suffered, as some people think, from geographic isolation and distance from Europe. But, judging from the way things are now shaping in Europe, our isolation and distance therefrom may not ultimately be such a disadvantage. That isolation and distance, it may be, will save Australia from participating in the probable sudden international death-smash which so many prophets so persistently foresee as Europe’s destiny.

Our first concern, as Australians, is to consider what may happen in Australia whether or not things go smash elsewhere. It is not impossible that, before the end of this century, we Australians may be called upon to accept a responsibility for which at present we are unprepared—a responsibility actually as principal guardians of white civilisation, of white culture, of white traditions upon this earth!

Events outside Australia and quite beyond our control may thrust this prodigious national responsibility upon us.

If, in prognosticating thus, I am seemingly a merchant of scares, if white civilisation is beyond doubt quite safe for all time to come in Europe and America; and if there is in fact no barbarian menace to either of those culture-systems to-day, then the suggestion, if less urgent, is still worth considering. I suggest here the national necessity of planting autonomous culture in the Commonwealth as firmly as it has been planted in Europe, so that it can grow upon this soil, if need be without further help from Europe.

As far as Europe is concerned, Australians can continue to hope for the best; and be prepared for the worst. Whatever is going to happen in Europe, during the next ten, fifty, or hundred years, it is time now—this year—for Australia to carry forward the process of becoming culturally weaned from Europe. It is time now for Young Australia to become Adult, to accept the responsibilities and duties of being Adult, of being civilised; of becoming a fully-cultured nation—self-supporting, if need be, in matters of culture.

And, let me here repeat, the first essential in such a process is that, as a nation, we should become actively conscious of our own history, literature, and traditions, in order to develop an adequate sense of our own destiny and national character.

 

§ 24

"YOURS FOR AUSTRALIA"

During five decades, from 1850 to 1900, we grew swiftly towards our nationhood, more swiftly than any other nation in history has grown. Spread over such a huge area, we nevertheless grasped, as a people, the concepts of unity, common interest, defence, and democratic self-government: and we established the Federation, the Commonwealth of Australia, under no outside compulsion, but voluntarily as a pure essay in national logic.

In the ’eighties and ’nineties, at the close of one of the most dramatic centuries in human history—the century which saw the steam-engine perfected and the machine-age thus launched—we Australians arrived with a simple hurrah at our national self-definition. In the ’eighties and ’nineties men signed their letters, Yours for Australia, and wore lapel-buttons blazoning the same naive slogan: Australians reached out eagerly then to embrace their nationality. In an atmosphere of patriotic excitement and high hopes the Commonwealth of Australia was born, the White Australia ideal was formulated and proclaimed, Australian Democracy established itself (on the sound principle of "one bloody man, one bloody vote"); and Australian literature grew up as a rowdy infant under the tutoring of J. F. Archibald and A. G. Stephens.

The astonishing Nineteenth Century ended with the death of Queen Victoria and the foreboding rattle of Mausers in South Africa. . . .

Even while Australia at home had come peacefully to birth as a nation, Australian soldiers were dying, bullet-riddled, on the kopjes of Empire.

 

§ 25

THE WORLD GONE MAD

The Twentieth Century came in with a fanfare of the trumpets of peace, optimism, progress, prosperity, and human certainty. Everything was for the best in the best of all possible Everlasting Empires and epochs. Alas! since then only three decades have gone by; we are but half-way into the fourth decade of the Wonderful New Century—and all those simple enthusiasms have already gone crash. The glittering bowl of prosperity is broken; pessimism, dismay, and sickness of spirit have afflicted all mankind. Even Australia Felix has become decidedly in-felix. From the world-depression there seem no escapes except war and revolution.

Disease and death, hatred and fear, ride the whirlwind of human imagination. The old are paralysed by the thought of their own ineptitude in the face of events beyond their experience to control; the young are bewildered and hurt by any attempt they may make to understand the apparent insanities of an earth gone whimpering mad to all appearances—a Waste Land, as their prophet from Boston has called it:

 

This is the way the world ends,

Not with a bang but a whimper . . .

 

Few minds, indeed, are so basically resilient as to have preserved, across the Abyss of the second and third decades of this century, the simple optimism of the first decade.

Into that Abyss, of the Great War and the Great Aftermath, crashed not only ten million and more young human lives, but also the Spirit of Man itself; everywhere on the earth, and even in Sunny Australia.

If a resurgence of the Spirit of Life, and thus of Life itself, is possible anywhere on the earth, it may be possible in our Commonwealth, which is young enough, in mind and nerve, to remain uncynical under terrific shocks of fate: it may be possible here, where the physical basis of life is so young and strong, and as yet so comparatively unwearied and undefeated.

 

§ 26

CHILDREN OF THE ABYSS

In this year of continuing calamity, 1935, if we are to take stock of realities, the reality is that there are already hundreds of thousands of young Australian men and women, now become adults, who were not even born in August, 1914; who, consequently, know nothing at first hand about the peace, prosperity, spirit of optimism, and general certainty of life as it used to be lived in the naive first decade of the century.

These are the young people brought up in the tired idea that the earth is a lunatic asylum. They know nothing about the good old steady-going days and ways of the horse epoch—they are born in the age of autos, ’planes, radio; and rumours of wars. Their education, after their school days, is partly from technical journals and partly from the bizarre cacophonics of cinema, wireless, and the disgusting stunt press The very ideas of permanent salaried employment, steady promotion, married life, home and family of their own, seem chimaeras to these new-age young men and women, who are the chronic unemployed of the Great War’s Aftermath. They are the untrained citizens in whom hope has been crushed; for whom (as they view matters) Industry and their nation have no apparent use. In their own bewildered view of themselves they are misfits and failure—and life is something irrational and utterly beyond the possibility of control by their Will.

Every year from now on there will be at least 100,000 Australian-born men and women coming of age and entitled to vote: and not one of these adult men and women, voters, will know anything at first hand about pre-war normality; and still less will they know of the insouciance of the ’nineties of last century. These sad young people are the Children of the Abyss, born since 1914, in the years of calamity and in the Aftermath.

And every year, as the sad young people become citizens and adults, the Old Hands, "from natural causes" are dwindling in numbers in the community; and thus the proportion of citizens who can even remember what things were like "before the War" becomes inexorably smaller each year.

There is still a tendency amongst the middle-aged and the old to regard those fine idyllic days before the War as being "normal," but such reasoning is the result of a paucity of thought. To the Children of the Abyss, it is the Abyss that is normal.

 

§ 27

PRESERVATION OF LORE

And so, if even the Great War of 1914–18 is being forgotten, save by those cheerful Old Kaspars, the surviving "Diggers" of the period (fast greying now, alas, most of them)—or more precisely, if the Great War never was a reality to hundreds of thousands of now newly-adult Australians who were simply not born, or were infants in arms when the guns thundered, how much more so is our history preceding 1914 a blank to the oncoming Australians of to-day?

Seven decades of tremendous Australian events, from 1850 to 1920, are remembered, more or less as personal experience, by the old and the middle-aged; but can now never be made known or told to the young or to future generations of Australians—except through the printed word, the literary word: the development of Australian literature, which is the sine qua non of Australia’s nationality.

The balladists of the ’eighties and ’nineties caught and branded the contemporary phase of life, the phase of the shearing-sheds, of the sunlit plains extended, of the sundowners, of the Champion Ringers, and they sang the epics of the nomadic age so liltingly and truly that their Songs were immediately learned for recitation in every shearing-shed and swagman’s camp throughout the Six Colonies. But this was a phase, the phase of the horse epoch, and it has passed.

