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L'Australie vue par Xavier Pons

La république des lettres —

Xavier Pons, Professeur des universités à la retraite, est le grand spécialiste en Europe de la question australienne. Auteur d’une remarquable thèse consacrée à la littérature australienne, une approche psychanalytique du nouvelliste australien Henry Lawson (1867-1922) parue en français (Honoré Champion/ Lille III, 1980) et en anglais (Out of Eden, Angus & Robertson, 1984), il s’est intéressé en parallèle à la civilisation australienne en publiant de nombreux ouvrages fouillés et complets : L’Australie et ses populations (Complexe, 1983), Le Géant du Pacifique (Economica, 1988), A Sheltered Land (Allen & Unwin, 1994), Les mots de l’Australie (PUM, 2005), L’Australie (Cavalier Bleu, 2007), etc. A chaque publication, Pons nous livre une vision synoptique de l’Australie, ne négligeant aucun paramètre (géographie, histoire, politique, économie, société, culture) à l’image de la somme qu’il présente dans L’Australie : Entre Occident et Orient (La Documentation Française, 2000).

Xavier Pons, Les mots de l’Australie (PUM, 2005).

Dans un monde en mouvance où le temps de chacun est compté, où les citadins ne disposent que d’une parenthèse oisive à bord des transports publics pour feuilleter un livre et où les velléités de lecture se font plus nombreuses, les éditeurs privilégient la subdivision d’ouvrages en chapitres de plus en plus courts. Les mots de l’Australie participe de cette volonté de faire le tour d’un sujet grâce à une mosaïque d’articles, une gageure que l’auteur relève avec panache en se voulant « nécessairement sélectif ». L’exhaustivité n’est donc pas le but de cet abécédaire civilisationnel qui, dans un style élégant et fleuri d’expressions, fait la part belle aux sportifs (un article entier pour Ian Thorpe, Rod Laver et Don Bradman) et aux personnages historiques (comme Bennelong, Ned Kelly, Eddie Mabo, Arthur Phillip, ou Truganini). En ce sens, cette organisation reflète un commentaire de l’auteur : « L’Australie ne passe pas pour un pays avide de culture » (p.28). C’est sans doute la raison pour laquelle les grands noms des arts australiens (Patrick White, Dame Nellie Melba, etc.) bénéficient d’allusions ici et là mais d’aucune entrée à part entière, ce qui en dit long sur la popularité du sport aux Antipodes. Xavier Pons, qui a signé Le Multiculturalisme en Australie (Harmattan, 1996), s’appesantit tout naturellement sur les positions très controversées du Premier Ministre John Howard dont le nom revient telle une douleur lancinante (c’est le personnage le plus cité).

L’index qui fait fonction de répertoire et de sommaire est flanqué d’une page blanche sur laquelle le lecteur est appelé à prolonger l’entreprise de l’auteur. Nous rajouterons donc le DRIZA-BONE, un manteau de cheval en coton ciré qui complètera la panoplie du broussard australien ; les FLYING DOCTORS, cette équipe médicale aéroportée qui pallie l’isolement de certains fermiers ; le REPUBLICANISME que l’on retrouve traité sous la rubrique monarchie, sans oublier le dessinateur Pat SULLIVAN, créateur de Félix Le Chat. Le pari est réussi puisque Les mots de l’Australie permet au lecteur de se faire une excellente synthèse du « Géant du Pacifique » tout en piquant sa curiosité.

Xavier Pons, L’Australie, coll. Idées reçues (Paris : Le Cavalier Bleu, 2007), 128 pp.

