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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1954]

The Phoenix and the Crow

page 57

The Phoenix and the Crow

Lately I was reading the Salient literary issue of 1953; and was troubled by the realisation that most of the prose contributions, including my own, were a kind of verbal sharpshooting at the morals and manners of New Zealand society, without much depth or outgoing sympathy. It seemed to me (old enough to know better) and other admirers of their own words in print, that those thousand upon thousand mysterious lives that suffer and exalt, dread and endure behind the lights on the Wellington hills had inexplicably become a Gorgon's head, a stone mask of Stupidity from which we were almost prepared to run screaming. Perhaps we had meant not the people, but some part of their doing and thinking, an automatic response to events—which we of course would have to acknowledge that we shared; but where in cold print had we in fact acknowledged it? From this disturbing thought an uglier one crawled out like a blowfly out of its chrysalis. Suppose, only suppose, that the intellectual student population for all their ideas about Bach and Beaudelaire, Karl Marx or St. Thomas Aquinas, were fools and worse compared to the ordinary race-going navvy or rose-manuring clerk; that the anxious mammas and the men with dog-collars were in the right of it after all, changing the baby's pants or putting up with talkative parishioners, while the brighter student was feeling his own pulse. It was a bad moment; and even now it stops me from laying an expert hand on the aesthetic tom-tom.

Still, it is not so strange that people aware of having intellects should develop some degree of intellectual arrogance; just as a man who hopes to be a champion middleweight boxer may practice on his friends at parties whether they like it or not. It leaves us, though, with the job of finding what things of value really happen to people at Varsity to offset the apparent danger of a monstrous isolation. For this purpose we will follow the hypothetical history of student YZ.

YZ's childhood was not a happy one. I regret to say that his parents placed great restrictions on his normal libidinal urges. At the age of eight he was attacked by his mother with a broom handle when he enquired for the hundred-and-twentieth time that day whether he could go out and catch crayfish with a friend of the same age. This, as his psychiatrist later assured him, was a traumatic experience; and from it proceeded his later almost pathological aversion for sustained work, the broom being (a) a symbol of maternal domination; (b) a symbol of drudgery; (c) hard, heavy and inflexible.

YZ's school career was on the whole a successful one. He had several verses published in the school magazine; and coasted through examinations with a calculated minimum of effort. Being small in stature he did not excel at organised games; but found his own way out of this dilemma. At the beginning of each school term he would inform the master in charge of each department of games that his name was down on another master's list, and retire to spend the afternoon smoking and playing poker with two boys of similar tastes in a toolshed at the bottom of his father's garden. Excepting an early incident (also traumatic) of mutual inspection with a female cousin his sex life was purely auto-erotic until his eighteenth year. He was then seduced by the wife of a local page 58 W.E.A. lecturer, a woman who approached sex with a desperate rationality. From her he acquired his first training in the field of literary politics, and entered University as a man of the world. However, no bells were rung to announce his arrival.

In his first year at University, YZ became a member of the Literary Club, the Debating Club, and another less formal society known as the Frothblowers' Association. At any of these gatherings he was prepared to speak at a moment's notice on any topic. His examination results, however (he was studying for a B.A. in English), were less promising. He regarded the lecturers in the main as fools, and their view of him was no more charitable. He was floored in three subjects in Finals (Philosophy; Education; Greek History, Art and Literature) and passed English I with a mark of 52% His parents were disappointed. He lost his Bursary.

YZ entered upon his second University year a little chastened. This year he attended most of his lectures and read most of the set books. He developed also a friendship with a red-haired girl who sat beside him on the back bench in Philosophy lectures. Upon her he practised the rational approach which he had learnt in his W.E.A. course; but strangely enough, she was not impressed. About this time a certain light began to dawn on him. . . .

All this, of course, is caricature. But if one could in some way trace to its source the light which dawned on student YZ, one could know a little more about the meaning of University education. Apart from all the language of jackdaws and crows, there is some shaping force at work in that sphere which is capable not only of purifying the intellectual sight but also of setting the inward being at rest. It is worthwhile to remember that though our Universities are now in constant danger of becoming training colleges for the Civil Service, the university tradition began in monasteries. The "something else" which we obscurely demand of Universities may be the balance of contemplative and activist living. There is in each man two selves whom I choose to symbolise as crow and phoenix. The crow is analytical, predatory, assertive. Passing over the desert, it sees the bones of Leviathan where the Deluge has left them uncovered. It enters the cavern of the great skull, pecks out a morsal of gristle that still adheres to the bleached nostril, caws twice for the pleasure of hearing the sound of its own voice amplified, and flies on towards Babel which is its spiritual home. The crow is incapable of love or reverence; but it has strong wings, a glittering eye, and an irrepressible flow of language. It loves its lice because they are its own. It is a most efficient scavenger.

The phoenix builds regularly in the Arabian desert her funeral pyre of cedar and balsam on which she is consumed and recreated. The torture of the flames she dreads, yet loves, because it is inflicted by the Sun, the Father of all birds. This, to the crow, is obsessional masochism. It has been promised to the phoenix that after many deaths she will become all fire and rise to live for ever in the heart of the Sun. Her plumage, beautiful to others, seems foul to her because it prevents the Sun's rays from piercing her heart entirely. She desires the solitude of the desert, not because it is lonely, but because there the Sun's light is clearest and strongest, so clear and strong that He seems at times to descend to earth and dance among the ruinous caves. Strangely, the page 59 places where this vision occurs are marked afterwards not by disfigurement but by cooling oases.

Undoubtedly without the crow we could have no civilisation; but without the phoenix that civilisation would have no centre of gravity, ultimately no meaning. In a world of secular values the University is an anomaly, a hybrid organism. However regimented its students may become, somewhere in its recesses the monastic phoenix has hidden herself. A student who begins with a sense of obligation to his parents or his boss, ends with a sense of obligation towards the material of his labour, for Truth's sake. A student who begins with a sense of onerous burdens, ends with the acceptance of a mysterious discipline most fruitful often when most laborious. A student who begins with intellectual arrogance, ends with the sense of the slightness and shoddiness of the best he can do. Perhaps even with a genuine poverty of the spirit. Which is from the Sun, the Father of all birds, even of the spotted crow.

James K. Baxter