The Politics of the Australian Pastoral: Jonathan Dunk Reviews ‘The Hands’ by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr Wakefield Press 2015

The HandsPastoral’, from the Latin word for shepherd, denotes a form of verse composed in praise of rural and bucolic life against the urban and mercantile. It was inaugurated by Theocritus in third century B.C.E Sicily, but typified by Virgil’s Eclogues composed between 44 and 39 B.C.E. Classical poets often associated rural life with Hesiod’s Golden Age, and the form rapidly evolved into an idealized and loftily conventional aristocratic parlour-game divorced the actualities of agricultural conditions; like a farm themed costume party thrown for the privileged kids at St. Paul’s. Ironically enough the genre was moved closer to realism by John Gay’s extravagant parody The Shepherd’s Week in 1714 which juxtaposed the elegant formulas of pastoral poetry with the crude realities of rustic life. Virgil’s fourth eclogue, ‘Pollio’, proclaimed the Golden Age inaugurated by Augustus, and constituted an extremely potent political mythology, later fulsomely exploited by the Christian allegorists as Frank Kermode writes in The Classic (1975). Even at its most idealized and nostalgic, the pastoral form is intricately dialectical, and keenly political.

In the colonial era the pastoral, like many forms of landscape writing, was pressed into the service of what Paul Carter calls the “fabric of self reinforcing illusions” of colonial discourse which Edward Said defines as “the ideas, forms, and imaginings” that legitimate(d) imperium. In Australia the most potent article of this process was the doctrine of Terra Nullius in which the continent was imagined as a tabula rasa ripe for European settlement and cultivation. Of course, the land wasn’t, and isn’t empty, but inhabited by a pre-existent and sophisticated culture of land-management, one albeit, profoundly antithetical to European systems of cultivation. In these forms of colonial contexts, landscape genres like the picturesque and the pastoral acquire a particularly poignant ideological freight as mechanisms by which “colonial space is rendered familiar and manageable according to western schemes of representation, as Jeanne van Eeden writes in a study of South African architectural politics.

In his 1993 article ‘Pastoral and Priority: The Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral’ Ivor Indyk traces representations of the antithetical other through a genre which he understands as haunted by “a sense of violation, caused by an upheaval… the displacement of an Indigenous population by the settlers of a colonizing power.” Indyk considers the idealized Rousseaian representations of the Aboriginal-as-noble-savage in Australian colonial poetry a presence which “unsettles the affirmations of the pastoral song” and therefore argues that the success of this genre in effacing the prior claim of Aboriginal custodians is at most “limited and partial”.

Writing, perhaps, in a more cynical time I’d argue that the claim to “a deeper and more basic” connection to country which Indyk finds articulated in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo (1929), in which Aboriginal people are figured as the simpler children of an essential ‘life force’, merely constitutes a more sophisticated, and therefore more insidious, form of colonial discourse.

From the current vantage, Coonardoo reads as heavy-handed, and paternalistic novel which rehearses Daisy Bates’ disingenuous ‘smooth the pillow of a dying race’ dictum rather than critically engage the material conditions of Australian colonialism. A disappointing turn, given Prichard’s Marxist inclinations.

Stephen Orr’s new novel The Hands was published in late 2015, and is currently under consideration for the 2016 Miles Franklin prize. The Hands is a cyclical, familial pastoral circling the red soil of the Australian interior. ‘Bundeena’, the farm worked by six generations of the Wilkie family, straddles the territorial edge of the Modern Project, on the lip of the Nullabor desert, where the east-west rail corridor thunders by, and where “man” according to Trevor Wilkie, “had given up agriculture”. Already, on it’s fourth page, you’ll note that the text denies Aboriginal land management practises the dignity of cultivation. ‘Bundeena’ is a Dharawal word meaning ‘like thunder’, which in Sydney is traditionally associated with the waves. In Orr’s arid setting, four hundred miles from the coast, the etymon acquires more ominous connotations. The name is one of the text’s notably scarce allusions to Indigenous culture, a fact to which I will return.

The novel’s dust-jacket wears the subtitle ‘An Australian Pastoral’ above the poignant image of a small homestead with corrugated iron roof, clinging to the face of a parched country beneath a vast celestial geography. The ironic structure looks fragile, already historical. Thus self-proclaimed, The Hands plants crooked fences across a nebulous territory.

Orr takes one epigraph from Eliot’s ‘The Dry Salvages’ in which the recurrent hauntings of history are tremulously elevated to a profession of religious faith, and another from James Agee and Walker Evans’ elegiac documentary of Depression era sharecroppers Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Both texts were first published in 1941, and this duality expresses the fundamental tonal and stylistic ambivalence of the text’s moment. It aspires both to tragedy and reportage.

