Re-inventing New Zealand: Essays on the arts and media by Roger Horrocks (Atuanui Books, 2016), 444 pp, $45
Re-inventing New Zealand is a big, rich, provocative book. Roger Horrocks has collected 21 of his essays, reviews and talks, and given each a short introduction. Horrocks is a veteran and versatile part of New Zealand culture. As a young member of the University of Auckland’s English Department in the 1970s and 1980s, he helped bring the American counterculture to Kiwi shores. The paper he taught on modern American poetry became legendary, serving to bring innovators like Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg to local audiences. Later, he was instrumental in setting up the Film, Television, and Drama Department at Auckland, before retiring and running a successful film production company. Horrocks co-founded the Auckland Film Festival and New Zealand on Screen. A poet, shortlisted this year for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for his poetry book Song of the Ghost in the Machine, he’s also known for his definitive biography of Len Lye.
The texts in Reinventing New Zealand reflect Horrocks’ curiosity and versatility. There are close studies of individual artists and writers important to Horrocks, like the painter Julian Dashper, the poet Leigh Davis, the visionary Len Lye; there are surveys of contemporary cultural industries, like the essays on New Zealand film and New Zealand television; and there are journeys into the past, such as an ambitious and problematic essay called ‘A Short History of the “New Zealand Intellectual”’.
The oldest text in the book is ‘Inventing New Zealand’, which was published in 1983 in the avant-garde magazine And. Horrocks has placed the essay at the beginning of his collection, and it makes a good introduction. Moving cleverly between literary criticism, social history and something very like prose poetry, the text ponders the literary nationalism of Allen Curnow. Horrocks wittily reimagines Curnow as a magician, and considers Curnow’s famous anthologies of New Zealand verse as attempts to conjure a country where Pākehā might feel imaginatively at home. Curnow presented himself as a realist, and a connoisseur of the ‘local and special’, but Horrocks shows that, like all poets, he relied upon ‘notions’ that had their origins in the mind rather than the world, and selected for his poems and anthologies only those parts of reality that suited his imagination. Realism is, Horrocks warns, the subtlest form of magic.
Although Horrocks is confronting Curnow, he avoids the dichotomies and destructive rhetoric beloved of many literary polemicists. The aim of Horrocks’ essay is not to abolish Curnow’s New Zealand, but to show that it is only one of many possible versions of these islands. Other writers can and should, Horrocks insists, create their own New Zealands, using styles and treating subject matter different to those championed by Curnow.
As some of the other texts in Re-inventing New Zealand show, though, Horrocks upholds rather than rejects a couple of Allen Curnow’s most important notions. Curnow took a sombre view of New Zealand’s nineteenth and early twentieth-century cultural history. He believed that little of value was thought or written here until the 1920s and 1930s, when his generation reached adulthood.
In ‘A Short History of the “New Zealand Intellectual”’, which was written for Laurence Simmons’ 2007 anthology Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Re-think New Zealand, Horrocks accepts Curnow’s picture of our past, and suggests that New Zealand remains a hard homeland for intellectuals in the twenty-first century:
The anti-intellectual atmosphere of New Zealand as a ‘frontier society’ has been well documented … Of course all cultures have stereotypes, and anti-intellectualism is certainly not unique to this country. But its associations are embedded with particular strength in our culture … The idea that intellectuals may be genuinely ahead of their time tends to be a missing link in New Zealand thinking … [intellectual] energies get short-circuited in our culture …
Horrocks tries to show the character of New Zealand life by searching for the word ‘intellectual’ amongst our national Dictionary of Biography’s 3000 entries. He finds the word being used only thrice as a noun. It turns up more often as an adjective, but even then is sometimes used sarcastically, or as a sort of warning.
After I had read Horrocks’ report of his adventures in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography I decided to do some searches of my own in that other online taonga, the Papers Past archive. Papers Past displays the contents of almost a hundred New Zealand periodicals published between the 1840s and 1945. When I searched for Friedrich Nietzsche in Papers Past I got 1456 responses. Bertrand Russell drew 1634 bites. Charles Darwin turned up 8715 times.
