The Psychology of Everyday Australians

I’ll admit that it was with some trepidation that I approached reading Placing Psyche: exploring cultural complexes in Australia (edited by Craig San Roque, Amanda Down and David Tacey, Spring Journal Books. 2011).  I never took a psychology course as an undergraduate, never read Psychology Today; I haven’t even seen last year’s movie, A Dangerous Method, about Freud, Jung, and Keira Knightley.

I need not have worried.  I had admired chief editor San Roque’s humane and humanisitic essay in Ute Eickelcamp’s Growing Up in Central Australia, an analysis that was stripped of theory and jargon and made its point through the telling of stories about real people interacting with one another.  In Placing Psyche he has gathered together a diverse set of authors, ranging from Eickelcamp herself to Indigenous novelist Alexis Wright, and covering topics equally diverse, from perceptions of the Nullarbor in the nineteenth century through Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations and the multiculturalism of the great SBS cops-and-crime television series East West 101.  And beyond these accomplishments, San Roque himself has contributed an essay that moved me deeply at a very personal level.

So what is a cultural complex?  Melinda Turner, in her essay on the Apology, quotes from Thomas Singer and Samuel Kimbles, leading exponents of the concept, which is based on Jungian notions of psychological conflict operating at social rather than (or beyond)  individual levels.

…[C]ultural complexes can be thought of arising out the cultural unconscious as it interacts with both the archetypal and personal realms of the psyche and the broader outer world arena of schools, communities, media, and all other forms of cultural and group life … Like individual complexes, cultural complexes tend to be repetitive, autonomous, resist consciousness, and collect experience that confirms their historical point of view (Placing Psyche, p. 268, quoting Singer and Kimbles, from the “Introduction” to The Cultural Complex: contemporary Jungian perspectives on psyche and society, Routledge, 2004, pp. 4 and 6).

OK, I’ll grant you that’s a mouthful.  Patricia Please makes it a bit more palatable in the first paragraph of her contribution to the present volume.

Thomas Singer and Samuel Kimbles write that: “Intense collective emotion is the hallmark of an activated cultural complex at the core of which is an archetypal pattern”.  They go on to say that cultural complexes tend to be based on repetitive, historical group experiences which have taken root in what Joseph Henderson has called the cultural unconscious (p. 95).

It is unsurprising, then, that in the context of Australian culture, much of the “complex” arises from the conflicting assumptions and thought-patterns that characterize the space where settler and Indigenous world-views and values come into contact and rub against one another like vast subterranean tectonic plates: fraught, uneasy zones that threaten stability and are too dangerous to confront most of the time except in sidelong, half-blinded glances.  (I find it curious and fascinating that most of the authors of Placing Psyche‘s essays are themselves immigrants to Australia.)

Indeed, Amanda Dowd, in her essay “Finding the Fish: memory, displacement anxiety, legitimacy, and identity: the legacy of interlocking traumatic histories in post-colonial Australia,” suggests that the earliest settler population of Australia suffered from a dual trauma: that of being cast out of their native Britain onto the shores of a strange and hostile ecosystem in which they themselves became in turn the agents of displacement of the Indigenous population.  David B. Russell takes this insight a step further in “Lost for Words: embryonic Australia and a psychic narrative.”  He suggests that the battle for survival among First Fleeters and other early settlers gave rise to a culture in which the language of reflection was an unaffordable luxury eased only by “whatever relief … could be obtained by drinking enormous amounts of distilled spirits” (p. 159).  He suggests that Australians’ “amnesia–a national pact of silence” as Robert Hughes characterized it in The Fatal Shore, served to repress the convict stain from the nation’s consciousness.

Elsewhere, Peter Bishop describes “The Contact Zone as Imaginal Space: the Nullarbor in the non-indigenous Australian imagination.”  By the era of the great explorations in the mid-nineteenth century, Europeans had become only partially acclimated to their new continent.  But these explorers were dependent for survival on the Indigenous population they were displacing.  The ability of the Aboriginal people to find life-preserving water in spaces like the Nullarbor offered a stark if perhaps unrecognized (or suppressed) index of the sense of belonging to the land that the settlers had yet to achieve.  Edward Eyre, Ernestine Hill, and Daisy Bates were all pioneers of cultural contact as well as geographical investigation, and their penetration of the vastness of Australia presaged twentieth century conflicts of ownership or rights to land–in short, culture–that are symbolized by the uneasy legacies of Maralinga, the Gove dispute, Mabo, and Wik.

One of the most telling explications of the continuing settler culture’s struggle to come to terms with the Indigenous sphere comes from a native Australian, Melinda Turner, in her essay “Sorry, It’s Complex: reflecting on the Apology to Indigenous Australians.”  She begins with an analysis of the psychodynamics of Rudd’s opening address to Parliament and the nation on February 13, 2008.  She wisely lets Rudd’s words speak for themselves, quoting him at length and offering only occasional commentary on the “incantatory” nature of his diction, on his “wonderfully refreshing” candor and critiques, his willingness to honor and respect Indigenous people.

But she also notes how, in the second half of his speech, when he turned away from the expression of remorse to a pledge to make things right in the future, he fell into the grip of Enlightenment rationality and the certainties of progress and resolution of problems; significantly resolution does not equate to the more bilateral sense of reconciliation.  What Rudd envisions in his promises of closing the gap in education and in health, Turner  argues, is essentially a more benevolent program of assimilation of Indigenous children to the European constructs of literacy, arithmetic, economy, and the English language.  In other words, we are back to Singer and Kimbles’ “repetitive, historical group experiences” that “resist consciousness.”  In apologizing for the removal of children from their families, Rudd unwittingly proposes making amends by assuring future generations a secure place in a culture that is essentially alien to their native experience.

Not all the essays in Placing Psyche dwell explicitly on the Indigenous-settler divide.  Terrie Waddell examines films from Picnic at Hanging Rock to Beautiful Kate to explicate the archetype of the lost child, while David Tacey takes on the tangled psychosexual dynamics of Patrick White’s novels.  Patricia Please explores the fascinating varieties of responses to rising salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin, and Craig San Roque talks with the creators of East West 101 to examine new manifestations of cultural conflict peculiar to the 21st century.

But for me, the most telling analyses always occupy the space where whitefellas and blackfellas live together.  Incomparably, there is San Roque’s “The Lemon Tree: a conversation on civilisation.”  San Roque had not intended to write this essay at the start.  He hoped to enlist the help of Paul Quinlivan, a man who lived in those borderlands, who helped establish an Aboriginal community in the far west of the Northern Territory, and who worked for decades to provide health services in remote Indigenous lands.  In the Australian winter of 2009, the two men met several times in Alice Springs and began to develop the titular “conversation on civilisation” in an attempt to define a “contact zone … where mutual reciprocity as a value of civilisation is upheld mutually or destroyed mutually” (p. 61).  They talked about Peter Sutton’s analysis of the tragedies at Aurukun, of Noel Pearson’s “radical hope,” of Michel Foucault’s investigations of “the development of clinical perception in Western medicine.”

I read San Roque’s reports of these conversation with fascination, watching as Quinlivan struggled to wrest an articulatable and honorable assessment of the psychological truths from the heart of the encounter between European and Indigenous cultures.  But I also read with something approaching dread, for I knew the narrative arc of this story in advance.

After several months of conversations under the lemon tree behind San Roque’s home in Alice Springs, in October 2009, Paul Quinlivan was swept out to sea by a rip tide off the coast of Bateman’s Bay, NSW, while he was attempting to rescue another man from drowning.  Writing for an obituary in the Alice Springs News, San Roque noted that

Paul’s pragmatic, intuitive, unillusioned management of indigenous community operations made him into an experienced, unique observer and pro-active participant in local affairs.  …  He made ‘Reconciliation’ an interpersonal task, grounded in relationships, not political ideas….  Central Austalia has lost an exceptional man, taken in the midst of an ethical action–saving a life… (pp.66-67).

And so, we lost not only a hero, but the chance to hear what Quinlivan might have contributed to teasing out the contradictions and complexities at the psychological heart of the relationship between Australia’s two cultures.  San Roque’s chapter in Placing Psyche is an attempt to reconstruct what might have been, but it is also a testament to Quinlivan’s achievements and the lessons he left for us all.  With that in mind, I hope you will pardon me for concluding with an extended quote from the essay, one that I feel holds a key to the resolution of those complex questions that still trouble the Australian psyche.

