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The Lawson vision: sharing Australia

John Conomos


Sylvia Lawson’s new collection of essays and stories, How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia, is a brilliant and timely book that examines the complex, tangled relations of politics and culture in our personal lives. It subtly moves across different settings—Australia, East Timor, Britain, Indonesia, France (especially Paris) and West Papua—and different art forms, genres and disciplines-cinema, journalism, literature, cultural theory, philosophy-listening and reclaiming the marginal cultural and personal voices and experiences that our postmodern metropoles ritualistically ignore.

This is an important hybrid book that refreshingly confounds our received wisdom concerning who we are inside and outside of Australia-over the last half century or so-in the context of global media culture. Lawson’s multifaceted ability to construct a work that is a dazzling combination of fiction, essay, history and memoir suggests someone who is acutely aware of the intricate connections between national and personal identity and how all forms of cultural production are anchored in place, time, gender and society. Furthermore, in an era where our cultural, film and media journals are rapidly disappearing and the dissenting voice in a post-September 11 world in Australia under John Howard’s Coalition Administration is becoming rarer by the day, Lawson’s courageous, self-questioning book resonates so tellingly.

Lawson demonstrates, time and again, that it is essential that we speak up for ourselves, for the local, in order to keep open our culture, history and identity. And also appreciating that continuity, rather than a boundary, exists between the personal and the political. Lawson’s welcoming ironic and perceptively heterogeneous voice attests to the pressing imperative that books, all kinds, may speak of many diverse things, but they can’t speak for themselves. Consequently, as Lawson’s vividly told autobiographical pieces suggest, books need to be frequently argued with and fought for otherwise “they die.”

It is this fierce and independent spirit of concern for writing and thinking that animates the author’s life as one of our most invaluable critical essayists and journalists working today in print and broadcast journalism. In the book’s fine extended title essay, Lawson’s discussion of Simone de Beauvoir’s often misunderstood oeuvre and relations with Jean-Paul Sartre, Nelson Algren and her lesbian lovers refers to the fearless and erudite pre-1968 critic, scholar and activist Dorothy Green and her exemplary role as a public intellectual. Green always contested canonical lists of artists and authors and often contributed to small magazines.

All the essays and stories in their respective ways are concerned with how one’s own understanding of what represents the national is a set of local issues that is elaborately enmeshed with another separate set of issues that are located outside one’s country. Given the “nation-building” rhetoric attending the Sydney 2000 Olympics and the Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk for Reconciliation (including other bridge walks throughout the country at the same time), Lawson mobilises a markedly persuasive case that Australia is a highly conflicted and complicated place whose people accurately read its symbols. In other words, Australia is in constant argument with itself-a veritable theatre of symbolic action-a country whose past, Lawson argues, belongs to us and is not another country. But it is also a country, whose once acclaimed social democracy, is on the retreat.

Debates about a post-Mabo Australia becoming a republic, globalisation, land management, censorship, immigration (in the wake of the children overboard and Tampa affairs), human rights, women’s work, media in a digital epoch etc, take place in mainstream press and national broadcasting and our run-down universities, the visual arts and small theatres. These debates have, over the years, been characterised by right-wing columnists as being “political correct” and driven by “the chattering classes”, “the Balmain basket weavers” and “the cappuccino set.” Such a cultural landscape of stifling ideological conformity either indicates our silent complicity or the necessity to argue back, to defend dialogue itself, and to construct our own local narratives in our own terms.

Earlier on in the book, Lawson re-evaluates in a majestic essay Raymond Williams’s legacy as a social theorist, novelist, and teacher in the English speaking world-especially in certain circles in Australian thinking. Williams, who died on the bicentennial Australia Day, explicitly advocated a view of culture that emphasised processes, rituals, objects, performances and lived experience in the social fabric of everyday life. Although Williams’ particular pioneering form of socialist humanism was not embraced in the postmodern academy, his constantly questioning, defining, oppositional voice in Anglo-American cultural theory spoke of hope, patience and his faith in the long revolution towards a better society. Lawson deftly illustrates how Williams’s legacy has still much to offer to us today in the new millennium.

In “Budgerigars, and Positions of Ignorance”, one of the book’s earlier stories, the author is in Alice Springs negotiating (from point zero) “the undulating red country of the Centre” and its original peoples with their many languages, customs, art and desert communities trying to figure out how all of us can share Australia without perpetuating Western stereotypes and values.

In Lawson’s 1988 fictional piece “Putting the books away with Jack” we encounter the cross-disciplinary enterprise of unpacking one’s library in the context of questions around nationality and our continuing relations with other countries in our region and beyond. Relatedly, these questions are further taken up around the imaginary of national boundaries and our ongoing understanding of who we are in the following two engaging essays “Sidelined” and “Against Oblivion.”

The former deals with the suppression of poet-editor Goenawan Mohamad’s magazine Tempo in the new Indonesia and, in the latter, we see how a 1990 Amnesty-produced series of video shorts (directed by Jean-Luc Godard/Anne-Marie Mieville, Alain Resnais, Henri Carter-Bresson, Costa-Garvas and others) delineates the complex links between human rights, imperialism and global media.In particular, Lawson focuses on how the Godard/Mieville self-reflexive video illustrates our own complicity in West Papua as exemplified by the case of the independence movement figure Thomas Wainggai-who was in December 1988 sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment.

This is an inspiring, optimistic and a far-reaching book that speaks of our life-long adventure of making sense of our world, here in this island-continent of ours. This means nothing less, as Lawson eloquently reminds us, than a perpetual open-ended questioning of our Eurocentric beliefs so we may find “out what it means to be here.” Above all, all of us who care for a republic of a self-enabling citizenry and letters, are ideally always clearing the ground for a better world so we may live in.


Sylvia Lawson, How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney 2002

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. web

© John Conomos; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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