‘Our Homer’s girt by sea’ (or) ‘Australians all, lotus rejoice’

Speech delivered at the Australia Day 2016 School Assembly

Mr Stephen Woods, Director of English (and unapologetic pun enthusiast).

I am going to start my Australia Day Address in the most obvious place: ancient Greek mythology.

In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, the wise and indomitable hero Odysseus struggles against gods and monsters for years to make it home from the Trojan War. It was Odysseus’ idea to give the Trojans a gift of a gigantic wooden horse full of Greek soldiers, a trick which won the war for the Greeks. The journey home from Troy is long and perilous: man-eating Cyclopses attack them, sea monsters snatch men from the decks, sirens try to lure them to shipwreck.

I am an English teacher, so you know what’s coming next: I am going to choose a small piece of this story, analyse its connotations, and then extrapolate to find its relevance to us today. Everything is a metaphor.

Still trying to get home to their island of Ithaca, Odysseus and his men are blown off course for nine days, and land on the island of a people called the Lotus Eaters. Their island is isolated; it is beautiful. Its people are friendly, peaceful, and easy-going, spending their days grazing on the ‘mellow fruit and flower’ (Homer trans. Fagles, R. 1997, IX:96) of the lotus plants that grow everywhere on the island.

The sailors who go ashore also eat these plants, and the ‘honey-sweet fruit’ (Homer, IX:106) has a powerful narcotic effect on them. They forget their purpose. They become completely satisfied, and care about nothing, not even returning to their families. They think their journey is over, and give up thinking, questing, and striving towards their goal, and exist instead in a kind of blissful, mindless trance.

Like Odysseus’ crew, we Australians have found ourselves on a beautiful island, isolated in many ways from the strife that afflicts the rest of the world, and, as we have just sung, our island ‘abounds in nature’s gifts’, and has ‘beauty rich and rare’. Around Australia Day, we hear a lot about how lucky we are, and how great our island home is. These things are true. The risk here is that — like Homer’s Lotus Eaters — we might slip into a kind of unthinking complacency. Satisfied with what we have, we might lose sight of our quest and purpose — where we are headed — and spend the day in a delirium, intoxicated not by lotus flowers, but by a flag-waving media and the delicious aroma of barbecuing lamb.

I would argue that many of us can spend the 26th of January blissfully happy to be Australians, but that we should not lose sight of the fact that, as a nation, like Odysseus and his men, we have not reached the end of our journey. For many, life in Australia today is comfortable, peaceful, and fulfilling, but for many others, it is much less so. If we swallow the Australia Day hype about this being the best country on earth, like the lotus of Homer’s story, it could cause us to forget that we still have a long way to go. Odysseus’ landing party did just this; they forgot Ithaca. If we as Australians stop now and accept the way things currently are — no matter how comfortable that might be — we risk never achieving the happy future state in which we can ‘all rejoice’.

Yes, there is a risk that Australia Day could become an occasion for self-congratulation, where we all don thongs, green and gold zinc, and a flag-cape to chant ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’, but the good people in charge of Australia Day have done their best to make sure that we do not end up sitting around our beautiful island feasting on this kind of patriotic lotus. For the last four decades or so, the Australia Day Council has named Australians of the Year to be a kind of Odysseus for our nation.

When he went ashore and found his stupefied, carefree men sitting around chewing on lotus, having completely forgotten their quest to get home, Odysseus dragged them forcibly back to the ship and tied them up until he and the rest of the crew had rowed clear of the island. The men who had eaten the lotus wanted to stay, but Odysseus forcefully reminded them of their ultimate — and higher — purpose.

The Australians of the Year do this for us, and not just on the day, but for a whole year and beyond. Consider how profound an impact Rosie Batty has had in her year as Australian of the Year in 2015 in focusing our attention on the terrible cost of domestic violence. Most Australians are not affected by domestic violence, but Rosie Batty reminded everyone that we have to speak out and act if we are to care for those who are vulnerable. The year before, Adam Goodes forced us to confront relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Most Australians do not have to deal with a traumatic history of colonisation and a present too often tainted by racism, but Adam Goodes reminded us that these are issues that we all have to confront, because if we don’t resist racism, we accept it. Patrick McGorry used his tenure as Australian of the Year to make all of us examine our attitudes towards, and treatment of, those who are suffering a mental illness.

This year, David Morrison will no doubt strive tirelessly to have us think and act to make sure Australia gets closer to its destination as a diverse and inclusive home for everyone, irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other difference from the supposed norm. Each of these Australians, like Homer’s Odysseus, has had the wisdom and determination to wrench us from a comfortable present towards a better future.

Australia Day is a chance to appreciate all the great things we have in this country, and to feel pride. But what the story of the Lotus Eaters, and the efforts of our Australians of the Year remind us, is that we also must resist feeling satisfied. Our odyssey — our national quest — is far from over.