Monday, June 22, 2020
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“UPTURNED” by Kay McKenzie Cooke (The Cuba Press, $NZ25); “FRAGMENTS FROM AN INFINITE CATALOGUE” by John Tane Christeller (The Cuba Press, $NZ30); “HOW TO BE OLD” by Rachel McAlpine (The Cuba Press, $NZ25); “THE WANDERER” by Ron Riddell (HeadworX, $NZ25); “THREE POETS – A HEADWORX ANTHOLOGY” by Marion Rego, Alex Jeune and Margaret Jeune (HeadworX, $NZ@%)
There’s a section in Kay McKenzie Cooke’s new collection Upturned where the poet writes about her visits to Berlin and the alienness of that city. The language is different. She has difficulty communicating with Germans in a bakery (the poem “Tough light”). Her little bilingual granddaughter shows more confidence in German than in English (“Foxes or squirrels”). In a stately sequence called “Baltic Coast in autumn” she is aware that the very rhythm of that northern sea is different from the rhythm of the seas about New Zealand – “a wide and flat ocean, no breakers, / any wildness held / behind horizon lines, / contained by distance, / a motionless tideline.” Yet with strangers and with German-domiciled members of her family, there is still a warm fellow-feeling.
But this excursion into the great land called Overseas is the only section of Upturned where Kay McKenzie Cooke is an alien. For most of this collection she is very much at home, dedicating some poems specifically to places in the great New Zealand South - Gore, Balclutha, the Maniototo and locations in or around Dunedin like Caversham, St. Kilda and Mount Cargill, where the winds whistle up from the Antarctic.
Cooke is more concerned with (modified) nature than with the city, but her landscape poems are not idyllic dreams. Many are situated in the present world where the bangs of hunters’ guns and the noise of traffic are heard (“Inlet”, “Bucklands Crossing”). There is also the strong pull of the past in her poetry, and the influence of whakapapa, with poems honouring her late parents, her great-great-grandmother, her great-grandmother and a much-loved Maori grandfather Reg Lee “our grandad / who always wore a hat, / cut the kindling, kept a good garden, / shovelled coal into the fire.” The past also means childhood, where sitting at a grandmother’s table gives comfort when a southern storm is brewing outside (“Two tables”); or where children at primary school, seated at their teacher’s feet, make local interpretations of the songs from faraway that they are singing (“On a mat at the bottom of the world”). Not that childood is entirely innocent, especially when sibling rivalry creeps in (“Being there”).
As a reviewer of poetry-collections, I have the very bad habit of nominating poems as favourites – even suggesting that some future anthologist might embrace them. But I can’t resist indulging the habit.
In Upturned, two poems grabbed me for their fine quality and acute observation.
“Monkey Island shadows” is a joyful and detailed recall to a family mussel-collecting excursion on the shore facing Foveaux Strait, where “all the gathered mussels are clattering in a tin drum / over an open fire, shells opening into grins, / and flounder too from nets our uncles hauled in”. Such abundance! – and maybe a reminder that such days are now gone.
“Full pardon” is a poem celebrating summer, but even as she celebrates, Cook insinuates subtly an awareness of transcience and the brevity of the warmer season.
Perhaps I shouldn’t single out two poems this way. Upturned is a fine and well-crafted collection – the product of a mature and thoughtful mind.
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Kay McKenzie Cooke is Ngai Tahu and Pakeha. John Tane Christeller is a New Zealander of Kiwi and German-Jewish descent. This may seem an odd way to begin a notice about his debut collection of poetry Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue, but ethnicity is relevant because, the blurb tells us, Christeller has learnt te reo and this collection contains some poems in the Maori language, not all of which are presented with English-language equivalents. I do not profess to be able to comment on the poems in Maori only.
It’s also important to note that Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue has to be judged as an objet d’art as much as a work of literature. The text is accompanied with 24 colourful images in a variety of styles, reproduced from Christeller’s screenprints and woodblocks. Some draw on Maori motifs (the curled red taniwha on page 73). Some are in the tradition of naturalists’ drawings (the cicada on page 46) and some combine naturalist sketch with Maori style (the owl on page 70). A young child’s drawing appears on page 29 and there is the influence of ancient Greek art on page 14. It makes for a varied and intereresting gallery.
But what of the text?
Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue is a collection of poetry, prose and brief gnomic statements. The term “fragments” is apt. Here, titled “Odyssey:19”, is the reflection of a patient Penelope in its entirety: “Trust in my fidelity and in the threads I draw, / trust in your desire and in your taut bowstring, / for two millennia or twenty years / or the lifespan of geese.” Certainly Homer inspired it. But is this a pithy aphorism in the tradition of Martial or Propertius? Or is it an isolated image? You decide.
In extreme contrast “Old Songs, Summer Songs” is a naturalistic memory of summer as experienced by the handyman Kiwi bloke a couple of generations back, and there are other poems on the New Zealand scene, on dragonflies, irises and blackberrying, some couched in nostalgic terms.
And in further extreme contrast, there is the prose statement “On a Flyleaf” about the poet’s relatives who were killed in the Holocaust; and a prose poem, “The Fence” about a fictitious journey involving James K. Baxter and Kendrick Smithyman; and the prose statement “ATTRwt Amyloidosis: An Aquatic Timeline” about respiratory tests. Herein the poet, a DSIR scientist by profession, uses precise scientic language mixed with the colloquial.
So through a section drawing on Christeller’s experience of Japan; and finally the poems relating to Maori culture. The poem “Te Poho / Fronting Up”, published in both Maori and English, calls upon Maori gods as it reconstructs the poet’s experience in undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery. In other poems, afflicted cabbage trees, a dying red beech and a stripped kawakawa are seen as images of human mortality…. And there is a prose poem in which the old man recalls his rugby-playing days on the Petone Rugby Club grounds. Almost inevitably, the last two poems in the book refer to death, the unavoidable end of old age, with their reference to piwakawaka and Cape Reinga.
What I have done here is to report on the contents of Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue without passing any sort of critical judgement upon it. I enjoyed reading many parts of this very varied collection. I enjoyed the colourful artwork. But I could find no consistent tone or thread of thought to fully engage me. A matter of pure taste.
