Monday, May 23, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“RE-INVENTING NEW ZEALAND – Essays on the Arts and the Media” by Roger Horrocks (Atuanui Press, $NZ45)

Roger Horrocks, Professor Emeritus of University of Auckland, has had both a distinguished academic career and a long engagement with arts and media administration, with a special interest in film and television. On the Auckland campus he is best known for his campaign to get film and media accepted as respectable tertiary studies. Perhaps to the wider reading public he is best known for his biography of Len Lye and other books on that multi-media artist. He’s also earned some distinction as a poet, with his latest book The Song of the Ghost in the Machine [reviewed on this blog] being a finalist in this year’s national book awards.
In more than thirty years, Horrocks has also been a prolific, and often provocative, reviewer and essayist.
With a lively cover design by his son, the graphic artist Dylan Horrocks, Re-Inventing New Zealand: Essays on the Arts and the Media is Roger Horrocks’ selection of what he regards as his best essays, from the early 1980s to now (the earliest piece dates from 1983; the most recent from 2014). As a career summing-up, it is something like Murray Edmond’s very different Then It Was Now Again (which was also published by Atuanui Press).
Re-Inventing New Zealand is a capacious book of more than 400 pages, comprising 21 essays and a long and partly autobiographical introduction. The first seven essays are under the subheading “Re-Inventing New Zealand” and are overviews of New Zealand culture, fittingly ending with Horrocks’ 2007 essay “A Short History of ‘The New Zealand Intellectual’ ”. The next six essays come under the heading “Film and Television” and the last eight essays are about specific “Artists, Writers, Composers”. The essays are arranged thematically and not in chronological order of publication, but the first in the book, “The Invention of New Zealand” (1983), delves into themes of national cultural and artistic identity which are revisited from a different point of view in the very last essay in the book, “Douglas Lilburn: Nationalism Now” (2011). It is possible to see a subtle shift in Horrocks’ perspective by comparing these two essays.
The reviewer’s temptation with a big collection of essays like this is to name-check all the contents and treat each as a discrete statement. It’s probably more fruitful to comment on Re-Inventing New Zealand by considering Horrocks’ most consistent themes. As I read it, he has five preoccupation; (1.) a struggle with New Zealand’s cultural identity, which he believes still labours under a “realist” tradition; (2.) an advocacy of avant-garde experimentalism, which has not really entered the cultural mainstream; (3.) an acute awareness of the damage done by neo-liberalism; (4.) continuing in the neo-liberal environment, a critique of the anti-intellectualism of much public discourse, as seen in various media demagogues; and (5.) the direction and management of the mass media [film and television] in this environment.
How do these concerns manifest themselves in Horrocks’ essays?
I’ll take them one by one.

