Monday, June 30, 2014

Something New

 We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“HOW WE REMEMBER – New Zealanders and the First World War” edited by Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)

            I do not claim to be, and have never claimed to be, an expert on New Zealand’s responses to the First World War, but I probably know more about the subject than the average reader. In part this is because I once wrote the biography of somebody who became involved in the conscription controversies in New Zealand during that war (James Michel Liston – A Life, Victoria University Press, 2006). In part it is because I spent one semester at the University of Otago standing in for Professor Tom Brooking and lecturing on New Zealand in the First World War – and later returned to the same university and taught a paper on New Zealand under the Liberal and Reform governments, covering the same general era. And in part it is because I have a family military connection, although I am personally and strictly a lifelong civilian [look up the posting “Goodbye Soldier” on the index at right].
Additional to this I have, simply out of interest, read great swathes of the First World War literature in terms of novels and poetry and cinema, and have every so often written about it on this blog [look up the postings “Images of War”, “Storm of Steel”, “They Didn’t All Write Anti-War Poetry”, “What Passing Bells?”, “Myths and Legends of the First World War” and “Time Stumps the Best of Intentions” on the index at right]
            Like a great many New Zealanders, I have forebears who fought in the New Zealand Division in the First World War. On my mother’s side, there was a great-uncle who managed to fight his way through the war and survive. On my father’s side, there was a great-uncle who died at Passchendaele. I am aware that a greater proportion of New Zealand manpower was mobilised for military service in the First World War than in the Second World War. Also like many other New Zealanders, I have strong feelings about the way the war is both remembered and mythologised. In my own case, I am particularly allergic to the Gallipoli myth. My own view is that, in 1915, New Zealanders (and Australians) willingly participated in the Dardanelles campaign as subjects of the British Empire. The only “nationalism” involved was the colonial “nationalism” of saying to Mother England “Look, Mum, we’re big boys and can play war games for you too.” Only later, and with much distortion of the historical record, has Gallipoli been mythologised as the beginning of an independent New Zealand consciousness. I do not say this to belittle the soldiers’ hardships and courage, but I do profoundly resent the notion that New Zealand’s participation in this foolish campaign (the one great Turkish victory of the war) is somehow the foundation of our sense of nationhood.
            There now. In this year in which everyone is marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, that is what I bring to a considered reading of these 20 essays, which Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts have gathered together and edited under the title How We Remember.  The title points to the central theme of how New Zealanders remember the First World War, which is not necessarily the same as how New Zealanders experienced the war at the time. And remembrance means that New Zealanders are as conscious of the images of the war created by British and other novels, poems and films as they are of the New Zealand experience. The editors’ introduction sensibly reminds us that how people experienced the war was not same as how popular memory reconstructs it. The introduction also notes that the literary works now regarded as the “classics” of that combat are not those that had a great audience when they were produced. As Harry Ricketts has noted before (in his excellent book Strange Meetings – The Poets of the Great War, Chatto and Windus, 2010) Wilfred Owen may now be regarded as Britain’s greatest First World War poet, but his reputation was tiny when he was alive and he was little known for many years afterwards.
            Reading How We Remember, I did what I usually do when I have a book of essays to review. I began at the beginning and, occasionally gritting my teeth (as I made my way through those essays that did not engage me much), I ploughed through to the end, in the order in which the material is presented. Only when I closed the book did I reflect that How We Remember presents a couple of distinct types of essay.
First there are those that give an exposition of necessary historical information. Considering this type, I might almost advise readers of this collection to turn to Jock Phillips’ essay and read it first, as it is the one that most clearly gives an overview history of the ways New Zealanders have remembered the First World War. Had I been editing this collection, I might have placed it at the beginning. Similarly, David Grant’s essay tells in detail the story of a conscientious objector, the socialist Mark Briggs, and the punishments meted out to him by a wartime New Zealand government that was not friendly to COs. As many others have done, Grant notes the irony that Peter Fraser, Briggs’ socialist supporter in the First World War, was to become the PM in the Second World War who insisted on the most rigorous treatment of conscientious objectors. Grant’s originality, however, is in noting that Britain’s treatment of conscientious objectors had become more humane and accepting in the Second World War, whereas New Zealand’s had not. Both these essays are solid expository writing. Anna Rogers’ account of a New Zealand nurse called Fanny Speedy simply chronicles her war service rather flatly and notes the fact that New Zealand nurses were often patronised by their British opposite numbers.
Given the collection’s stated theme of remembrance, some of the necessary historical information is not so much on the war, as on how the war was represented
Jane Tolerton gives what amounts to a brief note on the World War One Oral History Archive, which she ran with Nicholas Boyack, and the soldiers’ anecdotes that it unearthed. Beginning with personal reminiscences on how, as a child, he reacted to war, C.K.Stead gives a partial account of the war literature (that which he discusses is mainly British, of course), much of which is familiar stuff. The best aspect of his essay is Stead’s close consideration of the way W.B.Yeats snubbed the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and Yeats’ decidedly odd reasons for doing do. Regarding other representations of the war, Sandy Callister examines how the war affected the art of Jan Nigro and Jenny Haworth discusses New Zealand art during the First World War, making the point that the government was slow to appoint official war artists.
