Monday, November 4, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“COLIN McCAHON: THERE IS ONLY ONE DIRECTION. Volume 1, 1919-1959” by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $NZ 75); “MOPHEAD” by Selins Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, $NZ 27:99)
2019 is the centenary of the birth of Colin McCahon (1919-1987), regarded by many as New Zealand’s most iconic painter. The most significant event related to this is likely to be the publication of Peter Simpson’s two-volume survey of McCahon’s life and work. The first volume is Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. 1919-1959. The second volume, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? 1960-1987, is scheduled to appear in May 2020.
With this publication, Peter Simpson again confirms his position as one of the most distinguished chroniclers of our artistic and literary history, as already evidenced in his Bloomsbury South and his editing of the Charles Brasch Journals1958-1973 (both reviewed on this blog). His author’s preface to Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction gives a detailed account of his long connection with McCahon’s work, as both curator and author of catalogues and explanatory books about the artist. He tells us that the book’s title comes from McCahon’s comment that a poet or artist needs “one direction” – a clear vision or concept to guide his work, even if the subject of that vision changes.
To make one clear bibliographic comment, this is a large and capacious book, just shy of 360 pages (including index, bibliography and scrupulous notes and references). I’m sure Simpson wouldn’t take offence at the remark that, while his text is excellent, among the book’s chief attractions are the large reproductions of McCahon’s work, often spread over two broad pages. In effect, the book itself becomes an accessible gallery of McCahon’s major paintings. Spending time with them is as important as spending time with the text.
Simpson’s prose style is clear, clean and unambiguous. Unlike some writers on the fine arts, who appear to be addressing a coterie or in-group, Simpson is aware that he is writing for a wide audience. As he says in his Introduction, “this book is intended not only for the already knowledgeable but also for those reading about McCahon for the first time.” (p.21) As well as glossing some art-related terms in his text, he does not hestitate to explain who certain well-known artists and writers were. This does not mean writing down to the reader. It means that there are none of the wilful mystifications one finds in some works on art (especially postmodern ones), which seem designed to put up barriers against the hoi-polloi.
Simpson is at pains to note that Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction is not really a biography. Though it is arranged in chronological order, and though it does give an account of the artist’s life, its focus is on the man’s career and it is primarily an exploration of his work and development as an artist. Simpson reiterates this sentiment in his “Conclusion”. This volume finishes when we are almost two-thirds of the way through Colin McCahon’s life, because that is almost exactly halfway through his career as an artist. Hence the second volume will explore just as much artistic ground as the first.
Nevertheless, the biographical contents are important. Born in Timaru, Colin McCahon spent most of his younger life in Dunedin and Oamaru. He hated being a pupil at Otago Boys’ High School and managed to persuade his parents to send him to the Dunedin School of Art instead. Although Dunedin was where his parents lived, and although he visited them often, in later life he came to loathe Dunedin. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he moved between Nelson, Dunedin and Wellington, often following seasonal labouring jobs, as painting in itself did not provide an income to support a family. In 1942, when he was 23, he married fellow-artist Anne Humblett, and they settled in Christchurch for a number of years. In the 1950s he made the major shift to Auckland’s westernmost, semi-rural suburb of Titirangi, in the Waitakere Ranges. He held an important position at the Auckland Art Gallery. He did not become the gallery’s director (although he considered applying for the post) but he did deputise before the arrival of the new director Peter Tomory. Simpson notes all the various residences that McCahon and his family occupied, and notes the worries they often had about making rent. But McCahon’s wife and children are left very much in the background and are the subject of passing comments only. The biographical narrative fades out in 1960, when McCahon and family relocated to the inner-city Auckland suburb of Newton.
What is more dominant is Simpson’s careful account of how McCahon’s style changed, and the way different artists influenced him at various stages of his career. Toss Woollaston was an important early influence, when McCahon was almost exclusively a landscape painter, interested in geomorphology (the basic shape and structure of the land) and stripping landscapes down to unpopulated and treeless images. At that stage there was the strong influence of Cezanne and the earlier impressionists. A major change in McCahon’s artistic focus came when in he was in Nelson in 1948-49. In place of the people-less landscapes, he painted New Testament scenes of the Crucifixion, the Annunciation and the Resurrection, all placed in recognisably New Zealand settings. He now claimed as his masters the (religious) painters of Renaissance Italy. Simpson is very careful to note this was no sudden religious “conversion”, as McCahon had always had some sort of religious sensibility. After his move to Auckland, and after visits to Australia where he received some tuition, McCahon had greater awareness of cubism and a new way of conceiving of physical forms. There followed his Titirangi paintings of kauri and of French Bay and his move into abstraction. His paintings had always been “symbolic” rather than “representational”, but this was a major change.
Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction ends at the point when he had been for four months in the United States in 1958, and had seen art with which he was previously unfamiliar. He was moving to the greater use of words and script as part of his artistic expression. This was to lead into those stark black, white and grey canvases with verbal statements – but wording was not entirely new in his paintings as he had already made much use of speech bubbles in his earlier religious art.
As Simpson documents it, McCahon was very reliant on a close circle of friends and correspondents when he needed moral support, especially as his work was so often controversial and attracted much loud, and public, negative criticism. The first such controversy was in 1939, when the Otago Arts Society rejected the 20-year-old McCahon’s first well-known painting, “Harbour Cone from Penny’s Hill”. In solidarity with him, some other artists withdrew their work from the OAS exhibition. Later, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover loathed his religious paintings, and wrote barbs against them. McCahon’s sometime mentor and patron Charles Brasch was, at first, also very negative about the overtly religious works, but he later changed his mind. Most condemned of all were the text-dominated canvases that came later.
It is hard to explore McCahon without at some stage discussing the religious element in his work. In his Introduction, Simpson considers McCahon’s religious art and the matter of whether he was, or was not, a Christian. McCahon had a conventional Presbyterian upbringing and was for a while associated with the Quakers. A crucial point in his life was when, as a young man he “found his own god”. As Simpson notes “Landscape and religion were never entirely separate in McCahon’s imagination.” (p.39). God, or belief of some sort, was implicit in landscape itself. Yet this could suggest a vague sort of pantheism, and the obvious fact is that, in two major phases of his career, McCahon’s terms of reference were specifically Christian ones. This is apparently an embarrassment to some commentators; and non-believers who wish to see McCahon’s work in purely aesthetic terms can point to a few letters and comments where the artist disavowed any specific form of belief. This rather ignores the fact that doubt is, and has always been, an essential part of religious faith. Few thinking believers have “blind faith”, and questioning God or dogma has always been part of the religious experience (check out sometime “dark nights of the soul” from Augustine to John of the Cross to Therese of Lisieux and others). Simpson says “Such questions of belief and disbelief were never finally settled for McCahon, but – to the undoubted benefit of his painting – were matters of continuous ongoing self-exploration and struggle.” (p.57) Quite so. If all the Elias paintings (there is a generous display of them at pp.308-313) are about “misunderstanding” and “doubt”, they are still firmly in the religious tradition.
Both visually and in terms of its commentary, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction is a rich and rewarding book. I hope this judgment is implicit in all the above comments. I’ll conclude with a couple of minor matters.
First, as a barbarous philistine, I found it endearing that McCahon apparently loved watching Westerns when he went to the movies (Chapter 3) – their horses and sweeping plains and music. Without being precious about it, I would say this chimes with the man who loved landscapes – and especially naked and underpopulated landscapes waiting for some human imprint.
Second, a little gulp of sorrow comes to the throat in reading this statement early in the book: “Throughout much of his life, McCahon was an indefatigable letter writer, a practice that with the advent of personal conmputers has virtually disappeared.” (p.20) Simpson isn’t the first to note this, but it does at once suggest how hard it will be for future biographers to get at the intimate thoughts of people from our own era.
Some purely personal responses:
I’ve already finished my review of Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction; but I thought I’d add a few purely subjective remarks.
