Culture in Australia [11 April 1936]

[Editor: This review of The Foundations of Culture in Australia (by P. R. Stephensen) was published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 1936.]

Culture in Australia.

In the Australian view of Australia in her relationship to the rest of the world, and to Great Britain in particular, there are two extreme poles of thought. Some see their country, either sincerely or from mean motives, through the small end of the telescope; appearing pleased, it sometimes seems, to think that it is and must remain for a long while to come a cultural dependency of the Old World in general and a political dependency of Britain in particular. To these the more eager kind of Australianism is something to be deprecated.

This view irritates Mr. P. R. Stephensen, who takes the opposite one with its faith in Australia’s rapid rise to national maturity. He is vigorous in championing his cause, and in the book he has written he gives irritation for irritation in equal measure, for he is, without pretence to the contrary, just the kind of Australian whose utterances the other kindly hasten to deplore. His book is sub-titled, “An essay toward national self-respect.” It is a development of the thesis commenced in the pages of the short-lived and in many quarters much-mourned “Australian Mercury.”

In his search for a basis for national self-respect he raises more points than can be dealt with here in detail, but, broadly speaking, he enters at the door of a hypothecated cultural independence and emerges, as a result of his own logic, at the door of political autonomy and complete national self-dependence. In other words, he makes the discovery that aesthetic culture is not the whole of culture, nor is it — emphatically not — a more decorative excrescence but that its roots feed in the earth and life of the country to which it belongs, and that its condition, flourishing or otherwise, is symptomatic of the cultural health of the entire nation, taking the word cultural in all its social, commercial, industrial, and political applications.

He finds that manhood comes to a youth not on his twenty-first birthday but on the occasion when he makes himself responsible for the maintenance of his own establishment, and that maturity, and with it the assumption of its full cultural possibilities, comes to a nation when it takes over, or has thrust upon it, responsibility for its own defence. In his eagerness for a sense of full nationhood he would welcome a European situation that many anxiously pray may never occur, or, for Australia’s sake, be long delayed.

There are few aspects of Australian life that are not glanced at by Mr. Stephensen with insight; and while it is often impossible to go with him the whole distance he is rarely without that modicum of truth that ensures attention. His style is diverting and effective, and he often displays a pretty turn of wit, as when he heads a chapter on Mr. Norman Lindsay’s impingement on the Australian consciousness: “The ‘Norman’ Conquest.” (“The Foundations of Culture in Australia,” by P. R. Stephensen; W. J. Miles.)

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 11 April 1936, p. 8

[Editor: Changed “excresence” to “excrescence”.]

[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]

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