Steele Rudd, too, caught and parodied the cocky farmer, the pioneer of the small-holding, so truly that his books were sold in millions. They were distinctively Australian, and so was C. J. Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke, with its picture of the dirty larrikin, popularising Louis Stone’s Jonah in glib rhymed verse. The picture of Australia presented by the balladists, by Steele Rudd, by C. J. Dennis, fixed an image of a "rough" type of Australian who was indeed characteristic at that time, a spontaneously generated type.

Our newspaper cartoonists and comedians have been drawing their sustenance from these types, repeating them again and again, right into these nineteen thirties, as though Australian life had not at all changed from the pioneering days. Such is the lore put forth as Dinkum Australian, to the understandable disgust of a newer generation, and to the amazement of people overseas.

The literature of the newer phase, of modern Australia, has still to make its way. If written, it remains unpublished; or if published (usually in England) it is not adequately distributed here. The immense sweep of the pioneering saga, as faithfully presented in the novels of Brent of Bin Bin, is but an indication of what can be done with the Australian theme. Our lore is much more weighty than the "Bloke" and "Dad" stuff. Even on the level of the outback theme, it seems preposterous that we have not had an Australian Zane Grey to depict the romantic Australian horsemanship of our West. It seems preposterous that Australians, who are the finest horsemen and cattle-stealers in the world, should be obliged to go to Texas for their cowboy lore. We are not living here mentally, it would seem. We are merely living here physically.

But, apart from landscape literary art and the crude distortions and parodies of Convict, Shearer, Cocky, Bloke, and even "Digger" lore, there is surely as much scope for faithful literary portraiture in this Commonwealth as anywhere else. Hath not an Australian eyes? Hath not an Australian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?

The substantial metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne offer as much scope for literary portrayal as any other metropolis in the world—more so, being practically virgin fields. All the ingredients of fiction—for example, love, hate, greed, sex, death, conflict—are as frequent in Sydney or Melbourne as in New York, Paris, or London.

As for Professor Cowling’s contention that "we might have one Australian Sinclair Lewis, but not many more," that is, to use an appropriate Americanism, bunk. The Australian businessman, the Australian Babbitt, provides an inexhaustible fund of material for the satirical novelist who can rise to the opportunity. We have our Australian Main Streets, and our Elmer Gantrys too: a sufficient supply of them for a dozen Sinclair Lewises. The debunking of Australian contemporary life can provide, in full measure, for an entire school of debunkers, when these arrive (may it be soon!).

The first thing to debunk is the Lag Tradition, and then the Dave Tradition, and then the Bloke Tradition so dear to the Australian stylists who spell "you" as "yer" and "to" as "ter" in an attempt to introduce the local colour. In addition, our debunkers might then turn their attention to the de-Pomification and un-Yankeefying of Australian literature and life.

Our own lore, our fair-dinkum lore, might then begin to emerge, together with a truer concept of our national history.

Who will write an Australian Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to arouse a salutary indignation against the monstrous treatment and enslavement of our expropriated blackfellows?

 

§ 28

"HISTORY IS BUNK!"

The Aborigines, our admirable predecessors in sovereignty over the territory of Australia Felix, had their Bora ceremonies, their Initiation Corroborees; during which the seniors took the young men away into a sacred place, knocked out with a sacred stone a tooth from each candidate for knowledge (in order to test the youths’ resistance to hardship and pain), and then told them, with awe-inspiring circumstance, the holy secrets of the tribe. We white Australians should consider the advisability of doing something of the same kind.

Just as the sacred traditions and legends of an Aboriginal tribe provide that tribe with a collective soul and a continuity, so written history and literature provide a civilised nation with a national soul and a coherence. The recitation of national lore provides the foundation of a national survival-idea. Without this recitation of lore there can be no national centre: no nation. A nation is positively identified with its lore, which is actively handed down from generation to generation. This is the true meaning of culture in any Place—preservation of tribal or national experience in a memorable form; in holy scriptures, in churinga, in literature; because of the coherence-value, the discipline-value, the survival-value of that experience and lore.

Those who say that Australia "has no history" are merely talking utter, arrogant, academic nonsense.

Our history and pedigree prior to the nineteenth century is the whole history of England, or of Britain; a history which belongs to us as much as it does to any modern inhabitant of Bournemouth, Leeds, Glasgow, Cork, Llanelly, Tolpuddle, Margate, or Stow-in-the-Wold. We inherit, and are proud of inheriting, British history, legend, and lore—up to a certain point in British history: after that point we begin to diverge, we begin to have our own history.

We have a right to our own Australian nineteenth and twentieth centuries—our first and second centuries. . . . In particular, the seven decades from 1850 to 1920 are the foundation decades of the Australian nation; and, as such are of indelible interest to us.

Only an academic Mugwump, blinded by the formalities of learning, could contend that nothing much of importance, to Australians, occurred in Australia between 1850 and 1920.

During those seven decades the Merino sheep was bred, in Australia, from a mixed and dubious European ancestry, to the magnificent beast for his purpose that he is to-day—modesty prevents an analogy from being drawn too strongly: it is enough to say that seven decades of sheep experience was enough to produce a new kind of remarkable sheep in Australia, and possibly something of the same kind has happened to the humans here during the same period of time.

In the matter of pedigrees, as any sheep-breeder knows, recent history is always of more importance than remote ancestry.

A nation can change its entire calibre, outlook, characteristics, and quality in 150 years. The French nation, for example, since the date of James Cook’s "discovery" of our Australia, has experienced the enormous events of the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, and the "Great" War; has become industrialised, and has acquired a colonial empire. These comparatively recent events are of more profound significance to Frenchmen of to-day than the whole of previous French history from Charlemagne to Louis XVI.

In the same way, the industrialisation and imperial expansion of Britain, during the reigns of Queen Victoria, of Edward VII and of George V, have had a profounder mental effect upon the inhabitants of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales than all the events of previous British history from Alfred the Great to George the Fourth.

Recent events, very recent events, in Russia, Germany, and Italy, are certainly more significant to Russians, Germans, and Italians of to-day respectively than all their previous histories of a thousand years.

It is a nice point to decide at what period in retrospect history ceases to be a vital study, and becomes a mere academic exercise. It seems doubtful whether anything which occurred more than 150 years ago is of anything but academic interest for Australians of to-day, or for the people of any other nation of to-day. History took such a new and extraordinary trend everywhere throughout the world during the nineteenth century, with the coming of the machine-epoch, changing all human categories and values so profoundly, that the relative importance of everything which happened before that nineteenth century has dwindled.

National lore, in Australia particularly, but also in every other country on the globe, should be concerned with the recitation and digestion and vital study of what has happened during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The place for all history earlier than that is in dustbins—and universities.

 

§ 29

THE ANTI-AUSTRALIANS

Vital Australian history, vital Australian lore, is not being taught, at present, to our Australian youth. We are employing pedagogues from overseas, outsiders, visitors from other tribes and nations, to teach their lore, their traditions, their legends, their interpretations (even of ourselves) to our young men and women! This process can have only one effect, an anti-Australian effect—no matter how intrinsically "noble" the teachings imported from those other places may seem. Consider, for example, some of the "youth movements," such as "Toc H" or the Boy Scout Movements. As taught and practised in Australia, these "movements" certainly do not strengthen Australianism. They strengthen a puerile sentimentality about England and the Empire.

