Thursday, December 29, 2011

Breaking into fact

Whenever I examine a newspaper I steer around articles dealing with individual tragedies and outrages - car crashes and house fires and child abductions and murders - and instead read reports on more general, abstract subjects, like political conflicts or economic crises or demographic changes.

I justify this preference to Skyler by explaining that I see the world in materialist terms, and regard history as the working out of broad forces and grand structures. I tell Skyler that individual human tragedies and triumphs are not, in the scheme of things, significant, and thus don't count as news, in the proper sense of the word.

But there's a less intellectual reason why I try to steer clear of the tragedies that are part of every day's news. I find reading about crimes like the recent violent assault on a small girl in a Turangi holiday camp both distressing and depressing. I'm hardly alone in this, of course: the atrocity in Turangi has disturbed people up and down New Zealand. Even those of us who have avoided newspaper articles and talkback radio have received details of the crime and updates on the hunt for its perpetrator, courtesy of angry family members and friends.

A crowd laid siege to the Taupo District Court yesterday, as a young man appeared there on charges relating to the attack in nearby Turangi. A lot of Kiwis will be fantasising about the punishments they'd mete out to the attacker, if only they were given the opportunity.

While this sort of aggressive response to a heinous crime is rational enough, and may even have some therapeutic value, it seems to me to be somehow inadequate to the sheer mystery of evil. From Eichmann to Harold Shipman, the perpetrators of terrible crimes always seem somehow slight, once they are captured and safely removed from the scenes of their deeds. The reporters and psychologists who observe their appearances in the dock and interview them in prison meeting rooms, seeking some clue about ideology and motive, tend to be disappointed. It seems impossible to square the evil of the crimes with the pathetic lives and unimpressive countenances of the perpetrators. If we want to understand the evil of a Shipman or a Manson we must look beyond the individual, into history and sociology and the structure of the human mind.

The annotated selection of Kendrick Smithyman's poems I published last year included a text prompted by one of the most notorious murders in modern New Zealand history. Smithyman disliked easy rhetoric and over-certainty, and his discussion of the killing of Kirsa Jensen is both complex and sensitive. I've reproduced Smithyman's poem below, along with the commentary which I gave it in last year's book.


The not well chosen motel looks over the road
to the marshalling yard. They've a current row
about reducing staff, not enough work
to warrant; conceivably this might be why the yard
worked all night but seemed to get nowhere.
A few jolts forward, some coupling, clanking,
a few jolts back, some pointless heavy breathing
from too-long stationary diesel locos.
These are of course Bulgarian motors.
One has heard about Bulgarians, Smiley might tell more

whose prose leaps in the small hours from Kipling, the Great Game,
to Greene, the enduringly painful down at heel
talent which Evil has for breaking
any gloss of fiction, into fact.
That place which we passed, rivermouth
a few kilometres south which is historically
connected with missionary endeavour,
in a day or two there
a girl child will fall
from her horse, a middleaged man - platitudinous,
nondescript - with a nondescript truck
will stop, offer help. She will not be seen
again. We shall not, as we do not, know.



On the first day of the spring of 1983 a fourteen year-old girl named Kirsa Jensen disappeared after riding her horse to a section of coastline just south of Napier. Jensen was last seen at Awatoto Beach with a bloodied face, which she attributed to a fall from her horse, and in the company of a middle-aged man, who claimed to be waiting with her for her parents. Jensen's body has never been recovered, and her killer has never been identified.

Smithyman and his second wife Margaret Edgcumbe had spent a night in Napier in late August 1983, near the end of a journey through the middle latitudes of the North Island which took them to Taranaki, the Wairarapa, and the Ureweras as well as to Hawkes Bay. In 'Fiction Fact', which was written after the couple's return to Auckland, Smithyman remembers the uneasy night he spent in Napier, and finds in it premonitions of the tragedy about to strike the town.

In an interview with Jack Ross for the Smithymania issue of literary journal brief, Margaret Edgcumbe remembered that Kendrick often suffered from insomnia in his later years, and used to cope with this malady by reading deep into the night. In 'Fiction Fact', Smithyman's sleeplessness is reinforced by the noise from the railway workshop situated all too close to his 'not well chosen motel'.

The poet is obscurely troubled by the idea that the engines of the trains being repaired across the road were made in Bulgaria. In the early 1980s, Romania was widely regarded in the West as the most liberal of the Soviet Union's Eastern European allies, on account of its relatively independent foreign policy, and its neighbour Bulgaria was often perceived as a sinister, fiercely repressive place. Bulgaria's bad reputation derived partly from the closeness with which it followed Soviet foreign policy, but it also had something to do with the bizarre murder of Georgi Martov in London in 1978 by Bulgarian secret agents. Martov, a writer who had fled Bulgaria and become a prominent critic of its rulers, was killed by a tiny poison capsule fired out of an umbrella on a busy London street.

Smithyman wrote regularly about the Soviet bloc and the Cold War in the 1980s, thanks partly to the influence of his eldest son Christopher, a career diplomat who had begun, at the end of the 1970s, to specialise in Soviet affairs and to learn Russian. Christopher worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Wellington up until shortly before his death from a brain tumour in 1984, and on his occasional visits to that city Kendrick sometimes found himself chatting with diplomats from the Eastern bloc at parties and functions his son’s employers had organised.

In 'Fiction Fact' Bulgaria, with its Cold War connotations of espionage and repression, seems to remind Smithyman of books he has been reading to cope with his insomnia. After considering John Le Carre's novels about the Mi6 agent Smiley - a character sometimes described as the anti-Bond, on account of his dour demeanour and undramatic methods - Smithyman thinks of Rudyard Kipling, whose 1902 book Kim popularised the use of the term 'the Great Game' to describe the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Kipling's novel relates the burgeoning career in espionage and the on-again, off-again spiritual quest of a young Englishman raised on the Indian subcontinent. At the book's end Kim must choose between finding enlightenment deep in the Himalayas or enjoying worldly success as a British intelligence officer.
If Kipling's novel counterposes spiritual purity to worldly corruption, then Graham Greene's fiction demolishes the dichotomy, showing that men of God can be as amoral as the most cynical spy. Greene's preoccupation with the darker side of humanity was not confined to the page: as his biographers have shown, the great writer consciously experimented, for much of his life, with acts which he knew to be evil, like spying on his friends for British intelligence. It is appropriate, then, that Greene, along with Kipling and Le Carre, suggests to Smithyman the 'talent' that 'evil has' for 'breaking/ any gloss of fiction, into fact'.

In the last dozen lines of his poem, Smithyman explains why he has been so preoccupied with dark thoughts. He and Margaret passed the site where Kirsa Jensen was last seen only a few days before her disappearance.

When Smithyman describes Awatoto Beach as a 'rivermouth...historically/ connected with missionary endeavour' he refers to the nineteenth century history of the place. In the early 1840s the Church Missionary Society established a station at Awatoto, which was then known as Awapuni, after acquiring ten acres near the mouth of the Tutaekuri River from a local hapu of the large Ngati Kahungungu iwi. The young William Colenso, who would eventually win renown as an ethnologist and a botanist as well as a clergyman, was the first occupant of the mission station, and in 1845 he and his followers managed to raise a church there.

For quarrelling Ngati Kahungungu hapu and, eventually, for members of other iwi, Awapuni became a neutral locus for negotiations and diplomatic intrigues. In the
1850s the great Tainui leader Wiremu Tamihana visited the place, during his efforts to win Ngati Kahungungu support for the King Movement he was creating. After the invasion of the King Movement's lands by the Pakeha government in Auckland in 1863, Awapuni was the site of negotiations between Ngati Kahungungu and semi-secret government agents keen to keep the iwi from joining the war on the side of King Tawhiao.

