Essay: 'Port Arthur: Where Meanings Collide'

- first published in Island, 67; and subsequently, in Hay's 'Vandiemonian Essays' (2002, Walleah Press)

Three weeks before Martin Bryant dealt in death at Port Arthur, I visited there with Barry Lopez. As we travelled down the Tasman Highway the great writer explained his interest in Port Arthur. He was concerned that his writing had paid insufficient heed to the dark side of the human condition, and he planned an ambitious, globally-scoped project on places where the red savagery of which humans are capable had received full, awful expression.

Barry Lopez’s first reaction to Port Arthur was one of disappointment. Clear, benign skies; tourists in large, complacent numbers; expanses of grassy parkland in the mode of Capability Brown.

Along the way, Barry Lopez was also making an impression on me. Here, I thought, was a man of profound and arresting understandings. Many people have written soaring prose about land, about natural systems, about the shifting qualities of human engagement with land and nature. None, though, has so powerfully rendered the shaping power of the land. Few, I think, have ever seen so deeply into the heart of things, and told of them to greater effect.

And so it was that, by the time we had wandered the Commandant’s House and come to the Penitentiary, his first impressions were working loose. At the Hospital, and on the adjacent Flogging Ground, they took the tide and slipped away. At the Model Prison the revolution was complete. Here, indeed - Barry was convinced of it - was a place of dark infamy.

Two days later, jammed behind a bench in Knopwood’s Tavern, Barry put the view to Richard Flanagan that Tasmania was the custodian of an important truth; one of which, in due course, the wider world would have need. Richard seemed sceptical. A whiff of new ageism here, perhaps? A soft-edgedness that Richard’s ruthless intelligence approached with care?

But I thought I knew what Barry meant - even if I didn’t know what he meant.

The Port Arthur grieving will be long and unimaginably hard. Perhaps some of those most tangibly touched will find the way too dauntingly long and steep. Perhaps this is even how it will be for some of those less obviously affected. But most people will recover, more or less, and the intense time of mourning will end.

And after the grieving will come the more measured, intellectual task of finding for the events of April 28-29 a context in time and space.

That will be very difficult. For a start, Tasmania's intellectual community is perilously small. The island exports most of its home-grown intelligentsia, whilst many of its more visible expatriate intellectuals find their origins to be at best an impediment to be overcome, at worst a source of embarrassment or even shame. Peter Conrad finds (perhaps ‘found’: he has recently recanted) his place of birth risible, pathetic, whilst for others it is a boring, stifling place - and certainly in no way exceptional. Meanwhile, a large proportion of Tasmania's resident intellectual community - particularly the professional intellectuals employed at the University of Tasmania - are not Tasmanians, and remain overwhelmingly preoccupied with the world beyond Bass Strait.

Even more importantly, there is the formidable difficulty of making sense of Port Arthur's most recent chapter of horror within the context of an identity that itself remains juvenile; that itself is in urgent need of the attention of a new generation willing to engage in identity construction, and to do so unencumbered by the baggage of inherited ideologies of history.

But is it really the job of a community's intellectuals to construct that community's historically tenacious identity? Does the community not do this itself, unselfconsciously, as it goes about its myriad daily interactions, engaging in constant and continuous interpretations of itself to itself?

Neither and both, I think. Certainly any group of intellectuals alienated from the community in which it is housed would not be able to construct an identity for that community which was greatly at odds with how the community sees itself. Community identity is, then, largely a vernacular construct. But such constructs tend to the populist, the superficial and the celebratory, and are rarely reflective or self-critical. Without rigorous intellectual input they easily degenerate into jingoism, a community's source of pride reduced to (in Australia) how many people it supplies to the Test team, or to the Olympic squad, or to AFL player lists.

The intellectual must work with the received wisdom of the collective consciousness, having faith that, most of the time, the community will tack to the right wind. But, as Edward Said pertinently noted in the 1993 Reith Lectures, the public intellectual must never put solidarity before criticism; must rather 'ask questions, make distinctions, restoring to memory all those things that tend to be overlooked or walked past in the rush to collective judgement and action'. (And we are only talking about the intellectual who makes of her or himself a public resource here; the invisible intellectual, the one whose community consists of five individuals squirrelled into other high-tech holes elsewhere on the planet, and with identical fine-point obsessions, may have his uses - it is almost always a 'he' - but he is lost to the community within which, by accident, he finds himself.)

