Wednesday, April 29, 2009

For Heraclitus, against Plato and Bush

I had the privilege of writing an introduction to Writers in Residence, the collection of Ted Jenner's writing which will be launched at Fordes Bar this coming Friday, alongside David Lyndon Brown's Skin Hunger. As a teaser for Friday night's party, here's the text of my introduction, along with a few photos of stars in the Jenner firmament...

I first encountered the name Ted Jenner in 1991, when I was fossicking in the dimly-lit back shelves of the Rosehill College library. Ted was one of the writers included in The New Fiction, the fat, baffling collection of ‘experiments in prose’ edited and introduced by Michael Morrissey, a man whom I then imagined to be related to the lead singer of The Smiths. The texts in The New Fiction broke all the golden rules we had been taught by our English teachers at Rosehill: there were stories without plots, let alone trick endings, pages broken into multiple columns of texts, and characters whose names seemed to change with every new paragraph.

I duly showed the strange book to my English teacher, a rotund, bearded man who wore braces and loved GK Chesterton. He flipped through a few pages, turned up his bushy eyebrows slightly, and chuckled ‘Ah, yes! The zonked-out-of-one’s-skull in Ponsonby school of writing!’ But the strangest and most compelling piece in The New Fiction was written some distance from Ponsonby, and showed no sign of being the product of mind-altering substances. Ted Jenner’s ‘Progress Report on an Annotated Checklist for a Motuihe Island Gazetteer of Ethnographical Topology and Comparative Onomatography’ seemed to have little in common with the other texts in The New Fiction, let alone the Chesterton stories which our English teacher loved to read aloud.

Jenner’s text had been composed while he wandered around Motuihe, the two hundred hectare island nestled between Waiheke and Motutapu in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Jenner discussed the topography and history of Motuihe in a series of numbered paragraphs, and provided a carefully-drawn map to help his readers.

As I read for the first time through the ‘Progress Report’ I decided it must be an excerpt from one of the textbooks we had to read in geography classes, a piece of dull, pedagogical prose which had unaccountably been mixed in with the wild experiments that filled the rest of The New Fiction. I soon noticed, though, that the text’s careful structure and sober tone hid all manner of tricks and treats. The author was liable to interrupt a solemn discourse about one of Motuihe’s coves or cliffs with a story from Polynesian mythology, or a sudden invocation of a long-forgotten Mediterranean god, or a description of events occurring before his eyes. Layer upon layer of fact and allusion built up, as Jenner created a portrait of Motuihe Island that included his own, very subjective response to the place. Jenner seemed to ridicule the pretensions of his text, even as he added more and more detail to it:

12. A grove of forty olive trees, said to have been planted by Sir Logan Campbell, who farmed the island in 1843. Perhaps the largest plantation of olives in Australasia, the trees are authentically gnarled, the fruit is bitter. (Quotation here on the civilised and destructive impulse of nostalgia.)

Despite or because of the weight of his knowledge, Jenner was superbly alert to the scene before him, as he wandered across Motuihe:

7. A brilliantly screen-printed silk falcon swoops over the slender isthmus linking Hine-Rehia with Turanga-o-Kahu; here several groups of SE Asian ESL students establish pockets of cultural identity almost immediately upon disembarkation.

Jenner’s extraordinary text made me realise for the first time that there is no Chinese Wall between different types of writing, and that the ‘technical’ languages of subjects like botany, linguistics and geography can be as poetic as Keats’ nightingale and Wordworth’s daffodils. Long after I had forgotten about the other pieces in The New Fiction, I remembered Ted Jenner’s ‘Progress Report’, and wondered what else the man might have written.

Years after my escape from Rosehill College, I encountered Jenner’s name again, at the bottom of a series of contributions to the journal A Brief Description of the Whole World, which was founded by Alan Loney in 1996 and nowadays bears the less cumbersome moniker brief. Jenner’s gifts to A Brief Description of the Whole World included of translations of obscure, fragmentary poems written fifteen hundred years ago in Greece, and long, impressionistic accounts of life in modern-day Malawi. The ‘Notes on Contributors’ page at the back of Loney’s journal claimed that Jenner was teaching Greek and Latin at the University of Malawi, and had only intermittent contact with his literary friends in New Zealand. I found the idea of anybody teaching Homer and Plato in the hinterland of Africa surreal, and wondered if either Ted or Alan Loney was perpetrating some quirky postmodernist joke, but texts like ‘Luminous Details: Malawi 1998-2001’ were convincingly full of vivid detail:

Early morning mist dissolving over last season’s maize. Dry, shrivelled stalks rustling in the breeze like the pages of a Latin Grammar, rattling off their responses at the first hint of rain…Pied crows on campus scratching the blister domes of the library’s roof.

It was only after Jenner’s return from a decade in Malawi in 2006 that I finally got to meet him, and to learn more about the life that lies behind the texts in Writers in Residence. Jenner grew up in the working class South Dunedin suburb of St Kilda, where his father practised medicine. In a recent interview he remembers wandering the windswept streets of his neighbourhood with gangs of friends, then going home and lying awake for hours in bed, listening to the waves pounding the dunes of St Kilda beach, worrying ‘that the vastness of the Southern Ocean might wash over me’. The St Kilda boy soon developed a fascination with the world of classical antiquity, largely because ‘it seemed so distant and exotic’. ‘If I’d grown up in modern Greece or Rome, then I probably would have been fascinated by Polynesia’, he suggests.

In the middle of the sixties the young Ted Jenner enrolled in Classics and English at Otago University. Over the next few years he published his first poems in the student magazine OU Review, learnt the Greek and Latin languages, discovered the poetry of Ezra Pound and TS Eliot and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and took part in some of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War which shook up New Zealand’s campuses in the second half of the sixties. ‘I was very much opposed to the war and inclined towards left-wing politics’, he remembers, ‘but my classical studies gave me a sense of pessimism. I saw that some of the problems we were struggling with in the twentieth century had existed in the world of Plato and Aristotle. I couldn’t abide the naïve optimism I found in parts of the protest movement and the counterculture’. Since graduating from Otago with two Masters Degree at the end of the ‘60s, Jenner has divided his time between Britain, continental Europe, Malawi, and New Zealand, working as a teacher in a succession of schools and universities. He has published a stream of poems, translations, imaginative prose pieces, and scholarly essays in a variety of journals, as well as several small collections of poems, the best-known of which is probably the 1980 Hawk Press volume A Memorial Brass. The verse and prose texts in Writers in Residence have their origins in Ted’s adventures over the past few decades; by bringing them together, Titus Books allows us to make an assessment of what was previously a scattered and hard-to-access oeuvre.

It is hard to read even a page of Writers in Residence without being impressed by the breadth and depth of Jenner’s learning. His writing is full of allusions to physics and philosophy as well as philology and poetry, and he ranges with disconcerting speed through many epochs of human and natural history. Despite his learning and his love of allusion, Jenner is never a show-off: in fact, the texts in Writers in Residence show a profound uneasiness with the Western intellectual tradition that stands behind them.

Jenner’s ambiguous attitude to tradition is reflected in his sceptical attitude to the Greeks. When he was asked why he spent some much time studying ancient Greek society, the great Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof replied ‘because I hate it’. In certain moods, Ted Jenner might offer a similar answer. Instead of relegating the ancients to an idealised, untouchable past, Jenner is determined to show that their world is in many ways like our own. Jenner admires the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Heraclitus, whose poetic, wildly speculative fragments resist attempts at simplification and generalisation, but he despises Plato and Plato’s many disciples. For Jenner, Plato’s elaborate philosophical system and authoritarian political prescriptions represent a hubris that appears again and again in the history of the Western world. He is fond of pointing out that Plato’s Republic was a favourite text of Hitler, Mussolini, and the late dictator of Malawi, H Kamuzu Banda. The certainty which Plato tried to find through philosophy is dangerous, Jenner believes, because it leads to the creation of closed, dogmatic systems of thought, and to the suppression of the facts and opinions that inevitably challenge such systems. In a memorable section of his ‘Progress Report’ on Motuihe Island, Jenner notes the danger that false certainty might close his eyes to the surprises that his subject matter brings:

19. There is a risk that the writer will hold fast to his notebook, in which the rubber constantly catches up with the pencil, and to his temporary conclusions, which, from this moment on (4 p.m.), will become definitive, unverifiable, beyond all recall, accurate, so to speak, corresponding to the truth.

Even an attempt to make an exhaustive catalogue of the contents of a tiny piece of the world like Motuihe Island is doomed to failure, because reality is infinitely complex and continually in flux. To experience reality properly we need poetry, myth, and magic, as much as philosophy, philology and physics. Plato was wrong to want to exclude poets from his Republic. Jenner’s horror of dogmatic ideology and rigid categories is reflected in his continual undermining of scholarly conventions and procedures. His texts show us the limits of our understandings of the world, and the inadvisability of using dogma to cover for our ignorance. More than a few of the pieces in Writers in Residence feature a narrator or monologuist whose pretensions to omniscience are gradually undermined, until confusion replaces certainty.