I particularly enjoyed Redmer Yska’s account of a more demotic representation of the war, that of the weekly newspaper and scandal sheet Truth. In 1914, Truth was strongly anti-war. Censorship did not allow it to keep that stance for long, so it adopted the cunning strategy of cooperating with censorship by playing up stories about the hardships and complaints of soldiers, all the while representing them as sterling and patriotic lads. Truth was also anti-conscription and openly opposed the imposition of conscription in 1916. [Unlike the government of Australia, where conscription was never imposed, New Zealand’s government allowed no referenda on the issue]. As a side issue, I did wonder why Yska didn’t draw the obvious comparison with horrible Horatio Bottomley’s British wartime journal John Bull, which was “radical” in the same way that Truth was, and equally popular with soldiers in publicising their complaints. Reading Yska’s lively essay, I also couldn’t help remembering the silly misuse of Truth, as a criterion for determining objective facts, which Stefan Eldrid-Grigg made in his 2010 book The Great Wrong War.
Turning from the necessary historical information, the other dominant type of essay in this collection is the personal reflection. How We Remember begins with John Campbell’s brief and commonplace entry, which is simply the lament for the death of a farm lad whose name he found on a monument. The book ends with the gifted young novelist Hamish Clayton’s rather opaque comment on how difficult it is for us to imagine the New Zealand experience of the war. Equally opaque (or rather, oblique) is Simon During’s account of how the First World War, and the European background of the writer’s family, led him as a teenager to be influenced by Celine and Kafka and their nihilism. I warmed to John Horrocks’ article, which is mainly about war memorials, but which has a distinct anti-war undertone and certainly anti-Gallipoli-myth undertone. John Priestley’s piece comes nearest to the way my (“baby boomer”) generation sees the Great War as he speaks of great-uncles in the First World War (as I can), and of how the Second World War was still remembered as a recent event when we were kids. As for Dave Armstrong, his contribution is one of a number which shows somebody of the anti-Vietnam War protest generation at first scorning Grandpa’s stories about service in the First World War and only later coming to respect them and realize their value. Though he is mainly concerned to discuss the genesis of his play King and Country, Armstrong does make the sound point – which cannot be reiterated too often – that Passchendaele in 1917 was far more lethal for New Zealanders, and in effect far more crucial for New Zealand identity, than Gallipoli was.
I have reacted to this collection as a contrast of necessary historical information and personal reflection. Putting the two genres side-by-side, I am interested in how one can make some nice oppositions and contrasts.
Consider John Broughton’s brisk account of the Maori fighting participation in the war (the silent night-time bayonet attack at Gallipoli etc.) interwoven with the wartime waiata written by Sir Apirana Ngata. This is Maori seen in purely heroic terms. Now contrast it with one of the collection’s really outstanding contributions - Monty Soutar’s painstaking thirty-page account of why Commanding Officer Godley broke up the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli and sent four of its officers home. This does not present Maori in any less heroic a light than Broughton does, but it situates Maori in a far more complex political and racial situation than Broughton suggests. (Basically Soutar examines the breaking up of the Maori Contingent in terms of Godley’s desire to protect the Pakeha officer Lt.Col.Herbert, who was in charge of the contingent and also very unpopular with the men.)
Incidentally, I would credit Soutar with the best and most dispassionate piece of battle writing in this volume. Here is the paragraph in which his gives part of the Gallipoli action:
While the Wellington Battalion and some of the 7th Gloucesters were in possession of the crest, getting to them in daylight was perilous. A narrow saddle ran from the Apex to a small pinnacle some 100 yard ahead, with Chunuk Bair a further four hundred yards beyond. The Apex offered only a frontage of 60 yards for any unit to launch an assault from. The previous day the Auckland Battalion, trying to do just that, suffered 300 casualties and never got further than the pinnacle. The 10th Gurkhas, following them, were driven by fire down the left-hand slope into the Aghyl Dere. Darkness was the main advantage the Wellington Battalion and some of the 7th Gloucesters had in reaching the crest. The 8th Welsh had tried to follow at dawn but were ‘cut to pieces’ ” (p.54).
Outside fictional reconstructions, that is the way works of history should describe battles – pithily, and identifying concisely the main groups involved.
On the issue of contrasts it is also interesting to put two other essays side by side. Jane Hurley draws on her late father’s research to write a detailed account of New Zealanders who were imprisoned by the Turks. The unsanitary and primitive hospitals and camps to which they were taken were mitigated for them by their realization that wounded and invalided Turkish soldiers were treated as badly as the ANZAC POWs were. Her essay abounds in stories of mutual kindness between Anzac and Turk.
