The Pure Bugle. On Anzac Day 1

Hyde Park Memorial sculpture

[An essay in five parts on the popular phenomenon of Anzac Day in Australia, now hotting up for the centenary at the end of this month. The media here are full of it. Endnotes have been left out. The photo is from the ghastly 1930s Anzac Hyde Park memorial in Sydney, now recently also graced by phallic 7 metre bullets commemorating fallen Aboriginal soldiers in Australia’s armies.]

The Pure Bugle. On the Ambivalence of Anzac Day


Anzac Day has again taken on a larger social relevance in contemporary Australia. As such, it is of course a complex, many-layered historical, social and psychological phenomenon. While the right wing and conservatively inclined stress its ‘nation-forming’ and military aspects, many Australians with left-of-centre political opinions would seem to attend Anzac Day ceremonies with vague, unspecified notions of ‘remembering those who died for their country’ and the ‘horrors of war’.

In attempting to cast some light on such complex phenomena, there is always the danger of reductionist, simplistic interpretations that do not do justice to their historical, social and psychological complexity. Nevertheless, the opposite danger is also given: to simply shy away from any attempt and leave a phenomenon like Anzac Day rationally unanalysed as a national holy cow or irrational taboo zone ‘too deep for words’ (progressive historian Manning Clark), an ersatz religion jealously guarded and used by its right wing and nationalist defenders.

A short essay in rational taboo-analysis such as this cannot, of course, attempt to do full justice to the complexity of Anzac Day. Its aim can thus only be to provoke further democratic discussion by sketching rather than elaborating certain perhaps under-represented perspectives. The main perspective taken is one limited to text analysis and critical social and psychoanalytical theory. Such a framing also implies that the personal and political bias in this essay should perhaps also be briefly made explicit. It is that of an ‘internal outsider’ constitutionally wary of all group think and official ideologies.

My part German/part Russian background and German tertiary education, layered over an Australian childhood and youth, form a specific historical and intellectual context for an initial feeling of, shall we say, ‘strong skepticism’ towards the Anzac Day phenomenon. Any form of nationalism does not sit well with a genetic and gut-level cosmopolitanism. It is my hope, however, that the almost ‘anthropological’ outsider view that seems to be the lot of the bilingual repeat-migrant may, however, be of some possible use to Australian and other ‘tribal insiders’ also grappling with the phenomenon in some way.

The perspective taken here is also openly that of the cosmopolitan Enlightenment and critical, anti-authoritarian theory. This perspective is grounded in a radically democratic tacit assumption: namely, that a free, democratic, socially just and rationally organised society cannot be one dominated either by ruling elites and their hegemonial ideologies or by corresponding masses of blind and obedient followers. At the same time, this perspective may also freely acknowledge that such a truly democratic society needs to fulfil a deep human need for some sort of spiritual meaning and vision that transcends daily routine, material concerns and politics.

It is the main thesis of this essay that Anzac Day seems to do this today for many Australians in ways that are, however, aesthetically and morally inauthentic, psychologically regressive and ultimately politically dangerous in their militaristic and anti-democratic potentials.

1. The Fervent Child

Under the neoliberal-conservative Howard government ten years ago the largest public turnouts at Anzac Day services ever seen in Australia took place. Over 220,000 people attended the Sydney service. Well-known Australian author Helen Garner reflected on her experiences at that year’s Anzac Day dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. The article was published under the heading ‘Cheesy, empty feeling, with the dawn service celebrated in the wrong key’ in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 26th (p. 13).

The article is interesting because it may capture some of the common religious or psycho-spiritual need behind the Anzac Day phenomenon that less articulate participants would probably find considerably harder putting into words. It is precisely the coming to some kind of understanding of this common need that may be a useful exercise for those of us concerned with the generally more nationalist, authoritarian, post-liberal, right-wing to ‘friendly fascist’ direction that Australian society and other liberal Western societies seem to be more strongly heading in since at least September 11, 2001 and the so-called ‘war on terrorism’.

Garner starts off by describing the state she and others are in as they assemble for the dawn service. She uses words and phrases like “exciting”, “low thrilled voice”, strangers exchanging “meaningful glances” and “half-smiles”, “soft darkness”, no one laughing, no shouting, no cracking jokes. She modestly and non-ideologically describes the collective intention as “we were going to pay our respects to the dead.”

