Beginning in the winter of 1966, Meanjin published a new series of commentaries on the reality of present-day life and living in God’s Own Country.
We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper.
H.D. THOREAU: Walden
THE FASCINATION of Godzone* for me is that it is almost the only society left with an uncommitted future. By the end of this century, it might be a splendid moral example of what the affluent society can become without revolution, demonstrating a sane balance between the laissez faire of free enterprise and the planning of socialism, evolving towards an open society worthy of the knowledge and wisdom of twenty-first century man. I do not think this is very likely, alas, but it seems worth giving it a go, because there is only one alternative. That is a society so chaotic and depraved that by 1984 the differences between it and Orwell’s nightmare will be only matters of detail. For Winston Smith read Robert Menzies Williams. There could come a time when white Australians will be begging the Asians to let them in.
By then, most of Asia, probably all of Africa, and one or two more European countries as well, will have adopted some form of Marxist nationalism as their stable form of government. The Americans, somewhere in Latin America perhaps, will still be quenching with napalm the desire of a non-militarist people to try out for themselves an ideology that promises them, albeit ideally, an equitable distribution of food. The British will be tightening their belts and joking about productivity through stiff upper lips.
The outcome for Australia is already being determined. For the present we are poised between the alternatives. It may not take very much to tip the delicate balance in the right direction, and there is just a little hope. We are in control of our collective destiny only so far as we know our individual selves. But we cannot know ourselves while we found our values in the same quicksand as Ian Turner founded his argument in the essay that opened this series.
Politics, wrote Dr Turner, determine our living and may decide our dying. . . Losing a grip on politics, we lose control over our lives and deaths. If he is addressing me, he must think he is addressing everyone else too. Speak for yourself, mate. By virtue of your consent, politics may determine your living and dying. Because I do not consent, I believe I am free. This may be an illusion, and I am familiar with the Marxist and behaviourist arguments that try to prove it so. But if freedom did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.
It is not my intention merely to attack Dr Turner’s essay, many of the ideas in which are so old-fashioned as to be almost unworthy of further debate; but in case his alarm at the contemporary flight from what it pleases him to call reason should be shared by rather more than I suspect of those who cling to the green fringes of this vast vacuous land, I shall allude to the details of his thesis within the context of my own. For the present, let me say with what troubled regret I read his trite and distorted analysis: a regret that I have experienced all too often in reading the polemics of radicals published in Australia. To adapt again a concept of Voltaire, la trahison des clercs, which is inexorably blowing up the roads ahead of every western society, is, if possible, even more culpable here because it is a borrowed pose and there is less justification for it. If Australian society is almost the only one left among modern democracies where the potentiality still exists for some new direction for twentieth century man, then it is only our intellectuals who can point this direction and provide the impetus to follow it.
Let us consider some of the elements of Australian life today that are weighting the scales towards totalitarian chaos: elements largely ignored by our intellectuals, who show no evidence of knowing what to do about them even if there were acknowledgment of them. Three fears, three powers, three states of mind.
The fear of communism
This is so patently the dominant obsession of the collective Australian psyche that it would seem to be the most potent single factor influencing the nation’s future. The first thing to shock me on my arrival here was the extent to which capable, intelligent, middle-class Victorians feared not only the Yellow Peril but also the Russians. Now in Britain, fear of the Russians melted away like snow on boots leaving a doubt that it had ever been real, as is the way with old neuroses, somewhere towards the end of the Fifties. I have the impression that the fear of the Soviet Union is no longer quite what it was only a year ago, save for a couple of notable exceptions at the University of Melbourne in whom the neurosis has flourished into something worse like weeds in the fertility of a sewage farm. When changes occur here, they occur quickly. It is one of the exciting aspects of Godzonian life and gives us a pregnant kinship with the Japanese.
As for the Yellow Peril, that was a popular demographic nightmare in Britain and Europe at the turn of the century, so its revival here in the shroud of the communist bogey is less surprising. Nineteenth century rationalism would appear to be all that non-worshipping Australians can find to exorcise the Zeitgeist, and Dr Turner’s essay, by no means the only example of it, is a particularly fine parody of fin de siècle thought, right down to the dying spasms of the Luddite.1 Clearly Dr Turner is not an historian for nothing.
It is not my intention to argue that the fear of communism has no basis in reality—that the bomb-brandishing of communist countries is an equally silly reaction to the west’s silly reaction to communism—for whether the threat to what we like to pretend is our Way of Life be real or imagined, what is really important is the reaction to the fear.
What we resist, we become. The Book of Tao expresses a similar notion more poetically: ‘When one is compelled to do something, the world is already beyond his conquering.’ But rational opposition is not the same as compulsive resistance. I suspect that one reason ‘intellectual’ has become a term of contempt among the victims of anticommunist hysteria is that intellectuals have not opposed communism as fully as they opposed, say, Nazism and Fascism in the Thirties. It was the united opposition of the European intelligentsia to Fascism that initially doomed it as a significant political force in modern Europe. A disturbing feature of our own times, however, is that in spite of the intellectuals’ opposition to anti-communism here and in America, it shows so little sign of abating in either country.
