Monday, June 15, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SPORT 43” Edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young (VUP, $30); “SONG OF THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE” by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
We’ve heard much talk recently about the contraction of New Zealand’s book culture. There will be no book awards this year because nobody will sponsor them. There’s been the matter of whether Te Papa will or will not retain a publishing arm. A famous bookstore closes on Auckland’s Queen Street, leaving the central city with only the University Book Shop and one other far off the main drag. Some of Wellington’s second-hand bookstores go out of business.
All very perturbing, leading (at least among the literati) to apocalyptic images of a post-literate New Zealand, where highbrow literature in particular will be strangled or unable to find a publisher.
With these gloomy thoughts in mind, I decided to consider this week those publications that still carry the banners of poetry and essays as well as fiction. There’s been a certain contraction going on here, too. Dunedin’s Landfall, the most venerable New Zealand literary magazine, still manages to appear twice a year. Auckland’s Poetry New Zealand, however, has abandoned the smaller twice-yearly format and is now a substantial annual, reverting to being the Poetry Yearbook that it was originally, many decades ago. Wellington’s JAAM is also an annual. Sport, out of Victoria University Press, Wellington, spent the first fifteen years of its life coming out twice-yearly, but it has been an annual for the last twelve years.
When I receive a literary magazine through the post, I tend to turn it into a bedside book, picking at it over a number of weeks, a poem or a story at the time. When the most recent Sport came by way, however, I decided to read it from cover to cover, in large gulps, in the course of one week.
Sport 43 displays on its cover Antonio del Pollaiolo’s Renaissance painting of Daphne turning into a bay laurel, to escape the lustful Apollo. The legend is referenced on the first page of an essay by Damien Wilkins, which I assume accounts for the cover.
Sport 43 features the work of 32 poets, five writers of fiction and seven essayists.
I have to at once state something very embarrassing and prejudicial. I found it hard to engage with much of the poetry. The selection includes names who have established themselves in local reviews and anthologies, and have won praise with their own volumes (Nick Ascroft, Helen Heath, Anna Jackson, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton et al.). Maybe it is a generational thing. Most of the poets represented are considerably younger than me, and I find their mannerisms and style alienating. This is not a considered reaction to their poetry – more a subjective feeling, and therefore to be disregarded by you. But I still have to state it. Not all the poetry comes from a younger generation. There are three poems by Vincent O’Sullivan in which I at first thought he was having a go at Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore; but a second reading assured me that I had missed the irony the first time. I also admit to enjoying Rachel Bush’s Long and Short, with its deft slipping between past and present. But that is all I wish to say about the poetry.
With regard to the essays and the fiction, what interested me most was how porous the definition of these two genres now is. Some of the essays could just as validly be billed as fiction and vice versa.
The volume’s opening contribution, John Summers’ Real Life, which I read with great enjoyment, is presumably a slice of autobiography, about having an impossible flatmate in student days, in a mouldy flat in Christchurch. It is buoyed by its very specific physical detail but, at least as I understand the term, it is more narrative than essay. The same is really true of Kirsten McDougall’s What have I lost here? Again, it reads as narrative autobiography, being her wistful account of meeting and briefly knowing a young man in her student years, and then her realisation that her younger self is not her present self. To complicate matters, Ashleigh Young’s She cannot work is billed as fiction. It is an account of trying to work and being put off by having to share space with somebody else. Fiction? Possibly, though Ashleigh Young’s way with imagery makes it more like a prose poem.
It was only when I got to Damien Wilkins’ substantial (20-page) No hugging, some learning: writing and the personal that I felt I was meeting an essay as I understand that term, even though it bears the signs of having first been delivered as a lecture. Referencing at length Dennis McEldowney’s memoir The World Regained, Wilkins’ main point appears to be that that the notion of characters “changing” in fiction is an overrated concept; and that supposedly transformative tales really mask neat lessons where we are meant to “learn” from change. It is a very ingenious essay, also giving generous reference to Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March and concluding that narratives should change us, the readers, and not their fictitious characters.
The only other piece in the volume that is so like a traditional essay is Giovanni Tiso’s The story of S, or the problem of forgetting, which takes the case of Solomon Shereshevsky to argue that “forgetting” is essential to psychological growth, and that such forgetting is impeded by the perfect mechanical memory of the internet.
Anna Taylor’s long short story Still Here reads like a dialectic between the partners of an unhappy marriage. Sarah Jane Barnett’s Addis Ababa, billed as poetry, is a long mixed prose-and-poetry presentation of an Ethiopian refugee adjusting, or not adjusting, to Wellington. I am not sure what category Ingrid Horrocks’ A small town event occupies. It is a compound of literary critique and travel article. Possibly the most provocative piece in the volume is Maria McMillan’s It’s complicated, a reflection on how simple slogans (in this case “Her Body, Her Choice”) never cover the complexity of a woman’s condition, especially in an age where “choices” are coerced by pornography and pay-for sex.
I am tempted to say that the very best writing in this issue of Sport is the 22-page extract from David Coventry’s excellent debut novel The Invisible Mile, but as I’ve already had the pleasure of reviewing the whole novel in the Listener, I will refrain from further comment.