In his Introduction, Simpson notes, correctly, that people who like one phase of McCahon’s artistic development often do not like another. He sees the great divide in opinion relating to the change in McCahon’s techniques after his 4-month trip to the USA in 1958. In other words, people who like the earlier McCahon landscapes and (more-or-less “representational”) religious paintings, tend not to like the later abstractions, cubism and text paintings – and vice versa. Personally, the text paintings interest me, as do the Titirangi kauri paintings. But irremovably embedded in my mind are the early landscapes, and I think it has to do with my early exposure to them in childhood. McCahon’s masterly “Otago Peninsula 1946-49” slapped me in the eye as soon as I first saw it on display in Otago, and for years a postcard reproduction of it has been pinned, by a thumb-tack, to my study wall. It’s a masterpiece. I saw “On Building Bridges – triptych” (painted in 1952) on dsplay in the Auckland City Art Gallery as a child, and of course, having a logical child’s mind, couldn’t figure out why the three pieces did not neatly fit together. Now I think I get it. But the really iconic painting for me (and I’m sorry that it comes so early in McCahon’s career) is “Takaka, night and day”, painted in 1948. Again, this was a childhood encounter in the Auckland City Art Gallery. I recall an adult saying that the hills looked like upraised knees, and ever since, I’ve detected an implicit anthropomorphism in much of McCahon’s early, people-less, landscapes. Even more mysterious was the concept of night and day in one canvas. This is still the painting I first think of when I think of McCahon. All three of these paintings are reproduced in Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction.
Here’s a second, unrelated, comment. I’m surprised Simpson does not make more of the French artist Georges Rouault. I grew up in a house where there was a framed print of Rouault’s “The Old King” hung at the entrance to our playroom – a very daunting image which I remember thinking was a representation of King Herod. When I looked at “Fifteen Drawings for Charles Brasch” (pp.174-175 of Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction) they struck me as being in exactly the same style as Rouault’s work on similar themes. I viewed a gallery of Rouault’s work, in a side-room of the church of Saint Severin, when I was on a trip to Paris 2017; and McCahon immediately popped into my mind. The similarity is unignorable. But Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction has only one passing mention of Rouault (p.129).
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I’m dealing very briefly with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s enjoyable picture-book Mophead not because I’m giving it the flick, but because I can say very briefly what it is and who its prime auduence is.
Mophead is a sturdily bound hardback telling an inspirational story in pictures as much as in words. It was both written and illustrated by Samoan-Palagi poet Selina Tusitala Marsh, New Zealand’s first Pasifika Poet Laureate. As a kid, she was often ridiculed by others at school for her huge mop of frizzy hair, and she earned the nickname “mophead”. Embarrassed, she tried to tie up and control her hair until a talk at school by Sam Hunt told her that it was best to be herself. So now she rejoices in her mop of hair as an expression of who she is (a bit like Cyrano de Bergerac and his proud nose). And she has carried her trademark mop confidently into the various adventures of her adult life.
The pictures are lively and expressive, the text is bold and the message is clear. I can see Mophead going down very well with schoolchildren who need a bit of encouragement and confidence, and that is the book’s target audience. I am happily passing it on to one of my teenage grand-daughters.Any misgivings? Much of it is self-promotion (I sang before the Queen, I met President Obama etc.). But I guess that’s part of the self-confidence the book is promoting.
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.
“THE MIRROR OF THE SEA” by Joseph Conrad (first published 1906; author’s note added 1919 for a collected edition of his works)
On this blog, I have discussed a number of times England’s Polish literary genius Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). You can look up posts on Nostromo, Heart of Darkness, Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent and Victory. With the possible exception of Victory, all these are among his best-known works. But in this posting I am examining one of his least-read texts, The Mirror of the Sea, which is not a work of fiction. The Mirror of the Sea was written and published in 1906, during Conrad’s most fruitful period as a novelist. It came between what are regarded as two of his masterpieces, Nostromo and The Secret Agent.
For those who have never read his works, Conrad is reputed to be simply a writer of the sea – and of course he was sometimes that, in novels like Lord Jim, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and The Shadow Line; and in novellas like Typhoon and Youth. But the sea was not the setting for most of his novels and the sea is not the main subject of any of the five novels I have so far discussed on this blog, although the sea is a small part of the narrative of some of them. Conrad was a professional seaman for twenty years, between the ages of 16 and 36, working his way up first in the French, then in the English, merchant marine from sailor to Master. He left the sea at 36 and settled down to a literary career, with his first novel appearing when he was 39. It wasn’t until he was nearly fifty that he wrote The Mirror of the Sea, a reflection on his days under sail.