In Tasmania the intellectual component of the community has never been large enough, or interested enough, or robust enough, to mount the requisite challenge to an uncritical and celebratory construction of Tasmanian identity. It has, in fact, collaborated in and forged the cases for those immature ideological constructions, feeling every bit as shamed and threatened by the enormity of the past as those humbler folk who denied to their children knowledge of the very existence of 'tainted' forebears - in the case of my great-grandfather, himself no paragon of respectability, still living ex-convict parents within what was, even then, an easy day's travel. The intellectual component of the Tasmanian community has been complicit in the extraction from memory of 'all those things that tend to be overlooked'; it has been at the head of the column flying past 'in the rush to collective judgement'.

So it is that Tasmania has never come to terms with its past. That past has the stature of a dark family secret - quite literally a dark family secret - the half-brother bogeyman boarded up out of sight in the attic. He/it is shame for our bastard birth as a prison for the unwanted dregs of the British slums and our subsequent legacy of depravity hard upon vileness, brutality fast upon atrocity. He/it is institutionalised sodomist rape, its echoes clearly audible in the hysteria that surrounded the 1990s debate about the legal status of sodomy. He/it is the unbearable legacy of brutal dispossession and the near-complete genocide of those whose land this was. He/it is a weight of guilt that could not be borne.

And so we pretended that he/it - the he/it prowling about in the boarded-up attic - never was. As the island’s newly self-constructed ‘Tasmanians’ set out to establish a society of rectitude and priggishness extraordinary even by High Victorian standards, the awful connotations of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ were first spurned, then rejected, and the very existence of the dark past was denied. ‘Nothing of unusual impact had taken place in the colony’, wrote T.C. Just in a pamphlet produced for the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition; indeed ‘there seems literally no past’. And all over the island the counterparts of my great-grandfather were denying the very existence of their parents so that it could be just so. Complete, utter, denial.

We kept this up for years, our enfeebled intellectuals leading from the front. And then, when denial became, despite itself, no longer credible, we invented other myths behind which truth could screen. The past, we told ourselves, was really quite ordinary, rather idyllic in fact, and those spawn of the Jago (and its urban and rural equivalents) who were sent to the Spring Hill road gang, or assigned to the employ and tyrannical mercies of cruel and sexually rapacious landholders, or incarcerated in penal establishments characterised by bone-gripping cold (like the Cascades Female Factory) and the most cutthroat and debasing of pecking orders (such as pertained at Port Arthur) were ‘jolly lucky’ that they now had such a pleasant lot instead of having to suffer freedom back home.

There is also a more recent period of 'triumphalist' reconstruction. Here the ferocity of the past is acknowledged, but it is taken as a source of immense pride that a community modern and prosperous and of surpassing respectability has, by its own admirable resourcefulness, been forged from such moral and material degradation.

None of these constitute an authentic accommodation to the past. None involve a mature identity-construction; an uncontrived assimilation of the comparatively comfortable present to the seriously compromised past. All are juvenile responses. All represent an ongoing pathology in Tasmanians’ construction of themselves. All are attempts to avoid confronting the unbearably real; to evade acceptance of the share of guilt that necessarily attaches to living off a harvest reaped in parasitical abundance in the present but sown in atrocity in the past. (At the same time we must deal responsibly with that guilt so that it does not overwhelm us; does not prevent our acting as responsible and morally-informed citizens in a world where the skills of morally-informed citizenship are coming under gathering stress.)

A correspondent from Canberra has written to me of ‘the feeling I’ve had when visiting Tasmanian relatives - that there is a sort of black hole in their psyches, a pit never to be looked into’. That black hole is the unfaced shame and guilt about a real past; it is our refusal to look square at the past and see it for what it is. Unless and until we do that, unless we stop looking at ourselves and the world through filters of comfort, unless we learn to take full and responsible regard for the consequences that attach to the choices we have made and continue to make, we will not, as a small and vulnerable community at the periphery, be competent to survive and succeed in this new and unrecognisably dynamic emerging world. We know little of the shape that world will ultimately asssume - but there is unlikely to be a place at its table for those who systematically kid themselves.

We had just begun to do something about this. We had just begun to reach towards a mature understanding of what it means to be Tasmanian - one that neither denies the past, nor prettifies it, nor wallows in an orgy of debilitating guilt.

For this we needed Port Arthur. Port Arthur was the tangible icon through which a mature accommodation with the past could be reached. It is not ideal for this task, for Port Arthur was a male establishment - though perhaps, given the exclusionary maleness of early white society, even this, perversely, makes it iconistically appropriate. And it is tangibly there. It is not an obscure and neglected ruin reclaimed by the bush. It is a place that draws people to it, an ‘asset’, a ‘vital economic resource’. It looms large. If we could come to grips with Port Arthur, then, we could exorcise all the unfaced demons leering over the shoulder of the nineteenth century. We could attain adulthood.

Or so we could have done until a young man of violence, a young man very much of the present, wrote the most recent and probably the most awful chapter in Port Arthur’s history. But this latest atrocity is more than just another chapter in a familiar book. So potent is the latest overlay of horror that it could entirely expunge the Port Arthur of the past from contemporary perception. Port Arthur is no longer Tasmania’s - perhaps Australia’s - most important cultural artefact; a multi-layered, complex medium for intersection with our past. It is now the site of one of recent history’s worst single-gunman massacres. It is a place where meanings collide.

This has both local and wider-community repercussions. Except in the short term, it is not likely that there will be a drop in tourist numbers. Is it business as usual, then? If so, it will be a rather bizarre business - for whilst visitors listen with a quarter of their minds to Tales of Old Van Diemen’s Land, the other three-quarters will wonder where yesterday’s bodies lay. Besides, business as usual will be yet another act of denial.

In fact, at the time of writing (a mere sixteen days after the massacre) it is fairly clear that it will not entirely be business as usual. It has been announced that the ghost tours are to be continued, though in a modified form. As for Beating the Retreat, it would surely be an inappropriate and grossly insensitive act to ever again discharge machines for killing at Port Arthur. There has already been considerable discussion of what should be done with and to the cafe and its site. The massacre will, then, be built into site interpretation. For the guides and other staff charged with non-static interpretation this will present a particularly formidable challenge.

The attraction of denial nevertheless remains, and it is still the old, the original denial, the denial of that earlier dire past, that portends; and now it is augmented by a happening in the present that threatens to overwhelm the tangible presence of the past at Port Arthur. Management of the Port Arthur site has always been about denial. The wide, welcoming sweep of benign lawn, and the restorative love and care bestowed upon the cottages of the civil and military establishments to the neglect of the core convict buildings, are powerful evidences of this. So, too, are the ghost tours and Beating the Retreat; trivialisers and parasitic feeders upon the real sufferings of real men in the real past - and a fairly recent past at that.

The three phases of denial detailed above are largely contiguous in time, but all survive into the present. The pull of denial, the first and longest-lived phase, is particularly strong. It is to be found in the persistent call in recent radio talkback for the tollgate to come down so that Port Arthur can again become ‘a nice family picnic place’. The initial transformation of Port Arthur (through the agency of those omnipresent lawns) into ‘a nice family picnic place’ was a particularly successful act of denial, one which has hugely impeded the process of coming to terms with an already ambiguous past through engagement with an already ambiguous icon.

Other themes emerging from radio talkback and newspaper letter columns are equally ominous. Typical suggestions for the Broad Arrow site are ‘a nice fountain’, ‘a rose garden’, ‘facilities and programs designed to highlight the positive elements of the peninsula rather than the unnatural and negative experiences so foreign to our way of our life’. These are all ideas that evince a determination to not deny the awful present (excepting the last suggestion, which involves denial of both past and present), but which, in their desire to erect a stereotypically modern ‘haven of peace’ memorial, take no cognizance of the place's prior character. The wretched events of 28-29 April must become part of Port Arthur’s evolving meaning. But they must not be allowed to obliterate the complexities that constitute its existing, multifold and on-going meaning. The dreadful doings of today’s time must become part of that larger context - with which, in time, they will be seen to be largely congruent. If we have the courage to confront the painfulness of the present - and it seems we have - there is no reason why we cannot similarly face the painfulness of the past.

In confronting these complexities of meaning one intriguing question quickly interposes. Is there inherent evil in Port Arthur? Can the events of April 1996 be explained in terms of an elemental horror called back upon itself?

I only spoke with a few of the mainland journalists in Tasmania to cover the tragedy, but in each case this atavistic idea loomed large in their seeing of it. Most suppressed such suggestions in their reportage, but one, Cameron Forbes, gave prominent voice to it in the Weekend Australian, and used a fragment of poem of mine in the doing. Fair enough, too; I have, after all, been writing a long poem about Port Arthur in which various buildings are anthropomorphised and accorded 'appropriate' characters. And so a month ago I might have seriously entertained the possibility that something nasty and primeval lodged within the old stone walls. But around my kitchen table I politely contested the point with Cameron Forbes. Port Arthur is a sombre place; potent, in at least one important sense - that was conceded. But not atavistically evil. No dark symbolism should be attached to the fact that a man lusting after death should have chosen Port Arthur as his killing field. So I argued. And as the days have passed since then, this position has firmed.

Port Arthur’s essence, as a place, is a human essence. It is a sad and a cruel essence, and it speaks movingly to people who approach it with a receptive openness. It affects and disturbs. It changes how people see things. But it is a human creation, and it is hedged about with human limitations. Only in the wildest and most morbid reaches of the imagination - the imagination of an H.P. Lovecraft, say - could one credibly hold that it has the power to actually possess; to be a primary shaping factor upon the most dire of behaviours.

And if this is so of a human place, still less is an atavistic interpretation true of the land itself - for only humans are creators and harbourers of evil. That is why the bestowal of an essential malignancy upon the Tasmanian landscape by those Tasmanian-bred intellectuals who have grown to resent their Tasmanianness is just plain silly. This applies, for example, to the early Conrad, who was wont to argue that the land is essentially hostile; essentially anti-human (though I always thought it somewhat paradoxical that Conrad, simultaneously as he shuddered away from the land, also bemoaned European settlement’s taming and desecration of it). And it applies to an expression as recent as last Saturday’s Age, wherein a Graeme Hetherington poem lets me know what a scheming, heinous intelligence Mount Wellington is.

Richard Flanagan has depicted Tasmania as Australia’s psychological sink - a repository for all the displaced insecurities and cankering guilts that lurk behind the veneer of uneasy Sydney (etcetera) worldliness. Perhaps this explains the eagerness with which some mainland journalists took up the ‘essential evil’ interpretation of the Port Arthur massacre.

But on one point the viewfield of the mainland journalists was privileged. Because they have not worn the ideological blinkers we Tasmanians have made for ourselves, they were much puzzled by our own frequent assertions that the massacre represented ‘an end of our innocence’. They saw better than us that innocence was not a quality that pertained to Tasmania - and certainly that it did not and could not be said to have pertained to Port Arthur. That we could have seen the tragedy in such terms much bemused them. And rightly so. It is ludicrous to talk of an ‘end of innocence’; of ‘unnatural and negative experiences’ being ‘so foreign to our way of life’, as a letter to the Mercury would have it. That we could so comprehensively believe such swill testifies to the tenacity of Tasmania’s culture of denial.

So many meanings. Picnic place. Disneyland. Economic resource. Autumn innocence, violated. Pit of Hell, where demons stir. Rose garden memorial for the newly dead. None adequate. Each construction contrived or misguided - or both.

And, suppressed, ignored, there is Port Arthur, the tangible icon through which Tasmanians might finally confront the legacy of the past and attain a responsible adulthood. Perhaps this is not, now, possible. Perhaps the crucial medium of Port Arthur is no longer available for this purpose. Perhaps the old ghosts have fled, unfaced. Perhaps, ineluctably, Port Arthur has a new meaning now. I hope it is not so.

And thus I return to Barry Lopez’s enigmatic remark in a Hobart waterfront pub. Does Tasmania hold stewardship of an important truth, one which the entire world will one day need? If so, what might it be?

I can say this much. As I watched Tasmania confront today's awfulness; face its deep and abiding need to mourn; meet the hard but necessary political consequences, I was confirmed in my deep attachment to a place and its people. And as it became clear that my community was still intact and robust - notwithstanding the pressures that elsewhere are fast privatising geographical bonds of community out of existence - it occurred to me that here was a community with such reserves of fortitude and resilience that the resolution of the insecurities lodged in its unfaced past is well within its capacities.

And my rejection of the patently self-serving expatriate intellectual’s denial of any notion of Tasmanian especialness was also confirmed. Even if that especialness lies in nothing more than the distillation of themes and trends that are more diffuse and muted and entangled in wider Australia, this is still a Tasmanian especialness. But there is something about this place, something rare and strong, that is, I think, more than Australia writ small. I stand outside the Shipwright’s House at Port Arthur, here where Old Hooey lived, that marvellous man of cross-grained compassion, and I look across to Point Puer where great-great grandfather John Frimley toiled as a tetchy, uncooperative fifteen year old boy convict, and I know that Tasmania is different, that its way in the world is different, that its meaning is different, and that I owe it to John Frimley to find and pattern out that difference.

I would not argue that this especialness puts Tasmania in splendid isolation; that its concerns are not the world’s concerns. Indeed, the tragedy that has so recently been visited upon us, in this place of old meanings, has not a little to do with the disintegrative trends gathering pace throughout the entire industrialised world.

As the nation-state creaks at the seams, the search for purpose in life devolves upon what Zygmunt Bauman calls postulated communities, perhaps more appropriately termed specific interest communitites, not (even anti-) geographical in basis, and greatly fostered by the explosion in electronic communication technologies, most significantly by the internet. As the site of meaning and personal allegiance shifts from the ailing, failing nation-state to special interest communities, the scope for social disintegration and the rule of the gun is greatly enhanced. 'Neo-tribalism is bad news for all wishing to see discourse and argument replacing knives and bombs as tools of self-assertion', writes Bauman.

This is a profound, if flawed, insight. The nation-state itself was a major force for alienation, a bureaucratiser and an accumulater of power that greatly undermined the improving skills of liberal citizenship, and that set in place exploitative, instrumental relationships among people and between people and the natural world. To a very large extent the recovery of authentic being is commensurate with the recovery of community. But this means the recovery of geographic community, with its requirement that people of widely differing temperament, interest and outlook engage in the mutually-regarding dialogue that ultimately enhances the human condition.

Bauman's 'postulated' communities encourage precisely the opposite qualities. No call is made to reach out to the other, to find links of understanding with and mutual tolerance for difference. The narrowly self-reinforcing nature of the meanings of privatised, geographically non-specific communities serves the psychology of demonisation - the dehumanisation of the other. Step outside your triple deadlocked door and there is the demonised other on your very doorstep.

Apart from fundamentalist religions, the most paradigmatic of the plethora of emergent 'postulated communities' is the gun lobby - socially and sexually stunted losers, unable to cut the democratic mustard in pluralist communities, requiring for their insecurities the internet-supplied, privatised reinforcements of a wacky, self-massaging, idiot ideology from the US of A. Shut down the internet, put down Lock, Stock and Barrel, and out there, next door and down the street, is the enemy. And so we get Port Arthur, 28 April 1996.

In the wake of 28 April 1996, Tasmanians reasserted the importance of community - in its authentic, geographic sense - just as the prompt response of John Howard can be seen as a determined reassertion of the worth and relevance of the nation-state. And I am convinced that Barry Lopez was right. In the confusion of meanings refracted through and by Port Arthur, there is an elusive truth which Tasmanians hold in trust for the world. It is to do with authentic living within thoughtfully constructed structures of community. It is to do with the establishment of respectful, other-regarding relationships within the wider community of biological life. It is to do with the organic maintenance of the past's shaping presence into the future. That, I think, is what Barry Lopez meant.

But what did he mean? I don't know, and the quest for it is life's purpose. I almost certainly won't find it. My children might. Or their children. To them I would offer a solitary piece of advice. Start at Port Arthur.

Other essays by Pete Hay

Half-Time with Stout John
What I did on my Holiday
Notes Within Shadow

Poems by Pete Hay

Flower Cone
Girl Reading Lorca at the Mirador San Nicolas

Interviews with Pete Hay

Conversations: an interview with Pete Hay and Richard Flanagan (1995)
A conversation with Pete and Anna Hay (2003)
Island to island: an interview with Pete Hay (2011)



BEACH, Eric: Weeping for Lost Babylon
DE PAOR, Louis: Goban Cre is Cloch/Sentences of Earth and Stone

Launch speeches

MATHISON, Robyn: To Be Eaten By Mice
ROBERTS, Bruce: In the Church of Latter Day Consumers
SANT, Andrew: The Islanders