Speaking over Heaphy
Here are another couple of excerpts from my introduction to Murray's book. I'll see you tomorrow night, and shout you a Rheineck.]
At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, Murray Edmond was one of a gang of young literary rebels who published a magazine called The Word is Freed, or Freed for short, from their base in inner city Auckland. Like many writers of their generation, the Freed group considered cultural and political radicalism to be inextricably connected. The Fordist capitalist societies of the postwar West, with their vast and orderly factories, quiescent working classes, and smug, bureaucratised political parties, seemed to depend for stability on a puritanical morality and a philistine mass culture. Seduced into conformity by their televisions and by well-stocked supermarkets, and fearful of the consequences of sexual and chemical experimentation, the denizens of the West needed to change their lifestyle as well as their politics.
For the Baby Boomers who marched and rioted in the streets at the end of the sixties, culture was therefore as much an issue as economics and politics. During the revolutionary ‘May Days’ of 1968, the students and workers of France demanded the end of sexual and cultural repression as well as common ownership of the economy, and painted the slogan TOUT LE POUVOIR A L’IMAGINATION (ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION) on walls. Poets, it seemed, were in the vanguard of the revolution.
The exuberantly innovative poems published in Freed were intended, then, as a challenge to New Zealand society, as well as to New Zealand literature. In the first issue of the magazine, Alan Brunton condemned the notion of art for art’s sake, insisting that ‘A WORK OF ART HAS NO RIGHT TO LEAD AN AUTNOMOUS MORAL EXISTENCE’ inside a world that is too often ‘DIVORCED FROM THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE’.
As Murray Edmond notes in his preface to this book, though, the coupling of revolutionary politics and revolutionary art did not last long. In the eighties Thatcher, Reagan, and our own Roger Douglas brutally restructured capitalism, shrinking the state, shutting factories, splintering the left, and inaugurating a post-Fordist era in which an atomised population competed for insecure service sector jobs. At the same time, the cultural phenomena that had seemed aberrant and dangerous in the sixties – sex outside marriage, communal living, alternative religions, rock festivals, independent film making, and so on – were accepted and commercialised by most Western societies. The counterculture became a set of unthreatening subcultures...
Theatre occupies a special place in this book, and a special place in Edmond’s life. He has worked as a dramaturge, theatre director, and teacher of drama, and mentored generations of playwrights and actors. Edmond sees the theatre not as some autonomous zone where the contradictions of quotidian life are dissolved, but as a site where contradictions and the conflicts they produce can be experienced and examined. Edmond shows us the conflicts that can arise between playwright and director, director and actors, and actors and audiences, and links these clashes to conditions in the world outside the playhouse. The aesthetic success of any theatrical venture depends, Edmond suggests, on the acknowledgement and creative use of contradictions. A successful theatrical performance is a model, however small-scale and temporary, of a democratic society, where differences are acknowledged rather than evaded or repressed.
The long, eponymous essay that concludes this book has an elegaic tone that contrasts poignantly with the brusque optimism of some of Edmond’s youthful writings. Where the proclamations of Freed looked forward to a revolutionary future, ‘Then It Was Now Again’ looks backwards, deep into New Zealand’s past, and laments the way that successive propagandists for the powerful, beginning with the nineteenth century surveyor Charles Heaphy, have tried to write inconvenient individuals and communities out of history. Edmond presents New Zealand writing as a continual joyous struggle to salvage and restore the memory of marginalised people and forgotten events.
The style of ‘Then It Was Now Again’ perfectly matches the essay’s argument.
As he refutes the simplified versions of New Zealand history produced by men like Heaphy, Edmond offers quotations, in English and Maori and a strange hybrid of the two languages, from more than a dozen authors. Historians like Judith Binney and James Belich are quoted alongside poets like Smithyman and Robin Hyde and the nineteenth century prophet Te Ua. Several authors whose names have been lost – footsoldiers in the anti-imperialist wars of the nineteenth century, who left their words of defiance hanging in the air like gunsmoke – join the fray.
For Murray Edmond, history is a democratic, and often contradictory, polyphony of voices, rather than some smooth monologue. We can be thankful that Edmond has added his voice to New Zealand literature over the past four decades.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]