[Editor: This is a chapter from Conditional Culture (1938) by Rex Ingamells.]
III. Debunking nonsense.
The reason why Australian culture is not yet something unmistakably defined is that its individuality, its permeating essence, has been smothered with exoticisms, which, unless most carefully handled — and they have not been — are absolutely impossible of permeation. Australian writers have too often imitated English writers, instead of assimilating lessons from their styles and working out styles of their own on the basis of inspiration of their own.
Good writers in Australia have been very few, and great examples of indigenous literature are rare.
Australian literary criticism has been of little help.
H. M. Green’s “Outline of Australian Literature” is disappointing — little more than a catalogue. “Australia,” says Mr. Green, “belongs, by race, politics and language to a great civilization that reaches back for thousands of years, and it is constantly receiving an inflow, ideal as well as human, from the centre of that civilization.” Again, he says, “When we add that Australia has her own peculiar characteristics and problems, we shall realize that her literature, a reflection of her civilization, is likely to diverge in some, perhaps in important respects, from the course taken by the parent literature.”
In these two quotations we have distinctly shown to us the two forces which must be synthesised into an Australian culture, the temperament of the land and that of the people, in so far as it has its roots elsewhere, but the indication of the necessary distinctiveness which must result from this synthesis is too cautious, ridiculously cautious. Australian literature must, to develop, diverge in important respects from the course taken by the parent literature.
There has been too much of this pro-English pandering. Not that anyone — especially Mr. Green — means to pander. But it has been in our bones too long, and it comes out where we might least expect it. “The Outline” is useful as a catalogue of (for the most part) feeble Australian writers, but there its value ends. There is no spark in the middle of it. Mr. Green speaks of the need for criticism in Australian literature, yet the shaft of his criticism is so mild as to be of little use. It dodges the issue. The question is: What is wrong with our Australian literature? The answer is: Our writers have not looked at Australia with any honest perception of its values. They have taken the easy course, followed the line of least resistance; they have simply appropriated English methods of expression without attempting to hammer out a really suitable idiom of their own. A scientific attack seems necessary for the first stage in view of the facts; spontaneity can then be of the right sort.
Every civilized culture (the two terms are not synonymous) and every literature contains within itself countless exotic elements which have been assimilated and permeated and coloured by the individuality of the particular culture. But that individuality is the all-important thing. It is the distinctiveness, the essence, the sine qua non of the culture.
Yet, in a valiant editorial which, however, misses most points, Mr. P. R. Stephensen says: “We admire the English, we love them frequently, we never fail to respect them, we are astonished by their spectacle of culture, and by their castles, churches, and ruins. . . . But . . . unless we can use imported English culture here as one element (concede it to be the most important element) in building up our indigenous culture, it is a meaningless nothing to us.”
I cannot concede, as Mr. Stephensen does, that imported English culture is the most important element in Australian culture, even if it does at present, unfortunately, occupy the front of the scene. The most important thing in any man, surely, is that spark of individualism which is the man himself and distinguishes him from other men. He has a body like other men, but it is the individuality of the man which transcends the body and gives his presence significance. The same with a nation. The same with a nation’s culture. However indispensable imported elements of culture may be to a people, before there can be said to be an indigenous culture among them there must be self-awareness, a form of egoism, perhaps, but certainly a genuine feeling of the nation’s individuality.
Ours is a country of endless contrasts, of beauty and terror, of fertile lands and empty deserts. It is a country of moods, of ever-changing, incalculable moods. But always the land’s individuality, the spirit of the place (which Stephensen learnt vaguely without analyzing), is there, speaking through the medium of the mood, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The growth of spiritual affinity of the people with the country has been slow and difficult and, up to the present, very imperfect. But the time has come when, to use Professor Hancock’s metaphor, the roots have gone down deep into the soil; and when the imperfections must be obvious to anyone who makes the effort to think intelligently-and can be remedied.
On February 16th, 1935, “The Age” published the blind criticism by Professor Cowling, which drew forth the brave but scarcely less blind retaliation of Mr. Stephensen.