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“I’m 80 and it’s getting late / so I’m rushing at this like a bull at a gate… I could be arcane, I could be smart / I could crochet the strings of your heart / I could be subtle, I could be wise / sprinkle my lines with splendid lies / but now that I’m staring at my own demise / I don’t have time. So here’s the deal. / I’ll stop talking to myself / and talk to you.”
Thus speaks Rachel McAlpine in the “Forward” to her collection How to be Old, and it is a forthright and honest introduction. These are poems about being old, the consolations and pains of old age, the delusions younger people might have about what ageing is, and the changed status in society that old people now have.
The first section “Not a Memoir” gives us these lessons: Getting old is not something other people congratulate you on (the poem “Getting old is not like getting pregnant”). As you get older, you realise how much like your parents you have become (“Voices”). Old people are aware that they can be a burden on their younger relatives (“The burden”). And what other people think of as old can almost be the prime of life (“Templates”). Your body decays (“The body singular”). Your libido dies – but you can enjoy remembering it (“Lust”). And if you have children or grandchildren you are increasingly protective of them, believing that by rights you should die long before they do. As the poem “A family secret” says, “if that bastard Death / should cast his bloody eye their way / I will always bellow, ‘Look at me! / I’m old. Pick me. Pick me.’ ” Also, though the clock may say you are old, you don’t necessarily feel that way (“Epic”)
The second section “Boot camp for the bonus years” turns to the fact that, at least in our society, people nowadays tend to live longer and it is harder to remember a time when people died routinely in their 60s or 70s. Are you in your 80s or 90s or knocking 100? No problem. There are plenty like you. The old are a growing part of the population. But living longer means often missing a routine of work. As “What is your job?” says “work gave you friends, a schedule, a label / a space and a fable / a reason to get out of bed / a dress code and your daily bread /and at your very core / a sense of who you are / and what you’re for.” And people put in handrails for you (“A safe home”) And you worry that make-up may not really disguise your age (“Beauty tips for older ladies”). And you know that younger people patronise you, think you have slowed down and can’t find the right word quickly enough (“Slow”).
The third section “The gentle narrative of happy” is not quite count-your-blessings territory, but it centres mainly on the quiet pleasures of ageing. As for the coda “Elsie’s Tactics”, it records the darndest things a young grand-daughter says to he grannie.
Old (elderly/ senior?) people are often accused of babbling of green fields and indulging in nostalgia. Of course Rachel McAlpine has a number of poems referencing her childhood as a member of a vicar’s large family; but this is simply a point of reference, and not her focus, which is very much in the present.
Most of these are poems of clear statement and simple syntax, accessible to a wide audience, imagery never obscure. At her best, McAlpine is bouncy and buoyant and cheerfully ironical, putting in rhymes when it will help things jingle along, both realistic and optimistic and never maudlin. In her weaker moments, she can sound a mite admonitory, like a visiting district nurse giving good advice. But those are the weaker moments.
How to be Old succeeds in what I believe it set out to do – to appeal to a wide audience.
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Ron Riddell’s The Wanderer is a long, discursive poem of spiritual intent. The poet’s own introduction tells us that this is just the first instalment of a longer work, and a second instalment will appear in due course. It presents itself as a journey in search of the self. As the journey unfolds, titles of successive sections indicate that we are passing through towns and cities in Colombia, where the poet has spent much of his life. But some of the landscape is dream landscape of a surrealistic sort, and there is one section set specifically in New Zealand.
The desire for fulfilment, the desire for oneness with other human beings, and ultimately the desire for a soul at peace are the goals of the narrating voice. This appears to be the “wanderer” himself, although another “wanderer”, so-called, is introduced at a certain point as a sort of guide to the journeying soul. Occasionally – but only occasionally – there are specifically Christian tropes.
In the book-length poem’s structure, there is much inversion and repetition, and allusion to other texts, as in:
“In my breath is my breath
the breath upon the water
the breath in every step
the step in every breath.”
And as in:
“In my end there is no end:
acting out of the back streets
from the dim recesses of memory.”
There is a general sense of goodwill towards others, guided by some form of benevolent unity, expressed thus:
“There is a common note that runs
through eveyone and everything
don’t miss that music
that sustains us
with its secret swell.”
And as we near the end of this first instalment of The Wanderer, there is a sense of achievement that the journey has been undertaken, even if it is not yet completed:
“We’re getting near the mountain top
getting near, not giving up
getting near and reaching out.
With startled cry, with joyous shout
We spy the summit looming up.”
Short lined-meditations with much repetition often have the effect of incantation. It can become hypnotic (or lulling) and its structure means that it is probably best read aloud, like a sort of running chorus. While the intention is admirable, there is one major stylistic flaw, however, which weakens the overall effect. There are repeated images of river, mountain and road but, even if geographic indicators are given, this imagery is altogether too generic. We miss the detail of specific landscape. We miss the sense of real people being encountered and understood in a real world. The Wanderer, far from being a plausible human journey, becomes aetherial, theoretical, detached from the world in which any of us live. An ideal that is not given human flesh.
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One of the best things about Three Poets, the HeadworX anthology is that the three poets are of different ages – Marion Rego in her 80s; Margaret Jeune in her 60s; and Alex Jeune in his 30s, thus offering a spectrum of viewpoints from different generations. Yet, as both Mark Pirie’s Foreword and a biographical endnote point out, the three poets also have much in common. They have, we are told, all performed in the Kapiti “Poets to the People” readings and at other venues. I asume too that Margaret and Alex Feune are related (mother and son?). Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Published together as “Windows on Life”, Marion Rego’s verse references childhood accidents, work done for children, the love of grandchildren and the frustrations of having to exchange inanities with check-out operators. A very impressive, well-structured poem called “Choices” contrasts regimented and silent church services in the old days with more noisy and boisterous services now, and asks provocatively “What would you rather have/ A church full of quiet people / who may or may not have wanted to be there? / Or a half-empty church of people / who are there because they want to be?” In fact, the image I am getting from these poems is of a granny who really does not wish to be patronised or treated like a senile person, whether by local councils or insurance companies or well-meaning juniors. Not that this is a grumpy old lady out of touch with the world. The poems about rising sea levels show that, as does her well aimed swipe at having to uproot non-native species of plants when you don’t want to (“Native Species?”). And they are ‘poems for the people’ because they are expressed as simple declarative statements.
