The effort at reasonableness, Miranda Johnson

Paikea: The Life of I L G Sutherland
Oliver Sutherland
University of Canterbury Press
ISBN 9781927145432

The critical theme of Oliver Sutherland’s biography of his father, Ivan Sutherland, is the rational pursuit of an understanding of others. The theme is developed in several ways: through a description of Sutherland senior’s own intellectual development in New Zealand and Britain; via an extensive examination of his engagement with and writing about Māori in the 1930s and 1940s; and in Oliver Sutherland’s own attempt to make sense of his father’s life, cut short by his suicide in 1952 when Oliver was eight years old.

What haunts the biography – which is lucidly written and offers a well-researched and fascinating account of intellectual life in New Zealand in the interwar years – is the inexplicability of the darkness that Sutherland senior was obviously drawn to, but couldn’t understand through rational processes alone. Why the racism in New Zealand society? Why couldn’t others exhibit the same compassion, tolerance and sensitivity to social and cultural difference that Sutherland developed in himself? And why would a man, so sensitive and so humane as he was – qualities for which his friends and colleagues so admired him – not extend that compassion to himself? Why was he compelled to take his own life, as his friend John Beaglehole wondered, persistently, after he died?

Like his good friend Beaglehole, Sutherland came from a strongly religious, upper working-class family, though his family was resident in Masterton rather than in Wellington. His parents met through the Salvation Army and later joined Brethren and then Methodist congregations. Fervent prohibitionists, they imbued their son, Ivan, and daughter, Olive, with values of hard work and a commitment to social justice and, despite their own lack of formal education, ensured that both their children succeeded academically. Ivan and Olive both studied at Victoria University College. After completing her teacher’s certificate, Olive returned to Masterton to teach at the local high school and support her parents, as her mother was ill and increasingly house-bound. Sutherland studied philosophy and psychology, undertaking both a BA and MA at Victoria and then a PhD at the University of Glasgow, before returning to New Zealand and teaching first back at Victoria, then at Canterbury, where he spent the last 15 years of his life.

As an undergraduate student at Victoria, Sutherland found his first mentor in Thomas Hunter, then a professor in mental and moral philosophy, who introduced Sutherland to the new field of psychology.  Unlike Hunter, who was a sportsman as well as an academic and recognised for his “muscularity” in mental and physical pursuits, Sutherland was highly sensitive and fragile physically. His brief participation in a camp for the Territorial Army in 1915 “shook him”, according to his son, and Sutherland wrote afterwards of the “foul language” used by the men in the camp – “every word I heard seemed to hurt me”, he admitted in a short memoir. Sutherland was often shocked, even more acutely when, naive and sheltered, he embarked on his overseas study. He was troubled by the smoking habits of women in Britain and their lack of hat-wearing; his sense of social justice was deeply affected by the sight of the thousands of unemployed in Glasgow when he arrived in 1921. Perhaps most visceral was the horror of first meeting the philosopher, Sir Henry Jones, under whom he was to study and who had mouth and throat cancer. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so shocked … His face was frightful … one side fearfully eaten away and discharging,” he wrote to his family.

Despite a number of setbacks, and all the shocks – moral, social, visceral – that Sutherland experienced, he threw himself into his PhD work in Glasgow and, later, in London where he transferred after a year, into the vibrant cultural and intellectual life that interwar Britain had to offer. He was exposed to the paradigm-shifting ideas of the “new psychology” and the theories of the unconscious being developed by Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. He attended lectures by George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. He went to the opera and toured Europe with a friend. He also experienced what he would later recognise as his first major depressive episode, as he struggled with his sense of self-worth and became increasingly anxious about the originality of his scholarship. He did not, however, seek out professional help beyond seeing a GP. Perhaps this is an anachronistic expectation; though it would seem that, in undertaking scholarship in the field of psychology, he had chosen (unconsciously?) a field of inquiry that was meaningful to him in a deeper and more personal sense than intellectual curiosity and moral commitment can alone explain. Yet the fate of Sutherland’s intuition is not explored by his son, perhaps because Sutherland would not or could not explain himself to himself.

