Monday, February 25, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
This is a real departure for me. On this blog I have never once dealt with a self-help book because self-help books are generally anathema to me. The few that I have dipped in to appear to be mixtures of pop psychology, sloganeering, and a few outbreaks of common sense. They are usually packaged in such a way that the less wary public can think their platitudes and truisms are powerful insights, especially if the author has been canny enough to invent some catchy phrases that can be quoted by reviewers. They also have the habit of presenting whatever it is they have to say in bite-sized chapters and short paragraphs, that approach the bullet-points of the inspirational lecturer. They are not wisdom collected and meditated upon. They are midway between being the hucksterism of the advertising agent and the Twelve Steps programme of Alcoholics Anonymous. If I see a lot of self-help books on somebody’s bookshelves, I think “This person has sad reading habits. And lacks real friends to set him/her straight on life.”
There now. In one handy, easy-to-reference, arrogant paragraph, I spew out all my feelings against self-help books.
I think my feelings are well-founded, but then feelings unsupported by renewed evidence tend to become prejudices, and I don’t want to be accused of mere prejudice against a whole genre. So when a friend whom I respect, and who has had real trials in life recently, heartily recommended Augusten Burroughs’ This Is How as something that had been of help, I thought I’d give it a try.
The book has a slightly defensive, self-mocking tone, signalled by its cover, which is designed like a nineteenth century fairground poster. There the full title is given as This is How. Help for the Self. Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Grief, Molestation, Disease, Fatness, Lushery, Spinsterhood, Decrepitude and More. For Young and Old. We are set up to see that such comprehensive claims are slightly ludicrous.
And so it proves in the book’s brief, short-paragraph-laden chapters.
It gets off to a good start. Burroughs tells an anecdote about feeling lousy and then meeting, in a lift, a woman who made an uplifting, inspirational comment intended to make him feel better. Of course it made him feel even more lousy. The moral he draws? “Affirmations are the psychological equivalent of sprinkling baby powder on top of the turd your puppy has left on the carpet. This does not result in a cleaner carpet. It coats the underlying issue with futility.” (Pg.5)
Quite so. What is more dishonest than Coue-like auto-suggestion in which you lie to yourself rather than facing your real problems? Inspirational affirmations are sugared lies.
Burroughs has one recurring theme – you have to help yourself.
As a corollary to this, he preaches that most form of help that are offered to you are delusional and in fact encourage a crippling dependence upon other people.
If I followed his chapters through in sequence, they would read something like this:
Be honest about your feelings, but don’t let them drive you.
If you want to find love, get out and meet people, because there is no magical “soul mate” waiting to meet you.
If you’re fat and you can’t diet, get used to the beauty of your fatness and stop relying on other people’s ideas of what beauty is.
Anorexia nervosa is not cured by keeping an eating diary, which just makes you a slave to your disorder. It is cured by facing your problems honestly and overcoming them.
Self-pity means you want other people to solve your problems. Get over it.
You will overcome shyness and lack of confidence if you live in the moment and realize most other people are as lost as you are.
Failure is good for you. Learn from it.
If you want to get through a job interview, just concentrate on what your interrogators are saying. Forget other things.
Shame is a way other people manipulate you.
Be honest about the shortcomings of your sex life, and if you’re not happy with your marriage or relationship, leave it.
Don’t commit suicide. It you want to “end your life” then end the lousy sort of life you are living and change the way you live.
Real loss never heals. It’s part of you. Get used to it.
Therapy doesn’t help you to come to terms with the past. It just makes you keep reliving the past and it makes you dependent on the therapist.
If you are a smoker or a drinker who wants to quit, you will only do so by will power and cold turkey. All other methods just become a contest between you and somebody else’s idea of a cure.
Telling people to follow their dreams, no matter what, is a recipe for disappointment. Some people simply do not have the talent or ability to become what they want to become, and they sooner they realize this and reorient their lives, the better.
Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.
