The Spike or Victoria College Review 1940
Birthdays are Useful for Getting presents or for giving them to yourself; and the country has done itself proud in this respect, with an exhibition and monuments and God knows how many books celebrating the history of institutions and provinces and persons. They are also useful for deciding to turn over a new leaf; and sometimes one wishes New Zealand had just turned over a new leaf, and let it go at that. But of course hundredth birthdays are different, and one just naturally expects a telegram from the King and a visit from the Governor-general, and one's picture in the paper, and a greeting from Aunt Daisy. And of course we've had all these things, and the war to boot, and no one can say that we're not moving forward in stirring days. What we could do with would be a few quiet days in which to digest our experience, such as it is.
On the whole, I think it's worth digesting. I was dragged into the centennial racket very unwillingly (if Spike will forgive the piece of autobiography), to find that it was not altogether a racket. I have taken a twist towards nationalism I never expected, which will, I hope, turn out to be not so deplorable as some nationalist passions. New Zealand as a piece of history, I have always thought, was interesting chiefly as an example of what happened when capitalist civilisation in its heydey stretched out and started to interfere with a land and a culture hitherto untouched by this dubious way of life. It wasn't particularly interesting in itself, and it was the duty of the New Zealander to step outside his narrow experience, contemporary and historical, and become a citizen of the world, in history and in his own life. I still believe that, except that now I think New Zealand in itself is thoroughly interesting, and that one does not get at its real significance for ourselves or the wider world of history without a good deal more attention than have been prepared to give to it. This may be only a sign of the onset of that parochial academic decrepitude that I have always feared; or it may be a sign of grace. I don't know. It is difficult, living in a place, to see that place perpetually in a cosmic perspective.
It is difficult, anyhow, to see how much the historian and his feelings really matter; or indeed, what really matters in these days. Apart from killing and being killed, and working for our lives, there is love, there is tolerance, there is intellectual honesty, there are liberty and equality and a few things like these that matter, I take it—all things the practical application of which keep on torturing us a bit (if we are intellectually honest), whether our patent specific for resolving all doubt be Christian pacifism or the class-struggle. We have got to create, or at least keep on making-over, some sort of society out of the material at hand, plus the ethical or aesthetic blue-print we manage to knock out for ourselves. Or maybe we get them from someone else—I suppose most of us do—from Mr Fraser or Mr Gollancz or the Selected Works. I am persuaded that the historian, and if not his feelings, at least his materials, do matter here. And a centennial is useful, not for the speeches it provokes or the tablets it unveils, but for that persuasion, if we can put it across. We need, if we are to live adult lives, to apply our ideas in a manner that is consciously our own.page 19
What sort of nationalism do I want to see in New Zealand? No hoarse-voiced political sort, certainly, no inferiority-complex swagger. The only dependence I particularly want is independence of mind—and that may involve complications, it may have pre requisites. I think we can get at some of the complications and prerequisites from a study of the last hundred years, if we exercise average intelligence and an insight free from prepossessions. I want a national culture; and that can only come from the free intelligence working on its environment and its history. Its history isn't by any means only a New Zealand history, but in so far as it has real validity for us it's dyed in a native New Zealand colour. We live in the twentieth century, and we would be fools not to continue to live in the twentieth century. That is, I think we must be eclectic, but eclectic only to transcend our eclecticism. We can't live culturally on one brand of food alone, whether Russian or American or English. (Lenin has a good passage on that somewhere.) We can't extort a national life only from the Labour Party; we can't do much with Maori legends; we can't drag a culture only out of the dairy-farm. I think we can learn a good deal from Yeats; he started to write in a Celtic twilight, and he didn't write badly; but he got out into the open, and though he used symbols, his great work is the result of his own sheer thought working on his environment—an environment modern and yet going back into all the past. Of course if we get a Yeats in the next two or three hundred years we'll be damned lucky.
Well, there's plenty of material for assimilation, and the centennial has made some of it public. Look at that Making New Zealand series of picture-books. There's McCormick's Letters of Art; there has been some distinctive New Zealand work done, and good work at that. There's history behind us, a history of the conflict of men and their environment, of the conflict of races, of the conflict of classes—history, but no tradition, because we haven't assimilated our history. I suggest that before we can carry out any significant piece of creative work, we've got to assimilate it, as part of our environment. That doesn't mean that we've got to write historical novels, or paint historical pictures; it does mean that there is a certain idiom of thought we must master without becoming the victims of a deliberate pose. I don't know what that idiom is or will be; it will arise from the grappling of the mature artist with his intractable material—or—in a different medium, from the insight of the mature politician grappling with his problem, no less intractable. For life hangs together; we can't separate our art from our social life, if either is to have any real significance—to have any real validity as a flowering of this place, New Zealand, in a particular time, our own or our children's. We may have to wait. In the meantime, I dare say we shall make considerable fools of ourselves, pending the arrival of Yeats. It doesn't matter much; we can take hold of the material now, and see what happens.
The historian, if he knows his job, can help us a bit—though I may be prejudiced. He has to make some sort of sense out of a mass of junk that as often as not seems pretty senseless. Pity him. But out of his passionate concern with ordinary things may emerge a basis for other sorts of creation which may be purer, more final, even more exciting. Perhaps all this is confused. But we're not out of the centennial wood yet; and there is so much growth, one is apt to get bushed.