By Cindy Zeiher
A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is possible that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.
— Marion (Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock).
What is the desire of my hysteric? It is what opens what I would not say is the universe, but a whole wide world (Lacan, SV, p. 466).
Encapsulating the often-unsettling beauty of the rural Australian landscape is the eerie location of Hanging Rock, the setting for Joan Lindsay’s fascinating and popular 1967 Australian novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.[i] This story of an exclusive private girls’ school outing to Hanging Rock, where three of the girls and their maths teacher mysteriously disappear, inspired Australian Peter Weir to direct the 1975 film of the same name. To this day, the gothic mystery of Hanging Rock lingers, and people often assume the novel to be based on a real-life incident. As a teenager living in semi-rural Australia, I distinctly recall Lindsay’s novel as having frightening, superstitious contours; it was thrilling yet unnerving to speculate how nature could arbitrarily expunge the existence of the subject. After all, when people do go missing without explanation it is the very absence of reason rather than the disappearance itself which is the most perplexing and disturbing. The element of conspiracy associated with the story of Hanging Rock caused a stir in the Australian public and this was playfully encouraged by the author. As she writes in the preface, “whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” However, its publication resulted in a mass research project into the ‘truth’ of what happened, and this served to disavow its fiction, perhaps because fiction can be such an irritating reminder of how we are willing to be duped. It was traumatic for the Australian public to deal with the novel’s inconclusive ending, and they were not going to accept it. Up until her death countless letters were sent to Lindsay begging for the truth of the girls’ fate at Hanging Rock to be revealed; they were demanding resolution even if this was merely a fictional sequel. She steadfastly refused to reveal anything, remaining faithful to her vow of silence and to the implicit irony that there was nothing in particular to be revealed. In this way the girls’ disappearing into nature conspires against our desire to know, yet at the same time hystericizes us to keep guessing: what is it about the supernatural mystery of Hanging Rock that continues to make it so enticingly macabre?
Set in 1900 colonialised Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a story whose backdrop is a conspiracy played by nature, wherein desire for subjective wholeness converges with desire for completeness in nature. In an interview the author describes her process of writing Picnic at Hanging Rock in terms of a filmic experience in which she would dream aspects of the story and then wake to immediately “write like a demon” (1973-74). Just as time becomes increasingly irrelevant when the girls are exploring Hanging Rock, so also Lindsay’s process of writing (insofar as it evolved from dreams) was atemporal. Moreover, being set in 1900 the story is itself out of time yet also timely in that today we are still open to the possibility of invisible and fated transmissions between people. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery suspense novel whose fictive ‘truth’ evolves from the confusing yet purposeful conflation of class sensibilities with a developing post-colonial social milieu in which the settler does not feel wholly settled. When this bourgeoise milieu fails, as it does with the suicide of Sara, one of the girls, nature inevitably prevails. This move towards naturalism is the dupe we grapple with; the perceived beauty of Hanging Rock tempts us to think that harmony and balance can be restored if only we revere nature in some utopic subjective reconnaissance.
The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock commences on Valentine’s Day, when school mistress Miss McCraw takes her students on an outing to Hanging Rock. This is a beautiful volcanic outcrop in Victoria over a million years old and because flora, fauna and creeks surround it, was once a frequented fishing and hunting ground for Indigenous people. The day of the picnic is particularly hot, so the party settle in the shade below the rock to have lunch, with exquisite views of both the rock and of the lush and fertile landscape below. Afterwards, four of the girls go off together to explore the surrounds and they climb the uncharted territory of the rock. What happens next is a complete mystery, as the girls’ personalities become submerged by bouts of lethargy, alternating with episodes of inexplicable fear and panic. Their consciousness is overwhelmed and finally swallowed up by the power of the natural world and a hysterical mystery unfolds as three of the girls, Miranda, Marion and Irma, by then in a trance-like state, disappear into a rock crevice.