'Fiction Fact' is not a poem which constructs a logical argument, or a linear narrative: it proceeds, instead, by a series of unexpected associative leaps. Perhaps Smithyman is reminded of the intrigue-filled history of Awatoto by the spy novels he has apparently been reading, and perhaps the terrible mystery which surrounds the disappearance of Kirsa Jensen reminds him of the sinister secrets which are the stock in trade of spies and states.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christopher Hitchens and the end of triumphalism

As the American flag was lowered at Baghdad International Airport last week, the most vociferous literary proponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq lay dying in a Houston hospital. In the mass media and on the blogosphere there has been a curiously muted response to both the end of America's long occupation of Iraq and the passing of Christopher Hitchens.

The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was vehemently criticised and defended around the world, and controversy persisted for the next few years, as the easy overthrow of Saddam Hussein was followed by widespread resistance to American-led forces, civil war between confessional groups, and economic collapse. Chistopher Hitchens had been a journalist and political commentator since he graduated from Oxford University in the early 1970s, but it was the support he gave, in print and in endless rounds of television talk show appearances and college hall debates, for Bush's attack on Iraq which made him into a celebrity and a hate figure in both his British homeland and his adopted America.

Hitchens had been a Trotskyist of sorts at Oxford, and had later associated with both the left of the British Labour Party and the ginger group of liberal American intellectuals which publishes the journal The Nation. By calling Bush's assault on Iraq a war of liberation, and by comparing its opponents to the appeasers of Hitler, Hitchens upset many of his old comrades and readers and delighted the right. His endorsement of Bush in the 2004 presidential elections only confirmed his apostasy.

In the early years of the Iraq war Hitchens was regularly excoriated by left-wing commentators, but few of his old opponents have felt the need to renew their fury in the aftermath of his death. The blogger Louis Proyect was one of Hitchens' most ferocious and persistent critics, but his obituary for his old enemy is surprisingly measured. Alex Callinicos, whose Socialist Workers Party was often condemned as an ally of 'Islamofascism' by Hitchens, has also refrained from denunciations.

The many articles published about the end of the American occupation of Iraq have had a similarly restrained tone. Long-time critics of Bush's war have been in a reflective rather than a strident mood.

If the end of the American war on Iraq and the death of that war's most passionate advocate have received muted responses, it is perhaps because Bush's war seems to belong to a different, distant era.

A decade ago, when Afghanistan had been speedily occupied and plans were being laid for an assault on Iraq, America was widely perceived as a dynamic and unstoppable superpower. The collapse of the Soviet Union had brought Eastern Europe into the American sphere of influence, and now, confronted by Bush's post-9/11 'for or against us' rhetoric and a massive military buildup, formerly recalcitrant parts of the Middle East and Central Asia seemed set to follow. Ideologues close to Bush talked about creating an 'American century', by using military firepower and free market economics to spread the writ of Washington into even the most barbarous corners of the globe.

The transformation of Iraq into an outpost of American capitalism and a model for the benighted parts of the world seemed, in this heady atmosphere, an easy task. Bush's deputy Dick Cheney predicted that the war on Iraq would be a 'cakewalk'; Hitchens gave victory a sort of teleological inevitability when he looked forward to the 'overdue liberation' of the country.

It is now obvious that the heady early years of this century marked the zenith of American imperial power and self-confidence. The adventure in Iraq ended up demonstrating the limits of American military capabilities, and the economic crisis that began on Wall Street in 2008 has shown up the fragility of the country's economy. Today not only the bomb-scarred streets of Baghdad but the ruined industrial zones of Detroit and Cleveland and the foreclosed suburbs of Stockton and Tampa mock the imperial hubris of the Bush era. To reread Hitchens' writings of a decade ago is to enter again the febrile atmosphere of the early years of the 'War on Terror'. Hitchens admitted to feeling a sense of 'exhilaration' in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, and his pro-war articles have a troubling excitement and confidence. After spending decades as a left-wing gadfly, with no influence in the centres of political and economic power, Hitchens felt that Bush's response to 9/11 had given him a cause with which he could identify wholeheartedly. The reformed Marxist's aggressive endorsements of Bush policies soon won him visits to the White House and meetings with neoconservative strategists like Paul Wolfowitz. Hitchens even gave Bush and his inner circle a political pep talk on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

Hitchens' excited response to the War on Terror sometimes expressed itself in a frank delight in violence. In a 2002 interview, for instance, he enthused over the effects of the cluster bombs American forces were dropping on the recalcitrant parts of Afghanistan:

If you're actually certain that you're hitting only a concentration of enemy troops...then it's pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too. So they won't be able to say, "Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through." No way, 'cause it'll go straight through that as well. They'll be dead, in other words..

Hitchens' advertisements for Bush's war were written in haste, and without great regard for either facts or logic. Reviewing The Long Short War, a collection of twenty-two pro-war articles penned in late 2002 and early 2003, Norman Finkelstein noted how often Hitchens contradicted himself, even within the confines of a single article. Finkelstein found Hitchens claiming that the war had nothing to do with oil, then stating on his very next page that 'of course it's about oil'. He saw Hitchens arguing that Saddam's regime was on the brink of 'implosion', then asserting a page later than 'only the force of American arms' could bring regime change in Iraq.

While many early supporters of the war on Iraq either revised or abandoned their arguments as the war dragged on, Hitchens persisted with the same discredited talking points. Up until the end of his life he claimed, in the face of an avalanche of countervailing evidence, that Saddam had maintained a nuclear weapons programme in the 1990s, and had tried to buy uranium from Niger. In an interview with Radio New Zealand last year he repeated the lie that the Iraqi Communist Party and labour movement had supported the invasion of their country, neglecting to mention that the American 'liberators' had not only maintained but enforced a Saddam-era law banning trade unions and strikes.

What is important in Hitchens' pro-war writings is not evidence or logic but a rhetoric of destiny and triumphalism. In text after text, Hitchens gives the impression that the war in Iraq, and the War on Terror in general, are struggles of world-historical importance between forces of reaction and progress, and suggests that these struggles might be won or lost because of the bravery or cowardice of Western intellectuals. Hitchens treats critics of the War on Terror like unforgivable enemies, and presents himself as an auxillary of the American armed forces - a 'keyboard warrior', hunkered down in his Washington office-bunker.

Hitchens' delusions of self-importance are not novel, for anyone who has studied intellectual history. In the 1920s Ezra Pound decided that Mussolini was taking his advice; a decade later Martin Heidegger was stupid enough to believe that, by circulating his writings inside the Nazi Party, he was becoming Adolf Hitler's intellectual mentor, and guiding the progress of the 'new Germany'; in the 1960s Louis Althusser convinced himself that his office at the Ecole Normale was the secret centre of world revolution.

Hitchens responded to the failure of the American mission in Iraq by broadening rather than abandoning his vision of a world-historical battle between forces of good and evil, light and darkness. As Iraq fractured along confessional lines and support for Bush collapsed in America, Hitchens turned increasingly from the War on Terror to the notion of a wider war between religion and reason. In his 2007 book God is not Great he proclaimed religion an 'urgent danger' to the survival of the human race, and demanded a concerted struggle against it.

Hitchens' book won him support from some atheist organisations, but his penchant for violent rhetoric and his particular antipathy for Islam meant that the atheists sometimes came to regret inviting him to speak at their gatherings. The biologist and atheist PZ Myers described what happened after Hitchens took the stage at the 2007 Freedom from Religion convention in Wisconsin:

[I]t was Hitchens at his most bellicose. He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy...

The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties...Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide. Or, at least, wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world until they are sufficiently cowed and frightened and depleted that they are unable to resist us in any way, ever again...I could tell that he did not have the sympathy of most of the audience at this point. There were a scattered few who applauded wildly at every mention of bombing the Iranians, but the majority were stunned into silence. People were leaving — I heard one woman sing a few bars of "Onward, Christian soldiers" as she left to mock his strategy.

Hitchens wrote a series of books which attempted to celebrate men he regarded as his precursors in the struggle against religion and other forms of unreason. But texts like Orwell's Victory and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: a biography are so poorly researched and constructed that they can only be considered assaults on reason. Hitchens' study of Paine piggybacks shamelessly on John Keane's biography of the great man, at times lifting whole paragraphs from its source; his homage to Orwell dispenses with secondary literature altogether, preferring unsubstantiated assertion to quote and citation. Just as Jim Morrison is only considered a great poet by folks who don't read poetry, so Hitchens is only acclaimed as a scholar by the right-wing ignoramuses who know him as an advocate for war on Fox News.

Abandoned by the left, Hitchens increasingly found a home on the hard right of American politics. He began to associate with David Horowitz, the famous defector from the 1960s left who had become an advocate of the deportation of American Muslims and the exclusion of socialist teachers from high school and colleges. Hitchens reviewed one of Horowitz's books sympathetically, spoke at one of the anti-Muslim rallies Horowitz regularly holds at American universities, and began a joint speaking tour with Horowitz before falling ill.

In the eighteen months it took to kill him, cancer took some of the hubris and aggression out of Hitchens' prose. Invalided away from the television talk shows and Washington cocktail parties which were his usual frontline, the keyboard warrior found himself writing about painkillers and chemotherapy and hospital gowns. The world-historical struggle for freedom was suddenly internalised, in prose that exchanged bombast for quiet irony:

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat...So now every day I go to a waiting room, and watch the awful news from Japan on cable TV (often closed-captioned, just to torture myself) and wait impatiently for a high dose of protons to be fired into my body at two-thirds the speed of light. What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.

Hitchens tried to immortalise his writing by making it the servant of powerful men and a world-historical struggle, but it is the very personal work he produced at the end of his life which is most likely to persist in print. Like Pound's Fascist Cantos and Heidegger's rectorial addresses, the feverish advertisements for Bush's wars will be of interest only as examples of the dangers that power, or the illusion of power, poses for intellectuals.

Footnote: an academic paper I wrote back in 2005 about Hitchens and the rest of the 'pro-war left' can be read here.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The expedition indoors

Although the report Paul Janman recently sent south from Urupukapuka Island was full of interesting details and provocative speculations, I couldn't read it without feeling a little pained. I feel similarly uncomfortable when I read about older New Zealand adventurers, like William Colenso, the botanist and missionary whose jaunts around Te Ika a Maui are reenacted in new books by Peter Wells and my old friend the late Leicester Kyle. The likes of Colenso and Janman have been making me jealous. Skyler and I moved in the middle of this year to a suburb in the deep west of Auckland, and in recent weeks we - I use the word 'we' very loosely - have begun some renovations here, stripping layers off bedroom walls with an archaeological curiosity, and tearing up leagues of an ancient, peat-coloured carpet in the hope that there will be something solid underneath.

But the Waitakere Ranges rise on one side of our house, and whenever I think about the feats of travellers like Janman and Colenso I want to throw down my hammer or scraper and head for Waiatarua, or Ruaotuwhenua, or one of the other hills where antennae and bush grow.

As the likes of Jack Diamond and Lisa Truttman have reminded us, the Waitakeres have long been a place of refuge and adventure for Aucklanders tempted or forced to abandon city life. Bandits, deserters from imperialist war, and escaped prisoners have all made their ways to the ranges, along with visionary artists like Colin McCahon and Allen Curnow. There are a few research trails I'd like to follow through those hills.

I got a similar desire for flight back in the eighties at Drury Primary School whenever a teacher used to bang on about our area's association with Edmund Hillary. Looking through the Standard Three window past the last subdivisions of Auckland at the the dark blue Drury Hills, and hearing stories of our Ed's alpine daring, I was barely able to control the urge to rush out the classroom door and make for the south.

Skyler argues that living near the edge of the city can give us a certain mental balance, but I wonder whether it actually creates a peculiar sort of melancholy, by continually reminding us of the alternative to our quotidian suburban existences. Because I've been spending more time in hardware and furniture stores than in the countryside lately, I'm unable to respond in kind to Paul Janman's reports from pa sites and historic ruins and picturesquely isolated jetties. Instead, I thought I'd invoke the credo of Alf, and of anti-travel writing, by making the best of a bad situation, and glorifying the outwardly unedifying. In this poem, which I tried and failed to send to Paul yesterday (I suspect that he's once again drifted out of internet range, into one of Northland's serpentine harbours or estuaries), I deport William Colenso to twenty-first century suburbia.

In Defence of William Colenso's Botanical Expedition to a West Auckland branch of Target Furniture

Did you imagine him on a ridge-top,
chatting with cabbage trees,
or chin-deep in some bog
where kahikatea strain the sunlight?

Have you forgotten the forests
in this city?

Have you forgotten the rooms
full of rimu tables,
the oak cabinets varnished
with kauri gum?
Don't you remember
those spiders and dragonflies writhing
in blebs of gold?

Have you forgotten the library
archives, their piles of paper rising
like puriri trunks?

The deepest woods
the best specimens
are always indoors!

To reach the specimens
in the storeroom of this shop
Colenso climbs the staircase
like a tree.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Anti-travel in Urupukapuka: a communication from Paul Janman

[Some folks have been testing the water in rather more glamorous locations than Henderson...]

Hi Scott,

I'm sitting on an oyster-scabbed boat ramp, which is the only place we can get an internet signal here. The sun is kissing two old Pa sites standing up like a pair of green tits on the other side of Otehei Bay. Urupukapuka Island is ripe for anti-travel...the locals however are innocent of the precepts of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island...this island has been an archaeological goldmine, and is now infested with legions of red, yellow and white 'dolphin-watching' tour boats. A helicopter dragonflied down here yesterday, and disgorged half a dozen gawpers.

In 1772 Marion du Fresne spotted a fortification on the hill above us, stopped to talk to the locals, and built his hospital in neighbouring Moturoa. He was knocked off not long afterwards. There is also a story about the restaurant here, built by Zane Grey, writer of novels set in an idealised American West. The restaurant burned down in suspicious circumstances: I am needling recalcitrant locals about the probable arson. I found a 1972 history textbook among the crap novels here at the bach. One of the photos in the textbooks shows soldiers at work on the Great South Road in 1863. I suspect it was taken by William Temple, a man who marched south into the Waikato carrying primitive image-making equipment - collodion wet plates and all that - as well as a rifle. Temple won a Victoria Cross at Rangiriri, and took 'technically imperfect' photos which seem now to have a blurred, layered, almost proto-cinematic quality. Our Great South Road film should finish (ie, reverse) his work. The kids are rioting...pj

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My walk to Mocha

Fifty years ago West Aucklanders still swam in the long, rock-edged pools of the Opanuku, one of half a dozen large creeks which flow east from the Waitakere Ranges into the Waitemata Harbour. Today a sprawling 'aquatic complex' called West Wave stands in central Henderson, just a few metres from one of the formerly popular swimming spots on the Opanuku. Instead of sharing the dirty creek water with ducks and beer cans, locals can take their pick of West Wave's covered, chlorinated, heated pools.

I am visiting West Wave in an attempt to keep the terms of a vague exercise programme devised to help me manage a chronic injury in my left arm. Emerging nervously from a changing room, I strap what looks like a fisherman's float to my midriff, descend a stainless steel ladder into the placid water, position myself between thick black lane markings painted on off-white tiles, and begin the sort of slow, exaggerated walk which John Cleese made famous forty years ago in a series of Monty Python sketches. My knees rise to hip-height, my arms make the shape of cresting waves, and my feet float a few inches from the tiles, as I begin my slow progress to the far end of the pool, fifty metres away.

