Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1983

Nation and place

Veronica Brady

Reviews of Vincent Buckley, Cutting Green Hay: Friendships, Movements & Cultural Conflicts in Australia's Great Decades, Melbourne: Penguin, 1983, $7.95; and Murray Walker, Making Do: Memories of Australia's Back Country People, Melbourne: Penguin, 1983, $6.95.

Although it turns on a relatively simple nexus, the fact that both are products of language, the relationship between written texts and the larger text we call a culture has still to be properly discussed in Australia. Instead, discussion of written texts has been mostly concerned with questions of attribution, with situating, dating and at tributing the works and then reporting on the reader's response, also usually a matter of individual attribution. The emphasis, in other words, has been on 'originality', on the difference rather than the consonance between the written text and the cultural context of its production and reception. This is odd, especially in a culture still in process of formation and definition. Read together these two books, however, ought to provoke discussion of a wider kind. Both of them broach the question of the relationship between the in dividual and the culture. More significantly, both implicitly raise a central issue in cultural studies, the debate between the claims of the subject and those of the truth, the debate, to simplify and perhaps oversimplify, between the approach of Chomsky and that of Foucault. To date discussion of Australian culture has been con ducted by and large in historical terms, in the confident belief that history is perhaps the mode of truth. But Buckley suggests quite explicitly, and Walker implicitly, that the historical dimension may conceal rather than reveal the truth which they both identify with the sovereignty of the subject, with the knowing and speaking self. What both attempt is to rescue what has hitherto been compromised. Buckley writes in his introduction:

This book is, in its way, a hymn, critical yet heartfelt, to two decades in particular, 1945-1965. This period has never had its due and it frightens people in retrospect as much as it unsettled them at the time. It was a period of expansion and proliferation in every cell of the culture; so that the Australia of 1960 was startlingly different, at least to the local person, from that of 1930. To say this is not to promote a new version of the myth of coming of age (a vacuous notion, if ever there was one) but to point out where I think the areas of rich plantation and rapid growth were (xii).

The distinctions here suggest a notion of 'truth', hidden to general observation, provisionally inaccessible, concealed until it is unveiled by the man or woman in search of it. Its history in Australia, it seems, is one of delay. But the task Buckley sets himself is relatively

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modest: to examine the obstacles which have prevented it from com ing to the light by examining his own experience. Paradoxically however, the personal pressure here makes for detachment—as Ricoeur has remarked, it is the absence of a philosophy of imagination which makes for the unbalanced presence of 'imagination', as a mode of fantasy rather than of creation, of the mediation of the three-fold opposition of voluntary and involuntary functions within willing. The play of images in Cutting Green Hay puts the reader in possession not only of Buckley's experiences but also of his understanding of them, reconciling the arbitrariness and determinism implicit in the account of his Irish background, his childhood dur ing the Depression, his school years with the Jesuits, the war and the debates of the 50's and early 60's. As 'light' of motive, the image gives reasons for deciding which in no way reduce the causes Reading this book thus anticipates the conjunction between objective 'truth' and knowing self which in my view is the goal of cultural understanding and which, significantly, Joseph Furphy worked for in Such is Life—still a crucial book for the understanding of our culture. Furphy's account of his purposes in fact, sums up also what Buckley is trying to do, to write 'fiction [which] may be truer than truth itself, since the latter, often anomalous and untypical, is always part hidden from view' to reveal the 'latent meaning' of Australia which is hidden beneath the appearances and still waiting for interpretation (Furphy, 1982: 406,65). Moreover, like Furphy, Buckley associates this truth with the speaking subject, not just with impersonal and abstract knowledge. So this introduction concludes:

But when all is said and done, I have written primarily in enjoyment of the past, about the life and lives which formed me: from my Irish ancestors, the anonymous kindred whose suffering lasted so sordidly long, to individuals and groups with whom I have worked, played, quarrelled, made plans, or discussed the flux ions of old age (xii).

The act of imagination anticipates fulfilment. Knowing can be, indeed is properly, enjoyment. Something, this, for the social scientist to consider.

Nor does this lessen the critical faculty. Buckley's account of the Australian society he grew up in has an existential sharpness and weight that make it more telling than a merely statistical, merely theoretical account, though it could be substantiated in those terms:

However much it valued initiative, it was not merely individualist it was restrictive and dulling . . . It was a desperately hard continent, in which an urban society had settled down to be smugly comfortable; and in it one experienced an intense undefinable longing, a primal nostalgia, for self-transcendence and completeness (xi).

If Australian culture is ever to cease to be colonial, dependent on ideas, images and attitudes borrowed or foisted on us from elsewhere then it is clearly necessary to begin, as here, with close scrutiny of

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the actual experience of living here, in this place and time. Society for him is to be defined as 'the habitat constituted by human beings and their doings' (xii). Consequently the tropes, the forms of discussions and discovery proper to this society will need to arise from the human beings, from the awareness or lack of awareness which constitutes this habitat. Everything therefore ultimately depends upon 'the self of the narrator,' though in this kind of book—as distinct from the poetry which is Buckley's main vocation—it 'does not need stressing [though] . . . it can be deduced, or seen in silhouette as the light falls on the places where he lived with others' (xii).

