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Mysticism in Australian literature

Elaine Lindsay  |  14 October 2019

Books provide us with a privileged insight into the interior lives of the people who wrote them. So what can we learn about how Australians experience the mystical side of reality from Australian fiction?

Here’s a conundrum. Creative writers are unlikely to identify as mystics, so why are we looking for mystical insights in literature, contemporary Australian literature in particular?

In 1970, theologian Robert Banks called for an analysis of Australian literature and culture, combined with theological reflection, to take account of local beliefs, values and practices (‘The “Religion in Australia” Survey: Shifting Attitudes Towards Christianity’). His challenge was taken up in part by Veronica Brady IBVM in her pioneering work, A Crucible of Prophets: Australians and the Question of God (1981). She justified the use of fiction as a means of inquiring into ‘the nature of life in a given society since …. it attempts to get at the experience itself, highlighting it by setting it in an unfamiliar context, in its own fictitious world’ (p. 1).

Desert crucial point of revelation

Brady used novels by various ‘spiritual’ creative writers (mostly male) including Joseph Furphy, Christopher Koch, David Malouf, Randolph Stow and, most notably, Patrick White, to address metaphysical questions raised by European theologians such as Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Karl Barth and Simone Weil. She didn’t offer a model of Australian Spirituality, but did identify the desert as ‘the crucial point of revelation for our culture’.

It became commonplace to turn to works by male writers to illustrate how Christianity had been translated into the Australian vernacular. Little attention was paid to female writers such as Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Helen Garner, Marion Halligan, Barbara Hanrahan, Carmel Bird and Amanda Lohrey. No-one looked to see what they were saying about the nature of life, based on their own experiences, and whether it differed from the desert spirituality that had been accepted as quintessentially Australian.

Different form of spirituality

In 2000, I published Rewriting God: Spirituality in contemporary Australian women’s fiction. I proposed that women, who had been denied theological training or clerical careers in the mainstream Christian churches, had developed a different form of spirituality, one that was based on personal experiences of God in the settled areas (gardens, suburbs and cities) and in family and community. It was realised, not through retreat into solitude, but through a sense of union with nature and through the exercise of loving kindness. I did not argue that this spirituality was exclusive to women, but that it was radically different to the stereotype of the purgative desert pilgrimage, the dark night of the soul.

Rewriting God was of its time in that it didn’t broach fictions by Indigenous or culturally diverse writers, partly out of fear of cultural appropriation. It was an attempt, using women’s writing, to broaden clichéd Anglo-Australian expressions of Christian spirituality.

Thinking about it now, I believe that there was a strong element of mysticism in the novels I was reading, and that it can also be found in novels by male writers such as David Malouf, Kim Scott and Tim Winton. Thoughtful creative writers can alert us to the presence of God in the everyday, even if they aren’t theologians, philosophers, or contemplatives practised in all manner of spiritual exercises.

Awareness of the divine

What is mysticism, if it is not an awareness of the divine that transforms the way we act in the world? The divine is present in all creation – in nature, in others and in ourselves.

Reading Malouf and Scott, we encounter landscapes charged with an intensity beyond mere beauty – nature is pregnant with becoming, as in Malouf’s Remembering Babylon where the sea glows in its fullness, the moon ‘plucks at our world’, the muddy margin of the bay is alive, ‘and in a line of running fire all the outline of the vast continent appears, in touch now with its other life’ (p. 200). Writers like Astley, Jolley, Hanrahan and Garner present similarly charged suburban landscapes where characters dissolve into nature or wrestle with angels.

As we experience our oneness with creation we also realise our oneness with those around us. Jolley records one such transformative moment in The Newspaper of Claremont Street when, ‘quite unexpectedly, unfathomable depths of human feeling are exposed for just a few seconds, and it seems possible to come face to face with reality, and stand on the edge of truth which can reveal forever the meaning of living’ (p. 105).

In the language of mysticism, this truth is the realisation that we are made of the same stuff as the rest of creation and infused with God’s love. Such an insight is a gift and transforms the way we act towards each other – as it does in so many novels, whether it is in the exercise of loving kindness, acceptance without judgement, self-sacrifice or care for the natural world.

We read fiction for intimations of the divine that will assure us that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all manner of thing shall be well’.

Elaine Lindsay is the author of Rewriting God: Spirituality in Contemporary Australian Women’s Fiction, based on her PhD of the same name. She has worked in various capacities in Australian literature for more than 45 years, including roles as broadcaster, grants manager, reviewer and critic. Currently she is Lecturer-in-Charge, Children’s Literature at Australian Catholic University.


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