Arachne. No. 2
Background to a Magazine
Background to a Magazine
The Condition which Arachne is committed to explore is, from the side of the individual, his isolation—from that of the community, its disintegration. Hence the use of the myth which gives its title—the poet is defeated by the unregarding power of Pallas. This is of course only one aspect of his situation. As his relation to the community is broken new tasks are imposed upon him. But let us consider this severance more carefully.
For the individual, isolation; for the community, disintegration. By the first of these we should not suggest that there is an interruption of those immediate human contacts which have made up the major part of life at all times though there is a danger that those too may become less real. But a community which is no longer the receptacle of any general tradition or purpose does lose some essential quality, degenerates into page 21 a mere aggregate of individuals who are in this sense 'isolated' . 'The true community does not arise through people having feelings for one another (though indeed not without it), but through, first, their taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Centre, and second, their being in living mutual relation with one another.'
How do the ideas of isolation and disintegration describe our situation in New Zealand to-day? A colonial society is likely to have gone at once not so far and farther than its parent society along the road that leads to dissolution. Greater distance from the source of a tradition means at once separation from tradition and from the criticism of it. This is true only of intangibles whose immediate utility is not obvious. In clearly practical matters Anglo-Saxon colonial societies show much boldness in innovation. In other fields of life the story is generally one of outward stability, inward decay. These new societies are in this way very old as well as very young.
This may be illustrated at the point where ideals and interests chrystallize into the patterns of political action. Constitutional, as distinct from democratic, government has not thrived in New Zealand. The concept of a body of principles not having the force of law to which elected persons must yet conform has had little appeal here. Witness the fate of the Legislative Council since 1890, the prolongation of the life of Parliament in 1934 because the misery of the country made the moment inopportune for an election, the abolition of the country quota in 1945 by a party which had studiously avoided discussion of the matter for many years. This cynicism as to constitutional principles adds to the power of the government of the day while it diminishes its moral authority.
While the constitution, the spirit of government, has languished, the state, its apparatus, its practical consequence, has grown enormously. This is in part the result of the very virtues of a colonial people—the willingness to take novel and drastic action to remove economic injustice and prevent social schism. Such action has generally involved the extension of state power. Colonial society was such a tabula rasa that nowhere else was there any authority or group which could take over these new functions. The real, as distinct from the popularly imagined evils of this extension were mostly so much less tangible than those it was designed to amend that it was difficult to oppose it. But by its very success the welfare state has helped remove the moral issue from politics. The struggle of well-fed pressure groups for larger shares in the national booty is not a battle which engages the highest faculties of the human heart or mind. It is the consequence of our material health as well as of our spiritual sickness that from the exaggerated structure of the state there emerges something less than the human voice.
The anarchy, which in New Zealand is veiled and respectable, has found in some other parts of the world its expression in physical violence. Most often this is the violence of those who would hold a disintegrating society together by force or by arousing hatred against the enemy within and without ... 'while his agents of lower rank, who had established themselves in the clans, fostered anarchy, the initiated penetrated into the civic offices and the magistracy, and there won the reputation of men of deeds who would bring the mob to its senses.' This is the backcloth to the cosy squalour of our domestic politics.
In the passage I have quoted, Martin Buber speaks of the manner in which a community has its origin through people 'taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Centre.' Our western society found this Centre in the Christian faith; in the gospels the dying Roman world and the barbarians around it found their creative Word which has been uttered through the western civilization, with fruitful or perverse page 22 variations, for almost two thousand years. It is only in the derivative feeling of humanitarianism that it is now of general importance. Humanitarianism flourishes where life is most easy, that is for the 19th and 20th century west, where the fiery core of religion is most nearly extinct. This new sense for the sufferings of others is an extension of the human consciousness that we cannot repudiate, but I do not think it can survive long in its present form. It defeats itself by looking too closely and exclusively at the material conditions of life. In a situation such as that of the western powers before Germany in 1938, or Russia in 1950, it degenerates into panic or paralysis. Moreover, there is about the humanitarian ethic a dreariness that tempts to evil or what, by its standards, is evil. One cannot regard the trim state housing settlements without thinking that they imply the atomic bomb.
We must hope, then, for a new ethic, or more precisely, a new view of the world that may be the basis of an ethic. The Christian faith has fallen too much into the hands of men and even a return to the Gospels would have to be a rediscovery, a creation rather than a restoration. There is, of course, a sense in which it is absurd to speak of a 'new' ethic. 'For whensoever the law fails and lawlessness uprises . . . then do I bring myself to bodied birth. To guard the righteous, to destroy evildoers, to establish the law I come into birth age after age.' But though Krishna is the same in essence for each incarnation his teaching and his myth must vary according to the capacity of the peoples whose need has called it forth.
In any such revelation the part played by the human will is obscure. It would be begging the question, anticipating the new theology which is yet to be built, to define the limits of what can be achieved by scattered individuals and groups who seek to give form to what they see and believe. At least we may believe that it must be a consciously and passionately apprehended need that brings down the lightning from heaven. At the most we may think of the new ethic as a new style of life, the creation of innumerable people all over the world facing situations which left them either to achieve the new act of creation or to perish. It may be that the first view is true but one cannot know and it is natural that at this stage of the day it is the latter which is nearer one's heart.
In a time of dereliction it is necessary to fix the flux of one's experience in concrete image and abstract doctrine. The alternative is existence without aim or proportion, a marsh of shallow emotions, the betrayal of every rigorous and delicate purpose. Kierkegaard wrote justly of such a life, current in 19th century Denmark as in 2oth century New Zealand, when he said that it was so far removed from the Divine Presence as to be incapable of that conscious rebellion against it which is properly called sin.
From the remnants of our own tradition and of the other traditions which to a disintegrating culture are no more remote we must take what guidance we can. Such remnants can be for us no more than raw materials which the travail of our own lives may fuse into some new form. In action as in art the problem is one of style—the appropriateness of the outer form to the inner life, the achievement of that exact economy which effects no more and no less than is necessary to resolve the need of the heart.
One way of describing the present crisis of our society is to say that communal life has lost this style because of the drying up of the inner tide which once gave meaning to its institutions and habits. Only here and there are there words and actions which give form to an inner life. We cannot be sure that these will to be too weak to link the dispensation which is passing with the new one for which we hope.page 23
Arachne is committed by its policy to explore the dissolution of the community. Also, by the very fact of its existence, it is committed to a solicitude for the new patterns in word and action, in poetry and politics, which emerge amid and against that dissolution. This implies a belief, not in the favourable issue of the crisis but of one's need to define in it one's own position.