Western Civilisation

Australia: It’s Up To You

Written by
17 November 2021
Reading My Brilliant Career at the beach.

It’s up to ordinary Australians to keep alive the great works of our culture, and it’s never been easier, writes IPA Executive General Manager Scott Hargreaves.

If you care about Australia and its cultural heritage then well might you say: it is the worst of times, and it is the best of times. It is the worst of times because the classic works in which Australian artists and writers told their countrymen of our nation and how it was built are being shoved aside in Australian schools, either explicitly cancelled or simply crowded out by a right-on national curriculum full of woke preening and second-rate texts. It is the worst of times because our universities’ humanities faculties are abandoning the study of specifically Australian literature and artistic outputs in order to feed the mill of publication in the international (and pointless) journals that determine formal university rankings.

It is the best of times because a revolution in digital technology and the rise of streaming means it has never been so easy and cheap to read (Kindle, Project Gutenberg), view (on Google Images), and watch (YouTube and Netflix) the great works which help define us as a nation. It is the best of times because Australians of all stripes, men and women, of long-standing or recently arrived, young and old, have shown an almost inexhaustible appetite to engage in the works that reflected and shaped Australian culture, if given the chance. My Brilliant Career is still picked up as a Penguin Classic in bookshops all over Australia, 120 years after Miles Franklin’s little book hit “its author’s native country like a small bomb”—as American literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert wrote for this edition’s introduction (and you can even get it for free at Project Gutenberg). Meanwhile, it seems almost every other day you will hear someone quote the title of Geoffrey Blainey’s landmark Tyranny of Distance, especially as the madness of border closures has made it more salient than at any point in the last 100 years. Blainey’s was a fresh and persuasive new take on what made Australia:

Australia’s place on new trade routes was decisive in its early history. It aided the convict settlement. It prompted the rise of a new free group of Australian traders who did not depend heavily on the favours of governors, who were alert for new ways of making money, and who were eventually to hasten Australia’s transition from a gaol to a series of free colonies.

At NGV Australia in Melbourne in 2021 a large-scale exhibition featuring the Heidelberg School—our first really distinct and capable art movement—still has the capacity to attract audiences keen to see the works of Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. McCubbin’s much-loved The Pioneer, tells in three simple but beautiful panels the story of some early settlers, and the city emerging from the bush they’d settled.

Australia’s humanities departments are imploding.

Photo: Tobias Keller (digitally altered)

Photo: Tobias Keller (digitally altered)

While children in class rooms may no longer be asked to recite verses of Banjo Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow, they can easily access Jack Thompson’s raspy baritone on YouTube, then move on to the version by Wallis & Matilda (1980), itself an exemplar of the ‘bush’ musical style that has persisted despite urbanisation and which also forms part of our cultural heritage. Perhaps in the office cubicles, white collar Australians sneak a furtive listen through their headphones as they softly voice the words to the final verse:

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy, Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go, While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal, But I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of “The Overflow”.

They’re A Weird Mob

A scene from They’re A Weird Mob (1966).

Recent migrants to Australia might still have their heads spinning as they grapple with the vernacular and cultural mores, but if they watch They’re A Weird Mob (1966), recently made available on Netflix, they will at least be better acquainted with the humour and humanity there found in the encounter of new and old Australians.

Looking for Alibrandi

A scene from Looking for Alibrandi (2000).

It is a long time since Italians like ‘Nino Culotta’ made up the bulk of our migrant inflow, but the themes are the same. And if, by the way, you are interested to know how the children of those migrants navigated their way from traditional upbringings to the broader Australian culture then go to Prime Video or Apple iTunes and watch Looking for Alibrandi (2000), based on the hugely popular 1992 novel by Melina Marchetti:

I think my family has come a long way. The sad thing is that so many haven’t. So many have stayed in their own little world. Some because they don’t want to leave it, others because the world around them won’t let them in. All this information I’ve gathered from Nonna and Mama.

Yet all of this happens without any real support or connection with our institutions of higher learning. Political historian Judith Brett recently lamented:

Across the country, many of Australia’s humanities and social science departments are imploding: minimal language teaching; faculties without philosophy; English departments with no subject on Shakespeare, let alone Australian literature; visual art departments studying no art history prior to 1900; politics departments with nothing on America and barely anything on Australia; and so on.

Brett is one of the few academics willing to take the intellectual traditions of the Liberal Party seriously—doing much to bring Menzies’ classic Forgotten People back to public attention—but even she is too quick to attribute the forgoing issues to the Coalition and the ‘Culture Wars’. The latter term as always deployed only to describe liberal and conservative objections to the takeover of humanities departments by the left and/or by postmodernists.