I hope my dull, mechanical listing of the contents of Sport 43 has persuaded you that it has much good reading.
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It is rare to find a volume of poetry that comes complete with fully nine pages of bibliography, but such is the case with Roger Horrocks’ Song of the Ghost in the Machine. This is very much a series of philosophical reflexions in poetic form. Each of its eleven sections is prefaced with a generous set of quotations from various illustrious and/or canonical writers, so the volume is also something of a commonplace book (whence the bibliography). The title derives from the famous jeer of the English materialist philosopher Gilbert Ryle, when he referred to Cartesian mind/body dualism as “the dogma of the ghost in the machine”. The phrase was also taken up as the title of one of Arthur Koestler’s books, which my generation read when we were students. Ryle’s philosophy was, and is, at best reductionist, but I have to remind myself that I am reviewing Horrocks’ poetry, not the philosophy that underlies part of it.
How does Song of the Ghost in the Machine read as poetry?
First let me state the obvious. Despite the very big issues with which it deals, there is nothing obscure about it. In stately and measured lines, Horrocks mulls over huge questions in accessible language. Often it is what was once called “the poetry of statement”. I found myself reminded irresistibly of such 18th century efforts as the prose perambulations of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Les Reveries du Promeneur Solitaire, where walking was the lubrication of reflexion. Or for that matter William Cowper’s Winter Walk at Noon, especially when the last section of Horrocks’ book includes the lines “The season is winter, the sky an unpredictable mix / Of light and dark with clouds tussling for dominance. / Bare tree branches tremble in the wind.”
There may be a reason for this echo of the Age of Enlightenment.
In his Author’s Note, Horrocks makes a bid for the type of High Seriousness that was once expected of poetry, but is now cast aside. “Contemporary writers and artists have tended to avoid getting ‘too serious’ since the postmodern mood of irony descended over the arts”, he asserts, noting “Cynicism is a totally understandable response to today’s social world, but in terms of tone this has created too large a no-go area.” Personally, I have sat through one-too-many poetry fest at which some jaded academic, making a bid for popularity, has urged that poetry should always be “fun”. I therefore can only endorse and applaud Horrocks’ words. Horrocks also encourages “form”, saying “I am tired of the loose free verse found in so much contemporary poetry, semi-colloquial speech that reverts to iambic when it wants to pump up the lyricism. Instead I have used two main rules: using a line with five main stresses, and keeping the rhythm changing in order to avoid the cliché of iambic or any other smooth metrical pattern.”
So he’s on the side of seriousness and of form in poetry, which prejudices me in his favour at once.
The eleven sections of Song of the Ghost in the Machine run thus:
“Walking” confronts the sense of ageing as the poet’s body begins to strain at his everyday stroll. (“My body is dated equipment / and I ride it as though I’ve borrowed it.”) With ageing, the earth tends to become less, rather than more, familiar (“There are times when I feel I’m exploring an unfamiliar / planet, treading gingerly, sniffing the atmosphere, / unable to name the flora or construe the signs, / nerves and senses on edge”)
“Consciousness” proclaims the volume’s essential theme, in a loose series of definitions of what consciousness is. In “Body”, the most Gilbert Ryle-ish section, the apparent dualism of mind/body tends to the conclusion that mind and body suffer or exult together and are therefore a unity. Monism is embraced. Yet this damned body does think, and often thinks in words, so “Language” probes the ambivalence of language, its imprecision, its inability to connect exactly with the thing spoken of. (“All thinking is wishful, all questions are rhetorical / with implied quote marks. There’s no escape / from double talk. But talk is cheap and so we try / again, wired with the need to name, to relate / our lives….”) But there is danger in this view of language, and Horrocks takes the occasion to slap, as he does in his Author’s Note, the postmodern tendency to turn language into a game and banish attempts at seriousness or sincerity. He says that “connoisseurs of cool irony, the artists of our sceptical / age distance themselves from beauty and directness.”
“Melancholia” is cast as a third-person narrative (possibly autobiographical) of the growth of a young boy’s mind. It touches on the concepts that to be reflective is to be sad, and that consciousness may be a burden. Following this, and at the other end of human life, “Self” is possibly the most depressing section, canvassing (via images of an old man in a nursing home) the idea of the fragility of the self and its disintegration as dementia takes hold.
Stepping into more speculative territory, “Micro/Macro” is about adjusting to the fact of an unstable, transient universe made of endless molecular change, and confounding our “common sense” notions of solidity and certainty. In other words, it is more on the rationalist than the empiricist end of the epistemological spectrum. “Sleeping and Waking” concerns the slippery nature of differences between these two states of consciousness.
And so to the Ultimate Truth, or Last Things if you prefer.