The struggle with New Zealand’s cultural identity – In his essay “The Invention of New Zealand” (1983), Horrocks posits that the 1930s generation of New Zealand writers and artists (Curnow-Fairburn-Glover-Sargeson et al) wanted to shuck off their colonial status by asserting the “realism” of New Zealand and a “nationalism”, not in a bellicose flag-waving sense, but as an assertion of separateness from Mother England and “Empire”. But, he argues, their realism in poetry, prose and fiction was the invention of a “myth” in the real sense of the word. This was perceived by the 1950s, when a degree of conscious mythologisation began to overlay the established “realism” (the era of Baxter and later Curnow). Horrocks wants New Zealand art and culture to move on from this “realist” foundation. He argues that there is still a strong hangover of this “realism” in his essay “Off the Map” (1983), where he takes C.K.Stead to task for being too prescriptive and still rooted in a “realist” tradition which excludes surrealism and other tendencies.
Horrocks also sees the hangover of this “realism” as having become the new gentility. In his 1985 essay “ ‘Natural as Only You Can Be’: Some Readings of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry”, he attacks a sort of confessional poetry which he sees as too concerned to document the individual’s literal experience:
… there is a mass-production of the short (one page or less) lyric in unrhymed or loosely rhymed ‘free’ verse. It’s remarkable how many people write poems, despite the small audience. (Even a university press publishing a well-known poet does well to sell 500 copies.) Much of the writing seems to have a personal therapeutic value since it develops the poem as an assertion of individuality – ‘I can sing’ – or to translate it more fully: ‘It’s difficult being me, but here I am fighting back against all those forces that are trying to keep me silent and anonymous.’ The poem is a rush of adrenalin to the “I”. Interest focuses on its bursts of imagery, its ‘expressive’ language, its charm – the poem is not strong in structure, sustained thought or experiments with language, but writing proves that one is not prosaic.” (p.86)
[For reasons of tact, because he says “some of my criticisms were somewhat brutal”, he reproduces only part of this essay and leaves out the specific criticisms he originally had of Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire.]
This very same complaint is picked up in Horrocks’ four-page rant against the timidity of Landfall, his 1992 polemic “ When Fringe Writers are ‘Warmly Invited’ ”, which is in the nature of what earlier avant-gardists would have called a “provocation.”
The narrow perspectives of the present are epitomised by the form that has dominated local poetry over the last decade – the ‘personal poem’, short, anecdotal, usually in the first person, mostly prosaic in a free-verse way but climaxing in a little burst of lyricism. Such poetry invites the reader to share a humane space in which some likeable, liberal person (usually the poet) becomes a little more sensitive or learns some wry lesson about life. This genre has become a cliché not only in Landfall but also in Metro, the Listener, and other magazines. The ambitious sense of ‘we’ in Landfall in the 1940s has given way to a sprinkling of sensitive first persons.” (pp.128-129).
In poetry, as in the other New Zealand arts, what was once vital and communal in “realism” has run to seed.
Horrocks is of course aware of many changes in New Zealand society since the “realist” heyday – the Maori renaissance, Pasifika consciousness, gay and lesbian openness and feminism. His essay “ ‘Reader’ and ‘Gender’: Watching Them Change” (1986) comes close to chronicling New Zealand feminist responses in the arts until it turns into a close reading of a particular filmic text.
As he struggles with what has become the mainstream of New Zealand literature and culture, Horrocks frequently champions poetic and artistic avant-garde experimentalism, meaning largely artists and poets whom he sees as being undervalued because they do not fit the “nationalist/realist” paradigm and are part of what Horrocks calls “alternative traditions”. Such experimentalism is often associated with cultural theory. As Horrocks notes twice in the essay “Off the Map”, theory goes against the pragmatic New Zealand grain:
The New Zealand literary scene has traditionally been hostile to anything that smells of theory, suspicious of manifestos and nervous that criticism is getting to big for its boots.” (p.71)
To accuse any New Zealand writer of being a theorist is asking for trouble. Our writers value their innocence, their sense of travelling light, uncluttered by theories or ‘prescriptions’.” (p.75)
Most of Horrocks’ advocacy of the avant-garde is in the third section of Re-Inventing New Zealand where he critiques specific artists and writers. I confess I found it hardest to engage with this section of the book as Horrocks is discussing at length the work of people which I hardly know – the painters John Reynolds, Julian Dashper, and Tom Kreisler and the poet Leigh Davis, about whom Horrocks writes one of the longest essays in the book. It is here, however, that he comes to give a more positive view of the original “nationalist” movement in his review of a book about the music critic and theorist Frederick Page (who was at least willing to speak to the avant-garde) and in his essay on Douglas Lilburn.
But there is no foreseeable easy leap from the older cultural orthodoxy of realist nationalism to something more visionary and avant-garde, partly because of our current historical situation.  Neo-liberalism has intervened and has managed to do powerful damage. Art has become the market. Academe has become business.
Horrocks’ 1988 essay “Re-locating New Zealand” is a discursive reaction to the early phase of neo-liberalism in New Zealand, the “Rogernomics” phase, which encompasses the paradox that the virus was introduced via the Labour Party rather than its traditionally more business-oriented rival the National Party. In this environment, as it has developed since the first “Rogernomics”:
Many university courses and staff publication are routine in character, forms of intellectual busywork. Bureaucracy has mushroomed, and money-minded managerialism plays an increasing part in the running of tertiary institutions. There are considerable tensions between the ‘critic and conscience’ role of the universities and their need today to keep governments happy and to fill the large holes in their budgets by extracting money from corporations and wealthy patrons, some of whom are quick to take offence. Expensive advertising campaigns by competing universities stress academic ‘excellence’ but also promise prospective students that the campus will have first-class sporting and recreational facilities and a friendly, fun atmosphere. In short, while New Zealand universities continue to play a very valuable role in our culture, it is important not to overlook their prosaic, conformist, commercial aspects.” (from the 2007 essay “ A Short History of ‘The New Zealand Intellectual’ ” pp.160-161)
