Section 36 [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.]

§ 36

The forces deployed

In the absence of facilities for publishing sophisticated or even moderately intelligent books; in the absence of any critical magazines or reviews comparable with The New Statesman, The Spectator, or with any of the English monthlies; in the absence of any great newspapers with traditions of fair reporting and fair play such as The Manchester Guardian or The Times; and in the overwhelming presence of our dreadful, venal, sycophantic, partisan, or screaming and stunting Australian daily press (edited by promoted cadet reporters and office boys), there has been no opportunity for our Australian intellectuals to do anything else except lurk in isolation, withdrawn from the life about them.

I say this in extenuation, for I have called them cowardly. I meant lazy. No means of expression existing, they should have brought the means of expression into existence. Lazy is the word, or dazed — by the fantasy of Europe. Isolated, and without a forum of any kind, they have daydreamed themselves into futility, and often enough allowed their intellects to rust. Long bouts of laziness, inertia, frustration, seem to have demoralised them. They want others to save them, themselves they cannot save. Through sheer inertia, arising from persistent discouragement but none the less inertia, they would allow the smug, the Second-rate (the editors and publishers who “give the public what it wants”), to define the name of Australia.

By some means or other Australia’s lazy intellectuals, cowardly intellectuals, inert intellectuals, must now be cajoled and wheedled, galvanised or shocked, into playing their full part in the national life. Without matured book-publishing facilities and conventions, without sophisticated journals of information and of opinion, our pathetic intellectuals are in a pitiable, as well as a deplorable, fix. We must provide those facilities, those rallying-points. Without them our poor isolated thinkers are scattered and deployed, an army without a plan — “each man his own General.” Some kind of plan or objective must be formulated.

At Mont St. Quentin, in September, 1918 (one of the most remarkable Australian feats of the war), there was a stated objective — the top of the hill. There was also an order, probably the strangest order ever issued to troops (each man to act on his own, and as many as possible to reach the top), emanating from General Monash, who, from the point of view of British Brass Hats, was three times an outsider — a civilian, an Australian, a Jew — but was nevertheless a man inspired when he issued that command which was a negation of all army ideas. Monash knew his Australians, who, deployed and scattered (each man his own General), casually and in broad daylight scaled the plateau bristling with German machine-guns, and promptly put vastly superior numbers of conscript goose-steppers into retreat. The attack was so audacious in plan, so unprecedented in method of execution, that the Germans could not believe in it — until it had happened.

If our Australian intellectual forces of to-day are similarly deployed and scattered, I believe that, recalling Mont St. Quentin, they will nevertheless reach the top — once they realise that there is an objective, and that a thousand others (or even a hundred) are also “hopping over” into this intellectual fight.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 128-130

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