OVER the past few years the body politic in Australia has had an exceptionally high temperature. If it were possible to take it in the way that one used to measure a child's fever – shaken thermometer under the tongue, counting, watching the mercury rising – it would probably have registered in the danger zone, even as other vital signs remained good. Cool washers, paracetamol and rest would have been called for.
In this febrile environment it is scarcely surprising that those shaping the public debate, and those commenting on it, unwittingly defaulted to the embedded language of fairy tales. The agitated dreams that accompany fever frequently dredge memories of wicked witches, marauding wolves, evil stepmothers, lurking strangers, shape shifting objects and disguised princes masquerading as frogs or other unlikely creatures.
The cartoonists, especially David Rowe in the Australian Financial Review, got it. Day after day he brilliantly skewered barely articulated nightmares and pricked the balloon of promise. David Rowe's work provides a stunning centrepiece for this edition of Griffith REVIEW.
But as is so often the way when one wakes from a dream, the detail is lost although the sentiment remains to tinge the coming day.
So it has been during the five weeks of the 2013 election campaign – appropriately, for my metaphor at least – during an unseasonably warm August. No one actually used the language of evil stepmothers, wolves or avenging princes, but a campaign where the pitch was reduced to a handful of words, only made sense if the subtext, of culturally embedded stories, was understood.
So when one side talked about waking from paralysis, we instinctively understood that Sleeping Beauty did that, and when the other side talked about the dangers that lurked in the woods, we remembered what happened to Little Red Riding Hood.
You get the idea; Cinderella, Goldilocks, Rapunzel, and many others from childhood picture books and the two hundred-year legacy of the Brothers Grimm, all played silent, but important, supporting roles in a campaign that was generally regarded as lacklustre, without an original narrative.
OUR INSTINCTIVE UNDERSTANDING of myth and story is well developed – it is evident from earliest times, expressed in civilisations scattered over the globe, a characteristic of what makes us human, replicated in every culture as a short cut to making sense of the world, to surviving and flourishing, and learning how to engage with others. Whether it is relayed in stories told around campfires, or in multi-million-dollar extravaganzas on the big screen in a darkened cinema, the impulse to tell stories with a recognisable arc, that help us draw life lessons, is something essentially human.
The American scholar Joseph Campbell took this a step further by developing his notion of the 'monomyth'. He argued that there was a single tale that was told with variations of detail and character across time and civilisations to 'awaken a sense of awe, explain the universe, validate the existing order and provide a guide through life'. While others have vigorously disputed the notion that all mythic narratives were a variation of a single story, and argued that this is an oversimplification, the psychological origins and purpose of myth have been explored for at least a century.
As a scholar and teacher based in the epicentre of twentieth-century civilisation – New York City – Campbell's analysis gained a momentum and engagement that would not easily come to those postulating elsewhere. George Lucas credits Campbell with providing the intellectual and narrative tools for him to shape the extraordinary Star Wars films, Richard Adams used Campbell's writing as an inspiration for his cult classic Watership Down. The list goes on – books and films which follow the hero's journey from the call to adventure, the trials of initiation and the resolution enriched by self knowledge and understanding. These are modern renderings of classic tales, which have informed the values and life patterns for generations in a way that transcends commercial success and (ubiquitous) products offered for sale.
While Campbell's research was informed by his mastery of languages, and delved into the structural devices used in many of the great novels, his starting point was a childhood journey with his father to the Museum of Natural History. There Native American artefacts and the accompanying myths and stories fascinated him. His intellectual quest to synthesise these tales with those of his Irish and Catholic heritage provided a springboard for a lifetime of inquiry.
In an Australian context, this is an important insight. We have inherited in our DNA the stories of Europe, the tales of the Brothers Grimm and the Bible that came in the memories and books of settlers over the past two hundred years, and we are increasingly integrating the stories of other cultures and civilisations in this region. We have yet to integrate the stories of the Dreamtime in a way that embeds them in our collective imagination, so that once upon a time has a resonance uniquely tied to this place.
THE VISION THAT Carmel Bird has brought to Once Upon A Time in Oz is designed to address this – reimagining the fairy tales that are deeply embedded in our collective unconscious, with a twist that locates them in twenty-first-century Australia, and provides an opportunity to hear tales of the Dreamtime.
The short stories we have selected for this edition follow a recognisable arc, but often with a flourish that takes you by surprise, before revealing their reassuring certainties; and the memoirs speak to the richness and importance of story telling across generations and cultures.
Meanwhile back in the public domain where fairy tales stealthily inform the way we understand the world, it remains to be seen how the politics plays out – will the carriage turn into a pumpkin, or will we live happily ever after?
10 September 2013