Consider, too, the cultural influence of the professional religious pedagogues who concern themselves, in "church" schools, with forming the ideas and characters of Australian boys and girls. All questions of sectarianism apart, the dear good vicars and curates and lordly bishops of the Anglican persuasion cannot but instill English sentimentality in their English-Australian school; while the holy fathers and monsignori and reverend bishops of the Roman persuasion cannot but instil Italian or Irish sentimentality. Similarly, the dour Presbyterian elders tend to instil Scots sentimentality; for every man who is a teacher, whether in Holy Orders or not, carries with him into his instruction the flavour of his own nationality—and religion, no less than other forms of culture, is tinctured with Place.

Few pedagogues, if any, in Australia to-day, and certainly none amongst those who instruct the children of the wealthier (and hence more influential) people, are to be found instilling Australian sentiment, indigenous culture, Australian national lore and tradition and respect into the minds of Australian youth.

The culture of a human being is not, in its essential quality of growth from within, different from the culture of a plant. External culture cannot be plastered upon a cabbage or a boy as one spreads butter with a knife. Yet this is what our imported pedagogues attempt. Our youths are being instructed in the empty formulae of culture, of European culture, and are not being shown the relationships between their own lives and their Australian national traditions and pedigree.

The result of such a sheer divorce between culture and reality in Australian education is a false orientation of the Australian mind—a mental orientation towards Europe (or towards a fantasy of Europe). Thus, many or most young Australians are endowed with what amounts to a split personality—a mental hankering for Europe plastered upon the physical necessity of living in Australia.

It is unfortunate for Australian self-respect that our pedagogy should be thus so deeply tinctured with a culture antipodean to our own. Formal education, whether religious or secular, has failed to strike roots into the Australian soil, and continues to float in a nebulous region of cultural unreality.

The religious pedagogues are of necessity inspired from overseas and from heaven; no discernible religion has, as yet, originated in Australia—poor savages, we have merely thirsted for religion, as we have thirsted for culture, from other countries which are so fortunate as to have a surplus of both for export.

The purely secular education, also, has failed as yet to become grounded in Australian national realities. Secular education is directed ultimately by the universities, which, in their "Arts" faculties, are really nothing but colonial strongholds, or outposts, or weak imitations, of Oxford and Cambridge. Our Australian universities, insofar as they are not merely technical training colleges for ‘"careers" in engineering, law, medicine, applied science, dentistry and similar utilitarian professions, are on their cultural side virtually nothing but teachers’ training colleges. Almost all Australian "Arts" graduates take up the self-denying profession of school-teaching as a "career," and have sought the University Degree as a means of advancement (to slightly higher salaries) in that profession.

Then what, we may well ask, is being taught to these teachers? A vast respect for Oxford and Cambridge, a scant respect for Australia, if we are to judge from the published remarks of professors such as Cowling (quoted earlier in this essay). It will be recalled that Professor Cowling rhetorically declared as follows in the public press:

 

What scope is there for Australian biography? Little, I should say. . . . What scope is there for Australian books on travel? Little, I think. . . .

 

Little he should say, and little he thinks, indeed! Confound their impertinence, is this the kind of anti-Australian nonsense these professors are imported from England to teach to the teachers of our Australian youth?

 

§ 30

CULTURAL MANNA

Formal education, as dispensed in class-rooms by pedagogues, furnishes ultimately, no doubt, but a small part of the individual’s mental outlook and cultural equipment. Class-room instruction is important in its way, because it lays a groundwork in the mind, but the real education of a person begins after leaving school. The real education of the citizen to-day is obtained from books, from the newspapers, from the cinema, and from the wireless broadcasting stations. An adult learns more voraciously and unconsciously than a child.

In all these informal sources of real or adult education, no less than in the formal school and university pedagogy, Australian sentiment is crushed back into second place, or into no place at all. Whether in school or out of school, the paradox is that the Australian idea, in Australia, is relegated by the people’s educators to the far background, or else never comes into the picture.

Why, why, why? When we can answer this insistent question, we shall have travelled some considerable distance along the road to Australian self-respect; and we shall be approaching the means of a resurgence of that creative spirit in Australia which flared up in the ’nineties and then died down to a smoulder, near extinction.

I am inclined to think that the predominance in Australia of overseas culture-propaganda is a result primarily of superior mechanics of marketing and superior salesmanship by the culture-importers and distributors.

If, in Australian bookshops far and wide throughout the Commonwealth, nine hundred and ninety-nine books and magazines of a thousand on show are English and American; if, in the cinema-theatres of every Australian city, suburb, town, township and hamlet, practically all the films shown are American and English; if, on the wireless stations cluttering every millimetre of the Australian ether, grammophone records of English and American origin are broadcast and rebroadcast ad nauseam; if, in the columns of the Australian press, a priority is given not only to "features" but also to news from overseas—in all these disseminations of overseas culture (and the cumulative effect of them is paralysing to the Australian idea), I detect nothing more sinister than a superior salesmanship, a superior marketing and distributing technique, on the part of the vendor of the ubiquitous overseas culture-stuff.

Education, both formal and informal, is therefore, for one reason and another, taken out of the area of Australian patriotic sentiment and control. It is the cumulative effect of the insistent and ubiquitous foreign adult-education media plus the un-Australian groundwork laid in our class-rooms, which has wrecked the spirit of the Australianism that set sail in the bright ’eighties and ’nineties.

Until we can restore some measure of respect for the Australian ideal, some of the lost prestige of Australian creativeness, we must as a nation continue to be culturally passive—recipients of culture-manna from Elsewhere.

 

§ 31

BOOKSELLERS AND PUBLISHERS

A nation culturally passive—culturally self-classified as second-rate—culturally dependent on another nation—in brief, culturally abject—is one which will exalt mediocrity and drive genius into silence or exile: precisely what Australia has done for almost forty years past, since the first florescence of national mind became nipped in the bud. To those who would refute this thesis by pointing to the fact that poets such as Mary Gilmore, and prose-writers such as Ion Idriess, have had no lack of publication and appreciation here, I would reply that such a contention exactly illustrates my meaning. Mrs. Gilmore and Mr. Idriess are competent and entertaining writers, but, as I view it, they are not profound, nor finally significant, writers. It is a good thing that, at a certain level, Mrs. Gilmore is esteemed for her poetry and Mr. Idriess for his prose: but it would be a tragedy if this level were fixed as the highest to which Australian writers could aspire, or as the highest to which Australian writers have, in fact, attained. We must not judge English literature by the prose work of Warwick Deeping, nor American literature by the poetical works of Edgar Guest! Yet there is (or was a years ago) some danger that literature in Australia would come to be judged in terms of its most boosted products rather than of its best.

The great Australian book-selling, or book-distributing firms have traditionally, and by a natural logic, been concerned mainly with the sale and distribution of imported books, rather than of "Australian-made" books. When such firms, occasionally and as a sideline, began to undertake the publication of books by Australian authors, their attitude would be naturally that of the bookseller rather than that of the book-publisher. The bookseller, accustomed to "to giving the public what it wants" (like a newspaper editor) has a tendency to give the public (or rather sell to the public) books of a familiar pattern, safe books, books beyond criticism, conservative books.

So it must be with all who follow rather than create a concept of Public Taste. A bookseller could "handle" an unusual, unorthodox, indecent, or even a radical book, if somebody else had published it, and thus had taken the responsibility of putting it into print. But a bookseller with 20,000 or more customers, most of them "regulars," would (like a newspaper editor) think very carefully about what he published with his own imprint: would be, in fact, ultra-cautious as a publisher, and could not be blamed for being so cautious. It is more than fifty years ago since, in England, the functions of bookseller and of book-publisher finally became quite separate.