I think I have summed up accurately and fairly what Burroughs has to say, and I would agree that much of it is robust common sense. Burroughs paradigm of human nature is expressed on Page 59:
“But make no mistake: you are alone in the world. You were born alone, even if you were born conjoined. And you die alone, unable to bring a single person with you. Self pity means waiting for the man with that glass slipper that fits perfectly to knock on your door. Self-pity is waiting to be bottle-fed your dinner.”
The mocking fairy-tale imagery recurs a number of times, as in:
“Once the current moment moves into the past, it is entirely gone. It ceases to exist except in documents, photographs and an impression left in a sofa cushion. The past – and all the moments it contained – is no longer sharing the world with us. They are no more real than Cinderella. To spend time – year after year – in therapy or on your own thinking about your past and forming conclusions and stitching the elements into a narrative that you can name ‘the truth’ in order to be ‘free’ of it, is not how you become free from your past.” (p.120-121)
And yet, while all this is doubtless catnip to somebody moping around fondling his/her sorrows, there is a strong strain of heartlessness in Burroughs’ book. An undertone is really implying that other people don’t matter, only your own well-being does. Though often expressed flippantly and with witty one-liners (I understand this book is marketed as much as a humour book as it is as a self-help book), This is How is in some ways the reductio ad absurdum of American Individualism. Only you are real. The outside world may as well not exist. The notion of human solidarity is rarely broached.
Consider this early passage:
“Admitting you feel rage or terrible pain or regret or some old rotten blame does not mean these feelings are part of what you are as a person. What these feelings mean is, you need to change your thinking to be free of them. Maybe you need to stop fiddling with an old wound and stirring up these old feelings.” (Pg.14)
True as a shock cure. But doesn’t that “change your thinking” signal the type of rationalism that “solves” problems by pretending there is no reality outside the way you think about things? As Hamlet says in one of his dodgier moods, “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (A quotation which, I am appalled to see, some pop therapists take at face value.)
When Borroughs speaks of shame as a device whereby people can manipulate others, I agree in part as I know shame can be used thus. But then aren’t there times when shame is exactly what we should feel about the wrong things we have done? Of course you don’t wallow in shame or cultivate it. If you feel shame about something, then make amends or try to set right the wrong you’ve done. To see it only as external manipulation comes close to saying that we should never feel ashamed of anything we have done – in other words, that we are always in the right. Again, this is the solipsism that lurks in much rationalism.
In a similar vein, I would find it hard to agree with Burroughs when he tells us that he comforted a woman who was grieving over her son’s death by alcoholism, by telling her that in his last binge her son was at least doing what he enjoyed. How I feel is apparently the criterion of moral rightness. There is no objective criterion.
A little bit about “Augusten Burroughs” in case you don’t know. The name is a pseudonym adopted by Chris Robison when he was an unhappy teenager. He was the son of a lesbian poet and a professor of philosophy who divorced when he was young. He was adopted by his mother’s psychiatrist, who ran an open home for all sorts of people who had extreme behaviours. Burrough claims he was regularly abused sexually by a paedophile, who was in the psychiatrist’s entourage. He went through years of alcoholism and unsuccessful rehab before hitting on being a memoirist and writer of inspirational books. His best-known memoir – a long-term bestseller – is Running With Scissors, about his horrible childhood and how he overcame it.
There now – you have his background but [sorry] while I can see how all this feeds into the views he expresses, and while it must certainly have something to do with his very sceptical take on therapists, psychiatrists and their colleagues, for the thousandth time on this blog I’m forced back to my old aesthetic. You judge a book by the book, not by external material concerning the author’s woes, struggles and triumphs.
