Dying of Landscape: E.L. Grant Watson and the Australian Desert

By Haynes, Roslynn | Australian Literary Studies, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Dying of Landscape: E.L. Grant Watson and the Australian Desert


Haynes, Roslynn, Australian Literary Studies


No pilgrims leave, no holy-days are kept for those who died of landscape.... Out there their place is, where the charts are gapped, unreachable, unmapped, and mainly in the mind.

(Randolph Stow, `The Singing Bones')

The six, relatively neglected(1) Australian novels of Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson, written between 1914 and 1935, present an intriguing and complex reworking of their author's engagement with the Western Australian desert. Equipped with a broad literary background, a close knowledge of psychoanalysis and Jungian ideas, a deep interest in comparative religion and the prior experience of travel in the Middle East, as well as a training in biology and anthropology, Watson would seem the archetypal Renaissance man, uniquely qualified to interpret his experiences within the European context of his time. Yet, unlike his two later autobiographical explorations of this period, But to What Purpose (1946) and Journey under the Southern Stars (1968), the novels proposed such radical views about Aboriginal culture and European settlement that, despite their anti-feminist stance, they could now pass as respectably postcolonial and as prefigurings of the late twentieth-century preoccupation with the spirit of place that in Australia is peculiarly associated with desert areas.

As an index of this unconventionality it is useful to note the interesting parallels between the intellectual careers of Grant Watson and Charles Darwin. Born 76 years apart, both were brought up in a form of faith -- in Darwin's case Christianity, in Watson's case Darwinism, of which both his parents were fanatical devotees. Both, after completing a Cambridge degree, set off on a scientific voyage to the other side of the world where they found their faith challenged by experiences that were non-explicable in terms of their former ideological framework. Both spent the rest of their lives trying to construct a new theoretical system that would make sense of these experiences. Darwin lost his unquestioning faith in Christianity and an ordered picture of Nature, and constructed evolutionary theory, predicated on chance events rather than design. Half a century later Watson lost his faith in Darwinism, replacing it with a form of Jungian biology, searching for pattern rather than chance.(2) For Darwin, the trigger to revision came from his observations on the Galapagos; for Watson it was the period he spent in the Western Australian desert.

This article examines Watson's recurrent struggle to accommodate this profoundly disturbing metaphysical experience with his scientific training. In his novels this encounter is repeatedly interrogated in relation to Aboriginal culture, the innate and perceived character of the desert, the history of British colonialism and his curiously ambivalent characterisation of women.

Watson came to Australia in 1910-11(3) as a member of a scientific expedition led by Alfred Radcliffe Brown to study Aboriginal anthropology. Arriving six months before the delayed expedition finally set off, he decided to earn some money by collecting beetles in the desert east of the Kalgoorlie goldfields. During this time he apparently underwent a profound psychological crisis that led him to a radical questioning of his Eurocentric assumptions. The effect was a problematising of the imperial focus on the Centre, and the development of what he was later to call the `philosophy of the fringe', the notion that `in the centres of civilisation life was withering away'. `Human life', he came to believe, `was centripetal, having its sources at the circumference, and ... drove inward towards congestion and death' (But to What Purpose 252). Robert Dixon has traced this kind of fear, emanating from a popular understanding of Darwinism, in many of the nineteenth-century ripping yarns of Empire (Dixon 1995), but Watson dealt with it very differently.

In 1910 the Western desert still ranked as the most remote margin of civilisation and Aboriginal culture, with its emphasis on myth, animism and magic, as the ultimate primitivism. …

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