“If you drive away from Uluru as the sun sets, as I have done more than once in my life, you will see, before the colour drains from the sky, Uluru turn pitch black, a gargantuan, ominous outline bulging out against the sunset’s penultimate hues of pink and blue. A colleague of mine, just back from a holiday at Uluru, said that walking the ten kilometres around the base was something of a sublime experience. He was using sublime in a precise philosophical sense: awe inspiring rather than beautiful.”
The above epigraph is something I wrote, a fragment from an incomplete essay on the sublime, Australia and art. I was going to submit it somewhere prestigious, to the lucrative Donald Horne Prize or the Calibre. It’s unfinished, and it will stay that way because the Australian sublime is a concept murdered by the impotence of Australian politics.
Australians think they’re unique. This rests on the elementary confusion of two senses of ‘Australia’. There is Australia the society and Australia the country, Australia and Australians. The continent’s landscapes are singular, stemming from its island status. The continuity of other continents blurs the uniqueness of their biomes. However settler Australian society and its politics belong to the flattening global story of neoliberal economics. A story and a society which is destroying the material conditions of that singularity.
For a long time I wanted to write an essay about Australian alterity – the murderous Sun, the crackling leaves underfoot, the eucalyptus trees. I wanted to trace the representation of this landscape in our novels, in our culture; a history of Australian literature, painting, music.
My first intuition of it was music: artists and records whose sound I can only describe as Australian without knowing why: The Drones, The Nation Blue, Hoodlum Shouts. I would sit and listening to these artists and try to put my finger on an elusive pulse. It was more than the Aussie drone of their vocalists. It was their expansive sound, the harsh tones and timbre, lyrics that invoked the imagery of a uniquely harsh landscape: think of those Gareth Liddard guitar lines, sharp and shimmering, a sun ray on a forty-degree day.
To write this essay I needed time to read every book written here, from Patrick White’s Voss to Jane Harper’s The Dry, and explore the history of Australian pastoral painting, of its ebbs and flows in popularity and influence. And finally, I wanted to sink my teeth into the sublime – read Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, and try to understand how a European idea unfolded in an antipodean landscape.
In my mind it would take years to write, I would chip away slowly at it. Then I would submit it to those aforementioned prestigious prizes. I would win fame, and a small fortune. I would write regularly. I would secure the life I wanted; it would not be easy, but it would be possible. Like my father and his father before him, I would raise a house, and a household with this security, and fulfil the promised life of what Gregor von Rezzori once called the bloody fucking middle classes.
This fantasy justified a project that at times seemed ill-conceived and other times laborious. Yet this desire to write was part of a desire to put into words what was unique about Australia: not its people but its landscape and in doing so understand the role this landscape plays in our collective imagination. The fantasy of fame and fortune was just entertainment, a post-hocrationalisation of an absurd project. Recently my obsession was extinguished, replaced by grief and despair. The worst bushfire season on record has just swept through this country, devastating Queensland and Victoria
As a child I use to visit a secluded coastal town where my grandparents celebrated their wedding anniversary. Embedded in this memory is the memory of landscape, of the shift from the mountainous plains of Canberra down into the costal forests. The sights winding down the Clyde, turns past thick forest that would open onto vistas of impossibly green valleys. The immensity of the country was cemented in my mind. Looking back on these trips to the coast, hazy childhood memories re-emerge: my father explaining to me that the bushfires never burn down to the sea here, my mother explaining how some plants require fire to germinate. A typical Australian domestic scene. Mckenzie Wark writes in Commune: “…the landscape that made me, that’s in me, feels impossible to mourn.”
This coastal town is one of the lucky ones, the fire burnt right to its edge and miraculously stopped. Many more towns are devasted,trees are scorched, trunks hollowed, lives have been lost and ruined. Estimates suggest one billion animals have died. The latest estimates predict recovery will cost up to 100 Billion dollars, and that 4.5 Billion Dollars have been lost in rural tourism industries. Many small businesses in the area make the majority of their yearly income in the summer, and its unlikely that our neoliberal government will compensate them adequately.
The health effects of smoke in the major cities are as yet unknown, but Canberra has had the worst air quality in the world more than once this summer. After the fires there will be further consequences – cardio and respiratory problems, and the psychological toll of despair in the face of the incompetence by both major political parties. The devastation of the landscape is also a devastation of ourselves.
This might sound hyperbolic: the landscape is not truly lost, we are not truly devastated. There will be mass ecological devastation, the full extent of which we do not know yet, but some things will recover. We will return to our un-burnable beaches and enough trees will remain that a simulacrum of Australia will continue.
In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and BeautifulEdmund Burke argues that terror and astonishment separate the sublime from the beautiful, “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.” Burke’s account focuses on examples of bodily pain and visceral executions, but he also lists nature amongst that which inspires terror and sublimity. Immanuel Kant, takes up the idea some thirty years later and emphasizes nature and a sensation of cerebral overcoming. He writes in the Critique of Judgement:
Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunder-clouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the bound- less ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.
For Kant our experience of the sublime shows us that we have the capacity to briefly grasp infinity. According to his model this demonstrates the superiority of reason to the material world, that it exceeds it in a certain crucial sense. This is how Kant secures his rational world and his concept of moral law, and thus fend off naturalistic critiques of his transcendental system. Is it irrational, then, to mourn the Australian landscape? Some 12 Million Hectares have burned but Australia is 769.2 Million Hectares wide: just 1.5% percent. If my experience of the Australian sublime proves I am a rational being, surely I should process the situation rationally, and our politicians might argue that despair is profoundly irrational.
The problem with the Kantian framework is it makes despair impossible. As Adorno writes in Negative Dialectics: “The secret of his [Kant’s] philosophy is the unthinkability of despair,” and despair is necessary to confront the immense challenge facing us. In a certain sense it was the uncritical Pentecostal hope of the Australian middle class that led to this predicament.
I realise now, that what I heard in those songs that lead me to my unwritten essay were not reflections of empty landscape. They were songs of desolation. Desolation is the act of depopulating and ruining a place. The desolation of these songs was a forewarning of the hideous future. One I knew was coming, but whose magnitude outweighed my imagination. The supra-rational ecstasy of the sublime gives way to the reason of despair, and as the landscape alters so do we.