Printer Friendly

Remembering, resisting, repeating.

Review of The Long Forgetting: Post-colonial Literary Culture in New Zealand, by Patrick Evans (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2007).

This is an ambitious and important book from which anyone interested in New Zealand culture and its history can learn. Its project is quite specific: it aims to rewrite New Zealand intellectual and cultural history by taking full account of the new understanding of the nation which emerged from the postcolonial turn of the 1980s.

So Evans's grounding claim is that a new era in New Zealand intellectual and cultural life began after what he calls the 'And/Antic intervention'. For those to whom this formulation may appear rather gnomic, Antic and And were two small magazines published out of Auckland in the 1980s, both with a tiny readership (especially Ant?s, I suspect). And was produced in the English Department between 1983 and 1985 and was edited by two recent graduates, Leigh Davis and Alex Calder; Antic appeared as a feminist magazine between 1986 and 1990 edited by Susan Davis, Elizabeth Eastmond and Priscilla Pitts.

Between them, Evans claims, they brought a new kind of critique to bear on New Zealand culture. We might call theirs a hermeneutic of suspicion informed by the post-structuralism and post-modernism that (as 'theory') was in train to take hold in the academy internationally. What was especially intriguing about both journals was that in the process of applying the new mode of critique to New Zealand, that critique itself was exposed to mutation and further critique. One sees this, for instance, in the first issue of Antic in which Priscilla Pitts interviewed Ngahuia te Awekotuku about why Maori women were under-represented in the blockbuster Te Maori exhibition. It's a topic which, in requiring that we perceive the country from within an as-yetunfinished colonial history, by itself calls into question the abstract concepts established at the time by theorists such as Fredric Jameson, Jean-Francois Lyotard and even Gayatri Spivak whose names were dotted (in high praise) through the journals' pages.

As Evans further notes, from the late '70s on, New Zealand was undergoing profound and wide-ranging changes on wholly other terrains: the country was being unmoored from its pasts, whether Maori or settler-colonial. To make this case, Evans draws upon James Belich's revisionary history which in the 1990s grandly took mastery of the new paradigm (although without paying sufficient due to cultural history). Evans points to the collapse of wool prices (1966), the OPEC oil price rise (1974), and Britain's entry into the common market (1973) as requiring a fairly complete national re-orientation, out of which Roger Douglas's neo-liberalism, the Maori Renaissance and biculturalism, and the And/Antic interruption were all to be produced. (It's less than an accident that one of And's editors was already on the way to becoming a successful merchant banker).

But Evans extends the postcolonialist critique of New Zealand's past. For him the history of the settler colony took place under two paradigms, which he calls Utopia and Arcadia. As a result, it was also routinely driven to imagine itself through the category of the sublime--the trope, we might say, of incompletion. 'Utopia' refers in particular to New Zealand's great, future-directed social experiments which began at the end of the nineteenth century and lasted until about 1960, which saw it pioneer a number of welfarist and social-democratic policies and institutions internationally, and which, for many Pakeha who came to maturity before the 1960s, was a source of patriotic pride. 'Arcadia' refers to idealizations of the settler colony as such, and in particular any Pakeha attempt to romanticize or spiritualise either Maori as a people or Maori-Pakeha relations, as well as any Pakeha attempt to present New Zealand as a perfected version of Britain. According to Evans, colonial New Zealand, as it imposed itself upon the place of settlement, deployed various modalities of the sublime, including selflacerating complaints of Pakeha destruction of Maori and the land, or in more or less masochistic attempts to 'become Maori'. This breaks with first-wave postcolonialism in opting for a more thorough-going biculturalism: here Maori and Pakeha never come together except under some kind of pathology. It is, I think, a more sophisticated analysis than any that have gone before, but also, sadly, positions us in a dead-end, for reasons I will briefly indicate below.

In regard to the Maori, with certain qualifications, Evans accepts the postculturalist account of contemporary Maoritanga as if not exactly an invented tradition, as a tradition in which invented and inherited elements cannot be disentangled from one another. For him, however, to respect the Maori as Other it is necessary to keep in reserve a certain awe, a certain limit to rational analysis, in order not to smother Maori with one's own (Pakeha) ratiocinative powers. In this phrasing of the limits of Pakeha occupation, there's a certain mixture of sentimentalism and mysticism, as there is in Greg Dening's work from which it draws, and which is not especially remote from that discourse of the sublime of which Evans is elsewhere suspicious. It is also draws a hard line between what it is to be Maori and what it is to be Pakeha which might itself be accused of utopianism.