She then describes a sudden break, a jarring phoney note. The far-off and invisible MC is talking in a “glossy”, “patronising”, “cheesily confidential”, “daytime TV quality” voice. He sounds “so deeply wrong” as he preaches a “hackneyed”, “hollow” sentiment to the children about how “something called the Anzac spirit would get them through the difficulties of their lives.” He then reads out the expected lines about “they shall not grow old…etc” and two cadets read out something or other in “stilted tones, self-conscious, terribly sincere.” The crowd of course just endures it all in “stoic silence.”

However, all this showy phoniness is apparently dispersed when the bugler plays The Last Post, a Welsh choir sings with a brass band (we are lifted upwards again when their voices “swelled grandly”) and exciting gunfire roars after each verse of the song. At this point in the proceedings Garner comes to a kind of climactic moment: two little girls near her are described as exchanging “thrilled glances”, the crowd stands in silence “thick as felt”, “patiently, respectfully, hopefully” and Garner notes that “we were waiting for something, the mysterious, nameless thing we had come for.” ‘Mysterious’ expectations of, presumably, some kind of release, are stretched to breaking point.

Alas, it is not to be. Again there is betrayal by the MC who on this occasion is very obviously not the bringer of that undefined, “mysterious, nameless” something. It is a contest between two irreconcilable opposing principles. His voice, “with its cosily elocuted intonation, betrayed the pure cry of the bugle.” We are presented with an apparent contradiction: the pure unsullied mysticism of the military bugle hinting at some “mysterious, nameless” versus the mundane commercial and phoney reality of a TV show, the archetype (one imagines) of The Soldier/Hero/Sacrifice versus McDisneyworld.

And the latter, of course, wins. It is the ‘betrayal’ that infuriates her. Rage against the Spectacle. For Garner, the stage-crafted manipulations, all the usual the ‘stilted’, ‘hollow’ and ‘hackneyed’ phoniness do not – as a critical perspective would maintain ‒ reveal the actual truth of the public Anzac day phenomenon but somehow ‘betray’, distort or cover up some purer collective need for the mysterious, the nameless.

The mysterious and nameless is then named. In her view, the people there

…weren’t there to be entertained, to be passive consumers of a professionally produced show. We were not just spectators. We were here to take part in something. We had come as Australians, as each other’s countrymen and countrywomen – as citizens.

The implied psycho-dynamics of these illuminating words are fascinating. Garner here seems to be demanding a logical impossibility, an oxymoron as mystical as the common equation of ‘democracy’ with the filling-in of a voting ticket. She is indeed demanding something truly ‘mysterious’: an active spectatorship, as it were, a passive ‘taking part in something’ organized and orchestrated by others. She thirsts for the logical contradiction of a passively consuming expression of ‘citizenship’. She would seem to want the religious tremor of ritual presumably without the divinity, the participation mystique of the warm crowd of strangers vicariously united in the viewing of a spectacle.

How can this participation mystique be rationally understood? According to psychoanalytical group and crowd psychology, the psychological mechanisms that here come into play can roughly be understood in the following way. Crowd members feel linked by something both within and outside themselves. They unconsciously split off certain elements inside themselves that they then project onto some external objects, people, rituals or symbols (flags, places, monuments, ritual objects, songs, leaders, soldiers). In Manichean fashion, these elements can be either ‘good’ (great, heroic, saintly, powerful, sexy etc, often father figures) or ‘bad’ (evil, cowardly, treacherous, murderous, perverse etc). What they then perceive and feel outside, inside and between themselves are unconsciously disowned aspects of their own split-off, dissociated and projected selves. Because this dissociating and projecting is unconsciously (‘mysteriously’) done, the feelings that arise may include strong and ‘nameless’ feelings of ‘mystery.’ And because this happens among many people as a collective event focussing collective energies, the projection may feel very powerful and overwhelming indeed.

Entranced by such potential powers and (willingly?) ignorant of or oblivious to such unconscious mechanisms, Garner simply wants the experience of ‘pre-TV’ patriotism, the ‘pure bugle’. She does not want phoney sentiments, i.e. she does not want show biz, show biz ratings or corporate Anzac Cove clean-up sponsorships, Target ‘Anzac swags’ and Woolworths’ ‘Fresh in Our Memory’ ads. Living as we do in the so-called ‘post-modern’ world of the generalised total Spectacle, this is of course a regressive or ‘reactionary’ wish in the literal sense of wishing to turn the historical clock back to the modern or pre-modern.

Garner in fact closes her piece by making few bones about the regressive or ‘reactionary’ character of her, and, by implication, the rest of the crowd’s, Anzac Day needs. The phoney MC urges the participants to sing the national anthem. Of course, this turns out to be just more phoniness because, as we know all too well, the anthem, chosen by popular majority in 1984 over the more anti-authoritarian Waltzing Matilda, is full of the “clumsy poeticisms and embarrassing claims” suited to an officious nationalism and, to add insult to injury, here pitched in an awkward key. Garner’s need is for something more honestly and consciously infantile than the infamously phoney national anthem. She longs for the pure-as-a-bugle, stand-at-attention and hands-on-hearts, naively emotional patriotism of her schooldays (or at least as she would choose to remember them):

We needed to sing songs we had known since we were children, songs we shouted in our playgrounds, standing in lines on the asphalt with our hands on our hearts and tears in our eyes. What happened to all our hymns? How did we lose Jerusalem? Vow to Thee, My Country? O Valiant Hearts? Why couldn’t we raise our voices and sing together in solemnity, thousands of us, men and women and children, unabashed?

Garner thus associates all this lost, patriotic, public, ‘unabashed’ emotion with childhood. She longs for the supposed purity of the schoolyard assembly which her nostalgia romantically constructs as one of authentic emotional patriotism, including the strangely American gesture of heart-holding (one wonders where she went to school and why the ‘shouting’ of songs, hands-on-hearts and tears-in-eyes should have been so thoroughly absent from one’s own school assemblies).

As in a psycho-therapeutic process, a closer dealing with adult and conscious needs has thus finally led her text to the discovery of underlying infantile unconscious motivations or needs. In the end she now seems to have worked her way to a half-conscious realisation that she is expressing more of a deep-felt need to grieve for a lost emotionality and supposed innocence rather than any need to “pay respects” to some dead which she initially assured us was the (conscious) reason for attending the Anzac Day service.

Children are mentioned five times in this article. Is it possible that Garner’s heartfelt need to collectively regress to childhood (or a constructed childhood) is also expressing some collective need? That the secret (half- or unconscious) appeal of Anzac Day to so many (like Lady Di’s funeral or the Bali bombing commemorations) lies less in what is consciously said (“respect for the dead”, “horrors of war”, “heroic sacrifices for our freedom”, “beautiful person” etc) and more in what is unconsciously expressed: a need to mourn one’s own lost innocence as well as the loss of public emotionality and felt community relationships in bureaucratic mass society? Forms of personal and collective grief and loss probably often intermingle and fuse in subtle and unconscious ways. Unconscious mourning for the perceived losses and abandonments of infancy and childhood may invisibly fuel public mourning about quite other events.

The public ‘work’ of mourning (German: Trauerarbeit) at official ceremonies like Anzac Day could thus be overlain with many levels and complex aspects of unacknowledged grief. Given the official limitations on, and manipulation of, acceptable topics for public mourning, it is possible to speculate that there may even be a general unconscious need to mourn larger issues simmering away in the collective unconscious. Issues like the historical shadows of genocide in the past and present, at home and abroad. Like the whole ecological and social disaster happening on and to the planet and its people. Like one’s collusion or at least general disengagement and abdication from attempting to prevent that disaster and collectively institute a rational society. (Personally expressing this need in a speech at a public rally in Germany in 1986 during the Chernobyl catastrophe I was surprised at the public resonance it occasioned.)

Garner ends her article with the resigned insight that her desired regression to the ‘pure bugle’ of childhood’s patriotism is as historically impossible as abolishing TV and its public spectacles: “It was too late in history. We turned and set out homewards, with our emotions still aching in our throats.” So what to do with that aching, those stuck, unfulfilled emotions? There would seem to be two theoretical possibilities, one ‘infantile’, one ‘adult’: a collective regression and national narcissism or some form of ‘mature mourning’ and release.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 16, 2015.

3 Responses to “The Pure Bugle. On Anzac Day 1”

  1. another amazingly insightful essay peter…as we humans continue to go the national narcissistic route…denial is bliss…till it isn’t…

  2. In my profound ignorance, I had no idea Anzac Day existed. But this is deep water you are plunging into and fascinating stuff. I wonder if Garner grieves for an authenticity that never existed, whether modern or pre-modern, if the veil of ambiguity , blurring the purity, is just human-ness itself?

    The notion of an adult ritual of mourning gives me lots to think about. Thanks.

    • Pleasure, camerado. Any drought in Montana? Looks like California and Texas won’t be supporting their current populations soonish?

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