The point being that the situation she deplores is an outcome of ideological trends (which disparage classic literature), and the modern business model reliant on formal rankings of research output and also international students. A business model that grew on the foundations of the changes made to universities by the Hawke Government, and enthusiastically promoted by a new managerial class of university administrators.

From today’s standpoint, the battles that took place in the common rooms of Australian universities over whether ‘old male stale’ and conservative classics should be displaced in favour of modern, minority and Australian works now looks rather quaint. We have reached the point where the curriculum increasingly contains ‘none of the above’.

LITERATURE AND CULTURE

What is the nature of the relationship between literature and culture? More specifically, what is the nature of the relationship between Australian literature and Australian culture?

There are good reasons to try and figure this out. On the left and right, many Australians are concerned that the distinctiveness our national culture’s is being eroded by the emergence of a global/transnational culture.

For the left this global culture is associated, somehow, with capitalism, of which corporations such as Coca Cola, Disney, and Goldman Sachs are symbols. On the right, the concern is with the institutional arbiters of global culture, such as the UN, the EU, the Davos elites, Silicon Valley and, well, Goldman Sachs.

Canons, conservativism, nationalism, and ‘simplification’ are all bogeymen.

The left is—at the very least—much more ambivalent about asserting the innate worth of the national culture that arose, in fits and starts, on the Australian continent in the years since the initial European settlement in 1788. A window into that milieu came from Nicholas Jose, the editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, first published in 2009. In many ways this is a magnificent achievement, but as Jose later recorded:

The most common resistance to the project came with the fear that it would dictate a canon and do so in a conservatively nationalistic way, with a coercive simplification of Australian identity.

That is actually four different fears all mooshed into one! Canons, conservativism, nationalism, and ‘simplification’ are all bogeymen, so I imagine it was some task for Jose to convince the literati they were all safely locked in the cupboard for long enough to complete his work. The idea of a Canon—a list of the works of literature defined by arbiters of taste as the best and/or most important—is a metaphor built on the Jewish and Christian traditions of formally listing which works actually represented the word of God. Unlike in the Churches, however, literature has no formal and final arbiters, so for centuries arguments about which works should be in the canon were the very stuff of academic literary criticism.

In 2010 the IPA’s produced 100 Great Books of Liberty, edited by John Roskam and Chris Berg, which was itself an attempt at a Canon with a commitment to freedom as the major selection criteria.

Contributing to that work, I featured Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994) because I wanted to stand with Bloom (1930-2019) and assert why we should cleave to the idea of a Canon, and reject those opponents in what he called the ‘school of resentment’ (which included feminist and Marxist literary criticism, Lacanians, New Historicism, Deconstructionists, and semioticians, among others). He said:

Shakespeare is at the centre of the Canon at least in part because Hamlet is. The introspective consciousness, free to contemplate itself, remains the most elitist of all Western images, but without it the Canon is not possible, and, to put it most bluntly, neither are we.

To Bloom’s idea that engaging with the literature of the Canon enables us to discover ourselves as individuals (a critical aspect of liberty), I would add that engaging with the artistic works of a national Canon helps us discover ourselves as a people (a critical aspect of nationhood).

The first critiques of the Canon as a project centred on the observation that it tended to be dominated by Dead White Males. The initial response was a partial accommodation, elevating into the Canon women such as Virginia Woolf, postcolonial writers such as Chinua Achebe of Kenya, and gay writers such as Oscar Wilde and Arthur Rimbaud. All had, in any event, strong claims on aesthetic grounds (Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a novel which explores the colonial impact on the traditional authority of tribal chieftains, is indeed a classic). And so it went until postmodernism and the ethical collapse of universities in the West.

Postmodernism reduces all cultural products to the relations of power that its high priests can see underneath the veil of ignorance holding back lesser mortals. Thus, a postmodern critic cannot identify which writers should displace others from the Canon, rather s/he (that’s how they write) pulls down the idea of a Canon, and protects the purity of their own writings with a solid outer skin of impenetrable gibberish.

The Hawke Government was heir to a radical nationalist view.

Nicholas Jose was just able to get away with his Anthology in 2009 (please don’t call it a Canon…) by increasing the representation of indigenous, women, gay, and other ‘under-represented’ groups. It is probably none the worse for that; but could that occur today, when universities are obsessed with identity politics (the weaponised form of postmodernism)? As IPA’s Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, Bella d’Abrera, has shown in a series of studies, Australian humanities faculties have reworked the vast majority of their offering through the prism of identity politics.

It is astonishing how quickly all this has occurred, and how little the older generations of the left understand it. In the June edition of the Australian Book Review, Martin Thomas laments that Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner for Literature (1973), seems to have disappeared down the memory hole. On the 30th anniversary of his passing, nothing was said. Following David Marr’s monumental biography Patrick White: A Life (1991), nothing. That is indeed something to be noted, but in searching for the reasons Thomas can do no more than blame the same caricatures of conservative and parochial cultural forces against which White himself railed from the 1960s onwards.

