Origins of Modernism in the Great Western Desert

An Introduction



A preliminary point about Modernism, to refresh our memories of its scene, and leaving aside the perduring fact that there is no clear, single and undisputed definition of the term. The way – and all these things were happening more or less at once – Einstein, Bergson and others changed our thinking about time; the way T.S. Eliot drew so substantially upon The Golden Bough in the conception and creation of The Waste Land; the way, in their different ways, Picasso, Gaudier Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis and D.H. Lawrence amongst many others (we could add Conrad here), drew upon one form or another of Primitivism as a kind of dynamic power-centre; the way, alongside and behind them, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Durkheim had been laying the groundwork…

What did these figures have in common? Well, aside from the fact that they were all in their own ways contributing substantially to the mind of Modernism, however we constitute and define it, they had Australia. Admittedly the cases for some of them – Nietzsche, Jung – are harder to make than for others, although some intriguing connections and circumstantial evidence are there, but – to look only in the direction of anthropology (with some confidence concerning its centrality to the development of Modernism) – a large proportion of Frazer’s The Golden Bough was given over to the spiritual practices and beliefs of Australian aboriginals, and his next great work was a book called Totemism and Exogamy, the significance of which title shall shortly become clear. In another direction the first chapters, and indeed the entire foundational hypothesis, of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, were based upon the tribal practices of Australian aboriginals, as was Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). And this is only the first generation – the first Age – of Modernism. The effects of these works not only flow on to the next, but the contribution of Australia and its immediate region continues. One could almost say that Great Britain and Europe together (the United States is a part of this also) mine Australia and the South Pacific for the raw materials of their intellectual mills for at least another four decades. Durkheim (1858-1917), for example, influences profoundly the work of his son-in-law Marcel Mauss, so that we might say the Elementary Forms lead on quite directly to The Gift – although, as happens increasingly in the second and third generation, this work is in fact already a confluence (there is, for example, Malinowski in the mix), and The Gift leads fairly directly to Bataille, who leads – contributes – to his friend Maurice Blanchot, who leads/contributes to Barthes, Derrida, etc., just as, on a different track, Frazer – leaving his extraordinary literary influence aside – leads to Malinowski, and Malinowski to the likes of Roman Jakobsen and Claude Lévi-Strauss. And, of course, a number of these figures come together if only to be substantially refocussed, in the work of Deleuze and Guattari: their theory of the rhizome, their nomadology, and the contemporaneous fascination with the nomad (Bruce Chatwin, etc.), in which Australian indigenous culture features most strongly. Ideally, at the far end of this paper, there would be space given to those Australian writers and theorists who, absorbing so many of the more contemporary of these thinkers, find within them a curious resonance and applicability, not always realising that it is something about their own atmosphere, their place, that they are seeing, returned to them.[ii]

But let me turn, for a moment, to one of the great high modernists, Ezra Pound, in whose seventy-fourth canto we find mention of Wanjina, a dreamtime figure of aboriginal tribes of what is now Western Australia, the story of whom, as will be fairly evident from the quotation, is that (the wanjina is always depicted as a humanoid creature with a disproportionately large, hairless head, in which there are eyes but no mouth) of a boy gifted with the ability to bring things into existence by saying their names, but who cannot stop talking. Eventually his father, seeing that the world is filling up with all sorts of unnecessary things, sews up his mouth, so that he cannot bring anything else into being.

The lines are these:

“I am noman, my name is noman”
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father
because he made too many things
whereby cluttering the bushman’s baggage
vide the expedition of Frobenius’ pupils about 1938
to Auss’ralia

Ouan Jin spoke and thereby created the names
thereby making clutter
the bane of men moving
and so his mouth was removed
as you will find it removed in his pictures

The lines are rich, not only in their intriguing conflation of Homer[iii], the Australian myth, and Mandarin Chinese. Pound has his own reasons for evoking the Wanjina – his sense of a kind of usury of the word, and so of the intellect, to go along with his deploration of usury in a more classic sense (see Canto XLV) – but although they are so consonant with the general turning away from abstraction that is so deeply a part of Modernism and its turn toward the primitive, and although that idea of travelling light (‘the bushman’s baggage’) is radiant, a burning detail (its consonance with nomad thought), I will leave them aside for now and come to Australia more directly.

