In the fourth Meanjin issue of 1950, Arthur Phillips delivered one the defining statements in Australian cultural writing, and gave us perhaps the most oft-quoted shorthand for our cultural behaviour … a phrase to rival the ‘lucky country’.
Phillips was 50 at the time, and had been a schoolmaster at Wesley College, Melbourne, since 1927. Read Rollo Hesketh’s account of the essay and its impact here.
(The note re the absence of a Meanjin editorial on the final page of the Phillips essay is well worth reading.)
The Australian Broadcasting Commission has a Sunday programme, designed to cajole a mild Sabbatarian bestirment of the wits, called ‘Incognito’. Paired musical performances are broadcast, one by an Australian, one by an overseas executant, but with the names and nationalities withheld until the end of the programme. The listener is supposed to guess which is the Australian and which the alien performer. The idea is that quite often he guesses wrong or gives it up because, strange to say, the local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner. This unexpected discovery is intended to inspire a nice glow of patriotic satisfaction.
I am not jeering at the ABC for its quaint idea. The programme’s designer has rightly diagnosed a disease of the Australian mind and is applying a sensible curative treatment. The dismaying circumstance is that such a treatment should be necessary, or even possible; that in any nation, there should be an assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article.
The devil of it is that the assumption will often be correct. The numbers are against us, and an inevitable quantitative inferiority easily looks like a qualitative weakness, under the most favourable circumstances—and our circumstances arc not favourable. We cannot shelter from invidious comparisons behind the barrier of a separate language; we have no long-established or interestingly different cultural tradition to give security and distinction to its interpreters; and the centrifugal pull of the great cultural metropolises works against us. Above our writers—and other artists—looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture. Such a situation almost inevitably produces the characteristic Australian Cultural Cringe—appearing either as the Cringe Direct, or as the Cringe Inverted, in the attitude of the Blatant Blatherskite, the God’s-Own-Country and I’m-a-better man-than-you-are Australian Bore.
The Cringe mainly appears in an inability to escape needless comparisons. The Australian reader, more or less consciously, hedges and hesitates, asking himself ‘Yes, but what would a cultivated Englishman think of this?’ No writer can communicate Confidently to a reader with the ‘Yes, but’ habit; and this particular demand is curiously crippling to critical judgment. Confronted by Furphy, we grow uncertain. We fail to recognise the extraordinarily original structure of his novel because we are wondering whether perhaps an Englishman might not find it too complex and self-conscious. No one worries about the structural deficiencies of Moby Dick. We do not fully savour the meaty individualism of Furphy’s style because we are wondering whether perhaps his egotistic verbosity is not too Australianly crude; but we accept the egotistic verbosity of Borrow as part of his quality.
But the dangers of the comparative approach go deeper than this. The Australian writer normally frames his communication for the Australian reader. He assumes certain mutual preknowledge, a responsiveness to certain symbols, even the ability to hear the cadence of a phrase in the right way. Once the reader’s mind begins to be nagged by the thought of how an Englishman might feel about this, he loses the fine edge of his Australian responsiveness. It is absurd to feel apologetic towards Such Is Life, or Coonardoo or Melbourne Odes because they would not seem quite right to an English reader; it is part of their distinctive virtue that no Englishman can fully understand them.
I once read a criticism which began from the question ‘What would a French classicist think of Macbeth?’ The analysis was discerningly conducted and had a certain paradoxical interest; but it could not escape an effect of comic irrelevance.
A second effect of the Cringe has been the estrangement of the Australian Intellectual. Australian life, let us agree, has an atmosphere of often dismaying crudity. I do not know if our cultural crust is proportionately any thinner than that of other Anglo-Saxon communities; but to the intellectual it seems thinner because, in a small community, there is not enough of it to provide for the individual a protective insulation. Hence, even more than most intellectuals, he feels a sense of exposure. This is made much worse by the intrusion of that deadly habit of English comparisons. There is a certain type of Australian intellectual who is forever sidling up to the cultivated Englishman, insinuating: ‘I, of course, am not like these other crude Australians; I understand how you must feel about them; I should be spiritually more at home in Oxford or Bloomsbury.’
It is not the critical attitude of the intellectual that is harmful; that could be a healthy, even creative, influence, if the criticism were felt to come from within, if the critic had a sense of identification with his subject, if his irritation came from a sense of shared shame rather than a disdainful separation. It is his refusal to participate, the arch of his indifferent eye-brows, which exerts the chilling and stultifying influence.