Those results did not surprise me. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century New Zealand teemed with bibliovores, newspaper polemicists and public debaters. Although the colony was relatively isolated geographically, texts and ideas steamed into its ports and towns from the rest of the British Empire and from farther afield. Tony Ballantyne has talked about the ‘web’ that connected nineteenth-century New Zealand with societies like Britain and colonial India, and has marvelled at how quickly ideas and practices could travel through that web.
Alfred Domett, who was New Zealand’s Premier during the invasion of the Waikato, took time out from his military and diplomatic correspondence to read letters from his friend Robert Browning, describing the latest events and fashionable ideas in the home country. Peter Walker has shown how some of New Zealand’s most prominent colonialists shared Domett’s fascination with Europe’s freethinking, anti-clerical philosophers. These men and women were able to turn Darwin and Nietzsche into justifications for the conquest and dispossession of Māori.
An intellectual infrastructure developed quickly in Pākehā New Zealand. Libraries and lecture halls were raised in many towns, and by the end of the nineteenth century six universities had been established. Alfred Domett and his friends were intellectuals who thought on behalf of the colony’s ruling elite, but subaltern intellectual traditions also appeared in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As scholars like Len Richardson and Rachel Barrowman have shown, newspapers like the Maoriland Worker and organisations like the Workers Education Association and its precursors created a proletarian intellectual tradition.
Horrocks claims that New Zealanders have always been averse to difficult ideas and knotty poetry, but thousands of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Kiwis spent much of their spare time arguing about the philosophy and prosody of the Bible. Packed halls watched British Israelites and Christaelphians and Unitarians present and debate their elaborate and peculiar doctrines. By the end of the nineteenth century Theosophy had planted itself in New Zealand, and helped make texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Koran subjects of conjecture and debate.
Nineteenth and early twentieth-century Māori society was also a place of intellectual ferment. Papers Past includes only a few of the scores of newspapers that Māori created to share knowledge and to discuss their response to the ongoing invasion of Aotearoa. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 was an attempt to outlaw traditional Māori psychology and medicine as well as pre-Christian Māori religion, but it failed to stop the training of healers and seers at whare wānanga. In the early twentieth century university-educated Māori like Te Rangi Hīroa and Āpirana Ngata began to reinvent disciplines like anthropology, so that they served indigenous rather than colonial ends. Te Rangi Hīroa’s work on ancient Polynesia eventually made him famous in north America as well as at home.
Horrocks’ account of New Zealand’s intellectual history makes no reference to the elite intellectual tradition represented by men like Domett, devotes a couple of dismissive sentences to our left-wing intellectual heritage, and avoids any discussion of the scholarship and polemics of Pākehā theologians. Horrocks mentions the Tohunga Suppression Act, but not the Māori thinkers who flourished despite that law and other acts of discrimination. For Horrocks, this country’s intellectual history seems to have begun with the Curnow generation. The index of Re-inventing New Zealand has room for Princess Diana and Jacques Derrida, but not for Jane Mander, or James Cowan, or Henry Stowell, or Te Rangi Hīroa.
It would be wrong to claim that New Zealand intellectuals have never come under pressure from the state and from philistine publics. Horrocks remembers the hostility to the arts and to abstract thinking that he experienced growing up in the 1950s, and mentions some of the philistine campaigns waged against innovative New Zealanders in that decade. Because he doesn’t take our autochthonous intellectual and cultural traditions seriously, though, Horrocks doesn’t understand the origins of the chilly cultural weather he remembers from the 1950s. The philistinism and conformism that we now associate with the decade was made possible partly by the smashing of the militant wing of New Zealand’s labour movement in the Great Waterfront Lockout of 1951.
