Year

1997

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

University of Wollongong. Dept. of English

Abstract

This thesis explores the notion that autobiography is an inherently ambivalent form in which personal quests for selfhood interact with and participate in broader historical narratives embodying tensions and contradictions that lie deep within the mythic life of the culture. Although autobiography represents a conscious effort to negotiate a unique voice out of the multiplicity of ideologies that constitutes subjectivity, it can also be seen as a mediated palimpsest in which individual expressions of difference concerning origins and identity are inextricably bound up with historically determined and largely unconscious narratives centring on national provenance.

The similarity of plot, character, motif and image that underlies each of the personal stories in this study of Australian autobiography suggests that each can be read as an individualised variation on the wider cultural themes of exclusion and homecoming, belonging and loss that characterise mainstream white European depictions of Australian geo-mythic space. The dominance of childhood stories that embody the double vision of Australia as both paradise and purgatory suggest a literary tradition in which notions of loss and failure are central to an understanding of national character. The motif of the traumatised exile searching for a lost and unattainable home in the golden valleys of an imaginary childhood is an essentially European and Romantic discourse in which the pain of exclusion is counterbalanced by the Edenic possibilities of transcendency and homecoming. This search for an unattainable national space in the myth of a prelapsarian childhood may provide comforting anodynes for the trauma of exile but it also produces orthodox narratives which depoliticise the individual by transmuting the interested actions of everyday life into the disinterested powerlessness of essential childhood.

However, since autobiography is revelatory and confessional in nature and often positions the protagonist as a victim in stories about difference, powerlessness and injustice, the form has radical, subversive and oppositional possibilities. The secret stories of convicts, homosexuals, migrants, Aborigines, artists and women represent an unauthorised and covert history which, by exposing the dominant cultural forces that suppress and silence minorities, open up the secret country of the untold past. These forms of autobiography in which positionality and agency drive the narration can result in the foregrounding of subjects who consciously and actively speak out against the offical storytelling strategies of the dominant community. The interpolation of these unspeakable voices into the mainstream can produce hybrids in which fresh identities emerge out of an essentially conservative medium.

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