Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The modernist Outback

In his cult novel The Plains, Gerald Murnane describes the rise of a secessionist movement in 'Inner Australia', a region which seems to begin on the inland side of the Great Dividing Range. Murnane's characters feel little kinship with the residents of the coastal cities and resorts of 'Outer Australia', and decide to raise their own army and establish their own government. The Plains may be a fantasy, but the book does express something of the coolness which 'inlanders' feel towards the 80% of Aussies who live on the coastal strip of their continent.

After I made some possibly injudicious claims about the historical hostility of Aussies to modernism in literature, architecture, and painting, I received an irate e mail from a bloke who seems to have taken Murnane's strange novel as his manifesto:

Don't confuse us with Sydney and Melbourne. We have our own culture and our own traditions. The galleries in the big cities don't represent us. We are like another country out here, thank you very much. I hope you will get to see the real Australia and do not judge us from the coast.

As someone who bangs on about the multi-regional nature of New Zealand society and culture on an almost weekly basis, boring even his friends into silent assent, I can hardly complain when an Aussie criticises my use of Melbourne and its art galleries as a random sample of Australian culture. And, having taken the advice of my anonymous critic and ventured over the Dividing Ranges into secessionist territory, I must admit to being both surprised and delighted by the variety and strength of culture in Outback Australia.

I remember how, a few years ago, the New Zealand literary community fought a doomed battle with the city fathers of Hamilton, over the latter's refusal to allow a statue of their native son Frank Sargeson to be grace their main street. Instead of honouring the father of modern New Zealand literature, the Hamiltonians erected a grotesque tribute to a foreign bloke who lived in their city for a few months and later co-wrote the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Several prominent Hamiltonians explained their refusal to honour Sargeson by saying that that they didn't want a memorial to a writer they couldn't understand. Seven decades after they debuted in our literary journals, the laconic sentences and elliptical plots of Sargeson's stories were still, it seems, too avant-garde.

I thought about the brouhaha over the Sargeson statue when I stumbled upon a portrait of Patrick White in the middle of the Outback mining town of Broken Hill. The grumpy bugger is depicted in late middle age, beside the name of his great novel about Australian exploration. With their slow pace, their lapidarian periodic sentences, their surreal imagery, and their brutal exposure of the ugly aspects of Aussie life, White's novels make Sargeson's stories look accessible and optimistic. But the difficulty of White's prose and the darkness of his vision hasn't stopped Broken Hill celebrating him.

The mural is particularly appropriate in an Outback town, because Voss tells the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, the egomaniacal German who attempted to lead a tiny, poorly provisioned party of white men from the east coast of Australia to Perth, across the unmapped landscapes of the continent's centre. In White's hands, the doomed expedition becomes a lesson in the grand folly of European colonialism. Unable to reconcile his dream of conquering Australia with reality, Leichhardt propels his comrades to their violent deaths. The pigheaded German is only redeemed by his own suffering and death, and by the love he feels for a woman he has left behind in Sydney.

The history of Broken Hill can be read as a struggle to subdue the same sort of brutal environment that took Leichhardt's life. The town was built in a frenzy in the 1880s, after a handful of adventurers discovered a lode of silver seven kilometres long in the arid far west of New South Wales. The profits of Sydney investors were disrupted by the weather, which brought constant storms of sand and dust, and by the militancy of the miners who flocked to the new town. It was not until the 1920s that a measure of stability was brought to Broken Hill, as the mine owners buckled and gave the miners a contract which became a model for workers elsewhere in Australia. In the same decade a green belt of gardens was established around the town, in a successful attempt to end the incursions sand and dust. In 1932a pipeline brought a regular supply of water for the first time, and today Broken Hill feels like an oasis. Sited on the summit of the enormous slag heap which divides Broken Hill in two, the town's Miners' Memorial is a triumph of modernism and of historical memory: between huge sheets of rusty iron the name of every man to have died in the town's mines is recorded. The memorial deliberately echoes the monuments to dead soldiers which are scattered all over Australia, but the red flag rather than the national flag flies beside it. The memorial's iron reminds us of the humble iron cottages which still stand all over Broken Hill, and its rust is the colour of the earth that has swallowed so many lives. The memorial's formal austerity and industrial building materials mark it as a work of high modernism, but this has not made it unpopular: in fact, the structure has become Broken Hill's leading tourist attraction. Who said that Aussies were resistant to modernism?

11 Comments:

Blogger George said...

The rust is in fact the earth in Australia. It is the high concentration of iron, and the low concentrations of everything else, leached by millions of years of geological inactivity, that causes the red earth.

Broken Hill is also an artistic centre of Australia, I've heard.

8:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Plains, how I remember that book! It was the topic of my presentation in a course at the UNSW 10 years ago. I struggled, despite loving Murnane’s book. Maybe it was my NZ sensibilities, my blindness to the otherness of this wonderful land, Australia. A couple of years later I read a review in the online ODT – it was by my favourite teacher, Molly Anderson. My struggle became clear. She described the book as being like a white painting. How right she was. Murnane’s The Plains fascinated me, yet it was Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus that opened my heart to the magic this land.

10:03 pm  
Blogger maps said...

There are lots of internal emigre painters there, George - apparently the golden light of the area around the town attracts them. The first big city painter to settle in the town seems to have been Pro Hart.

During the research trip for his book The Supply Party Martin Edmond was very impressed with some of the homegrown painting of the Outback - the sort of stuff you see hanging on the walls of remote pubs and end up taking home in exchange for a case of beer.

My post doesn't mention the work of the Aboriginal people of the Broken Hill and upper Darling areas. There's a school of indigenous art in the Hill, and some of the work of its students can be seen around town in the form of sculptures and murals. That stuff really deserves a post of its own.

I haven't read Eucalyptus, anon, but I recently devoured Bail's 2008novel The Pages, which tells the story of an autodidact philosopher who leaves the world a pile of Wittgensteinian fragments in a woolshed in the New South Wales backblocks. Bail is a very fine prose stylist - I'd compare him to Don De Lillo.

10:29 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Is Eucalyptus a love story in which the protagonist has to name or know all the varieties of Eucalyptus on his potential father-in-laws's property? I read an Australian novel with that them once.

I a am a big fan of Patrick White although I didn't finish Voss!

10:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Chapter 23 of Luke we read: "And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left ... And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." According to Mark 15:28, the crucifixion among thieves was to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy (53:12) that the Messiah would be "numbered among the transgressors".

The Wise Thief is mentioned in the Exapostilarion of Good Friday, in the Ninth Liturgical Hour, in the prayer before Holy Communion ("But like the thief will I confess Thee ..."), and in the Apolytikion of Tone 7 (Barys). In one of the Tone 5 (Pl. 1) kontakia, Peter laments that "I betrayed Thee, but a thief theologised."

Patristic references are numerous, but for some reason many seem not to be available in English. The following paragraph from St. Bede's Commentary on Luke (translated for this page by Karen Rae Keck) is typical:

... The thieves who are crucified with the Lord at that time and place intimate those who submit in faith and in acknowledgement of Christ either to the contest of the martyr or to the custom of stricter self-control [i.e. asceticism]. But however many work here for eternal and heavenly glory alone are defined by the faith and reward advanced to the thief on the right, whereas those who have not forsworn either an eye for human praise or in any way a less worthy intention in this undeserving age [have] the mind of the blasphemer and of the thief on the left, and their acts are aped by such as those to whom the apostle says: And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

There has always been disagreement about whether the two thieves were ordinary criminals, exceptionally notorious murderers (cannibals, according to an Ethiopian tradition), or political revolutionaries who, like Jesus, were seen as threats to the Establishment. Most Fathers seem to emphasise the wickedness of the thieves; even the "good" thief, according to Chrysostom, only repented after seeing the earth quake. (This was meant to explain the troublesome statement in Mark 15:32 that "they that were crucified with him reviled him", although the timing of the earthquake in Mark and Luke also appears at a first reading to be different.)