Un ami australien, qui enseigne la littérature aux Etats-Unis, me faisait savoir en 2007 que « pas un seul de mes étudiants américains en cours ne savait le nom de la capitale ni du Premier ministre de l’Australie. En revanche, tout le monde était au courant du funeste destin de Steve Irwin, cela va sans dire ! » Alors proposons un petit jeu « info/ intox ». Les Australiens comptent tous un forçat parmi leurs ancêtres, info ou intox ? L’Australie est une deuxième Angleterre, info ou intox ? L’Australie est sens dessus dessous, info ou intox ? Sydney est la capitale du pays, info ou intox ? Les Australiens sont les rois du sport, info ou intox ? …Et ce ne sont que quelques unes des 20 questions abordées par Xavier Pons qui, après avoir enseigné pendant plus de trente ans et avoir publié de nombreux ouvrages à l’adresse des spécialistes, s’emploie depuis 7 ans à démocratiser son savoir en touchant un plus large public. Et on ne peut que lui donner raison, car l’ignorance est un terreau fécond pour l’efflorescence et la longévité des idées reçues. L’éditeur définit les ambitions de sa collection comme suit :

« Les idées reçues sont tenaces. Nées du bon sens populaire ou de l’air du temps, elles figent en phrases caricaturales des opinions convenues. Sans dire leur origine, elles se répandent partout pour diffuser un « prêt-à-penser » collectif auquel il est difficile d’échapper…

Il ne s’agit pas ici d’établir un Dictionnaire des idées reçues contemporain, ni de s’insurger systématiquement contre les clichés et les « on-dit ». En les prenant pour point de départ, cette collection cherche à comprendre leur raison d’être, à déceler la part de vérité souvent cachée derrière leur formulation dogmatique, à les tenir à distance respectable pour offrir sur chacun des sujets traités une analyse nuancée des connaissances actuelles » (4).

Xavier Pons nous explique dès l’introduction que cette stéréotypie est largement due à la sous-représentation de l’Australie sur l’échiquier international. L’éloignement de ce « Géant du Pacifique » dans la sphère affective des Métropolitains se justifie donc par la distance spatio-temporelle qui sépare les deux pays. Par conséquent, « La diffusion d’idées reçues sur l’Australie est en grande partie le fait des médias » (9). C’est la raison pour laquelle les étudiants américains résumaient leurs connaissances de l’Australie à Steve Irwin dont la mort spectaculaire a été surmédiatisée.

Comme dans Les Mots de L’Australie, Pons n’approuve pas la politique de John Howard et le fait savoir à de nombreuses reprises. Refusant toute réponse manichéenne de type « info/ intox », il clôt chaque exposé avec une vision nuancée. Sa conclusion générale inscrit ces idées reçues dans une problématique postcoloniale en affirmant que le « pays confirme ainsi qu’il reste marqué par son passé colonial, qu’il n’a pas encore trouvé l’assurance et la sérénité qui lui permettraient de balayer les idées reçues, pour s’affirmer dans son authenticité » (121).Nul doute que ce livre fera recette.

Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing by Xavier Pons, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, viii + 362 pp

Back in early 2005, I was loitering in the NSW Art Gallery and I remember coming across a charcoal white chalk sketch of a Standing male nude, back view (c.1867) by Hugh Ramsay, along with the following comment: “On the verso of this drawing is another life study of the same male figure from the front.” Whether art lovers were supposed to take this piece of information at face value and muse over such prudishness or read it as a witty, if jocular, note pointing to ludicrous forms of censorship of the Bill Henson kind and – in keeping with the Ars est celare artem principle (i.e. art lies in concealing art) – suggesting nudity could be raised to the rank of art has baffled me for a long time. It is not until recently when the curator of this exhibition sent me an email substantiating that there was actually a sitting male nude overleaf that I felt there was no room left for gleeful speculation. It is funny how interpretative our brain can be just for the sake of bridging the anxiety-provoking knowledge gap, isn’t it?

As I perkily strode out of the Domain down to Circular Quay and jostled my way through the bustling cosmopolitan crowd, the haunting sketch made me linger on censorship issues until an observation from Helen Vnuck’s introduction to Sex and Censorship in Australia (Sydney: Vintage, 2003) dawned on me. Former editor of Australian Women’s Forum recalled how the Office of Film and Literature Classification would classify her magazine Category 1 because of the anatomical illustrations of a “healthy story” on vaginoplasty she wanted to release in February 2001. Vnuck was thus compelled to publish another version “with the offending vaginas covered by strips reading ‘censored’” (p.xi). “The OFLC had also decided that there was too much detail in some of the stories sent in by female readers about their sexual fantasies. However, they didn’t have a problem with our article on men who could perform fellatio on themselves. And the photos of naked male models with their penises in full view were also fine”, she quipped. (p.xi) In December 2005, when I roamed the Museum of Contemporary Art to check their current exhibitions, I started suspecting that Australia was likely to have a fraught relationship with sex-related matters along with an inconsistent censorship policy at the very moment I was gaping at a Kienholz priapic figure on public display for anyone to enjoy.

