The Elusiveness of Young Donald

Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country, by Ryan Cropp, Black Ink, 2023

The bookshop in the Berlin high street was, like any bookshop in any Berlin high street, four or five times better and more comprehensive than its Anglosphere counterparts. The ‘Australian and New Zealand’ section was small compared to the large Asian section it appended, but it was there. Among a random selection of novels by novelists from Bryce Courtney to Gail Jones, a trio of Christos, and no poets I’d heard of was the inevitable, ugh, The Lucky Country. It was the section’s sole volume of social commentary aside from the inevitable Mutant Message Down Under, a reprint that was now itself 15 years old. This was 2012. Had das buch buyers been able to find nothing more current to represent us than this—with, if memory serves, its Sidney Nolan cover—response to the Australia of Robert Menzies? Apparently not. Here we were amid the postmodern Kosovo poets and deluxe BDSM photoessay collections, permanently waiting to realise our potential, a ‘lucky country, of second rate men, who share its luck’.

Donald Horne’s 1964 survey of the Australian condition was one in a series of assessments that started in the 1880s and continued well after him, including several by Horne himself. They were greeted, as Ryan Cropp recounts in his comprehensive and readable life of the man, with increasing degrees of indifference, and finally outright irritation. So why has this single volume assailing a country stuck in the Commonwealth system, subject to systemic economic, political and cultural underdevelopment, on the edge of great global transformations, retained such a hold on the national imagination—or even the national meta-imagination, the imagination of how we imagine the place?

Dipping back into The Lucky Country for this review—I really couldn’t bring myself to read the whole of it again; as Cropp notes, it was still on school reading lists into the 70s and 80s—one gets the impression that it may be because of the dual character of Horne’s regard for Australia as it was, which both exalts aspects of suburban ordinariness and at the same time curses the leadership of the country for being unable or unwilling to offer a path that would transcend, get to a higher level, taking that plain, potentially radically democratic spirit with it. So much of it—a pivot to Asia as it is, a standing-back from English continuities—has become basic common sense that it is impossible to recreate the radical character of its intervention. But it may also be very difficult for those of us—by now the vast majority—who weren’t there to gauge how radical it was at the time, among Australia’s small interconnected set of coming men and women. Was the shift that occurred under Harold Holt and John Gorton after Menzies’s departure—the further winding-back of the White Australia Policy, the 1967 referendum, film commissions and censorship softening, foreign policy realignment—a product in part of Horne’s prompting? Ditto with the transformations to Labor that Whitlam and his team were making: were they in their minds right from the start? Memoir-biographies of figures such as Moss Cass, such as that by Cass, Vivien Encel and Anthony O’Donnell, suggest that Horne’s conception of radical potential in the country was somewhat behind what many others were thinking at the time, especially those who came from radical European leftist traditions.

For a book as popular as The Lucky Country, this question is to a degree unanswerable, and would require a separate study. Cropp doesn’t go there to any degree, and he’s not required to. He could have included more of the left critique of the book than Judah Waten’s dismissal of Horne as a right-wing operator in the CPA’s Guardian, but in writing the first record biography of Horne—necessary, since Horne’s multiple overlapping memoirs fuse emotional memory and possibly less-than-reliable fact—he’s not required to give a cultural-political history of the era. Being a work of record means, too, giving relatively equal time to all parts of Horne’s adult life, which means a catalogue of the four decades or so after The Lucky Country and the tumult of the 1960s, when Horne became a fixture of the largely state-created Australian political-intelligensia complex with its endless round of commissions, boards, lunches, conferences (‘Horne’s rule of literature: always take one of everything’, Frank Moorhouse noted in Conferenceville, his dark, hilarious fictional record of the milieu, much in need of reprinting), honorary doctorates and the like. Amidst that, Horne produced a dozen or so more studies of and commentaries on Australian life, of diminishing originality and influence. By the end they simply faded into the surrounding, pre-identity-culture era progressivism of a sort of ‘Rawlsianism with Australian characteristics’—the endless, receding horizon of Whitlamism seen through Ned’s letterbox head, aimed for even as John Howard’s troopers appeared on the scene in 1996. In those decades, Horne was endlessly reliable, endlessly reasonable, endless rational—all of which concealed the passionate, driven, split man for whom The Lucky Country represented the culmination of two decades of fizzing, compulsive energy which was, to put it mildly, far from always benign.