Sutherland returned to New Zealand in 1924, brimming with the ideas and theories he had studied in Britain. Profoundly influenced in his PhD thesis by W H Rivers, in particular, he addressed the question, “Can man be rational and if so in what sense?” The posing of the question suggests how deeply Sutherland had taken on the ideas of the new psychology and engaged with the fact that rationality could not be taken for granted. Nonetheless, he concluded that, while reason only governs human behaviour to a very limited degree, “men should be as reasonable as they can, by effort, make themselves”.

The effort at reasonableness might in fact have served as a subtitle to the book, as Sutherland devoted much of the rest of his life to reasoning in public, particularly in regard to Māori issues. At first drawn into the idea of studying the “Māori mind” (the influence of Rivers’s anthropological work in the Torres Straits Islands was influential on Sutherland in this respect, too), he soon became a passionate and deeply engaged scholar of contemporary Māori life, and one of the key Pākehā interpreters of Māori social conditions for a Pākehā public. Unlike his Pākehā contemporaries who also took a scholarly interest in the Māori world, Sutherland did so through his first-hand experiences – particularly through spending considerable time with Ngati Porou communities once he was taken under the wing of Sir Apirana Ngata and brought into the tribal fold. It was through this association that Sutherland was given the ancestral name “Paikea” which, as Oliver Sutherland explains, “signalled the trust and regard the tribe had for him”.

The book’s most significant scholarly contribution is made in the chapters concerning Sutherland’s work with Ngata and other leading figures in Māori affairs in the 1930s. Oliver Sutherland pays considerable attention to Ngata’s own ideas, and his pre-eminent significance, while incorporating some of the criticisms of Ngata by both Pākehā and Māori. It is a fair-minded portrayal, although Sutherland does seem to believe – as did his father – that Ngata was the driving force behind economic and social change in the Māori world in this period, a claim which historians would be likely to challenge and which some of his peers did, too.

Even more engaging is the description of Sutherland’s own learning process, as he spent more and more time in Māori communities; the shifts in his appreciation of what Ngata and others were doing; and his championing of Ngata’s work, particularly during the so-called “Native Affairs Commission”, which investigated complaints about infractions of public service regulations and mismanagement of some of Ngata’s land schemes. In the fall-out from this investigation, Ngata resigned his position as Minister of Native Affairs, an event about which the loyal Sutherland was deeply angered.

Oliver Sutherland provides fascinating insights into the production of the work for which his father is most well-known, the edited collection The Māori People Today (1940). In this book is contained some of Ngata’s key statements on his social and economic thought (though we discover, in fact, that it was Sutherland who wrote these chapters, after taking extensive notes from Ngata, who did not have time to write them himself) and his ideas about the importance of continuity of Māori cultural distinctiveness while engaging with “Pākehā” economic forms. Here, as Oliver Sutherland claims, was the intellectual basis for 1980s biculturalism.

Perhaps Sutherland’s efforts at reasonableness were double-edged, however. Explaining the political importance and truth of Ngata’s “dual culture” approach to a wider audience motivated Sutherland and obviously gave him a sense of meaningfulness in his intellectual life. Perhaps the challenge of trying to make sense of non-rational behaviour and beliefs, particularly concerning racism, took their toll on Sutherland. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the last work he began, in 1951, on Māori-Pākehā race relations, based again on extensive empirical research, this time travelling around New Zealand’s towns and rural communities, was work he could not complete.

In carrying out the research, he came face-to-face with the everyday racism of Pākehā. While his contemporaries, including Ernest Beaglehole, produced intellectual arguments recapitulating the nationalist sentiment about New Zealand’s relatively good race relations, Sutherland observed a “less happy situation”, in which informal segregation was common, and the Māori future “uncertain”. In a conference paper he wrote about this research, he argued that a “clearing of the air” was needed and better education of “both parties” so that mutual understanding could develop. This faith in the reasonableness of human beings and, indeed, in our capacity to make unconscious prejudice and the formation of selves in colonial situations so readily analysable, are matters, of course, that many scholars hope to achieve, as we seek to make our work meaningful to others, particularly beyond the academy. Yet the hope that sustains it is often misplaced, on the personal as well as the political plane. What we are left with, instead, like Oliver Sutherland and his father, is the struggle to make meaning out of pain.


Miranda Johnson is a post-doctoral research fellow in the history department at The University of Sydney.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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