How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia - Stories and Essays

(Sydney: UNSW Press, 2002)

Lines In The Sand

Maybe John Howard said it best, on the campaign trail during last year’s Australian federal election: “We will decide who comes into this country, and the circumstances under which they come.” His defiant rallying cry echoes recent declarations made by right-wing populists across the planet. Despite (or rather because of) the changes wrought by globalisation, it’s clear that struggles over the rights and responsibilities of nationality are far from over.

Sylvia Lawson is a writer who has done more thinking than most about the imagined lines we draw around what we call our nation, both the fences that can be crossed and the distances that must be acknowledged. A professional journalist and critic since the 1950s, she remains an unapologetic member of the old-style left-wing intelligentsia, the people who keep Radio National afloat and were politically correct long before the term existed. Having weathered any number of political and cultural sea-changes, she’s able to combine virtues that might seem to belong to different eras: stylistic clarity and theoretical sophistication, a sense of history and an alertness to what’s currently in the air.

Against the widely held view that the significance of the nation-state is irreversibly dwindling, Lawson wagers on the continued importance of nationality as an arena where identities are formed and contested, as vexed and inescapable as gender. Faced with Howard’s implicit claim to speak for the whole Australian people, she might well respond in the words of the Chinese novelist Zhang Xianliang: ‘Who is this we?’ (p. 99). Or, quoting Noam Chomsky: “It depends what you mean by your country” (p. 1).

The Chomsky quote appears several times in Lawson’s new collection of essays and stories, How Simone de Beauvoir Died In Australia – Stories and Essays. Published around the start of the year, it’s a book that feels even more timely than its author can have anticipated. These intensely topical meditations often focus on key political and cultural moments from the recent past, such as the 1999 East Timor referendum for independence, the 2000 march for reconciliation on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Sydney Olympic Games. But the timeline breaks off in late 2000: Lawson’s voice speaks from a world unmarked by the trauma of September 11 and its aftermath – not to mention the continuing ruckus over the arrival of Middle Eastern asylum seekers in Australia, which gained momentum just before the election.

If there’s never been a better time to think about what it means to call yourself an Australian, this is precisely because we now know (or should) that nothing about this can be taken for granted. Does John Howard’s “we” include those asylum seekers currently enduring mandatory detention in privately managed prison camps (a policy condemned by both Amnesty International and the United Nations)? Does it include other immigrants who live within our borders without having the rights of citizens? What about indigenous tribes who may not consider themselves “Australian,” but who maintain their own bonds with particular areas of land?

Thinking seriously about nationality involves studying the relations between the material and the symbolic, how they interpenetrate and where they come apart. National borders are practical and weighty facts, yet also constructed fictions – there is nothing natural or inevitable about where one nation begins and another leaves off. This is perhaps less obvious from the vantage point of somewhere like Australia, where our geographic isolation easily becomes a metaphor for our place in global affairs. Yet as Lawson insists, we can only define ourselves here and now by registering our connections with other times and places. While physically we may inhabit an island continent, our nation “isn’t an island in any other sense, and never was” (p. 14).

History As Cinema

As a cultural commentator Lawson is interested in the media, broadly conceived: all the images and stories that serve to represent us to ourselves, defining and in important ways determining our collective identity. Before the idea of nationality comes the idea of locality, the lived experience of place; a viable national community is only possible given a maximum variety of particular voices, people speaking from where they are.

If Lawson’s concern is with Australian culture as a whole, why am I reviewing her book for a journal specialising in cinema? There are several possible answers, apart from the fact that Lawson has long been one of Australia’s most distinguished film writers. Films and TV programs are naturally among the cultural objects examined by Lawson, though she doesn’t single them out for any special, privileged treatment. While she’s comfortable talking about the formal qualities of particular works, she stresses that “a film needn’t be an endpoint, rather an electrified path, a passage through” (p. 95).