“Australia,” said Cowling, “is not yet in the centre of the map and has no London” — both of which contentions are true and do not matter a bit. Australian individuality lies in other things, and certainly not in merely conforming to a type of Old World civilization. “There are no ancient churches, castles, ruins —,” the Professor continues, “the memorials of generations departed. From the point of view of literature this means that we can never hope to have a Scott, a Balzac, a Dumas. . . .” The Professor was right again: we do not want a Scott, a Balzac, a Dumas. Novelists of their calibre we want and will have; but the inspiration of Australian novelists must be different. It is in such a distinction as this, fully extended over the whole field of Australian literature, that the power and uniqueness of our creations must rest; it is in the development of individuality that the future holds promise.
We have not, as the Professor indicates, traditions of monarchies peculiar to Australia, of baronial castles, of civil and international wars dating back for centuries, of tourneys, and of daffodil days and Philomela nights. But we have other traditions worth having, such as no other country possesses, and these are the things which are valuable to us culturally. The history of Australia abounds in a wealth of dramatic material, ready to be shaped by the careful literary artist, and waiting to be coloured by the play of his imagination. Nor is our history confined to the days since the first white settlement was made here. It goes back to the voyages of Captain Cook, and further still to those of the earliest navigator who set out from Europe in search of the great South Land. In another sense, Australian tradition goes back to the country of native legends; of the tjurunga, the boomerang and the spear; of the bark gunyah and the nomad aborigine. The first white settlers found Australia like this, and their experience and observations are part of our heritage. Finally, the period between 1788 and the present day affords an inexhaustible fund of tradition, vivid and human, to do with wheat farmers, squatters, drovers; with whaling and mining; with convictism and bushranging; with the extension of roads, telegraphs and railway; with the foundation and growth of capital cities and thousands of country towns; and so on. Life here has been lived fully, and the human heart has experienced intensely.
Cowling’s reaction to gum trees is the same as Douglas’s. The distinctiveness of these trees clashes with his preconceived notions as to what trees should be.
The real reason for the lack of good Australian novels is not, of course, paucity of historical material. It is the bewilderment of European culture in an enigmatical environment, the failure of writers to perceive a different, yet perfectly reasonable, standard of values. The finest novels we possess owe their best effects to just such a new perception. The outstanding ones so far are, indeed, depressing in their general atmosphere; but this is, in large part, because the nature of the human themes involved in them have been — owing to historical circumstances derived mainly from Old World civilization — such as to demand that treatment. “For the Term of His Natural Life” and “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony” are cases in point. The place spirit could not be so powerful in these books were it not that their authors were strongly conscious of Australia’s primaevalism. In the first the appreciation is a gloomy one, primarily because of the gloom of convictism, the theme; in the second the atmosphere is depressing because the mind of the misfit Irishman, Mahony, is the dominant theme. The authors have dealt with the Australian environment in the only appropriate ways under the circumstances; but it is grossly erroneous to assume, as some do, that the whole truth is defined by correctness of view of specific types. Particular effects, both in “For the Term of His Natural Life” and “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony,” provide ample illustration of the possibilities for splendid literary expression of the happy and the beautiful in the Australian environment. Brian Penton’s “Landtakers” is another example of a great Australian novel, the general conception of which is depressing and which yet contains vivid perceptions of loveliness in the environment. There is, for instance, the description of the valley which Derek Cabel selected for his station, on the day when he first set eyes on it.
To come fully into its own the Australian novel must vindicate itself on the happy as well as on the pessimistic side. There is endless scope for the accomplishment of this task.
Despite the fact that there have been hundreds of Australian novels published, those that are worth while may be counted practically on one hand. Add to those mentioned above “A House is Built,” by the Misses Barnard and Eldershaw, and you have perhaps the four best Australian novels to date.
“A House is Built” may be a little too reminiscent of “The Forsyte Saga,” so that its original value suffers in imitation; but there is much more to it than that. The imitation is superficial: the individuality and power of the book is everywhere in evidence. The period with which it deals lives as we read. The description of Sydney, as seen by James Hyde on the day when he made known his intentions of settling there, breathes the authentic atmosphere of the early settlement — or, obviously, as nearly authentic as painstaking research and inspired intuition could make it.
Sh! — Sh!
Because the great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers of some very well respected Australian families sported the broad arrow.
It would be a public spirited action worthy of high respect if some Australian with a convict skeleton in his cupboard would unlock it, publishing a faithful history of that forbear.
The action would be one worthy of more than a knighthood, because it would go far towards debunking the craven and idiotic inferiority complex of many Australians where the plain facts of history are concerned.
