Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture
Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn, Mary Paul (eds)
Otago University Press, $39.95,
Strange goings-on in small towns. You know all about it – it’s the New Zealand gothic. It’s a familiar enough idea, with its family secrets and its traumatic colonial history. But what exactly is it?
The characteristics normally associated with the gothic range from horror to high camp. It’s a slippery notion – just how slippery is demonstrated by Jennifer Lawn in her introduction to Gothic NZ, an eclectic collection of essays, art works and poetry. Reluctant to define the gothic, she argues for treating it “as a mode, not a genre: a way of doing and seeing, adaptable across dislocations of culture, time, and space, rather than a substantive category.” Despite this reluctance to define, one thing Gothic NZ is not short on is definitions. We are offered a number of possibilities, from Lawn’s own “shifting warp of the familiar” to Martin Edmond’s “exaggeration of emotional effect for the sake of some kind of release”. Quite a range: if the former makes it sound like a drug experience, the latter makes it sound almost like pornography.
Disappointingly, the collection lacks any attempt to argue for or against any of these understandings, or to engage in sustained debate between them. For all the pieces’ individual quality – and there is some very good art and writing here – we come away from the book as a whole without much more of an understanding of the term and its local application. This means that other opportunities are missed, not least the chance to ask seriously whether there is a New Zealand gothic. Lydia Wevers’ denial that there is one, at least in our literature, is quickly dismissed by the suggestion that if we “[f]lick the angle of vision just a fraction”, we’ll see it everywhere. See what? The odd vampire movie; some stories about madness; Freudian repression; Marxian suppression; loneliness in the kitchen and bad weather on the farm? In his afterword, “How Gothic Is It?”, Ian Wedde raises the question, but goes little further than identifying two versions (basically, horror and high camp) and expressing a thoughtful, guarded enthusiasm.
It’s not clear where this “darker side of Kiwi culture” can be found. Can only works of art and literature be gothic, or can societies and nations? This question suggests that when we wonder about New Zealand gothic, we are already wondering about two things: a gothic mode, if any, in our arts; and a “gothic secret”, if any, in our society.
The book offers various thoughts on the second question. Our “dark secret” might be the violence of our colonial past (Misha Kavka and Sarah Shieff), unacknowledged poverty (Martin Edmond), the punitive treatment and pervasiveness of depressive illness (David Craig, in one of the most nuanced pieces in the collection), or the fragmented condition of post-modern self and society (Jack Ross). Surprisingly, there is little discussion of the loneliness of living in a small, sparsely populated country, something that might amount to the sublime of isolation. Are we finally over this? There is also little mention of domestic violence or child abuse, recently described as New Zealand’s “dark secret” by Silvia Cartwright. An essay on Maurice Gee’s adult fiction might have brought this to light. Meanwhile, as the list expands, it becomes increasingly difficult to work out what of this is distinctive to New Zealand.
The question of the gothic as a set of artistic practices may ultimately be more productive, as it allows us to think about its social function. In what ways, then, is it useful to talk about gothic art in this country? Martin Edmond’s essay discusses works by Philip Clairmont, Ronald Hugh Morrieson and John Mulgan. Mulgan and Morrieson are, of course, our usual gothic suspects. For Edmond, the task of these artists is a kind of healing through revealing; it is akin to Freud’s “talking cure”, whereby through an articulation of the unconscious we achieve a degree of normality:
Demolition of the abandoned house is not the answer; that will only leave our ghosts to wander abroad. What we have to do is reinhabit it, recollect the lives buried there so that the poor, the lost, the forsaken, the insane come back to join us. When this happens, we find the ruinous images of the gothic generate, paradoxically, hope: riches born out of squalor, madness which is the other side of sanity, alienated land once again belonging to us all. The gothic, then, is prospective, restorative, a redemption of the botched past.
The gothic artist here is a communicator, someone who says, in code, what she sees. This is to take gothic art at its enciphered word.