Firstly, Orr’s novel liberally avails itself of tragic structures and iconography: the action set in the early 2000’s is haunted by an ancestor’s desertion in the First World War, and the resulting ignominy which precipitates his father’s suicide. A miasma of past wrongs and suppressed guilt palls the station’s air, and inflects the drought with the weight of an ancestral curse. The supposedly firm roots of the Wilkie patrimony, extolled so inflexibly by the patriarch Murray, are gradually excavated by the narrative arc, and revealed as a fragile honeycomb of lies.

If The Hands is a tragedy, however, it conspicuously lacks a hamartia. John Wilkie’s shell-shocked desertion, and his father’s subsequent suicide are resonant indictments of the inflexible axioms of rural masculinity, but these events seem a symptom rather than a first cause for the historical despair threatening to engulf the Wilkies. In his 1968 Boyer Lectures the anthropologist Bill Stanner argued that the Australian false historical consciousness comprised “a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale”. In an exchange dismally familiar Trevor Wilkie derides his son Harry’s history curriculum for including abstractions like Ancient Egypt alongside ‘real’ history like the explorers. Further, when Harry does study the explorers he learns to Trevor’s chagrin that: “they only survived because of the blackfellas”, a reflection which prompts one of the many reveries through Trevor’s mind which ventriloquise the brittle, contorted melancholies of white Australia: “Trevor was tired of songlines, and explorers. They weren’t real – anymore, at least. .”

If we combine Stanner’s historical diagnosis with the psychoanalytic approach to Australian literary culture in Jennifer Rutherford’s Lacanian study The Gauche Intruder (2000) Orr’s novel can be observed writing into an Australian settler fantasy obsessively overwriting the forcible dispossession of the Aboriginals with anxious eulogies to masculine prowess. The guilt of which, naturally, always returns, displaced into the body of the text.

Trevor’s blithe dismissal of history is bitterly ironic, as the belief structures that keep him locked in a struggle of diminishing returns against a sere landscape is constructed and not given. That is, to paraphrase Coetzee in Dusklands (1974), history is whose fault he is, and the truth of that history might set him free from a despairing obligation to a failed and misbegotten estate.

Like many novelists straddling that much disputed category, the middle-brow, Orr is playing a double-game. His other, and contradictory ambition in this novel is foregrounded by the other epigraph. That is, to record in detail the conditions of the rural poor. Subsequently the texture of the novel’s language ripples with barbed wire and sighs with gidgee and bluebush, mallee and bloodwood. The minutiae of country life, like the pedagogic rituals of the School of the Air, and the intricate dignities of labour involved in the muster, say, are recorded with a precision that will, I imagine, divide readers.

To some, the mechanical litany of ‘authentic’ detail characterising much of this novel will be an asset. Readers like Stella Clarke who reviewed Orr’s earlier novel Dissonance for The Australian: “Orr is a no-nonsense, vivid storyteller” Clarke writes, who “punches out exchanges… in a pragmatic way… without sentiment.” Perhaps for some there’s a pleasing and steadying representative frisson to be found in this kind of fiction. For me though, this is where the pastoral merges with the Wintonesque suburban narrative; it becomes a fleetingly examined self-consciously masculine realism; predictably solid fare for that mythical tribe: ‘Middle Australia’. This kind of book is a perspiring VB in a Carlton FC neoprene sock. It’s quartered oranges at half-time, unveiled like corpus Christi in a Tupperware coffin by someone’s cardiganed mum. It’s double-brick and a Hills Hoyst, Winfield Blues and Wonder White, Menzies’ forgetting people, and Howard’s perpetual battlers: a mirage of diesel-slick wilting up from an endless stretch of bitumen into a blizzard of midday sun. A tedious rehearsal of threadbare clichés.

Perhaps I’m just disappointed. There are moments early in The Hands that promise much more than they deliver. A few pages in, following a dog-chewed akubra, some lyrically parched soil, and the usual nonsense about ‘taming the country’ there follows a more interesting passage:

“As they drove the clock rattled in its too-big receptacle. His eyes settled on a pocket of of ground peeling away from the earth in the mid-distance. He felt himself falling, until he wasn’t in his ute. This place – the fences, the cattle, their hunger, their thirst – seemed to have nothing to do with him. All he had to do was keep his foot on the accelerator. That would lead to arrival, eating, sleeping, vaccinating, ranting about government and stock agents driving jaguars. But beyond all this he felt smaller than a spider.” (p6.)