As Rachel Barrowman shows in her book A Popular Vision, organisations like the Waterfront Workers Union, the Left Book Club, and the Communist Party had created a sizeable and exciting counterculture in the 1930s and 1940s. They staged plays, published books, and filled lecture halls. The proletarian counterculture developed ties with Māoridom, so that the left-wing poet R.A.K. Mason could appear on marae and the Tainui leader Te Puea Herangi could address union celebrations on May Day. After Sid Holland gutted the Waterside Workers Union and sent some of its most prominent supporters to jail the left-wing counterculture shrank in size and influence. The Holland government acted against Māori as well as radical Pākehā. It evacuated and burned the largest Māori village in Auckland, and tried to force Māori to speak, dress and act like Britons. The atmosphere of the 1950s was not the result of some perennial anti-intellectual tendency in New Zealand society; it was an outcome of the defeat of a popular intellectual tradition that Horrocks ignores.
There is a second way in which Allen Curnow seems to have influenced Roger Horrocks’ ideas about intellectuals. Curnow always accepted Matthew Arnold’s view about the proper place of intellectuals in society. In a series of tracts aimed at an increasingly turbulent and curious Victorian society, Arnold argued that intellectuals have the task of consuming and processing the world’s sum of knowledge and opinions, then passing the best of what they had learned on to the rest of society. Intellectuals must be, Arnold urged, a sort of advance guard, positioned between a vulnerable and philistine populace and a mass of potentially dangerous information. With their pedantically pedagogical introductions and their carefully restricted contents, Curnow’s Penguin anthologies are classic exercises in Arnoldian gatekeeping.
But many of New Zealand’s most remarkable intellectuals have rejected the idea that they should be part of an elite acting as a gatekeepers for knowledge. For left-wing intellectuals like R.A.K. Mason and Gordon Watson, Māori activists and thinkers like Hone Tuwhare and Hirini Melbourne, and theological radicals like Samuel Edger, the distinctions between intellectual and non-intellectual were a barrier to a more informed and just society.
Although Horrocks is usually a generous and democratic critic, he has a tendency to fall back on Arnoldian maxims in essays like ‘A Short History of the “New Zealand Intellectual”’. He uses the unfortunate phrase ‘trickle down’ to describe the way that ‘difficult’ ideas and texts should pass from intellectuals to the rest of society.
Horrocks’ scepticism about New Zealand’s intellectual history and ‘trickle-down’ vision of intellectual work sometimes affects the studies of individual writers and artists included in Re-inventing New Zealand. His essay on Leigh Davis runs to more than 30 pages, but is disappointingly defensive and incurious. Davis studied at the University of Auckland in the 1970s, writing a Masters thesis on Allen Curnow, then got a job at Treasury, which was becoming a base for the right-wing radicals who would transform New Zealand’s economy after the election of the Lange Labour government in 1984.
While he was at Treasury, Davis published Willy’s Gazette, a volume of loose, exuberant sonnets. He graduated from Treasury to Fay Richwhite, where he helped to privatise New Zealand’s railways and its telecommunications system. He was a director of Tranz Rail, the privatised rail company controlled by Fay Richwhite, until 2003. Tranz Rail was often criticised for its poor safety record, and in 2000 five of its employees died in workplace accidents over a period of seven months. At an inquiry ordered by the government, workers complained of a lack of training, long hours, and unsafe conditions, and blamed these problems on cost-cutting in the years after privatisation.
Davis’ last book of poems was written in late 2008, after doctors had cut a tumour out of his brain and disrupted his speech and thought. Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life was published posthumously in 2010, and won the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award. Horrocks celebrates Davis’ poetry, and laments that it is not better known. He movingly describes how Stunning Debut grew from a few fragmentary phrases in a notebook to a series of long, sonorous poems, as Davis’ brain recovered from its battering. Horrocks is unnecessarily hostile, though, to scholars and critics who have tried to understand Davis’ words in the light of his deeds.
In a meticulous and eloquent Masters thesis for the University of Canterbury, Emma Fergusson argued that Davis had developed a sort of poetic corollary of neoliberal capitalism in the 1980s. Fergusson sees a parallel between the predations of companies like Fay Richwhite and the way Davis’ poems appropriate and deploy images and historical events.In Willy’s Gazette Davis plucks incidents from the life of Te Kooti, the nineteenth-century Ngati Rongowhakaata prophet and warrior, and mixes them with undergraduate in-jokes and images from the good life in early 1980s Auckland. These juxtapositions are diverting, but they tell us little about Te Kooti, or anything else. Like pieces of coral ripped from a reef and displayed on a mantelpiece, the images Davis pulls from history into his poems soon lose all colour and meaning.