Alex Jeune’s poems are titled “Images of Time”. They are more terse, gnomic and philosophical than Marion Rego’s cheerful garrulity. In its entirety, the verse given as “Untitled” goes thus: “I ought to be / More than I am / I need to be / What I felt to be right / The space between / The hopes and the hoped for / The real and the ideal type.” Other examples of similar tentative existentialism are found in statements called “Compulsion”, “Credulity”, “Strength” and “The Dark Night”. However this is not the only key in which Alex Jeune plays. He can wax positively lyrical about physical realities of nature or human habitation, as in “Springtime” or in “Petone” where “Pohutukawa blossoms red / And evening stretch across the blue suburban skies / Light pouring through this valley of green.” Perhaps this is the key in which he should play more variations.
Margaret Jeune positively embraces human society and the natural world, which makes the title of her section particularly apt – “The Natural Landscape”. She chronicles in detail a trip to Auckland (“Auckland 2019”) and to its suburb in the Waitakeres (“Titirangi”), and she rejoices in summer’s chirping insects (“Cicadas”). Regrettably, while it might work as oratory, too many of her poems are prosey and end with a piece of neat moralising which is usually a dull commonplace and with which nobody would want to argue. Thus “Time for Tolerance” (written in response to the Christchurch mosque massacre) ends telling us “New Zealand is now home to many nationalities and faiths / Perhaps it is time for tolerance of our difference / and an understanding of each other’s cultures.” This is not poetry. It is editorial. Thus too with the endings of “The Natural Landscape” and “Christmas Time 2019”. There’s nothing wrong with saying what everyone is already thinking, but I’m reminded of Alexander Pope’s line that poetry is “what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d”. These offerings need to be expressed with more flair and originality to avoid the editorial trap.
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.
“VOLTAIRE’S BASTARDS – The Dictatorship of Reason in the West” by John Ralston Saul (first published in 1992)
By now, I think every literate person is aware of the phenomenon known as the “intellectual bestseller”. Every two or three years there will appear a non-fiction book (usually a fat one) which is praised by all the pundits in the better newspapers and magazines and which, we are told, will totally change our views on life, the universe and the meaning of everything. The book can be about politics, economics, history, science, philosophy, religion, sociology or any of the big topics. So people who aspire to be intellectuals buy it in their droves. And then they try to read it. And often, tiring of it after a chapter or two, they put it on the bookshelf and think wistfully that they might get around to reading it some other day. But they rarely do.
For there is a widely-understood thing about intellectual bestsellers. Often they are bought more than they are read. I am thinking of books such as Margaret Wertheim’s Pythagoras’ Trousers, published in 1995, about the reprehensible masculine bias in the study of science; or Thomas Piketty’s 2013 blockbuster Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a very theoretical take-down of capitalism. A man of my acquaintance has been crawling his way through it, chapter by chapter, for the last two or three years; but most potential readers haven’t made the effort. Perhaps the pioneer of the bought-but-not-read intellectual bestseller was Stephen Hawking’s quite slim A Brief History of Time, published in 1988. Even though Hawking famously included only one equation, in order not to put off the general readership, many who bought A Brief History of Time were at once repelled by its theoretical physics and did not get past the first chapter. It has the reputation of being the world’s most famous unread book.
Back in 1992, the big intellectual bestseller was John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards – The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. The fat paperback copy I read has a back-cover blurb in which it is praised by everyone from the London Times to Christopher Hitchens and Camille Paglia. John Ralston Saul is a Canadian “public intellectual” (God, I hate that pompous term) and polymath. Bilingual, he writes in both English and French and is a long-time student of American, Canadian, French and British life and politics. He has written six novels (mostly before he produced Voltaire’s Bastards) and eleven non-fiction works (mostly after Voltaire’s Bastards was published). But Voltaire’s Bastards is still the book for which he is best-known internationally. If you want the private details, you might also like to know that his wife is a former Governor-General of Canada.
I had meant for some years to read Voltaire’s Bastards, but only recently did I get around to borrowing my son-in-law’s copy and making my way through its 585 pages of small print (before its 50-plus pages of end-notes and index). I am now convinced that it is one of those books that many people never finish. To give a quick and glib summary of it, I would say that it has an excellent central argument, makes very many wise points, but is also too damned long, goes windily rhetorical in places, sometimes says very silly things and occasionally is guilty of factual errors, especially in the matter of history.
So after the verdict of the court, here in detail is the evidence.
John Ralston Saul’s essential argument is that reason and ridicule, as they were used by Voltaire and other men of the Enlightenment, were wonderful tools for bringing down autocracy, absolute monarchies and clericalism. But unfortunately reason and ridicule can be harnessed to any cause. Reason becomes a mere logical framework detached from any public good as it pushes relentlessly towards its logical comclusions. (Without being too immodest about it, this is a line of thought I have often expressed – see my postings The Unreason of Pure Reason and my re-hash of it as Limits of Reason.) Reason is not of itself a value or way towards a sane morality. Reason is only as good as its premises. Reason, as Saul sees it in the modern world, leads to specialisation disconnected from most people’s everyday lives or needs. In his view, specialization has created the age of technocrats who flatter their superiors by appealing to “reason”. He frequently uses the term “courtiers” to characterise such technocrats, bending to powerful politicians like the toadies at the court of Versailles who once bent to an absolute monarch. Thus Saul is able to attack furiously the likes of Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, advisers to American presidents whose logical and rational schemes led to disaster. Incidentally, Saul is an equal-opportunity critic, lacerating equally American, Canadian, British and French systems and politicans. For some English-speaking readers, his intimate knowledge of French politics may lead to references that seem a little obscure. In a dizzying five pages (Chapter 2, pp.98-103) Saul manages to take down Jacques Chirac, Giscard D’Estaing, Harold Wilson, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and a few others.
Saul has a particular horror of schools of business and administration that encourage only one particular (logical, rational, but essentially immoral) way of looking at society and economics. He criticises the Harvard Business School, the London Business School and the French Ecole Nationale d’Administration, whose graduates he calls “Enarques”. In his view, these institutions churn out bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians, lobbyists, British MPs seeking “directorships” and “special advisers” to governments, all of whom tend to favour monetarism and neo-liberalism without any regard for the common good. So long as their theories conform to the framework of “reason”, they can ignore genuine civil service. But when organizations have no real purpose, they tend to decay. As he says at the beginnng of Chapter 10 (p.234): “So long as there is a clear belief in the purpose of an organization, those responsible will find a sensible way to run it. But if the heart of belief is only in structure, then the whole body will gradually lose its sense of direction and then its ability to function.”
