Australia as a Picturesque Ruin

Saturday 18 August 2007

…the Dawn and Dusk Society lobbied to set up a committee for the erection of fake ancient ruins around Australia.

The above note is just a passing comment in an article on another subject, found in a 1960s issue of Meanjin. I wrote this down several years ago, while I still had the issue ready at hand, but didn’t note the author, article, or issue number, and the journal is now in storage at the other end of the world. This is the first mention on the web of the mysterious Dawn and Dusk Society, at least as far as Google is concerned.

The Society is mentioned in such a casual way that it appears to have once been assumed familiar enough to readers to need no explication. Did it have much in common with other forgotten booster movements like the Wattle Day League or the Who’s For Australia Campaign? Was it more of a club like the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo? An Antipodean outpost of eccentricity like the latter-day Baker Street Irregulars? Or is it possibly a fictional entity from a popular story of the day?
As it was described, the Society’s motive was to inspire a sense of history heretofore lacking in Australians. As I recall, the reference to the Society was made in a gently mocking tone, for its misguided nature and unconscious ironies, but even at this point in time its forlorn wish would have seemed, on the surface at least, fairly straightforward in a way that is impossible now.
(Before dealing with the historical and cultural consequences of such a project, a more immediate cognitive problem springs to mind: without a historical context to set it against, how could you tell an honest fake was meant to be seen as a ruin, and not as a folly, a false fake?)
Even ignoring Australia’s long neglected indigenous history, the idea of concocting an ersatz heritage is one fraught with contradictions for all but the least reconstructed White Australians. The “sense of history” created would of course be a denial of history, of Australia’s colonial past. But if this true history were successfully erased and overwritten with the shiny new ancient fictional extended remix, what new mythology would we have of ourselves? I can’t imagine that modern Australians would be more confident and assured of their place in the world, having grown up surrounded by symbols of a glorious past now irretrievably decayed. We have had a hard enough time adjusting to the starkness of the Australian landscape as it is, without it being additionally littered with evidence of our failures.
We don’t have to ask if the heritage the Society had in mind was British – in one aspect, the plan is but one more transplanted artifact from the Old Country – but how far back would the grand project extend? Would we find a Roman bath in Balranald? A Viking ship part-buried in Vaucluse? I like the idea of a large network of pseudo-academies springing up across the country, like those of the Creationists, dedicated to reconciling these fantastic absurdities to the real world.
As successive waves of immigrants have found their place in Australia, would they get to make their own contributions in turn to the collection of fake national relics? If the plan had succeeded, we could now enjoy shattered Doric columns beside fallen pagodas, and vine-covered colonnades topped with minarets. As a nation still reluctant to admit to one invasion, Australia would now happily affirm a multitude of colonial incursions in its past, even though most of them were fictional.
Perhaps it is time for the Society’s design to be revived, albeit in a more subtle and insidious form. Throughout recorded history, societies have expressed a belief in a golden age before their own, from which their contemporaries have descended and declined. The historical reminders we erect should manifest our faith in the values of better times preceding ours. Monuments to whistling milkmen, statues of doctors making house calls, and shrines to schoolkids who walked sixteen miles to school each day, immortalised in bronze in a pose of deference to an elder. An obelisk to those who left their homes unlocked. A plaque to a policeman older than you.
Amid these reminders we could go about our business confident that times are bad and will get worse, but once there was a better life which we have abandoned. And beneath these thoughts still lies the double truth we carry in our heads, of what we would like to believe our country to be, and what we know it really is.