Sunday, December 27, 2009

After being knocked down by Susanna Mailolo, the Holy Father wakes up....

In a shock annoucement today Pope Benedict XVI said that he wished to change the meaning of Christmas. In a global message he said next year’s Christmas would be a celebration of the single person. The time-honoured version of Christmas celebrating the family had revealed itself to be bankrupt. Christmas has basically devolved, he said, into a pagan festival in which the worship of consumer items and the search of alcohol-driven oblivion had taken over from any religious meaning. 

He acknowledged for the first time that Christmas was simply a replacement of the more ancient Roman ceremony known as Saturnalia and that the idea that 25 December marked the birth of Jesus was a tidy fiction completely unrelated to fact. Nobody knew when or where Jesus was born, he now admitted. The twentyfirst century called for some degree of honesty, he said, even in such a time-worn institution as the Catholic Church.


As for the popular belief that Christmas, in the end, was all about children, The Holy Father acknowledged that Christmas has simply become a means of training children in the way of greed. It also became a form of purchasing love. Christmas had become, he said, a way of grooming children for capitalism. It was an exploitation of innocence. Children had become the worst victims of Christmas. The Church, he said, would consider forms of compensation. Perhaps even the entire body of the Church, its Swiss accounts, land holdings, art and antiques, might be liquidated and donated to the poor children of the world. This was entirely possible, he said.

The old idea that Christmas was all about family had also proved to be a fallacy. In fact every year the festival was dictated by guilt, fears of loneliness and the need for shaky economies to spur on consumer spending. He acknowledged the festival of Christmas was a complete sham. People who were related to each other simply by birth spent time together reliving ancient traumas. It was not healthy for the human race. It was time to take a break.

It was time, he said, to appreciate the radical role of the single person. Without the single person overpopulation, a form of global pollution, would be crippling. The future of the world, of humans, depended on the single person. In such a radical step against orthodox Catholic doctrine, which believed that women should breed as much as possible, to produce more Catholics and also remain in their proper subervient state, he said he had looked into his heart and found he must speak out for the rare value and beauty of the single individual. Those who did not breed deserved the highest praise. 

An entire festival would occur next 25 December in which the single individual would be highly praised. Those in families would fast for the entire month of December, to acknowledge their guilt in placing undue demands on the earth’s slender resources. On the 25 December, it was the role of families to locate single persons in their community and worship them. This did not involve gifts or alcohol, carols outside their windows or invitations to ‘parties’. It involved silence. 25 December would become, for the first time in history, a real day of contemplation. Silence would be enjoyed around the world. Humans would listen to the sound of birds, the loveliness of a blade of grass slowly growing. It would be as it was, in the beginning. It was a beautiful idea, he said, whose time had come.

When asked by a journalist how he was feeling after being knocked down by 25 year old Susanna Maiolo, he shocked his audience by saying it was this which had brought him to his senses. She was a single person, just as he, in his heart, was a single man. He wished people to understand that the information that she had ‘psychological problems’ was a way of diminishing the real import of her action. She had been a bearer of the word. And the word had reached him. And now he understood. 

He proposed that Susanna Mailolo join Australia’s Mary McKillop as the Catholic Church’s newest saint. ‘What we once believed to be heretic turned out to be simply the bearer of the Truth’.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The new book goes fishing...

I’ve been trying to put my thoughts in order about The Troweena Sea. You see, I even resent writing the title as I feel this only adds publicity to a best-selling book. Yet I’m equally unwilling to use Witi Ihimaera’s name, as this appears to ‘make it personal’. My urge to make sense of the situation comes from the fact this book, which was going to be withdrawn, when the plagiarism allegations first came out has not been withdrawn at all. It is now the best selling fiction book by a New Zealander, within New Zealand.

My question is: what does this say about us? First of all, there is the cynicism of the publishing company. Penguin have obviously decided it is better to make money rather than adhere to its announced principles that it would seek to withdraw the book. Similarly the author himself made a great deal of the fact he himself would be personally paying for the stock of the book which remained in the warehouse. One could ask now: has this actually happened? Or did the author collude with the publisher in cynically allowing more books out into the shops?

Or is this incorrect thinking? Perhaps the publisher just decided to leave those books already out in stock, in bookshops., to remain there. Perhaps booksellers pleaded with the publishers to allow the book to remain in stock.

Ihimaera has long been one of New Zealand’s best selling literary authors. The fuss apparently has not stopped people buying the book. Indeed there is every evidence that the fuss has aided the sale of the book.

These thoughts were partly prompted by two friends who had bought the book.

