There are few documents in history to match the USA’s Declaration of Independence. Inked in that marvellous calligraphy, in the 18th century equivalent of neon lights, is a set of words and ideas with which to found a great nation.
In hindsight then, it’s a pity the British didn’t arrest Thomas Jefferson at the outbreak of the War of Independence, and, after a decade’s incarceration, had him transported with the First Fleet to Port Jackson. Had Jefferson been part of Australia’s foundation, and had he bequeathed to us a document so purposeful, so fine and so powerful, how fortunate we might have been. Imagine Jefferson working by lamplight, under southern skies, drafting the Declaration of She’ll Be Right. What truths would we, the people of Australia, hold to be self-evident?
This article seeks to develop the idea, found in over two centuries of scholarship that our thoughts and feeling about Australia derive not from geography or genealogy, but rather as a creation, literally, of literature. Or, as Honoré de Balzac put it, “[t]he novel is the private history of nations”.
How so? When it comes to understanding what a nation is, Walter Bagehot said, “[w]e know what it is when you do not ask us, but we cannot very quickly explain or define it”. But this has not stopped a great many scholars attempting to do just that - and the results are both counter-intuitive and enlightening.
As an historical artefact, most trace the roots of modern nations to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. But as a cultural artefact, the picture is far less settled. The current prevailing view is that nations are a contingent, not a necessary fact of human existence; yet this view usually encounters unalloyed hostility from most national citizens. Such a claim indeed requires justification, because each of us subjectively feel as though the nations of which we are members have some existence separate from us and are somehow ageless. Yet M.N. Roy reminds us:
[N]ation has no meaning apart from the men and women composing it ... “We shall defend our nation to the last drop of blood,” declaims the leader of every nation. May we ask “what have we defended when the last drop of blood has been shed?”
E.J. Hobsbawm, a Marxist scholar, provided an etymology of the term “nation”, demonstrating that it did not appear in dictionaries with its familiar usage until the mid-late 19th century. Indeed, he explains that in many non-European languages, “nation” is a foreign loan word for which there is no native equivalent. Another major contribution was Ernest Gellner’s study which identified the preconditions of the modern nation-state - urbanisation and mass-education - as originating from the industrial revolution.
Lest anybody think that such views of nationhood are some sort of flaky Marxist or postmodernist plaything, I point out that antecedents of this view date from as early as 1882, when French philosopher Ernest Renan demonstrated the artificiality of nations by showing that their borders rarely align with anthropologically valid human divisions such as linguistic, ethnic, geographic or cultural groupings. This led Renan to conclude that nations are contingent entities, and are no more durable than the idea of co-nationhood which sustains them.
And, turning back now towards literary matters, we find a useful clue in Benedict Anderson’s theory of “print-capitalism”, which invokes a critical role for literature in the development of national identity. Here, the durability of the printed word is what creates our subjective feeling of the agelessness and permanence of our nation.
Through print-capitalism, the argument goes, we develop a compelling sensation that out there are “fellow-readers, to whom [we are] connected through print”.
A telling example of this at work in Australia is the only broadsheet which is available from Sydney to Perth and Darwin to Adelaide; the masthead of which is none other than The Australian. But in what sense do we imagine The Australian to be Australian? The US location of its stock and the foreign citizenship of its owner seem insufficiently compelling reasons to dislodge from our imagination the newspaper’s “Australian-ness”: that arises from nothing less or more than the invocation of its masthead, and the community of which its readers imagine themselves to be part.
Thanks to the seeming permanence of text, and the ritual repetition of ideas, there is a corresponding durability in national identities. In the Australian case, we see that the ideas of 19th century nationalist Bernard O’Dowd, whose paeans to “mateship”, the “exclusion of elements likely to make trouble” and protecting our seas from “foreign neighbours” are reflected, unchanged, in the 21st century by none other than the Australian Prime Minister.