Section 50 [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.]

§ 50

Noblesse oblige

Aristocracy, throughout a hundred centuries or more of organised human endeavour, and for twenty centuries or so in Europe, has patronised the fine arts. The People, the “Lower Orders,” have not patronised the fine arts: and still less have the merchants, the middle-class, the moneylenders, the beastly bourgeois, done anything in this way to nurture the soul of man. The people, the plebs, hoi polloi, have been, down the centuries, too greatly preoccupied with making a bare living, at subsistence level, to be concerned with “the trimmings” of life: cultural achievement, the cultivation of the flowers of the mind. And the beastly bourgeois have, down the centuries, been too greatly preoccupied with money-grubbing, or with “making money” (to use a term common to counterfeiters and businessmen) — too greatly preoccupied with robbing the poor and crawling to the rich, with “rising” in the social scale from petty to grand bourgeois estate, from lower to upper “middle”-class rank, with self-help, with getting on in the world — the businessmen, in other words, have been too busy to bother about such an obviously “useless” thing as culture.

England, Japan, and Abyssinia are probably the last remaining countries in the world in which the forms of feudal aristocracy still linger: but in England the reality of feudal absolutism has had its wings clipped by Magna Charta, by the Puritan Revolution, by the Reform Bill, by Mr. Gladstone, by Death Duties, and above all by the merchants and moneylenders of the City of London; until to-day in England an Authentic Old High Tory, with escutcheon unsullied at any point by money-scrabbling, would be as rare as the dodo.

The English Aristocracy, in fact, has been taxed out of existence, corrupted by seats on Boards of Directors, socially weakened by intermarriages with heirs and heiresses of self-made men, or parodied by the elevation to the peerage of profiteers, politicians’ pets, and similar canaille, until to-day the English Aristocracy, while preserving the form, can no longer preserve the reality of its status. The age of social grandeur passed away indeed in England, and without heads falling in baskets or the rattle of tumbrils, when it became possible for self-made men to buy peerages by contributions to party funds — and when the commonest of commoners, men such as the late Sir Alfred Mond, maker of poison-gas, could enter the precincts of the House of Lords as a peer of the realm: when Philip Snowden, bitter-lipped “socialist,” becomes a “Lord” in the company of “Lord” Beaverbrook and “Lord” Rothermere and a hundred other such “Lords” who are, by birth and breeding, precisely as “aristocratic” as a Barbary baboon.

The concept of aristocratic patronage of culture, the idea that the possession of wealth carries with it duties and responsibilities as well as privileges, is becoming no less extinct in England than it has become, by a different technique, in France and Russia. One speaks of aristocracy in the past tense in all countries of the world to-day — except in Australia, which never had an aristocracy.

Australia never had an aristocracy, and so never had a tradition of the patronage, by its social leaders, of the realities of culture. We had a Squattocracy, which for a time, like the Virginians of America, dispensed a large hospitality and attempted an exclusiveness based on the possession of broad acres. But the Australian Squattocracy is already extinct. Australian sheep-stations, no less than English country estates, have become Limited Companies. Wentworth’s proposal to establish a Colonial Peerage was laughed into oblivion.

In Australia the beastly bourgeois cannot disguise himself by changing his name and becoming a Peer, as the English bourgeois so frequently disguise themselves. The Australian businessman is none the less beastly and none the less bourgeois for having devoted all his life to the “business” of raising sheep. The emasculation even of a million lambs does not ennoble him. Neither does the title of “Honourable” (which may be acquired by wangling a seat in one of our farcical State “Upper” Houses) mean any increase of dignity: for such a title he will share with bookmakers, publicans, and Trades Hall secretaries: and he will take second place to the bookmaker-publican in any secret ballot in which votes can be bought.

How, then, may the Australian businessman disguise himself, or ennoble himself — cloak himself in an illusion or an appearance of grandeur, send on his name or his fame to posterity, dodge the grave, propitiate the gods for his sins against his fellow-men in a thousand dirty deals — become something other than he is? If a millionaire, or sub-millionaire, buys a dozen houses, a dozen Packards, a dozen mistresses, six yachts, a hundred suits of clothes — he can use only one of these things at a time, like any member of the common herd. The bourgeois slowly learns, as the aristocrat learned a thousand years ago, that money in itself is not an end; and that not even the power which money brings, the realisation of the poor boy’s dream of wealth, can purchase the ultimate satisfaction.

Our new bourgeoisie in Australia, which has been in the possession of wealth seldom for more than one generation or two, still has to learn what older nobilities had ingrained into their consciousness: the principle of noblesse oblige. Our Australian social leaders, commercial leaders, still have to learn that the possession of wealth carries with it the obligation to perform duties as well as the right to enjoy privileges.

New and crude, raw and culturally dreadful, our self-made Australians cannot begin to earn public respect until they learn (what Rockefeller and Carnegie ultimately learned) — that the expenditure of money in the endowment of national culture is a surer title to fame and a species of immortality than there mere purchase of a Knighthood, the presentation of a daughter (or ten daughters) at Court, or the laying up of treasures on the Stock Exchange, where moth and rust most definitely do corrupt.

All that our Australian very nouveaux-riches have learned to do with their money, “culturally,” has been to “travel” — i.e. to take periodical tourist trips, with or without wives and daughters, to England, to gape at the culture which there abounds: and then to return to Australia, deflated. The hordes and droves of colonial tourists to London has become a mighty joke, even if a profitable one, to the English. King Edward VIII, when Prince of Wales, in a public speech recently declared that the “Tourist Trade” to England, during the Jubilee Celebrations of 1935, increased British revenue by Twenty-five Million Pounds! The Tourist Industry, on these figures, he pointed out, was the third-largest British industry. A very considerable proportion of that twenty-five million pounds came from Australian tourists — and is the net result of that expenditure any raising of the cultural standards of Australians in general? Has travel broadened the mind of our Australian tourists? On the contrary. Our tourists come back home “like a defeated team.” They went, they saw, they were conquered.

“Travel,” in the very narrow sense in which it is given a meaning by our Australian steamship voyages to England, undoubtedly narrows the mind. “Travel” cannot possibly enlarge a narrow mind — reading, thinking, and intelligent conversation can alone do that. One evening spent reading Balzac will tell a person more about the real Paris than a week’s gaping from a charabanc.

The Americans, by the method of trial and error, have discovered this simple fact which Australians have yet to learn. After the war the American hegira to Paris and London reached enormous proportions; until the Americans themselves decided that Europe, merely gaped at, had little to teach them. Nowadays, Europeans are beginning to realise that America, by means of the cinema, can teach the “old countries” a great deal. Australians who go to Europe in order to see, amongst other sights, Frenchmen micturating in public, Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, may imagine that they are culturally enhanced thereby, but they deceive themselves.

The correct Australian attitude to European travel was portrayed by Randolph Bedford in his book Explorations in Civilisation. The correct Australian attitude to Australian travel was portrayed by E. J. Brady in his book describing a buggy-ride from Sydney to Townsville, The King’s Caravan. These two remarkable books are of the authentic stream of Australian literature, written by men, now veterans (whom I salute) — under the inspiration of that incipient Australianism of forty years ago which (let us swear it!) is now due for a revival.

To read Bedford and Brady will do more to broaden the mind than all the silly tourist travel aspired to by virgins who have saved up £300, or by scions of the Australian ignobility who escape, at intervals, from this Commonwealth, in an attempt to escape, temporarily, from themselves and from what they themselves have created.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 170-175

Speak Your Mind