In the lane beside me an impressively large man has begun what seems like a parody of my waterwalk. He dips his head as he strides forward through the water, and as his left knee rises towards his midriff his quadruple chin and supersized belly touch for a moment. Surely I can't look quite as ridiculous as him?

I wonder about the training routine that my neighbour must have followed, year after year, decade after decade, to reach his present condition. I imagine him sprawled on couches or propped up in armchairs, gutting packet after packet of potato chips with a sort of joyless industry; I see him rising early on a Monday morning and heading to McDonalds or Burger King before work, in the way a lesser man might head to the gym.

I notice that my neighbour has a smile on his face, as he sloshes onward through foaming water, and I remember Paul Theroux's claim that very large people love the water - love swimming, and diving, and lolling in the shallows of lagoons - because it frees them from the weight of their bodies. Perhaps we all seek a similar escape when we enter the water - even if our bodies are not enormously overweight, they find ways to discipline us, with their aches and spasms and tiresome fealty to gravity. As a young man, Arthur C Clarke become obsessed with the idea of weightlessness, and looked forward to the advent of space flight. Frustrated by the failure of NASA and its Soviet rival to develop cheap and easy interstellar travel, the middle-aged Clarke donned diving gear instead of an astronaut's suit, and spent thousands of hours space walking in the warm seas off Sri Lanka.

As I get further down the pool, opening up a modest lead over my panting, splashing neighbour, I can observe a group of young men, kitted out in dark blue goggles and light blue speedos, limbering up on the poolside tiles. Like all serious swimmers, they have huge jutting chests mounted on slender lower torsos. They remind me of the Ford Escorts with transplanted V8s under their hoods that jounce up and down Lincoln Road on Friday nights.

A huge screen hanging ahead of me, above the far end of the pool, shows a series of images - an unsettled sea at dawn or dusk, a flat-topped skerry loaded with gannets, a creek cutting a course through ironsand...The dozen or so photos are shown again and again, in the same order. I wonder whether they are meant as some commercial or educational advertisement, but none of them is adorned by either an explanatory text or a logo, and I decide that they are an attempt to ennoble the swimmers and dogpaddlers and waterwalkers of West Wave, by connecting these placid, chlorinated, weatherproof pools to the wild western coastline of Auckland, with its black sand beaches, backbreaking surf, and scores of wrecked ships. Staring at the images, I start to imagine myself treading the swell of Whatipu, as the Orpheus sinks into a hole in the sandbar on the Manukau Harbour entrance, or bodysurfing ashore at Karekare with Allen Curnow.

One of the screen's photos shows a island - is it a skerry off Muriwai, or is it Ihumoana, the overgrown Kawerau a Maki pa that floats beside the northern end of Bethells Beach? - in the middle distance, listing into a high sea. As I slosh my way towards the end of the pool I see the island again and again, and realise that it looks a little like the pictures I have seen of the place Chilean maps call Isla Mocha.

Despite or because of its isolation from Chile's coast by more than fifty kilometres of cold choppy water, Mocha has had a long and complicated human history. The Lafkenche tribe of the pre-Columbian Mapuche nation called the island Amuchra, or Resurrection of Souls, because they believed that the spirits of their ancestors resided there. Earthworks and artefacts suggest that at least some Mapuche settled on Amuchra before their deaths. Francis Drake and many later adventurers used Mocha as a depot and haven, and in 1839 a whaler named Jeremiah Reynolds published a book called Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific, which recounted his duels with an albino sperm whale in the waters off the island. A young man named Herman Melville read Reynold's book excitedly. Today eight hundred people, a few of them Mapuche, live on Mocha's fifty square kilometres. Over the last few years Isla Mocha has begun to fascinate archaeologists. In 2007 the University of Auckland's Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith examined a series of skulls from Mocha in a provincial Chilean museum, and realised that they had markedly Polynesian characteristics. Matisoo-Smith also came across chicken bones excavated on Mocha in 1934, and a series of adzes. The adzes looked Polynesian, and DNA tests showed that the chicken probably came from one of the islands far to the west of Mocha. Matisoo-Smith's discoveries created a media sensation overseas - the New Scientist reported them under the headline 'Polynesians beat Columbus to the Americas' - but were barely acknowledged in Aotearoa.

Mocha is an important setting for Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World, a collection of essays by Matisoo-Smith and a dozen other scholars from New Zealand, Chile, and the United States published this year by Altamira Press. In his contribution to the book, veteran University of Auckland archaeologist Geoffrey Irwin argues that ancient Polynesian visitors to the continent now known as South America would most likely have travelled from Rapa Nui, riding a wind that blows from the edge of a high pressure system which often hangs over the far eastern Pacific. But Irwin goes on to make the startling suggestion that the journey could have been made from the Chatham Islands, across ten thousand kilometres of sub-Antarctic ocean. A voyage from the Chathams to Chile would have seen the double-rigged sailing ships of the Polynesians confronted by freezing thirty-foot waves for at least four months, but the similarities between adzes found on the Chathams and on Mocha suggest that it might have been possible. Did some of the group of early Maori who landed on the Chathams in the twelfth or thirteenth century decide to press east, in search of warmer and more arable islands, and find themselves driven further and further across a stormy and barren ocean? Did a few of them eventually land on Mocha and establish settlements there, intermarrying with the local people, while the whanau they had left behind on the Chathams began slowly to adapt to their bleak home, and to evolve the culture we call Moriori?

Certainly, no sailor who followed latitude 44 east from the Chathams would sight even the meanest fragment of land until he or she reached the coast of Chile, or the small islands like Mocha which lie close to that coast.

In 1843 Asaph Taber, the captain of a whaling ship named the Maria-Theresa, sighted an island or reef about seven hundred kilometres east of the Chathams. The discovery soon began to appear on maps of the Pacific, where it was usually called either Tabor Island or Maria-Theresa Reef, and Jules Verne used it as the setting for two of his novels, In Search of the Castaways and The Mysterious Island. In the twentieth century, though, repeated searches, including one by the New Zealand naval vessel Tui, failed to locate Tabor Island. A couple of other nineteenth century 'discoveries' in the same area, Ernest Lagouve Reef and Wachusett Reef, have proved similarly elusive. The route from the Chathams to Chile may be bereft of islands, but it is frequented by icebergs, which are sometimes hundreds of metres wide and scores of metres high. Is it possible that Asaph Taber glimpsed a distant berg, perhaps through mist or rain, and decided that anything so imposing could not possibly have floated to its present location, or be doomed to dissolve into water?

My mind has been drifting from Henderson's public swimming pool to the roaring forties and to Isla Mocha. Skyler suggested that I should daydream - "set imaginative goals" was her phrase, I think - while I exercise, as a way of measuring my progress. "Count your lengths" she said, "and see if you can do twenty. That's a trip to the shops and back."

Perhaps the sterility of the environments in which modern humans exercise and the repetitive nature of the 'scientific' fitness regimes created by physiotherapists and personal trainers force exercisers into fantasy. As we do lengths, or run laps, or move from one humming exercise machine to another in vast gyms, we become, for an hour or so at least, prisoners. Our bodies are trapped, and our bored brains rebel. An acquaintance of mine revealed that he imagines he is running through a teeming, dripping tropical rainforest in Borneo whenever he uses the treadmill at his gym; another sometimes pretends that he is wielding a broadsword in medieval battle when he swings his tennis racket. Aren't the images West Wave shows to its guests on that huge hanging screen an admission that fantasy is inevitable, in a place like this?

