Nostalgia and the New in Nationalism

Look at Tom Robert’s The Big Picture and imagine being present at that wonderful time of Federation when Australia was maturing into a nation out of its infancy in the British Empire! When we look at these pictures of the past, I think it’s safe to say that we can, at least occasionally, have a sense of nostalgia for what has been lost. We look to the Australian heroes and legends of the past and the civilisation they built out of the wilderness and we long for a return to more glorious days, full of promise. For the Nativist, this is a source of inspiration to rebuild those things that have been lost under the multicultural yoke. As Ricoeur pointed out, however, utopian visions can also serve as the basis of a critique of the present. In this post, I discuss the balance between nostalgia and the new in nationalism to suggest a path towards Australian utopia.

In thinking of Australian history and culture, the figures of the drover and the miner loom large. One thinks of the figure of “Clancy of the Overflow” from Banjo Paterson’s poem of that name, appearing also in “The Man from Snowy River. And if early Australia was built on the sheep’s back, it was the wealth of the Gold Rush era that really put Australia on the map, turning mere Melbourne into Marvellous Melbourne and one of the richest cities of the British Empire. Furthermore, it was the Chartist politics brought into Australia by English and Irish miners that helped stimulate Australia’s culture of worker’s rights, immortalised in the events of the Eureka Rebellion. We return once more to the pastoral realm of the sheep when we look at the significance of the shearers strikes in the 1890s in building the power of the labour movement leading into Federation. Looking back to these great events and reading the poetry of Paterson and Lawson can create that sense of nostalgia for the past that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Nonetheless, the limitations of this nostalgia should be obvious. Both the bush pastoralism of the drover and the mining of the gold rush were primary industries focusing on extraction of resources, which were then developed elsewhere. Historically, Australia provided Britain with raw resources, but in the present the situation is worse as the structure of our economy draws us ever into the grasp of the Asiatic and Subcontinental powers, while providing us with far less benefit. This problem should turn us towards the consideration of utopianism and the future as a source for a positive vision of a solution.

Utopianism is not new to Australian nationalism. William Lane, a vital figure in the nationalist labour movement of the 1890s and the author of the book The Workingman’s Paradise, was a utopian socialist who attempted to establish a New Australia colony in Paraguay. Even in his later pro-Empire years in New Zealand, well after the failure of New Australia, he remained a self-styled apocalyptic “prophet,” writing for the New Zealand Herald under the pseudonym “Tohunga” and warning of war with the rising powers of Asia. The desire to create a paradise for our people is a vital ingredient for constructive nationalist thinking, but it is crucial that it is balanced by tradition. The Russian Futurists are an instructive example of the dangers of simply trashing the past in the name of the future, since this destruction can more easily lead to the squalid and spiritless concrete structures of the Soviet apartment blocks than to innovative art and technology. Nationalist futurology should begin from the achievements of scientific modernity, but remain tied to eternal principles. The Renaissance provides us with an interesting example of this in history, since the birth of modern science actually began with the rediscovery of Platonism and the establishment of the Florentine Academy, leading to the clash between the established Aristotelian universities and the Neopythagorean projection of nature as fundamentally mathematical. At the same time, this rediscovery also enlivened the Renaissance interest in the religious mysticism of the perennial philosophy. In this spirit, I suggest Platonic Futurism as the intellectual topos for Anglo-Celtic high culture in Australia and across the Anglosphere, which should have expression in all sorts of cultural, scientific, and technological spheres.

To conclude, while the nationalist naturally has a strong love for nature and folk culture, it is crucial to ensure that this is synthesised with the need for innovation, industry, and initiative in envisioning and creating a future for our country. In his Poetics of Music, Stravinsky contrasted the stale imitator of a musical style with the true traditionalist who innovates because of his intimate knowledge of the style and its inner potential. It is in this sense alone that the Nativist should be a traditionalist, and build a new future out of his knowledge of the inner potential of the Australian nation.

Elias Priestly

ANA Victoria