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AUSTRALI IMAGE

)IS

er· I) THE LITERARY HERITAGE

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'So much horror in the clear Australian sunlight!'
DOUGLAS STEWART: Ned K elly
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ltl THAT AUSTRALIANS have a literary heritage is a proposition which, I


h imagine, few critics of our culture would seriously deny. The general
function of that heritage, too, would probably be a matter of common
agreement. It is the continuing definition of ourselves to ourselves
through the fOIII1S of literature; it is the monuments of the used and
, usable past which can still enforce their relevance upon us; it is that
)1:1
element in our most accomplished literary works which makes known
their Australianness. But the specific forces which have controlled the
development of our literature, the special attitudes which reveal the
Australianness of Australian writing these are matters on which final-
ity has by no means been reached. It must be said, indeed, that some
of the prevailing interpretations of our literary heritage are not adequate
either to its particular exhibits or to its accumulated quality.
The view of our literature which has acquired perhaps the widest
authority is that which sees it as a contest between an exclusive and an
inclusive culture, in which the latter has consistently marshalled the
superior forces; it is the democratic theme which is at the heart of our
literature. This very plausible view has been argued powerfully and
frequently, nowhere with more critical tact that in A. A. Phillips's The
Australian Tradition. 'The Currency Lad,' he writes in the essay on 'The
Democratic Theme', 'could be defined, almost, as the man who did not
touch his hat' (p. 35 ) . And the Currency Lad stands as the most com-
pelling image of man presented in our writing. Nobody could deny the

35
enormous force of the drive towards egalitarian democracy in Australian
writing, or ignore some of the concomitant attitudes it has established
in our literature the suspicion of heroes, for instance, or the tendency
towards left-wing political conunitments.
Belief in the primacy of the democratic theme, with all its attendant
consequences for personal and public action, naturally enough places
Henry Lawson fairly and squarely at the centre of our literary heritage.
It is no accident that Phillips's book is distinguished by sympathetic
and sensitive essays on Lawson and Furphy. The democratic theme
clearly does occupy and occupy significantly the minds of many of
our earlier writers. I do not question its importance or value; I do
wonder if it is at the very centre of the Australian imagination. Is it
the grain of sand which irritates the oyster into protective action? Or
is it the pearl which makes the grain of sand bearable and (incidentally
for the oyster) beautiful? If, in the past, the democratic theme has
been the secret stimulant to our artistic creation, then certain quite real
difficulties are posed for us. In an article, 'Winds of Change in the
Australian Novel' (The Australian Quarterly, XXXII, no. 4, 1960), Nor-
man Bartlett has stated quite flatly that 'The national billy tea literary
I
tradition the gum leaves make all the difference no longer satisfies
us' (p. 75 ). And again: 'Those who still march under that once grand
I old banner, "Temper democratic, bias Australian," are merely marching
I

I
in circles' (p. 80 ). With these words Bartlett voices an attitude that is
increasingly felt abroad among writers and critics. If all that Lawson
and his tribe can offer is outback mateship and proletarian protest, they
must regretfully, even painfully, be relegated to the past historical
monuments from which the life of relevance has departed. I do not
happen to believe that we need so completely to turn our backs on Law-
son: yet the difficulty remains. If our literary heritage offers us nothing
but the simple virtues appropriate to a simple frontier society, what can
we do but reject it? We are left with a heritage which is an empty in-
heritance.
The cultural historian will not for long be left at a loss by Lawson's
qualities and by Bartlett's rejection of them. He will soon go to work,
fitting them into a larger pattern which will comprehend them both.
The sub-title of Phillips's book is 'Studies in a Colonial Culture'. And
it requires no great flexibility of the imagination to understand both
Lawson and Bartlett as representing inevitable stages in the passage of
what was once a colonial culture to national independence and maturity.
The American scholars have long since marked out the pattern of the
progress of their own civilization and literature; and in its general out-

