‘The Cringe – new variants of the virus’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 28.09.95
This is the edited text of a speech Frank Moorhouse gave at a Herald-Dymocks Literary Lunch, which he abandoned after interjections from the floor.
As most of you know, until recently, I lived in France for four years and my new book, Loose Living, is a humorous expression of that experience. Fun and games with the French and the Australian identity.
Until my period in France, I spent most of my life living in Australia and I live here now.
It was then something of a perplexing shock that my last book, Grand Days, was rejected from the most Australian of prizes, the Miles Franklin Prize last year.
The poor old Miles Franklin Prize has been having a rough time of it, with the Demidenko affair and all.
But I believe that the actions of the judges have exposed a sad turmoil in Australian thinking in the wider population. Because the judges will not enter into public discourse about their decisions, we can only surmise and speculate about the nature of their reasoning.
This is what I surmise from their actions.
In rejecting Grand Days and the other two books last year, the judges were struggling with a mutation of the cultural cringe.
I wish to discuss this mutation later in this talk. But it is a desire to promote a narrow form of Australianness and to spurn anything which has the whiff of cosmopolitanism which is seen as an author turning his or her back on [his or] her native country.
With Grand Days we have a character, Edith Campbell Berry, who goes to Geneva to join the League of Nations in the 1920s and is consciously trying to be an “internationalist” in both the political and cultural sense.
She is self-consciously striving to be cosmopolitan. She is an Australian refashioning herself in many ways.
But Edith also represented Australia and its attempts to come to terms diplomatically with being a nation state.
The deeper irony is that the book is also about borders and the crossing of borders and the meaning of borders, national and other, and identity.
The judges of the Miles Franklin recoiled from this and disqualified the book.
Again I think the authorial context influenced them in my case, as it did with the Demidenko affair.
When the book was published I was still living in France, preparing to return to Australia and I was widely reported as living there at the time of publication of the book.
The most common question I had from people when I did come back was “are you going to live here or go back to France?”
Naturally, the Miles Franklin judges had this picture of me living in a chateau and eating my way through fine dinners, enjoying the finer things of life.
Not only was the book to be damned for its un-Australianness but the author was suspected of cultural treason as well.
The judges, I speculate, decided that this was not only a book about cosmopolitanism and not about Australia, but that the author was committing cultural treason.
The judges this year had learned something of a lesson from this media debate about what it meant, now, to be an Australian writer. Times had changed.
This year they must have decided that they had learned their lesson and that Australia was a multicultural and sophisticated nation and that they would show their own cosmopolitan tastes in selecting Helen Demidenko’s book, The Hand that Signed the Paper, because it was written from the viewpoint of a Ukrainian family living in Australia.
It was about this family’s history before them came to Australia in the Ukraine during World War II.
Only one judge has spoken out and she praised the book for its “authenticity” among other things.
Then of course, it turns out not to be by someone of Ukrainian descent but, in fact, a literary hoax.
The judges of the Miles Franklin were in even deeper trouble. With Grand Days they were tripped up by a variant of the cultural cringe that is the urge to spurn the cosmopolitan.
With the Demidenko affair they went in the opposite direction and were caught by what I would call multicultural cringe – they were transfixed by the exotic and foreign, held like rabbits in the headlights of a car; their aesthetics and their perception were blinded.
Some commentators raise the question of the possibility that multicultural art had become something of a fashion preferred above that of the older mainstream Anglo culture.
Whatever else was illustrated by this double disaster for the judges of Miles Franklin, it certainly showed that their judgement was seriously limited in the first case, then destabilised and erratic in the following year.
But the double controversy might tell us something about ourselves at present.
Since returning to Australia, I have come across an intellectual virus hitherto thought to have been eradicated in all but the most remote parts of Australia.
I have come across an unacknowledged resentment and suspicion of what might be described as cultural “treason” by Australians in the arts who leave Australia for significant periods and who write about matters technically outside the national border or who write about unacceptable themes.
As I have said, what we are witnessing is the reappearance of the dreaded cultural cringe, a virus thought to have been eradicated from the anatomy of the nation, together with the multicultural cringe.