Jenner’s texts often use extreme detail to disturb established ways of looking at the world, and to force us to see things afresh. He has never had much of an appetite for creating fictional worlds: the texts in Writers in Residence are set in real places. Jenner rejects the clichés of travel writing, though, in favour of an intense apprehension of the teeming world around him. In the middle of one of his poems about the Scandinavian wilderness, Tomas Transtromer suddenly exclaims:

This is not Africa.
This is not Europe.
This is nowhere other than ‘here’.
Like Transtromer, Jenner is determined to make us see the particulars that our general theories and categories can hide. Ted’s attention to detail reflects the influence of the French ‘miniaturist’ poets Francis Ponge and Michael Deguy, as well as the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger often notes that the normal, everyday world around us – ‘the given’, in his jargon – is usually something we take for granted, a sort of ‘equipment’ that we use to achieve our ends. In moments of crisis or inspiration, though, we can experience a ‘break in familiarity’ that suddenly makes us aware of the concreteness and sheer detail of the world that surrounds us. This sort of experience can be disconcerting. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Heidegger-inspired novel Nausea, the anti-hero describes his sudden apprehension of the presence of what he had long taken for granted:

A little while ago, just as I was coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which held my attention through a sort of personality. I opened my hand, looked: I was simply holding the door-knob. This morning in the library, when the Self-Taught Man came to say good morning to me, it took me ten seconds to recognise him. I saw an unknown face, barely a face. Then there was his hand like a fat white worm in my own hand. I dropped it almost immediately and the arm fell back flabbily.

Jenner’s text ‘Writers in Residence 1: A Quiet Shape’ dramatises a similar experience:

My head is a quiet, earthbound shape excreting a running monologue, insistent (‘I wish there was nothing else’) or obsessive (‘if there was something else?’). My wet feet mark the linoleum of the bathroom with traces of a methodical snail-wake…

Even if it can initially be disconcerting, the experience of viewing the world afresh can eventually enrich our sense of where and who we are. Writers in Residence has many moments of hard-won beauty, when we see details and connections that had been hidden by our certainties and schemas. Near the end of ‘Luminous Details’, for instance, the writer finds his past, and perhaps his future, in a tiny fragment of Africa:

Holding to one ear the spiral shell of the fresh-water snail that plays host to the bilharzia fluke, I hear the dumping of breakers on a west-coast beach (Piha?), even ‘the turn of the waves and the scutter of receding pebbles’ (Pound out of Homer) at a distance of almost four hundred kilometres from the Indian Ocean.

Ted Jenner should be read for his erudition, his wit, his remarkable attention to detail, and his insistence on remaining continually open to the richness and flux of the world. Writers in Residence is the fruit of decades of travel, study, thought, and writing. It’s a book I’ve been waiting for since 1991.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hungry Fauna

Maps has published a review of David Lyndon Brown's forthcoming collection Skin Hunger at the Scoop Review of Books. Personally I am excited about the Titus launch on Friday which will see both Skin Hunger and Ted Jenner's book Writers in Residence and other captive fauna come to fruition.

It always feels a bit like celebrating the birth of a baby when a book gets launched - all the time and love that goes into producing them. My personal claim to fame with this launch is that I designed the cover of Ted Jenner's book and Maps wrote the introduction. Last night I was lucky enough to see a sneak preview of both books. I was not only excited by the cover of Jenner's book (!) but was drawn into his text and am looking forward to fossicking through it again. Jenner’s passion for adventure (he spent many years traveling and living in Europe and Africa) is brought to life in Writers in Residence. Look out for Map's review of Jenner's book in the near future.

I started reading Skin Hunger last night and my first impression is that the language is beautiful, direct and emotionally honest without being over the top or cheesy. Brown's writing is intensely personal but he manages to make his poems open to us all. I am looking forward to reading more and am so pleased that Titus is publishing this collection.

I hope that many people will read both new books and I look forward to celebrating with people at Fordes Bar on Friday.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The changing meaning of Anzac Day

The large turnouts for Saturday's dawn ceremonies have confirmed the growing popularity of Anzac Day amongst younger generations of New Zealanders. The veterans of the First World War have departed, and the survivors of the Second are quickly following, yet more and more people with no first-hand experience of war are getting up before dawn on Anzac Day.

The increased popularity of Anzac ceremonies has puzzled and worried some observers on the left. Ever since it was founded in the aftermath of the 'war to end all wars', the Returned Servicemen's Association has been one of the most fiercely conservative organisations in New Zealand, an apparently unthinking defender of all sorts of mouldy traditions. Leftist scholar and politician Bruce Jesson remembered how he and many of his Republican friends became the target of violent assaults from RSA members every time they went to the cinema in the 1960s, simply because they refused to stand when 'God Save the Queen' was played before the film they had paid to see began. The RSA took a hardline stance on military conscription, on conflicts like the Vietnam War, and on nuclear ship visits.

It is not entirely surprising, then, that the increased attendances at the Anzac Day ceremonies the RSA runs have created some concern on the left. Is the new generation embracing militarist or ultra-nationalist ideas? Have they forgotten the RSA's lamentable political record?

I don't think that the large crowds turning out for dawn ceremonies are inspired by nationalism, or by an affinity with the politics the RSA has traditionally represented. I suspect that it is the very distance of the World Wars from the experience of young New Zealanders that has inspired a deep fascination with the conflicts. As the wars move out of the domain of memory and into the territory of myth and history, they have begun to inspire a sort of awe which is quite alien to the typical jingoist.

Twenty-first century New Zealand is a society where impassioned political debate about either domestic or foreign issues is rare. The major political parties offer very similar policy prescriptions, whether they are dealing with the economy or with international affairs. The forces which might prompt debate about fundamental features of New Zealand society are weak: the union movement has still not recovered properly from the defeats of the '90s, and Maori nationalism has been defanged for the moment by compromising leaders.

Political horizons have been lowered, and a generation has grown up without learning the concepts with which they might make a critique of their society. Yet there is much that can be criticised in that society. The same neo-liberal 'reforms' which devastated the labour movement also atomised New Zealand, breaking up old communities based on shared values and creating a much more geographically mobile population united by a culture of consumption rather than a common vew of the world.

In this environment, the history which Anzac Day commemorates seems both distant and strange. It is not only the epic events of Cassino or El Alamein that seem ungraspable - the society from which the New Zealand troops who fought at those places emerged also seems profoundly different from the one we inhabit now. The tight - sometimes suffocatingly tight - social ties and shared set of values of this society seem things of the past. So does the willingness of men and women to put their lives at risk in the name of a place and an ideology.

Many of the young people who turn out for the dawn ceremonies have little interest in the actual historical events of the first half of the twentieth century. They do not care about the earnest historiographical debates over the causes of the First World War, or the reasons why the Allies were able to defeat Hitler. They don't care about whether New Zealand was justified in launching its tragicomic invasion of Turkey in 1915, or whether the bombing of Hiroshima represented a war crime or not.

The essential irrelevance of the historical meaning of events like Gallipoli is shown by the lack of malice towards New Zealand's old enemies that the young attendees at dawn ceremonies show. The young Kiwis who travel to Turkey for the dawn ceremony at Anzac Cove, for instance, will happily sit down for a beer with Turks of their own age before and after the ceremony. Informal surveys by journalists in Turkey suggest that few of the tourists who go to Anzac Cove even know what the Ottoman Empire was, let alone the role it played in World War One.

What draws young people to Anzac Day is a set of images which represent an implicit contrast to the world which they inhabit. They are captivated by the self-sacrifice of the soldiers who went ashore at Gallipoli - by the dissolution of the individual human ego in the midst of the great tide of nationalism and social solidarity which World War One at first created. The fact that the sacrifices of Gallipoli were pointless is of little import: the solidarity of the soldiers and their devotion to something larger than themselves has the power to bewitch a generation which has grown up being told that the purpose of life is the accumulation of consumer goods. The young people who attend Anzac Day commemorations are making an inchoate and implicit critique of the New Zealand of today.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Counting down to launch

Fordes Bar is the only boozing establishment in New Zealand with its own political library, so it's always been a good place to celebrate May Day, the traditional festive day of the labour movement and the left. This year Fordes Bar will be a doubly attractive place to drink on May the first, because it's hosting the launch of two brand new Titus Books.

There'll be music, speeches, finger food, and - if you beat Richard Taylor to the table - free wine from six-thirty, as Titus celebrates the arrival of David Lyndon Brown's Skin Hunger and Ted Jenner's Writers in Residence and other captive fauna.

For many readers of this blog, David Lyndon Brown will need no introduction. His brutally beautiful 2007 novel Marked Men was launched in spectacular fashion, and prompted an extended debate at this blog. Like Marked Men and Brown’s book of short stories Calling The Fish, Skin Hunger explores a seedy but loveable Auckland of crumbling Bohemian villas, underfurnished apartments, twenty-four hour bars, and dodgy nightclubs in spare but nevertheless lyrical language.

Ted Jenner is one of the more enigmatic figures in contemporary New Zealand literature. He has lived overseas for most of the last three and a half decades, teaching Classics at universities and schools and producing poems, translations, and scholarly articles in his spare time. Before he returned to New Zealand a couple of years ago, Jenner spent almost a decade in Malawi, and wrote a series of accounts of the country for the Kiwi literary journal brief. Since his return Jenner has been busy preparing a selection of a his writing from the past thirty years for publication: the result is a book that is full of time and space.