This is plangent stuff. The bumbling chronometer of metropolitan time, the standardized currency of western linear history, rattles in the wide socket of the Australian continent, its most resistant soil. The time, as Slessor writes in Five Bells “that is moved by little fidget wheels/ Is not my time”, the temps of Modernity is not the durée of individual, affective experience, to adapt Bergson’s model. In the third vision of his earlier poem Five Visions of Captain Cook Slessor artfully situates a similar temporal schism between the two quarrelling time pieces kept by Captain Cook on the Endeavour, “choked with appetite to wolf up time”. Stretching the cross-reference a little further; the temporal narrative of modernity arrives on these shores already broken, and in the echo of this crooked narratival space the Wilkies and their ilk attempt to live. The soil itself, to which the frantic nostalgia of the Australian pastoral enacts a constant Pochvennichestvo-esque return, shrugs off the settler’s gaze, and refuses to contain his presence. The untethered repetitions of eating, sleeping, ranting, getting and spending, form the tenuous thread of his dissociative desire. Most of the depiction of Trevor’s interiority in The Hands is keenly aware that this cultural configuration is a cul-de-sac.
At one point in novel, traumatized by a car accident, another subverted trope of masculine autonomy, Trevor’s oldest son Aidan deliberately rides down a kangaroo on his quadbike:

“He took a deep breath, found his knife in his pocket and opened it. Then he knelt down beside the animal, grabbed its scrotum and cut into it. The roo struggled and made a series of low, guttural moans. Only wanting to finish the job, he castrated it, stood up and threw the warm, bloodied sac onto its body.” (p104-105).

This act is a cruel parody of the Wilkies’ method of bull-catching during muster, the text’s supreme embodiment of the “will” and “bloody mindedness” of rural masculinity. At this, and many similar points in the novel, the critique of the text’s ideological material is incisive and visceral: Australian masculinity performs its brokenness violently upon the body of the other, the animal, the earth.


However this promise is not pursued to its full potential, like the Wilkie family, the text is divided against itself, fundamentally ambivalent about the future. It yearns to burn the crumbling estate of the Australian pastoral to the ground, but remains wedded to it like Murray, the family patriarch, and a miserable old bastard incapable of imagining another way of being. Although the text stages and performs the Australian settlement’s ubiquitous denial of frontier violence, it shirks from articulately disrupting or subverting this silence, and so risks replicating it.

In a comparable vein, The Hands takes pains to illustrate how the roaring days of masculine prowess abused the unrecompensed emotional and material labour of women, but remains incapable of furnishing its female characters with agency or interiority. Again, this boundary is dismally appropriate to the tradition into which Orr writes. Kay Schaffer and others have shown in their critical reinterpretation of the hallowed ‘Bulletin years’ of the 1890s, that the putative golden age of Australian literary nationalism, perpetrated a forcible overwriting of the lives and work of women. In one scene towards the novel’s conclusion Trevor and Murray watch “a mother in frayed track pants and an old boob-tube, a cellulite midriff and pierced belly button” and conclude that “it could be worse”, referring to her as a “bush pig” and a “fuckin’ disgrace”. The stark limits of their empathy might be ‘authentic’, and the boundary of the novel’s attention to women might be historically appropriate, but in the ethical contexts of Australian history, silence is an insidious form of assent and approval. These elisions blunt the novel’s critique, and render its gestures towards a gentler future, in Brecht’s terms, less convincing than they might otherwise be. As the novel rambles away from its tragic, metafictional beginnings, I often wondered why any of these characters merit attention or sympathy.

In the way it seeks to elegize the transplanted topoi of European culture The Hands recalls Prichard’s social-Darwinist pastoral, discussed earlier, and Patrick White’s eschatological masterpiece Riders in the Chariot. The application of tragic structures and symbols to contemporary realities and problems is a fraught business however. It risks the vague, roseate, and politically enervating ‘transcendence’ of which the New Critics were so fond. Riders in the Chariot abounds with White’s magnificent difficulties; both numinous and ironic. It also typifies the complex problems of White’s political ethics. On the one hand the novel constituted a progressive expansion of White Australian consciousness. Written in 1961, it was one of the first imaginative texts in the Anglosphere to engage with the reality of the holocaust. Similarly, one of the text’s four elect, and the artist moreover, is an Aboriginal man. His characterisation, however, is at times clumsy, and as Michael Wilding argues in his Lukácsian essay ‘Patrick White and The Politics of Modernism’, its searing critique of violent masculinity may also be a a pejorative presentation of the working class, verging on a patrician reactionism.
My context in this reading is not inert. As a twenty-something academic residing in the fertile bottle-cap of urban Australia, the pastoral and suburban iconography that Orr eulogizes is at best a melancholy curiosity. These are the artefacts of the horizon-pressed lives of many of my male relatives, practical, laconic, miserable men, marooned in language and away from it.