The fourth girl, Edith, rushes back to the main party in a state of hysterical shock and later remembers seeing Miss McCraw going up the rock without her skirt on. Edith’s hysteria is intriguing, as she literally acts out the scene not only of her distress but also her complicity in it. The girls had wandered off with each other knowing that perhaps they should not have done so. Such transgressions invite the law, and in the ensuing psychic mess police and investigators organise searches to find the missing girls. Irma is found at the rock unconscious and this sets in motion a chain of events: students are withdrawn from the school, teachers and staff resign unexpectedly, the schoolgirl Sara commits suicide, and Miss McCraw dies by jumping off Hanging Rock. By now the location of Hanging Rock is beset with an esoteric force which determines that it is not a case of who is the more hysterical but who is perfectly hysterical.[ii] This pursuit of being a perfectly embodied hysteric is the demand both the novel and the film place upon us: how far are we willing to go in the name of hysteria? Lacan refers to this as a specific knowledge when he says, “I have been guided by hysterics” (1977, p. 5).
Picnic at Hanging Rock invites the question, che vuoi?, what does the place itself want with these girls, some of whom literally disappear whilst others survive traumatised as a result of their visit. It is the unanswerable hysterical question which evokes that of Freud’s Dora, the crucial question of feminine jouissance, what does it mean to be a woman? Freud’s Dora similarly disappeared before the question could be fully articulated. Her Hanging Rock was none other than Freud, who she managed to resist by refusing to have a tryst with Herr K. Instead, Dora decided to wander off, getting a bit more lost but at least on her own terms. Just as Dora’s resistance perplexed Freud, so the girls’ escapade at Hanging Rock unsettles us. The unknowability of the paths which lie ahead of them, the false promises they must make and the savviness one must cultivate unnerve us as we watch them wander off into nature, the staged object of desire from which, for them, the incipient enigma of sex can be tantalised. Yet both for the girls and us the viewers, nature as the object of desire remains uncertain, precisely because it is enigmatically enticing.
Early colonialised Australia was governed through class structures then prevailing in Victorian England: wealthier classes could afford to give their children a privileged education whilst the ex-convict class provided manual labour for constructing Australia into a desired replica of England, from which the first people of Terra Nullius were brutally displaced and exploited. Although the film references nostalgia for England, including class and gender structures, its distinctive Australian landscape provides an incongruous background, little befitting the fashioning of young, well-spoken women. Through this contrast and with Hanging Rock providing a psychically signifying, untraversable background, class and cultural tension inevitably emerge via particular cultural placeholders of privilege, classical femininity, chastity, and sensuality. We can think of these as characteristic to propping up what Lacan calls the big Other, a collective fiction which is also encountered as dismissive of the subject and wilfully ignorant that at times its authority can be called into question. In the context of colonialised Australia such signifiers serve the function of concealing evidence of violence, even justifying it as part of big Other’s desire. Such a contextualization is approached through the cinematic gaze where one can discover those hidden signifying conditions which construct political, cultural, and social symbolism.
Film provides a temporality in which viewers can be transported to different locations without leaving their own immediate environment. Picnic at Hanging Rock undertakes this task elegantly, relying on fantasy to leave the viewer adrift in 1900 colonial Australia, all the while appreciating its landscape from today’s perspective. The film suggests that in 1900, appreciation of Australian landscape was tempered by fear and apprehension because, perhaps then more than now, people understood nature as enigmatic and the inscrutable opposite to the preponderance of civilising culture. The film plays on this parallel and alternative temporality as a specific site of contradiction: viewers must use their imaginations to fill in the gaps as to what might have happened to the girls. To do this requires confronting one’s conditions of knowledge, what can be known and even what is not fully comprehensible might nevertheless provide some insight. Nature and culture are thrown into a dizzying contradiction: British sensibilities are resultant from castrating imperialism yet nature is also elevated as the powerful, inscrutable phallic object.
Together with the girls the viewer disappears into a space where timeless nature is the point of reference, the ready-made object primed for fantasy which can be supplemented and reinvented to suit.