Instead of considering Fergusson’s analysis of Willy’s Gazette seriously, Horrocks characterises her as a confused anti-intellectual:
[Emma Fergusson] implies that Davis’ poetry is not only obscure but not worth the effort of struggling with it. In fact, what such arguments appear to prove is the strength of the resistance within our literary scene to difficult or unfamiliar poetry. New Zealanders are certainly justified in being angry about Rogernomics, but the relationship between poetry and politics is a complex one…
Because he holds to Curnow’s bleak and inaccurate view of New Zealand as a wasteland of philistinism, where inquisitors hunt a handful of determinedly difficult poets and artists, Horrocks is too ready to dismiss any critic of a poet like Davis. Leigh Davis himself would have resisted any attempt to separate his business and his literary pursuits. He considered capitalism and poetry complementary, and thought that the laws of the market ought to be applied to literature and to the rest of the arts. In his 1994 essay ‘Where Am I in Relation to the Market?’, which was published in the art journal Midwest, for instance, Davis argued that business is better at deciding the value of paintings than curators or critics.
Finally, although I have discussed the parts of Re-inventing New Zealand that I find problematic, there are many arguments in the book that I find compelling. And even where I disagree with Horrocks, I enjoy arguing with him. Re-inventing New Zealand is a book I will reread regularly.
SCOTT HAMILTON lives in New Zealand and in the Kingdom of Tonga, and writes about both places. He is publishing books about the Great South Road and nineteenth-century slave raids on Tonga next year. He blogs at http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com
Roger Horrocks says
My thanks to Scott Hamilton for a serious and thoughtful review of my book. I am delighted that Scott hopes to reread it ‘regularly,’ and that while he disagrees with many of my arguments, he says: ‘I enjoy arguing with him.’ Those are generous comments.
I should correct a couple of factual points. I did not set up the ‘Drama Department’ at Auckland University – my subject was ‘Film, Television and Media Studies.’ Also, while I am a Co-Director of Point of View Productions, it’s my wife Shirley who leads the company.
In terms of the larger issues, Scott presents a lively case for New Zealand having been an intellectual haven up until the 1950s. I was certainly not claiming that there was no intellectuals or intellectual activity in the pioneer and Victorian periods; I was simply wanting to focus on the strong anti-intellectual streak that also existed. For support I can turn to leading historians, such as Michael King and James Belich. King remarked: ‘New Zealanders have always been – and when I say “always” I mean from the time we had a recognisable colonial society that was addressing things like ideas and matters of public debate – always been opposed to intellectuality.’ And in the same 2007 book (Speaking Truth to Power), Belich pointed out that New Zealand had ‘a fairly severe case’ of both ‘the tall poppy syndrome’ and ‘anti-intellectualism,’ and ‘a diagnosis as to why…takes you right back deep into the roots of New Zealand history.’ So, like them, I would not start with the 1950s.
The other issue on which I disagree with Scott is his assumption that Leigh Davis’s writing cannot be taken seriously because he was implicated in Rogernomics. As my book shows, I have always been a critic of Rogernomics; but despite Davis’s politics, I believe that his texts still justify close reading, hence my 30-page attempt to do so. Scott appears not yet to have looked at Davis’s work closely, since he jumbles up two of his books, Willy’s Gazette and Te Tangi a te Matuhi (which is the one about Te Kooti). Also, Willy’s Gazette is unmistakably about Wellington, not ‘Auckland’ as Scott claims. If Scott is consistent in judging poetry according to the writer’s politics and business experience, then I assume he will be equally dismissive of the work of a capitalist such as Wallace Stevens.
To conclude: I enjoy arguing with Scott, and thank him again for his mostly generous (but sometimes ‘problematic’) review
Scott Hamilton says
I thank Roger Horrocks for his typically gracious response to my review.
