1922 saw the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. But in the same year, far from the famous Anglo-Euro-American sites of literary modernism in its annus mirabilis, the emblematically counter-modern modernist D. H. Lawrence was in Australia. It was, he thought, ‘the most democratic place [he had] ever seen’—and ‘the more [he saw] of democracy the more [he] dislik[ed] it’. This extreme political reaction resulted in a novel: spending most of his six weeks in Australia in the seaside town of Thirroul, just north of Wollongong, Lawrence wrote a long book called Kangaroo and published it early the following year. It is a strange, somewhat autofictional, almost plotless work, and for a long time was only taken seriously for its mesmeric descriptions of Australian nature, with justly anthologised paragraphs about yellow wattle (‘as if angels had flown right down out of the softest gold regions of heaven to settle here’) or shark fins (‘like small, hard sails of hell boats’). But on the occasion of its centenary the novel ought to be read as well at the level of ideas. The book, in fact, sums up to being one of the most compelling and prognostic critiques ever made of democracy in Australia, and for that reason alone it should not be allowed to drop out of the memory of those of us uneasy with the defaulty democratic status quo.
What little plot there is, is easy to recount. Set loosely some years after the First World War, the story basically tracks Richard Lovatt Somers, an English writer recently arrived in Australia and modelled on Lawrence himself. Known for his anti-democratic writings, Somers falls under the spell of the mysterious Jewish barrister Benjamin Cooley, the leader of an underground right-wing militia of war veterans who plan to overthrow the parliamentary state, and whose codename gives the book its title. However, Somers slowly changes his mind about Kangaroo, and for a while thinks about joining instead the barrister’s arch-enemy, Willie Struthers, a Bolshevist in the labour movement who plans to mount a communist revolution. Finally, disillusioned with both men, as well as with the democracy that he, along with them, opposes, Somers leaves Australia.
So what, exactly, is the nature of Lawrence/Somers’s hostility to democracy? In the first place it is ontological. For Lawrence, human beings were singular, neither equal nor unequal, and strictly incommutable and incomparable (an almost solipsistic outlook which is also the perfect negative, we might remark, of object-oriented ontology, for which everything exists equally). Thus if relations between people were to respect such integral authenticity and difference they would have to begin, for Lawrence, from a recognition of ‘clean, fine singleness’ over the apotheosis of any ‘oneness’ between things, or from what he elsewhere suggestively named a condition of ‘present otherness’. Democracy, however, begins from opposite grounds entirely, those of the comparability and parity of human beings. Subsuming all its subjects into a collective abstraction such as ‘Demos’, democracy thus voids any rich and textured interiority: ‘it makes you so material, so outward’, Lawrence writes, ‘that your real inner life and your inner self dies out’. And this, Lawrence realised, was bad news for the novel form itself. Novels, after all, are classically made up of characters’ sophisticated inner registrations of the world as it acts on them; it is a genre which aims at inwardness, or the approximation of how life sounds from the inside. But democracy, Lawrence worried, with its mass exteriorisations, would make writing up its citizens’ inner lives decreasingly possible: indeed, in preparing to start on Kangaroo Lawrence declared of Australians, in an extraordinary phrase, that ‘one could never make a novel out of these people, they haven’t got any insides to them’.
Having on this basis affiliated democracy with subjective emptiness, Kangaroo characterises Australia’s physical form in similar terms. In this country ‘everything is outward’, a condition bizarrely but potently symbolised in the novel by the kangaroo’s pouch, an organ which turns inside out that most internal space, the womb. Australians themselves are hollow as well. ‘They’re awfully nice’, Somers tells Kangaroo, but they cannot be relied on to rally to Kangaroo’s plotted coup: ‘they’re hollow … the inside soul just withers and goes into the outside, and they’re all just lusty robust hollow stalks of people.’ The land itself is ‘hollow’: Sydney, for instance, is ‘a settlement in the wilderness, without any core’, the encircling ocean is a ‘hollow sea’, and the country’s vast bush, full of weird empty clearings and ‘hollow distances’, is populated everywhere by the whitish gumtrees, which, recalling the ‘withering’ of Australians’ ‘inside souls’, ‘are said to begin to wither from the centre the moment they are mature’. Even the homes are outward: when Somers moves to a new bungalow, named Coo-ee, he finds the outside is always penetrating this interior dwelling, in the form of oppressively familiar neighbours, or sand, or sea-winds, or the boom of the Pacific breakers. Indeed ‘cooee!’, as any Australian knows, is the high-pitched call one makes when lost in the outback; it is the cry of a missing person, the very antithesis of a private and safe domesticity.
