Short Fiction Short Nation: The Ideologies of Australian Realism


This paper examines the ways in which short stories have interacted with different national contexts throughout the history of modern Australia, endorsing and resisting what Fredric Jameson calls the symbolic resolution of narrative, and subsequently considers the processes by which certain critical trends and interpretive emphases can illuminate or obscure that interaction through comparative readings of texts by Henry Lawson and John Kinsella.

This essay pursues three mutually implied provocations in the relationship between nationalism and literary form in Australian history. First, the concentration of a distinctly Australian literary identity during and subsequent to the hallowed Bulletin years of the 1890’s can and should be read as an acceleration of late stage logics of colonial elimination as identified by the historian Patrick Wolfe (387). Second, the discursive elisions and contradictions within that desperately national textual body which have been symptomatically interpreted by a certain Freudian emphasis of postcolonial criticism – as tremors of conscience within the settler mind – can and should be read as subsequent and more sophisticated functions of those colonial logics, and not as failures or limitations thereof. In other words, they should be read as what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang describe as ‘a settler move to innocence’ (11). Third, despite the anxious necessity of Australian literature to incorporate and articulate the literature of Aboriginal presence, the discipline critically lacks the mechanisms to do so.

Franco Moretti argues that ‘forms are the abstract of social relationships’ (28), building upon Raymond Williams’s earlier concept of the structure of feeling as the organisation of affect and experience in a given social period (133). This relationship between textual form and political experience can be further clarified by Fredric Jameson’s work on narrative as a means of symbolic resolution of the material conflicts and contradictions of capital. In this theory the structure and disposition of that resolution becomes the ideology of its form: ‘the symbolic messages transmitted to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of production’ (Political Unconscious 56). In the context of Australian literary history this relationship between literary and political structures is further tightened by the exigencies of the nascent settler state – the writers in journals like the Bulletin and the Antipodean had to augur and create the ‘national type’ they were trying to reflect. The early periods of Australian literature were an unusually concentrated period of the discursive condition identified by Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) as a practise working to ‘systematically form’ the object of which it speaks (49). This essay focuses on the ways in which this process operates within short realist narrative as the ideal form of disseminated community in these publications, specifically in the work one of the period’s most celebrated authors, Henry Lawson. The influence of this legacy on contemporary writing will then be clarified in an examination of the attempts to ironise and exorcise this history in the short fiction of John Kinsella.

I: Recitative History

The formal tendencies of realist prose have been widely associated with ‘the historic emergence of the bourgeois body’ (Jameson, Antinomies 42), a group with a distinctive ideology of the relation between community and individual which is dramatically different to the aristocratic paradigm which preceded it. This modern realism is structured by the ambitions Auerbach describes in Mimesis (1946) when he argues that the project of narrative is nothing less than the ‘common life of mankind on earth’ (552), foregrounding the importance of plural or common experience to realist fiction.

The realist emphasis on shared experience is further developed in Ian Watt’s influential study The Rise of the Novel (1957) which anchored the novel form in a theory of egalitarian totality, a commitment ‘to portray all the varieties of human experience’ (11). However, where previous forms are epistemologically linked to metaphysical hierarchies, Watt emphatically associates the modern novel with the essentially secular Cartesian notion of an individually intelligible universe where the ‘primary criterion [is] truth to individual experience – which is always unique and therefore new’ (13). Here we touch one of the fundamental antinomies or contradictions of realism, one with significant unexplored implications for the concept of national literature, and particularly for one as exiguous and self-conscious as Australia’s.

The influence of Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (2007) and the revivified emphasis it placed upon weltliteratur has renewed scrutinies upon the relationship between the ideas of literature and nation. In the gallocentric framework of Casanova’s model it was possible to argue that the concept of modern literary value evolved as a sublimation of national competition and hence that ‘literary capital is inherently national’ (24), but this mechanism can only be applied awkwardly to the Australian context. Australian writing predates the concept of an Australian nation per se, and has consistently if anxiously been used to augur or confect the affective resources that fuel narratives of national identity, a national structure of feeling. This means that Australian texts can be arranged and interpreted according to the extent to which they produce, maintain, or resist the symbolic resolution of the paradox of modern Australia’s existence.