Ostensibly, the resistance to communism is a resistance to the possible future imposition of a system in which the individual’s freedom to do as he likes within the law would be subordinated to the grey mindless will of the state—supposedly, for us, a foreign state. It is so much worse to be beaten up by a Chinese policeman than by an Australian one. In the American pursuit of this resistance, for example, a system seems to have evolved in which the individual is free to think and do as he likes so long as it is in the same way as everyone else.
The American national sport of self-criticism has been responsible for keeping us informed of their totalitarian trends, and we well know that the white, freeborn, democratic, vitamin-strong, all-American Yank is a streamlined example of all we are fighting for, provided that he has no previous convictions and is not detectably divorced, homosexual, ‘drug or drink addicted, fellow-travelling, or otherwise capable of supplying too deviant a dossier to any of the several investigation agencies who may be engaged at the slightest everyday pretext to put salt on the individual citizen’s tail. Something alarmingly similar is also happening in the most unlikely European ‘democracies’.
Could Big Brother happen here? All too easily. His strongest supporter will be the next of the fears in my list.
The fear of authority
I could quote many examples, from the apologetic approach of some people to parking meter attendants through a recent Jesuitical argument in The Age demanding a vow of obedience from a citizen who was preparing to challenge a Government censorship decision. But I will confine myself to one.
I recently tried to find out by asking the sort of people in my circle of acquaintance who might be expected to know, what happens to a young conscript who digs in his civilian heels and refuses to enlist for military service. Suppose he registers as a conscientious objector, a stipendiary magistrate rejects his case, and he still refuses. He is fined, perhaps; he probably goes to prison. On his release from prison, what then? Does the whole process begin again and continue until the authorities weary of him and the cost of keeping him, and let him be at last? Oh no, all my informants told me. When he comes out of prison, he is handed over to the military. Shanghaied, you mean? Well, I think so, if you like to be so cynical. Only one informant added, sotto voce, ‘As a matter of fact, he’d suddenly be found medically unfit.’ This of course is begging the question; but I hope and suspect I have been misinformed, for I have not yet heard the truth from a really authoritative source. There should be, and in Australian law there probably is (chaining in trenches notwithstanding) a stage at which no one can be subject to military law until he voluntarily surrenders his civilian status. Coercion and blackmail may be employed to persuade him to enlist, but in the last analysis submission to the coercion is voluntary.2
Now the point I am making is that none of my informants seemed to think that there was anything amiss in forcibly subjecting a man to military law, so that if he persisted in his intransigence he would do so at the risk of execution by firing squad or, at best, the spirit-breaking privation of military prison. Such is the fear of (and respect for) nameless Authority. It has its roots in the third fear.
The fear of freedom
This is a universal human trait, especially among those who fight most vehemently under banners of political freedom. There is adequate literature (and opportunity for observation) of the syndrome that causes human beings to fence themselves with personal prohibitions, from small ritual disciplines to voluntary monogamy, so this is not my concern now. What interests me is the way that Australians qua Australians fear the freedom they could use so potently if only they had the courage.
It is probably what gives visiting observers the impression that the Outback lies in wait like an unslain dragon, panting brickfielders down the neck of the meek suburban householder as he waters his reassuring patch of lawn, ready to devour him as soon as he pauses to reflect on his condition. Now, I do not believe in the Outback. I suppose it is there, like the kangaroos, because that is all we Poms ever learn about Down Under unless we make the effort to read some statistics and imagine the reality behind them. (You think they care about the colonies, mate?) I shall probably visit the Outback one day, but unless I get lost there and go out of my mind like the cabin boy in the Pequod, I doubt if it will continue to influence me once I have returned to the vast grey suburb. Geography, like politics, governs our lives only if we consent. It is our human relationships that determine our living and dying. The threatening Outback lies within.
From our experiences with our fellow human beings we develop a fear of freedom and project it on to the world around us. The Australian does it by making a set of well-worn excuses for his shortcomings. Here is one facet of the Australian image abroad which is borne out by reality: the inferiority complex, the ‘cultural cringe’. The old home country abandoned him as a loved but wanton mother might, and he still craves for the safety of her apron strings. Father is away across the Pacific setting the lad an example of how to make his fortune. He feels lonely and lost—isolated is the word he uses. (There, there . . .)
Yet for nothing but the price of an air ticket he can visit both Mum and Dad this week and see for himself what wrecks they have become. Within the month he can drop in on all the brothers and sisters and several of the cousins, many of whom also feel lonely. What is isolated about that? In fact, there is no such thing as isolation any more, except on Tristan da Cunha. That is part of the trouble.
But you see (the excuses continue) we lack population. Ah, if only you knew what joy there is in that! In any case, the total population of Denmark is less than that of Melbourne and Sydney combined, and they have a culture of their own, a corporate identity. But they have a corporate language, comes the reply; with English we are exposed to so many other influences. So tell me, on what language does music depend? Or painting, or sculpture, pottery, design, architecture, a sense of landscape? And are you seriously implying that the English language is a disadvantage?
Next—one might have guessed—education. The Government spends too little on education; we do not have your benefits. Well, my favourite statistic during the years of the British Tory confidence trick was that the same amount per head of population was spent on education in Britain as in the Dominican Republic in the days of Trujillo. I do not know how Denmark compares with this, but I remember an occasion in Copenhagen when I was drinking coffee with a baker and a waiter and their respective wives, a manicurist and a hairdresser. None could have been called educated, but they had read and were discussing Pasternak.