I’ve been mulling over this subject for several years, wondering how to approach it because it is so vast. For a long time I dreamt of a kind of ur-moment, a singular, seed-event which began it all – saw it rather like an intellectual version of that moment where, somewhere near Ballarat, someone herding some sheep bent down to pick up a rock in which he had seen something shiny, and realised that it was a nugget of gold, and the great Australian gold rush began. I guess I saw someone sitting at a camp-fire out in the bush, waiting for his billy to boil, picking up a curious rock at his feet and seeing that it had strange markings on it: a tjuringa, one of the sacred Aboriginal ancestor-stones, and something which begins a gold rush of a different kind. But of course I could not find it, not that moment: the aborigines (some very sad stories aside) took far better care of their tjuringas than that.

And then it happened. I found it, if not that moment then another, deeply related one, with no less potency. It came about like this. A young man named George Grey, fascinated by accounts of the Great South Land, got together an expedition to explore an area on the far north coast of Western Australia. The year is 1837. The expedition gets a ship to Capetown, and in Capetown leases a smaller boat in which to sail the rest of the way. Later – several months later – the first ship will happen to be in the vicinity when they need to be rescued, and so will feature in the story a second time. That ship was The Beagle, the same ship that Darwin had used, and that voyage to Capetown was its first since being refitted.

The expedition is totally unprepared for the climate and the kind of country it encounters, but it makes its way through to something very like courage, particularly on the part of Grey himself. There are encounters with aborigines, who attack the party more than once. Grey is speared, and in the same incident shoots the man he takes to be their leader. He sincerely and deeply regrets this. He seems to have a genuine curiosity about and respect for the Australian natives. He records his sightings of them, records whatever he sees of their lifestyle and culture. And then, several weeks into the expedition, in a cave near the top of a commanding ridge, the Wanjina, or at least an astonishing picture of the same. I’ll read the passage from Grey’s Journals:

The cave appeared to be a natural hollow in the sandstone rocks… Its height in front was rather more than eight feet, the roof being formed by a solid slab of sandstone …

On this sloping roof, the principal figure … was drawn; in order to produce the greater effect, the rock about it was painted black, and the figure itself coloured with the most vivid red and white. It thus appeared to stand out from the rock; and I was certainly rather surprised at the moment that I first saw this gigantic head and upper part of a body bending over and staring grimly down at me.

It would be impossible to convey in words an adequate idea of this uncouth and savage figure. …

Its head was encircled by bright red rays, something like the rays which one sees proceeding from the sun, when depicted on the sign-board of a public house; inside of this came a broad stripe of very brilliant red, which was coped by lines of white, but both inside and outside of this red space, were narrow stipes of a still deeper red, intended probably to mark its boundaries; the face was painted vividly white, and the eyes black, being however surrounded by red and yellow lines; the body, hands, and arms were outlined in red, – the body being curiously painted with red stripes and bars.

Grey was evidently sufficiently impressed by this and his other encounters with aboriginal Australia to write, along with his Journals (1841, the last ten chapters of the second volume of which are devoted to the culture and customs of Western Australian aborigines), ‘A Report upon the Best Means of Promoting the Civilization of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Australia’ (also 1841). Before leaving Perth he had already published A Vocabulary of the Dialects of South-Western Australia, and in 1845 would give a paper to the Royal Geographical Society ‘On the Languages of Australia’. Still, Australia had already been ‘discovered’ and being ‘settled’ for some time and, extensive as his reports may have been, Grey was hardly the first to have encountered or been impressed by aboriginal society. Dramatic encounter with the Wanjina aside, why choose him?

Well, for a start, I don’t think we can put the image and encounter of the Wanjina aside, but that too is material for a different paper. Grey’s expeditions are notable for another reason. A quarter of a century later a Scots lawyer and amateur ethnographer named John McLennan (1827-1881) published a work, entitled Primitive Marriage (1865), of considerable import to the infant discipline of anthropology. Of the many ground-breaking things for which this publication is renown, one of the most curious is its invention of a word – exogamy – for a phenomenon that, at least in an anthropological sense, western thought had not encountered before. It refers to a system of tribal marriage – a complicated set of laws about who can marry, and can not marry, whom – based about tribal totems, mainly totem animals (just a few years later McLennan would published a couple of the first key works on totemism). The system finds its most complicated and developed form in the culture of the Australian aboriginals, and McLennan’s principal source (there was no such things as field work in those days: at least, not done by the ethnographers/anthropologists themselves [field work was also to have antipodean beginnings][iv]) was George Grey.