In his chapter on the arms industry (Chapter 6), he argues that armaments have become the largest industry in the world, not because of defence, but because “reason” says their manufacture provides employment and arms are excellent capital goods for export.
“This warping of war from a tool of last resort, theoretically aimed at improving a state’s non-military position, into a twin-headed monster of abstract methodology and cathartic bloodletting, is one of the most unexpected children of reason. In some ways it is linked to the killing of God and his replacement by both the Hero and the modern military planner… It is difficult to think of another era in which individuals have so carefully turned their backs upon the evidence of their own continuing violence by treating each dark event as if it were somehow unexpected – or the last of its kind. And they have done so in the midst of our millennium’s most violent century.” (Chapter 7, p. 178) (I underline the last part of this quotation to note that it contradicts the thesis of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature – reviewed on this blog – which claims that violence declined in the 20th century.)
Elaborating on the matter of war in Chapters 8 and 9, he further argues that the professionalisation and rationalisation of armies in the 18th century led directly to the deadlocked bloodbath of the First World War. He claims that the only winning strategies were conceived and carried out by mavericks who were not overly influenced by staff colleges. Again, “reason” doesn’t work.
So the rest of this very long book winds its way through various effects of the misuse of reason and the rise of specialised technocrats. The public relations industry specialises in “myth-making”. It creates images of decisive or admirable political leaders to beguile the public while the technocrats can get on with the real agenda (Chapter 11). Governments indulge in unnecessary secrecy about policies which should be known to the general public, and scientists often collude in this unnecessary secrecy. (Chapters 12 and 13 – in which Saul of course references the nuclear power industry.) Real democracy is suborned by specialists in the legal system (such as America’s Supreme Court), where lawyers, in effect, make laws rather than elected legislators. Powerful corporations are able to influence the law, leaving the general populace more sceptical of both the legal system and the political process (Chapter 14). In response to such widespread public disillusionment, there is a hunger for “heroes”, who will bypass the political process and fix everything up – in other words, an opportunity for demagogues (Chapter 15). (I wonder what Saul would have to say if this book were written in the age of Donald Trump).The professionalised managerial class has taken over, and corrupted, capitalism by disconnecting it from real entrepreneurial capitalists who produce real goods for a profit. Instead, the managers look at the bottom line and chase illusory profits based on speculation rather than the sale of real goods. Corporations do not take risks the way real entrepreneurs do. Meanwhile, service industries create artificial needs and lead to core things (health, education, welfare) being underfunded (Chapter 16). The monetary system is manipulated by corporations and their “profits” are made by buy-outs of other companies and not by producing real profits or benefits for the community at large. (Chapter 17).
Saul’s central thesis is sound. Flawed “reason” and specialisation have created many of the modern world’s problems. This is true even if Saul often wanders off track and appears to introduce matters that are not strictly connected with his central thesis, or perhaps with his areas of expertise. (His take-downs of modern art and the modern novel – in Chapters 18 and 21 – seem peevish rather than informed). I find myself nodding in agreement with many of Saul’s views, including the following assertion:
“One of the specialist’s most successful discoveries was that he could easily defend his territory by the simple development of a specialised language incomprehensible to non-experts… The new specialised terminology amounts to a serious attack on language as a tool of common understanding. Certainly today, the walls between the boxes of expertise continue to grow thicker. The dialects of political science and sociology, for example, are increasingly incomprehensible to each other, even though they are examining identical areas. It is doubtful whether they have any separate existence from one another. In fact, it is doubtful whether either of them exists at all as a real subject of expertise.” (Chapter 19, p.475)
As I read this, I think of all the verbose, obfuscating gobbledegook which has passed for literary criticism in the postmodern era, clearly devised by people determined to claim a special expertise while repelling those who are not initiated into their verbal codes.
I also applaud Saul’s views when, in Chapter 19, he argues that the lauded “indivdualism” of modern society is really consumer-driven conformism which never takes on social responsibility or challenges the political and economic status quo. “Individualism” now means falling back into private “lifestyles”. Further, pop culture figures who are said to be “rebels” are no more than inciters of such self-absorption. Saul lines up a list of “rebels” from Arthur Rimbaud to Elvis, and remarks: “These romantic victims – the Heroes of individualism – exude an ethos of rebellion. And yet, when you look at the contemporary lifestyles which are built on that rebellious mythology, you discover that they are profoundly conformist.” (Chapter 19, p.481) Quite so. And in Chapter 20 he rather labours the point that “stars” have become the focus of media attention rather than serious journalism – another diversion from the public good.
But now I come to my quarrels with Voltaire’s Bastards. First, a slightly nit-picking quarrel with some of Saul’s statements related to history. I have often found that big, fat books like this one, which aim to present an all-embracing thesis on history and life, will err in some of the fine details. In the matter of history, Saul makes sweeping and sometimes silly statements.
He clearly has a thing about the Jesuits, whom he mentions negatively a number of times, and makes the extraordinary claim (Chapter 5 pp. 108-109) “A unified Western elite, using a single system of reasoning, was precisely what [Ignatius] Loyola [founder of the Jesuits] set out to create in 1593. Thanks to his extraordinary invention, the Jesuits constituted the first international intellectual system” which Saul says “linked itself inextricably to nationalism”. Really? Was Christianity itself not an “international intellectual system”, or does Saul exclude religion from being intellectual? For that matter, wasn’t medieval Scholasticism an “international intellectual system”? As for the “nationalism” bit, Saul condemns Cardinal Richelieu for creating what he sees as the first modern, rationalised nation state. This seems to be part of a general animus towards Catholicism (seen especially in Chapter 18, where Saul goes apoplectic about church art). His interpretation is eccentric to say the least. Surely it was the the Protestant Reformation that broke up Europe’s international consensus, encouraging nation states separated from Rome. Indeed if anyone first set up a rationalised nation state in Europe, it was Henry VIII.