Yet aside from discussion of particular films, Lawson’s past as a cinephile informs her practice in a deeper way. For one thing, it gives her access to a specific repertoire of images to think with, so it becomes natural to compare a receding memory with “a cinema image zooming back” (p. 30), or to accuse Simone de Beauvoir of “doing airborne camerawork” (p. 173) in her lofty pronouncements on women’s lives. However casually formulated, such metaphors are more than throwaway lines. Typically Lawson’s strategies are less those of the conventional essay than the essay-film, with its easy mixture of report, analysis, memoir, fiction: the essential technique is that of montage, leaping about in time and space, juxtaposing disparate modes and objects of discourse.

Thus “How Raymond Williams Died In Australia” brings together an assessment of Williams’ seminal work as critic and theorist with a retrospective look at the Australian Bicentenary as “a planned, state-run exercise in the creation of a national idea” (p. 44). “Sidelined – But Not Entirely Lost In Translation,” one of my two favourite pieces, takes its occasion from a 1994 Indonesian censorship crackdown: Lawson cross-cuts between Australian press coverage of the incident and a close-up discussion of the essays of Goenawan Mohamed, editor of the banned Indonesian current-affairs magazine Tempo. Addressing an Australian audience, Lawson shifts the terms of debate by focusing on Goenawan as a significant figure in his own right rather than an anonymous victim of repression. Indeed, Goenawan’s innovative merging of poetry and politics strikingly contrasts with the stylistic conservatism of the Australian press – demonstrating that there’s more than one way to place restrictions on “freedom of speech.”

“Against Oblivion, And About Not Being There,” probably the most densely factual essay in the book, starts from Lawson’s account of glimpsing a brief film on SBS by Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Luc Godard. Leaving this behind, the piece becomes a history of Indonesia’s oppression of the West Papuan people and of Australian complicity in this oppression, with autobiographical sidelights on Nation magazine and further reflections on the limits of local media. As throughout the book, there’s a pendulum-like movement between scattered chapters of a story and analysis of the forms that make that story available. The point is less to narrate facts than to sketch a set of potential relationships between different narrating practices: if you want to make new connections, you have to start by drawing new maps.

Placing The Self

Sylvia Lawson

Throughout the book, Lawson keeps circling back to the question: how and when are particular kinds of information made available? Wherever you happen to be placed, your knowledge is always partial; any perspective will have its privileges and blind spots. Conscientiously, Lawson strives to make this truth visible in her own work, producing deliberately fragmented texts that point to their own gaps and limitations.

At their weakest the results can seem all scruples, like footnotes to an argument that remains to be written. This happens to some extent in “Budgerigars, Or Positions Of Ignorance,” an account of a trip to Alice Springs that is very carefully not about the plight of local indigenous groups. Rather than purporting to speak for others, Lawson concentrates on underlining the limits of her own claim to authority: the particular Aborigines encountered in the text are held at arms’ length, figures to be admired or puzzled over but not really known. You can respect the ethical intentions behind this approach, yet feel that confessions of ignorance in themselves are not enough. More could have been done to get indigenous voices onto the page – perhaps through some form of collaborative writing?

Elsewhere in the book, a similar self-consciousness is less disabling and more effective – especially in the novella-length title story, which elegantly brings together many of the themes of the preceding essays. It’s a reckoning of sorts with the formidable work of Simone de Beauvoir, as creative writer, philosopher and journalist as well as feminist figurehead. The point of the title is to insist that Beauvoir’s death be considered as (once again) a local event: how else can we understand the meaning of this event for us, in our particular context in Australia?

So Lawson imagines a Sydney reading group who take on the challenge of re-examining Beauvoir’s work in the present day. The narrator of the story serves as a “liaison worker” (p. 9) between memoir and fiction, tracing a path through several generations of Australian feminism. Here Lawson is able to speak from her own experience as an Australian feminist and journalist – a participant in what she describes, not merely an observer. Yet here too there are off-screen spaces, silenced voices who remain part of our history whether we know it or not: thus Beauvoir’s trenchant journalism during the Algerian war is placed alongside the reading group’s responses to recent events in East Timor. Acknowledging the distances that separate twenty-first century Australians both from Beauvoir and from the Timorese, Lawson challenges us in each case to find connections, pondering what legacies we might share.

Beyond The Virtual

You could say that some of the questions Lawson considers in her book are the same ones I’m faced with while writing this article, to be posted on the Net for an unknowable audience who may be partly local, partly international. Where am I writing from? Who for? On what authority? Which of my assumptions need to be spelled out, and which can be taken for granted?

