Speaking and nothingness
I was surprised – when it is your avowed policy to confine your journal to New Zealand publications by New Zealanders – that you give so much space to Michael Peters’ adulatory musings about Derrida (June 2000 issue), unless you mean to remind us how lucky we are that the 18th century French explorers did not get their hands on our beautiful country!
Derrida is indeed a French cultural icon, but nothing else. He keeps ranting that when we speak, we speak about nothing, and to think we do is an example of logocentricity – an attempt to be rational. We do not need the analytical philosophers cited by Peters to see through Derrida. It has been known (implicitly) ever since Kant and (explicitly) since Nietzsche’s essay on Truth (1873), William James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1963) that language does not represent the world literally. For language evolved to facilitate communication by supplementing gestures, not to represent the world. But refer and represent it does, no matter how metaphorically, obliquely, elusively and allusively.
Derrida has thrown both caution and reason to the wind and persuaded himself that language does not refer at all, and that the belief that there is anything present to which it alludes is a metaphysical belief; ie, a superstition. Peters is obviously mesmerised by Derrida’s irresponsible one-sided exaggeration of what is by now an old home truth – to the point where it becomes nonsensical. He worships Derrida without a single clear explanation of why that French philosophical mountebank is worthy of our attention, let alone admiration. Michael Peters would benefit from a touch of the logocentricity Derrida derides! True to currently fashionable Te Papaism, he mistakes crowd attendance for a measure of intellectual and artistic quality.
Professor Emeritus of History
Victoria University of Wellington
Maori in fiction and criticism
In 1978 I contributed to Michael King’s Tihe Mauriora with an article entitled “The Maori in Literature”. It concerned the depiction of Maori in fiction by writers who were not Maori, and the examples given were from works by contemporary New Zealand writers.
There were two points I was attempting to discuss. One was to do with what I saw as stereotyping and romanticisation of Maori, and the consequent downgrading of people, especially of Maori women. There was also what I saw as the debasement of the Maori language because of the way Maori words were being popped into text in what I believed was an unnatural way.
The second point was the observation that what I read of Maori characters didn’t mesh with my experience. The characters didn’t ring true to me in the way they spoke, in what they did and how they did it, how they felt or how they thought (that is, if they thought at all). I gave my views of the representation of Maori as minor characters, but not a judgement as to whether the writers should or should not be including Maori characters in their fiction.
My point of concern was not about who can do what, but about the “heaped up effect” of what I saw as stereotyping and negativity. I expressed the belief that it was important for the Maori view to be represented as fully as possible – for Maori writers to be writing about “us in all our variousness” to give some balance to this situation. (There is still difficulty though, because if there are too few writers who are Maori, it means that the wide range of backgrounds and the various experiences of being Maori are still not being fully represented. Further, or other, stereotyping may be the result.)
I don’t remember the 1983 seminar mentioned in Sue McCauley’s review of Barbara Ewing’s A Dangerous Vine (June 2000 issue). I really do not like to think that I told any writer what she/he should or should not write about. I certainly haven’t liked it and haven’t listened when I’ve had the finger wagged under my nose.
I’ll take this opportunity to mention another matter, one that I have never come out in print about but have had to respond to on several occasions. That is the notion that Maori writers don’t want to be reviewed and critiqued by reviewers and scholars who are not Maori. I don’t know where this idea came from, but I’m sure it hasn’t come from the writers because I’ve asked most of them, and, anyway, why would any one writer want to cast that blanket over all of us?
My response to those who ask has always been that I want my work reviewed and discussed by those who will “cut up in the marketplace along with everyone else’s”, to quote myself. It doesn’t matter what is said, or by whom. It all comes from a viewpoint, and all becomes part of discussion for those who will read the work. If the view happens again not to mesh with mine, well, them’s the breaks.
For my part I read reviews and other comment speedily, and whether good, bad or indifferent, file away and forget. This is because I don’t want to be influenced by the assessments of others, and feel that to do so would result in a loss of freedom to write what I want in the way I choose. After all, reviews and comment haven’t been written for me. My part has already been done, and they are all part of the next phase for the work.
What would be good would be to have a number of Maori reviewers as well, and scholars who will open up text from within their own view and experience of being Maori, and who may even come up with a different framework for discussion if they find that necessary.
Risks and influences
I’m not sure whether the “Imprints” feature in the June issue of New Zealand Books is going to be a regular column in future, but in case you are considering the matter, let me say how much I enjoyed the Margaret Mahy piece. The notion of asking writers to write about a book that has made an impact on them is always a bit risky, in my view, but in this case it worked particularly well.
I found what Margaret Mahy had to say extremely interesting, not only for her unexpected choice of book, but for her insight into her responses as a child reader, and the more general conclusions she draws about effective writing for children. As any children’s writer knows, it’s a field with strongly normative tendencies, which control and direct practitioners in a peculiarly constricting way. But the features Mahy praises are not things that a contemporary author would be allowed to get away with these days – editorial practice having narrowed somewhat in the last few decades – and they are also not features of Mahy’s own writing, unless I am mistaken. Has Mahy’s own desire to address the reader directly, to step out of the narrative frame and discuss the features of the writing itself been excised by a vigilant editor? Are her first drafts larded with literary references and anachronisms that she removes in the second? Has her awareness of the textual possibilities revealed by Eden Phillpotts informed her writing in other ways that I haven’t been aware of? Or am I being too literal about influence? Must influence always be explicit? What is literary influence anyway? How conscious is it? What about the things that are unconsciously revealed by our supposed influences? and so on …
You see what I mean. It was terrific, it bears re-reading, and it is still making me think. I hope you will be able to do it again, with the same consequences.