Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 32, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

Sybyllascape: Language and Landscape — Intervening in the Historical Space of Literary Narrative

Phil Roe

David Tacey [1] argues for an imaginary which contains Australia's 'Otherworld', he writes of the limitations of Euro-Australian consciousness and its inability to embrace an Aboriginal-Australian consciousness. This 'otherworld' is beyond the European cultural imaginary, and seemingly inaccessible to it. For Tacey, the project is intimately bound with a sense of place, other ways of knowing this Australian landscape.

This 'otherworld' might comprise some kind of understanding of the land than is available to a European cultural imaginary. This imaginary thinks, talks and writes about landscape rather than land. The limitations of this imaginary lie in the very language that constructs it. Land in this imaginary is little more than an object that may be manipulated in certain ways, primarily it becomes an economic object or 'resource'. It is an object which may be seen, from afar, and so for this imaginary it becomes a landscape. The use of the suffix, -scape, according to my OED, functions in terms of representation, as a way of forming a view of something.

Aborigines speak differently, they speak of the land, of being part of the land, rather than of the landscape. An Aboriginal cultural imaginary is not 'traditionally' accessible to the European. Tacey might be right in appropriating Fay Zwicky to assert that "the Australian experience is primarily visual",2 but what we are dealing with in terms of a European cultural imaginary seems more akin to a cultural blindness.

So why is it that this European cultural imaginary has so much difficulty in seeing something 'other' than itself, to understand something 'other' than itself? It should be emphasised from the outset, that what we are dealing with in Australia is a colonial imaginary, a displaced European imaginary. As a partial approach to this question, in this paper, I want to explore, in the historical narratives of its texts, the possibilities of disrupting the fixity and closed nature of this imaginary

I want to take, as an organising point, a notion from Paul Carter,3 that of spatial history. That is, the way the land has been written into the Australian experience constructs a certain view (-scape), a spatial narrative. I might then begin to move through some of the terrain implicit in his question - "What kind of representation could make present to us the historical space which has been so effectively excluded from our historical narratives ?".

My intervention will be in the context of landscape and landscape representation; that one of the functions of the Literary in `Australian' literary texts is the linguistic colonisation of landscape by a dominant discourse and an alien language. I will attempt to use the notion of spatial history in a critical approach to an Australian literary text, My Brilliant Career,4 in order to intervene in the 'intentional' world of the text and in the 'lacuna' left by a colonial and imperial discourse. As a theoretical and critical construct, spatial history potentially makes available a space in which the more subtle traces and trajectories of a colonial mapping process articulates its choices and colonises at the level of language.

But to open this specific text to the possibility of this type of analysis requires some elaboration and conflation of notions of 'Australian', landscape, language and the ways in which these are recuperated by dominant discourses. I am thinking specifically of the notion of landscape, and the relation between landscape and a literature whose moments seem essentially alien to each other. The literary history of Australia has in some sense always turned on a notion of an opposition between what gets defined within the imported Western discourses as culture and nature, as though there were a naturally given distinction rather than constructed categories.

These types of questions have generally been implicated in the notion of 'national literatures', and, particularly in the Australian context, with a continuous quest for a national identity. One of the orienting principles in the debate around this question of national identity is that traditional western construction of the naturally given split, the demarcation of a clear border between categories of culture and nature. In the Australian context this is perhaps more commonly articulated in terms of bush/city. The slash (/), however, is distinctly a Western rendering; a slash that is problematic in a country whose traditional culture does not make these rigid distinctions between culture and nature.

But where to begin and how to proceed ?


History exists within discourse, within language. European languages have a history within a landscape. They have evolved within a reciprocal and relatively stable relationship with a landscape with which they have been intimately connected for many centuries. In this relationship the forms of language come to trace the lines of the landscape, words form themselves around the specific features of a landscape. In this reciprocal and evolutionary process the visual realm is also assimilated to language, where the question is not simply one of the use of a translucent and neutral language to describe a landscape but rather one that raises questions of the ways in which language structures the ways of seeing, the subject position of the seeing (the gaze of the 'I'/eye), and hence even of what it is possible to see.

Colours too enter this complex world of the relations between landscape, language and the intermediary function of the realm of the visual. Colours insinuate themselves around the tongue, European green is crisp and clear with a long legitimated grammer that defines and articulates borders in the construction and consequent perception of different shades of green. More than one writer in English has been troubled by the disjunction between the available and defined colours in the English language and the perception of the non-matching colours of the Australian landscape. The use of 'olive green' or that other oft used descriptor of Australian green, 'a dark dirty green', for example, are attempts to find suitable linguistic descriptors for Australian colours. 'Olive' arises as an approximation, for it is a European colour, there were no olives in Australia prior to the invasion. The landscape is assimilated towards the subject position of the language, mediated by a visual and linguistic relation to another (European) landscape, and 'olive' green comes to be smeared across the Australian landscape.5

The Australian landscape is always 'other' to this language which never makes contact with it but smears its surfaces with shades of olive green and grids of black bitumen. But this usage becomes the marker of an aperception, belonging to a linguistically structured visual system that discovers a perplexing inability to apply its constructed categories of colour perception to an alien landscape. Rather than acknowledge the subject position of its own viewing, this discourse then renders this other as somehow lacking. This other, this landscape, then becomes written as a barren wasteland, empty and unalive.

It is the singularity and fixity of this subject position, the subject position of an imperial discourse, that produces (the possibility of) the notion of the 'negative text' in Australian literature. But this is a 'negative' which operates beyond the limiting humanistic notion of value according to the binary set positive/negative in relation to a specific object. A landscape for example. Rather, I consider it in terms of a linguistic construction of texts that relies on a notion of 'otherness', that which is not itself, in order to define and elaborate itself.

The following quotes, therefore, should be considered not in relation to the landscape they purport to describe but within a far more complex set of relations. In this complexity, the subject position of the writing, which is itself defined by the cultural and linguistic imperatives of a colonial and imperial discourse, attempts to colonise the space between itself and this landscape. It attempts to take up this space, to write its own cultural discourse over the surface of these alien forms, in order to produce them in a manner which is assimilable to itself. Its referent is always itself.

... no tree, to my taste, can be beautiful that is not deciduous. What can a painter do with one cold olive green? There is a dry harshness about the perennial leaf, that does not saviour of humanity in my eyes. There is no flesh and blood in it: it is not of us, and is nothing to us.6

... with dingy looking forest in the background. All the trees, although evergreens, want freshness: their foliage is of the most sombre uniform hue imaginable impervious mass everywhere presents itself of one uniform colour, a dark dirty green, over which on a hot day, the hazy, African-looking atmosphere hangs like a pestilence.7

The White experience of, and relation to, this Australian landscape has always been a conflictual tension of fear and desire; a binary set that is implicit in the colonial project itself. The construction of the Other to the imperialism of colonial discourse has been well articulated by writers such as Said ('Orientalism') and Bhabha. This binarisation results from the cartographic project of an imperial discourse, the drawing of lines, the marking out of a world for conquest, of fixing an area for occupation. The delineation of clear borders is important in a project of fixity enabling the stereotyping of others. Richard Dyer has articulated the ways in which, in this project, the visible and the bounded become characteristic strategies:

... clear boundaries are characteristic of things white (lines, grids, not speaking until someone else has finished and so on), and also what keeps whites clearly distinct from blacks. 8

The Other is both feared and desired; and the 'alien' landscape becomes constructed in the ambivalence of the stereotype, always marked off as the other. But it is more complex than this, and perhaps we can approach something more of this complexity within the representations of the literary text.


How can we read the construction of the landscape within 'Australian' (in quotation marks now, their use, as Derrida prescribes, as a precaution) 'literary' texts as a mapping project ? The question needs to be oriented towards the function of landscape within the text; what does it elaborate, to what subject position/s does this mapping refer? In the linguistically structured visual system of colonial discourse there is no subject position that belongs to the landscape.

