Wednesday, May 17, 2006

On Australia's so-called "culture cringe"

With the U.S. release of Peter Carey's Theft I posted an item on Australia's "culture cringe," defined by an Australian journalist as "the mostly unarticulated fear that because we're such a provincial backwater, 'Australian' means 'inferior.' Salvation lies in aspiring to foreign ways of thinking and talking." That journalist and others--and I, perhaps, in that post--may have characterized "culture cringe" too negatively.

I checked in with "Dutch," this blog's America-born Australia expert, for more insight on the matter. Here's his reply:

I have a bit of a different take on their interpretation of the effects of the cultural cringe. They're certainly correct on the definition, though, as I've experienced it.

It certainly was in the beginning part of the century the way they describe it. It may have had a negative influence in the past. But on the whole in the last 25 years it's been a healthy and productive cultural reference point that has made Australia by most indicators one of the top two or three places in the world to live. It's made them the "Avis" of nations--we try harder.

Australians are always talking now about things there being "world class" whereas you rarely hear that in the U.S. Everything is focused on national competition. Mostly we wonder how we stack up against ourselves. In Australia they are always making reference to how they stack up against the world. You hear far more references to "global best practices" and "benchmarking against world standards" whether it's in business, the arts, winemaking, restaurants, literature, or sports. As a result they've gotten a hybrid of all the best practices and knowledge from all over the world, and they've become an exceedingly outward looking nation.

Because they're afraid of being thought of as "bush drongos with their daks around their knees" (essentially hillbillies tangled up in their underwear while trying to exit the outhouse) they try really hard at everything and their tiny population has been the winner with "world class" everything.

You see the embers of that cultural insecurity reflected in their willingness to use public money to support and nurture the arts and culture, so you have the Australian Film Television and Radio School and their famous drama school in Sydney that's produced almost all the Hollywood contingent Aussies. You see them pouring money into the science of winemaking, sending forth a veritable army of winemakers who are really transforming the wine world. I was just reading an article in the Wine Spectator about how Australian winemakers are transforming second-rate Italian wineries, especially in Sicily, and making them "world class" once again.

You see Australia funding their athletes to an unprecedented degree.

I think the U.S. would be a lot better off if we had that sort of residual insecurity.

I think also that Peter Carey's phrase about "craving and resenting" at the same time captures the Australian national feeling perfectly. At least that as I've experienced it.

Interesting too that Peter Carey is an Australian living (it would seem) permanently in New York, especially when he talks about the periphery-cosmo center dynamic. I'm sure he's referring to himself though. I wonder how that will change in the future with technology.

It's really clear from many, many authors who said that in the 1950 and 1960s they did in fact have to leave Australia if they wanted to practice their craft and become masters. Anthony LaPaglia says very much the same thing. He said he was very bitter toward Australia when he left in the 1970s because he felt discriminated against since he was of Italian descent. Clive James also said that it was impossible to be a serious writer in Australia and that's why he had to leave for London. I believe Jill Ker Conway says very much the same thing in her memoirs.

Many thanks to "Dutch" for the insights.

For more information and discussion of Australian literature, see Matilda and A Fugitive Phenomenon.

--Marshal Zeringue