There's more information about next Friday night's event on this flyer (click to enlarge it), which also features Ted Jenner's concrete poem 'Heidegger's Instep'.

'Give them hell in heaven'

The Kiwi historian Mark Derby responded to my post on the late Franklin Rosemont with a tribute to the man that is so interesting and eloquent that it does not deserve to be left to languish in a comments box. As you can see from this photo, Mark was not exaggerating when he used the adjective 'hairy' to describe Rosemont.

So long, Franklin, you hairy, helpful, hallowed old wizard of the left.

I first came across fellow worker Rosement and his equally improbable and kindly wife Penelope a few years ago, in the course of researching NZ's early radical literary traditions. I was startled to discover that a vast proportion of the wave of imported leftist reading matter (and it was practically all imported) which fed the dreams and desires of the largely autodidactic radical labour movement in the early 20th century originated from a single source, the Chicago-based Charles H. Kerr publishing house. It was equally surprising to learn that the company was still vigorously extant, its original principles intact, turning out many marvellous books annually under the slogan "Subversive literature for all the family".

So I sent them my research on the NZ connection with their business, and Franklin (who had bought the company in the 70s to save it from insolvency) responded at characteristic length and generosity, sending me signed copies of several of his own works (including the biography of Joe Hill you mention above) and inviting me to contribute to a forthcoming one, a revised edition of the Haymarket Scrapbook.

So I did, and we kept in touch, sending each other good stuff we'd come across and news of our local communities. I've never had a livelier, more welcome correspondent. He usually addressed me as Fellow Worker, meaning he saw me as a Wobbly like himself, and I wish I truly deserved such a tribute.

I also wish we'd managed to meet up, and that he'd lived to finish a few more works in progress. But it would have been a tango of a tangi for old Franklin.

Give them hell in heaven, you old bugger.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The myth that won't go away

Rekohu, which translates as 'misty sky', was the name given to the Chatham Islands by their original inhabitants, the Moriori people. Rekohu is also the name of a weblog which provides an irregularly updated but fiercely pro-Moriori account of events on the Chathams.

The author of Rekohu has responded with a mixture of amusement and exasperation to the attemots of John Wanoa to reinvent the old myth of the Moriori as pre-Maori inhabitants of mainland New Zealand. As I noted a couple of months back, Wanoa has been presenting himself as a descendant of a fictional North Island Moriori people, and claiming that he is owed vast sums of money by the New Zealand government and the Queen of England. Rekohu can laugh at Wanoa's absurd claims, but he is annoyed that the basic facts of Moriori history have still not been assimilated by so many New Zealanders:

I concur with the assessment of the gentleman in question. I think he is a nutter! One comment that I feel obliged to reiterate though, because some of the esteemed scholars seem to forget it, presumably because they see it as being so bloody obvious is thus: the whole myth thing, whether perpetrated by the pakeha or by the Maori is actually irrelevant. Get over it for God’s sake! Moriori were. Moriori are! And Moriori will be. That is the important thing and the more that people continue to focus on the periphery of that, the greater creedence is given to bloody nutters such as that other bloke and the less mana, and significance is given to the actual story and reality of Te Imi Moriori.

It is easy to understand Rekohu's frustration. Since the 1920s, when HD Skinner produced his classic study The Morioris of the Chatham Islands, the Victorian notion that the Moriori were a group of Melanesians driven from mainland New Zealand by aggressive, latecomer Maori has been discredited amongst scholars. Major archaeological digs on the Chathams in the '70s filled in many gaps in Moriori prehistory, and Michael King's 1989 book Moriori: A People Rediscovered synthesised a huge amount of research and the oral traditions of the Moriori themselves to create a compelling and accessible account of the history of the tchakat henu of Rekohu.

King showed that the Moriori were the descendants of a group of early Maori who had arrived on the Chathams and had been unable or unwilling to leave. The cool climate, constant winds, and relatively small size of the islands led to important cultural changes, like the erosion of social destinctions, the adoption of a strict pacifism, and the abandonment of agriculture. In recent years scholars at the University of Auckland have put the icing on the cake, by using tests on rat bones to determine that the first settlers of Rekohu arrived from the northern part of the South Island around the beginning of the fifteenth century.

The problem with Rekohu's argument that the old myth of the Moriori as pre-Maori New Zealanders is 'irrelevant', and should not be subjected to criticism, is that the myth has refused to die amongst the Kiwi public. Again and again, it is invoked during discussions of issues related to race and history.

The current controversy over whether the city of W(h)anganui should have an 'h' added to its name has seen the Moriori myth bubble once again to the surface. Maori activists in W(h)anganui have long argued that, under the Treaty of Waitangi, their history deserves respect, and that this respect should extend to the proper spelling of traditional names. In a debate on the website of the New Zealand Herald prompted by the Geographic Board's decision that the name should change, a number of Pakeha opponents of 'Maori radicalism' used the Moriori myth to bolster their arguments.

A commenter with the unfortunate name 'Hopefully Fair' contributed this nugget of wisdom:

Boat people are boat people whether they came here 200yrs ago or 1000yrs ago. What happened to the original people before the Maori arrived, or does that upset the stomach...

'Richard from Timaru' also raised the spectre of pre-Maori settlement, and threw a little Martin Doutresque paranoia into the mix:

People want it changed to it's original name, that's fine, and I support that, but Maori are just one in a long line of people that have occupied this country. So the original names of these places wouldn't even be Maori. Sadly though, much of NZ's real history is sealed for decades by previous governments. History that shows NZ populated long before the maori.

Historic finds are dealed off from public access, and worse, some maori tribes have bulldozed it over to keep the myth going that they are native to this country.

Given the continuing currency of arguments like these, I think that the Moriori myth still needs to be countered publically, even if it is as dead as a dodo within the walls of academe. Rekohu himself seems to accept that the Moriori myth needs to be addressed, when he argues that Moriori history should be taught in New Zealand schools.

It seems to me, though, that there is a complementary argument which can be made against those who invoke the Moriori myth. Invariably, those who invoke the myth, or the related and even more absurd myth of ancient Celtic New Zealanders, identify the indigenity of Maori, and the validity of agreements like the Treaty of Waitangi, with the fact that Maori occupied New Zealand before other peoples.

All the evidence points to Maori being the first inhabitants of New Zealand, but even if they Maori were not the first New Zealanders that fact would not, in their eyes and in the eyes of the Treaty, stop them from being indigenous. That’s because Maori understand indigenity as something which derives not from first occupation but from a series of activities - taking possession of the land, naming it, burying the dead there, burying placenta there, and so on (it’s no coincidence that the Maori word for land is also the Maori word for placenta).

If the near-impossible happened, and the remains of a pre-Maori civilisation were discovered, then the Treaty would not have to be torn up and Maori would not have to abandon their claims to be the tangata whenua of New Zealand. Indeed, there have already been Treaty settlements where groups of Maori have been recognised as indigenous, and offered certain resources, despite the acknowledged fact that they were not the first occupants of their rohe.

A good example is the case of Kai Tahu, the iwi which was recognised as the tangata whenua of most of the South Island and given a range of resources in one of the first major Treaty settlements in the early ’90s. No Kai Tahu leader has ever denied that their iwi was not the first to take possession of the southern part of the South Island. The Waitaha and Ngati Mamoe peoples lived in the area before Kai Tahu arrived sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. These prior peoples were either conquered or assimilated, or both, and Kai Tahu became the tangata whenua of most of Te Wai Pounamu. It was Kai Tahu, not Ngati Mamoe or Waitaha, who signed the Treaty, and the arguments about the Treaty concern whether or not the Crown honoured its obligations to Kai Tahu.

If Ngati Mamoe and Waitaha had survived as distinct groups inside the territory Kai Tahu controlled, then the situation would be more complex. In the Chathams, Moriori were conquered by two Taranaki iwi in 1835, but the Waitangi Tribunal found that this conquest did not erase Moriori mana whenua on the islands, because Moriori had retained their culture and traditions. Moriori and the descendants of their conquerors both have rights under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Those who claim that Moriori once populated the North and South Islands, or that Northland was once crawling with Celts, or that the Chinese built forts up and down the South Islands, cannot point to any person, John Wanoa aside, who claims descent from such phantom civilisations. They cannot show that the Maori groups which signed the Treaty of Waitangi were falsely claiming to control Celtic or Chinese land. They cannot demonstrate that Celtic or Chinese or mainland Moriori populations existed as subjugated peoples within the rohe of iwi which signed the Treaty. How, then, can the pseudo-historians use these phantom peoples as evidence of the illegitimacy of the Treaty of Waitangi?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Remembering a Wobbly Surrealist

The debate about the relationship, or lack of relationship, between avant-garde art and left-wing politics has been rumbling on for a week or more now in the comments boxes of this blog. Despite or because of thousands of words of polemic, there appears no consensus over whether or not radical art can help to effect radical political change. One man who had no doubt about the connection between art and politics was Franklin Rosemont, the American labour activist and surrealist who died last week at the age of sixty-five.