Jameson articulated his original theory of symbolic resolution in The Political Unconscious (1981), but he explores its textual implications with more nuance in subsequent works of dialectical criticism. In The Antinomies of Realism (2013), he devotes considerable attention to the récit, which originally refers to a form of short story situated in the past, and predominately composed of narrative rather than dialogue. In Jameson’s narratological structure the récit comes to signify the essentially historical aspect of realism: ‘the palpable fact that the tale cannot exist in the present’ (24). Jameson’s analysis draws substantially from the analysis of the politics of form in Sartre’s What Is Literature (1948), particularly the latter’s scathing analysis of Guy de Maupassant’s short fiction which exemplifies dialectical criticism, entering into the author’s landscapes of attention and situating its politics, estranging its assumptions and reconstructing its elided presences:

The structure of his short stories is almost invariable; we are first presented with the audience, a brilliant and worldly society which has assembled in a drawing-room after dinner. It is night-time, which dispels fatigue and passion. The oppressed are asleep, as are the rebellious; the world is enshrouded; the story unfolds. In a bubble of light surrounded by nothing there remains this elite which stays awake, completely occupied with its ceremonies … They represent order in its most exquisite form; the calm of night, the silence of the passions, everything concurs in symbolizing the stable bourgeoisie of the end of the century which thinks that nothing more will happen and which believes in the eternity of capitalist organization … Order triumphs; order is everywhere. (125–26)

Sartre notes that the elisions of the récit are as significant as its emphases, unlike the wide-lensed Dickensian novel, say, with an exhaustive catalogue of events and a plethora of supporting characters, exemplified in the Australian context by Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938), the shorter narrative relates to its context by assumption. This means that where the realist novel can be equated more with history, the récit can be thought as a form of allegory, however subtle. Allegory communicates its referent symbolically, and therefore its epistemological edges are sharper and more decisive than the historical novel. The bubble of light is surrounded by nothing, but its internal relations are microcosmic and allegorically extendable: they imply and produce similitude. Form is never quite stable however, and even an imperial form like Maupassant’s récit is riven with tensions and antitheses, as Jameson elaborately demonstrates. These are not necessarily weaknesses however – Jameson posits that the tension between the récit and the roman forms the essential mechanism or movement of realism, which emerges as the ‘consequence of tension’ (26) between different ways of describing temporal experience and between alternating gestures of disenchantment and defamiliarisation (5). According to Jameson it is precisely this tensile quality or compositeness that lends realism its singular importance as the vehicle of the middle class, and in the Australian context these constitutive tensions function as a means of containment and symbolic resolution of the contradictions signified by Aboriginal priority.

II: Heterology

The significance of short fiction in a formative stage of Australian literature forms a conspicuous trope in Australian literary history. The anecdotal récit and its analogous lyrical form, the ballad, were central to the putative ‘golden age’ of the Bulletin years in the late nineteenth century. The historical reality of this period is enshrined by the mythologies of it erected by the Palmer circle in the 1950s. Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties (1954) links the original articulation of ‘real possession of the country’ (‘Lost Tradition’ 25) to the coalescence of a national type in the writings of Lawson and Furphy, among others. Palmer’s elaborate myth is explicitly formulated as a comparative antagonism with Aboriginal culture, describing the ‘piebald’ society that was superseded by the national energies of the nineties as

essentially as fugitive as that of the blacks it drove from their waterholes. More fugitive, perhaps, for the blacks had woven the country’s flora and fauna into their legends, let their imaginations play about its hills and rivers, and taken its natural features into the ritual of their lives. (‘Lost Tradition’ 25)

This newfound cadence is nakedly appropriative, framed by Palmer as ‘the first signs of a new people’s birth … (in) oral songs and stories’ (‘Lost Tradition’ 25), and subsequently as a ‘dream-time’ (‘Lost Tradition’ 27). Recalling Jameson, it is critical to note that this appropriative rhetoric is not incidental to the symbolic resolution of colonial contradictions effected by these texts, but mutually consistent. The ‘common experience of writer and reader’ which John McLaren construed to inform the ‘social ethos and national tradition’ (43) of Australian literature, and in turn the founding aegis of Australian literary studies, is coterminous with the act of dispossession it palliates. This is visible in one of Lawson’s first published poems, ‘A Song of the Republic’, a martial panegyric offering the Austral reader a rhetorical choice between:

The Land of Morn and the Land of E'en, 

The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green, 

The Land that belongs to the lord and the Queen, 

And the Land that belongs to you. (Essential Henry Lawson 43)

During the succession of critical paradigms which succeeded Palmer’s nationalist clique it became increasingly common for critics to interpret the unheimlich quirks and catachreses of the literature of the 1890s symptomatically as signs of repressed colonial guilt, or frays at the seams of what Paul Carter described as ‘the self-reinforcing fabric of illusions of colonial discourse’ (xv). This methodology produced some incisive criticism, but from the current vantage there are unexplored possibilities for a more theoretical critique which I will demonstrate by retracing the terrain, the perennial gesture of Australian criticism. Drawing on Jameson, this method of antinomian reading illuminates the ways in which apparent tensions or melancholies in colonial writing are not necessarily symptomatic discursive failures, but often the primary objects and effects of the colonial narrative.