But how can I even think this ? I might begin by pondering what it is that looks back at me when I look at this Australian landscape - can I see anything other than the reflection of my own language? It is at this point that we might become informed by Carter's notion of spatial history; that intentional world of texts in which the process of transforming space into place occurs in the specificity of naming, defining, and in the attribution of function. Spatial history is a history that discovers and explores the lacuna left by imperial history, and it begins and ends in language.9

The construction of landscape in Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career is an embellishment to her story. It serves as a metaphor for (the central character) Sybylla's shifting interiority, and describing a set of relations to herself and to the world. Sybylla's (and in this case, by extension, Franklin's) narrative power over the landscape is constructed in terms of a cartographic project through which she maps her story, her 'brilliant career', onto the landscape.

Sybylla's over-riding concern in this text is, of course, her brilliant career, or perhaps the impossibility of it.10 Her relationship to this chosen object of desire can be read, in part, in terms of its expression in the mediating topography of the landscape. In Chapter One she places her 'first recollection of life', when she was 'barely three'. And in this first placement of herself, the point at which she ascribes to herself a subjectivity, a subject position and a speaking position, she (Sybylla the narrator) places herself definitively, if romantically, within the landscape. It is articulated as an originary place from which her brilliant career will emerge. It is the semiotic space of the (m)other.

I can remember the majestic gum-trees surrounding us, the sun glinting on their straight white trunks, and falling on the gurgling fern-banked stream, which dissappeared beneath a steep scrubby hill on our left. (1)

The relation between the fictional character Sybylla and the landscape is extremely complex. To make contact with this complexity requires some understanding of the ways in which colonial discourse constructs the landscape, the ways in which its subjectivity becomes defined within it, and the conflictual tensions that abound in this relationship. The notion of cartography is crucial to this, for the colonial project is a mapping process. What I wish to examine is the ways in which the character of Sybylla is mapped in terms of the landscape.

The myth and legend of the bush, in its oppositional relation to the city, is, in large part, an attempt to map onto this alien other the trace of colonial and imperial desire. The city is civilised, mapped, framed, law, language - it is always already knowable and known within discourse. The bush always exceeds the bounds of conventionalised discourse, always resists the conventional frames of mapping, law and language. The myths and legends of the bush function as an attempt to colonise, to find ways of occupying this other; as though investing it with an entire European lexicon will transform it from unknowable space into that which is knowable and containable, in short to redefine it as place. This is a place that is marked and articulated by a specific political praxis, a linguistic invasion or colonisation of space.

This is what the narrative of My Brilliant Career attempts to do, a project that is exemplified in the quote above. She makes a place of her own in this bush in which she constructs her birth. It is her speaking which articulates this place and invents (a) history. This is the land as mother, the construction of which we have a long history; a whole chain of mythical notions - mother-earth, mother-England, and so on.

With regard to the Australian tradition, the subject in discourse is constituted by its relation to the land as (m)other. The desire for the place of the mother is co-extensive with the desire for the land.11

But this is also an ambivalent relation to the land, to the mother. It is constructed from the outset both as a place of birth, a womb, a nest, in that the rich description of this place surrounds 'us' and is 'majestic', a place of nurture and desire, and on the other hand as a place of threat. As she picks flowers in her 'Eden' she disturbs the 'serpent', and a big black one at that.(2) The possible reading here of a biblical intertext allows us to break with the fixity of the landscape construction in this text as a 'real', for this is surely an alien cultural inscription. The 'alien' biblical scene is here inscribed onto the textual body of an Australian landscape, as Christianity colonises not the Australian landscape but the textual body of its representation.

There is no alterity here, no notion of an 'other' as 'other'. The narrator perhaps does not even see a landscape, nor even speak of a relation to a landscape. Here it is the landscape as metaphor; and in the terms of the ambivalent relations between the subject in discourse, the land and the mother, it is a way of speaking at the level of the psyche of her (Sybylla's) relation to her mother, about whom, in the rest of the narrative, can be read her ambivalence. Within Western discourses, and perhaps others, ways of speaking and available ways of taking up speaking positions prescribe certain ways of speaking about specific social and cultural formations. The construction of the family, for example, is one of the ways of organising what can and cannot be said directly about one's father and mother, given their privileged status within religious and patriarchal discourses. Might not landscape then become an available site for the mapping out of this territory ? In a number of different ways then, allegorical readings of landscape become possible.