Rosemont was born into a working class family in Chicago, and at the age of seven he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, known colloquially as the 'Wobblies'. He would remain committed to the organisation for the rest of life, despite its steadily declining membership. Inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road, Rosemont left school at fifteen and hitched around America and Mexico, winding up in the Beat stronghold of San Francisco. During a subsequent journey to Europe he met the elderly Andre Breton, and became an instant convert to the Surrealist movement.

Upon returning to America Rosemont founded the Chicago Surrealist Group and began to produce poetry and visual art. Another key member of the group was Philip Lamantia, who had also graduated from the Beat movement to Breton's rather austere aesthetic.

I remember encountering the poems of Lamantia and other members of the Chicago Group during my undergraduate days, and being struck by how little they owed to the main tendency in American poetry in the '60s. While the Beats, feminist poets like Anne Sexton, New York School poets like Frank O'Hara and even doyens of the mainstream like Robert Lowell were trying to make their poetry casual and accessible, the American surrealists were churning out lines full of inscrutably strange images. Narrative and argument were rejected, because they were seen as impediments to the free expression of the subconscious mind. Although it was supposed to express the deepest impulses of its authors, the work of the American surrealists seemed to me oddly impersonal, and sometimes even cold. Perhaps Lamantia, Rosemont and co. were like the medieval mystics who tried to enquire so deeply into themselves that they would discover what was common to all humans. I must confess struggling to find much more than a tangle of incomprehensible lines and the occasional beautiful image in the work of Rosemont and his comrades. It was impossible not to admire the energy of the Surrealists, though, and the way that they tried to fuse their art with the radical politics which shook up the United States in the second half of the sixties.

Rosemont was a scholar as well as an artist and political activist, and from the seventies into the noughties he turned out a series of essays and books about the history of the labour movement in the United States and overseas. His biography of Wobbly martyr Joe Hill became popular amongst scholars as well as activists, and was eventually translated into French.

I am grateful to Rosemont for 'Karl Marx and the Iroquois', his long, stormy meditation on Marx's little-known Ethnological Notebooks.

The Notebooks, which were only published in 1974, were an aspect of the massive, unfinished researches into pre-capitalist societies that Marx began in earnest in the early 1870s and continued right up until his death in 1883. They document Marx's readings in the work of pioneers of anthropology like Lawrence Henry Morgan. Although Rosemont's subject might seem fusty, the opening sentences of his essay make it clear that he is offering something much more exciting than the average academic discourse:

There are works that come down to us with question-marks blazing like sawed-off shotguns, scattering here and there and everywhere sparks that illuminate our own restless search for answers. Ralegh's so-called Cynthia cycle, Sade's 120 Days, Fourier's New Amorous World, Lautremont's Poesies, Lenin's notes on Hegel, Randolph Bourne's essay on The State Jacque Vaches War letters, Duchamp's Green Box, the Samuel Greenberg manuscripts: These are only a few of the extraordinary fragments that have, for many of us, exerted a fascination greater than that of all but a very few "finished" works.

Karl Marx's
Ethnological Notebooks - notes for a major study he never lived to write - have something of the same fugitive ambiguity. These extensively annotated excerpts from works of Lewis Henry Morgan and others are a jigsaw puzzle for which we have to reinvent the missing pieces out of our own research and revery and above all, our own revolutionary activity.

Rosemont believes that the Notebooks represent Marx's move away from the Eurocentric perspective of the first edition of Capital, toward an appreciation of the importance of the struggles of the Iroquois and other indigenous peoples against the encroachment of capitalism on their world:

For Late Marx, the motto doubt everything was no joke. Or at least it was not only a joke.

This is especially noticeable in the last decade of Marx's life, and the Ethnological Notebooks are an especially revealing example of his readiness to revise previously held views in the light of new discoveries. At the very moment that his Russian "disciples" - those "admirers of capitalism," as he ironically tagged them-were loudly proclaiming that the laws of historical development set forth in the first volume of
Capital were universally mandatory, Marx himself was diving headlong into the study of (for him) new experiences of resistance and revolt against oppression - by North American Indians, Australian aborigines. Egyptians and Russian peasants...

Late Marx emphasized as never before the subjective factor as the decisive force in revolution. His conclusion that revolutionary social transformation could proceed from different directions and in different (though not incompatible) ways was a logical extension of his multi-linear view of history into the present and future.

Rosemont urges the relevance of the Notebooks to fin-de-siecle struggles against globalisation and primitive accumulation in the Third World. In 'Late Marx and the Iroquois' Rosemont pays homage to EP Thompson, who had pointed to the importance of Marx's late work in his controversial 1978 polemic 'The Poverty of Theory'. Rosemont is less restrained than Thompson in his interpretation of Marx's fragmentary late texts, and his argument that the Ethnological Notebooks represent a complete repudiation of Capital is finally unconvincing. More careful scholars, like Haruki Wada and Raya Dunyaveskaya, have noted that Marx was reworking even the first, published volume of Capital right up until the end of his life, and incorporating his new insights into the book.

Rosemont also makes the mistake of equating Marx's views with Morgan's, when in fact the Notebooks contain criticisms of Morgan's tendency towards a stagist view of human development. Raya Dunyaveskaya has shown that Marx's criticisms were ignored by Engels when he used the Notebooks as a source for The Origin of the State, the Family and Private Property.

What 'Karl Marx and the Iroquois' lacks in scholarship, though, it makes up for in eloquence. In a memorable passage, Rosemont addresses some of Marx's latter-day academic disciples:

Despite their pompous claims, ninety-seven percent of the neo-Marxists are actually to the right of the crude and mechanical Marxists of the old sects, and the separation of their theory from their practice tends to be much larger.

Certainly the Wobbly hobo of yesteryear, whose Marxist library consisted of little more than the IWW Preamble and the Little Red Song Book, had a far surer grasp of social reality - and indeed - of what Marx and even Hegel were talking about-than today's professional phenomenologist-deconstructionist neo-Marxologist who, in addition to writing unreadable micro-analytical explications of Antonio Gramsci, insists on living in an all-white neighborhood, crosses the university clerical-workers' picket line, and votes the straight Democratic ticket.

I'm not sure if he would have approved, but I was proud to quote Rosemont's remarkable study of Marx's late work in my PhD thesis. Even if I couldn't appreciate the man's verse, I found a lot of poetry in his prose.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The virtues of ambiguity: or, why I'm still not giving up art

After a hectic two days drinking with sailors, wandering round archaeological sites, and being menaced by gun-toting, DOC-hating farmers in the far north - more details of those escapades in a future blog post, and in a chapter of Smithyland - Skyler and I suddenly found ourselves in Hamilton on a grey and drizzly Easter Sunday.

Luckily for us, a large new show had just opened at the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery. The gallery's main exhibition space has been given over to a potted history of the Waikato Society of Arts, an organisation which has enriched the culture of cow country for over seventy years. The WSA has always been a determinedly pro-am body, and the exhibition includes work by little-known as well as famous artists. One work has been selected to represent each year of the WSA's existence, so that visitors can travel from the 1930s, when bad imitations of bad Goldies were the order of the day, to the noughties, when the work being produced in the Waikato seems both various and adventurous. There are many delights along the way - Tom Gardiner's massive and very seventies abstract diptych filled with Maddoxian crosses and slabs of brutalist grey is particularly exciting - but the highlight of the show, for me at least, is the emergence of two more Ted Bracey canvases from the gallery vaults.

Bracey's North Island System, No. 1 seems to be one of a series of works he painted near the end of the years he spent in the Waikato in the second half of the sixties. It's a bright painting, full of cold blues and blustery whites, but I neglected it in favour of October No. 4, a large work which has the same unnerving beauty of the two Waikato paintings hanging downstairs.

In October No. 4, the artist has once again stripped his landscape down to essentials: a white line, a black line, a rippling field of deep, darkening green, and a bank of sky the colour of week-old snow. It is difficult to appreciate October No. 4 in reproduction, because the size of the canvas and the nuanced way Bracey uses his limited palette give the work much of its ambiguous power. Like the Waikato paintings downstairs, October No. 4 is capable of conjuring a mood of warmth and security, or a mood of unease. Is Bracey painting a green and pleasant land of dairy farms and scenic reserves, or a landscape which has been left undifferentiated by the ravages of the axe and the fire? Is the line in the foreground a river, running languidly through the landscape, or a road pushed through in an aggressively straight line?

One person who will probably not be visiting the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery to answer these questions is Jared Davidson, a member of the Garage Collective and the author of 'Give up Art and Save the Starving?', a polemic which has attracted criticism on this site and at Christchurch poet and theorist Ross Brighton's blog. In a recent comment on this blog, Jared registered his displeasure with my post about my encounter with Ted Bracey's Waikato paintings:

You saw some landscape in the gallery which spurred you into thought and art talk drivel. You seem to have changed your mind on how you felt about them. You asked some questions about whether this individual knew any colonial history of the area. Did you get a response?

Did Ted answer you back with a defiant yes? Or no? I doubt it. Why? Because as an artist, Ted doesn't have to make those kind of statements. Ted's status as the revered genius allows him to transcend everyday unpleasantries, and allow you to ask such important questions about, say, does this landscape have any meaning whatsoever? Hurrah for art! Hurrah for Ted, and his nothingness!

