April 2009

Arts & Letters

The good soldier

By Inga Clendinnen
WEH Stanner & ‘An Appreciation of Difference’

WEH (‘Bill') Stanner, 1905-1981, Australian anthropologist, is known to most of us through his 1968 Boyer Lectures, titled After the Dreaming. Those lectures were and remain electric, charged with anger for the physical and psychological misery inflicted on Aboriginal Australians by a collection of latecomers who first claimed possession of everything they saw, and then began a process of settlement which devastated both the land and the clans who had lived in respectful interaction with it for hundreds of generations. Stanner devoted much of his mature professional life to bringing white Australia to awareness of that reckless destruction and its cascading consequences. His weapon was his pen. Working as a journalist as a young man to complete an education truncated by poverty, he developed a rough, flexible prose reproducing the cadences of forceful speech (most of his essays began life as scripts for speeches). This has made him durably quotable, which is the second way we know him. Consider a couple of random extracts. The first, from a public lecture:

The [assimilationist administrators'] presumption was that, since the development of European society in Australia had obviously made it impossible for the Aborigines to be themselves, it was equally obvious that the most practicable thing to do was to allow and persuade the survivors to become like us. It seemed to be the honest and the decent thing to do. In the climate of thought of the times no one, or at any rate very few, saw it for what it was - a moral impertinence of the first order.

 "A moral impertinence". Bravo, Stanner! Now this, from a report to the Public Prosecutor's Office, unfortunately undated (but does it need to be dated?):

I consider the extent of self-injury is possibly a measure of the Aboriginal sense of inability to re-establish a life of self-esteem. Our relations with them are power-relations; their situation is one of complete dependence and acceptance, which to many is hateful to their tradition and hurtful to their pride. Many have complained to me, and have used the metaphor of cattle yarded, so that they turn this way or that, and try as they will, they can find no exit.

Yarded cattle, turning helplessly - and we are burdened with an unforgettable image.

Stanner learnt not only a style but a stance in those newspaper days:

I had been taught to write by some old-fashioned newspapermen on the papers for which I worked. I had learned the meaning of ‘fact' and how to deal with the differences between inference and surmise. I had also learned certain arts: of reading between the lines, of smelling roguery upwind; and of judging to a nicety the prospect of ministers of the Crown, newspaper barons and high officials ever passing through the eye of the needle to heaven ...

A pugnacious conservative with puritanical tendencies? Possibly - though An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia (Aboriginal Studies Press, 293pp; $39.95), the volume under review, will show us some alternative Stanners. We now also have the best of Stanner's ‘political' essays, including his Boyer Lectures and most of those he chose in 1979 for his own selected essays, White Man Got No Dreaming, newly republished in a handsome volume titled The Dreaming and Other Essays (Black Inc., 291pp; $32.95). They still make superb reading. We marvel again at the wit, the economy, the superb impatience with error, the steady, accumulating force. Nonetheless - I would like to know how long he took to write them. They might read like natural, measured speech, but apparently he laboured over them through many drafts and days. There is also a Stanner who writes badly. You can meet him on the pages of On Aboriginal Religion (1963), where Stanner is struggling to decipher the ethos and the world view embodied in the ceremonies he had watched for a brief, intense period more than 20 years before, during his early field trips first to the Daly River and then to Murinbata territory around Wadeye (then called Port Keats). This Stanner is a quite different fellow: tentative, questing, awed by the power and the metaphysical mystery of what he thought he was seeing in those passionate ritual performances, and also moved by the moments of vivid social warmth and joyful camaraderie which punctuated them - the moments the American anthropologist Victor Turner would identify as manifestations of "communitas". In those societies the camaraderie was, of course, exclusively male, sustaining itself alongside an age-based hierarchy ranked by strictly controlled and painful access to esoteric knowledge, and so to sacred power and large social privilege. Why did he find these particular visions of secular and sacred order so attractive? This apparently straightforward fellow was more complicated than he looked, so when I heard there was a Stanner conference in Canberra to celebrate the centenary of his birth, I went. I don't usually attend conferences. I have never been good at taking information by ear, and the conventional notion of the lecture, where a standing person reads a prepared script before a seated, silent audience, seems to me bizarre, especially now that academe frowns on the big-man pacings and gesturings of the great professorial performers of my youth. But this conference turned out to be all pleasure. Anthropologists whose words I had read but whom I had never before seen stood up in sequence and talked or drew diagrams or showed slides and (once) a film. But while I enjoyed it, my deficiencies as a listener guaranteed that what I mainly learnt was that this man was even more multiple, and even more mysterious, than I had thought.

