Davison, Graeme: Narrating the nation

Davison, Graeme

Narrating the Nation in Australia: Menzies Lecture 2009, Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Kings College London, The Australia Centre, London, 2009

Explores four narratives or foundation myths of settler societies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States: Genesis (foundation and conquest); Exodus (captivity to freedom); Deuteronomy (developing a constitutional charter); Peaceable Kingdom (reconciliation and atonement). None of these quite fit Australia, to which a fifth narrative, Odyssey, is appropriate.

According to this narrative the nation is made, not by voyagers from the homeland to the new land, but by voyagers who travel in the reverse direction, outwards to prove themselves in the wider world. (p. 43)

Anzac, and earlier expeditionary forces to the Sudan and South Africa, ‘occupied a space already prepared in the national mind’ by schooling which emphasised classical myths like Ulysses (as reported by Tennyson) and the Spartans (via Charles Kingsley). Bean made Homeric comparisons in The Anzac Book and channeled Pericles’ Funeral Oration as he developed the Australian War Memorial, noting the Greeks’ ideal of heroic self-sacrifice. ‘These were the myths of service and sacrifice that sustained the men who fought the Great War and the families who yielded up their sons.’ (pp. 45-46)

Davison goes on to link this history to modern practice.

The Anzac Legend has now been reborn as a myth for all Australians, especially for the young among whom the backpacker pilgrimage to Gallipoli (with a side-trip to Troy) has become almost a generational rite of passage. In these retellings, the old themes of patriotic duty and sacrifice have receded in favour of an emphasis on travel and risky adventure. (p. 46)

He believes the Odyssey narrative has a strong appeal to a people who have always valued their worth in terms of how they are seen by great and powerful friends. It fills the need for a national narrative when the alternative preferred by many intellectuals, Reconciliation, has still not taken hold.

Meanwhile, the national story [Anzac] that commands almost universal support is one that draws us, not inwards – to a more thorough reckoning with the problems posed by our distinctive geography and history – but outwards, and then not into an open-minded and open-hearted encounter with the world, but to a chauvinistic attempt to prove ourselves in the eyes of others.

Does this matter? Perhaps binding narratives are less important than other sources of social cohesion. Happy is the nation without a history, it is sometimes said. If that is so, then Australia has more reason than most nations to be happy. But it is an innocent kind of happiness, that of a child rather than a mature nation. At a time when the old pillars of national identity are crumbling and the forces of globalisation grow stronger, a nation without an inspiring, binding narrative may feel that it is still incomplete. Australia, I have suggested, is a mostly happy and cohesive nation that is still in search of its story. (pp. 47-48)

The lecture develops themes Davison introduced here and here. Note also Ziino regarding tourist analogies in World War I service.


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