There are other minor historical distortions. Repeatedly Saul credits Thomas Jefferson as the man who attempted to devise the best system of government, but ignores the fact that the sympathies of the slave-owning Virginian gentleman did not extend to the whole human race. In Chapter 11 (p.275), Saul blandly tells us that President Francois Mitterand was in the Resistance during the war, failing to mention Mitterand’s preceding service to the Vichy (collaborationist) regime – a matter of controversy and public knowledge in France before Voltaire’s Bastards was written. Equally blandly, he tells us in Chapter 12 (a chapter condemning state secrets) that “given that there are no real secrets, those betrayed by [Soviet spy Kim] Philby are, to all intents and purposes, as important as those of each citizen.” (p.299) Again, I can only ask – Really? Or perhaps, for the purposes of polemic, Saul is simply acting dumb about the consequences for many people of Philby’s espionage. The most egregious howler is in Chapter 18 (p.455), where Saul spends a whole paragraph on Marie Antoinette’s saying “Let them eat brioche [cake]”, discoursing upon it as an example of the flippant attitudes typical of an uncaring monarchy. Clearly he accepts this as an historical fact, but the idea that Marie Antoinette ever said such a thing has long since been proven to be pure fiction.
Okay, those are all minor and relatively trivial quibbles with Voltaire’s Bastards, a bit like pointing out that many of this 30-year-old book’s topical references are now inevitably dated. But there are more major problems with this overlong text. Consider this key statement from Chapter 5, (p.135):
“At the heart of our problem lies the belief in the idea of single, all-purpose elites using a single all-purpose methodology. We have developed this in search of a social cohesion based on reason. Certainly there is an essential need to find common ground on which an integrated moral view can be built. Without that society can’t function. But a society which teaches the philosophy of administration and ‘problem solving’, as if it were the summit of learning, and concentrates on the creation of elites – whose primary talent is administration – has lost not only its common sense and its sense of moral value but also its understanding of technical advance. Management cannot solve problems. Nor can it stir creativity of any sort. It can only manage what it is given. If aked to do more, it will deform whatever is put into its hands.”
Repeatedly, as here, Saul sets “common sense” against “reason”, but then has a hard time telling us what exactly “common sense” is, apart from a vague idea of community good will and solidarity. I am irresitably reminded of that ringing opening to Rene Descartes’ Discours de la Methode, where Descartes says “Le bon sens est la chose du monde la mieux partagee..” or in English “Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.” Good sense, or common sense, is really a very shaky concept, and means very different things to different people. How is it defined? What norms does it set out? Regrettably, on this matter, in the last chapter of Voltaire’s Bastards, Saul is reduced to vague generalisations about the need for scepticism in the face of technocrats and an acceptance that there are no definitive answers to the problems that beset us and – oh yes! – that we must use our “common sense”. This is not exactly a programme for anything, and comes as a limp conclusion after the previous 500-plus pages.
There is a similar problem in Saul’s dissection of individualism, right though he is about some things. In Chapter 19 (p.467), he asks a rhetorical question and answers it:
“What is real individualism in the contemporary secular state? If it is self-gratification, then this is the golden era. If it has to do with personal public commitment, then we are witnessing the death of the individual and living in an age of unparallelled conformism. Specialization and professionalism have provided the great innovations in social structure during the age of Reason. But they have not created the bonds necessary for public cooperation. Instead they have served to build defensive cells in which the individual is locked.”
Again, this argument reminds me of another canonical work. In his The Duties of Man, Guiseppe Mazzini said that the declared “Rights of Man” of the French Revolution had opened to us all the liberal freedoms, and had allowed us to live as individuals. But unfortunately there were fewer “Duties of Man” to bind society together. Society was atomised. This is essentially what Saul says too. Mazzini’s solution was to promote the notion of the nation to which we should pledge our loyalty. As it happened, and in no way the radical republican Mazzini’s fault, this turned out to be a disastrous suggestion because, like “common sense”, the “nation” can mean different things to different people. Years later Mazzini’s idea was picked up by Italy’s Fascists, who had quite a different concept of what the nation was. But at least Mazzini had suggested a solution. Saul suggests none. To read the last chapter of Voltaire’s Bastards is to hear much hot air escaping from a punctured cushion. We are left on the cold, hard floor where we started.
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.
Very, very occasionally, you read something from many centuries ago which seems to have huge and urgent relevance to the present day. Pardon my preciosity, but recently I was, with great pleasure, reading my way through the collected letters of Pliny the Younger, as translated by Betty Radice for Penguin Books back in the 1960s. Pliny the Younger, born in 67 AD and dying in 113 AD, lived nearly two thousand years ago. Because they are the largest section of his works to have survived from antiquity, his letters are now his best-known writings. Among them are the two letters that have been most anthologised, in which he gives an eyewitness account of the explosion of Vesuvius and the burying of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. His uncle Pliny the Elder, a naturalist and an admiral of the Roman fleet, died in this disaster.
But this was not what caught my attention as I read his letters. It was his comment (in Book Two of his letters) to one Maturus Arrianus, in which he describes the effects of public clamour thus: “In a general uproar many will support an opinion which no one is prepared to defend when silence is restored, for only when separated from the crowd is it possible to form a clear view of a situation which the crowd hitherto obscured.”
As I read these words I thought of mass protests (peaceful or violent) in which slogans are shouted and much noise is made, but very few participants are able to articulate why they are protesting… apart from repeating slogans, clichés learnt from the media and probably insults. A demonstration (or riot) has a dynamic of its own. Whatever motives may have led people to join the mass demonstration, they will be caught up in the passion of the event itself and frequently reason flies away. In one sense, demonstrations are shows of strength, or shows of strength of feeling, but no logical proof of the rightness of any cause. And in saying all this, I am fully aware that some demonstrations take place for very valid reasons indeed. But it is only when people, calmly and rationally and with real evidence to support them, present the reasons for their discontent that any sort of clarity will be achieved.
While reading Pliny, I was aware that there was what we might now call an anti-democratic streak to him (remember, he was living in an imperial system where the common voice counted for little). Speaking of a measure, of which he disapproved, that was passed in a popular assembly, he writes in the same letter: “But the majority gave their consent; for votes are counted, their value is not weighed, and no other method is possible in a public assembly. Yet this strict equality results in something very different from equity, so long as men have the same right to judge but not the same ability to judge wisely.” This argument has often been used against democracy, hasn’t it? Not everybody has the same level of intelligence. Haven’t we all, at some time, regretted that the vote of that idiotic chump over there carries as much weight as the vote of incredibly intelligent me? But that line of thinking quickly degenerates into contempt for democracy itself, and fathers extreme systems (left-wing or right-wing) which assume that only a closed power elite is allowed to make policy.