The fact is that if all schools were closed everywhere, the sum total of knowledge would not be much less, the sum total of wisdom would quite probably increase, and the sum total of childhood confusion would almost disappear. I am not counselling the closure of schools for a couple of generations, though it might make an interesting experiment. I am simply asking whether it might be possible to see some virtue in the paucity of our compulsory miseducation (to borrow the title of a recent, long-overdue book) and try to make some creative use of it.
Thus we return to the old bleat that in this traditionally do-it-yourself country the Government should be doing more for us poor lost sheep and goats; not only rescuing us from the yellow bogey-men and adulterating our food, but also teaching our children to repeat our mistakes and patronizing our arts. Even Meanjn Quarterly has been plugging for Government arts patronage lately, 3 though I cannot imagine that its apologists are ignorant of the situation in ‘enlightened’ countries, where those who benefit from Establishment patronage more often than not turn out to be a bunch of emasculated lickspittles ejaculating feeble seed which all are supposed to admire because all paid for it.
E. E. Cummings’s advice to aspiring young poets in a Harvard lecture is equally applicable to all creative artists and, by extrapolation, to everyone else who can take it:
. . . you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only that it’s you—nobody else—who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else.
The naive expectation of leadership and guidance from Government is a manifestation of the fear of freedom, and brings me to the first of the three powers.
The power of politics
I do not know what the exact figures are, but Godzone must surely be one of the most over-governed countries in the world. (It has only recently ceased to be Bobzone. My prayers were answered.) I do not believe that Australian politicians are more stupid, ignorant, hysterical, venal, and self-deluded than politicians anywhere else; they are simply more conspicuously so. They have not yet learned from their brethren in older countries the finesse that conceals corruption and imbecility from all but the heightened sensibility of the paranoid, the disillusioned apathy of the cynical, and the percipience of an odd dedicated telly-watcher.
We must not criticize our leaders, for in their courageous wisdom they devised the Crimes Act. But may we not rejoice in their incompetence?
I am not too sure about this, for I recall the warning of John Stuart Mill in his article on Coleridge: ‘We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.’
The loyal riposte at this point is to assert that somebody has to do the job and if I dislike the way it is done then I should get up there and do better. To the first part of the statement one might say that somebody had to hang people in times when only a few cranks like Tolstoy could visualize doing without hanging, but it was no reason for the critic of hanging to try to do the job better than the hangman. I am not dégagé, as I hope is evident from the burden of this essay, but would I soil my sensitive soul at the hustings? Not Pigiron likely. What sort of person would? Or, to put it in the form of a rhetorical question from a shire councillor at a meeting I attended recently, who would give up a thousand hours a year and not get a penny for it? Only people with impoverished personal lives, at any level of government, as most conscientious and observant public servants who have to carry them will testify. Ever since Plato it has been known that the only people worthy of exercising power are those who do not want it. The dilemma has always been insoluble. There is only one way to avoid it.
Is it too much to hope that one fine day, when his radio is inadvertently tuned to the brainless blusterings of ‘Parliament’, Robert Menzies Williams will suddenly understand that for years he has been running his own life far, far better than any of the interfering old bumblebodies whom he has delegated to do the job for him?
The political penchant for interfering with other people, which found its most skilful apologist in Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, is more thoroughly exemplified by the next power.
The power of the lunatic right
One saving motive of the Grand Inquisitor and most politicians is that the hell they make for us is at least partly paved with their good intentions towards us. Whereas the motive common to the lunatic right is that they seek to interfere with other people’s lives for nobody’s wellbeing but their own, getting their kicks from their own adrenalin. I do not wish to give them the satisfaction of being named, for the only civilized way of dealing with them is to ignore them until at last they take their place as historical curiosities alongside the mastodon and Piltdown Man. I would not mention them at all but for the fact that they flourish in Godzone like blackberries. They enter my ken through the correspondence columns of newspapers, and then only because I suspect that the correspondence editors with their vaudeville training have no means of distinguishing original thought from the merely potty. If a man wrote to The Australian from Woop Woop offering to supply poison gas at a discount to the Government for settling the Jewish/intellectual problem and signed himself Adolf Hitler, there is a reasonable chance that he would not be published. But a female gelder can write from Goulburn, N.S.W., and recommend castration for sex offenders, libelling the Danes by way of example, and start off a serious correspondence. What disturbs me is the corrupting influence of such obscenities on the impressionable minds of the influential aged.
The lunatic right also provides ballast for a larger lunacy, buoyant in such areas as censorship, immigration control, and the R.S.L. I am a little apologetic about picking on the R.S.L., which will fade away when I do, but it is a uniquely Godzonian phenomenon, so it deserves a mention. When I was desperate for financial assistance for house purchase during the credit squeeze shortly after my arrival, I foolishly applied to the R.S.L. for a housing loan only to learn that I had served in the wrong army. I had been warned about this in England and refused to believe it. Surely, it must have been a different war. It was; a good deal of evidence has come my way since to support the hypothesis that in some major part of the Godzonian collective unconscious the wars were an excuse for the ritual sacrifice of young men by aged tribal chieftains. A festival orgy commemorates them on The One Day of the Year, and the ritual is now being enacted on a third generation. The aboriginal inheritance was not destroyed for nothing.
But with degenerate forms of religion we come to the third power.
The power of the churches
If the established intellectual climate of Godzone is Victorian, then its spiritual climate is medieval. If the R.S.L. is acting out some recessive expression of human consciousness from before the Atonement, when the world was young and much more horrible, then the churches, with their backward self-transcendent gimmicks of prayer and incantation, and the symbolic cannibalism of the Christian eucharist, are still acting out pre-Freudian exorcisms of the repressed unconscious. Now the repressed unconscious of Judaeo-Christendom burst once and for all into our everyday consciousness at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and today like good analysts we ought to be squarely facing the result. An important difference in our established spiritual climate from the Middle Ages is that the churches no longer persecute their predecessors, having largely assimilated them. Instead their persecution is reserved for those emergent minorities who seek to rediscover religious experience and re-formulate its meaning.
Of course, Judaeo-Christianity is not yet non-existent in other modem countries, although the emptiness of their churches is some measure of their social health. This does not appear to be so in Godzone. On the few Sundays when I have ventured past my front gate I have invariably become ensnarled in the traffic jams of post-votive god-botherers. At least Jews have the sensibility to walk to their synagogues.
The fact is that for the task of explaining to puzzled Mr Jones what is happening (to refer to Dr Turner’s quotation from Bob Dylan), all the multifarious forms of church prove to be as dead as their gods. Here is where the retreat from reason is really to be found. As James Baldwin has it in Down at the Cross (an amphibolous title for Australians):
It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the. Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.
God Go Home. But that does not mean that the answer we seek is not likely to be largely a religious one in the sense that some awareness of and contact with the ground of our being and that of others is essential and the life of reason is by no means enough. It is simply that in our unprecedented age the churches, with their feet in the graves of the past, are manifestly incapable of pointing the way to it.
Perhaps the medieval comparison is unfair to the Middle Ages, which were a time of great spiritual awakening, albeit in the context of the most extensive nuthouse human history has ever known. If the intellectual vitality of Australia is ailing, its spiritual life is ebbing. The combined powers of ecclesiastical Godzone may have produced the most secular society in the world.
So there we have them, the three powers of our perdition: politicians, patriarchs, and priests, all of whom might be rubbished but for the three states of mind.
One of the saddest spectacles on the international scene today is the continuing profusion of petty nationalisms as the world goes on shrinking in size. It is a manifestation of the fear of freedom and the consequent fear of self-knowledge. Edward Conze used to say that the human race would never be united until life was discovered on another planet and we knew of other intelligences on which to project our aggression. I never shared his pessimism. In the new post-colonial countries, nationalism is understandable though jejune; in a country of the age and calibre of Australia it is contemptible. Australian nationalism vis-à-vis the world at large is bad enough, but the many tight little nationalisms within Australia are worse, because they reinforce both the larger nationalism and the Babbitry of the competitive team spirit, dividing us to fall to the fears and the powers. I can see little sign that the multi-racial horrors of American life will be avoided here if the population grows large enough.
The attitude of the Immigration Department is that although the first generation may not assimilate, the second generation will. Perhaps; but as little more than English-speaking demographic units, not as free Godzonians. A university-educated Australian Greek whom I knew in London had all the patriarchal attitudes of his Hellenic-Islamic origins just below the surface of his liberalism. Any wife who takes him, Australian or not, will do so because she is willing to be a lifelong doormat for him, and so the pattern will doubtless be passed on, even unto the third and fourth generation.
I have been astonished to discover the extent to which educated and prosperous Melbourne Jews voluntarily confine their lives and attitudes to a ghetto. In new, bright, modern Melbourne in 1966, where the patronage of cultural and educational affairs would be at least halved without the Jews, exogamy within the Jewish community is still the exception, and even then the liberal synagogue often converts the Gentile partner. Many marriages are arranged by parents. Two newspapers have large sections in Yiddish. In Ripponlea lives a sect so fiercely orthodox that they have their own provision shops because the ordinary kosher shops are not kosher enough, and their women shave their heads at marriage. I know Jewish children of the third generation who attend Jewish schools, learn Hebrew, and are taught little or nothing of the post-Christian culture they will be expected to inherit. Their parents still live in fear of the Swastika—not without some justification, alas—but have failed to realize that their ghetto mentality and the intricate family relationships they preserve from habit rather than affection make them as much a sitting target as they were in Warsaw or Budapest.
One could continue to quote examples of non-assimilation, from pathetic little groups of moribund Blimps (the Ruritanian Government-in-Exile) to self-appointed exiles in large secret societies of overgrown little a. boys (How is your Mother, Mason?). Their problem is a common and far from enviable one, for where is the culture with which they are supposed to assimilate? Choked with thrombosis.
There is a story about an irate sub-editor of a Glaswegian newspaper summoning for reprimand a copy-boy that everyone called ‘Thrummie.’
‘D’ye know why they call ye Thrummie, lad?’
‘Aye, it’s because I come frae Thrums.’
‘Ye’re wrong, laddie. It’s short for Thrombosis—and ye know what that is. It’s a bloody clot that gets in the way of the circulation.’
Godzone is overstocked with bloody clots who get in the way of the circulation of information and ideas. The channels of communication exist all right, but they are blocked, and it is not easy to understand why it should be so. It has to do with the national inferiority complex, the fear of criticism, and the responsibilities attained by tiny-minded amateurs whose only significant talent is tergiversation.
