Malouf, D. A Spirit of Play. The Making of Australian Consciousness

A Spirit of Play. The Making of Australian Consciousness. ABC Books, Sydney, 1998

David Malouf’s attractive little book is derived from his 1998 series of Boyer lectures and it provides a refreshingly different overview of ‘where we are’ during this time. He begins by pointing out that Australia is an island and that this has wide-reaching consequences. He writes that:

Australia’s borders were a gift of nature. We did not have to fight for them. In our case, history and geography coincided, and we soon hit upon the idea that the single continent must one day be a single nation. What this means is that all our wars of conquest, all our sources of conflict, have been internal. Conquests of space to begin with, in a series of daring explorations of the land, which were also acts of possession different from the one that made it ours merely in law. This was possession in the form of knowledge by naming and mapping, by taking its spaces into our heads, and at last into our imagination and consciousness (p. 9-10).

This meant that, from the beginning, we could close ourselves off from sources of change that applied elsewhere and concentrate on this particular experiment in society building. In such a place there was more freedom: ‘in the more relaxed conditions of this new world even convicts had a kind of power they could never have exercised at home. The System had holes – air holes through which a man could catch a second breath and through which a new form of society could be breathed into existence…’ (p. 22). One form that this new freedom took was the creation of a playhouse only eight years after settlement began.

With the sure prose of an accomplished novelist, Malouf, describes aspects of the ‘complex fate’ that attended those who had leapt from the confines of English culture to this vast ‘new’ land bounded by seas and utterly different cultures, both within and without. He credits explorers such as John Oxley with the literary ability to experience this land and to bring it ‘into the world of feeling’, thus forging an inner connection with the land that has sustained us, for good or ill, ever since. Without ever overlooking the historical disasters that attended colonisation, Malouf outlines some of the impacts on the landscape and also looks at the kinds of buildings that were erected here. The latter were not, he suggests, the result of a kind of nostalgic need to copy what existed elsewhere so much as a real sense of participation in contemporary life in other countries.

As a child growing up in Brisbane, Malouf describes the sense of personal excitement, personal options, which were nevertheless located at that time in what he calls ‘a stagnant backwater … a world that had not come to terms with deep wounds’ in its psyche. He writes of the impact of Gallopoli and the stifling censorship which meant that to read Ulysses ‘you had to get permission from the state librarian, who kept it under lock and key …’ (p 85). Yet as time goes by a certain confidence emerges. Partly it can be traced back to the ascendancy of Sydney and Melbourne who saw themselves not as merely colonial cities but as ‘great provincial centres’. After the British defeat at Singapore Australia was mocked on Nazi radio as ‘the orphan in the Pacific’ and so it seemed to be with its ‘white Australia’ policy and its cultural insularity.

But what ‘saves’ Australia for Malouf is both its growing sophistication and what he calls ‘a spirit of play’. The British may be mocked for their quietude, but that, he argues allowed us space to think and breath and to be, a way of life not punctuated with revolutions and further bloody upheavals. ‘Something in the tone of Australian society’, he writes, ‘has been unwelcoming of extremes…. some final sanction has always operated here against the negation of that deep psychological work that over something like six millennia has made it possible for us to live with strangers and, however different they might be from ourselves, make neighbours of them’ (p. 109-110).

Thus the virtues that help to define Australian society include those of ‘neighbourliness … lightness and good humour, the choice of moderation over any form of extreme’ (p. 111). To exemplify this, he quotes the example of the transformation of the ‘gay pride’ Mardis Gras in Sydney from a defiant protest to a multi-million dollar publicly-sanctioned spectacle. In his words:

carnival deals with disorder by making a licensed place for it, and with the threat of fragmentation by reconstructing community in a spirit of celebratory lightness. It takes on darkness and disruption by embracing them. Forces that might otherwise emerge as violence, it diverts though tolerance and good humour into revelry and sheer fun (p 114-115).

In summary, Waldren’s Future Tense (included elsewhere) provides a critical snapshot of the present, while A Spirit of Play locates that snapshot in the cultural context of 200 years of settlement with all its disasters, struggles, contradictions and steady growth to social maturity. The triumph of Malouf’s accessible account is that it outlines sources of cultural vitality that provide springboards for dealing with a manifestly challenging future. All that is now needed is for the necessary quality of leadership to emerge which will help transform these potentials into the beginnings of a vibrant 21st century community that knows, in some sense, ‘where it is going’ and why!

Published in The ABN Report, 7, 2, 1999, pp 18-20