Still, while he reflects some attitudes that should now be forgotten, Pliny the Younger was right about the behaviour of crowds. Where mass demonstrations are concerned, much noise and fury does not add up to being right.
Monday, June 8, 2020
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“YOU HAVE A LOT TO LOSE, A MEMOIR, 1956-1986” by C. K. Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)
With very few exceptions, all memoirs and autobiographies are exercises in self-justification (or, if you’re Maurice Shadbolt or James McNeish, exercises in self-mythologisation). Very, very few autobiographers adopt an apologetic tone, criticise themselves, highlight the mistakes they have made, or publicly regret foolish things they have said or written. After childhood years have been covered, successes, achievements and public approval are usually the focus. On the whole, all this is true of C.K. (Christian Karlson) Stead’s second volume of autobiography.
You Have a Lot to Lose, a Memoir follows on from Stead’s South-West of Eden, which covered the first 23 years of his life. In his opening “Note by Way of Introduction” (p.ix), Stead tells us that this book is “a literary biography – a story of books and how they came about”, and he does indeed tell us in detail which events or people fed into which poem, short story or novel he has written. He also notes “I have left things out, most often in the interests of economy, but sometimes for reasons of discretion, or privacy… I claim to be a truthful recorder, not a comprehensive one” (p.xi) Fair enough. No autobiography can cover absolutely everything in a person’s life, and presumably the “discretion” and “privacy” elements are those that could refer to people still living. Now in his 88th year, Stead has outlived many of his contemporaries, but not all of them. Stead’s statement does, however, warn us that (as in all autobiographies) what he covers will be selective.
To give a clumsy “narrative” summary of You Have a Lot to Lose, it goes like this:- In 1956, 23-year-old Karl Stead, his wife Kay coming with him, takes up a position as junior lecturer at a New South Wales university, the climate and milieu of which he describes very vividly in some of this autobiography’s best pages. Later in the 1950s, he moves to England and works at the university in Bristol doing postgrad. research towards his doctoral thesis, which will eventually become his influential book on Modernist poets The New Poetic. In his time at Bristol he is under the supervision of the Leavisite critic L.C.Knights. Many visitors and friends are mentioned, most being ticked off in a paragraph as if resurrected from diaries. He shifts to London, still working on The New Poetic and does the round of Kiwis living in London or near it (Dan Davin, Maurice Shadbolt, David Ballantyne). In 1961, he is back in New Zealand and takes on a lectureship in the University of Auckland’s English Department, where he begins his climb up the academic ladder. There are anecdotes of friends and colleagues (Barry Humphries, Maurice Duggan, Keith Sinclair, Robert Chapman, Kendrick Smithyman, Bill Pearson). The New Poetic is published to acclaim. In these years, three children are born to Kay and Karl. Always sympathetic to the Labour party, Stead becomes politically very active during the Vietnam War, opposing New Zealand’s involvement. His discontent with New Zealand’s apparent subservience to the USA feeds into his first novel Smith’s Dream, published in 1971. [But, as he notes on p.168, Stead is now a bit unhappy at the political ambiguity implicit in both the alternate endings he wrote for the novel.]
Stead wins what was then called the Winn-Manson Menton Fellowship, honouring Katherine Mansfield, which takes him and his family to the Cote d’Azur for the best part of a year. There is one traumatic event (a car crash), but all his family survive. This year is the prelude to many other visits to Paris and the rest of France. From Menton, Stead returns to New Zealand, resumes his academic position, and work on his Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals. Being an important member of PEN, he had some fractious encounters with Fiona Kidman and Lauris Edmond over matters such as having PEN branches outside Wellington and over the nature of New Zealand book awards, which were then being set up. He goes back to London a number of times (anecdotes about Karl Miller and A.S.Byatt). By now he has advanced from lecturer to associate-professor to a full professorship. His second bout of intense political activism comes in 1981, when he joins those publicly opposing the Springbok tour from apartheid South Africa. He is part of the small group that occupies mid-field of the Hamilton grounds when the All Blacks are about to play the Springboks. He is arrested and locked up for a short time, which makes him think back to the oppressive state he imagined in Smith’s Dream. In the 1980s, he is involved in a number of literary and social controversies, sometimes leading to his being regarded as either anti-feminist or anti-Maori or both, charges which he refutes. He writes more poetry, he produces another major work on the poetic Modernists, and he works more on novels. He is awarded a CBE. In 1986, at the age of 53, he takes early retirement from academic life to become a full-time writer. His career as an academic fits neatly the 30 years that this memoir covers.
This is a raw, crude and reductive summary of what You Have a Lot to Lose is “about’. In places this memoir reminds us of largely forgotten things. (Who now really knows – or cares – about the reaction against the “New Apocalyptic” and the emergence of the “Movement” in British poetry in the 1950s?) While reading the earlier chapters, I noted that Stead does not indulge in name-dropping for its own sake, as the people he mentions are either colleagues or friends - but as this is a sort of chronicle, it inevitably mentions many people who will mean nothing to most readers. In the later chapters, however, some pages are dizzying lists of names of luminaries met at literary conferences or readings. As another general comment I have to say too, that as a fellow Francophile, I understand Stead’s love of Paris and of France in general, but regrettably many of his observations on that country come across as tourist jottings.
Some big names in New Zealand literature have been important in Stead’s life. He liked some aspects of James K.Baxter, but was dead against others. He sums Baxter up thus: “I loved the poet in him and found the high-toned hypocritical moralist absurd, and at times almost intolerable.” (p.181)
Far more nuanced is his attitude to Janet Frame, whom he knew better than he knew Baxter. He often worried about her mental state, and gave this advice to an English doctor who wanted to examine her: “I said I thought she was entirely sane, but that it was as if she lacked one layer of protective skin – like an extremely sensitive and timid teenager.” (p.73) He mildly refutes (footnote p.74) Frame’s own idea that all her troubles sprang from an early misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. Twice he was at odds with her. She apparently violated their friendship by writing a story that gave what was clearly a negative version of him (pp.119-121). He disliked the way she reacted to her own time in Menton and the (posthumously published) novel In the Memorial Room which she wrote about it (pp.222-224). Often Stead makes remarks about her “little girl” voice. It is interesting to learn that originally Stead’s second novel All Visitors Ashore was going to be written as a joint effort with Janet Frame.
