Creatively wicked, Roger Robinson

Quarrels with Himself: Essays on James K Baxter as Prose Writer
Peter Whiteford and Geoffrey Miles (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776561711

As a landmark of New Zealand literary scholarship, James K. Baxter: Complete Prose, edited by John Weir, published in four volumes in 2015, is alpine in scale. Reviewing it in the Summer 2015 issue of New Zealand Books, John Newton aptly called it a “massive terminal moraine”, also describing Baxter’s profusion of words as a “manic deluge”. Such geomorphically inclined imagery continues in this new collection of essays about Baxter’s prose, where Weir’s edition is called “tectonic”, “a substantial blockade”, making “visible … the full range and depth”, “monumental” (at least five times), and “heroic”.

Quarrels with Himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as Prose Writer begins the job of exploring and mapping this vast terrain. Peter Whiteford and Geoffrey Miles have assembled 12 mostly excellent essays “as an accompaniment and a tribute” to Weir’s work, with the addition of a reminiscent foreword by Weir himself, who writes as always as a long-time intimate friend, as well as Baxter’s most devoted reader and chronicler. Miles explains in his introduction that, as an organising principle, they adopted Weir’s own list of Baxter’s key prose topics: “himself”, “literature and art”, “spirituality and religion” and “social injustice”. For reasons that Miles regretfully explains, the times were not right for appropriate coverage of the fifth topic named by Weir: Baxter’s writings about Māori.

As a bonus, two prose pieces by Baxter that have been discovered subsequently to the Complete Prose are published here for the first time. Whiteford comments that Weir, who laboured so long to make his edition “complete”, will receive these “with a wry smile, but with little surprise”. One, usefully introduced and annotated by Whiteford, is a polemical piece from 1971 or 1972, “The Rich and the Poor”. The manuscript is in the custodianship of Richard S Hill, who wrote about its place in Wellington’s history of left-wing activism in the Journal of New Zealand Studies in 2016. The other new item was found by chance by Paul Millar, who previously stubbed his toe against a vanished volume of Baxter poems, Cold Spring. This time it was an early short fiction, “Encounter”, a polychromatic meditation about a chance meeting with a past lover. The autograph page exposed itself when Millar was tidying files of old newspaper reviews and articles about Baxter that had tumbled off his shelves in the Christchurch earthquake. As luck would have it, Providence was on Millar’s side, Samuel Butler might have said. But the skill of treasure trove is knowing the value of what you have found.

Miles as co-editor opens the volume with an introduction of such urbane authority, so nuanced and helpful in guiding the reader through the book, that it sets a very high standard for the contributors. More than any of them, Miles is brave enough to take on real literary criticism, as opposed to commentary on content. He succinctly describes and evaluates Baxter as a writer, a verbal creator and craftsman, not only as a thinker, autobiographer, theologian, social activist, mother-warped misogynist, or whatever. By implication, he qualifies Weir’s judgement that Baxter’s prose “is more important for what he said rather than how he said it”, though acknowledging that the essays had to assume that “most readers … are more interested in his content than in his form and style”.

Miles modestly says that his introduction “attempts to redress the balance a little”. He does more, making two illuminating major points. He relates Baxter’s rambling miscellaneousness of prose form to the classical genre of Menippean satire, “which mingles prose and verse, wit and seriousness, the personal and the public”. And he nails the key point when he says that “Baxter’s habitual mode of thought is poetic and metaphorical. His prose, like Metaphysical poetry, tends to work through and pivot around images, often witty and unexpected ones.”

I remembered that insight when I reached the end of the book and tested what I had learned from it by reading the newly discovered piece, “The Rich and the Poor”. Whiteford provides a brief stylistic gloss, describing the writing as “simple and without flourish … rhetorical effects are more often produced by repetition than by grand gesture, [with] a vigour and forcefulness in the prose.” Perhaps that’s enough to say, but it makes the writing sound less rich, less risky, and more respectable than I found it. The dynamic of the piece seemed to me compulsively metaphoric and rhetorical, a profusion of sometimes lurid and often provocative images, with inflated liturgical cadences and religious references that are incongruously mixed with scatological insults and shock-effects (eg unexpected arse-licking and testicle-piercing imagery), and a digressive dream scene about discussing poetry with Allen Curnow. Are all these literary pyrotechnics invented by Baxter to conceal the impractical sentimentality of his social message? Is it the mischievous metaphor-maker that drives the prose, not the pious polemical activist? The man had a wicked creativity. And he was creatively wicked.

The collection takes pains to recognise such complexities. Its title, with Nigel Brown’s perfect cover image, emphasises conflict, and almost all the contributions bring out inconsistencies and tensions – the contradictions of self-image, paradoxes of belief, and agonies of soul that helped make Baxter the challenging writer he was.