The supreme example, and the greatest single betrayal suffered by this country in any sphere, has been provided by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. To those who keep campaigning for a ministry of culture, an arts council, or some other kind of independent body chartered with responsibility for public patronage of the arts, the answer is that you have one—and look at it—Auntie Pusillanimous, the ABC. Auntie BBC is ratbag enough in all conscience, but at least she has some style. She bobs as to the manner born, her amateurs are dedicated amateurs, her jobs for the boys go only to fairly competent toadies. Auntie ABC has many affinities with the worst aspects of her elder sister, but she also has a distant kinship with Aunt Theodora.
The fact is that wherever you create a body of more than a certain size concerned in any way with the administration of art or the dissemination of ideas, you not only get a hierarchy but it has to be a hierarchy of office boys, from top to bottom. Now office boys would not become office boys if they were creative people. They would not choose to be office boys in the service of creative people if they did not admire what they imagined to be the creative mystique and hope that some of it might rub off on them. Admiration for what you cannot acquire yourself leads to attempts at emulation. Office boys try to be creative, and what they create is paper. When admiration for the creative impulse involves a fundamental misconception of its nature, as is the case with culture vultures and arts administrators the world over, then the failure to acquire what is not can only lead to envy and thence to jealousy. The office boys become jealous of those they were appointed to serve and so begin to wield power. Then the creative people, anxious to protect their own freedom to work, feel constrained to play the power game too. Power means power to interfere with the lives and direct the thoughts of others, and that is what corrupts. Power politics, in whatever petty state they operate, are inimical to art and the germination of new ideas. You can see the result whenever you turn on the radio or television, open a newspaper or periodical, absorb the atmosphere of a university, or read a novel by Lord Snow.
I am not saying that all art patronage is undesirable, for the greatest work has often been produced as a result of reciprocal cooperation between artist and patron. But cooperation exists in a different universe from exploitation, though it is too much to expect most people in our competitive societies to realize it.
It is no good saying that art will out because it always has. The quaggas no doubt thought the same about their own survival. Australian culture is a young and tender plant with an exciting potential. It needs gentle nurture, painstaking protection, sympathetic diagnosis of its requirements. Like a koala bear, it will live on only one kind of food, and that food is scarce. The scarcity must have a word coined to describe it.
A distaste for playing with ideas is not the same thing as philistinism, though it is one of its vassals. It is another aspect of the national inferiority complex: a naive belief that if you do not think, you cannot be wrong. And if you cannot avoid appearing to think, the next best thing is to knock before anyone else does: witness the ‘wit’ of Sir Robert Menzies and the peevish tradition in Australian criticism.
‘That will be intellectual death,’ said an ex-mistress when I told her I was emigrating. I do not think it will be, but the image of Australia as a colonial backwater with ideas about as up-to-date as those of the Rhodesians is not entirely without foundation. I have not encountered a new idea since I came here; and any ideas which could be dated later than 1930 are political ideas floundering in the abstractions of international affairs. When a man of Dr Turner’s calibre and frenetic withitness uses ‘existentialism’ as a term of opprobrium, one wonders where the Great Australian Emptiness really lies. This year’s autumn lectures of the Victorian Fabian Society, which held so much promise, did nothing to clarify their eponymous blurred image. The speakers I heard had nothing to say about the quality of the personal life and seemed unaware that the virtual absence of public discussion about any but the most superficial questions was not only blurring the image but was in danger of causing it to disappear altogether, like the Cheshire Cat, leaving only the vacuous, sunlit smile.
Yet I have met many Australians individually who are touchingly eager to learn, hungry to exchange ideas, and innocently surprised that their private, secret thoughts about life which they had felt too shy to articulate to anyone else, deserved the dignity of ideas. Somewhere, by someone, they are being betrayed. Art and ideas are a form of play and, if only a context existed here in which they could have free play, many people might discover the repetitious directionlessness of the cult of sport and begin to experiment with more rewarding games. Today’s ideas are tomorrow’s way of life.
If an inferiority complex is indulged for long enough, the sufferer reaches a stage at which his psychiatrist might say to him: ‘You have no inferiority complex, my friend. You really are inferior.’ And whatever else may be wrong with life in Godzone at present, it is inferior to none.
Counterbalancing all this, then—what? Almost nothing tangible, since the philistines aborted the Opera House. There was a time when it was possible to see the Opera House as a symbol of all that Godzone could become: it was an oasis of faith in a desert of purblind rational pragmatism, a vision triumphing over almost insuperable odds without anyone really knowing why, and few enough thinking it mattered. Fortunately, that outcome, too, is not yet irrevocably determined; and perhaps whatever happens to it, the symbol will remain pertinent.
So what else? The C.S.I.R.O., which has triumphed over the timidity of fools because it could produce results which were measurable. The Snowy Mountains Scheme, then—but will it foster a similar act of courage in the Darling Basin? There are the ABC orchestras, whose musicians sometimes transcend the spineless mediocrity of their administration. Patrick White … no, not Patrick White. For all his undeniable greatness, his vision probes ever deeper into the malaise in the other pan of the scales. But Meanjin, oh yes; that tired old campaigner, still stoically gnashing its gums. And The Australian, I suppose, in spite of numerous faults and lamentably ill-informed sub-editors, something of a miracle in its way. I am astonished to see how many intelligent people never read it, but prefer The Age or the Advertiser.4 Anything more? The Commonwealth? Ha, ha, the Commonwealth!