By contrast, military historian, and army officer, Chris Pugsley produces something startlingly different when he discusses the Turkish theatre. He begins by expressing really strong emotions as he talks of his visits to Gallipoli, in a way that at first led me to believe he was going to reproduce the familiar tale of heroism, sacrifice and the making of a nation. But once he passes this point, he presents a version of the campaign far more pitiless (on both sides) than the one Jane Hurley’s piece implies. Soldiers killed and were killed and rarely had time to express fine sentiments about the people they were fighting. Pugsley also considers at length the way the campaign has been mythologised as much by the Turks as by Allies. Turkish memorials sometimes present totally fictitious images of Anzac and Turk in 1915 playing football together. As Pugsley notes, Turkish memorials are now more likely to be anti-German, because their ally in 1915 is now seen as the nation which treats Turkish immigrants harshly. This is as much an alteration of the past for purposes of the present as the anachronistic “nationalism” which has young Australian and New Zealand tourists crowding in to Gallipoli on Anzac Day to “celebrate” the birth of their nations.
As you will by now have seen, I found much thoughtful material to savour in this collection, but I save the two very best contributions for last. They are both special because they present specific historical material that has not been considered adequately before.
One is Paul Diamond’s account of the blackmailing, in 1920, of Wanganui’s homosexual mayor Charles Mackay by the homosexual agent provocateur, and returned soldier, D’Arcy Cresswell. As Diamond says, this story has been much told recently, especially by gay writers who use it as an instance of old-time intolerance and who puzzle over why one homosexual man should blackmail another. What Diamond adds to it is the context of the aftermath of the First World War. There is the strong possibility that Mackay’s political enemies resented him for seeking electoral advantage by showily volunteering for war service; and then not going off to actually serve. They appear to have found in Cresswell’s family people who were very severely damaged by the war, had suffered bereavements because of the war, and were willing to score off a public figure who seemed to them a “slacker”. As Diamond very correctly says, nobody can know for sure what happened when Mackay pulled a gun on Cresswell, but his scenario is one that gives the case more nuance than has usually been suggested.
Finally, I note the most powerful and pertinent essay in the book. It is written by one of the editors, being Charles Ferrall’s “Maurice Shadbolt’s Gallipoli Myth”. In his essay, Ferrall shows how, not only in his (admittedly fictionalised) play Once on Chunuk Bair; but also in his collection of interviews Voices from Gallipoli, Shadbolt created myth. Quoting from parts of the interview transcripts that Shadbolt chose not to use in his book, Ferrall proves that Shadbolt distorted what interviewees actually said in order to enhance the idea of New Zealanders at odd with their British commanders. Shadbolt appears to have even made things up to give the interviews a “nationalist” Kiwi slant. In Once on Chunuk Bair, meanwhile, certain events are obviously there for purposes of legitimate dramatization. But others are literally impossible in terms of what the Gallipoli campaign actually was. Ferrall situates Shabolt’s anti-British myth in the period when the play was written - the 1970s and 1980s when New Zealanders were still reacting to Britain’s having entered the EU and therefore having “betrayed” us economically. His concluding words are:
            Shadbolt’s Gallipoli is neither historically accurate nor necessary. Voices of Gallipoli and Once on Chunuk Bair have a significant place in the history of how Gallipoli has been remembered but should not otherwise influence how we remember the campaign during the Centenary.” (p.108)
            Even as one who saw and enjoyed the first production of Once on Chunuk Bair at Auckland’s old Mercury Theatre, I applaud these words.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.  

“STRANGE MEETINGS: THE POETS OF THE GREAT WAR” by Harry Rickets (first published 2010) ; “THE GREAT WRONG WAR” by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (first published 2010)

Given that this is the year when everybody is remembering the First World War, I thought I would reproduce here reviews I wrote of two relevant books when they first appeared. First is what I wrote of Harry Ricketts' Strange Meetings in the Sunday Star-Times (12 December 2010). I reproduce the review exactly as it appeared in the newspaper, except that I have restored (in bold type) a couple of phrases that were blue-pencilled out, apparently just for reasons of space.
            Here goes:
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            It was one of the most memorable scenes in the Blackadder series that was set in the First World War. Lord Flashheart was complaining about the horrors of life in the trenches and his speech went something like this: “The blood! The noise! The endless poetry!!” It got a big laugh for the simple reason that soldier-poets form a big part of our collective memory of the Great War.
            Think of the Second World War and the only good British soldier-poet anyone can name is Keith Douglas (killed in action 1944). But think of the First World War and you’re spoiled for choice – Wilfred Owen (killed 1918), Siegfried Sassoon (survived), Isaac Rosenberg (killed 1918), Robert Graves (survived), Ivor Gurney (survived, but went insane), Charles Sorley (killed 1915), Edward Thomas (killed 1917), Edmund Blunden (survived), Rupert Brooke (died before seeing action). And so on and so on. Thanks to numerous biographies, autobiographies and (especially) anthologies, you are given the impression that every second Tommy was just itching to effuse a patriotic sonnet or scribble a poem of protest between the whiz-bangs.
            As Harry Ricketts’ extensive ‘Notes on Sources’ make plain, this ground has already been ploughed thoroughly by critics and historians. The Great War poets have gone in and out of fashion and been assessed and re-assessed. Ricketts notes that, a mere thirty years ago, the best of them were still being regarded as small beer compared with the Modernists (T.S.Eliot and others) who came after them. But their stock has risen. In Academe, it’s now quite respectable to say that Rupert Brooke wasn’t a bad poet after all, even if he did write those gooey patriotic sonnets at the outbreak of war. (The one that uses the words “England” or “English” six times always makes me feel slightly sick).
            But after all this ploughing, is there anything new to say about Britain’s Great War poets?
            Thankfully there is, and the newness of Ricketts’ book is in its approach. Strange Meetings takes its title from one of Wilfred Owen’s best-know poems – the one where a soldier dreams he is in Hell talking with the enemy soldier he killed. Ricketts, however, reconstructs a series of Earthly encounters between soldier-poets.
            Some of them are quite famous and well-documented, such as Wilfred Owen’s meeting with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital. Some are encounters only on paper, such as Edward Thomas’s reading and reviewing Rupert Brooke’s poems. A couple are Ricketts’ version of what might have happened if people had met. I’m not sure whether to be charmed or slightly annoyed at his probable, but imaginary, account of how Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas would have talked to each other.
            The value of Ricketts’ approach is its immediacy. It is like a series of vivid close-ups, giving us the general literary and war setting, but also giving the personal story.  There are heartbreak stories, of course, as Vera Brittain tries to keep up her wartime ideals via letters to her fiancé Roland Leighton, who was killed in action. There’s the ironic side, with young Robert Graves revealed as bumptious, boastful and a dab hand at getting everybody’s back up, both during the war and after it. And there are some major themes underlying it all.
            One is the fickleness of reputation. When the war was being fought, and for a few years after, some people thought that the greatest soldier-poet was a chap called Robert Nichols. He is now all but forgotten, and with good reason. His poetry is quite forgettable. As he considers reputation, Ricketts also speculates on how people would regard Wilfred Owen if he hadn’t been killed, and if (like Sassoon) he had survived to write increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant verse.
            One inaccurate view used to be that Great War poetry went from Rupert Brooke sentimentalizing patriotic duty at the start of the war to Owen and Sassoon objecting to war’s obscenity at the end. According to that version, the war startled poets into truthfulness and a new style of writing. But as Ricketts’ account shows, there were more continuities than breaks. Even the clear-eyed and protesting poets late in the war were writing in a pastoral poetic convention and were still in some ways under the shadow of Brooke. The soldier-poets all knew, or at least knew of, one another and did belong to the same literary culture.
            I read this brisk and well-written book with pleasure, but I also found parts of it very depressing – and it wasn’t a reaction to the pity of war and the familiar story of slaughter. Rather, it was the realization that literary cliques, rivalries and fights over reputation were also parts of the soldier-poets’ story. Many of the best-known were middle- and upper-middle-class Oxbridge-educated chaps. (A number were homosexual. Homoerotic themes loom large, whether the poetry is glorifying war or objecting to it.) The literary squabbles were personal in a whole lot of ways. There is sometimes the sense of an over-heated in-group.
            Increasingly I found myself sympathizing most with the ones who didn’t belong to the privileged Oxbridge crowd, and liking rank outsiders like the impoverished East End Jew Isaac Rosenberg, whose Dead Man’s Dump is my pick of the war poems. (Or Edward Thomas, who scraped a living to support his family with literary hack-work.)
            It wasn’t only the golden boys who died in the war. We shouldn’t let even the anti-war poems let us think it was.
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And here, unaltered from its newspaper appearance, is the review I wrote of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War (Sunday Star-Times, 12 September 2010). In this case, as you might note, my assessment was not quite as favourable:

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Question: Why is the First World War so beloved by pacifist and anti-war writers?

Answer: Because it seems to have had no real cause, other than the clash of rival greedy empires. Therefore it’s relatively easy to show how pointless and destructive it all was, and what a rotten legacy it left to the world.
It’s a lot harder to argue this was about the Second World War, of course. To most people, defeating Hitler still seems to have been a pretty good idea. Why else do you think the History Channel lives by endlessly recycling tales of 1939-45 heroism? But for those who want to preach the senselessness of war, 1914-18 is still the natural magnet. So from All Quiet on the Western Front to Paths of Glory to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli; from Archibald Baxter’s autobiography to Once on Chunuk Bair to the latest book on the horrors of Passchendaele, out pour books and films telling us that the First World War was a Bad Thing.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s account of New Zealand during the First World War certainly thinks that the war was a Bad Thing. In fact, from its signposting title on, it shouts, shrieks and bellows this view on nearly every page.
And fair enough too, I guess. One hundred years later, who can reasonably dispute Eldred-Grigg’s judgment that the British and French Empires were rapacious and often cruel entities? Or that they were responsible for the outbreak of the war as much as the German and Austrian Empires? As Eldred-Grigg correctly notes, the behaviour of New Zealand forces in Samoa and in Egypt would have been recorded as a major atrocity if performed by German forces in Belgium or occupied northern France. There is much in our past that can still cause us to cringe.
