Sects, secrets and lies
I blogged in August about a review I was writing for Bronwyn's issue, and about the weird characters I was encountering when I tried to research the piece. Here's the finished review.]
Sects, secrets and lies: four notes on Jack Ross’ Fallen Empire
Jack Ross, Fallen Empire, Museum of True History, Auckland and Dunedin, 2012
1. Secret dramas
My regular winter illnesses offer the odd fringe benefit, like the right to spend hours in bed reading. Given its carefully contrived atmosphere of mystery, I felt like I should have read Jack Ross' Fallen Empire secretly under the sheets, behind a locked door. Fallen Empire was produced to accompany a recent exhibition by Karl Chitham at Dunedin's Blue Oyster Gallery. Chitham is the creator of the Museum of True History, a sort of faux-institution which has for several years now been offering up pieces of faux-history to bemused gallery audiences.
At the Blue Oyster last month Chitham showed off drawings and models which were supposedly created by a mystical sect called the Society of Inner Light. Jack Ross' book, which is illustrated by three of Chitham's murkily atmospheric drawings, collects fragments of three plays that the Society's initiates allegedly performed in a private theater. In his introduction to Fallen Empire, Ross claims that the texts were found along with 'costumes and religious paraphenalia' at a derelict storehouse in Raetihi. Ross sketches the ideology and history of the Society of Inner Light:
There's a lot about Atlantis and Lemuria in their surviving writings. They held some very revisionist ideas about the accepted chronology of world history...Polynesian culture was, to them, primary and almost inconceivably ancient. The emissaries of civilisation (for them) emanated originally from the Pacific - specifically from the lost continent of Mu, which now survives only in the form of scattered islands of the Oceanic archipelago...The main body of members came to New Zealand after WWI...The last one standing turned out the lights, leaving everything in situ, sometime around 1973...
The three plays feature characters and settings from a slew of cultures and myth-cycles. In Maui in the Underworld, for instance, the legendary Polynesian trickster finds himself marooned on the island of Homer's Calypso. Maui persuades Calypso to let him leave her domain, saying that he wants to find and outwit Hine-nui-te-po, the Maori goddess of death. After sailing from the mythical Mediterranean and being wrecked on the torrid coast of New Zealand, Maui encounters Hine-nui-te-po, who allows him to return to Hawai'iki. In the final scene of the play Maui first feasts with and then, for reasons which aren’t clear, slaughters his brothers in a whare on Hawai'iki. As Maui stands over their bodies and boasts of how he will defeat Hine-nui-te-po, the brothers come back to life, and sing the play's closing chorus:
You can't strike
better to live
an indentured man
scratching a bare living
from the soil
than to reign
over all the dead
in worthless pomp
take pride in tales
Your fame will last
as a kinsman
2. World famous in Raetihi
By locating his sect in Raetihi, a small, economically distressed town on the volcanic plateau of the North Island, Jack Ross might seem to be emphasising its marginality. The geographical isolation of Raetihi can be seen, surely, as a metaphor for the apparent intellectual isolation of the Society of Light from mainstream New Zealand, and the stagnation of the town seems to parallel the stagnation of the Society, which failed to maintain its membership in the decades after World War Two.
Ross' Raetihi setting might also be an attempt to play on some of the associations that small towns have in the minds of big city Kiwis. We like to condemn provincial New Zealand as dully conservative, but half-suspect that it is really a hotbed of sin. We want to believe that the small-town RSA turns into swinger's club on Friday nights, and that the local vicar grows pot out the back of his manse. The rise of 'Kiwi Gothic' genre, with its love of mixing the grotesque and the provincial, reflects the way urban New Zealanders see their rural and small town kin.
After it ran into trouble with prudish London policemen early in the twentieth century, the Golden Dawn, that famous gang of magicians which included, for a while at least, WB Yeats, dispersed to various parts of the world. One group of Golden Dawn initiates exchanged uptight London for libertine Havelock North, and built a temple there which was used until the 1970s. Theosophy, the hyper-syncretic religion founded by a conwoman known as Madame Blavatsky, set up shop in New Zealand in the late 1880s; Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophical splinter from Theosophy turned up here later. All of these groups combined an interest in elaborate and exotic rituals with a wildly diffusionist view of history which saw certain 'chosen races' crossing and recrossing the globe and populating mythical continents like Lemuria and Atlantis.