Incidental to this cultural situation, Horrocks stands against the demagogues of neo-liberalism who are the latest edition of the old New Zealand brand of anti-intellectualism.  Says Horrocks:
New Zealand has outgrown much of the puritanism that dominated its way of life at least until the 1960s. But another old repression – anti-intellectualism – still rules. Its style has changed over the years, but the basic belief persists that thinking leads to trouble once it departs from the quiet, normal suburbs of common sense. Less down-to-earth ideas stir up scorn and suspicion….” (p.133)
Fittingly, Horrocks makes some strikes against the smug, intellectual-baiting media populism of (the late) Frank Haden and Paul Holmes. His comments are as relevant to the age of Mike Hosking and Cameron Slater.
So to Horrocks’ concerns about mass culture and the mass media, especially television and film.
The 2004 essay “How to Create a Film Industry” argues that New Zealand cinema was born in the 1970s of “alternative” experimentation. But it does encompass the irony that, in film-making, the 1970s “rebels” who rejected bureaucracy, and who unwittingly helped to endorse neo-liberalism, ended up marginalised:
Communal, non-commercial values made the initial takeoff possible; but what began as a free-wheeling film movement evolved in the ‘80s into the hierarchical ‘industry’ that we know today. This seems largely inevitable as feature film-making demands a highly organised infrastructure; but today some tensions still exist between the old communal-style ethos and the codes of professionalism and specialization.” (p.193)
The 2004 essay “Turbulent Television: The New Zealand Experiment” reads as an attempt to infuse a commercially-driven system with at least some of the values of a responsible public broadcaster, but with an awareness that this is an uphill struggle:
In academic circles the impulse to give up on mainstream television and to focus energies on a small access channel or the Internet is understandable but is to give away too much in a country where the creation of an independent broadcaster serving as a cultural forum is still unfinished business in post-colonial terms. Because of the volatility of our politics, both popular culture and mainstream culture remain important arenas for activism.” (p.244)
Some of the essays on mass media are topical, and have not aged well. The 1999 essay “Cultures, Policies, Films” is essentially a dated survey of New Zealand film production up to that time, raising the obvious point that New Zealand cinema was more than just the “cinema of unease” which it had been labelled in a popular documentary of the time. Some of the essays have a twinge of melancholy or nostalgia in them, as in the 2003 essay “Documentaries on New Zealand Television”, where Horrocks laments the squeeze that was increasingly put on serious and/or innovative documentaries on New Zealand television, in contrast with the livelier documentary scene in the 1990s. The essay holds out the hope that better things might come – but, alas, this was before the age of clickbait news and even more dumbed-down “documentaries”. In the 1999 essay “The Late Show: The Production of Film and Television Studies” Horrocks specifically says he will not write “another sentimental history of heroic new subjects struggling against a reactionary regime.” (p.274) but does nevertheless give an account of the hardships he had trying to set up film and other media studies at the University of Auckland. It is a valuable and self-effacing account.
Thus far, I think I have charted accurately both Horrocks’ preoccupations and the contents of this book. Now comes the critical part.
As I am sure Roger Horrocks would himself concede, a volume of essays written over many years and written to appear on many different platforms will not always be consistent in either the arguments it makes or the tone in which those arguments are made. I have already suggested that the younger Horrocks was a little more aggressive in his rejection of older New Zealand cultural “nationalism” than the older Horrocks is. However, one of my major oppositional arguments would be that Horrocks is consistently at odds with himself. On the one hand is a desire for new forms of national cultural expression. But on the other hand there is the frequent admission that the forms he seeks are the avant-garde from elsewhere. I am not reproducing here the crude philistine kiwi cry (which Horrocks rejects at various points) that anything avant-garde should be spurned because it is merely aping foreign “fashions”. But I am saying that much of the New Zealand being “re-invented”, as the book’s title says, is more in the nature of a shift from British to American cultural dominance, for all the social changes (feminism, Maori renaissance, Pasifika consciousness, gay and lesbian openness) which Horrocks lauds.
Further, at the risk of appearing petty, while I do appreciate Horrocks’ reaction against the self-obsessed (and ultimately self-congratulatory) varieties of poetry, I do have to note that confessional, autobiographical poetry and prose per se is often robust and certainly a persistent part of our identity (see Cilla McQueen’s In a Slant Light; see the autobiographies of Martin Edmond).
Finally, I note that populist (and sometimes demagogic) railing against intellectuals isn’t exclusive to New Zealand. It is not peculiar to the New Zealand psyche even if we do (as does every country settled relatively recently by Europeans) look to a history of pioneers who worshipped practicality and physical labour, and did not value thinkers. It is more a matter of a lack of “critical mass” – the factor to which Horrocks appeals when he is discussing the difficulties in developing an independent movie and TV culture. Small population means not enough of those people whom Horrocks would call intellectuals – even if intellectuals are as large a proportion of our population as of populations elsewhere. But in a larger country, one can immerse oneself in a larger intellectual culture, even if the mass of the population is as unconcerned with intellectual matters as the mass of the population is in New Zealand.
            But I am loath to close this notice with such carping arguments. Here is an old but truthful statement – if a book is worth arguing with, then it is a book worth reading. Roger Horrocks has one major virtue in common with C.K.Stead (from some of whose views he occasionally dissents). He writes clear and accessible prose even when he is discussing specialist matters. Re-Inventing New Zealand is a bracing report from the cultural battlefield and worth the week or so of evenings which it takes to read.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 
“RANGATIRA” by Paula Morris (first published 2011)

