Section 40 [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.]

§ 40

Politics and culture

Six months have gone by since the foregoing portions of this Essay were written, originally with a view to serial publication. Sections 1 to 20 were actually so published (in The Australian Mercury, July, 1935), before I realised that it was necessary to pause, afin de mieux sauter. In now completing the attempt, with a view to book publication, I recognise that the scope is much wider than at first was indicated. The question of Australian nationality, as I now think, is not merely a cultural question: it is financial, political, economic. How far dare we follow an intellectual concept when it seems to lead us into the muddied arena of finance, politics and “business,” where honest thinking is so often besmirched by the prejudices which arise from sectional interest? I am personally not interested in politics, that is, in party politics and sectional bickerings, nor in the dog-fights of the market-place, where specious arguments can be so easily devised to “justify” this grab or that. The price of spuds — though it affects people — does not ultimately regulate human destiny, despite what Karl Marx proved in regard to the Materialist Conception of History. There are “non-material” factors, not so easy to define, but none the less real, in the determination of human affairs, particularly national affairs. Yet, following a thought wherever it leads, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the growth of Australian nationality must become a political and economic question, as well as a “cultural” question.

“Whoever thinks that a national enterprise can be successfully established in Australia without the challenge of thwarting circumstances to perverse men, is blind to the teachings of all history.” — This remark was made to me by Mr. N. D. Healey, an Australian of the fifth generation, who is engaged in pioneering a new Australian primary industry, deep-sea fishing, which could have as great a value for Australia as the wool industry, and could, if nationally developed, maintain a sea-coast and fishing-port population as great as that of Norway or Scotland.

It has become evident that there are “thwarting circumstances” to prevent such an industrial development in Australia, not less obnoxious than those which thwart cultural development here. “Perverse men” will be required to combat these thwarts, in business and politics as well as in the admittedly less sordid fields of “culture.”

We may yet have need for our Australian George Washingtons, De Valeras, Gandhis, or similar perverse men, to provide Australia with that modicum of “history,” which, according to imported English professors, has hitherto been so lacking. If Australian businessmen are being thwarted by overseas economic control of the Commonwealth, they will no doubt be driven to organise a “political” resistance which would be more spectacular than the merely “cultural” resistance hypothecated at the beginning of this Essay.

But it is difficult, or almost impossible, to differentiate a nation’s “culture” from the economic basis of life in that nation.

I began this Essay, naively enough, with a desire to find a non-political, non-economic, basis for the development of culture, or more specifically for the development of literature, in Australia. I thought that such a basis could be found in the Spirit of the Place, in the physiography of Australia, this unique and lovely land, which the imported English Professor described as “thin.” To the insularity of his small Island in the North Sea, I would have opposed the Insularity of our large Island in the South Seas: an Island so large that it could easily accommodate all the people in his island, if they cared to come here, bringing with them their castles and traditions, bag and baggage, and the whole boiling — except their slums.

Australia is so much the vaster, the sunnier, the healthier, and the more beautiful and diversified of the two Islands under comparison, that I felt this very fact must provide Australian literature with a spaciousness, clarity, health, beauty and variety greater than that of purely insular “English” literature.

Ultimately, it will be found that this is so, but the physiographic factors work slowly, and are only slowly defined in their effects upon a people. Ultimately the Australian race will be quite different from the “English” race, and hence Australian literature will be quite different from the merely English literature, of England.

Because we Australians intuitively know this, we will not endure, to any gross extent, a “patronising” attitude from visiting Englishmen here, not even from Professors. Our destiny is to become a great nation, and we know it; greater than local England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales, or the four of them combined — because we shall be more spacious.

The argument from physical geography, however, is too poetical, too indefinite, to provide in itself a basis for the development of Australian literature to-day. Our “foundations” must be concrete, and firm-based in immediate realities, as well as in ultimate possibilities. It is for this reason that I approach, somewhat reluctantly, the conclusion that Australia’s present literary dependence upon England is no more than a result of Australia’s economic subordination to the “Mother” country. If our literature is to become autonomous and emancipated from English domination, such an enfranchisement must be accompanied by some form of political action to free Australia from English (or other international) control of the economic system of the Commonwealth.

There we are into politics, alas, and likely to stir up all the nasty technique, the mud-slinging, the prejudices, the heated and foolish propaganda of political debate: in the course of which the real purpose of the discussion, namely the maturing of mind in Australia, is likely to be forgotten.

But nevertheless it seems to me that, while Australia remains in the British Empire, and while the British Empire is controlled from London, and while Australia accepts mentally or politically a subordinate or subsidiary status within that empire, it will be quite impossible for Australians to develop a culture here with distinct national features.

Do the advantages of remaining within the Empire, namely, a market for our goods and naval protection, outweigh the disadvantages of our being culturally “colonial” and intellectually minor forever? That is the question, or the unbearable dilemma, which confronts honest-thinking Australians who, with a genuine love and loyalty for England in their hearts, may find another love and loyalty, for their own country, insistently emerging.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 139-142

Editor’s notes:
afin de mieux sauter = (French) to better jump

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