“Death” offers a full acceptance of our mortality with no suggestion of anything after, except for the ironical invocation of a well-lit tomb crammed with books where literati may think forever. This is an oddly jocular section, with its Mexican Day-of-the-Dead references. “Evolution” shows a wistful desire for the idea of purpose in evolution (Horrocks suggests such a desire is a “ghost in the machine”). To scientists, evolution is now seen largely as a random and purposeless process, rather than a matter of purposeful progression. In this section, Horrocks’ lines on his relationship with his pet cat are among the most attractive in the poem – a bonding of mammals separated by only about 60 million years of evolution; but his conclusion is that human beings may be a dead end before the age of AI overwhelms us. Finally “Gods”, with much confessional autobiography, rejects the idea of God, but hints at an ache for some such “solution” to the nature of our being. Indeed it is a good example (not that Horrocks ever says this) of “the God-sized hole” in human consciousness. I salute the bravery of Horrocks’ final assertion of selfhood (basically, to have lived and been here is to have experienced and known), though maybe the final “Kilroy was Here” image is a little bathetic.
That, crudely and in a reductionist mode every bit as reprehensible as Gilbert Ryle’s, is my summary of what Song of the Ghost in the Machine says. I’m bemused to find nowhere here the terms Free Will or Determinism, but then maybe the philosophical conversation has moved on since I last gave these things serious thought. Besides, as Horrocks correctly says, this is a poem and not a textbook of philosophy.
But having summarised, I haven’t conveyed to you what the experience of reading this book-poem is like.
Horrocks has the courage, in broaching these big questions, to risk sounding “earnest and adolescent” as he fears he might in his Author’s Note. Sometimes he does indeed fall into this trap – the takes on philosophical questions can be obvious and predictable ones, even if proposed as idiosyncratic solutions. The real skill is in the way the poet’s own personality, tastes and preferences manage to hold it all together. To put it another way, Song of the Ghost in the Machine is best when Horrocks is being himself, being confessional, daring to be child, adolescent, adult, old man as he is in different sections of this book. As in those “philosophical” Enlightenment poems, it is the imagery and personality that stay longest in the mind (or body. if dualism is not true).
I really enjoyed reading this poem, as much for the way it tilts at current poetic fashion as for the personality revealed.
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.
“SARTOR RESARTUS” by Thomas Carlyle (Written 1831; first published in serial form in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34; published in book form 1836)
As you know from an earlier posting, I have a nodding acquaintance with Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), not only because he hailed from the same Lowland Scots town as did some of my ancestors; but because I’ve read his tub-thumping lectures On Heroes and Hero-Worship, and have read and dissected his The French Revolution . So I had a clear impression of the dogmatic Scot whose high-flown rhetoric often ran ahead of his rather dodgy social and political ideas.
Some months ago, friends invited us to “high tea” at a restaurant in Devonport. After we had enjoyed this experience, we left our friends and went our separate way. We found ourselves in the second-hand bookstall that now sits on Devonport wharf. A little fossicking revealed to me a book I had long meant to read – a broken-backed volume, printed in 1871, of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, cheap and apparently once part of a collected set of Carlyle’s works. (As yet unread by me, two others from the same set already sat on my shelves – Carlyle’s Past and Present and his Life of Schiller.) I handed over my $15. And then, of course, my conscience being what it is, I thought I should justify the expense of buying it by actually reading it.
So I did.
Have I, dear reader, annoyed you by my circumlocutory and prolix way of introducing this notice? If so, then you are clearly not the person to read Sartor Resartus, wherein Carlyle’s style is so circumlocutory and prolix that, in the immortal words of Al Jolson “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet! ”
Carlyle lived long enough to be regarded as a “sage” in the Victorian Age (86-years-old was then a very ripe age to die). So long, in fact, that we are apt to forget he began his literary career before Victoria was on the throne and before that Dickens chap had yet been heard of. Sartor Resartus (trans. The Tailor Re-tailored) was written in 1831, when Carlyle was 36 (and in the reign of William IV, if you must know). It is a work of literary dandyism, a sport, a freak, an exposition of a cloudy philosophy wherein the young author is often (in the words of a later Victorian statesman) inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. How much verbal rodomontade one has to endure for the small kernel of philosophy. And yet, forsooth, how enjoyable many of the descriptive passages are, and the ones where a metaphor sets Carlyle galloping off at a tangent.
To give you the essentials, this eccentric book is sometimes described as a “novel”. It is no such thing, even though its characters are fictitious. Sartor Resartus, subtitled The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh, is a sustained dialogue between a (fictitious) German philosopher and a (fictitious) editor who is going through the philosopher’s papers and commenting upon them. The philosopher is one Diogenes Teufelsdrockh (trans. “Devil’s crap”) who resides in the city of Weissnichtwo (trans. “I don’t know where”) and who apparently has a certain Hofrath Heuschrecke (trans. “Councillor Grasshopper”) as his literary executor. So the very names tell you that this is not for real and is something of a game.
Across three books the editor interrogates, mocks and sometimes endorses what Teufelsdrockh has to say, often in a querulous and chivvying way.
