Section 51 [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.]

§ 51

Wardens of the future

Our Australian mode, let me here repeat, is democratic and egalitarian. We can never expect to establish a national culture on “Aristocratic” or “exclusive” principles. We must be robust, fecund, original — be ourselves, with the defects of our qualities as well as the merits. As an adolescent nation, we have excelled at the crude arts of sport and war. As a nation of athletes and soldiers, however, we could win but a temporary renown. There is nothing so completely dead and forgotten as a dead athlete or a dead soldier. But a dead poet, paradoxically, “lives” in memory and esteem. Henry Lawson’s name will be respected and familiar when the name of every Australian soldier of 1914-18 and of every cricketer, from Trumper to Bradman, has been forgotten. Soldiers and athletes are heroes of a day, heroes of newspaper editors — those excitable men whose literary endeavours, twenty-four hours after appearing in print, can serve no useful purpose except for wrapping up sausages or lighting fires. These newspaper editors, who glorify sport and war as “sensations,” to whom normality is not “news,” for whom, in brief, bad news such as murders, calamities, robberies, rapes, arson, and disaster becomes, by a strange inversion, “good” news — who complain when they have not a decent murder to splash — these editors, too, when they die, become as dead as yesterday, and vanish without trace in the history of a nation. The question is raised here because it is the newspaper editors who, in modern democracies, assume, at least in their own conceit and certainly making a large noise about it, the rôle of arbiters of taste which in former days was unquestionably held by the noblesse.

The newspaper editor, in the modern world, is in a position to bestow patronage upon the creative writer: and seldom or never does so. This is because the newspaper editor, by virtue of his profession, has no sense of to-morrow, but only a sense of to-day. In aristocratic communities the Wardenship of To-morrow was in the hands of people whose property was entailed (to prevent them from wasting it) and whose titles were perpetual through the generations from father to son. Such families, developing a sense of perpetuity and futurity, developed also an appreciation of the permanent values which the creative artist embodies in his work. But in modern democracies, in an age when Aristocracy has finally disappeared from the earth or has become so attenuated as no longer to count, who are the Wardens of the Future? Newspaper editors with their vision of twenty-four hours, politicians with their vision of Next Election only three years or less ahead, businessmen with their vision of the next annual Balance Sheet? None of these persons, it seems to me, will be likely to patronise the national culture, as it slowly matures and takes its shape.

We are called upon, in Australia today, to show that Democracy can, in fact, devise a method and technique of patronising culture: if it cannot do this, Democracy will not survive; for any system is as ephemeral as the thoughts of its best thinkers. Beginning as the pioneers of a new continent, Australians have developed a technique of inventiveness, of individual initiative, which might now well be applied to this problem of saving Australia’s best writers, thinkers, and artists, from starvation, humiliation, and the despair which drives them into silence or exile. A nation which can afford ten million pounds to build a steel arch, and a like sum each year for tourist travel to gape at Europe, should have been able to afford the modest pittance which would have kept Henry Lawson from beggary or from humiliation by penny-a-line editors. This nation should have been able to afford to keep C. J. Brennan in comfort, and to print an edition of his majestic works. Under the reproach of having starved Lawson and Brennan, and of having ignored Louis Stone (and a dozen others whom I could name, men and women of genius, whose needs are none the less acute merely because they are contemporaneous) — under this reproach of the monstrous neglect of indigenous culture and genius, Australians who care for the good name of their country can only hang their heads in shame. I know them, these Australian men and women of genius, walking dejectedly past the Stock Exchange in Pitt Street, Sydney, sometimes in dire need, and almost always dispirited, but with thoughts in their heads which are the stuff from which our national fabric is to be spun. Let one of our Bunyip “Knights” endow a National Book Publishing House, even if only to the extent of the cost of a Packard car, and it would be possible to put into print works of literary genius, already in existence in manuscript, which would make the Australian chest swell with a pardonable pride. The very idea of a Bunyip Knight endowing literature is of course too absurd, but, by considering it as a remote possibility, we may realise just what Australia most lacks: a sense of the ultimate social responsibility in those who wield the power, whether of money, of politics, or of prestige.

One could forgive Sydney’s businessmen for their notoriously low standard of “business” ethics, for their scarcely-concealed ramps and racketeerings, plunders and piracies, if in the sequel, after they had accumulated riches, they could learn to behave like gentlemen, or even learn one-tenth of the behaviour of “gentlemen” in the manner of advancing national causes, acting unselfishly and patriotically, propitiating their consciences as the grave approaches.

But that a whole generation should be entirely banal, entirely devoted to Commerce as though Commerce were of ultimate significance — this is too much! This kind of thing digs its own grave, and cannot even preserve its privileges for its sons. This kind of thing is doomed, and has doomed itself.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 176-179

Editor’s notes:
ephemeral = short-lived, something that lasts for a short time

fecund = fruitful; producing or able to produce many offspring (can also refer to producing an abundance of fruit, vegetation, etc., such as regarding farmland; as well as to people who are very creative or productive culturally or intellectually)

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