Paradise After the Fall: In Search of Contemporary Australia
Delivered by :
Dame Leonie Kramer, Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1982-1983 and Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University 1968-
In 1885 James Anthony Froude visited Australia. In February he arrived in Sydney - not the best month to be there - and on his first day looked over the Botanical Gardens to the harbour at twilight. It was, he wrote ‘As a mere picture the loveliest I had ever seen’, the better for being ‘in a land which our fathers had won for us’. But when he returned to his club after dark it was to discover, as many had done before him and have done since, that he ‘was not yet in Paradise’. For, in spite of his mosquito net he was bitten by the venomous Sydney mosquitoes ‘as a young author is bitten by the critics on his first appearance in print’. It was, he reflected, ‘Paradise after the Fall’. 1
Paradise has haunted our expectations from the beginning, as it haunted the imaginations of dreamers even before the Great South Land was discovered. Since then images of Paradise, the millennium, Arcadia and Utopia have recurred in our hopes as well as our dreams. In the mid-l9th century we were ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ for Henry Kingsley’s hero Geoffry Hamlyn; and ‘Australia Felix’ to Major Mitchell. In the late 19th century Utopian idealism was in fashion. But it was Utopian idealism, ironically enough, that drove William Lane and Mary Gilmore out of the ‘working-man’s Paradise’2 on the eve of nationhood, to found the perfect colony in Paraguay. At exactly the same time Christopher Brennan, Professor of French and German, was wrestling with an ambitious livre composé whose central subject is man’s loss of Eden, and the starvation of the ‘Paradisal instinct’. By then we had celebrated our centenary and were entering a period of nationalistic fervour.
The Bicentenary really began in 1978, with the bipartisan decision to build a new Parliament House, to be completed this year. At that time it was assumed that the bicentennial year would be a celebration of Australian achievement; and although there were uncertainties as to what, precisely, should be done about our birthday, and familiar questions about who we are and how we are to be defined as a nation, I doubt whether anyone anticipated until some two years ago that the Bicentenary would become the focus for controversial issues. What we have seen is the displacement of the idea of pre-lapsarian Paradise by the idea of original sin. Doubts have been expressed about the validity of settlement, and there have been noisy attempts to whip up communal guilt about the past, by representing the convict system and the treatment of aborigines as wholly reprehensible. The evil that men do has swamped the good that they have done, and even their honourable intentions are dismissed as hypocritical posturing.
Much of the evidence for what I have just said has already been before you in newspaper articles and television documentaries - or, more accurately, docufiction. The disinformation campaign has been intense, and in essence has been an attack on the British connection. Rumblings of anti-British sentiment have become, in this year, a derisive chorus, drawing on all the clichés and stereotypes relating to accent, dress, and colonial tyranny. Some of the phrases used in this campaign are self-destructive in their sensationalism. Australia has been described as ‘the Uriah Heep of nations’; its white settlement as ‘armed invasion’; its history as ‘generations of dispossession and debauchment, of alienation and exploitation.’ The word ‘foreigners’ is a term of abuse, especially of the British. In response to such exaggerations one of our historians commented ‘What we seemed to have produced was a divided society on the brink of violence, founded on injustice.’3
Much of what has been said is immature, and either ignorant or deliberately misleading. I didn’t think it necessary to view all Pilger’s programmes in order to draw the obvious conclusions - that here is a self-satisfied but miserable (and remarkably amateurish) commentator, attributing to his view and his experience quite special significance, thereby elevating subjectivity to the status of history. Inability to come to terms with history - one’s own or the nation’s - is a sure sign of immaturity. This contemporary phenomenon suggests to me that we were unlucky not to have had to fight a war of independence. Nothing is more irritating to a rebellious child
than a wise and liberal parent who provides no pressing reasons for leaving home - a parent, who, in fact, in 1888, was urging independence upon us. On 26 January 1888 a cartoon appeared in Melbourne Punch headed ‘You’re Getting a Big Girl Now’. Australia is represented as a young woman with several dolls, one labelled Obstruction, one Jingoism, and one Extravagance and Jealousy, the latter tussling with jester’s robes labelled Parliamentary Clowning. Britannia’s advice to her daughter reads: ‘Enjoy your centennial birthday, my dear, but put away those dolls now and in future behave like one who has arrived at years of discretion.’