McGowan (2011) describes how film can provide a world in which time ceases to be a central reference point. Picnic at Hanging Rock provides a wonderful and affecting example of such suspension. In this film, fantasy is employed to prop up the object of nature and provides a way for us to speculate about the mystery surrounding Hanging Rock. Despite it being a hot summer day, the party are all dressed in layers of restrictive clothing more befitting of an English climate and sense of propriety. The girls are well spoken and apparently compliant with the requests of their teacher. At the same time, the girls engage in a pantomime of soft-core lesbian erotism, exchanging Valentines cards and participating in corset tightening. However, Hanging Rock – the very place where the girls meet subjective destitution as their fate – proves to be what antagonises and critiques their reticence. In eroticising nature as that which allows the colonial feminine to emerge, the film stages an opaque feminine hysteria whilst its dream-like motif not only triggers the traumatic event but provides for its inescapability.
The location of Hanging Rock seductively poses a question about how one can be captured by authority. The majestic beauty of Hanging Rock offers the imagination a way of embracing an ethereal absolute, pushing desire into the realm of the Other, whose desire is in turn sought. Once again, we turn to the annoying and unanswerable question, che vuoi?! However, attending to desire requires a trade-off: the subject must be willing to attend to unveiling the camouflage of this exotic Other in the guise of nature. In addition, the subject must accept the uneasiness of desire which inevitably results from resisting the masquerade of conforming to the demands of the bourgeois sensibilities upholding the social bond. What makes this film a perfect vehicle for delving into such confusion is its ambiguous ending, which makes it truly a suspense mystery refusing to be solved, yet without gratuitous violence. The girls’ disappearance leaves a traumatic void which can be filled only through speculation. Herein lies a way to interpret remarkable and unexplainable events, a way marked by both the certainty of desire and uncertainty as to what or who ignites it. Although scarred by what has happened, the townspeople left behind carry on, unable to comprehend the arbitrary trauma of what does not fit into their otherwise comfortable colonial Australian life.
Hanging Rock is depicted in the film as a site of contradiction; it is beautiful and seductive, yet also unsettling and alienating. Immersion in its natural surroundings promises freedom from gentrification and the oppressive milieu of class structures. Such a desire to escape through embracing nature reappears in today’s ‘environmental hysteric’, whose need to retreat from capitalism is marked by its dominating social rules and behaviours being abandoned in favour of basking in the natural world. Such is the seductive nature of the environmentalist’s fantasy in staging its hegemony. However, such staging selectively fails to include the injustices colonialism has inflicted upon indigenous people – or worse, injustices are so fully interpellated into the enjoyment of anguished guilt that they become unrecognisable. Interestingly, the only Aboriginal character in the film helps with the search wearing a soldier’s unform. Being historicised, the command of the film is to confront us with the problem that enjoying nature can obfuscate colonialising horrors. That is, in forging an individual subjectivity obedient to nature alone, past violence becomes side-lined by the seductiveness of nature. The will to represent oneself as one with nature reveals not only our subjective fragility, but also our willingness to plug up our lack within nature’s contingency. Our giddy uptake of nature as a big Other reveals how truly alienated and flawed we are. Hanging Rock seduces us like it does the girls. Although its beauty is transfixing, the film cautions us to be wary. These child-women – almost in scandalous rebellion – give themselves up to objects of pleasure: they enjoy food, lose themselves in the romanticism of books, remove their clothes, swim in the lagoon, caress each other. They form a subjective signifying chain of beautiful souls and we are tempted to share their fantasy of revelling in nature and with the seductive drive it offers. The entire scene brings to mind Freud’s 1918 theory of proto-fantasy in which seduction, castration and, finally, lack, all define sex and the play of sexualities throughout the lifespan.
Like the missing schoolgirls, we too are liable to naively assume that nature will expel those ideological markers that enslave our subjectivity. It seems nature is full of promise but instead it proves to bestow as little subjective wholeness as does reliance on existing ideological markers. Being a willing dupe to nature is a position we may be all too eager to take up. However, the mystery of Hanging Rock challenges this by suggesting that we cannot survive outside our existing social bond. Without this we inexplicably disappear into the abyss of the unknown. The film’s conclusion depicts local towns-peoples’ desperate but futile attempts to find the girls and the subsequent slow return to their former lives. However, nature’s seductive silence has the last word: in refusing to be fully known, to fully subsume into nature’s mystery, means to literally disappear.