What then are this fine book's difficulties as I see them? Let me just gesture to four:

1. It does not take fully into account post-colonialism's double bind, which runs like this. If you deny that Maori were damaged by European settlement, then the case that they have suffered failures of justice is diminished; if you accept that they are so damaged and that Maori loss was Pakeha gain then you place Pakeha in a position of real and not just (falsely) discursive or ideological superiority. Conventional Pakeha post-colonialism and many Maori too attempt to trump this double-bind by making a hard (if rarely explicit) distinction between cultural and material resources, as if the Maori suffered materially from Pakeha settlement but not culturally. This is not a viable solution since cultures cannot be separated from power and economy like that. To have a strong culture, you need autonomy and empowerment and the confidence and experimentalism that come with them and you also need resources. And once those resources are produced by a national productivity then Maori culture is tied to Pakeha endeavor in terms which must erode biculturalism.

2. Evans's account of New Zealand history creates a difficulty that was signalled in Jane Stafford's review of the book in The Listener of January 2008. If we take the 1980s critique of the settler colony on board, then can we assess earlier Pakeha New Zealand culture (particularly between World War I and the '60s, i.e. after Maoriland) positively at all? Or are we to more or less to write it off?. More specifically, Evans makes a case for a very restricted literary canon, which consists largely of Janet Frame, Robin Hyde and (rather unexpectedly--we will have to read him again) Roderick Finlayson. He finds particular difficulty dealing with internationalist Pakeha modernism and avant-gardism: the terms for assessing people like Allen Curnow, Kendrick Smithyman, Len Lye and even Alan Brunton seem thin. At the same time, Evans downplays the hardship of settlement. It may be, as Stephen Turner has argued, that New Zealand knew no bloody event like the American War of Independence which secured and enlivened US national pride and independence (although there's a case to be made that the wars of the 1860s played such a role for white New Zealanders for a short period). But the labour and isolation of settlement here had something of the same force, and certainly became mythified into the famous 'man alone' myth, still alive and kicking after World War II. And I don't think that it can be condescended to. More generally, one way to affirm the Pakeha past after postcolonialism would be to reinvigorate our understanding of New Zealand's significant contribution to world left-wing (I actually want to say, socialist) culture, the path taken, for instance, in Maurice Gee's Plumb. It is hard to read the first volume of Gee's trilogy in the terms Evans offers us--that is, as Utopian--given the persecution and bleakness which the novel finds in New Zealand's radical democratic past, and the way in which it incorporates that past into a mode of settler isolation so as to disturb both the myth of New Zealand integrity and the myth of New Zealand progressivism, without however conceding that either myth is merely false.

3. There's no Christianity in Evans's account, and the importance of Christianity to New Zealand history can hardly be discounted, though the country's predominantly secular historiography routinely sidelines it. This matters at a number of levels: for instance at the level of deep intellectual history. Thus the formulations that Evans thinks of as Burke and Kant's romantic sublime (and thence what, after Jonathan Lamb, he sometimes calls the 'colonial sublime') were in fact and in large part a complicated off-shoot of eighteenth century natural theology (as articulated by Addison, John Brown and William Gilpin, whom Evans mentions, and who was a schoolmaster/clergyman who donated the profits from his various picturesque enterprises to his school in a village which was largely inhabited by rural squatters). And then contemporary Maoritanga is criss-crossed with Christian practices just as Maori Christianity is inflected through traditional/newly traditional practices. The long history of accommodation and mutual benefits between Maori and Pakeha, which post-colonialism tends to write out of the picture, were also often based in a shared religious faith.

4. In the end, Evans returns, despite everything, to a form of cultural nationalism. In his last chapter he argues that the contemporary literary field is largely organized around both expatriatism and academic creative writing pedagogy, and deplores a number of recent New Zealand novels which are not set in New Zealand. But this is to go in another direction than that of the And/Antic interruption, which was, as I see it, opposed to cultural nationalism of any stripe. This is another topic that requires an essay (or book) of its own, but it seems to me that were Evans to remain loyal to his own strongest insights he would see that New Zealand can only come to terms with its past (fully to affirm the colonial settlement) once it embraces contemporary global mobility and gives up on identity-political and nationalist pathos including that of patriot biculturalism. The way out of the bicultural, neo-liberal rut need not mean a disappearance of a distinctly local culture, it just means that that culture could develop without the policing and censorship that cultural nationalism necessarily involves and also without any simple rejection of the communitarian hope that white settlement, for all its brutality and injustice, also entailed.
COPYRIGHT 2008 University of Waikato
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The Long Forgetting: Post-Colonial Literary Culture in New Zealand
Author:During, Simon
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:Barry Barclay: a thinker for our time.
Next Article:Island hopping.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters