Gerster, Robin: Big-noting

Gerster, Robin

Big-noting: the Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 1987; reprint with different pagination 1992

The author is critical of CEW Bean and many others, writers of both fiction and non-fiction from World War I to Vietnam, for their building up of the Australian soldier into a mythical figure.

The war writer’s ambition to make “art” out of historical military events is often subverted by the temptation to manipulate them for the propagation of political, cultural or philosophical doctrine. Though these conflicting impulses are generic rather than national in derivation, the tendency in Australian war writing is so propagandist in promoting nationalistic sentiment and ideals as to make it the object of special literary interest. The word “promoting” is used advisedly, since Australian war writers – especially from the time of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli in April 1915 – have written more in the manner of publicity agents for the “Digger” as an exemplar of heroic racial characteristics than as disinterested observers of human conflict. (p. ix)

Australian war writers, critical of war but almost blindly impressed by warlike achievements, have never been able to combine successfully the conflicting responsibilities of the serious artist and the committed publicist. Their various excesses and inconsistencies reveal not only an understandable confusion about the battle experience itself, but the insecurity of a culture which has felt the need to promote itself in the most primal terms possible. It has been easier and less painful for them to big-note vacuously about war than to engage in a rigorous critique of it, an activity which just might have unearthed a more balanced portrait of the Australian warrior, if one not so superficially flattering to the national self-image. Ultimately, they have proved to be less intrepid than the men they have loved to lionize. (pp. 257-58)



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