Friday, February 24, 2012

Meeting the nomad

Over the past few months this blog has featured several discussions of Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's exuberant film about 'Atenisi University and its founder, the late Tongan polymath and pro-democracy activist Futa Helu.

Janman's movie has attracted the odd criticism - the curators of a certain New Zealand film festival have fretted about its disregard for conventional narrative, and its impatience with the Free Wesleyan Church has raised some conservative Tongans' eyebrows - but nobody could accuse it of lacking a memorable cast of characters.

Besides the extraordinary Helu, who was equally comfortable teaching Greek philosophy, telling jokes around the kava bowl, and singing in European opera houses, Tongan Ark features Kik, a thickly bearded Dutch mathematician and IT whizz who is famous throughout Tonga for wearing bright dresses and enormous ear and nose rings, King Tupou the fifth, a man with a strange, love-hate attitude toward Helu as well as a fixation with toy soldiers, Futa's daughter Sisi'uno, an extravagantly talented musician who finds herself spending more time than she would like tending to pigs, and an array of eloquently eccentric students.

One of the most memorable of all the characters in Tongan Ark is Michael Horowitz, a lanky, sixty-something sociologist, novelist and veteran of the American New Left who is asked to bring some order to 'Atenisi's finances and curricula. Horowitz is shown praising the relatively relaxed way of life in Tonga, and condemning the commercialism of Western societies like New Zealand and the United States, but we also see him struggling with the disorganisation of the university Futa Helu founded, and lamenting its poverty. Like so many of the people we meet in Tongan Ark, Horowitz is afflicted by paradox. The very qualities which draw him to 'Atenisi make his time there difficult.

Earlier this week Paul asked me if I'd like to have a drink with Horowitz, explaining that the man had just finished a fellowship at Tasmania University, and was spending a few days in New Zealand. I climbed into Paul's car expecting him to make for some pub or restaurant where Horowitz would be waiting behind a beer or coffee and a volume of Marcuse; instead we ended up at a warehouse on an obscure road beside the Three Kings quarry. "Horowitz is in here somewhere" Paul assured me, as he led me down a series of empty corridors lined with red metal doors.

I've been reading Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon's novel about a band of time travelling anarchists, and the hundreds of red doors inside the Three Kings warehouse reminded me of the magical portals which Pynchon's heroes sometimes use as short cuts to different places and ages. As we climbed a pitch-black stairwell and began to wander through the silent aisles of a second floor, with Paul calling out "Michael, where are you?" in an increasingly timid voice, I had a vision of Horowitz pushing open one of those mysterious doors, and emerging to boast of his adventures in some exotic locale like medieval Tonga or 1960s Berkeley.

When Paul and I eventually ran into him, Horowitz explained that the warehouse we had been exploring was a storage facility used by some of the more itinerant inhabitants of the planet. Like the lockers of schoolboys, the spaces behind those metal doors were stuffed full of necessities and trinkets. Horowitz had stored books and clothes and packets of American raisins behind his red door. That little space on the second floor of a warehouse in Three Kings is the closest thing he has to a permanent home.

At a time when most of his contemporaries have exchanged their chairs in sociology for chairs beside the fireplace, Horowitz is still remarkably busy, turning out both academic and literary texts, and taking up fellowships or short-term teaching commitments at a series of universities.

The latest issue of Sites, the long-running New Zealand-based journal of sociology, opens with an essay by Horowitz about young Tongans and Samoans who return to their native lands after a period of expatriation in New Zealand or Australia. These so-called 'deportees' have been blamed by Samoan and Tongan authorities for committing crimes and starting riots, but Horowitz produces data which shows that such charges are unjust.

Horowitz's contribution to Sites has the calm tone and thorough detail that we expect from a good academic essay, but the novel he published a few years ago under the pseudonym VO Blum shows that he can think and write in wilder, stranger ways. Split Creek is set in America during World War Two, and mixes descriptions of a young German prisoner of war's anti-Nazi opinions and tragicomic attempts at a sex life with an outraged account of the campaign of sabotage and terror which homegrown fascists launched after Roosevelt went to war with Hitler. While Horowitz's essay for Sites and his most recent novel read very differently, they share a hatred for bigotry, and a commitment to the victims of prejudice and marginalisation. It is not hard to believe that it was this concern for the underdog which led Horowitz to a little university on the swampy western fringes of Nuku'alofa.

