Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 37 No. 3. March 20, 1974
Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays:
Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays:
There are two types of critics of NZ literature; the creative and the analytic. The creative critic faced with a work, void of quality, wit, ideas, originality, in short anything but words, tends to read and write things into the work, that the original author was unaware of, and praise or damn it in terms of strengths and weaknesses that it doesn't possess. A refinement of this method is to head up an essay on a particular author or work and then subtly ignore the official subject and discuss instead the critic's favourite hobbyhorse. This method is legitimate, except that competent creative critics would tend also to be competent creative writers and as the number of living genuine creative writers in NZ can be counted on the thumb of one hand, most creative critics end up sounding pretentious or ridiculous.
The analytic critic however does something quite different. He approaches his subject honestly, and attempts to analyse the work and highlight its qualities and weaknesses. This sounds commendable in theory, but in practice it rarely succeeds; the poverty of NZ literature means that the analytic critic rarely rises from being dull.
Mr Pearson is of the analytic type and strangely enough manages to avoid dullness. His book is a collection of his reviews of NZ books, essays on aspects of NZ life and tributes to Winston Rhodes and James Baxter. The pieces have been written at various times between 1952 and 1973. The point of placing book reviews between hard covers is dubious. Reviews are ephemeral things and should not be placed like dried pressed flowers between a books pages. Some of the reviews cover works equally ephemeral, though there is some sensible reviewing of works by Shadbolt, Duggan and Hilliard. The tone of these reviews however are dictated by conditions that are no longer relevant. The reviews are included presumably to enable the three or four essays that provide the worth of the book to be published in book form.
The most important of the essays is the title one, "Fretful Sleepers", which as itssubtitle indicates is "A Sketch of NZ Behaviour and its Implications for the Artist". That it was written in 1952 make one wary of it; that its comments and conclusions on the NZ way of life are chillingly relevant is an indictment that NZ's essential character has changed, developed or grown little in that time.
Mr Pearson condemns the average NZ adult life for its conformity, its narrowness and lack of rich emotional experience. The New Zealander is one who "has made the grade by doing violence to himself, by sneering at his impulses and illusions" and for whom "the evil is to disagree or be different".
It is the New Zealander whose life revolves around his mates and the pub, who fears intimacy as an act of disloyalty to the mates, who distrusts and represses his private feelings and sensitivity, thereby destroying his capacity for spontaneity, imagination or joy, leaving himself only the security of his mates and a continual sneer for those who do not fit into this system. This sneer is turned not only on the arty, the creative, the sensitive or the spontaneous but leads also to an unhealthy distrust of other cultures and an arrogant enthnocentrism. This essay is an important one and is obviously far more extensive than this brief summary permits. It is also written in a coherent, direct style that passes occasionally into the sublime: "Any platform statement in NZ is suspect: the orator is only emptying his lungs to fill an occasion."
There is another extremely important essay, "Under Pressure to Integrate", discussing the situation of Maoris in 1962. This again is relevant to the present in its essence, but its arguments are backed up by many facts and figures and it is more than a little annoying to find the author continually justifying himself in terms of figures from 1960 or even 1957. One wishes that he had spent a little time revising this essay for the purposes of a 1974 publication, rather than leave it as it is; 40% outdated statistical fact and 60% truth. I can't summarise the essay any better than Mr Pearson does in its final chapter which is quoted here almost in its entirety.
"The way of life we have been trying to "integrate" on to the Maoris is a spiritually impoverished version of a deeply anxious, individualistic, and often sadistic (and dirty-minded) Euro-American culture. If instead of forcing them into our uniform, we would allow Maoris to be themselves, we could at once rid ourselves of our intermittment worry about what we are "doing for the Maoris" and at the same time, they could enter more confidently into biracial New Zealand activities to our enrichment."
The other writings in this book revolve also around these three themes, NZ life, NZ literature and the racial question, or takes them on two or three at a time. Mr Pearson does in a minor way for NZ what George Orwell did for England, looks at us without affection, but clearly and without sentiment, illusion or doctrinal blinders.
"In a time when this years novel is on next year's course, it is perhaps not easy to imagine a time when (since the English course stopped at 1910) students were grateful to a lecturer who put on voluntary courses on ' modern literature".
The book on the whole is well worth reading, especially the two essays mentioned above, but since much of it would only be of value or interest to a student of NZ literature, whether it is worth paying $6 for a copy is not something I intend to pass judgement on.