But what of Walker's book? For once perhaps it is possible to judge a book by its cover, with the title, Making Do: Memories of Australia 's Back Country People superimposed upon a cover golden with an abundant sun beaming out benevolence as if it were an advertisement for solar power, on its striking inset, the photograph of an archetypical bush-battler, Tess Alfonzi, standing at the door of her house, mug of tea in hand. The introduction confirms this genuflection to the shrines of Aussie piety. Leaving Melbourne 'in a mood of restrained excitement,' Walker went off, he tells us, in search of the 'real Australia,' the 'Australian folk culture [which] comes from inventive people making do and surviving in the bush'(3) But this vision of a society of equals rests on something less rational and humane, something more mythical and therefore more potent, a sense of nature—romanticised—as an empowering force. Where Buckley's sense of truth is ironic, to interrogate and be interrogated by the self, Walker's is ecstatic. Travelling inland means travelling away from his own limitations, to be taken up into a larger framework in which the pressures of the individual self and of its historical context disappear, giving way to nature's tune:

I travelled at a good time of the year. There was no dust, mostly moderate temperatures, but fewer hours of daylight than in summer. My life was nearly always ordered by natural forces, and although that constricted me at times, I was mostly in an exalted state: in harmony with the earth and the sky, and with most of the people whom I met (4).

In contrast with Buckley's account, which remains at the metaphysical level, relating object to object in an attempt to represent and understand what is evident which thus by definition invites mediation, Walker's approach is metonymic. Individual people, places and incidents are conceived as part of a larger whole, 'Australian folk culture', which in turn is subsumed into an even larger whole, a cosmic sense of nature in which individual identity tends to disappear. Person, place and incident identify with the whole as if with what is less an environment than a part of themselves, without which they would not be what they are. For all its apparent secularity this world view is actually a 'religious' one. The phenomenon-world is suffused with a sense of larger purpose and divided into two orders of being, agents and causes on the one hand,

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acts and effects on the other. What makes bush people so enduring and adaptable is thus 'a quality of being Australian'—a notion Walker attributes to C.E.W. Bean but which Bean shares with Hegel. The power of nationalism in Australia has perhaps been under estimated, but its totalitarian implications, implicit here, certainly have been. In Walker's Australia individuals tend to become a function of nature. This is clear at White Cliffs, for example, where Walker arrives to put up his tent 'beside a huge peppercorn tree in a shallow valley surrounded by a huge heap of opal mullock' then to be taken up into a kind of trance, gazing across 'kilometres of gibber-strewn plains. All . . . quiet and eerie' (55). Next day, sure enough, the spirit of place materialises in George Prentice, opal miner, 'blessed with a gift' for the opal, its obsessed servant. Harold Dell, master butcher at Wilcannie, tells how his father belonged in Australia as soon as he arrived because 'he must have had a roving spirit'(35). Above all, drinking becomes an effect of landscape. Bet ween Wilcannie and the opal fields at White Cliffs the pubs 'were regularly spaced so that the mullocky with his loaded wagon and team would be close to one when the day's work was done' (47).

Holistic thinking of this kind may represent a stage in the making of a culture, setting up the idea of a people and their moves as part of a larger framework which provides not only for identification but also for evaluation of people, places and events. But this stage, the era of the 1890's and early 1900's has passed. Walker's attempt to revive it, however, is significant, representing as it does the opposite—and more popular—pole to Buckley's endeavour, with its em phasis on the individual thinking and feeling in search of identity and understanding. Where Buckley attempts to question ideology, interrogating his memories of childhood and his Jesuit schooling as well as the later ideological debates at Melbourne University, Walker endorses it, presenting a world

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night,

as in the persecution of old Frank (Bronco) Johns:

I was met with a barrage of missiles and things like that . . . They were coming in on motor bikes in the night breaking the glass and lighting fires. Boys stoned me, as well as the little kiddies, some of 'em would be no older than three. (93)

Sexual stereotypes also become modes of regulation and identification, as Tess Alfonzi's recollections make clear:

There were very few men in Broken Hill that didn't drink in those days, or very very few. Broken Hill was one of the places where weekends were absolutely bedlam: the men would be drinking and they would be getting into trouble. I would take mine out walkabouts or in a horse and cart, and he could take his drink with him. I was always interested in wildflowers but became interested in different kinds of rocks (98).

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The point at issue is not whether Frank or Tess were right or wrong but the dramatic way in which Walker presents questions of value—and the fact that this is the way generally favoured in our society as a whole does not make it any less a matter for concern. As Hannah Arendt remarks, in dark times, times in which public life is breaking down, the temptation is always to substitute warmth for light.