As we retired to Paul and his wife Echo's house and downed a few bottles of Paul's home brew, Horowitz explained that he will be heading north to Tonga next month to work on his next novel, and to continue his association with the fledgling Vava'u Academy.

Founded by the distinguished anthropologist and 'Atenisi graduate 'Okusi Mahina, the Vava'u Academy is an attempt to bring university education to the northernmost of Tonga's three main island groups. After pointing out that many young Vava'uans lack the means to attend the universities on the southern island of Tongatapu, 'Okusi was able to raise enough money to build a library and some seminar rooms on the outskirts of Neifau, the only town in Vava'u. The rooms are currently being used for secondary-level classes, but 'Okusi and Horowitz hope to make them the setting for academic lectures next year. In the meantime scholarly monographs have begun appearing under the imprint of the Vava'u Academy, and a weekly radio show is advertising the institution to Tongans. With 'Atenisi in disarray and disrepair, the Academy in the north may well come to be considered the contemporary embodiment of Futa Helu's ideas.

In the following interview, which was done by e mail rather than over a few beers, and which will appear in the forthcoming Oceania issue of brief, Michael Horowitz talked in some detail about his unusual career, and the view of the world it has given him. It don't, of course, necessarily agree with everything he says about Tongan, let alone American, politics and culture...

SH: As a young man you were involved in the counterculture and the New Left of the 1960s and early ’70s. Are these movements relevant today? Do they reverberate in the protest movements that emerged this past year?

MH: In the U.S., the counterculture introduced young intellectuals to Asian philosophy, most dramatically the philosophy of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. The ethics of these philosophies are not catalysed by the commands of an omnipotent deity. Taoism, for example, instructs humanity to intuit – then coordinate with – the cosmic “way”, popularised in the Star Wars greeting “May the Force be with you”. Such notions helped create an alternative spirituality in the U.S. that has at times complimented innovative perspectives in physics, medicine, cybernetics, and cinema, among other disciplines.

The nonviolent wing of the New Left mainly targeted racism and militarism. In the narrow sense, the Obama/Clinton duumvirate opposes these pathologies … but the U.S. has yet to transcend the economic racism and tacit imperialism that has been its signature for over a century.

The protest landscape of the past year has included Arab Spring, Burma Spring, Russian breeze, and Occupy Wall Street. Although these movements have borrowed tactically from the nonviolent New Left, their objectives are different. Arab Spring, Burma Spring, and Russian breeze chiefly campaign for representative government. Occupy Wall Street is targeting corporate and financial oligarchy, a mission the nonviolent New Left endorsed but only occasionally took to the streets.

SH: At Brandeis University outside Boston, you were for a time an undergraduate student of Herbert Marcuse. How do you remember the man?

MH: In the classroom he was distant and demanding in the formal tradition of German scholarship. Among his friends, which did not appear to include undergraduates, he was an epicure of cuisine, wine, and the arts.

Eros and Civilisation, which Marcuse published in 1955, is a courageously utopian cry in a sorry world. In that tome Marcuse manages to synthesise the egalitarian demands of Marxian political economy … with the wisdom of Freudian social psychology … with the legend of ancient Greek myth. The reader is treated to a post-industrial collage of aesthetic and erotic liberation within progressive politics. As undergraduates, E&C persuaded us that, in Robert Frost’s words, civilisation had “miles to go” before it slept.

SH: Your best-known book is A Freak’s Anthology, which was widely circulated in the U.S. in the early 1970s. What was its objective?

MH: The publisher modestly touted it as a counterculture bible: there were several hippie hostels at the time and the tongue-in-cheek idea was to replace the Bible-in-the-desk-drawer with A Freak’s Anthology. The collection was meant to be an alternative spiritual resource: it retained a Bahai ambience, briefly introducing excerpts from key Buddhist, Christian, Kabbalist, Hindu, Sufi, and Taoist texts.

