Against Nostalgia: Place and Memory in Myles Lalor's 'Oral History.'

By Beckett, Jeremy | Oceania, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Against Nostalgia: Place and Memory in Myles Lalor's 'Oral History.'


Beckett, Jeremy, Oceania


Aboriginality in Western thought is associated with place, place defined not simply in terms of location and topography, but of the memories enshrined in myth and rite which render it unique, the centre of the world for those whose place it is.(1) The modern self, for whom, according to Edward Casey, all places have become interchangeable, looks with a kind of envy on those indigenous peoples who still retain a place of their own; it is afflicted with nostalgia, which 'is not merely a matter of regret for lost times; it is also a pining for lost places, for places we have once been in yet can no longer reenter ...' (Casey 1993: 37).(2) In being lost - often long lost - these places have also lost their particularity; the nostalgia is no longer for places, but for place imbued with an Edenic innocence (cf Featherstone 1993: 177).

Is this also the fate of indigenous people, the great majority of whom were displaced long ago, 'to incur both culture loss and memory loss, resulting from the loss of the land itself' (Casey 1993: 37), and so to end up afflicted with the same nostalgia for place rather than places? Viewed at mid-century, with the perspective of modernity triumphant, this outcome seemed inevitable; as the century ends, however, the faltering of material progress seems to offer a space, even a place, in which indigenous alterity may be able to reconstitute itself. As Edward Said writes,

For the native, the history of his or her colonial servitude is inaugurated by the loss to an outsider of the local place, whose concrete geographical identity must thereafter be searched for and somehow restored. From what? Not just from foreigners, but also from a whole other agenda whose purpose and processes are controlled elsewhere. (Said 1990: 77)

Yet this anti-colonial (or is it post-colonial?) rhetoric of place runs up against the unhappy fact that, particularly in European settler colonies, many natives cannot go home again. How do indigenous people negotiate this predicament and yet remain indigenous? Perhaps we have to entertain the possibility that just as Casey overstates the placelessness of the modern city (cf Lipsitz 1991), so he also overstates the dependence of indigenous identity upon place. As Kathleen Stewart has observed, nostalgia 'is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings and effects shift with the context - it depends on where the speaker stands in the landscape of the present' (1988: 227). If this is the case, such a construction, far from being sympathetic, may call into question the identity of those who do not have 'a place of their own,' or if they do cannot now make a life there.

In political mode, a nostalgia for lost places can be converted into a struggle for indigenous Land Rights at a national and even transnational level, or - in alliance with the Greens - against 'ecological imperialism.' In other words, places become a generalised place, 'country,' 'the earth' etc. In artistic mode, a lost place can be remembered in a painting, a song, or a story, creating an aestheticised nostalgia, which is poignant for those who remember the old home, but exerts a non-specific charm for those who do not. Those for whom such compromises are not available, however, may be able to claim place only at the cost of a pain that cannot be relieved.

Myles Lalor, an Australian Aborigine, contrives his own solution to the predicament. He refuses nostalgia for the birthplace from which he has been displaced, in favour of a cosmopolitanism that asserts that there are always other places where life - even Aboriginal life - can go on. He saves these other places, modern, urban, institutional, from anonymity and so interchangeability through his stories of what he did there and the people he met.

Myles Lalor called these memories his 'oral history;' we might also call them his biography - using this term in Thomas Luckman's 'extended sense to refer to any socially objectivated oral or literary scheme or model for the course of an individual's life' (1991: 163). …

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