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Paul Maunder's blog

Baxter’s letters

Baxter pic

photo: stuff.co.nz

A child can be born into ‘a family system that generates a fantasy master narrative, an unstable or contradictory structure restaged again and again, with different actors and on different levels, demanding repetition, permutation and the ceaseless generation of various structural resolutions which are never satisfactory…’

The critic, Frederick Jameson wrote this with regard to the French author, Honore de Blazac, but it can be true of any number of artists. It certainly sprang to mind reading the letters of James K. Baxter, collected by Father John Weir. The two volumes contain every letter preserved that Baxter wrote in his quite short life and one is aware of a fantasy master narrative operating in the above manner.

But to make this observation requires some identifying of the narrative. It seemed to involve a seeking of the omnipotent relationship to the female enjoyed by the very young child. But this in turn required an Oedipal challenging of the father figure. Baxter’s mother, Millicent, was the daughter of McMillan Brown, a key figure in the setting up of Canterbury University. She took her degree at Cambridge and I imagine there were certain tensions in her becoming a mother and housewife. She is certainly not portrayed as a cuddly type. And then Archibald, the father, was a conscientious objector during WW1, tied to a stake in no man’s land, crucified in a way, but survived, honour and integrity intact. He would be a hard one to challenge and remained ‘Daddy’ all through Baxter’s life.

The master narrative was played out initially with Baxter taking on the role of bohemian poet drunk, a prodigy as he wrote very good poetry as a late adolescent, in the same way that a prodigal composer can create symphonies. Here was a young man who’d absorbed all the poetic techniques.

And then the narrative was played out through a troubled marriage to Jacquie, Maori but adopted by Pakeha (a lost generation figure), scholar and puritan it seems. She kept her distance, insisting on being a home body as children arrived and the drunk and the womaniser eventually joined AA and found a higher spiritual force. He became a teacher then an editor for School Publications, but the suburban life chafed. He was sexually needy, continued to have affairs, swore fidelity, turned to seducing young woman writers  through letters, and eventually switched from high Anglicanism to Catholicism. And here the romance was better embodied because of the Marian factor. Mary as nurturer permeates everything, as womb; and then the male can play the martyr figure.

But his conversion produced new marital tensions centred on birth control. Jacquie refused the unreliability of the rhythm method, chastity became the only answer and the sexual energy turned toxic. He spent time in India, absorbing the social intensity of that society, returned to become a postie and began the daily plod, absorbing the complexity of the Catholic faith, with its mystics and intellectuals. There were also, through Jacquie, connections with Ngati Poneke, and a beginning awareness of Maori as tangatawhenua, embodying different relationships to land and people.

A period as Burns Fellow meant a return to childhood haunts and a cementing of his literary reputation. But the children reaching adolescence and proving volatile (including a teenage pregnancy),  created new tensions in the marriage. Jacquie left him and in a period of despair he had a vision, a ‘nudge from God’, was told to go to Jerusalem (Hiruharama), the small village on the Whanganui River where Mother Aubert had established a convent in the 19th century, but which was now becoming uninhabited because of there being no work in the area. He was instructed by God to establish a community there. This would involve giving up money, books and reputation. A new structure for the master narrative was thus created.  The church leaders must have been a little perplexed – how do you verify a personal vision? – and persuaded him to take a few months to think about it, hoping I suspect, the fancy would fade.  But the by now bearded and barefooted Baxter (Hemi) was determined to take on the role of prophet.

The nuns and the local Maori at Jerusalem were equally perplexed, but gave him an old cottage to live in. His initial plan for his whanau (wife, kids and now grandchild) to join him to form some Old Testament cluster didn’t work out – Jacquie sensibly opting for running water when there was a baby to care for – and he became something of a hermit, wrestling (including flagellation) with various devils and temptations before going to Auckland and connecting with a drop in house for drug users. He began to mentor the young, as well as getting a couple of them pregnant (which tested the support of his mentor priests).

Back in Jerusalem he hosted nga mokai, the forsaken ones. This created tensions with the locals and the nuns in particular – issues of nudity, sex and language etc. He was given a bigger derelict house. People came and went, including cops looking for drugs, irate parents looking for their children, council inspectors looking at the drainage, and reporters looking for a story, as he began to preach against capitalism, consumerism, alienation and materialism, and as he began to use te reo. He continued to write and his writing was spare and committed. Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament are two very fine collections. But the commune was a disorganised shambles, lacking funds and practical people. There were mental health and social issues but Baxter was preaching of values that remain resonant: aroha, sharing, non violence…

The locals firmly requested he downsize, so he had to close the doors, but still had a quartet of more practical and together young people living with him and he enjoyed a contented couple of months, before going to Auckland where he died suddenly of a heart attack.