SH: You have spent a good part of the last fifteen years in the Kingdom of Tonga. What first attracted you to Polynesia and what has seen you returning to the region so often?

MH: There’s no doubt that generosity to strangers is an art form in Polynesia. In the late 1990s, I lived on a muddy road in Nuku’alofa and there were countless times that Tongans who I’d never met insisted on driving me home in their air-conditioned Camries. Even today, if a bicycle tyre goes flat, I’ve only to put my thumb out before a stranger will drive me to a garage. Polynesian generosity is something one can depend on.

SH: You've compared Tonga’s history with those of Austria and Russia. What’s the connection?

MH: Austria, Russia, and Tonga have all, at one time, enjoyed macro-regional hegemony, but currently do not. The Habsburg empire typically dominated central Europe from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries. The Soviet empire reached into eastern Germany through the 1980s. The Tongan network extended into, amongst other places, Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia in the early second millennium.

The “lost empire” syndrome seems to leave affected nations with a “chip on the shoulder”. Austrian and Russian politics, for example, seem at times to reflect resentment towards EU social democracy and global objectives.

In Tonga, the situation is more complex: the palangi seems to be regarded both as angel of Christianisation (from the 1820s) and devil of humiliation. Although palangi were not responsible for the decline of the medieval Tongan network, occasional official outbursts against them seem to be fuelled by the humiliation of the kingdom’s decline since the Middle Ages.

SH: You’re a disciple of Dr ‘I. Futa Helu and, for a while, you were university dean at ‘Atenisi Institute, which he founded in 1963. Is his philosophy relevant today?

MH: There’s so much of that philosophy it’s impossible to reply to your question properly here. Allow me to cite three aspects of Futa's thought that were prescient:

• He insisted that even an evangelical society must nurture critical inquiry within secular institutions. In the end, Polynesia acceded to that demand, if somewhat begrudgingly.

• He saw no other path to development except via representative government. Tonga is currently slouching towards that objective.

• Through the ancient Greek philosopher Herakleitos, he was impressed by chaos theory, elements of which are crucial in comprehending the cutting edge of quantum physics. And the cutting edge of quantum physics is on its way to defining the weltanschauung of the 21st century.

SH: Two of your novels have been published in the U.S. A third work of fiction, the novella DownMind, has just been submitted to a literary agency in New Zealand. Do New Zealand and Tonga figure in the new work?

MH: Very much so. Consistent with its image as the least corrupt nation in the world, New Zealand is cast as the home of a righteous scientist who, in the face of carping opposition, stalks a malevolent brain wave emanating from Tonga. But the source isn’t Tongan – it’s an otherwise benign palangi, who neither intends, nor is aware of, his pernicious broadcasting. Once this becomes a global issue, CIA gets involved and Tonga is once again pressured to abandon its compassionate disposition.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tongan is slouching toward democracy...hmmm...not if the nobles can help it...

8:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and Tupou the fifth is not a charming character but a greedy monster!!

8:50 am  
Anonymous back the empire, not the hippy luke skywalker said...

The completion of the Defense Star and the death of the known terrorist, Obi-Wan Kenobi, mark two of the greatest achievements of the Galactic Empire...
…show your pride today!

For those of you who sympathize with the enemy… the Emperor’s Hand is watching you….

12:47 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I don't think it can be denied that Tupou V can be a source of amusement. This is my favourite portrait of the man:

11:01 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you been to TONGA? Because if you havent then you have no idea on wat goes on in TONGA...... The KING lives wealthy while the people stay poor... Fucc that! TONGA stand up DEMOCRACY will come I promise you that.........

4:58 am  
Anonymous Seth said...

Pynchon Is Here

6:15 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Tongan Ark will have its World Premiere as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival at Sky City Theatre on August 4th at 4.15 pm.

Included is a live performance by the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts and a free panel discussion, performance and drinks at the Civic Wintergarden afterwards. Tickets go on sale this Friday. Discounted group bookings are available.

Follow us on facebook:

See also the Tongan Ark website:

Hope to see you all there. Malo! Paul

10:08 am  

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