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Lost in the monumental landscape

Martin Ball reviews Sacred places: war memorials
in the Australian landscape
by Ken Inglis

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As the culmination of a life-long study, Sacred places must please its author. With 500 pages, 150 illustrations and weighing in at a hefty 1.5 kilos, this is a handsome tome indeed -- a thoroughly impressive production from MUP's Miegunyah Press.

Inglis has been ruminating on the themes of this book for more than thirty years. He has written countless articles describing war memorials, investigating their histories, and uncovering the motives of those who built them. He has explored religious and ritualistic elements of the Anzac tradition, and analyzed epistemological aspects of cenotaphs. And, of course, he made a seminal study of Charles Bean, the instigator of the Australian War Memorial. Moreover, with the assistance of Jan Brazier, the author conducted a survey of war memorials throughout the country, and created a database for comparative analysis. So if anyone can claim a knowledge of this field, it is Inglis.

Sacred placeshas gained some prominence since its launch on 11th November regarding Aboriginal representation at the Australian War Memorial. Should there be a gallery of 'colonial warfare' recognizing the skirmishes, massacres and battles which punctuated the 150 or so years following the British invasion of the continent? While the book itself is diplomatic on the subject, Inglis in his public comments has explicitly made a case for such representation. No doubt the imprimatur of the Governor-General's supporting comments when launching the book have given weight to the call as well. Numerous letters to the press have applauded such a notion -- the RSL and AWM have suppressed the idea.

Of course, it's not a new suggestion. Inglis quotes calls by Geoffrey Blainey in 1979 that the AWM recognize warfare between whites and blacks 'within the next ten years', and Henry Reynolds has made many similar statements (431). The question goes to the heart of the innate schizophrenia of the institution and the problem of whom it serves. Is it for general populace or simply for veterans? Is the AWM a Museum or a Memorial? The cultural theorist Tony Bennett suggests this confusion points to an obvious limitation in the demotic rhetoric of the AWM: "the people and the soldiery are, in effect, equated." It is an issue the AWM has debated internally at length -- but it is time it conducted a public debate on the matter.

As Sacred places tells, the Australian public spent an enormous effort remembering the Great War. We have been told over and again how Australian soldiers suffered the highest casualty rates in the war. But Australia had one of the lowest participation rates of 'eligible' men in combat. Hence the country did not suffer loss any greater, proportionate to its total population, than other nations. Nevertheless, Australia raised the largest memorials of any nation to commemorate their dead (or rather, in the hallowed phrases of Binyon and Kipling, "the fallen"). The sacrifice of individuals, the private anguish of relatives, are all subsumed within a totalizing grief of a public desperate to celebrate a truly national event. The public ownership of the experience is borne out in the community nature of so many township memorials where, unlike most other the world over, the names of the surviving volunteers are recorded in addition to the names of the dead.

Inglis charts the history of memorials in Australia from colonial monuments, through the various wars of the twentieth century, to the extraordinary 1995 commemorative campaign of WWII "Australia remembers," sponsored by Keating's energetic Minister for Veterans' Affairs Con Sciacca. He shows how the fashion has changed from heroic statues of leaders (such as Melbourne's General Gordon of Khartoum) to the familiar stone obelisks and diggers of the Great War, through to the utilitarian halls and swimming pools that generally followed the Second World War:

The next bequeathed us
Parks and pools
But something in that first
demanded stone.          Geoff Page, 'Smalltown memorials'

Sacred placesnarrates how in the last twenty years participation by Australians in commemorating war has risen steadily. Thirty years ago amidst disillusionment about Vietnam, everyone believed Anzac Day marches would simply peter out. But the crowds continue to build each year, although no-one can say exactly why. Inglis' discussion of the AWM as a temple of 'civil religion' is very important in addressing this national desire. He suggests that the AWM and 'other repositories of the Anzac tradition' enjoin an "awareness of the holy" (461).

This discussion is the crux of the book -- but unfortunately it takes a long time to get there. For the rest, Sacred placesis a bit of a slog. This is empirical history without compromise, employing a straightforward methodology and linear chronology. The photographs of the physical monuments follow a bland, documentary style, accompanied by architectural descriptions that barely sketch the details before it's time to move on to the next town. Apart from the last chapter, the text proceeds as a catalogue of observations such as might be collated by an amateur local historian. There is simply too much undigested research, and not enough interpretation of the data.

One senses that Inglis was defeated by the huge size of the project (over 4000 memorials at his count), or perhaps that he has already said all he wants on the topic in his many articles. Taxonomies do not translate easily to prose, and a few tables would have saved a lot of trouble. At a glance we might see which state preferred crosses, columns or diggers on pedestals; instead you cannot see the obelisks for the forest of stony data. The heavy reliance on newspaper reports lends a strange tabloid aura to many of the descriptions of monuments and ceremonial openings, and too often the statistics are reproduced as mere banalities: "In some places the mayor officiated, and at Narrandera, New South Wales, the mayoress" (61). You can just see this bit of data turning up in the index of system cards, demanding inclusion; but the point about gender equality in local government is strained and distracting. The 'Australian landscape' of the title is something of a furphy, too. Inglis extends the field to include the Australian memorials in France, Egypt, Turkey and Thailand: a touch of Rupert Brooks' foreign field, you could say.

It is only when Inglis gets to discussing the AWM in Canberra that the book gains vigour. Much of this section is drawn from his 1985 article, 'A sacred place: the making of the Australian War Memorial,' together with his later essay on the entombing of the Unknown Soldier in 1993. Inglis is sympathetic to Bean's dilemmas in the role for the Hall of Memory, the central 'sacred place' of the AWM (the phrase is Bean's). Conceived initially as a repository of the names of the dead, it became something of a white elephant when the names were removed to the cloisters outside: Out in the forecourt, an urge to recognize the sacred, aroused but unfulfilled, moved many people to throw coins into the Pool of Reflection" (398). Bean had always resisted the entombing of a soldier; the irony is that the solemn marble slab over the tomb now provides a focus to the Hall of Memory, and commands the sort of veneration Bean originally intended.

Inglis gives space to the capital monuments in Melbourne and Sydney, but apart from the AWM the only other memorial that fires his writing is the digger on the pedestal at Thirroul. This common, typical monument is famous for one thing -- its description by D.H. Lawrence in Kangaroo. Inglis returns again and again to Thirroul as a comparative touchstone to other memorials and community histories, yet he lacks the narrative skill to interpolate his comments within the endless lists of other monuments. It is significant that Peter Sculthorpe's Small town, a haunting musical realization of Lawrence's text, was written without the composer knowing Lawrence had described a real object. This imaginative distance has lent Sculthorpe an artistic freedom which Inglis does not grasp.

Sacred placesmight have worked better as a socialized history of the one memorial at Thirroul, with national events weaved through its experiences -- maybe someone will write that some day. Greg Dening, for instance, has also written recently on war memorials. His latest book Readings/Writings is a collection of essays which are bookended by two pieces each titled 'Memorial'. One deals with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, the other is a eulogy to his friend John Foster. Although much of Dening's book is ephemeral, the structure lends a touching grace to the whole collection. In calling for a memorial to close the longest war in Australia's history, between black and white, Dening makes the comment that "the memorials we do have, temporarily, are our histories. This simple point, that our commemorative works express an aspect of ourselves, is what Sacred placesis attempting to say -- but the detail obscures the vision.

Inglis eschews any sort of theorized interpretation; which probably says something about the intended audience of the book. He acknowledges that "some later students" of war memorials read the ubiquitous obelisks as "phallic", but then excuses himself from the debate:

That word [phallic] was not much used, and the name Sigmund Freud was little known, in the Australia of the 1920s. There is no way of settling arguments about whether a psycho-analytical interpretation of monumental forms helps us to understand the minds of their creators, patrons or users (161).

This is a limp response. Freud's popularity in Australia in the 1920s is immaterial to the relevance of a psychoanalytical hermeneutic (which contrary to Inglis' protestation, is of course very much about people's minds). The same prejudice obtains in the discussion of Jay Winter's proposition that war memorials performed a rite of forgetting as much as remembering. Winter invokes Freud's 1917 essay on 'Mourning and melancholia' to suggest that the rituals and memorials helped mediate the crushing loss of the bereaved who otherwise became fixated on their grief. "At this distance we can only wonder," says Inglis (223). He should do more than that. Such arbitrary dismissal of issues is anathema to the discourse of historical analysis.

The strangest thing about the book is that there is almost no discussion of the terms in its title. 'Sacred', 'place', 'landscape', 'memory' -- all these are potent words, yet Inglis studiously ignores any theorising of terms. What is more, he does not engage with any recent debates about such terms. You might expect some reference to David Tacey's Edge of the sacred, especially given Tacey's use of Lawrence and Kangaroo. Maybe a gesture to Simon Scharma's Landscape and memory or even prescience of the ideas in Gelder and Jacobs' Uncanny Australia: sacredness and identity in a post-colonial nation -- but they are all absent in this study. Likewise, there is only slighting engagement with Jay Winter's enormously influential Sites of memory, sites of mourning (the basis of the recent tele-series 191418). Inglis makes frequent use of Benedict Anderson's phrase "imagined community," but he doesn't stop to explain it, or consider the limits of this imagining. The lightness of critical discussion and avoidance of theoretical language make the book easy to read and accessible to a non-academic readership; but consequently, the arguments become so limpid as to lack impact.

Perhaps a better title for the book would be 'A handbook to Australian war memorials'. This would convey the "companionship" which Winter himself identifies in Inglis' writing, without setting up unrealized expectations. It's easy to finish this book feeling that there should be two minutes silence at the end of it to think reverent thoughts; then we should just get on with our daily business and not think too hard about what it all means. Sacred placeswill be an invaluable source book for later researchers, but it might have been so much more.

Martin Ball is Managing Editor of Siglo: journal for the arts.

References

Bennett, Tony. 'Out of which past?' In The birth of the museum. London, Routledge, 1995, p.140.

Dening, Greg. Readings/Writings. Melbourne, MUP, 1998. Inglis, Ken. 'A sacred place: the making of the Australian War Memorial.' War & society (1985) 3 (2) 99112.

Inglis, Ken. 'Entombing Unknown Soldiers.' Journal of the Australian War Memorial (1993) 23: 412.

Winter, Jay. Sites of memory, sites of mourning. The Great War in European cultural history. Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

In AHR see also:

Martin Ball's response to a discussion surrounding Robert Dessaix's essay, "Russia:the End of an Affair".


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