What are the plain facts of our history?
Certainly they are not merely that Captain Cook found in New South Wales “some of the finest meadows in the world,” that brave and free pioneers brooked lifetimes of hardship to wrest sustenance from the hostile interior; and that from such heroic beginnings our country has advanced to magnificent adulthood.
Such an account is so damnably false that no plea of brevity or generality can justify it.
That the authorities behind the Sydney celebrations bandied a great lie is clear for all who have the strength to resist hypnotism to see. Five capital cities of Australia and the country around them owe important degrees of their early development to convict slavery; no state — not even bragging South Australia — can say that convictism left it entirely unaffected.
The first chapter of Australia’s story tells of courage, endurance and triumph; but it tells also of failure, of misery, degradation and bestiality, of situations and incidents innumerable, which can be adequately described only by the full range of synonyms for these unwholesome words.
That chapter being of the past the sense of its tragedy only, not its tragedy, remains. There is no need to dwell even upon this; it is reasonable to show that there was, indeed, much in the penal system which was just and endurable, but blatantly and altogether to ignore the fact of convictism in what was supposed to be a comprehensive programme of national commemoration is barefacedly false, so essential and vivid a person is Sticker Convict in the story of Australia.
Rex Ingamells, Conditional Culture, F. W. Preece, Adelaide, 1938, pp. 11-15
bestiality = behaving like an animal or beast; behaviour marked by brutality, depravity, and lack of compassion (not to be confused with other meanings of “beastiality”)
broad arrow = a reference to convict times, when the clothing of convicts bore a symbol of a large arrow (the broad arrow was used as a symbol to denote government property in Britain since at least the 1600s; it has also been used for the same purpose in Australia, such as on military clothing); “sported the broad arrow” refers to someone who wore convict clothing (i.e. someone who was a convict)
The Forsyte Saga = a trilogy of novels written by the English author John Galsworthy
gunyah = a small “humpy”, or shelter, made by Aborigines out of tree branches and bark
Philomela night = a night of singing; in Greek mythology, Philomela was an Athenian princess who was lusted after and raped by her brother-in-law, King Tereus of Thrace, who cut out her tongue to ensure her silence, after which she had her revenge by causing the death of his son, upon which he chased he to kill her, but she prayed to the gods to save her, and to do so they transformed her into a nightingale, so she could fly away; female nightingales were traditionally associated with song (although, as it turns out, it is only the male nightingales that sing), and so the name “Philomela” came to be associated with singing; for example, there was a Philomela Choir in South Australia in the 1930s; the Collins Dictionary says that the word “Philomela” developed from the Greek “philein”, meaning to love, and “melos”, meaning song (although, from other quarters, there is some dispute over the meaning of the name)
See: “Philomela”, Wikipedia (accessed 1 October 2013)
“Common Nightingale”, Wikipedia (accessed 1 October 2013)
“Philomela”, Collins Dictionary (accessed 1 October 2013)
“Choir concert at Tanunda”, The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), 7 August 1934, p. 11
“Big women’s choir for church service”, The News (Adelaide, SA), 24 August 1934, p. 8
“Huge open-air music festival planned for Adelaide”, The Mail (Adelaide, SA), 19 October 1935, p. 1
sine qua non = (Latin) literally, “without which not”, a phrase used to denote something which is absolutely indispensable
See: Eliezer Edwards. Words, Facts, & Phrases: A Dictionary of Curious, Quaint, & Out-of-the-Way Matters, Chatto & Windus, London, 1897, page 516 (accessed 10 January 2013)
P. R. Stephensen = Percy Reginald Stephensen, Rhodes scholar, writer, editor and publisher, was the “literary adviser” for The Publicist and one of the magazine’s main writers, becoming editor of the magazine in January 1942 (a position which was short-lived, as he was interned in March 1942)
Sticker Convict = [unknown]
tjurunga = (also spelt “Churinga”) sacred amulets or artifacts of the Australian Aborigines, and may also refer to ceremonies and legends associated with those sacred objects; the objects may be regarded as being manifestations or representations of sacred beings
[Editor: Corrected “mistatements” to “misstatements”; “in deed, depressing” to “indeed, depressing”; “Mahoney” to “Mahony” (in several instances; regarding the novel The Fortunes of Richard Mahony).]
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