Jared's comments reflect his belief that artists should end their 'individualist' and 'subjective' ways, and instead dedicate themselves to 'collective' political activity aimed at bringing down the capitalist system. Artists should get out of their studios and galleries, and on to the barricades. If they must continue to produce art, it should reflect their 'social commitment' by clearly communicating an anti-capitalist message.

For all of the radical rhetoric it's wrapped up in, Jared's response to my post about Ted Bracey betrays a very old and very common misapprehension of art. Like the art dealer who is guided by value rather than taste, and the TV viewer who grumps 'what does that mean?' when confronted by Hamish Keith extolling the virtues of a McCahon or Woollaston canvas, Jared is mystified by the recalcitrance of art. He wishes that Ted Bracey would come out with a clear message – that he would shout a 'yes' or 'no', in the manner of a propaganda poster or an ad for detergent.

As EP Thompson was fond of pointing out, though, a poster and a painting are two different things. If we want to engage with an artwork, we often need to put aside the idea that it is supposed to communicate an unambiguous political message to as wide an audience as possible. We must treat a recalcitrant painting or poem not as a failed attempt to communicate simply and clearly, but as an attempt to gets us thinking in a creative, contemplative, dialogic manner - as something that can open our minds to new possibilities, rather than communicate what we already understand.

Ted Bracey's paintings speak powerfully of the connection that he felt with the Waikato landscape - a connection that seems to have been rooted in his rejection of the ugliness of urban American society, and which relied upon his memories of a childhood in the Hampshire Downs. Bracey's vision of an agrarian paradise probably owed a great deal to the Romantic tradition, which has been an important source of social critique in England ever since William Blake wrote poems like 'London'. Bracey's praise for life in the Waikato might remind us of the young Wordsworth's discovery of permanent, non-human values in nature, or of William Morris' counterposition of rural English communities to the ugly chaos of industrial Victorian cities.

Yet Bracey's vision cannot be accepted unproblematically, because it glosses over the fact that the Waikato landscape, like the landscape of post-enclosure England, is an artificial creation, predicated on the dispossession of the people who once lived there. There is an ugliness that aches under the beauty of Bracey's canvases. I have suggested that Bracey is aware of that ugliness - that it lurks at the edge of his vision, and finds its way into his paintings, creating their ambiguity.

I've argued that the condition of being in love with the 'beauty' of a landscape and yet being uneasily aware of the history that lurks under that beauty is very common in the culture of a postcolonial society like New Zealand. I grew up on a dairy farm, and was bombarded by the media, by the tourist industry, and by the backs of wheet bix packets with images that showed the levelled forests and cleared-out highlands of New Zealand as a 'clean green paradise' of sheep and dairy farms. It's not easy to expurgate such images, without expurgating a part of one's own heritage, and one's way of seeing.

I think that many Pakeha feel, today, that they exist in a sort of uneasy twilight zone, caught as they are between a desire to acknowledge the injustices done to Maori and an awareness that they cannot disown their own history. The political right attempts to dispel the Pakeha’s feeling of unease with assimilationist rhetoric about how 'we're all New Zealanders now'; the far left often tries to banish the same unease with simplistic rhetoric about working class unity, and criticism of Maori nationalism as a distraction from 'workers' issues'.

I think that Ted Bracey's paintings are powerful works because they do not dispel the ambiguity of feeling which is the part of the heritage of Pakeha. If Bracey had denied his emotional reaction to the Waikato landscape, and covered his canvases with some politically correct slogan about the theft of Maori land, then he may have created effective posters, but he would have failed to make art. By letting his conflicting feelings into his Waikato paintings, he captured something of the truth of Pakeha experience, and also created a space where viewers can dialogue with him and develop their own thoughts, rather than have a pre-prepared political meaning shoved down their throats.

I don't think the recalcitrance and ambiguity of art like Bracey's renders it politically impotent. In fact, I think that the subtle way artists like Bracey work is just as important to left-wing politics as the work of poster makers and orators. Historically, the New Zealand left has been weak in the areas of theory and analysis, particularly as they pertain to local experience. Too many activists have been dissuaded from thinking about issues like Maori nationalism and the nature of Pakeha experience because they have been supplied with readymade slogans by politicians and poster makers. By encouraging us to think for ourselves, artists like Bracey open a space beyond political rhetoric where creative analysis can be done and new concepts can be coined.

I don't know how Ted Bracey's paintings will affect my political thinking, as I'm still struggling with them, but I want to use another artist to give an example of the way that seemingly recondite canvases can have a palpable political effect on their viewer. Back in 2007 I looked at a series of new works by the Nga Puhi painter Shane Cotton. Cotton had placed a series of somewhat cryptic images - the stylised face of the Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika, smoked heads from the period of the Musket Wars, a variety of exotic birds, and several antique planes - on his large, mostly empty canvases. On a number of the canvases, the objects looked as though they were falling off the edge of a cliff, into a vast chasm. Some of Cotton's birds appeared to be floating in the chasm, but other objects looked like they were plummeting.

When they were considered in the context of his earlier work, Cotton's paintings looked to me like allusions to the Maori experience of colonisation and modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I found Cotton's portraits of Hongi Hika, a figure who straddled the divide between pre-contact Maori society and modern New Zealand, particularly fascinating, because they eschewed the cliches that many artists and historians have used when depicting the man. Cotton portrayed Hongi Hika as a man of great mana, not a mindless murderer, but he also contextualised the chief, and suggested that he was, for all his power and exploits, a man whose actions were determined by his historical circumstances. Hongi was struggling to guide his people through their encounter with European power, but the methods which he used were often ill-suited to his task. I was very impressed by the way Cotton's paintings seemed to honour Hongi Hika without idealising him or taking him out of his historical context. At the time I encountered Cotton's paintings I was working at the Auckland museum, and I was also involved in the response to the so-called 'anti-terror' raid on Ruatoki and the arrest of the 'Urewera 14'. At work, amongst friends and relatives, and at protest marches and pickets, the air was full of arguments about Maori and Tuhoe nationalism, and about the correct Pakeha response to those phenomena. These arguments were particularly pungent for me, because I was working amongst Maori and Pasifika staff in the Maori Court of the museum, and was often asked by visitors to the museum about my attitude to the arrests and to Maori leaders like Tame Iti, presumably because I would be able to supply an informed 'Pakeha' view of these matters.

I wasn't sure, though, how to relate my support for the right of Maori and Tuhoe to tino rangatiratanga with my attitude toward Pakeha history and culture. On the one hand, I was becoming more and more aware, through discussions with Maori and my own research, of the details of the oppression that Pakeha had visited upon the indigenous people of Aotearoa. On the other hand, I didn't think that simply dismissing Pakeha culture and history as worthless did anything to help educate the public about the past, or to build a movement against contemporary expressions of the oppression of Maori like the police raids that netted the Urewera 14. For obvious reasons, I couldn't agree with the Maori who told me that Pakeha should all get on a boat and head back to Europe.

Shane Cotton's paintings helped me to find a more balanced approach to Pakeha history and culture, because they proved to me that it was possible to show respect for an ancestor without idealising him. Hongi Hika was a man responsible for the invasion of the rohe of half a dozen iwi and the slaughter of thousands of people, yet Cotton was able to show him as an explicable, if not entirely sympathetic figure. Thanks partly to Cotton, I've come to the view that Pakeha culture and history have to be acknowledged and contextualised, rather than merely condemned - that there is no point, in other words, of telling Pakeha that they should live in a permanent state of shame about their past. I now take the view that it is not Pakeha culture per se but the attempts of Pakeha to make their culture the only acceptable one for New Zealanders that must be countered by the left. In an article about the debate over the New Zealand flag, for instance, I argued that it is unrealistic to expect Pakeha New Zealanders to abandon their old flag, and identify with the tino rangatiratanga banner, but that it is unacceptable for them to claim that their banner represents the first people of Aotearoa. I argued, therefore, for the use of both flags, to remind us all of the messy and two-sided history of this country.

Of course, my response the paintings that Shane Cotton exhibited back in 2007 was and is subjective, and the political conclusions that the paintings eventually prompted in me may not be shared by many others. Cotton's paintings do not make straightforward statements about Nga Puhi or Pakeha history, and our relationship to that history. They do not make straightforward statements about anything. They are enigmatic assemblages of images designed to work on parts of the brain that are untouched by prosaic, logical discourse. We bring our own meanings, our own needs and preoccupations, to our encounter with them, and take away an experience which is our own. The popularity of Cotton's art amongst members of his own Nga Puhi iwi - many of whom are the sort of working class New Zealanders without an education in art who, according to Jared Davidson, are not able to appreciate complex, enigmatic, allusive paintings - is a testimony to the power of his methodology. An encounter with an artist like Shane Cotton or Ted Bracey can be an equal, reciprocal one, in the way that an encounter with a poster can never be.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Desecration at Drancy

Yesterday's Herald reported that neo-Nazis have spray-painted swastikas and anti-semitic slogans over a monument to the victims of the Holocaust at the site of the former Drancy Deportation Camp. During their occupation of France the Nazis used the camp at Drancy, a small town north of Paris, as a temporary home for tens of thousands of Jews destined for the ovens of Auschwitz and other death camps.

