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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Essay on the Higher Learning

page 61

Essay on the Higher Learning

Somebody suggested to me that I might write an article about Higher Learning in New Zealand. From a writer's point of view. A new angle of approach. It troubled me to know what to say. Indeed I had had a long, unsuccessful love affair with the Higher Learning, beginning when I timidly entered the Registrar's office at Otago University, with a head full of bad poems, at the age of seventeen. But had I ever really got there? That was the question.

My mother was a graduate of Newnham College, Cambridge. She studied Old French for her M.A., and enjoyed punting on the Cam. I think she hoped that some day I would climb the ladder of academic distinction, and go there too, go and get some manners, and come back to be a Senior Lecturer. I almost felt I ought to. What else was there to do? I remember also the clear warning she gave me before I arrived at the Registrar's office — 'James, you may meet some girls at University who want you to sleep with them. I'm not saying you will, but you may. Keep away from them. That kind of thing is wrong and it only leads to trouble.' There was a strong, loving wish to be of help behind her words, and I appreciate it better now than I did then. In one sense her prophecy was erroneous. No Otago girl ever tried to rape me. For many long months I searched hard for such a siren, without success. Those iceberg virgins never melted. But my mother had made a correct estimate of her son's character. My ambitions, then as now, were pudendal rather than academic.

But I was seventeen still, and a strange glamour rested on those grey pseudo-Gothic arches. On a lawn that resembled Dante's Limbo one could sit and watch the waters of the Leith Stream sliding endlessly over weirs. And one of those grave, charming, untouchable nymphs might appear and sit down on the green grass and say, 'Hullo'. At that time I attributed the mental paralysis that coated my faculties with a thin ice film to the deplorable practice of nightly self-abuse. It did not occur to me that Boring, Langfeldt and Weld, those grave-diggers of the human psyche, or Merrimée's Carmen, written in a language which was then and is now still fortunately Greek to me, might have had something to do with it. Yet the primitive self that writes my poems for me must have suspected it —

'Where evening darkening in dejection
Can hear, monotonous, profound,
The too long dead for resurrection
In suspiration from the ground,

'Attenuate ghosts expound their lean
Philosophies of When and If,
And oft on that enchanted ground
Chimera mates with hippogriff ...

'Per ardua ad astra: blind
Inscription from a catacomb.
Lost, one original heart and mind
Between the pub and lecture room.'

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Per ardua ad astra is the motto of Otago University; and the last two lines of the poem are designed to call to mind those tragic messages one sees pinned on Varsity notice-boards —' Lost, a gold bangle with the initials J.A.' I composed the poem later on in the less inhibited atmosphere of an iron rolling mill, sweating out the night's beer over a forest of red-hot half-inch rounds. But it does put a finger on that peculiar schizoid calm that characterizes University life: the calm of a populous graveyard.

Good things came to me from Otago. My incipient alcoholism took wings like a bush fire, leaping fence and river, in the Bowling Green, the Royal Albert, the Captain Cook, the Grand, the City, the Oban, the Shamrock (on Sundays), and the Robert Burns (my best friend had a flat above it). The Furies, those Muses of black-humour poetry, roosted on my doorstep like great scraggy chickens, and never left it again. It is, after all, their proper home. A female medical student taught me another kind of knowledge in her Castle Street lodgings —

'The street-lamp shows me where she lived.
Re-entering that square untidy room
Where cups lie mixed with fingerbones
I find her again. Forehead too full,
Opaque blue eyes, bruised archaic smile
Dug from under shards. Pleasure,
A crab gripping the spine;
A mouth lent, not given;
Hair like marram grass that made
On the short sofa, a burglar's tent. . .'

God also, whom I had not met till then, revealed Himself to me one day when I had reached the middle of a disused railway tunnel, in the grip of a brutal hangover. But was any of this a necessary part of the Higher Learning? It is hard to say. Aphrodite, Bacchus, and the Holy Spirit were my tutors, but the goddess of good manners and examination passes withheld her smile from me.

Well, I had a difficult session with my mother. She felt (rightly) that I was in danger of becoming a hobo, and should return to Varsity to work. I thought (privately) that I had to find out who I was or else take a large dose of strychnine, and that I needed more elbow room to get on with living and writing. I won the duel, but went out afterwards and wept under a gum-tree on the river-flat below the house.

A year or two later, after much apparently useless experience in various factories, farms, dens, bedrooms, pubs and hovels, I travelled to Christchurch, ostensibly to begin a second Varsity career, actually to visit a Jungian psychiatrist. Somehow the Higher Learning still eluded me. I lived inside the spiritual bomb-shelters erected by Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane. The irrigating river of alcohol flowed continually through my veins. I annoyed the landlady of the girl I was later to marry by climbing down the fire-escape at five in the morning. Once or twice I sat in a lecture room and watched the inaudibly moving jaws of that wise and brilliant man,

page 63

drawing by Pat Day

Sinclaire, who had then reached his dotage. I worked in a TB hospital and as a copyholder on The Press; had something suspiciously like the DT's, and edited a literary page on Canta. It was particularly convenient to have access to the Canta room for an amorous rendezvous or a place to lie down in when one couldn't stand up. In Christchurch I associated with Denis Clover and Allen Curnow and became a member of the Church of England. This was unquestionably a seeding-time, when I became a man of sorts and ploughed under everything I had ever known, as a farmer ploughs in autumn before the hard frosts arrive.

Later on I married and came to Wellington. Ever since I had failed in Otago to page 64 master the Higher Learning, a sense of incapability had gnawed like a rat at my diaphragm. To quiet this rodent, I acquired extra-murally a unit in Greek History, Art and Literature, while working in the Wellington abattoir. After a year or so as a postman (I was sacked from that job when the bosses found me asleep dead-drunk with my head on a full satchel of letters in the Karori post-office) I came to Training College. There I associated frequently with Louis Johnson from whom I learnt to write about the kind of things that make most people silent. It was possible at that time to take two Varsity subjects a year.

This period is a trifle foggy. I gave three Macmillan Brown Memorial lectures. I passed Stage II Latin with the help of an admirable tutor (the Latin was a help to me in reading my missal when I became a Catholic) and passed Stage III English, after two failures, with the help of a tutor in Anglo-Saxon. I can remember trying to convince the long-suffering lecturer in Symbolic Logic that 'p implies q' was a sexual symbol; and I remember more vividly sitting an examination in Stage III English Literature after two days spent on a Home boat drinking gin with the engineer. Well, I got my B.A. and have it still.

Along with a genuine admiration for the character-shaping power of our institutions of Higher Learning — some of the toughest psychotics in the country inhabit those walls — I feel that they have had little effect, except a negative one, upon the processes that make me tick as a writer. Writing, in my case, has proceeded entirely from Lower Learning, learning who one is. And this is not learnt in a lecture-room or library, but in the jails and torture rooms of a private destiny, or conceivably planting potatoes, or conceivably kneeling blindly at the Mass. In fact, I believe that the gulf is so great between these two kinds of learning, that I would never take a permanent job teaching at a University, in case the seed-beds of my life should be turned, by accident, into a concrete playground or the foundation for a building devoted to Aesthetic Research.

James K. Baxter