Now comes the book of the conference, titled by a famous phrase from Stanner's Boyer Lectures, An Appreciation of Difference: 17 papers plus an introduction (along with what must have been a great deal of sensitive editing) by Jeremy Beckett and Melinda Hinkson. The volume is doubly well titled because it reveals so many different Stanners. The pleasure begins with the photographs. On the front cover we are offered a close-up portrait of Stanner taken in his office at the ANU in 1958, when he was 53. Academic styles were more formal in those days, when only committed ne'er-do-wells grinned at the photographer, but this Stanner person is severe even for his time: good tweed jacket, buttoned collar, tie; firm comb-over, moustache clipped to the exact curve of the impeccably stiff upper lip ... he is holding what looks like a pipe, but there is nothing relaxed about him. It is a face arranged to meet trouble: a regional bank manager, perhaps, or a professional military man, not a senior anthropologist snug in his home office. The back cover offers three more Stanners: sleek Major Stanner on his way to having trouble with Alf Conlon, in 1942; a combed, beshorted Stanner poking at a campfire, in 1958; Stanner the novice anthropologist somewhere along the Daly on his first field trip, in 1932 - young, handsome, bearded, already heroically posed, already heroically neat, and photographed by one of his Aboriginal informants in an early and promising reversal of roles. Other photographs studded through the book mutely interrogate the text. Several show the older Stanner become a suit among suits and looking disquietingly like Kenneth Grahame's terminally disaffected Mr Badger. My favourite is captioned "Bill Stanner during fieldwork in the Port Keats region, c. 1950s." There stands Stanner, bare-chested but still immaculately combed and clipped, gripping his pipe and gazing sternly into the middle distance. It is difficult to catch an anthropologist at work.

By and large, the photographs confirm the tough, combative personage we are tempted to construct from Stanner's professional speeches and public writings. The superbly wide-ranging texts (this book is crammed with new information) reveal, for example, Major Stanner at war commanding his ‘Nackeroos', ideally a mounted unit of tough bushmen but described by the Nackeroo Xavier Herbert as "a bunch of poofters whose only riding's been one another in the Sydney Domain and Hyde Park"; Stanner in postwar East Africa, deploring the "growing lack of intimacy" between rapidly multiplying and ‘reforming' administrators and the Africans whose life circumstances they were committed to improve. Returned with Stanner to Australia in 1950 we are shown how the accidental history of the infant discipline of anthropology in this country - who got the key professorship; who distributed the meagre largesse - affected this committed man: his shabby treatment within the walls of academe; his political frustrations beyond them. We are also shown the transforming effect of his brief but intense re-immersion in the Aboriginal worlds of the Daly and Port Keats for the decade from the mid '50s to the mid '60s, after which time he was increasingly consumed by policy matters. Later in life he would return to the Murinbata as often as he could, making what became his last visit in 1978, when he was 73. Jeremy Beckett reminds us that this aloof, self-protective, self-isolating man enjoyed blessedly relaxed interactions in the field with the Aboriginal men who became lifelong informant-companions.

How to make a coherent life story out of all that? It would be easy to weave from these false starts and "wasted years" a patchwork tale of frustration and failure. These papers do something different, and thrilling: they illuminate, like so many angled shafts of light, the questing, melancholy, intensely reflective man behind the unsmiling public man and political warrior. Of course the warrior is there. Barrie Dexter thought Stanner "a reluctant bureaucrat", but nonetheless reports him manfully battling inertia, opportunism and duplicity when he, Dexter and ‘Nugget' Coombs were appointed by Harold Holt to create the new Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Holt's death saw their bright hopes rust, but Dexter reminds us that the trio played a leading role in what would finally become a highly creative decade of white policy-making for once, in counterpoint to Aboriginal demands and culminating in the passage of the Northern Territory's Land Rights Act of 1976. The three also came up with what is probably the only viable formula for legally establishing Aboriginal identity - by descent, individual decision and community acceptance - and it was Stanner, always attuned to the contagious magic of symbolic action, who suggested that Prime Minister Whitlam pour a handful of earth into Vincent Lingiari's hand as he returned control of Gurindji land to its original owners. We are also reminded that the vigour of Stanner's polemical prose sometimes came at the expense of justice: Ann Curthoys does a beautiful job in rescuing fellow historians, including my old friend John La Nauze, from complicity in what Stanner altogether too sweepingly declared to be the "great Australian silence" regarding the fate of Australia's Aboriginal inhabitants. But what we are also shown is how perceptive this apparently blunt man could be, and also how heroic his ambition. In Australia, the bitter frontier experience of incomprehension, violence and despair seems to be re-enacted again and again, even as white intentions change. Why? Stanner: because the dominant whites "keep on confounding our perceptual routines of mind with some sort of absolute social reality". We are blinded by the mirror stuck to the ends of our noses. Stanner had been persuaded by his experience on those first field trips both of the pure difference in world view between Aboriginal and European Australians, and of the shameful consequences of white refusal to respect that difference, or even to see it. Throughout his vigorous public life Stanner insisted that the difference must be acknowledged and respected: that people of Aboriginal descent must be free to choose to live their lives as Aboriginal Australians, not as lowest-rung whitefellas. As ‘Nugget' Coombs put it, Stanner was out to change "not merely the policies of Governments in relation to Aborigines, but the very conception of Aboriginal Australians held by the great majority of their countrymen". Remarkably, he came close to achieving his aim, at least for a significant group, although not, alas, for the majority.

