James Paull reviews “Journey to Horseshoe Bend” by T.G.H Strehlow
Journey to Horseshoe Bend
by T.G.H. Strehlow
ISBN : 978-1-922146-77-9
Reviewed by JAMES PAULL
If not for the Christian gravesite, the book-cover image of Central Australia might appear an all too familiar trope. Industries as much cultural as primary have engaged in modes of wealth extraction from this landscape. In mid-century modernist mythography, for example, the desert spoke of a nation’s spiritual void. By contrast, the grave’s fragile occupancy in this hostile sun-blasted world alludes to a specific historical biography. The telling of its story is no less indicative of land’s meaning, however, no less imbued with mythography.
The biography in question is Carl Strehlow. The Lutheran pastor of Hermannsburg Mission from 1894, Strehlow succumbed to severe illness in 1922. In October that year a party set out to save his life, journeying along the dry bed of the Finke River with the immobilised Strehlow mounted on a chair on the back of a horse-drawn cart. The story of Carl’s agonised last days and death at Horseshoe Bend and a young man’s coming-of-age became in the hands of his son, linguist and anthropologist TGH (Ted) Strehlow, a literary masterwork.
Journey to Horseshoe Bend was first published in 1969. Apart from a 1978 paperback edition, it has been out of print. This Giramondo edition features a new cover photograph, as well as a specially commissioned essay by Dr Philip Jones, curator of Australian Aboriginal Culture at South Australian Museum. It reproduces the original text including the carefully prepared regional map that formed the endpapers of the first edition.
To revisit the book’s epic scope is to be reminded of its blending of closely observed factual detail with the artful. A simple diary-like entry – ‘It was Tuesday, the tenth day of October, 1922’ – sets the stage for the rising eastern sky to reveal calls of birdlife and Aranda (Arrernte) place-names. Meanwhile, the Mission’s Aboriginal congregation awaits with trepidation their ‘ingkata’ (‘chief’). We learn of Carl Strehlow’s long struggle to build a ‘Christian home’ for the Arrernte at Hermannsburg, as well as his now severely weakened condition due to the combination of pleurisy and dropsy. Carl’s questioning of his faith is introduced, as is the gnawing conviction the Church has abandoned him. His bloated pain-wracked body is revealed to all as he emerges with his wife and fourteen-year old son Theo, before being strapped atop a horse-drawn cart to journey south accompanied by his family and Arrernte horseback drivers. So begins his personal Calvary – the poignancy heightened when the Aboriginal congregation offers an impromptu rendition of a Lutheran chorale translated into Arrernte.
TGH Strehlow began writing the book during an illness resulting in hospitalisation. It was also a period of midlife crisis, when he would abandon his wife and children for a much younger woman. Both episodes undoubtedly shadow the book’s central theme, which concerns the reciprocal nature of death and regeneration.
Successive revisions of the first draft saw the manuscript evolve from autobiography to a form in which Indigenous and settler narratives are interwoven. Strehlow was alert to a mid-century poetics that turned to the outback to frame questions of Australian national identity. Voss remains the most celebrated, but others, including the Jindyworobaks with their focus on Aboriginal culture and natural environment, are equally important. The generation of Arrernte artists commonly associated with Albert Namatjira identifies a third stream.
A passing reference to Namatjira in the book’s opening section invokes something of this awareness; more significantly, it demonstrates the memoir’s doubled philosophical design. Journey is testimony to the convergence of differing stories, peoples and cultures and how they are bounded by conditions of circumstance and region. The lives of the Arrernte peoples and the Strehlows converge at Hermannsburg (Ntarea). The most important form of doubling is that of Carl’s death journey with his son’s coming-of-age. This is because Journey, while a work of synthesis, is, first and foremost, a literary Bildung. Crucially, Theo’s development cannot be separated from his father’s decline.
There is another photo of Carl Strehlow’s grave, this one taken in 1936 and featuring the son, now a young man commencing fieldwork in Central Australia. The recently married TGH revisits the site of his father’s death at Horseshoe Bend. The portrait seems to foreshadow the memoir’s design and thematic preoccupations. TGH’s respectful yet solitary stance embodies something of the burden the author carries in this book. His story remembers in detail the harrowing circumstances of Carl’s death. Journey is a work of mourning, but it is also a nuanced psychic account of the son’s displacement of his father.