Allen Curnow, as both academic colleague and neighbour, was a good friend for many years, although Stead acknowledges his crotchety side. Of Curnow’s ungracious poem on the death of Baxter, Stead says that it ended in a way that was “gratuitously cold and competitive.” (p.219). Surely, I thought, the same could be said of Curnow’s take-down of M.K.Joseph, “Dichtung und Wahrheit”. With disapproval, Stead quotes Vincent O’Sullivan’s remark that “Dichtung und Wahrheit” was “a mean-spirited, grubby swipe” (p.254). Stead doesn’t agree, but on this one, I’m on O’Sullivan’s side. (I won’t go into detail about this – for further comments on “Dichtung und Wahrheit” see on this blog my review of Terry Sturm’s biography Allen Curnow: Simply By Sailing in a NewDirection.)
Then there was Frank Sargeson, with whom Stead’s relationship was usually very friendly, but occasionally strained. Notoriously Sargeson was suspicious of academics and this may have fed into the unpleasant moments. When Sargeson died, Stead recalls his sorrow at losing a friend.
When I attempt to assess You Have a Lot to Lose, I find myself drawing up lists of positives and negatives, which basically means all the points in which I agree with Stead’s views and those where I disagree.
First the many positives.
I think that as a young lecturer in Australia, Stead was right to detect a sort of crypto-fascism in Arnold Toynbee’s view of history (p.11).
He was also (always) right about judging literature by a close reading of the text itself; but he was aware that this could be taken to theoretical extremes. Thus he describes F.R.Leavis, a nothing-but-the-text man, as “famous as an acute and demanding critic, guardian of the highest literary standards, but known for dogmatism and a messianic temperament that seemed to require conformity from his disciples.” (p.27) Later, he describes a minor Leavisite as “the perfect Leavisite, very high and mighty about the sins of popular culture, the press, the BBC, the British Council, the publishing industry. He knew which few books were to be respected, and which few authors revered, and that the rest could be ignored or deplored.” (p.56) Nothing-but-the-text can lead to ignorance of context and literature’s relationship with the world in general. Also on general literary matters, I can only agree with Stead’s condemnation of the gobbledegook and redundant jargon that came with post-modernism: “I had watched literary fashions come and go, and had especially avoided the fashion for literary theory, preferring to write in intelligible English…” (p.338)
Stead is aware (pp.82-83) that the views about Maori which he and most Pakeha held in the 1950s were complacent and often based on ignorance. This he now regrets.
Of his encounters with Charles Brasch, he writes that Brasch was “very serious and very kind” and acknowledges his debts to him. But he remarks that Brasch was “also very precious. One felt he was almost certainly gay, but probably not happy about it…” I admit this was the image I had already formed of Brasch while plodding through Charles Brasch Journals 1938-1957 and Charles Brasch Journals 1959-1973 for review on this blog. A hesitant mandarin, clearly homosexual but sometimes agonising over whether he should get married (to a woman).
I can only agree when Stead laments that universities are not what they used to be. He misses a time “when we did not think of students as ‘customers’, or ‘clients’, sources of revenue, and were not reluctant to fail them if they didn’t come up to the standard we set.” (p.160) Later he regrets that he witnessed at Auckland “the gradual transformation of the university from a place in which learning and research were self-directing and self-justifying, to one in which education became a commodity, an item for sale and for profit, and in which the managers slowly but surely became more important than the educators.” (p.173)
Likewise, Stead is right about book awards. He was part of the setting up of the New Zealand Book Awards, but notes correctly “nothing in the matter of book prizes is ever quite pure, free or dependable – there is always an element of luck, of literary-lottery in who wins and who is overlooked”. But he goes on to suggest that the original NZ Book Awards were “ ‘purer’ than later, when they became entwined with the publishing industry and sponsorship, and took on a commercial aspect” (p.241). Stead has, however, some personal motives for writing this. He was obviously hurt when he didn’t receive an award he thought he deserved (pp.345-346). And, though he does not complain too much about it, he is a little annoyed that his novel All Visitors Ashore had to share an award with a novel by Marilyn Duckworth. He says “These things seem to matter at the time and leave afterwards only a sense of cynicism about book prizes and the people who administer them. They are distorters of the market, great if you win, a piss-off if you don’t, and in the years you don’t have an eligible book or an interest in one, a bore. They are commercial rather than literary-critical events…” (p.373)
Of the bone people, a book that did, surprisingly, win a major award (the Booker), I believe Stead is right to demur. His comments on the bone people, especially on the matter of violence against children, seem to me both robust and sound (pp.375-376)
All the last few paragraphs have done, of course, is to align my tastes and prejudices with Stead’s tastes and prejudices.
Now we come to the more problematic bits – in other words, where Stead’s tastes and prejudices are not aligned to mine.
Stead clings to his argument (as he did in his review of Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair) that Harold Stewart and James McAuley perpetrated “the hoax that rebounded on the hoaxers” when they undertook to create Ern Malley. This I do not believe. Fair and square, and fully conscious of what they were doing, and in no way “liberated” by the new form they were inventing (the very defensive argument used by Max Harris, supporters of “Angry Penguins” and many poseurs since), Stewart and McAuley showed how gullible some members of the avant-garde could be. Of course they did not demolish Modernism – it’s not as if the Ern Malley poems cancelled The Waste Land – but they did flush out those tag-alongs who claim to admire and appreciate something because it is currently fashionable. Stead half admits this when he writes, a propos Ern Malley, that “fashion is something which to a certain extent sets its own standards and imposes a degree of blindness” (pp.23-25). Sure thing.
Bringing back memories of, nearly fifty years ago, sitting as an Honours student in Stead’s tutorials, I also have a sinking feeling as he again declares his annoyance that W.H. Auden edited and revised his earlier published poems, taking out much of their naïve 1930s leftism (pp.132-133). My own view is that Auden (whom Stead describes as a “technician”) continued to produce great work to the end – not just a postscript to his younger self – and much of the contention arises from the belief that he was the sort of “lost leader” that Browning deplored and a traitor to various causes.
