Section 15 [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.]

§ 15

Decline and fall

The history of all empires and cultures has been a history of rise, zenith, decline, fall. The changes occur slowly, in centuries rather than in decades. Australia’s effective history of colonial growth occurred during the nineteenth century, while Britain, at “home,” was expanding industrially. Two parallel and complementary expansions occurred — ours pastoral, theirs industrial. In the twentieth century Britain has entered a phase of comparative industrial decline. Must Australia, too, decline? If not, our basic ideas must begin to diverge from those of Britain.

If we are to continue to expand nationally, we shall need a different set of ideas from those current in Britain during a probable period of twentieth century decline or national restriction.

Our literature, our culture, should normally, during the twentieth century, which is our second century, be a literature and culture of national expansion. English literature and culture might, during the same period, be a literature and culture of decline and “decadence.” I take as an example the cynicism of Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, and the eroticism of D. H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These books are both works of “decadence,” of English social decadence. (I use the term decadence in the sense of ultra-sophistication, and not in any simple “moral” sense.) Both these products of modern English culture are formally banned in Australia, on the silly “moral” ground, and not for the more exact reason that they represent a culture in decline, which in such a tendency is against the grain of our potentially-expansionist Australian culture. There is no need for the silly “moral” censorship; I think these books of the English decadence could never have profoundly moved Australians. We are much more likely to be moved and influenced by an American book, such as Anthony Adverse, with its great sweep of new historical colour, romance, and action, than by Huxley or Lawrence, with their codes of intrinsic English despair. As for Michael Arlen, Ethel Mannin, Evelyn Waugh, Beverley Nichols, what do we care about their picture of England going downhill? It can move us only vaguely, as a spectacle seen from afar.

During the nineteenth century, while English culture was, like English industry, still expanding, we, also expanding as a people, could look more eagerly to England for cultural guidance that we can in this twentieth century. We were more in harmony with England then; we were dominated by English culture to a greater extent than we shall be henceforth.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 55-56

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