Thursday, 18 July 2019

Book Review - On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Junger

On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Junger, translated from the German by Stuart Hood

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970 (Auf den Marmorklippen first published in 1939)

Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel is a World War One classic, and is a book that has cast its spell over many young men since it was fist written. Its combination of lyrical writing and vague philosophy, along with thrilling accounts of combat, made this very German book a bestseller, and one still worth reading today. Junger never reached those heights again with his written work, but On the Marble Cliffs is well worth reading, and a fascinating insight into a part of the German psyche during the Nazi era.

Although Junger denied that this story was an allegory describing the rise of the Nazis, it is obvious that the political situation in Germany during the 1930s informs this tale. Set in a fictional location in a time out of history (cars and cans of beer co-exist with halberds and suits of armour), On the Marble Cliffs tells - through the eyes of a retired soldier cum botanist - the tale of the demise of The Marina, a peaceful country of agriculture, which is stormed and ransacked by the minions of the Head Ranger, the ruler of the Forest Lands that lie beyond the pastoral lands of The Campagna.

The narrator sets the scene of an idyllic life classifying plant specimens (Junger himself was an avid amateur botanist, and On the Marble Cliffs abounds with descriptions of plants) with allusions to a previous life of battle, and describes how the agents of the Head Ranger slowly bring crime, death and chaos into the land of The Campagna, and then The Marina.

Junger's description of the slow creep of nihilism into the life of The Marina is where one can more closely call this work a parable of the growth of Nazism. The people of the Marina refuse to contemplate that change is possible, and fail to see that the change in their habits has been brought about by them being tempted to sink as low as the Forest people. Junger places the narrator and Brother Otho (the term brother here is used in its real meaning, and also in the sense that the narrator and Otho  were similar to monks in their outlook on life) as above the general fray of human existence, their minds being on a higher plane. Junger's aristocratic outlook on life comes through in how he portrays most of the characters in the book - while cutting through sloganeering, the narrator does believe in a natural hierarchy of people, with the Forest people at the bottom, the herders of The Campagna having a type of rustic nobility, and the most enlightened being the poets and priests of The Marina.

Junger's style and thought is clear on every page of On the Marble Cliffs: his limpid prose creates a dreamlike quality to the story, which only adds to the horror of the final battle and destruction of The Marina. Junger's philosophy is also threaded through the text: a nineteenth-century Germanic outlook of romantic angst, where feelings matter, but are almost indescribable, and where human worth and value is only seen at the ultimate when put to the test in battle, and if you are on the losing side, you either die with honour, or retreat and leave the victor to his spoils.

While On the Marble Cliffs certainly makes some sort of political point, its ethereal quality dulls its polemic nature, and gives the whole book a sense of unreality that disengages the reader from the action. In many ways it reads like a fairy tale, and perhaps that is exactly what it is.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Book Review - My Country all gone the White Men have Stolen it by Fred Cahir

My Country all gone the White Men have Stolen it : the Invasion of Wadawurrung Country 1800-1870 by Fed Cahir

Ballarat: Australian History Matters, 2019            ISBN 9780646801780

This book is, as far as I know, the first attempt to provide a history (from the white man's point-of-view) of the contact between the colonial settlers of Victoria, and the members of the Wadawurrung tribe of Aboriginals, whose traditional lands ran from approximately Airey's Inlet to Learmonth, and east to Bacchus Marsh, including the areas now occupied by the cities and towns of Ballarat, Geelong, Ballan, Meredith, and Beaufort.

And a fascinating book it is. Cahir has searched through the archives to find reports of interactions with the Wadawurrung, from the earliest explorers, through to the height of the gold rush and after. The story is not a happy one for the Wadawurrung, nor for many of the white people who interacted with them, with dispossession and early death awaiting the Wadawurrung, and, depending on the person, guilt, anger or violence awaiting the whites.

The way any particular white person or family treated the Wadawurrung seemed to determine the way the Wadawurrung treated them. For squatters who aggressively kept them off their selections, the Wadawurrung may have responded with violence, but for those who understood that the land actually belonged to the Wadawurrung, and who treated them as fellow human beings, the partnership could be mutually beneficial - many Wadawurrung proved excellent pastoral workers, and the rations and care that those particular whites gave to the Wadawurrung helped them cope with the loss of their traditional hunting grounds, and the increasing scarcity of traditional food sources.

The other theme that runs through the extensive quotes from the primary sources that Cahir provides is that of cultural mis-communication, springing from the totally different social and legal frameworks that the Wadawurrung and the White (British) worked under. The Wadawurrung lived a traditional Aboriginal life of mutual obligation and kinship, and Cahir shows us through his quotations that they attempted to bring the early white settlers into this system, letting the settlers use the land, and offering assistance to them, but expecting reciprocity - that the settlers would give them food, clothing and equipment in exchange, and that they would give equally to the whole tribe. This idea clashed with the British concept that only those who "worked" got rewarded with "pay". Many correspondents Cahir quotes fail to understand why the Wadawurrung they interacted with were upset when only the men were given food if they had worked, rather than the whole clan.

The Wadawurrung did to some extent participate in the White economy, providing game for food, possum-skin rugs for warmth, and corroborees for entertainment. They soon moved beyond bartering to requiring to be paid cash for these items, although much work that they did on the stations was still for rations rather than money.

The discovery of gold changed Victoria hugely in a short time, and was not good for the Wadawurrung. By 1850, there was some kind of working arrangement between at least some of the squatters and the Wadawurrung, where the provided food, and allowed some small depredation to their flocks, in the knowledge that the Wadawurrung could be called upon to help with herding and shearing. The Wadawurrung knew which squatters to avoid, and who were more friendly. The early violent interactions between Black and White - of which there had been a few - had ceased to occur in any way that could be considered a war over land. In fact there was beginning to be a push for the government to allocate land for Wadawurrung use, with the more enlightened settlers realising that they had stolen the land, and owed the Wadawurrung something more that they were being given.

After 1851, much of that was forgotten.  The influx of hundreds of thousands of gold-seekers in a very short time changed the face of Victoria forever. The towns that sprang up on the goldfields were dens of vice, which had a huge effect on Wadawurrung culture, and on the health of individual Wadawurrung people. It's fair to state that the moral and intellectual character of many of those on the goldfields was not high, and the mistreatment of the native inhabitants of the country was often appalling. The depredations that gold seeking made to the environment also took a heavy toll on the Wadawurrung, with many of their traditional camping grounds overtaken by prospectors.

The final destruction of any capacity to live in their traditional way, coupled with the temptations of alcohol and a sedentary life, had a deleterious effect on the Wadawurrung, with birthrates plummeting and death rates rising. From being an integral part of the country and economy of pastoral Victoria, the Wadawurrung became a quaint afterthought in goldrush Victoria. Cahir documents the continued lack of action from Government to assist the Wadawurrung to adapt and thrive in the new reality, despite advice from many whites on ways to help.

What is missing from this book, as Cahir notes in the introduction, is the unalloyed voice of the Wadawurrung themselves. Even when we "hear" them in the text, it is via their white interlocutors, and so reflected through the prejudices and proclivities of the writer, rather than being their true voice. Cahir has skillfully dissected the white voices to try and get some of the thoughts of the Wadawurrung, which is summed up in the title of the book. The British came, and took the Wadawurrung's land, and, from the quotations provided Cahir shows that most of the settlers knew very well that they were taking land that belonged to someone else.

This is an important addition to the history of Aboriginal/White interaction in Victoria, and should be read by every person who lives on Wadawurrung land.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell