Mary Durack's Kings in Grass Castles is a classic of Western Australian settler literature. 1 First published in 1959, it is also a best seller having gone through eighteen printings to 1991. Besides selling well, it seems to be well-read, or at least well-borrowed. At present thirty-five copies are circulating in the public library system in Western Australia. 2
Generically, Kings in Grass Castles is a family chronicle (13 and 17) of the founding of a Westem Australian pastoral dynasty by its patriarch, Durack's grand-father, Patrick "Patsy" Durack. Accordingly, Kings in Grass Castles is a myth of origins of the self-proclaimed royal family of the east Kimberley who may have only been "kings in grass castles" of a "cattle kingdom" (399), but who were kings initially of "one and a half million acres . . . on either side of the Ord River" (231) and emperors eventually, as Durack modestly boasts, of "a sizeable pastoral empire of six to seven million acres or roughly ten thousand square miles" (379). As it is also an epic (20, 232 and 262), Kings in Grass Castles has an epic hero in the person of Patrick's brother, Michael "Stumpy" Durack, who makes the obligatory descent into the unknown underworld of the east Kimberley.
Furthermore, Kings in Grass Castles is a quest narrative in search of the Golden Fleece or, more precisely, "the golden Kimberley savannah lands" (225), "pastoral paradise" (207), "cattleman's paradise" (208) and "Promised Land" (221) of the Ord River. In this combined Biblical and Classical journey Michael Durack doubles as both Jason and part Moses. He finds the Golden Fleece of the east Kimberley and returns with the news to Queensland. Although he does not personally lead the chosen few on the "big trek" (231) to the Promised Land of the east Kimberley through the wilderness of outback Queensland and the Northern Territory, "Stumpy" Michael does get to enter the Promised Land, unlike his Old Testament prototype. The role of leader of the trek is later taken by his nephew and the author's father, "Long" Michael, or "Miguel," Durack.
For good measure, a "boys' own" (in a number of senses) imperialist adventure story of "the conquest of this new country" to "make a pastoral empire [sic]" (210) is thrown in, not to mention the occasional episode from "some Davey Crockett serial in Australian setting" (356). Finally, Kings in Grass Castles combines elements of the naturalist's attention to the details of flora and fauna, the romantic's love of the beautiful, the picturesque and the sublime, and, last but not least, the pastoralist's view of the land with one eye for waterfowl or "game" and good cattle country whilst the other is kept on the weather.
Yet these elements, and the discourses, the institutionalized "ways of saying" from which they arise, do not co-exist in blissful harmony. Rather there is a constant struggle for hegemony between them which enacts a powerful gender politics. In patriarchy, the romantic and the naturalist have been assigned to, and associated with, the female/feminine, and the pastoralist to and with the male/masculine. Kings in Grass Castles is no exception to this general rule. What is exceptional about it is the way these elements are combined in a single text, even in a single sentence which probably could only have been produced by a woman. No doubt this combination of discourses is related to its generic hybridity and is probably even constitutive of it.
The gender and generic (and the two are closely related as Jacques Derrida, Cate Poynton and Terry Threadgold have argued3) politics of the natural environment is most evident when it comes to the descriptions of water-bodies, especially rivers or "watercourses" - as Durack prefers to name them - in Kings in Grass Castles. In this article I trace the struggle between the discourses of naturalism, pastoralism and romanticism in the representation of what could be called the wetlandscape. I also explore what could be called the eco-gender and eco-generic (in the sense of "genus") politics of this struggle and its psychodynamics using the work of Karl Abraham to show how, in the driest continent on earth, it is not just any water which is valuable for settlers. Indeed, water is a highly ambivalent substance for them as Durack points out when she refers to "deathdealing, life-giving water" (252). From the pastoralist point of view, flowing and masculinized rivers are generally preferred over still and feminized wetlands, whereas from the romantic and naturalist perspective the reverse largely applies, with the notable exception of slimy bogs and sloughs. An eco-gender politics and taxonomy of the landscape, or more precisely wetlandscape, operates just as much, and as powerfully, as a taxonomy of flora and fauna with its own eco-generic politics.4 In conclusion I will offer, by way of a reading of To the Islands by Randolph Stow and Long Live Sandawara by Colin Johnson (now Mudrooroo), views of the Kimberley wetlandscape which contrast with those in Kings in Grass Castles and some modest proposals for an alternative, or oppositional, discourse about it.
In Kings in Grass Castles, water is preferably of a certain type in a branching and descending set of distinctions and scale of preferences dividing into finer and finer detail until ultimately the taxonomy is resolved into a simple binary opposition: for a start, waters which are clean, shiny and contained are preferred over those which are dirty, slimy and extensive, or in other words, billabongs rather than bogs or sloughs; rivers or "watercourses" which flow in prescribed channels rather than swamps which are stagnant without definite boundaries; rivers which are permanent, not temporary; permanent rivers which are accessible to stock (and so orally satisfying) and not inaccessible at the bottom of steep gorges (and so orally sadistic); all of which boils down ultimately to the privileging of the Ord River over all non-Ord waters and the binary opposition between the two. A distinctive pastoralist and patriarchal, political and economic agenda for the natural environment is pursued in Kings In Grass Castles which ultimately wins out over the naturalist's and romantic's view, though both these are arguably as patriarchal as the pastoralist, as I try to indicate in passing.
