Stories from the dustbin - Page 4
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Peter Cochrane
WHERE DOES A PREOCCUPATION with character and literary form leave analysis? The history profession in Australia, with some notable exceptions, has been wary of biographical or character-driven narrative – to the extent that it has been given any thought at all – because it might be the first step on to the slippery slope of commercialisation and dumbing down. Some even see it as a fictional device that tricks the user into thinking he or she is writing history. Noted historian John Hirst concedes ‘there are good narratives which combine analysis with story-telling' but worries that ‘narratives are a standing temptation to evasion' of vital questions such as ‘what sort of institution or nation or life is this?'
If biographical narrative has to privilege and obsess with questions of literary form, it cannot do that to the exclusion of scholarly foundations and questions that must be addressed. As Julian Barnes wrote in Flaubert's Parrot (Picador, 1985),‘Form isn't an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought ... it's the flesh of thought itself.' That's how it should be. The narrative historian has to wrestle with the literary dimension as well as the problem of how the past has been defined, interpreted, ignored or mischaracterised by other historians. And that engagement has to be immersed or infiltrated into the story without getting in the way of the story. In narrative it is argument by stealth.
Argument by stealth means that the text privileges the human story, but it is important to recognise that the human story is not just colour to the movement of analysis. The players have intent. Character has agency that must be weighed and tested in the force field of ‘context'. Analysis may be unobtrusive but it is, or should be, present at all levels. Quite possibly not a single historian's name, nor a reference to an in-house debate, will appear in the text. Such intrusions would be ruptures that would negate the point of biographical narrative. But this does not mean that historiographic concerns are neglected. On the contrary, they become part of the story only occasionally removed to a footnote – the manuscript that routinely exiles historiographical concerns to the footnotes is likely to be a vacuous and probably a tortured text.
In Colonial Ambition the analysis encompasses the narrative and precedes it. My starting point was not political history in the old sense of electorates, elections and administrations, but the making and remaking of public culture. The boundaries of public culture were continuously redrawn in a society as fluid as Sydney: who was in and who was out in a constant quest for power – including the symbolic power to assign meaning to various political and cultural phenomena, especially the British constitution.
Political culture in mid-nineteenth century New South Wales was a desperate and passionate conflict for resources, especially as self-government approached, an almighty transition full of promise for everyone. The setting, the transformation of public culture, real power and symbolic power, political history broadly conceived, is a panoramic sweep. The big question: how did it change? More questions follow. How did it all hold together? Why did local power not descend into violence, anarchy, rebellion, retribution, new and desperate strategies from below, oligarchic reassertion and, finally, a solution that looked like Argentina? We know, almost intuitively, that this sequence was most unlikely. Our intuition discourages curiosity, but that makes these questions all the more important. It is not self-evident. A mighty thing was at work, something we have not much probed: Britishness. The idea of Britishness and the conflict over its meaning became a binding agent. It provided a reference point, a variously interpreted framework, for almost all of the players and all the debate about self-government and democracy in the colony.
By Britishness, I mean that sense of entitlement to parliamentary liberty that had become a defining characteristic of politics in most British colonies. I have argued there's no more important concept in our political history than this concept or this sense of entitlement: ‘for entitlement was an insistence on inclusion, not rebellion; an expression of loyalism rather than republicanism. It enhanced every man who claimed his political rights, for this was not some squalid feud in a colonial backwater; it was a part in the epic drama of British liberty and justice.'
The presumption of entitlement – meaning the idea that self-government could be achieved (must be achieved) within the framework of the Empire – was tremendously empowering and a regulating force framing political behaviour. It set the terms for the debate and the limits of tolerance. It moderated rule from London, even though it often seemed that it was more honoured in the breach than the observance.
It is my hope, therefore, that one can read Colonial Ambition for the story and for the exploration of this notion of entitlement and related concepts of liberty, loyalty, constitutionalism, patriotism, tyranny and democracy. It is an exploration of what it meant to be loyal in New South Wales and of the tremendously empowering consequence of that belief in entitlement to liberty. A similar project for the other colonies, or for the colonies as a whole, has yet to be conceived – let alone undertaken – but would advance understanding of our collective past and present. The history of political transformation swung on the understanding of loyalty and its many meanings in the colonial context which suggests that the political battle was as much about symbolic power, an assertion of one meaning over another, as it was about access to the Treasury or the Crown lands. Narrative, far from being an impediment to these arguments, seemed to carry them effortlessly.
Wentworth, for instance, was a marvellous bearer of meaning, as well as a fascinating individual. So too were Parkes, Herman Merivale and the astonishing Robert Lowe whose peers could not see the consistency in his erratic constitutionalism, nor warm to his feral temperament. The challenge then – with a wider audience in view – is to combine critical academic practice with the narrative tradition. It is hard, but not impossible. It means we write history as both argument and literature.
If historiography generally alienates readers, the scholarly historian cannot simply abandon it. The solution to the problem of history as analysis surely cannot be history without analysis. The past written as homage to warriors, a triumph of settlement or sentimental journey are undoubtedly ways of gathering an audience. But these ways fall short.Scholarly history that enchants a general readership must draw on the ‘inherited capital' of scholarship in the field. It must, to some extent, synthesise it and reshape it with drama and character, a panoramic gaze, deep immersion in the documents and the revelations of their interplay. This will provide new insights and perspectives. That's the challenge if the stories and significance of the past are not to be forgotten. ♦