The antagonistic dialectic between nascent nationalism and Aboriginal priority that inflects much of Lawson’s work is seldom more explicit than in his ‘A Christmas in the Far West, or, the Bush Undertaker’(1892) which actually did not first appear in the Bulletin, but in the short-lived periodical the Antipodean, published between 1892 and 1897, and was conspicuously absent from Geoffrey Blainey’s neo-canonical collection of Lawson’s work published by Text in 2002. Christopher Lee considers this story ‘an encounter between the subject of an emerging Nationalist epistemology in 1890’s Australia as it is deployed through the objectively real narrative gaze, and the object which it seeks to fix in the interests of an authorising and enabling regime of Truth’ (‘What Colour’ 14). This dialectic invokes Glissant’s assertion of the importance of epistemology to colonial discourse: ‘I admit you to existence, within my system. I create you afresh’ (190). Formally this aggressive colonial epistemology finds an effective vehicle in the preterite realism of short fiction, which, as Sartre demonstrated, reduces diversity, to the empire of similitude. In this philosophical context, Lee’s interpretation of the tension between the ‘stark realities’ of nationalist positivism and the heterological signifiers of the ‘weird, the eccentric, the mad’ (‘What Colour’ 15) is generative but liable to slippage into a form of colonial bad faith. These signifiers often act as constitutive structures within colonial epistemology, rather than limitations thereof.

Heterology is a concept developed by the philosopher Michel de Certeau in a reading of Montaigne’s Of Cannibals, an inaugural text in Modern representation of difference, coeval with global colonialism. This trope ‘combines a representation of the other and the fabrication and accreditation of the text as witness of the other’, forming a conceptual helix by which ‘a discourse about the other (becomes) a means of constructing a discourse authorized by the other’ (68; my emphasis). In the context of Australian colonial discourse, heterology forms what Ian McClean theorised as three successive tropes justifying exploration, invasion and settlement. In the course of this process, the Aboriginal subject is figured in turn as a savage pre-modern demon, and then as a picturesque and melancholy presence whose nostalgia gives the land’s ‘new owners a new indigenous identity’ (50). In Lawson’s work, these tropes also inflect the representation of landscape in his occasional gestures towards the gothic genre.

III: Revisiting Suspicion

Paul Ricœur’s theory of the hermeneutics of suspicion that twentieth-century thought inherited from Freud, Marx and Nietzsche has had an influential and at times confused after-life in literary studies. Rita Felski’s popular use of the term departs considerably from Ricœur’s heuristic, in which the willingness to suspect operates in tandem with a willingness to listen, and the resistance of foreclosure at any point of the interpretive process (27), but in literary studies the term has been diluted to describe forms of ideological criticism as diverse as deconstruction and Foucauvian history (Felski 577). This breadth may be related to recent movements towards an ostensibly less suspicious affect theory model. In any case, where a loosely framed ‘ideology critique’ finds symptoms of guilt in colonial writing, a more suspicious dialectical criticism identifies these textual structures as forms of symbolic expiation and resolution, rituals of possession and settlement.

This logic is evident in Marcus Clarke’s earlier preface to Adam Lindsay Gordon’s Poems published in 1880. In a confiding Freudian reading or ideology critique, Clarke’s famous term for the ambience of the Australian landscape, ‘weird melancholy’, can operate as a return or resurgence of repressed colonial violence, and so from the perspective of literary studies, as an object of ethical use in the ongoing conceptualism of Australian polity. However, such a reading elides the participation of this discourse in wider colonial ideologies of race and type which, as Richard White has demonstrated, used pseudo-scientific theories of descent and competition to justify imperial expansion and exploitation (65). In this context, Clarke’s ‘natives painted like skeletons’ (65) are mere scenery among a catalogue of geographic features, a trope in McLean’s tri-part paradigm, and the text’s ressentiment of Aboriginal priority is doubled, in that that priority is what the text must heterologically contain and constitute as an object. White argues that Aboriginal peoples were the first subjects of racial ‘type science’ in Australia: ‘Their physical appearance was linked to moral character. Some saw them as “remnants of the ancient heathen nations”’ (65).

In the communicative or comparative sense much of this period’s writing about Aboriginality is not in dialogue with it – the textually implied other or conversant is not Aboriginality, and precisely cannot be Aboriginality, but like Lawson’s lord and Queen, the real other in dialogue here is the old world. This genre is structured by a helical narratological structure which maintains an oscillation where the colonised object of Aboriginality differentiates the new Australian identity from the poetries of the old world, laying the ground work for the imagined community of an Australian nation. In other words, the conceptual architecture of modern Australia relies heavily upon the construction of Aboriginality as a semi-human object. The historian Tom Griffiths articulates this problematic in useful disciplinary terms, the collection of signifiers of Aboriginality is the curation of ‘a dead culture, a relic, ornamental culture, a culture that could be picked up, displayed like a trophy, worn or discarded like a coat’. This is a structure fundamentally antithetical to Aboriginal subjectivity, which if properly addressed ‘would turn their detached “science” into a disturbing humanities’.

In dialectical criticism it is important to emphasise that the Australian colonial structure of feeling is not merely a by-product of nation-building – it is its primary fuel. Derrida explores this perverse dynamic in the second volume of The Beast and the Sovereign (2011) in a discussion of another text central to the colonial mythos: ‘whoever says I is Robinson, the autos, the ipse, autobiography is Robinsonian, and each Robinson organizes the economy of his solitude in the company of those, the others, who, as close as can be to him, with him, or even in him (mitsein, alter ego, labour of mourning, etc.), do not accompany him’ (199). This relational dynamic – that the colonial cogito is an illusion of monadism maintained by a helical curation of difference – has pivotal implications for the study of culture in settler states. Benjamin tells us that every document of culture is also one of barbarism (256), by which he means violence. In Australian literary history this relationship tightens: these qualities are identical. The economy of ‘Australian’ subjectivity, the structure of feeling signified by the emergence of the Australian ‘type’ at the end of the nineteenth century is defined by a Master/Slave dialectic between the ‘bushman’ and what Marcia Langton calls the ‘Man Friday’ paradigm of Aboriginality (59). The ‘type’ of the Australian legend is adorned and defined by the erasure and containment of its precursor, meaning that the concept of a distinctly Australian culture metaphorically underpinning the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901 – and subsequently the idea of a distinctly Australian literature and the discipline of its history and criticism – continues to be structured by the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples. This process is evident in a paradigmatic text of the period, Lawson’s ‘The Bush Undertaker.’

IV: National Disenchantment

In ‘The Bush Undertaker’ the colonial logic of heterology appears as a curated erasure of Aboriginal presence through substitution and slippage, between the body of an Aboriginal person the story’s nameless hatter disinters on Christmas day, and an overly, parodically unheimlich goanna. The text departs from the assumptions of its genre through the startling syllepsis that bridges the shepherd’s soliloquent meditation on his lunch and his decision to ‘root up that old blackfellow’ (115). Neither the emergence nor continuity of this desire disrupt the narrative texture – the thought is followed directly by the much more mundane: ‘I’ll put in the spuds’ (115). This can be read as a back-formed zeugma, referring both to the consumption of the meal being prepared, and to the text’s engagement with agricultural modes of production.

The narrative participates explicitly in the expansion of agricultural settlement into the interior of the Australian continent, a process sustained as much by conceptual forces and cultural structures as other forms of labour. Contrary to the rather sentimental version of class politics that have attended Lawson’s oeuvre, the lustres of the bush-romance are merely cosmetic, an aesthetic palliating industry. Although the imprecise and solitary setting appears remote from such concerns, the hatter’s violation of the Aboriginal grave occurs within a structure of agriculture: in addition to the sheep the hatter is paid to run, there is a gully ‘full of ring-barked trees’(116) which he enters upon his return from the grave, and the stretcher with which he transports the desiccated body of Brummy is improvised from ‘waste bits of bark which had been left by a party of strippers who had been getting bark there for the stations’ (118). This most likely refers to the stripping of black wattle bark (Acacia mearnsii) which was reduced into a tannin liquor for cattle hides during the nineteenth century. Moreover, the disinterral is itself a form of labour, and the remains are ‘payable dirt’(116). Xavier Pons has demonstrated the economic motives that racist pseudosciences such as phrenology created for precisely this kind of desecration (162). I will return to this point shortly, but for now it’s sufficient to note the connection between the erasure of Aboriginal priority and more explicit forms of production.

