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The Australian wound

  • 18 May 2006
Tired of the outback? Australian writers, artists and filmmakers aren’t. It’s not just that there is a lot of it out there. Perhaps there is something we are, as a nation, trying to express or work through in all our journeys into the desert on horseback or camel, in Kombis and ‘Cruisers, with whaleboat or caravan in tow.

Poststructuralists tells us that the age of the questing, conquering explorer-hero is long dead, and that today we are telling new stories about the outback. Stories reflecting generations of local knowledge instead of the traveller's distant gaze; stories of struggles for land rights and reconciliation; of the farmer's battles with drought and flood; of women who have survived and prospered in the bush, or escaped to brilliant careers. We are also telling more stories about the places where most of us live and play — the city and the coast. Feminists remind us that the myth of the outback was forged and perpetuated by men, and that women feel the pull more of the liquid sensuality of the coast and the promised intimacy of the suburbs.

Yet myth is stronger than fashion. Movies such as Japanese Story, Wolf Creek and The Proposition remind us that the outback is, as Robyn Davidson put it, the 'mythological crucible' of Australia — the place where we set many of the stories that nurture and guide, challenge and delude us.

The journey to the outback in a vast, flat land is analogous to the journey to the underworld in the mythologies of the mountainous lands of Europe. And just as the modern idea of the unconscious as a place of depth and otherness came out of the vertical landscapes of Austria (Freud) and Switzerland (Jung), so in Australia our sense of who we are is defined by our encounters with the 'empty centre.'

Above all, the outback is where Australians go to die. From Burke and Wills through Lassiter and Voss to Azaria Chamberlain and Peter Falconio, the journey to the outback has been suffused with the aura of death. Impending or averted, fated or random, in fiction or history, it is as omnipresent as the heat, flies and red dirt.

Death and rebirth In myth and literature, death usually leads to rebirth, as in the resurrection of Jesus or the reconstitution of Osiris after his dismemberment and a 'night sea journey' in a coffin. Through the