Here I think we can fairly say that Cropp, though he has delivered a worthwhile and useful book, has not taken on the further task of the biographer, which is to interpret the distinctiveness of a ‘great’ or certainly influential figure whose life occurred at the juncture of politics and thought—to ask, especially of contemporary figures, how they developed not only a worldview but an existential mission deriving from it. What did they come to think they, uniquely, could do, and would not be done if they did not do it? What was their agon, the central struggle of their life that made them as the force of a potter’s wheel creates the vessel—and, having made them, did it eventually break them? In the case of Horne this would have meant a more interpretive treatment of the man in the 1940s and 1950s, who as his memoirs attest was propelled and tormented by ravenous ambitions, intellectual, worldly and sexual among others. Young Donald, child of a standard troubled home of the interwar period—a psychically broken father, a provisional family existing in a declassé middleness, the raw material of Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’—and ravenous reader became a freshman star of Sydney University, rapidly becoming editor of Honi Soit and filling it with ideas and commentary, much of it his own. He had come willingly under the influence of John Anderson, at the time when Anderson was travelling rapidly into a sort of quietist anarchist libertarianism, and the group that would carry that into Australian cultural life, the ‘Push’, was starting to form. Horne attacked Left and Right, lurching between sceptical conservatism and libertarian technocracy. His university studies interrupted by military service largely without duties in Darwin, he ploughed into writing fiction inspired by Doestoyevsky and NIetzsche. The dominant mode, as both Horne himself elsewhere and Cropp here makes clear, was anger at the position that he or any other Australian intellectual found themselves in, which is what it was to be an intellectual in 1940s Australia. Cropp doesn’t really conjure up the full context of this founding attitude—which would prevail, as Horne’s muse was frustration even when, in later years, he developed a more stately public persona—which was that Australia was surplus repression in national form. The list of banned books ran to the thousands, including just about anything that could instruct anyone in matters of sexual or even merely gendered health. The most anodyne films were cut to ribbons; the Archibald judges were sued for awarding the prize to a mildly expressionistic portrait; the Ern Malley hoax became farce when the publisher was prosecuted for obscenity; Jews, blacks and others were refused visas; and in the late 1930s customs authorities, in a case that even Menzies found embarrassing, prevented a divorced woman from entering the country because she was alleged to have had an affair during the voyage over.

The solidity of all this provided a certain stark context for Bohemias of Left and Right—the Push became a bunch of weird sexpol techno-anarchists decades before this occurred elsewhere as a collective form; the slogan of the North Queensland cane-field Communist Party, where Laurie Carmichael got his start, was ‘the days are for revolution, the nights are for love’—but it also contributed to the split, contradictory and self-tormenting character of a certain type of intellectual. James MacAuley, a mentor of and great influence on Horne, was the model for this, his personality founded on the guilty knowledge that the national mediocrity he was railing against was the standard which made possible his rapid climb to the first rank of local intellectuals. The poems of the Ern Malley hoax—which, indicatively and bewilderingly, Cropp does not mention—begin with the one MacAuley had written seriously in the European mode, though falling well short of their standard. Ern was, in part, an expression of anger at himself, repurposed. John Kerr was another such: the great hope of the 30s left, Doc Evatt’s right hand, a man remembered in Richard Hall’s The Real John Kerr as ‘reading Schopenhauer while stirring the soup’ and holding a baby on his hip. By the 1950s, MacAuley and Kerr had gone into the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, the local branch of the CIA’s culture front organisation. Their anti-communism was real, but it was also projective—an opposition not merely to Stalinism, but to the mild bipartisan statism of postwar Australia and the social-industrial contract which did much—licensing hours; suburban urban design; import restrictions—to reinforce the settled, modest life that Horne cavilled against.