What is at issue in the fulminations of the critics of the Bicentenary is not history but the past. Whether they know it or not, their impressionistic falsifications of the past, are a post-modernist rejection of historical meaning. In its place they favour their personal recollections which supposedly have special validity. As a whole their views, though loudly proclaimed, are, as has frequently been shown, most spectacularly on January 26, 1988, not those of the Australian community.
What follows is a personal view of history, not a personal view of the past. It is, therefore, subject to verification or denial. I look at modern Australia from a cultural perspective, and offer some thoughts on how, since 1945, our writers and artists have perceived and interpreted our passage through modernity into contemporaneity. I hope that these thoughts will help to account for the 1980s.
As soon as the Second World War ended, many young talents announced new directions in the arts. It was almost as though the war itself had forced a break with ‘old ways’,4 and a reappraisal of much that had been taken for granted. This was a time of mapping and mythologising. In the 1940s Sidney Nolan began to create our heroes in the Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills series. In the 1950s Patrick White translated into fiction the principal experiences of the 19th century, and transformed them. In The Tree of Man he brought a poet’s vision to a small settler’s pioneering of the land; and in Voss the theme of exploration takes on a new meaning in his account of the hazardous spiritual journey from Ludwig von Leichhardt’s reality to Voss’s megalomaniac dream. Voss and other works shifted attention from the fertile and well populated coastal strip to the arid interior. The poet Douglas Stewart celebrated the forgotten heroes of untameable land in The Birdsville Track, and Russell Drysdale and Nolan in their different ways fortified the imagery of the interior, by both mapping and mythologising man’s struggle for survival in a masterful land. Most artists were engaged on what James McAuley called ‘the struggle for an adequate symbolism.5
It’s curious that for some commentators the Menzies period has come to be seen as a time of intellectual sterility in an Australia complacently content with its dependent status as an outpost of Britain, and with its suburban middle-class values. The artistic record does not support this view. So far from being a sterile period, it was a time of artistic abundance; and even Australian suburban life, which so alarms some critics, had and still has its own critic in Barry Humphries. Nor were we unaware of the Cold War world outside. In his first Quadrant editorial in 1956 James McAuley set down a catalogue of global dangers - cultural nationalism, the fragmentation of the free world, the threat of communist domination and nuclear warfare, and the erosion of family life. In spite of it all he exclaimed: ... ‘what a moment it is to be alive in’. And so it was. Relatively few Australians shared McAuley’s awareness of the dangers he described; fewer still entertained the idea that these remote problems could travel as far as Australia. As the sixties approached there was a comfortable feeling of insulation from the world. We settled back into peace and prosperity the in lucky country - and continued to build on the achievements of the fifties.
Although the mapping and mythologising were by no means complete, in the sixties writers and artists turned their attention to reflection, without, however, losing the sense of vitality and purpose that had marked the post-war years so far. Much of that reflection was about the past, and some took the form of the recovery of history. Discovery of the discoverers became a prominent theme, especially for poets. It’s significant that in 1960 Douglas Stewart published an anthology of poems of the forties and fifties, all of which speculate on the character and purposes of adventurers. His introduction refers to a time in the history of nations which ‘demands that the poets should sing the nation itself into shape.’ ‘What does Australian history mean?’ now seems to be the question. The interest is not in defining national identity, but in clarifying our origins. One could even argue that the brevity of our history and the absence of a founding myth of the kind which continues to provide a reference point for Americans, made us feel the need to retrieve what we could from recorded history and give it new life and substance through literature and painting.
In the sixties, too, reflections on personal history began to shape ideas about the character and quality of Australian experience. Voyages of discovery and journeys of exploration provided opportunities to celebrate achievement, to gauge its cost, and to probe the mysteries of heroism. Personal history, for many Australians who turned to it in the sixties, had strong rural associations. Martin Boyd’s Day of My Delight dwells, as do his novels, on images of a sensuous, innocent Australian childhood, bathed in perpetual sunlight.
Hal Porter’s Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony - his portrait of the writer as a young boy - is more wary and qualified. But then he began life in a Melbourne suburb, moved out to the country, and then back to the city in his ‘teens. His circumstances were quite unlike Boyd’s, and more than a decade separated them. But Porter, too, at times expresses his images of a rural childhood in terms of an Arcadian idyll. He celebrates both the abundance of nature and the happy marriage of the indigenous and the exotic. What is true of the home garden, with its English trees, flowers and fruits, alongside eucalyptus and wattles, are true also of his imagination. It has absorbed the folk lore, superstitions, history and literature of the ‘old world’ together with the legend of Anzac, and the habits and customs peculiar to the world in which he lives. Porter’s autobiographies are the richest source of the detail of Australian life from the end of the First World War to the early 1970s. At the height of his career he appears briefly on the world stage; but he returns gratefully from his journeys abroad to the enfolding pastoral images of the abundant landscape of the Victorian countryside.
Porter’s is a self-critical talent; and self-criticism was one of the strengths of the 1960s. We grew accustomed to writers castigating our short-comings, and even showed an interest in our reflected images. In 1967-68 self-criticism inspired by reading contemporary American and English poetry led some younger poets to attempt a poetic revolution which reflected, at least to some extent, the larger cultural revolution of the sixties in the United States. In a way there was something curiously old-fashioned about their arguments for experimental writing and free verse. It seemed like an attempt to revive the excitements of European modernism without the intellectual underpinning that had sustained the original movement. Many of the supposed arguments for a new poetry were in fact merely assertions against the old. This exemplifies a curious Australian habit of arguing as though finding one position unsatisfactory automatically guarantees the validity of a different position.
It was not true, as some young poets of the period thought, that until their discovery of Black Mountain and ‘beat’ poetry, and the work of Creely and others, Australian poetry had been parochial and inhibited by its preference for traditional modes. Perhaps they were not fully aware that their rebelliousness was simply an infection of the times - one small part of the large package of the sixties which included the promotion of ‘pop’ culture, street theatre, protest, demonstrations, hippies and all the other forms of rebellion against even the most benign authority. As James McAuley noted ‘the neo-anarchist dreamboat is not the only craft in contemporary waters.’6 These young poets saw themselves - as did many intellectuals, journalists and academics - as the cutting edge of the new. What they did not see were the likely effects of their imitative radicalism on the future, even though some of these effects were already evident abroad.
Looking back now, one can see the late sixties and seventies as a detour from the main road of Australian commonsense and self-assurance. Though the Labour Government of 1972-5 instituted a new nationalism, and talked about ‘buying back the farm’, it, like its successors, was an enthusiastic promoter of imported ideas, especially about education, where so-called progressive philosophies and a rejection of systematic learning in favour of ‘learning to be’ left parents bewildered and children undernourished.
In saying all this, I am conscious of how familiar these things are to you. Australia’s intellectual fashions lag some five to six years behind the rest of the world. What has always puzzled me, however, given our talent for invention and improvisation, is our uncritical susceptibility to foreign ideas, since they not infrequently come our way after being discredited or at least challenged in their own countries. When it comes to literature and painting, our originality consists in our transformation of inherited forms into distinctive, indigenous expressions. It’s not been so with ideas, or with their consequences. With the American sixties and Vietnam as cause for some and excuse for others, we acquired drugs and organised crime. Older Australians mourn the loss of innocence of their children and grandchildren. Martin Boyd’s golden summers, like those of the Heidelberg school of impressionist painters, now stir nostalgia for a lost world, where once they excited admiration for their accuracy. The seventies then turned out to be, in some respects, years of turbulence and disillusionment. Christopher Brennan would have marvelled at his prescience in detecting the loss of ‘the paradisal instinct’, which even in the 1890s he had connected with a Baudelairean vision of evil. As one commentator put it:
It is as if the archetypal Aussie values of yesteryear celebrated by Banjo Paterson, Mary Giliwre, C. J. Dennis, Menzies, Curtin and Chifley, have been thrust, along with Alice, into the world of the Looking Glass where everything once familiar seems reversed. 7
The change of government in 1972, and the campaign’s slogan “It’s time for a change” expressed a widespread sense of dissatisfaction with the end of the Menzies age. With hindsight, one can see that “It’s time” was an exact reflection of the irrational aspect of the sixties. Yet only some people seemed to wonder what we were changing from, and what we were changing to. Change itself seemed to promise certainty of direction, and only the most astute (none of whom disclosed their knowledge, so far as I can remember) noticed that the Labour Party’s platform was a rhetorical statement of fervent idealism, very short on detail. It was a time of drama and farce; and it’s for the cultural historians to decide the connection between the political realities of the late sixties and the middle seventies and the flowering of indigenous theatre. For the first time in our history drama became an equal partner with poetry and fiction.
