The Foundations of Culture in Australia:
P. R. Stephensen
An Essay Towards National Self-Respect (Excerpts from Part One)
§ 1 Genius of the Place
Australia is a unique country. All countries are unique, but this one is particularly so. Visitors, such as D. H. Lawrence, have discerned a spiritual quality of ancient loveliness in our land itself. The flora and fauna are primitive, and for the most part harmless to man, but to the visitor there is another element, of terror, in the Spirit of the Place. The blossoming of the waratah, the song of the lyrebird, typify the spirit of primitive loveliness in our continent; but the wail of the dingo, the gauntness of our tall trees by silent moonlight, can provide a shiver of terror to a newcomer. Against a background of strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptiness of three million square miles, our six million white people, of immigrant stock, mainly from Europe, are becoming acclimatised in this environment new to them but geologically so old that Time seems to have stood still here for a million years.
A new nation, a new human type, is being formed in Australia.
For the first hundred and fifty years of colonising, the immigrants have merely raped the land, or “settled” it, as we say, with unconscious irony in our choice of a word to describe the process of destroying its primitiveness. Now there are cities, half the people live in cities, huddled there, it may be, for mutual protection against the loneliness of the bush. Ships come and go, from Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. Ideas and people also come and go—we Australians ourselves come and go. All is in flux, a nation is being formed. Can it be a cultured nation?
Australia, throughout its brief whiteman’s history, has been primarily a colony of Britain, as Britain was once a colony of Rome, a place to be exploited commercially. For a hundred and fifty years all our vast production of gold, most of our wheat, wool, meat, and butter, have been sent “home” to Britain. In trade exchange we have received manufactured goods, and many loans. Britain, it may be, has had the best of the deal financially. We have sent our troops, too, to fight in British wars. We accept British exploitation of Australia as a natural fact, and scarcely protest. The price has been worth it, for has not Britain sent us, as makeweight and compensation for economic exploitation, the great heritage of her laws, her customs, her language and literature and philosophy, her culture?
Culture in Australia, if it ever develops indigenously, begins not from the Aborigines, who have been suppressed and exterminated, but from British culture, brought hither by Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen throughout the Nineteenth Century. In a new and quite different environment from that of those damp British Islands we are here developing the culture which evolved there. We spring fully armed from the head of Jove, or fully cultured from the head of John Bull. Australian culture begins with a general background of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herrick, Byron, Charles Dickens; and more specifically with a background of Samuel Smiles, Mr. Gladstone, and Queen Victoria. We inherit all that Britain has inherited, and from that point we go on—to what?
As the culture of every nation is an intellectual and emotional expression of the genius loci, our Australian culture will diverge from the purely local colour of the British Islands to the precise extent that our environment differs from that of Britain. A hemisphere separates us from “home”—we are Antipodeans; a gumtree is not a branch of an oak; our Australian culture will evolve distinctively.
§ 2 We are not Americans
There is a parallel, but not a close similarity, between Australia and America. In both countries a continental wilderness, sparsely populated with Aborigines, has been subdued and colonised, within recent historical times, by invaders from overseas. Here the parallel ends. Both countries have been “pioneered,” but Australia is quite dissimilar from America in social and historical construction. Australia has no large minorities—of Negroes, Jews, Italians, mixed Europeans—no historical Spanish, French, or Puritan influences: all mighty facts in America. We are in extraction solidly and stolidly pure British of the nineteenth century, homogeneously British, ninety per cent British. The ten per cent minority comprises Germans and Danes, who become assimilated immediately, with a sprinkling of Latins and “sundries,” who become assimilated in one generation. The only big minority is our twenty-five per cent Irish, who (whether they admit it or not) come from one of the two major British Islands.
We have none of America’s historical background of Elizabethan piracy and buccaneering, Spanish conquistadores, black slavery, French revolutionary ferment and Rights of Man philosophy; no Pilgrim Fathers or Mormon sects or Civil War traditions of “liberty” and emancipation—no “history” of the obvious or picturesque kind. America, the great melting pot, is often as incomprehensible to us as it is to any other homogeneous people observing it from afar. It is nonsense to say that Australia is becoming “Americanised,” as despondent English people often do say, observing our departures from the parent type. Australia is merely becoming Australianised.
Our background, such as it is, is operating upon us subtly to produce a new variety of the human species.