The Publisher’s frame of mind is much more venturesome than that of the Bookseller. The Publisher, in the course of his business does not hesitate to take risks, not only financial but "literary." He has that in his nature which makes him desire to give the public, not only what it wants, but what it ought to want. Any publisher worth his salt will take up a "new" author, an unorthodox author, an outrageous author, a rebellious author, in the hope that ultimately he will discover a Shaw, a Wells, a Galsworthy, as the rebel matures. But a Bookselling Firm with a respectable connection could not take the risk of sponsoring a young Shaw, a young Wells, or a young Galsworthy: or any new writer who would curdle the innocent blood of maiden aunts.

So it is that in Australia a "safe" policy has been followed by the booksellers who undertook publishing as a sideline. The late George Robertson was the most typical of these. This kindly, shrewd Scotsrnan was one of the greatest booksellers the world has ever known. Few, if any, bookshops in Britain sold as many books as did his shop in Sydney. Glasgow-trained, he knew bookselling as a fine art. He ventured into book-publishing in Australia not from any urge to intensify and focus the national culture, but merely because the function of publishing was forced upon him, as it were, through an absence of other publishers. He was confronted many times, I feel sure, with manuscripts which he would, as a man, an artist, and a booklover, have been delighted to publish: but his policy, as Bookseller Paramount was caution: and who could blame him? It may fairly be said that, as a publisher, he did nothing to advance the cause of high poetry or of the literary novel in Australia. His oft-repeated advice to novelists was to send their work overseas. A cautious man, I think he very seldom lost money on a book which he published, or "took any chances" to foster a young genius. He was a businesssman and not a literary foster-father.

He lacked the "gambler’s instinct" without which a publisher cannot deserve the name: the illogical desire to get a meritorious author into print, at the risk of going broke, which has made the fortunes of publisher after publisher in other countries. Only once, I think, did George Robertson achieve full status as a publisher: and that was in the publication of The Australian Encyclopaedia, a magnificent effort and gesture of faith in his adopted country, an effort which will stand as his monument when his work as an importing-bookseller has been forgotten.

I refer to George Robertson in this connection because he was a Man of His Time. He naturally regarded Britain as "Home" and had a tendency, in what he published here, to stress "colonial" subjects and treatments. From We of the Never-Never to Lasseter’s Last Ride, he showed a preference, in the prose works he published, for "descriptive" books rather than for creative or contentious fiction. His preference in poetry was for "sellers" such as The Sentimental Bloke rather than for any of the finer (but more "difficult") poetry, such as that of C. J. Brennan, which would have brought him much more lasting renown, and much less immediate cash, if he had put his name on an edition of it. It was during George Robertson’s régime as Publisher-Paramount that Australian books came to be regarded naturally as "colonial" and as inferior to the imported product. The reasons for his policy of choice were perfectly natural, and comprehensible, and justifiable, in terms of the man himself, his primary occupation as a bookseller, and his period. But a new phase is coming, or has come, in Australian book-publishing: a phase of a greater venturesomeness.

I stated the principles of this new development three years ago as follows: Books evoke readers; readers do not evoke books. For those to whom this principle is not self-evident I would explain that it throws the onus of "creating a market" for Australian books upon the authors and publishers rather than on the reading public. The reading public is as latent as a mass of unleavened dough. It does not know what it wants. The Australian public does not "want" Australian literature; or anything else in particular. It takes what is offered to it, or what it can get; and hopes for the best. Slowly, by the publication of Australian books of quality, the Australian public will come to realise that it wants Australian books. But there is a period of "education" to be traversed—which is being traversed at the present time.

For forty years past, however, the nation has been, as I have said, culturally passive, culturally dependent on overseas supplies of book-fodder. As a result, major novelists such as Louis Stone and Arthur Adams have been unpublished in our midst. Others, such as Brent of Bin Bin, and Henry Handel Richardson, have gone "home" to Britain to be published—and their works have not had an adequate distribution here, their appreciation being confined to the cognoscenti. As for poets, although we have had Baylebridge, Brennan, McCrae, Jack Lindsay, and Shaw Neilson in our midst, where are their works? Read, I venture to say, by not one person in a hundred who ought to have read them!

Dowell O’Reilly and Bernard O’Dowd, Randolph Bedford and F. J. Brady—have such fine writers as these, for example, reached the summit of appreciation which their merit and national value deserves? In Dowell O’Reilly’s daughter, Eleanor Dark, Australia can boast of a novelist undoubtedly of world calibre: and there are probably a dozen other first class contemporary novelists, besides Eleanor Dark, living in Australia and not yet lured overseas to join the Anglicised Australian best-sellers such as Philip Lindsay and Helen Simpson. Australia could boast of its writers—but does Australia boast? Ah, no. Our pathetic intelligentsia, particularly the feeble "university" type, read T. S. Eliot, longing for the "sophisticated English" culture which they imagine that this Bostonian émigré represents. There is more poetical sophistication in a page of Brennan, of Baylebridge, of McCrae, or of Jack Lindsay, than in a whole volume of Eliot. But it is difficult or impossible to buy the poetry of Brennan, of Baylebridge, of McCrae, or of Jack Lindsay. Whereas Eliot, like Warwick Deeping, or Zane Grey, is properly marketed here.

 

§ 32

THE "NORMAN" CONQUEST

It may be urged, by those who are more anxious to refute my thesis than to profit from its sincerity as an enquiry, that I am rebutted in the contention that Australia has exalted mediocrity by the fact that Australia has exalted Norman Lindsay! Here then is a challenge to the whole argument, indeed. Norman Lindsay is a genius, and he has been honoured. What can be said to that?

I admit that this is a ticklish question, because for many years, in a small way and whenever I have had an opportunity to do so, I have "defended" Norman Lindsay against those who "attacked" him: particularly in England, where his detractors are more subtle than they are here, confining the discussion to aesthetics and not obtruding "moral" issues. It is much more difficult to counter an aesthetic argument, such as that Norman Lindsay’s drawing is often careless, than, it is to counter the "moral" argument (of the Wowser) that his pictures are "too nude." Against this silly attack of the Wowser, I would still, of course, "defend" Norman Lindsay on any occasion that arose. I am doubtful, however, whether, despite his incomparable virtuosity, he could be defended entirely on "aesthetic" grounds. A great deal of his drawing is indeed far too hasty and "spontaneous" to satisfy an ultimate sense of the planned perfection which is Beauty. But that is not the main point.

It is to the eternal credit of Australian intellectuals that, when Norman Lindsay was under "moral" attack from the Wowsers, they defended his right as an artist to draw the nude, even if sometimes flippantly or rotundly, when he so desired. The attack of the Wowser is sheer howling barbarism, and ought to be beaten off, wherever it occurs. Unfortunately for the critique of Norman Lindsay’s work in Australia, the Wowser attack upon it made it incumbent upon all decent-minded persons to "defend" Lindsay, or at least to refrain from criticising him, lest the Wowsers be thereby encouraged. If you did not happen to like Lindsay’s work, you were ergo a Wowser, as it were.

The fact is that morality has nothing whatever to do with art, or with art-criticism: the howl of the Wowser made it almost impossible for a decent or friendly criticism and evaluation of Lindsay’s work to be made. I shall not attempt it fully here; for it would be a big job. But I must draw attention to the fact that appreciation of his work in Australia has been more in the nature of a defence of freedom itself than of Norman Lindsay. He was a precursor of sex-freedom, of a sort, within Australia, but that is a sociological rather than an artistic achievement.

And so, as I view it, the rich rewards, honours, jubilee medal, publicity, and apparent applause accorded, particularly by journalists, to what they call "Australia’s Number One Cultural Personality" is scarcely to be interpreted as a proof that Australia, contrary to my thesis, does in fact recognise its geniuses. A sane appreciation of Norman Lindsay has not been made. He represents, or is held to represent, "sex" freedom, which has nothing to do with art-criticism, whatsoever.