Four years ago, the quarterly New Zealand Books (Autumn 2012) gave me the opportunity to review a new New Zealand historical novel by an author to whom I had not previously paid much attention. This was Paula Morris’s Rangatira. I at once recognised it for the persuasive piece of writing it is, and I began to regard it as the gold standard against which I measured other New Zealand historical novels – or at least I did until Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries came along. I think part of the reason was Paula Morris’s refusal to interpret characters in terms of current stereotypes. The attitudes of people in the past may not be endorsed, but they are not presented as wilfully aberrant or intentionally inhumane.
I developed another, purely personal, reason for keeping this novel in mind. When I take a morning walk, I pass a lookout where I have a good panoramic view of the Hauraki Gulf, and can see Little Barrier Island (Hauturu) where some of the novel’s action takes place. I cannot sight it now without thinking of Paula Morris’s wilful and sometimes spectacularly grumpy Rangatira.
Below, unaltered from its New Zealand Books appearance, is the review I wrote.
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What is the value of historical novels to us? They are valuable only when they try  to reconstruct the mentality of the past.
Second-rate historical novels dress up modern characters in period clothes and have their heroes express conveniently those attitudes and opinions acceptable to us here and now, usually cribbed from modern history books. Such novels teach us nothing. They merely reinforce the unhistorical prejudice that, in the past, “good” people always thought just the way we do. I won’t get into a literary stoush by naming names, but many examples of this woeful genre have rolled off our presses recently. You can fill in the titles for yourself.
By contrast, worthwhile historical novels remind us that people in past ages had a different world-view from ours and didn’t necessarily think as we do.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been delighted at the number of New Zealand novelists who understand this. What a pleasure to read Hamish Clayton’s Wulf (alien New Zealand in 1830, as seen by a British sailor), Owen Marshall’s The Lanarchs (the mental world of wealthy late-Victorian Dunedinites), Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town (the messiness of frontier life through the eyes of a young Maori narrator) and Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (reconstructing wartime Leningrad). All of them appear to get under the skin of characters in historical circumstances very different from our own. I say “appear” because, naturally, there has to be much guesswork in reconstructing how people probably thought in the past. Let’s just call it a matter of verisimilitude.
Paula Morris’s Rangatira joins this commendable list, but I would rate it even more highly. It is an extraordinary literary achievement and probably the best of recent New Zealand historical novels. As Morris’s endnotes confirm, it has been researched carefully but it does not have that awkward sense of being “mugged up”. We are not in the realm of copious footnotes trying to give authority to a dodgy historical perspective. This is a literary production which wears its considerable learning lightly, weaves its research into a seamless narrative and has a very personal dimension for the author.
Rangatira is the story of Paula Morris’s ancestor, the Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu, who travelled to London in 1863 as part of a group sponsored on a lecture-tour by the Wesleyan layman William Jenkins. Old Paratene narrates the story of this trip twenty-three years later, in 1886, as he is having his portrait painted in Auckland by Gottfried Lindauer. At least part of the novel’s appeal is documentary, in its images of foul mud-spattered early Auckland and even fouler London, with its cholera and tuberculosis, open sewers, mudlarks scavenging on the banks of the Thames and, at the other extreme, mansions, theatres and palaces, all of which impress the Maori visitors. They applaud with unbounded enthusiasm when they hear Patti sing Mozart, knowing a fine voice when they hear it.
Expecting to be able to address English audiences on their own terms, Paratene and his fellows are instead commodified by Jenkins and promoted as amusing exotica. This is the central dramatic situation of Rangatira. In lesser hands the tale could have become an obvious tract on colonial exploitation and the blinkered perspective of the colonising power. But Morris is more subtle. English characters are as complex and contradictory as the novel’s narrator. They are not caricatured. When Paratene shares Queen Victoria’s grief at her widowhood, we are meant to see it as an event of real emotional power, not as a subject for post-colonial jokes.  Only occasionally does Morris spell out the theme of cultural appropriation, as when she has one fair-minded Englishman say “I am unhappy to tell you that you are presented to the British public but as exhibits”. Her Maori characters only slowly come to realize the ambiguity of their position, and then to react against it.
What she’s really intent on is a psychological reconstruction of the old rangatira himself, as filtered through his own words. Paratene Te Manu is shrewd and observant, but he’s also the Conradian unreliable narrator, admitting that he might not be remembering things in the right order, suspecting that he missed things in England through his poor grasp of English and declaring that he could have heard the wilful Jenkins mistranslated.
He is sympathetic but he is no paragon. He has limitations, prejudices and blind-spots. As a man of his own time and culture, he does not always express those pieties that would now draw applause. Reacting to a weeping bereaved person during the voyage to England, he remarks “My son had died, my brother had died, but I didn’t burden everyone else with constant lamentations. I don’t grieve on and on, like a woman.” I can imagine some current novelists censoring those last three words out. Paratene has the mentality of a chief, and a certain aristocratic hauteur in dealing with other Maori. He worries about the impression they make on English of all classes. “We Maori seem intent on disgracing ourselves in every possible way” he grumbles, when considering the raucous behaviour of some of his fellows.
Most complex, and most carefully dramatised by Morris, are his religious beliefs. Paratene may eventually come to see that missionaries can deceive; that they are too prone to speak on behalf of Maori rather than allowing Maori to speak for themselves; and that the English slums are more in need of missionaries’ ministrations than New Zealand is. But Paratene’s own Christianity is both complex and deeply-felt. He is proud of having once been a warrior with Hongi Hika, but he has rejected the ancestral religion. Like Reihana, the most dogmatic Christian of the group, Paratene is shocked when they are asked to perform haka and waiata in churches, not because such performances debase Maori taonga, but because they desecrate the sacred space that a Christian church should be. A haka signifies war and the preparations for war, not the Prince of Peace. We are not surprised that this mainstream Christian fully understands the differences between Anglicans and Wesleyans, that he makes dismissive comment on Te Kooti’s “foolish religion”, or even that, hearing of a confrontation brewing in Taranaki, he suggests “Te Whiti is up to no good”. Again, I can imagine a less skilful novelist not allowing a sympathetic character to think such things.
Morris is alive to the two-way nature of any cultural encounter. Paratene remarks that in London “We were all agog at the many sights of the city, for it was all new to us. But the city was agog at the sight of us and wherever we went…. we attracted much attention.” He is the observed observer, who knows he is being assessed and knows what impact he is making. He is aware of how artificial and culturally-bound all modes of representation are. Some of his shrewdest comments are on photography and painting, and on how they can misrepresent reality. There is the added twist that Gottfried Lindauer, to whom he supposedly narrates his story, is himself a foreigner in an alien environment. Paratene’s story represents an alien culture. An alien painter represents him.
If there are ironies in the story, they are not the cheap-shot back-of-the-book sort found in inferior historical fiction, where we are supposed to feel superior to people of the past because they did not know how things would turn out. Paratene Te Manu realizes they are in England under Jenkins’ conditions because they agreed to Jenkins’ contract without really examining it. It was, he says, “all because we signed a paper without reading it properly”. Maybe that could be said to reflect some later attitudes to the Treaty of Waitangi. But if it does, it’s as far as Paula Morris takes retrospective irony.
This is a remarkable novel which creates a complex, convincing central character and places him in a credible historical environment. Drawing on defunct poetic jargon, I find an “objective correlative” in the ancestral land to which Paratene Te Manu returns - Hauturu (Little Barrier Island as we Pakeha call it). Storm-battered, inaccessible, craggy and quite different from the material “progress” of the mainland, it is very like Paratene Te Manu himself. He does not fit comfortably into the direction history is heading, but he is authentically himself and he has been rendered here with great clarity

