The paddocks of amnesia

3772-84mcnaught_druckmullerOn Australia Day night the moon rose very late. On nights like that the sky is revealed as an event that the word ‘spectacular’ doesn’t do justice. The Milky Way with the Magellanic Clouds hanging off it gives the sky a profound depth. In daylight the farthest you can see is three-and-a-half minutes no matter where you are. At night, the farthest object you can see with the naked eye – Galaxy M31 in Andromeda – is about 2.5 million light years away. Light that set out toward us, as Carl Sagan once memorably put it to his presumably astounded American television audience, long before there were hamburgers or television. It’s the strangest thing looking at the revealed night sky. There’s a kind of ‘Oh, that’s the sky’ moment of understanding. That blue stuff we usually think of as sky, isn’t. We’ve just got the light shining in our eyes and can’t see anything.

The Southern Cross was extremely brilliant and lying just above the southern horizon. In one local Indigenous account, the four stars of the Cross are two mothers, the pointers their campfires. Coming to earth in search of food the mothers brought their fires with them, campfires that got out of control and brought fire to earth for the first time.

The Cross lay at a 45-degree angle over Nimbin Rocks and looked to me like an enormous skeletal kite tethered by its tail to the black hump of the mountain and sailing on a vast and unfelt wind. I stood outside in the dark for a long time, so long that the wallabies that are as common as mice around here, and as timid, went thumping past me squabbling.

By now, if you’ve read this far, the whole scene might be starting to feel somewhat cheesy, as though I’m perilously close to beginning a rant about What It Means To Be Australian: Southern Cross, indigenous sacred site, iconic wallabies, vastness of time, etc. However, after being gobsmacked by the sky I went to bed but couldn’t sleep because somebody several kilometres away was having an Australia Day party and playing Queen’s Greatest Hits at extreme volume, a sound that the vagaries of wind and temperature carried right into my bedroom. It seemed like an exceedingly strange thing to be doing, playing Queen to celebrate Australia Day, but perhaps that’s what everyone does when they consume a vast amount of alcohol and start wrapping themselves in the Australian flag. Perhaps they’re all repressed monarchists. Anyway, unable to sleep I lit a candle and dug out a journal from the scrum of books next to my pillow and wrote this.

I wasn’t born in Australia but in the UK and my first weeks in Australia as a child, as for any immigrant, have stayed with me vividly: the blinding sun, the sandy soil, the light like reflected glass, the weird houses on stilts, and everything so far from everything else. Even the trees were strange, and when even trees are strange you know you’ve really arrived on Weird St.

Edward Said wrote that an exile is a person in a situation that he described as contrapuntal, which is a rather elegant way of saying that the exile feels he or she is in two places at once and neither of them are anywhere, neither can push the other off the stage. And Australia certainly felt like a place of exile to my eleven-year-old self, a place that was somehow indefinably, behind all the strangeness even, wrong.

Immigrants to Australia – that’s nearly all of us – can be hit with two kinds of memory loss. First there’s the exhortation, the cultural expectation, to forget where you are from. In my case, being beaten up and bullied for having an accent that sounded something like John Lennon singing ‘Maggie Mae’ was a great incentive to assimilate, that is to agree with everyone else at all times. Second, and more sinisterly, was the amnesia that no-one even referenced, the amnesia they had amnesia about, the knowledge that Australia was an occupied country and that in very, very recent history the indigenous populations were nearly exterminated, a vast and bloody trauma deliberately inflicted on a continent of many nations.

Both these types of memory loss comprise the nature of the Australian immigrant experience; arriving on a huge continent on the other side of the world and being immediately subjected to a powerful culture of double amnesia.

The problem with the repressed of course is that it tends to return and an acknowledgement of the politics of amnesia can be wretchedly threatening to those with a vested interest in it. John Howard may well be remembered for many things, but I’m guessing that his pathological inability to say the word ‘Sorry’, a word that seemed to threaten him intensely as a man and as a politician and clearly caused him enough fear to rouse him to ungovernable fury at times, might be the defining memory of him in the cultural imagination.

Yes, so this collective political and cultural amnesia, spread across the country like an anaesthetic gas, requires greater and greater efforts to be able to maintain itself while also disguising the fact that it is occurring. The Israeli state, as Edward Said pointed out, is engaged in this process on a wholesale basis and in a way that increasingly seems to be permeating every aspect of Israeli society. In order to demonstrate its eternal nature the state has to invent ludicrous and unchallengeable stories, concocting huge amounts of evidence in order to prove that a nation brought artificially and violently into being in 1948 has been continuously in existence since Galaxy M31 was a baby. Said described how Israeli archaeology has been co-opted into the service of scientifically shoring up Jewish identity, proving the triumphant inevitability of the Israeli state, constructing an organised forgetting of many unpalatable things and an equally rigorously organised remembering of things that never happened. I have always been intrigued by the fact that Radiohead’s first monster hit, ‘Creep’, took off in Israel a long time before it caught on anywhere else: ‘I’m a creep/ I’m a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?/ I don’t belong here.

‘As everyone knows,’ says Vizzini to Westley in that strange but eminently quotable film The Princess Bride, ‘Australia is entirely peopled with criminals.’ That’s the repressed speaking, I think. Building a political project, such as a nation-state, on a massive historically catastrophic criminal act of terror is a road map toward something that looks like collective psychosis. Keeping your mind straight in such circumstances is a full-time job and a politically critical one, as the myth of Indigenous invisibility is promoted in increasingly martial ways and the political brutality of amnesia exerts itself more and more rigidly.

As strange as Kevin Rudd seems to be, his Sorry Speech in 2008 was a very good thing and certainly more radical than he knew. All of a sudden, just for a few moments, it was as if everyone was able to remember who and where they were. Of course the shock of recognition was quickly stage-managed away as we were all herded back to the paddocks of amnesia again. But still, it has now been admitted that it is possible for us to say the unsayable, to retrieve a catastrophic memory loss, to think the unthinkable, and rather than precipitate us into a vortex of fear and emotional chaos, the unsayable words and the unthinkable thought may give us our only chance of being able to clearly see our own face.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Interesting article.
    I really enjoyed your insight into Australia – especially this paragraph:

    “Edward Said wrote that an exile is a person in a situation that he described as contrapuntal, which is a rather elegant way of saying that the exile feels he or she is in two places at once and neither of them are anywhere, neither can push the other off the stage. And Australia certainly felt like a place of exile to my eleven-year-old self, a place that was somehow indefinably, behind all the strangeness even, wrong.”

    That is a very insightful piece of writing and I enjoyed reading it very much.

    I think you are correct in so far as a lot of Australian’s suffer from a certain amnesia and it would be great if a lot more of us could be enlightened to the issues that our country and our people face. I often wonder if apologising is the way to go… Perhaps it works for some people in so far as it allows them to come to terms with the past so that they can work towards a better future with a clean slate. But I fear that some people grow lethargic after apologizing feeling that their work is done…

    I was lucky enough to spend time with Aboriginal elders from Moree and the surrounding area last year. They were graceful and wise and I am blessed to have shared this experience with them. It was encouraging to leave behind the pain of the past in search of a better future. Tabula rasa. It worked well and I seek to continue this work in the future… In my opinion it is the biggest issue in Australia and we need more people involved in righting the wrongs and inspiring hope and building better lives for all.

  2. Hi. Of course apologising can be an excuse to construct a new kind of amnesia – “I’ve already apologised, what else do you want me to do? Why can’t we move on?” But ‘Sorry’ in its indigenous context is a lot more than a plain apology. To have something SAID, to have it acknowledged and in a sense always have that acknowledgment around us, is a very significant thing. I’m thinking of an indigenous artist I know who talks of his work in terms of the presence of his ancestors. I think that when he speaks of them, he’s speaking of both his Dreamtime ancestors, and his kinship ancestors who were murdered, enslaved, dispossessed. So in his conversations they are always present, right there.
    And then yesterday, I was at a professional meeting where the indigenous chairperson invited someone to do the acknowledgment of country. A non-indigenous person nervously volunteered, and stumbling over his words, did the acknowledgment. Acknowledgments of country can certainly be something of a a pro-forma that get tacked onto a gathering. But still, in a small gathering such as the one I was at, with several indigenous people present it was very powerful.

  3. Stephen, thanks for this thoughtful reflection.

    I’ve never celebrated or participated in Australia Day celebrations even though there was much pressure to do so when my children, now adults, were growing up.

    This year I happened to be in the city on Australia Day to see ‘Don Parties On’ and became caught up in a large crowd probably leaving Fed Square. Many of the young people had wrapped themselves in the Australian flag and/or had it tattooed on their faces. Everyone had an Australian flag in hand to wave.

    The crowd was good-humoured, people were clearly enjoying themselves but I wondered what and who they were celebrating and why. The thing that really bothered me is that I don’t think they knew either.

  4. Which is the amnesia kicking in I guess. My personal guess is that the more we find to be ashamed about, the more visibly patriotic we become. The puritan is always the person who worries they are actually very bad and needs al kinds of organised ways of forgetting. Like Australia Day.

  5. Moved. I don’t remember arriving. I know my sister can’t even fake a Liverpool accent now, because of the teasing she received in those first days (she was twelve, I was two).

    Where you go with this post is such painful territory – like walking on wounds. Beautifully done.

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