The worst water of all, the lowest of the low in Kings in Grass Castles is muddy, slimy water, though "a well of stagnant water" (90) is better than nothing when you're dying of thirst. Generally, however, this water is treated, not merely with disdain, but with horror.5 It is also morally opprobrious: it is "bad water thick with green slime" (104). When "Stumpy" Michael first lands in Cambridge Gulf, he and his men have to "plough through the reeking mud" in which they "floundered and sank" (217). Descriptions of cattle droving abound in references to the "slimy mud" (248), "sticky mud" (257) and even to "the evil slime" (248) of bogs and sloughs (see also 301). This dirty, slimy water mixed with earth is beyond the pale and denigrated in comparison with the clear, flowing water of rivers.
Stagnant, swampy waters are not much better than dirty, slimy water. They are subject to the utilitarian view, especially for cattle, and found to be wanting: "the vast tracts of useless, rough range, claypan and cadjibut swamp . . . lay between the good grazing areas" (355, see also 63). The "good grazing areas" are ones "fed" by rivers, though not just any old river. A contrast can be made between Durack's romantic view of rivers in her native Queensland and those in the Kimberley. Writing of "the watercourse" on the Cooper Plains near Thylungra in a chapter entitled "A Land Loved By Birds," Durack describes how "through the ragged arches of bordering coolibah and wild oranges the water shone polished bright in the setting sun" (110). The brightly shining billabong with definite borders, unlike the ill-defined bog, slough and swamp, constitutes the beautiful in Durack's nature aesthetic.6
This romantic view of an aestheticized landscape (which operates in a sterile antinomy with the pastoralist and patriarchal view and so is locked into the same logic) gives way quickly to the naturalist's desire to identify and classify the birds disturbed by the coming of "the travellers" (though the relationship of the settlers to the land was not as fleeting as this euphemistic appellation might suggest): "parrots and water fowl of all kind, wild geese, plumed duck, spoonbill, avocets. Flocks of teal wheeled noisily with egrets, ibises, herons and pigmy geese, while pelicans, heavily rising, flapped off in the wake of low-flying brolgas" (110). These birds can all be classified as waterbirds with the exception of the parrots.
The aesthetic delight in wheeling waterbirds persists throughout the book. Indeed, wheeling waterbirds ascending into the heights, though also to some extent acrobatic, brightly coloured bushbirds (mainly parrots or budgerigars), produce the state of the sublime in Durack's nature aesthetic. Yet the production of the sublime by wheeling waterbirds sits uneasily with the status of their class or sub-family of "game" when she describes how "game was plentiful, magpie geese, whistling duck, Burdekin duck went wheeling and calling in dense clouds over the lush wet-weather landscape" (260). This is one sentence which combines the romantic's natural aesthetic, especially the sublime, the naturalist's observation of individual bird species, with the pastoralist's eye on his dinner and the weather. But in the process of the sublime-producing wheeling waterbirds rising above the lush wet-weather landscape, the waterbirds are abstracted from the landscape and reduced to agents of aesthetic or culinary satisfaction, whilst the landscape becomes objectified as background for the wheeling waterbirds, rather than being seen as the habitat of the birds.
The waterbirds and the landscape are not only differentiated in terms of their status as agents and objects, but also in terms of the aesthetic and other responses they evoke. Whereas the waterbirds produce a sublime pleasure bordering on pain, and the satisfaction of hunger in the case of "game," the landscape arouses a horrifying desire: "here now was the lush, tropical north that returning drovers spoke of with mixed repugnance and fascination" (260). The doubling of repugnance and fascination is a precise definition of the Freudian concept of the uncanny which, Zoe Sofoulis argues, is the obverse of the sublime.7 Fascination and repugnance were feelings found by Freud to be aroused in men by the sight of their mother's genitals. The uncanny wet-weather wetlandscape could be seen to be the womb of the tropics from which new life springs.
The combination of the sublime and uncanny here is an aesthetic of both visual pleasure and oral surfeit, of waterbirds ascending in formless profusion8 and of cloying taste to the point of profligate excess. "Lush" can refer to the tender and juicy, orally satisfying qualities of luxuriant grass. It also has connotations of sexual attractiveness and excessive drinking. Generally the overall image created is that of a blowsy, slightly tipsy, middle-aged outback mother who is both sexually fascinating and physically repugnant to the drovers.
Lush pasture in general is the object of desire and the end of the quest in Kings in Grass Castles, but in the wet season the pasture is too lush, provoking repugnance and fascination rather than giving satisfaction. The ideal pasture, satisfying both orally and aesthetically, is that which "sprang sweet and succulent on the parched plains" (105, my emphasis), almost a contradiction in terms and nearly an impossible object. When it grows lush on the drenched plains in "the wet," however, it is an object of fascination and repugnance.