One is an archivist, the other an arts administrator. Both are women. And both reported that the book was not a plagiarised text but a fantastic read. This  appalled me. I have heard of people buying the book on the belief that it will become a collector’s item. (Unfortunately already too many have been sold.) But I would have expected people who were knowledgeable about the arts would have understood the issues.

What are the issues? I believe they are complicated by contemporary art’s use of sampling, of copyng, of ‘appropriating’. This is widespread through the visual arts (‘quotation’) and through the musical arts (‘sampling’.) Why should the literary arts be any different? Or does the difference go to the heart of the way in which writing differs from other art forms. Writing can use quotes, but in books of any quality, these quotations are sourced. It is a way of honouring the work other people have done before you. Not to do so is to appropriate someone else’s work. Cultural appropriation, by pakeha people, of Maori subject matters is a very hot area.

What do we have then when a Maori kaumatua, for Ihimaera is such, is found out appropriating by and large pakeha sources without any acknowledgement? We have the strange kind of muffled crisis we have experienced. Maori have been singularly silent on the situation. They are used to seeing their own people constantly attacked. It does not do to attack your own kind. But pakeha writers, with some notable exceptions, have also been discretely silent. The problem is partly personal. Most writers know Witi Ihimaera. He is capable of great charm. But I would not be the first person to say he is also capable of considerable malice. He’s a rounded character, after all - not the demi-plaster saint he was in risk of becoming after the popular success of the film ‘The Whale Rider’.

Witi Ihimaera’s role of cultural ambassador is something worth looking at in more detail. Ever since his first, stunningly simple and eloquent stories emerged he has had what can only be called a very good ride. He became a diplomat, that most carefully judged of silver tongued careers. Latterly, when the hard work of gay liberation had been done, he came out as gay. He also became more vocal about Maori rights once the hard work of Maori radicalism had been done. In one way New Zealand has needed a man like Ihimaera - charming, personable, bicultural. Adaptable. He has been heaped with richnesses. A man who has not got a particularly illustrious academic record is a professor at a leading university where he himself teaches writing. Only this year he was given a laureateship - perhaps the final poisoned gift to a man heaped with honours, aroha and mana.

Has this crisis changed anything? Not according to the people who have rushed out to buy the book. I have heard one author say that the book was unreadable, lurching from style to style awkwardly. But Ihimaera’s writing style is not the point. People buy his books to hear from a bicultural ambassador, a charming man who knows ‘how to tell a good story’. And pakeha people like hearing Maori stories. And after all, telling stories is what authors do. Or rather writing them. This is where we get into difficulties. Unacknowledged appropriating is really just theft. It appears to have been a careless, unthought out act, by someone who presumably assumed he was untouchable in New Zealand culture. There was a huge demand for another book. He gave in. It’s not the end of the world, but it tends to dent the charisma, the mana of the man. It’s not a good look. Every book he produces from now on will be tainted by suspicions of intellectual theft.

People say, of course, Shakespeare borrowed. Recently Ian McEwan, a writer of real talent and originality, has been accused of plagiarism at least twice. But I don’t think in either case we are talking of actually taking literal chunks out of someone else’s research and writing, then plastering them over into the main body of the work. Or have we, as Ihimaera himself suggested, just arrived at a postmodern moment when intellectual theft is a chic form of experimentation? Would Maori think the same thing if, for example, I simply took something oral and ancestral, then put it into the main text of my work, as if I had originated it? I don’t think so.

Is it a case of double standards - the cultural double standards that bedevil New Zealand life. (Hone Harawira, loathing white people, but needing to go to the centre of white culture, Paris....) 

In the end this cultural event says alot about contemporary New Zealand: Ihimaera’s outing as a plagiarist by someone who lives overseas (who within New Zealand would have dared dent the mana of the plaster saint?) Ihimaera’s misjudging of the severity of the crisis by appearing in public receiving a large sum of money even after the plagiarism was public knowledge: surely the diplomat within him would have dictated a discrete professorial holiday at some welcoming overseas university (Hawaii comes to mind)...a public statement that he would not accept the laureateship this year...a little modesty in the situation would have been a sign of atonement.  The university which so desperately needed a bicultural ambassador - what was once called a friendly Maori - that they would accept plagiarism as something intellectually acceptable and even negligible - surely a nadir in the annals of universities becoming thinly disguised moneyshops. The book still stays in the bookshops. People are buying it probably at this very moment for a Christmas present. Some people believe, like money in Hanover Finance, it will be a good investment. Other people just like a good story. Shame that significant parts of it were written by other people - who remain unacknowledged. But that’s not a problem, is it? 

Is it?