The foci of Paul Quinlivan’s work was the care of settlements, livelihood, and health in a region of unemployment, depleted food stores, physical ill health, and fading cultrual vitality.  He, like some others, had a grasp of the history of Aboriginal lands and so had few messianic expectations, this being a cultural delusion especially favoured within Christian-based governments.  It is my understanding that Paul Quinlivan’s own view was that a process of mutual civilisation had, for a few generations, been an underlying intent in many Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal interchanges.  There is wry humour in this idea, since many good white people might still consider it their God-given task to civilise the “other”; and, many Aboriginal people might be perplexed over how hard it is to civilise white people into the values of an indigenous way of life.  If civilisation of relationships is a goal, then the management of communication and trust becomes a personal matter at a micro level.  Attaining civilisation is a matter of gravity and blance between persons at a micro level.

…His story could resonate with that of any one of a thousand valiant men and women who, in the quietness of our country, face impossible situations.  I do not refer to the impossible situations of drought, flood, and fire–these we can meet–but rather the impossible situations of creating a human civilisation encompassing the virtues and vices of the oldest continuously existing peoples on earth and at the same time encompassing the vices and virtues of we, the peoples from the north (pp. 67-68).

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4 Responses to The Psychology of Everyday Australians

  1. jimbelshaw says:

    On the surface Will, and I haven’t read the book, it would itself appear to be the imposition of a cultural complex!

  2. craig san roque says:

    dear jimbelshaw.
    Thanks for troubling to make a comment on this review.
    I have read the book and am finding it difficult to grasp what your comment above is getting at or trying to convey. Would you mind developing that thought at little further as to how either, Placing Psyche, or Will Power’s review is ‘the imposition of a cultural complex’, on whom and by whom ??


    • jimbelshaw says:

      Dear Craig. Thank you for your courteous response to my quick comment.

      By way of background, I was a member of Isabel McBryde’s pioneering Australian prehistory honours class at UNE in 1966. Today I am doing some contract work for an organisation concerned with Aboriginal housing in NSW. This is not a claim to any authority, simply an indication of long term interest.

      My main writing project at present is a history of the broader New England – the Tablelands and all the surrounding river valleys to the north, south, east and west. The first third of the book deals with the history of New England’s Aboriginal peoples up to 1788. The next two sections on colonial New England and then New England in the twentieth century incorporate Aboriginal themes.

      One of the difficulties I face in research and writing is to break through the constructs dominated by black-white relations to the underlying story. What non-Aboriginal Australians thought of the Aboriginal peoples, how those peoples responded, is itself part of the history. However, it is only part.

      As I researched, i kept shaking my head and saying that you couldn’t believe that. This is as true of the last decades of the twentieth century as it was in, say, the 1830s. Sadly, or so it seems to me, the worst long term damage has been done by those in the non-Aboriginal community who had in fact the best intent. They had views as to what was right and imposed those views regardless. They do so today.

      One of the distinctive features of Isabel’s work at UNE lay in her regional focus. She believed that attempts to construct Australia wide pre-historic models were quite misleading. The Aboriginal experience varied so widely that you could only understand by looking at what was happening on the ground, at the pattern in various areas. So she focused first on New England.

      I remain of that view today. Added force is given to my view by my perception that current policy and writing towards the Aborigines is being grossly twisted by a focus on the experiences and problems being experienced by certain groups.

      I avoid commenting on NT or North Queensland issues and experiences because I simply don’t know enough. I do have a reasonable knowledge of the position in NSW, a better knowledge still of the position in New England. It is a complicated pattern in which past and present play themselves out in a sometimes sad dance. Nuances are everything. There are no universals.

      I made it clear in the comment that I had not read the book. But Will’s review triggered responses based on my own perceptions, no doubt unfairly. It seemed to me that I disagreed with the apparent perceptions of Australian history; dual trauma is an example, and I really object to Robert Hughes outside art history; then we have “so had few messianic expectations, this being a cultural delusion especially favoured within Christian-based governments.”

      I hope that this clarifies things.

  3. Pingback: Alice Online » The Long Weekend: reframing the chaos

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