18 October 2004

Rock spirits

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:45 pm

mimih.jpgI’m reading Germaine Greer’s provocative Whitefella Jump Up at the moment, but it seems to be pretty well represented by her extract here.

People dismiss Greer for a lot of reasons. She keeps banging on about Australia but hasn’t lived here for years and says she never will again. She may well be bonkers. But there are some interesting ideas in this book, and I think that allegations such as The Spectator‘s that all her ideas are derivative and clichéd are unfair. I think some of these ideas are new and important.

The thrust of the book is that we could solve or bypass a lot of our problems by acknowledging that Australia is an Aboriginal place and that we are all Aborigines. Greer admits that the first thing is much easier than the second thing. And the whole thing may sound a bit loopy at first. But read on.

It seems pretty clear that Europeans in Australia have done things the hard way by trying to remake the country in the image of, say, England, instead of taking it as we found it. For example, my sympathy for the struggling farmer is always tempered by a kind of: what did you expect? Greer goes further (of course), with a pyrotechnic piece of hyperbole:

In Australian literature, the Europeans’ corrosive unease expresses itself in a curious distortion of the pathetic fallacy, which characterises the land as harsh, cruel, savage, relentless, the sky as implacable, pitiless and so forth. The heart of the country is called “dead&#8221. Vicissitudes of heat and cold are interpreted as a kind of punishment, and the physical world itself given the role of an avenging deity. The vegetation is described as “stunted&#8221, “warped&#8221, “misshapen&#8221, another example of projection of a presentiment of evil within to the countryside without.

It was not the country that was damned but the settler who felt in his heart that he was damned. His impotent cursing, which has left a legacy in the unequalled degree of profanity in Australian speech, was a classic piece of transference. We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts’ core that it is not ours.

There’s a lot wrong with any idea that conflates Aboriginality with environmental saintliness, stewardship of the land and so on. Clearly it tends to disenfranchise urban Aborigines, who may never have been to the bush or may not care about it particularly, but aren’t any less Aboriginal for that. There’s also some evidence that the first Aborigines completely altered the character of the landscape when they turned up, wiped out a bunch of the megafauna, and managed to sustain themselves so well for so long because there were relatively few of them. Also, it just feels a bit old and mush-headed, this whole “noble savage” thing.

But they have been here for a bloody long time, and the stuff they’ve picked up over that time is just staggering. I don’t just mean knowing how to get around or what plants are good for you—I mean all of the paintings that mean things about the land, and all the interlocking stories, and this business with the songlines. And I think it’s absolutely essential that we find out as much about all this as we’re able to. I don’t think you can begin to understand a place on your own: you need all the different views of it, all the metaphors and images, all the poetry that other people have used, just to get a handle on it. And these guys have been describing the place for such a long time and in such detail that I think there’s a lot of sense in calling it an Aboriginal country, and we’re the poorer for not listening to them. Maybe you can understand Aboriginality (or one can, or someone can) without reference to the land, but I don’t think you can properly understand the land without at least some of the Aboriginal references to and through it.

But we seem to be reluctant. White people’s acknowledgment of traditional owners—at conferences, performances and such—is seen as a bit of a wank. Indigenous renaming or dual naming of places is greeted with a suspicion or outrage that clearly goes beyond the letter-writers’ professed concern with logistics or tokenism. Is it cultural theft, are we pillaging the traditions of people we’ve taken too much from already? Or is that just an excuse? I don’t hear too many complaints from the indigenous corner. There’s a lot we can’t know, of course, but there’s also a lot we can, and should. We’d all get a lot out of it.

Calling ourselves Aboriginal might be pushing it. But one thing we can say is that our Australian identity, whatever that is, probably has a lot more to do with Aboriginality than we generally admit. Greer says:

It is my contention, diffidently offered, that the Australian national character derives from the influence of the Aborigines whose dogged resistance to an imported and inappropriate culture has affected our culture more deeply than is usually recognised. From the beginning of colonisation, the authorities’ deepest fear was that settlers would degenerate and go native. In many subtle and largely unexplored ways, they did just that. Indeed, they may already partake in more Aboriginality than they know.