Why go on scraping the barrel? These virtues are clearly not enough to save us; yet it was not sunstroke that gave Bertrand Russell such hope for the future of mankind as he left these shores. There is a good life here, but let us be quite clear about one thing: it exists, like the film festivals, in spite of the Government. It may be political ineptitude which has been responsible for the population not yet exceeding a civilized density, for the politicians would bugger up the weather if they could, as they and their freedom-loving minions are buggering up the landscape.
Well, anyway, I have a good life here. And in case it should be thought that I am out-pomming the Poms in hunting, shooting, and Aussie-baiting, let me add that my life here is a great deal better than in London, where the cost of living was much higher, the standard of living (for all but the haves) much lower, the cultural life in a state of perpetual frenzy with the pundits communicating at you through all the busy media a state of shatterdom equally uncritical of the worthless and the worthful. I came twelve thousand miles to escape the punditry of a poseur called Muggeridge, and he caught up with me in a month. There must be a lesson in that. The weather was bloody, the class-conscious Poms bloodier, and the overcrowding becoming annually more lethal. It may be Home to you mate; it was never home to me.
Where, then, do we look for the emerging vitality of Godzone? Where else for anyone for whom evolution means anything but among the young? And here is where I really take issue with the arrogance of Dr Turner, who sees in the quest for sensation of young people a retreat from reason, meaning a descent into futility and chaos. By what right does he, or any of his generation, presume to judge the experiences of others as ‘pure sensation’?
Long before Bob Dylan was born, Robert Musil wrote: ‘Something is taking its course.’ He embodied that something as a character in the most prophetic novel of the twentieth century and called him Moosbrugger, a psychotic murderer whose crime strangely provoked extensive public fascination. ‘If mankind could dream collectively, it would dream Moosbrugger.’ Well, the something took its course and the collective dream became a reality at Dachau and Nagasaki and the human soul has never been the same since. And now, Dr Turner, you and countless others who were alive at the time have the effrontery to condemn the innocent who were not, because they refuse to live by your values. By what superior virtue or understanding do you presume to know that their sensations are not evaluated?
The answer is implied in a single statement of Dr Turner’s essay—’the twin cults of orgasm and drug-taking’—a most self-revealing copulation. Dr Turner admits that he has no experience of the latter, so it is not impertinent to ask by what experience he can twin the two together. In the first place, a cult of orgasm would be self-defeating: to the extent that a cult existed, there would be no orgasm for those associating with it. The Sydney Libertarians may be disciples or students of Wilhelm Reich, but if they have really made a cult of him, they have sadly misread him. It appears unlikely that Dr Turner has actually read The Sexual Revolution or The Function of the Orgasm (both major formative books of my own youth, thank Eros) otherwise he would know that in Reich’s teaching true orgasm is a shared experience, a far from common or commonplace experience; and, like a religious experience, one can only humbly wait upon it.
As for associating it with drug-taking, whoever would seek his kicks in drugs once he was capable of experiencing orgasm? There is no doubt that alcohol at one extreme and narcotics at the other will produce—the one temporarily, the other permanently—orgastic impotence. In short, drugs are probably inimical to orgasm. It figures.
Next, Ian Turner links Reich with Norman Mailer and Henry Miller as ‘high priests’ of ‘the cult of the orgasm’. It is difficult to see what these three have in common, except that they all wrote books and perhaps had orgasms. The point is not worth labouring to the extent of quoting the references, but it has been my impression that Mailer in his sexual episodes does convey some awareness of ‘the terrible complexity of the relation between man and woman’. Henry Miller does not, it is true; but a significant feature of all his books is that there are no relationships. One is never allowed to know any character but Henry Miller. That is not to my taste, either, but to argue that a kick (to use Dr Turner’s four-letter euphemism) for Miller has no meaning beyond itself betrays a misreading of him which must have stopped at the Tropic books. Miller’s sexual fantasy life is in fact an innocent process of self-discovery which makes his whole oeuvre a continuous autobiography, a spiritual autobiography.
A further piece of self-revelation is Dr Turner’s admiration for the depressed and hopeless values of the jazz age and the blues. What sort of sexuality does he admire? Gut-tearing. Well, well. For me, the quality that sets the Beatles streets of evolution beyond their predecessors (apart from their joie de vivre and fine musicianship) is just the healthy values of the lyrics that Dr Turner so despises. They may not contain much evidence of ratiocination, any more than a lot of other folk music, but they are usually addressed in joy to a vital and mutually enriching relationship, unlike the lonely unreciprocated onanism that so dominates the tradition honoured by Dr Turner’s allegiance.
Let us leave Dr Turner to his cerebration, for where he sees cause for despair I see cause for rejoicing. Something is happening, Mr Jones; the young know what it is, but they are not telling even if they could, for they know that no one would listen.