As Brigid Rooney’s various work on the representation of suburbia has shown, the rebarbative rejection of the suburban trope, and its ancestor, the pastoral, performed by so much Modernist literature, and Patrick White particularly, can be read as an oppositional gesture. In this figuration the ideal space of ‘Middle Australia’ is a fictive other, simultaneously too empty and too cluttered, demarcated by passive, stultifying, ‘feminine’ forms of cultural consumption, readily opposed to active, intellectual, ‘masculine’ forms of cultural labour. While he wasn’t much of a Modernist, Phillip Larkin’s poem Vers de Société illustrates this conflictual model perfectly; juxtaposing the solitary hermeticism of male art against the plural tedium of that suburban communion, the dinner party:

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I’m afraid –

Funny how hard it is to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who’s read nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown…”

To acknowledge that critiques of the pastoral and the suburban are mired in their own politics is not, however, to consider all politics relative. The topoi of Middle Australia are certainly cultural constructs that can be fluidly plied, but they also remain fairly unironic aspirational models for a politically powerful cross-section of Australian society. As the pastoral overwrites the violence of the frontier the suburban idyll consolidates and polices that suppression beneath a fictive consensus. In the same year that Simon During proclaimed White’s patrician critique of White Australia irrelevant to Keating’s new multicultural society, Howard swept to power on a resurgent tide of White Australian conservatism to which the current government remains hostage, despite its leader’s avowed liberal principles.

A few nights ago I was fortunate to attend the launch of the Free University of Western Sydney at Bankstown Art Centre. The event consisted of a panel of Aboriginal elders, activists, and academics hosted by an initiative and an audience overwhelmingly composed of non Anglo-Celtic migrants. The discussion was various, fierce, and proffered no easy solutions to the problems of Australian polity. It did however, constitute a genuine attempt at equable, progressive discourse, and a genuinely empathetic forum to air grievance. It drew a stark contrast to the attention given these problems by mainstream Australian discourse which ranges from tired and tokenistic sufferance to scornful cant about remote ‘lifestyles’.

I generally try to avoid criticism’s normative fallacy of baldly wishing for a different book, but given the essentially divided nature of Orr’s book, and the complexity of its cultural contexts I feel justified in this case. Returning to the politics of the pastoral with Bankstown and Bundeena to mind, I wished that the Wilkies had left Bundeena in the novel’s first chapter, and had gone somewhere more interesting and more hopeful.
If the cultural fabric is so tortuously stitched that we can’t depict the plight of the rural white poor without occluding the violence of colonialisms past and present, that we can’t critique the brazen cupidity of the powerful without slighting the disadvantaged and under-educated, perhaps we should abandon the genre. Perhaps it’s time to do what this novel yearns to but cannot. To lift our hand from the plough, and let the scythe lie in the field where it falls by the rusting hulls of the FJ and the John Deere. Leave the sheets to swing on the line, open the sash-windows for the leaves, and up stumps for good.

In abandoning the conventions of middle Australia we might enrich our cultural discourse, and liberate that of those whose misfortune it has been to cohabit history with us, whose lives and languages and graves the canards of Middle Australia still obscure. Perhaps, to paraphrase Midnight Oil’s immortal Beds are Burning, it’s time to pay the rent, to see what other stories we can tell.

** ** **


Carter, Paul. The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Coetzee, J.M. Dusklands. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982.

During, Simon. Patrick White. Melbourne: Oxford University Press 1996.

Eeden, Jeanne van. ‘Theming Mythical Africa at the Lost City’ in The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. Edited by Scott A. Lukas. 113-135. London: Lexington Books, 2007.

Larkin, Phillip. The Complete Poems. London: Faber, 2012.

Kermode, Frank. The Classic. London: Faber & Faber, 1975.

Orr, Stephen. The Hands: An Australian Pastoral. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2015.

Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Coonardoo: The Well in the Shadow. Sydney: Harper Collins, 2013.

Rutherford, Jennifer. The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Slessor, Kenneth. Selected Poems. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1993.

Stanner, W.E.H. The Boyer Lectures 1968 – After the Dreaming. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Comission, 1969.

Indyk, Ivor. ‘Pastoral and Priority: The Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral.’ New Literary History, vol. 24 no. 4 1993 pg. 835-855

White, Patrick. Riders in the Chariot. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961.

Wilding, Michael. ‘Patrick White: The Politics of Modernism’ in Studies in Classic Australian Fiction. Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1997.

 – Jonathan Dunk


Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review, Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

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