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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays



Now the New Zealand child is not noticeably different from children of other countries—he tends to be impulsive, rough, afraid to be seen crying or in need of affection, and among his mates he prides himself on defying authority. Yet if we honestly compare our childhood and maturity we know we have lost something—life was full and rich, we never asked if it had a purpose, that was self-evident, we were confident and happy and there was always something to look forward to, and our homes were the centres of our world; in maturity we are bored, doubtful, dissatisfied and afraid. For between his boyhood and maturity the New Zealander page 23 asserts his manhood by losing it. He becomes a coward with a ready sneer, an ugly little man with a routine bar-side guffaw. The change occurs in adolescence. The road forks here, so that the ordinary chap goes one way, the future intellectual another. Adolescence involves a widening of prospect of future experience. For the New Zealand adolescent the emphasis is on the possibilities of forbidden sensual enjoyment. He begins to hang about street corners in small gangs, watching the world. They do little these gangs, except drink milk shakes, swear profusely, whistle at girls, chaff one another and engage in the unnatural fiction that every man's target, secret or acknowledged, is the vulva. It causes a strained and furtive attitude of mind; out of fear of being thought 'soft' or 'wet' the youth reads double meanings into the most harmless of quips on radio and film, keeps a store of dirty yarns, most of them without wit or fun. He is impatient to be a man, to be manly, he lives in fear of being called a 'drip': he affects to be callous and blase when at heart he is afraid and innocent, and alone with a girl may be clumsily tender. But he will jump to scorn any attitude that is not callous.

The sensitive and intelligent youth takes another way. Adolescence presents him with more distant possibilities. He becomes 'dreamy' and idealistic. If he goes to university his philosophy is widened. For a while at least he proceeds by widening his knowledge and developing himself in ways denied in his home town (in drama, debate and talk), where his former classmate proceeds by narrowing his aims and denying the many inchoate sensibilities and doubts and enthusiasms of adolescence. This lad prides himself on being 'hard as nails'. He takes to smoking and enjoys a surreptitious drink. His first 'piss-up' is a landmark in his life: he relishes the sensation of following an impulse without check, the sense of expansion and dissolution, his next-morning wonder at the foolish things he did, his eager response to the attention he has drawn to himself in the chaff of his mates: he has begun to discover himself. But the student discovers himself by alienating himself. He is unlikely to go back to his former classmates who are mechanics, apprentices, clerks and counter-jumpers in his home town. He will probably pass his exams, marry and settle in a comfortable suburb, forget his student pranks and vegetate as a political conservative whose counter to every argument is, 'That's all very well, but.. . .' He will have retired, for life, from thinking. But a few students don't retire, they keep their romantic dreams of self-fulfilment, their hopes of creative writing, their interest in ideas. They are destined to grow into an artificial and alienated class living a threadbare life not so different from that of the English colony in an outpost of empire. They have grown to fear the philistinism of businessmen and clerks and 'retired' professional men, the narrow range of interests of the worker, and the vigour with which they all will sneer at what interests intellectuals. Because they are few they become a kind of cult with no devotion but to a sense of their emancipation. What they do not realize page 24 is the number of attitudes they have carried over from the community they feel emancipated from.

1. There is their interest in the people they know rather than ideas. They tend to gossip about one another, each to assert himself by criticizing an absent member in front of others.