Skyler's talk of imaginary journeys to the local shops somehow reminded me of a strange trek made by one of the twentieth century's most unpleasant men. After being given a twenty year prison sentence at the Nuremberg Trials, Albert Speer decided to defy the guards and administrators of Spandau Prison by walking around the world. Speer marked out a route of a few hundred yards through the prison's exercise yard and around its dusty garden, then calculated the distance that he would cover on a walk from Germany through Poland, the Soviet Union, and the far East, across North America, and through Western Europe back to Berlin. After arriving at a sum of miles, Speer began to walk laps of the track he had made through the Spandau grounds. While his fellow prisoners spent their exercise time smoking and arguing about the war, Speer walked mile after mile. He went to Spandau's library and borrowed books - travel books, but also treatises on history and botany - which dealt with the nations he was walking through, so that he could visualise their landscapes and inhabitants. Every night Speer described his journey in the massive diary he kept at Spandau.

Speer is a troubling historical character - a capable and devious man, he was responsible for the deadly slave labour scheme that kept Germany's economy functioning dring the last year of World War Two, yet he was able to pass himself off, at the Nuremberg Trials and in books like Spandau: the Secret Diaries, as the 'good Nazi', who disapproved of the bloodlust and anti-semitism of Hitler and was happy to see the downfall of the Third Reich. Speer was the only Nazi to plead guilty at Nuremberg, and in his writings, at least, he accepted his long prison sentence as just punishment for his role in the Nazi government. But how can his epic walk not be interpreted as a symbolic rejection of his confinement, and of the authority of his captors?

There are unsettling parallels, too, between parts of Speer's journey and some of the events of the Nazi era. As Speer describes his imaginary march across the steppe of the Soviet Union, for instance, the reader of the Spandau diaries remembers that millions of Germans made a real march in that direction only a few years earlier.

And yet there is perhaps something admirable in Speer's dogged and eccentric walk. His ability to escape imaginatively from Spandau may impress us, even as it disturbs us.

As I turn to begin my second lap, I decide that I will walk across the Pacific to Isla Mocha, length by length of this clean heated pool. The distance from the Chathams to Mocha is ten thousand kilometres, and the distance from Auckland to the Chathams, when obstacles like the Coromandel peninsula and the Raukumara Mountains are acknowledged and avoided, is perhaps about two thousand kilometres. If this pool is fifty metres long - one-twentieth of a kilometre - then the journey to Mocha should take, I calculate, about two hundred and forty thousand lengths. Skyler suggested that I do twenty lengths every time I visit the pool, and if I can fill this quota twice a week them it should take me a mere fourteen years to arrive in Mocha.

Fourteen years might seem, I admit, a long time, but epic journeys are not supposed to be brief, easy affairs, like walks to the shops. And as the years pass and I get closer to my goal, covering league after league of cold empty sea, I can borrow books from the local library - journals of explorer-blunderers like Cook and Drake, novels like Moby Dick and The Chambered Nautilus, and scholarly treatises on ice floes and hypothermia - so that these chlorinated waters can become, in my imagination, epic and sub-Antarctic.

The water around me already seems colder, and perhaps a little more turbulent, as I slog excitedly to the other end of the pool, and turn to do my third lap, eyeing the image of Isla Mocha on the big screen. Before I can get much further, though, one of the big-chested young men from the pool's fast lanes surfaces in front of me, and touches me on the shoulder. "Mate, do you mind packing it in for while? We've got heats, and we've booked all these lanes for the next half hour." I wonder if I look dismayed, because he adds, in a friendlier voice, "You don't have to go home. You can have a coffee and a pie in the cafe in the foyer. It's only for half an hour."

I want to tell this impertinent intruder that I am not some saggy-stomached bloke walking awkwardly through the water with the help of a flourescent flotation device, but rather an adventurer beginning an epic journey, through icy precipitous seas, to the island of Mocha. I want to ask him why his swimming club's trivial races should be prioritised over my great endeavour. Instead of replying to the young man, though, I dogpaddle obediently to the stainless steel ladder at the edge of my lane, and climb quietly out of the water.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Overdubs and images

It's perhaps not surprising that 'Free as a Bird' doesn't make it into many lists of the Beatles' greatest moments. The song features a nicely tremulous vocal from John Lennon, has a pleasant enough melody, and ends with one of those psychedelic rushes of backwards guitar George Martin was so good at engineering, but it wasn't even able to sneak in to Rolling Stone magazine's selection of the hundred best Beatles compositions.

For most Beatles fans, the circumstances in which 'Free as a Bird' was created make it a somewhat suspect artefact. Lennon recorded an acoustic demo of the song in the late '70s, and in the early '90s, more than a decade after his death, McCartney, Starr, Harrison, and Martin holed up in a studio and added layer after layer of overdubs. The result may sound nice, but it lacks a certain authenticity. Would Lennon, with his legendary capacity for self-criticism, ever have allowed the release of his song? And would the man who recorded Plastic Ono Band in a couple of chaotic days have approved of the elaborate embellishments his former bandmates gave to his demo?

I suspect that the 'collaboration' I make with Kendrick Smithyman in my new book Feeding the Gods suffers from some of the same problems as 'Free as a Bird'. With the approval of Smithyman's literary executioner Margaret Edgcumbe and the support of Creative New Zealand, I paired my poems with a series of black and white photos Smithyman snapped on his journeys through New Zealand in the 1970s and '80s. I think the photos look great, but I'm a long-time Smithymaniac, and the man himself isn't around to disagree with my selection, or the juxtapositions I've created. The newly-minted Australian literary journal Jacket2 features a rather less dubious collaboration between visual art and poetry. Jack Ross has made a selection of work by twelve contemporary Kiwi poets for Jacket2, and illustrated his selections with paintings by Emma Smith. Unlike John Lennon or Kendrick Smithyman, Emma Smith is very much alive, and I'm reassured to know that she consented to the coupling of her painting Lead with my poems 'Elegy for a Survivor of the War on Afghanistan' and 'Walking to the Dendroglyphs on Christmas Eve'.

Last year Emma took exception to my review of an exhibition she held at a former mental hospital in Auckland's inner western suburb of Point Chevalier. She didn't appreciate being portrayed as a wild-eyed outsider artist obsessed with morbid German Expressionist masters like Munch, and in a second post about her show I conceded some of her points, and suggested a different way of approaching her work.

While many of the paintings Emma was showing in the middle of 2010 did at least suggest the influence of Expressionism, with their deformed, shadowy figures, Lead is, to my eyes at least, a more abstract work, showing a fragment of blue surrounded and cut in half by black. The work's restricted palette and bold, almost violent brushstrokes give it an intensity which is both unnerving and thrilling.

Some of the recent posts on Emma's blog Tin Grew show that she can use abstraction in gentler ways. An untitled work uploaded on the 21st of October, for instance, features subtle shades of green, and an ambiguous central shape which reminds me a little of the opening in Jackson Pollock's luminously mysterious late painting The Deep.

Footnote: For the record, here's my Beatles top ten:

1. Your Mother Should Know
2. Rain
3. Because
4. You Won't See Me
5. Sexy Sadie
6. I'm Only Sleeping
7. She's Leaving Home
8. Norwegian Wood
9. Within You Without You
10.She Said She Said

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Boarding the Ark

The high-ceilinged white rooms of Artspace are inhospitable at the best of times, but they seemed particularly vast and bleak last week, because some fastidious cleaner or ferociously minimalist curator had emptied the Karangahape Road gallery of the dour installations it normally holds. The New Zealand Film Archive lodges in the same building as Artspace, and seems to share its neighbour's frosty way with design. After turning up to the Archive to watch a preview of Paul Janman's feature-length documentary Tongan Ark, I was ushered into a room with walls so pale they seemed to glow, even after lights had been dimmed and Paul's film had begun to play. The images in the opening frames of Tongan Ark - a wave sloshing on a reef, coconut trees leaning into a tropical wind, schoolkids chasing pigs through a plot of taro - were so warm and sensuous that they seemed in danger of melting the room that held them.

