Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Heriot's Ithaka: Soul, Country and the Possibility of Home in to the Islands

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Heriot's Ithaka: Soul, Country and the Possibility of Home in to the Islands

Article excerpt

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way . . .

C.P. Cavafy, 'Ithaka'

Old king without a throne,

the hollow of despair

behind his obstinate unyielding stare,

knows only, God is gone:

and, fingers clenching on his chair,

feels night and the soul's terror coming on.

Judith Wright, 'The Harp and the King'

In 2009 Anthony Hassall, writing in Australian Book Review about Randolph Stow's oeuvre, noted that: 'The final tableau of [Heriot] alone on a cliff above the Arafura Sea, confronting the strangeness of his soul and looking out towards the Aboriginal islands of the dead, is one of the unforgettable images of Australian literature' (29). I would add that Heriot's final utterance: 'My soul . . . my soul is a strange country,' is one of the unforgettable, and most powerfully haunting, concluding sentences in Australian fiction. Yet Leonie Kramer in her 1975 critique of Stow's novels found that final sentence to be misplaced: 'It belongs-if indeed it belongs at all-not at the end of a novel of this kind, but near the beginning. Surely we have not come all this way with Heriot to be told, what we could have told him in the first place, that his soul is a strange country' (87). Despite considerable informed critique of Kramer's readings of Stow's work-particularly by Geoffrey Dutton, Anthony Hassall, Helen Tiffin and Paul Higginbotham-'her strictures,' as Hassall notes, 'have been treated with greater deference than they deserve, and have cast a long shadow over later Stow criticism' (Strange Country 54). At a time when interest in Stow and his work is again on the ascendency, I want to investigate more deeply what Heriot might have appreciated his soul to be, before arguing that he could not have spoken those resonant words until the very moment when he is blinded by illumination atop that coastal cliff.

So what is soul? Not a small question, not an answerable question, but certainly an ongoing profoundly interesting question. To the ancients, soul was anima, 'that which animates, the living-, moving-, breathing-ness of a biological being' (Nicol). In De Anima Aristotle aims to 'grasp and understand' the essential nature and properties of the soul. He acknowledges from the outset that to 'attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world' (I.1). In his inimitable fashion Aristotle sets out to consider how his predecessors-Diogenes, Heraclitus, Hippo, Critias, Democritus, the list goes on-have sought to define the soul, before dismissing their arguments. Eventually, having analysed the properties of movement, nutrition and appetite, and tracked his way through the various modes of sensory perception, Aristotle proposes that 'there are two distinctive peculiarities by reference to which we characterize the soul (1) local movement and (2) thinking, discriminating, and perceiving' (III.3). Perhaps more pertinent, in the context of Stow's work, is Aristotle's earlier assertion that

'[t]he soul is the cause or source of the living body . . . It is (a) the source or origin of movement, it is (b) the end, it is (c) the essence of the whole living body. That it is the last, is clear; for in everything the essence is identical with the ground of its being, and here, in the case of living things, their being is to live, and of their being and their living the soul in them is the cause or source.' (II.4)

It is this concept of the soul as the essence of self that Stow, more than any other Australian writer of the time, embraced.

In Strange Country Hassall, having dismissed Vincent Buckley's claim that Stow was working in Patrick White's shadow, pinpoints what was so interesting about the independent publication of Voss (1957) and To the Islands (1958): 'Believing that a key to the Australian soul lay in the Australian landscape, they took their protagonists away from the European huddle on the fringes of the continent to seek its meaning, and their own, in the empty desolation and silence of the interior' (28). …

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