Given Lawson’s commitment to a “radical widening of the control of the communications media and of access to them” (p. 39) it’s a little surprising that she doesn’t approach the Net with more enthusiasm. At most, she allows that “online magazines, like the expensive special interest glossies, feed their particular markets” (p. 13). The grudging sound of this has something to do with Lawson’s attachment to the materiality of print – the way that magazines and newspapers can inhabit the world they describe. More generally it connects with her commitment to a particular kind of imagined community centred around the nation-state, and held together by public institutions such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. When she worries about the lack of diversity and freedom in the local media, she’s thinking primarily of the “mainstream” media – forms of communication that aim to address a large, heterogenous audience in a particular place.

It would be easily to dismiss this worry as old-fashioned, along with Lawson’s emphasis on the importance of “writing from where we are.” Does it matter these days “where we are” physically, when anybody with a modem can gain access to the vast global archive of information online? And if the Net has allowed new “virtual communities” to spring into being, doesn’t this again reduce the importance of older markers of identity such as nationality? Film critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum have certainly argued in this way (1), while local activists such as Angela Mitropolous have urged us to understand the Net as a new kind of space that subverts the idea of the nation, allowing individuals to speak directly for themselves rather than being “represented” (2) through conventional political structures.

Of course the Internet has done wonders in breaking down certain boundaries, while creating or reinforcing others (between English-speakers and everyone else, between those with modems and those without). A lot of energy and creativity has been poured into new online media forms, such as the Indymedia open-source websites that have proliferated internationally. At their best, these sites effectively mediate between the local and the global, bringing together diverse forms of on-the-spot reportage and analysis – written mainly by “ordinary” people rather than professional journalists.

There’s a temptation to get carried away with the idea of the Net as a utopian space, a transcendent realm where all things are possible. Yet it’s important to remember that participation in virtual communities is mainly voluntary, a matter of perceived affinity rather than mutual dependence. Outside the charmed circle remain all the other people who jostle against us day by day – people who may have little sympathy for our particular values and interests, but with whom we nonetheless have to live.

By contrast, Lawson’s vision of a possible future for the Australian nation is hopeful yet not at all utopian. Rather than finding solace in globally dispersed niche markets, she puts her faith (against the odds) in the idea of a functioning society, however frustrating and messy, where despite all our differences we might still manage to find something in common. Hence her favourite medium remains the wide-circulation, general-interest journal, centred on a particular region, where different concerns and registers of discourse are literally placed end-to-end, counter pointing each other in unpredictable ways.

Not that old and new notions of community are necessarily incompatible. As a regular Internet user, I’d argue it’s probably more useful to see the Net as a tool for negotiating paths within and between specific societies, rather than a way of transcending these societies. It’s easy to fantasise about an autonomous realm where individuals can communicate freely and transparently, but you only have to look at a few Indymedia postings to see that explorers of cyberspace are as weighed down with cultural baggage as anyone else. The excitement and difficulty of online writing has everything to do with the challenge of inventing new kinds of representation, bringing together multiple vocabularies while addressing readers who may share few beliefs or reference points. Like any communications medium, the Net is less a world in itself than a way of making connections and setting up movements, producing effects unbounded by the flat space of the screen.

The Fences Come Down

Woomera 2002

The shock is immediate, visual, physical. Against the blue sky, the orange of the desert might have been sprayed from an aerosol can, a landscape ideally suited to the raw, vivid palette of video. Surging bodies overflow the frame, and there’s the euphoria of action going all ways at once, while guerrilla journalists struggle to stay in step, permitting us no godlike perspective on the scene, no way to tell what might be happening at each moment except by following the response of the crowd, which becomes its own event, like a sports carnival where the spectators merge with the players. The sound is just as tumultuous, techno beats adding urgency to the militant hubbub, the rhythmic chants of “freedom,” passionate wailing from behind bars, and semi-official speeches, casually forceful or rigidly shrill, by those activists who briefly step aside to mark their place in History. A serious girl in pink plastic sunglasses turns to deliver her two-cents-worth to the camera: the detainees “haven’t seen anything like this before, and I don’t think the Australian people have seen anything like it either.” We zoom in on a young Afghan man with a red sash, passionately gesticulating from behind the inner fence, his words imperfectly subtitled – “I count my time here in Woomera. They put me in jail. My God, I am not lucky.” Then, before we know it, one of the fence’s upper bars has somehow been pried loose, and people are clambering out to freedom.

This is the Woomera 2002 video, produced by a collective from SKA TV – a Melbourne-based community television outfit who have been making and screening agitprop news reports for nearly a decade. The video documents the Woomera Autonomous Festival of Freedoms over Easter, a large-scale demonstration where over a thousand activists from various “affinity groups” came together in the “prohibited zone” just outside the South Australian town of Woomera. Primarily they were there to protest against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers imprisoned in the Woomera Detention Centre and elsewhere; they also wanted to draw attention to other issues such as nuclear testing on Australian soil, the dispossession of indigenous people from their land, and the mining of uranium.

Back in Melbourne, I had nothing to do with any of this. Or rather, I experienced the Woomera protests in the same way most people did: as a story in the media. Not necessarily the mainstream media, however: I spent a lot of that weekend logged onto the Internet, which was integral to the whole organisation of the protest from the outset. Immediately after the arrival of the protesters on the Thursday, a temporary Indymedia centre was set up at their camp, and contributions came flooding onto the site many times a day: text, photos, sound-bites, video; interviews with detainees, on-the-run analysis, breathless testimony to the speed of events; sarcastic or encouraging comments from casual Net surfers; messages of support from activist groups worldwide.

Indymedia was certainly the first media outlet to break the major news story of the protest, practically as it happened. In the evening of Good Friday, as buses of activists continued to arrive at the camp, word filtered through that the detainees were planning to hold their own protest at about six o’clock. Massing at the edge of the detention centre, a group of protesters began tugging at the outer perimeter fence, bringing it to the ground. For the next 20 minutes or so, the crowd flooded into the space between the inner and outer fences, only a single narrow barrier now separating them from the prisoners they had come to defend.

Maybe the editing misleads, but in the video the police seem to arrive at almost the same moment the breakout begins. A stray shot of a few cops sitting round on their horses evokes the iconography of a Western – and as is traditionally meant to happen in Westerns, the viewer’s grasp on the storyline is aided by colour-coded costumes. Caught between the mainly sober work clothes of the detainees and the thin blue line of police, the youthful protesters shimmer like a feral rainbow, decked out in clownish dreadlocks and fanciful sunhats. During most of the ensuing skirmish the distinction between the three groups is clear as day, but there are also moments where (as Lawson writes of a photo of the 1988 Aboriginal march for freedom) the colours are “mingled in strong sunlight” (p. 46) and it’s impossible to be sure who’s who.

It turns out part of the confusion was intentional: right after the breakout, a number of protesters, some themselves of Middle Eastern background, switched clothes with the escapees to confuse the police. Most of the 50 or so who made it outside the fence were recaptured the same day, but at the time of writing, a month later, around a dozen are apparently still at large.

Dancing In The Desert

At Woomera that day, several kinds of borders were crossed, or fences brought down. In making direct contact with the asylum seekers, the protesters could be said to have acted both as Australians and as members of an international community – acknowledging responsibility for the wrong done by their nation, while affirming solidarity with their fellow human beings. They could also be said to have issued a direct challenge to John Howard’s use of the term “we” – his claim to represent the decision-making power of the whole Australian people.

A different kind of breach of conventional boundaries was the conception of the protest as both a practical act of civil disobedience and a spectacular media event. Both in Australia and internationally, a lot of recent political activism has been influenced by the idea of culture-jamming – the recognition that “the enunciative act or representative moment is itself an active struggle” (3). For the intoxicated activists out there in the desert, and for the prisoners on the other side of the bars, face-to-face with the foreign strangers who were also allies and comrades, with fences toppling and bodies mingling, it may have seemed neither possible nor desirable to distinguish the symbolic from the material, poetry from politics, imaginative performance from rational discourse.

The escape from the detention centre was no mere symbol: freedom was genuinely fought for, and won. But as well as being real, this victory was also mythic. It’s hardly a total coincidence that this narrative of bondage and release was timed to unfold over the Easter weekend – even if the date was chosen mainly for reasons that were pragmatic rather than allegorical. Moreover, it’s plain to see that the contemporary myth of Woomera links back to the whole Gothic tradition in Australian art, literature and cinema: memories of our convict past, tales of lost children and suffering in the desert (4). Of course, none of these ways of reading the event should be taken as ‘natural’ or beyond discussion: indigenous commentators might not share the Western view of the desert as empty and barren, and some activists reportedly felt that it was inappropriate to mention Easter in relation to the protest, given the non-Christian backgrounds of many on both sides of the fence.

Yet there’s no doubt that Woomera 2002 was one of those privileged occasions when, as Lawson has it, “the sense of a great tide turning, of this moment we inhabit in time, becomes active in quite ordinary bodies” (p. 119). As if life were suddenly transformed into a movie – even a musical. Watching the Woomera video, I’m irresistibly reminded of Bill Routt’s description of Busby Berkeley’s dance numbers, where the crowd becomes a place of “creation, power and control… constituted by its communal action” (5) rather than deriving from a centre or being held in by walls. Though the SKA TV crew clearly put thought and craft into documenting the protest, the euphoria conveyed by the video has less to do with the niceties of editing and camerawork than with the event itself as an adventure in collective choreography, a mise en scène that takes on a life of its own. Before the cameras were switched on, cinema was already present in the glowing desert, the razor-wire fences, the chanting crowd: here and now in Australia, these images are automatically loaded with meaning, and it would be hard to resist their power no matter how they were filmed or why.

Purists might ask: is the Woomera 2002 video really an example of cinema? Who knows, who cares? Ever since the so-called digital revolution, it’s become obvious that we need to think about cinema in relation to other cultural practices (as Lawson does) rather than as an isolated, autonomous form of art. Yet in a wider sense the idea of cinema – which might be extended to cover video and TV, even the Net – is more powerful and relevant than ever. Any time we think about the relations between symbolic practices and material conditions, we’re potentially thinking cinematically: the power of cinema is precisely the ability to make these relations visible, and to set them in motion.

‘I Think It Would Be Fun To Run A Newspaper’

Citizen Kane

The line quoted above is (of course) from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). It’s also one of the epigraphs for another book by Lawson: The Archibald Paradox, her classic study of the 1890s heyday of the Bulletin magazine and its editor. For Lawson, as for Simone de Beauvoir, few things could be more deeply desired than the “fun” of running a magazine or newspaper: working with kindred spirits for a common purpose, striving to transform the world by describing it, engaging with life as intensely and creatively as possible. Making this desire explicit is one more way of redrawing the lines that conventionally separate the personal and the political, the symbolic and the material, or the “imaginative/performative” and the “rational/discursive” (p. 118).

Lawson continually puts these distinctions into question through her own practice as a writer, as well as her praise of the unorthodox, polemical non-fiction produced by figures as diverse as Chomsky, Williams, Godard, Goenawan, the Australian critic Dorothy Green, and Beauvoir herself. Lawson doesn’t take any of the members of this pantheon as direct models; rather, she uses them as examples of what has been achieved in specific unrepeatable situations, and as a way of clearing a space for her own work.

Interestingly, while Lawson complains about the lack of opportunity in the Australian media for exploratory, hybrid non-fiction writing, other commentators might claim just the opposite. In a withering examination of the cult of the “public intellectual,” David Carter argues that for contemporary Australian publishers the personal essay, more than any other genre, has come to define the received idea of “literature”:

The essay is invoked as a mode free of the conventions of scholarly work and free of ideology, neither documentary nor fiction, but diverse, free-ranging, open-ended, both intensely personal and public, intellectual and sensuous, immediate and highly elaborated, self-conscious and street-wise – the genre that transcends genre. (6)

Take away the sarcasm, and this ideal might not be so far from Lawson’s own aspirations. Yet a couple of key points need to be made here, marking the difference between Lawson and more strictly ‘literary’ writers (such as, say, Helen Garner). I don’t for a moment think that Lawson would see her writing as “free of ideology,” and her insistence on the limits of her particular point of view helps to guard against the claim to transcendence which Carter so suspects.

Crucially, too, these essays don’t finally depend on our interest in Lawson as an individual – as if a display of what Carter calls “ethical wholeness” were an end in itself. You could say about Lawson’s authorial voice what she says about one of her fictional characters: “For her the private ground is not a place to dwell; it’s only the place you start from” (p. 144). Skimming across the book, you can glean a digest of the author’s career as youthful rebel, journalist, single mother, activist, academic. From the fiction especially, you get a vivid sense of the struggle to maintain an independent identity as writer and thinker, keeping the channels of communication open despite all the stresses and fractures of anyone’s life. But that’s the point, that the life could be anyone’s: the energy of Lawson’s writing is most often directed outward, toward the shared world of debate, rather than toward introspection for its own sake.

Still, Lawson obviously doesn’t share Carter’s academic loyalties and his no-nonsense distaste for the ‘literary’ – as if the appearance of academic neutrality didn’t depend on its own set of literary conventions. As should be clear by now, Lawson is a thinker who is intensely aware of the importance of several kinds of boundary – spatial, social, and disciplinary. But if the gaps between differently defined identities can’t be ignored or magically transcended, nor can these identities be allowed to remain stable or static. We need tools that will allow us to engage in different kinds of conversations, to negotiate paths and carve out new spaces for discourse. In a word, we need to master the art and craft of rhetoric – which is much more than ‘fine writing’ in a conventional literary sense.

It hardly needs pointing out that Lawson is a superb writer and rhetorician, though she rarely indulges in obvious kinds of stylistic display. The prose of these essays is lively, brisk, conversational, unobtrusively attuned to rhythm and cadence; punctuation does a lot of work here, typically in dense multipartite sentences studded with brief parallel clauses. The text incorporates a kind of running commentary on itself, making space for continual glancing suggestions, qualifications, interjections from other voices. You can feel the author’s pleasure in managing a complex burden of meaning, keeping the syntax confident and lucid, shifting adroitly between different modes of discourse.

By insisting on the continuity between ‘literature’ and other linguistic structures, Lawson reminds us that the perceptions of the individual writer are always tied in with the larger patterns of ideology and culture: every metaphor, every verbal choice has countless echoes. So language matters, style matters: when assembled with sufficient skill and conviction, words are able to change the way we view the world, which is one way of changing the world itself. Homing in on acts and moments of symbolic import, Lawson rewrites them for us, giving us a chance to understand them differently.

This is real rhetorical work, the work of the critical journalist – a figure Lawson might wish to distinguish from both the academic scholar and the lofty “public intellectual.” To be a journalist, in this sense, is to understand writing as a limited but real form of power, exercised from a particular point in a particular system rather than from above the fray. Like the filmmakers in the front line at Woomera, Lawson is constantly aware that for herself and others, the “representative moment is itself an active struggle.” Working in specific discursive modes within the existing media, caught in the swirl of information that surrounds us all, the journalist seizes whatever resources are available and does her best to imagine new possibilities, extending the borders of the imaginary nation we all have to live in.

For more information on the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia, go here.

To obtain copies of the Woomera 2002 video, visit the SKA TV website.


  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Nobody Here But Us,” Chicago Reader, June 17 2001
  2. Angela Mitropolous, “Movements Against The Enclosures: The Virtual Is Preamble (Some Notes),” Rogue States (collectively edited pamphlet), Spacestation Press, 2001, pp 42-45
  3. Luther Blissett, “How Do I Look?” Rogue States, pp 46-48
  4. See, for example, Roslynn D. Haynes, Seeking The Centre: The Australian Desert In Literature, Art and Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, ch. 10
  5. Bill Routt, “Demolishing A Wall,” Senses Of Cinema 14, May-June 2001
  6. David Carter, “Public Intellectuals, Book Culture, And Civil Society,” Australian Humanities Review, December 2001.

About The Author

Jake Wilson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer, a film reviewer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former co-editor of Senses of Cinema. His monograph Mad Dog Morgan was published in 2015 by Currency Press and the National Film and Sound Archive. His website can be found at www.jakewilson.com.au/.

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