I suspect that Roger and I are going to have to continue disagreeing about the place of intellectuals in New Zealand history, but I hope we might be able to agree on the more modest matter of the place of Te Kooti in Leigh Davis’ oeuvre.
As Roger points out, Davis devoted an exhibition and book to Te Kooti at the end of the 1990s. Contrary to what Roger suggests, though, this was not the first time Davis had dealt with the prophet. Along with a number of other Maori religious leaders, Te Kooti makes a cameo appearance in Willy’s Gazette, Davis’ first book. I’d like to dwell for a minute on that appearance, because it exemplifies everything that I find problematic about Davis’ use of New Zealand history.
Davis introduces Te Kooti into the last poem in the first section of Willy’s Gazette. The poem in question begins with Willy, Davis’ alter ego, fiddling with the pocket calculator he uses during his office hours as a number crunching financial expert at New Zealand’s Treasury. Willy talks about the fluctuations of financial markets, and compares their motions to that of the sea. Then he suddenly relates, in a romanticised, almost bombastic manner, one of the more grotesque episodes in Te Kooti’s autobiography.
After Te Kooti and his followers had stolen a boat and begun their escape from unjust imprisonment on the Chatham Islands, they ran into a strong headwind, and found themselves unable to make progress. One of Te Kooti’s relatives, an older man named Te Warihi, became very fearful, and gave voice to his fears. Te Kooti responded by seizing Te Warihi and throwing him over the side of the ship. The old man sank, and soon the headwind died down. Te Kooti defended his action by claiming that Te Warihi was demoralising everybody aboard; he also seems to have suggested that the old man was a spy for the colonial government.
Leigh Davis writes the lines ‘Into the dangerous sea Te Kooti threw his uncle like Jonah/ and the danger dropped’. He then returns to the 1980s, and spends a few lines painting pictures of Willy’s cosy flat and his privileged urban world.
Davis’ reference to the murder of Te Warihi seems to me historically and theologically inaccurate and incredibly crass. The allusion to Jonah makes little sense, given Te Warihi’s miserable fate, and the suggestion that Te Kooti sacrificed his relative in order to influence the sea makes little sense, given Te Kooti’s monotheism and his statement that the old man was killed for the sake of morale.
What I find truly egregious, though, is the nonchalant way Davis drops the murder of an elderly man into the middle of a poem celebrating his life as a financier in 1980s New Zealand. It is as though this tragic fragment of nineteenth century history exists simply to embroider the legend of Willy, money man and raconteur and Don Juan. The attempt to equate Willy’s adventures on New Zealand’s money markets with the journey of Te Kooti and his followers across the southern ocean seems almost absurdly vainglorious.
For me, Davis’ misuse of the death of Te Warihi typifies the way in which his poems treat New Zealand history. And, as Emma Fergusson argues so well, there seems a parallel between Davis’ exploitation of New Zealand history in his poems and the uncaring way in which the companies he helped steer treated their employees and resources. Davis raided and stripped New Zealand history; with his help, Fay Richwhite did the same thing to the railways.
Roger is correct to say that writers who hold rebarbative views about economics or politics can still be worth reading. Unlike Wallace Stevens or Ezra Pound, though, Leigh Davis seems not to have transcended but rather to have reproduced the logic of his economics and politics in his writing.
Roger Horrocks says
Scott, I think you are just not attuned to a poem like Willy’s Gazette. You find one and a half lines in that book about Te Kooti and then write a solemn fifty or so lines interpreting it as a reflection of Rogernomics! Wow! Your reading is just not true to the tone or mood of the book. It isn’t appropriate to treat a Frank O’Hara or a John Ashbery poem as though it’s an academic History lecture, and Davis’s poetry has a similar style and complexity to O’Hara and Ashbery’s. Also, I urge you to read Davis’s book Te Tangi a te Matuhi, which is a tribute to Te Kooti. It includes contributions not only by Davis but also by Wirangi Pera and Haare Williams. Davis made sure he had the blessing of Te Kooti’s ancestors for that project. Scott, I think you (and the thesis student you mention) are just not on the right wave-length for Davis’s poetry; and also, your description of his attitude to Te Kooti as ‘crass’ certainly doesn’t match my view of it.
Scott Hamilton says
I took some time to discuss a particular poem* in Willy’s Gazette because I wanted to show that, contrary to what you suggested, I have read the book with some care. I’m also familiar with Te Tangi a Matuhi, and with Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life, though I haven’t read Davis’ other books.
I think the points I make against Davis’ use of history in Willy’s Gazette are very similar not only to the arguments in Emma Fergusson’s Masters thesis but to those laid out by Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul in her long essay ‘Between Meaning and Nonsense’, which was published in the literary journal brief in 1999.
Engels-Schwarzpaul argues Davis appropriates, trivialises and exploits Maori history, and in particular the story of Te Kooti and his Ringatu church. Like me, she is critical of the way Davis juxtaposes fragments of Te Kooti’s biography with material that seems to cheapen and sensationalise it. Although Davis, to his credit, did establish links with some members of the fragmented Ringatu movement when he undertook his project in the late ’90s, Engels-Schwarzpaul cites an elder of the movement who was upset by what Davis had done.
Engels-Schwarzkauf’s essay is eloquent and carefully researched, and resonates interestingly with the criticisms that art historians like Rangihiroa Panoho were making of the Pakeha appropriation of Maori imagery in the ’90s.
In the review that prompted this conversation I suggested that you tend to resist attempts to address the concrete points that Davis’ critics make about his poetry, and instead resort to dismissing those critics as victims of anti-intellectualism and philistinism. I see the same resistance at work in this discussion thread, as you suggest that I’m simply not on the right ‘wavelength’ to understand Davis. I’d say I’ve got a reasonable understanding of how modernist and postmodernist poetry works – certainly, I’ve been able to publish many essays on these subjects in both academic and literary journals. And I think that Davis’ critics Emma Fergusson and Tina Engels-Scwharzkauf are capable of appreciating the poetics forms and traditions that Davis worked in.
If you are going to defend Davis’ poetry effectively, then I think at some point you need to accept that his critics are arguing in good faith and making substantive points, and address those points.
*I should have linked to the poem I was discussing, which has been put online, along with the rest of Willy’s Gazette, at the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/davis/willys_gazette/index34.asp
Roger Horrocks says
Hi Scott, of course I don’t see you as anti-intellectual or philistine. But I think that we have argued enough to make our positions on Davis clear so that other readers can take it from here. Evidently you don’t feel I have answered your criticisms in terms of history and appropriation, and I don’t feel you have answered my criticisms in terms of tone (i.e. that tone is very important in poetry and you need to start by tuning in to a poet’s approach or idiom – with Davis, just as you would with O’Hara or Ashbery, say).
At this stage I think we should just agree to disagree.
Scott Hamilton says
I agree that we’ll have to disagree Roger.
Since I’ve been very negative about Davis up until, let me just say a couple of positive things about his work.
I admire the energy and restlessness of books like Willy’s Gazette and Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life. I think you are right when you say that Davis’ desire to tackle massive projects – to write on an expansive, even epic scale – is something rare in New Zealand literature. Alan Brunton is perhaps the only poet of Davis’ generation who could rival his sheer ambition.
And I think that Davis had a genuine fascination with Te Kooti. It is easy to forget that when he was writing Willy’s Gazette, Judith Binney had not published her massive taonga Redemption Songs, which told the story of the prophet’s life by bringing together material from some extremely obscure sources. Nowadays we can open Redemption Songs and read about events like the killing of Te Warihi, but Davis would have had to travel into remote corners of libraries to learn about them. So the allusion to Te Warihi and much of the other material in Willy’s Gazette testifies to Davis’ adventurous and omnivorous reading.
I should offer a link to Emma Fergusson’s thesis on Davis to readers, because she has spent much more time on his work than me, and has paid attention to his style in a way that I have not in my brief remarks.