This biography can be written in a page or two and the detail of his life is contained in his poems, so what lies behind this determined collecting and publishing of every one of his letters, many of which are an unpleasant and repetitious bitching about his wife? There is also the question of publishing letters not written with publication in mind. Nowadays, school children are warned about facebook etc; nothing disappears on the digital media, but previously letters could be private to sender and receiver. More formal business-type correspondence expects public scrutiny. His letter to his parents are usually boundaried and are even sweet and childlike as he encourages them to convert to Catholicism. But then there are the cursing letters to fellow male writers – blokes in the pub stuff; the seduction letters to woman writers where he is both giving writerly advice and screwing them – casting couch stuff. These have rightly raised some hackles and will colour his reputation, especially when he writes of marital rape.

I still then search for the motivation behind this task, and can only return to the original master narrative, but this time wondering about the priestly master narrative, with the church as family which generates the unstable and contradictory structure (as the recent and ongoing troubles demonstrate), which is staged again and again – and Baxter’s place in this? This becomes a tendentious thought without any simple answer.

But as well, on a more positive note, reading the letters made me aware that Baxter’s push toward Maoridom, trying to soak up the culture in that naïve way that Pakeha did (including myself) in the seventies and eighties before being told to bugger off and stop being parasites, yet nevertheless, knowing  it was a necessary stage in order to move settler culture out of its comfort zone (if it ever was comfortable) and to begin the journey toward treaty partnership.

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From Thoreau to Enid Blyton

Quite by accident, after reading Walden, I began reading Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Farm – the grandchildren had been here during the holidays – and was struck by the similarities. As she takes these sickly city kids and immerses them in the ecology of the countryside, Blyton had to have read Thoreau. There’s the same detailed descriptions, the magical skip of the seasons and so on.

But as well there was some sub text to Walden concerning human relations, mere suggestions of known visitors, passers by dropping in, long talks into the night, a quiet sense of social ecology which mirrors the ecology of the natural world and which reminds me of Murray Bookchin’s belief that until we have a social ecology we will not solve environmental issues.

In Cherry Farm these social relations centre on the local ‘wild man’, the recluse who prefers the natural world and who lives in a cave during winter and a tree house in summer. Upon hearing of his existence the children seek him out. They all have a good time in the presence of the recluse, but are generally too boisterous for the animals he has befriended. But one of the children, Benjy, a quiet boy who is fond of flora and fauna, is taken under the Wild Man’s wing. When Benjy’s birthday comes around his special present is being allowed to spend a night with the man in his tree hut. Uncle and Aunt send the boy off with an oilskin sheet to keep out the damp and a large slice of birthday cake.

At this point the alarum bells are ringing. Better take the book off the library shelves. Are the uncle and aunt quite mad? What if the Wild Man is a paedophile and all along has been grooming the children? Didn’t he remove their clothes when they got wet and give them a blanket while the clothes dried? And to send off the boy alone, for the night, without a police check. And where is Benjy’s high viz jacket? Where his hand sanitiser? Where the risk assessment? Where the cell phone with the app which allows the adults to trace his whereabouts, even listen in to what’s going on? Blyton’s innocence and naivety is ridiculous. What is she teaching the reader?

Or is it? What if we’ve imposed and continue to impose, a paranoia on social relations which mirrors commodification, which mirrors the alienation of the spectacle, that pollutes child care and leads to abuse, to domestic violence, to shootings, to the degradation of life? What if this paranoia is at the core of identity politics, so that every advance is inevitably undermined?

Hard questions. Too hard for Cherry Farm. Anyway, the night went well. The Wild Man enjoyed the cake. After some interaction with a fox, they went to sleep. Benjy got a pet squirrel to take home. He didn’t get lost, nor was he run over by a truck.

Maybe we can leave the book on the library shelf?

Visiting Walden once more

Unable to face delving through the density of genre crap – romance, crime, celebrity, war, new age- that now makes up the local library collection (and it’s not unique in this – try any provincial library), I was about to stumble out when I spied a new edition of Thoreau’s Walden, that classic tale of the mid 19th century American ecologist who lived in Connecticut and went bush for a couple of years, building himself a small house in the forest by Walden Pond and leading a reclusive life. He spent his days observing the weather, the flora and fauna and the seasonal changes on an intimate level and writing about the experience in a unique way, using it as a means to comment critically on the industrial and commercial milieu of mid 19th century capitalism – the growing commodification, the alienation of man from his work and the meaninglessness of the routine social life.