Made for a mere thirty thousand dollars, half of which was provided by Creative New Zealand, Janman's film is a study of Futa Helu, Tonga's most famous intellectual, and the 'Atenisi Institute, the penurious but profoundly influential private university Helu founded in 1966. As a student at the University of Auckland in the early noughties Janman met 'Okusi Mahina, a Tongan anthropologist with a patriarch's beard, a villager orator's deep voice, and a passion for the nose flute. Mahina had begun his serious education at 'Atenisi, and he told Janman and his other students the story of the institution and its founder.

Mahina explained that Futa Helu had been a brilliant young man from the island of Foa, in Tonga's Ha'apai archipelago, when he was sent to the University of Sydney in the 1950s. In Sydney Helu soon formed a bond with John Anderson, a maverick ex-Trotskyist philosopher with a liking for controversy and a love of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.

After returning to Tonga in the early '60s Helu disappointed the country's elite by refusing to take a prestigious government job. Instead, he founded a kava circle in the capital Nuku'alofa, where he discoursed with curious locals about Greek philosophy and Tongan politics. Away from the kava bowl Helu tutored young Tongans in subjects as different as mathematics and English, and it was with the help of these students that he raised a set of classrooms on the swampy western outskirts of Nuku'alofa.

After hearing about Helu's dream of fusing Polynesian and European cultures, and learning about the idealistic young men and women who had left well-funded Western universities to earn subsistence wages teaching and studying with the great man, Paul Janman knew that he had to make his own journey to 'Atenisi.

When he arrived in Nuku'alofa to begin a stint at 'Atenisi, though, Janman was puzzled and disappointed. There was no committee to greet him at the gates of the school, and no obvious curriculum for him to teach.

Over the coming weeks and months, as he submitted to the rhythms and rituals of 'Atenisi life, drinking kava with other staff members, discussing Heraclitus and the problems of Tongan society with Futa Helu under a banyan tree, and reading and rereading the small selection of books in the university's humid library, Janman began to understand the way 'Atenisi worked, and the role it had come to play in Tongan life. Like his Greek heroes, Futa Helu was a thinker nourished by a pre-industrial society, a society which lacked the modern distinctions between work and leisure, public and private life, and the arts and the sciences. Like Socrates or Plato, Helu had turned his life into a series of relaxed yet earnest dialogues. He saw disagreement and critique as an essential route to human progress. New employees, eager students, journalists, pro-democracy activists, trade unionists, and Tongan royals all came to the door of his shabby office, or sat down at his kava circle, but anyone who asked him easy questions or sought from him soundbite-sized quotes was invariably disappointed.

As a devotee of Heraclitus, the philosopher of change and bewilderment, Helu had little enthusiasm for definitive answers and snappy slogans. As an advocate of dialogue between Western and Tongan cultures and pre-modern and modern ideas, he had a vested interest in upsetting, or at least complicating, the presuppositions of pushy palangi journalists and smug Tongan nobles.

Under Helu's watch, 'Atenisi became an island within an island, a zone of freedom for both palangi intellectuals tired of the commercialisation and instrumentalisation of Western universities and for young Tongans - dropouts, artists, enemies of the monarchy, petty criminals - unable to accept unquestioningly the hierarchies and regulations of their society. Paul Janman's years at 'Atenisi changed both his thinking and his teaching. The highly structured, meticulously argued essays he had written at the University of Auckland gave way to freer, more meditative texts, which were sometimes written in verse as well as prose. Janman grew accustomed to teaching outside as well as inside the classroom, so that he might find himself helping his students hang out their washing or feed their pigs at the same time that he helped them analyse Don Quixote or Moby Dick.

In Tongan Ark, Janman tries to share with us the bewilderment he felt during his first weeks and months at 'Atenisi, as well as the appreciation he gradually developed for the place. The opening twenty minutes of the film offer us a jumble of impressions, as we arrive at 'Atenisi and are given a brusque tour of the institution. We see staff members giggling around a table in a run-down room, as they discuss some aspect of an impenetrable curriculum. We watch students gathering outside a classroom, and try to decipher their strange patois, which mixes African-American slang with Tongan phrases and pieces of the old-fashioned version of English still taught in Tongan primary and secondary schools. We see skinny dogs patrolling the rutted road that leads to 'Atenisi, a pig roasting over a fire in the school grounds, and staff sipping kava. We see an elderly Futa Helu, wedged between a Greek vase and what looks like a polystyrene copy of one of the pillars of the Parthenon, explaining that as he "gets older" he "goes back more and more to the old Greeks" for inspiration. We wonder how the film is going to bring these fragments together. In the short talk he gave to introduce Tongan Ark, Janman explained that he had tried to organise his movie not with a linear narrative or a logical argument but "around a series of paradoxes". Such a structure is, Janman suggested, appropriate to the dialogic practice of Futa Helu and his Greek progenitors.

And, sure enough, after its chaotic first twenty minutes, Tongan Ark presents us with a series of contradictions. We see Helu proclaiming, in the midst of the dilapidated campus he built, that philosophy is "a search for permanence", and then observe him quoting Heraclitus' dictum that nothing is constant except change. We hear Helu calling for the fusion of Greek and Polynesian cultures, and then observe him presiding over one of 'Atenisi's ebullient graduation ceremonies, where he warns his audience not to begin a Tongan dance until a performance of Western classical music has finished. "Let's do European things the European way, then Tongan things the Tongan way", snaps the irritated prophet of cross-cultural exchange, as the graduands sitting behind him giggle. We see Helu gravely describing Dutch culture, with its penchant for order and efficiency, as "problematic", before praising the contribution that Kek, a bearded, long-haired Dutch mathematician with a taste for extravagant earrings and bright dresses, has made as a teacher at 'Atenisi. We asked not to resolve but to ponder these paradoxes.

The structure of Tongan Ark may owe as much to Polynesian culture as to Heraclitean paradox. Despite his passion for Greece, Futa Helu was a deeply Polynesian thinker, whose knowledge of Tongan dance, music, poetry and tapa saw him act as an advisor to everyone from ethnologists doing research in the villages of Tongatapu to state administrators planning the elaborate dances and feasts which accompany the coronations of Tongan Kings.

As Helu himself notes more than once in his essays and talks, there is a non-linear quality to much Polynesian literature and art. Polynesian oral traditions feature culture heroes and recurring symbolic deeds, not historical characters and discrete events. Polynesian religions emphasised the circular nature of time, not the inevitable end of time beloved of Abrahamic faiths. 'Okusi Mahina tried to sum up Tongan ways of seeing the world and its history when he said that his people "walk forward into the past and backwards into the future at the same time".

Both palangi and indigenous film makers have struggled to find ways of representing the special quality of much Polynesian art and thought. In the fascinating notebook he kept during the making of Tangata Whenua, the 1977 series that brought Maori history and tradition to New Zealand television screens for the first time, a young Michael King explained that he had learned to 'discard notions of time and relevance', and instead approach his subject matter in 'slow concentric circles'. Janman's abandonment of conventional narrative and argument means that Tongan Ark arguably operates in a similar manner, returning repeatedly to the same people and the same topics, so that they gradually become more comprehensible.

The first time we watch Futa Helu laud the ancient Greeks his enthusiasm seems peculiar to us, given his position as the head of a struggling school on a small island in Western Polynesia; by the time he returns to the subject much later in the movie, we have come to appreciate the similarities between ancient Greece and agrarian Tonga, and the parallels between Helu's love of dialogue and the practice of garrulous Greek controversialists like Socrates and Diogenes. We learn not treat Helu's sometimes gnomic, sometimes outrageous statements not as isolated propositions, but as moments in an ongoing meditation.

