Late Modernity

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

I have in my ‘possession’ an essay entitled The Solid Mandala and Patrick White’s Late Modernity by Nicholas Birns. I say in my possession when in fact it has been residing under an icon on my screen for some months and I forget how it got there. Downloaded from a letter from Professor Brother-in-Law maybe. Birns I’m pretty sure is a US academic and editor or past editor of the literary journal Antipodes. The essay itself is an extended discussion of the definition of ‘Late Modernity’ which is of some relevance to our upcoming AWW Gen 3 Week, Part II.

Late modernity as understood in this piece is composed of two key aspects. One is the dominance of the innovative, labyrinthine Modernist aesthetics developed in the previous generation – the generation born in the late nineteenth century, that of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and, most important for White’s text, T.S. Eliot – and inherited by the second-generation modernists, writers like White who were born in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The other is the political predominance of welfare state models and a strong public sector that provided significant employment. These two aspects are contrasted with the era of neoliberalism of the postmodern era (roughly 1970 and after) …

You’ll remember of course I have defined Gen 3 as the period from the end of WWI to the end of the 1950s. Now, it is very easy to argue that the 1950s in Australia extended well into the 1960s, and certainly that was true of my own white, rural, middle class, teenage years. But I am sticking with 1960 as the changeover from Gen 3 to Gen 4 because The Beatles; southern European immigration; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the Pill; Women’s Lib; and because it seems to fit with a changing of the guard from the mostly women writers of the inter-War years to a new generation around Thea Astley, Thomas Keneally, Helen Garner and David Ireland say.

These issues of periodisation indeed present many pitfalls. When dealing with the near past, people of different generations have different perspectives upon not only the nature of the near past but its degree of proximity; the very idea of a near past implies some people still living for which that past is still a part of active memory …

Ain’t that the truth! I am very passionate about my lived experience of ‘the sixties’ – which occurred I must say mostly in the early seventies.

Much as I deplore the end of the ‘welfare state’, I struggle to see its relevance to the literature of Gen 3. Indeed much of the writing in the Social Realism stream is to do with the failure of the state to provide the underclass with meaningful welfare (or employment), and to the largely middle class modernist stream it is irrelevant. An example of the former might be Say No to Death and the latter, Waterway. However, Birns argues that

… Waldo Brown and his brother Arthur, the co-protagonists of The Solid Mandala, are people who, in the late modern paradigm, however tormented and limited their lives are in individual terms, are provided a firm social foundation by their polity, and that this is an important factor in comprehending the novel and their place in it.

Waldo is I think employed by the Library, with a sense of security only a distant memory today. I am not going to argue with him (Birns) and indeed was more engaged by how he differentiated between this period and its successor, contrasting the conservatism and security underlying Late Modernism with the following generation of Regan/Thatcherism and globalism now generally contained in the catch-all “neo-liberalism”, and the cultural commodification of post-modernism. Subjects for another day! And how we are going define the end of Gen 4 I have no idea.


Nicholas Birns, The Solid Mandala and Patrick White’s Late Modernity, Transnational Literature Vol. 4 no. 1, November 2011.

AWW Gen 3 Week, Part II. I will start putting up reviews in the next day or so. Quite a number of you are planning to contribute, not all on the same day I hope, and I am quietly confident that with the two I have ready, I will be able to put up a review/guest review/repost each day for the week. Off the top of my head we will have Kylie Tennant, Christina Stead, Marjorie Barnard, Eve Langley, KS Prichard, Ernestine Hill, Elizabeth Harrower. Bloggers I haven’t spoken to can drop me a line here. And there will be a summary after the end of the Week with links to everyone’s reviews. I’m back at work as of yesterday, through to about 25 Jan, so hopefully I’ll be able to use Invasion Day to do my write-up.

Since AWW Gen 3 Week last year (here) I have put up the following posts (Woolf and Sackville-West are of course English but their works are central to the modernist project).

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers (1915) (wadh)
Daisy Bates (theaustralianlegend)
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines (1938) (wadh)
Miles Franklin, Bring the Monkey (1933) (wadh)
Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin (1967) (wadh)
Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (1936) (wadh)
Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death (1951) (wadh)
Melbourne and Sydney (theaustralianlegend)

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (1915) (wadh)
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent (1931) (wadh)

Sue (Whispering Gums) has three posts scheduled under the Bill Curates banner over the next week or so. If you miss them there’ll be links in the end-of-week summary.

20 thoughts on “Late Modernity

  1. I think I mentioned to you that I took a graduate course about 14 years ago on Modernism in Literature. We read the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos and Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (two novellas collected together). I can’t remember what else we read, but I do recall that the class felt so focused on soldiers contracting sexually transmitted infections, their best girl at home waiting faithfully, the crash of the stock market, killing oneself over the smallest challenge, and rich people tearing up the town but being filled with ennui. I was not thrilled, to say the least.


    • The next review (of my own) that I’ll put up is set in WWII with very young girls sleeping with US servicemen. Getting VD was proof of ‘moral danger’ and so the girls were promptly jailed.


      • Oh, jeez. I know Malcolm X and his friend Shorty were sent to prison on trumped up burglary charges, though the white men in court told them they had no business hanging around white women (there were two white women on the burglary team).


  2. “…passionate about my lived experience of ‘the sixties’ – which occurred I must say mostly in the early seventies.” That made me laugh. I wonder how much of other people’s experiences in the 60s were not lived/ recollected/ ended until the 70s?!
    In terms of lived experience, I’ll be hanging out for Gen 4.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went up to Melb Uni in 1969 and there were still plenty of students in sports coats or plaid skirts and twinsets. Carnaby street took on pretty quickly (around 1966) but the whole Haight Ashbury hippy thing arrived years later. Late 70s early 80s culture was lost in a haze of sleeplessness and changing nappies.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m glad I’m not the only one with the “sleeplessness / nappy haze”. Mine is 2001-2007. Don’t ask me which films or books were released during these years.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have planned my post for My Love Must wait to go live on the 21st as it is Hill’s birth date. The rest will depend on what happens this weekend!

    I’m not sure that being born at the end of the 60’s counts as lived experience, but I feel that some of that time is in my blood, if not in my actual memory 😀


    • I own 4 E Hill books I think but sadly have only read The Great Aust. Loneliness.

      Strangely, I feel the Depression as lived experience. It must have really been drummed into my parents, as they were too young to experience it directly

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Gosh Bill time is getting away from me this January – I’ll see if I can get anything together on the Nolan book for you in time if you can still use it. Sorry it’s got crazy busy here recently!

    I was born late 1950s and can still remember Empire Day as a little kid at primary school – we all got a little Union Jack to wave – and best of all, a half day off school! It seems incredible now that this was still happening in my lifetime.

    Interestingly I have a sense of the same thing about the Depression – my grandparent’s home on the south coast of NSW seemed filled with it almost as a presence… it was such a sad home, and so poor.

    Didn’t Patrick White watch the Beatles somewhere as he knew he was watching a huge social movement happen – that was in the UK I think.


    • My memories of primary school are that we were English people who just happened to not be living in England right then. I know it shouldn’t but it bothers me that even people of my children’s generation regard WWII and the Depression as ancient history. Most of them regard the sixties as ancient history.
      I don’t know about White and the Beatles, though he was definitely living in Sydney by then.
      I hope you read/review the Nolan book, but no pressure!


  5. I’m a little past halfway in the Eleanor Dark novel, The Little Company, which I think I’ll post about at the end of the week. She’s been on my shelves, unread, for a couple of decades, so I’m grateful for the encouragement to finally make her acquaintance. I’ve no way of knowing if this work is characteristic of her, but I’m wholly enjoying it. Looking forward to reading more (and maybe I’ll even try to pop in more often, just to peek)!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, somehow I missed this one. Excellent post Bill. I can completely relate to your opening about “having” an essay in your possession that you have no idea why you have it.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed this discussion of early and late modernity, and the reasoning for The solid mandala (one of my favourite Whites perhaps because for some reason I’ve read it twice) being late.

    Like Kate I laughed about your living the 60s, mostly in the early 70s. That was me too really, though intellectually I was “into” the Civil Rights aspect of the 60s by 1968, largely through my school’s enlightened school librarian and modern history teacher. However, I was later into child-rearing so nappies were more 80s for me.


  7. I was introduced to Fabianism by a school librarian, but when we moved to Mudsville (Colac) for forms 5 and 6 those sort of discussions were at an end. Later it turned out my English teacher was in the anti-war movement – at uni I became friends with his communist son who was a year or two older than me – but he deemed it politic I think to keep his thoughts to himself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s