“A truth in art is that whose contradiction is also true.”
It was all a joke, wasn’t it? It was Don Watson’s updating of Swift’s Modest Proposal, wasn’t it? What nation more suited to adopt the modest position, the modus humile, than Australia, the eternal deputy, characterised by its Prime Minister in the photograph on the back cover of QE4, in shorts, white socks and sneakers, before the magisterial, marmoreal presence of Lincoln? Can you imagine Bob Carr in that presence thus informally, unceremoniously clad? Where is John Howard’s eye-line tending? Not towards Lincoln, but off into some vast, indifferent blue. Can he be thinking, “We are not disposed to live alone, obviously, so let us live with them”? Are we about to witness some marriage of Honest John and Honest Abe? (Will the celebrant remind those present that one was thus dubbed ironically, the other not?) Can Don Watson really be suggesting that Australia aspire to become the fifty-first state?
Peter Craven characterises DW’s essay as being “in that line of melancholy scepticism which is central to whatever tradition we have”. That alone, surely, would disqualify us from becoming an American state. Consider the gap between Such is Life and Moby Dick, two national epics with many convergences, let alone between Australian laconicism and American boosterism. (Beware: “To generalise is to be an idiot” – Ezra Pound, American traitor?). Consider our respective, not both respectable, roots. America began as an escape hatch from religious persecution and then a republic (not a democracy, as conservative politicians remind their fellow Americans) whilst Australia began as a penal colony which still clings to the tattered vestiges of the hem of its gaoler. Yet one must acknowledge the cold eye, worthy of Swift or Yeats, that DW casts upon terra nullius, unconventionally understood: “a spirit corrupted by the weakness of our position in the world and our dependence on powerful friends. Lurking behind our self-confidence was anxiety and shame.” Recall David Moore’s photograph of President Johnson and Prime Minister Harold Holt at Canberra airport. There’s the Australia/US relationship in a nutshell, in black and white. Not so much a photograph as a fateograph (thank you, V.Nabokov, American immigrant).
How do you argue with a Wildean text, how differ from a man with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, if not both cheeks, and does that mean he speak with forked tongue? Perhaps one might query the appropriateness or even the necessity of his model, his Rabbit, the Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom of John Updike’s tetralogy. “Perhaps Rabbit is a metaphor that Updike never intended: a distant metaphor for the soul of Australia, the country which, like Rabbit, recoils in fear from the insight that its life is its own and no one else’s, and changes the angle to accommodate its fear.” Perhaps, perhaps … But if ever a country did not need to import rabbits, it is Australia. Call me a chauvinist, call me a Cultural Cringer in-reverse, but we have our very own Rabbit here. He may be found in The Life on Water and the Life Beneath (1995) and Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow (2000), two volumes of poetry by J.S. Harry. Peter Henry Lepus is a British-born, Australia-domiciled, rabbit of Creole ancestry who, as David Brooks has noted, was somehow “provoked” into trying to use his mind. There are rumours that he met Wittgenstein in Vienna in 1902, which may have assisted at his having developed a remarkable personality, perfectly suited to getting the most out of the situations he finds himself in. Brooks observes: “He is a truly intelligent naif, or appears to be – clear-minded and more or less without prejudice, with a talent for finding the kind of simple, obvious question that might take him, if he cared to follow it, straight to the heart of the matter. In another incarnation, I’m sure, he was the boy who inadvertently forced his townspeople to admit that their emperor was wearing no clothes.” Now, I ask you, isn’t that a better leporid model than some car salesman from Pennsylvania? Here are Peter Lepus’s reflections, appropriate to DW’s theme, in the poem “THEY”:
They use a pronoun called I
all the time. It seems to hop around
But you can’t see it properly
not all of it. Not like you can see
ears or whiskers,
or paw or a sun shadow.
