What I saw as we wandered northwards along the beaches and small towns was a beautiful remnant Australia - more innocent and organic and far more slow and peaceful than the land we know today.
Crumbling, yet luminous mental images remain to console and sadden me: a broad, shallow cove lapping into rainforest with indigenous families dragging nets at sunset, lizards and exquisite tree frogs clinging to hotel bars lit by dim bulbs, sugar towns being swallowed by flowering vines - the streets strewn with golden mangoes fermenting, enchanted architecture of lattice, tin and wood - delicately laced with peeling paint and richly jewelled with fireflies and butterflies - frangipani vapours and the slow, warm dripping of time in darkly rotting gardens - all engulfed in a deep, humble and intoxicating peace.
When I first read this I thought perhaps that Leunig was reaching beyond a purely political, abstract, theoretical account of the good, and was expressing something more real: a description of a deeper good as he himself had experienced it.
But abstract politics does intrude. Leunig goes on to lament the loss of the tribal rituals of the Walpuri Aborigines as follows:
Eighteen years more found me weeping alone in a remote cave in the Western Desert ... I had been led there by a Walpuri man who wanted to show me this sacred place where he was initiated into Walpuri law and manhood ... This was his country ... home of a profoundly spiritual people ...
In the cave ... for many thousands of years, young men in ritual had moved their dusty hands along the rock ... This gentle smoothing of hard rock had been going on in ceremony since way before the days of the ancient Egyptians or Moses.
My friend was part of the final group in this line of history to be initiated here; to learn all the truths of the land and masculinity ...
But it all came to an end in his time - and in my time also. The hands moving over the rock, the ceremony, the continuity and story - all ended ...
... a massive wave of grief swept over me as I realised the magnitude of what had happened: the utter tragedy and loss to us all.
This too seems to project a less abstract account of the good. There is a value placed on particular goods which are held to be significant to men: the continuity of a communal culture and identity; a masculine identity; a connection to place; a sense of ancestry; a love of country.
Unfortunately, in Leunig's case we have to assume the sentiment to be, at least in part, bogus. If Leunig really held such things to represent the good, then he would hold them to be good for all men, including his fellow "whitefellas".
We know, though, that he doesn't. Leunig typically presents the mainstream tradition not in terms of the sacred good, but as a uniquely evil manifestation of racism and xenophobia. For us he recommends not continuity and tradition, but a more culturally anonymous existence within a modern, diverse multiculture.
So it's still the case with Leunig that theory is driving the account of reality. This is what I complained to be too often true of liberal thought when I recently discussed why some liberals held traditional cultures to be colourless.
I'm not alone in observing this. In the current edition of Arena, Guy Rundle takes aim at his fellow leftists for precisely this fault. [Goodbye To All That, April/May 2007]
Rundle thinks that too many Australian films and novels are narrow political constructs and therefore fail to engage with how things really are. He complains that they "impose a series of authors' moral fantasies upon a world that varies utterly from it".
This is especially true, he believes, in the portrayal of more traditional peoples, such as the Aborigines, who are all too predictably presented as "people of nature, pre-political unity, and timelessness" - as "knowing grounded blacks" compared to "anxious, rootless whites". (Rundle here seems to catch Leunig out.)
Rundle has a theory for why the leftist cultural class came to miss the reality of things. He believes that from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, there was a successful Labor alliance between a sub-class of left-liberal cultural professionals and the working-class.
Although the politics of the left-liberals tended to cut across the values of the more socially conservative working-class, the alliance could hold early on because the cultural professionals weren't so dominant in Australian society.
However, by 1990 the value systems of the two groups had come into conflict. By the mid-90s the alliance was over, as the working-class shifted its support toward Howard.
But the artists never grasped this, and continued to present a "fantasy" that, rather than being politically isolated, they still represented the wider national alliance in exile.
Their artworks attempted to tell the big story but without recognising how things really stood. Rundle comments:
Reflecting back the world as their creators want it to be, such works can be profoundly embarrassing, impossible to defend ... Ultimately there is a degree of narcissism involved in them, the 'is' of Australian society disappearing before the 'ought' reflected back at the writers, for whom the revival of a national progressive project would also form a route back to a greater influence in national debates.
Without a grand historical project, left-liberalism had no place to put its emotional politics. Pre-modern peoples were turned to for meaning, in part because they represent a "perfect other" as their stable "frameworks of correspondence and meaning" are what is lacking in the life practices of media professionals in whose world "everything can be re-arranged and connected to everything else".
When Rundle writes of the left-liberal cultural class turning to Aborigines as "a key resource whose lives could be mined for meaning", it's difficult not to think, once again, of Michael Leunig. The Aborigines appear, in Leunig's writing, as a counterpoise to what we are not - to what we are missing. This not only involves a certain romanticising of the Aborigines, it also leads him to discount the place of what is traditional and meaningful in the lives of white Australians.
It's not a politics which goes anywhere. To prove his point, Leunig must show the mainstream as lacking the values he asserts in the "other". And then what? It becomes a case of running down the mainstream and building up the other. There's no creative purpose in it for the mainstream and for Leunig there is mostly the unhappy role of charmless critic.