Our understanding of 'Atenisi's students also grows as Tongan Ark unfolds. As Janman's camera moves through the plantations of Tongatapu and the suburbs of Nuku'alofa, panning disconsolately from the shacks of the poor to the vast residences of royals and church ministers, we come to appreciate the complex, overlapping worlds which young Tongans are expected to navigate in the twenty-first century. We realise that their eclectic vocabularies and varied mannerisms are a response to the demands of living in a society where different moral codes and modes of production contend.

Despite its meandering pace and sometimes abstruse digressions, Tongan Ark relays an urgent message. The film shows how Futa Helu repeatedly contrasted the 'critical education' offered at 'Atenisi with the 'education for submissiveness' which he perceived in many Pacific schools and universities. Helu was an inveterate critic of both the church-run high schools of Tonga, which he regarded as little more than indoctrination centres, and the University of the South Pacific, which he considered far too interested in the economic outcomes of learning.

American sociologist Michael Horowitz, who was the Director of 'Atenisi from 2008 until 2010, expands on Helu's points when he condemns the 'commercial' mindset of Western societies and the business-driven curricula of many Western universities. Horowitz, who studied with Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s and was involved in the left-wing counterculture of that era, sees 'Atenisi as an oasis of critical thinking and anti-materialism. He thinks that the problems which have beset Helu's university - discrimination from both Tongan governments and Western universities, criticism from Tongan royals and church leaders, the indifference of the increasing numbers of young middle class Tongans who see education only as a route to wealth - are the inevitable consequences of "swimming against a strong stream".

The eeriest of the paradoxes in Tongan Ark occurs near the middle of the film, where Heraclitus' vision of fire as the essential element of the universe, and therefore as a force for creation as well as destruction, is juxtaposed with Janman's footage of the blazes which destroyed most of downtown Nuku'alofa on the
16th of November 2006, when a pro-democracy protest by young Tongans turned into a deadly riot. Tongans talk about '16/11' in the same fearful, bewildered tones that Americans use to discuss the events of the September the 11th, 2001. In Tongan Ark, a number of 'Atenisians cite the torching of central Nuku'alofa as evidence that a mixture of capitalist globalisation and authoritarian tradition have created a profound political and social crisis in Tonga. The thought of Futa Helu, with its critique of both unrestrained capitalism and unreasoning tradition, and its attempt to find a balance between Western and Polynesian ways of life, is offered as an antidote to Tonga's problems. But Janman never makes his attitude to the riot of 16/11 explicit, and it is possible to interpret his film's references to Heraclitean fire as suggestions that the events of that day were somehow necessary and regenerative. After his film had ended, Janman was joined by 'Okusi Mahina and Michael Horowitz, and the three men invited questions from the audience, which included many 'Atenisi graduates as well as a number of palangi artists and intellectuals. After several former students of Futa Helu had paid tribute to the man, Mahina made a long statement which included both praise and criticism of his old mentor. Noting the title of Paul Janman's movie, Mahina called Helu the "Noah of Tonga". Like Noah, Helu had constructed, in the face of widespread mockery, a vessel which was capable of rescuing his compatriots from the "high waters" of chaos and irrationality. Mahina noted with a chuckle that the analogy with Noah was especially appropriate, because of Helu's role in helping raise and maintain the buildings on 'Atenisi's campus. More than once Professor Helu had taken advantage of a break between lectures to climb a ladder and hammer a few nails into a creaking roof!

But Mahina went on to argue that Helu and some of his proteges - the anthropologist Opeti Taliai, for example, who appears several times in Tongan Ark - have at times been too uncritical of the Western intellectual tradition, and insufficiently attentive to Tongan ways of interpreting the world. Mahina was sceptical about the claim, made several times in Janman's movie, that Tongan notions of tapu were designed to protect the power of the country's religious and political elites. Mahina suggested that this interpretation of tapu reflects the crude functionalism of Eurocentric anthropology, rather than a real understanding of Tongan society. He argued that the distinctions tapu makes - between clean and unclean objects, sacred and profane places, and so on - were ways in which Tongans "constituted their reality". Tapu offered, in other words, a way of making sense of the natural and human worlds, by dividing and regulating their manifold details. It had not been not, Mahina insisted, a mere political ploy. Mahina's criticisms of Helu reflect the sustained effort he has made to differentiate his thought from that of his old teacher. Over the last decade or so Mahina has gradually developed what he calls the 'ta va theory of space and time', which aims to fuse concepts drawn from traditional Tongan culture with elements of Western philosophical tradition. A dozen or so PhD students have been busying themselves deploying the ta va theory in their research, and some of them accompanied Mahina to the preview of Tongan Ark. Opeti Taliai, who is reportedly holed up in the countryside north of Auckland writing a huge book about Tongan history, dissents from some of the key tenets of the ta va theory. Taliai had agreed to come to the preview of Janman's film, but was forced to withdraw from the event at the last minute.

The Kiwi classicist Ted Jenner has suggested that the fragmentation of the 'Atenisians school of thought parallels the diffusion of ancient Greek intellectual movements - of the Pythagoreans, for instance - in the aftermath of their founders' deaths. Perhaps the fragmentation of an intellectual movement is a sign not of weakness but of dynamism, and of a healthy hostility to dogma.

In a typically long-winded contribution to the discussion that followed the showing of Tongan Ark, I argued that, whatever the ultimate fate of 'Atenisi University, thinkers like Helu, Mahina, and Taliai deserve to be studied outside as well as inside Tongan society. Just as intellectuals like Marcuse and Benjamin transcended their connection to the bricks and mortar of the Frankfurt Institute, so the 'Atenisians have an importance which transcends the institution Helu founded. With their dream of fusing Polynesian and European cultures, their opposition to both hidebound tradition and globalised capitalism, and their rejection of commercially driven education, the 'Atenisi thinkers have much to teach us in the twenty-first century.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Cunliffe or Shearer for Pope?

In Michael Anderson's classic thriller The Shoes of the Fisherman, delegates from around the world gather at the Vatican to elect a new Pope. Although it occurs amidst a global economic and political crisis, the election is conducted in secret. While cardinals and bishops debate theological and political issues and cast ballots in one of the Vatican's ornate halls, crowds of Catholics mill about in the square outside, waiting for their new leader to appear on a balcony and announce his name.

The New Zealand Labour Party's leadership election reminds me of the strange process documented in The Shoes of the Fisherman.

Labour is clearly in crisis, having just seen its vote drop to a level not seen since the 1920s, and grassroots party activists - the sort of folks who will never be MPs, but who nevertheless go door-knocking in the rain during election campaigns, and sell raffle tickets at the local markets week after week, year after year - are wondering whether the leader who succeeds Phil Goff will be able to revive the organisation's fortunes. Recent discussion at Labour-linked blogs like The Standard has revolved around the question of leadership.

Like those Catholics in Vatican Square, though, Labour's grassroots members are locked out of the contest for the leadership of their organisation. They can watch the contestants debate each other on television, and they may be able to ask one or both of them a question at the public meetings being held in a few major centres, but they can't cast a vote for their party's leader. Only Labour's members of parliament get that privilege.

The contestants in Labour's leadership election are almost as mysterious as the robed men who vie for the Papacy in The Shoes of the Fisherman. David Cunliffe and David Shearer may have been all over the media for the past week or so, but neither has deigned to discuss in any detail either his political philosophy or the policy programme he favours for Labour.

Shearer and Cunliffe have confined themselves to repeating cliches about 'rejuvenating' and 'bringing together' the party, and 'taking New Zealand forward'. Although some political commentators have identified Cunliffe with the 'left' of the party and Shearer with a 'right' faction, no platforms or manifestos have been produced, and most Labour MPs are refusing even to say which candidate they support.