36 MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962


-

lines the pattern seems to be a necessary one in any situation where a


European culture has been grafted onto through colonization and con-
quest some less advanced society. First of all there is likely to be a
period of imitation of the models provided by the parent civilization;
this is likely to be followed by a period of intense and sometimes acri-
monious debate between the forces of nationalism and those which con-
tinue to pay homage to the imperial source; for a time nationalism will
appear to be triumphant; but as pre-condition of full maturity, nation-
alism must suffer rejection and be replaced by a sense of nationhood
which is assured and un-selfconscious.
It is easy enough to translate this pattern to Australian literature.
Harpur, Kendall, and Gordon, the imitators, are followed by the nation-
alists of the 'nineties and the tum of the century nationalists who did
not have things so much their own way as we sometimes think, who
I had to contest their right to assert their Australianness. The force of
I nationalism carries it with some abatement through the first World War
I
• and into the 'twenties; in the 'thirties it experiences a revival of en-
• thusiasm and vigour through the Jindyworobak movement. More bal-
anced views, evident from the beginning of the century, are progressively
given more and more weight; though, that the issue is by no means
settled yet is suggested by the curious ambivalence of Ray Lawler's
I
I second play, The Piccadilly Bushman, and by the even more ambivalent
I reception it was accorded.
I Australian's literary heritage as the record of her gradual liberation
from the restraints of a colonial culture: the interpretation has as much
validity as the democratic theme, and leaves us with the same un-
I easy sense of incompleteness. An interpretation which can be so widely
applied to the United States, to Canada, to South Africa, as well as
!• to our own country has its very considerable uses. It equally has its
limitations. It holds out the seductive possibility of viewing the entire
literature of the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia as
one single and inseparable mass or mess. Which they aren't, if for no
! other reason than that the settlers of each land had to face and over-
come enormously different physical environments. So, it might be
argued, the finding of a true relation to the land, the very earth, has
j been the particular concern of every Australian poet from Charles Har-
pur to David Campbell. Not the bush workers, or the bush virtues, but
j the bush itself has been their one true subject. The peculiar ancient
harshness of the Australian bush has demanded from our writers the
! live with it was to image it forth as the backdrop to the heroic achieve-
ments of the pioneers. Lawson accepted its harshness in bitter surrender

I MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962 37


to its power to hold him. Brennan, so far as he could and as an act of
the will, chose to ignore it. Bernard O'Dowd hymned it as the spirit of
Australia. The Jindyworobaks gloried in its primeval indifference to the
condition of man. Now our younger poets are able to select from
among its many features, and treat them for what they are.
Clearly we must include landscape as a component in our literary
heritage. But when we have said landscape, have we said all? And if
so, is that enough? Is it enough? This seems to be the question stu-
dents of Australian culture are driven to again and again. Is our tra-
dition, after all, to be summed up in this or that single word Mateship?
Landscape? Nationalism? Is what we have received from our literary
past so thin that the simple labels do, in fact, suffice? Most of us would
find it difficult to believe that the literature of any nation could be
reduced to such direct and formulary clarity; most of us would not like
to believe that our own literature could be so reduced. Using the same
materials which have always been available, is it possible to construct a
version of our literary heritage which will do justice to whatever dis-
coverable complexity and force are latent in it, and at the same time
will not disavow its Australianness?
The means of carrying out such an enterprise are, I believe, at hand.
They can be usefully indicated by resorting to another formulation, but
I
II a formulation richer in overtones and implications than any thus far
I invoked. In an article entitled 'The Background of Romantic Thought'
( Quadrant, II, no. 1), Herbert Piper asserts that 'there are still many
Romantic elements in Australian culture, often unrecognised and un-
questioned and yet serving to mark Australian literature off from the
modem European literature which rejected Romanticism at least a gen-
eration ago' (p. 49). Professor Piper is here, I think, half right and
half wrong. He is right in stressing the importance of the Romantic
sensibility in Australian literature; he is wrong in those aspects of the
Romantic sensibility which he selects as particularly important in our
culture; and he is wrong in suggesting a kind of backwardness in our
Australian engagement with the Romantic response to life. What I
wish to propose as a fundamental element in Australia's literary heritage
may be stated something like this. Australian literature is historically a
Romantic and post-Romantic phenomenon. Due to certain circum-
stances of history and geography, it came much earlier than European
literature to deal with a number of key themes of late Romantic aware-
ness. Although these dealings were very much disguispo by colonial
necessities, Australian literature, in fact, early took as its central subject
what is still one of the inescapable concerns of all modem literatures.
Such a proposition may well seem to be gratuitously grotesque; it cer-

