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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays



As I see it that is the only solution to the so-often-talked-about plight of the New Zealand artist. There are two facts we can't escape: first, that we are a cultural colony of Europe, and second, that the culture of the west is dying. A paragraph Alice Meynell wrote in 1891 is so apt that I need not apologize for the length of the quotation:

The difficulty of dealing—in the course of any critical duty—with decivilized man lies in this: when you accuse him of vulgarity . . . he defends himself against the charge of barbarism. Especially from new soil—transatlantic, colonial—he faces you, bronzed, with a half-conviction of savagery, partly persuaded of his own youthfulness of race. He writes, and recites, poems about ranches and canyons; they are designed to betray the recklessness of his nature and to reveal the good that lurks in the lawless ways of a young society. He is there to explain himself, voluble, with a glossary for his own artless slang. But his colonialism is only provincialism very articulate. The new air does but make old decadences seem more stale; the young soil does but set into fresh conditions the ready-made, the uncostly, the refuse feeling of a race decivilizing. American fancy played long this pattering part of youth. The New Englander hastened to assure you with so self-denying a face he did not wear war-paint and feathers, that it became doubly difficult to communicate to him that you had suspected him of nothing wilder than a second-hand dress coat. .. . Even now English voices, with violent commonplace, are constantly calling upon America to begin—to begin, for the world is expectant. Whereas there is no beginning for her, but instead a continuity which only a constant care can guide into sustained refinement and can save from decivilization. ('Decivilized', Merry England, October 1891. Reprinted in Essays (1914).)

But refinement and armchair cultivation won't help us, and Mrs Meynell doesn't mention what happens when the parent culture becomes decadent or vulgar. For a truer historical precedent is not the New England school or the American regional novelists of the nineteenth century, but Latin writers in Carthage and Gaul and Spain in the latter days of the Roman Empire. It would be inevitable that such writers would look to the classics for their models, that they would be alienated from their neighbours and exiled from their cultural centre, and that their work would yet have a colonial ring. I cannot pursue this analogy since I have little knowledge of these writers, but I believe the increasing social dissolution made them look backwards and away, and that is why they are forgotten today.

The solution for us is to look to the here and now, and, in spite of Mrs Meynell, to concentrate on the very things she might have called provincial and vulgar, and develop them to the point where they mean page 31 something to people outside New Zealand, to make a meaning out of the drives and behaviour of common people. 'A writer must want to think—think through and with his people. If they will not think, how can he use them?' Sean O'Faolain said of the Irish (The Month, December 1949). But our people have tongues, glands, nerves and minds and souls: they cannot help thinking and feeling, however torpidly. Our job is to penetrate the torpor and out of meaninglessness make a pattern that means something. I hope no one thinks I suggest a rush to the proletariat— the self-conscious patronizing discovery of the worker of some documentary writers of the thirties, talking down to him and writing him up, slumming on the wharves and in factories and shearing-sheds. Rapportage in New Zealand is dull twice over because the New Zealander keeps his motives out of his talk. I mean living not only among but as one of the people and feeling your way into their problems, their hopes, their gripes and their gropings, without like them trying to sleep them off. For us who are trained in a sophisticated self-conscious tradition of art it is very difficult because the audience we would like to reach will never read us even if we were to start back with folk-tales, and because the problems that obsess us are problems Littledene has hardly heard of. But there is no other way if we hope to create anything that is not like so much else in New Zealand a makeshift but something our grandsons will thank us for. Some sense of isolation is inevitable, some detachment and discrimination, but that is the occupational hazard of every artist and especially of the novelist who must always be, so long as there are conflicts within his society, something of a spy in enemy territory. The thing to avoid is developing one's isolation because that way lies desiccation, etiolation, clique-writing that will get yellow in manuscript and deserve to. Emigration is no solution, even for the novelist or dramatist to whom ideas are more important than sense-impressions. There is stimulation at first, a sense of expansion—but in England the artist's loneliness that we have known longer is beginning to be felt, and publishing, because of rearmament and American stockpiling of paper, is getting costly and difficult, and liberties of thought are slipping away too. But after the stimulation you will dry up: you can neither feel completely at home in your adopted country, not enough to write deeply of it, nor can you write of your own country except through a mist of nostalgia and unappeased resentments. We New Zealanders have far less in common with the English middle classes than we may think* and at best they will patronize page 32 us and emasculate us. We could no more lose our national habits if we were to try, than we could, if we wanted to, disguise our kiwi twang. Our accent stands out a mile and the time will come when so does the accent of our literature, but not before we have a social system that makes possible the meaningful liberation of the talents and energies of the common people. Until then there is hard work to be done, there are quiet mortifications to be suffered, humiliations and misunderstandings to be put up with, and yet one will meet a lot of cheerfulness to ease the effort.

Since I first wrote this last June, the Police Offences Amendment Bill has become law, and there are fantastically terrifying bills in preparation— the Coroners' Bill, and the Official Secrets Bill. So we can expect worse discomforts—smear campaigns, imprisonment, continual impounding of one's writing equipment, closing of printing-presses. For these reasons it is our job to take a lead in awakening New Zealanders from their fretful sleep.

London, January 1952

* The English intellectual for example, thinks with detached disciplined reasoning. His education has involved a strict mental discipline that is not in favour with New Zealand educational pundits—either the writers of the late periodical Education or the 'correct use of the full-stop' inspectors. But we approach problems by a subtle adjustment of moral and emotional reactions, either puritan or snobbish, either moral favour and moral disapproval, cheer and sneer, clapping and booing; or humility and superciliousness, crawling and snubbing. But since I can only draw on my own mental habits for example I'd better shut up.