Jim Traue, one of the authors of Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves joined us at the recent launch for the book in Wellington, and made a lively and forthright contribution to a panel discussion on ideas raised in the book. It was a pleasure to meet with and hear Jim, a former chief librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library and the author of the essay 'Ancestors of the Mind: A Pakeha Whakapapa' in the book. He was good enough to put some what what he talked about on the night into prose, which follows. RB.
Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves is available for purchase, along with other books by Public Address bloggers, at the Public Address online store.
Russell Brown asked me: "One thing I find fascinating about the era in which New Zealand literature emerged-which is really the centre of gravity of Great New Zealand Argument-is that the great themes were often explored by poets. And that exploration is still resonant. There are few lines that move me more than Allen Curnow's "Not I, but some child born in a marvelous year / Will learn the trick of standing upright here". Where are these ideas explored now?"
I think our writers have now learned the trick of standing upright here. From the sixties onwards they sound as if they have made it, and are feeling comfortable and "at home" in New Zealand, the end that Robin Hyde looks forward to. They have a new confidence, and that confident upright stance of the writer who has made it in a creole society. Geoffrey Serle in his study of Australian culture writes about the progress in a creole society through the cultural cringe, to the nationalist strut, to the confident upright stance. We went through our period of colonial cringe, we didn't have quite the nationalist strut of the Australians-more like a self-conscious shuffle-but our writers had come through by the sixties and seventies. However, another group in society is looking unsteady on their feet and it is from them that you are picking up these interesting resonances.
I can see a new mood in the later Frank Sargeson, the later Curnow and, after a shaky start, in Maurice Shadbolt. Compare the gloom the tightness and the strangled prose of the early Sargeson with his later exuberance, his relish in words. And Shadbolt's verbal exuberance, his enjoyment of New Zealandness, and his playfulness when dealing with New Zealand history. And you can see it in Sinclair's 1959 Penguin history of New Zealand, and in his 1963 essay in Great New Zealand Argument. He has gone well beyond being just "at home" in New Zealand, his subject is greatness and the new civilization being created in New Zealand, themes that had dropped out of public discussion in New Zealand for some 100 years since Wakefield and Grey. The self consciousness that Robin Hyde identifies as characteristic of the writers of the 20s and 30s has been succeeded by a new self confidence.
In a literate creole society, where the majority are native born descendants of settlers from elsewhere, the creative writers are the first to face the problems of such a society. How do you deal with your inherited written culture, that vast wagon train of books that literates drag behind them wherever they go, and the unique experience of a new country. All writers in creole cultures face this problem-the Americans were wrestling with it throughout the nineteenth century, complaining about the loneliness of the writer and the lack of an American tradition, as were the Canadians, Australians, Latin Americans, and South Africans. The writers in Greek and Roman colonies around the Mediterranean in pre-modern times had, I suspect, much the same problem. Poets, who rely so heavily on allusion, metaphor and simile, have the hardest task. They need a certain depth of shared experience, shared myths, and shared symbols if they are to write poems and not documentaries. Henry James, who finally escaped from America to Europe to find the "accumulation of history and custom, the complexity of manners and types to form a fund of suggestion for a novelist" put it succinctly "It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature", and then poetically, "The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep".
The assumption we all made was that the breakthrough first achieved by the writers would work its way down through the majority, who were too busy getting on with practical things (in Robin Hyde's marvellous image, writing on the landscape with pickaxe and mattock) to worry about questions of national identity. The creation of a New Zealand literature, dealing honestly with our experience in this land, and written New Zealand histories, would provide a depth of experience to replace the facile myths that most people held loosely in their subconscious minds. The media and the education system would do the rest.
But something different has happened, something nobody counted on. The writers are steady on their feet and assured, but many mainstream New Zealanders, who thought their feet, instinctively, had a good purchase on the land, are now finding it hard to stand upright here. Their concerns were quickly picked up by Winston, and now the focus groups for the Labour and National parties are on to it. I wouldn't be worried if they were asking "what does this mean", but alas their interest is in how these concerns can be used to avoid losing, or to win, an upcoming election.
Mainstream New Zealanders have experienced two major shocks in the past twenty years or so, two tectonic shifts. First, the welfare/equality consensus that began with the Liberals in 1890, was strengthened by the first Labour Government in the 1930s, and accepted by the National Party when it came to power in 1949, has been shattered. Sinclair, writing in 1963, was clearly convinced that the equality/social welfare consensus was permanent and that it was the secure basis on which a civilization could be built by focussing on quality, what we had been neglecting, in the future. That consensus was overthrown by Rogernomics and Ruthanomics in the 1980s and 1990s. Equality has gone out the window, and the shortcomings of the welfare state became glaringly evident in the face of government-induced unemployment. Ours is now a grossly unequal society, where the wealthy and powerful at the top flaunt their wealth and the poor and powerless starve at home and beg on the streets. I was in my fifties before I saw my first beggar on the streets of New Zealand. The other members of the panel have a different experience, you are young enough to have grown up with beggars around you. I had seen beggars in the great American cities, Washington, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, when I lived there in the mid-sixties, and in London in my few days there. Whenever I saw one I said to myself, thank God I am a New Zealander, we have managed to solve that problem once and for all. That first experience of a beggar in New Zealand was like being kicked in the stomach. First the involuntary tears, then the desire to hit back at those responsible. It was then that I started developing my ideas on the reintroduction of
hanging, drawing and quartering for political crimes against the people.
Then there was the wider availability of a New Zealand history that showed us that we had a rather spotty colonial past. We hadn't used the whole arsenal available to colonial powers-annihilation (that worked quite well in Tasmania), expulsion, subjugation, segregation, integration and assimilation-but we had tried several of them with, what was now becoming apparent, limited success.
But the other big shock was the challenge from the new Maori nationalism to mainstream assumptions about racial equality and our local success story in race relations. Worse still we were being told that we Pakeha were foreigners, that our right to be in New Zealand was only as visitors, tauiwi, and that right dependent on a piece of paper signed in 1840. We lacked any spiritual relationship with the land. Only the tangatawhenua possessed that deep connection. Then there were the accusations that we had no culture compared with the Maori.
People who had never really thought about national identity, about where they belonged, about what it meant to be a New Zealander, and who had only a few threadbare myths about social equality and good race relations to call on if the going got tough, found these shocks very destabilising. It is going to take a long time, and a great deal of good argument-the new Great New Zealand Argument-to build a new consensus in New Zealand which will enable all of us to stand upright here.
Always in the back of my mind is the example of what has happened in the recent past when people in the mainstream of another country, a nation recently formed from a group of principalities previously divided by religious wars, and believing they had at last found their destiny, were destabilised and unable to maintain their balance in their own country. They turned to a strong man, no great believer in rational argument, and the solution was nasty and Nazi.
Russell Brown asked me: "Our fiction writers and poets once seemed to be very happy to weigh into commentary, to write hard-nosed non-fiction. Is that still the case now? If not, why not?"
I think you are right, and that novelists and poets are less prominent as social critics in the newspapers and on radio and TV. As well there appears to me to be a marked decline in the contribution of the public intellectuals after a minor flowering in the sixties and seventies. Fewer are prepared to descend from their ivory towers to engage in the debate at the street level. It isn't confined to New Zealand; there have been anguished articles, and earlier this year a book, lamenting the decline of the public intellectual in the United States. By a public intellectual I mean anyone who works with ideas and words and arguments and uses them to question. They are always a minority operating at the margins of society, they are Sinclair's elite, the people who make the major contributions to the formation of civilization.
My public intellectual hero has always been John Milton, the shy aesthete who, as he was approaching his peak as a poet, descended into the battle of the pamphleteers in the streets of London in the mid seventeenth century and spent almost twenty years arguing for the people against tyrannical kings, for freedom of expression, for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, and for the individual conscience. One of my favourite quotations is from William Blake. "The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God." I have my own variation, "The voice of honest dissent is the voice of evolution."
There are fewer poets and novelists acting as social critics because the pool of intellectuals is bigger. We have a lawyer such as Jane Kelsey, and an economist such as Brian Easton, now engaged at street level. Also, the marketplace for opinion is getting rather crowded. Journalists, and there are hundreds every year being produced by the professional schools, are flooding into the opinion business and crowding out the space in the newspapers. Far worse are the celebrity media personalities who are proliferating as public debate is being reduced to another commodity in the entertainment market place. It began with Paul Holmes, who copies assiduously trends in the commercial media in the United States, who has two media nonentities masquerading as experts on everything each morning on commercial radio. The infection has now spread to public radio where Linda Clark has two clowns (I use the word advisably, they are both professional clowns) who translate public affairs into entertainment just before midday on most mornings.
But a major reason is that public debate on radio and television has become more like bare-knuckle brawling. Have you seen the ill-mannered shouting matches on television that are offered to us as debate? In decent debate when a dissenting opinion is advanced, one should expect a counter argument. Genuine debate is conducted by gentlemen's rules, argument and counter argument, until someone is declared the winner on points. These days you are more likely to get a counter punch. Our public debaters on radio and television are like bare-knuckle fighters, circling each other to land the knockout blow, scorning a win on points. The counter punches most likely to hit you are the time-honoured left hook, "Elitist", and if that doesn't floor you, the more recent right cross, "Racist", or the blatant knee in the groin, "Sexist". Intellectuals are unlikely to win, or even manage to defend themselves, in such contests, and appear to be opting out.
That is why I am here tonight, to support you in your attempt to reclaim public debate back from the media personalities and the bullies. I hope that that is why so many have come here tonight. Or will be convinced to go out there and do battle for the cause. We need to wrest debate out of the mouths of those who are prostituting debate and focus it back on the arguments.
4 July 2005
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