But Australia’s ‘hollowness’, which exceptionally suits, on Lawrence’s terms, mass democracy, also means a lack of ideological ambition: politics in Australia is an entirely administrative and bureaucratic system, only ‘a mad struggle with the material necessities and conveniences’, just a matter of making ‘airplanes and old-age pensions’, ‘running trains and making wars’. This critique is pursued by contrast with Europe. Australia, a young democracy, sits outside of the densely symbolic images that Europe, with its ancient pre-democratic cultures, had grown up in: as Lawrence put it, being in Australia was ‘rather like falling out of a picture and finding oneself on the floor, with all the gods and men left behind in the picture’. Inner life, according to this metaphor, is a product of embeddedness in aesthetically organised relations, as on a neoclassical canvas. Being outside such traditional arrangements—of deep cultural and religious structurations—meant being shorn of connections to other ‘men and gods’. But this isolation is not, for Somers, productive of any inner attentiveness; on the contrary, it makes for ‘indifference’ (a recurring word in the novel) that tilts towards an automatic relativism: to Australians, as Somers says, ‘one thing is pretty well as good as another … They don’t care’. And this carelessness, or lack of discrimination, is also mirrored by a loss of difference, an indifference, between subjects—as Somers’s Australian friend explains: ‘We want the new-fashioned sort of people who are all dead-level like one another’. And ‘dead’ here hints at such an attitude’s self-abnegating, life-denying quality: Somers, looking squarely at Australian culture, finds himself afraid ‘at that basic indifference which dare not acknowledge how indifferent it is, lest it should drop everything and lapse into a blank’.
In this respect Australian democracy’s historical origins in colonial dispossession is important. The cultural critic Paul Carter once warned that ‘the coloniser is also a novelist, making the lie of the land an index of his own fears and hopes’, and recent assessments of Kangaroo have seen in Lawrence’s descriptions of Australia’s ‘emptiness’ and ‘manlessness’, and the absence of any Black characters, an erasure of Aboriginal presence. However Lawrence (who indeed made many racist provocations throughout his career) does not actually reprise the common European view of the continent as a tabula rasa, terra nullius, or ‘the last of lands, the emptiest’ (to adopt a line from an Australian poet of the era). For one thing, there is the frequent recurrence of the adjective ‘aboriginal’ in the strangest of contexts (rocks, cliffs, wine and dusks are all ‘aboriginal’), which functions as a kind of ghostly remembrance for the reader of the land’s original ownership. More importantly, Kangaroo is explicit that ‘the people of Australia ought to be dusky’: there is something in the bush itself, Somers thinks, ‘biding its time with a terrible ageless watchfulness, waiting for a far-off end, watching the myriad intruding white men’. And as the portrayal of Australians’ ‘indifference’ suggests, the country’s ‘emptiness’ is not a pre-colonial condition: on the contrary, the hollowness of Australian life is a consequence in Lawrence’s novel of the advent of democracy, an institution that only deepened—in terms of suffrage or party participation or cultural norming—apace with the settler colony’s extension and intensification: Australia became more democratic, we might say, as it invaded more Indigenous territory, a steady supply of which it required to sate the proprietary appetites of its growing population. And in this sense Kangaroo affiliates white democratisation with native elimination: ‘making the world safe for democracy’ (to adopt Woodrow Wilson’s contemporaneous slogan, which Lawrence detested) also meant emptying that world of subjects resistant to democracy’s advance. Indeed it was on this basis that the book (along with Dostoyevsky) helped inspire Manning Clark’s nomination of settler Australia as the ‘Kingdom of Nothingness’: a society adrift, without justification or purpose, both cruelly indifferent to the original peoples of the continent and incapable of acknowledging the depth of its own indifference to them, lest it lapse totally, as Somers says, ‘into a blank’.
The first alternative to democracy that the novel countenances is instantiated in Kangaroo, whose secret army, ‘the Diggers’, resembles the real-life Australian fascist paramilitaries of the ’20s and ’30s, such as the Old Guard, and who proposes for Australia ‘a new life-form, a new social form’. This, Kangaroo tells Somers, is rule by a ‘tyrant’, but ‘perhaps it would be nearer to say … a patriarch, or a pope’—the ‘state … a kind of Church, with profound reverence … for the one fire of Love … the one inspiration of all creative activity’. At first Somers is enchanted by this vision. But slowly he comes to reject Kangaroo’s ‘Love’ as yet another abstraction, as dis-individuating as the ‘Demos’ it would usurp: ‘it is so awfully general … Somers felt it missed his own particular self completely … the pale, sharp isolation of Somers’. Nietzsche’s influence here is plain: Somers regards Kangaroo’s idealisation of love as the mutation of a healthy and individual instinct into a malignantly crypto-Christian abstraction—without which, moreover, Somers feels he and Kangaroo might know one another at a level ‘that is deeper than love’.
The second alternative to democracy is represented in the communist Willie Struthers (whose under-characterisation relative to Kangaroo is evidence, I think, of the rate at which Lawrence was focalising in Somers ‘real-time’ his own changes of opinion). Struthers preaches a socialism that would bring about a radically new sort of democracy, translating ‘comradeship’ into the vernacular ethic of ‘mateship’: ‘It was to be the new tie between men in the new democracy … The trusting love of a man for his mate’. Just as with Kangaroo, Somers is at first drawn in and then refuses this vision. While for Struthers (as, in reality, for many communists at the time) ‘comrade’ signed a novel passional bond, a radically equalising relation, ‘the love between comrades’ for Lawrence was ‘always and inevitably a love between a leader and a follower’. So if the ‘great Democracy is to be established upon the love of comrades’, then it only raised the question ‘in what direction shall this love flow? Into more en masse?’ As such Struthers’s ‘mate-trust’, like Kangaroo’s love-tyranny, promises only to abstract isolate individuals into a different kind of collective. It is a ‘choice of evils’, Somers decides, ‘and I choose neither’.
