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KERRYN GOLDSWORTHY, WRITING IN AN ARTICLE ABOUT Thea Astley, noted that Many writers wear an invisible charm bracelet, dangling special words which have become for them the repositories of meanings far beyond their value in ordinary verbal currency-words that emit, from within the context of each writer's work, a kind of semiotic radiance" (482). The word that Goldsworthy had in mind was "acolyte", a word that certainly does feature in Astley's fiction, most notably in her novel The Acolyte. There is, however, another word--"nothing"--that is used with even greater frequency and distinctiveness by Astley, and which apparently did carry for her a "semiotic radiance", serving her fiction with the carriage of quite particular meaning.
In seeking to understand the source of that "semiotic radiance" we can refer to Eduardo Cadava's observation that "there is no word or image that is not haunted by history." (xvi) I believe that for Astley "nothing" is indeed a word haunted by history, and that in turn the word haunts her fiction with our knowledge of that history.
The history that haunts Astley's use of "nothing" is the colonial and postcolonial experience of Australian space. That the concept of "nothing(ness)" is deeply embedded in the Australian imaginary hardly requires stressing. It is grounded in the void at the heart of the continent, a theme that is reiterated time-and-again in those great ur-texts of our understanding of Australian space, the explorers' journals. Charles Sturt, John McDouall Stuart, Ernest Giles and many others, set of in search of something, and returned to tell the world that they had, in effect, found nothing. Whereas they dreamed of discovering empire-expanding geography in the form of an inland sea and land suited to agricultural abundance, they encountered instead a void. In his journal Stuart employed an appropriate refrain to express the nature of the landscape:
[...] there is nothing visible but the dark blue line of the horizon. (89) [...] to the eastward I can see nothing but horizon. (112) [...] Between the island and the point I can see nothing but horizon. (113) [...] I could see [...] nothing but a line of dark-green wood on the horizon. (270) (1)
Certainly the idea of the physical void, the nothing, took hold and became manifest in many representations of the continent. Christina Stead, in the prologue to For Love Alone, wrote of "the salt-crusted bed of a prehistoric sea, and leafless mountain ranges. There is nothing in the interior" (1); and in Tourmaline, Randolph Stow describes a space where, "There was no town, no hill, no landscape. There was nothing." (220)
And you didn't need long exposure to Australia, or to travel to the heart of the continent, to encounter and recognize the threat of nothing. In D. H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, Somers, alone at night, experiences the nothingness of the West Australian bush.
He looked at the weird, white, dead trees, and into the hollow distances.... Nothing! Nothing at all. He turned to go home. And then immediately the hair on his scalp stirred and went icy cold with terror. What of? He knew quite well it was nothing.... (9)
Nothingness is embedded in the helmeted and eye-less gaze of Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings; in the barren and withholding heart of Henry Lawson's stories; it is at the core of the novel and film of Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock. The presence of nothing is also palpable in Ross Gibson's Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, in the book's harrowing scrutiny of the same central Queensland hinterland that features in so much of Astley's fiction. As Gibson writes, "you could close your eyes and breath minutes of nothing. Or nothing that I'd give name to." (26)
Nothingness is not, however, necessarily a dystopian experience, for although it is frequently internalized in ways that are unsettling or alienating, it is also capable of being embraced for its redemptive quality. Philosopher Richard Campbell's observation made in the course of his contemplation of Australian space that, "the absence of God is not nothing; it is the particular mode of his presence" (188), comfortably retains its meaning if inverted; nothing is not the absence of God, it is the particular mode of his presence.
It is because of its capacity to be internalized, however, that nothingness manifests itself as more than just geographic space, and has come to represent something intrinsic about the way in which that space is occupied. As a consequence, the characteristic of nothingness has frequently been used metaphorically to express the manner in which Australians relate to their world and to each other. When Ernestine Hill writes of "the great Australian loneliness"; Patrick White "the great Australian emptiness" (15); W. E. H. Stanner "the great Australian silence" (18), and Manning Clark "the …