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Australian wound

Dr Mark Byrne*

A version of this article was published in Eureka Street, 16(4), May 2006

Tired of the outback? Australian writers, artists and filmmakers aren’t. It’s not just that there is a lot of it out there. Perhaps there is something we are, as a nation, trying to express or work through in all our journeys into the desert on horseback or camel, in Kombis and ‘Cruisers, with whaleboat or caravan in tow.

Poststructuralists tell us that the age of the questing, conquering explorer-hero is long dead, and that today we are telling new stories about the outback. Stories reflecting generations of local knowledge instead of the traveller's distant gaze; stories of struggles for land rights and reconciliation; of the farmer's battles with drought and flood; of women who have survived and prospered in the bush, or escaped to brilliant careers. We are also telling more stories about the places where most of us live and play — the city and the coast. Feminists remind us that the myth of the outback was forged and perpetuated by men, and that women feel the pull more of the liquid sensuality of the coast and the promised intimacy of the suburbs.

Yet myth is stronger than fashion. Japanese Story, Wolf Creek and The Proposition remind us that the outback is, as Robyn Davidson put it, the "mythological crucible" of Australia — the place where we set many of the stories that nurture and guide, challenge and delude us.

The journey to the outback in a vast, flat land is analogous to the journey to the underworld in the mythologies of the mountainous lands of Europe. And just as the modern idea of the unconscious as a place of depth and otherness came out of the vertical landscapes of Austria (Freud) and Switzerland (Jung), so in Australia our sense of who we are is defined by our encounters with the “empty centre.” 

Above all, the outback is where Australians go to die. From Burke and Wills through Lassiter and Voss to Azaria Chamberlain and Peter Falconio, the journey to the outback has been suffused with the aura of death. Impending or averted, fated or random, in fiction or history, it is as omnipresent as the heat, flies and red dirt.

Death and rebirth

In myth and literature, death usually leads to rebirth, as in the resurrection of Jesus or the reconstitution of Osiris (minus his penis, unfortunately) after his dismemberment and a “night sea journey” in a coffin. Through the encounter with death — real or symbolic — one is initiated into a new life, usually with greater wisdom or powers. Stories of death and rebirth are often connected with rites of passage, especially from childhood to adulthood, through which one dies to an old way of life in order to embrace the new.

Jung interpreted the archetype of death and rebirth in terms of the ego’s struggle to separate from the unconscious in the process of psychological maturation. The supposed universality of the theme became the basis of Joseph Campbell’s idea of a universal hero’s journey, which has recently become a formative influence, for better or worse, on the plots of Hollywood movies. The young innocent squares up to his or her demons, nearly dying in the process, but eventually emerges triumphant.

That’s not the way it pans out in Australia, however. Here, death seldom leads to rebirth. Take Patrick White’s Voss (1956), the paradigmatic literary narrative of the outback quest gone wrong. After the death of the German explorer at the hands of Aborigines, the novel ends with the sullen survivor Judd meeting Voss’s fantasy lover Laura Trevelyn years later, now a withdrawn and funereal headmistress. “Voss did not die”, Laura proffers, “He is there still… and always will be”, yet only as a ghostly presence and a reminder of the folly of hubris.

A similar pattern of decay, disappointment and death without rebirth can be observed in more recent narratives of outback journeys, such as Randloph Stow’s To the Islands (1963), and Dal Stivens’ Miles Franklin Award-winning but now forgotten A Horse of Air (1970); even Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines (1988), in which the narrator “Bruce”’s quest to discover the secret of the Aboriginal songlines eventually descends into a brutal ‘roo hunt and is only rescued, near the end of the book, by Chatwin inventing a marriage between two of his characters and a peaceful deathbed scene under gum trees for three old Aboriginal men he supposedly meets en route back to Alice.

Likewise for film, most notably in Picnic at Hanging Rock (not set in the outback as such, but close enough), with three schoolgirls lost, apparently dead, without explanation; Walkabout (the young Aborigine played by David Gulpilil hangs himself while the white children return to their old lives, largely unaffected by their experience); the Mad Max trilogy, most notably Mad Max 2, which ends with the antihero Max left alone in the desert after the petrol tanker he has driven to safety turns out to be full of sand; and The Tracker (2002), with the white policeman played by Gary Sweet killed by David Gulpilil’s black tracker.

In history, there were plenty of explorers who made it back — Mitchell, Oxley, Giles, Warburton — but we obsess over the dead: Burke and Wills, Leichhardt and Lasseter; or those who nearly died and limped home, not conquerors but survivors, like Eyre.

The missing container

To die into the land is part of the inevitable process of coming to belong in a new land. Judith Wright knew this. In “The Upside-down Hut”, written in 1961, she asked:

Are all these dead men in our literature, then, a kind of ritual sacrifice? And just what is being sacrificed? Is it perhaps the European consciousness – dominating, puritanical, analytical… that Lawrence saw as negated by this landscape?… Reconciliation, then, is a matter of death – the death of the European mind, its absorption into the soil it has struggled against.

