Friday, September 28, 2012

What Dangerous Davies could teach Chris Trotter

I spent some of the coldest evenings of our Auckland winter under a duvet on the couch, watching The Last Detective, a British drama starring Peter Davison, the man who had the honour of being Doctor Who for a few years back in the eighties.

In The Last Detective, which ran for three series in the mid-noughties, Davison plays a well-mannered, well-meaning, well-read North London copper. Where many of his colleagues rely on computer databases to do their work, the man sarcastically nicknamed Dangerous Davies prefers more old-fashioned research methods. He reads yellowed newspapers, conducts interviews so lengthy and friendly that they might impress an oral historian, and isn't afraid to make the odd guess. Davies is assisted unofficially by his friend Mod, a working class autodidact played by the Irish comedian Sean Hughes. Mod spends much of his time in libraries, partly because they are warmer than his flat, and is forever supplying Davies with curious historical and literary anecdotes that may or may not be related to his investigations.

It is hard not to contrast Dangerous Davies and Mod with most of the crimefighters who turn up on television screens in the twenty-first century. Many telly shows treat crimefighting as a strict science. They show us crime scenes and bodies being analysed minutely by super-intelligent scientists, whose deductions lead them to villains. Even crime dramas that feature old-fashioned street detectives tend to give those cops extraordinary powers. In Unforgettable, a series that premiered on New Zealand screens this year, Poppy Montgomery plays Carrie Wells, a detective who can remember almost everything that happens to her. Wells dips into her memory files to solve crime after crime.

Unforgettable reminded me of Limitless, a 2011 film in which Bradley Cooper played a young man who took a drug which made his memory perfect. With access to billions of new pieces of information, Cooper was able to outwit both crooked financiers and Russian gangsters.
The Last Detective and Limitless might be intended as light entertainments, but they are worth taking seriously, because they symbolise two opposed views about how the human mind works.

Back in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer made a distinction between judgement-based thinking and calculative thinking. Calculative thinking, which Gadamer associated with physics, sought to move ineluctably, by a series of deductions, from a body of evidence to a watertight conclusion about that evidence. Judgement-based thinking was looser and more improvisational, and relied on the use of a set of values - moral, political, aesthetic - to interpret evidence.

Gadamer was not completely opposed to calculative thinking, but he warned that it had severe limitations. The sort of precision that a physicist might achieve was not, he insisted, either possible or desirable in a field like biology or geology, let alone history or psychology or jurisprudence.

Gadamer criticised the tendency of some psychologists and philosophers to regard the human brain as a sort of computer. Computers are very good at storing and delivering information and at calculating, but they cannot make judgements.

Dangerous Davies is adept at the sort of judgement-based thinking which enthused Gadamer. He solves crimes with guesses, but his guesses are informed by his deep knowledge of the area where he works, his nagging sense of morality, and the haphazardly brilliant research of his friend Mod.

If The Last Detective is a celebration of judgement-based thinking, then a film like Limitless venerates calculative thinking. Under the influence of his drug, the hero of the film becomes a sort of supercomputer. The vast amounts of information he can suddenly access lead him swiftly and efficiently to precise and wholly correct conclusions. As he outmanoeuvres criminals and plays the stock exchange, he turns psychology, sociology and economics into precise sciences.

Limitless and Unforgettable might be entertaining, but they present us with a fundamentally false picture of the way that the mind works. They suggest that information equals intelligence, and that the more information we have the easier we will find it to understand the world. But information is only useful if we can interpret and evaluate it, and to do this well we need what Gadamer called a 'horizon', and what some psychologists call a schema - a view of the world informed by the sort values we develop through experience, reading, and reflection.

In recent years scientists have been fascinated by the story of a British woman who can remember all her experiences since the age of fourteen in perfect detail. Jill Price describes her condition as a 'curse', which has 'paralysed' her. She feels overwhelmed rather than liberated by her mind's vast memory file. In the real world, the hero of Limitless and the heroine of Unforgettable would likely feel the same way.

In the twenty-first century the calculative model of thinking and the notion that the brain is essentially a computer have become hegemonic amongst politicians, the media, and the general public. The popularity of National Standards in schools reflects this hegemony. National Standards assumes that children's minds are like computers, and that the role of teachers is to fill them with information. The more facts and figures children hold, the smarter they will be. The necessity of developing the sort of sophisticated mental 'horizon' that can help us interpret information sensitively is forgotten.

Our obsession with information and calculation is changing the way we think about intellectuals, as well as about schools.

The term 'intellectual' was first used early in the twentieth century in France, to describe the coalition of writers, teachers, and journalists which campaigned against the anti-Semitic persecution of Alfred Dreyfus. Like the Frenchmen and women who spoke in defence of Dreyfus, intellectuals in other countries quickly became identified with social engagement and public debate. They used their knowledge and their analytic skills to participate in debate with one another and with the rest of society.

The rise of the intellectual in the early twentieth century was associated with the democratisation of public discourse. Great twentieth century intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell and EP Thompson spent as much time with trade unionists as academics. Their writings often reached huge audiences.

Although some intellectuals were academics or full-time men of letters, others were blue collar workers who had a passion for ideas and discussion. Richard Taylor and Len Richards have described the way that the Otahuhu Railway Workshops became, in the sixties and seventies, the 'working class university of New Zealand', as mechanics and sparkies formed study groups and held constant debates about social and political issues.

In the twenty-first century we increasingly associate intellectualism not with participation in public debate, but with a few superintelligent individuals with brains like vast computers. Today the world's most famous 'intellectual' is Stephen Hawking, a freakish, forbidding figure who works in an esoteric corner of science and has little or no interest in the sort of ethical and political issues which stirred Sartre and Thompson. For most of us, debating Hawking would be as unthinkable as racing Usain Bolt.

A recent column by Chris Trotter illustrates how pervasive the new model of the intellectual has become. Trotter claimed that his fellow Kiwis 'don't put a lot of stock in intellectualism', and complained about the lack of respect given to men like Professor Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister's scientific advisor.

Peter Gluckman is a pediatrician who has published many papers about prenatal development. He won the Rutherford Prize for outstanding scientific research in 2001, and is highly regarded by his peers overseas.

In a recent guest lecture at Otago University called 'Setting Priorities for Science', Gluckman claimed that "emotion" and "politics" too often find their way into intellectual debate, and insisted that "Good science should be values-free". Using "fact" and avoiding both "opinions" and "polemic", scientists should provide society with the "knowledge upon which values are appropriately overlaid". Gluckman used the debate about genetically-modified food in the early noughties as an example of how politics can become illegitimately mixed up with science.

Gluckman's words are a very clear expression of the delusions of calculative thinking. He believes that it is possible to separate facts and opinions, information and interpretation. Ignoring hundreds of years of philosophy, Gluckman promotes the illusion that learning is about accumulating masses of 'objective' information which will eventually suggest its own logical and inevitable interpretation.

Gluckman used part of his lecture to complain about 'anti-intellectualism' in this country. But his complaint does not come from a nostalgia for the study groups of the Otahuhu Railway Workshops. As far as Gluckman is concerned, intellectual discourse should be the preserve of a scientific elite which knows how to steer clear of 'politics', polemic', and 'emotion'. Gluckman thinks that Kiwis are anti-intellectual because they are too keen on interfering in the debates of scientists.

Chris Trotter has written often and eloquently about the impact of neo-liberal capitalism on New Zealand. In column after column and blog post after blog post, he has shown how neo-liberal policies like the privatisation of state assets, anti-union legislation and attacks on the welfare state are an affront to democracy, because they give a few men and women in suits - corporate executives, and the bosses of commercialised state bureaucracies - an obscene power over other Kiwis.

But Chris apparently can't see that Peter Gluckman is the intellectual equivalent of the corporate executives he has criticised so often. Like his counterparts in the boardroom, Gluckman considers himself a member of an elite which is entitled to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the community. And Gluckman's intellectual jutsification for his elite status is just as unconvincing as the rhetoric of the neo-liberal suits. The invisible hand of the free market and values-free science are both ideological fantasies designed to protect vested interests.

If Chris wants to see a healthy model of intellectual inquiry, he should stop reading Peter Gluckman's speeches and take a look at The Last Detective.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A mystery on the motorway

[click to expand the photo and view the mystery]

Although most Kiwis shun the charms of poetry, they nevertheless find ways to delight in the ambiguity and complexity of language. Baby naming, for instance, has become an unofficial literary genre in this country, with couples consulting historical dictionaries of names, arguing about the aesthetics of one name versus another, and nervously checking their choices against those of other members of their postnatal coffee groups.

Personalised number plates also offer Kiwis who might never buy a book of poetry an opportunity to play with language. Like the haiku, the personalised plate is a form which imposes severe constraints on a poet. With only a few characters to play with, the poet must cram as much meaning as possible into his or her plate, without sacrificing precision and wit. Sadly, bad, boring plates are as common as bad, boring haiku. Do the owners of ITHELP or EZMONEY or IM BILL really expect us to impressed with their work?

Sometimes a number plate gains its effect from the vehicle it adorns. I remember seeing, a few years ago, a Ford Escort, or some similar mode of car, with a souped up engine and, I think, purple lights, decorated by a plate that said UTERUS. I thought that the owner of the car must have been striving for a poetic juxtaposition of feminine language and masculine imagery. Perhaps, though, he was just a seventeen year old boy racer sharing a car with his gynaecologist Mum.

A reader of this blog sent me this account of her sighting of a mysterious personalised number plate on one of Auckland's motorways:

 The other day B spotted this car on the motorway ahead of us...B is normally a sedate driver (one of my friends lovingly calls him 'Grandma driver') but once he spotted this car he was like a bull to a red rag. Suddenly he sped up and started to drive our ancient ford laser like it was a rally car. The poor old ford was darting in and out of traffic as B was trying to catch up to the red car, I've never seen him drive like that before! 

I wondered what an earth was going on as B was saying "noooooo.....must be a terrible mistake!.....who would.....what the F#*%!" Then I spotted what he was looking at, the registration plate of the car read 'JEWE DI'. Of course for B this was personal after all he is descended from a long line of Rabbis. Finally we reached the harbour bridge and B swung a poor straining ford around a bus and pulled along side the 'red rag' car. "I just have to see who is driving that car" he said. 

The driver was a middle aged woman but we didn't get a good look at her as she changed lanes and out of clear sight. We carried on driving to our destination, Brett shaking his head and muttering under his breath "must have been a typo...surely?!" I pointed out to him that perhaps it was and that the middle aged woman wasn't against Jews but in fact had something against Hamish Dewe and that the plate read: DEWE DI. We would love to know what was behind the choice of plate number...was it a brash anti-semite statement? a anti-Hamish statement?...what do you think? 

Personalised plates are vetted by the Ministry of Transport, and I think it's safe to say that a phrase as offensive as JEW DI wouldn't be allowed onto the roads. DEWE DI may not be obviously offensive, but it is certainly obscure, to me as well as to my correspondent. A quick search of translation sites doesn't turn up a match for the phrase in any of the word's hundred or so largest languages, though 'di' is apparently a preposition in Italian and several other tongues.
Another search informs me that Dewe is the name of a small district in the part of Ethiopia where many Afar people live. The Afars are spread across parts of Somalia and Djibouti as well as Ethiopia, and speak their own language, which is not closely related to the Semitic Amharic tongue used by Ethiopia's traditional elite. I found an Afar dictionary online, but a search with the phrase DEWE DI drew no blood.

Here's a desperate and rather silly suggestion: given that 'di' can mean 'of' in Italian, and given the fact that Italy colonised Somalia and, for a few years, Ethiopia, and perhaps left some of its language behind in those places, is it possible that the plate belongs to an Afar person who wants us to know that he or she comes, originally, from the Dewe district of Ethiopia?

The alternative, of course, is that someone is thinking evilly about my old mate Hamish Dewe. I know Hamish can be a very tough book reviewer, but wishing him dead seems a little over the top.

Footnote: Skyler comments "Trust you to arrive at such a convoluted explanation. My bet is that there's someone out there named Diana Dewe." Why didn't I think of that?

Footnote (2): if the plate is really supposed to say JEWE DI, could it be quoting this Yoruba-language song?

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A top ten for Jack

A few years ago Jack Ross provoked some interesting debates by naming his twenty favourite twentieth century novels and his favourite long poems from the same century. Now, goaded by one of his mates at Massey University's Albany branch, Jack has made a list of his ten favourite short(ish) poems, and urged both his students and the readers of his blog to do the same. Jack wants us to fill our lists with poems that we really like, as opposed to be poems that textbooks and literary fashions tell us we should like.

I answered Jack's earlier lists with my own, and I was keen to take up his new challenge. It's proved very hard, though, to come up with a list of only ten favourite poems. I made an initial list of about thirty pieces, and then began culling it, getting steadily more guilty as one fine poem after another bit the dust.
Here is my provisional top ten: leave your own in the comments box.

'In Ostrobothnia', by Gosta Agren (c. 1980s)

A Marxist and a regionalist, Agren has spent his life championing the workers and writers of Ostrobothnia, a slice of east Finland whose people speak a rustic dialect of Swedish and frequently feel forgotten by their compatriots in the big southern cities of Helsinki and Turku. His poems tend to be short, and to mix up abstract, almost philosophical language with coldly sensuous images of the northern Finnish landscape. This poem was translated by Roger McDuff.

In Ostrobothnia

Here each town is a
footnote to the forest's
melancholy mass of text,
here the horizon bares
its teeth. Here freedom shrinks
to restlessness. Here necessity grows
into tranquility. One travels away
in an attempt to prevent
what must happen. One stays
here, and as the years go by
life grows simplified until
there are left only earth
and sky.

'How to Kill', Keith Douglas (1943)

One of my dearest ambitions is to put the two greatest British poets to die in the Second World War, Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, into print in New Zealand. As I said last Anzac Day, if Keith Douglas were widely read in New Zealand then this country would not have such a wretchedly hypocritical attitude towards war. We send warriors abroad pretending they are 'peacekeepers' on nebulous 'humanitarian' missions; in poems like 'How to Kill', Douglas reminds us what warriors really do.

How to Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

'The Moon', by Gunnar Ekelof (c. 1932)

I blogged about this poem back in 2007, admitting that it had obsessed me since I first read it as a young man. Gunnar Ekelof's father was a pillar of Stockholm's business and political establishments, until he fell ill with syphilis and went mad. Young Gunnar took off to Paris with his share of the family fortune, and quickly lost his dosh at gambling tables and in taverns. He bought a revolver and thought about ending his life, but was saved by his love of 'poetes maudits' like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. He settled in the Swedish countryside and decided to revolutionise his homeland's culture by writing poems that combined Rimbaudian hallucination with Dadaist satire. In his later years Ekelof became preoccupied with mysticism, and took to claiming that his poems were written by the spirits of various long-dead magicians and princes.

'The Moon' is one of Ekelof's calmer, clearer poems, but that didn't stop readers of this blog differing about its meaning in the comments thread underneath my 2007 post. I still think that the protagonist of the poem is meant to represent the sort of man or woman who suddenly feels mysteriously estranged from his or her peers, and who feels called upon to make a journey that is both isolating and exihilarating. 'The Moon' was translated by Robert Bly.

The Moon

The moon passes her hand softly over my eyes,
Wakes me long into the night. Lonesome among the sleepers,
I lay wood on the fire, fuss about with smoking sticks,
Move quietly among the shadows, shadows flapping high
Above the brown logs, richly
Decorated with glistening fish-lures...

Why did I wake? Lonesome among the sleepers,

Backs turned to the fire, I open the door quietly,
Walk around the corner in the snow, tramp on the clumps, see
Moonlight coldly calling me over the snow...

'Blood in the Kava Bowl', Epeli Hau'ofa (c. 1980)

Epeli Hau'ofa was an anthropologist, social theorist and satirical novelist and short story writer as well as a poet. In this poem, which I discovered a couple of years ago along with the magnificent essay 'Our Sea of Islands', Tongan tradition, with its incorrigible hierarchies and elegantly sclerotic rituals, battles it out with the full-blooded Marxism that Hau'ofa encountered during his years teaching at the University of the South Pacific. Hau'ofa takes the side of faka Tonga, yet is not as comfortable and confident as some of his rhetoric would suggest. According to his fellow Tongan intellectual 'Okusitino Mahina, Hau'ofa was for some time an advocate of the Marxist analysis of Pacific societies, but in his last years developed a much more reverent attitude toward Tongan traditional authority.

Blood in the Kava Bowl

In the twilight we sit

drinking kava from the bowl between us. 
Who we are we know and need not say
for the soul we share came from Vaihi.
Across the bowl we nod our understanding of the line
that is also our cord brought by Tangaloa from above,
and the professor does not know. 
He sees the line but not the cord
for he drinks the kava not tasting its blood.
And the kava has risen, my friend,
drink, and smile the grace of our fathers
at him who says we are oppressed
by you, by me, but it's twilight in Vaihi
and his vision is clouded. 

The kava has risen again, dear friend,

take this cup...
Ah, yes, that matter of oppression -
from Vaihi it begot in us unspoken knowledge
for our soul and our bondage. 
You and I hold the love of that inner mountain
shrouded in mist and spouting ashes spread
by the winds from Ono-i-Lau,
Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, shaping
those slender kahokaho kaumeile
we offer in first-fruits to our Hau.
And the kava trees of Tonga grow well,
our foreheads on the royal toes!
The Hau is healthy,
our land's in fine, fat shape for another season.

The professor still talks

of oppression that we both know,
yet he tastes not the blood in the kava
mixed with dry waters that rose to Tangaloa
who gave us the cup from which we drink
the soul and the tears of our land.
Nor has he heard of our brothers who slayed Takalaua
and fled to Niue, Manono and Futuna
to be caught in Uvea by the tyrant's son
and brought home under the aegis of the priest of Maui
to decorate the royal congregation and to chew for the king
the kava mixed with blood from their mouths,
the mouths of all oppressed Tongans,
in expiation to Hikule'o the inner mountain
with an echo others cannot hear.

And the mountain spouts ancestral ashes 

spread by the winds from Ono-iLau, Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, raising fine yams,
symbols of our manhood, of the strength of our nation,
in first-fruits we offer to our Hau.
The mountain also crushes our people,
their blood flowing into the royal ring
for the health of the Victor and of Tonga;
the red waters from the warm springs of Pulotu
only you and I can taste, and live
in ancient understanding begat by Maui in Vaihi.

The kava has risen, my brother,

drink this cup of the soul and sweat of our people,
and pass me three more mushrooms which grew on Mururoa
on the shit of the cows Captain Cook brought
from the Kings of England and France!

'No. 92', by Osip Mandelstam (1917)

Late in the revolutionary year of 1917 Osip Mandelstam decided to exchange freezing St Petersburg, where food was scarce and streetfighting endemic, for the warmth and relative safety of the Crimean peninsula. He ended up living for a few weeks on a vineyard which had been occupied by a group of hungry writers and artists. Mandelstam was obsessed with ancient Greece, and he associated the warm waters of the Black Sea and ancient port towns of the Crimea with the world of Odysseus and Jason's Argonauts. This poem contrasts the tranquility of Mandelstam's temporary home, with its huge white rooms and acres of grapes, with the drama of revolutionary Russia and ancient Greece. Does Odysseus return at the end of the poem as a saviour or an avenger?

This text comes from the famous book of Mandelstam translations made by Clarence Brown, who had spent decades studying Osip, and WS Merwin, an American poet who didn't know more than a few words of Russian, but knew how to get inspired.

No. 92

The thread of gold cordial flowed from the bottle
with such languor that the hostess found time to say
here in mournful Tauris where our fates have cast us
we are never bored - with a glance over her shoulder.

On all hands the rites of Bacchus, as though the whole world
held only guards and dogs. As you go you see no one.
And the placid days roll past like heavy barrels. Far off
in the ancient rooms there are voices. Can't make them out. Can't answer.

After tea we went out into the great brown garden.
Dark binds are dropped like eyelashes on the windows.
We move along the white columns looking at grapes. Beyond them
airy glass has been poured over the drowsing mountains.

I said the vines live on like an antique battle,
with gnarled cavalry tangling in curving waves.
Here in stone-starred Tauris is an art of Hellas: here, rusted,
are the noble ranks of the golden acres.

Meanwhile silence stands in the white room like a spinning wheel,
smelling of vinegar, paint, wine cool from the cellar.
Do you remember in the Greek house the wife they all loved?
Not Helen. The other. And how long she embroidered?

Golden fleece, where are you then, golden fleece?
All the way the heaved weight of the sea rumbled.
Leaving his boat and its sea-wearied sails,
Odysseus returned, filled with space and time.

'The Fossil Fish', by Christopher Middleton (c. 1979)

Christopher Middleton's poetry is a strange mix of postmodern avant-gardism and old-fashioned, hopelessly English absurdity. 'The Fossil Fish' was one of a series of 'micro-poems' which Middleton published as a chapbook at the end of the '70s, and republished in his relentlessly unpredictable Selected Writings in 1989. I like to shout out the lines of this poem at parties, after having one drink too many.

The Fossil Fish

the fossil fish
hides in time
for now it is the season

& all the hunters come
with long clean rifles

'Idyll', by Kendrick Smithyman (1974)

'Idyll' is one of the first Smithyman poems I read, and it remains my sentimental favourite. The poem was written after a camping trip Smithyman took with his wife and fellow writer Mary Stanley in the Bay of Plenty. Stanley's chronic arthritis meant that she was in pain and popping pills throughout the adventure. 'Idyll' contains allusions to Stanley's misery, and to the hospitals and drugs which dominated the final decades of her life, but they are almost hidden, and perhaps partially transformed into something joyous, by Smithyman's dense, incantatory language. My Seventh Form English teacher warned me about Smithyman, saying that he was "hopelessly obscure", but it was the very mysteriousness of 'Idyll' that excited and fascinated me. I remember reciting the poem's opening lines out loud, again and again, and wondering why they could seem so beautiful to me when I didn't understand what they meant:

Adam and Eve, without serpent
or guile, all night the river duetto,
voices that were steps and stairs...

You can read 'Idyll' here.

'Diving into the Wreck', by Adrienne Rich (1973)

Rich's poem, which you can read here, is full of small brilliant details - an 'awkward grave' diving mask, 'crenellated' fish, the sea-spoiled logbook of a long-wrecked ship - yet gradually acquires the solemnity of myth, as the poet descends deeper and deeper into a sea which come to stand for her own past and, perhaps, for the whole of human history. I found 'Diving into the Wreck' in a university textbook nearly two decades ago, and have probably reread it too many times, because I regularly find the poem's images bobbing to the surface of my texts. Here's the beginning of 'The Analyst', a piece included in my first book of poems:

Breathing is easier underwater. The knife between my teeth tastes of rust, as I dive through seaweed and shoaled flounder, toward a treasure chest capsized in estuary mud. I know that someone has been here before me, that the coins and statuettes have been looted, the ancient manuscripts spoiled. I know that the chest's rotten mahogany and rust-red bolts are my treasure.

Sorry Adrienne.

'To Friends behind a Frontier', by Tomas Transtromer (c. 1970s)

Tomas Transtromer will need no introduction to regular readers of this blog. Back in 2006 Tomas won a flagon of Old Thumper beer after topping a poll set up here to determine the world's greatest living writer. That triumph set him up to take out the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature.

To Friends behind a Frontier 


I wrote so meagrely to you. But what I couldn't write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned airship
and drifted away at last through the night sky.

The letter is now at the censor's. He lights his lamp.
In the glare my words fly up like monkeys on a grille,
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth.

Read between the lines. We'll meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel's walls are forgotten
and can at last sleep, become trilobites.

'Exile', Theognis (c. 500 BC)

I discovered Theognis' flinty poems in an anthology of the literature of ancient Greece some kindly soul had ordered into Rosehill College Library. As a self-pitying seventeen year-old semi-Goth, I was surprised and alarmed to learn that melancholy, unrequited love and general grumpiness had been themes for writers before the era of Morrissey and Ian Curtis.


I have been there
Eretrian waterlands rust-red

and Sparta
tall torch
kindled in river reeds.

I went there
I found men with franks hearts
who took me in
I found kind hands
but no joy
and no rest.

Home hugs close.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


I'm sorry about the lack of action on this blog over the past few days. The chill that I complained about feeling after returning from Tonga to Auckland turned out to be the first symptom of what my doctor believes was Dengue Fever (why do I instinctively, nervously capitalise those words?). I'm through the worst now, but am still reluctant to venture more than a few metres from the blessed sanctuary of a lavatory.

My friend Sebastien Bano got on Skype yesterday morning to tell me to make the most of the virus I unwittingly smuggled out of the Friendly Islands. "It's a very good way to lose weight" Sebastien enthused, as he sat in his Canary Islands den looking unreasonably tanned, slim, and healthy. "You already look thinner." Sebastien insisted, as well, that my regular and lengthy stays in the loo should be boosting rather than blocking my productivity. "I have some of my best ideas on the toilet" he boasted. "It is good to keep books there. To spend hours in that room - what a privilege!"

I should be back in blogging form in a couple of days, but in the meantime I'm taking my revenge on Tonga by posting some photos of the place I've been monkeying about with maliciously.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, September 14, 2012

Talking in Tonga

There's nothing like a week or so in Tonga to expose the shortcomings of an Auckland spring. The temperature dropped twenty degrees as we flew the two thousand kilometres from Tongatapu to Auckland on Wednesday night.

We had travelled to the Friendly Islands with a couple of friends and a gaggle of children. Tonga is a good place to bring kids: as soon as you sit down in a cafe or restaurant or bus, or even pause in the street, a local volunteers to nurse your baby, or to play with your toddler. At Nuku'alofa's Friends Cafe, the place of first resort for expat and tourist palangis who can't shake their craving for flat whites and lattes, a waitress took our order and then our baby, and disappeared for a disconcertingly long time into a back room from which high-pitched giggles seeped. "She's sharing the baby with her friends" a fellow palangi explained to me. "You have to be careful - sometimes these women will disappear for days with your kids!"

While Aneirin was being passed from bosom to bosom last week, I visited the 'Atenisi Institute, the historic, struggling school on the waterlogged western fringes of Nuku'alofa. I invaded two lectures by Michael Horowitz, the former student of Marcuse and New Left activist who has taught in Tonga for most of the last decade.

Talking to Horowitz's sociology class, I brandished a copy of Karl Marx's 1881 letter to the Russian socialist Vera Zasulich, which makes the argument that Russia could leap straight from feudalism to a sort of agrarian socialism, without having to pass through a 'stage' of development that involved the enclosure of communal lands, the raising of thousands of stinking factories, and the proletarianisation of peasants. I suggested that Horowitz's students might be able to find slight parallels between the elderly Marx's vision and the compromise between capitalism and traditional economics that Tonga's first modern ruler Taufa'ahau established in the second half of the nineteenth century. As Michael bit both his lips, I argued that, instead of taking the advice of the IMF and abandoning legacies of Taufa'ahau like the state ownership of all land, Tongans might experiment with forms of development based upon their own traditional ways of life.

When I finally paused for breath, Horowitz criticised my argument as 'romantic', and challenged me to explain how Tongans can improve their living standards without large-scale investment from foreign capitalists. I cited, as an example of an historically grounded, Tongan-controlled development project, the eco-tourism business run on 'Eua Island by my mate Taki Hausia; Michael replied that what Tonga needed was not low-impact, low-priced eco-lodges, but the mass tourism that has made Hawaii a relatively wealthy society. "Hawaii gets six million visitors a year" he pointed out. "You don't get those numbers with eco-tourism."

Horowitz and I had fought ourselves to a bloody draw by the time a bell rang, and students filed outside for a short break. A second round in our battle began when Horowitz invited me to sit in on the class he teaches on Plato. I have never read The Laws, a dialogue which has a reputation for dullness, but Horowitz had given the text to his students, and was able to point them in the direction of numerous intriguing passages on subjects like land reform, taxes, and democracy.

After Michael had praised Plato as an enemy of mindless consumerism, mob law, and sophism, I felt obliged to relay the arguments of my friend Ted Jenner, who is both one of New Zealand's leading classicists and an inveterate critic of Plato. Didn't Plato want to throw poets out of ideal society? Ted asked in my voice. Wasn't Mussolini reading Plato when he was captured by Italian partisans? Didn't Hastings Banda, the long-time dictator of Malawi, the country where Ted spent many years teaching, use Plato's Republic as his model?

It was true, Horowitz admitted, that Plato had an authoritarian side, but who could observe the follies of humanity and not want to regulate the behaviour of our species? How could anyone believe in extreme liberty after seeing the damage done by liberalised financial markets in 2008? Who could observe the grassroots of the Republican Party and have absolute faith in democracy?

Michael didn't seem too upset by my disruption of his lectures. "'Atenisi is a persecuted and poor institution" he told me later. "About all it has to offer its students is freedom of discussion. You don't find that in many Tongan schools. A lot of them are afraid of admitting that there are differing views about a subject. There's a reason why our school was the birthplace of Tonga's modern pro-democracy movement."

That evening, as a storm descended on Tongatapu, I headed back down the potholed road to 'Atenisi to deliver a public lecture. A radio advert and a poster stuck to the window of Friends Cafe had claimed that I would be talking about 'Oceania', which seemed a rather daunting subject. As rain blew in through a glassless window and coconut trees thumped about outside in the dark, I showed my audience copies of the Oceania-themed issued of the New Zealand literary journal brief, which appeared back in May and includes a lot of Tongan material, and Atuanui Press' edition of 'Atenisi founder Futa Helu's essays about Tongan poetry. I suggested that these volumes, along with Paul Janman's enthusiastically received film Tongan Ark, which tells the story of Helu and 'Atenisi, point toward a new interest in Tongan thought and culture amongst Kiwis.

I argued that Tongan intellectuals have enthused people like myself and Paul Janman because they seem to offer answers to a couple of problems that have troubled New Zealand artists and thinkers for decades. Ever since the 1930s and '40s, when writers like Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch and painters like Colin McCahon helped invent modern New Zealand art, we have had a tendency to see our society as new and lonely, floating uncertainly in cold seas at the bottom of the world. The vision of New Zealand as a 'far-pitched perilous place', to quote RAK Mason, has been challenged, for decades now, by a rather shallowly internationalist rhetoric, which urges us to act as though we are part of some sort of global village - a 'village' that looks suspiciously like the great cities of the northern hemisphere. In the twenty-first century, many young Kiwi artists and intellectuals seem preoccupied with pretending that they live in New York City or Berlin. But neither the old insularist nationalism of Curnow and Holcroft nor the hip pseudo-internationalism of today really does justice to New Zealand's peculiar position in the world.

I suggested that Kiwis can break out of the dichotomy between nationalism and internationalism by turning to the Tongan intellectual Epeli Hau'ofa, who held that the peoples of the Pacific Ocean were for millenia mobile and relatively integrated, and became isolated and radically differentiated because of the rigid political and taxonomic borders established by colonists and ethnographers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In his famous 1993 essay 'Our Sea of Islands' Hau'ofa argued that the great economic migrations of Tongans and other Pacific peoples to the cities of Australasia and America in the late twentieth century were reenactments of the epic vaka journeys of the pre-colonial era. The endless highway of Oceania was reopening.

Hau'ofa suggested that New Zealand might in certain circumstances be considered part of the ancient and reawakening region of Oceania, and I argued that it would be healthier for Pakeha artists and intellectuals to think of themselves as part of the same space as societies like Tonga than to cling to either the old myth of isolation or a facile northern hemisphere identity.

If Epeli Hau'ofa can help New Zealanders deal with one false dichotomy, then Futa Helu can help them dispose of another. The great Pakeha artists and writers of the middle decades of the twentieth century had pushed Maori to the margins of their work. The very notion of New Zealand as a young, empty, isolated country mocked the history of Maori. The Maori renaissance which began in the 1970s and '80s has reversed the old marginalisation, but it has also led, inadvertantly, to the growth of an unhelpful dichotomy. Out of either sulkiness or a misplaced fear of criticism, too many Pakeha have avoided engaging with Polynesian art and thought. Maori and Pakeha cultures are too often seen as almost wholly incommensurable.

With his call for the fusion of the best elements of European and Polynesian culture and his expert knowledge of Greek philosophy and Italian opera as well as Tongan poetry and dance, Futa Helu offers an implicit challenge to the dichotomising of Pakeha and Maori experience.

It's no wonder that Helu and Hau'ofa, and the younger generation of intellectuals trained at 'Atenisi, are intriguing and exciting some Kiwis tired of the false dichotomies of their society.

After I had argued that the innovations of both Hau'ofa and Helu were rooted in Tonga's nineteenth century history, which saw it avoiding colonisation by a white nation, audience members kicked off an interesting discussion. Sisi'uno Langi-Helu, who divides her time between Australia and the school that her father founded, described her experiences teaching song and dance to children of the Tongan diaspora. A lot of Aussie Tongans had lost aspects of their culture, she said, but now wanted to reclaim it, because they realised that it gave them a good foundation in the globalised world of the twenty-first century.

I suggested that Tonga's extraordinary educational achievements - despite its poverty the country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, as well as the world's highest rate of PhD graduates - stemmed from the strength of its indigenous culture, which was never marginalised by colonialism, but an audience member who lived close to 'Atenisi was more cautious, saying that many Tongans suffered from feelings of inferiority when they contemplated larger, wealthier countries.

Kik Velt, a Dutch-Tongan astronomer and mathematician who has taught at 'Atenisi for decades and who runs Nuku'alofa's most popular internet cafe, claimed that "when a weak culture meets a stronger culture, the stronger culture tends to prevail". Velt has studied and published on Tongan song and dance, but he feels that the culture which created these forms may not be able to persist in the face of twenty-first century capitalism. But an American who had come to Tonga as a Peace Corps volunteer and then stayed on, selling shoes at Nuku'alofa's market to make ends meet, spoke fervently about the superiority of Tonga over his old homeland.

The pessimism of 'Atenisians like Kik Velt perhaps reflects the problems of the institution they serve. 'Atenisi has a proud history as the seedbed of Tonga's pro-democracy movement and the training ground of a generation of distinguished intellectuals, but the death of Futa Helu, the decline of the Tongan economy, and continued government hostility have brought troubled times for the institution. Rolls are low; buildings sag and splinter. For 'Atenisi's staff, students, and alumni, the huge and enthusiastic audiences that Tongan Ark has attracted and the publication of the Oceania issue of brief and of Futa Helu's new book offer some much-needed recognition and encouragement.

Footnote: the photo near the top of this post shows Bessie from 'Eua Island rather than a staff member from Friends Cafe holding Aneirin. I couldn't find any shots of the Friends crowd...

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Futa Helu on Tongan poetry

[I'm off to Tongatapu, the sacred south, today, along with some friends. I'll be dropping in to the 'Atenisi Institute tomorrow afternoon to talk with Michael Horowitz's sociology students about Marx's late, heretical works, and then giving an informal talk tomorrow evening about what the ideas of Futa Helu and Epeli Hau'ofa can mean in a New Zealand context. During my talk I'll read from the Oceania issue of the Kiwi literary journal of brief, which appeared a few months ago, and pass around some copies of On Tongan Poetry, the book of Futa Helu's writing which Atuanui Press recently published down here.

On Tongan Poetry won't be launched officially in Tonga until November, when Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's cinematic tribute to Futa Helu, has its Nuku'alofa premiere, but I want to get some copies of the book into the hands of Helu's old collaborators at 'Atenisi. I hope that they won't complain too much about a monolingual palangi, who can't even pronounce the names of well-known Tongan islands and villages without blundering, helping to present their old teacher's lapidarian study of Tongan traditional art to the world.

Here's the introduction to On Tongan Poetry, in which I apologise for my unsuitability as editor, along with a few photos I took during my last visit to Tonga. The blog post which became the afterword to the book can be seen here. - Scott Hamilton]

This book collects six of the late Futa Helu’s essays about Tongan poetry. The piece on ‘Laumatanga, Pride of Locality, in Tongan Poetry’ was delivered at an academic conference in 1986 and included in Critical Essays: Cultural Perspectives on the South Seas, the selection of Helu’s writings published by the Journal of Pacific History in 1999. The other essays first saw the light of day in Faikava, the little literary journal that flourished in Nuku’alofa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. None of these texts has ever been published before in New Zealand, and they appear here with the assistance of Futa’s daughter Sisi’uno Langi-Helu, who has taken responsibility for his literary estate since his death in February 2010.