Over at the website of Uncensored, the Auckland-based magazine which reprints the work of leading neo-Nazis, a similar sort of desecration is occurring, as conspiracy theorists try to justify their fondness for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the paranoid text that inspired the first generation of Nazis.

Because it was a transit camp Drancy did not have gas chambers and ovens, but overcrowded conditions and inhumane administrators assured that many people never left its gates. One of the victims of Drancy was Max Jacob, who caught pneumonia there a few weeks after Nazi troops had frogmarched him out of the Catholic monastery where he had been hiding.

One of the most influential of the avant-garde poets that France produced in the early twentieth century, Jacob was born in Quimper, the ancient capital of Brittany, to a Jewish family, but converted to Roman Catholicism after having a vision of Christ in 1909. Jacob's conversion was not taken entirely seriously by some of his friends, who were used to witnessing his debauched behaviour at Paris parties, and up until the end of his life he would oscillate between Bohemian and monkish behaviour.

Jacob's writing was as original as his lifestyle. As a young man he shared a one-bedroom garrett with Pablo Picasso, and hit upon the idea of applying the principles of Cubism to literature. Jacob would sleep through the day, while his soon-to-be-famous flatmate painted; when night fell it would be Picasso's turn to sleep, and Jacob would work on the prose poems that would eventually be collected in his masterpiece The Dice Cup. A typical Jacob poem features maniacal punning, surreal images, and the sort abrupt changes of perspective which remind us of Picasso canvases like Les Mademoiselles D'Avignon. Here is the complete text of 'Inconvenience of Slipping':

The head was nothing but a little old ball in the big white bed. The eiderdown of puce-colored silk, adorned with fine lace, resting perfectly on the seam, was facing the lamp. The mother in this white valley was caught up in big things, her dentures removed; and the son, near the night table with the scruff of a seventeen-year-old that couldn't be shaved because of pimples, was amazed that from this big old bed, from this hollow valley of a bed, from this little toothless ball, could come a marvelous, winning personality, and one as clearly congenial as his own. Nevertheless, the little old ball didn't want him to leave the lamp by the white valley. It would have been better for him not to leave it, because this lamp had always kept him from living anywhere else when he was no longer living near it.

Last year I wrote a short poem about the last days of Max Jacob. I haven't published it offline yet, but I thought I'd put it here, as a small tribute to the man.

Max Jacob at Drancy Deportation Camp

That the law of equivalence tells us that a fish is a fish, that a star is a star, that a gorse spore is a gorse spore, that the sun is a fistful of nails. This is easy. The paint has flaked off Olaf's black knight, so that the creature must change sides.

That the laws of geometry tell us where to stand. Even during noon inspection, a taller man provides a modicum of shade. Try to arrange one on each side.

That the laws of literature tell us when to write. To watch the pen move is to watch it think, slowly, involuntarily, leaving lines as thin and regular as wire. I sit up on my elbows and squint at the page, looking for a hole large enough to crawl through.

That morality tells us when to confess. Even before I was born I was plotting.

That biology tells us how to live, how to go on living. Rot preserves by changing, makes us immortal as dust or fungi, as the soft log burning bright orange under my foot, when I step into the bushes behind the barracks wall to take a piss.

That the laws of harmony tell us how to listen. One lies awake all night suffering the shrieks and howls, until at dawn the exhausted sobbing suddenly sounds like the Odet waterfall in a dry summer. It ends too soon.

That the laws of anatomy tell us where to break. I heard the guards kicking a football about, and began to find the pitch and tone of their laughter strange, until Fischer's head rolled out of the barracks yard, and into view. Goal kick.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Arguing with Ted Bracey

A couple of months have gone by since the Christchurch-based Garage Collective declared war on New Zealand's arts community , whom they accuse of propping up capitalism and creating a breeding ground for fascism. According to the Garage Collective, artists who do not go 'onto the barricades' - ie, produce instantly comprehensible statements advocating the 'abolishment (sic) of the capitalist system' - deserve to 'die'.

Garage Collective member 'Jared', who seems to have followed the lead of Kylie Minogue and jettisoned his surname as a bourgeois encumbrance, took the trouble to visit this site and explain the nuances of his group's statement to the enemies of the working class who lurk here. When I timidly suggested that Jared might like to visit an art gallery to find out more about the painters he professes to hate, the stern young foe of bourgeois ideology informed me that galleries were the haunts of 'elitists' who oppose the 'full participation' of the masses in art. Visiting an art gallery, according to Jared, is like 'voting once every three years' - that is, an exercise in 'sham democracy'. Because they merely 'contemplate' artworks, and do not participate in the creation of these works, the poor souls who visit Te Papa to look at Rita Angus or the Gus Fisher to view Milan Mrkusich are accomplices in their own oppression.

What the Garage Collective advocates is the obliteration of the distinction between the producer and the viewer of art. In the ideal world of Jared and his comrades, the 'masses' would spent a proportion of their time painting enormous colourful murals expressing their democratically-formulated viewpoint on walls expropriated from the bourgeoisie. Resolute slogans about the 'abolishment of capitalism' and heroic images of muscle-bound workers manning the blazing barricades would be the order of the day. Though Jared would indignantly protest the comparison, the aesthetic credo advanced by the Garage Collective has much in common with the 'socialist realist' dogma which saw Stalin-era Soviet artists forced to paint smiling peasants harvesting wheat with shining sickles, in front of tableaux of soaring, smoke-capped steel mills built to fulfil the requirements of the latest five year plan.

To be fair, Jared and his chums seem to have developed their aesthetic through a flawed thought process, not out of a desire to damage art. On paper, or on an obscure anarcho-Situationist website at three o'clock in the morning, the demand for the removal of the division between producers and viewers of art might seem admirable, and even workable. The demand lends itself to snappy slogans, and threatens to put the hustlers making a fortune from an out of control art market out of business.

In the cold light of the offline day, though, it should be apparent that the destruction of the distinction between artist and audience is neither practicable nor sensible. Good art is usually a dialogue between its maker and its audience - a dialogue that depends on their differences, as their similarities.

When we look at a painting or read a poem, we encounter a different view of the world, and we are forced to open a part of ourselves up to this different weltanschaung. At the same time, we interpret the work we are encountering in terms of our own experiences, and the world that created them. We enjoy a dialogue or, as Hans-Georg Gadamer called it, a 'fusion of horizons', with the work and the person we are encountering. And one of the great joys of art is the way that it allows us some insight into the ways that people from very different eras and cultures felt and thought. We are enriched when we experience ancient Greece through the poems of Theognis, or nineteenth century France through the paintings of Cezanne, or the history of the Tainui people through the sculpture of Brett Graham.

Sometimes the dialogue between artist and viewer can be difficult, or even ill-tempered. For the past month, for instance, I have been having a series of rather fraught conversations with a man I never met and had barely heard of before he died early this year.

Ted Bracey was born and raised in Britain, but in the sixties he emigrated first to the United States and then to New Zealand. Disgusted by the violent, dog-eat-dog society he found in the large cities of the States, Bracey settled down happily in the Waikato, where he soon found work teaching art. Bracey was a painter as well as a teacher, and he was soon at work on a series of canvases inspired by his new home. Bracey moved to Christchurch at the beginning of the seventies and stopped painting, but his bold, semi-abstract depictions of the Waikato landscape are still celebrated by critics and curators.

The Waikato Museum and Art Gallery has decided to mark Bracey's death by exhibiting three of his paintings: a bright, furious abstract composition created during the artist's unhappy sojourn in North America, and two of his tributes to the Waikato landscape. All three works are worth seeing, but the canvases that have obsessed me for the last month are Winter Land Signals No. 8, which was apparently inspired by the landscape around the little Waikato town of Cambridge, and Tuatuamoana 2, which refers to an ancient, partially drained swamp in the eastern Waikato.

Some of my in-laws reside in Hamilton, and I have found myself repeatedly taking long walks from their suburban neighbourhood to the art gallery, just to view Bracey's work. I've mysteriously vanished from a couple of family shopping expeditions to the central city to view the paintings, and I even left the test match between India and the Black Caps at Seddon Park early so that I could get in a quarter hour at the gallery. What, you might ask, am I getting so excited about? I can only begin to answer this question by reconstructing my first experience of Winter Land Signals No.8 and Tuatuamoana 2, the second of which is reproduced above. Bracey's canvases are an exercise in simplification, but that does not make then simplistic. He has taken some of the distinguishing forms and colours of the landscape around his adopted home, and eliminated what he considers inessential. Bracey's limited range of colours and repetitive forms give both paintings an 'all-over' effect that instantly reminded me, when I first set eyes on them, of the flatness of the Waikato landscape. It seemed to me that Bracey was taking a pilot's, or a bird's, or a God's-eye view of the land.

Some of the paintings' forms - the dark, raggedly triangular shape in the upper left corner of Tuatuamoana 2, for instance - suggested the volcanic hills and mountains that punctuate the Waikato plain. Others, like the smaller, lighter-coloured triangles, might have represented human imprints on the land - they made me think of church steeples, of the arched backs of old farmhouses, and of old-fashioned TV aerials. But it was not possible for me to 'read' the shapes in Bracey's composition in a straightforward manner - he had provided just enough detail to stimulate my memories of the Waikato landscape. The rest, it seemed, was up to me. The colours in Winter Land Signals No.8 and Tuatuamoana 2 seemed similarly mysterious and liminal: somehow, they managed to be both sombre and bright. Bracey had applied his paint thickly, in rough, almost sensual brushstrokes, and even his dark greens seemed to emanate light.

