A short essay on Ned Kelly, the colonialists curse, and our shared myths and land.
The Inevitable Dialogue with the Kelly Myth and Shared Myths/Land (On Bums and Barristers - all of them lost in the desert)
The Australian land works on the people that live in it in some unique way. In our country, we do not work on the land, it works on us. The Aboriginal dreaming stories I have learnt talk of this secret nature of Australia. Land and story are together as one. The land is the dreaming, is the story, is the people, and is the history. It’s all there in our land - past, present, and future. No matter what you do to the land it always holds the ultimate power over you.
It is a unique form of spirit. I’ve witnessed it myself how thin the fabric is between one world and the next as you drive straight-shot across the wide-open plains at the wandering twilight hours. I’ve watched the edges of the horizon bend into bright-flashed green as the sun set. Like two fat gods had sat at either end of the line and weighed the very fabric of the universe down with their bodies. I’ve watched the ghost pull up from the mountains and dance around in half twilight shadow. The stars blinking on and off out across bone dry salt flat. It’s hard to deny that it’s not all real that magic out there.
The curse of our Colonial history hangs heavy over that magic and beauty. It clouds it, shifting it into a darker and more stilted frame. The mysticism of the bush that the Kelly dream inhabits infected him (and our imaginings of him) with that magic. It infected the British troops who hunted him down. It infected the colonialists who fled down under to tame a ‘new world’. It infected them and grew within them into something as dark and as mutinous as the invading reality of what had brought them to that land that was not their own
How that cursed magic, the magic of the land and the nature of the people all interweave, that is the spiritual material we as a white Australia grapple with when we talk with Ned. He is how we struggle to understand the spirits of an alien world. How we attempt to make our own myths in a mythic land that is not our own. Myths that we continue to refuse access to our souls. Myths and magic that we continue to deny even exist, alongside our denial of the Aboriginal culture and peoples who they belong to.
The Kelly myth occupies that space of shameful rejection of our country and selves that all colonial Australians live within. It is a feeling that keeps us from being serious and connected to the land around us. We cannot be serious because we cannot let the land or its history in.
This insecurity within ourselves is inextricably connected to the part of the Australian psyche that requires the man opposite you at the other end of the bar to be both Barrister and Bum. Someone smart enough to still be whip-funny when half pissed, but not so smart as to make you feel like you’re not smart too. That is the inevitable story of the colonist, the unending feeling of never quite measuring up. Never quite being at home. Never quite being comfortable enough to simply be. We always have to pretend to be. In this game of pretend we play with ourselves, we have completely missed the underlying melancholic, mystical nature of Australia’s spirit. We’ve missed the grit, and the dreaming. And how those two things dance together throughout Australia’s history (both pre and post Colonial).
Instead of a full, unique spiritual life informed by our land and our history, we instead are chained to the tangible world. We are harnessed to the frontier, and in that colonial frontier land the muscle - and by extension the action - is more powerful than the thought. The muscle has tangible value in a land that must be built by its Colonists. Thinking, dreaming - these passions of the internal spiritual world are for times when a land is tamed.
The only thought that can be loved in an ‘untamed' land, is the thought that is paired with action. Deific figures: the Revolutionary, the Bushranger, the missionary Catechist with Bible and building tools in hand. Men dreaming of freedom at the palisades of the Eureka Stockade, Explorers searching for vast oceans at the centre of our wide arid land at the head of long camel and horse train. These are the only thoughts and thinkers welcome to the Colonialist as they face down a wild frontier.
There is no space for reflection, no time for inward thought, and because we are unable to reflect, we are unable to understand that perhaps the land is already ‘built’, that perhaps it does not need taming, that perhaps it is not a frontier at all.
We cannot see how it works on us - the muscle can only see the work that it does. It is a state of unconscious blindness that we still dance with today. We cannot feel our place in this land in the deep and intangible sense of the word, we can only measure the physical impact we make on it.
That is why we cannot help but love Ned’s myth. He is our pretend made whole. He is the mythical medieval hero that we are familiar with. The hero of our homely Arthurian mythology, weapon in hand in combat with an Abrahamic devil. A hero that we have transplanted from the English ‘fields of coppice and shaded lanes’ to our far away frontier. A transported image that allows us to feel safe in our new land’s unfamiliarity. An iron-clad horse backed symbol of our rebellious, energetic new world project.
He is a Knight (a Bushman) striking his way through the untamed wilderness, bringing this mythic land we cannot fathom into a language and meaning we can know. He is the representation of both our rejection of the natural magic of the place, and our ignorant manifestation of an attempt to know it. He is the simulacrum of our own desperation to come to terms with the curse we are saddled with, and the land we do not know.
Both he and we are the bum and the barrister (for better or worse), eternally tortured by the land itself until we come to know the myths and culture that came before us deeply and truly within our own hearts.
What we truly do when we retell our Kelly story is expose our frailty, and our hope. He is a cursed attempt at our own myth making on a land whose myths we continue to reject from our soul, and the dream of an Australia that one day can truely, deeply be our own.