§ 3 Race and Place
What is a national culture? Is it not the expression, in thought-form or art-form, of the spirit of a Race and of a Place? The Ancient Greeks were few in number, not more all told than the number of people who nowadays live in North Sydney, but the Greeks evolved, from their environment and historical background, a culture which has remained for 2,000 years after they themselves became subjugated and dispersed. The political, economic, and social forms of a nation are temporary forms, expressions of the Zeitgeist, which changes with every decade, with every vagary of invention, epidemics, wars, migrations. Each decade of history is “modern” to itself, and every modernism passes with the inexorable march of time. Nothing is permanent in a nation except its culture—its ideas of permanence, which are expressed in art, literature, religion, philosophy; ideas which transcend modernism and ephemerality, ideas which survive political, social, and economic changes.
Race and Place are the two permanent elements in a culture, and Place, I think, is even more important than Race in giving that culture its direction. When Races migrate, taking their culture with them, to a new Place, the culture becomes modified. It is the spirit of a Place which ultimately gives any human culture its distinctiveness.
Consider the differences between Indian Art, Chinese Art, Persian Art, Egyptian Art, Dutch Art, Easter Island Art—expressions of places rather than of epochs. The main art tendency remained in each Place while peoples and epochs changed.
Consider, too, how literature expresses the spirit of Place and Race, and forms the concept of a nation. A simple example is the poetry of Robert Burns, which created Scotland or was created by Scotland—which? For present purposes it is enough to establish that the poetry of Burns is linked with the idea of Scotland. When Scotsmen emigrate to another Place, they take with them the Scots Place-poetry of Robert Burns. Literature, even more than graphic art, is profoundly national. As an idea, what would England be without the poetic concept recorded by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herrick, Dickens, and all the English writers from Beowulf to Rudyard Kipling? England lives as an idea, not mainly through the activities of her merchants and moneylenders and politicians and soldiers, though these also have played their part, but through the writings of her poets and men of letters!
So France, the idea of France, lives in Montaigne, Rabelais, Racine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Balzac, de Maupassant, and Baudelaire; and Germany lives in Goethe, Heine, Kant, Hegel and Richard Wagner; Russia lives in Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Maxim Gorki, et al., Scandinavia in Ibsen, Knut Hamsun . . . need I continue the examples? I do not wish to flog the obvious fact that a nation, or the idea of a nation, is inseparable from its literature. A nation, in fact, without a literature, is incomplete. Australia without a literature remains a colony, no nation.
A deeper question arises, perplexities confront me, when I attempt the next step in this logic. If art and literature are nationally created, and linked to a vicinity or a Place of Origin, can there be such a thing as universal art or universal literature?
The question is answered by making a distinction between Creation and Appreciation. Art and literature are at first nationally created, but become internationally appreciated. Culture spreads from nation to nation. Each nation contributes ideas to the culture of every other nation. Shakespeare, Balzac, and Dostoievsky each began to do their work as national writers, but now in appreciation they are universal, and belong to all nations.
Throughout all human history, cultures have developed in vicinities because there was not much communication between the isolated parts of the world. Since the invention of printing and the development of transport and means of communication, national cultures are overlapping, influencing one another, local distinctiveness is disappearing. The whole world is becoming one cultural unit, and tends to become one international economic unit. In the twentieth century nationalism is receding, the world is becoming one Place. What then becomes of any theory of nationalism in culture?
I hold to the thesis that cultures are created locally, and that every contribution to world culture (even in a future world-political-and-economic unit) must be distinct with the colour of its place of origin.
Ideas, like men and women, are formed locally, no matter how much they may travel. There is a universal concept of humanity and world culture, but it does not destroy individuality, either of persons or places or nations. Soviet Russia, urged by dreams of world-unification, has energetically encouraged and even revived the various nationalities and languages of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Why? Because the Soviet philosophers realise that the very idea of internationalism implies many separate nationalities—combined for economic and political purposes into economic and political unity, but remaining distinct in local customs, and cultures.
Thus, no matter how transport and communications may improve, local cultures must always remain. Art and literature will continue to be created locally, or nationally, even in the internationalised world. The charm of writing is to write of what one knows; the charm of reading is to read of what one does not know. For this reason cultures must remain local in creation and universal in appreciation.
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