38 MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962


tainly requires the kind of defence afforded only by the display of many
items of evidence. Some such items, from within the mainstream of
Australian writing, I will provide here; many more could readily be
assembled. But first I must isolate that peculiarly modem element in
modem literature which, it is my contention, Australian literature so
early laid hold on.
I can most conveniently do so by referring to an article by an Ameri-
can critic, Lionel Trilling 'On The Modem Element in Modem Litera-
ture' (Partisan Review, XXVIII, no. 1). Towards the end of his article
Trilling is driven to speaking of 'the subversive tendency of modem
literature' (p. 31). It subverts not through this or that political action,
not through its Leftism or its Fascism, but in its alienation from any
kind of politics, men organized into rational communities. Behind much
modem literature, Trilling argues, lies the German Nietzsche. And
'Nietzsche's theory of the social order dismisses all ethical impulse from
its origins the basis of society is to be found in the rationalization of
cruelty: as simple as that' (p. 28 ) . A rationalized cruelty is perhaps not
likely to recommend itself to the creative artist as an object worthy of
his sustained attention. So he becomes an outsider. He becomes
Diderot's Nephew of Rameau; or, like Dostoevsky, he sends back Notes
from the Underground, brutally destroying all our humanist pieties. The
writer, then, is likely to reject society because it is founded on cruelty
and sustained by petty rationalistic rules: also, because there are kinds
of experience which are positively much more interesting to him. Trill-
ing comments: 'Nothing is more characteristic of modem literature
than its discovery and canonization of the primal non-ethical energies
[po 25]. . .. I venture to say that the idea of losing oneself up to the
point of self-destruction, of surrendering oneself to experience without
regard to self-interest or conventional morality, of escaping wholly from
the social bonds is an "element" somewhere in the mind of every modem
person who dares to think of what Arnold in his unaffected Victorian
way called "the fulness of spiritual perfection'" (p. 35). In exploring
the primal energies, the artist is likely to discover that they can com-
mand horror as well as delight, yet he will continue his exploration with
unabated fascination. 'Is this not the essence of the modem belief
about the nature of the artist,' asks Trilling, 'the man who goes down
into that hell which is the historical beginning of the human soul, a be-
ginning not outgrown but established in humanity as we know it now,
preferring the reality of this hell to the bland lies of the civilization that
has overlaid it?' (p. 26).
It is my contention that Australian literature is signalized by its early

MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962 39


recognition of the nature of the social contract and by its long-standing
awareness of the primal energies of mankind, an awareness which has
• ••
known little of the sweetening and freshness of early RomantIc optImIsm.
Australia's literary heritage is based on a unique combination of glances
into the pit and the erection of safety fences to prevent any toppling in.
'Australian literature,' writes NOIman Bartlett in the article previously
cited, 'so far as I have read it, utterly fails to grapple with the life of
politics' (p. 82). To be sure, we have not yet produced a C. P. Snow.
Yet is it surprising that the creative minds in a country founded in con-
victism should have early learned to mistrust the political life? What
better illustration than the first half century of British occupation of
Australia of Nietzsche's notion that the basis of society is the rationali-
zation of cruelty? When our authors turned to the convict system as
viable material for their imaginations, its all-pervading sadism is what
struck them most forcibly. The dreadfully enforced rules of the Ring,
the absolute viciousness of characters like John Price: this is what we
carry away most vividly from Price Warung's Convict Days. Marcus
Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life is crowded with incident, and
saturated with pain, which affects all members and both sides of the
system. It is small wonder that our literature has little to tell us about
the life of politics except its cruelty. Even comparatively recent novels
like Dal Stivens's Jimmy Brockett and Frank Hardy's Power without
Glory are centred in individuals who perceive the essential nature of
political power and who achieve it by the imposition of their own
cruel will on the lives of others.
Yet Australian literature is not without its genial elements. Indeed,
Su ch Is Life, one of the great monuments of our fiction, is not only a
major social document; it is downright sociable. Tom Collins, the
narrator, is 'a Government official, of the ninth class,' and therefore
something of an outcast; but the basis of the book rests in talk talk for
its own sake, talk round the campfire, talk on the track. Yet all the
time shaping and controlling the talk, the meandering meditations, is an
ironic intelligence, powerfully aware of the importance of artistic form.
Arthur Phillips's essay in The Australian Tradition is a first-rate demon-
stration of the carefully designed structure of Such Is Life. Yet this
brilliant exposition of Furphy's craftsmanship is curiously deficient. Th~
only use to which Phillips can see that craftsmanship being put is 'to
present a complete and significant picture of Riverina life' (p. 19) : Such
is Life as an especially well-organized and thorough historical document.
In fairness, it should be said that Phillips goes Of, to add that below the
aim of giving a complete account of the Riverina 'lay another layer of
purpose: an impulsion to give the sense of Life, the feel of how things