Norman Hugh Redington

5:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"At Jerusalem the commemoration of the holy thief who confessed Christ upon the cross and deserved to hear from Him the words: 'This day shalt thou be with me in paradise.'" We know no more of his history than is contained in the few sentences devoted to him by the evangelist St. Luke, but, as in the case of most of the other personalities mentioned in the gospels, such as Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Martha, a story was soon fabricated which gave him a notable place in the apocryphal literature of the early centuries. In the Arabic "Gospel of Infancy" we are told how, in the course of the flight into Egypt, the Holy family was waylaid by robbers. Of the two leaders, named Titus and Dumachus, the former, stirred by compassion, besought his companion to let them pass unmolested, and when Dumachus refused, Titus bribed him with forty drachmas, so that they were left in peace. Thereupon the Blessed Virgin said to her benefactor, "The Lord God shall sustain thee with His right hand and give thee remission of sins". And the Infant Jesus, intervening, spoke, "After thirty years, mother, the Jews will crucify me in Jerusalem, and these two robbers will be lifted on the cross with me, Titus on my right hand Dumachus on my left, and after that day Titus shall go before me into paradise". This story, with others, subsequently found popular acceptance in western Christendom, though the names there most commonly given to the thieves were Dismas and Gestas. But we also find Zoathan and Chammatha, and yet other variants. That genuine devotional feeling was sometimes evoked by the incident of the pardon of the good thief upon the cross seems to be shown by the vision of St. Porphyrius (c. 400), to which passing reference was made herein on his day (February 26). We find the two thieves represented in pictures of the crucifixion at a quite early date, as for example, in the Syriac manuscript illuminated by Rabulas in 586, which is preserved in the Laurentian Library at Florence. The words of the good thief, "Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom", are adapted to very solemn usage in the Byzantine Mass, at the "great entrance" and again at the communion of the ministers and people.

7:45 am  
Blogger maps said...

Richard, let me assure you, I did not post those last two comments as some sort of surrealist joke - I was snoring in bed when their author defaced this comments thread...

Here's an excellent interview with Gerald Murnane:
http://www.smh.com.au/news/books/an-obsessive-imagination/2005/10/13/1128796638337.html

8:44 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Typical Maps. Living in the past. And now in the outback too!

12:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bloody hell, I'm not that Anon. Oh blimey, I'll be more up front next time.

And another wonderful Oz book is Alex Miller's The Sitter. He's English born, you will no doubt know his work.

2:57 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Maps - I might paste some of it into The Infinite Poem.

I realise I have read that book by Bail - my daughter sent it from Australia as birthday present I think but I cant find it maybe I gave it to her to sell or something.

Australia, where everyone else in my family has been or did go to - except me!

My father had a book of Australian art here and I used to look through it years ago (I sued to study it for hours - it wasn't a big book but the art was great) - Boyd, French and so on were all in it. Great art - the sense of the desert and so on, all there....and much else. So when I read The Tree of Man as teenager I loved it - I really loved that book - and later I read Fringe of Leaves (a contrast - very fast moving - dramatic -exciting), and my mother had read most of Patrick White's books including Voss which I did want to read but I got diverted away from it. The Vivisector is great. It is "about" an artist. I also read a novel by Ruth Park. Also a book by political activist who lived with the Australian aboriginals - Frank Hardy. Then there is Australian poetry you introduced me to - Francis Webb, Martyn Jonstone...but there is a long list. That that poet I found who committed suicide...Michael Dransfield.

Great that the miners have a museum to them. The Left and the unions were very strong in Australia despite corruption...

Good to hear that Martin Edmond is coming here. I just started reading his book Chronicles of the Unsung again - I didn't finish it - I got it the year I broke my leg (2004 when it came out) ...well I bought it new so that is good. He writes well about Van Gogh, his seeing certain originals and then reflecting on forgery (and the nature of what is "truly genuine" - the deeply real artists seem often easiest it to "forge" - but what is copy or forge (or use another writer's ideas an so on)? And this moves to biographies and so on - and meeting some Arab boys who have copy of Rimbaud and they think he was an African!! Mixes the humoresque with the "deep" and so on - there is of course much else!

He IS a bit like Sebald but...hmmm...he is competing with Don Quixote (no connection to anything I just want to be terribly well read before I shuffle off!) which I am also finding very good to read.

And then there is the question of a certain H Dewe ...

11:18 pm  
Blogger ACE Soft said...

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10:23 pm  

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