Judged as a book in its own right This is How, offers some good advice to the self-absorbed who need to snap out of it and realize there is no magic cure to their problems. For them, it could be a tonic. Some of the jokes are good. Some of the pokes at therapy and 12-step programmes are well-placed. But it is still a self-help book and the hectoring, one-sentence-per-paragraph, almost-like-bullet-points style can weary. In short, it is a self-help book addressing a certain market. And I’m not part of that market.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE DEVIL’S ELIXIRS” by E.T.A.Hoffmann (“DIE ELIXIERE DES TEUFELS”, written 1814, first published 1815)
It’s a melancholy pursuit in which I have never been successful. For years now, I have been looking for the perfect Gothic horror novel that will give me the same type of shudders and shocks I got when, as a kid, I first saw the classic black-and-white horror films and tales of murderous nineteenth century intrigue. I mean the old Universal Studios versions of Dracula and Frankenstein from the 1930s; or the 1940s British film of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas. But alas, no Gothic novel I’ve found has ever given me the requisite frisson. Always, I find, the intended horror becomes, on the printed page, tedious plot-spinning and artificial melodramatic effects. While I should, in fairness, note that adult re-viewings of the old films themselves don’t do so much for me now, I think my disappointment has a lot to do with the way Gothic literature was written.
Take my most recent experience of the genre – a reading of E.T.A.Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs in the translation of Ronald Taylor, which was published in 1963. Hoffmann (1776-1822) was the Prussian whose bizarre short stories became the template from which Poe, Baudelaire and others worked, not to mention composers of opera and directors of ballet films. But his most famous novel is so clogged with narrative matter that it is hard to breathe its air, let alone feel its intended shocks, and it seems to be played out before pasteboard stage sets.
In the convention of so much literature of its age, it is supposedly a manuscript left in a library and being “edited” by the author. The manuscript is the first-person narrative of Medardus. Like all characters in the novel he has an artificial Italianate name. His parentage is mysterious and unknown, as the ancestry of a Romantic-era hero should be, but he is the protégé of Prior Leonardus and of the saintly Father Cyrillus, so he grows up to be a monk in a German monastery. But, through the bars of his monastic cell, he falls madly in love with the beautiful Aurelia, whose image becomes mixed up in his mind with that of the Saint Rosalia, to whom the monks sometimes pray.
One day, among ancient relics, he finds cordials that were concocted by the Devil himself. He drinks them. He is transformed into a powerful preacher. The eloquence of his sermons rocks the monastery. But his perceptive superiors realize that he preaches only for vainglory and fame.
So they send him off on a pilgrimage to Rome to purify his soul.
But en route to Rome he – perhaps accidentally – kills a nobleman by pushing him over a cliff. He takes the nobleman’s place and goes to his home. Suddenly possessed by an evil spirit, he has an affair with the noblewoman Euphemia and kills the young nobleman Hermogenes…. in the presence of his beloved Aurelia, who happens to be related to this noble family.
Shocked at being so witnessed, Medardus flees, flinging off his monkish garb and passing himself off as a Polish nobleman. Sometimes he is pursued by a demented Doppelganger. He is put on trial for murder, but acquitted. And now Aurelia is convinced of his innocence of murder and falls madly in love with him. Medardus and Aurelia are going to marry… at which point, the evil spirit again possesses Medardus and he stabs Aurelia to death.
And so at last he comes to Rome.
He hears the complicated story of his parentage, with an explanation of why he has an evil “double”. He hears the tale of the Renaissance painter who painted, for an Italian monastery, a portrait of Saint Rosalia in a Pagan-Greek spirit; but the goodness of heaven triumphed over the painter’s pagan intention, and the resulting painting was so powerful that it was sold off to a German monastery. After talking to the very urbane pope – who, oddly enough, has time to talk to this slightly demented German monk – Medardus becomes involved in grubby Roman ecclesiastical politics, in which saintly Father Cyrillus is secretly murdered by Dominican monks…..but it is in the midst of this that Medardus learns that his own stabbing of Aurelia was a mere hallucination.
Medardus returns, chastened and penitent, to his German monastery and his monkish life. Miraculously, Aurelia just happen to come to the local convent. She takes her religious vows and becomes Sister Rosalia – the beloved and the saint are now one. The ceremony is a beautiful one…. whereupon Medardus’s evil Doppelganger rushes out and stabs Aurelia to death.
The novel closes with the clear implication that the Medardus who has written it is really insane and his narrative should be trusted only as much as madmen’s narratives are trusted. A precursor of Dr.Caligari, perhaps? At least in this respect it has much in common with James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner [see my review of it via index at right] – a primitive sense of the unreliable narrator and an awareness of the split personality; although Hoffmann has nothing like Hogg’s relatively sophisticated satire on forms of theology.
In so many respects, The Devil’s Elixirs is the epitome of the Gothic (or should that be Gothick?) novel. I am not at all surprised to learn that it was heavily influenced by Matthew Lewis’s English shocker The Monk, which appeared nearly twenty years earlier (in 1796). Hoffmann liberally rips off whole chunks of Lewis’s plot, but acknowledges his debt and has one character in his own novel actually reading The Monk.
Both The Monk and The Devil’s Elixirs were written hastily, in a matter of a few months, both authors going at white-hot speed and not caring too much for stylistic niceties.
In both there is that Northern European Protestant fascination with, and yet fear of, Catholicism, Catholic ceremonies and Catholic monasteries. Monks, according to both Hoffmann and Lewis, are either obsessed with erotic visions or are engaged in committing murder in Roman cellars. And yet there are also dithyrambs on the beauty of Catholic art, Catholic ceremony and Catholic ritual. This seems to be the ghost of something that Protestant lands had lost, mixed with a certain envy of the power that Catholic art still exerts. In the same spirit that agnostic and atheist novelists now write novels about Jesus Christ, so did Gothick novelists write about monks and monasteries. It was and is a case of love-hate. Apparently Hoffmann was partly inspired by visits to a Carthusian monastery when he had taken a job as a music director in a predominantly Catholic part of Germany far from his Prussian home.
Then there are all those other Gothick elements. The Doppelganger (saint or devil sometimes mixed in one character). The beautiful picture with magical powers. The ancestral curse. The evil stranger. The character who comments and moralizes upon the narrative (in The Devil’s Elixirs he is called variously Pieter Schonfeld and Pietro Belcampo). How often have we met mixtures of these themes – like familiar stage props – in other novels of the era.
When I read The Devil’s Elixirs, I reacted exactly as I did when I first read The Monk. I rushed through its piling-on of extreme and improbable incidents and as a result sometimes became lost in its messy and illogical (and hastily-banged-together) plot. Particularly irritating were the frequent anterior explanations of events, by means of self-exposition in conversations, diaries etc. And not once did I feel fear or a real sense of the uncanny. Reading it was like viewing a set of lurid period woodcuts – or, at best, Fuseli prints. The only parts that engaged me were certain self-contained episodes and anecdotes, such as the interrogation of Medardus, when he slips out of the charge of murder by pretending to be a Polish nobleman; or the tale of the Renaissance painter who tries to fool monks by painting an erotic image of Venus, but finds that the saintly spirit of Saint Rosalia triumphs anyway. At such points I reflected – is it any wonder that Hoffmann is better remembered as a short-story-writer than as a novelist? His imagination simply could not sustain the full-length narrative.
And yet, in this novel, I did find one gem, which I quote in full. It comes from Part 2, Chapter 2 of the novel, where Pieter Schonfeld offers advice to Meldardus thus:
“…whether you know it or not, Medardus, I myself am the Folly that is always pursuing you in order to assist your power of reason. And whether you realize it or not you will only find salvation in Folly, for your much-vaunted reason is an utterly worthless thing and cannot sustain itself; it stumbles backwards and forwards like a frail child and has to enter into a partnership with Folly, which then helps it along because it knows how to find the right way home – to the madhouse. And that is where we have both arrived, my dear Brother Medardus, which is as it should be….Folly, my dear Brother Medardus…appears on Earth as the true Queen of Spirits. Reason is nothing but an inefficient charge d’affaires who never troubles about what goes on outside his sphere and makes the troops drill on the barrack-square out of boredom; as a result, they are incapable of firing a decent shot when the enemy attacks. But Folly, the true Queen, enters in triumph with trumpets and drums, followed by jubilant crowds. The serfs rise from the corners to which reason has banished them, and will no longer stand up and sit down at the chamberlain’s behest. Looking down his list, this worthy says: ‘Look, Folly has knocked my best pupils off their balance; in fact, they have all become unbalanced’. That’s a play on words, Brother Medardus; and a play on words is a hot curling iron in the hand of Folly, which uses it to shape its thoughts.”
