Home truths, Philip Temple

The Accidental Anthropologist
Michael Jackson
Longacre Press, $39.99,
ISBN 187736147X

The epigraphs an author chooses may be taken as a guide to his intent, and Michael Jackson chose two. From Rilke, he derives: “We are born, so to speak, provisionally, it doesn’t matter where; it is only gradually that we compose, within ourselves, our true place of origin, so that we may be born there retrospectively and each day more definitely.” He also quotes James Baldwin, largely truisms: “Even the most incorrigible maverick has to be born somewhere. He may leave the group that produced him – he may be forced to – but nothing will efface his origins.” As one journeys through this book, one seeks to discover where Jackson found Rilke’s “true place of origin’” and what he took with him.

Jackson felt he was “forced to leave” New Zealand early. With remarkable precocity, he saw himself as an “interloper” even as a child: “I did not really belong. I was a refugee from a country I could not name.” He identifies with other interlopers who visit his provincial Taranaki home. One was writer Jean Watson whose Smith Corona was a “miniature version of the great K-locomotives that hauled the trains through Inglewood, whose forlorn whistles had echoed in my darkness with the oblique promise of voyages and the possibility of rebirth”.

In Auckland, as a student and nascent poet, Jackson was:

already in the same mould as Mason, Baxter, and McCahon. Though I could not, as they did, see Christ in those that suffered, I instinctively projected my own sense of marginality onto outsiders and underlings … . In aligning oneself with the oppressed, I thought that one automatically stood on the side of truth.

 

He determines to do good works, “But this salvationist impulse had its origins, not in any direct experience of the poor, but in my own unexamined sense of victimhood.” Jackson’s salvationism eases as his life goes on and his victimhood escapes early self-loathing; but he never abandons his alignment with the oppressed and the belief that somewhere with them lies “truth” and “home”.

This informs not only his early social work in London but also his relationships with the Kuranko people of Sierra Leone and desert Aborigines in the course of his anthropological studies. Jackson reveres the “truth” he finds in the simple lives of indigenous tribes and families rooted in their place of origin. And fancies he belongs: “If home is where a person is at peace with himself, where he can honestly say there is nowhere else he would rather be, then the desert had become my home.”  But no matter how strong such sensations, or how warm and affecting the personal relationships he establishes, Jackson never belongs, can never, as Baldwin says, “efface his origins”. These sometimes intrude in embarrassing ways. Driven by his Kiwi egalitarian instincts, he insists on cooking lunch for his African servant Albert, and crudely impinges on Albert’s sense of dignity and propriety. Yet Jackson’s deep sense of humanity and charity, also arising from his origins, forges deep relationships in Sierra Leone that transcend war, separation and time.

Unsurprisingly, Jackson’s literary heroes are the French trio of Blaise Cendrars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and that classic outsider, Albert Camus. Cendrars is his chief literary mentor and the text is punctuated throughout by references to him. Jackson discovered Cendrars before he went off to engage with his presence in Paris in 1963, perhaps first stirred by reading a 1956 Paris Review interview. Cendrars was the perfect model for the 23-year-old: “he could have been born in any country in the world”. A risk-taker and adventurer, Cendrars was also a war hero, a polyglot, a constant traveller, an admirer of folk music, poetry and art, a writer in whom the younger Henry Miller found a soul mate. Jackson quotes from the 1956 interview, especially to demonstrate Cendrars’ generosity at the expense of Hemingway. Yet an examination of the full interview reveals that Cendrars showed contempt for Sinclair Lewis and downright enmity towards Jean-Paul Sartre.

As any admirer of Michael Jackson’s past writing would hope and expect, his prose is accomplished and flexible, sometimes brilliant, often lyrical and charged with poetry. The early death of Pauline, his first wife, inspired the 9-page elegy “Magdalene of the Black Rose”, where Jackson acknowledges the style of Cendrars and the Parisian poet’s own tragedy. Jackson’s most affecting lines may be found where he recounts the changing stations of this relationship from love at first sight to his too-early grief.

There are also fine “cameos” relating to people and places, such as the mystery of Donald Crowhurst, Captain John Newton and the West African slave trade, or simply walking on the beach at New Plymouth. These sometimes seem digressions to the narrative, almost prose illustrations, and point to a lack of attention to structure that can be disorienting. Moving backwards and forwards in space and time in a literary memoir is one thing; but where the development of a life, of a sensibility, is the key thread, there are often no signals to the reader confirming time and place in the narrative. Some people are introduced but not explained until half a book later, and some not explained at all. Jackson also seems unsure whom he is addressing – his friends, a New Zealand audience, an overseas one? The changing direction of his voice can be disconcerting.

Jackson’s idealisation of indigenous people, verging on sentimentality, is most evident when he attributes a kind of wisdom and understanding that he considers exclusive to them. For the Maori and Warlpiri, “Nothing is static or fixed in these lifeworlds; everything is waxing or waning, and as one life comes into being, another fades away.”  One wonders if Jackson had read Ecclesiastes before he wrote this. He writes that his “Jackson” sense of being inferior is really:

[a] Pakeha New Zealander trait, a trace of our colonial past, orphaned from our motherland and ancestry, obliged to settle in a country that we took by chicanery and force from others, and in which we still struggle to negotiate the terms of a viable belonging.

 

He echoes McCahon in describing our landscape as having “too few lovers”, with which we have yet to come to terms.  While Jackson states that “every new departure inevitably shake[s] loose the dust and debris of the past”, he demonstrates here not only that self-loathing lingers but also that his understanding of Pakeha New Zealand is stuck in the 1950s.

Jackson’s sense of victimhood has endured. He laments that the “refugee” returning to New Zealand is:

remembered, and addressed, solely in terms of what he was. What he has become – the consummation of so many journeys, hardships, and illuminations – has no currency, is of no interest. And for as long as he remains in this place where he no longer has presence, he will be typecast and returned to his previous existence, trapped like an insect in amber.

 

One’s immediate response to this is, “What else do you expect?” One cannot leave home and return expecting to be remembered for anything else. One would have thought that Jackson, from his experience with the Kuranko and Warlpiri, would have observed that tribal wisdoms derive not from travelling the world as a kind of refugee, but from an endless and devoted occupation of place, of home.

This is a complex and absorbing book, wrestling with numerous philosophical ideas, and it will survive many interpretations. But I am not convinced that Jackson has answered Rilke’s call to locate his “true place of origin”. All along it has probably been right here, beginning with the company of his early mentors, Baxter, Mason and McCahon. But he may find it is now too late to come back. Although his hero Cendrars led such a various travelling life, Michael Jackson does not seem to have realised that he always went home to Paris.

 

Philip Temple’s latest novel I Am Always With You was reviewed in our December 2006 issue.

 

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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