The description of sublime-producing, wheeling waterbirds culminates later in Kings in Grass Castles with the billabong from which "thousands of wild whistling duck rose from among the reeds and lilies, and wheeled away, in serpent coils against the sunset sky" (288). This is probably the only positive description of a wetland in the book and it is hardly surprising that it is of that archetypal and quintessential Australian wetland, the billabong, mythologized by "Waltzing Matilda." Yet the discourses of the aesthetic and the naturalist, especially the sublime, are not allowed to persist for too long over that of the utilitarian and pastoralist, especially the culinary, for on the next page the whistling ducks have reverted to "game" with Uncle John shooting them and boasting of bringing down twenty-four with one shot.
A similar description of a beautiful, brightly shining billabong with sublime-producing, wheeling waterbirds as well - and so what would be the pinnacle of aesthetic delight for Durack - can be found in her novel Keep Him My Country: "the billabong shone like bright enamel under a sunset sky, reflecting the wheeling birds, pale lilies and dark bordering trees" (110). A beautitul billabong, though, can always revert to a slimy bog, and the sublime-producing, wheeling waterbirds be replaced by swarming and sadistic predatory bushbirds as occurs later in Keep Him My Country: "after two light seasons the big billabong had dwindled to a fetid, shallow pool in a crazy pavement of dried mud rimmed with grey coolibahs and streaky paper barks. The water birds had flown but the crows and hawks swarmed about the worm-raddled carcasses of perished stock and tormented the living animals imprisoned in the bog" (206, see also 254). Crows and hawks are more like insects than birds. Indeed, they are implicitly not living and they are certainly not edible, at least not in accordance with the Biblical injunction that "every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is an abomination; it shall not be eaten" (Leviticus 11:41). For Durack, the only living and edible things in this half-dead land seem to be waterbirds and cattle.9
In both Kings in Grass Castles and Keep Him My Country waterbirds are constantly privileged over all other birds, especially predatory bushbirds, mainly on the basis that waterbirds in general produce the state of the sublime when wheeling and as "game" are presumably orally satisfying when eaten (though there are no descriptions of the eating of "game" in the book), whereas bushbirds are sadistic when swarming and orally frustrate because they are inedible. Durack's taxonomy of birds is based on both aesthetic and culinary criteria with predatory bushbirds being sadistic and inedible, wheeling birds producing the sublime, and "game" being edible.
Generally the number of waterbird species, and indeed the presence of the waterbirds themselves, are merely indexical of "good land." The settlers were "ardent naturalists" (116), not so much because they could identify and classify waterbirds, but because they had learned "to read significance in the habits and antics of birds" (117). Birds are reduced to agents of the sublime when wheeling, or to mere signifiers, indeed indices, in a semiotic chain in which they either signify "good land" in the case of waterbirds, or "bad season" as we shall see in a moment in the case of bushbirds. The romantic's and naturalist's view of waterbirds and the land gives way immediately to the pastoralist's in which
"a land loved by birds must be good land" (110). Waterbirds are abstracted from their habitat and reduced to indices, or, if wheeling, to agents of the sublime. "Good land" is "the pastures of a grazier's dream" (109,110), a wish-fulfilling dream no doubt. The land is good, not for the birds themselves, but for cattle where goodness is equated with and reduced to the ability of the land to sustain or "run" a certain number or "head" of cattle per acre.
Birds in general had their pastoralist uses. The presence of waterbirds indicated good land, on the one hand as we have just seen, and the antics of bushbirds pointed to bad seasons on the other: "the blacks predicted there would be no rain that season for the chattering hordes of budgerigars that so delighted the eye with acrobatic displays, now darkening the sun like a storm cloud, now turning in a conjuror's vanishing trick on the knife edges of a million wings, were congregating too thickly about the remaining waterholes" (119). This sentence is another which combines the romantic's natural aesthetic, especially the sublime, the naturalist's observation of individual bird species, particularly their behaviour, with the pastoralist's eye on the weather. It is also one of the few positive representations of bushbirds in the book.
Good land is land which could feed cattle and a bad season is a season which will not be able to feed cattle, whereas bad land is cruel and sadistic which cannot feed cattle. This distinction between good land as orally satisfying, a bad season as orally depriving and bad land as orally sadistic operates in the contrast between Queensland and Kimberley rivers: "unlike the sprawling Queensland rivers that spread far and wide after the rains to disappear sometimes completely when the floods had run their course, the larger of these Kimberley streams had bitten deep, tortuous channels in the plains and worn towering gorges through the ranges" (220). The evanescence of Queensland rivers is unfavourable, but at least their easy-going, leisurely sprawl is in some ways preferable to the incisive oral-sadism of the larger Kimberley rivers with their sharp teeth and deep throats ("gorge" is both throat and ravine).