She cites our directness (and willingness to dispense with meaningless niceties); our egalitarianism (and indifference to asserted but unearned authority); our conversational reticence; our yarns and tall stories; our sexual segregation (women in the kitchen with salads, blokes outside around the keg); and even our accents:

Australian English is studded with Aboriginal words; the unmistakable intonation and accent bear the imprint of Aboriginality. The Anglo-Celt settlers came with Scotch and Irish brogues, and the burrs of provincial England. The Australian accent bears scant resemblance to any of these. When I first heard blackfellas speak, I stupidly thought that they were imitating the way whitefellas speak, which just shows how upside-down gubbas’ assumptions can be. The transfer must have happened the other way about; the broad flat vowels, complex diphthongs and murmuring nasalities of spoken Australian English must have come to us from Aboriginal languages.

Some of this seems a bit of a stretch. But many’s the barbie at which one of the blokes turning the snags has jerked his head towards the kitchen and muttered “secret women’s business, eh?” to general murmurs of approval—the opposite may be happening as well—and who knows? That bloke may be exactly right.

I would also nominate our sense of humour. Australian humour must be the driest in the world, full of understatement, ruthlessly iconoclastic, layered with irony, available in the face of the worst excesses and injustices, and never afraid to work blue. All of the Aborigines I’ve met—admittedly not many—and most of those I’ve seen or read about have had exactly that sense of humour. In spades. Have a read of this, from Gillian Cowlishaw’s Blackfellas, Whitefellas, and the Hidden Injuries of Race:

And then on some days they’d ask every kid, “Now we want you to write down what you all had for tea last night. Who had a lovely tea?” These bastards were having roasts and plum duffs and plum pudding and ice cream and jelly and all this shit. We were lucky to have some bully beef and curry. But I used to lie about it. I used to get those things, but not all the time. When these days came up I might have just had a bit of salami and salad or just a rough feed that mum would get together for us. I’d bullshit and say, “Oh yeah I had that too&#8221. ‘Cause Mum was a really good cook. If she had money she could put a go
od Christmas dinner on every meal. She used to cook for a living. It was hard you know, it was a hard camp. Stuff like that I was lying about, I was saying “Yeah I had that too.” I was fucken dreaming. “Strawberries, yeah, fucken oath, yeah.” Probably had bread and fat!

It’s a guy called Jake King talking, and there’s so much going on in there. It’s a terrible story; you know how kids are, with each other—but Jake’s made a big joke out of it, and now it’s something he can be proud of, can enjoy telling. That seems fantastically Australian to me, and maybe it’s something else we have the Aborigines to thank for.

I’d like to see an Aboriginal film comedy. There’s been a great run of dramas—my recent favourites are Australian Rules and The Tracker, but I also liked Yolngu Boy on SBS last night—but not much in the way of comedy. We’re crying out for it. Do people think we’re not allowed to find Aborigines funny, that it means we’re not taking them seriously? Come on. They’re bloody funny, we’ve got the same sense of humour, so let’s get to it.


I was lucky enough to see David Gulpilil’s one-hander Gulpilil at Belvoir St on Friday night, and it was fantastic, and it was hilarious. Not in a stand-up kind of way, but like a long conversation with the funniest friend you’ve got. And everybody loved it, and they were laughing probably even harder than they should have—not to patronise him, but I think because they were all just hanging out to have a laugh with a blackfella. It’s all been so serious for so long—and of course it is serious, but that’s no reason not to joke about it. That’s not the Australian way.

The picture above is by Edward Blitner and is of the Mimih spirits, who live in the rocks and taught the Aborigines everything. To the left is David Ruddy’s Gulpilil, Two Worlds, which won the Archibald Prize this year.

One Response to “Rock spirits”

  1. di Says:

    what was that funny show on tv a while back (2 or 3 years ago?) about the 2 guys in the beat-up old car, i think they were on a road trip of some sort in the outback…??

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