It says something about the instincts and values of the Australian community that such a warm reception was accorded Malcolm Fraser’s announcement in 1975 that life wasn’t meant to be easy. I don’t for one moment believe that he anticipated such a welcome for his declaration of austerity. Perhaps unwittingly, he had tapped into a deep communal suspicion of flamboyance and extravagance. Among our historical values is admiration for fortitude, self-denial and frugality - epitomised in the figure of ‘the Aussie battler’. C.E.W. Bean noted our ability to make something out of nothing8 and considered that ‘our capacity to do anything’, inherited from the Anglo-Saxon people, was ‘the genius of the race’9. These are the virtues we have traditionally celebrated, whether exhibited in settling the land or defending the country. To many they seemed in the 1970s to have been betrayed by the careless generosity with public funds which characterised the mid-seventies. We had an uneasy sense that we had lost our way, and welcomed a promise of rescue from our home-made problems - a promise which, as it turned out, was not to be fulfilled. We were prepared for seven lean years, but not for the continuance of many of the ideological fashions of the seventies.
These have become the focus of debate in the eighties, and thus it comes about that while 1988 is a celebration for most of the community it has become a dissenter’s forum for some well-known people who have ready access to media publicity. They include two Cabinet ministers, one of whom announced in January, ‘It seems to me that we in Australia have a lot to be ashamed about in terms of our history and until we face up to the shame, we cannot satisfactorily celebrate the last 200 years’. It is really the nature of Australian society which is at issue, although certain aspects of this large subject have been selected for special attention - republicanism, immigration policy and multiculturalism, and aboriginal welfare. Other topics, such as union power and the protection of the environment have become hardy perennials. The first three topics have two things in common They cannot be debated without reference to the idea of Australia itself; and they are being debated without reference to our history, or with reference to an idea of our history which is either misinformed or deliberately misrepresented.
In the sixties there was an attempt to stir up a debate about republicanism, probably promoted by Menzies’ affirmations of loyalty to Britain and the Crown. But the case was poorly argued and made no impact. Back in the 1880s, on the eve of his departure for New Zealand, James Anthony Froude reflected on his experiences in the Australian colonies. Some of his ideas were too advanced for his time - and some may be too advanced even for ours. He was not convinced that the British party system was suited to the circumstances of self-governing colonies, and speculated that if we (and the Canadians) had been left to ourselves we ‘would have preferred a government on the model of the American’, with an elected president in whom ‘rests the supreme executive authority ‘. Froude would be interested to know that the possibility of a president with supreme executive authority is one of the principal arguments now put against republicanism by many of its opponents. As for its advocates - their case rests on the claim that under the monarchy we do not have independence. This view reflects both the strong anti-British sentiment fashionable in some circles, and an attempt to maintain the supposed outrage of the Prime Minister’s dismissal in 1975. Contemporary support for a republic continues to be argued with exceptional mediocrity and with no reference at all to the various kinds of republics available for us to choose from. This has not, however, been a prominent topic in Australia this year, though it has been promoted abroad.
There is a striking historical difference between Froude and contemporary commentators on immigration policy. Froude had no doubt at all that the purpose of immigration was to ‘save the British nationality’ and by so doing ‘bind the colonies stronger than the web which Maimuno spun round the arms of Thalaba.’ Now the questions are how many migrants, how quickly, of what kind and from where - with anxieties about the rate of Asian immigration and the dilution of British and Irish stock. Some American observers think that Australia is afraid of an increase in population, and there might be some truth in this. The immigration debate is sharpened by a growing distrust of multiculturalism, which is philosophically confused and in practice divisive. The word itself is suspect. Since there is no such thing as multiculture, multiculturalism is a manufactured abstraction. The reality is that Australia has always been multi-racial, and to some extent multilingual, and we have all benefited from the diversification of our community. But multiculturalism signals a new bureaucracy, which operates on the principle that it is necessary to provide benefits to migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds which go beyond their normal rights and entitlements as citizens, or, as it happens, even as non-citizens. It’s an expression of Australia’s passion for levelling, of its obsession with egalitarianism. In fact, multiculturalism has created powerful lobby groups, some of which reproduce in Australia the feuds - such as that between Greeks and Turks over Cyprus - which can cause them to lose sight of Australia’s interests while refighting old wars.
And so to the complicated and distressing question of the aboriginal peoples - for there is not, as some of the media would have it, an aboriginal problem. There is every kind of aborigine from those who live and work in the community alongside its many other races, to those who live on social welfare benefits in miserable, often squalid conditions, decimated by alcohol and by idleness. If one attempts to summarise the history of white/black relationships in Australia, of course one comes up with a fluctuating, complex interaction of fear and trust, hostility and friendship, indifference and neglect, and care and devotion. Now we have discovered that most unhelpful of emotions - guilt, to the extent that one commentator has referred to ‘the guilt industry’. If many Australians are disturbed and impatient at present it is because, as in discussions of the convict period, only the bad is remembered; and because in the last decade hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the name of contradictory policies, which avoid defining aboriginality. We have proved remarkably reluctant to face the facts, even though this is the only way to begin to solve the problems; and we are not helped by strident advice from visitors from abroad who don’t have the problems in their own countries, or who have different problems which they wrongly think to be comparable.
One overriding concern in the coming months will be the referendum on proposed changes to the Australian Constitution. The four questions to be put appear unexceptionable, but they conceal a political agenda which could have profound consequences. The Constitution itself is a severely practical document, and has never fired the imagination of Australians. But at present many Australians consider it to have been hijacked, by the application of the external affairs powers provision to internal problems. An excellent newspaper editorial appeared under the heading ‘Our Rights Buried in Foreign Treaties’10. Shortly afterwards, a further editorial headed ‘Give Us Back the Full Rights We Got in 1901’ discussed the referendum and elicited extensive support from the public.11 I take this to be an indication of the uneasiness many people feel about the implications of the changes.
So Australia at this moment is an ideological battleground, but the troops are not drawn up simply on party political lines. We have economic rationalists facing socialist planners, promoters of Australian initiative and enterprise confronting advocates of more government handouts; defenders of schooling in basic skills and transmission of the cultural heritage attacking low standards of achievement, soft options and politicized courses; realists expressing impatience with futurologists and romantic utopians. Though there’s nothing novel about these battle-lines, they have a distinctively Australian flavour. Australian conservatives, though they have their intellectual gurus, have been forced to translate classical arguments into local language, just as our writers and painters have acclimatised their European inheritance. They are spokesmen for what they call ‘middle Australia’ and they are influential in public debate. The socialists, however, still go by the book, and the book was not a particularly good one to start with. The Australian Utopian visionaries of the late 19th century were men and women of feeling rather than reason, the inheritors of a mixed bag of ideas born out of European history – ideas which found our cultural nature at the end of the nineteenth century. Writing in the 1950s James McAuley claimed that the ‘mental climate ... created by Progress, Enlightenment, and “modernity” is very unfavourable to poetry’; and he makes a cutting reference to ‘the bards of Federation, of Utopia, of Nationalism and Latterday Leftism.’ One of these is the poet Bernard O’Dowd, a spokesman for socialist, egalitarian nationalism. McAuley describes his work, quite justly, as the ‘cloaca maxima into which has flowed all the ideological drivel of the nineteenth century - deism, pantheism, nationalism, socialism, democratism, and the rest.’12
