Section 1 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 1

Genius of the place

Australia is a unique country. All countries are unique, but this one is particularly so. Visitors, such as D. H. Lawrence, have discerned a spiritual quality of ancient loveliness in our land itself. The flora and fauna are primitive, and for the most part harmless to man, but to the visitor there is another element, of terror, in the Spirit of the Place. The blossoming of the waratah, the song of the lyrebird, typify the spirit of primitive loveliness in our continent; but the wail of the dingo, the gauntness of our tall trees by silent moonlight, can provide a shiver of terror to a newcomer. Against a background of strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptiness of three million square miles, our six million white people, of immigrant stock, mainly from Europe, are becoming acclimatised in this environment new to them but geologically so old that Time seems to have stood still here for a million years.

A new nation, a new human type, is being formed in Australia.

For the first hundred and fifty years of colonising, the immigrants have merely raped the land, or “settled” it, as we say, with unconscious irony in our choice of a word to describe the process of destroying its primitiveness. Now there are cities, half the people live in cities, huddled there, it may be, for mutual protection against the loneliness of the bush. Ships come and go, from Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. Ideas and people also come and go — we Australians ourselves come and go. All is in flux, a nation is being formed. Can it be a cultured nation?

Australia, throughout its brief whiteman’s history, has been primarily a colony of Britain, as Britain was once a colony of Rome, a place to be exploited commercially. For a hundred and fifty years all our vast production of gold, most of our wheat, wool, meat, and butter, have been sent “home” to Britain. In trade exchange we have received manufactured goods, and many loans. Britain, it may be, has had the best of the deal financially. We have sent our troops, too, to fight in British wars. We accept British exploitation of Australia as a natural fact, and scarcely protest. The price has been worth it, for has not Britain sent us, as makeweight and compensation for economic exploitation, the great heritage of her laws, her customs, her language and literature and philosophy, her culture?

Culture in Australia, if it ever develops indigenously, begins not from the Aborigines, who have been suppressed and exterminated, but from British culture, brought hither by Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen throughout the Nineteenth Century. In a new and quite different environment from that of those damp British Islands we are here developing the culture which evolved there. We spring fully armed from the head of Jove, or fully cultured from the head of John Bull. Australian culture begins with a general background of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herrick, Byron, Charles Dickens; and more specifically with a background of Samuel Smiles, Mr. Gladstone and Queen Victoria. We inherit all that Britain has inherited, and from that point we go on — to what?

As the culture of every nation is an intellectual and emotional expression of the genius loci, our Australian culture will diverge from the purely local colour of the British Islands to the precise extent that our environment differs from that of Britain. A hemisphere separates us from “home” — we are Antipodeans; a gumtree is not a branch of an oak; our Australian culture will evolve distinctively.



Source:
P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 11-13

Editor’s notes:
genius loci = (Latin) spirit of the place (may refer to an atmosphere, character or spirit that pervades a place; can also refer to a god or guardian spirit of a place)

John Bull = a personification of Britain, or England in particular

Jove = an alternate name for Jupiter; in Roman mythology, Jupiter was king of the gods, as well as the god of sky and thunder (“by Jove” is an exclamatory phrase, denoting excitement or surprise; the phrase was a way of saying “by God” without blaspheming)

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