Makarand Paranjape (ed.) Sacred Australia: Post-Secular Considerations (Clouds of Magellan, 2009)
A review by Chantal Babin.
(Reviewed July 2009)
Sacred Australia: Post-Secular Considerations is a compilation of seventeen essays from seventeen different authors, a smorgasbord of intentions that patently call for a redefinition of the word “sacred”. Indeed with seventeen authors of different academic backgrounds, offering both emic and etic perspectives, the meaning of the word “sacred” becomes diluted. The book ends with Peter Murphy’s dissertation ‘Sacred Icon: Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House’, an indication that not everyone adheres to the original classic definition of the sacred as being “connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.”
But Murphy is not the only one, Claudia Terstappen’s ‘A World of the Invisible’ addresses the way people deal with life’s adversities creating altars – sacred places – memorials for the dead and shrines. However, only en passant, she mentions nature-created elevated altars which man (sic) called sacred – mountains, trees and other sites; none of which readily fits the Australian landscape. Altars and memorials all set up for people and events who have lived and passed on, Terstappen locates the sacred in the invisible and throughout her essay it remains there!
Reviewing such a book becomes somewhat of a challenge. There is no shortcut. Contributors discuss the sacred viewing it through lenses that are as disparate and eclectic as can be. Each brings a different conception of the sacred, as a result the ‘sacred’ per se that is coming under one definition, fails to be the lingua franca. Even Graham Seal’s commonsensical redefinition of the sacred as being ‘which is held by many to be inviolable, sacrosanct through reverence for a particular imputed significance’ is not all encompassing. Yet it allows him to address the sacralization of the secular in ANZAC; in ‘ANZAC: The Sacred in the Secular’ Seal concludes, ‘The invocation of the sacred through the doggedly secular is a characteristically Australian mode of observance’.
Likewise Bill Ashcroft in ‘The Sacred in Australian Culture’ agrees that the ANZAC myth has developed ‘all the rituals, memorialisation and sanctity of religious observance’. Ashcroft confuses the meaning of sacred with religion. Indeed while religion is practiced with a certain amount of devotion, can it be said ipso facto that devotion is always religious? However, against the hegemony of secularity, economic rationalism and progressivism in modernity Bill Ashcroft focuses on extracting contemporary forms of Australian sacredness as they emerge from the writings of authors such as Patrick White, Francis Webb and Judith Wright.
Graham Seal’s commonsensical redefinition of the sacred also encompasses sport, which according to Geoff Cheong has become ‘a sacred obsession’; Cheong’s comment ‘in searching for the sacred in Australia… it is natural to turn to sport for its contribution’ demonstrates little regard for the sacred in its classical definition. Sport of course is significant to Australian recreational life, but even with attendance at sport events outnumbering attendance at churches, and with Phar Lap and Don Bradman having become sacralized icons of Australian sport, can it be said that sports fulfil Australians’ spiritual needs? Doubtful it is. Yet this is what Cheong in his ‘Sports Loving Australians: A Sacred Obsession’ would have us believe? In any case it is a concern that Australians’ passion for sport be seen as ‘sacred’; because after all, sport, beyond its purpose for fitness and wellbeing, is played in competition. Ultimately competition is about winning a game by defeating one’s opponent, indeed competition clearly awakens the killer instinct within the competitors. This calls for the legitimate question: can something be sacred that seeks to annihilate? Throughout the book, more interpretations of the sacred are to be found in Australian culture, in Australian literature, in semantics, in architecture and in the arts.
Makarand Paranjape’s ‘A Passage to Uluru: Rethinking Sacred Australia’ leads the way to exploring sacred Aboriginal Australia. He choses Uluru as a sacred landmark almost apologetically, the choice is facile. Yet Uluru sits at the heart of the contradiction between Aboriginal and secular white modern Australia; its two different names, Uluru and Ayers Rock, express a bi-linguality symbolizing that dichotomy: sacred in the Aboriginal world and a tourist destination in the secular white modern world. This sacred site inspires conquest to tourists and reverence to Aboriginal Australians. The duality discussed by Makarand Paranjape makes Aboriginal Australia and secular white modern Australia irreconcilable. Although missionaries preached a different form of sacredness they did not succeed in reconciling the two notions; Aborigines, whom Paranjape argues ‘had a much more egalitarian and open culture than the so-called advanced countries of Europe’, chose to reject monotheism in order to reject white settlers hegemony.
Frances Devlin-Glass’ ‘The racialised self, ecology and the sacred in Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow my Country’ treats Herbert’s work as central to bringing to a wider Australian readership the wonder found in Indigenous cosmology and the knowledge of mythological narratives as essential to feeling at home in aboriginally perceived sacred land. Relevant in today’s world of environmental considerations are Frances Devlin-Glass’ observations on biodiversity in Herbert’s novel; Herbert saw Australian biodiversity as an important scientific and sacred matter to which environmental settlers’ abuse is ‘an affront to the sense of wonder in the earth’s plenitude itself’. Devlin-Glass identifies in Herbert’s novel a growth in understanding of ecocosmology, of the continuity of nature and human as categories, of interspecies ethics, and one that is insistently sacralized.
In a similar consideration ‘Journey to Sacred Ground: Ethics and Aesthetics of Country’ Deborah Bird Rose analyses relationships between Aboriginals and country: a sacred ground dispersed over Australia shaped and organised by Dreaming beings who left behind traces of their creative acts.
In ‘Not to Generalise: The “Sacred” in Yanyuwa Country’ John Bradley identifies the need to redefine the sacred; one of the few to do so, he draws the difference between the sacred in Yanyuwa Country and the sacred as perceived in the West which ‘might be as elusive and dependant on circumstances and events that are quite often beyond our control’. As well as looking at Western classic definitions of the sacred, as found in dictionaries, Bradley proceeds to a semantic analysis of aboriginal words from the Yanyuwa country language that mean ‘sacred’. Within Aboriginal culture Bradley locates the sacred in the Dreaming: a set of relationships between country and culture, between the vital and the supervital, concluding ‘If the Indigenous sacred exists at all, it exists framed and held in ways that demand intense and rigorous learning, and it cannot be separated from the land and all that it contains; nor can the fact be ignored that much of the Indigenous sacred is considered dangerous, forceful and powerful and in need of specialised negotiation that is always of the ‘everyday’ though to varying degrees and intensity’. Sudhir Kumar also attempts to redefine the sacred.
‘Rethinking the Sacred – Poetry as Satyagraha: A Gandhian Reading of Les Murray’s “Walking to the Cattle Place” ’ provides us with a rich analysis of poets’ motivation. Satyagraha – holding onto truth with all one’s soul force – is a sacred act and truth itself in a Gandhian sense. Satyagraha is used to resist injustice, exploitation, inequality and violence. Kumar rethinks the sacred analysing Les Murray’s writing of poetry as a sacred act through which, according to the poet himself, ‘a writer endeavours to connect with the inner or sacred space’. Murray’s poetry celebrates a sacred Australia and his quest for truth – or Satyagraha – against injustice, materialism, spiritual emptiness, violence and exploitation that plague contemporary Australia and the rest of the world. Ideals, which Gandhi inspired by Satyagraha, preached and practiced in real life. Bringing together Australian and Indian culture offers a study of rare originality. The next essay Peter Boyle’s ‘Being Job – In Three Parts’ is in part an illustration of Satyagraha as previously analysed in Murray’s poetry, my interpretation. When Boyle writes, ‘At those times when I exist in an altered realm, a white softness enfolds me’ he affirms Murray’s statement that ‘each of us lives inside a poem which is sacred to us’. As an example of the pining of poets for truth against injustice, materialism, spiritual emptiness, violence and exploitation Boyle selects poems written by 1) Cesar Vallejo, a Peruvian poet who died in Paris a pauper and 2) Paul Celan, born in Romania into a Germanspeaking Jewish family who also died in Paris. According to Boyle both Vallejo and Celan are poets who became Job – symbolizing one who remains confident in the goodness of God despite all life’s adversities. Vallejo’s poetry speaks of human suffering in the mundanity of daily life that one escapes in dreams. By contrast Celan’s poetry relates to a spiritual quest against the malevolent God – God the dispossessor and the destroyer. Celan’s poetry hovers about the world seen as both sacred and malevolent. In his essay Boyle does not mention Australia or the sacred.
Unlike him, Dennis Haskell explores the sacred in an essay titled ‘The sardonic and the sacred: Australian identity and Australian poetic language’. He examines some selected Australian poems ‘which do not adopt religion or spiritual belief as explicit subject’. Through those he demonstrates how Australian language says the unsayable; convinced that ‘Australia’ and ‘sacred’ are two words that do not readily come together – although he makes an exception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture where the sacred enters everyday life - Haskell perceives the sacred as being in the periphery of the normal speech.
Freya Matthews perceives another influence to define the sacred in Australia, the Dao. In ‘Ontopoetics in Australia’ Matthews explores the presence in nature of a ceaseless flow of energy. Through a personal experience she explains, “Ontopoetics rests on the premise that there exists an inner aspect of reality which is expressed via a communicativity that coexists with but does not over-ride physical causality”. Although not explicit, we guess that she calls that ‘inner aspect of reality’ sacred.
John Docker’s hazardous essay moves away from all orthodoxy. ‘Sacredness and Uncaring for the Other: Levinas and Patrick White’ is a lengthy exploration of spirituality and the sacred which, Docker locates in both Levinas’ and White’s ‘monologic and totalising critiques of Western though and the Enlightenment, and the violence of essentialising, ethnicising and racialising’. His conclusion that both Levinas’ and White’s writings reveal that the sacred in world history is linked with various kinds of violence is disturbing.
David Tacey’s ‘Spirituality in Australia Today’ does not attempt to locate the sacred in Australia. Instead, Tacey, faithful to his hobby horse, disserts on the difference between spirituality and orthodox religion arguing that the latter will overcome the former; he nevertheless thinks that “If the sacred can be revealed in the depths of what we already do and say and experience, then so much the better, but sacredness apart from this world is seen as theoretical or academic, and of very little national concern”. As though aborigines are not Australian nationals, one part of Tacey’s essay is titled ‘Australian and Aboriginal contributions to the new sense of divinity’. As tempting as it is to enter into a debate this would push me beyond the boundaries of reviewing the book. Tacey forces us to reconsider relationships between settlers and aborigines, a task undertaken by Mark G. Brett. His essay ‘Sovereignty and Treaty in Religious Imagination’ analyses relationships between settlers, foreigners and indigenous using models of such relationships found in Deuteronomy. Brett juxtaposes biblical conceptions of sacred law and country with the discourse of sovereignty in Australia. He compares ‘the promised land’ and ‘chosen people’ motifs in Deuteronomy with the assumption of Indigenous cultures that there are many ‘chosen peoples’ and ‘many promised lands’ each with their own jurisdiction. This challenges nineteenth century European nationalisms that only conceived a land as sacred if it put forward ‘a unique claim in the global economy of salvation’.
Inspiringly written ‘Sacred Icon: Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House’ demonstrates a sophistication of thought, a pleasure to read. A very informative essay about Australian recent architectural history, albeit not exhaustive.
Peter Murphy’s imagination takes us through a process of evolution of the sacred. From being an ‘enigmatic quality that lurked in the heart of religious mystery’ the sacred became expressed in cultural modernisation. Our ‘Australian emphatically secular society’, as Murphy sees it, shed the constraints of traditional religion.
Arguing that this took place in the 1960’s when radical modernisation was accompanied by re-sacralization in a countermovement, he identifies the sacred as distinct from ordinary or profane life, something that “elevates, expands and edifies”. This is where Murphy locates the sacred in Australia: The Sydney Opera House with nature’s geometry transformed into an architectural sculpture is what gives it “its enigmatic iconic power as an inexhaustible source of meaning”.
If only for discovering Peter Murphy’s essay, an essay written with as much inspiration as the Sydney Opera House was designed, ‘Sacred Australia: Post-secular considerations’ is a must read.
John Docker asks, as a secondary question: ‘Is the sacred ever a pure category?’; as one reaches the end of the book one cannot help think that the editor failed to ask that question in his brief to the contributors. Yet the diversity of concepts of the sacred creates a thought-provoking ensemble of essays. Besides Makarand Paranjape is the only one to have included Asian migrants as potential contributors to an Australian concept of the sacred. Therefore I will let him conclude:
Coupled with the internationalisation of Eastern spirituality in the last thirty years, we have today in Australia other expressions of spirituality than aboriginal or white Australian. Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation, Yoga, Hare Krishna, or Sufism are just a few of these. When the proliferation of various New Age philosophies and practices is also taken into account, sacred Australia becomes a very complex area of exploration. Imagine what would happen if the best of the oldest and the newest civilizations of the world were to combine in Australia. Imagine what that would do not just for Australia, but for the rest of the world. To me, an outsider and student of the sacred, this sounds like a dream whose time may have come.