Stead can be very snarky about people of whom he essentially disapproves. Of Maurice Shadbolt he writes “He was like an actor; he behaved the great writer, and with such confidence!” (p.206) He is fiercely ironical about the American poet Robert Creeley, who visited New Zealand, saying “Creeley was one of those cult poets who attract disciples to whom a taste for his work represents enlightenment… Creeley had been blessed by William Carlos Williams, and thus had in effect apostolic powers to pass the blessing on – and there were those eager here to receive it” (pp.247-248). Of young Margaret Atwood, whom he met at a literary beanfeast in Canada, he says “She looked like [Botticelli’s] Primavera and sounded like a frog.” (p.308)
Sometimes he dredges up academic bitcheries that would be totally unknown to the uninitiated. He says some pleasant things about one of Auckland’s History professors Nicholas Tarling, but he also damns him as a “dealer and academic tyrant” (p.289) in trying to block Stead’s (successful) application for a research position. Indeed (and this is not Stead’s fault), we are often made aware of how much sniping there was (and is) in both literary and academic circles in, for example, the reaction to Stead’s essay “From Wystan to Carlos” (Chapter 10) but also in the essay he wrote on John Mulgan, which suggested that back in the 1930s Mulgan failed to get a Rhodes scholarship simply because his grades weren’t good enough (pp.294-295). In his biography of Mulgan, Long Journey to the Border, Vincent O’Sullivan reacted suavely to this essay by simply ignoring it, but implicitly showed how flawed Stead’s idea was.
There is another matter that is perturbing in a number of ways. Stead remarks “In the years before 1963 it had been a reasonable assumption that one’s students who were not married were either virgins, or not engaged in sexual activity. After 1963 the opposite was the case… ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’; and though I was no longer quite young there were indeed to be moments that would seem ‘very heaven’ “ (p.128). He also informs us that “among the academics and writers who were our friends” there were many extra-marital affairs and much bed-hopping. He likens the adultery in academe to events in Iris Murdoch’s novels (p.145).
This leads up to the account he gives of his affair with the student (now deceased) Jenny North (pp.181-187 and passim). He first attempts to indemnify himself against possible criticism by saying “Looking back in the light and shadow of the ‘Me Too’ movement of 2018 it’s perhaps important to say there was nothing that could even remotely be called coercion or harassment; and it would be as wrong to say that I exploited age and status as that she exploited youth and beauty. We were two adults equally smitten, for a long time hesitating silent and embarrassed on the brink of saying so.” (pp.181-182) Well… maybe. Every description he gives of Jenny, who had been the family’s babysitter, suggests a naïve, flower-power hippie looking for a guru. Stead says that he told his wife Kay what the situation was, as he had done during an earlier infidelity, and there were “tears and anguish”, although he doesn’t elaborate upon them (p.187). There were resolutions not to go on on with the affair, but it did continue (pp.226-228).
What disturbs me about this? First, Stead’s blithe assumption that there was no power imbalance – rising academic nearing 40 will obviously make an impression on younger woman nearly 20 years his junior. Second, Stead tells us in detail of all the poetry (especially the sequence Quesada) and plot-points in his novels that the affair generated – Jenny, in effect, becomes good “copy”. Third, what a ruddy cliché it all is. Mature academic finding muse in younger chick. Perhaps I will be criticised for being moralistic or daring to pass judgement on somebody else’s love life, which isn’t any of my business. But by devoting these pages to them, the author makes them my – and any other reader’s – business. Besides, I am judging “the words on the page”, which is, after all, the only way to judge a text – right? There’s the possibility that Stead has reported it ineptly, and Jenny was a robustly mature person. But that is not what the text conveys.
Enough of this. I will await stoically the inevitable brickbats.
Stead does undertake some self-analysis in You Have a Lot to Lose and is aware that he often rubbed people up the wrong way. Of the late 1960s he says “These were the years when I discovered that I was radical politically and conservative academically, a division which felt quite comfortable and reasonable, but which at times made me the object of wrath from one side or the other and often from both” (p.165). Of the 1980s he says “From this distance I can see that I must have appeared to many like a hyperactive child, writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a professor and not-a-professor, opinionated and clamouring – in your face and a pain in the arse. Never mind the quality of the writing, who would want a prize to go to this remorselessly present person if there was any way it could be directed elsewhere?” (p.347) He discusses keeping a dual personality by working and publishing both in Britain and in New Zealand: “That way I would be able to remain a New Zealand writer based in Auckland, but with regular access to the other world where I felt less subject to the slings and arrows my presence and my personality (for whatever reason – and maybe the fault was all mine) seemed to provoke in my dear homeland.” (p.350) (Emphasis added).
I won’t be so crass as to suggest reasons why New Zealand literati and other interested people may have been negative about Stead; but I will point out the high quota of self-praise there is in this memoir. You have to have a very healthy ego to produce a text like this. Stead credits himself with the definitive interpretation of Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916”, giving a footnote (p.47) listing all the publications and collections of Yeats criticism in which his interpretation has been republished. The many footnotes regarding his own imaginative work always imply that these are important works of literature which we should all read. He tells us that after a recent re-reading of his own novel “The Death of the Body still strikes me as exceptionally clever and entertaining” (p.369). There’s the possibility that other people will agree with this verdict – but isn’t it for them to say rather than the author?
As I have been at pains to show in this notice, there is much about Stead’s views that I applaud. But it may be the cocksure tone with which he has presented his views, rather than the views themselves, that has, in the past, alienated many of his peers.
My review of You Have a Lot to Lose ends above, but I would be very amiss if I did not note a few personal matters. As I have indicated above, nearly half a century ago I was for two years a member of Stead’s tutorial class at the University of Auckland. He was, bar none, the best-prepared tutor I encountered at uni., always steering us towards making a close analysis of the text itself rather than indulging in vague generalisations about it. Subsequently, I have had a cordial nodding acquaintance with Stead, though he did rebuke me for some elements of my review on this blog of his That Derrida Whom I Derided Died.https://reidsreader.blogspot.com/2018/09/cillamcqueenpoetasomething-new.html Most important to this footnote, however, is that in advance of publication, he sent me a copy of the two pages in You Have a Lot to Lose concerning the death of my father (pp.201-202), perhaps to check that I didn’t find them offensive. I didn’t, although I would say some ripe things about Frank Sargeson’s response to my father’s death if I could be bothered. If you’re interested, see my review of Sarah Shieff’s excellent edition of Letters of FrankSargeson.