The titular hero of Patrick White’s novel, Voss, on stage in David Malouf’s adaptation for Opera Australia.

The titular hero of Patrick White’s novel, Voss, on stage in David Malouf’s adaptation for Opera Australia.
Photo: Branco Gaica/Opera Australia

Thomas even tells a laboured anecdote of how he discovered White while an undergraduate at University of Sydney in the 1980s, seemingly just to recycle White’s ‘Killer Kramer’ shot at Dame Leonie Kramer, who apparently “ruled the Department with an imperial style”. We are reminded that Kramer preferred the conservative poets A D Hope and James McAuley to White, and yet, somehow, mirabile dictu, a brave lecturer “managed to smuggle Voss onto the second-year syllabus”. To progressives McAuley occupied roughly the place of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars was, and had, famously, lampooned Modernism by perpetrating the Ern Malley hoax, convincing the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins, to publish poems by a fictitious author, that he and a collaborator had cobbled together as parodies of what they believed to be modernist pretentious gibberish:

The intemperate torch grazed With fire the umbel of the dark. The pond-lilies could not stifle The green descant of frogs.

More likely it would never have occurred to ‘Killer Kramer’ to bother herself with the curriculum of an undergraduate class, especially since at the time she was on multiple boards and was (horror of horrors) a Senior Fellow at the IPA! Those brave young progressive academics telling tales of persecutions by conservative overlords eventually took over their departments, ruthlessly expunging vestigial traces of conservativism (even in the second-year literature class).

And while the conservative classicist favoured by Kramer, A D Hope, did indeed disparage our progress in forging an independent culture, “Without songs, architecture, history”, he wrote in Australia (1939), something subtly nationalistic still flowed from his pen:

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find The Arabian desert of the human mind, Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come.

Put another way: no doubt in the 1970s Kramer and her academic opponents were having arguments about where writers and their works ranked in the Canon. Now what do we have? At the University of Sydney, you don’t actually study the classic works, you study an English subject titled ‘The Idea of the Classic’, in which you:

… consider whether literary classics must be difficult, innovative, representative, or popular; how they shape our judgements about literary tradition and value; and why they remain implicated in debates about sexuality, race, national identity, and class.

For a time the great divide (in the university common rooms, at least) was between those who favoured teaching Australian students the great works of British and European literature, and those who believe the emphasis should be on the emerging works of an aggressively nationalist post-war generation. The left-wing historian Manning Clark titled the final volume of A History of Australia’s , The Old Dead Tree and The Young Tree Green. This title borrowed a line from Henry Lawson’s first published poem, A Song of The Republic (1887), to illustrate the tension between the British culture then (supposedly) withering in Australia, and the native culture rising up. In the same poem, Lawson wrote:

Sons of the South, awake! arise! Sons of the South, and do. Banish from under your bonny skies Those old-world errors and wrongs and lies. Making a hell in a Paradise That belongs to your sons and you.

Historian Russel Ward was an exemplar of the latter tradition, and both feminists and those who see Australia as a fundamentally liberal nation (in the British sense) would object to Ward’s drift from history into mythologising the very masculine and collectivist labour movement. But his The Australian Legend (1958), was very influential, focussing on the egalitarian tradition formed in the bush in the 19th century, with the poet Henry Lawson as its bard. It rejected previous generations’ concerns with the ‘convict stain’, acknowledging the influence of transportation on culture, and drawing on popular and labour history to forge a story in which Australian men forged a culture which defined what it mean to be Australian:

According to the myth the typical Australian is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affectation in others. […] He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority…he is very hospitable and, above all, will stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.

The Hawke Government was heir to this radical nationalist view, ensuring the Bicentennial of our founding in 1988 became a ‘Celebration of a Nation’, and restoring the lustre of Anzac Day as a solemn day of national commemoration. It was because they were ours. In that first Hawke Cabinet was Mick Young, who had been a shearer before rising through the ranks of the Australian Workers Union and then the ALP. Young did not have to read The Australian Legend, he had lived it. In more recent years the ALP has had to struggle with maintaining fidelity to such supporters while also pandering to the rise of the cultural left, which seeks to deconstruct and disestablish Australia Day, and which—in the words of the draft National Curriculum—consider Anzac Day to be, at the very least, ‘contested’.

DECOLONISATION

There is another reason why the universities have become less interested in the works that were once at the core of the study of literature and society, and that is the transition from post-colonial theory in the ’60s and ’70s to the emerging movement of Decolonisation.

The current historical moment is about ‘Decolonisation’.