I say for anyone to enjoy because – to poach the first line of Xavier Pons’ introduction to Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing – since the late 1960s sex is meant to be enjoyable even though “The appearance of AIDS put paid to the joys of promiscuity” (1). There is no denying that the pandemic has given sex a certain topicality and prominence in Australian literary criticism as of the 1980s. I, myself, can only plead guilty for having indulged in exploring representations of sexuality in gay and grunge fiction in a couple of articles. While essays of all sorts flourished thanks to the subject matter offered by a growing pool of fiction writers like Linda Jaivin, Elisabeth Jolley, Justine Ettler, Christos Tsiolkas – to name a few, it seems astounding that Pons’s in-depth study is prolem sine matre creeatam.

Some readers might object that I brush up on my Latin and say this monograph is the first of its kind. To be sure, Don Anderson’s Text & Sex (Sydney: Vintage, 1995) that repackaged a selection of his popular media articles did investigate sex politics and stylistics but without narrowing down the focus to Australian writing. Like Anderson, Pons has recycled some of his publications (he acknowledges the reprint of three journal articles plus a book chapter, and he also blended in some material which originally appeared in 2001 in “Erotic Writing in Australia: Then and Now”, Changing Geographies: Essays on Australia), but the rest of Messengers of Eros is definitely unpublished food for thought that testifies to an infectious love of literature and literary theories.

Weaned on psychoanalysis, as reflected by his first literary monograph Out of Eden (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1984) which launched the pathography trend in Australia with a psychoanalytic study of the life and works of Henry Lawson, Pons shares the liberating vision of Sigmund Freud for whom sex is more than a byword for genitalia and copulation. Messengers of Eros runs the gamut of sexual human behaviour (heterosexuality, same-sex rapports, extra-marital affairs, sexploitation, interracial sex, deviant practices, etc.) because, as the author has it, “eroticism comes in all shapes and colours […] and its protean nature goes a long way towards explaining its enormous influence on human behaviour.” (19) Like sex, Pons, who was never backward in offering his left-wing opinions (hence his critical approach to the Howard Government in his last two books and on page 347 of Messengers), embraces democratic diversity, even though some might think he occasionally stretches his egalitarian beliefs too far. One prime example is his turning to Wikipedia to detail the Sisyphus myth when Robert Audi’s The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) could have done the trick.

Thanks to his French background which provides – among other things – an enlightening reading of Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia, Pons is able to ground the literary demonstrations he pursues with unflagging thoroughness in a more international context, by sometimes drawing on theoretical discourses from non-Anglophone traditions – a feat that would probably make Robert Dixon beam with joy. As David Macey has it in his Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, “theories are never politically innocent.” (v) Writing mainly at the nexus of postmodernism and postcolonialism, Pons has devoted to postcolonial theory more than its fair share of analysis with almost one third of Messengers (chapters 8, 10, 11, 15 and 16) dealing with the sex-gender-ethnicity triangle. One of the reasons for overdeveloping this line is that “In a postcolonial context, the way individuals relate to each other in sexual encounters is often a metonymic representation of the colonial process itself, whereby one group imposes its authority and culture on another, drawing responses that range from resistance or helpless victimization to enthusiastic or resigned complicitness.” (197) By bringing migrant and multicultural writers like Lillian Ng, Simone Lazaroo and Christos Tsiolkas to the fore, Pons lives up to his equity principles while voicing his humanistic concerns in the same breath: “The basis of multiculturalism is precisely that no culture can boast of being intrinsically superior to other cultures, or claim to embody an essence of humanity which other cultures distort or travesty. All cultures have their limitations, their blind sides, if only because they can only be viewed through a cultural prism – whether from within the culture or from the outside – which makes any pretence to objectivity untenable.” (298)

