It’s a cliché of contemporary publishing that every editorial in a literary journal like Overland invariably makes arguments for the importance of literary journals before platitudinising about the importance of literature generally.
In Overland’s first editorial in 1954 Stephen Murray-Smith invited our readers to share our ‘love of living, our optimism, our belief in the traditional dream of a better Australia’ which is hard to beat for brevity. When the conservative (and CIA funded) journal Quadrant launched in 1956 its poet-editor James McAuley laid out another model, in which literature stood as a moral bastion against the Miltonic horrors of communism, ‘this enormous mask made of blood and lies’. Today the debate has its own fault-lines. Well-funded organisations like The Ramsay Centre and the Robert Menzies Institute agitate for the preservation of mythical western traditions, while the tertiary education sector collapses around them—a position they might appreciate the irony of had they actually read Tacitus.
Things are bleaker yet beyond these ivory hermitages; our benighted former Education Minister launched yet another history war for the sake of an ‘optimistic’ national curriculum to equip soldiers with a myth worth dying for. Beneath the disingenuous cant about vocational education the reactionaries clearly know that culture matters; they know that narrative shapes thought, which is why they want to control who tells it. ‘The humanities’ (which is a stupid name, what else would they be?) map poorly onto instrumental criteria. They obviously foster critical thinking, hone rhetoric, amplify cognition, and contribute enormously to the material stakes of myriad careers. But these effects can’t be reverse-engineered into a satisfactory argument for their worth because culture is itself a language of value, arguably the paramount one—the final value of collective experience stands at stake in it.
Naturally Overland’s tradition has its own half-buried skeletons. The ‘temper and bias’ school of Australian nationalism was egalitarian, but it was also masculinist and xenophobic, as Jon Piccini writes in his revisionary essay on Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia in this edition. We retain from it, however, a principle affirmed by all the writing collected here, the idea that the narrative of culture should include the labour which makes it possible.
Evelyn Araluen & Jonathan Dunk
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