The catastrophic contingency of nature played out at Hanging Rock puts the very question of subjectivity into crisis. Disregarding the potential dangers, the girls wander about like nomads (although it is obvious that they don’t know their way around either nature or Indigenous tradition), blindly trusting that the structures they come from (boarding school, bourgeois society and so on) will on their return be waiting for them. It seems that nature confronts the subject with a choice, either to take it up with giddy wonder or feel afraid. Either way, this comes at a cost to the fantasy of stable subjectivity.
How is subjectivity destabilised in this film? For those characters most affected by the power of Hanging Rock it seems that subjective readjustment is not possible so that in different ways their former subjectivities disappear, unable to survive the wounds of realising that nature is a flawed master driven by its own contradiction. The most dramatic disappearance is of course the physical disappearance of Miranda, Marion and Miss McCraw. The two survivors, Irma – too traumatised to speak – and Michael move away from the area. Carrying the burden of these inexplicable disappearances, the principal Mrs Appleyard commits suicide. So also does the student Sara when she learns that she must return to the orphanage because her guardians have not paid her boarding school fees. Now belonging neither to nature’s wonderland nor having the comfort of bourgeois life, she occupies no place and thus disappears, betrayed by both mythical masters. In these suicides the susceptibility of the Hysteric is coherently expressed. Sara’s suicide is the true trauma the viewing subject can finally grasp among the wonderment and horror of nature’s seductiveness.[iii]
In spite of our trying we can never be the perfect hysteric. However, the film allows us to be the best hysteric we can, given the relentless insistence of the question, who do we want to be?, or more precisely, what am I for this object called nature? Whatever our response, we have to pay a price in searching for that missing bit which is forever turning desire into this more urgent and chaotic question. Here we are forced to speak our cultural and class symptoms, present and past, also to embody the object of desire yet at the same time distance ourselves from such a humiliating objectification. The seductive child-woman of the film is an ironic hysterical object, watched closely yet desired from a distance. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a beautiful, theatrical suspense film which in its compulsion towards the supernatural asks the hystericizing question, who or what made the girls disappear? The answer is simple and always the same: the conspiracy of the mythical big Other.
Freud, Sigmund. (1918). From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. SE 17.
Gherovici, Patricia. (2014). Where have the Hysterics Gone? Lacan’s Reinvention of Hysteria. English Studies in Canada, 40(1), pp. 47-70.
Lacan, Jacques. (1977). Propos surl’hysterie. Quarto, 2, pp. 5-10.
— (1958-1959). Le séminaire: Livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient. J.A. Miller, ed. Paris: Seuil.
Lindsay, Joan. (1967). Picnic at Hanging Rock. London: Penguin.
— (1973-1974). Interview with Joan Lindsay. Accessed from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGDkFNSoFSQ
McGowan, Todd. (2011). Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema. University of Minnesota.
Weir, Peter. (Director). (1975). Picnic at Hanging Rock [Film] [With Rachael Roberts, Jackie Weaver, Dominic Guard, & Helen Morse]. Australia: Picnic Productions.
[i] Thank you to Clint Burnham and Russell Sbriglia for their wonderful commentary and provocations.
[ii] In Seminar XXIV Lacan refers to himself as the ‘perfect hysteric’ albeit with no symptoms! “All things considered, I am the perfect hysteric, that is, one without symptoms, aside from an occasional gender error…” (Translation by P. Gherovici, 2014, p. 67). Patricia Gherovici (ibid) playfully engages Lacan’s claim when she makes a plea for how ‘perfect’ embodied hysteria becomes a conscious moment upon the realisation of one’s division in language: “Lacan himself was not above implicating himself in person in hysteria, although he confessed that he was too ‘perfect’ to be a straightforward hysteric.”
[iii] I appreciate Todd McGowan’s provocation here – perhaps Sara did not commit suicide but was rather killed by Mrs Appleyard given that at the picnic she was clad in funeral attire presumably in anticipation of a death/murder.