40 MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962


happen' (p. 22). But here Phillips stops he has little or nothing to
say on what was Furphy's sense of Life, how he felt things happening

to him. In spite of his sure grasp on the conduct of the narratl~e,
Phillips overlooks the important hint offered by the title Such Is Lxfe.
Legend has it that these were the last words of Ned Kelly before he
swung a nihilistic summation of the meaning of his existence. And
it is worth refreshing our memories as to the last words of Tom Collins'
long recollections:
Now I had to enact the Cynic philosopher to Moriarty and Butler, and the aristo-
cratic man with a 'past' to Mrs. Beaudesart; with the satisfaction of knowing
that each of these was acting a part to me. Such is life, my fellow-mummers,-
just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then
cheapens down to mere nonentity. But let me not hear any small witticism to
the further effect that its story is a tale told by a vulgarian, full of slang and
blanky, signifying nothing.

Such Is Life is, in effect, concerned with the discrepancy between what
we are and what we appear to be, and with the futility of human en-
deavour. Nosey Alf appears to be a boundary rider, and proves in fact
to be Warrigal Alf's forsaken love. Tom Collins pretends to a certain
cynicism; he is, in truth, overflowing with a kindness (a kindness which
can have tragic consequences). Mrs. Beaudesart, insisting on her well-
bred airs, is for all that a decayed and snobbish gentlewoman. All the
characters of the novel are preparing faces for the faces that they meet,
and are continually thwarted in the purposes of their lives. And this is
the point of the sociability of Such Is Life: it enables its characters to
escape from the unbearable reality of being themselves. Society is an
act, a decent bluff, which makes bearable the final emptiness, the noth-
ingness of the honestly experienced inner life.
'Nothing' is the last word of one of the central classics of our literary
heritage; and it is a word which echoes and re-echoes throughout our
literature. In the nineteenth century a persistent and single-minded
investigation of the horror of primal experience simply could not be
tolerated. The first duty of a frontier society is physical survival; hence
evolved that most famous of all Australian survival techniques, the con-
cept of mateship. In our literature, mateship is especially the property
of Henry Lawson. And one does not have to go far in his Prose Works
(Angus & Robertson, 1948 ) to understand its value for him. It was
a necessary defence against the kind of experience which most power-
fully laid hold on his imagination. If mateship bulks so large in the
canon of Lawson's writing (as indeed it does), it was because behind
and beneath it was an even more compelling awareness of horror, of
panic and emptiness. Here, for instance, is a passage from one of

MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962 41


Lawson's best known tales, 'The Union Buries Its Dead', often cited
as an example of Lawson's left-wing solidarity. That it may be; it is
something else as well. This is Lawson's description of the actual burial
of the unidentified corpse:
The gllive looked very narrow under the coffin, and I drew a breath of relief
when the box slid easily down. I saw a coffin get stuck once, at Rookwood,
and it had to be yanked out with difficulty, and laid on the sods at the feet of
the heartbroken relations, who howled dismally while the grave-diggers widened
the hole. But they don't cut contracts so fine in the West. Our grave-digger
was not altogether bowelless, and, out of respect for that human quality des-
scribed as "feelin's," he scraped up some light and dusty soil and threw it down
to deaden the fall of the clay lumps on the coffin. He also tried to steer the
first few shovelfuls gently down against the end of the grave with the back of
the shovel turned outwards, but the hard dry Darling River clods rebounded
and knocked all the same. It didn't matter much nothing does. The fall of
the lumps of clay on a stranger's coffin doesn't sound any different from the fall
of the same thing on an ordinary wooden box at least I didn't notice anything
awesome or unusual in the sound; but, perhaps, one of us the most sensitivee-
might have been impressed by being reminded of a burial long ago, when the
thump of every sod jolted his heart (p. 47).