Post-colonial theory emerged just as former European colonies were achieving independence. It was based on a Marxist materialist analysis, which handily explained the persistent instability and patchy economic performance of those former colonies which had so recently become independent nations (nothing to do with the new breed of Presidents-for-life). In its simplistic analysis the ruling powers of the West are always the exploiters and the rest are always the exploited. Also following Marx, this pseudo-economic analysis then explains the ultimately subservient culture of the exploited country. Thus R W Connell’s Ruling Class, Ruling Culture (1977)—still mandatory reading at Universities a decade later —could position Australia not in the ‘core’ with those dreaded international hegemons like the USA, but rather in the ‘periphery’ like Chile and so on. For Connell and other Marxists this provided the explanation for the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister in 1975, and our apparent failure to break with our attachment to the British inheritance and the culture of Western Civilisation. In other words, Australia was the victim.

The 1990s saw the postmodern revolution and the ‘death of class’. Connell had by that stage already moved on to gender studies, which was just as well as her original work had been dismissed as proceeding from “a priori Marxist narratives without evidencing them”. Once a criticism from the right, it had become a criticism from the left! So where then is the impetus towards seizing on the distinctiveness of Australian works of culture? Christopher Allen, art critic at The Australian, recently took issue with the NGV pinning the label of ‘Impressionism’ on the exhibition referred to earlier:

Australian museums seem determined, in spite of the objections of various scholars over some years, to force the work of Roberts, Streeton, Conder, McCubbin and other lesser figures—formerly known as the Heidelberg School—into the “Procrustean bed of impressionism.” …This feels uncomfortably like another case of cultural cringe, and masks the fact, as I have often pointed out, that the Australian painters of this period were more original and interesting than their counterparts in America precisely because they were not imitating the French.

In academia the current historical moment, as Dr d’Abrera has identified, is about ‘Decolonisation’. This framework/movement rejects the international culture associated with the West as a veil for power structures, while focussing on colonisation’s impact on pre-contact cultures. The domestic focus thus shifts to Aboriginal culture(s) of Australia. But then—if that is the purpose of academic study and activism—what possible basis could there be to examine and pass on the non-Aboriginal heritage of Australia?

To proceed with his anthology, Jose’s tactic to defeat his doubters was to unearth underappreciated Aboriginal writers and hail the contributions they made to our literature and history, placing them alongside (say) Banjo Patterson, Les Murray, and Patrick White. A B Facey’s autobiography, A Fortunate Life (1981), tells a riveting story of a fatherless boy who never went to school, was sent to work at the age of eight, attacked with a stockwhip by an employer, repeatedly cheated of wages, and somehow survived Gallipoli (among other struggles). Not only did the octogenarian Facey declare it was, nevertheless, ‘a fortunate life’, he reported that even amid his incredibly difficult early life he had found something in communion with the landscape in the marginal country of the wheatbelt of Western Australia:

I told him that I had at first, when I had to go out to work so young, but I was used to it now and I didn’t feel lonely. There were always the birds and the animals in the bush. “They are like music to me.”

But to Jose what mattered (as he told Australian Book Review) was that Facey’s story did not resonate at all with a 12-year-old Korean immigrant student assigned to read it at school, who later became a physiotherapist and told him of her disdain while she “pummelled (his) knotted flesh”. So, he balanced his anthology with an extract from Anna Morgan’s Under the Black Flag (1934):

When a white man is charged with a crime, he is taken to court and judged. If innocent, he is allowed to go home to his family, and there the matter ends. A black man is expelled from the Mission—the land reserved for him and his people—and can never go back to his own people again.

This is indeed an Australian story which also speaks to our heritage, but we never found out from Jose what his physiotherapist thought of it (and speaking of justice, the man who so horribly scarred little Bert Facey with a whip was never charged). I suspect Jose’s manoeuvre of supplementing the long-established with the supposedly marginalised would now be seen by academics and activists as missing the point. At the extreme end of the Decolonisation ideology, Aboriginal culture is now the only legitimate cultural expression native to this continent. Everything else is a product of invaders, and to study it—let alone celebrate it—would be wrong. Why write papers on Patrick White, who only discovered his leftism late in life? Why celebrate his tale of the crazed explorer, Voss, who admitted “I am compelled into this country”?

Aboriginal culture is the only ‘legitimate’ cultural expression.

So it seems the business of recovering and celebrating the great works of art and literature that helped form us and tell us who we are as Australians, falls to the people themselves. With their ability to access the digital tools provided by the very modernity so deprecated by the intelligentsia, it could not be in better hands.

This article from the Winter 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Executive General Manager, Scott Hargreaves.

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Scott Hargreaves

Scott Hargreaves is the Executive General Manager at the Institute of Public Affairs

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