The last part of this quotation leads me to believe that Hoffmann and the Gothick novel had hit on the concept of the Freudian Slip a full century avant la lettre. The notion of “Folly” leading “Reason” by the nose is indeed an anticipation of the Subconscious ordering the Conscious mind, and gives me a greater respect for the imaginative Gothick artists of the Romantic era than their limping narratives do. I am unsurprised to learn that Freud admired Hoffmann, presumably seeing in his fictions fantastic and symbolic images of the suppressed Libido and its struggle with Thanatos.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
A CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT ICON FOR OUR TIMES
Sometimes you are harmlessly reading a newspaper when you come across an interview of such penetrating insight and urgency that you wonder why all interviews are not so attuned to matters of similar great cultural importance. It happened to me recently when I was reading a Sunday supplement and came across the following. It is truly awesome in its grasp of the really significant things of life….
Naïve Worshipper: Gosh, Marianne Fitful, it’s such a privilege to interview a cultural icon like you. I feel so humble and awed to be talking to you. I mean. Wow. It’s just incredible. Well, like, I’ve always wanted to talk to somebody like you and here we are on the phone and we’re talking and it’s as if all my dreams have come true and I’ve admired you for years and I’m in New Zealand and you’re in…
Marianne Fitful: Do you want to ask me something?
Naïve Worshipper: Oh. Yes. Sure. Sorry. Um….how are you?
Marianne Fitful: Tired. I’ve been partying. We opened last night with the new production of Ubelascu’s famous 1920s Romanian atonal opera satire Sin, Sin, Sin. It’s all very sexy. I get to stab somebody on stage and have sex afterwards. I like it.
Naïve Worshipper: Gosh. Wow. That’s really pushing the envelope. I mean, it’s edgy. Wish I could see that. Um… aren’t some of your relatives minor aristocracy?
Marianne Fitful: F**k off. Talk about something else please. I don’t want my fans to think I grew up privileged or anything.
Naïve Worshipper: Oh. Yeah. Sure. Anything you say. Um, anyway, how do you feel now that it’s nearly fifty years since your first single As Sniffles Get Loose?
Marianne Fitful: Okay. Okay. So I’m in my seventies now. You don’t have to tell everyone. Anyhow, I don’t feel too bad about it. I couldn’t sing then and I still can’t sing a note so I guess time hasn’t made much difference to my talent and I’m just right for an atonal opera. But, yeah, it’s quite funny in a way to think that kids in the sixties thought that stuff was important. I mean, we were cracking up in the studio when I recorded it. You know it was the first composition of Mike Jigger and Kiff Rockers?
Naïve Worshipper: Yeah. Wow. Awesome. Do you remember how you first broke into recording?
Marianne Fitful: Yeah. I was at a party for Mike Jigger and the Rolling Rocks and I’d been dating most of them, Mike and Kiff and the others, if you know what I mean, and they sort of thought they had to give me something back so their producer banged me into a studio and there I was.
Naïve Worshipper: Wow. Awesome. Incredible. I mean wow – what a significant cultural moment. And then you were in that iconic and significant 1960s film Girl in a Tight-Fitting Leather Cat Suit. Wow. I still remember how I cried when you came off your motorcycle and crashed through the windscreen of…
Marianne Fitful: Actually the film was complete crap. Are you sure you’ve even seen it? Anyway, they used a body double and it was all just about tits and leather. Complete crap.