Field work, or the absence of it at this time, is a pivotal issue, and I will dwell upon it for just a moment. We are entering an age of the first great anthropologists – Edward Tylor (1832-1914) at Oxford, James George Frazer (1854-1941) at Cambridge, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) in the United States – but should also register that they were by-and-large ‘armchair’ anthropologists, conducting their research almost exclusively through books and correspondence. They relied, that is to say, upon information gathered by others.

The word exogamy and the concept it conveys were to go on to a stellar career. The discovery and, more importantly, analysis, of the totemic family was, for Western thought, a moment like that tjuringa/Wanjina revelation I was hypothesing earlier: a fracture in the understanding of the natural, for what could be more fundamental, more natural, than the nuclear family? And what could be more of a challenge to Western thought than the possibility that the nuclear family was not natural, but cultural?  Frazer, over forty years later, would turn his attention to the question in his monumental Totemism and Exogamy, Freud follow it up with Totem and Taboo, and a little later Malinowski will mark out his differences in a lengthy essay, ostensibly a review of Frazer’s book, also entitled ‘Totemism and Exogamy’.

But the shock waves, slowly mounting, and permutating as they mounted, have been going out continuously since 1865, and a great deal more material has been coming in, much of it unsolicited and independently, gathered by various settlers – a grazier here, a schoolteacher there – who had found themselves drawn to research the aboriginal customs and tribal structures of their particular areas, but a great deal of it also quite deliberately fostered by the armchair anthropologists themselves, sometimes in the form of researchers encouraged to go Australia to further their careers, and sometimes less directly, as when, approached for advice by someone, they would encourage that person to send them more information, or when, reading something useful that some one had written quite independently, they would approach and encourage and direct the author in their further researches (a universalising drift, there, that later anthropologists – Malinowski early amongst them – would dispute).

So, to begin a short dramatis personae, for that’s all I have the chance do in this paper, Alfred Howitt (1830-1908) and Lorimer Fison (1832-1907), a very interesting pair – each of them born in England, each drawn to Australia by the gold rushes of the 1850s, each beginning their career as a prospector, each ending it as a famous anthropologist. While on the goldfields Fison became an ardent Methodist, and soon a missionary in Fiji where he developed a fascination for native culture which he took with him back to Australia in the early 1870s, though not before his work had drawn the guiding attention of Lewis Henry Morgan, the pioneer American anthropoligist. Howitt, meantime, had taken to the Australian outback and earned a substantial reputation as a bushman, not least owing to the manner in which he had conducted searches for the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition in the early 1860s, on one of which searches first encounters with members of the Dieri, Yantruwanta and other hitherto uncontacted tribes had sparked an interest in Aboriginal culture. When he came across, in 1871, an advertisement by Fison for information on native kinship systems, he also found himself fairly well equipped to answer it, and the two – who had in fact met before – began a collaboration which produced, in 1880, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, which, in the words of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was ‘recognized throughout the world as a landmark in the new “anthropology” replacing “ethnology”’.

So also Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), who had once been an assistant to Tylor in Oxford, and subsequently (1827–) found himself Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne. On a visit to Central Australia in the mid 1890s – the famous Horn Expedition (1894), for which he was biologist and photographer – he developed an interest in aboriginal culture and formed a crucial link with the Alice Springs postmaster, Frank Gillen (1855-1912), who had already begun collecting aboriginal material, and with whom he, Spencer, did subsequent field-work in 1896, resulting in The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899). Writing to Frazer in Cambridge for some information in the preparation of this work, he found himself strongly encouraged to pursue his research, and under Frazer’s remote tutelage conducted a second expedition with Gillen which resulted in a further contribution, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). The influence of these works is almost incalculable. We can sense the size of their iceberg (or perhaps I should say inselberg) by the number of times they are referenced in Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, or by Freud, or Durkheim, or later by Malinowski or Radcliffe-Brown.

And so, too, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955), who in 1925 became the foundation professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney. Radcliffe-Brown had attended Cambridge, where he had come under the influence of W.H.R. Rivers, and subsequently conducted his first field-work on the Andaman Islands from 1906 to 1908. Returning to Cambridge he became interested in Durkheim, and visited him in 1909, as a result of which – Durkheim was then hard at work of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life – he turned his attention toward Australia, and in 1910, with E.L. Grant Watson and Daisy Bates, formed part of a research expedition in Western Australia. He continued his research in Australia until 1912, returned to England, but then came back to Australia for an historic meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1914. Stranded in Australia by the war – at least, so the story goes – he at first taught at a Sydney grammar school (Shore) and then, in 1916, took up a post as Director of Education in Tonga.

