‘The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation’ by Julianne Schultz

2022, 416 p. plus notes

I must confess that I’ve never really engaged in discussions of Australian identity. It has always seemed to me to be a topic that can too often by hijacked by the ra-ra Akubra mob, and infused with the whole Anzac, flag, fair dinkum rhetoric. But I was encouraged to read this book, largely on the basis of the many positive blurbs on the cover, but also by the inclusion of that little word “soul”. Leaving aside its religious connotations (which Schultz does too), she is probing beyond the surface and the image to consider something more personal, more integral to the idea of Australia and Australians, as distinct from the performance of Australian-ness. As a commentator she is well placed to do so: she was the inaugural editor of the Griffith Review which, over and beyond the 64 volumes she edited, has explored various features of Australian life in essays, poetry and story.

In many ways the chapter headings in this book echo the titles of the Griffith Reviews that I have on my shelves: From Somewhere; Making the Nation; Remaking the Nation; People Like Us; From Little Things. Like a Griffith Review volume, these discursive chapters weave together strands of her own biography, history, literature and politics.

She has a number of themes that she returns to across different chapters. One of these is the idea of the ‘Covid X-ray’ which revealed the fault-lines within Australian society. Another is Linda Colley’s idea that, without catastrophe, most change takes ‘three score years and ten’ to move from idea to reality- an oddly reassuring thought. Schultz references this ‘three score years and ten’ often during her book, giving it an oddly ponderous, almost religious tone at times. She refers several times to the Sydney Olympics and the feeling of pride that many of us, ready to sneer, felt at its irreverent and insouciant depiction of our country on a global scale. Where has that Australia gone? Finally, and most importantly, she returns again and again to the Uluru Statement, that call to Australia’s soul, that she feels will “sooner or later, fundamentally reshape the idea of Australia” (p. 146).

This book is unashamedly a product of the twenty-first century. Her chapter-by-chapter references (unfortunately the book lacks a compiled bibliography) favour recent publications and the rather excessive long list of laudatory paragraphs at the start of the book embed the book within a progressive intellectual milieu. So far, I have not read reviews of the book from The Australian or Quadrant, which ordinarily would leap on a book about ‘Australia’s identity’- one of their favourite topics despite their deprecation of ‘identity politics’. In a way this book is timely, given that we faced a general election in the wake of strange times. But I also have hopes that, given its historic span that draws from historians and events across Australia’s history, it might transcend that short-termism. I suspect this book may well stand the test of time, as Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, Hancock’s Australia, Bernard Smith’s Boyer Lecture The Spectre of Truganini and Stanner’s phrase ‘The Great Australian Silence’, each of which she references repeatedly, have managed to do. At least, I hope that it does. By talking of ‘the soul of the Nation’ she steps beyond the economy and politics into something more intimate and powerful and inspirational.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

One response to “‘The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation’ by Julianne Schultz

  1. On my reading list!

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