Book One promises to set out for us Herr Professor Teufelsdrockh’s book on the “Spirit and Influence of Clothes”. Once the “editor” clears his throat (it takes him about four chapters to do so) we are given Teufelsdrockh’s belief that:
“Neither in tailoring nor in legislating does man proceed by mere Accident, but the hand is ever guided on by mysterious operations of the mind. In all his Modes, and habilatory endeavours, an Architectural Idea will be found lurking; his Body and the Cloth are the site and materials whereon and whereby his beautiful edifice, of a person, is to be built.” (Book 1, Chapter 5)
This could lead us to think that we are about to enter a treatise on how clothes reflect social norms; how they are the physical manifestation of ideas that have dominated various societies at different times in history. And there is indeed a little of this. One passage propounds that the decoration of the body (painting; tattoos), among primitive peoples, preceded the invention of clothing - meaning that clothing is a development of decoration and that therefore the prime purpose of clothing is to declare rank and status. Allied to this, there are passages on clothing as the creator of shame, and a lively tongue-in-cheek discussion about whether Herr Teufelsdrockh is an “Adamite” – that is, one who thinks we would be better off naked. Great ranting passages speak of clothes as “a botched mass of tailors’ and cobbler’s threads”, strange to our bodies (Book 1, Chapter 8) and discuss the clothes of different ages.
Yet an undercurrent warns us that, despite its declared theme, clothes per se are not really the motive of this volume.
At the end of Book One the “editor” receives six paper bags, filled with documents of Herr Teufelsdrockh’s life. These he now proceeds to sift and discuss.
So Book Two (far the easiest to read, because it has something like a narrative thread) proceeds to give us the biography of Herr Teufelsdrockh, as seen in Teufelsdrockh’s own jottings.
The “editor” often rebukes Teufelsdrockh for considering his commonplace youthful observations as the signs of a superior mind. He speculates that Teufelsdrockh did not do well at Law because he was too shy and not gregarious enough. Indeed the editor surmises that Teufelsdrockh’s whole “philosophy” of clothes comes from Teufelsdrockh’s shyness and his need for covering and protection. Teufelsdrockh, who was searching for some guiding principle in life, found the university he was attending mean, materialistic and sceptical. Says the editor, Teufelsdrockh “expectorated his antipedagogical spleen” (Book 2, Chapter 3) when writing of his university. Teufelsdrockh describes his university thus:
“Had you…walled in a square enclosure; furnished it with a small, ill-chosen Library; and then turned loose into it eleven-hundred Christian striplings, to tumble about as they listed, from three to seven years: certain persons, under the title of Professors, being stationed at the gates, to declare aloud that it was a University, and exact considerable admission-fees, - you had, not indeed in mechanical structure, yet in spirit and result, some imperfect resemblance of our High Seminary.” (Book 2, Chapter 3)
Teufelsdrockh seemed saved when he fell in love. There is over-the-top Romantic rhetoric about this. But his idealistic Romantic love is betrayed when the young woman elopes with an English friend. (Book 2, Chapter 6 is called “The Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh”, and clearly both references and parodies Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”). Off, therefore, Teufelsdrockh tramps on one of those wild adventures designed to drown great sorrows. Byron was familiar with writing this sort of thing, and Byron is specifically referenced in the text:
“Through all the quarters of the world he wanders, and apparently through all circles of society. If in any scene, perhaps difficult to fix geographically, he settles for a time and forms connexions, be sure he will snap them abruptly asunder.” (Book 2 Chapter 6)
Really, according to the “editor”, Teufelsdrockh’s youthful angst arises simply from his lack of Belief. He has yet to find his spiritual essence by the sort of ur-existentialism that will enable him to make a bold choice, look with a cold eye on his own emotional upheavals, and exercise his Will constructively. Teufelsdrockh comes to the conclusion that the maxim “Know thyself” should be replaced with “Know what thou canst work at” (Book 2, Chapter 7).
And what does Teufelsdrockh come to work at? A new philosophy of Transcendentalism, of course, which will enable society to have real and binding values, and which occupies most of Book Three. Teufelsdrockh asks “Call ye that a Society where there is no longer any Social Idea extant?” (Book 3, Chapter 5) and the “editor” shortly thereafter speaks of “the monster UTILITARIA”. Neither Liberalism nor Romanticism, both of which speak to the detached and self-interested ego, can provide a satisfying philosophy for a society to live by. But a chapter called “Symbols” (Book 3, Chapter 4 – probably the most lucid chapter in the book) suggests the way out. It argues that physical things – such as flags, crowns and battle standards – take on a greater meaning than their mere materiality, and thus embody the great ideas for which any society stands. So too with clothes. So, in this third book of Sartor Resartus, the argument ceases to be about literal clothing (as it was in Book One) and treats clothing as a metaphor for a new philosophy or “vesture” for humankind, arising out of the “cloth-webs” and “cob-webs” of dead philosophies that have ceased to give life to societies. The “editor” proclaims “Here, therefore, properly it is that the Philosophy of Clothes attains to Transcendentalism.” (Book 3, Chapter 8) and elaborates:
“art thou not too perhaps by this time made aware that all Symbols are properly Clothes; that all Forms whereby Spirit manifests itself to sense, whether outwardly or in the imagination, are Clothes; and thus not only the parchment Magna Charta…. But the Pomp and Authority of Law, the sacredness of Majesty, and all inferior Worships… are properly a Vesture and Raiment..?” (Book 3, Chapter 9)
Ostensibly about clothes, then, the whole aim of this book has really been to proclaim new guiding principles for society in the form of Transcendentalism. We must cast off the “vesture” of old Forms and put on the “vesture” of this new philosophy.
