[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]
Isolated From Europe
This act of cultural self-definition, in Australia at the present time, may mean a great deal more than emancipation from the Dictatorship of the Smug, important though such an emancipation would be. It may mean more than a restoration of our national vim of the ’nineties, which has apparently been undermined by the bewilderments of the ensuing machine-and-war epoch. It may do more than prevent us from becoming mere automata of the Machine Age and puppets of Elsewhere; though all these enfranchisements are necessary.
The significance, to all thinking people, of a movement for real cultural autonomy in Australia at the present time resides in the fact that such an autonomy may yet be able to save a relic of civilisation in Australia, should civilisation happen to go smash in Europe’s apparently inevitable “next war.”
If Europe is determined to go smash in an unprecedentedly insane machine-and-poison war, if all Europe is to become a charnel-house and devastated Waste Land and No Man’s Land — what then? Might Australia not just happen to escape the holocaust, might Australia in that event not even become the sole repository of what were once European culture, ideals of decency, and civilisation? Might not this torch also be handed to us before the end of the twentieth century, as well as the torch of European physique?
We should hope for the best, but, quite realistically, prepare for the worst to happen in Europe. We must be prepared to accept the status and responsibilities which our brief but significant history has thrust upon us — of being the only whiteman’s continent, the only isolated continent; and incidentally the only continent peopled entirely in the modern age, unhampered and undivided by old local and traditional feuds, differences, languages, and hates.
There is storm to-day over Asia, over Africa, over Europe, and over America. Yes, even America may not escape the smash; for civil war, race war, class war, mutters there as angrily and constantly as imperialist war mutters in Europe. It will take centuries for America to become homogeneous by fusion of her racial hotch-potch in her vast crucible of miscegenation. America is not a nation, but consists of many nations, as does Europe; and with added Negro, Asiatic, and Red Aboriginal elements, which Europe lacks. America can never become a guardian of white culture in any pure sense of that term. America is heterogeneous, in ideas and culture as well as in race; and must remain so for at least another two or three centuries.
In Australia we have suffered, as some people think, from geographic isolation and distance from Europe. But, judging from the way things are now shaping in Europe, our isolation and distance therefrom may not ultimately be such a disadvantage. That isolation and distance, it may be, will save Australia from participating in the probable sudden international death-smash which so many prophets so persistently foresee as Europe’s destiny.
Our first concern, as Australians, is to consider what may happen in Australia whether or not things go smash elsewhere. It is not impossible that, before the end of this century, we Australians may be called upon to accept a responsibility for which at present we are unprepared — a responsibility actually as principal guardians of white civilisation, of white culture, of white traditions upon this earth!
Events outside Australia and quite beyond our control may thrust this prodigious national responsibility upon us.
If, in prognosticating thus, I am seemingly a merchant of scares, if white civilisation is beyond doubt quite safe for all time to come in Europe and America; and if there is in fact no barbarian menace to either of those culture-systems to-day, then the suggestion, if less urgent, is still worth considering. I suggest here the national necessity of planting autonomous culture in the Commonwealth as firmly as it has been planted in Europe, so that it can grow upon this soil, if need be without further help from Europe.
As far as Europe is concerned, Australians can continue to hope for the best; and be prepared for the worst. Whatever is going to happen in Europe, during the next ten, fifty, or hundred years, it is time now — this year — for Australia to carry forward the process of becoming culturally weaned from Europe. It is time now for Young Australia to become Adult, to accept the responsibilities and duties of being Adult, of being civilised; of becoming a fully-cultured nation — self-supporting, if need be, in matters of culture.
And, let me here repeat, the first essential in such a process is that, as a nation, we should become actively conscious of our own history, literature, and traditions, in order to develop an adequate sense of our own destiny and national character.
P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 88-91
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