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

The Corpus of the Continent: Embodiments of Australia in World Literature

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

The Corpus of the Continent: Embodiments of Australia in World Literature

Article excerpt

In Patrick White's magisterial 1957 novel of the early nineteenth-century Australian landscape and dreamscape, Voss, the eponymous protagonist, a German who has come to Sydney to lead an expedition into the red center, is asked by his patron Mr Bonner whether he has 'studied the map.' 'Here, indeed, was a map of a kind, presumptuous where it was not a blank. "The map?" said Voss. It was certainly a vast dream from which he had wakened. Even the draper suspected its immensity as he prodded at the coast with his ivory pointer. "The map?" repeated the German. "I will first make it"' (17). Blank. Vast. Immensity. Can one conjure a continent without these Conradian words, or the map-making they compel? As Robert Dixon notes, the history of inland discovery in Australia brings together 'the "connected" and unified nature of both the continent as a geographical entity and the nation as a social polity' (Dixon 164).1 Just as the continent's openness asks to be measured, gridded, fenced, so too is its temporal expanse corralled into the neatness of forward-moving lines. Thus land, literature, and the nation-to-be are all subsumed into the inevitable plot of progress (that Conradian synonym for empire itself). What would it mean to decolonise the continent? To provincialise it, to see it from somewhere other than the center and the end that is national literature, in short to see the continent, this continent, from the perspective of worlds within?

My question is another variation on the work of White's Voss, who announces 'I will cross the continent from one end to the other. I have every intention to know it with my heart' (27). The capable Mrs Bonner, the good draper's wife, knows better, observing 'he is already lost . . . he is simply lost. His eyes . . . cannot find their way' (21). Voss tells the story of its protagonist's journey out and his voyage in: into his love for the regal, intelligent, fiery Laura who waits for him in her uncle's Sydney home, into Laura's imagined, projected, invented love for Voss transmitted by letters that lose their way; and finally, into the love that is the true romance of the novel-the distinctive Australian love for the continent. As a figure for discovery, in White's novel as in the long history of imagining terra australis, the continent is where knowing and imagining, pinpointing and displacing, wanting and losing, converge. Taking Mrs Bonner to heart, I want to explore both knowing the continent and seeing the continent, and I want to do both from the heart. The rhythms of this essay are heartsongs; memories, losses, nostalgias, but also explorations, encounters, new knowings. Speeding up, slowing down, going deep, reaching out, holding fast, letting go. The work of knowing with the heart is also, it turns out, the work of thinking at the world-scale. Both these knowings demand an oscillation of place, a sense of what it means to be simultaneously there and here, an almost visceral sensation of the macro scale lying explosively latent in a micro instant, not just the continent but indeed the world in your heart. This is not thinking from above, in the style of critical mastery interrogated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and ultimately dismissed as world literature's 'cartographic arrogance' but rather thinking from all over the map, zooming out, coming close, scaling down to the self, scaling up to the work.2 There is much of childhood (that original and indelible world within) in this essay. On the one hand, this is a chosen risk, a query about what happens when one writes from the heart. On the other hand, it is no choice at all, for I cannot think Australia without thinking myself in it. What do my early childhood dreamscape and my adult critical landscape have in common? Australia itself, that place at once contained by and in excess of terminology-nation, continent, land, island. How is Australia thought, felt, mapped, described, inhabited, dreamed? And how in this rich discursive field does land operate not only as the ineradicable protagonist of Australian writing but also, in a less subject-centered fashion, as its force, a pulsing energy only partially captured in representation, indelibly present in the sheer thingness of place, undeniably sensed in the landscapes of the self but just as intractably sounding through the space-time of alternative cosmogonies and cartographies? …

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