Fantasy Families and Australian Goodness:

A review of Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy by Jennifer Rutherford, and From Diggers to Drag Queens: Configurations of Australian National Identity, by Fiona Nicoll.

By Robert Aldrich

© all rights reserved

These two volumes, using the techniques of cultural studies and psychoanalysis, respectively, attempt to examine Australian identity and fantasy. Rutherford identifies a moral code in Australian discourse, stretching from the Labor Party to One Nation, which she labels ‘the Australian Good’, the ‘fantasy of a good nation’, ‘Love Thy Neighbour as Thine Equal’ – a concept of neighbourliness and camaraderie which purposefully masks xenophobia, racism and misogyny. The collective ‘fantasies of the good provide a camouflage for aggression at both a national and local level: an aggression directed both to an external and an internal Other’ (p. 10).

Rutherford analyses individual and collective psychological behaviour in novels by Henry Handel Richardson, George Johnston, Tim Winton, David Malouf and Patrick White, applying the theories of Freud and Lacan to these canonical literary works. The good intentions of the various fictional characters, the fantasy of solidarity and human decency, transform into violence against those who are different, marginal or foreign, and thus do not fit into the paradigm of dominant society. Rather than being so much a matter of hatred, however, socially homogenising policies – whether by preserving a white Australia or dispossessing Aboriginal Australians – are ironically a manifestation of good intentions paving the way to the happiness of the commonwealth (in both senses of the word) for some, but the road to hell for others.

This paradox, Rutherford adds, is not confined to white Anglo-Celtic Australian males but also appears in the language, attitudes and social policies of reformers, feminists and others who otherwise imagine themselves free of prejudice and exclusivity. The paradox is visible in a continuing thread of personal and collective anxiety about Australian identity in nineteenth-century creative literature, as heroes and heroines experienced a ‘traumatic encounter’ with the ‘symbolic void’ of terra nullius. This often played itself out in a mythical fashion, in Freudian terms, as a ‘re-enactment of the murder of the father and his reinstatement in both the sons’ and the daughters’ law’ (p. 73). Colonists wanted to escape European hierarchy and inequality, only to recreate new systems of exclusion in the Antipodes. The trauma in some cases could even be resolved as a pleasurable masochism (as in the Gallipoli phenomenon).

Rutherford’s imaginative and finely-argued thesis demands acceptance of the principles of Freudian and Lacanian theory, but even those who reject psychoanalytical treatment of history and literature will be intrigued by the way in which she brings together individual and group behaviour, literature and social policy. The theory is sometimes arcane, and the literary references specific. Interjections from Rutherford of her own reactions, including recounting her dreams, hardly smooth the narrative. The jump from nineteenth to twentieth century, and from classic fictional works to contemporary social policy, removes various events and works of writing from their specific context, and suggests an essential (perhaps essentialist) unity to Australian public behaviour over more than two centuries. Nevertheless, one can hope that Rutherford will use her psychological tools to dig into other areas of the Australian identity.

Nicoll’s book begins with a discussion of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra as a ‘semiotic regime’, then moves on to ‘modernism, war and the digger’s undivided body’ in the Second World War, representations of soldiers and other icons of masculinity and present-day notions of Australian identity, as she puts it, ‘@ [sic] the intersection of Anzac Day and Mardi-Gras’. There is much that is fascinating in her study – the sections on the physical body of the Digger, and debates on the proper sort of face an Australian soldier should have in recruiting posters and war art are particularly engaging.

Nicoll, like Rutherford, is interested in the paradoxes of identity: the mutilated body of the wounded soldier versus the godlike image of the innocent fallen, the hyper-masculinity of the macho fighter and the homoerotic implications of military mateship, the presentation of the ideal image of the Australian as a white male soldier to the exclusion of those who do not fit the identikit model, the mentalité that produced both the Anzac Day consecration of the Digger and the Mardi Gras enthronement of the drag queen. The way in which the War Memorial has been ‘reinvented’ for different generations – with attempts ‘to divest the digger of its prior associations with a set of values that include militarism and racial suprematism’ (p.6) – is a case study of historical memory and amnesia.

As does Rutherford, Nicoll employs much theory – Foucault, Bourdieu, Deleuze and Guattari, Michael Taussig, Paul Ricoeur (whose name is often misspelled) in her case – and words such as ‘metonymy’ and ‘synecdoche’ appear with predictable regularity. Indeed, Nicoll often unnecessarily seems to feel that her own interesting observations and commentaries must be legitimised with appropriate salutations to such gurus. Her book thus has some of the most forbidding characteristics of postmodernist writing, but in its juxtaposition of various sources and its challenging views, it also shows the more enticing attractions of cultural studies.

Some specific assertions may be contested by specialists. Saying that ‘the dead bodies of Christ and the saints are divested of their organicity and endowed with immortal beauty’ (p. 42), for instance, is a statement hardly pertinent, for example, in the works of Mantegna or pictures of St Sebastian. Saying that ‘East Timor has produced further elaboration on the homosocial capacities of the male subject of digger-nationalism’ in photos of Australian soldiers cuddling East Timorese boys, and interpreting this ‘within the gendered matrix of digger-nationalism’ with the children as ‘the progeny of a new nation to which the Australian digger [sic] has given birth’ (p. 87) bespeaks, at the least, serious over-interpretation. Asserting that ‘the War Memorial is a monument to a genocidal mode of colonialism’ (p. 176) is a statement guaranteed, and no doubt intended, to offend. Her ventures into psychology lack the rigour of Rutherford’s approach. Every so often, Nicoll simply tries too hard to be trendy, to quote the right master, to put forward the most provocative assertion.

Both Rutherford and Nicoll are concerned with ways in which mainstream Australian identity and its artistic embodiments have intentionally provided a limited version of the happy family. (The notion, and metaphor, of the family, however, curiously receives little systematic attention, despite the point about East Timor.) Theirs is not a ‘black armband’ version of history, so much as an effort to understand the limitations of the Australians’ self-designed identity. Whether investigating the traumatic and protective confrontation of the ‘Great Australian Emptiness’ (in Rutherford’s discussion of White) or the physiological and psychological traits of Australian man, from Gallipoli to Mardi Gras, these works look at mythic Australia in the very real world of Howard and Hanson. It is unfortunate that interest in ‘discourse’ frequently comes at the expense of concern with socioeconomic historical realities, and grand theoretical designs overwhelm more empirically-based evidence.


Robert Aldrich teaches at the University of Sydney. He is the co-editor of a recently published two-volume Who’s Who in gay and lesbian history, and author of the forthcomingColonialism and Homosexuality (both Routledge).

The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy by Jennifer Rutherford was published by Melbourne University Press in 2000.

From Diggers to Drag Queens: Configurations of Australian National Identity by Fiona Nicoll was published by Pluto Press in Sydney in 2001.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]