We haven’t yet shaken off that political inheritance, though some enlightened people recognise that it has had its day. A Labour minister referred in 1986 to the ‘exhaustion’ of the whole train of ideas deriving from Marxism and Leninism. Others without his courage would silently agree; but there is still no doubt of the Left’s political force in Australia today. Indeed one of the difficulties at present is that the Commonwealth Government, in order to protect its economic policy, is trading off social issues to the Left. Thus one cannot underestimate the importance of the recent strengthening of the Left in Victoria, though there is still reason to hope that the disabling vision of Heaven on earth is at last fading into reality. ‘Without contraries is no progression’ said William Blake. That these many issues are being vigorously debated in Australia today is both healthy and energising. It is certainly a moment to be alive in. One could wish that the commonsense of the Australian community were better represented by the vociferous minority of media voices, and that governments showed more political will. There continues to be an extraordinary contrast between articulate spokesmen for various intellectual fashions and community values. This has never been better illustrated than on 26 January 1988. While the guilt-laden prophets and critics were trying to spoil the party I spent most of the day in Sydney, together with the two million people who came into the city to celebrate. It was an unforgettable experience. All traffic was prohibited in the centre of the city, and families picnicked on every available space. Some brought the family dog. I saw an old man slowly walking down Macquarie Street with a small lunch bag and a flag. With a nice sense of the undercurrents of our history Prince Charles said at the official ceremony:
"If it takes regular visitors from an old country to help
you decide whether you should be celebrating or not, my
wife and I will be glad to be of assistance. " We do have much to celebrate and much to build on. There are inspiring lessons to be learnt from our history; great strengths and qualities of character have been demonstrated again and again in every area of Australian life. The new Parliament House which is the centre piece of the Bicentenary is a symbol of Australian achievement, unarguable evidence, if more were needed, of the deep pool of artistic talent we have nurtured. It is an expression of Australia’s desire and capacity for excellence. It’s also testimony to our ability to transform inherited traditions into indigenous symbols. The red and green of the upper and lower chambers acknowledge our parliament’s line of descent, but their colours are those of the ‘Red Centre’ and the Australian bush. And I would argue that we have much to make out of what we no longer possess. Christopher Koch has noted that the consciousness of a ‘lost landscape and society’ has produced a distinctive quality in our literature. ‘It also’, he says
‘produces a pathos of absence; so that the essential Australian experience emerges as one where a European consciousness, with European ancestral memories, is confronted by the mask of a strange land, and by a society still not certain of its style.’ 13
So that too, is something to build on. Paradise after the Fall is a good place to live in, for it requires us to ‘see life steadily and see it whole’.
(click on number to return to that point in the text above)
1. Froude, J.A., Oceania. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1886, pp. 145-46.
2. Lane, W., The Workingman’s Paradise, published in 1892 under the pseudonym ‘John Miller’ and subtitled, An Australian Labour Novel, to emphasize its openly propagandist attitudes. In his preface Lane explains that the novel’s purpose is to assist the fund for the unionists imprisoned for conspiracy in the shearers’ strike of 1891 and to explain socialism to the world at large.
3. Fletcher, B., The Bicentenary in Historical Perspective, Lecture, 28 April 1988.
4. Gilmore, M., Old Days: Old a reference to the title of this book, subtitled, A Book of Recollections, first published in Sydney by Angus & Robertson in 1934.
5. McAuley, J., James McAuley, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1963, p. viii
6. McAuley, J., A Map of Australian Verse, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 305.
7. Conway, R. ‘Strangers in our own strange land’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1987, p. 31.
8. Bean, C.E.W., On the Wool Track, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1945, p. 89.
9. ibid., p.104
10. ‘Our Rights Buried in Foreign Treaties’, The Australian, June 9, 1988.
11. ‘Give Us Back the Full Rights We Got in 1901’, The Weekend Australian, June 11-12, 1988
12. McAuley, J., The End of Modernity: Essays on Literature, Art and Culture, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1959, p.63.
13. Koch, C.J. Crossing the Gap: A Novelist’s Essays, London: Chatto & Windus, 1987, p. 95.