Eldred-Grigg’s overview of New Zealand’s role in the war is easily summarised. He argues that militarist, capitalist and landed interests, generally centring on Bill Massey’s Reform Party, pushed New Zealand into a war that was really against New Zealand’s best interests. Much of Joe Ward’s Liberal Party was queasy about this, while the new Labour Party (founded during the war) was strongly internationalist and anti-war. With its censorship and its orders-in-council, which were never tested by public opinion, New Zealand’s wartime coalition government was increasingly a “cabinet dictatorship”. Eldred-Grigg accepts the socialist argument that men were conscripted, but not wealth. War profiteers grew rich while soldiers died. Mr Fat got fatter by grabbing the “empire” of Germany’s Pacific colonies (including Samoa) for his own material gain. New Zealand’s lower-middle class and working class basically footed the bill and were considerably impoverished by the war.
Across nearly 500 pages the tale is told in the racy style of Diggers, Hatters and Whores, Eldred-Grigg’s earlier book on the 19th century gold-rushes. It mixes public history with plenty of personal anecdotes, and it frequently quotes with approval from what it calls the “radical paper” Truth. It is lavishly illustrated on glossy pages.
But there are some major problems with this book.
I’m surprised at some of Eldred-Grigg’s omissions. When he comes to the matter of how conscription was imposed on New Zealand, he never once makes the obvious comparison with Australia. There conscription never came, because it was twice rejected in public referenda. This was a major home front story on both sides of the Tasman and was a major subject of debate in New Zealand.
Odd as it now seems to us, New Zealanders in 1914 (even working-class ones) largely thought of themselves as British and had habits of loyalty to Britain. Eldred-Grigg does not consider the implications of this fact until – literally – the last 10 pages of his text.
Then there is the book’s hectoring tone, as if Eldred-Grigg doesn’t trust us to form our own opinions from the evidence presented. Parts of The Great Wrong War sound as hysterical as the war propaganda which he denounces. Tsarist Russia is anachronistically (and inaccurately) called “totalitarian”. The camps in which New Zealand interned enemy aliens are called “concentration camps”. OK, I’m as aware as the next historian that that term was used for the camps into which the British herded Afrikaners during the Boer War. But Eldred-Grigg must know about the connotations of words as well as their denotations, and he must have a tin ear indeed not to recognize that the term “concentration camp” now immediately conjures up images of Nazis. Or was this his intention?
By contrast, and in order to emphasize the duplicity of the Allies, Eldred-Grigg goes out of his way to present Germany in a positive light. Throughout The Great Wrong War, Germany is called “the federal state” rather than the Empire or Reich. This is after opening passages in which we are told what a civilised, cultivated land of advanced thought Germany was. Eldred-Grigg is simple being accurate when he plays up the Allies’ policy of starving Germany’s civilian population. But he is either ignoring the evidence, or choosing not to see it, when he neglects to mention Germany’s own highly militarised culture. Allied ‘killer planes” bomb German civilians. No mention of German air-raids on civilians. And so on and so on. This is really a case of over-compensation. Eldred-Grigg would have us believe that Germany bore virtually no responsibility for the war at all.
Most regrettably, although the text is filled with numerical notations referring us to endnotes, there are none at the back of the book. Instead, between the bibliography and the index, there is a brief note telling us that if we want to read the 30-odd pages of endnotes, we have to print them off Random House’s website.
Random House had no difficulty including 35 pages of endnotes with the same author’s equally populist Diggers, Hatters and Whores. They should have followed the same policy here.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Recently I took a book of poetry off the shelf and was flicking through it idly. I often do these things. The book was an anthology of poetry from the 1920s, and I was flipping the pages over from back to the front, so that I did not see the name of each poet before I saw the poems themselves. My eye fell upon one sonnet, which I thought was pretty good. I reproduce it below:

See where Capella with her golden kids
Grazes the slope between the east and north?
Thus when the builders of the pyramids
Flung down their tools at nightfall and poured forth
Homeward to supper and a poor man's bed,
Shortening the road with friendly jest and slur,
The risen She-Goat showing blue and red
Climbed the clear dusk, and three stars followed her.
Safe in their linen and their spices lie
The kings of Egypt; even as long ago
Under these constellations, with long eye
And scented limbs they slept, and feared no foe.
Their will was law; their will was not to die:
And so they had their way; or nearly so.

            Very well. I’m not saying that this is the acme of sonnets. I’m not saying that the ideas are brilliantly original (the eternity of the stars; the delusions of power; ars longa, vita brevis etc.). I might also get a bit snarky about some of the rhymes. “Poured forth” seems used only to justify “north”, and “slur” isn’t quite appropriate to the friendly joshings that are presumably implied. But having said this, it is still a good and solid and thoughtful poem. While knowing it was in a rather old-fashioned idiom, I still read it with great pleasure.
So having taken this all in, without knowing who the poet was, I flipped back a few pages and discovered it was written by…. Edna St.Vincent Millay.
            At once all the received opinions in my head assailed me. Edna St.Vincent Millay?
You mean that rhapsodising American antique who was caught out by Modernism and already seen as a back number before she died in 1950? You mean the silly “flapper poet” who wrote twittery verses about burning the candle at both ends for young women in the 1920s who wanted to smoke and drink bath-tub gin? You mean the one who wrote that nonsensical propaganda poem about justice denied in Massachusetts? The one who was rightly ridiculed for trying to write patriotic poems during the Second World War when her poetic talent had gone?
            Um. Yes. I mean that one. And I had been reading a perfectly good poem without knowing it was written by this person. How embarrassing.
