Uluru: a rock that torments Australian consciousness | Paul Daley


Sometimes a text will captivate us and point us inward about how we connect to the geographic, spiritual and emotional places where we live.

This will turn our minds and force us to confront existential questions about belonging to a continent made up of many nations.

You might think you know your homeland. But faced with its vastness and apparent emptiness, you may also shudder at the realization that you are an alien in most of it, and you may never really hope to know or understand it.

Mark McKenna pushes us towards this place, geographically and as a state of contemplation, in Back to Uluru, a book whose subtitle promises murder, a hidden story and “a story that goes to the heart of the nation”. This is all that. Yet he also elegantly transcends all of this by leading non-Indigenous Australians to a bewildering and nascent realization that they know or barely understand the essence of their country.

McKenna, like most Australians, lives on the coastal plains. The “edge”, he calls it. But as he turns his gaze to the interior of the continent – to the tourist mecca that has become “Ayer’s Rock,” to the violent border cop Bill McKinnon and his victim Yokununna, to the conflict between tribal law and the white law, towards dispossession and legitimate return to Uluru of the traditional owners, the Anangu – the middle becomes the real edge.

The interior, the seduction of the white explorer and the trailblazer by him, his impulse – and failure – to conquer it, is a central part of non-Indigenous history, the creation and definition of national myths. But the interior also serves as a metaphor for existential desire, awareness, and the great mystery (for the most part) of what over 60,000 years of the continent’s indigenous occupation, belief and experience have posed on this land. .

Other great writers have faced it before – this interior as real place and emotional / spiritual space. Patrick white Johann Ulrich Voss – as Ludwig Leichardt and other real-life explorers – was impelled with vanity by the impulse of a conqueror to dance with fate.

That White imagined this continental interior from his own side in Sydney is testament to his powers of literary evocation.

“White had never ventured into the hinterland until his book [Voss] brings dazzling dimensions, and never would ”, wrote Nicholas Shakespeare, although White was influenced by many other things, including Paintings by Sidney Nolan about the calamitous Burke and Wills expedition.

As the Christ-like Voss doubted the spiritual self-awareness of his fellow expeditionists and “advanced into this vast waiting land, be it stony deserts, shrouded mountains or voluptuous and fleshy forests ”he knew that“ his soul had to experience it first. .. the atrocious passage in its interior ”.

Having turned his back on Australia after WWII, George Johnston in My Brother Jack contemplated the mythical power over men from this very interior, writing: “The continent is cruel and ruthless, four-fifths of which are uninhabitable. . The vast dry heart of the earth is dead, and it is on this sinister intractable powerhouse that the teeth of adventure have long been blunted. Here the journeys are over, the pioneer flame has vanished and failed, hopes and ambitions are buried under the sand. It’s the only challenge the adventurous Australian has had to retreat to, return to the tight, more secure skin of his coastal lands, and he’s been forced to turn his back, because he owes it, to the wilderness. invincible behind him.

Johnston was right about many things, but wrong that the interior was “dead.” He has the deepest earthly connection to human life. And the means to survive. This is, of course, for those with the knowledge.

McKenna – with a powerful force from the native Australian antiquity that animates much of his famous writings on national identity, the future, and the past – is heading towards the center.

“Today, leading the trail of white man’s tears to the center, it seems the country has rejected any attempt to conquer it,” he writes, those evocative white man tears having evaporated as he they flowed in the timeless traces of the native dream (the “Songlines” for which the Englishman Bruce Chatwin had to endure the “horror” of Alice Springs to even begin to understand) which crisscross the interior.

“The country has defied all attempts to describe it. It seemed impossible to come here and not be faced with the ultimate questions of human existence. The center was not so much a place as a presence – a presence that reminds us that we are not at the center of things. A center that exposes our pride and situates our existence in a vast context of geological time. No Acropolis or Doge’s Palace could ever stand here. The earth itself is the teacher, ”writes McKenna.

There was an indefinable sense of this scholarship among early Europeans when they first saw Uluru, both existentially denigrating and a great wonder of the world – a natural cathedral of the mind, of cosmology, of geology. and ancient humanity.

“When Europeans first discovered Uluru, they often searched in vain for the language to describe a place they found incomprehensible. Neither the words nor the pictures seemed to do him justice. The mere fact of laying eyes on the rock had to be silenced. Convinced from the first moment that Uluru was one of the “ most majestic wonders of the natural world, ” but lacking the intimate knowledge of its indigenous guardians, the Anangu, visitors struggled to convey the deeper emotions that ‘they felt in the presence of the rock.

Not much has changed among the pilgrims who flock there to “feel” something – a sense? – and to meet again.

Even the most heretical towards native feelings seem to have understood a great deal about Uluru. That’s why they vowed to keep climbing everywhere until they were forbidden to do so in 2019.

Bad cop McKinnon got it right. But he defiled the place in the worst possible way – with a murder that helped drive out the Anangu. By assassinating Yokununna in one of his caves and secreting the truth from the official archives.

The boulder tormented McKinnon’s conscience. He could not, despite the lies he told himself, an official investigation and a family, finally shun the truth of his actions. His personal archives, secret in a Brisbane garage, don’t lie. Historian McKenna found it. Just as he found Yokununna’s skull in a room dedicated to the preservation of the remains of thousands of Indigenous people at the South Australian Museum – testimony to countless other crime scenes.

Uluru now stands as the most important site of national consciousness, the place from which emerged in 2017 the Uluru Declaration of the Heart calling for a voice in parliament, treaties and truth.

The rejection of this call for Uluru by the great Whitefella government reverberates metaphorically like the nation’s unstable interior, meanwhile. His troubled conscience if you will.

McKenna’s short and elegant book guides us on this difficult internal journey to cope with it.


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