From Gallipoli to Gundagai

By Johnson, Bruce | Journal of Australian Studies, March 1999 | Go to article overview

From Gallipoli to Gundagai


Johnson, Bruce, Journal of Australian Studies


The point of this article lies less in the information it draws together than in the direction in which I point it, to other enquiries I have been pursuing.(1) At a considerable remove, it is part of the attempt to answer the question, `Why has institutionalised discourse of Australian music neglected most of the music experienced by people in Australia?' This has led me to the larger question, `Why has so much of the discourse of Australian modernism produced an account that feels irrelevant to the daily experience of modernity and mass culture?' This paper is about how an imaginary Australian `homeland' has come between us and the lived realities of our modernity.(2) Our attempts to synthesise and articulate the experience of modernity remain deeply confused. Recent events relating to the idea of Australia and its connection with its position in an Asian/Pacific region, and with its indigenous people, indicate incontrovertibly that we continue to have great difficulties in establishing a fit between an imaginary homeland and its modern actualities.

One reason is because the academic notion of modernity has tried to construct itself on a template of European versions of modernism. The result is a frequently mystifying version of modern Australia which seems divorced from our actual experiences of modernity. Until very recently, for example, accounts of modernist Australian painting focused on the work of male artists from the late thirties, thus writing out of existence a school of modern art largely sustained by women since the early years of the century.(3) Music scholarship, based on Euro-modernism, still dates modernity in Australian music from the sixties, ignoring the radical innovations in popular music going back to 1918.

These confusions are in large part based on a fear of the new, a fear of the contemporary, a desire to return to a homeland which scarcely existed except as an imagined place. That we can continue to evade the present in an imaginary past is related to how we responded to the traumatic event of the century, the first world war. For European intellectuals, the war marked the failure of a civilised tradition which had bloomed in the nineteenth century and went to seed in the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele. Exiled from the homelands of the enlightenment, they embraced alienation as the mark of modernity.

Australia was also traumatised by its casualties during the war. Yet in Australia the war's aftermath produced a durable conservatism, a return to a past `homeland' and to the values out of which the war had ultimately emerged, rather than the exiled alienation that characterised the dominant European model of modernism. The argument of my article is that a major reason for the postwar resurgence of an ethos rooted in nineteenth century certitudes, while Europeans withdrew from theirs, was that the Australian experience of the war strengthened rather than destroyed the values of an `imaginary homeland'.

It was not invariably so. Among the various strands that make up the Australian responses to the war, we can distinguish some which resemble the passage from high jingoism to black despair that is to be found in a comparison between English writers Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. Passing from work like J D Bums' `For England', Lawson's `England yet', Dorothea McKellar's `Australia's men', to the poetry of Leon Gellert, Frederick Manning, and Harley Matthews provides a parallel downward curve to bitterly unillusioned Australian revisions of military heroism.(4) My argument is that a viable alternative was available for Australia and that it was this alternative which came to dominate our postwar mythology, forcing any alternative models to the margins.

There are several distinctive aspects of our involvement which produced this alternative. These include geographical and demographic factors and the cultural point from which we entered the conflict, the angle at which we approached it, and the nature of some of our significant engagements. …

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