Section 7 [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.]

§ 7

No place like home

The culture of a country is the essence of nationality, the permanent element in a nation. A nation is nothing but an extension of the individuals comprising it, generation after generation of them. When I am proud of my nationality, I am proud of myself. My personal shortcomings, of which I am only too painfully aware, are eliminated to some extent by my nationality, in which I may justly take pride — such is the reason for nations and nationalities, and also for tribes, mobs, and herds. In numbers there is a strength and permanence not found in individuals.

The nation as an extension of the ego, as a permanent idea which lives when the individual dies, is essential to an individual’s well-being. One’s nationality is something to boast of.

This does not mean, or should not mean, sabre-rattling, challenges to fight other nations to prove superiority, except in the case of Huns like Hitler, who are intrinsically lacking in culture, mentally equipped like a school bully. It is possible to be proud of one’s nationality without wishing to prove it by slaughter. In what, at present, can an Australian take pride? In our cricketers, merino sheep, soldiers, vast open spaces — and what then?

Until we have a culture, a quiet strength of intellectual achievement, we have really nothing except our soldiers to be proud of!

We cannot be proud of John Galsworthy, we have no right to be proud of him. He is English, they are proud of him. Galsworthy does not belong to us Australians, except in a way by proxy, an unsatisfying way; our chests cannot swell by proxy. We can no more be nationally proud of Galsworthy than we can be proud of Yeats and Synge. These British Islanders are fascinating exhibits to us, but they are foreigners, as foreign as Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. They are from overseas. The British Empire is much too large and scattered to have a Place Spirit, a unified culture. We Australians can only be proud of Gandhi and Synge (both British subjects) in a very general way, not in a personal or national way, as we might be proud of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, fond of them, with all their faults, which are our own.

I am not going to say at this stage that Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson are greater men than Gandhi and Synge and Galsworthy. It is not necessary here to make an absolute comparison of quality. I merely affirm that Paterson and Lawson are of geographic necessity more real to us Australians than Gandhi and Galsworthy and Synge; and I will concede that Gandhi is more real to Indians, Galsworthy to Englishmen, and Synge to Irishmen than any of them can ever become to Australians.

Every creative thinker contributes first to the culture of his own people, and secondly to the culture of the world. A writer or an artist needs the stimulus and the encouragement of his own people; without it he often becomes timorous or soured. Writers and artists and thinkers, no less than cricketers, need applause to be at their best. In a foreign country a writer must be imitative, cannot be his natural self, at ease, as he could be at home, amongst his own people. Thus culture arises nationally, and can arise in no other way.

This question of the localised development of cultures throughout the world is, for a civilised person, of a much greater importance than the domination of all the world by one part of it, which is the credo of imperialism.

Imperialism is international. This fact gives rise to paradoxes — as for example that an Australian loyalist, one who puts Australia’s development first in his thoughts, might find himself termed disloyal to the larger entity in which Australia is assumed to hold a place of secondary importance.

An Australian, under the system of imperialism, is expected to swallow the Englishman’s view of the Empire — i.e., that England (or its euphemism, Britain) is, and must remain for all time, paramount under the imperial system; and that it is disloyal, seditious, or possibly even irreverent to suggest that there could be any actual growth to adult national status of the Empire’s component local parts.

Such a frame of mind, while it does great credit to the political sagacity of those who, in “Britain’s” interests, foster it, is not conducive to the intellectual maturing of life in our Australian Commonwealth, which is my sole concern in this Essay. A thorny argument, we must nevertheless grasp it, or give up all pretensions to the development of a culture here. The subject is one which should be discussed without heat, hate, or bitterness; but it may not be discussed without candour.

I seek here, and tentatively, to hypothecate the foundations of a mature national culture in our continent, knowing full well that none except Australians could be vitally interested in such a topic. I cannot accept the carefully-fostered legend that Australians are of the naturally uncouth, “rough Digger,” “Dad-and-Dave” or “Bloke” type. That is the “colonial” legend; and Australia is no longer merely a colony.

Our contribution to the world’s thought is the definition of ourselves: in literature, art, and all the civilised achievements. If we cannot define ourselves, culturally, our existence is of no more significance to the world than was that of the Marquesas islanders, lotus-eaters who have now become bastardised, christianised, and Europeanised almost out of existence.

A nation’s cultural self-definition provides it not only with an individuality, but also with a title to survive. Imperialist internationalism has a tendency to pour all nations into one mould: to make culture uniform and monotonous throughout the world.

To resist any such monotonising of culture here is the plain duty of an Australian patriot who considers that there is no place like home — and means Australia when he says that. If the advocacy of Australian patriotism is to be considered “disloyal” by some and “chauvinistic” by others, such epithets, it may be presumed, cancel one another.

As the Australian soldiers learned to say during the last European war, Ca ne fait rien. We have a job to do here: nation-building.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 25-28

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