Given the text’s emphasis on the ethics of hospitality, conspicuous in the hatter’s difficulties over the transport and disposition of Brummy’s body, the portage of the other remains in a ‘bag’ (116) is significantly ignored. Once both bodies are transported back to the slab-and-bark hut the original skeleton is absent from the narrative’s explicit context. Lee argues that Aboriginal presence continues to be registered through metonymy with other signifiers, notably the uncanny goanna that stalks the hatter (‘What Colour’ 18). I have sympathies with the emphasis of Lee’s reading, but I think it requires adjustments in light of Jameson’s anti-monistic analysis of the problems of realism. The over-determination of the goanna’s supernatural inflections – its coding within the gothic genre – operates as a straw man or screen signifier in the function of the text’s demystifying heterology. The uncannies are as follows: the logistical problem that Brummy’s body had not been devoured by the goanna – or any other creatures – in the three months prior to its discovery; the multiplication and doubling of an habitually solitary creature; Five Bob’s a-characteristic aversion to it; and its nocturnal ‘haunting’ behaviour towards the narrative’s conclusion. Like most reptiles, goannas are overwhelmingly diurnal, with the exception of the twilight monitor (Varanus glebopalma), the far northern habitats of which preclude the ‘far west’ of the story’s amorphous setting. The over-investment of the creature with pseudo-gothic signifiers, and their summary erasure via the pragmatic and masculine means of the ‘old shot-gun’ (120), performs a characteristic antinomy of realism between genre – gothic or ghost story – and history – context. By the tensile interaction of these principles the hamartia of colonial trespass is split, and invested into the goanna. There is a comparable logic at work in an equally paradigmatic work of Lawson’s, ‘The Drover’s Wife’, by which the titular figure emerges as a type embodying national stoicism; in Foucault’s sense she is formed or produced as an object of the text’s discursive structure. She is dialectically invested with pathos through conflict with the landscape defined by another substitution of Aboriginal priority, the ‘black brute’ (91) of the snake as an entangled signifier of original sin.

When the over-determined goanna/snake is despatched, Lawson creates the reality effect of entry into the secular moral universe of modern white Australia. In ‘The Bush Undertaker’ when the goanna is disenchanted as vessel of the uncanny, the moral symbolism of the text is invested then into the withered body of the white man, as a ‘true’ site of the care the human animal owes its own species. It is this last, through the text’s substitutive alchemy of signifiers, which requires expiation: ‘the shepherd was not prepared for the awful scrutiny that gleamed on him from those empty sockets’ (120). The predicament of responsibility amongst equals becomes the sole moral situation of the text, and requires an efficient fig-leaf of meaning or culture:

‘Theer oughter be somethin’ sed,’ muttered the old man; ‘‘tain’t right to put ‘im under like a dog. There oughter be some sort o’ sarmin.’ He sighed heavily in the listening silence that followed this remark, and proceeded with his work … ‘Hashes ter hashes, dus ter dus’. (122)

The perfunctory, unadorned condition of this mourning is significantly its point, a ceremony for the demystified landscape of mateship hailed by the Bulletin’s mantric ‘Australia for the White Man’. Australia’s pseudo-egalitarian decency exists in tandem and tension with the erasure of other modes and cultures of community. The narrative’s deep grammar effects a Clarke-reminiscent blazon: ‘the grand Australian bush … the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands’ (122). In other words, it produces a national character through the construction of a ‘democratic’ liturgy of stoic labour – but the ‘bushman’ depends upon the cultivation of his ‘bush’, which requires the excavation and erasure of other cultivations and figurations of landscape. It produces a national identity through the construction of a ‘democratic’ liturgy of stoic labour – but of course, as Patrick Wolfe reminds us, colonialism is always about land, the physical and epistemological possession of land. The bushman is a bushman by virtue of ‘his’ bush, which requires cultivation, excavation, and extrication from other, prior uses and ideas of land: it requires literature. If the terms of this process are abstract, its effects are material. According to Manning Clark, during the period of the national type’s increasing foment between 1880 and 1900 the cultivated land on the Australian continent doubled from four and a half million to almost nine million acres (194).

V: The Deconstructive Récit

As I have discussed elsewhere, to trace the ideology of a form is not necessarily to escape or define it in a final sense. Nor does merely rejecting a particular form wholesale – as in Conceptual Poetics’ rejection of lyricism – meaningfully reconfigure or re-present the political relation of which that form has been an abstract. So, the question of how a practitioner can substantively redress the structures in which they operate, which over-determine the kinds of meaning available to them, becomes a question of paradoxical, or aporetic thinking. This is not necessarily politically enervating: as Derrida indicated, the aporia can be conceived not as ‘an absence of path, a paralysis of roadblocks’ but ‘the thinking of the path’ (132) in its proper contingencies. In this light the condition of working within and against formal convention becomes the constitutive problem of much contemporary experimental literature. In the context of Australian literary tendencies, John Kinsella’s forays into short fiction can exemplify certain fruitful approaches to this problem. For the sake of currency, I will focus on his most recent collection, Old Growth (2017), a title which accrues antiphonal significations which I will clarify.

