Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes, Michael Jackson (Rosa Mira ebooks, 2012), 222 pp., US$ 11.00.
For Albert Camus the only philosophical question is ‘To be or not to be?’ Once affirmed by the existential reverse of Rene Descartes’s ‘Cogito ergo sum’ into ‘I am, therefore I think,’ the existential dilemma becomes, ‘What meaning is there to be attached to my life and how should I live it accordingly?’ In Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes, anthropologist and poet Dr Michael Jackson attempts to deal with these and other questions.
Jackson’s ebook is creative non-fiction in the form of a geographical and metaphorical road trip through the author’s natal New Zealand, during which he considers the impact of ‘firstness’ in relation to belonging and home, identity and the past, and the nature of the bond that he has with the land, despite being an expat for most of his life.
The title alludes to the marks or scars left behind by the people who have gone before, and to the paths they have travelled. It is an allegory for life’s journey, examining along the way the influences of familial, social, historical and physical landscapes on people’s lives and their lives on those landscapes of self, whether real or appropriated.
As always, the truth is where the rubber meets the road. Sometimes there are tyre marks, shredded tyres, crashes, road kill. While some people travel through life largely unscathed, Jackson demonstrates, others become life’s casualties: victims or survivors trying to compensate for some sort of inarticulated loss or separation, without knowing what is to be compensated for.
His book works well as a physical road trip and memoir, visiting Jackson’s place of birth in Taranaki and places of importance to him and taking in historical writers (for example, Samuel Butler, Henry Lawson) as well as friends and family including artists, writers (Vincent O’Sullivan, Martin Edmond), intellectuals and academics (Brian Boyd, David Wright). In so doing, Jackson tests the impact of his theory of firstness and its opposites – estrangment, dispossession, loss – as well as the ‘artful’ recall of the past on his own and others’ lives. An interesting result is that the most practical insights in this post-natal quest seem to come from the women (Brigette, Kate and others) who are more grounded and realised in their history and meaning of life.
Evoking Carlos Castaneda in earnestness, the Blues Brothers on a mission from God in absurdity, the puha western Utu on Maori/settler and land issues in vexatiousness, Goodbye Pork Pie in its comical identity-wrestling and in its and random encounters with interesting people and places, and ultimately the counter-culture classic movie Vanishing Point, where the end merges into the beginning, in the search for truth, justice and the meaning of life, Michael Jackson’s long strange trip is a saga of discovery of the country being travelled through as part of you: something you take it on board as memories, perceptions, responses — especially when it is somewhere already familiar from childhood. This latter point is the core issue of the concept and confusion of ‘be-longing’, of being part of something that is bigger than you but which you carry within you, the existential dilemma. In colloquial terms, Jackson asks these questions: You can take the boy out of NZ but can you take NZ out of the man? What part does the past play in enabling us to live in the present? Why do some people choose their own roads and others fall by the roadside?
Throughout these wanderings and wonderings, Jackson asserts that under surface differences we are part of humanity as a whole: that being human, nothing human is strange to us. In today’s society, ‘we have so magnified the value of individual lives that we have lost any sense of ourselves as part of the stream of life itself’. This latter point is the crux of Jackson’s thesis, and is symbolically embodied in recurring descriptions of the ever-present sea as an integral part of the physical landscape. The sea is where all roads inevitably lead.
In returning to the maternal land of birth, Jackson finds himself – the expatriate – reborn and the land repossessed, ‘bathed in a new light’. The emptiness of the landscape, it seems, reminds you of who you really are, reflecting the sense of being both somewhere and nowhere: ‘You feel existentially half-caste, connected by birth to one world yet by disposition to another.’ For Jackson, it is the shared experiences with place and people rather than the places and people themselves that give rise to the firstness of be-longing to that place or with that person – and this allows reconnection on that common ground.
Yes, an essential part of belonging is living with people and sharing their experiences. In this sense New Zealand does not belong to us in terms of ownership but is a part of us because of our shared experience. He aa te tonga? He tāngata he tāngata he tāngata. What is the greatest treasure? It is people it is people, it is people.
Heraclitus said that you cannot step into the same river twice: you cannot go back in time and place and expect it to be the same. To a large extent, the book confirms this. One of the most memorable observations Jackson makes is that rather than being linear, life is more like writing a line on a piece of paper and then crumpling that piece of paper together so that parts of the paper and therefore life touch each other. He comes to see life as a constellation, where stars shine and fade and shine.
What Jackson asserts is that life is patterns, while intelligence is identifying these patterns and academia is writing a book about these patterns, with provenance and bibliography. Academics often take themselves too seriously, and there is an element of that here. Sometimes, Jackson’s writing provides insights in the same way as poetry; elsewhere, the urge to record every detail and then note their source distracts from the unifying sense of phenomenological intent or content. The word missing until late in the book is ‘belonging’ in terms of home, rather than ownership or appropriation (nostalgia, in the sense used by Jackson, is a ‘longing-for’).
These are minor quibbles. Jackson has a genuine interest in how other people’s lives have turned out. The individual stories are worth reading on that level alone, apart from the value in the lessons of their expressed ethos and worldview. Two particularly poignant and ironic stories to look out for are those of Uncle Harold and the self-inflicted death of the academic Dr David Wright, whose research took over his life until in the end his life overtook his research.
Jackson’s own epiphanies, that experience/memory is displaced rather than supplanted, that beginnings are not origins, that we belong to the past as it belongs to us, are worth waiting for. He clearly exhilarates in the New Zealand landscape and his place in it, which gave him the ability to imagine anything was possible and to go against the grain, recognising bullshit when he came across it – but not necessarily recognising wisdom as easily.
Hit-the-road-Jackson’s verbal ‘markings’, warmed by the affectionate yet also slightly-jaded eye of a long-time anthropologist, are, then, insistent evidence that life is not a journey from here to there, or from there to here; it is a journey from here to here. I really enjoyed the ride, but may I offer the same advice as the Zen masters of non-attachment: if you meet the Buddha on the road, run him over and leave him where he is.
TERENCE RISSETTO is a philosophy and anthropology graduate of the University of Auckland.