He has hands like Pavlova’s feet—of an incomparable lightness and dexterity: therein lies Norman Lindsay’s greatest faculty; one which will make his work for all time astonishing to connoisseurs. But, as though Pavlova had danced tangos in a cabaret show, Norman Lindsay has, for many years, appeared as a cartoonist in the public press, coining his gift of the gods. To be an artist, in the finest sense, and at the same time a successful public cartoonist, is an impossibility, even for genius. Newspaper cartooning is the parody, the anti-type, of the highest achievement in art. The slickness, the versatility, the satire, so desirable in a cartoonist, become qualities of negative virtue in an artist.

The incomparable and much-loved Norman Lindsay has flung his pearls before swine: and, because swine notoriously will not eat pearls, he has had to coat them with something that swine will eat, namely politics. So it was that, during the War, this sensitive man drew Recruiting Posters which would induce his fellow Australians to enlist for mass slaughter: and so it has been that, in any real question of public concern, Norman Lindsay’s point of view, as expressed in his cartoons, has been that of his employers for the time being: very frequently contrary to those which might have been expected from such a formidably advanced thinker.

He, too, thus becomes a Man of His Time rather than of all time. For forty years, during the period of Australian eclipse by imperialism, he too turned his thoughts, as evidenced even in his "serious" art, to Europe and the fantasies of Europe, to "fauns" and eighteenth-century "ladies"—rather than to the Australian realities. The nostalgia for ancient Rome, which caused him to illustrate Petronius, the nostalgia for the Middle Ages which caused him to illustrate Villon (and both, be it noted, with incompatible dexterity) merely added to European, rather than to Australian culture. He too appears to have suffered from the illusion, peculiar to that period, that European culture is "world" culture: overlooking the fact that European culture, in Europe, is "local." It is therefore doubtful whether Norman Lindsay has, in the ultimate analysis, done anything profound to establish an Australian culture, in Australia. His illustrations to the poetry of Leon Gellert and Hugh McCrae can only be described as superb in execution as pictures, and almost incredibly naif in conception—poetry does not require "illustration," being itself a picture (Let him illustrate Kipling’s If!)

His clever caricaturing of Australian types—the city larrikin, the Wayback, the barmaid—however amusing in a newspaper, becomes grotesque when it is repeated in serious work: and has a tendency to stabilise the Australian type by its anti-type of the parody. Australian bushmen, in fact, bear very little resemblance to the "looney Dave" type depicted by Lindsay. And Australian women, most of whom, unconsciously driven by the racial need here to be fecund, are of the "domestic" type, have in fact little resemblance to the harlot, in appearance or manner. What with caricaturing and European culture-phantasising, Norman Lindsay’s work, in brief, is scarcely at all "Australian." And lacking the "Australian" quality, it is scarcely of any more significance to us, ourselves, than are the novels of the émigré writers, which portray Australia as a desirable place—to escape from!

As for Norman Lindsay’s novels’ they are, like his "sex"-caricature pictures, mainly notable in that, having incurred the wrath of the Wowsers, they were "banned" and must hence automatically be "defended" by the decent who object to banning, of Norman Lindsay or of anybody else. The pity of it is that literary criticism, like artistic criticism, of our delightful Norman Lindsay, should thus be sidetracked.

But don’t tell me, because Norman Lindsay is notorious, or famous, and has made a good living in this Commonwealth, that other genius, on that account, is not here neglected!

 

§ 33

THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS

The situation, then, which requires thought, analysis, and some kind of remedial action is that Australia is in danger of becoming culturally inert through too much spoon-feeding of pap from Overseas. A nation thus culturally spoon-fed and productively inactive can do nothing but develop fat on the liver, become sluggish and dopey, like a goose penned and craw-crammed to make pâté-de-foie-gras. It should be evident that intellect needs exercise no less than body: ideas, like muscles, improve with use.

We have been handed our culture, done up in parcels, by manufacturers of this commodity who dwell overseas; anywhere except in Australia. It has been presumed that, being raw colonials, we could not possibly manufacture the stuff here; just as, some years ago, it was presumed that we could not manufacture shirts, collars, glass-eyes, or tractor-engines. The Bad Australian has been with us always—the pessimist, the bellyaching decryer of Australia, the admirer of every country except his own. He is usually an importer of something. This person has been consistently defeated, in every arena of simple commerce, by casually-enterprising Australians who had no difficulty in proving him wrong.

Australians can produce anything; even a literature. This may be bad news for hypochondriacs, but it is none the less true. As this fact becomes generally realised in the Commonwealth, there will be a tremendous release of intellectual creativeness here.

First, it will be necessary to inform the English, the Americans, the Patagonians, and all their agents, ambassadors, spies, apostles and missionaries here, that the word Australia means something very special, excellent, and even sacred to us—not only for what it is, but also for what we know it can become. It will be necessary to state, with firm politeness, that we no longer need to be culturally garrisoned and policed by contingents representative of other countries.

The English, the American, and the Patagonian culture-garrisons may now go back "home"; or, if they remain here, can learn to salute our Flag of Stars—by way of a change. But first we must set up this flag and learn to salute it ourselves.

We ourselves must learn to take pride in the name of Australia as meaning something more than the designation of a land of convict, cricketers and kangaroos, and those ridiculous Vast Open Spaces. We shall have to learn to product something more, in the aforesaid V.O.S., than sheep—and sheepishness. We shall have to realise that the vast productivity of our soil is nothing for us to boast of—nothing for which we can take away any credit from the Almighty, who merely left it for aeons to lie fallow and await our coming hither.

Millions of bales of wool, millions of slaughtered beeves and muttons packed in ice, shiploads of gold, billions of bags of wheat we have ripped from our soil and dutifully sent home, home, home: out of the Commonwealth, and why should we take pride in that? Billions of trees destroyed, billions of acres of grass eaten down to the roots, and the roots also eaten, by herbivora, so that we, Australians, might send food to the European carnivora—can we be so proud of that now that the desert is encroaching over all the grass-denuded areas of our justly celebrated V.O.S.? Millions of our native rare and gentle animals ruthlessly slaughtered, poisoned, snared, wantonly destroyed to provide furs for the necks of women in the cold latitudes of Europe; millions of our rare and beautiful birds exterminated by bushfire, gunshot, poison, and the bane of the axe—can we boast of that? The Aboriginal human beings of the continent murdered, shot, poisoned; or enslaved, a human sacrifice to sheep, brutally exploited, demoralised, the women raped, the children starved or taught about God in missions—in all this can we take any pride?

The mad lust of primary production for export threatens to make Australia a desert from coast to coast: a desert like the Sahara (which in the days of the Roman Empire was a rich pastoral and wooded region, but became denuded of herbage and trees through too much pastoralism—and the sand crept in until it smothered even the great cities there, such as the city where Ozymandias reigned). And the bare hills of Palestine to-day, the dreadful heat oven of the Jordan Valley, was not this the smiling land of Canaan, "flowing with milk and honey," breeding so many sheep that, in Jerusalem, at the Passover Feast, each year, no less than two hundred thousand lambs, male and without blemish, were slaughtered by the priests in the Temple of Solomon?

Palestine and North Africa to-day, and the great dust-storms of Arizona and (nearer home) of Bourke, should be a warning that unrestricted pastoralism may be easy and quick money, for a few people, for a few generations; but by the law of compensation it exacts a revenge upon the surface of the land itself.