Have you understood my crude summary of Sartor Resartus?
Of course you haven’t, because it is complicated, illogical and filled with non-sequiturs. But I beg you to understand that I have made it far clearer than Carlyle ever does, one major point being that the philosophy of Transcendentalism is never clearly defined (if it ever could be). The reality is that Sartor Resartus, with its digressions and rhetoric and side-issues, is very hard to construct as a coherent argument. Note, for example, that I have not even mentioned the chapters in which Teufelsdrockh, abandoning his central theme, dissects the impact of church clothes, and waxes satirical over the clothes worn by Dandies in Britain.
Through the fog I can, however, discern some consistent ideas of Carlyle’s – ideas to which he returned in his other books. There is, for example, his awareness of the stratified nature of society, which allows him to express genuine sympathy for the most wretched of the Earth. [Apparently such sympathy, also expressed in passages of Carlyle’s The French Revolution, is most pronounced in his polemic Past and Present, which I have not read]. Thus:
“The proud Grandee still lingers in his perfumed saloons, or reposes within damask curtains; Wretchedness cowers into truckle beds, or shivers hunger-stricken into its lair of straw: in obscure cellars the Rouge-et-Noir languidly emits its voice-of-destiny to haggard hungry Villains; while Councillors of State sit plotting and playing their high chess-game, whereof the pawns are men”. ((Book 1, Chapter 3)
There is Carlyle’s tendency to enthrone the human Will as the major force in social transformation. Thus: “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force” (Book 2 Chapter 9). Or “The true inexplicable God-revealing miracle lies in this, that I can stretch forth my hand… that I have free Force to clutch aught…” (Book 3, Chapter 8)
There is also Carlyle’s strong tendency to see unique and extraordinary individuals, charismatic and God-appointed, as the natural leaders of society – a tendency which would lead later commentators to regard Carlyle as a proto-Fascist.
Thus “Had we not known with what ‘little wisdom’ the world is governed; and how, in Germany as elsewhere, the ninety-and-nine Public Men can for the most part be but mute train-bearers to the hundredth?” ((Book 1, Chapter 3) Thus the invocation of “Hero-Worship” (so named) in Book 3, Chapter 7. Thus the assertion that “Not only was Thebes built by the music of an Orpheus, but without the music of some inspired Orpheus was no city ever built, no work that man glories in ever done.” (Book 3, Chapter 8).
And there is Carlyle’s early fear of, and contempt for, the mass media, which he sees as corrupting the tastes and desires of the masses. Teufelsdrockh says “The Journalists are now the true Kings and Clergy: henceforth Historians, unless they are fools, must write not of Bourbon dynasties and Tudors and Hapsburgs; but of Stamped Broad-Sheet Dynasties, and quite new successive Names, according as this or the other Able Editor, or Combination of Able Editors, gains the world’s ear.” (Book 1, Chapter 6)
This theme taken up again later in Sartor Resartus, when newspaper editors are described even more emphatically as the new priests.
I hope I have given you the taste of Sartor Resartus, even if I have botched the meaning somewhat. As I said near the beginning of this notice, this book is a “sport”, self-referential, playing with the narrative genre, crammed with in-jokes and literary-jokes, what with all those references to Goethe and Byron and other literary worthies (I haven’t even mentioned the pages where Carlyle takes apart Bulwer Lytton’s dandyish novel Pelham). Most obviously, it functions in the shadow of Tristram Shandy (there is a specific reference to Walter Shandy’s insistence on the importance of names at Book 2, Chapter 1). Tristram Shandy takes three volumes to reach its hero’s birth. Sartor Resartus takes three books to reach anything like a clear declaration of its main point. In this sense, they are both elaborate shaggy-dog stories. Both books are, of course, now a rebuke to those nitwits who think that self-referential, game-playing literature was invented by postmodernists.
One major game Carlyle plays is with his British readers. To begin with, Sartor Resartus seems pure mockery of Hegelian idealism and the high-flown German philosophy that would not appeal to a British reader. The “editor” is a solid British chap who appeals in a commonsensical way to other solid British chaps. But we are less than halfway through when we realize that this is a sophisticated form of seduction. Carlyle’s mask – his “editor” - is in fact weaning British readers off their insularity and introducing them to those very ideas he appears to reject. As he often synopsises “Teufelsdrockh’s” words rather than quoting them verbatim, he is presenting Hegelian idealism in a very British way. Which is exactly what Carlyle spent much of his literary career doing. The British reader is meant to laugh at the funny foreigner while taking the foreigner’s ideas on board.