'It didn't matter much nothing does.' The assertion is shocking in its
finality, but it is the (sometimes unacknowledged) burden of much of
Lawson's best writing. If some of Lawson's stories seem rather thin,
it is not because they were without content. Rather, they could not
I
afford to face up to their true subject nothing. They had to take
refuge in sociability, they had to create some kind of face or personality
which would make shift in the world; in short, they had to opt for
mateship.
But mateship has its corollary in Lawson's work madness. His
stories do take cognizance of those who choose to live for and into
themselves. The typical fate of such characters is suggested in a sto!),
called 'Rats'. Some itinerant shearers come across what they take to be
two men struggling in the road. It proves to be a mad traveller wrest-
ling with his swag:
They reached the scene of the trouble and there stood a little withered old man
by the track, with his arms folded ~lose up under his chin; he was dres~ed
.
· calIco
mostIy ill b'
patches; and half a dozen corks, suspended on Its 0 s f trlng
from the brim of his hat dangled from his bleared optics to scare away the
f i i ' . . the
~s. He was scowling malignantly at a stout, dumpy swag whIch lay In
rruddle of the track (p. 112).

At the end of the story the old man is still there, but he has taken ~o
fishing in the dust. Though a lonely old figure, he is not alone ill
Lawson's bush. Indeed, it is peopled by a remarkably high percentage

42 MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962



of hatters, of eccentrics, of people who are plain out of their mind .
They have been driven mad partly by their election out of human
society, partly by the nature of the Australian outback. It may be, as
Phillips maintains in 'The Democratic Theme', that one of the early
exaltations experienced by the Australian Common Man was 'the know-
ledge that life and victory over a harsh nature could be won only by the
strength of the individual's quality as a man' (p. 48). But for the Aus-
tralian Uncommon Man, for the artist, the bush seems to have served
from a quite early date a somewhat different function. For many

Australian writers there has been an intimate connection between the
nature of the Australian landscape and the quality of the inner life
which they actually knew or which they embodied in their writing.
Kenneth Slessor, in the first section of Five Visions of Captain Cook,
has a moment of superb insight when he dates this connection from the
"
beginnings of our history; he ascribes the very discovery of Australia
- and its subsequent cultural development to an act of madness:
How many mariners had made that choice
Paused on the brink of mystery! "Choose now!"
The winds roared, blowing home, blowing home,
Over the Coral Sea. "Choose now!" the trades
Cried once to Tasman, throwing him for choice
Their teeth or shoulders, and the Dutchman chose
The wind's way, turning north. "Choose, Bougainville!"
The wind cried once, and Bougainville had heard
The voice of God, calling him prudently
Out of the dead lee shore, and chose the north,
The wind's way. So, too, Cook made choice,
Over the brink, into the devil's mouth,
With four months' food, and sailors wild with dreams
Of English beer, the smoking barns of home.
So Cook made choice, so Cook sailed westabout,
So men write poems in Australia.
(Poems, pp. 57-58).
Cook sailed over the brink to a continent which, for our nineteenth
century writers, was literally capable of driving its inhabitants insane.
Lawson and the other writers of the 'nineties were aware of the bush
as a physical fact, inescapably present to their immediate lives. For them
the insane horror of bush life was perhaps most powerfully projected
into one of their recurring themes the child lost in the bush; not the
child lost and found dead, but the child lost, simply swallowed up in
all that emptiness. With the possibility of such a fate constantly close
to them, it is little wonder that our nineteenth century writers skirted
round what they instinctively guessed to be their true subject, the indi-
vidual human being confronting the primal energies at the centre of his