Janet Wilson and Sharon Matthews do that with informative psychological readings. Matthews looks at women and sex in Baxter’s short stories, showing how “repeated images, metaphors and motifs that speak of exclusion and rejection are paired with tropes signifying the search for the ever-elusive maternal ideal”, and finally reads the stories as a prolonged creative attempt to exorcise the “monstrous mother-wife”. Wilson quotes Baxter on his dual self, “my collaborator, my schizophrenic twin, who has always provided me with poems”. Millar uses the same quote, showing Baxter’s reliance on his “demonic counterpart” in a powerfully perceptive account of his fiction. Lawrence Jones provides a refreshingly international literary context for his discussion of Baxter’s conflicted exploration of the writer’s role in society. John Davidson in a specially entertaining piece shows Baxter’s unresolved ambivalence about academia, whose comforts he despised and whose approval he coveted. He has not been alone in that
among New Zealand writers.

Appropriately, in the next piece, Nicholas Wright provides the most academic essay in the book, in the sense that it is the only one that would be utterly incomprehensible to the intelligent and enquiring American tourists who stay in the so-called “James K Baxter Cottage” on the Whanganui River. (Several have stopped there on their way to be my guests, and I like them to read something of and about Baxter.) I admire the essay’s ingenuity, but, having heard F R Leavis’s painstaking lecture style, and having studied English late in the era of the New Criticism, I am unconvinced by the rigid theory of formalism that Wright clamps on to that school and on Baxter.

Some old chestnut simplifications are disposed of. Hugh Roberts shows how truly complex relations were between Baxter and Curnow and their poetic affiliations, and how misleading is the familiar reduction of that era into rivalry between teams of coherently organised opponents, lining up as the Nationalist Myth and the Wellington Group. “It would be difficult for anyone coming to [the Group’s] work without preconceptions to distinguish clear unifying characteristics,” says Roberts sensibly. Kirstine Moffat then brings the same unprejudiced clarity to “Puritanism”. The word was tossed about so floppily by Baxter, and in New Zealand literature and literary discourse as a whole (even worse than “Georgian”), that it is a relief to read Moffat’s deeply informative explanation of what historically it really means, and should now mean in New Zealand. (It should be acknowledged that Lawrence Jones did a similar job in his “Puritanism” entry in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.)

Then come the essays on spirituality and religion. Paul Morris, a specialist in inter-religious studies and Judaism, trots around the passionately contested field of Baxter’s religion like an unflappable footy ref. His essay is fair-mindedly titled “Baxter and God”. Gently and non-judgementally, he walks us through the process by which Weir’s monument of scrupulously objective scholarship exists also as the narrative of a subtly sign-posted spiritual journey to a Catholic destination. Morris locates Baxter’s spiritual biography in a multi-faith context that gives weight to his encounters with Presbyterianism, Quakerism, Hindu sadhus, Māori spirituality, and Martin Buber, as well as the Catholicism that he converted to. It’s typical of this collection’s strength that Morris can reach the complex conclusion that “[Baxter’s] Jerusalem revelation led him to become a Catholic sadhu committed to the socially marginalised, and his discovery of Buber widened his God to include the communities of relationship.”

Doreen D’Cruz follows Baxter’s religious travels through many conflicts and phases to a conclusion in kenosis, which means the emptying of the self, “a loss of the self’s ordinary coordinates for negotiating existence, an unmooring from its habits and habitats”. I am out of my depth, and never went to Jerusalem in Baxter’s time, so must take her word for it, although I can’t help thinking that the Baxter I once heard speak in Christchurch, and met (or, rather, listened to) on a later occasion, and the Baxter whose ego pulses through every word he wrote, was about the most un-emptied self I ever encountered. Full of being emptied, perhaps, if I might add one more paradox to this book’s compilation of them.

Whiteford’s essay on Baxter and social justice opens on the medieval religious poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland, another instance of the informed and original contextualisation that is a strength of this collection. White-ford then pursues a credible argument that, finally, Baxter’s “personal effort had shifted to the spiritual as necessary precursor to the social.” Greg O’Brien’s closing piece is a free-ranging and thus I suppose organic ramble through impressions of how Baxter might connect with our own era’s “green” ideas, in 29 loosely connected sections plus visuals. (I liked Ursula Bethell’s cat.) It’s pleasant to be given a break from concentrating on rigorously disciplined argument as in most of the preceding essays, but I felt the genial tone fudged the issues and dodged the hard questions. For instance, a few pages later, in “The Rich and the Poor” coda, we find Baxter in his own voice so ardently concerned for the alcoholic drop-outs in St Mary’s churchyard in Wellington’s Boulcott Street that he blithely proposes that the excrement and vomit they leave should simply be hosed out downhill each morning, an idea that appalls me as a resident equally ardently concerned for the water and sea life in Wellington Harbour. Again, it’s Baxter the writer, not the thinker or activist, that outlasts fashions.

That’s why I await a companion collection that would study the writing. This one offers plenty of substantial, accessible, jargon-free commentary on content; it helpfully reveals several kinds of shape and significance of subject in Baxter’s voluminous prose; it admirably fulfils its mission by making valuable use of the archive that Weir made available. I pine merely for an era when the pendulum swings back from content to form, a collection with the courage to scrutinise the actual words and evaluate their inventiveness and skill. Perhaps it could conclude exactly why, celebrity apart, Baxter is worth reading almost half a century after his death made headline news.

Roger Robinson co-edited The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. His forthcoming book is When Running Made History.

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