By the mid 50s, after going into journalism and spending a few years in England with the first of the (limited) series of beautiful and strikingly similar-looking wives and companions he would partner, Horne had returned to Australia to become an editor for Frank Packer across various titles, including an ideas mag created for him (Observer) and also Quadrant. Cropp is good on the milieu of such journalism—the lunches, the ad-hoc process, the particular ensemble of right intellectuals and writers that were there constellated. He does not fully tease out the Donald Horne that was, however; the avuncular progressivist Horne of the 1980s obscures the earlier model, a man seen as Frank Packer’s intellectual consigliere and attack dog: Horne had followed MacAuley and Kerr into the AACF and latched onto anti-communism as a cause to which he devoted the Consolidated Press’s considerable power. By now, the arrival of Frank Knopfelmacher had added a dash of Prague black-light theatre to what was already a pretty occult version of the global anti-communist movement, and rank paranoia had begun to crowd out hard-fought global politics.

This was not nothing (and included the ‘Social Studies Affair’, a targeting of the founders of the first version of Arena). As with the US Cold War, it involved the ruin of careers, the destruction of marriages, and probably the prompting of several suicides; the full story of that aspect of that period in Australia is yet to be written (though it’s also true that the current Left can be guilty of special pleading around the challenging of some cynical and subversive politics of the period). But what’s crucial in the case of Horne, and all these Australian-born men—Kerr is perhaps an exception—is how performative it was, and how much it was driven by some other urge within them all. For some, the dance became the dancer; McAuley transmuted into the sort of anti-modern who thinks the Beatles are as bad as the Gulag, sitting in Hobart writing his Catholic arrival epic Captain Quiros—the poetic equivalent of a ship in a bottle on a mantelpiece—before his last, great poems, a product of final despair. With Horne, it simply reversed—which may have been a product of the vicious absurdity of the Social Studies Affair itself, which effectively saw Horne align himself with political forces opposed to any form of social-critical thinking whatsoever. ‘Knopfelmacher fed me chocolates’, Horne later said of the information supplied to him to publish in The Bulletin; the self-infantilisation, an obvious cop-out, is perhaps permissible as one man’s marking of a period of his public life as being driven by private fantasy and a strategy for separating from it.

The Lucky Country thus marked a ‘rational resolution’ of Horne’s agon, allowing him to make a rational case. But it also serves as a clue as to how to read the book more sceptically in our era. Australia may have been backward in cosmopolitan cultural terms, with all sorts of blind spots and complacencies. But it had also been, coming out of the Second World War, a forward-thinking social democracy, oriented to steady self-reconstruction and to far-reaching ideas of the good life—something Stuart MacIntyre disinterred in Reconstruction, his re-examination of the Curtin–Chifley period as something more than ‘New Australian’ newsreel jingles and Morphy-Richards toasters. Horne’s impatience with it was in part an impatience with intent which was collective, modest and turned away from the great-man-on-the-empty-horizon approach, the schooner of Nietzsche that Horne and others had imbibed in Sydney’s libertarian fervour. Seen through that glass, The Lucky Country is less a descriptive-prescriptive account of a country as the author found it, and more the projection of an empowered intellectual onto a canvas, and any deep reconsideration of Australian history needs to consider that possibility.

But is Cropp required to in a biography? No, but a scrupulous refusal to engage in speculative interpretation can leave a gap that makes it difficult for the story to come together. The struggles to make Australia, from the 30s to the 60s, were an epic working-out of what a country might be—of what the social good is. One’s fear is that a sense of the passion and drive of these struggles, the manner in which they animated many to be worse or better than they might have been, is being lost as our entire history is redefined as nothing more than the settler-First Nations agon. When that division is put in place, these furious, lethal, Promethean battles can come to be seen as as quaint and parochial as test-match cricket. That is not Cropp’s fault, but he might want to try and draw more of the landscape into his next portrait. That said, such criticisms should not be seen to detract from what is a fluent and assured weaving-together of what must have been a mountain of material, a very readable and informing account of a figure of whom a standard life has long been required and a gap in the record filled, mutato mutando messenger down under.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

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