At which point, weary of my own exposition, I am forced to ask myself how I rate Carlyle’s philosophy, when all the (often delightful) rhetoric is set to one side. It is easy to agree with him that (post-French Revolution) liberalism and romanticism privileged the individual ego and took away any sense of unified social purpose. Again, it is easy to agree that, in some sense, “religion” – a unifying bond, a core of essential agreed values – is necessary for the healthy functioning of any society. So his call for a new, renovating philosophy has a genuine appeal. So do the passages in which (like the Victorian he was to become) he speaks of the dignity of labour as practised by craftsmen. (Small wonder that years later Carlyle featured in that iconic Victorian painting on the dignity of labour, Ford Madox Brown’s Work). But much of what young Carlyle proposes seems the evasions of the middle class. The aristocracy and church no longer exercise the shaping power that they once had. But we can’t let these masses take over, can we? What we need are heroes for the masses to worship. So roll on the hero-worship of high-minded philosophers, educated in Hegel and with a cloudy philosophy to guide them. Roll on those great figures who will sort out all society’s problems without having to go through the messy process of democracy. Roll on… oh dear! Not only did the Fuhrerprinzip evolve from this lazy, evasive mode of thinking, but so did Marxism develop from Hegelianism. What a serpent’s egg.
With regard to the style of Sartor Resartus, it is part of its self-referential freakishness that Carlyle often attempts to forestall exactly our criticism, when the editor says of Teufelsdrockh:
“Or is the whole business one other of those whimsicalities and perverse inexplicabilities, whereby Herr Teufelsdrockh, meaning much or nothing, is pleased so often to play fast-and-loose with us?” (Book 2, Chapter10)
“Can it be hidden from the Editor that many a British Reader sits reading quite bewildered in head, and afflicted rather than instructed by the present work?” (Book 3, Chapter 9)
“How could a man, occasionally of keen insight, not without keen sense of propriety, who had real Thoughts to communicate, resolve to emit them in a shape bordering on the absurd?” (Book 3, Chapter 12)
But the fact that Carlyle attempts to anticipate obvious criticism does not make that criticism any less valid. And thoughts vaguely expressed are probably thoughts half-baked. I say this in full awareness that much of Sartor Resartus is great, self-indulgent fun, and in further awareness that it became the Bible to a whole generation of American Transcendentalists and to other literary connoisseurs as well. Poor dears.
Self-indulgent and perfectly maddening footnote: This is the sort of thing that I notice when I read such a literary-allusion-crammed book as Sartor Resartus. I note that Carlyle quotes the same phrase, from the young German Romantic who wrote under the pseudonym “Novalis”, that Joseph Conrad uses as epigraph to Lord Jim:
“It is certain, my Belief gains quite infinitely the moment I can convince another mind thereof.” (quoted Book 3, Chapter 2).
This is rendered in the epigraph of Lord Jim as “It is certain any conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe it.”
Then, in Book 3 of Sartor Resartus, there are Carlyle’s reflections on the necessity for silence as a precondition for real creation:
“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are henceforth to rule.” (Book 3, Chapter 3)
I couldn’t help wondering if Yeats had been reading this before he wrote his “Long-Legged Fly” on a similar theme. I don’t know much about Yeats’ reading, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he appreciated Carlyle, who had a similar haughty, pseudo-“aristocratic” attitude to the lower orders, and a tendency to admire heroes, as Yeats himself had.
Good Lord! See how reading such a self-referential, in-joke-making “sport” of a book has corrupted me into making quite unnecessary literary comparisons.
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.
HEROES ARE THE EXCEPTION
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog Steven Loveridge’s admirable Calls to Arms. You may recall that the book is a methodical analysis and consideration of New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the First World War when that war was still in progress. As Loveridge documents, New Zealanders were overwhelmingly supportive of the war effort, by and large had no difficulty in identifying with the British cause, tended to despise those men who were unwilling to enlist, approved of harsh actions taken against conscientious objectors and saw the enemy in uniformly negative terms.
One hundred years later we may deplore these attitudes. We may legitimately judge the First World War to have been pointless and a massive waste of human life. But, in the face of the well-documented historical record, we cannot pretend that our attitudes were the common and accepted attitudes one hundred years ago.
Which at once raises a number of major problems.
Most of us are used to seeing the First World War (and most other major historical events) through the media of debunking memoirs, imaginative fiction, feature films and sometimes poetry. We read Wilfred Owen or Apollinaire, we watch All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory or King and Country, we read Goodbye to All That or Death of a Hero and we imagine that these are not only authentic experience but that they are typical of opinions at the time the great historical event was taking place. Soldiers, we conclude, really hated the war, despised their idiotic commanders and felt nothing but sympathy for their enemies. Like Paul Baumer in the foxhole weeping over the French soldier he has just bayoneted. Or maybe like the caricatures on Oh! What a Lovely War! and Blackadder.
We forget that nearly all the dramatisations, films and memoirs we have seen or read were produced after the event, and do not represent a general attitude when the war was being fought. (Yes – Owen, Sassoon et al wrote when the war was in progress, but their work reached at most a tiny audience at that time, and they did not become canonical until much later.)
