Section 35 [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.]

§ 35

Intellectual shirkers

What of the intellectuals who have remained in Australia? They are numerous enough, as I know, having had occasion, in the course of my business as a book-publisher, to meet many, if not all, of them. There is no doubt of their fine individual quality, either, if I am any judge of such matters. I give my opinion for what it is worth. As a book-publisher for a number of years, both in London and in Sydney, I have had, perhaps, rather unique opportunities of making comparisons between the personal qualities of writers in both metropolises. A [publisher meets writers professionally, and it is part of his trade-equipment to be able to sum them up. In London my literary acquaintance was fairly extensive. It ranged from respected Victorians, such as Sir Edmund Gosse and Sir Lionel Cust (for both of whom I published books) to ultra-moderns, such as D. H. Lawrence (for whom I published three books), and Liam O’Flaherty (for whom I published three books), and it included Norman Douglas, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Burke, and a great many more, enough to be considered a representative lot.

By contrast, during the past two-and-a-half years, I have met, in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia, approximately two thousand people with whom I found conversation enjoyable, persons who could fairly be described as intellectual. About two hundred or so of these people seemed to me to be brilliant; about a dozen to be endowed with unmistakable intellectual genius. I want no better company or conversation than these Australian friends and acquaintances of mine can offer. They all discussed Australian literature, and rather pessimistically, with me, because that was the occasion of my meeting them; and I discovered, to my intense surprise, that scarcely any of them personally knew the others. They had almost all retreated into castles of isolation, which seemed to me to be the same thing as retreating to Europe.

The cowardly intellectuals of Australia, retreating from the Australian problem, leaving the petty and the smug in control of things of the mind here — what on earth can be done to chivy them into their proper social activity as formulaters of the nation’s ideas? They lurk in their castles of isolation, whence occasionally they may be heard privately muttering that “Australia has no literature,” or words to that effect, vaguely echoing the ideas of the English books and magazines which they so sedulously read. How can these timorous lurkers be awakened to a sense of national duties and responsibilities?

No effective protest by Australia’s hermit intellectuals has been made against the monstrous Customs censorship of books which is making Australia’s name stink throughout the world. A mild mumbling protest has been raised, more or less privately, and that is all: the Censorship gets worse as the bureaucrats who exercise it find that they are unchallenged. No effective protest has been raised against other infringements of liberty, developments of Hitlerism and Fascism, such as the prohibition of free speech in the Sydney Domain and on Yarra Bank, the fantastic proceedings against Egon Kisch, the banning of periodicals by the Post Office (solely on political grounds), the humourless Blue Laws of the State of Victoria and the bathing costumes solemnly prescribed by the Government of New South Wales (so many inches, I forget how many, below the fork, and covering the chest to the level of the armpits); the prohibition of anti-war meetings and processions in Sydney and Melbourne, the ban on this, the ban on that, the growth of bureaucratic tyranny everywhere.

What has happened to primary liberty in “Advanced” Australia? In this Commonwealth, which was first in the world to give women the vote (and they surely deserved it, those pioneer women of Australia), a high police official, recently receiving a deputation, is reported as having refused to allow women to join the deputation; for no stated reason, but presumably because (as Hitler would say) “woman’s place is the home.” It was an anti-war deputation, too.

Against all these encroachments of legalistic Fascism, against bureaucratic paternalism, public regimentation, the prohibition-mania dear to Jack-in-Office, the itch to ban and to burn books and ideas which is only one remove from rubber-truncheoning the people who write books — against the Hun-idea, the Kaiser-idea, which Australians fought (or were told that they fought) during the “Great” War — against the sneaking emergence, ever growing bolder, of the barbarians who would seek to destroy Democracy and rivet the yoke of a new and uncouth feudalism, of big business, upon our necks — against the intolerable smugness of the Second-rate who connive at these infringements and destructions of intellectual and popular liberty in our midst, what effective protest is being made by the cowardly intellectuals of Australia, mumbling in their castles of isolation that “Australia is culturally backward”?

It is useless to expect any protest from the public press, which has become the foe of liberty and is no longer its guardian. Fifty men were imprisoned in one batch in Sydney recently for breaches of the Domain byelaws — i.e., for a political and free-speech offence; but the press scarcely reported it, and the public was not informed, and the bureaucrats thus had nothing to fear.

When the Hitler-minded in Australia develop a little more self-confidence, enough, it may be, to seize power, the press which now tacitly encourages them, and the cowardly intellectuals who merely stand by and lift their eyebrows, will feel the weight of the rubber-truncheon, as the press and the intellectuals have felt it in Germany.

Fascism is a greater menace to us than Bolshevism could ever be; for Fascism is a schoolboy bully, armed. It has no intellectual pretensions, aims at imposing discipline “from above,” is a Junker-idea, a Hun-idea which Australians have fought to abolish from the earth. Bolshevism at least has a humanitarian goal, a cogent philosophy, and a professed respect for ideas and the raising of cultural standards in the community-in-general. Probably we shall not have either of these cults, in their European forms, in our Australia of the future; we shall work out our own destiny. But not without thought. Unthinking, we could go down a steep place to Fascism. Let our intellectuals awake from their reveries of faraway Europe, and deal, if they can, with this danger.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 124-128

Editor’s notes:
Egon Kisch = Egon Erwin Kisch was a Czechoslovakian communist; in 1934 the Australian government banned him from entering Australia (the United Australia Party, led by Joseph Lyons, was in government at the time), however, the ban was overturned by the High Court (the ruling judge was H. V. Evatt, later leader of the federal Australian Labor Party)

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