The Mirror of the Sea is and is not an autobiography. It is drawn from Conrad’s memories, certainly, but it is not a chronological account of his life, says nothing about his childhood, family or background, and does not even give the names of fellow-seamen who were his colleagues. (They are disguised discreetly as ‘Captain C-‘, ‘Boatswain B’ – etc.) In the author’s note, which he added for the book’s 1919 reprint, Conrad remarks that some critics were taken aback by this and expected him to reveal more of himself. But Conrad says that what he attempts here is “to lay bare, with the unreserve of a last hour’s confession, the terms of my relation with the sea”. Only in the last quarter of his book does it become more autobiographical in the conventional sense, and at this point it is worth noting that the last three of the book’s 48 shortish chapters are a big diappointment. They end The Mirror of the Sea with the clunk of bathos, for Chapters 46, 47 and 48 are patriotic British bombast about the glories of the Royal Navy and Lord Nelson. Conrad is cosmopolitan enough to tell us that the French and Spanish captains at Trafalgar were jolly decent chaps too. But for the sake of his literary reputation, I hope that Conrad wrote tongue-in-cheek, and as a sop to his British readership, this dreadful conclusion to an otherwise thoughtful book. I will say no more about it.
The Mirror of the Sea is a book about the sea, about how young Conrad reacted to the moods of the sea, and how he fared in different ships. As for the title, the phrase “mirror of the sea” recurs a number of times in the text. “Love and regret go hand in hand in this world of changes swifter than the shifting of the clouds reflected in the mirror of the sea”, says Conrad in Chapter 7. He speaks of one swift sailing ship, saying “her image surely has its glorious place in the mirror of the old sea” in Chapter 12. And in Chapter 26 there is the “blue sky whose immense and unfathomable tenderness, reflected in the mirror of the sea, embraces, possesses, lulls to sleep the ships with white sails.” There are other places in the text where the phrase is used. They all picture the sea as the literal mirror that it is. But there is a subtext here – for a seaman, the sea is the mirror of himself, reflecting his character in the way he reacts to the sea in calm or (more particularly) in storm. For as a professional seaman, Conrad knows that the sea tests every sailor. Each finds out who he really is. This becomes one of the book’s dominant themes.
In his opening ten or so chapters, Conrad moves methodically through maritime matters in what are, in effect, a series of essays – the importance of departures and landfalls; the varying qualities of captains he has known; and the proper use of nautical terms. Sometimes he chastises landlubbers, as when he remarks “Your journalist almost invariably ‘casts’ his anchor. Now an anchor is never cast, and to take a liberty with technical language is a crime” (Chapter 4). An anchor is properly “let go”, not “cast”. He tells us of “the sense of insecurity which is so invaluable to a seaman” (Chapter 5) i.e. a sailor should not be cocksure, as the sea is so variable in its moods; hence a sailor should always be prepared for the worst. With proper contempt as a professional mariner, Conrad looks down on yachting, saying: “Yacht racing is an organised pastime, a function of social idleness ministering to the vanity of certain wealthy inhabitants of [England] nearly as much as to their inborn love of the sea” (Chapter 7) But he relents and admits that yachting requires sailing skill and the art of managing a crew. “To deal with men is as fine an art as to deal with ships - both men and ships live in an unstable element, are subject to subtle and powerful influences, and want to have their merits understood rather than their faults found out.” (Chapter 7). More than once he refers to the sea as “the unstable element”, and as readers of Lord Jim will know, Conrad frequently used this term as a metaphor for the instability of human affairs.
He moves on to some of the perils of seamanship, considering the horror of newspapers’ “Shipping Intelligence”, which tell anxious wives and relatives of seamen about ships first “Overdue” and then “Missing”, which most often means “sunk” (Chapter 16). We learn that in polar seas, even a small ice-floe can be enough to sink a ship (Chapter 17); and we learn what a misery it is for a ship to be stranded on a submerged sandbank (Chapters 20 and 21).
