Thursday, January 22, 2009

AUSTRALIA - The Movie: Our Stories, Our Lives.

Friends who visited us from antipodean shores gave us an excellent excuse to see Australia again—in the cinema, rather than on DVD, which would otherwise have been the usual course of events.

Our friends loved it—being people of discernment and impeccable taste—as I had known they would. I liked it even more than I did on first viewing, which tells me a lot about the caliber of the film and the plain silly, and of scurrilous, nature of the criticisms leveled at it.

Anyway, during second viewing, some themes became clearer. Maybe the one most noticeable to me had to do with that aspect of the culture of indigenous Australians concerned with 'property' and 'possession'; something that has been a major factor in the destruction of the culture, because it left them with basically no defense against 'our' culture, if you will, which had elevated 'possession' to major goal in life and within the context of our value systems. Possession not just of material goods; but of land and whatever is on or under or even above it; of people, be it at the level of 'personal' ownership, such as of a lover, or more impersonally of slaves or underlings of any sort; and so on.

Other cultures, such as the Maori/Pacific Islands ones, who encountered the Europeans mainly in New Zealand—as well as wherever else they went, had significantly different philosophies to the Australian indigens, and thus put up what amounts to a much more successful fight; as it turns out now, with 'Western' culture drowning in paroxysms of its own, self-inflicted guilt—for the deeds of generations long gone that are in no way the fault of the generations currently existing; unless said generations insist on repeating historical injustices and retaining implicit prejudices, as many indeed appear to do; said continutaion being evidenced by the continuing prevalence of what amounts to carefully-concealed anti-Semitism.

Lest anybody thinks that I'm out to do some good old lefty bashing of my own culture...well, I am not. If one looks at China and Japan, as well as cultures and traditions all over Asia, South America and much of Africa, one finds similar proclivities or worse. 'Possession' is at the core of much of this; even we're just dealing with ownership of goats or something like that. Potahto, potaito.

Of course, ownership is a built-in, because ownership creates security—as much as it can—through the power to dispose over the resources one is in possession of. And the creation of security, working on behalf of one's survival and that of one's depdendants etc, is what possession, or acquisitiveness, is ultimately all about.

But many cultures have elevated the whole thing to the level of idol, and this includes our culture. The admiration (and envy and jealousy) bestowed on those who have acquired possessions, the more the better, by those who haven't done as well, is a pathetic sight to behold. Even if it is carefully concealed by many, its signs are everywhere nonetheless. One just has to look for them, and they're all over the place. And those who claim to be 'non materialistic' are often the most pathetic ones, hypocrites to the bone and marrow.

Anyway, back to Australian indigenous people, also known as 'Australian Aborigines', and the movie Australia. Being human, like the rest of us, they're of course no less subject to the lure of 'possession'. However, in the context of their culture—split into many tribal sub-cultures, all resident in a land consisting mostly of desert; with the sun burning down mercilessly for most of the year—the accumulation of possessions to any great extent was both difficult and impractical. There really is very little to 'possess' or 'own'.

The land? Hardly. What would one do with it, except to travel across it and hunt there? Livestock? Not much of that about either, though Dingoes have been known to have been tamed and used as domestic animals. What else is there in terms of 'possess-able' resources? Not much. Slavery is impractical in the environment, context and with the populations under consideration. You might count among your prized possessions a spear, boomerang or something along those lines; but that's a short-term thing. All made from wood, used for hunting and they will probably break sooner rather than later.

Everything is transient, including the lives of those around you, which are short, as is your own. Nothing is permanent, it seems...

...except maybe the rocks and paintings your ancestors left behind, and which you in turn might also leave for those who follow.

But the desire to 'have' something that is not as evanescent and transient is strong in humans. It may even qualify as a 'need'.

And so, out of all this, shaped by contingency and environment, arose a culture that just so happened to figure out a fundamental truth about what we are as human beings. Not that they would necessarily reflect on this in those terms, because in order to see things 'comparatively' one needs to be able to step back and gain what is known as 'perspective'. But it doesn't matter. The fact is that the Australian Aborigines have, quite unwittingly and unknowingly, unearthed this basic truth about us all:

Not only are we our 'stories', but our stories is all we'll ever actually 'have'.

This is so shatteringly simple that Western science—an endeavor that can rightly claim to have 'discovered' significant things about the universe, and of late also about ourselves as physical creature—has only within the last few decades, after millennia of probing in dark cellars for black cats that weren't, aren't and never will be there, figured out that maybe something along those lines is going on.

The simple things are often the real hard ones, because if we ponder stuff like that at all, and this goes for philosophers in particular, we tend to overthink the plumbing; to the extend of creating so many bends and joints and junctions that nobody can keep track of the system and everything get clogged up with gunk snagged in the piping.

(And, no, I am not advocating simpleton-hood, but 'simplicity', which is a very different thing!)

It is possible, of course, that I, like anybody who does this or that and therefore has a particular point of view of things—which means literally everybody!—sees something in this 'story' thing that others just won't, no matter how hard they try, if they're bothering to try at all. Well, maybe that's the case, but I think (surprise!) that it isn't, and that there is a truth here that could give us all the perspective on 'materialist' and 'spiritual' life that we'll ever need—if only because it happens to be just so!

The Australian Aborigines get as possessive about their stories—whether they are their communal, tribal or personal ones—as any of us would get about something we considered we own and which someone would like to take from us.

Or maybe more so even! And why shouldn't they?

Because, just think of the erosion of our personal privacy through the increasingly invasive network of governmental and commercial probing and prodding and data mining and statistical analysis and so on. What is that thing we call 'privacy' but a measure of our ownership of our personal stories—which we would probably think of as 'identities'—about what and who we are, and what we give away of it and to whom? And what does it say about us, that we give it away so lightly and unthinkingly and cowardly—in the name of whatever rationalization we care to invent?

And, so, when we look upon this culture of the desert, who have habits of personal life, hygiene—and, let's face it, whose society exhibits some pretty horrific social phenomena that come about as a direct result of the culture being destroyed by circumstances that are beyond the control of anybody—and views of life and the universe and what's what, that most of us would find incomprehensible and indeed outright weird...then let us not forget, that among all these irrelevancies of daily life and the vagaries of human existence, these are the people who once upon a time—and soon it will indeed be just 'once upon a time'—knew something that we and all our great wise men have missed, despite all the thinking and arguing and pondering and whatever else we might have done.

Australia did the world a service by bringing this to the attention of the world—who in turn doesn't seem to care much for the film, if the box office takings are anything to go by. It's really sad that this is so; not just for the film makers, but for those who listened to critics—and so are missing out on something that might actually have benefited them.

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