MEANJIN QUARTERLY, 1I1arch, 1962 43


being on the stage of the Australian continent. Instead, they took re-
fuge in the defence of sociable yarning with a group of mates. When
they did confront the primeval heart of the matter, it was usually in the
form of an attempt to physically subdue the bush and so control its
power to subvert the mind.
The first Australian poet directly to confront the heart of his own
existence without the mediation of landscape was Christopher Brennan.
The disintegration of Brennan's personal life is legendary in the Aus-
tralian literary consciousness. He is our supreme myth figure of the
Romantic artist. It is equally important to realize that in his verse he
encountered and recorded just as much horror as in his living. More
than any other Australian artist, Brennan suffered the paradox of the
late-Romantic experience of love. By love possessed, the poet is driven
to ever-increasing intensity of passion at the same time as he comes to
ever-increasing knowledge of its final emptiness and capacity to destroy.
Foreseeing the end, he yet will not, cannot, forsake his loving until it has
accomplished its bitter fulfilment. In Brennan's work, this pattern is
rendered with all the ambiguous fascination of its darkness. To be
sure, Brennan writes with rare felicity of the brief Paradisal happiness
at the beginning of love. But his perception soon shifts to the mon-
strousness of Lilith and her relation to Adam. In the Lilith sequence
from 'The Forest of Night', Lilith, the legendary other wife of Adam,
representative of dark and powerful sexuality, addresses her final line to
Adam with shuddering and characteristic completeness: 'Go forth: be

great, 0 nothing, I have said' (The Verse of Christopher Brennan, ed.


Chisholm and Quinn, p. 140).
The first Australian novel to deal in depth with the relation between
a man and a woman was published at much the same time as Brennan
was writing some of his best and most characteristic verse Henry
Handel Richardson's Maurice Guest (1908). This fine book might
almost serve as a text to Professor Trilling's account of 'The Modem
Element in Modem Literature'. There is, for instance, Krafft's im-
passioned defence of the artist as the man who seeks his realities be-
neath the bland lies of civilisation, who gains his wisdom through per-
sonal suffering. More important and at the centre of the story is
Maurice Guest's obsessed and self-destroying love of Louise Dufrayer.
At one level, the novel is a splendidly objective and detailed account of
the torments of sexual jealousy; at another, it is a fictional rendering of
- the Romantic myth of destructive passion. Maurice's life ends in
suicide, and it is with these words that Richardson brings to a close her
account of his existence:

44 MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962


Then, as suddenly as the flame of a candle is puffed out by the wind, his life
went from him. His right hand twitched, made as if to open, closed again, and
stiffened round the iron of the handle. His jaw fell, and, like an inner lid, a
glazed film rose over his eyes, which for hours afterwards continued to stare,
with an expression of horror and amaze, at the naked branches of the tree.

THROUGHOUT the course of our literary history, then, Australian writers


have had deeply located in their imagination (either consciously or un-
consciously) a sense of the horror of sheer existence. In the nineteenth
century, writers sought to protect themselves through direct assaults on
their physical environment and by erecting a structure of sociability
appropriate to the conditions of their time and place. At about the
tum of the century, two major writers emerged who were prepared to
confront the secret source of their inspiration directly and without
flinching. Among our contemporary writers the strength of the basic
stimulus remains unabated, but the honest virtues of the Lawson tra-
dition no longer seem entirely adequate for containing its affronts to
their civilized integrity. Have our modem writers developed any tech-
niques to make bearable the nihilism of their deepest experience? It
seems to me that they have, and that the most important of them have
been generated within that range of activity which I have postulated
as Australia's literary heritage.
A. D. Hope, for instance, seeks his salvation in valuing for its own
sake the intensity of the experience which brings him to his knowledge
of emptiness. Hope's love poetry has been described as puritanic in the
bitter disgust which is often implied in the very moment of recording
love's sensuous splendour. I would not absolutely repudiate such a
view, but I would further suggest that the fury of his love poetry also
derives from his need to grasp all that love can offer in order to make
bearable the horror and disillusion that follow. In 'The Dinner', thus,
he imagines love as a cannibalistic feast, whose savage delights are
rendered the more savage and delightful because it is themselves the
natives consume. This is how the poem ends:
Talking in deep, soft, grumbling undertones
They gnaw and crack and suck the marrowy bones.
The tit-bits and choice meats they pluck and press
Each on the other, with grave tenderness,
And touch and laugh; their strange, fierce features move
With the delight and confidence of love.
I watch their loves, I see their human feast
With the doomed comprehension of the beast;
I feel the sweat creep through my bristling hair;
Hollow with rage and fear, I crouch and stare,
And hear their great jaws strip and crunch and chew,
And know the flesh they rend and tear is you. (Poems, p. 74)

MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962 45


Poetry of this order is among the most intense being written in Aus-
tralia today. It seeks to cope with the historic dilemma of the Austra-
lian writer by insisting on its personalness. But there are other writers
who have kept their eyes turned outwards and have developed a means
of using the Australian landscape which, while derived from the earlier
writers, has taken on a new sophistication. A feature of a good deal of
recent Australian writing has been its willingness to use an exploration
of the bush as an analogy for the exploration of the individual soul.
The bush becomes a metaphor for the self. Just as at the heart of the
continent is a burning, insane emptiness, so too at the heart of a man
is the horror of his pre-history. James McAuley's poem, 'Terra Aus-
tralis', for instance, makes quite explicit the analogical uses to which
the Australian land can be put:
Voyage within you, on the fabled ocean,
And you will find that Southern Continent,
Quiros' vision his hidalgo heart
And mythical Australia, where reside
All things in their imagined counterpart.