Our big Sheep Men (a lovely name for them) imagine sheepishly that billions of bales of wool exported from Australia means Progress. But progress to what? To more exporting, presumably. These patriots have not hesitated to export stud Australian Merino and Corriedale rams to South Africa, Algiers, Japan, America, Russia, taking a few hundred guineas quick and easy money for themselves, and thus providing their sons with a problem of competition which the noble sheepish pioneers themselves did not have to face in marketing their fine wools.

I asked one of these patriots (who is, and looks, rammed with money) to help me, a year ago, in establishing a national Australian book-publishing house. His reply I am keeping for presentation to the Library of the Commonwealth in due course, as a valuable social document:

 

All my life has been devoted to my business of raising sheep, and I have no time or inclination for anything else. I cannot advise or help you in the matter of books, of which I know nothing.

 

I replied to my pastoralist friend in the following polite terms:

 

You came into this life endowed with an Immortal Soul. You have been warned, in the Bible, that the days of a man’s life are numbered, and that three score and ten is the allotted span. When you interview St. Peter, soon, I hope you will say to him what you have said to me, That all your life has been devoted to your business of raising sheep. He will draft you then with the sheep and not the goats.

 

§ 34

EXPORT OF GENIUS

Sheep-culture, agriculture, physical culture, have reached high standards in Australia, but intellectual culture has been neglected. We require now to grow to fuller intellectual stature—to become a nation in all attainments. Not in a day, and not in many days, will a journey in this direction be done; but a beginning can be mad; and, in fact, has been made.

In matters concerning the only culture that endures—preservation, development, breeding, growth of living ideas—the inferiority complex of the Australian will be removed, and is being removed, by a bold gesture of those in the Commonwealth to-day to whom the very word Australia is a full and rich music. Our Australia, ours to hold and develop, ours to define, by our own virtue and power. Our giant scroll on which a new story will be written. . . .

Stern self-criticism is the mark and privilege of an honest man, as stern national self-criticism is the mark, duty, and privilege of a patriot. The criticism which sneers at Australia from the point of view of some other nationality is merely nugatory. The criticism which arises within Australia, as self-criticism, inspired by love of the country and belief in it, may be even more bitter than that from outside; but it will be valid, it will be genuine, it will ultimately become constructive.

It is easier and much more pleasant to lull than to provoke. Lull the public, dope them, tell them that everything is for the best in the best of all possible Australias, and honours will come thick and easy—or it has been so in the past. But truth resides in a well, and can sometimes be hauled up in bucketsful. "When the truth-tellers arrive," says the immortal Brent of Bin Bin, "there will be Pillaloo." Australia has had a surfeit of sedatives. It is time for us to be honest with ourselves, and stir up at least a certain amount of Pillaloo.

The nasty, unpalatable, and very deplorable truth which we now must swallow, is that Australia, for one reason and another, has become a cultural backwater, stagnant, and culturally green-slimed. It is necessary, in the more civilised countries, to apologise frequently for being an Australian. This must stop.

The pastoralists, the commercialists, who opened Australia like a bully-beef tin, gobbled the contents, and would throw the tin away, were invaders to Australia, found it an easy conquest, had no thoughts except get-rich-quick and clear-out-home-again. Then the lure of Australia grew upon them, they "settled" here, and bred families to the third, fourth, and fifth generation; but the psychology of get-rich-quick, the impulse to destroy, to rape and plunder, and then to make a getaway back "home," has remained deeply embedded in the national mind.

Australia is an easy place to leave: that is the trouble. Steamer-ticket escape costs very little for anyone really determined to escape. Thus our intellectuals, rather than tackle the work of building up a culture here, have frequently emigrated.

Our formidable batch of émigrés, the big Australian émigré-colony in London, have been lured out of the Commonwealth partly by steamer-advertisements and the insistent propaganda of books and daily cabled news describing Europe’s glamour; and partly they have been driven out of the Commonwealth by the smugness, the intolerable hegemony of the Second-rate in positions of authority here. Flight was easier than fight. It is part of our national problem to discover how to keep our best minds from emigrating, how to prevent them from being driven or lured out of the Commonwealth, to become, from our point of view, a total loss.

Departing to Europe with a preconceived notion of Europe’s glamour, our Australian émigrés find there precisely what they sought in terms of their preconceived notion. Just as the first English immigrants to Australia discovered what they had already decided to find a convict colony, and wrote about it as such, so by reverse process the modern Australian émigrés to Europe find a glamour there which was preconceived in their minds before they left Australia.

It is astonishing but true that the foremost historical novelists and antiquarians in England to-day should so frequently be Australians. Consider, for example, Professors V. Gordon Childe, Grafton Elliot Smith, and Gilbert Murray—Australians all, and unsurpassed as antiquarians of Europe. What’s the matter with us? Consider, also, the formidable list of Australian novelists who have recently ploughed in the already-well-ploughed literary fields of England and Europe. For example, Jack Lindsay, Philip Lindsay, Helen Simpson, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Mary Mitchell, Christopher Morley, Frederic Manning, Alice Grant Rosman—that will do to be going on with. There are others, a whole colony of them, living in England or longing for England: Jack McLaren, Dale Collins, Norman Haire, W. J. Turner. The list is quite casually compiled and is incomplete. Katherine Mansfield and Hector Bolitho from New Zealand illustrate the same point. Then all the émigré newspaper artists—David Low, Will Dyson, H. M. Bateman, Will Farrow, Will Hope, Rick Elms . . . about half the working journalists of Fleet Street, more or less, and a fair number in New York . . . and then a large colony of young Australian writers and artists, in Chelsea or Bloomsbury, aspiring to set the Thames on fire, because the Yarra and the Parramatta seemed too damp. Australian émigrés in Harley Street; Australian émigrés on the stage in London’s West End theatres, and making pictures at Hollywood; Australian émigré Dons at Oxford: What’s the matter with them all?

If these novelists, professors, artists, and scholars had remained in Australia, had resisted the blandishments of the shipping advertisements, what a redoubtable body of literature, learning, art, and scholarship would by now be associated with the name of Australia! Had these people remained here, and dealt with the realities of Australia, instead of with the fantasies of European glamour and European antiquity, they would with ease have created a body of Australian literature which, added to that we already possess, would by now have been enough to make Australia’s name and quality resound as one of the most highly cultivated and civilised nations upon the earth.

But no; the shirkers, they have cleared out, funked their job. Let them return to their muttons! ("No blooming fear," I can hear some of them murmuring as they read this. "Pioneering was all right for our grandfathers then, but we want something easier.")

From a national point of view our émigrés may be written off as a dead loss. Australian culture must be established under a handicap of the export of genius and talent such as no other country in the world suffers. If only there were reciprocity: if Britain had sent us Shaw, Wells, Chesterton, Belloc, Hardy, Galsworthy, Thomas Burke, and a few more, in exchange, to live here permanently and write about Australia, we could have better spared our émigrés, who have left us to go and help the English develop their already-so-well-developed literature.

As things are, we must now find, train, encourage, and keep here, a new batch of writers entirely, to replace those we have lost.

 

§ 35

INTELLECTUAL SHIRKERS

What of the intellectuals who have remained in Australia? They are numerous enough, as I know, having had occasion, in the course of my business as a book-publisher, to meet many, if not all, of them. There is no doubt of their fine individual quality, either, if I am any judge of such matters. I give my opinion for what it is worth. As a book-publisher for a number of years, both in London and in Sydney, I have had, perhaps, rather unique opportunities of making comparisons between the personal qualities of writers in both metropolises. A publisher meets writers professionally, and it is part of his trade-equipment to be able to sum them up. In London my literary acquaintance was fairly extensive. It ranged from respected Victorians, such as Sir Edmund Gosse and Sir Lionel Just (for both of whom I published books) to ultra-moderns, such as D. H. Lawrence (for whom I published three books), and Liam Flaherty (for whom I published three books), and it included Norman Douglas, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Burke, and a great many more, enough to be considered a representative lot.

