THERE WERE NEVER IN THE WORLD TWO OPINIONS ALIKE

Narratives and Nation-states
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Narratives and Nation-states

There is no rulebook for founding a modern nation-state. It is difficult to convey this when there is a natural among the citizenry to want to be proud of their nation’s forebears. Something formative, something instructive, something that happened “in history” seems to be needed to hold onto.
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Narratives and Nation-states

There is no rulebook for founding a modern nation-state.  It is difficult to convey this when there is a natural among the citizenry to want to be proud of their nation’s forebears.  Something formative, something instructive, something that happened “in history” seems to be needed to hold onto.

But there is no good reason to hold onto an action or an event that might have involved Australians in the past simply for the sake of needing an identity when we have the potential to advance this civil liberal democracy of ours even further.  Rather, it is our great strength that we are still “young and free”.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon is a novel that speaks to this quest for identity.  It is nominally the story of Gemmy, an 1850s Briton who was tossed overboard as a boy, only to land in Australia and live for a decade or so with the locals, and his later contact with the British settlers.  His contact with the settlers profoundly considers Australian identity, then and now, and the sometimes uneasy relationship this nation has with its past.  The mid-19thcentury setting uses our history to optimistically point to our potential in the future; while recognizing our struggles with identity Malouf presents us with opportunity.

To conform to our conceptions of history and the medium of the “narrative” we need the written word, and it is this modern Australian pre-occupation with the written word that Malouf draws attention to early on, and then comically humiliates.  The town’s minister, Mr. Frazer, believes he understands Gemmy’s incoherent babbling – the deeply tanned, formerly white, technically still English Englishman has almost completely forgotten English.  The book’s title is a reference to the one true language of the Tower of Babel, now lost, and the struggle to communicate without it. If Australian consciousness lacks a connection to a founding moment, can we communicate what it means to be Australian?

The story Mr. Frazer dictates is mostly his guess work, and may be further confused by Mr. Abbot incorrectly transcribing it.  Once this comical episode is over Gemmy seems to feel like he has given something of himself over in having his story written down – its accuracy and indeed existence is a very grave matter for him.  So too does the history of our nation seem to occupy a great many minds from across the political spectrum.

The question Malouf is posing is one of Australian identity.  The histories of modern states like France and the United States of America alike begin with ideas, revolution, and enduring principles.  They are valuable stories and are rightly celebrated.  This was quite unlike the beginnings of the modern Australian nation-state, the location of which was to be the solution to the most base of material problems, and only then evolving at the mercy of bureaucratic necessities. Some seem concerned that without such grandiose stories we have a lesser identity.  But there is absolutely no reason to see such a history as a lesser inheritance, to be hidden in language and debate.

The other minor obsession of Australian literature seems to be that of landscape.  Early Australian writing presents the landscape as the frontier, and as a harsh, unforgiving place.  The landscape is paradoxically presented as both an object to be tamed and as an important character, if not a deadly one in Patrick White’s Nobel Prize winning work, Voss.  Indeed, using 19th century German orienteering techniques to stumble through an early Australian landscape as conceived by Tom Roberts or John Olsen would surely prove fatal for anyone, let alone the hallucinating, telekinesis-communicating Voss.  It is quite understandable that the landscape would seem nothing but harsh and unforgiving to those who imported ideas of agriculture, astronomy, and weather, all totally useless in this environment.

Gemmy’s inability to communicate and his sudden, unbelievable appearance out of the ether make the settlers fearful of the de-evolution that has happened to Gemmy – it could happen to them too.  Perhaps the most important scene in the book is when Jock McIvor, who has at that point become something of a guardian of Gemmy within the settlement, finds an obscenity written in feces on the side of his out-house.  What this shocking word is we are never told – it could relate to Gemmy, it could relate to Jock, it could relate to God.  I’ve already noted Australia’s anxiety with regard to constructing a liberating narrative akin to that of other more bellicose and classically -inspired nations. But we should remember, in desperation to write something – anything – we risk devaluing our story as well as the written word.

Gemmy is on the verge of two cultures – he is of neither on its own, he is something new.  Indeed, with a lack of definition between white and black, Australia is presented as a chance to “get it right”.  Rather than just an urban consumption of Aboriginal culture or a devotion to a heritage now passed we need to live out our conception of Australia, which today is a civil liberal democracy.  Remembering Babylon is a post-colonial book – we are now on the verge of something greater.  Home to the most ancient of cultures, Australia is far from a blank canvas; but our most momentous of times may still lie ahead of us.  It is never too late to write our own history.

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