Every time I am frustrated in wanting to use a public telephone because young vandals have wrecked it, I remind myself that the guerrillas in this only righteous war have struck another blow at their enemy. Destroying the enemy’s lines of communication is rather pointless, of course. The young have yet to realize that one of the things that distinguish the enemy is that they do not communicate. Does anyone trouble to ask why it is public telephones that are so often the objects of vandalism? No; they merely shriek vandalism and seek retribution.
But what of all the official vandalism that sets the young their example? When a gang of road levellers cut down at my gate a row of young wattles just about to flower and leave them lying along the edge of my drive, stealing one of my amenities without asking my leave, are the reasons for this vandalism any more articulate or cogent than those of the telephone wreckers? When a natural area of riverside bushland is turned into a public amenity by indiscriminate tree felling and the addition of dusty tracks, a car park, some fireplaces, and a set of public lavatories as elegant as prison blocks, is that vandalism or progress?
Certainly it would be pleasanter if the young turned their energies to creative forms of vandalism, forming, say, a militant anti-ugly movement to deface or destroy such marks of approved vandalism as land agents’ signs and meaningless street furniture.5But we cannot expect too much; one must be thankful for what guerrilla activity there is. It is not such a long step from casual vandalism to such acts of group heroism as the Battle of Kew City Hall during the recent Kooyong by-election, or the premeditated individual heroism of Nadine Jensen, who proved herself worth more than all those erstwhile men together who marched in Martin Place that day. (Could you explain to the young, mate, why red pigment and turpentine are offensive, and paper roses and ticker tape are not?) But let us not honour Nadine Jensen: she knows she is only one among many. Let us not dishonour her, either.
I believe that there is abroad in the world today a new kind of human being. The oldest of them are about twenty, so none is yet fully articulate. But at some level of their consciousness they already perceive that all precedents ended in 1945 and they must now forge their own culture, create their own morality, from the ground up. They have nothing but their own folly, their own processes of self-discovery to guide them; nothing but their own bodies with which to discover themselves. Many of them have their spirits broken shortly after birth, many more falter in their adolescence; others will sell out as they pass their examinations, take jobs, marry. All are hounded, vilified, punished, misunderstood.
No wonder they can only experiment, pursue meaning and reality whenever they appear and wherever they lead. All too often they lead only to futility and failure. But many are discovering, and more will—though no one can tell them—that to undermine all the enemy’s citadels and to become invulnerable in their own intransigence, the most powerful weapon they have they carry between their legs.
They are not yet able to communicate the existence of their conspiracy to one another in any verifiable way. And the trouble at present is that such a huge majority of young people do not seek kicks, are not sexually ‘promiscuous’, do not take drugs, are successfully conscripted into the armed forces, dead end jobs, the work of churches and political parties; too many are enslaved by the fears and the powers. But some survive, and in due course they will inherit the earth. The folly of their present vandalism will persist until it is replaced by the intransigence of true social responsibility.
There may yet come a day when you are greyer and wronger, my contemporary friend, and you will look into the calm, wise eyes of a young person, and the knowledge will confront you as certainly as that of your own death that you and all your values and all your history and all the world you nearly destroyed have been superseded utterly; and then you will be able to do nothing but die of discouragement, like Shaw’s Elderly Gentleman in Back to Methuselah. Meanwhile, you can help the process and be happier, or hinder it and hate.
It has become a platitude to remark that man’s knowledge of his environment has far outstripped his knowledge of himself, that the world his technology has created has become too complex for the wisdom he possesses for living in it. But the corollary is too seldom acknowledged: that the young who are born into the modern world will be better adapted than their elders to modern pace and change and hence better equipped to instruct the old than ever before in the evolution of humanity.
Of course, it would be over-sanguine to expect the old to sit at the feet of the young begging them to explain what is happening and how to live with it, so we must also ask what other elements of Australian life might be enlisted in aid of the free society before the only problems of the future that really matter are upon us: the population explosion and the growth of leisure. By that time, politicians as we know them now will have become outmoded if not extinct and government by the concerted pricking of elected thumbs will have been largely replaced by cybernetic machines which can process all the data relevant to a given decision and produce an objective and indisputable answer. If the data are complex enough, computers cannot be cooked. We shall be thrown on to our personal resources in many more ways than we can imagine at present, and self-knowledge will be more essential than ever.
We are concerned with intransigence against the forces that prevent self-knowledge and, in addition to the intransigent young, there are two further areas of contemporary Godzonian culture with a rudimentary intransigence that might be profitably encouraged. They are the women and the peasants.
I do not know why such a notable proportion of Australian women have preserved a gentleness and femininity that such enormous numbers of British, American, and German females of the same generations have lost. It may be that they achieved a degree of emancipation, not markedly different from that of women in other modern countries, without having to fight the suffragist war and pay the price which, in the quest for equality with men, so often involved becoming like them. I think this is too superficial an explanation, but be the cause as it may, the fact of Australian femininity is a reality for anyone man enough to recognize it.
How few are. They told me it was a man’s country; it is a land of little boys (a race of tit-men?). And while those pleasant fellows are cuddling in mateship, admiring each other in bars, making their little piles, playing their baby games, the women—or enough of them to make a marked difference—are bearing the culture, rearing the new generation, influencing the condition of the noosphere, and could be quietly carrying out a revolution while their men’s backs were turned if only they would awaken to their own unique position.