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    


            How easily art is corrupted by commercial success. How soon what began as a revolutionary concept in art ends up as a crowd-pleasing commercial venture.
            So here is the PRB, or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in about 1848. Bright and talented and ambitious young artists, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They are tired of the conventional landscapes British artists are producing in the dying wake of the genius Turner. They are sick of canvases filled with groomed racehorses and sentimental views of children. They want to break with current ideals of composition by changing the focus of their canvases. They want to paint, with hyper-realism, each blade of grass and each tooth of the bleating sheep. They want to get back to the palette of the early Renaissance. And they want to make revered and religious figures look like real human beings.
So John Everett Millais paints painstakingly his Christ in the House of his Parents, showing the boy Jesus as a real boy and Joseph’s workshop as a real workshop and the Blessed Virgin Mary as a real and ageing mother, comforting the boy after a mishap. Yes, of course it is filled with symbolism that could readily be accessed by a Christian. The upright figures of Mary and the boy Jesus bisect the door being made on the carpenter’s bench, clearly making the centre of the painting a Cross. The blood on the boy Jesus’s hand, dripping onto his foot, clearly prefigures the Crucifixion. The boy on the right of the composition, dressed in animal skin and holding the bowl of water, is clearly John the Baptist. 

But none of this orthodoxy prevents contemporary critics (including Charles Dickens) from being outraged that the artist has dared to present these holy figures so naturalistically. In both conception and execution this early product of the PRB is a revolutionary work, especially in an England which hasn’t really experienced a revolution. The PRB are upstarts. They are condemned in the press and in art-journals and seen as another symptom of that disrespect for order that is causing upheavals across the channel.
But then there is a swift change in attitude. The over-influential critic John Ruskin praises the young men of the PRB. One by one other critics come around. Within a few short years the PRB (but especially Millais and Hunt) are receiving lucrative commissions. Their canvases sell for big sums. They become highly respectable. They still paint with technical skill, but their subject matter becomes less threatening, more sentimental, more attuned to the tastes of the viewing, and especially the buying, public. More comfortably middle-class and Victorian. Sure, Rossetti gets into his quasi-medieval world of fair-skinned, big rosy-lipped and preferably red-haired beauties, which influences and feeds into the insipid work of Edward Burne-Jones. Sure, there are some paintings that still hold our attention.
But the real direction of the old PRB can be measured by the distance from Millais’ early and revolutionary Christ in the House of his Parents to his late and sentimental Bubbles which, (now knighted and very respectable), he sold for a large sum to Pears’ soap company to use as advertising.

I was recently reminded of this whole story by watching a good three-part BBC documentary series on the Pre-Raphaelites narrated in a posh educated voice by, of all people, Nigel Planer. (He is probably still best known as the lugubrious hippie Neil in the “cult” 1980s sitcom The Young Ones). The series presented the journey from art to complacent commercialism much as I have presented it here. It was a little too eager to keep telling us that the early PRB anticipated by some decades the French Impressionists in the amount of outdoors work they did and in their determination to be true to nature. One expects even the best British documentaries to have at least a residue of national chauvinism – and in this case to underestimate how much more revolutionary the early Impressionists were than the early PRB. Even so, it was no hatchet job and gave due credit to the real artistic achievements of the PRB, even as it chronicled their decline.
After watching this series, I then made the mistake of watching another four-parter on the Pre-Raphaelites hosted by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Oh dear! What a twee piece of work it was in comparison. A very wealthy man on the back of his middlebrow musicals, Lloyd-Webber is not only an enthusiast for the PRB and other Victorian art, but he is wealthy enough to own some of the original canvases. Indeed he is wealthy enough to get an Oxbridge college to construct an elaborate decorated gate, which was designed by a Victorian artist but never constructed until Lloyd-Webber fronted up with the money. Much of his series was taken up with his asserting the greatness of the PRB and only briefly glancing at their corruption by material and commercial success.
I feel a larger theme coming upon me here.
The word “artist” still carries overtones of somebody with a particular vision and the skill (or talent or genius) to express it in a new way. Even if it is at least a century out of date, there is still the image of an artist suffering poverty in a garret for the sake of art.
May I suggest politely that, while this image might once have had some limited validity, it no longer does. The PRB did not merely “sell out”. They pioneered the course that most artists now take. Patronage has always been a factor in art, but when was the scramble more intense than it is now as art students at once scramble for grants, for attention, for the support of gallery owners? The aim is to get established, to get money, to sell. And what is wanted is what will provide a momentary shock to the easily-bored, short-attention-span viewing public. Let us laugh at the later, complacent, dishonest and purely commercial works of former PRB members, produced for the market. And let us now try to conceive of the guffaws that will greet, in the 22nd century, what now fills galleries.
Art and money and feeding the market – it’s a bitch, innit?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“TAKAHE” issue # 86 (Takahe Collective Trust, Christchurch; price for 1 year / 2 print issues $NZ30); “FROM MONKEY TO MOTH – an Imaginal Evolution” by Hugh Major (Papawai Press, $NZ29:99)

