How To Be Nowhere: Essays and Texts 1971‑1994
Victoria University Press, $49.95
ISBN 086473 249X
This book has an index of names. There are about 560, from Laurence Aberhart to Jane Zusters. Marie Antoinette is followed by Billy Apple, Leonardo da Vinci by Barry Lett, Te Kooti by Alfred Tennyson. Charles Bernstein is sandwiched in between Chief Beoing of Pulusuk and the Duc de Berry, Dante between David Dabydeen and Philip Dadson, Robyn Kahukiwa between Frida Kahlo and Wassily Kandinsky and Wagner between Julius Vogel and Edward Gibbon Wakefield. The first item reprinted here is on Allen Tate’s essays and poems. Wedde, like the American poet and new critic, is a “man of letters in the modern world”, but his culture and the habits of mind with which he addresses it are very different from Tate’s, or even McCormick’s, Curnow’s, Brasch’s, Fairburn’s or Stead’s.
Philip Larkin recognised that he was on the wrong side of some kind of cultural divide: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty‑three / (Which was rather late for me) ‑ / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” Perhaps “postmodernism” emerged triumphant at about the same time. Wedde has always seemed attuned, both as poet and as commentator, to the modes of artistic and intellectual expression that can loosely be gathered under that label. Such names as Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Baudrillard, Cixous, Irigaray, Lyotard, de Man and Jameson also figure in the index.
And Wedde’s manner projects a sensibility alien to his New Zealand predecessors. “I tend to quest about like a dog backtracking and crisscrossing a terrain in search of an odour’s source”, he once wrote of his verse‑writing and his tactics in these essays are not dissimilar. His approach is often oblique or circuitous. Like a new historicist academic, he favours the anecdote, the arcane scrap of information, the autobiographical detail or the chance association as a way into the subject of discussion. A Wedde article, column or note tends to be a performance. Watching a dog following its nose, you can see that it’s on to something, but remain more aware of the activity than of the goal. The busy spirallings and side-trackings of Wedde’s prose can be similarly mystifying. But the liveliness of his intelligence is never in doubt, the sense of zestful engagement is infectious and at times he is brilliantly illuminating.
The book gathers a selection of Wedde’s occasional writings on art and literature. They are reprinted from journals and newspapers as diverse as the London Magazine and the Evening Post. The blurb, evidently based on a statement by the author, sees them as united by “a few repeated inquiries: mostly, how do we look at ourselves looking (read ourselves thinking) without falling into the anachronising tar‑pits of Nation and Identity, How to view the history of these representations. How to satisfy a local appetite for the thinking of them.” For Wedde, we are told, “criticism is like travel‑writing: how to report one’s position; how to say, ‘Wish you were here’.”
His book’s title glances at Samuel Butler’s dystopian novel Erewhon, set in Canterbury. Wedde’s introduction to his collection of stories, The Shirt Factory, notes as one of their recurrent concerns the question “What is ‘paradise’?”. Julius Vogel, as the essay on Sargeson remarks, thought New Zealand would be a “working man’s paradise” and the idea of Godzone is subjected to some irony in Georgicon, Wedde’s collection of poems. The brief essay “How to be Nowhere” originally introduced an exhibition, In Nessun Logo (Erewhon), with the artists Barbara Strathdee, Odinea Pamici and Giorgio Valvessori at the Municipal Gallery in Ljubljana in 1992.
This is a characteristic piece. It is scintillatingly clever on the surface, though how tightly it holds together as an argument about the nature of art ‑ or rather of “representation, which is also language” ‑ one would be hard put to decide. It opens with what Wedde admits is a “more‑or‑less flippant game of analysis”: “The title above this text is both an instruction, or the proposal for an instruction, and a question.” Moreover, as a question (“How to be nowhere?”) it splits yet again, asking both “How is being nowhere accomplished?” and “How is being nowhere possible?” This latter question is then subdivided into its linguistic and cognitive components before being reunited with the initial ‘instruction” side of the phrase. Then, by way of a kind of punning that literalises the concepts ‘transportation” and “vehicle”, we are suddenly made travellers in the “crowded compartment” of a train, conversing about “the passing view, which is, of course, culture: what we see as we go nowhere, those products drawn by history across our field of vision”.
