Section 22 [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.]

§ 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 their 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.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 84-87

Editor’s notes:
rondel = a poem, usually one consisting of thirteen or fourteen lines, divided into three stanzas, with the first two lines repeated at the end of the second and third stanzas (although sometimes the third stanza will only repeat the first line)

[Editor: Re. “Chris: Brennan”, the colon is used in the original.]

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