            It is very hard to keep up one’s reading of all the literary publications that are now available in New Zealand. I have a hard enough time keeping up with Landfall, Landfall-Review-on-Line, Poetry New Zealand, New Zealand Books, Sport, JAAM and a few others – and it is really more than I can do to read all their contents with the attention that they deserve. I therefore admit that Takahe, produced twice-yearly out of Christchurch, was not a publication that I had seen regularly before. So I accepted willingly the collective editors’ invitation to review the latest issue, #86 [April 2016], to see what it had to offer.

            But here’s the reviewer’s trap. With an issue that offers short fiction by 13 different writers, poetry by 16 poets, an essay, a section on the visual arts and a book review section, how can I do anything more than indicate briefly what the contents are? The alternative would be to give a reasoned critique of each separate piece, which would lead to a review far longer than my weekly blog-posting could accommodate.

            So I am forced back to generalisations.

            Let’s deal first with the physical artefact that is Takahe #86. Its 74 pages are attractively printed on A4 size semi-gloss pages, with firm square binding. There is a four-page colour section illustrating Felicity Milburn’s essay on the “revolutionary jewellery” of the artist Lisa Walker – that “jewellery” comprising the threading together of random junk, or women’s magazines, or poetry magazines to make what seems to me a satirical commentary on the things that weight us down both literally and metaphorically. Given Takahe’s large-page format, I approve the practice of presenting text in double columns. Perhaps, as a minor criticism, the four full pages of contributors’ profiles are a little too much – each with its author photo – but otherwise this is an excellent piece of production.

Now for the impossible task of accounting for the contents, which I spent a couple of evenings reading. What can I do but indicate some of the things that particularly stood out for me?

Brigid Barrer’s essay “Antipodean” is a highlight. Apparently an abridgement of a longer work, it uses images to make a statement about what could more pompously be called the post-colonial condition – an awareness that, no matter how much our culture has fed off other cultures, our unique mix of influences makes us specifically of this place. The essay does not argue from point to point, however. It gives us a vivid picture of cultures mixing, especially in urban Auckland. And this is its chief attraction.

Sarah Penwarden’s short story “Mirror Ball” makes me feel very old. It is a callow and very innocent tale of sexual attraction, interestingly told (in the third person) from a male’s perspective. There is a tentativeness about the main character’s feelings that can only call out a degree of nostalgia in old readers.

I was interested that Kate Mahony’s short story “Flight from New York”, while having a certain hard-boiled tone in its disabused observation of a fellow passenger on a ‘plane, nevertheless ends with an unfashionable twist, almost of the O. Henry sort.

And by singling out these two stories I have, of course, underestimated the work of David Hill and Nathan Bennett and Meagan France (those vivid details of childbirth!) and others that appear here too.

I will now commit the same sin with regard to the poetry. I admired Nick Ascroft’s carefully-crafted sonnet “Beaux”, which did justice to the traditional form while speaking in a clearly modern idiom, half-amused by the prospect of love. The four short poems by Julie Barry are pithy in dealing with big themes – poetic aphorisms. The same goes for Robert McLean’s concise “The Hospice Room”. And while Liang Yujing’s “Tortoises in the City” is a poem making ironic comment on crowds of people, it nevertheless reads with the playfulness of a good animal poem.

And – damn! – I have not commented on the other poets.

I am interested that the book review section includes reviews of seven books, but it is preceded by a note telling readers that these and other reviews can all by accessed on Takahe’s website.

Well, what does my scrappy and inadequate reportage tell you? I hope it tells you that this is a worthwhile publication, calling on the talents of a wide variety of established and emerging talents.

I hope that says enough.

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            Reviewing Hugh Major’s From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution places me is a great quandary. In the first place, I genuinely admire a man who is willing to formulate his own complex philosophy and present it to the public. This is no mean feat, especially given that Major calls upon a large range of literary and poetic references to support his arguments, as well as upon purely philosophical ones. In the second place, I find myself in agreement with Major when he discourses on the things he finds wanting in the modern world. But in the third place (and this is that hard one), I find Major’s philosophy lacking on some essential points and I disagree with many of his conclusions.