It is difficult for me to describe Bracey's canvases in this way, because they appeared to me not as assemblages of forms and colours but as complete, perfect objects. In fact, Winter Land Signals and Tuatuamoana 2 seemed so complete and so devoid of superfluity that I had difficulty imagining a time when they did not exist. Like the landscape which they so elegantly depict, they seemed utterly incontrovertible.

There is no doubt that Ted Bracey loved the Waikato. In a tribute reproduced at the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery, he called the place 'generous on the one hand yet sheltered and intimate on the other', and compared residing there to 'living a long rich evening'. In a piece published in Art News last year, John Hurrell revealed that the Waikato reminded Bracey of the Hampshire Downs, where the artist had spent a happy childhood.

It was not hard for me to assent to Bracey's picture of the Waikato as a rural paradise. The evening after I saw Winter Land Signals No.8and Tuatuamoana 2 for the first time, I spent several hours helping Skyler's mother rid her garden of a number of massive palms. We dug the palms out of the cool, dark soil of her backyard, and threw their sharp-edged fronds and thick, rubbery trunks over her fence, into one of the deep volcanic gullies that course dryly through the outer suburbs of Hamilton. As the sun slowly set, a mist from the Waikato River spread over the fields and subdivisions on the far side of the gully, and blurred the view of Maungakawa, Maungatautari, and the Pukeatua Hills. The far-off hum of Hamilton's only motorway only added to the peaceful feel of the Saturday evening. My head was full of the gorgeous shades of green and enigmatic, obscurely welcoming shapes I had found on Ted Bracey's canvases. As I walked toward the edge of Skyler's parents' yard to retrieve a palm frond which had failed to fall all the way into the gully, I slipped in the semi-darkness, and felt the heel of my shoe scrape something just beneath the lawn. I looked down, squinted, and saw a pile of small, bone-white shells. A midden. A pile of coins, their faces worn smooth with age. A pile of rubbish, which might one day become a small treasure, if a Masters student ever got around to excavating this small corner of the Waikato's immense plain. I carefully laid the green skein of turf back over the shells, and hurried off to the safety of a well-lit living room.

My discovery had not been particularly remarkable - there are middens scattered all over the Waikato, and over most of the rest of North Island - but it did make me think again of Ted Bracey's canvases in the gallery down the road. Bracey found the Waikato idyllic, and drew comfort and sustenance from its landscape and light. How aware was he of the region's history? Did he know about the hundreds of years Tainui spent settling the area, fighting their way north from their base in Kawhia Harbour, defeating ragtag bands of maero, or wild men, planting stone mauri in the soil, to make it fertile, raising kainga and marae, and burying placenta close to the places where their children were born? Did Bracey know the names of great Tainui leaders like Hotunui and Te Whereowhero?

Did Bracey know about the Waikato Kingdom, which arose in the middle of the nineteenth century to meet the challenge of the white settlers in Auckland, New Plymouth and other outposts of imperialism? Was he aware that the people of the Kingdom adapted the tools of the white man to produce and mill wheat, and to grow vegetables on a massive scale? Did Bracey realise that the Waikato Kingdom was the breadbasket of Auckland and a major exporter to Australia, before the British invasion of 1863, and the series of battles which broke the back of the Kingdom's army and ended with the retreat of the Tainui people across the Puniu River at the bottom of the Waikato, into the rugged country of the central North Island?

Did Bracey care that the Waikato were punished for their 'rebellion' against the British Crown with the confiscation of most of their land? Did he know about the speculators and absentee landlords who bought up the confiscated land at bargain prices, then sold it on to struggling settlers who paid Maori a pittance to labour on fledgling dairy and sheep farms? Did Bracey suspect that the flat, symmetrical fields, hawthorn hedges, and oak groves he loved had taken the place of stands of massive kahikatea, deep swamps where millions of eels squirmed and swam, and vast kumara plantations surrounded by crooked stone walls and gravel pits? Was Bracey aware that the very Englishness of towns like Cambridge, with their white picket fences, picture postcard Anglican churches, and gridded streets named after Victorian generals, was intended to disguise the real history of the Waikato? How, I wondered, had I succumbed to Bracey's sentimental naturalisation of a wholly contrived environment? How could I have been so gullible? In an effort to answer these questions, I sneaked away from a family trip to the Sunday morning markets in central Hamilton, and once again confronted Tuatuamoana 2 and Winter Land Signal No.8. I brought my exercise book with me, because I intended to scribble some notes toward a critique of the colonialist art Ted Bracey had inflicted on the people of Hamilton. I would bring the man to account.

What I found in the gallery's deserted exhibition room astonished me. The canvases which had yesterday shown a rich, gentle, welcoming landscape now looked coarse and claustrophic. The dark, thick brushstrokes which ran so boldly across the canvases looked like stains and cuts; the blocks of light green which had seem so lush now reminded me of gangrenous flesh. Bracey's canvases were indictments of the misuse of the rohe of Tainui, indictments of overgrazed dairy paddocks eroding into the Waikato River, of gorse and scrub clogging ancient tributaries of the great river, of urupa being over-run by blackberries...
What had happened? Had some mischevious member of the gallery staff put new paintings in place of the ones that had wowed me only a day ago? Had I misunderstood Tuatuamoana 2 and Winter Land Signal No.8 a day ago? Did I understand them then, and horribly misunderstand them now? Was Ted Bracey’s Waikato an idyllic, unspoilt place or a complex landscape marked by a long and difficult history?

I was unable to answer these questions a month ago, and I am still unable to answer them today, after viewing Bracey's work on several new occasions. If I were pushed, I would say that I feel deeply ambivalent about Winter Land Signal No.8 and Tuatuamoana 2, and that this ambivalence reflects the way I have long felt about the landscape of the Waikato and other parts of New Zealand transformed by colonisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I did, after all, grow up on a dairy farm in the lower Waikato region, surrounded by hawthorn hedges and groves of oak and other British trees, playing cowboys and Indians in flat symmetrical paddocks laid out over secret middens. Even if I had grown up at the other end of the Great South Road, in one of Auckland’s inner city suburbs, my head would have been filled with the imagery of New Zealand’s rural heartland, thanks to the cult of the farm which is still so ubiquitous in the media and popular culture of what is, in demographic terms, a very urban country. I can neither reject nor unambiguously celebrate a landscape which has so deeply embedded itself in my life. The Garage Collective will no doubt denounce me as hopelessly bourgeois, but I will keep arguing with Ted Bracey. Note: the first painting reproduced in this post is Tuatuamoana 2; the second is a Bracey canvas from 1967 called North Island Synthesis Number 10. And no, I don't understand how the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery's photographer got such a nasty 'flash' effect on both canvases...

'Leigh Davis is the exception to the rule'

Christchurch-based poet Ross Brighton has made a belated but vociferous contribution to the debate about postmodernism, capitalism, and Kendrick Smithyman (his comment is the last in the thread).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Morris major

Snowball, who runs the excellent Adventures in Historical Materialism blog, has pointed his readers in the direction of the text of my recent guest lecture on EP Thompson, and reproduced part of it. In the comments under Snowball's post someone with the brilliant name Grim and Dim has quibbled with my characterisation of Thompson's massive 1955 biography of William Morris:

Thompson's Morris is a very fine book and should be read. However, two small reservations.

Thompson's earliest essay on Morris is in the symposium published by Arena on defending British culture under the editorship of Sam Aaronovitch in 1952. Thompson's account here very much fits into the CPGB line of defending British culture against Americans and other nasty foreigners.

The 1970s version [of the Morris biography] is not a "reprint" but a new edition which omits some of the most Stalinist formulations from the 1955 edition, but also accommmodates to the Popular Front line Thompson was pursuing in the nuclear disarmament movement.

Grim and Dim is quite right to note the important changes that William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary underwent before it was reissued in 1977. By the mid-'70s Thompson’s biography of Morris had become an accepted classic, helping revive scholarly interest in its subject. When Thompson was invited by Merlin Press to prepare a second edition of the book he chose to cut more than a hundred pages from the original, and add a long, closely argued postscript in which he refined his interpretation of Morris. Looking back on his first edition, Thompson decided that his desire to counter right-wingers who downplayed Morris’ politics had led him to assert too easily the ‘equivalence’ of ‘Morrisism and Marxism’.

In ‘Postscript: 1976’ Thompson argues that Morris did not leave Romanticism behind when he became a socialist, but instead fused that tradition with Marxism:

...the moral critique of capitalist process was pressing forward to conclusions consonant with Marx's critique, and it was Morris's particular genius to think through this transformation, effect its juncture, and seal it with action.

