Saturday, March 17, 2012

Excalibur Downunder

Last year I mentioned Gregor McLennan's claim that Blairism is not so much a coherent set of beliefs as a 'vehicular ideology', made up of callow concepts and improvised slogans which are abandoned as soon as they have served some brief rhetorical purpose.

David Shearer's first major speech as leader of the Labour Party marked him as a vehicular ideologist par excellence. Moving relentlessly from soundbite to soundbite, Shearer showed a thoroughly Blairite contempt for linear argument and empirical proof.

The Dim Post blog has been hosting a less-than-earnest discussion of the following sentences, which constitute perhaps the strangest piece of rhetorical debris in Shearer's speech:

A vision is a marvellous thing, but it’s a bit like Excalibur. You have to know what you’re doing with it.

Excalibur, of course, is the magical sword wielded by the once-and-future King Arthur in the set of legends which were created in the confusion of pre-Norman Britain, and which today continue to inspire painters, writers, and dodgy auteurs around the world. In the early written versions of the the legend Arthur is gifted Excalibur by a mysterious character known as the Lady of the Lake, but since at least the nineteenth century storytellers have often depicted him drawing the sword from a stone. Shearer's use of Arthurian imagery may seem eccentric, but there have been earlier local incarnations of the Excalibur myth.

As every cricket fan who grew up in the 1980s knows, Lance Cairns’ bat bore the name of Arthur’s weapon. Cairns was a barrel-chested swing bowler who batted at number nine in the Kiwi order and liked to play short explosive innings. After Cairns' sword of willow smote an Australian pace attack led by Dennis Lillee for six sixes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground at the end of the 1982/83 season, the Mad Butcher arranged for it to be displayed in the window of one of his South Auckland stores. I have a vague memory of standing on tiptoes and squinting through glass smudged by the breath of a crowd at the sacred relic lying between strips of sirloin steak and piles of sausages. Excalibur was, I noticed, thinner than most cricket blades. With its shaven shoulders, it certainly looked more like a sword than the Grey Nichols bats used by many other members of the Kiwi cricket team.

Towards the end of Redemption Songs, her massive and magnificent biography of the nineteenth century prophet, writer, hermeneuticist, and guerrilla warrior Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, Judith Binney discusses another, rather more profound local adaption of the Excalibur story.

Binney describes how, after finally being pardoned by the Pakeha government which had pursued him through the forests and mountains of Te Ika a Maui for four years and then isolated him for another decade or so, the elderly Te Kooti decided to attempt a visit to his hometown of Turanga/Gisborne. The prophet had renounced violence and dedicated himself to spreading the gospel of his Ringatu church, but Gisbornians were nevertheless nervous about the prospect of his return to their town. The last time the prophet had visited, on November the 10th, 1868, he and his disciples had executed fifty-four locals. The raid was intended as revenge for Te Kooti's imprisonment without trial on the Chathams and the theft of some land he co-owned, but most of its victims had nothing to do with these injustices.

Twenty-one years later, Te Kooti had not been forgiven. While the prophet rode towards Turanga with scores of his followers, stopping along the way at favourite taverns, the citizens of what was now a majority Pakeha town improvised a militia, and trotted off to confront him. Te Kooti was prevented from entering central Gisborne, but before his arrest he did make it as far as Makaraka, near the southwest edge of the town, where roads heading south into the Hawkes Bay and east into the Poverty Bay hill country intersect.

According to a Ringatu story which Binney relates, as Te Kooti stood at the Makaraka crossroads his walking stick suddenly began to sink into the ground. It disappeared, and continued to fall until it lay some distance from the surface of the earth. As he observed this event, which was only the latest in a lengthy series of supernatural interventions in his life, Te Kooti is supposed to have said something like “There will be peace in New Zealand as long as my sword remains in the earth”.

The most famous claimant to Te Kooti's prophetic mantle offered up his own adaption of the Excalibur story. When he announced in 1905 that he was the new prophet the dying Te Kooti had predicted, Rua Kenana claimed that he had climbed Maungapohatu, the sacred mountain in the heart of the rohe of Tuhoe, and found on its peak a huge diamond. Rua added that he had successfully removed this rock from the mountaintop, then returned it safely to its resting place. He argued that by drawing the diamond from the mountain he had proved himself the the successor to Te Kooti.

The Arthurian myths became very popular in nineteenth century Britain, because they seemed to endow the country's rapidly expanding empire with a deep history and a certain gravitas. It is not surprising that Te Kooti and his followers would appropriate an element of Arthurian romance to suit their needs, in the same way that they had appropriated and reinterpreted the Bible, and especially the mythology of the Old Testament.

We can't, sadly, expect the same sort of systematic assimilation of ideas and symbols from David Shearer: like all good exponents of vehicular ideology, he flourishes a slogan or an image only to abandon it in haste.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lance Cairns was deaf in one ear.

11:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In days of old, when knights were bold,

and lavatories weren’t invented;

People laid their loads, beside the roads,

and went away contented.

9:57 am  
Blogger Joel Cosgrove said...

Hey Scott.
Joel from the Workers Party here. We're holding our conference in June and we wanted to invite you to speak at it. I sent an email to your Marxmail email, but just to be sure, thought I'd drop a note here.


2:35 pm  

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