So do I shut his book with a loud snap and hurl it aside?

Of course not. I read it carefully and thank Hugh Major for all the real insights that he does provide, even though I know I will end up (verbally) quarrelling with him. I note that he has given me the chance (as any worthwhile book of ideas does) to enter into a dialectic with him and sharpen up my own philosophical ideas. And I also do him the honour of giving you a reasonable summary of what he is on about.

In his Introduction, Major suggests that he will map an alternative, in quasi-poetic form, to the banal cult of pure materialism. He will expand on the images of five distinct life forms to illuminate human qualities. His chosen images are the monkey, the spider, the hare, the iris and the moth. They form an “imaginal evolution” because, working from one creature to the next, Major sees himself as nearing a solution to the problem of what ails the human species spiritually.

The Monkey is a vigorous, self-gratifying, adventurous beast, which represents our desire to conquer, compete, contain and be victorious over rivals. Major links this to the pure materialism that has created irresponsible modern consumerism. Such material acquisitiveness, says Major, needs to be balanced by a care for the spiritual. I applaud Major’s suggestion, in this section, that human beings should be seen sui generis: “Genetically or biologically, we are simians but our quintessentially human or spiritual aspect is of a different order; it comes from another source.” (p.30) I applaud, too, his accurate observation that materialist scientism, while claiming to oppose creeds and belief systems, is itself a creed and belief system. Its programme is to reduce the phenomena of mind and consciousness to mere processes of the physical brain. I also find myself sympathising with his vigorous attacks on the economics of greed, although I do question his assumption that it was the rise of modern science, in the Enlightenment, that ripped us away from our natural roots and led to more wars of conquest and subjugation and the pillaging of the Earth.

The Spider represents our reaching out adventurously to grasp at truth, like the spider swinging over a void to spin its web. But the spider also represents the web of illusion that we can spin from ourselves. In short, the spider is both the triumphs and the shortcomings of reason and ratiocination. In discussing the matter of reason and human consciousness, Major launches into a deft attack on Richard Dawkins’ reductionist notion of the “selfish gene” as an explanation for all faculties of human beings. As Major correctly argues, such reductionism can account only for subordinate and proximal changes wrought by evolution – it cannot account for mind itself. Philosophically, Major wishes to reinsert mind, consciousness and intention into our view of reality and the cosmos, without necessarily positing God. He argues this quite ingeniously:

Evolution is often held up as the counter-argument to creation. It is the scientific explanation of life, dispensing with any need for God. But while evolution is undeniably, it is also theistically neutral. That there is a life-power is without question, or there would be no progression, no adaptation, no creatures. Whether there is a deity behind it all who has configured the cosmos for creative evolution and allowed the various life-forms to get on with it, cannot be disproved by scientific method – such a source must lie outside the whole system, or as deep within as the invisible sprouting centre of a plant. Given the right building blocks, why can’t the world make itself? Wouldn’t this be a more interesting and sophisticated design than imposing specific parameters? This is an explanation which has not been disproved – that design in nature is not focused on evolutionary outcomes and instead it is the whole process that is predetermined.” (under the sub-heading “A World Making Itself” of the section “Spider” pp.62-63)

Major accepts the anthropic principle – the notion of some sort of design based on its “just rightness” for human life; but he does not commit himself to theism. Instead, he opts for a sort of cosmic consciousness – a concept which does lead him into the contested territory of ESP and other such phenomena. However, en route, he takes a vigorous and well-aimed swipe at the shallowness and lack of real consciousness to which unbridled materialism leads us:

The Western world is in need of the depth dimension of life, instead of the trivial instantaneity of life as experienced through the mass-media – the rapid fire account of world crises, catastrophes and coups. Television’s mainstream news is a mixture of propaganda, glamorised crime and celebrity gossip pitched at a low level of intelligence designed to brainwash the susceptible, to titillate and sell advertising. People as dutiful consumers face fifteen types of toothpaste on the supermarket shelves; they are swamped by choice. They struggle to get by, increasingly uncertain about the future. The more everyone is drawn into this shallow, often unmanageable outer world, the less value they have in their lives and the more enfeebled they become. Conversations of the day are determined by newscasts of the evening before. Anything truly profound is often dismissed as pretentious or a waste of time.” (p.106)

When he mediates on the Hare, Major is reflecting on that which is elusive and swift and best attuned to moving in the world of moonlight. In other words, this is a poetic introduction to the intuitive part of the human mind, making imaginative leaps in the dark. This is the lived part of human experience, which cannot be explained or nullified by purely physical processes. Because he is here dealing with the deepest wells of creativity, Major (who is the illustrator of his own book as well as the author) makes a number of incidental comments on Art. He is spot-on in this pungent passage where he comments on the loss of the concept of beauty (and the sublime0 in currently fashionable art:

Beauty became something merely fabricated, something determined by market forces. The movement [postmodernism] dispensed with criteria, except to the extent that something was different – and thus more marketable. The question then arises as to whether, in this context, art relies on the aesthetic or not (an empty canvas in a frame becomes as valid as Botticelli’s Venus). If not, then shock value, social commentary or irony must be the motivator. There is an art crowd’s elitism involved as well: only the intelligent will perceive the irony, so these galleristas and wealthy patrons become the arbiters of taste. But it is counterintuitive to claim that, through the postmodern lens, beauty is passé, that it is something quaint or naïve consigned to art history and thus obsolete. It is a false conclusion drawn from within this mode of thinking. In this context, beauty was no doubt jettisoned early on because it escapes precise definition. While it is subjectively recognisable, it is not a consensus quality – it all comes down to interpretation.” (p.141)

The monkey, the spider and the hare having covered self-gratification, consciousness, ratiocination and intuition, Major now sees in the Iris as a symbol of synthesis. There is harmony in diversity in the colours of the iris (which means “rainbow” in the original Greek). The iris gives the bee the opportunity to collect pollen and spread it to other flowers. For Major, this is an image of the binding-together quality of art and of a fully-functioning human mind; but it is also an image of the radiance of art. Major gives a very good account of what aesthetic experience is:

Aesthetic experience is a particular, powerful state of consciousness where we enter into a relationship with an object and the separation between observer and observed starts to dissolve. It is as though some aspects of the otherwise unknowable essence of the object have come to the surface and begin to impinge on the awareness. In other words, a divide has been bridged where the pure form comes into focus.”  (p.181)

In asserting this kinship with other minds and the art they produce, he also asserts the natural kinship of human beings with other creatures and with the beauties of nature. A very pre-lapsarian, Edenic concept.

And what is the destiny of this conscious, adventurous, reasoning, intuitive, synthesising, art-making, empathetic human mind, which bursts beyond mere materialism? Here, in the face of the fact of death, Major comes to his last image – the Moth. It passes from larva to pupa to caterpillar to chrysalis to moth, taking on different forms of being as a continuum. From this Major takes the image of consciousness and life continuing beyond death. As he discusses this final destiny of consciousness, Major takes on the topic of fear of death as one generator of religions and discusses what he sees as the defects of some systems of belief.

As a whole, then, From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution argues against materialism, for spiritualism, for a greater valuing of mind, consciousness and the intuitive part of human endeavour, and for a greater sense of our kinship.

I think this sums up fairly what this interesting and adventurous book is on about. But as I said at the beginning of this notice, I have a number of bones to pick with it. While materialism may have received a boost from the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, my knowledge of history and human development leads me to reject the notion that the Enlightenment was the main cause of current competitive acquisitiveness. If this is one of Major’s “myths”, then I would reply that the more ancient myth of the Fall and of Original Sin is still far more persuasive. Human beings have been competitive, acquisitive, murderous, exploitative and lustful (as well as empathetic, creative, cooperative, constructive and loving) for many, many thousands of years, and not merely for the last couple of centuries. True, applied science has allowed us to commit our sins and crimes on a far vaster scale than before. Even so, the notion of something radically flawed in the human make-up (which is what the myth of the Fall is all about) offers a clearer reading on the mixed human person.

Incidental to this matter, when Major is chewing over the relative merits of different belief systems, I do not think it is necessary to call upon a currently-fashionable commentator to have the following point made:

 “There is a paradox at the heart of Christian teaching whereby it seems to be understood that God’s children are going to be sinners, but that’s alright because it will create the need for salvation. Slavoj Zizek made this the subject of his book The Puppet and the Dwarf – the perverse core of Christianity and concluded that the Fall is identical to the Resurrection.” (p.194)

For the best part of two millennia, and without adopting Zizek’s dismissive tone, Christians themselves have been pondering the paradox of a salvation linked to a Fall – hence the concept of the felix culpa.

This whole problem of flawed human nature, and of evil, is one with which Major has difficulty dealing. In many respects From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution is a work of pantheism – nature itself, driven by some sort of cosmic consciousness, is the ground of our being. Real transcendence is rejected. It is in nature that we should immerse ourselves to find our real selves, closing the psychic gap that materialism has created. But nature must be accepted whole if we are to follow this plan. Nature may include monkey, spider, hare, iris and moth; but nature also includes virus, cancer, hookworm, tapeworm, ichneumon wasp and natural catastrophe; and one of its chief mechanisms is predation. If it appears an orderly and benign system in one schema, in another it is an unstable and destructive complex. What, then, does it mean to immerse oneself in, and identify oneself with, nature? In the moral sense – and without some idea of transcendence - very little.  Hence, for all the Jungian references to the shadow side, Major’s difficulty in dealing with the problem of evil. Often, reading From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution, I had the sense that only a very selective view of nature was being accessed.

Beyond this major point, I add the minor point that Major’s gendered view of nature does lead to what feminists would call essentialism. Thus he wants to see “the world as a gift to be revered” and a shift from “a male culture of individuality and competition to a female one of co-operation and love” (Introduction, p.5). Thus he states (under the sub-heading “Woman’s World”) that “Associated with the passive, co-operative and sustaining, the female element, by its nature, is not interested in the wielding of power, but it is a mainstay of social health.” (p.20)

So I finally set this book aside having greatly enjoyed Major’s polemics against the flaws of the modern world, but not being persuaded by his concept of a cure. En route, however, it is a stimulating mix of poetry, observation and artistic intuition.