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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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