It is your land of similes: the wattle


Scatters its pollen on the doubting heart;
The flowers are wide-awake; the air gives ease.
There you come home; the magpies call you Jack
And whistle like larrikins at you from the trees.

There too the angophora preaches on the hillsides


With the gestures of Moses; and the white cockatoo,
Perched on his limbs, screams with demoniac pain;
And who shall say on what errand the insolent emu
Walks between morning and night on the edge of the plain?

But northward in valleys of the fiery Goat


Where the sun like a centaur vertically shoots
His raging arrows with unerring aim,
Stand the ecstatic solitary pyres
Of unknown lovers, featureless with flame.
(Under Aldebaran, p. 51).
Fiction, however, offers more extended opportunities for the land-
sca~~ to. be used in this manner. A novel which accepts such oppor-
tUnItIes IS Randolph Stow's To the Islands. Set in the north-west of
~este.rn Austral.ia, it tells of an ageing missionary, Heriot, who abjures
h:s falth~ commIts wh.at he believes to be murder, and deliberately loses
hImself In the land ill order to find himself. He strikes out 'to the
i~lands', the phrase by which the local natives mean death. In this
lIteral and metaphorical journey of self-discovery the word which re-
curs more than all others is 'nothing'. In a violent scene, before he

46
MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962
flees from the mission, Heriot deliberately breaks a crucifix, symbolically
shattering his old faith. 'I believe in nothing,' he says, 'I can pull down
the world' (p. 75 ) . And his thoughts are on nothingness until the end-
ing of the book, when, with death approaching, his journey to the islands
almost completed, he whispers to himself, 'My soul is a strange country'
(p. 204) . In the strange emptiness of the land and of his being, Heriot
has found a kind of strength.
One of the most celebrated of recent Australian novels uses, like To
the Islands, the exploration of the continent as an extended metaphor
for the exploration of the soul. The richness of Voss can be accounted
for, in part, by the fact that it fuses almost all those aspects of Austra-
lia's literary heritage which define both its modernity and its Australian-
ness. The genuinely subversive drift of White's thinking is brilliantly in-
dicated in his earlier work, The Aunt's Story. The nature of this re-
cord of the progress of Theodora Goodman into insanity is set down with
shattering clarity in the epigraphs which White appended to Sections II
and III of his novel. Section II, 'Jardin Exotique', is preceded by a
quotation from the American, Henry Miller, which concludes with the
enlightening phrase, 'the great fragmentation of maturity'. Section III,
'Holstius', which chronicles the final and complete collapse of Theodora's
reason, is headed by a single sentence from Olive Schreiner: 'When
your life is most real, to me you are mad.' It might well stand as a
text for many of the greatest achievements of Australian writing.
At the centre of Voss is the disturbing figure of the German explorer.
White himself has indicated that this character was influenced by Hitler,
'the arch-megalomaniac of the day'. And Voss imposes his will on the
small community he leads by exactly that process which Nietzsche diag-
nosed as the foundation of political life the rationalization of cruelty.
The distance between Patrick White and Price Warung may not be as
great as we at first supposed. Voss lurches off into the fearful heart of
Australia with his ill-assorted band of followers lurches off first into
contact with the land itself, ultimately with the continent's native race,
those living representatives of humanity's pre-history. In the end, Voss
is quite literally destroyed by the primal energies which he is obsessed to
understand: the native boy Jacky severs his head from his body. With
Voss, 'losing oneself to the point of self-destruction' becomes more than
an idea, it is an actually achieved destiny. Before he reaches the end
of his own life, he is responsible for the death of all his party save Judd,
the tough commonsensical ex-convict who returns to civilization with his
distorted account of the realities he has encountered beneath its bland
surface. Palfreyman, the professional sufferer, perishes by the spears of

MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962 47



the blacks; Le Mesurier, who has had faith both kindled and exun-

guished by Voss, slits his own throat a curious descendant of Maunee
Guest.
So Voss's mad detennination to subdue the continent leads him to
destruction at its unrelenting heart. He, too, finally comes to nothing.
But his journey has not been in vain. As with Heriot in To the Islands,
the very recognition of his nothingness becomes a means of salvation.
It purges him of his burning pride and cruelty. At the moment of
Voss's death, Laura Trevelyan, suffering in spiritual sympathy back in
Sydney, rises up in her bed and cries:
How important it is to understand the three stages. Of God into Man. Man.
And man returning into God. . .. When man is truly humbled, when he has
learnt that he is not God, then he is nearest to becoming so. In the end, he
may ascend (p. 411).

Voss's journey from pride to the final void has taken him through suf-
fering, humility, and love. It has educated him into humanity. It has
not been in vain.
If the alien figure of Voss can fuse so many of the deeper forces which
have gone to the making of our literature, one might expect that our
native myth hero, Ned Kelly, would elicit from Australian writers some
of their most profoundly representative work. In Douglas Stewart's
treatment of the outlaw, for instance, it is easy to point to many char-
acteristic Australian traits the hatred of authority, the masculine vigour
and toughness, the outback independence, the refusal to admit defeat.
Phillips, in his essay in The Australian Tradition, has gone beyond these
obvious symptoms of nationality. 'Australian Romanticism and Stewart's
Ned Kelly' (pp. 96-112) represents the playas a contest between the
forces of Vitality and Respectability, or, as Phillips symbolizes the
struggle, between Ulysses and Telemachus. This is a reading which
clearly has much to recommend it; but also embodied in the very es-
sence of the drama are some of those darker elements of Romanticism
which, I suggest, have been so consistently present to the Australian
literary imagination.
Ned, Joe Byrne, and the rest of the gang may possess the vitality of
Ulysses, the willingness to 'give-it-a-go' we traditionally expect of the
Australian. But in the end the energies which dominate Ned in par-
ticular are not so much vital as mortal. He strives towards death rather
than life; and in this enterprise he is closely attended by the self-des-
tructive irony of Joe Byrne. Their path to death leads through the
- madness of the Australian bush. For all Ned's talk of outback freedom,
what emerges most strongly from the play is a sense of hatters baying

48 MEANJIN QUARTERLY, March, 1962


at the moon, of the subversion that the bush works on those who com-
mit themselves to its primitive keeping. Ned's vision, a distortion of our
rational Australian values, becomes the nightmare of madness.
The dreams of freedom and power which bring Ned to death are not
presented as a purely personal affair. Throughout the play, the verse
works to make him not so much the representative Australian as the
representative of Australia. He incarnates the spirit of the land. And
in this incarnation he does not stand in direct opposition to the Respec-
table (the Livings, the Tarletons, and the rest). It is not simply Ulysses
versus Telemachus. The Kelly gang and the men they rob are comple-
mentary, needing each other to complete a single image of the Austra-
lian spirit. Ned and his mates are betrayed by those they have loved
(Aaron Sherritt) or those who profess to love them (Curnow) ; they are
destroyed by the men to whom they are tied by the indestructible bonds
of hate. 'What happens is the people's doing,' ~ays Byrne; 'and if they
hang him,/They hang themselves' (Four Plays, p. 213 ) . In the wild
shouts of the troopers who close in on Ned in the last scene there is the
fierce joy of those who are destroying part of themselves. It is the final
paradox of Ned KeUy that Ned's expansive dreams can be realized only
in death; that those who, in self-protection, destroy him extinguish in
so doing their own most vital spirit.
And in that paradox lies the clue to our literary tradition. The canon
of our writing presents a fac;ade of mateship, egalitarian democracy,
landscape, nationalism, realistic toughness. But always behind the fac;ade
looms the fundamental concern of the Australian literary imagination.
That concern, marked out by our national origins and given direction
by geographic necessity, is to acknowledge the terror at the basis of
being, to explore its uses, and to build defences against its dangers. It is
that concern which gives Australia's literary heritage its special force
and distinction, which guarantees its continuing modernity.

49