This is the text of a graduation address given to the School of Humanities, Waikato University, in April this year.
There was a time when New Zealanders were, or appeared to be, a peaceful people. We did what we were told, deferred to our betters; we believed, with some complacency, that we were in advance of other nations: first in the world to give women the vote, architects of a comprehensive welfare system, citizens of Godzone, the social laboratory of the world.
Listening to a single week of National Radio’s Morning Report, or reading a week’s newspapers, you would suppose that we are now none of these things, that we are instead an angry, disappointed nation, out of touch with our legislators who appear to have turned into Public Enemy Numbers One to Ten, under the name of The New Right. A growing army of bureaucrats decides what we shall do, speaking in a language that sounds like heavy metal, and I don’t mean music.
It is made up of words like privatise, rationalise, downsize, prioritise, cost-effectiveness, upskill and downskill (can you do that?), market forces (a headline this one, constantly reiterated), accountability, implementation of policies and procedures. Even – and this one is new, at least to me – version, used as a verb. You can have versioning done to you, you then become versioned, imagination boggles at what the effect of versioning might be – I think I prefer not to know.
You notice that most of these words are active verbs; they catalogue what can be done by someone to someone else. By ‘them’, it usually turns out, to ‘us’. Colin James, a perceptive political journalist, has recently published a survey of political change over the last two or three decades – roughly within your lifetime. His book is called The New Territory. He notes there that the liberal voice in New Zealand, the educated Left, has been remarkably ineffective in offering a constructive opposition to the New Right and its policies.
There has been anger, indeed outrage, at the huge inequalities produced by monetarist theory and practice. But forward-looking alternatives? A new vision? A modern liberal doctrine that is both realistic and humane? Not really. Since coming across this accusation, I have been wondering if it’s deserved, and if so, why. And coming to speak to you this evening, I reflected that you, who have chosen the Humanities as your field of study, would make very good company in which to try my speculations out loud.
Because you have elected to study the living and therefore provisional and inconclusive experience reflected in language, literature, history, philosophy, education, the humane disciplines, I am going to assume that you have also embraced a generally liberal point of view. That you reject, or at least question, the principle on which monetarism rests, that commercial ambition, the market forces we hear so much about, have nothing to do with morality. Right and wrong, as principles themselves, lie elsewhere, outside business and commerce, in some separate realm of ideas. If business barons, sitting at the Round Table like satanic latter-day Arthurian knights, are pondering the purchase of bigger yachts, grander buildings in Sydney or New York, while street kids freeze and families crammed into squalid little rooms do violence to one another, this is simply the way things are.
This, it seems to me, is not merely a distortion of morality, it is also a failure of imagination. And this is where we come in. Marching in the street is not the only way to tame hostile governments, and certainly has no effect on the powerful financial interests that lie behind all governments. Indeed marching in the street doesn’t do much good at all these days ‑ look at the passionate protest against the Employment Contracts Act and how little effect it had, beyond giving the marchers sore throats and bad tempers.
I suggest that a far more profound protest is called for; indeed a change that goes beyond the negative connotations of ‘protest’ altogether. It is something more positive, more subtle, and far more powerful, it is nothing less than imagining ourselves differently. And to do that we need a language to express our aspirations, different entirely from the prioritising and privatising, the upskilling and versioning of bureacratic fashion. A language that touches real events, real feelings, real sounds and tastes and smells. The language that is, as one of my first teachers beautifully said, ‘morning to the mind’.
Ursula le Guin, whom you will probably know as an American science fiction writer, spoke to students at Bryn Mawr, a Women’s College in Pennsylvania, about this other language which can challenge the language of power. It is, she says, the language that expects answers, asks questions, looks for connections, the language of relationship, of exploration and discovery. I have to tell you that she adds that it is the language spoken by all children and most women, but not so easily learnt by men, who are more characteristically trained to speak the language of power and authority.
That may be so. However I think there is another connection that may be more useful to us at the moment. In fact the language of liberation, of truth-telling, of humanity is actually right before our eyes and ears, all the time. I hardly need to tell you that the search for it, and for ourselves within it, will take us straight to books, to stories, poems, plays, songs, essays, to the literature that, fortunately, a humane education has put easily within your grasp. But that is not the only advantage you have.
This is a young country, with a young literature, one which by the natural processes of history is just now coming of age. A colonial culture, as we all know, takes its time to mature. First it must express its nostalgia, its sense of distance from home; it must strut and posture, aggressively proving how thoroughly it belongs, as our early poets fussed about tuis and kowhai trees, rather archly placing them in look-alike English copses and dingles instead of the dark, half tropical New Zealand bush we know is really there.
Well, that phase is long gone. New Zealand writing is expanding at such a rate that it is no longer possible to know from week to week and month to month what’s new, as I once prided myself on being able to do. Now every time I go into my favourite bookshop, and examine the New Zealand table that stands just inside the door, I find an extraordinarily diverse array of names and covers. New fiction writers like Sheridan Keith or Shonagh Koea sit next to writers like Maurice Gee, Fiona Kidman, Margaret Mahy, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera and many others, all with significant international reputations. Poets abound, again the new beside the familiar; children’s books, social history, science fiction, even satire, collections of cartoons – the superior nonsense that as much as any other style or genre postulates a new maturity.
There is one mode I want to say a little more about. No, not poetry, though that is the kind of writing I like best to do myself, and the kind that more than any other brings together the magic of the language and its precision. But for the moment it’s the essay I want to consider. Essay? An archaic word, surely? Does anyone write essays once they’ve left school or university? Perhaps I should speak merely of articles. Yet the word essay has an honourable lineage, it is related to the French word essayer, to try, it carries within itself the idea of a launching out, an attempt, an investigation. These are the very qualities we are going to need if we are to re-invent ourselves, as I’m suggesting we could, and can, and must.
The essay is a chameleon. It takes whatever form its environment requires for survival. It is a piece of investigative journalism written by Gordon Campbell or Pamela Stirling in the Listener, it speaks clearly, hits hard, tells uncomfortable truths by assembling exact and incriminating facts. It is a feature in the ‘Dominion’ written by Alistair Morrison, uncovering the clandestine machinations of Bill Birch. It is a true story in the School Journal telling about the habits of the Blue Duck, which is, in case you didn’t know, not at all like other ducks. It is a letter to the editor, a paper by the excellent Alistair Scott about the health reform catastrophe, saying, with just the kind of courage in our thinking that we need for the changes I am proposing, ‘yes, guess work is necessary in medical practice; informed guesswork is a precious skill.’ Reminding us, in fact, that medicine is a human, humane study as well as a science, and that imagination and judgement are much more to the point than ideological theory and political bombast.
When I published my first poems, and began to look about me at the community of writers that I had known nothing about before, I observed that there were two main levels, or classes: there was creative writing, and there was journalism. If you were a journalist, particularly it seemed a middle-aged one, you were likely to be neurotic about not being a ‘real writer’. If you were one of these favoured creatures, you talked rather condescendingly of writing that was ‘just journalism’.
Well, the world has changed. Serious prose – or indeed witty, amusing prose – is something any writer can be proud to produce. It’s partly that writers, like people in many other occupations, have had to learn to turn their hand to a variety of jobs in order to survive. We now have a strong and growing tradition of lucid, informative, analytical writing that takes its place beside fiction, drama and poetry in expressing – and perhaps shaping – the truth of our lives in these islands.
And this brings me back to Colin James, the question of political helplessness, and the intellectual passivity of which he suggests we have been guilty. I have put it to you that the most cogent response to this indictment is not to be found directly in the political arena at all. We must look for it in our daily lives, in our thinking arid reading and speaking and writing; in our strictness with the language we use, and therefore with our habits of mind. In our capacity to imagine ourselves as patient, disciplined, compassionate people, no longer willing to pay attention to the self-admiring abstractions of demagogues. In our courage to reject the spurious charm of jargon words, the doublespeak of a bureaucratic Big Brother.
We are after all remarkably fortunate. We inherit, in English, the richest language in the world in its nuances of meaning, its array of words clustering round a single idea. And with it, the other New Zealand language, Maori, so different that each endlessly enriches the other. We are young, (collectively, I hasten to add), as a pioneering people we still have access to the number-8-fencing-wire practice that enabled our forbears to make a great deal out of very little. And we have a fresh, spirited literature to shape our imaginative insights, and offer us a vocabulary.
And now, having scrupulously avoided the subject that always most tempts me, I am going to allow myself to read you a poem. It is – if you’ll forgive the apparent total irrelevance – about geraniums. I discovered, planting a cutting from one of these homely plants, that it behaved in a way that I thought refreshingly subversive. Unlike other pieces taken from a parent plant, it flowered at once, a sort of ‘coming ready or not’ that I liked. As though it said to me, speaking botanically, ‘Don’t believe everything you’re told, decide for yourself, go ahead, do it’.
The Independent Outlook
A geranium lives the whole way
from root to flower, each cell
claiming a local autonomy.
Broken, plunged truncated
in stranger soil, it doesn’t wait
for advice but blooms on the spot
though later I admit it’s reduced,
a weedier thing while it learns new laws
practises foreign weather
but in a crisis I just love the way
each minute element of starfish leaf
pink capillaried skin‑petal
manages its own department
and only on major questions (boundaries
say, the sharing of nitrogen, air)
will agree to wait till the word
of authority’s ready at last to begin
weaving up from headquarters.
[Lauris Edmond is a Wellington poet and writer.]