Engaging with Asia and Melanesia: A prologue

This prologue, and the two stories that follow, represent a small part of a much larger work that is to be published in the near future. I hope you enjoy the reads, even if some of the material is a little confronting.

Australian engagement with Asia and Melanesia spans a vast time. Aboriginal Australians are descendants of a diverse group of people who journeyed through the region at the very dawn of human awareness. Western historians have sometimes been reticent in their willingness to accept the evidence of a long and varied Aboriginal contact with the regions to our north, but time will reveal more of its extent.  Such ancient occupance is already clearly inferred in such things as the rock art sites of Arnhemland and the ancient trade in intellectual property manifest in the emergence of the dugout canoe. Their presence and custodianship is everywhere present and their customary land rights affirmed and undeniable. They are the very foundation of modern Australia.

Those Australians, and their descendants, who have arrived since 1778, at first largely of European heritage, have completed a far shorter journey. Some still must return to the lands of their origins to make sense of their place in the world. Many continue to look directly to Europe, but as a quest for identity this is as if through a glass darkly, a glass full of the muddied waters of a self that, in a sense, belongs elsewhere but is now grounded in Australia. Such quests can serve to obscure the subtle yet compelling forces that shape us and offer us new meanings of self, here in our region.

No doubt the increasing numbers of Australians with more recent origins in the Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and the Pacific region also face new challenges of identity blending their own traditions with those that have already begun to shape an Australian identity.

This preamble is written for a suite of stories about a people who have begun to construct a new lense, one based on the experience of seeing the wider world through that which surrounds us. The stories rest on a fundamental premise, that engagement with the other takes place in both tangible and rational ways but must also be negotiated along intangible and non-rational pathways. All of the stories are chronologically related and incremental. While they can be read in any order, the most illuminating way of reading them is from first to last.

Balinese people have a deep and explicit understanding of the interplay of the seen and the unseen realms, they refer to Sekala, Niskala – The seen, The unseen. My own understanding of Asia is tempered by a period of some 20 years of intensive commuting between Sydney and Indonesia and at times maintaining a household and living in Indonesia for long periods. The nature of my work allowed me to travel over much of the archipelago, Nusantara as it was known before Europeans arrived. My experience of Melanesia is less extensive and, apart from a journey to Irian Jaya, what I know of it has been gleaned from my own reading or acquired through contact with material culture and the firsthand accounts of my father and grandfather.

My own time in Asia and Melanesia has had a significant impact on the way I see the world.  It has brought me into contact with the practices of the region’s primal religions and also the more recent expressions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. It has allowed me to step outside Western paradigms. From this place and subsequent encounters with Egypt, Turkey and finally Greece, I have found my way to Orthodox Christianity and a point in life where I’ve come to acknowledge that the mystery of creation cannot be fully expressed with the tools of western scientism.

Perhaps the following two quotations sum up best where I stand in my approach to this body of work.

. . . there is an invisible dimension to all things visible, and a beyond to everything material.  All creation is a palpable mystery, an immense incarnation of cosmic proportions. [1]

All things worth knowing about the world, in fact, came in incompatible pairs: position and momentum, energy and time, wave and particle.  Knowledge of one somehow destroyed the possibility of knowing the other. [2]

Exactly what comprises the unseen realm varies. In Asia and Melanesia matters that we might interpret as part of micro-ecology may have a spiritual explanation.  Here we are likely to eschew the entire notion of magic as nonsense, yet in Asia and Melanesia what we might regard as myths and misconceptions often have the power of reality.

There is another sense in which I’ve used the unseen world, this is its application in the political domain.  During the Howard years, and central to the Howard Doctrine, were several basic beliefs that could only be held as reality if one was to completely ignore the elephants in the room.

For me the Howard Doctrine rapidly unraveled, post Bali Bombing.  This was a period in which any last challenge that it might have presented to my sense of reality was totally dispelled.  My own involvement in the relief effort following the bombing of October 2002, was a watershed experience.  Ironically it crystallized much of this work in my mind.  Such was the impact of the bombing that I’ve written two pieces on that time and one set in the immediate aftermath.

I begin this journey in 1914 with the story Sid Thompson and D Company the story of a little known Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF).  This was the first Australian force to engage the enemy during WWI, undertaking landings in the Bismarck Archipelago.  I’ve concluded this part of the journey with a work Headland that reappraises sacred space in Australia.

[1]   Chryssavgis, J.        Beyond the Shattered Image.  Light & Life Publishing. Minineapolis, Minnesota. 1999. ISBN 1-880971-42-9

[2]   Overbye, D.            Lonely hearts of the cosmos: The quest for the secret of the universe. Picador. London. 1993 pp. 109

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