Section 3 [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.]

§ 3

Race and place

What is a national culture? Is it not the expression, in thought-form or art-form, of the spirit of a Race and of a Place? The Ancient Greeks were few in number, not more all told than the number of people who nowadays live in North Sydney, but the Greeks evolved, from their environment and historical background, a culture which has remained for 2,000 years after they themselves became subjugated and dispersed. The political, economic, and social forms of a nation are temporary forms, expressions of the Zeitgeist, which changes with every decade, with every vagary of invention, epidemics, wars, migrations. Each decade of history is “modern” to itself, and every modernism passes with the inexorable march of time. Nothing is permanent in a nation except its culture — its ideas of permanence, which are expressed in art, literature, religion, philosophy; ideas which transcend modernism and ephemerality, ideas which survive political, social, and economic changes.

Race and Place are the two permanent elements in a culture, and Place, I think, is even more important than Race in giving that culture its direction. When Races migrate, taking their culture with them, to a new Place, the culture becomes modified. It is the spirit of a Place which ultimately gives any human culture its distinctiveness.

Consider the differences between Indian Art, Chinese Art, Persian Art, Egyptian Art, Dutch Art, Easter Island Art — expressions of places rather than of epochs. The main art tendency remained in each Place while peoples and epochs changed.

Consider, too, how literature expresses the spirit of Place and Race, and forms the concept of a nation. A simple example is the poetry of Robert Burns, which created Scotland or was created by Scotland — which? For present purposes it is enough to establish that the poetry of Burns is linked with the idea of Scotland. When Scotsmen emigrate to another Place, they take with them the Scots Place-poetry of Robert Burns. Literature, even more than graphic art, is profoundly national. As an idea, what would England be without the poetic concept recorded by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herrick, Dickens, and all the English writers from Beowulf to Rudyard Kipling? England lives as an idea, not mainly through the activities of her merchants and moneylenders and politicians and soldiers, though these also have played their part, but through the writings of her poets and men of letters!

So France, the idea of France, lives in Montaigne, Rabelais, Racine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Balzac, de Maupassant, and Baudelaire; and Germany lives in Goethe, Heine, Kant, Hegel and Richard Wagner; Russia lives in Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Maxim Gorki, et al; Scandinavia in Ibsen, Knut Hamsun . . . need I continue the examples? I do not wish to flog the obvious fact that a nation, or the idea of a nation, is inseparable from its literature. A nation, in fact, without a literature, is incomplete. Australia without a literature remains a colony, no nation.

A deeper question arises, perplexities confront me, when I attempt the next step in this logic. If art and literature are nationally created, and linked to a vicinity or a Place of Origin, can there be such a thing as universal art or universal literature?

The question is answered by making a distinction between Creation and Appreciation. Art and literature are at first nationally created, but become internationally appreciated. Culture spreads from nation to nation. Each nation contributes ideas to the culture of every other nation. Shakespeare, Balzac, and Dostoievsky each began to do their work as national writers, but now in appreciation they are universal, and belong to all nations.

Throughout all human history, cultures have developed in vicinities because there was not much communication between the isolated parts of the world. Since the invention of printing and the development of transport and means of communication, national cultures are overlapping, influencing one another, local distinctiveness is disappearing. The whole world is becoming one cultural unit, and tends to become one international economic unit. In the twentieth century nationalism is receding, the world is becoming one Place. What then becomes of any theory of nationalism in culture?

I hold to the thesis that cultures are created locally, and that every contribution to world culture (even in a future world-political-and-economic unit) must be instinct with the colour of its place of origin.

Ideas, like men and women, are formed locally, no matter how much they may travel. There is a universal concept of humanity and world-culture, but it does not destroy individuality, either of persons or places or nations. Soviet Russia, urged by dreams of world-unification, has energetically encouraged and even revived the various nationalities and languages of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Why? Because the Soviet philosophers realise that the very idea of internationalism implies many separate nationalities — combined for economic and political purposes into economic and political unity, but remaining distinct in local customs, and cultures.

Thus, no matter how transport and communications may improve, local cultures must always remain. Art and literature will continue to be created locally, or nationally, even in the internationalised world. The charm of writing is to write of what one knows; the charm of reading is to read of what one does not know. For this reason cultures must remain local in creation and universal in appreciation.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 14-17

Editor’s notes:
ephemeral = short-lived, something that lasts for a short time

Zeitgeist = the spirit of the time; the beliefs, culture, general outlook, ideas, and morals characteristic of a period of time or of a generation, such as is reflected in its art, literature, philosophy, etc.

Speak Your Mind