Section 6 [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.]

§ 6

Imported literature

There are two elements in every nation’s culture — the imported and the indigenous. English literature, for instance, developed through centuries of contact with Latin and Greek, and with directly contemporaneous imported French and Italian and other “foreign” literatures. The effect upon Shakespeare of Plutarch’s Lives and of Petrarch’s sonnets is a sufficient reminder of the effect of imported culture on an Englishman. English literature, indeed, has been constantly enriched and replenished by European mainland contacts. For centuries in England it was the fashion to speak French at the court, to regard France as being the only “cultured” nation, and to be apologetic for local English uncouthness. Milton was a Latin clerk. Shelley and Byron went abroad naturally, as Norman Douglas and D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley go abroad in our own time, to be out of the wet and stifling, local and insular, atmosphere of England. Without foreign stimulus, English literature might well have remained on the level of Wycliffe or perhaps Bunyan. Who can estimate the tremendous influence upon English literature of Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais, or of Burton’s Arabian Nights?

The impact of foreign cultures upon a native culture is the greatest possible stimulus to literature. Think of the influence of that foreigner, Freud, upon English writers of to-day; or the influence of those foreigners, Ibsen and Nietzsche, upon the English writers of two or three decades ago! Think also of the tremendous impact upon English literature of the Hebrew Bible, which originated in the arid valleys of Palestine. Survey the whole field of English literature, survey the English language itself, and you will find it overwhelmingly rich in elements of foreign and imported cultures.

With such an example before us of the English plant fertilised by phosphates from all countries, we Australians can prepare to plant our own culture here. The imported phosphates will stimulate our native plant to grow; we cannot do without them; but it is the plant rather than the phosphates which concerns us most. The Professor of English who states that “literary culture is not indigenous, but is from a European source,” is a vendor of phosphates so lost in enthusiasm for his wares that he forgets the only real purpose of them here, which is to make our Australian plant grow.

Discarding a metaphor which might become misleading, I state plainly that English culture, imported here, is valueless to us as a mere exhibit. We admire the English, we love them frequently, we never fail to respect them, we are astonished by the spectacle of their culture, and by their castles, churches and ruins. We stand and gape in admiration. But there it does not end. Unless we can use imported English culture here as one element (concede it to be the most important element!) in building up our own indigenous culture, it is a meaningless spectacle to us.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 23-25

Speak Your Mind