Durack anthropomorphizes the gorge rivers in the Kimberley (and the Kimberley more generally when she refers to it as "Kimberley," ironically also the name of the author's brother, one of the dedicatees of the book), by displacing onto them (by way of metaphor) the oral-sadistic qualities of tortuous biting, or more precisely, projecting on to them the fear of being bitten back by mother earth after having bitten into her so savagely with pastoralism. Symmetry, fairness and reciprocity, the desire for them and the fear of them, are important factors here. Indeed, for Karl Abraham, "the craving for symmetry and 'fairness' . . . is often represented in the anal character,"10 especially the anal-sadistic, whereas arguably the fear of symmetry and fairness, exercised back against oneself, characterizes the oral-sadistic.
The fear of being eaten by the mother characterizes the oral-sadistic stage interposed between what Freud calls the "primitive oral organization - the fear of being eaten up . . . by the father" and the "anal-sadistic phase - the wish to be eaten by the father."11 The oral sadism in Kings in Grass Castles is not necessarily symptomatic of any pathology on Durack's part personally (and I am not implying or suggesting any), but of what could be called a cultural psychogeopathology in which there is no hard and fast divide between the normal and the pathological but more of a continuum between them. In Jacques Derrida's terms, I am "putting the text on the couch," analysing, in Pierre Macherey's words, "the unconscious of the work (not of the author)" and getting it to speak its repressed by free association.12 This "talking cure," though, is not designed to make the symptom disappear (as Freud believed it would) from the text, but to speak the cultural symptom which figures the (Western Australian) environment in pathological terms. In the conclusion to this chapter, I want to offer some alternative, or oppositional, ways to the psychogeopathological of talking about the Kimberley (and Western Australian) wetlandscape.
Kings in Grass Castles can be read as a symptom of a cultural pscyhogeopathology because it includes and represents what Aldo Leopold, one of the "founding fathers" of the American conservation movement, calls "a land pathology" in the "collective organism of land and society."13 As Leopold goes on to point out, a pathology is indicated by "self-accelerating rather than self-compensating departures from normal functioning." Kings in Grass Castles is, amongst other things, a history of pastoralism in Australia in general which plots the self-acceleration of the industry in the fifty years from circa 1850-1900 and the consequent departure of "vast tracts" of land from their normal, indigenous functioning over 40,000 years.
The growth of the Australian pastoral industry constitutes a land pathology if there ever were one which manifests itself in the cultural symptom of the textual trope, such as metaphor. The trope is the symptom which manifests the cultural repressed through displacement and sublimation. If, as that ostensibly arch anti-Freudian Vladimir Nabokov suggests, "tropes are the dreams of speech," and if, as Freud maintains, "the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the unconscious activities of the mind," then the interpretation of tropes is the royal road to the unconscious activities of speech.14 By reversing the processes of displacement and sublimation, the unconscious conditions of possibility of the trope can be analysed and its cultural psychogeopathology allayed, and even an alternative, or oppositional, discourse created, or at least intimated.
In Abraham's psychoanalytic terms, the love of observing nature in Kings in Grass Castles, such as is exemplified in bird-watching, would be seen as the sublimation of repressed desires for oral satisfaction. He suggests that:
the displacement of the infantile pleasure in sucking to the intellectual sphere is of great practical significance. Curiosity and the pleasure in observing receive important reinforcements from this source, and this not only in childhood, but during the subject's whole life. In persons with a special inclination for observing Nature, and for many branches of scientific investigation, psychoanalysis shows a close connection between those impulses and repressed oral desires. 15
Observing is an act that masters objects at a distance and reduces them to passivity whereas oral satisfaction, unlike oral sadism, entails immediacy and generosity between self and other. Indeed, for Abraham, "the act of sucking is one of incorporation, but one which does not put an end to the existence of the object. The child is not yet able to distinguish between its own self and the external object. There is yet no differentiation made between the sucking child and the suckling breast."16 Furthermore, no distinction has yet been made between the mother and the external world in general so she is in a pre-metaphoric stage or state in which the body of the mother and mother earth are one. This oneness is no more cogently described than by Marie Bonaparte in her well-known psychoanalytic study of the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe:
the child at the breast knows nothing of the world: all it knows of it is the breast which gives it milk. This breast is more than something it may claim, it seems part and parcel of its own body. Thus, the mother's proximity, by degrees, develops in the child its first conceptions of the outside world, for it soon learns to know presence or absence, her yielding or witholding of the breast. Thus, to it, she is the first embodiment of that nature by which it is surrounded, whose every constituent, by degree, attaches itself to the primal figure of the mother. Later, in adult life, nature which both feeds and harshly uses man will, by a sort of regression, come to symbolize the mother upon whom, orginally, that nature was modelled but, now, as an immensely magnified, eternal, infinite mother. Thus, the manner in which each of us loves nature, always reflects, more or less, our own mother-complex. 17
Yet this relationship not only involves the way "nature" "harshly uses man." It also invariably involves the way "man" harshly, or sadistically, uses nature.
Abraham distinguishes the earlier orally satisfying stage of the overall oral phase from the later orally sadistic stage in which "the individual incorporates the object and so destroys it."18 The reciprocal relationship between self and other has been taken over and superseded by the sadistic distinction between subject and object. These processes can be seen to operate in pastoralism which separates itself from the external object of the land, incorporates it orally by sheep and cattle grazing on it, and so generally destroys it. By and large, pastoralism does not operate in a kind of generous and immediate symbiosis in what Marx called the interchange (Stoffwechsel) of human-nature metabolism, or what we would now call an ecologically sustainable way.19
Indicative of the way in which pastoralism separates itself off from the land in Kings in Grass Castles and sets up a sadistic subject/object relationship with it is the way in which visual observation is dominant over oral satisfaction, the eyes over the mouth, the sense of sight over the sense of taste. Some early settlers demonstrated "a taste for the land" (207), but they are considered naive to do so and the infantile, orally-fixated cattle "nuzzled and sucked"(248), like breast-feeding babies, slimy water when nothing else was available, but what else could be expected of "dumb animals?" The Duracks, though, distinguish themselves from the other early settlers, and from cattle of course, by ostensibly eschewing such infantile oral pleasures and avowing adult visual pleasures.
Kings in Grass Castles abounds in references to watching, observing, inspecting, surveying, taking "a bird's eye view" (243), not as an identification, or even empathy with the bird, but as an appropriation of the bird's point of view in order to "look down" (227) on, denigrate, and master the land from above. These sublimations of the oral into the visual mark a shift from oral-sadism to anal-sadism, from the fear of being eaten by (the) mother (earth), to what Abraham calls "the subject's pleasure in looking at his own possessions."20 It also marks a shift from the realm of the mother to that of the father.
The inspection of the land in Kings in Grass Castles often has patriarchal romantic and reproductive connotations; for example, "the Kimberley district looked promising . . . but . . . there was a tendency with surveyor-explorers to fall in love on sight with country they discovered if it was in any way fertile" (207). The reproductive metaphor is carried through into references to "vast open plains heavy with pasture" (208), like the patriarchal stereotype of a woman "heavy with child," though early reports of the land's "fertility and abundance" had deceived many naive early settlers for "this was after all a hard land . . . a remote and lonely land of long, dry winters and wet tropical summers" (229). The bad, hard land is figured as a kind of dried-up spinster aunt rather than as fecund mother earth. However, the Durack pastoral empire on both sides of the Ord was "a vast fertile tract of river frontage" (356). The Duracks may have only been "kings in grass castles," but they were kings of the king of Kimberley watercourses. There is more than a modicum of sadism implicitly exercised here against those less fortunate and well-off than the Duracks. The pastoral conquest of the country is not only seen in sadistic terms, but also in masculinist sexual terms as "the opening up of new and untried country" (355) with its "virgin pastures" (20) when Stumpy Durack "surveys the lay of the land" (222): "far below stretched the golden Kimberley savannah lands, cut through by green ribbons of timbered gullies and creeks" (225). The good, soft land is figured, and fantasized, as a passively supine and sadistically marked young female body laid open to and decorated for the penetrating gaze of the epic hero. To cap it all off, inevitably there is the obligatory reference to the "whiteman's penetration in this lonely land" (227, see also 103) with its obvious overtones of rape.
The desire to taste and ingest mother earth literally is one that it is quickly repressed in western childhood, and this desire and its repression is merely symptomatic of a larger desire to know her intimately, to feed on her as one fed on the breast of one's mother, or its substitute. This desire is displaced and sublimated into the love of looking, or scopophilia, with the emphasis shifting from immediacy to distance, from the sense of taste to that of sight, from reciprocity to sadism. The naturalist's desire to observe (and to identify and classify, and so to master) is, then, as equally masculine and sadistic as the pastoralist's desire to possess (and to own as a king of the king of Kimberley watercourses and to rule albeit from "grass castles").
This repression of oral desire is borne out by the fact that streams in the Kimberley also held contrasts in themselves between "expanses of dry bed [which] alternated with deep green reaches where waters were held between high banks, creviced by centuries of wind and water, luxuriant with trees, creepers and trailing palms" (220). The narrow, deep-throated, orally-sadistic gorge rivers and the old, dry dug/bed of the bad breast contrasts with the deep and wide expanse of the good breast, the Ord River "twenty chain width of water reaching out of sight" (226), graphically illustrated in the photograph of Plate XXXVIII of the hardback edition of Kings in Grass Castles.
The land by the Ord River is the land flowing with milk and honey, the land where, in Abraham's terms, the orally fixated or dissatisfied "expect the mother's breast to flow for them etemally"21 and so obtain oral satisfaction. Queensland rivers and the other Kimberley rivers continually frustrated this expectation. The promised land of riverine water feeding lush pasture which, in turns, feeds cattle is where the good breast of mother earth flows eternally. The pastoralist discourse wins out over the discourses of romanticism and naturalism, the male/masculine over the female/feminine. Such is the completeness of this victory here that Sons in the Saddle, the sequel to Kings in Grass Castles, has hardly a trace of the discourses of romanticism and naturalism.
The course of the other, non-Ord streams in the Kimberley is generally marked as tortuous. The Durack River is no exception: "the river swung north, south and west on a tortuous route through plain and range, cutting through dense pandanus thickets and tattered cadjibuts, cascading over rocky falls and into still reaches of pale blue lotus where jabiru and ibis preened and fished" (221). The still reaches of placid and feeding maternity are contrasted with the sadistic knifing of the river cruelly twisting through gorges.