Should we take it at its word? If we wouldn’t take the Bible as evidence of God’s existence, why would gothic art be any more persuasive about the existence of its own subject matter, even as metaphor? Isn’t it possible that the gothic (arguably like religion itself) has other functions altogether?
Consider another form of “healing” suggested in the book: Sarah Shieff’s essay, “Well-laundered elves”, reads Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as racist gothic. The film, like the book, displaces racism’s categories into an alternative universe, and then tells a healing narrative of ethnic cleansing through the defeat of the dark races. Leaving aside the problem of whether Lord of the Rings counts as gothic at all, this is not an altogether surprising reading of the genre: as Shieff points out, Dracula is now commonly read as an anti-Semitic portrait. Schieff finds plenty in the films and their publicity that compares with the “New Zealand: 100% Pure” advertising campaign. What we are left with after the films’ battles is a “pristine New Zealand landscape [that] now looks like nothing less than Lebensraum”, a tourist-friendly landscape cleansed of its racial impurities.
The book doesn’t distinguish between understandings of gothic art that take it at its word and those that are sceptical of its function. Furthermore, those works that clearly do seem like our gothic – the sacred cows of Mulgan, Morrieson, Gee, Campion – are for the most part spared the sceptical approach. Why are we so keen to believe what they have to say? Why, indeed, is the gothic, if it contains uncomfortable secrets, so popular? With its many conflicting definitions, this book, instead of a sustained engagement with the gothic, offers a spectacle of this very popularity: even if we can’t agree what it is, we all want a piece of it.
Reasons for this are hinted at if not developed in the pages of Gothic NZ. Ian Lockhead’s article on corrugated-iron gothic architecture notes, but doesn’t explore, an apparent contradiction between gothic revival’s nostalgia for old times and its suitability to new materials. The contradiction shouldn’t puzzle us: the idea that modernity nurtures the nostalgic illusion of a simple or pure life while being materially suited to harsh economic realities isn’t new. If the function of the church environment is to allow thoughts of a world touched by God, should we expect the realities of church construction to owe anything less to modernity’s godless drive for efficiency? And, as is suggested in both Mark Jackson’s essay on the art of Christopher Braddock and Stephen Turner’s and Scott Wilson’s piece on road safety advertising, it’s not always the touch of God that we long for. The fantasised authenticity of blood, cruelty and violence can also distract us from the reality of our bloodless suburban streets.
On this reading, gothic art and its belief in “dark secrets” might serve to distract us from the real horror: that there is no horror at all. What if our routine, boring lives of workaday exploitation and consumption are all there is? Wouldn’t you rather believe in vampires? Or at least hope to warp all that familiarity from time to time?
This goes even for colonial history, our best contender for a “dark secret”. In essence, there are few secrets left: even reactionaries seldom deny the past’s horrors, claiming instead that history is history, that it’s too late to do anything about it. The revelation of more injustices will only demonstrate again the failure of mere facts to lastingly move us. The real horror of our history is not in its secrets, but in its aporias – the problem of what to do about the facts we know only too well: land alienation, proletarianisation, institutional racism and exploitation.
All this can provide one answer to why the gothic is so popular here and now. Gothic art is suited to a nationalist project: its revivals in 18th-century Britain and 19th-century America were linked to developing national and imperial identities. Here, with its ineffable secrets, it can offer us something mysterious to distinguish ourselves from other dull, exploitative colonial societies whose cities are given to sprawl. A gothic whose secret is fully revealed is failed gothic – as with nationalism. If we could find out what it is about “us”, we’d easily locate some of the same stuff in other places. New Zealand’s “creative edge” and the gothic offer, perhaps, two indefinable sides to the same nationalist coin.
Tim Corballis’ most recent novel is The Fossil Pits. Ingrid Horrocks teaches creative writing at Massey University and has recently written on the politics of the gothic in Studies in the Novel.