Captions

Along the waterfront in Wellington the council have put a pink line about 5 centimetres wide on the footpath.  If you follow it you will come to little information boxes that point out different features of Whanganui-a-Tara. Sometimes it explains a sculpture, and sometimes a landmark.  At one point it gives the the story of Ngake and Whātaitai and how they formed Wellington Harbour.  There is one that shows where the waka used to land, and another that explains how the area was once full of kaimoana and tuna.

Because most of us don’t understand the land we walk in anymore it comes with captions.  We can look at the view, and then look down and find out what it means.  What it meant.  On this concrete strip there was a shore of sucking mud, and a silvery flat filigree of rivulets coming from the tall, thick reeds behind, and then the steep banks covered in bush.

Not anymore.

I came to the boat shed by Freyberg Pool.  The pool sticks out from the shoreline, and there are tall windows down each side of the building.  Inside the windows there are a row of running machines where people come and run, and check their fitbits, and run, and check their music, and run, and then go and change, and maybe grab a coffee and head to work.  Just under them, under the running machines, outside the building and below the windows, is a path so that people can walk around the outside of the pool, and lying there are two people sleeping.  Their bare, dirty feet stick out from under their dirty, cheap children’s blankets.

They’re brown feet of course.

It reminds me of standing in Te Aro park and looking at the hoardings on the Opera House advertising Madiba.  The picture shows the silhouette of a man – Mandela – with his fist raised: power, resistance, solidarity.  And underneath the hoarding, in front of the glass doors into the foyer, a man and a woman with all their things in a shopping trolley.  Sitting on cardboard.  Waiting out the day.  You know what colour their skin was.

We went sailing.  A group of students and some sailors and me.  After we had learned to tie some ropes, and had some lunch, and pulled on our overalls, and jackets and lifejackets we got on the sailboats and went out into the great harbour of Tara.  The students are from a class especially constructed.  They are intelligent, funny, talented students who need some love.  We all need love, of course, but most people can pretend they don’t.  Here the love is more open.  The drama too.

I put on sunscreen and the students laughed at me.

“What are you doing, mister?”

“I’m white.”

“You need a bit of colour.”

I ignored them and tried to look dignified rubbing SPF 50+ into my bald spot.

On a sail boat in the middle of the harbour everything looks different.  Being there makes the land you grew up on strange again.  I can see how Ngauranga looks like a gash, the kind a mighty tail might make as it thrashed and propelled a taniwha through the water and towards the harbour entrance.  How Mākaro Island is bigger than it looks from the shore, and has a good beach and bush along its steep cliffs.  How vital Tāwhirimātea is to the life of Whanganui-a-Tara.  If you have the rope in your hand for the mainsail you can feel Tāwhirimātea’s  pull, and how the boat seems always to be wrestling against your hand, and him, and the pitch of the wave.

Sail boats are counter-intuitive to me: it’s better if they’re tipping; you shift the rudder handle in the direction opposite the way you want to go.  I understand.  I steer the boat, for perhaps an hour, but it never feels right.  It is a constant act of concentration to adjust the rudder in the correct direction, and sometimes my mind flips back and I am wrong-headed again.  I once went in a very little sail boat with Cathy in the Marlborough Sounds.  The combination of the wind hitting the sail, and my ignorance of the rudder capsized us.  I remember hitting the water and then surfacing.  I could see my glasses floating on the surface when I reemerged and I plucked them out of the sea and slapped them on my face.  I could see and breath again.  How quickly I had been dumped out of both.

Back in the meeting room where we learned to tie the ropes, and after the sailing, I studied the information boards on the walls.  Pictures of boats and people going back a hundred years.  Not further.  Wellington Harbour.  Somes.  Ward.  A picture showed a group of people at the 1999 Port Nicholson Regatta.  It looked like a fancy dress party.  Everyone smiling.  Holding a drink.  The large, portly man in the middle of the photo was wearing a grass skirt and had painted his whole face and body black.

There’s the show, and the running machines, and the regatta, and there’s the sleeping rough, and the shopping trolley.  There’s Somes and Ward and Wellington Harbour, and there’s Matiu, and Mākaro and Whanganui-a-Tara.  There’s being in command of the wind and the waves and the rudder, and there’s being dumped in the sea.  No sight, no breath.  A history paved over, with a caption in the master’s tongue telling you what is gone.

And it’s not even gone.

 

 

Worse than women

MoonSixpence

His faults are accepted as the necessary complements to his merits….  To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults. [p.1]

In The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham the narrator gives his account of knowing – haphazardly – a painter who would go on to become recognised as a genius.  The man is called Charles Strickland, but many of the plot points come from the life of Gauguin.

I am very wary of the word genius.  To me it means tremendous talent that creates a sustained output of work that is brilliant and either genre transforming or transcendent.  I don’t think there are any requirements around character.  I don’t think you need to be a certain kind of person to be a genius.  I also think that a certain kind of genius might actually be a person of talent who has become a fanatic.

***

Let’s go back a little bit.  To the start of January 2019 when I decided, as I usually decide every six months, that society feels far too wedded to its now.  I say “feels” because daily life is really just daily life and is wedded to nothing except the sun and the moon, hunger, and emotion, like it always has been.  On the other hand, if you engage with society through media – old media, new media, social media – then you are entering a stream of now-ness.  Now-ness is ok.  It’s exciting for a time.  And addictive.  Checking your phone, pushing the update button.  It has its drawbacks though.  I think the main one is that it leads to understanding nothing.  A series of images, short statements, clips, and sound bites is only ever the symptom, and living in a world of symptoms – depending on how you curate your streams – is either empty (the symptoms of vanity and greed), depressing (the symptoms of oppression – of people and the earth), or only vicariously empowering.  You never engage with the complex causes of vanity, greed, oppression, and the sources of the desire for empowerment that might lead you to change.

So I decided to read books from 100 years ago instead.  Novels from 1919.  Not just them though, but the reviews of them that appeared in the newspapers in Aotearoa at the time, and then to follow any interesting leads that doing this presented to me.  It is deliberately disassociative.  It allows you to make your own society strange to you again, and that allows you to notice things you do not notice when you are in the now.

At this point I have read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, and I am reading Night and Day by Virginia Woolf.

***

To me, The Moon and Sixpence, is a book about the consequences of fanaticism.  It might be tempting to soften this and say that the central character – Strickland – is an artist in search of “truth” but aren’t all fanatics pursuing their truth?  Whether your truth is valid or not is decided by society, and societies disagree with each other.  They also move on and change.  The idea of an artist pursuing an ultimate truth suggests a number of things: (a) that there is an ultimate truth, and (b) it is immutable.  The last 30 years have been diverse, fragmented and mutable.  It doesn’t necessarily diminish the artist’s work to refute the idea of an ultimate truth, but it helps to keep it in proportion, and can allow people the freedom to say: “this painting doesn’t personally do much for me”.  It helps to deflate the pompous inflated verbiage and lockstep of canonical thinking.

This is probably just another way to say that the book has dated a little bit.  The vaulting genius who is excused everything is not so popular now as an idea, and even less so when Me Too consistently reveals awful corners of the male artist’s belief about what genius entitles him to.  Of course the vaulting genius idea still exists.  It will rise again in popularity, but at the moment it is not ascendant.  The moon is in the house of cynicism.

Also: misogyny.

I’m not sure that there is any other way to say this: Strickland is a total arsehole.  Especially to women.  Even female characters that are not outright abused by Strickland (which aren’t many) are not given a roundedness.  The three women Strickland has relationships with are condemned by the protagonist, only fleetingly defended by the narrator, and ultimately dismissed.  Strickland’s brutal assessments of these women is, in other words, validated.  His views on women, which includes beating them, and not caring when they kill themselves because their lives are worthless, are utterly vile and, as I said, the narrator ultimately allows them to stand in the name of Strickland’s genius.

Sadly I am one of those people who need the art and the artist to be morally palatable.  I don’t have a high bar.  People are people.  Full of flaws.  They do bad things.  That’s ok.  I get that.  Some things though are very, very bad and in the way that I wouldn’t buy something from a shop if the owner beat his wife, I won’t listen to music – for example – that denigrates women even if it is very good music.

Fanatically pursuing truth at all costs has a long history in human life and it always has bad outcomes.  There may be benefits too.  Buddha, for example, was a fanatic.  If you consider what he did in order to reach truth, or who he deserted to make that quest possible: these are not the actions of a reasonable person.  The benefit though was profound insight into the human condition that he then shared.  Buddha’s fanaticism had benefits then, but bad outcomes for his family.  In general though, the fanatic’s path is the opposite: few benefits and a mountain of terrible consequences.  Strickland falls into this category.

It is very hard not to read Maugham’s background and feel that the heterosexual pressures on a mostly homosexual man who married unhappily and divorced are not in play here.

The book is also, of course, racist.  With a few “nigger” minstrels, and the indolent Pacific natives, it gives you that simple worldview that makes white stories central even in a country – Tahiti – where they are a minority.  Even Strickland’s Tahitian wife is a passive prop who will be passed on to another white man at the end.

***

The most striking thing now about the reviewers of The Moon and Sixpence in Aotearoa in 1919 is that they say nothing about any of this.  They all agree that Strickland is an arsehole (they don’t say arsehole), but don’t really say why.  The reviewer in The Evening Post says that it is because Strickland leaves “his agreeable wife and two delightful, normal children.”[1]  Which is fine, except that ultimately Strickland’s wife is not presented in a flattering light, and his children are shown to be slightly boring pillars of society.  In other words: thank goodness Strickland got out!

But I suppose it would be unlikely that the male reviewers would notice much.  At the same time as they are reviewing The Moon and Sixpence they are panning two other books.  “As for the men… they are worse than women, self-indulgent and egoists, shirkers of duty.” [2]  Worse than women!  Is that even possible?  Speaking of distaste for the shirker of duty

“During the war [the author] was some kind of conscientious objector… but no brand of c.o. is entitled to the make the brainiest man in a professedly brainy book say anything as stupid as this: ‘The war began for no particular reason, and it will stop for no particular reason.'” [3]

Which is quite an accurate description of the start and the end of that war.  Certainly the start.

Of the many, many things that are hard to understand about the Great War, one is how, after it all, after all the unspeakable, senseless slaughter, trauma and evil, the official narrative was still of duty, and shirkers, and purpose.  But just ask women now how hard it is to shift the narrative of men about “boys will be boys” and “not all men” 100 years after “worse than women”, or how – in the age of Woody Allen, Polanski and R. Kelly – there are still people who will say:

To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.

___

[1] The Bookman, The Evening Post, 12 July 1919

[2] Liber’s Note, The Dominion, 13 September 1919

[3] Among the Books, Sun, 13 September 1919