Durack's great-uncle and his expedition were more responsive to the plains than to the gorges: "cheered [but not overjoyed] by the sight of open plains and abundant grasses - a wonderland of pasture and fine trees" with its "even spread of golden grass" giving the impression of "park land, artistically planned, a reserve of wild life . . . an artist's paradise of scenery in the grand manner
(220, 221). The romantic's appreciation of a picturesque English-style parklandscape competes with, and here triumphs temporarily over, the cattleman's eye for good pasture; the pastoral wins out momentarily over the pastoralist.
The land itself, though, is generally reduced to the site of a quest, specifically an interior quest in two senses: a quest for "manhood," and a quest for the Ord River. Both quests are undertaken by journeying into "the Kimberley hinterland" (86), also "the lonely hinterland" (307)) beginning at "the mouth of the Ord River" (217, 219), or at what was supposed was its mouth, and proceeding inside it only to find other, orally sadistic rivers instead, as well as "impenetable gorges" (301). It seems as if, despite the colonization of "vast tracts" of the surface of mother earth, especially of the good breast of the Ord River and despite his desire to penetrate further, the "whiteman's penetration in this lonely land" was only into the mouth of the Ord and not down its throat. This double quest involves the obligatory descent into the underworld as part of the epic hero's journey which he must successfully negotiate his way through in order to achieve "manhood" and the goal of his quest.
Psychodynamically, the underworld into which the hero descends is the female body and sexuality figured in terms of bodies of water. This journey into the interior, or hinterland, of mother earth via her mouth is a regal, oral insemination by the king pastoralists of "the queen of Australian rivers" (209) out of which union a patrilineal pastoral empire is born. The patriarch was later able to boast about "this country that I brought to life" (274). The patriarch views the creation of new life as a parthenogenesis which typically overlooks the role of (the) mother (earth) and the labour of women (in a number of senses) in reproducing life. One of the ways in which Kings in Grass Castles is a boys' own story is that women, especially Aboriginal women, and their labour, are largely absent from it.22
The attainment of the object of the quest is repeatedly deferred by not finding the right mouth to begin with. In fact, the epic hero was not even in the area known as the "false mouths" of the Ord on the east side of Cambridge Gulf. The epic hero has an inverted notion of female anatomy and a strange concept of sexual reproduction because he confuses the vagina with the mouth. No doubt this inversion and confusion revolves around the vagina dentata and no doubt seeing the tortuous gorges as oral sadistic gives rise to them being seen as vagina dentata.
The oral sadistic fear of symmetry and reciprocity being exercised back by the mother against the self produces the fear that the mother's vagina/uterus which gave life and the mother's mouth which must give pleasure to her, as the infant's gives pleasure to it by taking sustenance, will coalesce into the vagina dentata which would take life back and pleasure from the infant, or the infantile epic hero. This fear gives rise to the desire for oral penetration and insemination such are both the extent and distance to which the orally dissatisfied displace sexuality and the kind of pre-emptive "do-you-before-you-do-me" modus operandi employed by them. This displacement of sexuality to the oral even has narcissistic and incestuous overtones when one of the river mouths entered mistakenly was the Durack, but this River "too was not the Ord" (222). The Durack is constituted by not being the Ord, a very serious liability indeed and the ultimate binary opposition in Durack's taxonomy of waters.
Finally "a river . . . gave every promise of being the Ord at last" (222, 223). The phallic pastoralists fantasize that they are "on a promise." The promise is fulfilled for this is the "Promised Land," the title of Durack's twenty-first chapter and the fulfilment of Patsy's vision that "the Kimberley district looked promising" (207). This district is the land flowing with milk and honey, the good breast of mother earth, from which the questing pastoralist looking for (a) good feed for his cattle, can receive oral satisfaction unlike the orally sadistic tortuous gorge rivers/vagina dentata which threaten to eat him up and the dry beds/dugs of the bad breast from which he can get no satisfaction.
In this quest, the pastoralist's view of the country ultimately wins out over the romantic's and the naturalist's, the sadistic over the satisfying, the anal over the oral, the masculine over the maternal (though all the former and all the latter terms are not synonymous as I have already suggested). In finding the Ord River, "here was the pioneer landseeker's [not the romantic's nor the naturalist's] dream-come-true" (226), a wet-dream in a number of senses. In contrast with Dorothea MacKellar's "land of droughts and flooding rains," the Ord River country is "this new promised land of neither drought nor flood" (232).
The attainment of the object of the quest marks a further shift from the oral satisfaction (of lush pastures), through the oral sadism (of the gorge rivers, the oral desires repressed by repugnance for lush pastures in the wet season and displaced into observation, the oral dissatisfaction of the dry bed) through the anal sadism of the love of looking into the anal sadism of ownership and possession. For Abraham, "an inordinate desire to possess . . . belong[s] to the clinical phenomena of the anal character . . . built up on the ruins of an oral erotism whose development has miscarried."23 This development has miscarried (an entirely appropriate metaphor) because the object of desire (lush pasture) is found (in the wet-season) to be fascinating and repugnant, whereas previously (in the dry season) the object of desire was satisfying.