Strehlow perhaps is not unlike Hamlet, haunted by the Father’s imposing legacy as missionary and pioneering Arrernte scholar. Although not always acknowledged, Carl’s lifework provided his son the main prototype for much of his ethnography. Aranda Traditions (1947), Strehlow’s groundbreaking study of Arrernte male initiation rites, includes remarkably detailed accounts of Dionysian rituals that see ‘excited young men’ frenziedly dance to exhaustion, thereby shattering the symbolic power of their elders. Journey is comparatively muted, yet no less pointed: its narrative simply avoids recording any direct exchange between Theo and his father. Like the tombstone driven into scorched earth, the inscription of the Oedipal complex runs deep in the author’s personality.
The landscape of Central Australia is inseparable from regional mythology. In Journey landscape is a patterned composite of stories whose design can be considered omnipresent and omnidirectional. It is also non-entropic. Carl’s death-journey is recorded across the party’s 12-day trek to Horseshoe Bend. On the 13th day, Theo stands alone at his father’s grave on the bank of the Finke River, conscious of death yet alert to the beginning of his new life. The reciprocal relationship of opposites, father and son, entropy and renewal, disappearance and emergence, structure the journey, but it is storytelling and translation that interweave human as well as nonhuman experience.
The year before his death, Carl completed the monumental eight-volume study of the Arrernte and Luritja peoples he had commenced in 1907 (Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien). Born at Hermannsburg Mission, Theo’s first languages were German and Arrernte. Conceived at Ntarea, his clan totem marked the place of Twins Dreaming. By the period of his memoir, TGH had long established himself as the foremost living expert of Arrernte linguistics, song-verse and traditions, most notably in Aranda Traditions and Songs of Central Australia (1971). Strehlow’s ability to juxtapose Indigenous myth with the biography of father and son’s biblical exile encodes his intergenerational drama with a richly arcane cross-cultural knowledge.
Carl’s fate unfolds across a hostile environment marked by heat, drought and fire. For example, three Finke River stations in Central Australia (Henbury, Idracowra and Horseshoe Bend) mark where the travellers rest. For the white bushfolk, Henbury offers a rare permanent waterhole, but for the Arrernte the waterhole of Tunga is the last resting place of Tjonba: ‘giant goanna ancestor’, who in seeking to escape an ancestral hunter burrowed deep into the ground. Idracowra is a corruption of Itirkawara, Arrernte name for Chambers Pillar. The sandstone pillar-like formation locates the final resting place of the mythical gecko ancestor, whose territorial conflicts and ‘abhorred incestuous’ acts were punished by edict from his own ‘gecko kinsfolk’. Synonymous with brutal heatwaves, Horseshoe Bend is Par’ Itirka – its surrounds disclose a series of ‘heat-creating totemic’ centres, the most potent of which is Mbalka, ‘home of a malicious crow ancestor’ responsible for lighting bushfires ‘whenever he flew down from the sky’.
The story of Irbmangkara waterhole, with its network of totemic centres linking bloodthirsty myths of warring clans, overlap with living testimony as to the deeds of police trooper W.H. Willshire, whose murders of the Arrernte led to his arrest in 1891. Willshire’s frontier atrocities loom large in Strehlow’s account representing what might be taken as a literal dialect of colonisation. In describing one of his attacks, Journey records how Willshire spoke of his ‘Martini-Henry carbines… talking English’. Heir to the Lutheran tradition in which language contains the spirit of a people, this comment shrewdly exposes the inherently suspect nature underpinning the settler community’s legal and more broadly cultural claims to country.
Landscape is a palimpsest: multilayered stories from the past seep into the stratigraphy of present-day routes. Frontier atrocities map one surface. Another is the rural community of ‘bushfolk’ described with affection by Strehlow. This in part stems from their respect for Carl, as shown both in their willingness to help him make his way down the Finke and the burial service, where the pastor’s bloated dead body is awkwardly stuffed into a makeshift coffin made of discarded whisky cases (its unopened bottles have been distributed among the bushfolk as a farewell gift from Carl). Grimly touching, the episode offers an ingenious ethno-poetic record of frontier exchange systems.