As a Derridean and Deleuzian scholar, Kinsella is cognisant of the illusions of presence produced by national fictions, and further aware that many aspects of the pastoral and ecological genres in which he works have been integral to those fictions. This awareness of formal complicity fuels the collection’s densely concentrated excess of pastoral and rural tropes which surpasses parody and moves into an uncanny doubling of those tropes and their effects.

These narratives crowd with small towns, hard work, tacit reserves of feeling beneath laconic vernacular occasionally punctuated by sparse imagism; they are coded within the mythos of contemporary middle Australia. These ideologies can be violently reduced to a loose axiomatic belief that the prosperity and egalitarian values of bicentennial Australia legitimate the nature of Australia’s colonial past. The refraction of this position in Kinsella’s work is not an endorsement, but an acknowledgement of the historical complicity of literary institutions and markets with the colonial project. The subsequent handling of the generic signifiers of middle Australia operate as a form of negative or deconstructive analysis, articulating a line of critique which unsettles their epistemology.

In ‘The Boy Who Read Marvell to the Sheep’, the pastoral tradition and Romantic configurations of place are transformed into a nihilistic Freudian satire. The nameless protagonist is coded as a revision of the rural wunderkind trope, at odds with his milieu. His twin desires to ‘imprint himself on [a] woman’s mind, on her soul’ (128) and his libidinal construction of the ‘meadow’ link the patriarchal icon of woman as the vessel of a masculine syntax of presence, and the arrogation of Romantic cadence to colonial discourse. These projected fantasies of ownership and belonging are stratified through a complex of sexual anxieties and coded repressions. The literary shepherd’s ‘love’, Julia, echoes Marvell, and throughout figures primarily as a link in an ideological horizon of objects, accorded only an attenuated awareness to her subjectivity. Foregrounding the etymological slippage of ‘husbandry’, both woman and field figure as objects of cultivation for a masculinist techne: ‘He had experience. He could work on a farm and work a woman and read literature’ (130). It is a potent conceptual structure, and the symbiotic relationship between violent colonial expansion and agriculture – salient in Kinsella’s involvement with the western Australian wheatbelt – is the inflecting ideological context for the narrative’s escalation into ecstasies of violence.

This project extends into a baroque transformation of capitalist mantras, into a cultic myth-cycle, in ‘The Hannaford Grader Man’. The eponymous purveyor of chemicals becomes a a figure of messianic legend ‘tall and thin and made from steel … Miracle man. Wonderman. Superman!’ (135) in a turn which follows Weber’s theory of the metaphysical undercurrents of secularism to their logical conclusions. This cult of production is itself subsequently extended and excoriated in a whimsical epistolary structure which invokes the structural sympathies between agricultural logics and global forms of abuse.

The abruptly paratactic and antinomian logic of form in this collection could be described as anti-realist in that it disrupts the use of language to simulate a stable, achieved reality in common. By foregrounding the myriad problems, contradictions and elisions inherent to their instruments, Kinsella’s stories resist their own symbolic resolutions. That is, like Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Kinsella’s form attempts to pierce and suspend resolution, and thus the comfortable epistemologies of realist fiction which affirm the circuit of capital in and through the narrative of the nation.

The titular piece pursues Kinsella’s anchoring environmental politics, and foregrounds the collection’s overarching theme – the atavisms couched within the secular pieties of modernity. Here it’s well to recall Benjamin’s argument of a unilateral rapprochement of civilisation with barbarism (256). The nameless protagonist, a recent widower narrated through pellucid free indirect discourse, finds a libidinous bliss in immolating a stand of pre-settlement bush on his property, adored by his deceased wife:

She’ll be right, he said, as the flames climbed trees, latching onto their dead parts and kissing the lush canopy, leaping across to tree after tree. Torches. From the broad-based water-loving flooded gums through a band of York gums and jam trees, over the granite outcrop with its rare orchids, up into the magnificent wandoos that held the sunset cold and warm at once in their powdery barks, exploding through the undergrowth as flash pursued by smoke and shadow. (143)