2.  The desire to have all the answers. If he can disparage another man's ideas, the intellectual can think his philosophy is superior—but he seldom has any. He cultivates a scepticism inconsistent and eclectic—criticizing different systems from inconsistent angles. In this he is just as determined as the man in the bar to sneer off uncomfortable or challenging ideas. He loves to discover a disreputable motive that will explain and explain away another man's ideas: if he can say, 'Of course Thackeray never cut his mother's apron-strings', he implies that Thackeray's novels aren't worth reading. He is always looking for an excuse not to read what he feels he should have if he is to be any authority. His intellectual coterie is a closed shop and he resents intruders: he is grateful that the gate-crashers from the college lit. clubs fawn on him, but he never acknowledges them. Anna Kavan noticed the exclusiveness: 'What happens when a stranger enters what's called intellectual circles? Do the sturdy Colonial intellectuals care if Einstein or the Cham of Tartary is in their midst? Brother, they do not care, they do not wish to hear from you, and unless you can speak louder than they can you're as good as dumb. . . . ' Every reader will smile and say, 'Evidently she was annoyed that no one would listen to her.' But that proves my point: we love to look for a hidden motive that will dismiss challenge. Or someone will say he knew Anna Kavan and she was an unusual woman. But that is like the argument of the man who tells you, when you are discussing the Labour Party, that he lives next door to Walter Nash and sometimes he doesn't even come home for his dinner and you can't tell him anything about Labour.

3.  The idea of education as obstacle race occurs in the idea that wisdom can be attained by a reading-list. Too often the intellectual says, 'Oh, but have you read Lenau?'—or Camus, or Jean Genet. Too often an intellectual discussion becomes a sparring-match fought with book-titles. The intellectual is as snobbish in his attitude to books and writers as other New Zealanders are to many things, notably to returned soldiers—whether they had been 'coconut bombers' in the Pacific or had been 'really overseas' to Africa, whether a man was Second Echelon or Thirteenth Reinforcement, etc.

4.  The desire to be an authority in all fields. The intellectual wants talking knowledge of art, architecture, education, politics, religion, literature, psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy. His philosophy is an old rag-bag of tags from Marx, Jung, Freud, Frazer, Toynbee, Frank Lloyd Wright and possibly Mr Holcroft. It is of course impossible to be page 25 an expert in all these subjects: one might hold some fundamental principles which could be applied to them. The New Zealand intellectual seldom has these, yet he likes to have the last word. His judgments are often shallow, ill-informed and traceable to the text of a hastily-read Penguin. Is the popularity among New Zealand intellectuals of Time and The New Yorker a result of their shallow clever pontifical attitude which flatters the vanity of their readers? The most objectionable part of the intellectual's attitude is the readiness to cheat, take short cuts to knowledge (in the same way as the frustrated money-hunter takes to the black market), the interest in knowledge not for its discipline or its application, but as a weapon to impress other intellectuals or a means to the private satisfaction of knowing better.

5.  The enjoyment of being different. Since the community holds that being different is snobbery, being different becomes snobbery. The intellectual feels socially superior just because he discriminates and disagrees. His cultivated sighs and languishments at vulgarity and commerce are the luxury of one who is grateful that they exist because they are the condition of his superiority. He may pretend to be an exile in a hostile country: he knows it is better to stay home as a big frog in a little pool than go abroad and be humble.

6.  Often his clique meets at a beer party. Book-titles apart, his party is not so different from the Saturday night boozeroo in the Sydenham side-street with the keg in the kitchen-sink. Harry the poet is just as liable to swing on the lampshade, irrigate the piano or urinate in the hydrangeas as Tom the welder.

7.  The only habit the intellectual has which the common man has not is scepticism, but scepticism is a dangerous and destructive habit of thought and it leads, for example, to the contemporary impotence of American intellectuals. A generation of sceptic intellectuals opens the way for the burning of the books. La trahison des clercs is suicide.

There is nothing new in this. I have said nothing that any intellectual I have mentioned these complaints to in private has not agreed with. It is time they were brought into the open. Again, I want to make clear that I am not siding with the philistines of city newspapers, stock and station agencies, and Parliament House. An English friend tells me that all these things are true of London literary cliques. This weakens my claim that the attitudes are home-grown, which is, I admit, a tenuous claim. There is this difference, however, that in London honest men can, and usually do, avoid or escape from the society of the impostors. In New Zealand many an honest man has been soured, emasculated or turned showman because he cannot get away from the poky little minds that milch and destroy him. And the New Zealand hypocrisies are cruder and more patent.

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