by Barry Hill
© all rights reserved
Since his brilliantly original The Road to Botany Bay (1988), Paul Carter had been deepening our sense of spatial history. That book was about Australian exploration, or more particularly, the philosophies of perception embodied in early white encounters with this place. It was about the country of the mind we have come to call colonial, and its mentality of conquest and cultural control. By subtly interrogating so many of the “primary” sources, Carter’s space-talk opened up fresh terrain in time.
With Living in a New Country, (1992) he more openly mapped the politics of blood lines, property, and frontiers that entailed possession, he posed an alternative: travelling light, provisionally, with a mind open to the creative possibilities of experience, including the necessity for getting along with strangers. Migrants and nomads have long known this way, and Carter was extolling them as models for postcolonial consideration.
This is perhaps to over-polemicise Carter. A summary can’t easily catch the texture of arguments that are rather more literary than political. He had to be read to be believed, on the multiple fronts he engages: history, philosophy, photography, linguistics, theatre. Nor can summary really convey his Covent Garden performances with metaphor, which he really loves more than anything else. Like me, like my metaphors, is Carter’s stance. His work has demanded that you put up with him as much as his complex writing.
His new book – lovely, exasperating and important – is no exception. Ostensibly, it is about two relatively obscure men in Australian history; the linguist T.G.H.Strehlow, author of the great book on Aboriginal culture and poetry, Songs of Central Australia, and William Light, the first Surveyor-General of South Australia and creator of Adelaide’s plan: and the work of the fifteenth century Venetian painter, Giorgione, who painted that ravishing and rather enigmatic picture The Tempest, which is the focus of Carter’s concern.
So what on earth do these subjects have in common? Well, Carter argues, over his 400 erudite pages, each can be seen as an exemplary case of a counter current in Western culture. Against habits of mind that are patriarchal, linear, which assume stability of knowledge and the self, the disposition to justify invasion and occupation of other places and peoples, actions that ride roughshod over the lie of the land and flatten history out – these subjects offer something else. That something is a post-colonial alternative we might see by teasing out analogies between Strehlow’s way of translating Aboriginal poetry, Giorgioni’s use of reverse perspective and Colonel Light’s interest in Imperial ruins and the weather.
Take Strehlow, whose Song of Central Australia, Carter rightly addresses as seminal. Strehlow both extolled and presented “his” Aboriginal poetry in a way that dynamically and open-endedly connected it with the lie of the land. Riddled though he was with personal complexes about patriarchy (his father, whose work he both defended and repressed, was the domineering Lutheran missionary, Pastor Carl Strehlow), he laid out Aboriginal verse in ways that put less Western baggage on it than anybody else.
I think Carter has been far too quick in elevating Strehlow’s achievements for his own neo-romantic political purposes. Carter asserts that it is a mark of Strehlow’s ambiguous achievement that he is not commemorated in Hermannsburgh today, and that it is hard to get a coversation going about him.
The more complex truth has to include the fact that Strehlow’s ashes have been placed in a special place, and those who know the lie of that land know they do not necessarily want to speak of Strehlow for several good reasons, not the least of which is his betrayal of secrets and opposition to the Land Rights Act. Carter’s intellectualised song for Strehlow misleadingly skirts the way the man’s conduct subverted his own great achievements.
As for Colonel Light, his life and work does not fit into the patriarchal mould either. Light, who was part Malay, has biographical threads that locate him in-between imperial narratives of settlement, and the lie of the land he was surveying in South Australia – no more than does the reverse perspective of Giorgione, his resistance to the linear impositions of Florentine perspective.
Is this clear? No it is not, for again it cannot be in summary. One has to travel with Carter through a text that deals in turn, (and then turn about) with such matters as a line of verse and line of dance, with mimicry and self, perspective, light, the relationship between light and sound, lightning and storm clouds, water and states of mind, the movement of water and the lie of the land, when “land” means our spatial history into the post-colonial present.
It is all poetry, really, which is what I like about it. “The language of poetry,” Keats wrote, “Naturally falls in with the language of power.” A line often quoted by Carter, who is in his wanderings and ostentatious wonderings inviting us to know the poetics of our politics and vice versa. Poetics is the thing. Without it we know nothing.
Carter is a Renaissance man of post-modernism, a stylish fellow with a quiver of conceits bristling on each page. You could say this is history a la mode – too much metaphor for its good, its playful head in the clouds. But he knows where to press metaphor towards truth value, and does so wonderfully in his technical discussions of verse and his reflections on light and perception.
He comes most firmly to ground at the end, with a landmark discussion of contemporary Aboriginal painting, especially the genesis of dot painting out of Papunya. He quotes Papunya’s inspirational teacher Geoffrey Bardon to great effect, and in the process his own writing becomes more vibrant and open, revealing the heart of this extraordinary book.
Barry Hill is a writer of fiction and non fiction, currently working on a biography of T.G.H. Strehlow. His most recent book is The Rock: Travelling to Uluru. This piece is taken from his review of The Lie of the Land in The Age, 9 March 1996. Reprinted with permission.