He touches on Native American culture, theosophy, on yoga, on anarchism (he was later to write a highly influential tract on civil disobedience) and Thoreau, of course, anticipated the modern ecologist (deep or shallow), who sees that the only solution to man’s current dilemmas lies in us becoming once more, obedient to natural rhythms.

Reading Walden I was particularly struck by the following: That tasks in touch with the natural world have their own rhythms – they simply are, one just does e.g. in making and placing shingles; in hoeing two acres by hand; in collecting nuts for winter… It seems an essential lesson in this time- driven world (have to get this done by five o’clock sort of thing).

His lack of preciousness. Much of the forest around Walden was second growth, the train could be heard, men came to cut ice… there is no pretense that this is ‘untamed natural wilderness’, to quote the current West Coast brand which achieves the surreal in three words. This other life goes on, he has a dialogue with it and will one day return to it (he took over his father’s pencil making factory).

Finally, he is not an extremist, is content to relate to this patch of ground. In this age of increasingly frenetic travel to see new sights he suggests we get to know our own backyard, heal it if necessary, adapt to its seasons and learn respect. This resonates  for me as each afternoon I walk the dogs down to the creek and see the small changes, the ducks coming and going, the blackberry growing each year…

And as the Croesus Track becomes no longer a backyard but a tourist commodity with contractors, road closures, concessions, poisonings, monitorings, helicopters, out of town corporations arriving – the whole circus focused on ‘untamed natural wilderness’ – I feel the contradiction, and alienation, of the ‘national park’.

First nail in the coffin?

The cancellation of any consideration of a capital gains tax struck at a deep level. It was one of those moments of seeing behind the mask, as a loud chord of hypocrisy was sounded. After the Christchurch shooting , a time of encompassing, of unity, of compassion celebrated internationally, the cold sinews of family capitalism clenched and booted the football of collectivism out of the ground and the coalition government ran off into the dressing rooms, not even willing to draft a bill and take it to the select committee stages.

I stayed with a relative at Easter and she told me of the unpleasant family feuding that accompanied a second late marriage when inheritances were felt threatened. And this is what the capital gains tax was threatening, that passing on of private equity to descendants, that generational accumulation of capital disguised as ‘hard work’, ‘taking risk’, ‘a lifetime of endeavour’, but its result is a society of inequality that will not be able to make the hard decisions required for planet sustainability. For there is the catch 22 of speculative investment requiring growth, inflation of property values, ever increasing technological innovation, and an increasingly difficult race to catch up, to get a foot on the ladder and the accompanying meanness, also the accompanying waste, producing a banal, universalised ‘aristocracy’ of befuddled consumers,

A capital gains tax would have been a small stake in the ground signalling a questioning of this systemic greed portrayed as ‘survival’. Instead, the hypocrisy will work its way through the social fabric providing a host for the virus of alienation that produces ultimately the Christchurch aberration. Closed circle. Dead eyes. Grief.

It was a relief then to see Woman at War, the Icelandic movie that cleverly unpicks the clichés, that creates a gap in the circumference of the closed circle of neo-liberalism, that shoots an arrow not only over the power lines leading to an aluminium smelter, but into the heart of 21st century capitalism. It is a movie that could only come from a very small country which found itself somehow central in the Global Financial Crisis and eventually told the big boys to go to hell. That produced sufficient ethical capital to enable an artist to tell the truth.

Unfortunately we’re not going on a similar journey. Instead, will grace the cover of Time magazine.

Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!

The Coast seems to be rehearsing climate change like an amateur theatre group tackling King Lear. ‘Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!’ etc. Floods, road washouts, bridge collapses, coastlines disappearing, old rubbish dumps exposed and their contents swirling around in the ocean to inevitably come ashore, glaciers receding, and local bodies trying to cope in a fool’s way, without the underlying wisdom of Lear’s capering playmate (‘We’ll set thee to school to an ant…’). Mayors astride bulldozers build walls without consent, asset managers repair sea walls that are washed away in the next king tide, incinerator plants that will bring prosperity disappear at the next meeting of shareholders, economic development managers ride from one stuff up to another with all the reckless thuggery of the sisters’ husbands. Goneril and Regan eye the Provincial Growth Fund, eager for a handout to rearm their troops. And still the denial: Well maybe something’s happening but it’s not human driven, it’s just our old friend, or enemy, Nature. Meanwhile the Chinese watch (‘I smell mortality’), waiting for the signal to come and sort things out.

King Lear, (the old Coast) staggers around pathetically, having rejected his daughter, Solidarity. His voice (the local paper) becomes schizoid. Environmental disasters are pasted next to the latest case of some P addict robbing his mother, an eighty year old publishing her first book of poems rests near inaccessible glaciers, the gala day next to a bridge washout, the school swimming sports next to an exploding sea wall, some nostalgic heritage photos next to Trump and Brexit. No one knows what’s hit them. They’ve all been blinded. What might it mean? Give up coal and oil, air travel, mass tourism, consumerism… spend life groping around in the dark? Ridiculous.

Time ticks on and the fool sings a song of future chaos on a global scale (‘Look, here comes a walking fire’).

Exeunt, with a dead march.

Black Friday

I was in Christchurch on an ambulance transfer. But before going to the hospital we needed to change vehicles, for our usual one had required attention. In the middle of the changeover all hell broke loose. ‘Shooter,’ someone muttered as they headed out. ‘Get your ambulance out quickly. We’re going to need the space.’ ‘Need us?’ ‘We’ll let you know.’

We parked at the side of the road and listened to the radio. Bloody hell. A man from the car yard wandered up. ‘I saw him drive past, going like a bat out of hell. Subaru.’

The news dribbled out. How many dead? Nine? Probably more. Cops everywhere, the hospital in lockdown. After a while, ambulances were being stood down and  we decided to head back to the Coast. The patient would have to be transferred the next day. We called into a petrol station and I felt deeply ashamed before the dark faced attendants: Indian or Bangladeshi or Pakistani – ashamed to be white. We drove out of the city behind an Alfa Romeo, Guillietta. All class. Must have cost a hundred grand.

Thoughts of causality. What makes a shooter of this kind? I thought back to teaching at a distant suburban college (I won’t say where) and some of the boys: fragmented, alienated, chip on the shoulder, knowing life’s going to be shit, the internet and social media feeding the resentment (resentiment, a basic genre of being, according to Fredrik Jameson).

The Aussie press get onto the case. Soon we know: Australian, alt right networks, white genocide, fascism, Knights Templar, Crusades, taking the step to direct action… Direct action. The left can be believers in direct action: moving against the run of the mill political processes because they’re too turgid, covering up the wrongs. But the fascist is also a direct actor.

Now philanthropy and aroha take over. Philanthropy: ‘the non political and individualistic solution to the structural inequality inherent in the social system’ (Jameson). Philanthropy as well, is a genre, like resentiment. There’s a lot of it around. Aroha? We can believe in aroha.

‘We’re not like this.’ This is not us’. Yet white supremacy was the guiding belief of the British Empire. The Alfa Romeo was painted white. 10% owning 80% of the equity.

Forty dead by now. What were the SIS looking for? The Five Eyes?

Time for statesmanlike (statespersonlike) behaviour. And the PM does it well. The words flow. ‘This was an act of terror’. ‘We’ve lost our innocence’. ‘Dark day.’ ‘But we’ll get through this.’ ‘Diversity’, ‘One big family’.

At least it was a bloody Australian.

Once the schoolboys ran yelling through a funeral parlour. What was going on in their heads?

Through the pass and the perspective changes. It becomes a more distant event. It’s still raining. Been raining for a week. Sad that the climate change kids have been upstaged. Are the two events linked? Man has dominion over the earth…the apple of knowledge…kicked out of Eden…Cain and Abel.

As climate change kicks in there’ll be more chaos, more people on the move…

‘Tis a pity

The coalition government’s proving to be something of a schizoid enigma. There’s money there, so why not give the nurses, the teachers, the midwives, the ambos, the correction staff etc. what they are reasonably asking for? Why not secure the infrastructure? After all, these are the people who voted for them and would continue to do so. As well, these are the jobs that will continue into a precarious age, not replaceable by digital programmes or robots.

Instead, on one hand they’re running around genuflecting to business confidence or lack of it, that highly subjective and not particularly rational category of feeling. On the other hand they’re spraying money around the regions in a display of pork barrel politics. It will benefit some iwi and hapu, and plant some trees, but it ends up being largely handouts to some local (and international) capitalists. It will provide a temporary boost for this and that before the global market mediates once more. In some cases it will be harmful, for example the creating of freedom camping sites without research and undermining the local camping grounds. Regional Economic Development needs to be a grass roots affair.

Meanwhile, on the Coast,75% of orthopedic referrals are rejected. I see the issue first hand. My partner needs a hip replacement. Days and nights are spent in pain. Back follows hip because of necessarily poor posture, pain killers leave the head dozy, fatigue strikes from living with pain. But not bad enough for an op, which while expensive, costs thirty days of Michael Cullen’s fee.

