Section 34 [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.]

§ 34

Export of genius

Sheep-culture, agriculture, physical culture, have reached high standards in Australia, but intellectual culture has been neglected. We require now to grow to fuller intellectual stature — to become a nation in all attainments. Not in a day, and not in many days, will a journey in this direction be done; but a beginning can be made, and, in fact, has been made.

In matters concerning the only culture that endures — preservation, development, breeding, growth of living ideas — the inferiority complex of the Australian will be removed, and is being removed, by a bold gesture of those in the Commonwealth today to whom the very word Australia is a full and rich music. Our Australia, ours to hold and develop, ours to define, by our own virtue and power. Our giant scroll on which a new story will be written. . . .

Stern self-criticism is the mark and privilege of an honest man, as stern national self-criticism is the mark, duty, and privilege of a patriot. The criticism which sneers at Australia from the point of view of some other nationality is merely nugatory. The criticism which arises within Australia, as self-criticism, inspired by love of the country and belief in it, may be even more bitter than that from outside; but it will be valid, it will be genuine, it will ultimately become constructive.

It is easier and much more pleasant to lull than to provoke. Lull the public, dope them, tell them that everything is for the best in the best of all possible Australias, and honours will come thick and easy — or it has been so in the past. But truth resides in a well, and can sometimes be hauled up in bucketsful. “When the truth-tellers arrive,” says the immortal Brent of Bin Bin, “there will be Pillaloo.” Australia has had a surfeit of sedatives. It is time for us to be honest with ourselves, and stir up at least a certain amount of Pillaloo.

The nasty, unpalatable, and very deplorable truth which we now must swallow, is that Australia, for one reason and another, has become a cultural backwater, stagnant, and culturally green-slimed. It is necessary, in the more civilised countries, to apologise frequently for being an Australian. This must stop.

The pastoralists, the commercialists, who opened Australia like a bully-beef tin, gobbled the contents, and would throw the tin away, were invaders to Australia, found it an easy conquest, had no thoughts except get-rich-quick and clear-out-home-again. Then the lure of Australia grew upon them, they “settled” here, and bred families to the third, fourth, and fifth generation; but the psychology of get-rich-quick, the impulse to destroy, to rape and plunder, and then to make a getaway back “home,” has remained deeply embedded in the national mind.

Australia is an easy place to leave: that is the trouble. Steamer-ticket escape costs very little for anyone really determined to escape. Thus our intellectuals, rather than tackle the work of building up a culture here, have frequently emigrated.

Our formidable batch of émigrés, the big Australian émigré-colony in London, have been lured out of the Commonwealth partly by steamer-advertisements and the insistent propaganda of books and daily cabled news describing Europe’s glamour; and partly they have been driven out of the Commonwealth by the smugness, the intolerable hegemony of the Second-rate in positions of authority here. Flight was easier than fight. It is part of our national problem to discover how to keep our best minds from emigrating, how to prevent them from being driven or lured out of the Commonwealth, to become, from our point of view, a total loss.

Departing to Europe with a preconceived notion of Europe’s glamour, our Australian émigrés find there precisely what they sought in terms of their preconceived notion. Just as the first English immigrants to Australia discovered what they had already decided to find, a convict colony, and wrote about it as such, so by reverse process the modern Australian émigrés to Europe find a glamour there which was preconceived in their minds before they left Australia.

It is astonishing but true that the foremost historical novelists and antiquarians in England to-day should so frequently be Australians. Consider, for example, Professors V. Gordon Childe, Grafton Elliot Smith, and Gilbert Murray — Australians all, and unsurpassed as antiquarians of Europe. What’s the matter with us? Consider, also, the formidable list of Australian novelists who have recently ploughed in the already-well-ploughed literary fields of England and Europe. For example, Jack Lindsay, Philip Lindsay, Helen Simpson, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Mary Mitchell, Christopher Morley, Frederic Manning, Alice Grant Rosman — that will do to be going on with. There are others, a whole colony of them, living in England or longing for England: Jack McLaren, Dale Collins, Norman Haire, W. J. Turner. The list is quite casually compiled and is incomplete. Katherine Mansfield and Hector Bolitho from New Zealand illustrate the same point. Then all the émigré newspaper artists — David Low, Will Dyson, H. M. Bateman, Will Farrow, Will Hope, Rick Elms . . . about half the working journalists of Fleet Street, more or less, and a fair number in New York . . . and then a large colony of young Australian writers and artists, in Chelsea or Bloomsbury, aspiring to set the Thames on Fire, because the Yarra and the Parramatta seemed too damp. Australian émigrés in Harley Street; Australian émigrés on the stage in London’s West End theatres, and making pictures at Hollywood; Australian émigré Dons at Oxford: What’s the matter with them all?

If these novelists, professors, artists, and scholars had remained in Australia, had resisted the blandishments of the shipping advertisements, what a redoubtable body of literature, learning, art, and scholarship would by now be associated with the name of Australia! Had these people remained here, and dealt with the realities of Australia, instead of with the fantasies of European glamour and European antiquity, they would with ease have created a body of Australian literature which, added to that we already possess, would by now have been enough to make Australia’s name and quality resound as one of the most highly cultivated and civilised nations upon the earth.

But no; the shirkers, they have cleared out, funked their job. Let them return to their muttons! (“No blooming fear,” I can hear some of them murmuring as they read this. “Pioneering was all right for our grandfathers, but we want something easier.”)

From a national point of view our émigrés may be written off as a dead loss. Australian culture must be established under a handicap of the export of genius and talent such as no other country in the world suffers. If only there were reciprocity: if Britain had sent us Shaw, Wells, Chesterton, Belloc, Hardy, Galsworthy, Thomas Burke, and a few more, in exchange, to live here permanently and write about Australia, we could have better spared our émigrés, who have left us to go and help the English develop their already-so-well-developed literature.

As things are, we must now find, train, encourage, and keep here, a new batch of writers entirely, to replace those we have lost.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 120-124

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