Chimeras invade the dreaming
The cultural collision between Aborigines and Europeans is revisited in a new book, writes Nicolas Rothwell The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World By Robert Kenny Scribe, 384pp, $ 39.95
ONE evening in the last days of January 1860, at the Ebenezer mission in the depths of the flat, still Wimmera, a young Aboriginal man of the Wotjobaluk tribe, known as Pepper, approached Brother Friedrich Spieseke with momentous news.
After hearing and turning over in his mind the passage in the New Testament describing Christ’s agony in the garden, he had lain sleepless, he had wept. He had then gone down to the nearby river and reflected on ‘‘ how our Saviour prayed in the garden till his sweat came out as blood — and that for me’’. The conversion of Pepper was a sensation in mid- 19th- century Victoria and it is still widely regarded as the birth event of Aboriginal Christianity.
About 140 years later, Melbourne academic and litterateur Robert Kenny, on a journey back from a funeral in Adelaide in reflective mood, stopped off in the Wimmera and paid a visit to the ruins of Ebenezer mission, which stand in their lonely austerity to this day. He experienced a conversion event of his own, switched the topic of his thesis and embarked on the trail of research and speculation that has now resulted in this distinctive and beautiful book.
The Lamb Enters the Dreaming presents itself as a biography of Pepper and a survey of his times, but Kenny is in fact inaugurating a new conception of Australian frontier history. He offers up not so much a continuous narrative as a set of meditations and reflections on the experiences of men and women in ambiguous times: figures who have left little more than archival references and memories and tombstones behind.
Quest narrative, study of the act of study, retrospect on fad and fashion in science and anthropology, The Lamb Enters the Dreaming positions itself as a sophisticated product, both humane and subtle, empirical and artistic. It also advances several illuminating ideas about the colonial encounter, and if those ideas cannot quite be proved despite the sweetness and the charm of Kenny’s persuasion, well, that is somewhat his point.
He begins with the odd choice of baptismal name Pepper made, Nathanael. Kenny believes this is a reference to a biblical walk- on character who asks the pertinent question: ‘‘ Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’’
Was Pepper asking if anything good could come out of Christianity for Aboriginal people, or out of the settler culture that was sweeping through and devastating his world? There is much narrated trudging through the intellectual background to the colonial enterprise as Kenny, seeking to answer these questions, with occasional breathless pauses to refresh his own moral compass, plunges into the murky pools of Victorian time. Close reading, and close thinking, is his golden key for opening up the masked minds of Pepper and his kin, and for tracing the extremity of their fate.
One young boy Pepper knew, Willie Wimmera, was abstracted to London as a kind of colonial exhibit and died there of tuberculosis. Kenny suspects the presence at Ebenezer of a brief book describing Willie’s ordeal was instrumental in securing the conversion of Pepper, and his subsequent career as evangelist to his own people.
Kenny further believes that animals were as central as humans in the transformation of the world of the Wotjobaluk. In arguments of great elegance, he reads the arrival of horses and sheep in the Aboriginal domain as events of deep resonance: the horses with their mounts were centaurs, something new; the cattle destroyed the landscape and brought the tuberculosis that killed; the sheep, indeed lambs, were the emblems of the new totemic faith.
‘‘ Cattle, sheep and horses did not just enter the countryside,’’ Kenny says. ‘‘ They entered the dreaming, but they did more than just add to it by their presence. They changed the earth beneath their feet. They changed the unchanging dreaming.’’ Faced with such change and decay, who would not grasp at the promise of conversion? Who would not choose the way of the lamb, the symbol of the Moravian missionaries at Ebenezer?
This is deep interpretation: Kenny is well aware of the limitations of his method and the thin gruel of evidence he has to work with, although he buttresses his reconstructions of Wotjobaluk sorcery with a couple of suggestive parallels from elsewhere on the Aboriginal continent. ‘‘ The human propensity for narrative is often a tyranny,’’ he laments. ‘‘ It makes us uneasy at gaps. We want to fill them in however we can, however unjustified we are in doing so. And yet there are gaps, silences we have to learn to live with.’’
There is also another problem with his cunning reconstructions, with his reading of faint shards and scraps and clues, with the way of close historical interrogation first demonstrated by precursors such as Don Watson, Mark McKenna and Inga Clendinnen. It is the problem of control. How do you know you’re right? If something feels like the way you think an Aboriginal man of the mid- past saw the world, if it feels foreign to you, is your reconstruction obviously right?
Kenny, of course, sees this problem: how could he not? He has presumed to discern what lies in the ‘‘ unchanging’’ dreaming, and has written a book on the basis of a handful
of words put by others in his hero’s mouth.
Nathanael Pepper left the Wimmera and went to the Aboriginal mission at Ramahyuck, in Gippsland, where he soon died from the consumption that annihilated most of his people. There is next to nothing of him in the records from that time: ‘‘ He is a figure of whom we just gain glimpses like someone moving through the forest.’’ He passes into history, and the realm of God, and Kenny pays an affecting visit to his reerected headstone in the graveyard at the site.
It’s time to conclude, and Kenny’s own tense wrestle with the place of Christianity in his life comes tumbling out. He was raised in the faith but is no longer Christian and has absorbed a certain secular prejudice against religion, which he now weighs up: his reflections on the depth and authenticity of the Aboriginal Christian experience would doubtless be much strengthened if he were able to travel widely in the communities of the north, where Christian belief is ingrained into the remote life.
A bravura work, all complexity and self- doubt, The Lamb will doubtless be much admired and imitated in years to come; and yet it is inevitably a prolongation of a colonial rite, a rite that Kenny, for all his conviction of man’s common humanity, cannot cease from re- enacting.
With all its entranced, gazing fascination, The Lamb does enter the dreaming, and leaves it a changed world. Nicolas Rothwell is The Australian’s northern correspondent and an award- winning author. His most recent book is Another Country.