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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 1

The Widening Gulf

page 10

The Widening Gulf

It is hard to evaluate the work of Mr. Holcroft because it is difficult to discover what aim he has set himself in his writing. And ignorance of what his purpose is makes it far from easy to find out whether he has succeeded in it or not. The titles of his books—"The Deepening Stream," "The Waiting Hills" and "Encircling Seas" are not of much help in trying to make out what he has in mind. His chapter headings are even more disconcerting. "Anatomy of Freedom," "Tides in the Mind," "Before the Earthquake," and the like, give little indication of what is to follow. Of course Mr. Holcroft might very well say, as Dr. Johnson did, that he is not obliged to furnish his readers with an understanding. Nevertheless, I have an uneasy feeling that Mr. Holcroft sometimes bears in mind the aphorism of one of Wilde's characters that "Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out."

Certainly, if you do as I have done and jot down the ideas in one of Mr. Holcroft's books you cannot but become aware of their basic emptiness. For Mr. Holcroft is an apostle of the commonplace—a believer in the elementary verities. As J. K. Stephen's parody of Wordsworth puts it, he

"... indicates that two and one are three

That grass is green, lakes deep, and mountains steep.

That is not to say that Mr. Holcroft has not some things to say that are worth saying. One can be grateful for example that he is kind to Shelley (which is something to be grateful for nowadays—though was he "wildly impractical?"). And his plea for the artist in New Zealand today comes from the heart.

All the same, is it necessary to write books to bring it home that New Zealand is composed of islands, that it is isolated, that it is a young country, that its trees have been chopped down and to label these truths "Cultural Influences in New Zealand?" Is New Zealand isolated mentally, is it young spiritally? Is New Zealand as far removed from Europe today as, say, Edinburgh was cut off from London in the time of Hume of Robertson and of Adam Smith or as London itself was distant from Rome in the time of Aquinas? It is just not true to say that, at any time within our century of development, New Zealand thinkers have been cut off from the intellectual currents of their time. Just as operations with ether were being performed in the Wellington Public Hospital less than a year after the first use of anaesthesia in surgery (and at a time when the surgeons of Paris were rejecting it altogether) so new ideas in other fields have been discussed in Auckland and Dunedin when they had hardly penetrated the English provinces.

I merely point out these things to show that Mr. Holcroft might, with profit, have gone deeper and have acquainted himself with the history of ideas in New Zealand—though I admit that that history has yet to be written.

The economic structure of New Zealand receives little attention from Mr. Holcroft. though there are few more insistent than he is on the ideological bearing of climate and landscape on the national character. He has, for example, some fantastic speculations on the mental influence of the Westland rain forest on the New Zealand mind. He adduces, however, none of the evidence that his predecessors in this dubious byway of science from Buckle to Huntington—have assembled to support similar assertions. Yet, whatever emphasis may be placed on the influence of meteorology, it cannot be denied that the social system affects far more profoundly the type of thinking of any people. Surely one of the most important things to know about New Zealand is that it was born bourgeois. Is it too much, then, to expect that an author, writing on cultural history, should give us some account of the class structure of New Zealand, of the roots of Socialist thinking (the prevalence of which is ascribed by Mr. Holcroft to the widespread ownership of motor cars!) and of the history of the Labour movement? All that Mr. Holcroft has to say is that we have no real proletariat.

Even in his remarks on New Zealand literature Mr. Holcroft has little to say. A friend of mine in Paris writes that the Sorbonne's Cinema Institute turns out lectures on the aesthetic, and various philosophically esoteric aspects of cinema, in which any reference to actual films is considered as heresy—the whole page 11 history of philosophy being repeated. Mr. Holcroft's approach to New Zealand culture is of somewhat the same order. He can discuss the arts in New Zealand with almost no reference to any particular drama group, artist, University College or musician, though he does have something to say, it is true, on a few of our living writers.

I have said that it has been difficult for me to find a theme in Mr. Holcroft's books taken either singly or together. Nevertheless I have to say that there is one persistent trait he has and that is a contempt for the New Zealanders. We follow a "false materialism" for example, in this respect apparently differing from the cultured and highly spiritualised people of Great Britain, where every second family takes in "The News of the World." Also we have "no real depth of spiritual life." Whereas he can refer admiringly to the "disciplined and cool objectivity which Englishmen practise in their public judgments" we "reason too much from prejudice" and "are impatient with objectors." True, he gives us credit for being "sociable, gregarious, and incurably inquisitive." But one could say as much of a dog. On the whole Mr. Holcroft doesn't argue: he asserts. He has all the confidence and the untroubled mind of a Salvation Army lass. Hence it is possible for him to present us with "Morality has no force of conviction, no essential hold upon the conscience unless it comes from a spiritual source" as though it were an axiom. Generally, however, when he is not being banal he is preposterous, and can seriously put forward such propositions as that New Zealanders are afflicted with "the memory of a voyage." This, he claims, may be "an explanation of stay-at-home instincts in a youth which, apart from the small minority, seems to have lost the taste for adventure." At least I think Mr. Holcroft is serious. I do not envisage him at any time with his tongue in his cheek. When Mr. Holcroft speaks of Marxism (even his betes noires are commonplace)—a subject about which he knows even less than his own country—he is both banal and preposterous.

I understand that Mr. Holcroft is a stylist and that it is his style which has drawn attention to him. All I can say, with my hand on my heart, is that Mr. Holcroft has to be struggled with. He has succeeded in making the simplest thought difficult. Yet Mr. Holcroft makes it plain to his readers that he has some knowledge of philosophy. An English critic has the right to expect that Englishmen who write on philosophy take as their masters in exposition Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. These men handled the most difficult conceptions and could nevertheless write with clarity while not losing grace. Mr. Holcroft is not a good pupil.

And, while speaking of philosophy, I wonder what Berkeley — immaterialist though he may have been—would have made of what we can regard as Mr. Holcroft's testament to the World with which he closes his "Encircling Seas"—

"I do not know how far the creative mood can be said to have a mystical quality. It may be enough to affirm my belief that mind surrounds the body, that it is fed by the senses through the brain, and that its outer margin is in touch with other minds, or with a collective mind which may shade off into a region of pure spirit."