As Conrad always expresses it, ships are feminine and to be loved as such. In Chapter 15 he tells us: “Yes, your ship wants to be humoured with knowledge. You must treat with an understanding consideration the mysteries of her feminine nature, and then she will stand by you faithfully in the unceasing struggle with forces wherein defeat is no shame.” Ships are in their glory when they are on the high seas. When a ship is tied up at docks “you would think a free ship would droop and die like a wild bird put into a dirty cage” (Chapter 32). Stevedores and others are “trampling unconcerned, brutal and hodnailed upon her helpless body” (Chapter 33). Ships “can of themselves minister to our self-esteem by the demand their qualities make of our skill and their shortcomings upon our hardiness and endurance.” (Chapter 35). The obvious inplication here is that ships are like women who have to be protected by men, cherished by men and loved by men – and whose whims have to be considered. I can’t help wondering, too, if there is not another impulse for this anthropomorphising of ships. As the safe body in which men live as they sail across the unstable sea, isn’t a ship a little like an enfolding womb? Truly feminine.
By contrast, neither the winds nor the sea itself are feminised. From Chapter 23 to Chapter 29, Conrad dwells on the influence of prevailing winds. In these chapters he is at his most rhetorical . He personifies the West Wind as the King of the oceans, treating human beings as his petty subjects and playthings; while the East Wind is a conniving villain, who rushes upon ships when they are unprepared. As for the sea: “The ocean has the conscienceless temper of a savage autocrat spoiled by much adulation. He cannot brook the slightest appearance of defiance, and has remained the irreconcilable enemy of ships and men ever since ships and men had the unheard of audacity to go afloat together in the face of his frown.” (Chapter 36) In this same chapter, Conrad says he really became an adult when, as a very junior officer, he understood for the first time the complete indifference of the sea to human life. He was a part of a crew who rowed from a merchantman to rescue nine Danish seamen. The Danes were clinging to a waterlogged ship, almost completely submerged and on the point of dragging them down as it sank. It was, of course, the pitiless sea that had brought them to this state, and that threatened the rescuers with being dragged down too.
Writing in 1906, Conrad is aware that the era of sailing-ships – the era he knew as a sailor in the 1870s and 1880s – is almost over. He is writing of a time now past. “Stevedoring,” he tells us,“which had been a skilled labour, is fast becoming a labour without the skill. The modern steamship with her many holds is not loaded within the sailorlike meaning of the word. She is filled up. Her cargo is not stowed in any sense; it is simply dumped into her through six hatchways, more or less, by twelve winches or so…” (Chapter 13). He is clearly still unfamiliar with modern hoisting machinery to load cargo. And the future looms in modern London docks with “here and there a lonely wooden jetty where petroleum ships discharge their dangerous cargoes, and the oil storage tanks, low and round with slightly domed roofs, peep over the edge of the foreshore, as it were a village of Central African huts imitated in iron.” (Chapter 31) He has a low opinion of those who look after wharves, docks and loading – he refers to them as “renegades” (Chapter 33) in that he sees them as failed sailors.
Along with this goes his near contempt for steamships that are killing the true seamanship of sailing ships. He dwells on the majesty of sail, pushed along simply by the forces of nature (Chapter 10). “Of all ships disabled at sea,” he declares, “a steamship who has lost her propeller is the most helpless. And as she drifts into an unpopulated part of the ocean she may soon become overdue.” (Chapter 18). One of his most pitiful stories is of a steamship which lost its propeller on the run between New Zealand and Cape Horn and which, until being rescued by a whaler, drifted helplessly in places where a sailing ship could have taken advantage of the winds. He says “The machinery, the steel, the fire, the steam have stepped in between the man and the sea. A modern fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a highway.” (Chapter 22) The existence of steam power lessens that existential struggle between man, wind and sea that Conrad relishes. And, on a less important note, he regrets the loss of the old figureheads that used to adorn sailing ships (Chapter 35).
As for the future of navigation, Conrad strikes a prophetic note imagining the type of steel warship, capable of immense destructiveness, that will be developed. (Remember, this was written eight years before the First World War). When inventors have made this come to pass, he says “the bodies of the inventors should [be] blown to pieces by means of their own perfected explosives and improved weapons with extreme publicity as the commonest prudence dictated.” (Chapter 37) This nostrum for ending war has been suggested by many others in the years since then.