Naïve Worshipper: Um. Yeah. Sure. Awesome. And, um, didn’t you get into a lot of drugs once and go homeless?
Marianne Fitful: Yeah, but I still had rich friends and contacts and we got some good druggie songs out of all that.
Naïve Worshipper: Wow. Awesome. Um, do you mind if I ask you about your epoch-making 1979 album Semi-Coherent English? I mean this was a big change of pace for you wasn’t it, much edgier and earthier than the earlier stuff and I mean it was influenced by punk and the radical rebels in Europe and…
Marianne Fitful: Well what happened was I still couldn’t sing but my voice was even crappier now because I was getting older and other stuff, so we thought it’d be a real laugh to get me in the studio and let rip even though I couldn’t hit the notes. And it worked. The critics in the pop music press praised it. You know you’ve pulled it off when that happens. Once they praise something really crappy it gets to be cult. Then you can laugh. Because most of Semi-Coherent English was complete crap, of course.
Naïve Worshipper: Wow. Incredible. Really epoch-making. And what do you think of today’s pop stars.
Marianne Fitful: Complete crap.
Naïve Worshipper: Gosh. Wow. Awesome. I mean really, really, really significant. And you are a cultural icon after all aren’t you. And I really feel so privileged to be talking to you after all your years of high creativity and…
Marianne Fitful: Oh for f**ck’s sake. [Hangs up]
Monday, February 18, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“WILLIAM COLENSO – HIS LIFE AND JOURNEYS” by A.G. Bagnall and G.C.Petersen. Edited by Ian St George – a new edition of the biography first published in 1948 by A.H. and A.W. Reed (Otago University Press $NZ65)
Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog two books about the nineteenth century printer, sometime Anglican missionary, explorer and gadfly William Colenso. They were Peter Wells’ idiosyncratic biography of Colenso The Hungry Heart; and Ian St.George’s edition of a selection of Colenso’s letters to the press, Give Your Thoughts Life. [Check out my comments on them via the index at right].
I noted at the time how much Wells’ book reflected Wells’ own concerns – especially sexual ones, as Wells focussed on the breakdown of Colenso’s marriage – and how much the author pushed himself to the forefront of the narrative. There is much that is postmodernist about Wells’ style. By contrast, Ian St.George’s edition of the letters gave us the public face that Colenso himself chose to display. Neither book played up Colenso the explorer, which, I said, was one of the main concerns of an earlier full-length book about Colenso, A.G. Bagnall and G.C. Petersen’s William Colenso, His Life and Journeys. This biography first appeared in 1948 under the imprint of A.H. and A.W. Reed.
I admit that extensive notes on Bagnall and Petersen’s book have sat in one of my study folders for years. I read it when I was doing a degree in church history and taking papers on nineteenth century missionary endeavour. William Colenso, His Life and Journeys has now been republished by Otago University Press. This is a new edition of the book; not just a reprinting. It was edited by Ian St.George, and includes his new 20-page introduction. Among its appendices, it also prints for the first time a 30-page “autobiography” which Colenso penned.
St.George’s introduction notes that the bicentennial of Colenso’s birth, commemorated in 2011, set off various celebrations (especially in Napier, where Colenso spent his later years). There was an outpouring of scholarly writings on all aspects of the man’s life. The introduction serves both to present Ian St.George’s ideas on Colenso (as distinct from Bagnall and Petersen’s) and to correct a few minor things in the 65-year-old biography. The editor says that Bagnall and Petersen, in 1948, still found it “risky to criticise” all the eminent 19th century figures who got offside with Colenso, especially Bishop Selwyn, head of the Anglican mission in New Zealand. St.George interprets Selwyn as a social snob prejudiced against a Cornishman of humbler birth like Colenso. Referring to the affair that broke up Colenso’s marriage, St George adds:
“We are better now at seeing historical figures as human beings – not polarised into good guys and bad guys, but authentic people with faults as well as outstanding qualities. Some of Colenso’s contemporaries damaged his reputation for many years, ostensibly because of his affair with Ripeka Meretene, but more realistically because he publicly criticised their self-serving acquisition or sale of land.” (Pg.13)
Moving into a slightly more defensive tone, St.George (on pp.14-15) seeks to clear Colenso of the charge that, having at first vigorously opposed those Anglican missionaries who enriched themselves by the extensive purchase of Maori land, Colenso himself later acquired extensive holding. St.George says Colenso did so only after the system of purchasing land directly from Maori had changed into a system of purchasing land from the settler government. Personally, I’m not sure that this clears Colenso entirely of a certain hypocrisy, but other readers might decide otherwise.
Ian St.George corrects some factual errors in Bagnall and Petersen’s biography, such as their belief that Colenso was an active botanist before he left his native Cornwall. He also notes that Bagnall and Petersen make little of Colenso’s controversial defence of Kereopa te Rau, who was implicated in the killing of the missionary Volkner. The introduction tells us about Colenso’s attitude to drink and his voluminous correspondence; and gives details that are now known about Colenso’s fluctuating health even though Colenso was “a fit athlete who covered more ground on foot than any other New Zealand explorer before him.” (Pg.21)
Ian St. George ends by noting that he has made only one or two minor alterations (largely of literals) to Bagnall and Petersen’s text.
This introduction is, I think, a model of what such introductions should be. While clearly acknowledging that modern scholarship has revealed some things the earlier biographers did not know, and while setting out how his own views differ from theirs, St.George also makes clear the continuing documentary value of the 1948 book.
As for the other material that is new to this edition, Colenso’s “autobiography”, not intended for publication, was addressed to his son Latimer and deals specifically with the years from 1833 to 1853. It cuts off in 1853 after Colenso has given a reasonably frank account of his affair with Ripeka, and his tense and hostile confrontations with Bishop Selwyn. It then jumps to 1883, when Colenso was writing, and gives some further rueful reflections on his failed marriage and his former wife’s relatives.
And what of Bagnall and Petersen’s text itself, which I have hardly examined yet?
This is a solid, densely-detailed text, upwards of 450 large pages of smallish print (exclusive of appendices etc.). Ian St George’s introduction refers (Pg.9) to the “ambitious scope, scholarly research, vivid travelogues and wine-dark passages of Homeric prose” of Bagnall and Petersen’s work, and this is fair comment. Upon re-reading it I am more aware of the stylistic conventions of the time in which it was written. As one example, consider a passage like the following (and it is typical of the book):
“After a day’s rest the indefatigable traveller again set out, passing through a beautiful park-like countryside dotted with small lakes and groves of kahikatea and stopping for the night at Toiti, just short of the banks of the Waipa River. Here the aspect of the country had again changed, and Colenso found it ‘a weary, desolate wild; not a single plant found!’ After what was for Colenso a night of continual torment because of the attacks of his old enemies the sandflies, they set off for the Waipa, which was reached at Whatawhata after half an hour’s walk. Here they expected they would easily procure a canoe for the river voyage to Waikato heads, but Colenso was much incensed at the extreme avarice of the chief, called Donald, who at first declared that it was impossible to find a canoe. All were wanted for the transport of pigs to Auckland, there being at that time a pakeha buyer at the pa. At length a canoe was grudgingly produced, but when the hire of it was paid for in a Testament and books it was withdrawn, this form of tender being unacceptable to Donald, who had adopted the standards of exchange of the pakeha more readily than his religious precepts. However, as a concession, he might be able to find another canoe, providing the fetching of it was paid for. There being no escape, Colenso was forced to accept these terms, and a small canoe was eventually found. Colenso, when paying for this service, insisted, with heavy irony, on paying for the drink of water he had had, the fern stalk he had pulled to cover the bottom of the canoe, and the specimens of caterpillars he had gathered from the chief’s crops. This punctilious reckoning had its effect, and on their leaving Donald produced as a farewell peace offering a few potatoes, gratis, for use during the voyage.” (pp.137-138)
The anecdote told here is lively and clear. But for one single paragraph, this is almost too clogged with specific narrative matter –the journey; the geographical features; the nature of the place; the specific place names; the haggling over the canoe; and Colenso’s ironic reaction.