Durack writes how her grandfather read about the Kimberley and thought that this was "the country he most desired - a land of splendid rivers, fine pastures and reliable rainfall" (207) and she later quotes with approval how her great-uncle found "the country everything that could be desired, suitable for all kinds of stock" (226). The desirability of the country is equated with and reduced to its suitability for stock. This desire finds satisfaction in what Abraham calls "the pleasure in acquiring desired objects" (a bigger station on the accessible, permanent Ord River), rather than "the pleasure in holding fast to existing possessions" (a smaller station in Queensland near disappearing, temporary rivers).24 Patriarch Patsy says of the Ord River country "it's not a property . . . it's a Principality" (232) with its king and queen (though Grandmother Mary Durack, the author's namesake, does not rate much of a mention), princes and princesses including "the author" (see the photograph facing 209).
In "marked contrast" to the evanescent, temporary rivers of Queensland, the Ord River was "the land of permanent water, regular rainfall and abundant pasture" (233). Ironically, by a cruel twist of fate (or perhaps poetic justice) Argyle Downs Station is now more than ever "a land of permanent water" as it lies beneath the waters of the artificial Lake Argyle; Argyle Downs Station is now not temporarily "an inland sea" (252) during floods, but permanently beneath one. Perhaps the ultimate irony (or eponymous poetic justice) is that Kimberley Durack seems to have been one of the first to have proposed the scheme of damming the Ord (400). In later life Mary Durack appears to have had second thoughts about the damming, though, and to have become ambivalent about it to the point of penning a poem entitled "Lament for the Drowned Country."25
Durack's views about Kimberley rivers and wetlands, and the politics thereof, can be contrasted with those in Randolph Stow's novel To The Islands, first published in 1958, the year before Kings In Grass Castles, and with those in the novel Long Live Sandawara by "Colin Johnson" (now Mudrooroo), first published in 1979, twenty years after Kings in Grass Castles. Unlike Kings in Grass Castles which involves a quest for the promised pastoral land, To The Islands centres around the quest for a quiet death. On his journey from the interior to the exterior, Stephen Heriot, the dying missionary, encounters "a clear pool with a few lilies."26 At first he is concerned, like Durack, to identify the species of waterbirds there. He then sees the pool and its waterbirds in romanticized terms with an eye, like Durack, for the aesthetic forms of dance:
"Look at the birds," Heriot said. "Brolgas." He pointed to where, not far from them, a great flock of grey-blue birds was gathered, and three or four of them were dancing, measured and graceful, with a flowing interplay of wide wing and thin leg. "They're happy," said Heriot. (170)
Unlike Durack, Heriot anthropomorphizes the waterbirds in glowing, romantic terms, rather than the wetlandscape in sadistic, psychogeopathological ones.
Moving closer to the pool Heriot observes more with the eye of the amateur ornithologist and aesthetic naturalist the antics of the waterbirds:
They came to the edge of the pool, and with a great splash and a clap of wings the ducks fled from their coming, and circled above, and above the disturbed waterhole, brown ducks and black ones, and the small delicate teal in a high outcry of whistling. (171)
Heriot's observation of nature is, like that in Durack's book, a sublimation of oral desire. This sublimation can be seen in the contrast between Heriot's romanticized natural aesthetic and the attitude of his Aboriginal companion, Justin, who sees the pool both as source of food and object of love. After Justin shoots a goose which initially appals Heriot, he remarks that "you love the things you kill, but you never regret killing them" (172).
In Abraham's terms, the difference between the oral sadistic fear of being eaten by the land and the anal-sadistic desire to possess the land in Kings In Grass Castles and the oral desire in To the Islands to use and love the wetland is characteristic of what he calls "the differences in the inclination to share one's possessions with others. Generosity is frequently found as an oral-character-trait. In this the orally gratified person is identifying himself [and presumably herself as well] with the bounteous mother."27 Unlike the anal-sadistic who crave, and the oral-sadistic who fear, fairness and symmetry, those who are orally satisfied value reciprocity and generosity. This conclusion may smack of romanticized "noble savagery" when it is applied to Justin and indigenes more generally. But it certainly is indicative of a different kind of relationship, oral and otherwise, with the Western Australian (wet) landscape than that enacted in Kings in Grass Castles, and may be indicative of a broader cultural difference and gender politics in the social construction of the natural environment.
These differences come out strongly in Long Live Sandawara in which Noorak describes how "his first ancestors passed across this land, leaving it intact but known. Each tree, each bush, each animal, the waterholes and soaks were named and formed into a loving oneness of people and earth. No one raped and no one pillaged; love formed the bond and the Law held firm each and every particle until - "the unmentionable and unthinkable happened.28 The white man came, the invaders (75), with their cattle "like an army" which bawl like children and pollute the waterholes (76). Wetlands for Aboriginal people are bonded into a loving unity between them and the earth, not mythologized into beautiful billabongs, nor pathologized into useless swamps, nor sublimated into wheeling waterbirds, nor polluted by trampling cattle into slimy bogs or sloughs.