As a practitioner of irony, Conrad sometimes displays the art of understatement. Describing a ferocious storm at sea, he writes “I confess that the idea of being suddenly spilt into an infuriated ocean in the midst of uproar affected me always with a sensation of shrinking distaste” (Chapter 9). Personally, I would be absolutely terrified – and I suspect Conrad or any other sane human being would too. He also describes with deep irony the sinking of a leaking ship thus: “The surmise of my maturer years is that, bored by her interminable life, the venerable antiquity was simply yawning with ennui at every seam.” (Chapter 39) Along with the irony, there are some euphemisms which I assume cover the effing and blinding of sailors in distress, typical of literature in Conrad’s times. As a violent sea-storm is going on, a captain and his first mate are arguing, and there is “a little private ship’s storm going on in which you could detect strong language, pronounced in a tone of passion, and exculpatory protestations uttered with every possible inflection of injured innocence” (Chapter 10).
In contrast with the irony and euphemisms, there are the grand apostrophes for which Conrad is sometimes criticised, but which can be very grand indeed. Consider this evocation of the primal nature of the sea: “It seems to me that no man born and truthful to himself could declare that he ever saw the sea looking young as the world looks in spring. But some of us, regarding the ocean with understanding and affection, have seen it old, as if the immemorial ages have been stirred up from the undisturbed bottom of ooze. For it is a gale of wind that makes the sea look old… If you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. The greyness of the whole immense surface, the wind furrows upon the faces of the waves, the great masses of foam , tossed about and waving, like matted white locks, give the sea in a gale an appearance of hoary age, lustreless, dull, without gleams, as though it had been created before light itself.” (Chapter 22)
Although, as I have argued, this is not a conventional autobiography, there are in The Mirror of the Sea vivid personal anecdotes, in Conrad’s reminiscences of the wool-ships that went to and fro between England and Australia (Chapter 33) and one vivid and unexpected chapter on the night young Conrad had to spend being a ship’s night-watchman when the ship was anchored at Sydney’s Circular Quay. He saw from the deck the sights and sounds of young rough Sydneysiders having organised fistfights and other traditional Aussie pastimes.
When he passes to his considerations of the Mediterranean Sea, he at first spends three chapters on the Mediterranean as the cradle of navigation, and the ancient and more modern sea battles that took place there (Chapter 37-39). But the subject of the Mediterranean launches him into the most straightforwardly autobiographical parts of the book – six chapters (Chapters 40 to 45), almost amounting to a novella, on his membership of a syndicate of four young men (the other three were an American, a Corsican and an Englishman) gunrunning for the ultra-conservative pretenders to the Spanish throne, the Carlists. Their venture was on the leaky, unreliable little ship Tremolino and it came to a sticky end. Conrad tells the story with the relaxed irony of an older man looking back at the follies of his youth; and yet at the same time regretting the passing of those days of naïve and idealistic youthfulness. As the whole venture comes to a pathetic end, Conrad reflects bitterly on the older people who fired up these young men to undertake the venture in the first place: “The whole Royalist gang was in Monte Carlo now, I reckoned. And they appeared to me clear-cut and very small, with affected voices and stiff gestures like a procession of rigid marionettes upon a toy stage.” (Chapter 44) Scholars of Conrad will know that much later, when his literary career was fading, he worked this episode into a novel, The Arrow of Gold, which, as repute tells me (I have never read it), is one of his weakest efforts. And, just to confuse matters, other scholars (such as John Stape in his biography The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, which sits on my selves) argue that the whole story of gunrunning is a fiction.
And then – clunk! – we come to those awful jingoisitc last three chapters of The Mirror of the Sea, which would almost have sunk this ship if what precedes them had not been such an interesting, ruminative set of reflections.
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.
GREAT BIG MELTING POT
I recently read and reviewed on this blog Gregory O’Brien’s enjoyable Always Song in the Water, a reflection on New Zealand’s status as an oceanic continent. Of no major significance in the book, and certainly not reflecting O’Brien’s humane views, I found in the text a phrase that is rarely used nowadays. In passing, O’Brien mentions “the cultural melting pot of Aotearoa New Zealand over the past few decades”(p.173).
“Melting pot”. Now there’s a phrase you hardly hear anymore – and when it is used, it is heavily criticised for committing the sin of “assimilationism”. Current wisdom says that if you speak of diverse ethnicities in a particular country blending together in a “melting pot”, then you are denying each ethnicity its own uniqueness and culture. You are assuming that they will all abandon their inherited customs and be absorbed into one homogenous cultural norm. And usually, goes this argument, the norm will be a white European norm. Ergo assimilation is racist and the more acceptable buzz-word now is “diversity”.