By contrast, during the past two-and-a-half years, I have met, in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia, approximately two thousand people with whom I found conversation enjoyable, persons who could fairly be described as intellectual. About two hundred or so of these people seemed to me to be brilliant; about a dozen to be endowed with unmistakable intellectual genius. I want no better company or conversation than these Australian friends and acquaintances of mine can offer. They all discussed Australian literature, and rather pessimistically, with me, because that was the occasion of my meeting them; and I discovered, to my intense surprise, that scarcely any of them personally knew the others. They had almost all retreated into castles of isolation, which seemed to me to be the same thing as retreating to Europe.

The cowardly intellectuals of Australia, retreating from the Australian problem, leaving the petty and the smug in control of things of the mind here—what on earth can be done to chivy them into their proper social activity as formulaters of the nation’s ideas? They lurk in their castles of isolation, whence occasionally they may be heard privately muttering that "Australia has no literature," or words to that effect, vaguely echoing the ideas of the English books and magazines which they so sedulously read. How can these timorous lurkers be awakened to a sense of national duties and responsibilities?

No effective protest by Australia’s hermit intellectuals has been made against the monstrous Customs censorship of books which is making Australia’s name stink throughout the world. A mild mumbling protest has been raised, more or less privately, and that is all: the Censorship gets worse as the bureaucrats who exercise it find that they are unchallenged. No effective protest has been raised against other infringements of liberty, developments of Hitlerism and Fascism, such as the prohibition of free speech in the Sydney Domain and on Yarra Bank, the fantastic proceedings against Egon Kisch, the banning of periodicals by the Post Office (solely on political grounds), the humourless Blue Laws of the State of Victoria and the bathing costumes solemnly prescribed by the Government of New South Wales (so many inches, I forget how many, below the fork, and covering the chest to the level of the armpits); the prohibition of anti-war meetings and processions in Sydney and Melbourne, the ban on this, the ban on that, the growth of bureaucratic tyranny everywhere.

What has happened to primary liberty in "Advanced" Australia? In this Commonwealth, which was first in the world to give women the vote (and they surely deserved it, those pioneer women of Australia), a high police official, recently receiving a deputation, is reported as having refused to allow women to join the deputation; for no stated reason, but presumably because (as Hitler would say) "woman’s place is the home." It was an anti-war deputation, too.

Against all these encroachments of legalistic Fascism, against bureaucratic paternalism, public regimentation, the prohibition-mania dear to Jack-in-Office, the itch to ban and to burn books and ideas which is only one remove from rubber-truncheoning the people who write books—against the Hun-idea, the Kaiser-idea, which Australians fought (or were told that they fought) during the "Great" War—against the sneaking emergence, ever growing bolder, of the barbarians who would seek to destroy Democracy and rivet the yoke of a new and uncouth feudalism of big business, upon our necks—against the intolerable smugness of the Second-rate who connive at these infringements and destructions of intellectual and popular liberty in out midst, what effective protest is being made by the cowardly intellectuals of Australia, mumbling in their castles of isolation that "Australia is culturally backward"?

It is useless to expect any protest from the public press, which has become the foe of liberty and is no longer its guardian. Fifty men were imprisoned in one batch in Sydney recently for breaches of the Domain byelaws—i.e., for a political and free-speech offence; but the press scarcely reported it, and the public was not informed, and the bureaucrats thus had nothing to fear.

When the Hitler-minded in Australia develop a little more self-confidence, enough, it may be, to seize power, the press which now tacitly encourages them, and the cowardly intellectuals who merely stand by and lift their eyebrows, will feel the weight of the rubber-truncheon, as the press and the intellectuals have felt it in Germany.

Fascism is a greater menace to us than Bolshevism could ever be; for Fascism is a schoolboy bully, armed. It has no intellectual pretensions, aims at imposing discipline "from above," is a Junker-idea, a Hun-idea which Australians have fought to abolish from the earth. Bolshevism at least has a humanitarian goal, a cogent philosophy, and a professed respect for ideas and the raising of cultural standards in the community-in-general. Probably we shall not have either of these cults, in their European forms, in our Australia of the future; we shall work out our own destiny. But not without thought. Unthinking, we could go down a steep place to Fascism. Let our intellectuals awake from their reveries of faraway Europe, and deal, if they can, with this danger.

 

§ 36

THE FORCES DEPLOYED

In the absence of facilities for publishing sophisticated or even moderately intelligent books; in the absence of any critical magazines or reviews comparable with The New Statesman, The Spectator, or with any of the English monthlies; in the absence of any great newspapers with traditions of fair reporting and fair play such as The Manchester Guardian or The Times; and in the overwhelming presence of our dreadful, venal, sycophantic, partisan, or screaming and stunting Australian daily press (edited by promoted cadet reporters and office boys), there has been no opportunity for our Australian intellectuals to do anything else except lurk in isolation, withdrawn from the life about them.

I say this in extenuation, for I have called them cowardly. I meant lazy. No means of expression existing, they should have brought the means of expression into existence. Lazy is the word, or dazed—by the fantasy of Europe. Isolated, and without a forum of any kind, they have daydreamed themselves into futility, and often enough allowed their intellects to rust. Long bouts of laziness, inertia, frustration, seem to have demoralised them. They want others to save them, themselves they cannot save. Through sheer inertia, arising from persistent discouragement but none the less inertia, they would allow the smug, the Second-rate (the editors and publishers who "give the public what it wants"), to define the name of Australia.

By some means or other Australia’s lazy intellectuals, cowardly intellectuals, inert intellectuals, must now be cajoled and wheedled, galvanised or shocked, into playing their full part in the national life. Without matured book-publishing facilities and conventions, without sophisticated journals of information and of opinion, our pathetic intellectuals are in a pitiable, as well as a deplorable, fix. We must provide those facilities, those rallying-points. Without them our poor isolated thinkers are scattered and deployed, an army without a plan—"each man his own General." Some kind of plan or objective must be formulated.

At Mont St. Quentin, in September, 1918 (one of the most remarkable Australian feats of the war), there was a stated objective—the top of the hill. There was also an order, probably the strangest order ever issued to troops (each man to act on his own, and as many as possible to reach the top), emanating from General Monash, who, from the point of view of British Brass Hats, was three times an outsider—a civilian, an Australian, a Jew—but was nevertheless a man inspired when he issued that command which was a negation of all army ideas. Monash knew his Australians, who, deployed and scattered (each man his own General), casually and in broad daylight scaled the plateau bristling with German machine-guns, and promptly put vastly superior numbers of conscript goose-steppers into retreat. The attack was so audacious in plan, so unprecedented in method of execution, that the Germans could not believe in it—until it had happened.

If our Australian intellectual forces of to-day are similarly deployed and scattered, I believe that, recalling Mont St. Quentin, they will nevertheless reach the top—once they realise that there is an objective, and that a thousand others (or even a hundred) are also "hopping over" into this intellectual fight.

 

§ 37

DEMOCRATIC MORALE

I apologise to my pacifist friends for the foregoing military metaphor. It arises not from chauvinism, not from any desire to glorify militarism, which (in common, I think, with all those splendid fellows, my seniors, who were in the A.I.F.), I profoundly loathe and detest. The A.I.F. was the outstanding non-conscript, civilian, democratic army of the Great War: it defied every precedent regarding soldiering, and put militarism to ignominy by its examples of battlefield discipline.

The men of the A.I.F. were worthy of note, not as mere soldiers, as cogs in a military machine, but as men, as civilians who went willingly into war from a conviction that their cause was just. That they may have been proved wrong in this conviction by subsequent events does not alter the fact that they volunteered, and were never conscripted, to fight in a cause which they believed to be right. Neither does it alter the fact that, having become thus organised for a purpose into an army, these average Australian civilians made history—as their late enemy, and all their allies, well know and admit.

Made history—not jingo death-and-glory history, flag-flapping history, chauvinistic history—but a new kind of history, our history, of special significance to us, a history founded on individual initiative which became an astounding collective morale. Peeling all chauvinism off the history of the A.I.F. (which is not difficult), we need with the utmost care to study that turning-point in our national life, 1914 to 1918, in its moral, its psychological, its national aspects.

The story of the Australian soldiers on Gallipoli, in Palestine, and in France, should be told, in precise detail, to all oncoming Australians, not in glorification of militarism, but as the reverse: as a lesson in self-imposed individual discipline, comradeship, the superior value of the individual man, of individual initiative and self-respect. And also it should be taught as a warning to the nation never to be fooled again into participation in a war of European conquest, to keep out or other people’s brawls; to be prepared, if necessary, to defend our own soil against any invasion of any kind; to be prepared (as W. M. Hughes told them at Versailles) to "defy the opinion of the whole civilised world," if need be, in defence of our own soil and our right to develop our own new civilisation here.

If we never had a history before 1914, let the imported professors observe, the A.I.F. gave us one, from which we suddenly perceived that we are indeed a Nation, with our own permanent quality.

And let our timid intellectuals observe that, if the democratic spirit of the A.I.F. still lives (as, of course, it does) the would-be Fascists will get the surprise, the biggest bump of their lives if they ever try seriously to impose a military, or semi-military, regimentation upon Australian civil life. These Fascist tykes, who boast about the A.I.F. as though it belonged to them, are undermining all that the A.I.F. established and fought for: the right of an individual Australian to think and act for himself.

The tradition of the A.I.F. will almost certainly, I believe, defend us against the extremes of Fascism should the nasty little plotters ever screw up their courage to the point of putting matters to the test. The Heil Hitler buncombe which goes with Fascism will be treated in Australia with the contempt such preposterous saluting and goose-stepping deserves. The only danger is that the nation might slip into loss of individual liberty by slow degrees, or be flummoxed into it at some false crisis (such as when Premier Lang had to close the bank). It is the duty of those who can think nationally to define now clearly what is meant by Australian liberty and democracy and Australian tradition, to keep watch upon the sneaking little Fascists and bureaucrats, and keep the nation warned against them, and against all who would fetter or restrict ideas, or the flow of ideas, in the Commonwealth.

With the spirit of the A.I.F. still in the land, what need is there for an Australian to fear proclaiming his Australianism? The "Diggers" were never ashamed of being known as Australians: they found their nationality during the ordeal of war. Let our intellectual defeatists remember this. There is no need to be ashamed of Australia: we have qualities. There is no need to ape English "culture" any more than there was need for the A.I.F. to imitate English army parade-ground spit and polish. We can establish our own culture, our own discipline, our own morale. We shall not be respected until we do so.

Let our lurking intellectuals have no fear in resisting Fascism, tyranny, commercial hegemony, the Rule of the Smug, and imperialist permeation, wherever they find it. The common man, the typical Australian, is a democrat, a free-thinker, an individualist to his core, a believer in Australia. The common man, the public, the allegedly rough and crude "Diggers" and their sons and daughters, will defend Australian freedom whenever they are called upon to do so, and will follow the intellectuals whenever they decide to give a strong and unwavering lead in the matter of proclaiming "Australia First" as the only constructive national idea.

 

§ 38

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

The first precondition of a genuine culture in Australia is to establish, or re-establish, facilities for the free discussion of ideas, and of opinions: to establish that freedom of thought from which alone can arise the formulation of national policy through discussion, pro and con, the best minds in the nation. This precondition is lacking in Australia.

It would be useless to pretend that there is Freedom of the Press in this sense in Australia. The press is no guardian of liberty now. It is merely venal, crudely subservient to Commerce (to the advertisers). Not one paper in Australia is conducted actually in the public interest. All are against the public, creatures of special and sectional interests; apologists for Commerce and legalised robbery; channels of dope dissemination; special pleaders; partisan to the marrow; and for these reasons the press in Australia is despised by the public, and the profession of journalism is at its lowest ebb. The wheel has turned full circle from the days when freedom of the press meant freedom to defend the public against extortion, tyranny, and oppression. Nowadays freedom of the press means freedom for the press to bamboozle and hoodwink the general public in the interests of a special minority. In most countries there are at least some old-fashioned journals which will truckle to no special interest, tell their readers the truth, criticise encroachments upon public rights: and these journals make and unmake governments and national policies.

In Australia there are no such journals. The official censorship of books, the bureaucratic tyranny, is as nothing compared with the censorship upon Australian thought exercised by those editors who, anonymous in newspaper offices, defend big business against any "subversive" ideas, and kowtow daylong (and nightlong) to the advertisers. This censorship by editors establishes the Dictatorship of the Smug, the Hegemony of the Second-rate; and our poor defeated and timid intellectuals cannot cope with it; because there is no effective answer to an editor’s rejection-slip and no recourse against an editor’s blue-pencil.

Thus defeated, and in no other way, our intellectuals have withdrawn themselves, with private groans, from the current of actual life in Australia into their pipedreams and fantasies of Europe.

The gulf between intellectual and actual life, between the withdrawn European fantasists and the common or garden Australian who despises their "culture" (and no wonder), is a gulf which can be crossed easily once we begin to accept our national destiny fully, and begin to work to realise it.

 

§ 39

TALISMANIC BOOKS

Our destiny, and our history; the terms are inseparable. If we really had no history (as the Europe-minded think), we should have to invent some: but it is there, surely enough; we have merely to seek it out—our own lore, legend, and tradition. This is work for our writers, a national work of the utmost importance: the most important work now to be done in Australia.

From the body of Australian books already written and published (available if not easily accessible) it should be possible to select the books which are significant, the talismanic works which endow us with a national idea, and thus embody the national soul.

Amongst all the books written in Australia, by Australians, or about Australia, there are to my knowledge more than a hundred first-class books, and there are ten and more great books, which could well be prescribed, for example, for a study-course in our Australian universities and schools: as national talismans.

Some or most of these books are out of print; few of them are known, even by name, to the generality of Australians: this is where we have slipped so badly.

The imported professors of literature, of course, will do precisely nothing to seek out and establish values in our Australian literature. Disappointed at not securing professional posts in their own country, they come here disgruntled, to take the rank of Corporal in the English Garrison; and they hope to rise, by sedulous endeavour, to be Sergeant-majors in that corps—farther than that their ambition could not extend.

An Australian-born professor (of Psychology, not of Literature) who, as a hobby, is preparing a bibliography of Australian fiction, informs me that he has read more than two thousand Australian novels, and that he is astonished by the high quality of many of them which are quite unknown and almost unprocureable. He is doing the kind of work which Australia needs most of all: research into our own lore. From research work such as he is now doing, in which we should all in our various ways assist, the idea and the critique of Australian literature, as a thing-in-itself, will robustly emerge. Australian literature, Australian national and free life, the linking of brain with brawn in our Commonwealth, will never be forwarded by the Europe-minded, nor by any form of patronage from on high or from abroad.

We must establish our own national culture and self-respect by our own efforts, by our own virtue and native instinct of patriotism; to meet our own national need.



The Percy Stephensen Collection