Seen in this context Buckley's irony takes on a positive value. Where Walker, romanticising the past, becomes its victim, he questions it and thus achieves, if not mastery, at least a measure of self understanding. Buckley's first chapter, 'Self-conscious and Australian', addresses itself to the myths Walker embraces so enthusiastically, looking back to the nineteenth century and finding there, among the Irish migrants at least, a 'fatherless malaise', a 'blankness about origins' which he then links with the failure to relate properly to the land. According to him, Australian country people have little love of the land:

. . . there seems little tenderness for soil and plant, so little sense of kinship with beasts, so little sense of the seasons as providing an active metaphor for human life, or of the earth as a mother . . . The land is a breeding ground and killing ground. The cattle are lovely in their usefulness (9).

Although this seems to contradict Walker's view, in fact it is illuminating. 'Love of "the country",' Buckley points out, is not the same as love of a particular place, its plants and animals, but a refuge from the claims of particularity, part of the need for order an synthesis which springs, as Lukacs has observed, from the disintegration of individuality. Certainly the people Walker meets have little sense of personal kinship with nature; their attitude is impersonal, even instrumental. Knowing about trees, for instance, means know ing the best ones to cut down for timber; sheep are for slaughtering and the Murray for making a living by fishing. Even their marriages or the accounts given of them seem curiously loveless. Captain Arch Connor's wife, for instance

was a good wife. She was the one what would help her husband in every way that she could. She used to do the watering in the vines while I was driving a steam engine to pump the water on for her, and at dinner time we'd go home and find the dinner cooked in the stove. She'd put it in the stove before she went out in the paddock, and we got along that way (13-14).

Only the bullockies seem to be an exception to this general lack of tenderness. Jack Carter, for example, seems to have more feel ing for his bullocks as individuals than Captain Connor does for his wife—Les Murray's exploration of feelings of this kind in his Cattle Country poems may be more widely significant than we think. Buckley also urges the importance of the symbolic:

What was most obviously missing from [the] lives [of the Irish migrants was the mythic sub-stratum of the Irish religion in which

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they took such a psychological interest. Because the Irish past the reality of Irish imaginative experience, had been snipped away from their beliefs, they lived a foreshortened religious life, often intense and sometimes generous, but lacking in psychological substance. Further, they lacked all sense of themselves as having a defined and important family history, for they were the inheritors of Anonymous Man (11-12).

The result is a sense of space which is paradoxically a sense of landlessness, 'distance or not-nearness . . . the sense that we were so far from where we wanted to go . . . but that we were not near anywhere familiar'(29). This sense applies also in his account to personal relationships, and implicitly at least has its effect in the ideological divisions and harshness of his 'great decade'. Simply and without theoretical fuss therefore Cutting Green Hay substitutes an account of the transformation of understanding and modes of perception for the conventional historical account to which we have become accustomed. This substitution could—I would say should—be very important. If the unexamined life is problematic, the unexamined ideology is even more so. In Making Do ideology has sunk to the level of assumption, thus acquiring new power. 'The quality of Australian life' he praises, making do, coping, accepting what happens with stoicism may be admirable, but as a way of life it makes for submission. It also leads to the loss of the public life which can mean the loss of communication between human beings. Buckley's concern with the individual life, in contrast, leads to a vivid sense of commonality. For him the word 'politics' is not suspect as it is for so many Australians. Arguing and examining the hopes, fears and prejudices of his generation he is in effect disposing of them as obstacles to the 'truth' of his own and of the general situation. The fact that he makes no attempt to set up an alternative, a new set of rules implies, significantly, that the most positive way, for Australian culture at least, may be to negate what is accepted unquestioningly—as Furphy suggested nearly a hundred years ago in Such is Life, the truth of the antipodes involves a series of reversals.

Why this is so emerges if we examine Walker's assumptions. Essentially they are those of the nineteenth century working class. Parts of European culture detached from the whole and transplanted to new soil tend to lose the stimulus to change provided by the whole and to lapse into the kind of immobility evident not just in Making Do but elsewhere in discussions of Australian culture (Hartz, 1964). What Walker is praising here is the 'philosophy of the alehouse bench', the philosophy of hedonism and practical materialism which was the product of the pauperism and lassitude of the English work ing class situation in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, however, it no longer corresponds to the actual situation but represents a sentimental projection, marking the transition from class consciousness to self consciousness which means the end of radical

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politics. It also means the end of individuality, even of the humane. 'The world is not humane', Hannah Arendt remarks, 'just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse' (Arendt, 1970: 24).

In Cutting Green Hay, however, it has become just that. Contesting the spell of objectivity, the submission to the whole, the totalitarian pressure registered so strongly in Making Do, Buckley appeals to the imagination, contesting the void by naming it and thus achieving a measure of freedom even as he acknowledges necessity. The return to the past is not necessarily repressive. The discovery of origins can be the discovery of self-truth. Arguably this discovery is the central need for any understanding of a culture which has been largely based on disguise. If Buckley's project develops into a more general critique of the imagination and of the imaginal mediations by which self and culture are constituted, Cutting Green Hay may prove to be a seminal work.

University of Western Australia

References

Arendt, Hannah (1970) Men in Dark Times, London: Cape.

Furphy, Joseph (1982) The Portable Joseph Furphy, ed. John Barnes, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Hartz, Louis (1964) The Founding of New Societies, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.


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