Although there is some talk of a station, with the passengers debating its name and status, the journey is endless “because nowhere is not a place you arrive at, it is a place you travel to”. Samuel Butler, who happens to be on board, explains, sometimes in Italian and sometimes in English, “that the Porirua Plaza and a certain Piazza Grande pass the vehicle of representation as though drawn by a shared history. Frame by frame, as the travellers look out the window and scan across the surface of this view, they see that the piazza and the plaza will not be still with themselves, will not be closed off, will not be arrived at; but instead, continuously substitute each other’s signs, utter the other’s location in terms of their own, swap subject and object positions, contaminate each other’s singular identity with a fragmentary pluralism.” Wedde employs his language of parable and allegory, in which the Ljubljana exhibition’s three artists are “the representation‑train’s conductors” dispensing tickets and Butler is “author of the only travel guide” to nowhere, to link European and Pacific history and art within a “traffic of imperialism and appropriation”. Finally, “[o]utside, the travellers glimpse the fragment of a billboard advertising Hot Donuts.”
Art, language, culture and representation make possible the mind‑boggling conjunctions of Wedde’s index. They constitute that “nowhere” in which Allen Curnow can take a verbal photograph superimposing the fifteenth‑century murder of Guiliano de’ Medici and the gutting of a kahawai at Karekare upon the assassination of Italian president Aldo Moro. Wedde’s catalogue entry is more like a poem than traditional critical discourse. It mingles a show of logic with playful metaphorical and dramatic invention plus a certain amount of self‑projection. It puts the reader in touch with a way of seeing and a way of saying. It expresses a sensibility. It belongs to the process of representation that it is about. It is even structured like a mini‑drama, with a comic aphoristic exit line as the curtain‑falls. And Wedde’s images convey his sense of aesthetic production and reception as shifting and shifty, grounded in location yet evading and transforming it, seeking and avoiding definition, existing through relation, endlessly ongoing. They show what he means by “participation”, as distinct from “use”. The Americanisation of culture is caught in that unflustered observation about Hot Donuts. At the very least, Wedde’s piece rises triumphantly to the immediate occasion of writing something for the catalogue to an Erewhon art exhibition in Ljubljana.
There have been many such occasions. In his foreword Wedde says that most of the pieces collected here, which add up to about a third of the total output, were written “for money”. His elaboration on “the relationship between money and meaning” simply irritates me, to the point where I even cavil at the sprinkling of illogical commas. Wedde wrote in order to be paid and was forced to think while writing. This hardly seems worth making a philosophical fuss about. Some of the items that follow would have meant more in their original context as journalistic commentary on current exhibitions: most readers of the book will have seen only a handful of these, though the photographic plates are helpful. There are times when Wedde seems to be straining for originality, as when he compares Gavin Chilcott’s Autoportrait: The Early Years with Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry, the fifteenth‑century illuminations of the brothers Limbourg.
“I tell myself it’s fanciful to suggest” such an affinity, he begins, and he ends with the recognition that we may think the proposal “still seems to involve far‑fetched historiography”. He is right, of course. The analogy never quite seems to hold. The effect is of those conceits of seventeenth‑century metaphysical poetry in which, in Samuel Johnson’s view, heterogeneous ideas were yoked by violence together, though in Wedde, as in Donne at his most preposterous, one admires the witty ingenuity with which the comparison is developed,
Where Wedde is himself most suspicious of his ideas ‑ as in his reading, “against the grain”, of three male artists in terms of recent feminist theory ‑ the suspicions usually strike me as justified. But, taken as a whole, Wedde’s comments on art exhibitions constitute something of an education in looking at contemporary works. He has many fine and just things to say about New Zealand painters and sculptors and vivid concrete phrases bring details to life.
Back in 1983 he saw that not only was Gordon Walters’ koru motif “a superbly adaptable device in a context made sense of by European art history, and in the separate context of Maori art, but it is also a perfect structure with which to signal the meeting, and sometimes the collision, of the two”. Toss Woollaston’s landscapes, supposed to be among those “showing us where we really are”, are more reasonably regarded as “homage to Cézanne”, and in his version of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” and paintings “after” Canaletto and others, he turns out to have been “a closet postmodernist all along, producing simulacrum after simulacrum and quote after quote”. And Wedde’s remarks on Te Maori, under its aspect of Te Hokinga Mai, will strike a responsive chord in most pakeha viewers. These objects “demand that we should see not them but the culture that made them… the words that belong to them”. Admitting that he has no real comprehension of the Uenukutuwhatu of Waikato, Wedde nevertheless finds it “awesome, an object of inexplicable power, which demands to be elsewhere, to be reunited with its korero, to be making visible its culture.”
Billy Apple is involved with “transactions”: “AC/DC” is based on the golden mean, “a division that roughly pans out as the dealer’s 33.3% off” ‑ the initials translate as Artist’s Cut and Dealer’s Cut. A Vivian Lynn installation called “Caryatid” provokes a discursion on Carya, the Laconian maiden changed by Dionysus into a walnut tree when she died, then on Artemis, who was associated with her and to whom Wedde traces references in the materials, textures, and forms of Lynn’s work. Wedde is nothing if not versatile in his ways of reading the signs. In his “Self Portrait with Rooster” Peter Peryer’s expression is “at once fearful and resigned ‑ as though he were looking not into the lens of a camera but at a firing squad”. The photograph “contains all the anxieties which have entered the language of photography: words like ‘shoot, ‘take’, ‘capture’, ‘get’. As Peryer’s ‘got’ the rooster, so the camera’s ‘captured’ him.” Certainly the rooster seems the less worried of the two.
On Colin McCahon, Wedde’s indirect approach works wonderfully. He takes seriously the “Gates and Journeys” title of the 1988 retrospective. After several promises and deferrals, he eventually tells a story, possibly apocryphal, about a young Ilam student coming to McCahon for advice and McCahon’s taking him for a drive out Henderson way, stopping by a roadside stall offering “lettuces, carrots, potatoes, cut flowers” and saying: “That’s it. If you have something to say, say it. Lettuces, carrots, potatoes. Like that.” And with some wordplay on different kinds of “drive” he connects this episode and McCahon’s artistic and spiritual journeyings with the “songlines” of the Australian aboriginals, as described by Bruce Chatwin ‑ where the land is a network of “lines”, or ways through, mapped by totems, lore and dream stories indistinguishable from what they signify or direct.
Wedde thinks of McCahon as searching “for a syncretic way of mapping the connections between locations (including the wider and drifting location of international art territory), language (including the localised language of the tangata whenua) and representation (including landscape representation, ‘writing’ ‑ or numbering ‑ and the abstract codes which combined allegorical, personal and religious signs).” McCahon wanted “to rescue a songline kind of community from the isolationism of modernist art”. Wedde elaborates all this in lively detail, including a haunting verbal picture of that back‑road Henderson scene where the car was halted. It is an eloquent and moving tribute.
A catalogue essay on “Peter Black’s Moving Pictures” begins with a superbly evocative reminiscence of the dusty car rides of a 1950s childhood. Autobiography similarly informs and enlivens the marvellous article on family albums. There are major pieces on landscape, both in art and in poetry, on “Translation and Representation: A History of Ferries”, on Barbara Strathdee, Joanna Paul, Mervyn Williams and others. I should have welcomed inclusion of some of the literary reviews listed in a “Select Bibliography” ‑ on Brasch’s Home Ground, C K Stead’s book on Pound, Yeats and Eliot, or the Oxford New Zealand writers and their work series. Wedde acknowledges “a moral quality” to Frank Sargeson’s achievement in his stories, though there is “nothing moralistic” about them: he responds to the “interest, curiosity, alertness, a relish for experience as it comes not as it is ordered”. His treatment of Maurice Duggan’s Collected Stories is a useful complement to Stead’s introduction: I agree that the prose of “O’Leary’s Orchard” “does more with less” than “Riley’s Handbook”. Wedde is enthusiastic about Russell Haley’s Real Illusions, offers some thoughts on the principles behind his editing of the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, includes an ingenious reading of Derek Walcott’s Omeros as “post‑colonialism’s major epic” and in “Virgil in Palmerston North” talks about the gap between his intentions in Georgicon and readers’ reception of it.
This talk is of special interest to admirers of Wedde’s verse. Wedde’s message is that the volume is littered with signals to more complex kinds of reading than it received ‑ that it is more self‑conscious and less rhapsodical than commentators thought, wiser to and more ironic about its elements of pastiche, sentiment and nostalgia. Nobody who works through How to Be Nowhere will feel inclined to doubt him.
Mac Jackson is Professor of English at Auckland University.