If Australia and its environs had been a busy place, anthropologically, in the late nineteenth century, it became a hive during the First World War and the years just before it. In England, while Radcliffe-Brown (at that stage he was only Brown) was travelling about Western Australia and arguing with Daisy Bates, who would later accuse him of plagiarism, another soon-to-be-famous anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, was putting together his The Family Among the Australian Aborigines – ironically, for someone who was to pioneer the idea of ‘deep field work’, a work quite entirely of desk chair anthropology. Malinowski had been drawn to anthropology through Frazer’s The Golden Bough and had come to London in order to study it. In 1914, his fresh book in hand, he too headed to Australia for the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. And in Melbourne, of course, he met both Radcliffe-Brown and Baldwin Spencer, whose work he knew very well indeed. In fact he had, in his own book, said of Spencer and Gillen that ‘half the total production in anthropological theory ha[d] been based upon their work, and nine-tenths affected or modified by it’.

Malinowski, too, was stranded in Australia by the war: having a Prussian passport, he was considered an enemy alien. He had already been planning, after the BAAS meeting, to go to Papua for field work. Now he had no choice. In order to avoid the embarrassment of interning him – and at the urging of Baldwin Spencer – the Australian government instead awarded him a small grant to conduct research in the Trobriand Islands, where it could supposedly keep a watch on him. This time in the Trobriands, controversial as it has proved to be, changed, and in some ways began, modern anthropology. But  this, too, is material for a separate essay.

There are many others whose stories could be told, many of them as yet more or less uninvestigated by anyone. I call them the saddleback researchers, as opposed to the arm-chair ones, and they are the unsung heroes of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century anthropology: its mine, or rather its miners. It is all in the footnotes. Read McLennan, read Frazer, read Durkheim or Freud, and there are numerous intriguing references to – dependencies upon – little-known works of proto-anthropology from Australian workers in the field. In this light a book like John Greenway’s Bibliography of the Australian Aborigines and the native peoples of Torres Strait to 1959 – four hundred pages of essays, articles, notes, reports, books, of researches into aboriginal culture from 1788 until almost the date of its publication – becomes a rich repository of potential story, its tentacular roots going out into all corners of the Australian continent. But the roots sustain a plant – this is my simple and essential point – and this plant grows, in the other direction, into the twentieth century. Look at the leaves, the twigs, the latest branches, and you find post-Structuralism; you find, say, Deleuze and Guattari and the rizome, you find nomadology; follow them back, far enough, and you find someone in the Western Desert holding a tjuringa, an ancestor-stone, or someone like Howitt, coming back from Cooper’s Creek with the bones of the explorer Wills, encountering an aboriginal tribe that has never been encountered before, and trying to communicate.

There are thousands of tributaries to any one moment of humankind, of course, and I should not exaggerate, but it seems clear that, facing the death of its god, metaphorically or otherwise – the death, at least, of the story that it had been telling itself about that god – in the light of the great new theories and discoveries of the early nineteenth century, the Western mind (I don’t want to presume about any others) had to look at itself, and try to determine what it was, and how it had come to believe the things that it did, and the ‘science’ by which it did so was anthropology. And anthropology need ‘raw’ or, as it put it at the time, ‘primitive’ man, upon which to ground a new age of its mythologising. In the Australian aborigine it felt it had found, as Freud famously put it, man in his most primitive state. But when that man was looked at – I think that this is the point-within-the-point of it – that man did not provide the answers it was supposed to. Albeit in ways that I have only been able to hint at here, the intrigue of this – the disquiet, the shudder – shaped Modernism, shaped the twentieth century

[i] A paper initially delivered to 4th International Conference of the Australian Studies Centre, Ajmer, Rajahstan, 29 January 2008, and susequently published in Sharma, Anurag, and Pradeep Trikha, eds, Identity, Ethos and Ethnicity: Australia and India (Ajmer: Arawlii Publications, 2010). Revised 2010, 2013.

[ii] I tell the story of one such return – a loop which begins with the poetry of Ern Malley, its passage to the United States, its influence upon Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, and their influence upon a new generation of Australian poets (John Tranter, John Forbes at its centre) which does not initially recognise that what it so admires in these American postmodernists may have in some part begun in Sydney and Melbourne rather than New York – in Chapter 14 (‘Manus’) of  my book The Sons of Clovis (2011).

[iii] ‘I am noman, my name is noman’ is Odysseus’ response to Cyclops as he attempts to escape the latter’s cave.

[iv] See my essay ‘Outcast of the Islands: Malinowski Amongst the Modernists’, Southerly 72.3 (2013).