            And then, of course (as it always does on this blog) the true moral of the story hit me. The proper way to judge any writer is by what she or he has actually written, not by reputation. By and large, the received, negative view of Edna St.Vincent Millay is accurate. She really did write much time-specific stuff which might once have seemed “daring” to college girls but which now looks very faded indeed. But this doesn’t mean that she didn’t have her moments and also write at least some fine poems. So here is one and I hope you enjoyed it.
            Naughty additional thoughts also came my way. How often do we judge writing by what others say about it rather than by what our own eyes and brains tell us?
            A personal confession. I have four times guest-edited Poetry New Zealand – a task which always involves sorting through piles of submitted poems from both the well-known and the totally-unheard-of. Should Incredibly Famous Poet XYZ or Well-Known Literary Figure ABC submit something, I would of course accept all (or nearly all) of the submission for publication with gratitude. But if it was Unknown Poet *%#!&, I would scrutinise it far more carefully before accepting or rejecting it. In short, I made judgments at least partly on the basis of reputation.
            This leads me to wonder if all literary journals shouldn’t become more equitable by insisting that submissions be anonymous. Of course somebody would have to know the names and addresses of people who submitted material, if only to return unwanted typescripts or send cheques. But a system could be worked out of having submissions shorn of identity by some secretary before the editor got to see them. (This is what happens in some literary competitions.)
            You never know. It could lead to more works by established “names” not finding a home.
            Or it could lead to more nervous breakdowns among editors.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE WANDERING MIND” by Michael C. Corballis (Auckland University Press, $NZ34:99)

Here is a situation I have often experienced in both secondary and tertiary teaching.
On my desk sits a huge pile of examinations to mark. Few things are as enervating and as destructive of the rational human mind as the marking of examinations. I nibble at the pile for a while. Then my mind begins to wander. I think of all those classics I mean to get around to reading. I think of that interesting magazine article I read last week. I think about my social plans for the weekend. I get a really good idea for an essay or a poem. I wonder where exactly I can get all the words to that song I half-remember from my childhood. I think of myself at last getting around to mowing the lawn that I resolved to mow a fortnight ago. Sometimes some wild fantasies heave into view.
And then my eyes re-focus and I find about fifteen minutes have gone by and I have been staring at the same unassessed page of an examination script.
I scold myself, grit my teeth, and try to get on with the dismal job.
Daydreaming can be a great waste of time when you’re working against the clock. But in The Wandering Mind (subtitled What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking), Michael C. Corballis insists that we should not feel guilty or handicapped by the propensity of our minds to wander like this. In fact, he says,  mind-wandering is the source of creativity, the spark of innovation that leads in the longer run to an increase rather than a decrease in well-being.” (p.11)
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Auckland, and now in his 78th year, Michael Corballis has written this one for the common reader, not for the specialist. Like his collection of short magazine pieces, Pieces of Mind [reviewed on this blog in 2011 – look it up on the index at right], The Wandering Mind gives simple and accessible information about the mind and how it works, replete with illustrative anecdotes. The theme is announced as the value of the wandering mind, but in his preface Corballis does admit that its nine chapter can be read “each more or less on its own” (p.viii). And, often losing the specific theme of the undirected mind, that is how I read it.
We plunge (Chapter 1), via a passage about Walter Mitty, into the theme of the mind’s loose wandering and what Corballis calls “eddies” (annoying tunes or jingles that get struck in your mind). Corballis explains that electroencephalography shows the frontal areas of the brain are active during the times the mind is “at rest”, and therefore these frontal lobes basically control our mind’s wanderings. He refers to the “default-mode network” of the brain.
For the mind to wander anywhere, however, there has to be the faculty of memory, which is what Corballis examines in Chapter 2. He divides memory into the three areas of learnt skills (such as walking), learnt facts and the “episodic memory” that stores specific events in one’s own life. It is the episodic memory that is most fragile and most likely to be lost by amnesiacs. Corballis gives examples of people who retain high intelligence and high memory of impersonal facts, but have lost the memory of half their life. Even a good memory is malleable, however. As he has done elsewhere, Corballis discusses the phenomenon of “paramnesias” (“false memory”) and once again scorns the craze for “recovered memories” which blighted much psycho-therapy three or four decades ago with hysterical suggestions that infant sexual abuse was almost universal.
Memory leads to reflections on the brain’s registering of time (Chapter 3) and the role of the hippocampus in the brain (Chapter 4). Corballis, interested in our position in the story of evolution, spends much time considering whether non-human animals “remember” as human beings do, and whether or not they can “model” the future as we do. He offers, incidentally, the interesting titbit that “the hippocampus …seems to swell to meet spacial demand” and gives as an example the observation that London taxi-drivers have “unusually enlarged” hippocampi because they have to memorise “The Knowledge” of all the quickest routes through their huge city (p.57).
