Letters – Issue 45

Untwisting Lyotard

Peter Munz’s letter and recent review of my jointly authored book with Peter Roberts, University Futures and the Politics of Reform in New Zealand, in the August issue, both suffer from the intemperate criticisms and personal obsessions that one stereotypically associates with professors who are trained in one paradigm, one “language”, one culture. The stereotype is both unkind and unjust to Peter Munz for all kinds of reasons. As an undergraduate at Victoria, I greatly respected Professor Munz’s views and was tremendously grateful that someone in the university took historiography seriously. I have great difficulty in squaring his invective against Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, and the French more generally, with these memories.

The piece on Derrida I wrote for New Zealand Books concerned a lecture that he gave at the Auckland Town Hall that is to be part of a book to be published in New Zealand by the Dunmore Press. Munz’s comment “how lucky we
are that the 18th century French explorers did not get their hands on our beautiful country!” is designed to get a rise, but I shall not respond to this ethnic slur except to question his use of the imperial “we” and “our”. I wrote about Derrida’s lecture “Forgiving the Unforgivable” because I thought it relevant to politics here. I confined myself mostly to an exposition of the lecture.

Of course, as Peter Munz well knows, Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence that haunts the western philosophical tradition does not boil down to a few handy slogans like “language does not represent the world literally”. Rather it involves a set of critical and innovative readings of Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Hegel, to name a few philosophers with whom Derrida has engaged over the years. My reason for mentioning the numbers attending Derrida’s lecture was not to argue that there is a positive relation between “crowd attendance” and “intellectual quality” but rather as a surprising fact about a culture that is often taken as inhospitable to the claims of high theory.

Munz’s extravagant claims that Foucault argues that “knowledge is nothing but a hollow excuse for tyrannous power” and that Lyotard recommends that we “should stop teaching knowledge because it is an act of imperialistic aggression” are patent distortions that would be edited out of a first draft of a Foucault for Beginners. On Foucault’s use of the notion “discipline”, I suggest Professor Munz read my introduction to After the Disciplines, a collection I edited last year. The introduction is based upon Foucault’s use of the term. Perhaps, I could encourage Peter Munz also to review this book – although, while largely by New Zealanders, it is not a New Zealand publication.

Michael Peters
Professor of Education
University of Auckland



Ways of escape

When I first read Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s witty hatchet job on The Best of Shonagh Koea’s Short Stories in the June issue, I chuckled now and then. Secondly, I admired his bold political incorrectness – a man attacking a woman’s work in the year 2000! What can he be thinking of! But thirdly, and more importantly, on reflection, his review seemed a bit unfair.

He criticises Koea for having the same style and not seeking a unique stylistic solution for each story. That’s rather a tall order, and I doubt whether any writer would qualify. Most well-known writers have a style which echoes and re-echoes through their work. Later on, Eldred-Grigg contradicts himself by saying Koea can vary her style.

He mentions – and it seems the subtext is an implied criticism – that her lonely people are white, middle class, sad, withdrawn, don’t feel fiercely; that the characters are desperate, hopeless, cold, lost, have nameless fears, are alienated and don’t have good sex lives. So what? Is the implication that Koea’s stories would fare better if the characters were brown, lower class, contented and have great sex lives? The description of her characters’ traits would fit a great many of Janet Frame’s characters except that hers are often mad as well. I know of another character who is white, sad, withdrawn, desperate, lost, alienated and doesn’t have a good sex life. His name is Hamlet.

I think critics (and all of us) need to beware of criticising a writer for their character types.  We all see the world and the people in it differently. Eldred Grigg’s penultimate point about the characters scarcely managing to “fidget their way towards some silly posture of escape” mockingly echoes Frank O’Connor’s observation that the central tradition in short stories is about people trying (but failing) to escape. Fiction itself  – including that of Shonagh Koea and Stevan Eldred-Grigg – arguably provides just that deliverance.

Michael Morrissey



Winnie Davin’s letters

I am preparing a book of letters from my mother, Winnie Davin née Gonley (1909-95). She was born and grew up in Southland (Otautau); attended St Dominic’s School in Dunedin and then the University of Otago (1927-32). There her sparkling circle included Geoffrey Cox, Toni McGrath and her sisters Joan and Adelina, Mary Hussey, Marge Thompson, Paish Johnson, Mabel McIndoe, Harry Aitken and Dick Purves, and from 1931 the young Dan Davin. She helped establish the Otago Literary Society (1931); and as editor and contributor was closely involved with the annual Otago University Review. This is well covered in Keith Ovenden’s excellent biography of Dan, but I am seeking to extend it through Winnie’s own letters.

Winnie gained Honours BA and then MA in English and French language and literature, taught and encouraged by such teachers as Professor Herbert Ramsay, Gregor Thompson; and Maria Saldaigne.  Her MA thesis was on New Zealand Life in Contemporary Literature.

Between short-term teaching jobs at Dunedin Technical Institute and various Southland schools (including Palmerston District High School and South Otago High School, Balclutha), and following the deaths of both parents and her younger brother Mick, she spent some time back in Otautau running the family shop. In June 1937 she sailed to join Dan, already in Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. She maintained close contacts with New Zealand all her life, and was able to make several return visits, the first in 1949-50.

I have a fair number of letters between her and my father, from the 1930s and from the War. But I am very keen to find letters she wrote to friends and family, especially after she left for Europe. (Winnie’s correspondence will eventually be deposited in the Alexander Turnbull Library, which already houses Dan’s.)

I should be very much obliged to hear from any of your readers who might be able to help.  They can contact me at 43 Evershot Rd, London N4 3DG, UK; or on email: adavin@sas.ac.uk.

Anna Davin



Pakeha writing about Maori

Oh, hell. I didn’t mean, in my review of A Dangerous Vine (June issue), to suggest that Patricia Grace had been dictatorial or finger-wagging. I can’t imagine her being either of those things, which is probably why I didn’t express myself more carefully. As I recall, she conveyed, at the seminar I’d mentioned, the very concerns she has summarised in her letter (August issue). Which were (my undiplomatic précis again) that, on the whole, Pakeha fiction writers who wrote about Maori hadn’t been doing a convincing job of it. I think Patricia did go a step further and say it was time to let Maori writers take over the territory; possibly that conclusion was simply my own.

The point is, I believed what she said was right and entirely justified. If I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have stayed in my head. Because I thought she was right, I took it on board, and in all those years since I have felt somehow guilty of appropriation when a Maori character – even a very minor one – strays into my fiction. In the year 2000 this begins to feel a little silly. I suppose I mentioned this matter in the review in the hope of getting some feedback from other writers, Maori and non-Maori. Or is this a problem only in my own head?

Sue McCauley


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