Thursday, 13 March 2008

Isobel Crombie's Body Culture (2004) takes its cue from the career of Australia's most famous modernist photographer, Max Dupain. The subtitle indicates the area of interest: 1919 to 1939.

In this twenty-year period ideas about race that had existed in Western culture since the Darwinian revolution, manifested themselves with increasing frequency.

Their ultimate expression would appear in Germany under the influence of democracy in the ideology of Germany's National Socialist Party headed by Adolph Hitler. It may be surprising for many Australians to recognise similarities in 1930s imagery published in, say, Berlin and Melbourne, but it's a fact.

Crombie, who now works as a curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, developed the book from a doctoral thesis. Now is a good moment in Australia's history - a $20,000 compensation package is being debated this week in the Senate to redress wrongs perpetrated by dead generations on aborigines - to revisit her work.

The photos here are of my grandmother, Beatrice (nee Kewish) Dean, who is dead these past decades. In fact her daughter, my mother, is now in her late seventies. According to mum, the leftmost photo is of Bea in her late forties at a beach near Meblourne. The centre photo shows Bea with Dora, a friend, and Reba, Bea's sister, in the early twenties.

The rightmost photo shows Bea in the 1920s performing eurhythmics after moving from Leongatha in country Victoria, to Melbourne. Classes took place at the local Presbyterian church. She is about 21 years old.

In her book, Crombie provides plenty of guidance to a reading of any of these photos. The 'vitalist' tendency in Australian culture after WWI found expression in such activities as eurhythmics and beach culture. The epitome of this latter in the photographic record is photos of surf lifesaving, a movement born in Australia in the first decade of last century.

Tied to ideas about physical culture and its importance for personal wellbeing and happiness was the bizarre notion that doing things like weight lifting and farming would protect the health of the 'race'. In Crombie's book, the 'Australian race' is frequently (and quaintly) referred to.

Another bizarre (and, we now know, completely false) idea was the notion that miscegenation (marriage between ethnic groups) led to the weakening of the 'race'. Now we know that miscegenation strengthens the gene pool because it combines unlike elements: less opportunity for genetic diseases.

Dupain's father George was deeply involved in both body culture (he operated one of the country's first gyms in the Manning Building, near Central Station) and eugenics. In fact, most of the elite at that time believed in eugenics, including many scientists and doctors.

Norman Lindsay's ideas about physical culture would dovetail, here, for any reader wanting to look into it. Lionel, Norman's son, was a straight-out Nazi. Both father and son, and others, like Dupain pere, who took an interest in eugenics, looked to Nietsche for inspiration.

But the story is not so simple. Crombie also points to writers such as John Cowper Powys and D. H. Lawrence. These men had strong ideas about the spiritual side of life in the industrial age. Their ideas also work on such later writers as Henry Miller, who tried to reconcile ideas about the productive capacity of the West and its (apparent) spiritual decline.

Narratives of decline are age-old, however. Crombie does not point to earlier eras when changes in society due to increasing wages caused disturbances, especially among the elite, who had most to lose from changes in social structures and patterns of cultural production. The 18th century is replete with members 'of the better sort' moaning about a weakening social fabric.

Somehow we have, in the first half of last century, a concern with the baleful effects of city living. Eugenics, eurhythmics, vitalism and other such artefacts are due, I believe, to fear of the unknown. Especially, the loss of credibility of the monotheistic god of the Christians.

A similar thing is happening, now, in the Islamic world. The cult of the martyr seems, to me, to hold a similar appeal for Muslims as, during the period Crombie studies, the lifesaver held for Australians.

A final comment is due, I think, because of our lamentation at the so-called 'stolen generations'. The eugenic ideas of our forbears (who held that aborigines were closer to the same 'root' in humanity's developmental tree as Europeans; ie Europeans were 'more developed') remain in precisely the sector most vocal in support of Prime Minister Rudd: the Left intelligentsia.

How many non-Anglo-Celt names are there in politics, the arts, and journalism? It is in these areas (95 per cent Anglo, by any measure) that work still needs to be done. The Left's cries at Howard's declaration speech ring hollow, for me, because these people refuse - through culture bias and bullying in the form of silent agreements - equal opportunity for the 30 per cent of Australia's population that was not born here.

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