The victory came at a cost. That cover photograph shows Stanner seated before ranked scholarly volumes. None would have borne his name. He would never write the "big book" he spoke of from time to time. This man of immense industry and self-discipline produced only two book-length studies in his life: one on postwar reconstruction in the Pacific; the other the previously published essays of White Man Got No Dreaming. He never found the time to find the words to express his precarious, precious insights into Aboriginal metaphysical thought and the dynamics of Aboriginal ritual action, beyond a couple of awkward papers published under the title On Aboriginal Religion: papers where the awkwardness can suddenly incandesce.

After the editors' introduction the volume divides into four sections: ‘Diverse Fields', on Stanner's public career; ‘In Pursuit of Transcendent Value'; ‘Land and People', on the difficulty of translating between different understandings of human attachments to land; and ‘A Public Intellectual', assessing Stanner's influence on public thinking in his own time, together with some speculations about how he might have responded to the present crisis. Every section is absorbing, but the second, focusing on Stanner's engagement with "Aboriginal religion", is my favourite. Each paper shows us Stanner groping for a vocabulary which would capture what he thought he was looking at once inside the Aboriginal world, and also what he himself was experiencing as he looked. For example: Melinda Hinkson offers us Stanner at 53 - the man we met at his office desk - on a field trip to the rock galleries of the Fitzmaurice River, a near-inaccessible region he had been plotting to get to for more than 20 years. Conditions, still difficult, deteriorated fast. Nonetheless: with the food run out, reduced to one terrified, exhausted Aboriginal companion, Stanner remained so mesmerised by the rock paintings he was discovering as to be simply incapable of deciding to leave, so putting himself and his Aboriginal friend at fatal risk (in the end they were rescued by the Navy). When he finally got back to that orderly office he was a couple of stone lighter, but still intoxicated by what he had seen. As for what he made of what he saw: he failed to publish anything of his discoveries on the Fitzmaurice perhaps because he lacked archaeological training, or perhaps, as Hinkson suggests, he "simply did not have time to write up this material". There is tragedy in those words. "This material" was the notes, the photographs, the drawings he had made over those haunted days as he followed the path of the dying Rainbow Serpent as it coiled and convulsed across the land.

In the same section Jeremy Beckett revisits Stanner's relationship with ‘Durmugam, a Nangiomeri'; Peter Sutton jostles our few remaining complacencies to persuade us to subtler, more complex and more complete ways of seeing ourselves and others; Ian Keen clarifies Stanner's use and misuse of the analytic concepts anthropology has developed to capture the multiplicity of activities we label ‘religion'; and Alberto Furlan explores the social politics of popular songs as vehicles and vivifications of shifting loyalties at present-day Wadeye (Stanner had recorded songs of the Port Keats region back in 1954 and 1957). I would like to comment on every one of these revelatory papers, but I will limit myself to one not yet mentioned: Howard Morphy on the Yolngu "maggot dance". Recent commentators have been attracted, as Stanner was attracted, by an Aboriginal informant's apothegm: life is "a joyous thing with maggots at the centre". Lolling in the webs of European cultural understandings, we think we hear the resonance of a classic stoicism embracing life's pleasures and death's inevitability with equal equanimity. Howard Morphy teaches us that we cannot translate between cultures so casually. He salutes Stanner's On Aboriginal Religion as "a work of intuitive genius"; then demonstrates, through an entrancing phase-by-phase analysis of the Yolngu maggot dance (which is indeed part of a funerary rite) how precise observation of natural phenomena plus some daring analogical thinking can lead men of limber mind to understandings startling to us - and can deliver us to the very edge of a quite different way of seeing, and therefore of believing. Morphy had shown us a film of the maggot dance at the Stanner conference. At a late phase of the proceedings, with the corpse already removed, women, heads bent, backs bowed, rhythmically shuffle along on their knees marking "maggot tracks" into the sand. As I watched, I thought their gleefully wriggling buttocks and suppressed giggles suggested there might be joy in maggots, too. Apparently so: Morphy sedately tells us that "the white swarming maggots crawling over decaying flesh, almost flowing like a viscous fluid, have analogies in human procreative processes," and that during the second phase of the funeral dances, which unusually engages both men and women in simultaneous and similar action - energetic high-stepping while hands run over the body in a plucking, flicking action - "there is a general sense of hilarity and a degree of flirtation." Morphy sums up: "ritual is full of wild ideas and hints of excess." He titles his paper ‘Joyous Maggots'.

The intellectual sinew running through the whole collection, as it did through Stanner's life as a thinker, is the struggle to distinguish continuity and change in the restless flow of experienced life. Stanner knew that what matters most is not structure but the unstable web of present meanings we call culture; not some imagined stasis but the daily flow of action. Theoretically and politically he was on the side of change and of choice. Nonetheless ... he loathed the "opportunism, activism, fecklessness and light-headedness" he saw exhibited by younger Aborigines, and the conflicts tearing once-stable societies apart: "It would be only a little fanciful to say the spirit of Tjinmin [a Dreamtime patricide and sister-raper] was abroad." Meanwhile, both his conservatism and his private aesthetic led him to cherish the coherent moral economy he ascribed to the old "High Culture", and to revere the metaphysical reach of the Aboriginal vision he saw demonstrated, for example, in the lovely elasticities of the Dreaming stories, which effortlessly netted all forms of human conduct in the course of their exposition of abiding Law. (A related seduction seems to have worked on ‘Nugget' Coombs as he saw the old men of Yirrkala deploy the formidable resources of a profound intellectual culture: a culture which also seemed to sustain a frugal, serene and securely benevolent exercise of power.)

This volume, the product of different hands and different minds working from different assumptions, raises in poignant form the question of how we can best grasp an individual life history. Unlike many public men Stanner offers no preferred narrative of his own, but only a scatter of comments. For example: he tells us in a rare "autobiographical note" that he did not enter politics because he thought he lacked "the necessary toughness of fibre". Looking again at that carefully opaque front-cover photograph, I think he might well have been right. Surely he was too tender-minded, too aloof, too inflexible for politics? Hinkson retrieves a wistful comment he made late in life and which therefore presumably carries more weight: "Somehow the idea of being a good soldier to the Queen, which is the way Grandfather spoke of himself, remains for me the one accolade I would never trade for another." "A good soldier to the Queen": how much we would have lost had that been his epitaph. But this volume - in my reading of it, which might well be different from yours - persuades me that Stanner enlisted in an ongoing intellectual, moral and spiritual battle during those first shaping field trips, when the novice anthropologist watched the struggle within individuals and within groups between the impulses and interests unleashed by change and the tug of old certitudes and habits. By 1932 the "rotted frontier" of the Daly River had a long colonial history behind it: failed missions, failed mines, and the "European presence" shrunk to a single policeman and 12 poverty-stricken peanut farmers, each with his fringe of Aboriginal "dependants" determined to participate in what still contrived to appear, in their wrecked circumstances, as white abundance. The spirit of Tjinmin was surely abroad on the Daly. Yet it was there, in these toxic circumstances, that Stanner first saw Durmugam, the Nangiomeri man who would become his honoured informant and the subject of perhaps his most famous essay. Durmugam moved with grace and decorum through his debased society, while yearning for the dignity, order and meaning he had never known but glimpsed in the shards of pre-contact ritual action he saw being enacted just beyond the sullied world around him. The tension between change and continuity would become the organising principle of Stanner's politics and his formal anthropology, while Durmugam the Nangiomeri, that navigator between broken worlds, became the embodiment of what he most admired, grieved for and sought to preserve of Aboriginal traditional society, as his most private self bathed in its emotional warmth, its intellectual sophistication and its metaphysical allure.

An Appreciation of Difference neatly unwinds the dragon throttling the biographical enterprise: the temptation to impose one or another stock narrative on a problematic human life. It offers instead a magnificent array of information, insights, analyses, evaluations: multiple takes on a multiple man. But be warned. If you pick it up, it will eat at least a month of your life.

Inga Clendinnen
Inga Clendinnen is an academic, historian and writer. Her book Reading the Holocaust was judged Best Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999.

Cover: April 2009

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