The Havelock North Golden Dawn, the Theosophists, and the Anthroposophists remained relatively small groups, but it can be argued that hyper-diffusionism and ideas of the manifest destinies of various races appealed to many Pakeha New Zealanders, including a number of political and intellectual leaders, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
3. Mixing myths
The mashup up of mythopoetic material in Fallen Empire has many precedents in Pakeha culture. Baxter blurred the lines between Maori and Greek mythology, and Graham Billing put Homeric as well as Polynesian Gods into his epic novel The Chambered Nautillus.
If Jack Ross had felt lazy, he could perhaps have lifted texts for Fallen Empire from a real-life archive. The Kendrick Smithyman Papers at the University of Auckland Library include an odd, unfinished play where Greek Gods hang out in a Kiwi coffee shop during a wet evening in the 1950s. The Auckland archive also includes an unpublished, unperformed play by Frank Acheson, a Native Land Court judge and literary dabbler, in which Maori Gods visit their Greek cousins on Mount Olympus.
The mythographic mashups of writers like Acheson have to be related to the colonial history of New Zealand. When one people colonises another, they often appropriate the mythology as well as the lands of their victim. It is no coincidence that the reigning architectural style of Victorian Britain was a violent eclecticism, which saw gothic spires, Mughal domes, and Moorish brickwork adorning the same railway station or hotel. Like the Maoriland writers who plundered Maori myth, the architects of imperialist Britain thought nothing of ransacking the cultures of subject peoples.
The 'Maori renaissance' of recent decades has been, in part, an attempt to reverse the annexation of Maori to Pakeha culture. By creating a series of controversies about Pakeha artists' use of Maori material - by querying Gordon Walters' koru, or Colin McCahon's take on Tuhoe history, or CK Stead's right to edit an anthology of Polynesian writing - cultural activists have demanded the recreation of boundaries that were erased a century or more ago. The partial or even total incommensurability of Maori and Pakeha culture and experience has been asserted.
Jack Ross' Society of Inner Light makes the Pacific the cradle of civilisation. It was the Polynesians, the Society says, who taught the rest of the world, including Europe, the rudiments of agriculture.
The Society of Inner Light's claims about Pacific history are, of course, unfounded. Polynesian culture evolved only several thousand years ago, amongst the Lapita people who had pushed east through Melanesia to the islands we now call Tonga and Samoa. Most of Eastern Polynesia, including New Zealand, was settled only within the last fifteen hundred years. But the Society of Inner Light's insistence on the priority and pervasive influence of Polynesian culture might be considered a satire by Jack Ross of the pseudo-history that men like Massey held dear. Where so many Europeans have seen Polynesia as a place without history, whose people need to be awakened forcibly from their barbarous torpor by Christianity and commerce, the Society of Inner Light sees Polynesians as the bearers of the torch of civilisation and progress.
4. Jack’s puzzles
Fallen Empire offers, then, a couple of puzzles. We can read the book as a statement about the marginality of hyper-diffusionism and ideas of racial destiny in New Zealand society, because of the obscure location and eventual extinction of the group it portrays. On the other hand, the connections between the ideology of the Society of Inner Light and the doctrine of many real-life New Zealanders, including powerful men like William Massey, can make us see the location and organisational failure of the Society as ironic rather than symbolic. And we can read the Pacific-centred vision of history espoused by the Raetihi sect either as a poetic rebuke to the Eurocentrism of many Pakeha, or as another piece of irony, given the group's colonialist eclecticism.
Jack Ross is an artful writer. His memorable first novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno, was adorned with occult and astrological symbols that bemused some readers; a later novel, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, sometimes resembled a series of crossword puzzles. In his editorial note to Fallen Empire, Ross says that he will let readers decide the 'larger meaning' of his strange new book. The task isn't easy, but it feels worthwhile.
[posted by Scott Hamilton]