Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Great Australian Stupor

I often feel when talking to your "average" Australian ( there probably isn't such a thing but I mean  the kind of robotic persona you get on the other end when you phone a call centre, or deal with an estate agent or sales person at KMart), or just having a chat over the fence with a passing neighbour, that the conversation has to run down invisible rails that the thought of deviating from is too terrifying for either of us to contemplate, because of the dark depths that might lie in wait...

I recently found confirmation of this invisible script in a book of essays a therapist friend who lives in Gordon on the distant north shore lent me. Here is an extract from this essay which is titled “The Australian Resistance to Individuation: Patrick’s White Knotted Mandala ” by David Tacey, in a book called “Placing Psyche, Exploring Cultural Complexes in Australia”, which seems to be a Jungian influenced  collection of essays.

Its a bit dense but persist because by the time you get to the middle bit a smile of recognition should start twitching the corner(s) of your mouth(s) upwards...

Our fear of yet longing for obliteration is repetitive, autonomous and resists consciousness. Not many of us are aware of it, apart from artists, sensitive individuals  and psychotherapists. In daily life we support an adherence to reason and logic which is fanatical in its dogmatism, yet in the unconscious we harbour desires to abandon reason, overturn our plans, destroy our logic and sink into annihilation.

I have written about this before in my book on Australian culture, Edge of the Sacred: Jung, Psyche, Earth. There, in a section called “The Degraded Sacred and Alcoholism in white and black society”, I explore the conundrum of Australian society: on the one hand a commitment to democratic values and social order; on the other hand a barely disguised desire to obliterate self in one or more of the favoured rituals of destruction: binge drinking,  excessive eating,  abuse of drugs, [betting and gambolling, my addition] , consumerism, inertia, zoning out. ... 

The fierce [ white Christian Anglo-Celtic Australian????] longing for sacrifice originates from the realisation that the colonial consciousness is not authentic. It did not emerge from this ground and needs to be sacrificed so that something new can appear. ...These stories of national sacrifice are taught as history in our schools, and our favourite novels, such as Patrick White's Voss, are fictional accounts of early explorers who sought ecstatic self-mutilation in the desert. Our favourite national films are about sacrifice: Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which a group of school girls are drawn by magnetic force to a volcanic mountain and sacrificed to it; Evil Angels, in which an innocent baby is seized and eaten by a wild dog; Gallipoli, in which innocent teenagers are sacrificed to the war machine and British military incompetence. The poet Judith Wright was the first to sense a psychological meaning to these deaths and sacrifices:

Are all these dead men in our literature, then, a kind of ritual sacrifice? And just what is being sacrificed? Is it perhaps the European consciousness-dominating, puritanical, analytical? ... Reconciliation, then, is a matter of death-the death of the European mind, its absorption into the soil it has struggled against.'

But we don't say we have a problem with involuntary sacrifice; we just  say "this is our history". We don't view our plight psychologically, we say we are recording events as they present themselves. To quote Singer again:  the cultural complex "collects experiences that confirms its historical point of view". We resist consciousness when it comes to our favoured national past-times: compulsive sacrifice and a longing for obliteration.

In 1971 Melbourne psychologist Ronald Conway rose to prominence in Australia when he wrote The Great Australian Stupor: An Interpretation of the Australian Way of Life. 10 In this book, part humorous and part serious,  Conway outlined the ways in which Australians seek self-oblivion and mental destruction. It achieved instant fame because so many Australians recognised themselves in his descriptions of the local way of life, and in our predilection for inertia, stasis, conventionality, resistance to culture, and reflection. For a while, Conway was even given his own television show, in which he held a mirror tip to the nation. But then we forgot about the novelty of self-reflection and went back to sleep.

To live in Australia is to live in a negative social climate. Americans who visit or live here find the place baffling. If the credo of America is "Yes, we can", that of Australia Is "No, we can't." This makes for an odd social environment. Things are achieved in spite of the current toward inertia and resistance. The humour, temperament, and spirit of Australia are ironic, downbeat, self-deprecating, anti-heroic, often depressing. Yet individuation forces itself upon us, even with all this negativity. Even Down Under, where everything is upside down, where the seasons are reversed, and even the Southern Cross hangs upside down in the night sky, we have our own version of individuation, which is via negativa, a way of resisting what the unconscious is forcing upon us."


PS. When a writer or artist or poet says they're "exploring" something isn’t this word often just code for shying away from the commitment of unequivocal assertions, like when an artist says they are “exploring” – just by way of example – ‘ the interstitial experience of people with bi-polar disorder’ ....surely the exploration happens during the process that leads to the art work, but cannot be the art work itself – or at least, not satisfyingly so for this witness. 


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