Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Checking out the Australian Legend

For a lot of the 20th century the image of the Australian bushman exerted a deal of fascination in some intellectual circles and it certainly resonated with me, growing up on a farm and thinking of myself as a bushman and a pioneer. This is a review of three books that look critically at the Australian legend from different angles.

John Docker's book on the 1890s is a revelation. Those who think that the bushmen, pioneers, radical nationalists and male chauvinists of “the legend” dominated the scene will be amazed at the picture that emerges. Feminism, anarchism, socialism, republicanism, and anti-religious free thought in various forms were running strongly, with other more esoteric currents of orientalism and mysticism. One of these was the myth of Lemuria created by Madame Blavatsky of the theosophists. This was a theory of a Golden Age on a lost Southern continent where the spiritually elevated Lemurians created the wisdom that pervaded the ancient cultures of India and the Levant. According to Docker’s account these ideas spawned a batch of Australian novels and joined with the works of Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker to inform much early Australian science fiction writing.

John Carroll and others also demolish quite a few myths about the national identity and especially the legend of the Bushman. A paper on the nomadic tribes of urban Britain identifies the pathological roots of some bushman characteristics such as restlessness and irresponsibility which were modified or idealised for the purpose of the legend. A chapter argues that some superficially attractive features of the semi-nomadic bachelor existence ascribed to the bushmen were projections by alienated urban intellectuals who occupied a “sleazy urban frontier” of boarding houses, pubs and radical meeting places. Maps indicate the concentrations of boarding houses in central Sydney of 1890 and the close proximity of the premises of various socialist, republican, land-reform, freethought and literary organisations.

Boris Frankel was trying to reshape the political culture. That was a few years ago and I am not sure where his project got to after this book, published in 1992. Frankel was brought up on a radical nationalist version of the Australian legend and his concern was to find a more up-to-date vehicle for the radical reforms that he desires. He ssw himself as a custodian of the Enlightenment project of emancipation and this book sets out to defend humanist values from a number of deadly enemies - cultural relativists, cynical postmodernists, economic rationalists and the Old Right.

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