Broadening the mind? Bill Sewell

The Departure Lounge: Travel and Literature in the Post-Modern World
John Needham
Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86940 198 0

Like most products of the human mind, theory is a double-edged instrument. On the one hand, and positively, it helps us make sense of the world, bring some order to it, and advance our knowledge. On the other, it can lead to tunnel vision, intolerance and obscurity; it can be transformed from a useful analytical tool into a rigid ideology (which has been the fate of Marxism); it can encourage the formation of smug academic and artistic cliques. And often, rather than providing genuine illumination, theory simply exchanges one set of terminology for another, it limits rather than liberates the imagination, and it distorts rather than explains the world.

The Departure Lounge is an intriguing hybrid of a book. A set of essays ostensibly about travel, which were first published in the British journal PN Review, they are also a collection of very intelligent, witty and in the end damning musings on the adequacy of much 20th-century literary theory. Needham’s travels take him from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, from Jerusalem (of James K Baxter fame) to Barnsley (the author’s home town in Yorkshire). En route, he tests out the ideas of a good many of the theorists in the pantheon of contemporary thinking: Derrida, Jameson, Baudrillard, Eagleton, Geertz, Fish, Adorno, Said. And he does so with the help of several authors of primary literary texts – whether Katherine Mansfield or D H Lawrence, Joseph Conrad or Donald Davie – by placing them in their context.

Once entrenched, theories can be hard to shift. They resist the onslaught of opponents by throwing up battlements of jargon. The best way to penetrate their defences is to become thoroughly familiar with their workings, and this is John Needham’s method. In measuring the theorists up against the real world, he is able to show how selective their thinking can be, and how abstract, blinkered and artificial. His two main criticisms appear to be that, first, the theorists neglect both the colour and uniqueness of human experience, and what he calls “the ordinary human continuities”; and, secondly, that they make questions of artistic merit merely political. For Needham, literature itself exists in the tension between human nature and style, uncertainty and pattern, image and idea, “the particularity of a life and the generality of the word”.

But he actually begins with architecture. The opening piece, “A Brief Excursion into Hotel-Theory”, is a critique of Frederic Jameson’s singling out the Westin Bonaventure, a Los Angeles hotel and shopping complex, as an archetypal post-modern structure. However, instead of something that undermines his “fundamental perception of space”, what Needham finds is that the building, while having some disconcerting features – alcoves that seem to be floating, for instance – merely exercises his “basic perceptual skills” in the same way as any other structure. His conclusion is that “it isn’t the guests who feel disoriented” in the building, but “the cultural critics” – who, moreover, insist on their disorientation in order to underpin a theory that is at odds with human nature and experience, and the evidence.

In New Mexico Needham makes a pilgrimage to D H Lawrence’s ranch and uses the occasion to contrast the approach of the sociologist Jean Baudrillard with that of Lawrence himself to their experiences in the United States. Everything Baudrillard sees is coloured by his negative preconceptions and generalising tendencies, whereas Lawrence, in a description of an Apache ceremony in the desert, is able to focus on “the individual encounter, where the dramatic particulars are also human universals”.

Against what he calls “the eternal march of words into further words” engaged in by the theorists, Needham pits the imagination, and it is imagination in the old-fashioned, Coleridgean sense, which reconciles image and idea, feeling and thought, enthusiasm and judgement. Imagination not only reflects the human continuities; it also ensures a continual refreshment of the literary impulse. And this is at the heart of his aesthetic. Where the 20th-century theorists tend to make aesthetic judgments politically, by gauging whether or not a particular work belongs in a particular category or not, Needham advocates something more flexible and open, which moves with the times and with individual variations.

The writing in these essays is precise and evocative. Describing a shopping plaza that contains a multiplex where he goes to see the uncut version of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, he observes: “And then come the food bars … ranged round a tiled court with rows of tables, an altar-like ATM, and a cascade of gleaming elevators, whence wafts the buttery smell of popcorn from the eight shadow-caves upstairs.” The writing also conveys a pungent humour. At one point he talks about Hamlet seeming to be “a plot-free being”; at another he attacks a report on Academic Standards in English, commissioned by the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, as follows: “Since no literary values are ‘absolute’ or ‘universal’, the argument runs, it’s no use worrying about them at all. This line of reasoning, as I recall, used to be the refuge of smart fifth-formers who hadn’t done their homework.” Devastating – and, it might be added, to the point.

John Needham would seem to have created a unique sub-genre in these essays, with their mixture of the anecdotal, personal detail of travel writing, orthodox literary criticism and abstract discourse. In spite of the stimulating insights it generates, however, I am not convinced that the sub-genre has much of a future outside of this volume. By the end of the book, although I had maintained my interest in each new setting for his musings, I had also found a certain predictability and repetitiveness about the direction they would take. In addition, there were occasions when the transition from physical description to analytical discourse seemed too abrupt and contrived. Finally, I wonder whether Needham’s approach is entirely fair: academic writing of the kind he has in his sights does not on the whole have his luxury of being able to cross between genres so freely.

That said, these essays offer an invaluable and entertaining reminder to the initiated that they should never stop asking themselves how their various elaborate constructs stack up against the stern measures of human nature, experience and physical reality. They might be surprised at the answer.

Bill Sewell is a Wellington poet and co-editor of New Zealand Books. His new collection, Erebus: a poem, will be reviewed in our June issue.

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