from the editor's desk

Randolph Stow

Raw Material


Some ideas for a new, epic art in an Australian setting.

As I remember, what the editors of Westerly suggested I should write in this page or two was a personal account of the problems one meets with in attempting to turn the Australian environment into literature. I was in England at that stage, and after listening many times to questions like: “What sort of climate has Australia?” the Australian environment was beginning to seem a pretty neat little entity, that one competent novelist might dispose of for ever, if the painters hadn’t done so already.

But when one thinks about it from closer at hand, “environment” as the artist meets it is almost too complex a thing to be written about at all. The boundary between an individual and his environment is not his skin. It is the point where mind verges on the pure essence of him, that unchanging observer that for want of a better term we must call the soul. The external factors, geographical and sociological, are so mingled with his ways of seeing and states of mind that he may find it impossible to say what he means by his environment, except in the most personal and introspective terms. In a work of art, these are the terms the artist will use. But in a straight essay, he may run into difficulties.

Still, there is undoubtedly an Australian environment “out there”, outside one’s annotating psyche. And there are a number of acute and sensitive students of it (Sydney Baker, Russel Ward, J. D. Pringle, Robin Boyd, to name four) whose work is appearing in print. There is no need for me to summarize their conclusions. We know about our democratic temperament, our love of sport, our depressing tolerance, and even worship, of the second-rate. We also know about our beaches (will they ever stop telling us about our beaches?) and we know that most of us live in the capital cities. This is what a sociologist means by “The Australian Environment”.

Admiring and enjoying this sort of anthropological study as I do, when I try to relate it to the work of a writer I have to admit that it is almost irrelevant. A poet may find in it the inspiration for a poem or two, a novelist might get an idea for a chapter, or a couple of characters. But this abstract “Environment” is really nobody’s environment. It has no observer. It is like Ronald Knox’s tree when there’s no-one about in the Quad. And I can’t believe that a writer with any sort of self-awareness would be able to say of it: “This is my raw material.”

This ought to be obvious. But it seems it’s not, if one can judge by some of the exhortations directed at Australian writers. To say to a writer: “Why don’t you write about the washing-machine industry?” or: “By neglecting the cities, you are ignoring seventy per cent, of the population” is to equate art with sociology and journalism.

The environment of a writer is as much inside him as in what he observes; and if, from a stern sense of duty, he sets out to re-create the environments of a number of others from purely external data he is likely to come to grief. He may, if he is a near genius, feel himself into those environments (or, more accurately, incorporate them in his own) so completely that they become his for the time being: but this rarely happens, and that is the weakness of social realism. It is also the temptation to which Australian novelists, with so much land to play around in, are most liable, and when they succumb the results show in the characters—”character” being a part of environment in this sense. Where the characters are flat and the author seems bored, we can be pretty sure he has moved out of his territory. But when the author triumphantly succeeds in creating a character which makes his best friends wonder if they have ever known him—when Shakespeare, for instance, creates a Timon, or Milton a Satan, or Emily Bronte a Heathcliff—we can be equally sure that his environment is a much broader and stranger territory than even best friends could guess at.

I conclude, therefore, that no creative artist in this country can talk about “the Australian environment” in relation to his work, and imagine that he has made anything but the most superficial statement about it. It must be “my environment” always, or at most “my environment here in Australia”. There is a feeling of Australia in the landscapes of Drysdale and Nolan, but essentially they are mindscapes of the artists. And from there, Albert Tucker has found it a short step to the moon.

The feeling, the sense, what a Spaniard would call the sentimiento of Australia: the external forms filtered back through the conscious and unconscious mind; that is what these artists convey, and what I would hope to convey if I were capable of executing all I can conceive. In that sense, the world out there is raw material. But only part of it—all the rest is mind.

* * *

So—one is obliged to introspect.

There are two sensations, above all, that the land offers me; the sense of size, and the sense of the past.

Size is obvious. It is a huge country, however often the journalists may say so, and the distances are vast. But size itself is a complex of feelings. When one is alone with it, one feels in one way very small, in another gigantic. One expects something. One is a little like Adam, perhaps. In the cities, personality is fenced in by the personalities of others. But alone in the bush, with maybe a single crow (and that sound on a still day widens the world by half) a phrase like “liberation of the spirit” may begin to sound meaningful.

The sense of the past is linked with this vastness. It is a country in which one can be aware of a tremendous range of time. It is very easy to feel—even to “remember”—the period when there was no animal life on earth. And on the hottest days, in the most desolate places, it is possible to know, almost kinetically, the endurance of things.

There is too, and naturally in a country that has been changed so rapidly by man in so few years, a sense of human history, and in a way that short history is a precis of the whole career of man. I feel this strongly, and find it an advantage to have been born of two pioneer families, one of a city and one of the bush, which often reminisced and sometimes wrote their reminiscences down. Those men who fought natives and planted orchards and built homesteads and churches might have been the ancestors of the human race, not only of Australia. They were the archetypal settlers St. John Perse invokes in Anabase: “Followers of trails, of seasons, breakers of camp in the small wind of the dawn; O seekers of waterholes over the bark of the world; O seekers, O finders of reasons to be up and be gone….”

So that what, in the end, I see in Australia (so far only in the bush, but that need not be the end of it) is an enormous symbol: a symbol for the whole earth, at all times, both before and during the history of man. And because of its bareness, its absolute simplicity, a truer and broader symbol of the human environment than, I believe, any European writer could create from the complex material of Europe.

What it means, every observer will interpret for himself, and interpret differently at different times and in different places. In its skeletal passivity it will haunt and it will endure.

* * *

I am conscious of gaping cracks in this attempt to relate “my environment” to some theoretical Australian literature. It is full of bias (against social realism, for instance, when it is no more than that) and probably useless to anyone but myself. But there is a concept behind it: the concept of a literature based on figures in a landscape, more naked and disturbing than a Border ballad or a Spanish romance, in which eternal things are observed with, always, the eyes of the newborn.

This will spring partly from the outward, measurable environment. But, for the rest—

“J’habiterai mon nom . . . .”

“I will live in my name,” says St. John Perse’s Stranger among the sands. It is inevitable.

This essay first appeared in Westerly 6:2, 1961, pp.3-5. Photograph courtesy of the Stow estate.

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