Another possible framing of this text, following colonial and religious discourses, but also intimately connected, implicated and complicit with these historical formations, is the patriarchal order, the social Law-of-the-Father. For it is the father who mediates the conflictual tension of fear and desire, he is the phallic signifier - that slash which marks the division bush/city, culture/nature, fear/desire. It is Sybylla's father who kills the snake and thereby 'recues' her. But it is also this masculine discourse that articulates the division, that inserts itself between the categories that it constructs in this process. A rape that occurs at the conceptual and symbolic level, but also that which makes the occurrence possible at the level of the real, of the landscape, of woman, of indigenous peoples.

This intervention that 'rescues' her is also one that burns her, literally. In her gratitude to her rescuer, and as the little girl helping her father, she picks up his pipe and burns her "dirty little fat fists".(2). It is the articulation and expression of this pain, this burning, arising as a consequence or in association with the male protector and rescuer, with which she opens her narrative. Is it not then this conflictual relation with the masculine, that which she desires but also that which causes her pain, that articulates her whole discourse?

Further into the narrative, or later in the story, we find Sybylla's resistance/rebellion turning on questions of her place as a woman. She resists the notion of the 'proper' place for a woman in relation to man, that her life be mediated by, and subject to, 'his' desire. She is bitter about her exclusion from the friendship of men, of mateship; an exclusion that for her marks the negation and refusal of a place for her own desire within this social world, and that attempts to deny her her brilliant career. Her desire for a place for her own desires seeks to find a space beyond the oppressive constrictions of this social world.

I could go on, I imagine, almost indefinitely colonising this space/page with my language. What is important, however, is that the critical and theoretical space I have been constructing here does, I would argue, open the literary text to different possibilities of reading, to produce multiple possible readings from within that space which Carter names as the intentional world of texts. The ways in which space has been written in this land are problematic, for this writing has attempted to transform the spatiality of this land, not just into place, but into European place. To articulate a different spatiality is problematic since this European place has always been the inscribed subject position within this language. It always already requires the development of an internal resistance in order, in the first instance, merely to put these culturally constructed positions/places in question, and to trouble the fixity of the borders of a European cultural imaginary.

Franklin's discourse then can be read in terms of a multiplicity. At the same time that she is attempting to engage with the problematic positioning of herself as a women in this Australian 'world of men', she is also acting out an equally problematic positioning in the landscape, and an equally problematic positioning in relation to Aborigines.

In the narrative of My Brilliant Career, Franklin's discourse is concerned with notions of place, or more specifically with resistance to constricting pre-established positions/places/roles that have been marked out for Sybylla. These are places that she cannot comfortably occupy or inhabit, and she attempts to construct her own. That she feels she has failed in this endeavour is evident in the penultimate paragraph where she speaks of her "ineffective life" and that she is "only a - woman"(232). But this seems as impossible a point to debate as the (im)possibility of her brilliant career.


1 David Tacey, "Australia's Otherworld: Aboriginality, Landscape and the Imagination", Meridian, vol.8, no.1 (May 1989).

2 Ibid., p.58.

3 Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay (London: Faber and Faber, 1987).

4 Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, (1901; rpt. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1986).

5 Umberto Eco's article "How Culture Conditions the Colours We See", in Blonsky M (ed.), On Signs (London: Basil Blackwell, 1985), provides an interesting backdrop, albeit in diferent terms, to this discussion in terms of colour being filtered through a linguistic and therefore a cultural system.

6 In Geographical Memoirs of New South Wales, cited in Brian Eliott, The Landscape of Australian Poetry (Melbourne: Chesire, 1967) p.18.

7 Wollaston, Rev. J.R., The Picton Journal 1841-1844, Unpublished manuscript.

8 Richard Dyer, "White", Screen, vol 29, no 4, (1988), p.51.

9 Carter, op.cit.

10 Carole Ferrier (ed.),Gender, Politics and Fiction (University of Queensland Press, 1985), p.8.

11 Schaffer, Kay, "Landscape Representation and Australian National Identity", in Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, 4:2 (1987), p.51.

New: 27 December, 1996 | Now: 11 April, 2015