Wrestling with the past, Gwynaeth McIntyre

Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society
Diana Burton, Simon Perris and Jeff Tatum (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776561766

Athens to Aotearoa’s cover image, Herakles Wrestles the Taniwha, epitomises the very essence of this edited volume. As the editors state in their preface, they sought papers “exhibiting a sharp awareness of the pretensions, the impositions and the frictions that are all part of the reality of New Zealand’s confrontation with ancient Greece and Rome.” It is an analysis of this confrontation and the ways in which each paper wrestles with the relationship between Aotearoa New Zealand and its classical heritage that unites the volume.

This book grew out of a conference held in September 2014, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington, and the tone of many of the contributions gives the reader the impression that they are actually there, engaging with the speakers and participating in the discussion. Although divided into five sub-headings by the editors, the sense of the volume can really be divided into three categories: writers and artists talking about their own engagement with the Classics; scholarly analysis of New Zealand writers and artists; and Classics in New Zealand society and education. Each chapter within the volume can stand on its own, and they can be read in any order, thereby freeing up readers to pick and choose which authors, topics, or discussions might interest them most. When read as a whole, readers embark upon a voyage, stopping off between artist and analysis, with the odyssey ending (or just beginning?) with what this all might mean for understanding New Zealand’s past, present, and future.

The volume opens with New Zealand writers and artists reflecting on their own use of Classical themes, ideas, literature and art in their work. Two novelists, in particular, show the different sides to the discussion. Witi Ihimaera opens the section by presenting his own willingness to appropriate almost anything and root it within his narratives. He laments his lost opportunity to study Classics at school, but praises the increase in the number of New Zealand schools offering Classics since his own time, thereby connecting his contribution to Holmes-Henderson’s overview of Classics in schools that ends the volume. Karen Healey reflects on her appropriation of Māori myth alongside Classical myth, and considers how we navigate our position within a society through stories, as well as the intentional and unintentional consequences of engagement with narratives that are not ours to claim through ancestry. It is rare to gain such insight into the creative workings of authors and artists, so these reflections provide a unique window through which their works can be viewed. The final section of the volume acts as a similar type of looking-glass, serving as an opportunity to reflect on the role of Classics in New Zealand education and how we have used Classics to present and discuss our own military history.

The majority of the contributions to this volume come from academics, whose chapters follow the format of literary criticism. Three middle sections (“Visual Arts”, “Myths”, “Poetry”) focus on the works of James K Baxter, A R D Fairburn, John Mulgan, C K Stead, R A K Mason (and the 18th-century English poet Anna Seward). Although many of these may be household names to some, I for one have been encouraged to seek out many of these authors and read (and re-read) their works in a new light. The geographical importance of myth and cultural narratives underpins many of the discussions. Picking up on Ihimaera’s question, “what if Cyclops was alive and well and living in a cave in Invercargill?”, Geoff Miles finds Baxter’s Venus, not in the Greek countryside, but in New Zealand’s landscape (a climber’s hut in the Southern Alps, a milk-bar overlooking a Wellington beach, a hut in Central Otago). Greta Hawes, in her discussion of Marian Maguire’s A Taranaki Dialogue, suggests that the very act of retelling the stories of the previous inhabitants and events embedded in a landscape gives it layers of meaning. By overlaying scenes and images from Greek culture and mythology on top of artistic representations of New Zealand landscape, Maguire is participating in the creation of a new hybrid mythology and culture which belongs neither to Athens (or Rome), nor to Aotearoa. It introduces a new narrative which can be used to explore both the past and present, asking what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century and aiding our engagement with our cultural heritage. 

As an immigrant who brought my Classics with me, there is a certain resonance in the question of what it means to study Classics in New Zealand. Athens to Aotearoa does not shy away from problematic discussions of cultural interaction, questions of appropriation or an analysis of the various ways in which people in Aotearoa New Zealand engage with a colonial past. It provides an excellent introduction to some of the most influential New Zealand writers, and encourages readers to seek out these works. The careful engagement with the Classical themes presented in Athens to Aotearoa highlights the importance of reflecting on how we adopt the past and carry it with us into the future. 

One thing is for certain: Classics is alive and well in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Gwynaeth McIntyre is a lecturer in Classics at the University of Otago.

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