The archetype of the rural folk sharply contrasts with the remoteness of the Lutheran establishment, which Strehlow believed had abandoned his father. Strehlow’s treatment of his father’s anguish draws directly on Christ’s experience of abandonment in the garden of Gethsemane. If the depiction of the bushfolk has dated, Carl’s torments remain harrowing and help explain the lonely, dogged personality of the author, witness to tragic events over which he has no control.
TGH emerges in his own pages as the most complex of outsiders. Whether privy to settler tributes made to his deceased father, or recipient of Arrernte statements that his ancestral home now belongs at Ntarea, Strehlow finds himself alone, saddled with twin heritages. In life, he lived and worked between two worlds: a German migrant in Anglo-Celtic Australia, Arrernte-born but Lutheran-educated, a foremost authority of Central Australian ritual, sacred belief and song, whose work was deeply interwoven with his father’s less accessible, yet equally imposing, legacy. Cast in the third person, ‘Theo’ is just as doubled: a young man transitioning to adulthood but perceived through the eyes of ‘Ted’, his much older self.
The author of Journey was also a man increasingly burdened by responsibilities brought with years of fieldwork. The collecting of custodial objects, stories and song, while not directly evident in his memoir, can be felt. When Journey was published, Songs of Central Australia still awaited publication, despite being completed over a decade earlier. The reasons for delay of his magnum opus are complex – in part related to the costly venture of the book’s design, in part related to sensitivities making sacred knowledge public. In Songs Strehlow describes himself as the ‘last of the Aranda’, expressing what he believed was his custodial kinship with the Arrernte, as well as his lonely standing as the sole surviving custodian of sacred clan knowledge. The sentiment also pervades the memoir of his journey from childhood to manhood, an era he described as ‘passed on as though it had never been’.
If nostalgia is important to the book’s design, it also helps identify the ideological constraints that mark its account of the Arrernte. Described as ‘dark folk’, their presence is finally a cultural backdrop to the main drama. While sparingly used, the phrase reveals a consistent assimilationist purpose, whereby the ‘primitive’ is incorporated into the narrative of Western progressivism.
Strehlow’s assimilationist beliefs would become more pronounced in the years that followed the publication of Journey. In an emergent era of Indigenous land rights and repatriation of sacred objects, he upheld in increasingly strident terms the view of a dying culture to claim sole ownership over the ritual objects entrusted to him by Indigenous elders during his long years of fieldwork. He died in 1978, mired in controversies his convictions had helped generate.
TGH Strehlow remains the most ambivalent of Australian literary figures, a pioneering writer-translator of Arrernte verse and performance committed to practices of white ownership and accumulation. Perhaps he is best approached as an outsider of the Arrernte, but a uniquely privileged one. He was conceived at Ntarea, the place of Twins Dreaming, and so was instinctively alert to the coexistence of opposites. His account of the journey reflects this knowledge, unfolding through the eternal interplay of doubles – reverie in the coolness of night, unending torment in the searing heat of day. This imaginative process contributes to the transitional yet transformative poetics of Journey. To speak of death as finality makes no sense in such a world. Just as Carl’s final resting place gives way to Theo’s grasp of the ‘certainty of life’, stasis signifies a circulatory force whose constitutive nature binds all things.
Such a poetics remains significant in today’s politics, but its authority is far more contradictory, flawed and diminished than its author likely intended. Strehlow’s quasi-Wagnerian conviction that myth is a contemporary mode of thinking deepened white understanding of traditional Indigenous culture, while simultaneously repressing its living modern reality. In place of contemporary Arrernte elders, he dramatised his own becoming and positioned this drama within what he believed a greater national culture. In doing so his epic narrative reveals something more than generational bias; it shows settler writing as inseparable from Western colonialism’s historical violence and claims to cultural superiority.
Dr JAMES PAULL is a curator, teacher, librarian, freelance writer and researcher.