Having made this double refusal, however, Somers is back where he began, in a state of existential exhaustion in a polity neglectful of reflective and intimate experience, and unmotivated by any ‘inner meaning’. Australia, he begins to realise, is ‘utterly uninteresting’, with ‘no inner life, no high command, no interest in anything, finally’. And Australia’s lack of ‘interest’, like the ‘indifference’ of its citizens, threatens to blank out the basic form of the novel: the plot shambles on, but there is no fixed centre to the agglutination of episodes, and no discernible narrative progress. Somers is now the protagonist of a virtually actionless novel, and even the narrator doesn’t seem to care if he holds the reader’s attention: ‘Chapter follows chapter’, he says, speaking directly to the reader, ‘and nothing doing …We can’t be at a stretch of tension all the time, like the E string on a fiddle. If you don’t like the novel, don’t read it.’ Lawrence, then, in his representation of Australian democracy as hollow, indifferent and uninteresting, puts his own novel on the line: the rising slackness of the narrative serves to remind us of how insecurely guyed to anything meaningful is the settler culture in which the novel has been written.
What is especially distinctive here about Lawrence’s characterisation of the dispossession of inner identity in democratic Australian culture is how such dispossession is not the result of the disintegrative vicissitudes of industrial modernity, of scenes of grinding labour or soul-destroying bureaucracy or the like. Instead, Lawrence’s key intuition was that the dissolution of inner life in Australia may finally be experienced as a relief, as an escape from the difficult negotiation of identity, even as a pleasure. Somers, picnicking by the Harbour, having turned his back on both Kangaroo and Struthers, now wonders at the ‘magic’ of Sydney: ‘its magic like sleep, like sweet, soft sleep—a vast, endless, sun-hot, afternoon sleep with the world a mirage. He could taste it all in the soft, sweet, creamy custard apple. A wonderful sweet place to drift in. But surely a place that will some day wake terribly from this sleep. Yet why should it? Why should it not drift marvellously for ever, with its sun and its marsupials?’ Such a sentiment has been variously expressed since in Australia—and many people, I think, know it even now, if only for fleeting moments—the feeling that here is a place where we are not obliged to keep our wits about us, where we can relax, and where—astonishingly—we can get away with doing so.
What was the good of caring? What was the point of caring? As he looked at the silent, morning bush grey-still in the translucency of the day … What was the good of caring, of straining, of stressing? Not the slightest good … Afterwards—afterwards—in the far-off, far-off afterwards, a different sort of men might arise to a different sort of care. But as for now—like snow in aboriginal wine—one could float and deliciously melt down, to nothingness, having no choice.
‘Having no choice’, not ‘caring’, Somers desires not only sleep but also, almost suicidally, a delicious annihilation: ‘Australia seems to me’, Lawrence wrote in his letters, ‘a most marvellous country to disappear into … It is a land where one can go out of life, I feel, the life one gets so sick of’. In this Kangaroo cements itself as the major work in the Australian tradition of anti-tradition, the culture that has accreted around not having one: in this connection we might think of Peter Sculthorpe’s symphony The Fifth Continent (based on Lawrence’s text, which is read over it), Gary Shead’s Kangaroo series; or, not influenced by Lawrence but in a similar vein, A. D. Hope’s vision of the Australian intellect as the ‘Arabian desert of the human mind’, or Kevin Hart on the ‘baleful Kimberleys of thought’.
It is impossible of course that what Lawrence remarked in Australia in 1922 would hold entirely true today: the country has radically changed since Lawrence’s brief visit, and the character of its democracy along with it. Decades of economic rationalism, for instance, have broken down the solidly collectivist culture that Lawrence decried. And yet the carelessness, the basic indifference to building up, socially and individually, an ‘inner meaning’ has not, I think, receded. We have not developed, in the interim, any plausible alternative way of being: since Kangaroo, none of the great attempts at building a truly independent Australian polity and psyche—from the Jindyworobaks, to the progressive cultural nationalism of the ’70s, or the campaigns against the many dimensions of American influence, or for the redress of Aboriginal land theft and massacre, or for a republic—have borne the fruit, of an autonomous and meaningful national culture, that they hoped for. We will not, I think, as Lawrence put it, be able to drift on in this way ‘marvellously for ever’: the ‘far-off afterwards’ has now arrived, bearing with it, under the ensign of the Anthropocene, all manner of ‘different sorts of care’. Reading Lawrence’s novel from the vantage of the present, then, we are confronted by the most important work in this country to illuminate the temptations and the risks of life inside our meaningless mass democracy.
Guy Rundle, Mar 2022
The last decade has seen the failure of the centrist form of neoliberal progressivism that occupied the left parties in the face of an onslaught by right-wing populism, which mobilised forces old and new to present themselves…as a response on behalf of the people against the entire ‘political/media’ class, as represented by those in power.