One might question the appropriateness of Updike/Angstrom as a fit and proper model for Australians in a different fashion. Is this a person we want here, as so many Australians are asking of boat people, Afghans, Muslims, Wogs of any description (they begin at Indonesia) today. Here is Harry Angstrom, adulterer, in a black bar, late at night: “The Vietnam war. I’m all for it … I guess I don’t much believe in college kids or the Viet Cong. I don’t think they have any answers. I think they’re minorities trying to bring down everything that halfway works. Halfway isn’t all the way but it’s better than no way.” (Rabbit Redux, 1971) At least Harry was more even-handed than Australia, which endorsed its client-status by undertaking to go “All the Way with LBJ”.
But Rabbit is just a character in a fiction, I hear you say. Here is his creator, John Updike, in Self-Consciousness (1989), his memoirs, in a chapter titled “On Not Being a Dove”. ”I discover myself named, in the Times of September 18, as the lone American writer ‘unequivocally for’ the United States intervention in Vietnam. How could anyone not be at least equivocal about an action so costly, so cruel in its details, so indecisive in its results?” Updike has preceded the quotation from the Times by an account of his response to a British questionnaire concerning, “Are you for, or against, the intervention of the United States in Vietnam?” To his credit, as any novelist ought, Updike begins by saying he is “uncomfortable” (but not too uncomfortable; the only reason he has the time to reply being because he is on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard). He concurs with W.H. Auden that it is “foolish to canvass writers upon political issues. [Our views] have no more authority than those of any reasonably well-educated citizen.” But what of the, to put it mildly, less-than-well-educated citizens, those who were serving and dying in Vietnam? What of the disproportionate number of African-Americans in that category? One can’t help feeling that Updike, like Rabbit, is insufficiently radical in his opinions, as in his fictions. If that sound like cheek, I regret it. But Updike presumes to reprove Norman Mailer for “frivolity”. It seemed to me at the time, as it does now, that Mailer’s response, like Francis Ford Coppola’s in Apocalypse Now, like Michael Herr’s in Dispatches, was formally truer to the situation at home and abroad than Updike’s. None of which would be to deny Updike or Angstrom entry to Australia; merely sufficient to make one worry about voluntarily annexing oneself to their nation.
“The thing is”, as Norman Mailer wrote in the response that so offended Updike, the thing is there are many American literatures, as there are many Americas. I wrote some years ago about the irony that, at the height of student protests against Australian involvement in the American war in South-East Asia, a most popular course at the University of Sydney was “Contemporary American Prose”. I chose to think this was because the students recognised that American literature in the 1960s, as in the 1860s, was and largely always has been, a dissident literature. “Say No!, in thunder.” (Moby Dick) Some authors, John Updike e.g., are less dissident than others. What might have happened had DW opted for a model other than Updike? What if, instead of “Rabbit Syndrome”, he had speculated upon a “Swede Syndrome”?
“The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighbourhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete. The name was magical; so was the anomalous face. Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.” Here begins Philip Roth’s 1997 (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1998) American Pastoral, truly a savage pastoral. Here, if you want an American model, is a model indeed. An assimilation story, a success through hard work story, a violent clash of generations story. Just name your ethnic sub-group for Australian circumstances. This is a novel in which the privileged daughter of that blue-eyed blond Jew, like the Weathermen, brings the war home. “The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.” (The protean Updike has verged upon this in Roger’s Version, 1986.)
If Roth had been the model, how different the speculation might have been. Of course, DW would surely have found Robert Lowell appropriate to the situation he perceives so clinically. “A savage servility slides by on grease”, Lowell writes in the punningly-titled “For the Union Dead”, referring not to the fish-finned products of Detroit alone. (Boston Brahmin Lowell who walked arm-in-arm with the Jewish boy Norman Mailer in the march on the Pentagon.) The question may be one of cultural maturity. Would Australia have proved mature enough to respond with anything other than shock-horror to the words of Susan Sontag in the New Yorker, 24 September 2001? “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” If the responses of conservative columnists here were anything to judge by, we are already the fifty-first state. Preferable, surely, to pervert Oscar Wilde’s words on Japan, and trust: “The whole of America is a pure invention. There is no such country; there are no such people.”
Don Anderson began teaching American Literature at the University of Sydney thirty years ago. His writings on the subject appear in his various collections of essays including Text & Sex (1995).
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 5, Girt By Sea.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY