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