Our world is sadly in need of a feminine touch. Women in settled communities have always created men, but the men have interpreted their own role in the relationship as a subordinate or inferior one and so have resisted the creative force of women and erected proud systems of male superiority in compensation. Girls may have been beaten and often crippled by them; but women have never been fooled. Who but a woman at peace with herself, knowing herself as it seems only a woman naturally can, could be more intransigent to the screams and tyrannies of wilful boys?
Finally, there is the traditional intransigence of peasants. Totalitarian orders have come and gone, and although many peasants have innocently died under them, are dying still, they have never been totally subdued. Only once in recent history have a peasantry been removed from their land without bloodshed, and that was because events overtook them which outstripped their comprehension and adaptability. I am referring to the First Industrial Revolution in England. What became of the English peasantry whose culture is now moribund in the land of its birth? it came here. Australian culture is a peasant culture, and though it is fast becoming enriched by the cross-fertilisation of other peasant cultures, it is still basically the English peasant culture. Why else do you think I am no stranger here?
The virtue of the cause of intransigence is that it can be joined by anyone but does not require everyone. It has a special potential in Godzone because there is a real tradition of courageous individualism which could yet conquer the Great Australian Emptiness. It can take its advantage from the blurred image, the divisions of nationalism, and the ineptitude of officialdom, as well as the good life with which this land has blessed us. If twenty per cent of book buyers ordered banned books for their own use privately through the post from British or American booksellers, they would rubbish literary censorship. Why waste one’s amour propre identifying with wowsers by becoming embattled with them? Let us not forget that Strine gave us the word ‘wowser’ as well as the word ‘dinkum’. If thirty per cent of young men eligible for call-up refused to be conscripted at any price, the system would soon be seen to break down, even though labour camps might first be established in the North. If forty per cent of compulsory voters either refused to vote or voted informally, then the governments would have to cease their gerrymandering and at least revise their electoral laws. Intransigents of the world, unite in an open conspiracy. You have nothing to lose but your duty.
Why, though, have I emphasized the need for intransigence as a pre-requisite of self-knowledge? Because without intransigence against the powers and fears, the forces of the abstract state and all their myriad ramifications, self-knowledge cannot reach beyond a certain depth. While a man delegates responsibility for some part of his mind, or his soul, to any authority outside himself, he cannot any longer become fully a man.
Just as the Atonement superseded ritual sacrifice in the evolution of human consciousness, so the Protestant revolution superseded sacerdotal intercession. And so today, despite the reversion to quasi-Catholicism represented by the dogmas and methods of millenial Marxism, the Protestant vision has given way to an evolutionary existentialism (pace Ian Turner; sleep on, my friend).
A man is forever alone. His greatest strength lies in a full and courageous acceptance of that indissoluble fact, and once the fact is faced, the lesser fact of death would follow a full life in which the idea of death were nothing more than a trite and not unwelcome termination. Such a free man would have his commitments, his loyalties, but these would be to the free will of other individuals, not to abstractions. They are the loyalties of which those who owe allegiance to the forces of the state have always been jealous.
Perhaps more than ever before there is freedom today for a degree of private loyalty and the public profession of intransigence. But it will be a long time before the free man is entirely out of danger. Though he cannot fail to be morally victorious no matter what happens to him, his victory could still be only that of Camus’s Outsider. The little men, the little powerful men, the fearful men-babies with impoverished personal lives whom Everyman, in his fear of loneliness and freedom, appoints to tell him how to live, will stop at nothing to discredit the free man; and ours is a world, remember, in which any official crime is now permissible so long as it does not exceed those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Any free man who is too successful in infecting others with his own intransigence may yet be crucified.
That is why there is need for an open conspiracy, and why all intransigence must be associated with a high degree of social responsibility to avoid giving the little men even the appearance of a victory. There is not much to be said for the open rebellion that invites persecution, and it is only excusable in the young who will in time learn the wisdom of subterfuge. Little more need be involved, I think, than firm intransigence against any attempt to interfere with one’s own freedom to live as one wishes so long as it interferes with no one else’s freedom to do the same.
What percentage of intransigents will be required, I wonder, that a new order of dignity and happiness might become visible in our own time? Could we not make a start with a single commandment? Love thy neighbour by letting him be.
* This is the second of a series of commentaries on the reality of present-day life and living in God’s Own Country. Dr Ian Turner’s essay, ‘The Retreat from Reason’, appeared in Meanjin Quarterly 2/1966.
Owen Webster came to Melbourne from England in July 1965. A former reporter and critic in London, he is now a Council, of Adult Education lecturer and the author of Read Welt and Remember (Hutchinson, 1965).
- One Luddite reference among several was: ‘Man is liberated from nature and enslaved by the machines.’
- The situation has begun to be clarified since I wrote the above, as a result of the heroic stand by William White. The National Service Act is evidently more barbarous than I thought possible.
- Cf. inter alia several editorials and particularly Ross Smith: ‘The Need for an Australia Council’ (1/1966). His proposed model was the British Council. Does nobody know what a joke that is? I am not of course referring to the performing arts, where some form of patronage is unavoidable. Government patronage of the creative arts is what they have in Soviet countries.
- The Adelaide Advertiser. You know, Adelaide: the Newton Abbot of South Australia.
- Why not a methodical campaign, working page by page through Australian Outrage destroying its examples?