Morris was, then, a major thinker, worthy of more than a footnote in histories of nineteenth century culture. Morris' daring and original fusion of Marxism and Romanticism was rejected by most Marxists, and this rejection has had grave consequences:

As tendencies [within Marxism] towards determinism and positivism grew, so the tradition suffered a general theoretical closure, and the possibility of a juncture between traditions which Morris offered was denied. I should not need, in 1976, to labour the point that the ensuing lack of moral self-consciousness (and even vocabulary) led the major Marxist tradition into something worse than confusion.

Thompson believes that the ‘scientific’ utopianism of Morris’ late writing, and in particular his novel News from Nowhere, which depicted a post-revolutionary society in the then-distant future of 1952, could have been an important asset for Marxists. In Thompson’s view, the free play of the imagination that Morris practiced and demanded fills a gap in ordinary, overly rational Marxist thought, and helps prevent socialists succumbing to the siren calls of utilitarianism and economism. For Thompson, News from Nowhere is not a piece of whimsy but a sort of grand, poetic thought experiment that ‘educates desire’ and discloses ‘new values’ that can guide the movement for socialism. Ruth Kinna takes the same view in William Morris: the Art of Socialism, a book heavily influenced by Thompson:

News from Nowhere was neither intended as a model for socialism nor as an idealised picture of the historical process: it was designed to stimulate the imagination.

Thompson's reconsideration of Morris is tied up with the development of his ideas about poetry. In an obscure but important text written two years after ‘Postscript: 1976’ Thompson offers a detailed aacount of his evolving poetics. ‘Commitment and Poetry’ was written for a forum in Stand, a little literary magazine edited by the left-wing Jewish poet Jon Silkin. In 1977 and 1978 Silkin had quarreled with the politically conservative proprietors of the rival Poetry Nation Review, or PNR as it was and is more commonly known, about the relevance of politics to literary judgment. After some heated exchanges with PNR luminaries Donald Davie, CH Sisson, and Michael Schmidt, Silkin sought to broaden the debate he had begun by inviting a number of writers not connected closely with either publication to give their views on the following questions:

Is a writer the deterministic product of his environment, or, on the contrary, is he capable of deploying a (relatively) new consciousness upon his immediate society? If such a deployment is possible, does it have any effect? And if so, how is the effect manifested?

In ‘Postscript: 1976’ Thompson had seen the imaginative, utopian quality of William Morris’ best work as a corrective to the disastrous tendency of both the social democratic and Leninist lefts towards ‘positivism and utilitarianism’. In ‘Commitment and Poetry’ he imagines that poetry might be able, at least in theory, to perform a similar function. The sort of ‘committed’ poetry Thompson would like to see would not tow this or that party line, nor reject political engagement altogether, but rather situate itself ‘adjacent to public and social life’ and make itself ’a path-finder for culture’ able to ‘state relevant values’ that are ‘stubborn and palpable’. Like Morris' utopian novels, a poem could be a sort of thought experiment. Thompson believes that the failure of poets to find such values has serious consequences:

If we had better poetry we might have less bad sociology and less empty and mendacious politics. People with cleansed perception would no longer tolerate…offences against language…[and] trivialisations of values…

Thompson does not cite precedents for his argument, but the poetics of ‘Poetry and Commitment’ is surely influenced by the cultural and literary critique of English society developed by the Romantics and extended by William Morris and others. As Raymond Williams pointed out in his classic study Culture and Society, this tradition frequently charges writers and artists with the task of forging and promulgating not only cultural but political alternatives to the status quo it criticises. Shelley was in earnest when he called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. When he fused the Romantic tradition with Marxism, Morris did not forget the lofty conception of the poet and artist beloved of Shelley and other Romantic luminaries like Blake. First published by instalment in the left-wing journal The Commonweal, News from Nowhere is both a literary and an urgently political work. When he wrote his most famous line, Shelley was not imagining some sort of caste of poet-kings performing the function Plato had once imagined for philosopher-kings. He believed that poets could and should influence politics in a deeper and more subtle sense, by forging and expressing new values worthy of a new world. (Unfortunately, Shelley was as vague as Thompson would be when it came to explaining what these new values were, and how they would be turned into political action.)

‘Poetry and Commitment’ has no truck with those who would judge a poet’s political import by the political stances expressed in his or her work. Thompson uses Yeats as an example of a poet with ‘pitifully bad’ political ‘opinions’ who nonetheless wrote poetry marked by a ‘compassion’ that can never be considered reactionary. In Thompson’s view, there was a disjunction between the opinions Yeats ‘tried on’ and ‘the values that impelled his choice’.

By making a distinction between immediate political ‘opinions’, on the one hand, and ‘values’ that are anterior to these opinions, on the other, Thompson is able to insist upon the relevance of politics to poetry without succumbing to the didactic ‘socialist realism’ he had learned to hate in the Communist Party.

I don't think that the changes that Thompson's study of Morris underwent in the seventies vitiate the point my lecture made about the unconventionality of the original 1955 version of the book. The fact is that in the late '40s and early '50s Thompson did feel besieged by both the culture bureaucrats in the Communist Party, who insisted that the arts should be mere expressions of the party line, and the determinedly 'Natopolitan' intellectuals gathering around journals like Encounter and presses like Faber and Faber.

Thompson's adventures in the Morris archives were, in one sense, a response to the political impasse of the early Cold War, an attempt to find space to think in the past and in the work of a great precursor. The Morris biography was at once a flight from reality and the presentation of an alternative vision of reality. In this sense, it had some of the same qualities as Morris' utopian fictions. In his 1976 postscript to the book and in 'Poetry and Commitment', Thompson develops rather than revises the ideas in his 1955 text.

Grim and Dim refers to Thompson's 1952 text 'The Murder of William Morris' for the Communist Party magazine Arena, and suggests that there is a yawning gap between this text and the 1977 edition of the Morris biography. We have to be careful when we interpret the 1952 text, because it is the summary of a talk which Thompson gave at a Communist Party day school on culture. We do not know whether Thompson himself prepared the summary, but we do know that Thompson often complained that the Communist Party's publications doctored the texts he gave them by editing them heavily.

Even if we set aside these caveats, it is by no means clear that 'The Murder of William Morris' endorses the Cold War Communist Party's line on culture. The anti-Americanism and British cultural nationalism which are part and parcel of the text have their origins in the Popular Front policy which the party adopted in the middle of the thirties. Desperate to win intellectuals to its ranks, the party had promoted itself as the guardian of the best achievements of British culture against the philistinism of the local political establishment and the fascism that menaced culture on the European continent. From the mid-'30s until the aftermath of World War Two, the Communist Party had a generally relaxed attitude to artistic and literary matters, an attitude which was reflected in the eclectic and successful journal Our Time, which was edited by Edgell Rickword, a modernist poet and critic who had made a name for himself as the editor of the influential Calendar of Modern Letters and as author of the first English-language book about Arthur Rimbaud.

As the Cold War began, though, the party's leaders began to insist that all forms of art were straightforward expressions of the class struggle, and that a firm line must be drawn between party artists and 'bourgeois' artists. The new policy was named Zhdanovism, in honour of Stalin's sometime commissar for culture Andrei Zhdanov; Thompson has described its effects in his party:

In retrospect it can be seen that the shadows of the Cold War were closing in, the radical ‘populist’ euphoria of 1944 was collapsing…That time produced one of the sharpest mental frosts I can remember on the Left. Vitalities shrivelled up and books lost their leaves…the stream of ’apostates’ was so full that all of us were apt to recoil, willfully and unthinkingly, from the brink of any heresy for fear of toppling into the flood.

And we had become habituated to the formal rituals of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ - in origin an admirable democratic process, but one which had become perverted into a ritual in which the criticism came always from the Party’s senior spokesmen on cultural matters…and the self-criticism was intoned by congregated intellectuals in response.

At the end of the war Our Time was selling 18,000 copies an issue, but demobilisation of the armed forces and the beginning of the Cold War made its blend of short stories, poems, and left-wing opinion pieces less viable. By the middle of 1947 sales had halved. Emile Burns, the Communist Party’s geriatric commissar for culture, presided over a meeting where Rickword and his co-editor Randall Swingler were ritually denounced; in response, the two old hands resigned their positions. Thompson was a supporter of the purge of Edgell Rickword from Our Time, but his involvement in the affair seems to have been the product of his ill-considered opposition to modernism, rather than his support for socialist realism. In a 1979 tribute to Rickword, Thompson remembered the gathering that destroyed Our Time, and apologised for his part in it:

I attended a disgraceful meeting, at which Emile Burns scolded Rickword and Swingler for their political, cultural, and financial sins and omissions…It was a shameful episode and I shared in the shame, for, however ‘youthful’ I was, I had allowed myself to be made use of as part of the team of uncultured yobbos and musclemen under the command of the elderly Burns. Thompson seems to have learnt his lesson well before 1979. The year after the Our Time meeting, Jack Lindsay was attacked at a party conference on culture for his unorthodox views on art and his advocacy of Marx’s 1844 manuscripts. Lindsay remembers that Thompson, who had arrived at the conference ‘travel-worn, having just returned from Yugoslavia’, was his sole supporter.

Whatever their merits, then, the anti-Americanism and British cultural nationalism which are features of 'The Murder of William Morris' are more likely to be the products of the Popular Front politics he learned in the '30s and '40s than of the Zhdanovism that Thompson despised.