It is interesting to compare this rather miserable leadership election with the internal politics of some of Labour's sister parties. Nearly twenty years of domination by Tony Blair and his clique of spin doctors and technocrats saw the British Labour Party lose much of its internal life, but the organisation was still able to hold a democratic contest to choose a new leader after the election defeat it suffered last year. Five candidates representing various ideological nuances of the party toured the country, arguing about issues like the global financial crisis and the Iraq War in packed halls. Although uber-Blairite David Miliband had the backing of the media and much of the Labour establishment, tens of thousands of grassroots members cast their ballots for his brother Ed, who had tried to present himself as the post-Blair, anti-war candidate.

The Australian Labor Party also appears to have a positively healthy internal life, in comparison to its sibling in this country. This weekend's national conference of the Aussie party has been full of loud debate about issues as different gay marriage and cuts in the federal budget, with remits flying from the left and the right of the organisation. A greater contrast with the decorous, stage-managed, extraordinarily tedious conferences of New Zealand Labour could hardly be imagined.

Labour loyalists might argue that, even if the New Zealand party's leadership election is pathetically at odds with its constitution's commitment to 'democratic socialism', the most important thing is to unite behind the leader the election will produce, so that John Key can be pushed out of office in 2014. But Labour's atrophied internal life is connected in important ways to its poor showing in the recent election, and its poor prospects for 2014.

The global economic crisis which began in 2008 has revived old debates about whether governments should stimulate depressed economies by putting more money into the hands of workers and the poor or whether they should instead try to cut state spending. In the early 1930s the latter approach was tried by the likes of Herbert Hoover in America and the Forbes government here in New Zealand, with disastrous results. By the end of the decade social democratic governments dedicated to stimulating the economy had been elected in many countries. In New Zealand the Labour Party won a landslide election victory in 1935, and immediately set about pouring money into the economy by boosting pensions and building thousands of state houses.

Along with the leaders of many Western nations, John Key has chosen to ignore the lessons of history and obey the dictates of big business by responding to the new economic crisis with tax and spending cuts. The result is a deepening recession.

But instead of countering Key's doomed policies with an unequivocal commitment to stimulating the economy, Labour offered voters a very mixed message during the recent election campaign. Labour put forward some solidly left-wing policies, like a proposal to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. When Key tried to argue that a rise in the minimum wage would create unemployment, Phil Goff quite correctly pointed out that it would actually create more jobs, because it would see more money being spent in shops and flowing through the economy.

At other times, though, Labour confused voters by borrowing policies from the right. The proposal to raise the old age pension threshold to sixty-seven, for instance, was cribbed from the Act Party. Labour also talked, in imitation of National, about the importance of containing state spending. Campaigning in the high-profile seat of Epsom, David Parker positioned himself to the right of Act candidate John Banks, and called Labour the 'party of fiscal responsibility'. Phil Goff argued often on the campaign trail against National's plan to sell off parts of state-owned companies, but he never committed Labour to changing the corporate structure and profit-making orientation of those companies.

Political scientist Bryce Edwards correctly complained that it was sometimes difficult to differentiate Labour from National during the election campaign. The blurring of the two parties' policies encouraged voters to treat the election not as a clash of ideas but as a charm contest between Goff and the younger and more charismatic Key.

Labour's refusal to campaign on a full-blooded social democratic programme is linked to its lack of faith in grassroots political mobilisation. Members of the party elite like Goff and Parker kept the election programme timid and incoherent partly because they were worried that international money markets and credit rating agencies might adjudge a Labour government 'fiscally irresponsible', and decide to stop the flow of credit to New Zealand, creating a Greece-style economic meltdown.

During economic crises even moderately left-wing governments inevitably clash with big business and international money markets. After 1935 the Labour government faced pressure over its spending programme from the British banks which had lent it money, but Michael Joseph Savage and his caucus were able to use their grassroots support to deflect some of this pressure. Labour's Undersecretary for Housing John A Lee openly criticised the British capitalists, warning them that New Zealand might renege on its debts and seize foreign assets if it were treated unfairly by creditors. John A Lee knew that Labour's tens of thousands of members and New Zealand's trade union movement would not allow a group of foreign bankers to dictate the country's economic policy. He was prepared to call his supporters on to the streets in defence of Labour's programme.

The pragmatic Savage and his Finance Minister Walter Nash were eventually able to make a deal with the British banks, but the threats of radicals like Lee and the strength of grassroots support for Labour had strengthened their negotiating position.

The notion of using people power as a counterweight to the power of capital is simply unthinkable to the elite of today's Labour Party. Where leaders like John A Lee saw Labour's members as a mass force, the likes of Goff and Parker see them simply as door-knockers and raffle ticket sellers.

As long as its grassroots members are disempowered and disregarded, Labour will never advance a coherent left-wing policy programme. The concerns of business and the international money markets will always be more important.

Fortunately, New Zealand has recently seen the emergence of a party with an engaged membership and a staunchly left-wing programme. Instead of waiting for the outcome of another leadership contest amongst their party's distant and secretive elite, Labour's long-suffering grassroots members should make the move to Mana.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Before the carpet comes up

I've been, by my modest standards, a bit of a social butterfly this week: after launching my book Feeding the Gods on Sunday, I squeezed into a room at the New Zealand Film Archive offices on Monday night to watch Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's documentary film about the 'Atenisi Institute, and to join some Tongan and palangi intellectuals and artists in a discussion about the thought of Heraclitus, the impact of globalisation on Tonga, and Okusi Mahina's ta va theory of space and time (there'll be more previews of Tongan Ark over coming weeks - I'll keep you posted).

I'd love to post a report on Paul's film and the debate which followed it, but I have to evacuate this room in a few minutes because Skyler has, out of some instinct which is alien to me (is it a sort of semi-conscious, and therefore misdirected, archaeological curiosity?), decided that the carpets in our house need to be pulled up. Hopefully, order will have been restored to our home and to our relationship by the weekend.

In the meantime, here are a few photographs from the launch of my book and Bronwyn Lloyd's collection of short stories The Second Location. A couple of the images show Paul Janman and me playing a modified form of monopoly with a map of the South Pacific and a few fragments of poetry. Working in the tradition of Jack Ross and the young Bruce Springsteen, Paul and I rolled dice and moved our tokens - he got the racing car, while I had to settle, as usual, for the thimble - over a series of landscapes which appeared in my book, moving from Antarctica, through Pig Island and Outback Australia, to Tongatapu, where the last poem in the volume ends.

As we passed through different landscapes, Paul and I asked a series of 'psychogeographic' questions of the audience, and handed people who bellowed the correct answers copies of books by Titus or, even better, CDs of interviews with such Titus-related luminaries as Ted Jenner, Richard Taylor, and Michael Arnold. I've reproduced some of our questions below.
Question: how many previously unclimbed South Island mountains did the proto-psychogeographic writer and self-confessed 'hillman' John Pascoe ascend on his weekends and holiday breaks in the 1930s?

a) 2
b) 3
c) 25

Question: Which New Zealand Prime Minister was also an enthusiastic member of the British Israelite movement?

a) William Massey
b) Keith Holyoake
c) Geoffrey Palmer Question: how many Portage Roads are there in Auckland?

a) 2
b) 3
c) 27 Question: what ancient artefact was found at Muriwai Beach two summers ago?

a) a waka tiwai
b) a flying saucer
c) a Celtic observatory
d) Allen Curnow's pipe

Question: which people introduced the camel to the Australian Outback?

a) the Dutch
b) the Barkindji
c) the Afghans

Question: when asked by Richard Taylor to name the characteristics of West Coast poetry, Leicester Kyle gave which of the following one word answers?

a) coal
b) watercress
c) homebrew

Question: which political activist and archaeologist divided his time between protesting against militarism and cataloguing World War Two-era archaeological phenomena like tank traps around Kawhia Harbour?

Question: why was Jacky Marmon reputed to have asked to be buried on top of one of the high hills overlooking the Hokianga harbour?

Question: when did the ferry service between Auckland and Paeroa end?

Question: what is the Tongan word for Hawai'iki?