I might seem like a peculiar person to write an introduction and an afterword to a book about traditional
Tongan poetry. I am a palangi New Zealander who had not visited Tonga or heard about Futa Helu until 2009. Although I’ve done my best to make up for lost time over the past three years, by reading through Helu’s oeuvre, visiting the ’Atenisi Institute, the legendary university Helu founded in Nuku’alofa, and talking with many Tongan writers, I am far from being an expert on things Tongan, and my knowledge of the country’s language might politely be described as embryonic.

Over the past three years, though, I have become convinced that palangi New Zealanders need to understand both the thought of Futa Helu and the history and culture of his society. I have campaigned for the publication of these essays because I think they are a door through which palangi like myself can enter the world of Futa Helu and the world of Tonga.

As a scholar and poet, I have spent much of my time writing about New Zealand history and society, and about the history of Britain, the country that has cast such a shadow over New Zealand. Like so many Kiwi writers, I have often been preoccupied with the difficult relationship that Pakeha and Maori have had over the past couple of centuries. I’ve wondered whether the indigenous and colonising peoples of this country can ever transcend the conflicts of the past, and create a genuinely bicultural society. When I discovered Futa Helu and his ’Atenisi Institute, and Tongan society as a whole, I realised that I had found an example, on New Zealand’s very doorstep, of healthy biculturalism.

Futa Helu often proclaimed that he wanted to bring together Polynesian and European culture, and he put
his rhetoric into practice by becoming an expert on Western traditions like classical philosophy, grand opera,
and English literature, as well as Polynesian taonga like Tongan poetry, music and dance. ’Atenisi put Helu’s
words into practice by teaching Shakespeare, Plato and opera alongside Tongan history, literature, and dance.

In his splendid new movie Tongan Ark Paul Janman shows how Helu inspired many intellectuals to chuck in their well-paid jobs at First World universities and come to work for a pittance at an impoverished school on the swampy outskirts of Nuku’alofa. In an era when corporatised universities emphasise financial outcomes over scholarly values and reactionary politicians build walls around cultures, Helu’s intellectual adventure has been inspiring.

Because of his passion for free thought and free speech, Futa Helu often offended Tonga’s rulers. After Helu’s school became the headquarters of Tonga’s pro-democracy movement in the 1990s, the government banned ’Atenisi graduates from working in Tonga’s public sector. Helu’s insistence on questioning the dogmas of Tonga’s powerful churches sometimes prompted clergymen to denounce him from their pulpits.

It seems to me, though, that Futa Helu was in many ways a distinctively Tongan thinker, and that the school
he founded could only have thrived in Tonga. Tonga was the only Pacific society to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth century. Although the country suffered a long civil war in the early decades of that century, it eventually united under the leadership of King Tupou I, who created, with the help of the Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist Shirley Baker, a modern state and a constitution that guaranteed Tongans liberty and land. Tupou I was able to import Western social and technological innovations into Tonga without giving up his country’s sovereignty.

Tonga’s unbroken history of independence has given its people an extraordinary confidence in their culture,
and this confidence is reflected in the scholastic success of young Tongans. Despite the very limited resources of its schools, Tonga has a literacy rate of almost one hundred percent, and produces more PhD holders per capita than any other nation in the world. Futa Helu’s love of learning, confidence in the strength of his own culture, and curiosity about the wider world were all distinctively Tongan. If Tupou I fused the best of Tongan and Western institutions, then Helu spent his long career bringing together the best of European and Polynesian art and thought. In their different ways, both men were exponents of and advocates for biculturalism.


The essays in this book make a good introduction to traditional Tongan poetry, and an equally fine introduction to Futa Helu’s intellectual methods. Helu guides us through the different periods and genres of Tongan verse, showing how closely the art has been connected with dance and music, and what an important role bards play in traditional Tongan society. Nobody who reads these essays can doubt the antiquity, intricacy, and seriousness of Tongan poetry.

But Helu’s texts also include numerous entertaining detours, as he discusses the ancient history of the Pacific and the literature and ideas of distant societies. I love the way that Helu leaps without warning from Polynesia to Europe, as he alludes to one of his beloved Greek philosophers, or compares an ancient Tongan poet to Milton or Blake. Helu’s biculturalism gives him rare insights into both Tongan and European literature, and his essays send me back, again and again, to writers in the English-language canon, and make me read the famous poems of that canon with new eyes.

Tonga’s traditional poetry ought to help New Zealanders think in new ways about our national literature.

The Tongan tradition of laumatanga should resonate with Kiwi poets, who have so often been preoccupied and perplexed by the challenges of putting the landscapes of their own country into verse. The Tongan tendency to bring poetry, music and dance together, and to ask dancers and musicians to improvise interpretations of the words of poets, might make New Zealand bards think in new ways about the possibilities of live performance.


In the decades since Futa Helu wrote the essays collected in this book Tongan poetry has continued to thrive.

Some poets, like the ’Atenisi graduate and distinguished anthropologist ’Okusitino Mahina, have continued
to work in traditional forms, and to compose for public occasions; others, including many brought up in Australasia and America as part of the Tongan diaspora, have written in English, and have aimed their work at the page as much as the stage. Karlo Mila, whose first book Dream Fish Floating was published in New Zealand to critical acclaim in 2005, is perhaps the most prominent member of this new generation. Futa Helu might be puzzled by the colloquial language, loose forms, and pop cultural references of younger Tongan poets like Mila, but he would surely recognise and applaud their adventurousness.