Nor later in the novel are gorge rivers orally sadistic - quite the contrary: "the Lennard river has churned [not bitten] the wild Wandjina gorge right through the Napier range. In the wet season the Wandjina spirits send floods to pour in torrents between the cliff faces. In the dry season the water retreats into the sky and the deep Wandjina pool lies peacefully between the steep limestone breasts of the mountain range" (112). The loving, nourishing and orally satisfying oneness of indigenous people with their bountiful gorge rivers, waterholes and soaks is worlds away, and cultures apart, from the aestheticizations, observations and orally sublimated distantiations of romantic naturalism with its beautiful billabongs and sublime waterbirds, and from the cruel, lonely and orally dissatisfied mastery of sadistic pastoralism with its slimy bogs or sloughs, useless swamps, tortuous gorge rivers and plentiful plains rivers, like the Ord River where the Duracks were once kings in their grass castles of the king of Kimberley watercourses.
Curtin University of Technology
With grateful acknowledgement of the helpful comments offered on an earlier version of this article at a work-in-progress seminar at Curtin, especially those offered by Stephan Millett.
1 Mary Durack, Kings In Grass Castles (1959; rept. Moorebank, NSW: Corgi, 1966). Hereafter cited in the text.
2 State Library Service of Western Australia cataloguing data.
3 See Jacques Derrida, "The Law of Genre/La loi du genre,"Glyph 7 (1980): 176-232; Cate Poynton, Language and Gender: Making the Difference, (Geelong: Deakin University Press, 1985), especially 21; and Terry Threadgold, "Language and Gender," Australian Feminist Studies, 6 (1988): especially 64.
4 See Michel Foucault, "Classifying," The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock, 1970) 125-165, especially "The Discourse of Nature," for a discussion of taxonomy.
5 For a discussion of the "horror of the slimy" and its relation to the sublime see my "Philosophy (and Sociology) in the Wetlands: The S(ub)lime and The Uncanny," New Formations 18 (1992): 142-159.
6 For Edmund Burke, the beautiful has, or is associated with, a smooth and polished surface. See his A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton, (London: Routldege and Kegan Paul, 1958) 114.
7 For a discussion of the uncanny as the obverse of the sublime see my article cited in note 6 above.
8 Immanuel Kant associated the formless with the sublime. See his Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith, (Clarendon: Oxford, 1952), 90.
9 This settler view can be contrasted with that of a visitor, Isaac Steinberg, the Jewish Territorialist, who visited the east Kimberley in 1939 to assess its suitability for a Jewish settlement. He had expected to find "the dead country, the wilted Nature, the arid waste land." Instead, he found "the very opposite: a country that was alive, a Nature that breathed and teemed, a land peopled with all sorts of creatures." Quoted in Leon Gettler,
An Unpromised Land (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993) 75. Steinberg, though, is like Durack (as we shall see) when he occasionally comes across "grass so fragrant and cheerful that I could have fancied himself on some exquisitely cultivated English estate." I. N. Steinberg, Australia - The Unpromised Land: In Search of A Home, (London: Gollancz, 1948), l9.
10 Karl Abraham, "Contributions to the Theory of the Anal Character (1921)," On Character and Libido Development: Six Essays, (New York: Basic Books, 1966) 185.
11 Sigmund Freud, "The Economic Problem of Masochism," On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Pelican Freud Library 11, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984) 419.
12 Jacques Derrida, " Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, " The Georgia Review 31.1 (1977): 96 and Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978) 92. For Julia Kristeva, however, "the text has no unconscious." See her Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) 160, 161.
13 Aldo Leopold, "Land Pathology, " The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays, ed.
J. Baird Callicott and Susan Flader (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992)
14 Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969; rept. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971) 328 and Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Pelican Freud Library 4 (1900; rept. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976) 769.
15 Karl Abraham, "The Influence of Oral Erotism on Character Formation (1924), " On Character, 162, 163.
16 Karl Abraham, "The Process of Introjection in Melancholia: Two Stages of the Oral Phase in the Libido," Selected Papers, trans. Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1965) 450.
17 Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, trans. John Rodker (London: Imago, 1949) 286.
18 Abraham, "Process," 451.
19 See Reiner Grundmann, Marxism and Ecology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)90, 99.
20 Abraham, "Contributions," 180.
21 Abraham, "Influence," 157.
22 Aboriginal women in the Kununurra area still complain about the harsh treatment they received from the Duracks. Hugh Webb, personal communication.
23 Abraham, "Influence," 156.
24 Abraham, "Influence," 157.
25 See Mary Durack, "Lament for the Drowned Country,"The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, ed.Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn (Ringwood: Penguin, 1986) 65-68.
26 Randolph Stow, To the Islands (1958; rept. Ringwood: Penguin, 1962)170. Hereafter cited in the text.
27 Abraham, "Influence," 161.
28 Colin Johnson, Long Live Sandawara (Melbourne: Quartet, 1979) 70. Hereafter cited in the text.
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