They fuck you up, Andrew Fieldsend

The Ship of Dreams: Masculinity in Contemporary Pakeha and Maori Fiction of Aotearoa/New Zealand
Alistair Fox
Otago University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 9781877372544

In this academic but engaging study of masculinity in contemporary New Zealand fiction, Alistair Fox of the University of Otago has focused on the way patterns of cultural behaviour shape the subjectivities of male characters in the novels of Maurice Gee, Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Witi Ihimaera and Alan Duff.

Fox builds on the work that has already been done on defining masculine types in New Zealand, tracing the historical genesis of our myths and ideologies about masculinity and mapping out its sociological effects. The purpose of this study, on the other hand, is to draw “a diagnostic map of the New Zealand male psyche in its troubled aspects”, focusing on dysfunctional characters and the causes of their dysfunction. “Undoubtedly,” says Fox, “there are many New Zealand men that sail blithely through life as happily unthinking embodiments of the ‘Kiwi bloke’ stereotype, but the characters who inhabit these imaginatively and psychologically penetrating novels are not among them.” Fox’s central interest is in what psychic effects are produced by conservative New Zealand cultural practices (such as puritanism or traditional Maori values) on boys or men, and how these psychic effects are in turn externalised in some form of dysfunction, such as social recoil and retreat in the novels of Gee, compulsive sexual behaviour in Eldred-Grigg, inter-generational conflict in Ihimaera, and violence in Duff.

To a large extent, subjectivities are shaped by families, and in one way or another Fox sees “defective parenting” as a pervasive theme through all the novels he considers. He is clearly interested as much in the effect of the family on psychic development as in issues of masculinity, giving the name “destructive New Zealand family syndrome” to this process:

That is, families that suffer the effects of a hypercritical, over-dominant, or raging mother, and a father who is passive or weak, or absent and remote, with neither the mother nor the father being able to supply the nurturing affection their children need.

 

Fox treats Pakeha and Maori novelists separately because the cultural themes differ, but he draws parallels between the effects of puritanism in Gee and Eldred-Grigg and the effects of Maori cultural traditions in Ihimaera and Duff.

The greatest source of psychic damage for Pakeha males is, according to Fox, the legacy of Calvinist or puritan family values, entailing the qualities of self-restraint, sobriety, respectability and self-improvement that had “become thoroughly internalised by New Zealanders” by the mid-20th century. There appears to be an assumption here that Pakeha largely means Presbyterian or that the Calvinist influence has been the predominant shaping force in Pakeha culture. Limited acknowledgement is made in the study about the other threads of Pakeha culture such as Catholic or radical elements, although they are scattered throughout New Zealand fiction, often acting as counterpoints to the representation of Protestant New Zealand as an imaginatively restricted society. In Gee’s first novel, Big Season, for example, the pig-hunting, safe-cracking, ex-con Bill Walters represents the possibility of authenticity for Rob Andrews “as an alternative to the emptiness of the rugby culture and the hypocritical respectability maintained by New Zealand society”.

It would be interesting to consider more closely how the suppression of alternative cultural and social realities in New Zealand fiction might mirror the suppression of passions and drives in individuals. Fox challenges us (particularly Pakeha) to purge ourselves of the traces of our “inhibiting cultural heritage”, but there is room for further consideration of how dominant cultural heritage shapes and determines masculine subjectivities in New Zealand fiction by suppressing alternative subjectivities. For example, sexual identity may be repressed in order to conform with social and family norms, but Fox focuses less on what is repressed or absent in representations of sexuality and why; his study is of what comes to the surface in the novels in the form of dysfunctional sexual behaviour such as the “addictive” homosexual behaviour in the novels of Eldred-Grigg and Ihimaera.

In Fox’s consideration of Maori literature, the withdrawn or distant father of the Pakeha novelists is replaced by “macho hypermasculinity” of, for example, Grandfather Tamihana in Bulibasha, the strong cultural expectations in some of Ihimaera’s other novels, or absent fathers in Duff. The “terrible puritan mums” in the Pakeha novels are replaced by mother figures that are abusive, exploitative or loveless in the novels of the Maori novelists. Fox thus parallels the role of family in producing dysfunction in both the Pakeha and Maori worlds.

Overlaying the familial causes of dysfunction, cultural traditions also have their psychic effects on the characters in the novels of Ihimaera and Duff. Fox describes the “ongoing legacy of traditions that create distortions in the psychic formation of the individual – often as a result of the dysfunctional relationships within families that they produce.” Male characters struggle to harmonise “the imperatives of the two cultures” (Maori and Pakeha), and Fox notes that the expectations of extended whanau and tribal groups “are likely to complicate and impede the achievement of a coherent sense of individuality”.

This prompts a question for Fox about the generality of his observations. Are the difficulties for the male characters specific to Maori society? Do they have universal relevance or are they idiosyncratic to the authors? The situations described in the Maori novels, Fox concludes, reflect universal dilemmas that “could be found in any number of accounts drawn from psychotherapeutic practice”, but the conflicts are “generated and intensified by values that are culturally specific”. Ultimately, Fox is making a case that the characters in these novels, Maori and Pakeha, represent a collection of case histories from which a diagnosis can be made about the traumatic effects of New Zealand’s cultural legacy. This leads to a plea for cultural change so that the New Zealand male’s “latent potentiality for fulfilment and happiness” can be released. As this emphasis on diagnosis indicates, Fox’s approach is more closely connected to clinical Freudian analysis than to the more playful Lacanian tradition.

Given the breadth of Fox’s survey and his interest in drawing broader thematic links between the authors, there is only limited treatment of each novel. In the manner of a psychotherapist, some of his readings tend to be driven more by the imperative to arrive at diagnosis rather than by attentiveness to possibilities in the text itself.

Fox’s reading of Blindsight, the latest volume in Maurice Gee’s encyclopedia of family dysfunction, is a case in point. Like many of Gee’s other novels, the psychic traumas that motivate the narrative have their seeds in the characters’ childhoods. In this case, Fox identifies as the originating traumas the excessive love of the father and excessive protectiveness of the mother for their two children Alice and Gordon Ferry:

The twin combination of excessive protectiveness deriving from paternal benevolence and excessive protectiveness resulting from the mother’s metaphysical fear [of unnameable things] develops a state of enmeshment within the family that makes it difficult for the children to deal independently with anything that threatens to disrupt the sense of security that this familial closeness imparts.

 

Ultimately, the intrusion of an outsider into the relationship between Alice and Gordon causes disaster. It is surprising that this psychoanalytical reading does not take account of the fact that Alice narrates the novel, and that there is necessarily a layer of self-delusion, elision and denial in her narration. The facts of Alice’s childhood, as described by her, do not reflect her judgements about them, and it is difficult to agree that the Ferry family’s psychic health was infected by too much love. Although it is Gordon who ends his life as a hermit, withdrawn from society, it is the respectable academic Alice who, in many respects, appears to have been tainted with the Calvinist gene; so we could ponder to what extent Fox’s study has application to the construction of female subjectivities too.

This study has the flavour of a personal examination of what it means to be a New Zealand man through the lens of literature, and we should hope for more work on similar subjects from Professor Fox. It is a thoughtful and erudite work and sets an interesting new direction in the study of New Zealand literature.

 

Andrew Fieldsend studied at the Universities of Otago and Western Ontario but is now gainfully employed in Wellington. 

 

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Posted in Gender, Language, Literature, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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