This may seem both an obvious and a carping thing to say, but it has a great effect on our perception of the past. If we believe that the mass of people in the past really thought just as we do (in this instance, that the war was for no purpose), then we are setting ourselves up for the sort of conspiracy theory which imagines that populations can only have been coerced, propagandised or forced into doing the sort of things that we now deplore. We are depriving them of agency and refusing to accept that values and common attitudes are not the same from age to age. In short, we are lacking in real historical imagination.
In the clumsier and more inept “historical” novels (on the New Zealand scene, Witi Ihimaera’s are among the worst), the judgments and later textbook comments of historians are forced into historical characters’ mouths as if they were common currency in the time the novel is set. The impression this always creates is that “good” people in the past thought just as we do, and were all waiting for somebody like us to give them a lead.
Of course there is a much bigger issue here. Historical fiction thrives by concentrating on exceptional individuals – heroes, shall we say – and not on the ordinary run of people. There have been exceptional people in the past, who pioneered attitudes that we now either applaud or take for granted. To stick with the First World War example, there were indeed in historical fact conscientious objectors, anti-wars protesters and prescient people who said the war would lead nowhere. But they were only a tiny fraction of the population, when compared with those who either welcomed the war or accepted its prosecution as a duty. In short, they were not “typical”. By their very nature, heroes are the exception, but historical fiction – whence many people imagine they are learning history – coaxes people into imagining that they were the norm, and distorts or impedes any real understanding of the past.
Monday, June 8, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DEMOCRACY IN NEW ZEALAND” by Raymond Miller (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)
Raymond Miller is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland and is already the author of a number of important texts in his field. His Democracy in New Zealand has a dual purpose. It is at one and the same time a methodical exposition of New Zealand’s political system and a book that raises (sometimes awkward) questions about the future of that system.
I will not beat about the bush here. This is a valuable book and essential reading for those who want a clear introduction to our form of democracy. But – at least in its expository parts – it is also very much a textbook “written with an undergraduate readership in mind” as its Preface declares. I do not say this as a criticism. I can see it being a recommended text in the type of courses Miller teaches; and long may it be so. But I am simply pointing out that one does have to negotiate graphs, bullet-points and lists of names as one follows Miller’s explanations and argument. The approach is very methodical, then, working its way from a general consideration of what democracy is, to the minutiae of how elections campaigns are conducted, and concluding with a reflection on the future of our form of democracy.
This being the case, I feel one of my dry summaries of the text coming on, and here it is:
Professor Miller begins by noting (Chapter 1 “Democratic Society”) that the Westminster system of parliamentary government was established here in 1852 and that the franchise had been widened to include all men and women by the end of the nineteenth century. But New Zealand never had a carbon copy of the British system. Its democracy was and is unique for the three obvious reasons of remoteness (in one sense developing in a unique way far from centres of world power); smallness (New Zealanders, who now number a mere 4.6 million, are used to ready access to political representatives and still tend to think parochially) and youthfulness as a nation (still having some of the trappings of the old colonising power – such as a British head of state, the Union Jack on the flag, and a foreign honours system). New Zealand now features high on any register of democracy in the world, and the great majority of New Zealanders still express satisfaction with the nature of our current constitution; but there has been a slight dip in voter participation in recent years and elections are increasingly perceived as “presidential”.
Having set up this premise, Miller argues (Chapter 2 “Political System”) that New Zealand is still basically a democracy on the Westminster model. Unlike Britain, we have no upper house (our Legislative Council was abolished in 1951) but still have, as Britain has, a centralised parliament supreme in lawmaking. We now have an MMP voting system instead of the British FPP, but this has made no difference to the dominant role of cabinet. We do debate the matter of having a British head of state, but there is no urgency to the debate and the status quo is not likely to change soon. We have Citizen-Initiated Referenda, but they are non-binding. In this respect, we simply have tinkerings with the British model.
As with Britain, our constitution (Chapter 3) is unwritten. It is currently a patchwork of common law, statutes, the Treaty of Waitangi (or rather, elaborate interpretations thereof) and conventions. Miller (in bullet-point, power-point lecture form) proceeds to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of creating a written constitution and goes so far as to suggest that the constitutional review initiated by the National government in 2008 was really “concerned with creating a public perception of openness, receptiveness to the concerns of the government’s support parties and concern for the needs of Maori.” (p.60). This is one of his more waspish statements, implying a mere public relations exercise.
Parliament (Chapter 4) is central to our form of government, despite often being ridiculed for its foolish and vituperative debates; but there is real discussion about the desirable size of Parliament (do we have too many MPs?); the 3-year term between general elections (is it too short?) and the way parliament often seems the plaything of the executive i.e. subject to cabinet “dictatorship”. Miller notes that the horse-shoe-shaped debating chamber reinforces the idea of two-party adversarialism, which has to be modified a little in the multi-party era. Of Select Committees discussing proposed legislation, he says: “One of the anticipated reforms of the new multi-party parliament under MMP was the prospect that committee chairs would be drawn from across the party spectrum. However, this has not been the case. Using its majority or near-majority vote on each of the select committees, the governing party is normally able to secure the position of chair on each and every committee.” (p.68) There has been a certain fragmentation of party discipline since the era of many minor parties began; and there is an increased deployment of “free” votes on many issues, despite the continuing importance of party w hips.