Yet we have become content with making a religion of sacrifice and failure — witness Gallipoli and Waltzing Matilda as well as outback narratives — rather than asking what it is that prevents new life from emerging out of surrender, sacrifice and defeat.

In myth and legend, fools and heroes need guides on their quests, as rites of passage need elders to help the novice to surrender to death and make it through to the other side. Guides and elders hold or contain the alchemical process of transformation. In their absence one is forced to take on the role either of the hero who conquers death, or the antihero who surrenders to it.

In modern Australian culture, however, we lack a sense of the land as a container that would hold our stories of death and transform them into stories of rebirth. This may be partly a function of time: Europeans have only lived here for two centuries and have not had time to sink the deep roots that would give them a sense of being part of, rather than threatened, by the land. But this process has been slowed down even further by the failure on the part of non-Indigenous settlers to make real peace with its Indigenous peoples and to acknowledge their prior ownership of (and by) the land.

As a result, for all our roads and fences, bricks and mortar, laws and signs, our outback stories remind us that we are at best still tourists, interlopers and renters. Perhaps non-Indigenous artists and writers sense that their culture cannot hold and guide them when they face death in the outback, because its presence is still superficial. Perhaps this is also why murders and disappearances in the outback attract so much more publicity than those elsewhere in the country: there but for the grace of God, even though statistically we’re probably in more danger at home or commuting to work. It’s like sharks in the ocean; it’s a reminder that we don’t really belong.

Exceptions to the rule

Still, there are exceptions. Robyn Davidson’s bestselling Tracks is one journey that involves disappointment, defeat and death (of her beloved dog Diggity, of her ideals for the journey), yet it ends with her being transformed by the experience and providing inspiration to others through her writing.

Perhaps it’s because she starts from the centre of the continent and works her way out, instead of setting out on yet another heroic attempt to penetrate the emptiness within. Perhaps it’s because she’s a woman, and therefore has less of the heroic baggage that men and male characters often carry into the outback. Or perhaps it’s because the high point of her journey was a week spent in the company of a male Pitjantjatjara elder, who effectively initiated her into the country through which they were travelling.

An even more popular narrative that doesn’t fit the typical Australian pattern is Crocodile Dundee (1988). Mick Dundee (Paul Hogan) is a white blackfella: able to wrestle crocs and psych out buffalos, and more at home in the wilderness than his Aboriginal mate Nev (played by David Gulpilil), who says at one point, “Oh, God, I hate the bush!” It is Mick, rather than Nev, who becomes guide and protector to Linda Kozlowski’s fish-out-of-water American journalist Sue Charlton.

Likewise, one way of reading the symbolism of Japanese Story (2003) is to see the Japanese interloper Hiromitsu, all alien stiffness and dangerous naivety, as a surrogate whitefella, while the white Australian geologist Sandy (played by Toni Collette) is more at home in the bush, and thus able to initiate him into the land and a kind of love.

In Tracks and Japanese Story, it is the presence of a guide who is at home with the country that allows the story to move beyond a meeting with death into a journey of relationship with the land, other people and oneself. This movement is handled particularly beautifully in Japanese Story, with the last half-hour devoted to a slow and painful exploration of Sandy’s grief and her encounter with Hiromitsu’s wife, who has come to collect his body.

Never has death been handled so directly and patiently in an Australian film. While set in a fishing town in South Australia rather than the outback, grief is a central theme, too, in Australian Rules (2002), the best portrayal to date of race relations in Australian cinema. Only after the white teenager Blacky has been allowed to join the family of his Aboriginal mate Dumby Red at the funeral do we see him with Dumby’s sister Clarence in a relationship that has real hope for the future.

If you don’t have guides and elders, the other way to avoid falling into either heroic conquest or fatalistic sacrifice on a quest or a rite of passage is to embark on it with one’s peers, learning from and supporting each other on the way. While Aboriginal people can sometimes help guide white Australians into feeling the sadness that lies close to the surface of the old land beneath their feet, and have legitimate grievances for which the remedies need to come from white culture and institutions, I suspect that a deeper sense of belonging in this land will only come out of a true sense of the equality of our cultures and peoples.

While we can try to legislate this, it is more likely to come when we are able to do some more grieving together — whether on screen or through initiatives like the Sorry Books. Then perhaps we will be able to go down to the multiplex and see a film in which whitefellas can enter the interior, surrender to it, and be reborn into a larger sense of themselves as Australians rather than transplanted Europeans or Asians.

 

Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre, where he occasionally writes and gives talks on race relations in Australian cinema. His doctoral thesis was on hero myths and male rites of passage.

 

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