In the next breath, school principals reveal the nonsense of ‘safety’ – kids shouldn’t go to the climate strike because the Risk Assessment Management hasn’t been done. These same regulations mean you can’t take a class for a walk around the block. Meanwhile, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires occur ever more frequently. Regulations exist without context.

We will continue to be seduced, perhaps for another term, by the less sadistic approach to the underclass, to the coalition being less willing to sell our education and health systems, to them being a little more union friendly, and to Jacinda’s nice moments on the international scene, but the swirl of opinion that has replaced the news will eventually toss them into the next wash, so that a new set of faces, and scandals, can occupy the cover of the Women’s Weekly and fill the Q & A seats. Some vague dents in the body politic will have been fixed, some even undercoated, a couple even having received a top coat, but the machine of neo liberal capitalism will still be speeding along, approaching the cliff of planetary chaos.

It’s always a disappointment and a reinforcing of cynicism. A pity for I felt we were ready for a moment of praxis.

A real book

Kathleen Gallagher’s recently published book, Inangahua Gold is not really a novel, that is, a story of psychologically complex individuals, but rather a romance in the medieval sense of the genre, so that there are heroes and villains, lovers and magic, gatekeepers and heralds, and good eventually overcomes evil.

There are two parallel stories; a party made up of a Maori woman guide, an Irishman also playing a guide role and a Pommy coloniser on his way to the gold fields across the alps and a second story, twenty years later, centred on a West Coast publican family caring for a Chinese gold miner brought in wounded by a young Maori. The Irishman and the Maori guide are attracted to each other as are the young Maori and one of the publican’s daughters, but arranged marriages in the Maori world are the stumbling block in both cases. It turns out however, that the publican is the Irishman from the first story and the Maori boy’s mother the Maori guide. Their wives and husbands have died so love wins out. That’s the plot with its romance characters and happy ending.

But there’s more to the book than that, for throughout, the natural world of Te Wai Pounamu is a poetic presence. This is in many ways a beautifully told story of flora and fauna. And the tale is also suffused by whakapapa (genealogy) as a totalising agency. Maori, Irish, English, Chinese, German intertwine to form a chain of belonging. It is then a Pakeha inhabiting a Maori social landscape and pulling it off.

The book is simply produced, with a brown card cover which picks up stains; it immediately begins to belong. And this sense of belonging is fused in an innocence characteristic of the author as a person. Yet there is a great knowledge as well. I am reminded of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

It can feel like a film script at times, the people stock characters at others, but the humanity and the aroha shine through. In a literary market increasingly populated by novels written by creative writing course graduates where the first twenty pages can be excellent then the whole things disintegrates because the author doesn’t actually know anything of the world and is not a committed person in any shape or form, Inangahua Gold is a precious reminder of the role of literature

Means and Ends

“Capitalism establishes rational means of production, but the ends are irrational.” Frederik Jameson.

We can make the larger reading of the above statement: the rationalising of all production via technology since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the consequent destruction of all traditional ways of doing things leading to us standing on the edge of environmental chaos; or we can focus on something smaller.

Let me, for a moment, look at dentistry, as a means and as an end. The technological means have vastly improved. When I was a kid people got all their teeth out at twenty one and bought a set of dentures, because it saved all that trouble and a lot of money. Today, dentists can drill root canals, fix most things and if not, implant new teeth. You floss and have fluoride to toughen the enamel and can generally keep enough teeth to be functional until you die. No longer the sight of the one fanged grimace or the sunken cheeks of the crone. Marvellous. Also of course, expensive. You can judge a person’s earnings by their shoes and the state of their teeth. The middle portion is irrelevant. Perhaps one day the state will be sensible enough to offer free, or at least subsidised oral health care.

Instead, dentistry is being taken over by corporations who then operate via a franchise system (a 40:60 split it seems). As usual, marketing and supplies arrive via the corporate office. The workforce is becoming globalised, with many Asians arriving. No problem so far, except for the disappearance of the community-based local dentist and the fact that the corporations, like the Aussie banks, adopt a hard-sell approach. You go to a franchise dentist with a broken filling and they find a great deal wrong with you – at my age a litany of scrapes and groans and chips and fissures. There are teeth whitening crazes, Jacinda-like smiles on all the advertising, and a multitude of hygiene possibilities. The nice Indian dentist has an expert’s demeanour and I feel like a peasant. He assumes a pattern of necessary treatment if I am to keep my teeth. If I were peasant obedient, I’d be in for years of treatment and most of my discretionary money would be committed. And they pursue you via mail and email, scheduling appointments.

As in most things, the means are rational, the end chaos. The question remains: why do we put up with it?

Ooops, is that John in this picture?

dentistThat’s enough of this Winston-like rave.

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