On the size of parliament Miller notes that, though we have disproportionately large parliaments when compared with Australia and the USA, our parliament is comparable in size to those of smaller democracies.
His account of the electoral system (Chapter 5) is essentially an exposition of MMP and its potential pitfalls. His greatest criticism in this chapter is the way parties frequently declare gender and ethnic equality when they choose their candidates; but often relegate women and/or ethnic minorities to the more unwinnable seats or place them lower down the party list. The dodgy way the winning of one seat can allow minor parties to gain greater representation in parliament is scrutinised. Miller describes as “political self-interest” (p.105) the National government’s rejection of the Electoral Commission’s recommendations on abolishing this one-seat threshold.
In considering “cabinet government” (Chapter 6), Miller points out that the structure of cabinet is more dynamic than that of parliament itself, because each prime minister determines both the size of cabinet and what it is intended to do. In this matter, Miller notes more similarities than differences National and Labour administrations that have led governments (only sometimes coalitions) in the era of MMP. National prime ministers personally decide who will be in cabinet whereas Labour lets caucus decide. However, both Labour and National leave it up to the prime minister to allocate portfolios, so the structure of power is little different. Raymond Miller in fact spends a number of pages on what he calls the “Clark / Key” model of cabinet government, showing how both Helen Clark and John Key have used minority parties to keep the centre ground, while keeping those minority parties away from essential executive decisions. He also notes in both Labour-led and National-led governments the existence of virtual “kitchen cabinets” – that is, an inner circle of senior and most-trusted members of cabinet whom the prime minister consults on strategy.
This leads into the matter of “Leaders and Leadership” (Chapter 7). It has been noted that recent elections are often personality-based and almost “presidential”, partly because the age of the class-based mass party is over with the ending of the old National-Labour duopoly. Nevertheless, Miller asserts that there is still much of the egalitarian impulse in the way New Zealanders respond to leaders. Moving away from political theory and generalisations, he suggests that often, political biographies are the best way to understand how prime ministers and party leaders operate. Thus “there is much to be said for the value of single-actor narratives in deepening our understanding of the history of political leadership in New Zealand.” (p.132) In his analysis, the most effective leaders have been those who can present themselves as willing to compromise (Clark, Key) and the most unpopular leaders have been those who were too rigidly ideological (Shipley, Brash). In a media-saturated age, New Zealand prime ministers now control their image carefully. Again making a non-partisan observation, Miller says “As with Clark, Key is selective in his choice of radio stations, generally preferring to be interviewed by the more ideologically sympathetic broadcasters on commercial radio than their counterparts in the publicly owned Radio New Zealand.” (p.146)
The topic of political leadership includes leaders of the opposition. For Miller, the failure of many leaders of the opposition consists of their inability to be effective debaters in parliament, or to present themselves as offering a real alternative to current government policy.
The discussion on political parties (Chapter 8) is dominated by a discussion on how the old duopoly has broken down since the introduction of MMP. However, Miller notes that most of the new parties that appeared in the first flush of MMP did not survive. Even so, the very existence of minor parties has changed the way the major parties conduct themselves. Says Miller, in his most comprehensive statement on the matter:
“Having almost completed the transition from the class-based politics of the mass party era to the catch-all politics of today, National and Labour seek to maximise their appeal to voters by competing in the ideological centre ground. In contrast, their rivals are forced to garner their support from much smaller electoral communities, including ethnic and religious minorities, environmentalists and those on either side of the neo-liberal divide. Frustrated by their failure to create a sufficiently large niche of potential support, these parties are either pushed toward the extremities of left or right or relegated to a lopsided battle with the large parties for the support of the median voter.” (p.182)
The discussion on Maori electoral politics (Chapter 9) is a good general overview, which I couldn’t help comparing with M. P. K. Sorrenson’s essay “Maori Representation in Parliament”. [It appears in Sorrenson’s volume Ko Te Whenua Te Utu, which I reviewed it in the March posting of Landfall Review on Line]. Miller does, however, have the advantage of bringing the story up to date. As for “Elections and Voters” (Chapter 10), Miller concentrates on the way the media now really define election issues and how there is now virtually a “permanent campaign” with all parties regularly having to show how fit they are to govern. All parties consult professional imager-makers and media advisors and there is a “risk averse” approach in the way specific policies are now presented to the public.
After all this solid exposition, then, we come at last to Miller’s concluding remarks on the future of New Zealand democracy (Chapter 11). He weighs up the inevitably top-down nature of representative democracy against the idea of more direct democracy promised by Citizen-Initiated Referenda. But the potential for hasty and ill-considered judgments in such referenda, and the limitations in the way propositions referred to the public can be worded, finally lead him to endorse the stability of the form of democracy we already have. This is not an exciting conclusion, but it is a logical one after what has gone before. Miller doesn’t say it in so many words, but he implies that, with all its faults, cabinet-led parliamentary government is the “least bad” form of government.