Rather abruptly we are then thrown into the matter of “theory of mind” (Chapter 5) – that is, how we are able to imagine, intuit or “read” other people’s minds, feelings and intentions. Tersely kicking away notions of ESP and mental telepathy, Corballis ascribes our skills in this area to the evolutionary necessity of bonding in groups with our own kind. This ability appears to be what is disrupted by autism and Asperger’s syndrome. “Theory of mind” also involves our ability to deceive, and from our ability to deceive comes (Chapter 6) story-telling, which may have developed from the play of our primate, and earliest human, ancestors.
Following on from this, the last three chapters deal with the stories we tell to ourselves in dreams, in hallucinations and (at last returning to his declared theme) in the creative wanderings of our mind. The dream chapter is enlightening. Corballis suggests that the fact we cannot remember most of our dreams could be the mind’s defence mechanism, to prevent us from confusing “true” and “false” memories. (A remembered dream could rapidly become the sort of formative thing in our mind that memories of real experiences are.) He largely dismisses Freud’s notion that dreams are heavily fraught with sexual symbolism; and he suggests that unpleasant dreams could serve as the mind’s rehearsal for how we will react to real dangerous or threatening situations. Regrettably, I found the last two chapters oddly unenlightening, and a bit of an anti-climax after the rest of the book. The chapter on hallucinations becomes a discussion on whether creativity really is in the right side of the brain (answer – no, not really). That on the fruitful wanderings of the mind ends up as a list of people who have used chemical stimulants to fire their imaginations.
As a materialist, Corballis is dismissive of anything resembling a spiritual experience. The Quaker George Fox’s experience of hearing the voice of God is naturally brushed off (p.131) as pure hallucination, and classed with the auditory hallucination Evelyn Waugh has his hero suffer in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.
This bias aside, however, and despite its lame conclusion, The Wandering Mind is generally a fun and informative book for the non-specialist, free of the type of condescension that bedevils so many popularisations.

Three silly and frivolous footnotes:
1.     Congratulations to Corballis for avoiding the semi-literate use of “their” or “they” when he uses the generic singular. Thus he writes (correctly) “when a person is engaged in a task and when she is not” (p.7). Of course he’s had to be PC enough to use “she” rather than “he” in his generic singulars, but at least he hasn’t violated the language. However…
2.     A stern rebuke to Corballis for telling us that something happened in the 1830s (p.128); and then two pages later ascribing it to “the eighteenth century” (p.130). I do hope he hasn’t succumbed to the dreaded disease of calling the nineteenth century “the 1800s”.
3.     Finally, my Scottish friends and I will challenge Emeritus Professor Corballis to claymores at dawn for referring (p.74) to Sir Walter Scott as an “English” poet and novelist…. and also for using the verb “quote” when he meant the noun “quotation”.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 RAPE OF TAMAR” by Dan Jacobson (first published in 1970)
            There are two very good Jewish writers whom I sometimes mix up in my mind, even though they are not related to each other. One is the British-born Howard Jacobson (born 1942), Booker Prize-winner for The Finkler Question in 2010 and the author of Roots, Schmoots [my take upon which you can look up on this blog’s index]. The other is the South African-born, but British-resident, Dan Jacobson (born 1929), who has also had a distinguished literary career. Dan Jacobson’s memoir Time and Time Again (1985) contains some of the most haunting stories I’ve yet read in an autobiography.
The two Jacobsons are very different writers in some respects. Howard is more often comic and satirical. Dan is more often sombre and reflective, though with a sharp satirical streak too. Some things they have in common, however. For both, their Jewish heritage is something to be questioned constantly. Both are agnostic, yet both are interested enough in the Jewish religious tradition to plunge into the Hebrew Bible in a critical way. Howard Jacobson’s novel The Very Model of a Man (1992) is his version of the wanderings of Cain at odds with God. Dan Jacobson has written The Story of Stories, which is essentially a sceptic’s guide to the Hebrew Bible. Then there is Dan Jacobson’s The Rape of Tamar (1970), a tight, frequently sardonic tale also drawn from Scripture.
If you seek the “plot” of The Rape of Tamar, you need only refer to 2 Samuel Chapter 13. King David’s son Amnon feels an incestuous passion for his sister Tamar. Amnon’s devious cousin Yonadab advises Amnon that he can lure Tamar to his house by pretending to be sick and asking for her care. Amnon does so. Despite her resistance, Amnon rapes Tamar… then immediately (in the words of the RSV version of the Bible) he “hated her with a very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her”. Tamar complains to her brother Absalom. When King David hears of the matter, however, he imposes no punishment on Amnon. Tamar continues to live in Absalom’s house. Two years later, Absalom gets revenge for his sister. He lures Amnon to a feast with other sons of David, then gets his servants to fall upon Amnon and kill him. At first King David thinks that all his sons have been killed by the ambitious Absalom, but Yonadab is able to persuade him otherwise. However, we can see the matter creates a great estrangement between King David and Absalom, which will years later lead to the revolt and death of Absalom.
There are novels, drawn from Bible stories, which are picturesque and rambling, designed mainly to divert readers by their exotic descriptions and invented incidents. Dan Jacobson’s The Rape of Tamar is no such thing. As the narrator declares early in the piece (Chapter 1):
 “I can promise you that I will do my very best to spare you descriptions of our exotic style of life: I don’t intend to linger over our furniture, our clothes… our utterly inadequate sewage system, our weapons, our games, our primitive sacral rites, and all the rest of the ethnographic junk you may be glumly expecting me to inflict on you…
In other words, we are definitely not in the land of Hollywood-ian, Cecil B. de Mille Biblical spectacular. This tight and well-organized novel (a mere 140 pages in the Penguin edition I read) sticks closely to the Biblical account, inventing few incidents that cannot be justified from Scripture. Those things that Jacobson does invent are very direct inferences from Scripture. For example, in the Biblical account, Yonadab is at first Amnon’s friend and advisor. Later he gives advice to King David, mitigating Absalom’s activities. Jacobson therefore understandably depicts Yonadab as a man who “switches sides” and follows power for reasons of self-interest.
The novelist’s focus is on the moral implications of the story and what it says about power.
The narrative voice is extremely important. The Rape of Tamar is narrated by David’s nephew and Amnon’s cousin and friend, the “crafty” (RSV’s word for him) Yonadab. The voice of Yonadab is the voice of a Hebrew Machiavel. He is obsessed with power, but knows he will never attain it, and therefore has a sardonic view of the powerful, whom he sets out to manipulate. Jacobson allows Yonadab to use sometimes a modern frame of reference, describing himself as “Kantian… long before I ever heard of Kant” (Chapter 5), referring to the branch of King David’s government in which he is employed as “the Ministry of Public Works” and otherwise showing a modern sensibility, as well as having foresight. (As he tells the story of the rape of Tamar, he is able also to tell us of the death of Absalom, which occurred years later). And yet he is fully integrated into the historical times of the novel and credible as an historical character.
Of course the narrator is not the same as the novelist, but the narrator is often a mask through which the novelist can speak. God comes into this novel very little. There are references to syncretism and in Chapter 3 a brief discourse, from Yonadab, on the incestuous marriages between pagan gods and goddesses (to which Amnon refers in self-justification when he is attempting at first to seduce his sister Tamar). But Yonadab is a sceptic (“scepticism was the secret of my failure” Chapter 1) and basically sees God as a means by which powerful people justify their own actions and decisions. He does not see God-fearers as dishonest, insincere or claiming to believe what they do not really believe. “I am not accusing [King] David of hypocrisy,” he says in Chapter 2, “On the contrary I am accusing him of sincerity.” What he does see, however, are powerful people, who believe sincerely that their own interests and desires are God-ordained or sanctioned by God. Thus it is when David “repents” of having killed those who have done his bidding in killing others, and so believes he is morally justified. Thus it is when Absalom believes he is morally justified in killing Amnon, even though it just happens to suit his own plans for gaining power.
Dan Jacobson has another reason for using Yonadab as narrator. It is so that certain things can be witnessed credibly. In the Bible, the rape of Tamar – the very moment when she is violated – is one of those many Biblical passages at which the thoughtful reader has to pause. We know that there could be no possible witness to the event described, apart from the rapist Amnon and the victim Tamar, neither of whom would be likely to see the event as the Bible presents it. Jacobson solves this problem by having Yonadab play Peeping Tom, and watch the whole thing from a hiding place. The rape itself (Chapter 6) is virtually played in slow motion, with Yonadab accounting for every word, movement and gesture. This is not prurient. Jacobson is emphasizing the rapist’s self-justifications, the young girl’s attempts to save herself, and the psychological horror of the event.
There’s a further matter in Jacobson’s agenda. In both the Biblical account and in Jacobson’s novel, Tamar herself virtually disappears from the story once she has made her public and private protests to Absalom. She becomes, in effect, less important than the power struggle between the ageing King David and the ambitious prince Absalom (“the glamour boy of the court” according to Jacobson) who is all too eager to take charge. As the novel presents it, King David is not outraged by the rape itself so much as by the fact that Tamar first sought help from Absalom, thus implying that David was no longer the master in his own house and the man from whom justice should be sought. Later, when David rebukes Amnon, he does so by saying that Amnon’s crime must be God’s way of reminding David of his own youthful sins. Yonadab remarks ironically that David is therefore “the man upon whom God’s mighty interest is all but exclusively concentrated… the sufferings of Tamar remain entirely unmentioned.” (Chapter 12)
By giving such a detailed account of the rape, Jacobson is in effect reminding us that the violation of Tamar should be the centre of the story, even if it is not seen as such by David and Absalom. In this, I believe Dan Jacobson’s novel, published in 1970, was a decade or two ahead of those feminist Biblical critics who have taken the story in 2 Samuel 13 as a typical instance of Scriptural story-telling dominated by patriarchal interests, and ignoring the centrality and suffering of women. (I encountered articles by many such critics while doing undergraduate papers in Scripture as part of a BTheol.)
I have one other reason for liking this classically structured, disciplined and dense short novel: I love the rave against historicism which Jacobson puts into Yonadab’s mouth in Chapter 7. Directly addressing the modern reader, Yonadab turns on us and denounces us for believing that we are somehow morally different from, and more important than, people in past ages. He accuses us for “the very belief in your difference from us, which is no more than a manifestation of your particular style of self-importance.”
Well said, Yonadab. Or is it Dan Jacobson?