Thinking of this type of Australian Intellectual, I am a little uneasy about my phrase ‘Cultural Cringe’; it is so much the kind of missile which he delights to toss at the Australian mob. I hope I have made it clear that my use of the phrase is not essentially unsympathetic, and that I regard the denaturalised Intellectual as the Cringe’s unhappiest victim. If any of the breed use my phrase for his own contemptuous purposes, my curse be upon him. May crudely-Dinkum Aussies spit in his beer, and gremlins split his ever to be preciously agglutinated infinitives.
The Australian writer is affected by the Cringe because it mists the responsiveness of his audience, and because its influence on the intellectual deprives the writer of a sympathetically critical atmosphere. Nor can he entirely escape its direct impact. There is a significant phrase in Henry Handel Richardson’s Myself When Young. When she found herself stuck in a passage of Richard Mahony which would not come right, she remarked to her husband, ‘How did I ever dare to write Maurice Guest—a poor little colonial like me?’ Our sympathies go out to her—pathetic victim of the Cringe. For observe that the Henry Handel Richardson who had written Maurice Guest was not the raw girl encompassed by the limitations of the Kilmore Post Office and a Philistine mother. She had already behind her the years in Munich and a day-to-day communion with a husband steeped in the European literary tradition. Her cultural experience was probably richer than that of such contemporary novelists as Wells or Bennett. It was primarily the simple damnation of being an Australian which made her feel limited. Justified, you may think, by the tone of Australian life, with its isolation and excessively material emphasis? Examine the evidence fairly and closely, and I think you will agree that Henry Handel Richardson’s Australian background was a shade richer in cultural influence than the dingy shop-cum stuffy Housekeeper’s Room-cum-sordid Grammar School which incubated Wells, or than the Five Towns of the eighteen-eighties.
By both temperament and circumstance, Henry Handel Richardson was peculiarly susceptible to the influence of the Cringe; but no Australian writer, unless he is dangerously insensitive, can wholly escape it; he may fight it down or disguise it with a veneer of truculence, but it must weaken his confidence and nag at his integrity.
It is not so much our limitations of size, youth and isolation which create the problem as the derivativeness of our culture; and it takes more difficult forms than the Cringe. The writer is particularly affected by our colonial situation because of the nature of his medium. The painter is in some measure bound by the traditional evolution of his art, the musician must consider the particular combinations of sound which the contemporary civilised car can accept; but ultimately paint is always paint, a piano everywhere a piano. Language has no such ultimate physical existence; it is in its essence merely what generations of usage have made it. The three symbols m-a-n create the image of a male human being only because venerable English tradition has so decreed. The Australian writer cannot cease to be English even if he wants to. The nightingale does not sing under Australian skies; but he still sings in the literate Australian mind. It may thus become the symbol which runs naturally to the tip of the writer’s pen; but he dare not use it because it has no organic relation with the Australian life he is interpreting.
The Jindyworobaks are entirely reasonable when they protest against the alien symbolisms used by O’Dowd, Brennan or McCrae; but the difficulty is not simply solved. A Jindyworobak writer uses the image ‘galah-breasted dawn’. The picture is both fresh and accurate, and has a sense of immediacy because it comes direct from the writer’s environment; and yet somehow it doesn’t quite come off. The trouble is that we—unhappy Cringers–are too aware of the processes in its creation. We can feel the writer thinking: ‘No, I mustn’t use one of the images which English language tradition is insinuating into my mind; I must have something Australian: ah, yes—’ What the phrase has gained in immediacy, it has lost in spontaneity. You have some measure of the complexity of the problem of a colonial culture when you reflect that the last sentence I have written is not so nonsensical as it sounds.
I should not, of course, suggest that the Australian image can never be spontaneously achieved; one need not go beyond Stewart’s Ned Kelly to disprove such an assumption. On the other hand, the distracting influence of the English tradition is not restricted to merely linguistic difficulties. It confronts the least cringing Australian writer at half-a-dozen points.
What is the cure for our disease? There is no short-cut to the gradual processes of national growth—which are already beginning to have their effect. The most important development of the last twenty years in Australian writing has been the progress made in the art of being unself-consciously ourselves. If I have thought this article worth writing, it is because I believe that progress will quicken when we articulately recognise two facts: that the Cringe is a worse enemy to our cultural development than our isolation, and that the opposite of the Cringe is not the Strut, but a relaxed erectness of carriage.
A four page editorial, specially written for this tenth anniversary issue, has been held over because of the prevailing mental climate—the most deplorable in Australia’s history. If time and opportunity permit, a roneoed letter will be sent to subscribers later.