While postcolonialism gives Messengers of Eros its very substance, postmodernism stands for its skeleton and even its joints. In the “Conclusion” section, Pons nevertheless claims that “It is in the nature of this book, and of its topic, to find no real conclusion” (341) and that he has “rather little faith in the ‘big picture.’” (341) This is why Messengers, which could well be used as a course reading brick for students, does not purport to be taken as a literary history of sex in Australian fiction, a genre that would inevitably need to comprehend aspects that have been omitted in this study. For instance, a section comparing Helen Garner’s depiction of libertarian and hedonistic sex in Monkey Grip with that of the Balmain writers would have been welcome to discuss the works of Michael Wilding (only mentioned once) as generously as those of Frank Moorhouse. Another chapter on self-censorship issues would have explored why Kerryn Higgs first published All That False Instruction: A Novel of Lesbian Love (1975) under the pen name of Elizabeth Riley before it got reprinted in 2001 under her actual name, or why Nikki Gemmell published The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) anonymously. While some readers might be content with not getting a bird’s eye view of sex in Australian texts, they might still query whether there is a particular reason why novelists like Thomas Keneally, David Malouf and Richard Flanagan, whose books are not renowned for their sex-packed contents, come under Pons’s close scrutiny when writers specialized in the trade like Peta Spear are simply not tackled. And I feel that Pons’s open-mindedness invites, if not support, these observations that fit well with the realities of postmodernism – which, he explains, “does not object to judgments about right and wrong – it simply leaves responsibility for them to the people who formulate or endorse them.” (346)

Much to the chagrin of those who assume that Messengers of Eros could be read single-handedly, the sensuous lips on the front cover invites no more than textual pleasure and the contents will fail to arouse readers, but not their interest. Having said this, I am in no way implying that Pons has written a sanitized account of Representations of Sex in Australian Writing. Being the call-a-spade-a-spade type, this Toulouse-based scholar does not quail before using erotica terms. He argues some writers like Tsiolkas “choose to be starkly confrontational” (345) when others opt for the oblique way in various guises – by playing down the importance of sex with lightweight humour, or else by beating about the bush with “metaphors, allusiveness and understatements” (345). Incidentally, critics should thank these authors from the bottom of their hearts for allowing ample room for gleeful speculation. Given the saucy subject matter, you would think that any market-sensitive Australian niche publisher eager to make a profit would know that a sex-ridden book (even a non-fiction one) usually generates wider interest and high-volume sales and therefore would seize this opportunity to rekindle national enthusiasm in Australian literature; but no, Pons was apparently found standing under a cloud. The silver lining, on the other hand, is that Messengers now partakes in the global dissemination of Australian Studies through the brave commitment of a European publisher like Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

In “Lost for Words”, Rosemary Neill’s controversial article published on 02 December 2006, Peter Pierce ventured “that a vigorous interest in and enthusiasm for Australian literature, including the teaching and translation of it, is to be found more offshore than onshore.” France was listed as one of these remote countries that were taking up the cudgels for Australian Studies. No doubt that Australia owes a lot to Xavier Pons who after three decades of extensive research and intensive teaching has staked out a position as Australia’s major cultural ambassador in Europe. More than once did I dally with the idea of writing about sex in Australian fiction as I felt – like Pons perhaps – it could be utilized as a clever lever to bring people to take a vested interest in Australian fiction. As to whether this shrewd strategy of promoting Australian studies is likely to pay off will largely depend on Messengers of Eros becoming a word-of-mouth sleeper success, and there is nothing for it but to wait and see.

I hope that Pons’s ninth authored non-fiction book will not be his farewell publication on the eve of retirement. Predictably, success will attend Messengers of Eros in which thought-provoking analysis, competent scholarship, an eclectic mix of theoretical frameworks, witticism and clarity of expression coalesce. I therefore suspect that a leaf will be taken out of Xavier Pons’s book – and I don’t mean a fig leaf, even though it would be the most appropriate bookmark.

Source: “Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing by Xavier Pons”, Erea 7.2 (2010), 3 pp.

L'Australie vue par Xavier Pons

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