Most of the book is written thus, and over the long haul it makes for a detailed chronological plod.
Bagnall and Petersen were hugely dependent on Colenso’s own journals and articles, as their original bibliography shows; and their biography can sometimes resemble an arranged editing thereof. This is not the thematic style of more recent biographies.
In terms of values and attitudes there are inevitably signs of the 1948 text’s age. Beginning at p.316 are the two chapters entitled “Nemesis” and “Retribution”, leading up to Selwyn’s revoking Colenso’s licence as a minister. Bagnall and Petersen choose to deal at one and the same time with Colenso’s ideological differences with Donald McLean and his marital difficulties. They are very delicate about Colenso’s relationship with his wife Elizabeth, and the extra-marital affair that led to their parting. Of the married couple, they announce a little pompously:
“It would be as unpardonable to dwell on the crisis in a partisan spirit as to dwell at unnecessary length on this final parting, while there is little satisfaction in attempting an incalculable balance of character differences and personal problems against the influence of religion and family.” (Pg.333)
But they then proceed to pass judgement on William and Elizabeth anyway.
In one matter, the two authors show great good judgement. Clearly they wish to celebrate Colenso as an important and admirable figure. But they are aware that he was, especially in his earlier years, an evangelical “low church” zealot and he engaged in much sectarian controversy, especially with Catholic missionaries whose very presence in New Zealand enraged him. When they have to chronicle Colenso’s attempts to argue with those Catholic priests whom he encountered, they do not engage in any triumphalism, or presume to say who “won” any such debate. Generally, they simply note that such a debate happened. That could teach a few things to at least one later New Zealand historian, who repeats sectarian reports of such debates as if they are objective statements of fact.
I’ll conclude with some miscellaneous remarks.
Ian St John clearly has a very different perspective on William Colenso from the one Peter Wells has in The Hungry Heart. But in his introduction he refers generously to Wells’ book as “a wonderful melding of accurate historical investigation and insightful subjective interpretation.” (Pg.9). Later (Pg.17) there is a passing reference to Wells, dealing with Colenso’s relationship with his cousin John William Colenso, the Anglican Bishop of Natal in South Africa, who shared many of Colenso’s “advanced” theological views. Nevertheless, the blurb to this new edition of Bagnall and Petersen calls the republished book “the most thoroughly researched and comprehensive biography of this forceful individual, deserving a new edition”. Vis-a-vis Wells’ effort, I think this judgement still stands.
In many respects, the 1948 book is a type of biography that is no longer written. That may be a pity. St.George’s introduction ends with the words “The next biography will require a multi-disciplinary team, reflecting the many facets of this intriguing polymath’s life.” (Pg.27) Frankly, I’m not sure that this prospect enthuses me. I am over-familiar with multi-authored tomes whose essays provide academics with research points for their PBRF rating, but which are often colourless congeries.
Finally a personal comment. I am reviewing here a book about Colenso. I am not passing judgement on Colenso himself. But as I noted in my review of Give Your Thoughts Life, I probably find Colenso a less attractive figure than Ian St George does. For all his “advanced” thought and (relatively) wise dealing with Maori, Colenso was still a man of his times who, even in his mellower old age, shared many of the prejudices of his contemporaries. As I read this new edition of William Colenso: His Life and Journeys, I kept thinking of two other books about a nineteenth century cleric in New Zealand, which Otago University Press published a decade ago. These were John Crockett’s translations of books by the Italian Catholic priest Felice Vaggioli, A Deserter’s Adventures and History of New Zealand and its Inhabitants. Vaggioli’s views on just about any issue were the diametric opposite of Colenso’s, but just as worth knowing as part of the historical record. And this is the point about any revival in print of a controversialist from the past. He is being remembered. He is not necessarily being endorsed.