Of course Witi Ihimaera will be reborn. The phoenix which has lived through such staggering social political racial and sexual change, always morphing at an appropriate moment, will, I am sure, re-emerge in an emotion-drenched scene some time in the future. He is one of the characters of twentieth-century New Zealand. When a friend of mine, who had a history of heroin addiction in his twenties, but then went on to become one of the leading ad men in New Zealand - before being found with heroin again - said blithely: it only adds to the story. The adman knew something. Witi’s story is not finished. We can perhaps expect a few tears on Mark Sainsbury, or whoever is around at prime time when Witi, like Coco Chanel, makes his inevitably dramatic tear-wrenching re-entrance. The crowd will weep. Then, barely stopping to mop up their tears, this largely pakeha audience will feel that twitch in their being which indicates: it is all over.  Their fingers will be blindly feeling for their eftpost and credit cards before they line up obediently to buy the new book.

The new book goes fishing....again.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The beautiful anarchy of thought

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s - part of a baby boom generation which, ironically,  had severely limited information on sexuality. 

These are some of the pamphlets my mother, through a veil of embarrassment, passed to me - much as a visitor to a prison might slide family photos over to a prisoner who did not know of the existen

ce of a new family member. 

I remember the mass of grey print, the dull diagrams - the complete absence of information on matters which were chaotically, pressingly important to me - questions so vast they could barely be compressed into words and language - and this was, because, in that time, the language did not yet exist: it had yet to 

be invented. 

So one existed in a strangely darkened landscape in which certain things had a spherical power - a power which is hard to evoke in these days of global pornography, when the net has created a virtual-reality in which anyone can find the most graphic images of every form of sex at the touch of a button: an overabundance of information seeming to neatly echo the period in which I grew up, which was a starvation of information.

But like all people who live in oppressive situations one learnt to search for signs of life. 

My mother believed in education. She believed in the efficacy of art institutions. She also had a busy social life and knew that the kiddies could be dropped off at the Auckland War Memorial Museum or the Auckland Art Gallery and we could spend three to four hours maximum for the price of half a crown. 

We would be unmolested, self patrolling, carefully rationing our money - half a crown was a beautifully heavy coin, having a heft and weight in your short’s pocket -  as we walked along the dim passageways and vast rooms - knowing that the worst excesses of boredom would be mediated by that most crucial moment of decision 

: a Coke versus a Fanta. 

But inbetween times my brother and I had the beautiful anarchy of thought. We could gaze at whatever fascinated us. 

And in the echoing chambers of the Museum, where you heard distant voices and the sound of footsteps echoing against marble - in an atmosphere which aurally was always special and even faintly votive and church-like - we found ourselves inevitably, as before a predestined spot 

- coming to a complete lull of stillness before something which shocked us both into silence.

This was Laocoon - in those days having its own special niche on the ground floor. This plaster statue did something to us. We feasted our eyes on the drama - a family - a father and two boys - just like Russell and myself - but somehow enmeshed in a life and death Freudian drama - a snake coiling round their  - and this is what really fascinated us - their beautiful naked limbs. 

In time my brother and I would recognise we were both seperately and together gay. At the time all we knew was the deep lurch into silence - that soundless fall - that immense move into silent close-up.

Did these statues offer us what we could never have in life? That was stillness of an object of desire. We lived near the most popular beach in the unfashionable western suburbs - we haunted the changing sheds, as most of the local kids did. But what we saw there were random glimpses, sudden and startling protuberances hastily buried in ugly woollen togs. Here was a naked abandon, a refusal to be clothed

. The very stillness of the statues opened themselves up beautifully to our gaze. They were as immobile as the stillness and fervency of our desire. 

And what beautiful bodies they had.  They could be seen in physique magazines - but here they were, for free, sanctified by antiquity, raised up by being in a temple of art. We two small boys copped an eyeful very gratefully, at the same time somewhat queasily aware that other people passing by found our stillness unnatural - out of the ordinary - queer, for lack of a better word. 

Other people drifted by, their glance not caught on these statues of male beauty. 

  Yet we were also aware that before us had come other wanderers, other seekers - even today, in June 2009, I was startled - and pleased - to see the vine over the bulging Fallen Gladiator’s crotch was darkened by touch. 

This good luck token, this desire to actually cop a feel, broke all the ordinances of art: look don’t touch. Whereas in your mind you were constantly substituting LOOK for TOUCH. 

And as such, these beautiful statues, arising from cultures in which male beauty was held in such a high regard - passed on their silent message to travellers in a darkened and ill-lit landscape - a landscape with too few lovers (but with a startlingly high teenage pregnancy rate) - a land in which information was lacking and touch was mediated by the law.

((This is part of a talk I gave this year on the absence of eroticism in New Zealand art....))