Across the narrative these trees paratactically accrue meanings without being confined to them. They are the final signifier of ecological alterity to the widower, the last uncleared remnant in the region, and for a man who resents rural life, the last obstacle to his eroticised idyll of urban life. Environmental destruction operates here as a fetish or paraphil. The significance of the ‘grove’ to his wife and her artist friend further codes it as a form of resented alterior experience, and so the environment becomes a theatre of further psychic violence. This dynamic culminates in the landscape’s subtle markers of Aboriginal priority which goad the settler’s ressentiment even as his gaze attempts their erasure. In the process of the narrative’s denoument, it emerges that the stand was also, elegiacally, the habitat of a remnant thylacine, by implication, the endling or terminarch of the known species. In this sense the text’s temporal structure is multiply diachronic – the impulses and jealousies of its characters are regressive, but the environmental timescale is bleakly futurist. Read structurally, these characters’ cheap romances of consumption illustrate the indifferent suicide of European homo economicus – not an acute tragedy perhaps, except for the environmental apocalypse of its demise.

These resistant tendencies are not themselves quietist, or inherently nihilistic: they accurately make thinkable the trajectories of other social nihilisms, ones obscured by symbol. Old Growth extends and contextualises Kinsella’s guiding preoccupations throughout his poetry and theory – the interstitial relations between place, self, ethic and text. These lacunae are the critical sites of formulation for the disparate narratives of nation, community, and country. This conceptual context clarifies the ethic of Kinsella’s negative work. In an interview published in Plumwood Mountain Kinsella addressed this project directly:

But maybe most importantly is the willingness to create lacunae in the writing in which the critic, especially one with Indigenous knowledges, can enter and challenge and dialogue or reject or claim or depart. I try to do that – try to create those spaces. Also, there are clear wrongs and rights regarding how one treats country and environment and there are numerous points of crossover between culture and ethical ecological activism – I ‘trace’ these in my work, but I think most vitally try to demap them. (qtd. in Dunk)

These lacunae or gaps should be understood in the context of Paul Celan’s Worthöhlen or ‘word caves’, the foregrounding of the absences and elisions of form as a means to negate the ‘claim’ of literature upon space. This anti-cartography can be read as a conceptual synonym of what Peter Minter called ‘unlandscaping’ in a paper he delivered at the Australasian Association for Literature 2017 conference, Literary Environments: Place, Planet and Translation, referring to the negative contestation and disruption of the epistemic construction of place as an object of knowledge, that is, the construction of land as text.


As we have seen, the ways in which literary forms disrupt or effect the symbolic resolution and justification of inequity are structured by their past uses. In Australia this entailed confecting an illusion of dwelling to systematically produce or anticipate the coherence of a national identity, proleptically justifying the abuses of the colonial present. Today the legacy of this cultural labour or cognitive mapping forms an acute corollary in wider debates concerning the relation between literature and holism. The quixotic rise and precipitate nadir of world literary studies in the last decade can be elegantly book-ended by two monographs written by Emily Apter. The Translation Zone in 2005, which championed a new mode of trans-linguistic philology as the basis of revivified comparative literary study, now seems an essentially utopian project, an echo of Francis Fukuyama’s blithe proclamation of ‘the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’ (4). This triumphalism emerged as an ideological product of the dubious Pax Americana, and Apter revised many of her arguments in Against World Literature in 2013, where she critiqued the paradigm’s ‘entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources’ (2–3). In other words she unambiguously affirmed the obvious links between the paradigm of Weltliteratur and the acceleration of neoliberal capital. The questions of difference and translation stirred by these debates are critical for the ways we conceptualise literature and culture in the imaginaries of contemporary Australia. Kinsella’s and Minter’s negative or deconstructive approaches are anchored by the autonomy of untranslatable difference, or in Spivak’s terms, ‘the specificity of the autochthone’ (15). An inverse approach emerges from what could be described as a celebratory multiculturalist rhetoric which perceives Aboriginal culture as one among a rich horizon of objects available for the construction of new forms of dwelling. This narrative is salient in the work of the scholar and poet Robert Wood, who wonders, in a discussion of Stuart Cooke’s George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu Line (2014), ‘what might a Jindyworobak project for the 21st century look like?’ and gestures towards a hybrid bilingualism which would enrich the palette of Australian poetics with ‘shapes and sounds and combinations of letters that we didn’t even realise we had’ (‘The Raw’). This conjecture receives a celebratory answer in Wood’s introductory essay to Reading the Letters where a transcultural poetics is celebrated beneath the aegis of a Weltliteratur capable of affirming wide diversities of culture and time, capable of using the Nyamal word Taruru, and the Sanskrit concept of Moksha in the same breath:

It is about the 26 letters as an organising principle, as a way to make sense of the world. I have walked thousands of kilometres in my life on every continent, sometimes in socks that I have been given, sometimes in socks that I have seen made, sometimes in bare feet. I have eaten damper and sat round fires listening to stories and arguments that go back to the earliest eras … I have heroes in the pages that go back to the paintings in caves. I have heroes in the skyghosts of legends. I have heroes in the poems that make up the lifeblood and narrative of the waters that cover the whole globe … This is a work of world literature then, a work of literature for the world, my world. (3–4)

For the sake of argument let’s consider this approach well-intentioned – while acknowledging the possible criticisms of appropriation, Wood appears to negate them with the observation in his earlier discussion of Dyuŋgayan that ‘we can scarcely stand to lose the words found in languages with a diminishing number of speakers. Poetry may be one way to help keep them vital’. But here we encounter several significant problems: firstly this argument’s proximity to the white saviour casuistries of the cultural deficit narrative, closely followed by the foreignness of its rhetoric to Aboriginal philosophy. As Melissa Lucashenko demonstrated in her repudiative reading of Malouf’s short story The Only Speaker of His Tongue, ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’, the linguistic finitude which appals Malouf’s Norwegian lexicographer as the extinction of ‘a whole alternative universe’ (385), is a logocentric icon of Modernity, not merely alien, but antithetical to Aboriginal linguistic philosophies which perceive their own culture as perpetually recoverable in the continuity of Country. Alexis Wright articulates this point succinctly: ‘All times are important to us. No time has ended and all worlds are possible’ (20). In other words, it emerges that Aboriginal languages and literature are neither beholden, nor readily appropriable, to a project such as Wood’s. In the wider context of language reclamation and its viscerally material politics, the emphases of this approach seem inequitable. The critical differences between neo-Jindyworobakism, and the deconstructive approaches of Minter and Kinsella are clarified by Evelyn Araluen’s discussion of the appropriation of the terms and conceptual resources of critique in settler societies. Araluen critiques a tendency of settler academic approaches to Aboriginal writing and language to emphasise aesthetic and purely symbolic aspects, erasing the material politics which constitute the conditions of Aboriginal literature, arguing that ‘this includes notions of settler nativism and fantasies of adoption into Indigenous ‘country’ on purely symbolic terrain.’

This last point is a critical emphasis in any substantive discussion of the production of place or community in an Australian context. As demonstrated earlier, there is nothing arbitrary or indifferent about the erasure and effacement of Aboriginal culture by the grammars of Australian nationality. Territorial and cultural usurpation is a core premise of structures of feeling which remain active in the concept of an Australian polity.

For the present condition of the state, a deconstructive project like Kinsella’s lacunate poetics, or the destabilised, anti-formative structures of his narratives, appears to be a more appropriate and ethically generative response to the ongoing problems of our history. Other, more constative modes of settler-engagement with Aboriginal priority remain structured by erasure. They reify, and replicate a monologic translational structure to usurp an erzatz spatial legitimacy through what Tuck and Yang describe as a ‘settler move to innocence’ (11). In this context, the rhetorical appropriation of culture without a sustained engagement with material decolonisation and a deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence which sustain and legitimate persisting colonial structures of capital must be regarded as further form of dispossession.

To write and think within the ambit of the settler-state is to be structured into an antagonistic dialectic with Country and Culture, from which there is no direct egress. Theory has at times styled itself as being capable of transcending its complicity with history, but this mode emerged from poor translations and languid readings of Derrida, who argued the contrary in the 1966 paper which popularised Deconstruction in the American Academy, Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences:

these destructive discourses and all their analogues are trapped in a kind of circle. This circle is unique. It describes the form of the relation between the history of metaphysics and the destruction of the history of metaphysics. There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language – no syntax and no lexicon – which is alien to this history. (354)

Keston Sutherland makes the same point more aphoristically: ‘since we eat enough, living under capitalism is not itself an act anyone can desist from, terminate, or even pause in. Try doing it now’ (124). The illusion of freedom from history is a function of privilege within it, and before any non-indigenous subject of the Australian state celebrates their ecstatically liberated connection to anywhere there is work to be done, and rent to be paid.

Published 2 November 2018 in Volume 33, No. 3. Subjects: Aboriginal Australians - Literary portrayal, Australian short stories, Short stories, Henry Lawson, John Kinsella.

Cite as: Dunk, Jonathan. ‘Short Fiction Short Nation: The Ideologies of Australian Realism.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 2018.