Discourse of Consciousness

By the earlier decades of the century the position of Europeans in a place which had not originally belonged to them had been strengthened to the point of complacency, bolstered by race and empire complacencies. Australia was a modern nation and in cities or the industrialized pastoral landscape one could forget recent origins. In the nature of things, though, such confidence had to ring hollow, as it does indeed at the heart of Vitalist assertions. But it is worth grasping that anxiety had local as well as international-modern roots. The mechanism operated as follows. Possessing the land and the new (complex) identity it conferred had to be confirmed by inward possession. In Hegelian terms we could say Australians felt the need to raise their Aus-tralianness to the level of the idea, to make it matter for consciousness. My term for this is 'discourse of consciousness', which may be dated from the 1930s to the 1960s and which signals renewed anxiety after a phase of triumphalism. This anxiety is self-generating but its rationale is to consolidate in the very act of questioning. Necessary historical triggers come in the form of the Depression, the war and the subsequent shake-up produced by unprecedented non-Anglo immigration.

Modernism enters the cultural stream, understandably, at precisely this point. It enters in the verse of Frank Wilmot with city inspiration in Melbourne Odes (1934) and more momentously in the late-twenties and the thirties verse of Slessor, who maintains Lindsayite loyalties but in poetic practice develops well beyond Lindsay. I have referred to Slessor as a Man of Sentiment in the eighteenth-century sense. His sensibility is neurasthenic, awake to the fragility of fantasies (including Lindsayite ones), ultimately bound to face the reality of solipsistic void. In 'Captain Dobbin' (which adapts Eliot rhythms to the requirements of life on Sydney Harbour), in the later 'Sleep', 'Last Trams' and above all 'Five Bells' (regarded by some as the finest Australian poem), Slessor gathers up the disillusioned voices of the First War (Owen especially) and gives them an expressionist edge — what I elsewhere term 'soft' expressionism because I want to stress that its Angst-ridden modernity serves specific local historical-political ends.

This is more readily apparent in the historical revisionism of the thirties to sixties, a time which sees the establishment of Australian Literature in the universities, increased Australian publication in Australia, H. M. Green's 1961 history of Australian writing, Manning Clark's historical volumes, the renewal of radical nationalist traditions via the work of Vance Palmer and Russel Ward, Judith Wright's 1965 Preoccupations in Australian Poetry and a great deal more. In particular self-consciousness could at last readmit the neglected Aboriginal presence to white culture. Unobligingly, black people had refused to die out as a master race had fondly hoped. Now — and this too seems a part of historical logic — even as Australians sought to grasp that elusive identity of theirs, they had to re-encounter Aboriginality. From Margaret Preston to Russell Drysdale, Aborigines reappear in art; they reappear on the screen in Chauvel's Jedda; they reappear in the novel and in the early poems of Judith Wright.

If Wright, beginning with The Moving Image (1946) and Woman to Man (1949), more than any other postwar poet made herself a consciously ambivalent voice for the land and its first-nation inhabitants, the note of reassessment is ubiquitous. It emerges as a querying, surrealist-expressionist rewriting of place and self, as if Australia, romping, muscular in the Deco decades, now presented itself as dreamlike, once more alien, though with an alienness which has been internalized, made one's own. Defa-miliarization serves local ends. It overwhelms the novels of Patrick White and the canvases of Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. In poetry it crops up where one would least expect it, in the early work of Hope and James McAuley. Hope's style may be antiquarian but in The Wandering Islands (1955) the content, and the psychology, is modern. Moderated, of course, by irony. McAuley's Under Aldebaran (1946) contained grotesque and nightmarish pieces like 'Gnostic Prelude' or, more subtly, the oneiric questionings of 'Envoi'. This when Judith Wright was reinterpreting Australian history in 'Bullocky' with doubt and unease, and even the ballad, in the hands of David Campbell, turned into revelations of strangeness. Somewhat later, as if the traditional realism of Australian writing were being turned inside-out, this same quality emerges in the poems of Randolph Stow. But nowhere is the pulse of the times captured more intensely than in the poetry of a man who spent most of his time in asylums, obsessed by the fear that the communists might overcome the Blue Army of Mary. Francis Webb borrowed the modernism of Slessor and the knotty style of FitzGerald to produce a wrestling with the word unique in Australian letters. He too rewrote local history in the lurid light of the surreal, epitomizing better than anyone the problematizing process I have termed consciousness discourse. And sometimes breaking out into uninhibited lyricism. This from A Drum for Ben Boyd (1948) to Leichhardt in Theatre (1952) to 'Eyre All Alone' (1961) and the still later 'Ward Two' poems.

Postwar modernism and the problematizing of discourses of identity and belonging, the renewal, as always in borrowed European clothing, of the fundamental 'who are we?', 'what are we doing here?' did not go unchallenged. The uncritical Vitalist muse had, as argued above, a long life (it could take more thoughtful form, of course, from FitzGerald to Lehmann, and more tormented form, as in Murray). McAuley converted to a conservative Catholicism (celebrated in A Vision of Ceremony, 1956) and went on to edit the reactionary journal Quadrant - though he showed lyrical poetic resilience and a truly surprising, and touching, turn to the autobiographical in Surprises of the Sun (1969). Hope elaborated on the subject of the penis and the pen articulately and in heroic couplets. Poets like Rosemary Dobson wrote admired verse and John Manifold kept ballad traditions alive, with sophistication and concern born of political idealism. Perhaps the clearest sign of cultural ferment and, in this case, challenge to modernism appeared with the Ern Malley hoax. Malley was a modernist genius invented by McAuley and others in 1944 to make a fool of Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins. It worked, more or less, though now the fictional genius is included in anthologies and regarded as after all talented. Which doubtless serves McAuley right.

In many ways the late fifties and early sixties represent a transition between the heroic modernism of the postwar — uncertain, myth-making, grasping and failing to grasp the slippery essence of being-Australian which was its Grail — and the revolution of 1968. To its national and international anxieties history added the Cold War. Fifties poetry, if we may loosely term it that, differs from the earlier product in its detached stance, Audenish in Chris Wallace-Crabbe's 'A Wintry Manifesto' (1959) with its call for a knowing, limited precision, closer to the confessional Lowell in the darker poetry of Vincent Buckley. Like the later McAuley, Buckley (very much a Melbourne voice), keeps the fearful subject-I in check, releasing him with care as one might a dangerous lunatic. Inhibition is conscious and often tormented, all the way to Buckley's major achievement, Golden Builders (1976). In Wallace-Crabbe there are partial thaws and developments up to the present. Perhaps it was not coincidental that most poets of the time were, for the first time in Australian history, academics — who moreover, like Hope, McAuley and Buckley, moulded opinion through their writing on poetry. (Buckley also edited poetry for the Bulletin) In a situation of political impasse, existentialist unease mingled with Bogart, or Camus, cool. Again, Wallace-Crabbe said it all in a 1961 article on the 'habit of irony'. Diverse poets, the middle-of-the-road Grace Perry with her Poetry Australia magazine (launched in 1964), high-profile practitioners like Gwen Harwood, Andrew Taylor, the expatriate Peter Porter and the popular and populist Bruce Dawe, as well as Rodney Hall, Thomas Shapcott and the early David Malouf, all adopted a temperate, cautious manner. This fact was especially underlined in Hall's and Shapcott's anthology, New Impulses (1968), though the content of the anthology was more varied than its manifesto suggests.

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