The examples I have found are gruesome mutations of the original virus.
For those too young to have heard the term “cultural cringe”, it is attributed to critic A.A. Phillips, who said in 1950 that, “Above our writers – and other artists – looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture. Such a situation almost inevitably produces the characteristic Australian Cultural Cringe”.
We no longer admit to being awed into silence by the greater cultures and our English language heritage but there are other mutations of the same parent virus.
I have been approached by some writers of the younger generation asking whether the virus still existed, and what should they do with their lives if they think they have it.
A significant group of young Australian writers and thinkers now live in the US. People such as Joanna Murray Smith, writer Catherine Lumby, Fiona Giles, Susan Johnston, Peter Carey, and Lily Brett.
As some of these have expressed it to me, there is still an uneasiness which lies within those Australians who have global aspirations.
I have identified it as Virus Variant A, Agitated Expatriate.
The symptoms are as follows: the person who is contemplating living and working elsewhere (especially in the arts) experiences an immobilising dizziness accompanied by the recurring incertitude, What-dreadful-things-will-happen-to-me-if-I-don’t-come-back-to-Australia?
Will my creative well dry up if I stay away? Or will it, conversely, dry up if I don’t stay away? Or will it be contaminated?
This is not the pure cultural cringe but a new variant of it.
Phillips himself pronounced the term cultural cringe dead in 1983. “It is time,” he said, “to accord the phrase decent burial before the smell of the corpse gets too high…”
This new variant does not say we are not good enough. It says Australia may not be right for me (or not good enough for me) and if I say this, or even think it, I will be severely punished.
That Phillips should be alive today, to smell the corpse now as we stand in the graveyard of ideas, in the light rain, while gumbooted cemetery workers dig in the clay to exhume the stinking, twitching body, prematurely buried, still alive and thumping in its coffin, fuelled by rancid nutrients of a unidentifiable foul kind.
It is tissue taken from a recent study of Peter Goldsworthy by Andrew Riemer.
“The sense is inescapable,” says Andrew, “…that they (Australian writers) are dissatisfied by the limited scope the society (Australia) which they must reflect in their writings offers for the contemplation of the larger questions of existence and of the manifestations of good and evil…”
That is, Australian society is deficient in its capacity to supply good and evil in sufficient quality. Existentially lacking.
I am saddened to say that, on the surface, this is an example of the cultural cringe of the older parent strain identified by Phillips in 1950.
But, on further examination, it may be trickier than that and I will come back to it later.
Another recent specimen was from The Sydney Morning Herald where a columnist commented on the absence of David Malouf from a literary award presentation.
She says, “…the author is currently sojourning at his Tuscan home.”
The use of the words “currently” and “sojourning” are wink words used to suggest a leisurely occupation in foreign parts free of any considerations about what might be happening back here in Australia.
The use of the words “Tuscan home” also implicates David. The word Tuscan is redolent with exotic superiority. And isn’t “Australia” the only “home” an Australian can have?
The next specimen was from The Australian in a review of the book of Contemporary South Pacific Stories edited by C.K. Stead.
One Pacific writer, Ihimaera, had evidently withdrawn from the book, complaining about the integrity or whatever of the selection for the book.
In turn, Stead, the editor of the book, attacked Ihimaera for creating the “spectacle of…protecting Pacific values by fax from the south of France”.
Elizabeth Webby, in reviewing this book, comments that the implication is that Ihimaera is “an expatriate enjoying the good life in France”.
However, Elizabeth goes on to “excuse” Ihimaera from this charge with the defence that he is, in fact, in Menton as the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellow, living that is, holed up in a little piece of New Zealand in France, so to speak.
Another specimen from Daniel Dasey in The Sydney Morning Herald. “Artist Arthur Boyd says while he may spend much of his time overseas, there should be no doubting where his heart lies. The Australian of the Year defended (sic) his long stays in Britain… ‘I do live here, I just like to go away from time to time,’ he said.”
The headline of the piece says “Boyd’s art is in the right place”.
This and the Ihimaera and Malouf specimens were identified by our laboratory as Virus Variant B, The Unhappy Ones Who Are Stuck Here.
The symptoms of this virus are as follows. The sufferer experiences a profound sense of disease on reading about expatriate fellow nationals.
Are they having a better life? Are they meeting famous and wonderful people who will advance their career and enrich their life while I am back here working away in the blazing Australian sun?
Further, the sufferer is then gripped by an uncontrollable rage that the absent fellow national, by living in a desirable foreign environment, is committing a cultural treason; the expatriate has escaped from the limitations of Australian life; that the fellow national, that is, is not back here putting up with the hell of it all on the frontier, is not helping to Build the Culture.
This rage I think shows up in my next specimen: an advertisement for the Australia Council’s Creative Arts Fellowships which has been changed to specify that the recipient “must spend most of their time in Australia”.
So now if you’re going to get any funding, there’s no way you’re going to go over and have the good life in France – so forget it.
Audience member: Excuse me Frank. I know this is a bit rude…I shared your disappointment of the Grand Days [being disqualified from the 1994 Miles Franklin Award]. I came to your last luncheon, I bought your book. I suffered as you did when you didn’t win [the Miles Franklin]. But I feel we don’t want to hear what’s going on. If you’re not happy to be in Australia…
(Applause from some members of the audience.)
Well, I think I would read this as touching a nerve…first of all, I’d like to say I live here and I’ve lived here 50 years; that I have to say this is just ridiculous.
What I was doing was teasing out and analysing some interesting examples of things that are going on in Australian cultural life which reflect in such things as the Miles Franklin.
But I accept the complaints from this table at least, and some of the others, that I have somehow lost your interest.
It’s certainly not a whinge, its a piece of analysis, which, as I think this rough interruption shows, I think has touched a nerve.
At this point, Moorhouse took questions from the audience. That part of his speech which remained undelivered is as follows:
This is Virus Variant C, You will Remain Seated: Do Not Attempt To Leave.
The sufferer experiences these symptoms: the dread that one by one anyone who is any good is leaving the country and that those who are left will be seen as second-rate, poor cousins in the cultural world.
In their head the sufferers hear someone saying, Will-the-last-to-leave-please-turn-off-the-lights.
In the Australia Council and other arts funding bodies there arises the possibility that policies can be developed to stop anyone leaving. “If we have our way, no-one will get out.”
These variants of the virus have created an atmosphere where those Australians who have chosen to live abroad and make their careers there, are, upon returning to Australia on a visit, made to swear loyalty oaths before they are received, applauded or rewarded.
As with the parent virus, all the mutations are spawned by the simple fact of being born in Australia, a country which, on the maps, is Stuck Down Here.
I want to sum up and return to the Riemer Case – that writers in Australia have to look elsewhere because the quality of good and evil is insufficient in Australia.
It could very well be an example of a benign strain. What could be teased out of what Andrew is saying is that Australian culture is historically deficient by being Stuck Down Here but that we can, without resentment or despair, and with objective cultural sophistication, now acknowledge our deficiencies and still get on with living a good enough cultural life.
That the cultivated life lies in the grace, art and entertainment we deploy so as to incorporate our deficiencies into our national personality.
Whether we would have been better if we had lived elsewhere, can never be tested.
This brings us next to the cases of Boyd, Ihimaera and Malouf. In this I see, obliquely, some faint hope of a cure.
More often these days, in interviews and at dinner parties, I hear people remark that ideally they would like to be able to say, “I share my time between my apartment in Manhattan and a humpy in the Flinders Ranges.”
That seems increasingly to be an acceptable sort of thing to say.
I have a warning. It is still not acceptable to say that as soon as I can arrange it I am getting the hell out of here for good.
While the parent virus may not be endemic, an assortment of strains are (many more than identified in this talk!) and that even being frequently conscious of the existence of these matters is a type of infection.
We must give those entering the arts the chance to develop either here or where they feel they need to go. Australia is enriched by their work wherever it is made.
The aim may be to turn the wound to a thing of beauty. But for as long as it is asked, it remains a serious question.
I can only advise that, as a general rule, all those in the arts practise Unsafe Art until further notice.
And remember that all successful expatriates are, in the end, possessively reclaimed by their mother country.