I agree that there is a stylistic link between Davis and Ashbery and O’Hara, and I think Fergusson’s thesis has some of the qualities of John Shoptaw’s On the Outside Looking Out, which I think is the best book about Ashbery and the New York School. Shoptaw begins by wanting to understand why Ashbery developed such a distinctive and apparently obscure style, and looked carefully at the political and social world of 1950s America for an answer. He sees the poet’s elliptical manner as a wily and subversive response to the persecution of gays and general repressiveness of that decade. I think that Fergusson has done a similar job with Davis’ style in her thesis, by grounding it in New Zealand’s neo-liberal revolution of the 1980s, but readers can decide for themselves:
Roger Horrocks says
Hi Scott, Thanks for your helpful remarks. Personally, I think your comments here offer much more useful advice to readers than Fergusson’s thesis. I value Davis’s poetry for the particular kinds of speed, humour and complexity it introduced into New Zealand poetry. If someone wants to criticise it effectively, they should not attack it with an academic sledge-hammer, they need to be a lot more nimble-footed. As I recall, it didn’t help the thesis to make heavy use of Fredric Jameson’s clunky early version of his theory of ‘post-modernism’. The pleasure of reading Willy is not just the ‘ambition’ but the moxie.
Richard Taylor says
I think the comparison with Berryman’s sonnets is also good. I am interested that Davis was interested in a lot of the poets I like or am interested in. From a poetic view, if we can divorce it for a bit, Willy’s Gazette is quite unique (almost) in NZ literature. That he was very keen on financial things is, I think, fascinating [as that is almost an “unpoetic” way of writing and adds a kind of density to the totality of the work he writes: his celebration of finance is a kind of Whitmanian acknowledgment of the totality of interactions of all kinds in the world, and we don’t have to necessarily subscribe to a “Social Contract” or a Categorical Imperative.] (But it is maybe a pity he didn’t reply to the Tina Schwarz-Paul essay). And it is good, as Scott says that he discovered Te Kooti. Smithyman also found all kinds of NZ historical things and mixed them into his gritty complex mix of lyricism and realism and dreams…. Davis will remain problematic like Pound or Celine [not that he shared their particular politics]. It is true though that say Charles Ives (Billionnaire) was not interested in all his money, and it played no part in his work….and Stevens also. But the total man or woman, has to be taken into account (that is said by Foucault in Death and the Labyrinth, in the interview at the end, about Roussell). But Foucault like Barthes also found the issue of ‘what is an author’ etc problematic. So on balance I like “Re-Inventing New Zealand”. [The history of the 50s etc goes too wide I think, as Roger isn’t writing a history of NZ as as such….]. It IS possible of course, as Roger says in the intellectual essay, for artists, writers etc to become too elitist. Or to enter into cliques and get caught up in ideas and abstractions. In a parallel way Jacob Bronowski shows how John von Neumann the brilliant mathematician got caught up in high finance and power in the US – he then, in his TV docu, goes to Auschwitz and puts his hand in the mud and ashes at Auschwitz where possibly his own relatives have died….So that is the danger of too much certainty. (Bronowski himself also got caught up in it all I think, he wasn’t sure even as he did that scene, or so his daughter thought…).
I can see that Willy’s Gazette is online. I think it is like Brunton’s contributions. Brunton and Davis were both major innovators. Davis is, for better or worse, incorporating business and finance (along with other “data” or phenomena), which is called surviving, as it is busyness, it is getting and spending: it is not wrong. It is life. Some people do have more and get more by their wits etc. Now that may or may not have been Davis’s (total) philosophy (possibly had he survived his illness, he may have changed, here after all he was or presented a contradiction: an intellectual who was ‘one of the boys’ in a sense. He was well to do. He liked yacht races, and so on, it may even have disturbed his fellow Capitalists that he wrote strange (and to them I would say, disturbing, because “difficult”, poetry). He was a puzzle, like all Artists rich or poor, he was still on the outside, but he was kind of in the “inside” looking out and in!
Of course Rogernomics was not good for many. But it was all a part of what was happening.