I can see some merit in this argument, although I can also see ways in which it is blind to reality.
A little research (thank you, Wikipedia) tells me that the phrase “melting pot”, as related to culture and ethnicity, was first used by “nativists” in mid-19th century America. They were those English-speaking Americans who resented the influx of Irish, Italian, Jewish and other non-English-speaking immigrants. They claimed that everybody should be just “American” rather than “Irish-American”, “Italian-American” etc. But clearly by “American”, the “nativists” meant WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) like the Founding Fathers. The message was clear. To be a true Amertican, you should conform culturally to US and abandon YOUR inherited ways. (In the original argument African-Americans were not considered because at the time they were not regarded as full citizens.)
Sometimes this argument could be made with benign intent by immigrants themselves. I was already aware that the phrase “melting pot” really took off in 1908 when the Russian-Jewish American Israel Zangwill wrote his successful play The Melting Pot. It argued that America was a tolerant and open society accepting all cultures and religions, quite unlike the old Imperial Russia which Zangwill’s family had escaped, where pogroms were still common. Zangwill’s conception of the “melting pot” was a society of mutual acceptance in which the best elements of different cultures would ultimately blend together on equal terms. But more often, the “melting pot” meant conformity to Anglo-American norms. Notoriously, Henry Ford (a rabid anti-Semite among other things) made all new immigrant employees at his main plants go through a ceremony in which they pledged allegiance to the flag and announced that they were no longer Italian, Greek etc. but just “American”. He even employed “social workers” to examine the families of his immigrant employees and ensure that they were not lapsing back into their traditional ethnic ways.
The “melting pot” concept was very durable. From when I was a teenager, I remember a nauseating song that was often heard on the radio. Even at the time I found it rather smug, although I would not have been able to articulate why. It was called “Melting Pot” and not only did it mention “yellow Chinkees”, but its main verse went:
“What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all its got
Big enough to take the world and all its got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score.”
And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score.”
I think it was that “coffee-coloured people” bit that really turned me off, with its implication that people should not be happy to be black, white, yellow or any other skin tone. It was a call to conformity. I had assumed that the song was American, because it sounded like the equally bland Disney “It’s a small world after all” song. Coming out in 1969, it was in fact the work of an English pop group “Blue Mink”, written by two of its members Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. It probably had the good intention of opposing racism, but its cure for racism was to pretend that various and separate cultures couldn’t and shouldn’t endure. Its “melting pot” meant we would all be the same.
But now, as I have to, I come to the other side of the argument. Isn’t the current catch-cry of “diversity” also an illusion? To limit my reflection to New Zealand, we no longer have simply Maori and Pakeha, but we now have many thousands of New Zealanders who are Samoan, Tongan, Chinese, Indian, Korean, African and other ethnicities. Yet all these peoples now live under one law, make use of the same technologies, deal with the same institutions and [in the main] go through the same education system. I would also point out that, though there are now available in New Zealand broadcasts, pod-casts and tele-casts in other languages, the overwhleming language of popular culture is English. And, while there are efforts to build up the number of speakers of Maori, English remains the country’s only universally-understood language.
Recognising these facts is not to accept a “melting pot” mentality. It is simply to point out that even as diverse ethnicities are accepted, even as there are an increasing number of public celebrations of different cultures (the indian Diwali; the Chinese lantern festival and New Year etc.), there are also strong forces that hold us together. In other words, a certain degree of assimilation is inevitable. It is not enough to say that this is “common humanity” or “decency”. It is the fact that a society has to live by some accepted norms, or it will rapdly fall apart, and then we head into the fractious politics of sectionalism, where all things are referred to in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc. instead of in terms of our shared citizenship.
You might have noticed that nowhere in this argument have I used the term “multiculturalism”. There is a reason for this (and it is NOT the argument given by some Maori polemicists that multiculturalism is merely a Pakeha trick to blot out what they think should be New Zealand’s bi-culturalism). “Mutlculturalism” assumes that separate cultures will endure complete and unaffected by other cultures – a kind of eternal patchwork of identities. But it never works that way. When different ethnic cultures exist side-by-side, they gradually modify one another. This is not a restatement of the “melting pot” idea. It is a recognition of change – and one in which each group retains a distinct identity, but also has much in common with other groups and accepts those distinctions.